ISAIAH 19-20 CONTINUES THE prophecies regarding Egypt/Cush. Here I shall outline the flow of thought and then draw out an important lesson for the contemporary world.
Isaiah 19 is divided into two parts. The first is poetic in form (Isa. 19:1-15) and pronounces judgment on Egypt. The details are not sufficiently specific for us to be certain which historical assault on Egypt is in view. Egypt was seized by Esarhaddon (671 B.C.), Ashurbanipal (667), Nebuchadnezzar (568), Cambyses (525), and Alexander the Great (332). Probably the "cruel master" or "fierce king" (Isa. 19:4) is representative of all of them. The lesson for Isaiah's fellow citizens is the one constantly repeated in this book: do not make alliances with foreign powers; trust God alone. When God acts against Egypt, her religion will not save her (Isa. 19:1-4), nor will the Nile (normally her lifeblood, Isa. 19:5-10), nor her counselors (Isa. 19:11-15).
The second part of Isaiah 19 is in prose (Isa. 19:16-25). The words "in that day" recur (Isa. 19:16, 18, 19, 23, 24)---a sign of the collapsing of the ultimate horizon, the final day of judgment, into the impending historical horizon, much closer to the prophet's immediate context. Using the categories of the day, Isaiah depicts the time when all of Egypt---even a city like Heliopolis (Isa. 19:18 fn.), formerly the center of the sun-god, Ra---will come under the reign of God. And not Egypt alone: other pagan powers, here represented by Assyria, will unite in common worship of Israel's God, and there will be peace (compare Isa. 2:2-5). Here is another adumbration of gospel power that draws in men and women from "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9), in line with God's gracious promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:3b).
The setting of Isaiah 20 is more specific: the Egyptian-backed Philistine revolt against Assyria (713-711 B.C.; cf. Isa. 14:28-31). The passage predicts the destruction of Ashdod, a major city of Philistia. During these three years, Isaiah was told by God to be dressed (or undressed!) like a captive, "stripped and barefoot" (Isa. 20:2), for at least part of each day, until Ashdod fell---and then he gave a stunning interpretation of his action: he was depicting the destruction and captive status, not of Philistia but of Egypt (Isa. 20:4-6). The lesson is obvious: do not trust your future to Egypt; she is a broken reed.
One lesson to learn turns on the fact that this destruction of Egypt did not take place until forty years later (671). Often we demand immediate answers from God. But God took twelve years to bring down Hitler, seventy to bring down the Russian empire, two centuries to humble the British Empire. Reflect on the implications.