Egypt: A Reflection on Isaiah 31

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is a genre of fiction literature called Alternate History.  Have you heard of it?  Its authors speculate on how the world would be different if some pivotal moment in history had not happened or had happened differently.  Suppose the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria had gone down in a storm with all hands lost just before Columbus “discovered” America.  What then?  What if Ulysses Grant had gotten drunk the night before Gettysburg and had been too hung over to lead his troops?  Suppose Abraham Lincoln had lost his bid for re-election?  What if the assassination plot against John Kennedy had been foiled before the fatal shot was fired?  You see how this works.  It’s all speculative, all imagination.

Well, I’m going to ask you to think about such an alternate reality for a bit, and I promise there is method to my madness.  Imagine that both Canada and Mexico are superpowers and that what remains of the United States is militarily weak, economically impoverished, and isolated from any allies.  Canada has already invaded from the north and has taken the northern tier of states:  New England, the rust belt, the mid-west, Washington D. C. — all gone, all territories of Canada.  And now, Canada has its eye on the southern and southwestern states that remain, states that have formed a new government — the Southern States of America — with Atlanta as its capital.  Imagine you are the president of the Southern States and you know that Canadian troops are on the move, coming for you next.  What do you do?

There are not many good options.  You could sue for terms of surrender, I suppose, and hope that Canada might leave you a bit of autonomy.  But, those Canadians have a reputation for being brutal — eh? — so you dare not entrust your hopes, or your territory, to them.  So, you seize on a desperate plan.  You appeal to Mexico, the only other superpower that might hold Canada at bay.  You promise Mexico tribute, say access to the grain fields of Kansas and Iowa and perhaps the oil fields of Texas, if they will ally with you against Canada.  After all, you do have some history with Mexico, even though most of it is bad.  Can they be trusted?  Are they powerful enough to rout Canada’s military?  Are there any other options?

Now, back to the real world and real history.  Replace Canada with Assyria, the northern states with Israel/Samaria, the Southern States with Judah, and Mexico with Egypt and you have the setting for Isaiah 31.  A much weakened Judah is sandwiched between the two regional superpowers:  Assyria to the north and east, and Egypt to the south and west.  Assyria has already conquered the ten northern tribes, destroyed Samaria, and taken its people into exile.  Now, Assyria has its eye on Judah and Jerusalem.  Nothing stands in its way, at least humanly speaking.  What is Hezekiah, king over Judah, to do?

Well, you guessed it, or you already knew the history.  Hezekiah turned to Egypt for help.  He bought their military strength with silver and gold and with allegiance to Pharaoh.  And what did God think of that, God who was always the protector of his righteous people?

Isaiah 31:1–3 (ESV): Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

 2  And yet he is wise and brings disaster; 

he does not call back his words, 

  but will arise against the house of the evildoers 

and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. 

 3  The Egyptians are man, and not God, 

and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. 

  When the Lord stretches out his hand, 

the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, 

and they will all perish together. 

And so, Assyria marched against Judah, not at all intimidated by any threat from Egypt.

2 Kings 18:13–21 (ESV): 13 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 14 And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me. Whatever you impose on me I will bear.” And the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. 15 And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasuries of the king’s house. 16 At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord and from the doorposts that Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria. 17 And the king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Washer’s Field. 18 And when they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder. 

19 And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? 20 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? 21 Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. 

So much for Egypt; Assyria holds them in scorn.  But now — get this! — Assyria goes too far.  Listen to the rest of the Rabshakeh’s speech.

2 Kings 18:28–35 (ESV): 28 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! 29 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. 30 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 31 Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 32 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” 33 Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 34 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 35 Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’ ” 

It is one thing to hold Egypt in derision; it is quite another to scorn the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  When these words were reported to King Hezekiah, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD.  He repented of his foolishness in trusting Egypt, he prayed, and God heard his prayer.  God sent Isaiah to the king’s counselors:

2 Kings 19:6–8 (ESV): 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.’ ” 

And so it happened.  God — not Egypt — rescued Jerusalem from the hand of the great king, the king of Assyria:

2 Kings 19:35–37 (ESV): 35 And that night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. 36 Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh. 37 And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword and escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place. 

Is all this just history, recorded in Scripture simply because it happened?  Or is there in this history a word for us?

I am drawn to this prophetic proclamation in our reading from Isaiah 31, and I offer it as God’s word to us today, a word ancient but ever new:

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

We have Egypts aplenty in our world today, and we are wont to turn to them for deliverance — to rely on their horses and chariots and horsemen — instead of looking to the Holy One of Israel, instead of consulting the Lord.  Just a few examples.

Let me be absolutely clear about this:  I don’t care how you voted in the presidential election; I really don’t care.  That is between you and God and is none of my business.  But my spirit was deeply troubled when I watched the victory speeches by Kamala Harris and Joe Biden — not troubled so much by what they said as by what I saw in the crowd:  hands raised, faces uplifted toward the victorious politicians, tears streaming, shouts of joy and victory.  That was church, and that was a worship service.  It was a people going down to Egypt for help.  And it would have been no different at a Trump-Pence victory rally.  For many today, on both ends of the political spectrum, politics is their Egypt, and a candidate is their Pharaoh.

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

Brothers and sisters, it must not be so among us.  We must not look to Egypt for our salvation and forsake the Lord our God.

For many today, science is their Egypt.  In the last half-century I do not recall a time when science has been so hailed as our hope for salvation.  “Follow the science,” we are told, and we are expected to forget that science and technology created many of the very problems we now look to science and technology to save us from.  I’m no Luddite or skeptic:  science is a tool — and a good one when used properly and in its place.  But the tool of science can be used to fashion an idol in its own image.  It threatens to displace our faith in the Holy One of Israel when it is heralded as our salvation. It becomes Egypt:

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

New sociological and philosophical understandings, new cultural movements appear to many as Egypt:  critical race theory, expanded definitions of gender, Black Lives Matter — the organization, not the principle — and White Supremacy.  All of these are embraced by certain adherents as the salvation for our world:  these and not the Gospel, these and not the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

Now, let’s make this more personal.  Each of us probably has an Egypt — or several Egypts — we tend to turn to in times of trouble.  It might be the Egypt our own competence, trusting in the power of our own might to deliver us.  It might be the Egypt of our wealth — such as it is — in which we put our hope for security instead of looking to God for our daily bread.  It might be the Egypt of pleasure, or perhaps of distraction, by which we anesthetize ourselves to the true danger we are in.  How easy it is to entertain or distract ourselves to death.  You have your Egypt and I have mine.  But the word of the Lord rings out to us as it did to Hezekiah:

Isaiah 31:1(ESV): 1 Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help 

and rely on horses, 

  who trust in chariots because they are many 

and in horsemen because they are very strong, 

  but do not look to the Holy One of Israel 

or consult the Lord! 

We cannot go back to Egypt because we have renounced it in our baptismal vows:

Do you renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw you from the love of God?

To each of these questions we responded:  I renounce them.  We have declared before God and the Church that we will not look to Egypt, that we will never return there.  And we must not.  Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
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