Isaiah 20: Naked and Barefoot

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Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

God speaks through Isaiah in “the year that the commander-in-chief, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it” (v. 1), which would be 711 B.C., during the reign of Judah’s King Hezekiah.

Key verse:

Isa. 20:5 – Those who made Cush their hope and Egypt their boast will be dismayed and ashamed.

Quick summary:

The Lord commands Isaiah to walk naked and barefoot among the Jews for three years as a warning not make the same mistake Ashdod made in trusting the Egyptians for protection against the invading Assyrians. If they do, they will be defeated and marched naked and barefoot into captivity.

Take note:

A “sign act,” such as walking naked and barefoot for three years, “can communicate a difficult message that some people might otherwise ignore,” writes Gary V. Smith, “but the sign can teach the central point of the message in an interesting, attention getting, shocking, or somewhat mysterious way” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 367).

“How Shall We Escape?” (Isa. 20:1-6)

Isaiah inserts a narrative passage here to punctuate his message about Cush (Ethiopia) in chapter 18 and Egypt in chapter 19. Some in Judah want to form alliances with Cush and Egypt to stave off the expansionist threats of the Assyrians, but Isaiah’s graphic “sign act” in chapter 20 illustrates the folly of relying on anyone but the Lord.

Here is some background: Tartan, the commander-in-chief of the Assyrian army under Sargon II, captures the Philistine city of Ashdod in 712-711 B.C. The city’s anti-Assyrian king, Yamani, who had rebelliously replaced an Assyrian puppet king, now flees to Egypt. But when the Assyrian army threatens the Egyptians, they hand Yamani over to Assyria. This all happens about the same time that King Hezekiah of Judah decides not to pay tribute money to the Assyrians, and Shabaka the Ethiopian solidifies his rule over a weakening Egypt. It is against this historic backdrop that God instructs Isaiah to walk “naked and barefoot” throughout Judah. The message is clear: If the people of Judah follow the example of Ashdod by trusting in Egypt for help, they will be defeated, shamed, and taken captive.

Although the text says Isaiah went about “naked” for three years, a better translation is “uncovered.” Isaiah merely “put off the outer sackcloth, retaining still the tunic or inner vest (1Sa 19:24; Am 2:16; Jn 21:7); an emblem to show that Egypt should be stripped of its possessions; the very dress of Isaiah was a silent exhortation to repentance” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments,  S. Is 20:2). Further, some commentators say Isaiah dresses this way only at intervals rather than full time, emphasizing three years of calamity that would fall upon Egypt and Ethiopia. In any case, this is the only strictly symbolic act of Isaiah’s ministry. With later prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, these types of acts are more common.

When Egypt and Ethiopia fall to the Assyrians, the Jews who hope for an alliance with these defeated nations will be “dismayed and ashamed” (v. 5). Rather than deliverance from a common enemy, the Jews will lament that they have no escape (v. 6). “Judah, then, should trust in the Lord for protection rather than in the foreign alliance they were contemplating” (John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1067).

Closing Thought

God’s message to the Jews in Isaiah 20, graphically illustrated by the prophet’s “sign act” of walking naked and barefoot, exhorts His people to trust fully in Him. This message is echoed some 2,700 years later, when the writer of Hebrews urges Jewish Christians not to return to Old Covenant practices but to trust fully in Christ and His finished work on the cross. Just as the Jews of Isaiah’s day would watch the Egyptians and Ethiopians be taken captive by the Assyrians and ask, “How shall we escape?” so the writer of Hebrews tells first-century Christians to remain faithful to Christ or face His divine discipline. “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:3).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips

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