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In the time of judgment upon Egypt, when the nation is invaded and when the drought dries up the Nile, the wise men were to have no solution. Isaiah 19:11, 12 says,
11 The princes of Zoan are mere fools; the advice of Pharaoh’s wisest advisers has become stupid. How can you men say to Pharaoh, “I am a son of the wise, a son of ancient kings”? 12 Well then, where are your wise men? Please let them tell you and let them understand what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt.
The City of Zoan
Zoan (or Tanis) was a northeastern capital near the border of Sinai where Pharaoh held court. Hence, it was the place where the wisest men lived. It was where Moses appeared before Pharaoh, demanding that he let the Israelites go free. It was the place where Moses and the wise men of Egypt had their contest of miracles in Exodus 7:9-12. So we read in Psalm 78:12,
12 He wrought wonders before their fathers in the land of Egypt, in the field [sadeh, “field, country, land”] of Zoan.
Again, we read in Psalm 78:43,
43 When He performed His signs in Egypt and His marvels in the field of Zoan.
Paul speaks of worldly wisdom in contrast to the wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 1:18-20,
18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
So Isaiah calls forth the wise men of Egypt and exposes their inability to find the solution to their troubles. The solution, of course, was the cross, which is according to the wisdom of God, for if the Egyptians had but repented and turned to God, their judgment would have soon ended. A sacrifice to the true God of heaven would have been seen as acknowledging the true Sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is always the solution to divine judgment.
But the wise men of Egypt were foolish and their wisdom was foolishness to God.
The City of Memphis
Isaiah 19:13, 14, 15 continues, saying,
13 The princes of Zoan have acted foolishly, the princes of Memphis [Noph] are deluded; those who are the cornerstone of her tribes have led Egypt astray. 14 The Lord has mixed within her a spirit of distortion; they have led Egypt astray in all that it does, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit. 15 There will be no work for Egypt, which its head or tail, its palm branch or bulrush, may do.
Memphis was the capital of Lower Egypt and was located strategically near the apex of the delta region, about 12 miles south of the Great Pyramid. The name means “haven of the good.” Its main port, Peru-nefer, was a dense conglomeration of workshops and factories. It was the main food-distribution center for the nation and was said to be under the protection of the god Ptah, the patron of craftsmen, whose temple was located in Memphis.
Early in its history, the city was called Men-nefer, “perpetual beauty,” and this became Memphi in the Coptic language. The Greeks called it “Memphis.”
Memphis was also called Noph, “presentability,” and this is the actual name that Isaiah uses. The word Noph is a variation of Moph, an Egyptian word that is used in Hosea 9:6. As we can see, the city was known by a variety of names.
Isaiah focuses upon the inability of the wise men of Egypt to turn aside the judgment of God. They led Egypt astray by appealing to their false gods, and the result was that there was widespread unemployment in every class of people, “head or tail,” “palm branch or bulrush,” that is, both upper and lower classes.
Living in Fear of Assyria
Isaiah 19:16, 17 says,
16 In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread because of the waving of the hand of the Lord of hosts, which He is going to wave over them. 17 The land of Judah will become a terror to Egypt; everyone to whom it is mentioned will be in dread of it, because of the purpose of the Lord of hosts which He is purposing against them.
Egypt was not to be afraid of Judah per se, but of the Assyrian army that was to advance through Judah. Under Sennacherib, the Assyrian conquest of Egypt was delayed for a few decades after losing their army in the siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35, 36, 37). In 681 B.C. Sennacherib was murdered in a temple by his own sons as he prayed to his god Nisroch.
The Conquest of Egypt
Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon launched a full-scale invasion of Egypt in 671 B.C., sacking Memphis and taking captive many of the royal family members, including Pharaoh’s wife and son. These were sent back to Assyria as hostages, and many other skilled workers of Egypt were deported to Assyria to build its economy. Esarhaddon himself recorded his deeds on a stone monument that read,
I slew multitudes of his men and I smote him five times with the point of my javelin, with wounds from which there were no recovery. Memphis, his royal city, in half a day, with mines, tunnels, assaults, I besieged, I captured, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. His queen, his harem, Ushanahuru, his heir, and the rest of his sons and daughters, his property and his goods, his horses, his cattle, his sheep, in countless numbers, I carried off to Assyria. The root of Kush I tore up out of Egypt and not one therein escaped to submit to me. Over all of Egypt I appointed anew kings, viceroys, governors, commandants, overseers and scribes. Offerings and fixed dues I established for Assur and the great gods for all time; my royal tribute and tax, yearly without ceasing, I imposed upon them.
Isaiah prophesied of this in Isaiah 20:4, 5, as we will see later. The Pharaoh himself escaped to Ethiopia, but the 25th Dynasty of Egypt (that is, the Ethiopian Dynasty) ended at that time.
The Assyrians set up a vassal king, Necho I. A century later, the fifth Pharaoh of this new dynasty, Necho II, lived in the time of King Josiah of Judah. This Necho took King Jehoahaz captive to Egypt (2 Chronicles 36:4).
The actual Assyrian domination of Egypt was short-lived, due to civil wars in Assyria. The vassal king in Egypt was able to become fully independent by 652 B.C. as Assyria declined in power and as Babylon began its rise.
The worst of Egypt’s judgment ended, and Isaiah then skipped over thousands of years to speak of the future when Egypt was to repent and turn to the true God.