After reading and re-reading Isaiah 19:18-25 several times, the words that initially came to mind were “wishful thinking” and “impossible.” This may be the most unusual and surprising passage in the entire Old Testament.
“On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun. On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.
The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.
On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (Isaiah 19:18-25)
This passage describes the unimaginable reconciliation of Egypt and Assyria with Israel. For any Israelite who read or heard this passage during Isaiah’s time, this was likely offensive. Throughout the Old Testament, Egypt was always the arch-enemy of Israel, repeatedly referred to as the “house of slavery”. Likewise, Assyria represented the dominant and cruel world power that would soon take the 10 northern tribes into captivity. Assyria was legendary for their brutality in battle, including skinning people alive. Yet, here Isaiah describes these three countries uniting together.
Very clearly, this reconciliation never happened. Is this an unfulfilled prophecy because of Israel’s unfaithfulness? Do the words represent merely wishful thinking on God’s part?
Five times the phrase “on that day” is used in this passage. This is associated with the “day of the Lord” in the Bible and suggests that this refers to the end of world history. If that is true, what does this describe?
First, it is fascinating that there is a common language that is spoken. This would suggest reconciliation, agreement, and the undoing of what happened at the Tower of Babel. The passage echoes from Genesis 11:1 where, “At first, the people of the whole world had only one language and used the same words.”
But the text is more specific as to what the people agree on. “There will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt” (vs. 19) suggesting a unity of worship. And, the Egyptians are now given what had been the exclusive invitation to the Israelites that “you shall know the Lord” (Exodus 6:7). At the point of history that Isaiah describes, “The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day” (vs. 21)
“Eternal life is to know God” (John 17:3). As “Adam knew Eve” the experience of knowing God is intimate, personal and is based on love and trust. Jesus came to bring us into this “knowing” relationship. The new earth is defined by Isaiah as a land where “the knowledge of God is as the seas are full of water.” (Isaiah 11:9)
As if this passage wasn’t spectacular enough, on the scene arrive the dreaded Assyrians. “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians” (vs. 23).
The highway is another powerful symbol of reconciliation. Many times in the book of Isaiah a highway is used as a metaphor of unity and bringing together those who had been alienated (Isaiah 11:16; 33:8; 35:8; 40:3; 49:11; 62:10).
And finally, the passage concludes with Egypt, Assyria and Israel together as “…a blessing in the midst of the earth” and with the tender words, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage (vs. 24, 25).
What is the purpose of a prophecy like this? Is it primarily so that we can passively read the newspaper to look for its fulfilment? Or, is prophecy rather given as a motivation for God’s people to catch the vision and then bring it to fruition? In describing the prophecy of Revelation, Richard Bauckham stated its purpose to “…provide insight into the nature of God’s purpose for the future, and does so in a way that shapes the readers’ attitudes to the future and invites their active participation in the divine purpose.”
Sigve Tonstad, in describing this passage, emphasizes the need for human participation in prophecy. “If we see the prophet’s role mostly as a person who predicts and informs concerning matters of the future, human participation need not concern us. If, on the other hand, the prophet is a person who seeks to influence and persuade, sharing a point of view in order to see it adopted by others, then the aim of his ministry is precisely to enlist human participation… The text does not describe what is but what God wants; the original and ultimate and undeviating purpose of God’s mind and heart.”
Thus, if we can latch on to the will of God in Isaiah 19, we need to then incorporate this into our will for the future. What this means is that God’s desire for healing and reconciliation of national and religious enemies also becomes our greatest desire as well.
Tonstad continues, “For this option to open up it must first be imagined…it must be envisioned as a real option…The stereotype of otherness and enmity must be surrendered when, in God’s view of things, there is an exodus planned for the enemy, too, and their exodus is configured along the same lines as for those seeing themselves as more naturally entitled to the privilege. Moving from a new perception of God’s intention, the reader is called to see the other side in a new light…What is seen as possible from God’s point of view, then, must also in some way or other become our intention.”
As Christians, we need to imagine a new script for the future. Reconciliation, unity and friendship among national and religious rivals must be viewed as a real possibility. And, if we are incapable of imaging this possibility, we should be honest with God about it while in prayer: “God, you have said that this is your will for the future. God, in my wildest dreams, I don’t see this happening, but I want to align my will with your will. Please create in my heart the hope for this to occur. And, help me to participate in making this a reality.”
A few days ago, cnn.com had an article entitled, “Why does ISIS keep making enemies?” This fascinating piece revealed that ISIS has a script for the future. “…its ideology is that of an apocalyptic cult that believes that we are living in the end times and that ISIS’ actions are hastening the moment when this will happen.” The script ISIS is running on is a dark, violent, blood-bath future that will usher in the final events of human history.
What is the Christian script for the future? Do we agree with Jerry Falwell when he said, “Blow them all away in the name of the Lord”? Do we agree with the Dispensationalist “Left Behind” vision of the future?
Why can’t Isaiah 19 be the script Christians are working to make a reality? Why can’t we see that God is not merely on our side, but that he is actively and intensely working with every individual and every nation in the world to bring about this unity?
One of the most amazing passages in scripture is Amos 9:7, which describes God working not just with the Israelites, but with every nation. “The LORD says, ‘People of Israel, I think as much of the people of Ethiopia as I do of you. I brought the Philistines from Crete and the Syrians from Kir, just as I brought you from Egypt.’” As Peter learned, “…God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean…Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:24-35)
Jonah was a prophet to which nation? Assyria! The ultimate enemy during that time! No wonder he ran away. It would be like God asking you to travel to Iraq to warn ISIS and to help them to turn in another direction. Does God really care that much about such violent enemies? Apparently so.
Does God’s interest in the “others” even our enemies make us angry? Usually. That is human nature. We naturally wish for the destruction of our enemies. For example, when Jesus was given the scroll to read in the temple, he read from the beautiful passage in Isaiah 61 about captives and prisoners being set free. Why was his audience “amazed” (Luke 4:22)? This can also be translated as “shocked”. Surprisingly, Jesus omitted the words in Isaiah 61:1-2 that described “the day of God’s vengeance”. To the Jews in Jesus’ time, this was the “high five” moment of the passage. This was the part that described the vanquishing of their national enemies. But they misunderstood the mission of the Messiah, and so Jesus simply left it out.
Jesus then told his disapproving audience that he did not come to satisfy their violent and self-interested national aspirations. “Listen to me: it is true that there were many widows in Israel during the time of Elijah, when there was no rain for three and a half years and a severe famine spread throughout the whole land. Yet Elijah was not sent to anyone in Israel, but only to a widow living in Zarephath in the territory of Sidon. And there were many people suffering from a dreaded skin disease who lived in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha; yet not one of them was healed, but only Naaman the Syrian.’ When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with anger.” (Luke 4:25-28)
Their hopes for what the Messiah would be were not only disappointed, they were radically changed into a picture of healing and reconciliation for the nations – the “others”… the “heathens”…the “outcasts”.
As Christ-followers, our script for the future must align with Jesus’ passion to bring about the healing and reconciliation that is foretold in Isaiah 19. Let’s not be like Jesus’ audience or Jonah and violently reject the notion that God loves the outsiders and those that do not belong to our “tribe”. Yet, too often we have also adopted a self-interested and nationalistic view of the future that includes a deep-seeded desire to see destruction and war as a sign that the end is near and that God will soon return to punish our enemies.
Brian Zahnd, in his outstanding book “A Farewell to Mars” describes the dark and false script for the future that many have adopted:
“We are not to be macabre Christians lusting for destruction and rejoicing at the latest rumor of war. It’s high time that a morbid fascination with a supposed unalterable script of God-sanctioned-end-time-hyperviolence be once and for all left behind. A secret (or not-so-secret) longing for the world’s violent destruction is grossly unbecoming to the followers of the Lamb.”
“…here is why [nationalism is] such a powerful deception: it doesn’t feel unholy. It feels holy; it feels spiritual; it feels patriotic; it feels right. It has a deeply religious aura to it. It is a spiritual experience. The spiritual experience of expressing a shared hostility can even be confused for the Holy Spirit…because of how it feels. It’s what’s so seductive and dangerous about religious rants against popular scapegoats: liberals, socialists, gays, Muslims, immigrants, etc. A unity is achieved around this kind of angry rhetoric, a unity that is undeniably cathartic and religious.”
Now is the time for Christians to unite on a new vision for the future – a vision that looks like Isaiah 19.
– Brad and Dorothee Cole