Isaiah 19:23 spotlights a gripping prophetic vision about a future Middle Eastern highway of blessing. Though recent events might seem to be moving the region away from a fulfillment of this dream, Isaiah 19 announces that peace, worship and good fellowship will eventually break out along a superhighway linking Egypt, Israel and northern Iraq. This is heady stuff, and in some circles trumpeting calls are sounding that these Messianic days are at the doorstep.
So what does this passage speak of? What are the countries involved here? What are the penultimate events surrounding the fulfillment of this vision? Do other Scriptures grant us greater context and insight about this prophesied highway?
For thousands of years the Fertile Crescent was wracked by shuddering wars between superpowers. In the western corner of the ring stood Egypt, land of the Pharaohs. In the east towered Assyria (and then eventually Babylon, Persia and Media). An ancient highway connected these empires, called the Via Maris (or derech hayam – the way of the sea). As dictators conquered and reconquered the Middle East, the victor’s trophy ping-ponged between West and East while invaders streamed across this superhighway in pursuit of gold, grain and glory.
It was divine strategy that moved the God of Abraham to beam His Jewish people down, smack dab into the middle of this battlefield. YHVH chose to settle His chosen people right on the midpoint of this highway – into the Promised Land of Israel. Whatever lessons God taught His own people would be carried along this highway and would penetrate the consciousness of the Middle East’s major powers. What was whispered in Bethlehem would be broadcast into Babylon!
Highway to slavery
When Abraham was faced with a drought in the Promised Land, he departed from the parched fields of Beersheva and headed down the highway toward the granaries of Goshen. There he met Egypt’s pharaoh, who temporarily kidnapped Abraham’s beautiful wife Sarah. By the time Abraham exited from Egypt and returned along the highway to the mountains of Israel, he was considered a wealthy man, with a rich retinue of camels, livestock – and a female slave for Sarah named Hagar (Genesis 12:10-13:2; 16:1-4).
Another drought forced the Jewish patriarchs to flee as refugees into Egypt. But God had already prepositioned Joseph as Egypt’s Grand Vizier – sending him on ahead down the highway – in order to save many lives (Genesis 41:38-45; 50:19-20). The highway was now leading the Jewish people out of the Promised Land and into a long sojourn as slaves in Egypt.
After four hundred years of anguish, the Hebrew slaves were led like a flock out of Egypt by the hand of Moses and Aaron along the highway (Psalm 77:19-20). Isaiah saw this highway as prophetically pointing forward down the corridors of time – to the last great ingathering of the Jewish people – when God will complete the Ingathering of the Exiles to the Jewish homeland. “And there will be a highway … for the remnant of His people who will be left, just as there was for Israel in the day that they came up out of the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 11:16).
Keys to the highway
Around 720 BC Assyria invaded the Jewish homeland and carried ten of the twelve tribes away into the exile of northern Iraq (modern Kirkuk, Mosul and Kurdistan). The prophesied highway had now become a superhighway of banishment, and Jewish refugees streamed east to Assyria instead of west to Egypt.
It is helpful to remember that in those days neither Assyria or Egypt were Arab countries. Egypt was populated by non-Semitic peoples. The Bible calls it ‘the Land of Ham’ (Psalm 105:23; 78:51; Genesis 10:6). Assyria was founded by Ham’s grandson Nimrod (Genesis 10:11-12). The capital city of Assyria did have a connection to Shem, but it was through Shem’s other son Ashur and not through Abraham’s forefather Arpachshad (1 Chronicles 1:17).
- In Isaiah’s days the populations which lived both in Assyria and Egypt had no bloodline connection with Abraham or with Arab nations. When Isaiah penned his prophecy in chapter 19 concerning Assyria and Egypt, he was referring to pagan empires physically not related to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and spiritually unconnected to the covenants YHVH the God of Israel had made with the Jewish patriarchs (see John 4:22)
Jewish restoration on the superhighway
The Hebrew prophets spoke of a Last Days restoration of the Jewish people back to their homeland. This flowing of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel would head toward home along the highway, from both West and East. The whole nation is called upon to remember the highway upon which they set out into Exile, because it will one day become a Highway of Restoration! “Set up for yourself road marks, place for yourself guideposts. Direct your mind to the highway, the way by which you went. Return, O virgin of Israel, Return to these your cities” (Jeremiah 31:21).
“Then it will happen on that day that YHVH will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people, who will remain – from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath and from the islands of the sea. And He will lift up a standard for the nations and assemble the banished ones of Israel, and will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth…And YHVH will utterly destroy the tongue of the Sea of Egypt. And He will wave His hand over the (Euphrates) River with His scorching wind, and He will strike it into seven streams and make men walk over dry-shod. And there will be a highway from Assyria for the remnant of His people who will be left, just as there was for Israel in the day that they came up out of the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 11:11-16).
This return to Israel from Egypt and Assyria on the highway is emphasized again in another place in Isaiah:
“In that day YHVH will start His threshing from the flowing stream of the Euphrates to the brook of Egypt, and you will be gathered up one by one, O sons of Israel. It will come about also in that day that a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were perishing in the land of Assyria and who were scattered in the land of Egypt will come and worship YHVH in the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:12-13).
The above scriptures sculpt our understanding of the prophetic meaning of the highway and its specific Jewish connection:
- This Last Days superhighway between Egypt and Assyria is the road which will fully restore the Jewish people to their Promised Land. This highway will be the road which will bring an end to the Exile for Jews who have been languishing in the lands of Israel’s enemies (Ezekiel 39:27-29)
- This astonishing regathering of the Jewish people is occurring in our day. This gracious regathering is ongoing, and Jewish people are flowing back to the Promised Land of Israel from all the scattered nations – including from Egypt and Assyria (northern Iraq)
- Nevertheless, the crest and fullness of these prophecies will yet be future. In our day both Assyria and Egypt are overflowing with hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. In that sense Isaiah 19 has much prophetic substance which has not yet flowered
Egypt’s missing link
Isaiah 19 describes astounding future events which will take place between Egypt and the Jewish state. Though verses 1-15 may speak of a future day, it is clear that verses 16-25 are prophetically spoken about days to come. The prophecy stresses six times that these events will come to pass “in that day” (verses 16, 18, 19, 21, 23-24).
- Each one of these six prophecies needs to be blended into a final composite of the prophetic picture, and each of them must be seriously weighed in order that our prophetic perspective be biblically balanced
Prophecy #1 – The nation of Egypt will tremble in terror because of how God will strategically use the Jewish state to judge the Egyptians (vv. 16-17)
Prophecy #2 – Five Egyptians cities will speak fluent Hebrew, and will unashamedly declare their fealty to the God of the armies of Israel (see 1 Samuel 17:26, 45). It seems that one city of Egypt will have been totally destroyed in war and then will later be rebuilt (verse 18)
Prophecy #3 – Two outstanding monuments will be dedicated to YHVH, the God of the armies of Israel. One will be in the center of the country, one at the border between Egypt and Israel. These will be signs of Egypt’s respect for and faith in the God of Israel, and of His deliverance and rescue of the Egyptians (verses 19-20)
Prophecy #4 – The God of Israel will reveal Himself to the Egyptians, and they will know the Lord, worshiping Him and taking vows in YHVH’s name. Though the God of Israel will need to strike Egypt, the purpose behind that bruising is so that Egypt would turn to Him. Upon that turning, YHVH will heal Egypt (verses 21-22)
Prophecy #5 – After Egypt’s repentance and turning to the God of Israel, the prophesied highway will come into its own. Both Egypt and Assyria (northern Iraq) will worship YHVH the God of Israel at an acceptable time and in an acceptable way (see also Psalm 69:13). Peace will come to this region after Assyria and Egypt turn to the Lord, accept His sovereign rule and align themselves wholeheartedly with YHVH’s sovereign choice of Israel (verse 23)
Prophecy #6 – Now comes a prophecy of a divinely blessed cooperation between three countries – Israel, Egypt and Assyria (northern Iraq). Whereas Egypt and Assyria were once mortal enemies – always at each other’s throats – now they will find peace with each other by first finding peace with God. And this highway which will join former superpower enemies to each other runs through the land and the people of Israel. Israel is described here as a blessing in the midst of these two earthly superpowers, the ‘golden clasp’ that brings harmony to the Middle East and to the world (verses 24-25; see also Romans 11:12,15)
These six prophecies conclude with a divine blessing spoken over the three nations. Egypt is called “My people” – brought into a national relationship with the God of Israel through the New Covenant. Assyria (northern Iraq) is described as “the work of My hands” – fashioned by God for His purposes, which ultimately include salvation and worship. Israel is uniquely called “My inheritance” – Abraham’s first-born son by covenant, the nation to whom belong the irrevocable gifts and calling (see Romans 11:28-29). While God rejoices when His Middle-Eastern children live together in peace, He always remembers His promise never to desert Israel or abandon the Jewish people, His prioritized inheritance (Psalm 94:14).
“And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before You!’ But God said, ‘No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year’ ” (Genesis 17:18-21).
Giving honor and taking honor
In the Middle East the issue of honor and shame is still a powerful and decisive dynamic. David Pryce-Jones’ penetrating book ‘The Closed Circle’ (1989, Harper & Row) sheds helpful light on this and other subjects. Many Westerners do not fully grasp how central honor and dishonor are to positive political and business developments. The slightest perceived dishonor can become the kiss of death within Arab culture.
Perhaps Yeshua was speaking to this heart attitude in the following parable:
And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place” (Luke 14:7-9).
A similar dynamic is addressed when the mother of James and John (Ya’akov and Yohanan) comes to Yeshua asking for her two sons to be seated next to the Messiah as a threesome at the Messianic Banquet.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Zabdai) came to Yeshua with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish” She said to Him, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” But Yeshua answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. But Yeshua called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:20-28).
Some Arab brothers and sisters in the faith find the issue of Israel’s irrevocable calling and gifts to be unsettling. This biblical teaching runs against the grain in an Islamic milieu which champions Palestinian statehood and sees the Jewish nation as cursed and second-class (or dhimmi).
In an effort to make the gospel more ‘user-friendly’ for the Arab/Islamic world, some may have perhaps inadvertently downplayed God’s calling on the Jewish people, suggesting that Isaiah 19 has set aside (or at least weakened the force of) God’s firstborn status granted by covenant to Israel. Since Assyria and Egypt are now two-thirds of the equation (it is suggested), could it be that YHVH has granted an ‘affirmative action’ status to the Arab world. Based on this reading of Isaiah 19, Arabs no longer have to wrestle with the biblical teaching on Israel’s priority. There is an intimation that Egypt/Assyria (which is then interpreted as the Arab world which is then interpreted as Ishmael) has received the same first-born status and blessings promised to Isaac and Jacob by the God of Israel.
This above methodology takes one scriptural passage (Isaiah 19:23-25), incorrectly interprets it from both a historical and exegetical perspective, and then de-emphasizes an immense body of covenental teaching found in nearly every book of the Bible. In some cases, some use Isaiah 19 to replace Israel’s axial importance in God’s heart and her priority in Last Days events – and then replace that biblical focus with a new and present tripartite focus on Ishmael, the Islamic world and then Israel. Neither Islam nor Ishmael is (of course) mentioned in Isaiah 19.
The concerns expressed here are real. It has come to our attention that various leaders have expressed the conviction that, in light of Isaiah 19, and in light of the fact that there are so many more Arabs than there are Jews, the divine priority emphasis needs to be placed on the Arab world.
- God’s heart is so big that it encompasses Jews and Arabs. Simultaneously He has enscripturated a Jewish priority and a firstborn centrality for Israel. This biblical balance needs to be preserved with a full heart
Getting the highway back on course
Isaiah’s vision in chapter 19 reveals how, through severe discipline and painful paths, Egypt will turn her heart in repentance to the God of Israel and as a bonus will have a transformed heart for the Jewish people. Superpower enemies who have been at each other’s throats for thousands of years will suddenly be transfixed by a divine glance, and will be healed of their hatred and wrath for each other, their enmity toward the God of Abraham and their animosity toward His people Israel.
The physical highway that runs through the land of Israel is also a natural reflection of a spiritual truth – that the spiritual highway which leads to the healing both of the Middle East and of all nations – is a highway that runs right through the heartland of the Jewish people (their physical homeland and their spiritual calling).
Isaiah’s vision is not meant to be used as a destructive bulldozer, leveling the priority calling of the Jewish people. Isaiah 19 properly interpreted will not weaken the gifts and calling given to the Jewish people (see Romans 11:28-29). Isaiah 19 sees a prophesied peace in the Middle East coming to pass after the Arab nations turn to God. Isaiah 19 foresees a future where the Arab nations will live peacefully in their own lands – as Abraham had originally wanted (see Genesis 25:5-6) – and not when those nations attempt to establish violent rule over the Land promised to Jacob (see Ezekiel 35:10-15; 36:1-5), as the Palestinian nationalist movement is attempting to do. Isaiah 19 also sees the Jewish people living at peace and unassaulted in their own homeland.
God’s prioritizing of the Jewish people in Isaiah 19 and throughout the Scriptures does not mean that Isaac is superior to Ishmael or to any other nation (including Assyria and Egypt). But it does mean that YHVH loves Israel and has ordained that the Jewish people’s gifts and calling continue into the future (see Revelation 21:12, 14; Isaiah 66:22-23). This issue is an essential part of God’s planet-wide Last Days strategy.
- The calling of Israel is a stumbling block for many peoples. It is a hard teaching for some Jewish people, as well as for many in the predominantly Gentile Body of Messiah. It is also challenging for some of our dear Arab brothers and sisters in Messiah Yeshua.
- This does not mean that we are permitted to shave down the corners of this teaching or to whittle away at YHVH’s sovereign and eternal choosing of the Jewish people. There are no shortcuts in the Son of David’s kingdom, no watering down of the King of Israel’s royal decrees.
- We live in days of great spiritual drought. Amos prophesied that such days would come: “Behold, days are coming, declares YHVH God, when I will send a famine on the land – not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of YHVH” (Amos 8:11). There is a huge lack of knowledge of the Scriptures and especially of the prophetic Scriptures. Knowledge of God’s word needs to be embraced and encouraged.
- Scriptures are not like ‘a nose of wax,’ to be fashioned into whatever shape is most pleasing or helpful at the moment. We must walk in obedience to the Lord and to His word, and let the Scriptures speak clearly and boldly for themselves. In order to be prepared for the prophetic challenges to come, it is absolutely essential that we know and obey what the Scriptures teach.
How should we then pray?
- Pray for those who love the Bible, the Jewish people and the Arabs – that they find a biblical balance in expressing this love while maintaining God’s strategic calling for Israel
- Pray for those specifically burdened for the Islamic and Arab world to receive greater clarity of revelation regarding unity and diversity on these issues – especially as it concerns prophesied relationships between the Jewish people and all the other nations of the Middle East
- Pray for the salvation of Israel and the salvation of the Arab world
- Pray for God to raise up Ezekiel’s army (Ezekiel 37:9-11), one of His major Last Days strategies for revival in the Middle East and the world over
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablment of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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