Before we get into this fascinating portion of God’s Word, we need to take a glance backwards. Since chapter 13, Isaiah has been bringing against the nations these grim messages of judgment. For instance, he prophesied in chapter 14 that the proud king of Babylon was going to be brought low, cast down like a flaming star from the heavens.
Since then, there’s been more of the same. And there will be, all the way to chapter 24, as God speaks against many nations: not just Babylon, but Assyria, and Philistia, Moab, Syria, Cush, Egypt, Edom, Tyre. Each of them will have their day in God’s court: accused, judged, sentenced, and punished.
In a way, this was good news for Judah. It must’ve been reassuring to know that each of their enemies would get their just desserts—God wasn’t asleep on the job, but He was going to protect his people and restore their fortunes.
But there was something else for Judah to ponder. The LORD is not driven solely by the happiness of his people. We probably like to think that sometimes—that God is obsessed with our well-being—but God has a higher purpose than that. He is always working for the glory of his great name! That becomes apparent in these chapters: God is doing this rebuking and judging for his own honour.
The LORD’s holiness and glory are so great that He demands of all nations that they submit to him—not just Judah, but Babylon and Philistia and Egypt and everyone. God is worthy of fear and reverence, and He requires it from everyone. Put it this way: God doesn’t just want worship from the church, but He seeks adoration from all peoples everywhere! He wants all people to be moved by his glory, for He is Lord of lords and God of gods.
And we get a startling picture of just how far God will push this. For in our text He tells of a time when the Gentile nations will be formed into his holy people. The nations will go from living in terror of God’s judgment, to living in a genuine reverence for his holy name. The Gentiles will join together with all who believe in his name. It’s an amazing glimpse of the future, one that’s being fulfilled today. This is our theme from Isaiah 19:18-25,
The LORD will make the nations into His holy people:
1) their dramatic change
2) their willing worship
3) their profound unity
1) their dramatic change: To appreciate just what a surprising thing is happening in our text, let’s see what Isaiah has been saying here in chapter 19. He’s been talking about Egypt. At the time, Egypt was a powerful country—really the only nation strong enough to stand against the onslaught of Assyria. The Assyrian armies continued to storm through the countries of the Middle East. And just recently, Judah’s traditional allies had fallen: her brothers to the north, the people of Israel, as well as Syria. Just Egypt was left, and she at least had a hope of winning against the aggressor.
When you read through Isaiah, you learn that Judah was often tempted to make alliances with Egypt. But Isaiah opposes this strongly—just look at chapter 30—and he warns that Egypt can give no lasting help. To trust in them (instead of God) will surely end in disaster, for the Egyptians are doomed to fall.
This has been Isaiah’s message in chapter 19. You could say that ‘the first point of his sermon’ simply continued the fire and brimstone that has filled this whole section of oracles. In verses 1-15, Isaiah is predicting the fall of Egypt. He says that none of Egypt’s advantages will save her from the coming wrath. Her many gods will fail, the life-giving Nile will dry up, and the legendary wisdom of Egypt will prove foolish. She’ll be left a quivering puddle of desperation.
Then comes the second point of Isaiah’s sermon, which is our text. In a most stunning turn of events, this Egypt—chastened, defeated, utterly hopeless—will come to worship God! And not just Egypt, but Assyria too. Together with Israel, they will be the LORD’s holy people.
And just to make the contrast complete, the third point of Isaiah’s sermon about Egypt (chapter 20), simply picks up the theme of God’s judgment. The Assyrians will come and lead the Egyptians away as captives, “naked and barefoot” (20:4). In the short term, it should’ve been brutally clear to Judah. Why would they put their trust in Egypt? She was not a reliable saviour.
That was the short-term message, but there’s a long-term forecast too. Like Isaiah often does, now he points beyond the most immediate horizon, to a distant day. He sees an age when Egypt’s outlook is going to change forever. And it’s remarkable, for God’s intent is not to destroy Egypt, but rather to restore them and cause them to know the LORD! It is a dramatic change, an unprecedented reversal through God’s grace.
This is the first thing that will happen: “In that day five cities in the land of Egypt will speak the language of Canaan and swear by the LORD of hosts” (v 18). When it says ‘the language of Canaan,’ it means Hebrew, spoken by the people of Israel. The Egyptians, elsewhere called ‘a people of foreign tongue,’ are going to speak the same language as God’s holy nation.
And why is language so important? Scripture teaches that our words express what’s inside us. And especially for matters of the heart, like when we’re praying, or talking to an intimate friend, we use the language that comes most easily to us.
Well, the day will come when the Egyptians speak Hebrew so that they can pledge allegiance to God: “swear by the LORD of hosts” (v 18). Think of how we sometimes make a solemn oath to God today. We do it when we present our children for baptism, when we profess our faith, or when we get married. With our ‘I do,’ we commit ourselves to God. We say that in everything—in our task as parents, our marriage, our belonging to the church—we’ll seek to do the Lord’s will. This is what the Egyptians will do: from the heart they will commit to serve the true God in everything, “they will make a vow to the LORD and perform it” (v 22).
“Five cities” will experience this transformation. That’s probably a way of saying ‘a few cities,’ rather than five specific cities. Even so, one of these cities “will be called the City of Destruction” (v 18). There was a city in Egypt called Heliopolis, which means ‘City of the Sun.’ It was home to the sun god Ra. The Jewish scribes liked to mock the ‘City of the Sun’ by exchanging the word for ‘sun’ with an almost identical word: ‘destruction.’ That’s what pagans deserve, after all. But it is here—in a city overtaken by false religion—that people begin to call on the name of the LORD. Only God can do this, bringing people from darkness to light!
When Isaiah tells about Egypt learning Hebrew, it recalls when the whole world spoke one language, like at the Tower of Babel. Then, as now, language symbolized unity. But here it’s not a proud and godless unity, but one centred on the worship of God, as “with one mind and one mouth” we glorify the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 15:6).
With a handful of cities, Egypt begins to participate in the unity of God’s people. For an Israelite, all this was positively unthinkable! Egypt had always been their arch-rival. Sure, Judah sometimes hoped to buy life insurance from Egypt, yet this was the fiery furnace they’d left so long ago. Israel was defined by what had happened there, how God delivered them from Egypt’s cruelty with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. ‘Don’t go back to Egypt,’ God always said. But now this! A revival will sweep through the land of the Nile—not just the adoption of new language, but a whole-hearted commitment to the LORD.
Our text is one of those Old Testament windows through which we get to see something amazing: we see the universal reach of the true faith. God loves more than Jacob’s foundations, but Philistia too, Babylon, Tyre, and even Egypt (see Ps 87). God has a purpose to create a new people for himself from every tribe and nation. Christ is a Saviour for sinners gathered from the whole human race.
And let’s remember this about ourselves, that by nature we stand in the same category as the people of Egypt: we are outsiders, strangers, pagans who are worthy of condemnation. Yet God has opened his kingdom to Gentiles like us. It’s not because we were so deserving. Neither is it a fluke of history that we had the gospel preached to us. But in God’s amazing grace, He revealed to us the saving message of Christ his Son. This should teach us humility—who are we, that God should think of us? How little we deserve, and how much God has given!
This should also make us look at our neighbour in a different way than we sometimes do. We sometimes look down on unbelievers. We think that they’re hopeless, they’re lost causes—hardly worth our time. Yet our neighbour is no worse than us. Whatever their appearance or history, God might well have a purpose for them too. They too, might be able to learn the language of faith. Why has God done this, opening his arms to the nations? God wants to save people. And God wants their worship.
2) their willing worship: God’s spiritual revival is going to make its mark on the land. Verse 19: “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border.” Israel, of course, always had her altars. There was the central altar at the temple in Jerusalem. Already long before this, Abraham and Jacob had made altars in the places where the LORD appeared to them. To build an altar and to set up a pillar was a way to acknowledge God’s presence and thank him for his care. God was in this place!
So this is what’ll happen in Egypt. In this land overrun by false gods and their corrupt temples, there will be worship for the LORD. Right ‘in the middle of the land,’ Isaiah says, in a prominent place—like at Times Square in New York—God will be worshiped at his altar.
And an altar means something. For an Israelite, an altar always stood for reconciliation. Through the blood of sacrifice being poured out, God grants peace between the sinner and himself. In Egypt, there will be peace, the most precious gift of all. They will worship God, and He will accept them.
In Egypt too, a pillar will go up, “And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land” (v 20). Think here about the monuments that the tribes of Israel sometimes set up, like the twelve stones at the Jordan: a grateful marker to what had happened in the past, and a sure testimony to the LORD’s promise. It is good for God’s people to remember his great works in our lives! This new pillar to the LORD would stand at Egypt’s border, so that when you left Israel, traveling south and entering Egypt, you would see the sign that this is still God’s territory: ‘You are now entering Egypt, a land holy to the Lord.’
And what is always the sign of a living relationship with God? Beyond outward things like altars and pillars—beyond church buildings and schools and Sunday clothes—what identifies a people as truly knowing the Lord? When you talk to God. When you are devoted to prayer, and you present your life to him in thanksgiving and petition.
So it will be in Egypt: “they will cry to the LORD” (v 20). A person might not have been raised with the Bible, might have been a worshiper of false gods for his whole life, but when God brings them to faith, a child of God soon learns that prayer is our lifeline to the Lord. We cry out and we are heard!
Egypt will cry out “because of the oppressors” (v 20). Yes, Egypt has often been an oppressor, but now they will be oppressed. And this will come at God’s hand. Look at verse 22, “And the LORD will strike Egypt, He will strike and heal it; they will return to the LORD, and He will be entreated by them and heal them.” This is more than simply punishment for sin, more than judgment without hope for mercy. This is God’s loving discipline: ‘He chastens those whom He loves’ (Prov 3:12). He oppresses because He wants them to turn to him. It’s a hard truth, but beautiful: God loves us enough to discipline us, cares enough to see us grow.
After their hardships, the one answer left for Egypt is to cry out to God. Through prayer comes deliverance! ‘Cry out because of [your] oppressors, and He will send…a Saviour and a Mighty One, and He will deliver” (v 20). By this point in his prophecies, Isaiah has said much about the Saviour. Christ will be born to a virgin, a Son in David’s line, blessed with the Holy Spirit, and granted sovereign rule over all nations. His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
And this glorious Christ will not be the exclusive property of Israel. He will be Saviour to the world—to Egypt, and to all who repent from sin. Cry out, and God will send you his Saviour and Mighty One. For God is generous and gracious, ready to receive all who seek him.
Verse 21 is a good summary of what’s happening: “Then the LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD.” In the Bible, a knowledge of God goes far beyond mental awareness, intellectual consent. To really know God is to be in relationship with him in humble trust and true obedience. To know God is to have him as the sanctifier of your thoughts and commander of your actions each day. The Egyptians will know God, and then they will worship him with “sacrifice and offering” (v 21).
Such an awareness of God never comes naturally. True faith is not people searching God and finding him, but it is God revealing himself and working in us the right response. This is what He’ll do in the hearts of the Egyptians, and what He does in our hearts too, so that we may know the LORD.
Seeing Isaiah’s vision of the growing people of God, we are humbled and amazed, we said. We’re encouraged too, about the calling we have to spread the gospel in this world. For how can people call on him in whom they have not believed? And how they shall believe in him of whom they have not heard? There’s a pressing need for people to hear the Word. This is the task that the Lord gave to the church, that the gospel be preached to all nations.
And remember again the purpose of God including the nations. It is not simply to create a more racially diverse church, more culturally interesting. God includes the nations for the glory of his great name! For the LORD is the perfectly holy God, the God who is worthy of praise from all people. So He wants us to tell our neighbours, and He wants us to go to the nations.
A wise man once said: ‘Missions exist because worship doesn’t.’ The work of mission seeks to bring those who don’t know God to a place where they love and trust and worship him. Worship is the ultimate goal of mission, and the ultimate goal of our efforts to witness. We want all people to know the only true God and praise him forever. That will bring God the glory that He is so worthy to receive.
3) their profound unity: When you read our text from start to finish, you see that there’s a growth in the gospel that’s happening. First it’s just a few cities in Egypt that learn to call on the LORD. Then it is the whole country, with God’s altar in its midst. And then it is all the world, even to Assyria and beyond. Look at verse 23: “In 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 serve with the Assyrians.”
Let’s be reminded about what’s happening in Isaiah’s time. The two superpowers in opposition to each other were Egypt and Assyria, with Judah as the meat in the sandwich. There was constant tension and the threat of war, but those days are numbered. For God is going to heal this deep division. He’s not merely going to deliver Israel and Egypt from the Assyrian onslaught, but He’ll join all three nations in true communion! They will accept each other, because each has been accepted by the Lord.
Isaiah describes how there will be a new road between Egypt and Assyria. Isaiah loves the image of highways. Think of 40:3, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” For Isaiah, highways are symbols of peace, the end of separation. The day will come when Egypt and Assyria will travel back and forth to each other’s countries. And they will travel not for war or for business, but for worship of the true God. For now they are ‘traveling the same road,’ the road of faith and obedience to God.
And Israel will join them: “In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing in the midst of the land” (v 24). In between those kingdoms to the north and south, Judah will stand tall. For she will bring a blessing to the world. Through her, God’s gift will come to all the nations, even salvation itself. This is even what the LORD promised to Abraham so long ago, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
In a way that Isaiah and the people of Judah could probably never appreciate, God was going to open up his kingdom and covenant to people from all nations. The day will come, says Isaiah, when “the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance’” (v 25). God will look on the nations as his own people, his workmanship, and his special inheritance.
Each of those three titles had always been reserved for Israel, God’s covenant people. But now these special titles and privileges are shared with the Gentiles, granted to all whom God is pleased to include in his grace. Jews and Gentiles have been made equals in the sight of God, for they’ve all been gathered together in peace and the unity of true faith.
This is how true peace comes. It comes not through the redrawing of borders. It comes not through the efforts of the United Nations. But it comes through the great triumph of God’s kingdom in Christ. There is no way to reconciliation except through the cross, no way to unity except through faith in Christ.
Christ has been building this profound unity for 2000 years now. Once He completed his saving work on the cross, Jesus sent his gospel to the nations. Since then, He has been drawing people to himself from every corner of the globe. He has been using his church to spread his Word and share the hope that is ours in Christ. And the result is a unity in him, “one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith and one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:4-5).
If God could unite Egypt and Assyria and Israel—make brothers out of sworn enemies like these—think of how God can unite all who confess his name in truth! Think of how He can unite us as his congregation in this place. We get to marvel at it, and we’re also called to work at it. Not just through finding sister churches in other countries, but through preserving and enjoying the unity that we have as congregation, here, today.
Christ brings his believers together. We have different backgrounds, sometimes conflicting views, and occasionally we have a difficult history with one another. But we’re traveling the same road, and we are together the people and workmanship and inheritance of the LORD. So we should be able to serve together and share together in the one body of Christ. God calls us to accept one another, just as He has accepted us!
So let us live in the great joy and blessing and unity and calling of this gospel—so that we may be a people who bring glory to God’s great and holy name! Amen.