Being a slave in Egypt was like being a slave to sin. The Promised Land was communion with God. Turning to Egypt meant going backwards. And there were always people who wanted to go back.
As soon as the Jews left Egypt, there were people complaining to Moses about the lack of food and shelter in the desert. The prophets had to fight the same temptation. Isaiah warned his people not to turn to Egypt for protection against Assyria. Jeremiah warned them against escaping to Egypt rather than accepting exile in Babylon.
This is how Isaiah frames the choice:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.
- Isaiah 31:1Relying on Egypt made sense. Assyria was expanding rapidly and rolling up every kingdom in their path. Being conquered meant death, destruction, and exile. The Egyptians were the only people with the size to fight back. They were even offering a military alliance.
But Isaiah wanted the people of Judah to look at the world through a spiritual lens. The Assyrians were God’s chosen instrument to punish them for rebelling against Him. It was their own fault that they were coming. An Egyptian alliance was a way to avoid reckoning with what they had done. It wasn’t going to work.
There was less to Egyptian society than met the eye. It was far removed from the height of its power under the Pharaohs. The Egyptians no longer even ruled themselves. An Ethiopian king was pulling the strings.
Their way of life was built on a river and not a rock. Dry up the Nile and it would die:
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 along 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 worth 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.
- Isaiah 19:5-10All their glory, all their power, all their tradition and history -- it was all a facade. Building the pyramids required a mind-boggling amount of engineering and logistical ability. It would have seemed God-like to shepherds like the Jews. There was certainly nothing in Judah to compare to them. But they were ultimately just giant tombs in the middle of the desert.
In The New Penguin History Of The World, historian J.M. Roberts sums up Egypt’s legacy to human history:
Yet the creative quality of Egyptian society, seems, in the end, strangely to miscarry. Colossal resources of labor are massed under the direction of men who, by the standards of any age, must have been outstanding civil servants, and the end is the creation of the greatest tombstones the world has ever seen. Craftsmanship of exquisite quality is employed, and its masterpieces are grave-goods. A highly literate elite, utilizing a complex and subtle language and a material of unsurpassed convenience, uses them copiously, but has no philosophical or religious idea comparable to those of Greek and Jew to give to the world. It is difficult not to sense an ultimate sterility, a nothingness, at the heart of this glittering tour de force.None of this would come as a surprise to Isaiah. He dismisses the Egyptians as idiots (19:11) who make plans by consulting mediums and carving up animals to look at their intestines (19:3).
To be sure, they would have said the same things about him. The Assyrians had just obliterated Israel, Judah’s bigger and more powerful neighbor to the north. Israel was where 10 of the 12 tribes had settled and it contained most of the wealth and resources of the Jewish people. The only explanation that Isaiah could give was that it was all part of God's plan. All he had were promises from a God no one could see. It wasn't exactly as tangible as an army.
Those are the kinds of moments when your faith is really tested. Believing in God when everything is going well doesn’t mean much. It's much harder to rely on Him when all the evidence is pointing the other way.
The first thing to do is look back at all the times in the past where God has come through for you. The second is to carefully examine the other options. The Apostle Paul extended Isaiah’s description of Egypt to all of mankind:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
- Romans 1:21-23It doesn’t matter how big or strong an army looks. It’s still made up of of human beings who have to put their faith in something. People who don’t believe in God don’t stop believing in unseen things. Americans believe in astrology and aliens a lot more than they used to.
So how do we test any of these belief systems? Jesus said to look at the fruit they produce. Isaiah's words are still bearing fruit in people's lives thousands of years later. Let's go back to J.M. Roberts to see about Egypt:
In reflecting on the nature of Egyptian history, there is always a temptation to revert in the end to the great natural images of the Nile always physically present to Egyptian eyes. It was so prominent, perhaps, that it could not be seen for the colossal and unique influence that it was, for no context broader than its valley needed consideration. While in the background the incomprehensible (but in the end world shaping) wars of the Fertile Crescent raged across the centuries, the history of Old Egypt goes on for thousands of years, virtually a function of the remorseless, beneficent flooding and subsidence of the Nile. On its banks a grateful and passive people gathers the richness it bestows. From it could be set aside what they thought necessary for the real business of living: the proper preparation for death.As a wise man once said, it all comes down to a choice. Get busy living or get busy dying.