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Lowell Brueckner

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Ethiopia and Egypt


19. An expository study in Isaiah, chapter 18 - 20

Ancient Cush or Ethiopia superimposed on modern map
Chapter 18

Ethiopia, land of “whirring wings”

At the end of the last chapter, we learned of the color and rhythm of God’s literature, so effective because it provokes our thoughts, moves our emotions and even stirs our imagination. It is more than accurate information. We have entire books of poetry and song in God’s Word, the Bible; in fact, we have a whole section, from Job to Song of Solomon, given to poetry. The prophets, as well, sometimes with a direct, “thus says the Lord”, embellish their works with poetry. Now this chapter begins to describe Ethiopia, “land of whirring wings” (v.1).

The first word, an interjection, is either a word to bring the reader to attention, or may be, a word of warning. In the case of a warning, it would have the same effect as a title, containing “the burden or oracle”, as we have seen at the beginning of previous chapters (see notes on ch. 15, 16, 17). It is directed towards the land by the rivers of Cush or Ethiopia.  

The expression whirring wings is not only colorful, it is also complicated, as to its meaning. It seems to refer to the shadow or the sound of wings, both of which would describe the invasion of a swarm of locusts. Certainly Ethiopia could be described as a land of locusts, but also, as in verse 2, it is a land of papyrus vessels, so the expression may in some way refer to those boats. We will have to just leave it at that and go on. The land was closely connected to and associated with Egypt in the days of Isaiah.

 Boats made from papyrus reed
It made use of the Nile, which spills into the Mediterranean Sea, or it could easily navigate through the Red Sea, to send its ambassadors with messages to the Middle Eastern countries. They skim swiftly upon the surface of the water. They must have been lightweight boats, bringing to my mind, personally, the canoes of the Native American made from birch bark. We will remember that Moses’ little boat was made from papyrus. The papyrus river reed is the name from which we get our word paper.

Writing on papyrus
The people themselves are descendants of Cush, the father of Nimrod, who founded Babylon. Cush himself was a grandson of Noah and son of Ham. They were a strong, tall people with a smooth complexion; they were feared and war-like. They were known throughout the territory of northern Africa as conquerors, powerful and oppressive. The messengers have been given a message from God. We mentioned, as we studied Moab, that God’s word was being spread around the whole territory to warn and also to give help to those who feared Him.   

We will return to the Ethiopians later, but again, the prophecy turns toward Judah. We saw a flag raised for the mustering of the Medes and Persians against Babylon (chapter 13:2) and here a flag is raised to gather the Assyrian armies together. The world’s attention will be focused on it from the moment they go on the attack and will hear the moment the war trumpet sounds (v.3). It will gain recognition over the known world, because they are destined to become world conquerors.

God’s perfect timing

The Lord God spoke personally to Isaiah concerning Himself and shared with Him His own involvement in this prophecy. Be assured that He is looking upon the plans of the Ethiopians from His dwelling place. “I will look from My dwelling place quietly” (v.4), as He often seems to do, but do not mistake His quietness for indifference. Many ignore Him due to this characteristic of His personality and might even come to a conclusion that He is non-existent. That proves to be a huge mistake.

As the plan unfolds, He waits, as the dazzling heat and the cloud of dew. The sun continues to shine down and the dew continues to moisten the earth, then suddenly and with perfect timing, he intervenes before the harvest… in other words before the completion of the plan. He spoils the fruit that has formed, pruning it and destroying the harvest (v.5).

Those who planted do not reap and the fruit is left for the animals and the birds (v.6). The analogy not only tells us of the defeat of the purposes of these enemies, but also the defeat and slaughter of its armies. God has protected His own and those of the invaders, who become aware of His intervention, bring homage. In the last chapter, we saw the Moabites in this exact position. This was Rahab’s position in Jericho and it is the position, in which every sinner finds himself humbled under the mighty hand of God. The plans of the individual are spoiled and he becomes aware of the invisible Creator becoming active in his life. This is a depiction of Saul of Tarsus and the early Christians. God protected the church by arresting the persecutor and converting him into the Apostle Paul at great, personal loss… in his own words, “the loss of all things” (Phil.3:8).

Here are the same people as in verse two, the Ethiopians, “tall and smooth… feared far and wide, a powerful and oppressive nation, whose land the rivers divide.”  They are surrendering and coming to Jerusalem to Mount Zion to pay homage to the Lord of Hosts (v.7). God’s purposes are redemptive throughout the Bible to the end of time; through the Great Tribulation and the Millennium, people are converted. God gives His word and calls to the nations, by written invitation, to come to Him: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Lk.16:29). While He calls to these strangers, He also comforts His people through His word.

Chapter 19

Moving north to Egypt

Above Ethiopia was Egypt and the oracle of the Lord continues to invade this part of the world to the southwest of Israel, within the continent of Africa. Egypt was founded by another grandson of Noah and son of Ham, Mizraim. The Lord’s “swift cloud” is depicted at times in the Psalms, and upon it Jesus Christ will return in glory for judgment. It drifts north from Ethiopia to cover Egypt and the Egyptian gods are the first to become aware of His presence. As in the time of Christ, the demons knew him, if the people did not. The spirits of “the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence” (v.1). Then the hearts or the spirits of the people become God-conscious, but it is not a welcome visitation.

The downfall of a civilization is due to its spiritual condition. The confusion of civil war breaks out (v.2), as various factions, with Ethiopia also involved, struggle for superiority. Depression becomes a national plague. Human strategies of war fail and the leaders resort to spiritism and superstition (v.3). The proud Egyptians, the earliest of the world’s civilizations, lose their sovereignty and independence, and a cruel and mighty king gains prominence and rules over them. In the middle of the Seventh Century B.C., Assyria begins a foreign invasion (v.4).  

Papyrus reeds
We see again and again in the Bible that natural upheavals join with the forces of war to bring judgment upon a nation (v.5). The mighty Nile, upon which the Egyptian has always been dependent, is humbled. The water level falls drastically and begins to stink. Its famous reeds, referred to in Scripture from time to time, with their multiple purposes, rot and the fields, irrigated by the river, are unproductive (v.6,7).

The important fishing industry, with hooks and nets, comes to a halt and we see those employed adding to the depression upon the country… “the fishermen will lament… will mourn… pine away” (v.8). The flax and cotton production is also effected by the drought and the clothing industry suffers, so the weavers and also the common hired laborers go into unemployment and join the emotional collapse (v.9,10).

The prophecy goes to the top level of society to show the downfall of leadership (v.11). This became evident in Israel as their Old Testament history came to a close. The ruling class, the kings, princes, priests and prophets became foolish, deceived and totally false. It would seem that we are entering today into an era of international stupidity, void of authentic leadership. The stupidity has not overlooked the religious world either.

Ancient Egypt’s legendary Pharaohs, reported to be sons of the gods, are a lost part of history, and the wise men, at one time led by Joseph, are no more (v.12). Joseph could tell Pharaoh the things that the Lord was bringing upon the country in his day. As always, God’s representatives are the salt and light of the earth, and all the world profits from their influence. In Isaiah’s time, the principle cities, Zoan and Memphis, are without wise counsel (v.13).

The land is under delusion, which is here called a spirit of distortion. Please, do take the word spirit literally. The prophet is not using a figure of speech. The spirit world influences the physical world and, in fact, controls it. Here we have demons of delusion, distortion and stupidity. It is a country of spiritual drunkards with distorted views, which might be called perversion. In other words, they have lost their common sense (v.14). The foundations are broken down and there is no remedy: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps.11:3). When the moral principles of society are broken down, the righteous go into unemployment! (v.15)

The Egyptians lose their courage and become cowards (v.16) and once again it is called to our attention that this is a work of God. It is divine invasion; He has come in, riding on a swift cloud and we are looking at the consequences. He is also King over His land and from that land comes the fear of God upon Egypt. We are about to see something new take place (v.17). In fact, this prophecy extends to another day and it is left for us to see that it was not fulfilled during the times of the Assyrian or the Babylonian invasions, or at any other time, but we look ahead to another day.

Egypt is brought into the millennial reign

Map showing Heliopolis and Memphis
Isaiah is going to show us Egypt´s part in the millennial reign of Christ and Israel´s prominent part in the world of that day. Israel surrounds the throne of Christ in the Millennium and, even to a greater degree than Greek culture in its day, Hebrew culture will be learned around the world. The Hebrew language will be spoken in Egypt, and not only the language, but the Hebrew religion, Christianity, will be spoken and practiced in Egypt (v.18). The commentators tell us that the City of Destruction is better translated Heliopolis. It was the home of the sun-god, which will now “swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts”.

From center to circumference, the nation of Egypt worships the Lord (v.19). There will be an altar and a pillar, probably figurative, that will serve the land, as one day in the distant past, the blood upon the doorposts saved their captives from death. The Lord will see the pillar and the altar and will save Egypt from their oppressors (v.20). The Egyptians will know God, they will worship by the sacrifice and offering of Christ and walk in His will (v.21).

Egypt is smitten in verses 16 and 17 and then healed in the verses that follow. There will be national repentance and forgiveness (v.22). We learned in an earlier chapter of two entry points, as the Jews return to their land from Assyria and Egypt (11:15,16). Here we have this same highway mentioned again with more detail in verse 23. In this portion, we see the inter-commerce between the three countries with brotherly harmony. It’s a beautiful depiction, particularly because they are situated as a “blessing in the midst of the earth” (v.24)in God’s eye, that is, it is the center of the planet, the throne room of the cosmos, three countries living together in perfect peace. It ought to make us long for the thousand-year reign of Christ: “Whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” (v.25).

Chapter 20

The disgrace of the two African defenders

Because this short chapter also points to Egypt and Ethiopia, we will only look briefly at it. It describes one event, which took place, and reference is made to the history, the king and the places involved. It has to do with Sargon II, the king of Assyria, and he fought against Ashdod, a Philistine city, in 711 B.C. (v.1).

Isaiah became a human parable here, commanded by God to strip off his outer garments, as a sign of mourning and shame (v.2). The Lord was warning the Egyptians and Ethiopians that captivity was near at hand for them. Sargon would lead them away in disgrace, hopeless and humbled, old and young, as their countries are defeated (v.3-5).  These were the strong defenders of that territory and other, weaker lands, especially the Philistines, I suppose, were lamenting their defeat: Behold, this is what has happened to those in whom we hope and to whom we fled for help to be delivered from the king of Assyria! And we, how shall we escape?” (v.6). God shows again and again to the inhabitants of the earth, the utter folly in looking for help and putting their trust in fellow human beings. He is the God of all the earth and alone is worthy of our trust. It's a good point to meditate upon as we end this article. 



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