Thursday, April 5, 2012

Of Assyria, Egypt and an Unlearned Lesson about God’s Sovereignty

Many years ago, I started to wonder about the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the punishment, then restoration of Egypt in Isaiah 19, prophecy which appeared to be unfulfilled. Because, like most Westerners, I thought the Assyrians had been totally annihilated or assimilated after the Babylonian conquest in 612-605 B.C., I found the last three verses of that chapter particularly puzzling:

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 a 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 (NIV).

I have always preferred interpreting scripture literally, when possible, but I didn’t see how a literal fulfilment of this prophecy might be possible. It was plainly not literally fulfilled in antiquity, and one of the people groups to which it referred appeared no longer to exist today.

I started thinking about this puzzling prophecy more seriously in late 2002 and early 2003, as my country started to cultivate hysteria in support of imminent war in Iraq. I opposed the Iraq war--and still do--on the grounds that spiritual battles can’t be successfully fought with planes and tanks, so if we went into Iraq, we would lose, and kill many innocent people in the process. I stated my opposition on these grounds publicly on February 5, 2003 on the web page “Notes on the King of Babylon and the Peace of Jerusalem.”

However, on that webpage, as originally stated, I made one serious historical error in my interpretation of Isaiah 19:23-25: I identified the Assyrians in the prophecy with the modern Kurds, because the Kurds claim sovereignty over much of the old Assyrian heartland. That is, because I thought the Assyrian people no longer had a separate existence, I interpreted the prophecy as running with the land.

About eighteen months later, I discovered my error. The Assyrians do still exist, as a Christian minority in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. I posted a correction to my web page in August 2004. That is where things remained until last fall.

In August 2011, I matriculated at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the Fall term of 2011, I took two online courses: Old Testament Survey I and II. I was only able to fund that single term in seminary, and have not had any funds appear to continue in the present term. In Old Testament Survey II, I decided to use the term paper as an opportunity to satisfy my long-held curiosity about the interpretation of Isaiah 19:23-25. The result was the paper “The Highway from Egypt to Assyria: The Meaning of the Prophecy of the Restoration of Egypt, Israel and Assyria in Isaiah 19:23-25,” of which I have posted a pdf copy at the link above. Even though I got an “A” on the paper, it is really a rather crude approach to the question. I wish I had had more than six weeks to write it, and that I had found better sources. However, in writing the paper, I learned that no commentator I was able to find interprets this passage literally, and that one of the reasons for this is the exact problem I had in 2003: it is generally believed that the Assyrians no longer exist.

However, I came to the conclusion that Isaiah’s prophecy can and should be given a literal interpretation. I found some references supporting the continued existence of both the Assyrian people and the descendants of the Egyptians of Isaiah’s day (the Copts) as separate minorities in the Arab world. Indeed, both the Assyrians and the Copts maintain their cultural identity by adhering to Christian religious beliefs. This certainly renders a literal future fulfillment of the prophecy possible.

This brings us to the conclusions of my paper, which, until a few days ago, I applied to academic scholarship and to politics but not to my own relationship with God. The conclusions most relevant to my walk are:

The best interpretation of Isaiah 19:23-25 starts with a literal understanding of these verses: in the future, with God’s open blessing, Egypt and Assyria will be joined with Israel in peace. This literal understanding of the passage does not exclude the obvious effect this will have on the other nations of the world. Of course, in that day Egypt and Assyria will serve as living examples (rather than mere literary types) of God’s rule of the nations and of his acceptance of people from every nation in Christ. Thus, both of the typical interpretations of this passage contain a kernel of truth. But the best interpretation starts with the literal understanding...

However, God is not as limited as we think. He scattered Israel among the nations, and allowed them to face centuries of persecution, but has never permitted them to be exterminated. Rather, he has been preparing them to accept his Son, Jesus, as a nation, when the time is right. This much is generally accepted among Evangelical Christians.

What is less well understood is that God has also been continuing to work with other groups of people to whom he has directed specific prophecies. The apparent failure of those prophecies in the short term does not mean they will never or can never happen. The early conversion to Christianity and preservation of the Copts and the Assyrians—though as small minorities in Islamic countries—demonstrates this. In Isa. 19:23-25, God said there would be a time when Israel, Egypt and Assyria will live and worship the true God together in peace, and, true to his Word, God has preserved a remnant of all three nations through the centuries to make this possible. This demonstrates the power and faithfulness of God.

If God was able to preserve these three nationalities through persecution across two and a half millennia, to bring about His purposes and fulfill the words of His servant Isaiah, does He need my “help” to bring about His will in my life? Or does he need my “help” in making the world right?

No. He has the power to do these things without my “help.” He is also totally faithful to His people, including me. I just need to stay with Him, where He is, in what He is doing.