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Why Trust in Egypt?

Isaiah 19:23-25 anticipates the time when Assyria and Egypt will represent all the elect from all nations who will turn to God. All three nations will be connected by a “highway” through which God comes to his people and by which he leads his people to himself. Jesus is the “new and living way” to God’s most holy place.

Psalm 66:1-4, 13-15; Isaiah 19:1-25 (text); Ephesians 2:11-22
June 26, 2011

Nations at Pentecost (from ESV Study Bible)

Nations at Pentecost (from ESV Study Bible)

In 1979, a peace treaty known as the Camp David Accords signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin generated tremendous excite-ment among evangelicals who believed that Biblical prophecy was rapidly unfolding before their eyes. They thought that this treaty is the beginning of the fulfillment of Daniel 9:27, when “he [Antichrist] shall make a strong covenant with many [Israel] for one week.” When Daniel 9:27 is fulfilled, the Secret Rapture must be around the corner! Thirty-two years later, these expectations are still … well, expectations.

Our text today begins with the Lord‘s judgment against Egypt, but ends with its blessing as God’s people. In fact, Isaiah says Egypt will be one with Israel and Assyria in worshiping God. Egypt “will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them … Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians … Blessed be Egypt my people” (22-25). Was Isaiah’s prophecy accurate?

Church history affirms Isaiah. We read in the book of Acts about the expansion of the church from Jerusalem, then to Judea and Samaria, and to the western Roman Empire: Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), then to Greece, Italy and Spain. From there, we read from the early church writers that the gospel spread to the rest of Europe. What is not well-known among many is that the gospel of Christ also expanded eastward to the Middle East and southward to Africa, even outside of the Roman Empire, to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), Persia (present-day Iran), and all the way to India, where Christian tradition recognize Thomas as the apostle to India. We know this spread is true because the first Christian converts on the first Pentecost Sunday included “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia” (Acts 2:9).

In North Africa, Christianity spread to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan and Ethiopia. People from Egypt and Libya were also mentioned in Acts 2:10 as having heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Egyptian Christian tradition identifies Mark as the apostle to Egypt. The city of Alexandria, with its great library, became one of the centers of Christianity. Leading theologians from this great city included Clement, Origen, Cyril and Athanasius, the great defender of the two natures of Christ against the Arian heresy. Over time, the Christian church in Egypt was called “Coptic,” from Icopt, the Arabic pronunciation of the Greek word for Egypt.

But by the end of the sixth century, there was already competition between the western Catholic church led by Rome and the eastern Byzantine church led by Constantinople. In turn, the eastern church divided between those who held the two full and distinct natures of Christ and those who sided with heretics called monophysites. These false teachers believed that Christ had only one nature because his divine nature swallowed up his human nature. Sadly, the Egyptian church affirmed the monophysite heresy, for which they were persecuted by both the Roman and Byzantine churches. This persecution led to the warm welcome given by the Coptic Church to the Muslims who arrived in the mid-seventh century. The ruling Muslims tolerated the Christians until the 11th century when their religious freedoms were restricted and the Arabic language was imposed on them. Today, only 18 percent of Egyptians are Christians.

As well, because of persecution and the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, only a small fraction of Iraq and Iran remained Christians. Isaiah 19 also mentions Assyria together with Israel and Egypt as worshiping the Lord. After Assyria was conquered by Babylon, Assyrians were also scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. It is worth noting that these Assyrians also spoke Jesus’ language, Aramaic, and when Christianity spread to Mesopotamia and Persia, many Assyrians were also converted. Today, most of the Christians in Iraq who make up a mere three percent of the population are ethnic Assyrians.

So, has Isaiah’s prophecy in Chapter 19 of Israel, Egypt and Assyria worshiping the Lord together been fulfilled? How would these ancient arch-enemies worship the same God in one holy mountain? To be sure, the conversion of many during the first six centuries of the church is a fulfillment. But six times, Isaiah introduces his prophecy of their restoration with the words, “In that day,” which points to that future great day of the Lord when Christ returns from heaven.

In this prophecy of Egypt’s destruction, Isaiah reminds Israel of the futility and foolishness of trusting in human idols, creation and wisdom, things that Egypt trusted in instead of God. God challenges Israel: Why trust in Egypt, and not in me, when your enemies Egypt and Assyria will themselves trust in me?

She Too Will be Judged

River NileIt is not certain when this judgment on Egypt was fulfilled. During Isaiah’s time, Egypt was already very weak, and a succession of “fierce kings” and “hard masters” later conquered it: Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. In this oracle against Egypt, the Lord was saying to his people Judah, “Why do you want to ally yourself against a weak nation who will herself suffer destruction? Do you want to also be wiped out by Assyrian when it attacks Egypt?”

The first part of Isaiah 19, verses 1-15, is in poetry, and the second part, verses 16-25, is written in prose. Verses 1-15 is divided into three stanzas about God’s judgment on Egypt. In the first stanza, verses 1-4, God will confound the Egyptians so that they will fight against one another in a civil war, “Egyptians against Egyptians,” “city against city, kingdom against kingdom.” As their hearts tremble and melt because of their troubles, who will help them? They will seek the counsel of their idols, sorcerers, mediums and necromancers (those who consult the dead), but they will be of no help.

Not only will their idols be useless, their natural resources, particularly the River Nile, will be useless. Egypt is rightly called “the gift of the Nile” because without the Nile, the vast Sahara desert will creep in and Egypt will merely be a part of the dry, empty sand hills of the Sahara. It’s 6,700 kilometers long, originating from the mountains of Ethiopia, flowing northward, and draining into the Mediterranean Sea. It is so long that its length is equivalent to three roundtrips between Manila and Hong Kong. So high was Egypt’s regard for the river that they created the god Hapi, the god of the annual Nile flooding. But Yahweh shows he is more powerful than their god Hapi by drying it up so that its economic and commercial functions will cease. It will not irrigate their wheat and other crops for food, and there will be no more harvest of fish. Ships and boats will not be able to navigate through it. The land will be parched so that the garment industry of flax and cotton will fail.

If their idols and the rich and fertile Nile and land couldn’t help them, to whom will they turn? In their desperation, the Egyptians will turn to their “wisest counselors.” But God again has utter disregard for the wisdom of Egyptians. They are “utterly foolish,” “give stupid counsel,” “have become fools,” “deluded,” and the Lord has given them a “spirit of confusion.” All the wisdom of Zoan and Memphis, their most prominent cities, would not be able to prevent them the destructive purpose of the Lord of hosts against Egypt.

"The Fifth Plague of Egypt by J.M.W. Turner (1800)

"The Fifth Plague of Egypt by J.M.W. Turner (1800)

These three stanzas recall the Exodus story when God sent plagues against Egypt to redeem his people from slavery. God revealed to Moses that all those plagues were symbolic of God’s power over Egypt’s pantheon of gods, king, natural resources, and wise men, “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exod 12:12). Egyptians deified the Nile, frogs, bulls, and the sun. They had gods for every aspect of life and death, health and disease, harvest and famine, and light and darkness. Their wise men were no match against Moses and Aaron, Yahweh’s authorized representatives. This is why Isaiah says that God is “riding on a swift cloud,” mocking the idol-god Baal—whom Israelites were seduced to worship by pagan Canaanites—who is usually depicted as a rider on the clouds. It is Yahweh, not Baal, who is on the clouds of heaven.

Mankind has not changed a bit. Like the Egyptians, we too trust in many idols, resources and human wisdom. Our idols of family, money, friends, possessions, etc., keep us from trusting God. We excessively worry about what we will eat, drink or wear, and when we focus on these things, we lose sight of God’s promises to add all these things to us when our priority is seeking God’s will and his righteousness. Paul says that our sinful nature inclines us to trust in created things rather than the Creator, because our passion is the things of the world and not the things of God (Rom 1:25, 26).

What about wisdom? Paul says that the “foolishness” of God is much wiser than the wisdom of man, because our wisdom is foolishness before God (1 Cor 1:20, 25; 3:19). Through the ages, every generation think they are the wisest, most advanced, and most enlightened. Our generation is the greatest example of this foolish wisdom, thinking that our knowledge of science and technology make us the most advanced civilization ever, not knowing that our knowledge is that of children compared with medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation thinkers and theologians. The ancient psalmist knows this too well when he wrote, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psa 14:1).

This is why James says that this human wisdom is demonic, because it does not come from God, “This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (Jas 3:15). The fruits of wisdom from above is meekness, purity, peace, gentleness, reason, mercy, impartiality, sincerity, righteousness, and peace. But the fruits of earthly wisdom are jealousy, selfishness, boasting, lying, disorder, and evil conduct. This is because meekness comes from trusting God, and therefore being free from worry. But when we worry about ourselves, how we look and how we perform, we are inclined to all these kinds of sinful thoughts, words and deeds (Jas 3:13-18). A person who trusts in God couldn’t care less about worldly, ungodly praise.

This is the most important thing: Why trust in anything or anyone other than God? This was God’s challenge to Judah when they allied themselves to Egypt whom they thought was strong and powerful to defend them from Assyria. But the foolishness of their trusting in man was exposed when the Lord revealed that even Egypt will trust the God whom Judah had rejected!

She Too Will Trust in Whom You Do not Trust

Athanasius of Alexandria (A. D. 296-373), defender of orthodox Christology against Arianism

Athanasius of Alexandria (A. D. 296-373), defender of orthodox Christology against Arianism

The second portion of our text, verses 16-25 is marked by a sixfold introduction of each sentence by, “In that day,” which refer to the “day of the Lord.” This day is not only a day of destruction (Isa 13:6, 9; Jer 46:10; Ezek 30:3; Joel 2:11), but also a day of salvation and blessing (Joel 2:31-32; Mal 4:1-6), just as it will be for Egypt. When will this prophecy be fulfilled? It will be on the “day of the Lord” when Christ returns from heaven to judge the living and the dead and usher in the new heaven and new earth (2 Pet 3:10, 13; cf. 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:1-3).

In the first instance of “in that day” in verses 16-17, Isaiah describes the terrifying destruction when the Egyptian army will tremble and shake “like women,” an insult to their manly character. Everyone will know that the Lord has accomplished his purpose against the Egyptians.

In the second instance, Isaiah prophesies that five Egyptian cities will ally themselves to the Lord. They will even speak the Hebrew language, something that was unthinkable in Isaiah’s day because Egyptians hate Israel and its God. Perhaps from these five cities, trust in the Lord will spread throughout the land that used to be full of idols. One of these cities is called the “City of Destruction”—even a city bound for destruction will be saved!1

Thirdly, in verses 18-20, the Egyptians will set up an altar to Yahweh in the midst of the land, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. Just like the Jews, they will then offer sacrifices and offerings to Yahweh, and make vows to perform them. Israelites always erected altars in places where they worshiped God, as when Jacob set up an altar at Peniel after he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord there (Gen 28:18). After the Israelites crossed the Jordan River, they set up twelve stones at the river crossing as a memorial to God’s mighty work of drying up the river. After Israel defeated the Philistines in a battle, Samuel set up a stone and called it “Ebenezer,” a stone of help (1 Sam 7:12).

In the fourth instance in verse 21, just as Israel was in covenant with God, so will Egypt be. Remember when Israelites toiled under the cruel Egyptians? They cried out to God for help, and God heard them and sent Moses to redeem them from slavery (Exod 3:9-10). After they settled in the Promised Land, Israel was oppressed by the Philistines and other nations, but whenever they cried out to God for help, God rescued them (e.g., Jgs 3:15). Here, when the Lord strikes the Egyptians with oppressors, they will turn and cry out to him, and he will heal them by sending “a savior and defender, and deliver them.” All of these aspects of Egypt’s worship of Yahweh—an altar, a pillar, a savior, sacrifices and vows—were also part of God’s covenant with Israel, which means that God will also make a covenant with Egypt. Thus, Isaiah announces that the Lord will know them, and they will know the Lord. This is the same covenant of grace formula that God makes with all his people, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33; Heb 8:10). Rather than be like the hardhearted Pharaoh who did not want to release God’s people to worship him, Egyptians in these last days will worship God too.

All of you who are united to Christ are one with Israelites and Egyptians who also trust in Yahweh and are God’s covenant people. You too have been redeemed from slavery to sin and death by your Savior and Defender, Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross paid for all your sins. Because of this redemption, you worship the Lord, praising him for his grace and mercy, and making vows to be living sacrifices in your daily lives in covenant with God.

How great is our God! Sinners like us, who deserve to be destroyed by God like Israel and Egypt, are saved from destruction by God’s beloved Son! And many sinners from all nations, tribes and languages are now also receiving this salvation.

She and the Whole Earth Will Trust in God

The Cruelty of Assyrian King Shalmaneser III

The Cruelty of Assyrian King Shalmaneser III

Not only Egypt will worship God. Assyria, Israel’s ancient enemy, and enemy of Egypt too, will also worship God. Remember that the ancient Assyrians were also dispersed like Jews after they were conquered successively by Babylon, Medo-Persia and other kingdoms. But Isaiah says that Assyria, together with Israel and Egypt—ancient arch-enemies—will be one in the worship of the true God. They will turn from their idols and will be God’s people, all three peoples on equal footing before God. They too will set up altars and pillars, and make sacrifices and vows to worship the true God.

Earlier, we have seen that Isaiah’s prophecy was partially fulfilled during the early church when Egypt became a great Christian center and ethnic Assyrians all over the Mesopotamian region freely received the gospel. But Isaiah 19:23-25 anticipates the time when Assyria and Egypt will represent all the elect from all nations who will turn to God because Christ has redeemed them from their idolatry and all kinds of ungodliness and unrighteousness.

All three nations will be connected by a “highway” in order that they will be able to worship the Lord together. Isaiah frequently uses the picture of a highway through which God comes to his people and by which he leads his people to himself (Isa 11:16; 35:8; 36:2; 40:3; 62:10). So when John the Baptist came preaching, he was preparing the “highway” of the Lord (Luke 3:4-6), Jesus, who opened for his people a “new and living way” to God’s most holy place—heaven itself—through his broken body and shed blood on the cross (Heb 10:19-20). This means that all elect exiles from all nations will have equal access to God.

This highway leading up to the place where God is worshiped goes through all the world, and no visas or permits are required to enter God’s holy place. The only requirement is Christ’s perfect righteousness and holiness which are given to all those who trust in Christ and worship the Lord of heaven. It is worship without borders because God’s holy nation, the church, is a borderless nation. Paul uses Isaiah’s prophecy in announcing that Christ made Jews and Gentiles “both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between them, so “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility”
(Eph 2:14-16). With the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles to God, there is now peace between the two peoples as well.

Several implications follow Isaiah 19’s prophecies. First, since Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice made animal sacrifices obsolete (Heb 8:13), Jews and Gentiles erecting altars and pillars and performing animal sacrifices cannot be read literally, as some teach will occur in a millennial Temple. Second, “in that day” cannot refer to a millennium, because that reference connects to the coming of eternal peace and blessings in the new heaven and earth. As well, “in that day,” “the day of the Lord,” and “the day of Christ” are all interchangeable referents.2 Third, true believers from all nations are God’s one holy people—the holy, apostolic, universal church—because all those in Christ, whether Jew, Egyptian, Assyrian, Filipino, or any other Gentile, belong to Christ’s one body (Gal 3:28-29). This is why Egypt and Assyria are now called by names which were formerly reserved for Israel: Egypt is “my blessed people” (Hos 2:23), and Assyria is “the work of my hands” (Isa 29:23). Israel of course is called “my inheritance” (Deut 32:9).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you are all of these. You are God’s blessed people who now have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). You are God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). And you are God’s inheritance, because you are God’s special, treasured possession, who will in that day be given an inheritance as well: the earth and the kingdom of heaven (1 Pet 2:9; Matt 5:3, 5, 10).

Why trust in yourself or in others? The Psalmist challenges you, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Psa 146:3-4). Only God is eternal, and in him alone is eternal life found.

Why trust in your possessions? The challenge to you today is this: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt 6:19), and do not “set [your] hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). All earthly things will waste away and disappear, but only the things of God and his Word will remain forever.

1 The most common reading of the Hebrew text is הרס heres, “destruction.” Only 16 manuscripts have חרס cheres, “sun,” most probably referring to the city of Heliopolis, “City of the Sun,” the center of worship of the sun-god Ra. Most translations (KJV, NASB, ESV, NIV) agree with heres.

2 For a fuller development of Isaiah 11:6-9 as a picture of complete peace and security in the new heaven and new earth, see my sermon, “The Glorious Eternal Kingdom of the LORD.”

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