Isaiah 20-21: A Hard Thing
Updated: May 5
The second oracle against Egypt:
The next oracle is addressed to Egypt too, but unlike the last, it concerns the immediate future. The same people who hear Isaiah deliver this message will be the ones who see it happen. It’s not surprising then that it doesn’t end well. God’s people are not yet convinced that God’s faithfulness is their only defense.
In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it—at that time the Lord spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz. He said to him, “Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.” And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot. (verses 1-2)
That would have been a little hard to ignore.
Then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cucrape exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame. Those who trusted in Cush and boasted in Egypt will be dismayed and put to shame. In that day the people who live on this coast will say, ‘See what has happened to those we relied on, those we fled to for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! How then can we escape?’” (verses 3-6)
For three years, the leaders of Judah had been holding their collective breath, waiting to see what Isaiah would say next. He obviously had something on his mind. When he finally spoke, his message wasn’t at all what they’d expected. His 3D graphics didn’t display the fate of Judah but mimed the upcoming plight of Egypt. Egypt, who was presenting herself as Judah’s deliverer, would suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of Assyria. But Isaiah’s message was really for Judah: you too will be shamed for trusting in them.
Now, for just a moment, consider the messenger. Think of the price Isaiah paid for being obedient. He doesn’t record the words the people said to him, only the words the LORD said to them. But I think we can assume that those meeting Isaiah on the street or watching from their windows weren’t exactly kind. Do you think he ever asked, “Why me?” Other than a rag-tag little band of disciples who wouldn’t let go of God, no one believed what he had to say. Most of what Isaiah said would come to pass wouldn’t come to pass until he and everyone who’d heard him were dead. Or like King Hezekiah, they believed but did nothing about it: “As long as it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I’m OK with it.” (2 Kings 20:19) Totally humiliated and seemingly ineffective—that was Isaiah. So why? What was the point?
The point was this: prophecy, at its core, is not given to predict the future of those listening, but to prove the veracity of God’s word to those who come after. At its core, Old Testament prophecy has the same purpose as New Testament prophecy: to strengthen, to encourage, and to comfort (I Corinthians 14:3). Although the comfort part seems a bit of a stretch, the whole of Isaiah’s message points to one destination—the Kingdom of God, where His righteousness rules and all is well. “And I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16) Faithful. That’s our God.
One point I probably haven’t stressed enough as we’ve worked our way through Isaiah is that the book is not a chronological account. Not even close. The first five chapters present a somewhat orderly overview of the book, but after that, well, it seems to go everywhere. I’m sure Isaiah, or whoever stitched it all up into a scroll, had some basis for their arrangement, but I’m not privy to it. Another thing I’ve learned is that there was a whole lot more tussling going on than I thought there was. It wasn’t like Egypt was defeated by Assyria and then Assyria was defeated by Babylon, and then Babylon was defeated by Media and then the Medes took home the trophy. No—it was an up and down, back and forth struggle between continually shifting kingdoms—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, and some lesser-knowns who also had their day or so in the sun. I got a headache trying to figure it all out. So I continually tried to get back to this: what can Isaiah tell me that is of any use to me today? Trying to determine who was on top when was a waste of time. God was on top all the time, and everything under Him was just a mess.
On that note, we continue on to chapter 21—Isaiah's prophecy of Babylon's fall to the Medes. In large part, the oracle concerns a shift in power coming in about 150 years, but Isaiah also hints at an event that will have a far greater impact—the fall of the spirit of Babylon at the end of the age.
Isaiah is warning Judah about another vain alliance—this time with Babylon. Isaiah was pretty clear about the LORD’s intention in turning Babylon’s recent allies, Elam and Media, against her: “I will bring to an end all the groaning she caused.” (verse 2)
Babylon had become a major threat to the Assyrian Empire—just a little short of the manpower needed to overthrow them. So about that time, King Merodach-Baladan, nice guy that he was, sent his ambassadors to Judah to visit ailing King Hezekiah. Isaiah, however, knew the real reason behind the visit—to gain Judah as an ally against Assyria. Compliments of the all-seeing, all-knowing God, Isaiah looks in on Judah’s future leaders, clueless and complacent, seated at a banquet table with Babylonian ambassadors, celebrating an alliance with them. Isaiah also sees the destruction that lies ahead for all of them and what he sees fills him with terror.
Prophets give birth to prophecies—prophecies that cause pain in their delivery. Isaiah was a prophet, but he was also a man, a man who loved his nation and the world. He had yearned for the coming of the Kingdom, but the process of its coming—the place between “here” and “there”—would be HARD. Real people would be caught in the middle of bloody destruction. Real lives would be lost. So much would be lost in the journey. “The twilight I longed for has become a terror to me,” he said. (verse 4)
Contrary to what we hear others say, and what we repeat with passion, the kingdom of God is not, not yet anyway, black and white. The black and white of it all is hidden deep, deep in the heart of a God who knows everything because He designed everything but isn’t yet revealing everything. I think He keeps His secrets for our good. He speaks in riddles and presents truth in parables until we are ready to receive it without offense. There is an interesting story in John 6. When Jesus told those following him they had to “eat his flesh and drink his blood,” nearly all of them left. They were offended—they said it was “a hard saying.” I agree. “But Jesus, aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Does this offend you?” ... From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” How kind of Jesus to wait until their trust had grown to a place where they could receive the hard things.
So, back to Isaiah. He had to give his people a message that caused him great pain. He saw ahead to what was coming, and he saw what was between “here“ and “there.“ “A distressing vision” he called it. A hard thing.
“Therefore my loins are filled with pain; pangs have taken hold of me, like the pangs of a woman in labor. I was distressed when I heard it; I was dismayed when I saw it…the night for which I longed He turned into fear for me.” He had longed for and prayed for the coming of God's Kingdom, but now that he saw what it would take to bring it near, it caused him pain.
God wants intercessors and prophets who can feel. He puts intercessors and prophets right in the middle of their prophecies. He calls intercessors and prophets to feel what He feels.
We know that God’s desire is to give us a heart like His; we ask Him to. Do we realize what we are asking for? Do we have any idea of what lies between here and there? If we did, maybe we wouldn’t go. Maybe that’s why He keeps so much hidden. I don't know. I do know it’s why He’s given us the Holy Spirit. So in the middle of it all, when we don’t understand a thing, He can say, “I am in this. Heart and soul, I am in this. Go through it with Me.”
Isaiah has a message of hope and then anguish and then hope again. God’s people, “crushed on the threshing floor,” would see the Assyrian oppression come to an end, but another crushing would follow: “Morning is coming, but also the night.” (verse 10)
Isaiah lamented what lay ahead, but he had another word, a higher word— ”In that day, the LORD...” Light always overcomes darkness. The good news always outlasts the bad. Righteousness rules. God wins.
I have no idea what’s in store for the next year or decade or century. I’m concerned, but not scared. World circumstances are changing, making life more than a little uncomfortable for those who love the truth. But the truth hasn’t changed and neither has the promise. Neither should my hope, my joy, or my peace. I just heard this morning that persecution of Christians in Thailand has intensified. The result? The Church is growing. This isn’t a first. The same has been true throughout history.
So Isaiah’s message, again, was “God is your only hope.” And the purpose of telling them something that they couldn’t change? “Tell your children that they can trust my word. All of it.” If they had believed him, the threat of destruction one hundred years later may have triggered a different response: repentance and prayer and prophets with chutzpah. Instead, an unenlightened generation with only great-grandpa’s stories as their legacy responded something like this: “Ha! Schmuel, remember that lunatic Isaiah and his ridiculous prophecy about coming destruction? I wonder what he would have to say about that now?” A voice from the kitchen: “Ira?” “Yes, Rebecca?” “There’s a Babylonian at the door.” So in a land far away, Schmuel and Ira feasted on crow while telling their children, “I just knew it! But would anyone listen?!?”
And all the while, God’s remnant was rehearsing the words of the prophet and praying for their fulfillment.
Now, centuries later, we have the Bible and the Internet, the words of Jesus and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and we can easily see that Isaiah's words to the Israelites were fulfilled. But let me be honest: if I were living back then? I don’t know. I hope I would have been a part of the remnant, one of those with the discernment to recognize the Lord’s voice and the courage to do what He said.