This chapter is a burden, or prophecy, concerning Egypt. True to Isaiah’s pattern of multiple layers of meaning, in this chapter he intertwines prophecies regarding both ancient and modern Egypt and its modern superpower equivalent, America. An understanding of the history of ancient Egypt serves as a guide, enabling us to recognize in this prophecy what elements pertain to ancient or modern Egypt, what pertains to modern America, and what probably pertains to both. It is abundantly clear that Isaiah is speaking of the future, because the events described in this chapter as befalling the now-vanished empires of Egypt and Assyria are not represented in their histories. Our challenge is to recognize modern players on Isaiah’s stage.
Why the association of Egypt with America? In Chapter 18 Isaiah described “a far-distant land,” “that sendeth forth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, saying, Go, ye swift messengers” to scattered Israel.1 The tribe of Joseph, divided into two under his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, exhibited Egyptian culture—including the spoken and written language—long after the twelve tribes settled in the Promised Land. Their scriptures were written in Egyptian, on brass plates. The Nephites, descendants of Joseph who had migrated to the American continent and received it as their land of inheritance, wrote their scriptures in reformed Egyptian,2 patterning them after the brass plates.
The modern inhabitants of America are to a great extent descendants of Joseph, led out of Europe and elsewhere during the time of colonization by the hand of the Lord, and later also as the gospel was preached in those areas.3 Lehi prophesied: “[T]here shall none come into this land [America] save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.”4 The missionaries who go forth to scattered Israel in the latter days are primarily of the tribe of Joseph. They carry with them the Book of Mormon, a scriptural account of a remnant of the tribe of Joseph, translated from reformed Egyptian. This cultural link to ancient Egypt is represented symbolically by the “vessels of bulrushes upon the waters” which carry “swift messengers” to scattered Israel.5
Ancient Egypt6 first gained prominence about 3100 B.C. when the kingdom of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt. King Menes united the country and formed a national government, one of the earliest in the world. He founded Memphis as his capital near the present site of Cairo. He also founded the first dynasty, or series of rulers from the same family. In succession, more than 30 other dynasties ruled ancient Egypt. Its history is divided by Egyptologists into three periods characterized by strong rulers, military conquests, and other notable developments. These are the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 B.C.), the Middle Kingdom (1991-1786 B.C.), and the New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.). Intervals between these groupings, typically enduring several hundred years, were characterized by weak dynasties during which Egypt’s prominence declined.
The Old Kingdom was characterized by building of pyramids. During the Middle Kingdom Egypt’s influence expanded to include Nubia, Palestine, and Syria; and during the New Kingdom ancient Egypt became the world’s strongest power. Following the end of the twentieth dynasty in 1070 B.C., Egypt began to decline rapidly as a strong nation and was ruled by foreign entities including Nubian, Assyrian, and Persian rulers. Alexander the Great added Egypt to his empire in 332 B.C. and founded the city of Alexandria, noted for its museum and vast library of papyrus rolls, and the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C. Muslims from Arabia seized Alexandria and completed their conquest of Egypt in A.D. 642.
Although not much is known that can historically connect events in Egypt to those recorded in the Bible until the reign of the Israelite kings, during the time of the Patriarchs Egypt was a powerful kingdom (the New Kingdom). Abraham’s sojourn there7 doubtless coincided with Egypt’s notable development in astronomy. Abraham, who had the Urim and Thummim,8 was shown “the stars, that they were very great….”9 The Lord gave specific reason for so instructing Abraham: “Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words.”10 Major religious reforms—possibly inspired by Abraham—were introduced by Akhenaton who became king of Egypt in 1367 B.C. However, his reforms angered many Egyptians and his successors restored the old polytheistic state religion. Egypt was weak during the time of Israel’s prominence under Saul, David, and Solomon and continued its decline throughout the ensuing kingdoms of Judah and Israel. During the time of Isaiah, Egypt’s prominence as a world power was long past and its decline under foreign rulers was well underway.
In Chapter 19, Isaiah foretells Egypt being smitten by the Lord and destroyed. The destruction may have coincided with invasions by Alexander the Great, Rome, or the invading Arabians as far as ancient Egypt is concerned, but the bulk of this prophecy applies to Egypt’s modern superpower counterpart, America.11 Following her destruction the Lord will heal Egypt, and three modern nations—called Egypt, Assyria, and Israel by Isaiah—will be blessed together.
In verse 1, Isaiah declares: “The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.” “The burden of Egypt” means a prophecy concerning Egypt. Ancient Egypt’s polytheistic idolatry is well-known, and modern America’s pervasive idolatry—materialism—was described in Chapter 2 by Isaiah.12
What “swift cloud” could come into modern America, sent by the Lord to destroy her idolatry? One possibility is nuclear warfare; other possibilities are explosives designed to disperse deadly radioactive materials, an electromagnetic shock wave that would disable electronics and electrical transmission, conventional explosives with large-scale, devastating effects or clouds of toxic chemicals moving swiftly to exterminate multitudes of people. Parry et al. describe the swift cloud as a means of conveyance by the Lord.13 Regardless of its precise nature, the Lord would permit the devastation ushered in by this swift cloud.
Verse 2 describes devastating internal conflicts; this did not characterize the destruction of ancient Egypt which was invaded by successive foreign entities: “And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom.” Fulfillment of this prophecy may have had its beginnings in the American Civil War, but is doubtless yet to be completely fulfilled. Of interest here is that the conflicts coincide with breakdown of societal elements including the family, neighborhoods and cities, and nations and kingdoms.14 What current circumstances do we see about us that will deteriorate into the anarchy described by Isaiah? The Lord, however, will not allow America to self-destruct as long as He has use for its present government as a world-stabilizing influence, to permit continuing spread of the gospel.
In verse 3, Isaiah continues his description of the foretold anarchy: “And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof; and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.” “The spirit of Egypt shall fail” likely means that the great underlying principles established by the founding fathers will be forsaken and rejected. Religious belief will decline into spiritualism and sorcery: “Them that have familiar spirits” is translated from a Hebrew word meaning “necromancers,” or those who purport to communicate with the dead.15
Verses 1 through 3 contain a chiasm:
(1) The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt:
A: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.
B: (2) And I will set
C: the Egyptians against the Egyptians:
D: and they shall fight every one against his brother,
D: and every one against his neighbour;
C: city against city,
B: and kingdom against kingdom.
A: (3) And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.
If this chiasm is read in reflective order beginning with the first element on the ascending side, then its reflection on the descending side, then the next element on the ascending side, and so forth to the central focus, an informative pattern emerges: “The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it. And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards. And I will set kingdom against kingdom, the Egyptians against the Egyptians, city against city; and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.”
When the chiasm is read in this way, a logical succession of events emerges: First, a cataclysmic event, or “act of God;” then a failure of the government’s underlying principles; followed by reliance upon idolatry, superstition and wizardry in place of the practice of true religion. Conflicts then break out—first between kingdoms, then against fellow countrymen; cities would rise in conflict with other cities, then families and neighborhoods would be split apart. The result would be anarchy and chaos.
In verse 4, anarchy will be replaced by domination and servitude: “And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand of a cruel lord; and a fierce king shall rule over them, saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts.” Fulfillment of this prophecy may have occurred with foreign powers invading and conquering ancient Egypt including Nubian, Assyrian, and Persian rulers, Alexander the Great, the Romans, and the Muslims, but the modern “cruel lord” and “fierce king” ruling over fallen America has yet to be made manifest. An alternative Hebrew meaning for “cruel lord” is “hard masters.”16 Because of conflicts dividing kingdoms, the nation, cities, families and neighborhoods, the modern analog of ancient Egypt is left weakened and vulnerable militarily and would be easily overcome by a “cruel lord.”
Verses 3 and 4 contain a chiasm:
A: (3) And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.
B: (4) And the Egyptians will I give over into the hand
C: of a cruel lord;
C: and a fierce king
B: shall rule over them,
A: saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts.
“Idols, and…charmers, and…them that have familiar spirits, and…wizards” contrasts with “the Lord, the LORD of hosts.” Instead of relying on the Lord, the modern counterpart of Egypt would rely on wizardry, spiritualism and idolatry. “Will I give over into the hand” complements “rule over them,” indicating that the Lord would permit this transition of power to occur. Without the Lord’s protection a fierce and cruel king will rule over modern America.
Verses 5 through 10 describe economic calamities to accompany these political developments. Verse 5 begins: “And the waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up.”
Ancient Egypt’s prominence was based upon its economic strength, derived from abundant harvests grown from fertile soils along the Nile River.17 These soils were renewed each year, during the annual flooding of the Nile that corresponded to seasonal rains in the African interior to the south. Failure of the waters from the sea and from the river would totally incapacitate Egypt economically, but such an occurrence is not in the historical record for ancient Egypt— except for events like the seven years of famine during the time of Joseph: “And the seven thin and ill favoured kine that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind shall be seven years of famine.”18 The famine was precipitated by the “east wind,” a strong, dry, hot wind from the deserts of the Middle East that did not allow crops to develop. It affected the entire region, not just the Nile Valley.19
Ludlow, in his commentary on Chapter 19, asserts that Isaiah’s prophecy of economic calamity has been fulfilled in modern Egypt by construction of the Aswan High Dam.20 However, dire reports of social, economic and ecological disaster resulting from construction of the dam are largely politically-motivated propaganda, as shown by subsequent responsible scientific investigations. The Aswan High Dam is, in fact, one of the best dams in the world because of the very substantial overall benefits it brought to Egypt and its people.21
In the 1950s the Americans agreed to provide funding for the proposed Aswan High Dam, which would take the place of an earlier structure that had proven to be inadequate in controlling catastrophic flooding. For a variety of reasons, the Americans became displeased with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and withdrew their offer for funding. The Soviet Union quickly stepped forward, offering to provide funding and technical expertise. These events resulted in considerable rivalry between the Cold War-era superpowers of America and the Soviet Union. American agencies and journalists created a barrage of negative propaganda after the dam was finished, describing it as an economic, social and ecological disaster of staggering proportions.22
Construction of the Aswan High Dam—completed in 1964—has resulted in stabilization of the flow of the Nile River, minimizing the annual floods. Although annual renewal of the soil by deposition of new silt has ceased—making use of synthetic fertilizers necessary— permanent settlement on the river floodplain has enabled implementation of modern mechanized farming methods. Although fish catches were reduced for a few years due to changed ecological conditions both in the Nile River and in nearby portions of the Mediterranean Sea, former levels of fish production have returned and an entirely new fishery has been developed in Lake Nasser, the reservoir formed by impoundment at the Aswan High Dam.23 It is clear that the economic disaster foretold by Isaiah does not apply to the effects of the Aswan High Dam; moreover, Isaiah’s reference here to Egypt is a code-word for modern America.24
Verse 6 continues: “And they shall turn the rivers far away; and the brooks of defence shall be emptied and dried up: the reeds and flags shall wither.” “Brooks of defence” probably means moats, which are wide, water-filled trenches surrounding ramparts,25 adding to the effectiveness of defensive fortifications. Drying up of “brooks of defence” suggests that military defenses would be compromised.
Verse 7 declares: “The paper reeds by the brooks, by the mouth of the brooks, and every thing sown by the brooks, shall wither, be driven away, and be no more.”
Verse 8 pronounces: “The fishers also shall mourn, and all they that cast angle into the brooks shall lament, and they that spread nets upon the waters shall languish.” Fishing was a major industry and source of food in ancient Egypt;26 “angle” means “fish hooks.”27
Verse 9 states: “Moreover they that work in fine flax, and they that weave networks, shall be confounded.” The ancient Egyptians were noted for their skill in textiles; they made fishing nets from flax.28
Verse 10 concludes: “And they shall be broken in the purposes thereof, all that make sluices and ponds for fish.”29 Many homes had shallow pools used for raising fish for a source of food,30 here rendered as “sluices and ponds.” Parry’s translation of the Great Isaiah Scroll renders verse 10 as: “And her weavers will be crushed, and all wage earners will despair.”31
In these verses Isaiah foretells total economic shutdown for modern America, describing it in terms of the prominent industries of ancient Egypt.
Verses 11 through 14 describe the causes for this societal collapse. Verse 11 begins: “Surely the princes of Zoan are fools, the counsel of the wise counsellors of Pharaoh is become brutish: how say ye unto Pharaoh, I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings?” Zoan was a major city in the northeast part of the Nile Delta.32 Reliance upon the reputation of one’s celebrated ancestors rather than on his own diligence and industry sets the stage for collapse.
Verse 12 continues: “Where are they? where are thy wise men? and let them tell thee now, and let them know what the LORD of hosts hath purposed upon Egypt.” Disappearance of wise men indicates a pervasive foolishness, or forsaking of true values and principles. “Let them tell thee…what the LORD of hosts hath purposed upon Egypt” poses an impossible challenge for those of compromised ethics. Confusion takes the place of religious belief and ignorance conceals the purposes of God. Reliance upon the divinely-inspired founding principles would be forsaken.
Verse 13 declares: “The princes of Zoan are become fools, the princes of Noph are deceived.” Noph, or Memphis, was the ancient Egyptian capital.33 “They have also seduced Egypt, even they that are the stay of the tribes thereof.”34 “Stay of the tribes” means cornerstones or heads of families; 35 they would be deceived, or told lies, by the princes or rulers.
Verse 14 declares: “The LORD hath mingled a perverse spirit in the midst thereof: they have caused Egypt to err in every work thereof, as a drunken man staggereth in his vomit.” The foolishness of modern America’s political leaders would cause a stupendous moral crisis—one that would affect every aspect of public and private life.
Verse 15 summarizes the effects of the moral and economic collapse: “Neither shall there be any work for Egypt, which the head or tail, branch or rush, may do.” The end result of the pervasive economic collapse alluded to in verses 6 through 10 is that there would be no employment. “Head or tail, branch or rush” means the different levels of society;36 this same symbolism is used in Chapter 9 by Isaiah.37
The Lord’s impending judgments upon this modern counterpart of Egypt would cause great fear, described in verse 16: “In that day shall Egypt be like unto women: and it shall be afraid and fear because of the shaking of the hand of the LORD of hosts, which he shaketh over it.” The threat of the Lord’s punishment would cause great fear.
Verses 14 through 16 contain a chiasm:
A: (14) The LORD hath mingled a perverse spirit in the midst thereof:
B: and they have caused Egypt to err in every work thereof,
C: as a drunken man staggereth in his vomit.
D: (15) Neither shall there be any work for Egypt,
E: which the head or tail,
E: branch or rush, may do.
D: (16) In that day shall Egypt be like unto women:
C: and it shall be afraid
B: and fear
A: because of the shaking of the hand of the LORD of hosts, which he shaketh over it.
The ascending side of the chiasm expresses dominant foolishness, error and drunkenness, whereas the descending side expresses fear that would result from these negative attributes. The economic collapse of this modern superpower would be brought about by pervasive foolishness, or forsaking of guiding principles.
Modern America in her weakened condition following economic collapse would greatly fear the Jews, as described in verse 17: “And the land of Judah shall be a terror unto Egypt, every one that maketh mention thereof shall be afraid in himself, because of the counsel of the LORD of hosts, which he hath determined against it.” Those who know of the judgments of God will fear because of the power that will be given to Judah.
Verses 18 through 21 affirm that there would be some in this modern counterpart of Egypt, despite its wickedness, who would believe in the Lord. Verse 18 commences: “In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt [just a few] speak the language of Canaan,” which means understand the things of the Spirit. The “language of Canaan,” of course, is Hebrew, but this is symbolic of the deeper spiritual meaning. The verse continues: “And swear to the LORD of hosts; one shall be called, The city of destruction.” “Swear to the LORD of hosts” means to make sacred covenants.
“City of destruction” is translated from the Hebrew iyr-heh’res.38 Utilizing a pun-like change in the Hebrew rendering of this word to iyr-cherec, meaning “city of the sun,”39 or Heliopolis in Greek, Isaiah foretells the city’s fate: the place where the sun was worshipped would be destroyed. Heliopolis, an ancient city of Lower Egypt, is present today only as ruins. This subtle play on words is lost in the translation.40 Some Bible translations render “city of the sun,” such as the Basic English Bible and the Latin Vulgate, whereas others render “city of destruction,” including the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible.41 Will there be a modern analogy for the ancient city, now destroyed?
Verse 19 continues the description of those who would believe, despite the pervasive iniquity: “In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the LORD.” The pillar, or obelisk in Egyptian tradition, designates a holy place.
Verse 20 describes the meaning of the altar and the pillar: “And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry unto the LORD because of the oppressors, and he shall send them a saviour, and a great one, and he shall deliver them.” Those who believe in the Lord would cry unto the Lord for deliverance; the Lord would send them a liberator, a great military leader, who would deliver them.
Verse 21 describes the depth of belief of those who would survive in modern Egypt: “And the LORD shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the LORD in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the LORD, and perform it.”42 The survivors will make covenants with the Lord, and keep those covenants. After the economic collapse of this modern superpower and its being overrun by a fierce king, a new order would arise that would be based upon knowledge of the true gospel and worship of the Lord.
Survivors of the collapse of the once-great nation represented by ancient Egypt will follow the Lord, obey His commandments, and make covenants with the Lord.
Though Egypt will be smitten of the Lord, the Lord will look favorably upon her after the destruction, as described in verse 22: “And the LORD shall smite Egypt: he shall smite and heal it: and they shall return even to the LORD, and he shall be intreated of them, and shall heal them.”43
The modern superpower represented by ancient Egypt would be healed by the Lord following its collapse.
Verse 23 describes the establishment of friendly relations between former enemies: “In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.” The highway symbolizes the pathway of righteousness as well;44 this suggests that the modern nations represented by these ancient superpowers will practice the true gospel.
In verse 24, Israel joins in: “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land—” “The third with” means that Israel will form a friendly alliance with the other two nations named.
Finally, in verse 25 the modern nations that Isaiah equates with Egypt and Assyria will be blessed, along with Israel: “Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.”
1. Isaiah 18:2.
2. See Mormon 9:32.
3. See 3 Nephi 15:12-13; also Ether 13:6-8.
4. 2 Nephi 1:6.
5. See Isaiah 18:2.
6. Leonard H. Lesko, Ancient Egypt: The World Book Encyclopedia,1986 edition, volume 6, pp. 91-100. Dr. Lesko is Brown University Wilbour Professor of Egyptology.
7. See Abraham 2:21-25.
8. See Abraham 3:1.
9. See Abraham 3:1-14.
10. Abraham 3:15.
11. Avraham Gileadi, The Book of Isaiah: A new translation with interpretive keys from the Book of Mormon: Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, Utah, 1988, p. 72-76.
12. See Isaiah 2:8-18 and pertinent commentary.
13. Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry and Tina M. Peterson, Understanding Isaiah: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1998, p. 178.
14. Parry et al., p. 179.
15. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 178, p. 15.
16. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 7186, p. 904.
18. Genesis 41:27.
19. See Genesis 41:56-57.
20. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 213-216.
21. Asit K. Biswas, Aswan Dam Revisited: The Benefits of a Much-Maligned Dam: Deutsche Stiftung Für Internationale Entwicklung, D+C Development and Cooperation, No. 6, November/December 2002, p. 25-27.
23. Sayed El-Sayed and Gert L. Van Dijken, The Southeastern Mediterranean Ecosystem Revisited: Thirty Years After the Construction of the Aswan High Dam: The Quarterdeck, Texas A&M University, Department of Oceanography, College Station, Texas 77843-3146, vol. 3, no. 1, 1995, p.1-4.
25. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: Merriam-Webster Inc., Springfield, Massachusetts, 1988: “moat,” p. 761.
27. Webster, “angle,” p. 85.
29. Verses 8 through 10 contain a chiasm: Fishers/all they that cast angle into the brooks/shall languish/they that work in fine flax/they that weave networks/shall be confounded/all that make sluices/ponds for fish.
31. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 93.
32. See Bible Map 2.
34. Verses 11 through 13 contain a chiasm: Princes of Zoan are fools/wise counsellors of Pharaoh/son of the wise/ son of ancient kings/where are thy wise men/princes of Zoan are become fools.
35. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 6438, p. 819.
36. See Isaiah 19:15, footnote 15a.
37. See Isaiah 9:14.
38. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 2041, p. 249; also Strong’s No.5892, p. 746.
39. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 2775, p. 357; also Strong’s No.5892, p. 746.
40. J. R. Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary: Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1909, p. 429.
41. A wide array of Bible translations is available from “The Unbound Bible” website at http://unbound.biola.edu.
42. Verse 21 contains a chiasm: The LORD/shall be known/Egypt/Egyptians/shall know/the LORD.
43. Verse 22 contains a chiasm: Shall smite Egypt…heal it/return/the LORD/he/intreated of them/shall heal them.
44. See Isaiah 11:16; 35:8; 40:14; 49:11 and pertinent commentary.