Isaiah 20:1-21:17 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. In the year that the Philistine city of Ashdod was captured by the Assyrians, what did the Lord command Isaiah to do (see Isaiah 20:1-2 printed below?) What was the message being conveyed by Isaiah’s action and appearance (see Isaiah 20:3-4 printed below?)

In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it—(2) at that time Jehovah spoke through Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet. And he did so, walking around naked and barefoot. (Isaiah 20:1-2)

Then Jehovah said, Just as my servant Isaiah has walked around naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, (4) so shall the king of Assyria lead away naked and barefoot the Egyptian captives and the Ethiopian exiles, young and old, with bare buttocks—to Egypts shame. (Isaiah 20:3-4)

According to verse 3, from the time of the fall of Ashdod, the Lord commanded Isaiah to remove his sackcloth garment and his shoes; thus, for the space of three years Isaiah appeared before the people practically naked and barefoot. Isaiah’s naked (humiliated) appearance is a testimony of what will happen to Egypt and Ethiopia: the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt—young and old—naked and barefoot.

2. When the Egyptians succumb to the Assyrian conquerors, what will be the reaction of those who trusted in Egypt for their security? See Isaiah 20:5-6 (printed below)

Then my people will be dismayed and will despair because of Ethiopia, who was their hope, and because of Egypt who was their confidence. (6) On that day the people who live along the coast will say, Look, if this is our source of hope—those to whom we fled for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria—how shall we escape? (Isaiah 20:5-6)

In Isaiah 20:5-6 there is recorded the dismay and the confusion of those who had put their hope in Egypt; that nation proved to be both unreliable and unable to fulfill the expectations of those who had trusted in her. Egypt was an apparently strong nation to whom Judah looked for security and deliverance. Actually, Egypt was living off of her past reputation of glory and power; when the Assyrians invaded her they were surprised to find how weak she was. Note: the deliverance of Egypt by the Egyptian leader, Psamtik, occurred around the year 652 B.C., some time after the Assyrian invasion and subjugation that reached its height around 661 B.C.

3. Isaiah 21:1-10 is an oracle foretelling the future destruction of Babylon at the hands of the Medes and the Persians. What imagery is used to describe the destruction of that great empire (see verse 1 printed below?) What is significant about the name given to Babylon—it is called “the Wilderness by the Sea?”

The oracle concerning the Wilderness by the Sea. Like whirlwinds sweeping through the southland, peril comes from the wilderness, from a land of terror. (Isaiah 21:1)

In the future, from Isaiah’s perspective, Babylon would rise up under king Nebuchadnezzar to become the great superpower of the ancient world. But what this prophecy focuses upon is how transitory that great empire really was: Babylon is identified as “the wilderness (or, desert) by the sea.” In verse 1 Isaiah is referring to the fierce wind and dust storms that originate in the southeast desert and sweep through the south of Palestine with violent force. Like those violent and destructive storms in the Negev, so shall the conquerors storm across Babylon. This is a reference to the initial conquest of Babylon by the Medes and the Persians (also known as Elam) under Cyrus in 539 B.C.; a conquest that set in motion the process that finally reduced Babylon to a perpetual desert. In the course of time once great Babylon literally did become a howling wilderness: the Roman historian, Strabo (born in 60 B.C.), wrote, “the great city has become a desert.”

4. From Mt. Seir (the nation of Edom) comes the question, “Watchman, when will the long night (of Assyrian oppression) be over?” What answer does the watchman give (see Isaiah 21:12 printed below?) What do you think is the meaning of his answer?

The watchman replies, Morning is coming—but also the night. If you want to inquire, do so. Turn, and come. (Isaiah 21:12)

The watchman replies, “Morning is coming—but also the night” (verse 12a). That is to say, the Assyrian oppression will eventually come to an end, but it shall be succeeded by future oppressive powers, such as the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. The world always hopes that it is on the brink of a Golden Age of everlasting peace and prosperity; but the hopes and dreams of the world always prove to be vain. The watchman goes on to say, “If you want to inquire, do so. Turn, and come” (verse 12b). The watchman invites Edom to inquire further, to look to the prophet of God and the Word of God for true and lasting answers. Edom is exhorted to “turn, and come;” i.e., to repent and come to the Lord, and through the Savior to gain a place in the new creation (note 2 Peter 3:13).

5. The trading caravans of the Dedanites are instructed to seek shelter in the Arabian forests—due to the presence of the Assyrian armies, the caravan routes have become unsafe (Isaiah 21:13). But what does the Lord warn will happen to the whole land of Kedar (i.e.; Arabia) and its defenders? See Isaiah 21:16-17 (printed below)

This is what the Lord has said to me, Within a year, as it is reckoned when making a contract with a hired laborer, all the glory of Kedar will come to an end. (17) The number of archers that are left, the mighty men of the people of Kedar, will be few; because Jehovah, the God of Israel, has declared it. (Isaiah 21:16-17)

Even the caravan routes through the Arabian peninsula have become unsafe, because the Assyrian armies have even penetrated into this region and threaten to ravage all traders who would venture along the usual routes of travel. The inhabitants of Tema are described as having provided bread and water for these harried caravans—they have provided a ministry of mercy and have offered a place of refuge (verses 14-15). But, as verses 16-17 indicate, even such refuge shall prove to be temporary and insecure, for within a year all of Kedar (i.e.; Arabia) will be conquered by the invading Assyrians—and this has been determined by God. The Lord is warning that there is no truly safe place of refuge in this world, no place that is invulnerable to tribulation or calamity if the Lord sees fit to visit it with such things. The only true refuge is to be found in the Lord Himself.