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The three chapters 18, 19, 20, are each essentially upon the same subject, namely, Egypt; but each is a distinct prophecy, though the three together make up one historic and poetic picture. In this picture the first is the introduction, without special leading, and there is pathos in what it speaks of Ethiopia. The second speaks in calmer mood of Egypt; and the third speaks historically of Egypt and Ethiopia. Doubtless Egypt is made the subject of prophecy because of its old time relations with Israel, and because Judah has present need of warning against too much dependence on Egypt.
1. The Lord rideth… into Egypt Not the first time, not a strange visitation. The colour of the expression shows a plain recalling of the old events of Moses in Egypt. Exodus, chapters x-xii.
Upon a swift cloud This time the manner of Jehovah’s coming is beset with no hinderances, no hand-to-hand contest, as in old time. The almighty Providence glides easily, though swiftly, on to retribution. But retribution here is intended discipline. See Isaiah 19:22.
Idols… moved… presence The first effective inroads upon the idols of Egypt were made by the Persian Cambyses, (SMITH’S History of the World, vol. i, page 287,) B.C. 525. Later, Jewish settlements in Egypt gradually effected a reaction upon the whole idol system. Judaism, still later reinforced by the new power of Christianity, and Mohammedanism later still, quite demolished the old Egyptian religions.
The chief of the Egyptian idols were the bull, crocodile, etc. These are said to be moved, that is, agitated, stirred up, at prospect of destruction.
2. Egyptians against… Egyptians One district or nome against another. So the Septuagint: or, Upper, Middle, and Lower Egypt against each other. The former is the more probable meaning. In all Egypt there were at various times from thirty-six to forty-two of such divisions. Or, the immediate thought of divisions may be that of the Dodakarchy, or the twelve provinces, from B.C. 695 till Psammetichus. (See SMITH’S History, vol. 1.)
2-4. Opinions greatly vary as to when the events here described took place. Of the most plausible, one refers them to times shortly following the destruction of Sennacherib’s army, during which times the affairs of Egypt were in great confusion. Another opinion (and which is to be preferred) places the events in successu; the reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest being general, and to the conquest of Cambyses particular; and the whole referring to successive disciplinary punishments, but ending with deliverances, such as the final adoption of the worship of the true God will bring. The lesson taught is, that Jehovah is the God of all nations, especially of Egypt and Assyria, the greatest kingdoms then known; and that his worship effects the only true salvation for all.
3. And the spirit of Egypt That is, Egypt’s wisdom, its customary wisdom, shall fail, or, as in the literal Hebrew, shall be emptied or poured out, in that while overwhelmed in their troubles they look not to Jehovah for help, but to their idols. To these, rather, did they seek; and to the charmers, persons who pretended to imitate the softly suppressed voices of the under world, and to them that have familiar spirits, who employed themselves in invoking the manes of the dead by magical incantations, and to the wizards, that is, lying prophets of every kind.
4. A fierce king Rather, a strong, powerful king, but such as proved a cruel master. As without much doubt the prophecy is general, this one character may apply to several rulers Nebuchadnezzar, Psammetichus, and Cambyses the most merciless of whom, however, was Psammetichus. See SMITH’S Dictionary of Biography.
5. Waters shall fail from the sea The Nile river, the life of Egypt, is still called el Bahr, the Sea. But little rain falls in Egypt, and that only near the Mediterranean. The Nile, therefore, is the entire dependence for fertility. Drouth in the south mountains is hence the destruction of Egypt, and this forms the ground for the figures of the following verses. See also Nahum 3:9.
6, 7. Shall turn the rivers Many famines have occurred in Egypt owing to failure of the rains in the south. The river becomes low and stagnant and putrid. Instead of “they shall turn the rivers,” the Speaker’s Commentary renders, “The rivers shall become loathsome;” and Lange, “shall become a stench.”
Brooks of defence The Nile canals were a “defence” in two ways: the first, in giving fertility and defending from starvation; the second in being unbridged moats against invading hordes; but being dried up, they would allow a foe to approach the walls of the city. Reeds… flags…
paper reeds The first two of these mean the papyrus, doubtless; (see chap. Isaiah 18:2;) “paper reeds” is from a different word in Hebrew. Gesenius supposes, from its root, that bare places along the banks covered with grass are intended. The meaning is, the Nile is unavailing to the people. It brings no food by its fertility. It brings no commerce, on account of the half-anarchical condition of the country; but it does bring stench, disease, and death by its stagnancy.
8. Fishers… they that cast angle… spread nets Arts and manufactures, and the fishery trade, all suffer. Fish and vegetables were the food of the people on account of their superstition respecting animal food. The lower classes were greatly affected by famines, cruel labours, and civil disturbances.
Spread nets The net is not used at this day; anciently it was used, as proved by the fishnets found on the monuments.
9. Fine flax In Hebrew, hatchelled flax.
Networks White linen. Gesenius. Proverbs 7:16; Ezekiel 27:7.
10. Broken in the purposes thereof Their strong men, their higher castes. The pillars of the land are crushed to pieces. So the Hebrew. Strange translation in our version! The ruin is general. Both high and low suffer.
All that make sluices Dam makers across canals to overflow the lands. Workers for wages, these especially suffer.
11-13. Princes of Zoan “Zoan,” the ancient Tanis, the present Tsan, was the capital of the northeastern kingdom, as Noph, (Isaiah 19:13,) or Memphis, was of Central Egypt. These are representative cities for all Egypt in this prophecy. Pharaoh was a name, not of a person but of the royal house, personified in the ruling head at the time. His princes or counsellers are a stupified cabinet in these prophetic times, though they boast royal descent and great wisdom. See Herodotus. 2:141. They were the priestly caste out of which kings were chosen.
Where are they A sarcastic asking what they amount to as pretended wise-men.
Let them know If they cannot tell, then let them learn from the Lord of hosts, and so obtain certain knowledge what is designed upon Egypt. In themselves the whole priestly class are very fools.
The stay of the tribes Literally, the corner-stone of her tribes. Still the priestly class is meant. They probably assured safety as against Assyria, or as against their only dreaded foe in the far northeast.
14. Perverse spirit All such acts attributed to God are but declarations of the general fact, that if men will dash their heads against a stone wall their brains will come out. This is the part God performs in his sending moral infatuation among men. His laws cannot be broken with impunity. God was no further responsible than this for the bad counsel which caused Egypt to err.
15. Any work for Egypt Any plan or invention devised for Egypt’s extrication from difficulty by any class, or all classes combined, as expressed in the familiar proverbial designations, head or tail, which means high or low castes.
Branch or rush The same thought under figure of lofty palm branches, representing the high castes, and of the humble reeds along the Nile, denoting the lower classes the fellahs of this day.
16. In that day The day when these calamities come.
Like unto women A figure expressive of timidity and fear. Used also by other prophets. Jeremiah 51:30; Nahum 3:13.
Shaking of the hand A gesture, not here of summons, but of menace menace of judgments by invaders. Isaiah 10:5; Isaiah 10:32; Isaiah 11:15. Hopeful amendment appears at once from such gestures.
17. Land of Judah… terror unto Egypt Not because of possible invasion from Judah; the Jews were never equal to this; besides, at this time they were at peace with Egypt; but because the author of the calamities of Egypt was the God of Judah.
18. In that day “Day” has here, probably, the large meaning of the whole period included in this prophecy.
Five cities Probably meaning several the definite number being used for an indefinite. Only a very few centuries later than the date of this prophecy, many of the large towns of Egypt were witness to a copious use of the Hebrew language and of the Hebrew worship; and it is probable that many Egyptians became proselytes to the Jewish religion, as was the fact elsewhere, wherever the Jews made settlements.
City of destruction Respecting one of these five, or several, cities, there shall be the name or designation “City of Destruction,” or, Ir-Haheres, “City of the Sun.” Many excellent critics suppose a play upon the Hebrew Heres and Hheras, (consult Furst, Gesenius, SMITH’S Bible Dictionary, and all the best commentaries.) If the word means sun, the city referred to was Heliopolis, where the sun had once been worshipped, on account of which comes the name Heliopolis, and still on account of which the doom of destruction was to come upon it. Literally, this did come, and there is now nothing left of it but walls crumbled to earth, and a single obelisk. On my visit to it in the winter of 1870 the whole level area was a flourishing wheatfield. Ewald explains the difficulty here somewhat as follows: “At first there are, perhaps, only five cities in Egypt in which Jehovah was worshipped by Israelites already settled there. One of which was so placed under the divine care that it was called the city of Fortune or Protection, (supposing the Hebrew word really to mean this, and not destruction;) that it was intended to be a place of resort for God’s people in the future, as one of the cities in Egypt (and probably this one) certainly did afford protection to the infant child Jesus.”
19. Altar The word “altar” literally supposes the offering of sacrifices. Here, however, its meaning may have the confined sense of memorial, a memorial of the conversion of the Egyptians to the true religion.
Pillar A monument of the same fact. In the prophet’s conception God (possibly) decrees to this end a conversion of the symbol of the obelisks so common in Egypt. Another illustration of this general meaning may be offered here. In this district or nome of Heliopolis, but in the city of Leontopolis, Onias IV, (see Josephus, Ant., xiii, chap. Isaiah 3:1-3,) disappointed in obtaining the highpriesthood at Jerusalem, B.C. 149, on fleeing to Ptolemy in Egypt, received permission to build a temple for Jewish worship resembling that at Jerusalem, but smaller and less splendid. Onias is said to have pleaded this very nineteenth verse as propriety and authority for his doing so. This temple and its worship lasted over two hundred years. The “altar” and “pillar” may have had exemplification here also. A sort of fulfilment of this verse may also be found in the fact of so many synagogues being erected in Egypt from Alexander’s time on, and in the fact, too, of the Hebrew Scriptures receiving a Greek version the Septuagint by command of Ptolemy.
20. And it The “altar,” or the “pillar.” The idea of salvation and deliverance in this verse is, without doubt, the moral rescue which the land received on being delivered from its old time besetting idolatries.
21. Egypt shall know The above idea continues and is expanded, as usual with the prophet when he sees the grand results of the prevalence of the true worship of Jehovah. From the small beginning with five cities, one “altar,” and one “pillar,” the whole of Egypt comes to know Jehovah, and this knowledge soon shows itself in acts of worship.
22. Smite Egypt Egypt’s allegiance to Jehovah will still be very mixed, calling for smitings to amend and correct the people.
23. A highway out of Egypt In like manner with “Egypt,” Assyria is to be humbled. Both these great powers are to go down, and the trampling upon Judah by their great armies is to cease. Peace between them is simply the work of divine chastisement causing both, in some degree, to acknowledge Jehovah as the mightiest ruler of the earth.
24, 25. In that day Here, doubtless, the Messianic “day.” The language here is but the prefiguration of great moral changes.
Shall Israel The Israel through whom, according to God’s covenant with Abraham, “all nations shall be blessed.”
The third with Egypt and with Assyria The three nations shall be at peace, and Israel shall be the instrument of spiritual revolutions in their midst. While Israel was untrue to Jehovah he was crushed between the great hostile world-powers; but repenting and returning, he is to become the means of bringing both Egypt and Assyria to the feet of Jehovah to become his people.
Much of implied reference is no doubt made here to the far and wide dispersion of the Jews, diffusing influences preparatory to the incoming gospel age; of which influences the first noted instalment was brought to view at the day of Pentecost.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 19". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19