Isaiah 19-20:6 is an oracle against Egypt. It’s not good news for Egypt. Egypt will come under a savage king. The following verses evoke the plagues and the passage through the sea: waters dried up (v. 5), canals emit a stench as they did when the fish died in the bloody water (v. 6; cf. Exodus 7:18), fields devastated by drought (v. 7).
Ultimately, it is good news, the good news of exodus. If the Egyptians are suffering under a savage king, then Yahweh is going to do for them what He did for Israel when they suffering under a savage Pharaoh: He is going to deliver them. If He creates chaos, raises up an oppressive king, makes the Egyptians slaves, destroys their livelihood and prosperity, it’s because He is getting them ready for a new exodus, this time not an exodus of Israel but an exodus of Egyptians from a dead Egypt.
And as the prophecy continues, Yahweh promises that a day of coming when he will turn Egypt’s destruction into new life. On the far side of the judgment, Egypt will set up an altar to worship Israel’s God in the center of the land and a pillar to Yahweh will mark Egypt’s border (Isaiah 19:19). The altar at the center of the land, and the pillar at the border, will be a witness that Yahweh is Savior and Mighty One of Egypt too (v. 20). Yahweh dealt with Egypt in the exodus so that Israel and especially Pharaoh would come to “know” Yahweh, and that is what Yahweh will accomplish once again. And when Yahweh makes Himself known to Egypt, they will worship with sacrifices and offerings, take their vows to Yahweh, and perform them. Yahweh strikes, but He strikes in order to heal (v. 22). Because of Yahweh’s actions, Egypt will turn to Him and be healed by Him.
The day that Egypt is redeemed will also be a day when Assyria and Egypt are joined in worship. A highway will be cut between Egypt and Assyria, not to facilitate war between them but to facilitate worship.
For the time being, though, Assyria and Egypt are still at war. Yahweh tells Isaiah to go naked and barefoot like a slave (Isaiah 20:2-3) as a sign that the king of Assyria will take captives from Egypt and Cush, leaving the Philistine city of Ashdod exposed (vv. 1, 4-6). All of these international conflicts are preparing the ground for “that day” when Yahweh will come to join Egypt, Assyria, and Israel in worship and blessing. Eventually, those hostilities will cease, and Egypt and Assyria will join with Israel in the worship of Yahweh. Isaiah goes so far as to prophesy that Egypt and Assyria will take preeminence over Israel. Israel the firstborn yields first place to her traditional enemies (19:24-25).This is the way God redeems. He comes and sets men against one another, city against city, kingdom against kingdom. He comes to bring tyranny and savage repression, random violence and terror in stadiums and restaurants. He comes and causes economic devastation and political folly. But all this chaos, when everything is being blown every which way, he is setting up ultimately for restoration of life and order. These are the ways that Yahweh unsticks the world by His Spirit and moves it toward its goal.
Several times in the passage, Isaiah speaks of God’s plans and purposes. The wise men of Egypt can’t discern the Lord’s purposes for Egypt (v. 12). Judah is a terror to Egypt because of the purpose that Yahweh is purposing against Egypt (v. 17). God is accomplishing His intentions in the midst of and through the confusion and tyranny and terror and stupidity and pain of social breakdown.
When the world seems to have gone crazy, when there is a war of all against all, when cruel kings reign, when advisors seem deluded or drunk, when the economy is falling apart – in the middle of all that chaos and mayhem, God is at work, the Spirit is active, the Spirit has come like storm, like a hurricane, unsticking a world stuck in sin and death, blowing the world back into motion, back into motion toward God. All that chaos means that the Lord has come riding His cloud, stirring up the world by the Spirit until all nations turn to Him in worship.