Insights Into Isaiah: Go Down Into Egypt

Join us in another roundtable discussion of Isaiah 30–31 with four BYU scholars


This BYU “Insights into Isaiah” Roundtable Terry Ball, Ann Madsen, Michael Rhodes and Jeff Chadwick will discuss the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah as he explains it in chapters 30 and 31 of his book of prophecy.

We welcome our viewers to our continuing discussion of the scriptures of the church, of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Today we’re going to be discussing, in particular, the writings of the Prophet Isaiah.  Joining me for our discussion today are three of my colleagues. We have a professor Jeff Chadwick, from the Department of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff  Thank you.
Terry Sitting next to him is professor Michael Rhodes from the department of ancient scripture.
Mike Glad to be here.
Terry Glad to have you with us, Michael.  And we’re delighted to have with his sister Ann Madsen, also with the Department of Ancient Scripture. Welcome Ann.
Ann Thank you.

And I’m Terry Ball, likewise from the department of ancient scripture.

For this session, we’re going to talk particularly about Isaiah chapter 30 and 31. These two chapters fit in the context of this larger section of Isaiah, chapters 24 through about 35 that the scholars often like to lump together under the category of Isaiah as apocalypse because there’s an especially strong apocalyptic flavor to these. Maybe we ought to begin by just talking for a moment about what the term of apocalyptic or apocalyptic literature means for our viewers.

 Ann It probably worries people to hear you say that, wondering what they’re going to think, what this really is.  It’s simple, really. It’s about the last times, the last days, the end of the world. I think that’s the most simple definition we can get for it.
Terry Very good. One of the distinguishing features I think of apocalyptic literature is it’s very dynamic and one moment when it’s talking about the destruction of the wicked, it’s just brutal and gruesome and then in reverse it can switch and all of a sudden, you’re talking about the joy and the happiness and how excited the righteous are at the same time, almost bipolar, if you will, but it makes the point really, doesn’t it?
 Ann Yes, it does.

And we’ll see a lot of that as we look at chapter 30 and 31 and then for the next few sessions we’ll be doing discussions, we’ll be having on future chapters as well that way.

Now,  chapter 30 begins with the theme that  Isaiah also addressed earlier in regard to Judah’s relationship with Egypt.  Maybe we need some historical background because he’s going to give a warning about an alliance with Egypt as we start this.  What do you want to talk about?

Mike Earlier, Ahaz, who is the father of Hezekiah had made an alliance with Assyria and now,  at the death of Sargon, there’s hope that maybe they can rebel against that and Judah and several other surrounding countries.
Mike Their head turned to Egypt and made an alliance with them thinking that Egypt, which had formally been a pretty magnificent and powerful empire could help them. And, Isaiah is here telling them, you’re relying upon a shadow or something that is not going to help.
Ann Egypt had really diminished.
Mike Yes, by now Egypt ceases to be a world power and never regains that status ever again.

It seems to me Egypt is always anxious to make these alliances. Whenever there’s a Mesopotamian empire builder that’s expanding, they like to use Israel and Judah as a buffer zone.  So, if you can keep them rebelling, I think their mindset is if we can keep Judah and Israel occupying the empire builders coming out of Mesopotamia, they won’t be able to come to attack us. So, they are just always saying rebel, rebel, we will support you. And of course, they never do. And it drives the prophets nuts, right?

Here Isaiah is telling them, don’t trust Egypt and we’ll find Jeremiah doing the same thing later when the Babylonians come. And in a sense Egypt, I suppose, is a type for anybody or anything that wants you to trust in them more than God.

Ann Yeah, sometimes I think it’s just the world. Like Babylon is.
Terry Let’s read the first few verses.  I’ll go ahead and read down here just a bit and then we can comment on them. All right. Starting with verse 1 in chapter 30,

  1. Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord that take counsel, but not of me, that cover with the covering, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin:
  2. That walk to go down into Egypt and have not asked at my mouth, to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt!
  3. Therefore shall the strength of Pharaoh be your shame, and the trust in the shadow of Egypt your confusion.
  4. For his princes were at Zoan and his ambassadors came to Hanes.
  5. They were all ashamed of a people that could not profit them, nor be a help, nor profit, but a shame and also a reproach.
  6. The burden of the beasts of the soul into the land of trouble and anguish from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and the fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, their treasures upon the bunches of camels to a people that shall not profit them.
  7. For the Egyptians shall help in vain and to no purpose, therefore have I cried concerning this. Their strength is to sit still.
Mike Strength is a doing method.  There’s nice contrasting imagery here with the idea that here they are going to Egypt who had held them in bondage to make an alliance that will hopefully, in their minds, get them out of bondage with another country. It’s almost a reversal of roles and they’re going back with the treasures that they came out of Egypt in the exodus with treasures. And so, I think Isaiah is playing on that concept here as well. But the irony of going to Egypt, of all places to, escape bondage.
Jeff Probably important to remember here too, that these are individual Judeans who are heavily advising King Hezekiah to switch his alliance to Egypt.  Hezekiah had in mind that he would cancel his alliance or the alliance that his father Ahaz had made with Assyria. But as to what to do after that, to rely on Egypt or simply to go it alone, what the Lord is saying through Isaiah here is don’t make any new alliance with Egypt because that would be totally useless. Not only that, the Egyptians are in this for themselves, they have as their total goal in trying to entice you into a new alliance, only the protection of their own borders from Assyrian encroachment. They care nothing for Judah or the other countries in the Levant and so to rely upon Egypt is essentially to sign your own doom.
Ann This helps, you know, in reading Isaiah to know some of these historical facts. I think one of the things that slow people down when they want to read Isaiah, they start reading through and they think, what does this mean? What alliance, what Egypt. It’s really useful Jeff, for you to tell us that background and so clearly.

I think he shows kind of the hypocrisy of Egypt too because Egypt’s accepting all these bribes and payments to them, but really behind the back of Judah, they’re just laughing. They’re ashamed of him. They’re people who can’t help them at all.

If it’s all right, why don’t we skip over to chapter 31 right here where he gets a similar message about the dangers of trusting in Egypt. Let me read  a couple of verses here, starting with first 1,

  1. Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord!
  2. Yet he also is wise, and will bring evil, and will not call back his words: but will arise against the house of the evildoers, and against the help of them that work iniquity.
  3. Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD shall stretch out his hand, both he that helpeth shall fall, and he that is holpen shall fall down, and they all shall fail together.

How do you understand verse 3?

Mike Well, if you’re turning to Egypt for help, Egypt, in fact, you know it’s the blind leading the blind and both are going to fall into a pit. If you’re looking for help from them, they need help themselves and you’re both going to be, as he says, fall down together, vivid imagery, and the Egyptians are ultimately conquered by Assyria.
Ann And in the end, verse 1 is the crux of the matter:

…they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the Lord!

and there’s that parallelism where holy one of Israel and the Lord, same thing, same person.

Mike Verse 3 really emphasize the Egyptians are men and not God. I think that’s a stunning message that Isaiah is trying to get across here. Rely on God, not on men.
Terry Why would you rely on something less when you have something so much?
Mike Exactly. The foolishness of what they’re doing, he’s trying to get across to them and apparently, they don’t see it. A message for us today as well.  We tend to rely on things, of man rather than of God.
Jeff The point here is too, that Egypt has had its day. There was a time when the horses and the chariots of Egypt were an insurmountable force, but the Assyrians are simply too strong and the real issue here is not even so much the Egyptians, as being willing to rely upon the Lord to help you, the Judeans would need to rely upon the Lord, as you see, reading forward into verses 4, 5 and 6, place your trust in the Lord, not in the Egyptians or any arm of flesh, and you would receive the aid from heaven, as you see in verse 5.
Terry And the promise of verse 8. They’re looking to Egypt or protection from the Assyrians, but if you trust in the Lord, you have a first aid experience,

Then shall the Assyrian fall by the sword, not of a mighty man and the sword, not of a mean man shall devour him…

And of course, you know the history. How does Assyria fall?  They come and lay siege to Jerusalem and the Lord wipes them out in the night.

Jeff And that’s, of course, foreshadowed in verses 4 and 5. If I could read those:

For thus hath the LORD spoken unto me, Like as the lion and the young lion roaring on his prey, when a multitude of shepherds is called forth against him, he will not be afraid of their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them: so shall the LORD of hosts come down to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof.
As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it.

Isaiah’s promises depend upon the Lord, not on the arms of the Egyptians chariots and horses. And then you will receive your protection.

Ann And if you lived in Jerusalem, the image at birds flying overhead is a very real image because they migrate over Jerusalem.  You see huge flocks of birds coming across Jerusalem.  I remember once going out and looking at them and thinking, what is that? I thought it was airplanes and it was large birds and they filled the sky.  And this image then, I think it’s so beautiful, the safety of being underneath a canopy at birds would be one that they would have known.

And the footnote for verse 5, footnote 5a, notes that, as birds flying, the activity here is actually hovering over their young. Those birds are circling in a protective mode to protect Jerusalem. The birds, of course, are a metaphor for God’s protection.

The word at the end line of verse 5, passing over, he will preserve it, the Hebrew verb there is pesach [פָּסֹ֥חַ] which is the verb that we use also in Passover as the Lord protected Israel when they were in Egypt by passing over the houses of the firstborn.  Here, he will make sure without Egypt that he protects Jerusalem by passing over Jerusalem to preserve it.


And from that high vantage, he has a great perspective of all that’s going on.

You know, I can picture you teaching this to your kids in home evening and your daughter goes out on a date and a fellow wants her to go see an R-rated movie. She says, no, I don’t think I want to do this. He’ll say why, and she’ll say, because you’re looking to Egypt for deliverance.  And she’ll say, let’s go home and read the scriptures and stuff.

Let’s go back to chapter 30 now and pick up some more of what this wonderful chapter has to say. After kind of giving this warning in the first seven verses about the dangers of trusting in Egypt, he then returned to this real apocalyptic kind of a discussion, where he’s going to describe, first of all, the rebellion of the people and the terrible destruction that is going to come upon them. Versus, let’s make it 8 down through 10 to start with.  Michael, do you want 8, 9 and 10 for us?


8 ¶ Now go, write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever:
9 That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD:
10 Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:
11 Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.


So, what’s going on here?

Well, they don’t want to hear what the prophets telling them. They want to hear good things that are in agreement with them. It’s very easy to follow the prophet if he’s telling you to do something you’re already doing, but if you’re, if he’s telling you to change, that’s hard. And they don’t want that. Tell us deceits, tell us, you know, smooth things.
That’s a spiritual barometer, isn’t it? If you find yourself bristling at the words of the prophet, it says more about you than it does to the prophecy, and you need to look carefully at your standing relationship with God.
Jeff Contextually here, the elite of Jerusalem, some of them bent on looking to Egypt for help against Assyria, are rejecting the words of Isaiah and others in his prophetic mode. And what Isaiah is saying is it’s easy to reject the words of the prophets when you can’t see how they can possibly help, but you have to have faith in the words of the prophets at all times. We often see in verse 10, people saying, I’m only interested in, you know, what’s culturally proper right now. The smooth things, those things which don’t bother society, those things which don’t cause any bumps in the road of political correctness, but sometimes what the prophets have to tell us, the eternal value of it is not congruent with the qualities and the values that are currently acceptable in the world at large. So, there’s a whole world out there saying in terms of religion, it should speak to us smooth things, but what we should really demand is a prophet of God that will speak to us true things.
Ann And you can see why Isaiah is a prophet for our time. I mean these things are happening all around us.
 Mike It’s what Americans always called hard doctrine.

He goes on and says in verse 12, “because ye despise this word” the teaching of the prophet, here are some of the things that are going to happen. You are like “a breach ready to fall…

What does that mean?

Mike There’s a crack in the wall and it’s ready to just collapse. Vivid imagery for the city that’s trying to defend itself against Assyria.
Ann We saw this happen in 1991,  I think it was when we had so much snow in Jerusalem and walls were giving way all over the city. They would absorb this snow and the water, and they would bulge out and ultimately just fall.
Terry  So instead of being a strong bulwark any little pressure on them and they just fell to pieces.
Ann And they went down.


Terry:  Look what happens to people when they start to bristle at the prophet’s words, they become a breach ready to fall, and any little temptation, any little pressure, and it just falls to pieces. They don’t have something to anchor their faith and their testimony to. And so, they break as he says in verse 14, ‘like a Potter’s vessel.’ Now in verses verse 16, 17, 18, well 16 through 17, he again talks about what’s going to happen because you were so rebellious.  They say you’re going to flee from your enemies and the thousand will run away from one and so forth. So, there’s nothing left but a flag on the top of the hill as it says at the end of verse 17. What I think is intriguing is that in verse 15, right between these two prophecies of what the consequences are for rejecting of a prophet and trusting in Egypt, is I think, the highlight of the whole chapter. This is the point that he’s hoping that these people will get and how they will actually respond. You want to read that for us, Ann, verse 15.

Ann:  Yes.  ‘For thus, saith the Lord God, the Holy Land of Israel, in returning and rest,  shall ye be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength and ye would not.’

Terry:  How would you put that in 2006 English?

Ann:  If you return to the Lord, you’ll be safe, and quietness is such a strange commodity in our world where I don’t know where you can go and truly know that it will be quiet, but it’s such a wonderful metaphor for being with God, being able to be confident and section 1,21 in the DNC says in the presence of God, that kind of quietness.

Mike:  I immediately think of the temple. That’s where I find peace and quiet and just an escape from the world.

Ann:  Okay, you just answered my question. That’s one place you can go.

Mike:  That’s one place you can go.

Ann:  And be certain it will be quiet.

Mike:  And the returning here,  the Hebrew there, is [inaudible 00:18:44.25] and it can also mean simply to repent.  It’s return to the Lord. He’s saying, repent and ye shall be saved. The central message.

Terry:  This whole idea that we just need to be patient with the  Lord and trust in Him even through hard times. I think verse 18 kind of says the same thing, ‘and therefore will the Lord wait that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted that he may have mercy upon you, for the Lord is a God of judgment, blessed are all they that wait for him.’ You know, from chapter 40 on we find this kind of an odd concept all over through Isaiah. Blessed are those that are willing to wait for the Lord. Jeff, what do we know about that word wait?

Jeff:  In this case, verse 18 here, wait, is almost better if you translate it as attend or take care of. Therefore, will the Lord attend to you that He may be gracious to you and therefore will He be exalted because he’s taken care of you. You will realize that and take care of him.

Terry:  In verse 18, the first part where the Lord is waiting, and then at the end where it’s blessed are they that wait for him, is it the same thing?

Jeff:  It’s the same thing that we may in turn, attend to the Lord and wait on him. Sometimes we think of wait in terms of, well, I’m, I’m waiting for something to happen, but this is a different kind of waiting. It’s what the old English term waiter means. Someone who comes to take care of you and see to that which you have expressed as a need. Well, the Lord waits on us. Whereas he takes care of those things which we express as a need in prayer. When we wait on him, we take care of those things that He has asked us to do.

Ann:  We say something like, I want to do what you want me to do, thy will be done.  That’s waiting on the Lord.

Terry:  So as a new meaning to being a waiter.

Ann:  Yes.

Terry:  Verses 19 through 21, continue with beautiful language describing the blessings for those that wait and trust in the Lord.  Why don’t you read those for us?  Ann, can you?

Ann:  ‘For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem.  Thou shalt weep no more. He will be very gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry, when he shall hear it, he will answer thee.  And though the Lord give you the brand of the adversity and the water of affliction yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner anymore, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers, and thine ears shall hear a word behind the saying, this is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand and when ye turn to the left.’ I love that scripture. I love the notion. It’s a perfect description, I think.  When you hear a voice behind you saying, this is the way, walk ye in it. That’s the Holy Ghost. That’s what each of us, we need to be listening for that voice just behind our ear. One of my students one day said, I think it’s one of my relatives in the spirit world that really cares about what happens to me and they’re whispering, they’re the deliverer.  The Holy Ghost is the deliverer of the Lord’s word to us.

Terry:  We live in a world where there are so many dilemmas for people that aren’t guided by the Holy Spirit. They wonder, what choice should I make? Where should I go? But the point is, you’ve placed your trust in the Lord, you’ve waited upon him, there’s a director always there. You know which way to go. You know when you have important decisions, you ponder them, and the thoughts and feelings come immediately. You’re not left without direction.

Ann:  And he talks again about ears and eyes. He does this often, Isaiah, he says, your ears will hear a word behind you and your eyes shall see your…what does he say?  Shall see thy teachers.  In other places, back in 18 of 29, he says, ‘and in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness.’ And in other places, he’s going to say those who prefer not to see. He keeps using that metaphor over and over again of our eyes and our ears and how we can either use them in the service of the Lord and be listening and watching, or we can close them and be deaf and not hear, choose not to hear.

Jeff:  If I could poke in something at this point, I think that it’s important for everyone who’s reading Isaiah to remember, I am a nudged on by the three words in verse 19 to remember this as well. The word Zion at Jerusalem. Sometimes as latter-day saints, we tend to have a rather one-dimensional idea of Zion. It is us, it is based in America, sometimes even in Utah. And, there’s a much wider application of the word Zion in the Lord’s terminology.  In the Bible, however, and particularly in Isaiah, but almost everywhere in the Old Testament, in the context of the geographies, Zion is usually Jerusalem in its first interpretation and then other things in subsequent interpretation. So, the Lord is talking first and foremost about the people of his time. A prophet speaks to the people of his time, first and foremost.  Isaiah had a message for us in terms of apocalyptic or eschatological terms, but, he was speaking to those people at Jerusalem and this message is for them because they’re in trouble because the Assyrians are on the way. And as you see in verse 17, where Isaiah foreshadows what would eventually happen, Jerusalem will be all that’s left of Judah, being left as a beacon upon the top of a mountain and an end sign on a hill. Just that flag on the top of the hill, Jerusalem will be all that’s left on top of that hill.  The rest of Judah destroyed for their wickedness and the people in Zion and Jerusalem would be spared because the Lord has a purpose for them. But how much more, if they’ve listened to the prophets, would not only they in Jerusalem, but all of Judah have been spared the yields that awaited them.

Terry:  You know, another thought you gave me, that phrase Zion and Jerusalem, I hadn’t really thought of this before, but many people think that Zion is purely a place in the Bible. And an attitude in the latter days, but this suggests that it’s both a place and attitude. Zion at Jerusalem, the place is Jerusalem, the attitude is Zion.

Jeff:  They need it to be better at being Zion in Zion, Jerusalem, in order to avoid those ills, follow those prophets.

Terry:  Wonderful.  Well, he continues with this wonderful promise to those that have waited and trusted on him. Clear down through verse 26 of this chapter. I love some of the imagery, like in verse 23.  ‘If you trust in the Lord, then shall he give the rain of thy seed, that thou shalt sow withal, and bread of the increase of the earth.’ He provides bread and water, even a bread of life in living water. Similar ideas in verse 25 that they will make sure that on every high mountain there are streams of waters and rivers.  And biblical scholars often think this is just arguing against their…placing faith in water, gods of other religions, but there’s something messianic about this as well. And then he finishes with a warning again to how the wicked are going to be destroyed with burning and the anger of the Lord, they’ll be sifted and so forth and that will include the Assyrians who will ultimately be destroyed, as a type for the destruction of the wicked.

Jeff:  Verse 31, the Assyrian shall be beaten down.

Terry:  And so, what happens to them? All right, you’ve just read chapter 30 and 31 now to your children once more. As we close this discussion, let’s talk about what the most important themes are. The things you hope that they’ll take home and teach to your grandchildren.

Mike:  Well, I think the summons substance of it, the main point he’s trying to make is, you’ve got to rely on God, not the things of the world. If you rely on God, then all these beneficial things will occur.  If you rely on the world, destruction and misery and woe will occur. It’s just that simple.

Terry:  Well said. Thank you.

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