Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” I think for the average person this is pretty easy to understand. And for those who only read the New Testament, it is also a pretty easy statement to accept. Even for those who know some things about the Law of Moses (like the Ten Commandments) this seems like a pretty reasonable assertion on Paul’s part. However, for those who read the whole Bible, saying that all of the Bible is useful seems like a stretch. After all, about half of the Old Testament is prophecy, often deal with nations other than the chosen people of Israel (some of which doesn’t even exist anymore). Are these useful to your life? Is Hebrews 4:12 right when it says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”? Let’s find out today using a prophecy from Isaiah.
Isaiah chapter 19 is entirely about Egypt. It starts like this,
An Oracle concerning Egypt:
See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud
And is coming to Egypt.
The idols of Egypt tremble before him,
And the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them.
“I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian-
Brother will fight against brother,
Neighbor against neighbor,
City against city,
Kingdom against kingdom” (Isaiah 19:1-2).
As an American living in Korea, I feel compelled to ask while reading this, “so what?” Not to be cold, but what Isaiah said would happen to Egypt some 3000 years ago doesn’t really have much bearing on my life- does it? The answer is: yes it does. In fact, it bears on my life and yours.
When reading a prophecy (especially a negative one) we need to focus on certain questions. First, “Why is the Lord cursing these people?” Second, “What is God’s method of punishment?” And third, “What is the intended endgame?”
Let’s look at our Egypt example. God has already established that there will be civil strife in Egypt- why? God gives us one clue in Isaiah 19:3,
The Egyptians will lose heart,
And I will bring their plans to nothing;
They will consult the idols and spirits of the dead,
The mediums and the spiritists.
Notice that people are consulting idols and mediums. God says that one is stupid and the other is wicked. We read about idols in Habakkuk 2:18,
Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For he who makes it trusts in his own creation;
He makes idols that cannot speak.
So we know that God feels that any time spent with an idol is foolish. Let’s see what the Lord has to say about mediums, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will e defiled by them. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:31). This is not Egypt’s only sin though. Aside from looking to other gods and trying to consult the dead, Egypt’s advisors are only knowledgeable in the ways of man. God explains,
The officials of Zoan are nothing but fools;
The wise counselors of Pharaoh give senseless advice.
How can you say to Pharaoh,
“I am one of the wise men,
A disciple of the ancient kings”?
Where are your wise men now?
Let them show you and make known
What the Lord Almighty
Has planned against Egypt.
The officials of Zoan have become fools,
The leaders of Memphis are deceived;
The cornerstones of her peoples
Have led Egypt astray.
The Lord has poured into them
A spirit of dizziness;
They make Egypt stagger in all that she does,
As a drunkard staggers around in his vomit (Isaiah 19:11-14).
By putting the country in the hands of worldly people, they have set themselves up for disaster. This is why Paul writes,
Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in god’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile” (1 Corinthians 3:18-20).
If these men truly were wise, they would know the Lord, because as it says in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” So instead of trusting in the Lord, they were trusting in men.
Next, let’s look at how God is cursing Egypt. We already read about brother fighting brother- which seems to be connected to idol worship. What is the punishment for worldly leaders? We read about this in Isaiah19:5-10,
The waters of the river will dry up,
And the riverbed will be parched and dry.
The canals will stink;
The streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up.
The reeds and rushes will wither,
Also the plants along the Nile,
At the mouth of the river.
Every sown field among the Nile
Will become parched, will blow away and be no more.
The fishermen will groan and lament,
All who cast hooks into the Nile;
Those who throw nets on the water
Will pine away.
Those who work with combed flax will despair,
The weavers of fine linen will lose hope.
The workers in cloth will be dejected,
And all the wage earners will be sick at heart.
Since the Egyptian leaders trusted in men instead of God, the lord is punishing them through natural disasters. Basically, God is causing the lush Egypt to dry up, and since nobody is praying to God, it is stated quite clearly, “There is nothing Egypt can do- head or tail, palm branch or reed” (Isaiah 19:15).
So what is God’s goal, why is he inflicting civil war and natural disasters on Egypt? We read in Isaiah 19:19-22,
In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and witness to the Lord Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and keep them. The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.
We can see that God is trying to show his power in Egypt so that the leaders will seek him and the citizens will put away their false idols and pray to the One True God. Not only that but bringing Egypt to God plays into a larger plan,
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance (Isaiah 19:23-25).
God is hoping for peace in the Middle East and for those nations to return to him.
This brings us to the big question, “Why should I care about Egypt?” Look out your window, the world (and likely your own country) is filled with different religions, some comfortable, some not so comfortable. Even how, our world is still filled with idols. But that’s not all; there are a growing number of atheists and humanists out there who have no god at all. They refuse to acknowledge what Paul tells us about Jesus, that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Interestingly enough, what seem to be two of the most common problems in the world? Civil strife and natural disasters. Our many gods are ripping us apart (especially in the Muslim countries these days) and what’s worse, the world is getting slammed by natural disasters left and right. Forget Egypt, there is nothing we can do to stop nature. Wait, no, that’s not true- we can turn to God. Jesus says in Matthew 13:14-15,
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“You will be every hearing but never understanding;
You will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
They hardly hear with their ears,
And they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts
And turn, and I would heal them.”
Only by turning to Jesus may we be healed. And it is only through a relationship with God that we can even think of being saved from nature. James says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). How powerful can the prayer of a believer be? He continues,
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops (James 5:17-18).
So turn to our Lord Jesus Christ! Because in the end, god wants all people to come to him, and he can wait and punish as long as it takes, for Peter helps us to understand his endgame, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). So why should I care about Egypt? Because, by caring about this old prophecy it might motivate me to do my part in saving the world by bringing more people to Christ. For this is what we Christians have been called to do:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).