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God’s Word for You

Isaiah 19:16-25

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, January 25, 2008

The chapter ends with a series of four proclamations about “that day.” What “day” is meant? In the Old Testament, it can be difficult to distinguish between prophecies that point to the first coming of Christ in the gospels and the second coming of Christ on the Last Day. Sometimes both are meant. Here, the spread of the gospel to the Egyptians is described, so I would say with confidence that the first coming of Christ and the time after—the New Testament—is intended here.

16 In that day the Egyptians will be like women. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that the LORD Almighty raises against them.  17 And the land of Judah will bring terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom Judah is mentioned will be terrified, because of what the LORD Almighty is planning against them.

To our ears, “the Egyptians will be like women” may sound Chauvinistic, but imagine the emotion this would have stirred up in Egyptian warriors. They would melt in terror. They would at last acknowledge their sin and turn to the Lord for forgiveness. And the message they would hear would be the message of a forgiving Savior.

18 In that day five cities in Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD Almighty. One of them will be called the City of Destruction.

By “five cities,” does Isaiah mean “a few” (ten is a complete number; five might be seen merely as a small number) or does he perhaps mean five literal cities? Since this is a prophecy, it may not be possible to say. We take the Bible literally when it clearly speaks about facts or history. For example, there is no reason to believe that Job and his wife did not have exactly ten children who died, Job 1:2, or that Haman had exactly ten sons, Esther 9:14. But the “ten” sometimes has a spiritual meaning of completeness when visions or revelations are involved, such as in Revelation 2:10.

The “City of Destruction” is something that I can’t give a definite meaning to. The Isaiah Scroll from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) has “City of the Sun” here: the difference is a small amount of ink, changing one Hebrew letter into another (he into heth, compare the titles of Psalm 119:33 and Psalm 119:57). The “City of the Sun” is the translation of the famous Egyptian city, Heliopolis (called “On” in the Bible, Genesis 41:45, 46:20, etc.). The Septuagint seems to indicate “City of Righteousness.”

But whichever is meant, city of destruction or city of the sun, the point of the verse is that all of the cities will “swear allegiance to the Lord Almighty.” No longer will people devote themselves to false gods or to any of the other things that violate the First Commandment. Money, power, security—even, dare we say, democracy—will give way to complete devotion to the Lord.

19 In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border.  20 It will be a sign and witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them.  21 So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them.  22 The LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.

In about 170 BC, the High Priest Onias IV begged permission from Ptolemaeus Philometer to build a temple to the Lord in Egypt. He used this passage to support his plea, and the temple he built at Leontopolis stood from its completion (around 160 BC) until 71 AD—standing one year longer than its counterpart in Jerusalem. But that isn’t the temple described here. That temple was reviled by Jews in both Israel and in Egypt as well. The apocryphal book 2 Maccabees is aimed at uniting these Egyptian Jews with the Jews in Jerusalem (”Since, therefore, we are about to celebrate the purification, we write to you. Will you therefore please keep the days?” 2 Macc. 2:16).

But at about the same time, in the city of Alexandria, the Old Testament was translated into the Greek language so that all the world could read it and learn about the coming Messiah. And after Jesus came into the world, the message about him spread all over Egypt and the rest of the entire northern coastline of Africa, from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Red Sea to the Rock of Gibraltar. The whole land was Christian until the terrorizing sword of Muhammad’s soldiers broke the commandments of the Bible as well as the Koran and spilled the blood of hundreds of thousands in a matter of a few years.

It seems clear that Isaiah is not talking about Onias IV’s new temple. He’s talking instead about the spread of the gospel throughout Egypt and throughout the world. As David says in the Psalm, the word of God is every bit as holy as the temple and as God’s name itself:

I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. (Psalm 138:2)

23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together.  24 In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth.  25 The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (NIV)

Now the Lord also reveals that both the great powers north and south of Israel will worship the Lord (Isaiah will say this again in Isaiah 27:13).

Throughout her history, Israel was so often a distant third place to the nations around her, and yet the world was blessed because the Savior came from the Jews (John 4:22). But the nation itself was often anything but a blessing to the world, since the people turned away from the Lord again and again. But there will come a time—now Isaiah is looking beyond the New Testament to the Last Day—when the blessings that come from faith in Christ will show themselves, and like all other believers; all other saints; Israel will be a blessing and the entire Christian Church will be blessed, because forgiveness has come to us through Jesus our Savior.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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