We have considered over the past two Sundays Ezekiel’s prophecies of Tyre’s judgment and fall. We come now to the last and longest section in this second section of Ezekiel: prophecies of Egypt’s coming judgment. Tyre and Egypt get the lion’s share of the attention in these oracles of judgment against the nations – those against Egypt take only slightly more space than those against Tyre – because among all of Israel’s enemies, they were by far the most powerful. Further, insofar as Babylon was considered by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel as doing the Lord’s work as an instrument of his judgment, both prophets regarded Egypt’s attempt to resist Babylon’s incursions into Palestine as resistance to God’s will. When the Jews in Jerusalem turned to Egypt in hopes of deliverance from the Babylonians for help it was one further demonstration of their intransigent unwillingness to repent and honor the Lord. It is far too long a section to take at one sitting, but, as it repeats themes with which we are now familiar, I am taking the liberty of reading only a representative section of these four chapters and summarizing the rest.
- These various oracles against Egypt are dated – all but one (the exception is 30:1-19) – but are not given in order. For example, this first one was given to Ezekiel January 7, 587 B.C. The one that begins in verse 17 is dated April 26, 571 (it is in fact the last of Ezekiel’s dated prophecies). But the next date given, in 31:1 is June 21, 586 B.C. fifteen years earlier than the one before it. In any case, Ezekiel’s prophecies against Egypt are stretched over a considerable period of time. Some of them date from before the fall of Jerusalem, such as this one and the one that begins in 30:20, and some from after, even long after. In the case of the prophecy that begins in 30:20, if you remember that history, that prophecy was in answer to the news that Babylon had broken off the siege of Jerusalem upon news that the Egyptian army was marching toward them. The Jews in Jerusalem, after months of desperation, had taken this to mean that they had been spared and, when the news reached Babylon, the Jews in exile may very well have taken it as evidence that Babylon was finished and they would soon be going home. Such wishful thinking, as it turned out, was akin to the grasping at straws that substituted for realism in Hitler’s bunker at the very end of the Second World War. News of President Roosevelt’s death was greeted with joy on the assumption that the coalition of Germany’s enemies would now come apart. No matter that Germany was now largely occupied by enemy armies and Berlin herself was surrounded and being battered into rubble by an almost non-stop artillery barrage. That the Egyptians would defeat the Babylonians and send them packing was just as unlikely but desperate people will believe anything.
- There is nothing in Egypt that does not depend upon the Nile. There is little rainfall and so all agriculture and plant life depends upon the water brought north from the highlands of central Africa by the great river. Pharaoh is portrayed as a great fish caught in the Nile and thrown onto the land to serve as food for animals. As with the king of Tyre, Pharaoh had delusions of grandeur and would suffer for them together with his kingdom.
- Through the centuries Israel had more than once sought help from Egypt against her enemies, always in defiance of the commandments and warnings of Yahweh. Egyptian help had never done any good against the Assyrians and it wouldn’t against the Babylonians either.
- Migdol is a delta city and Aswan, site of the famous modern dam, a southern city, not far from the border of Ethiopia; so from north to south, from Dan to Beersheba.
- It won’t cease to exist, but it will now be a small, insignificant kingdom.
- Babylon is doing the Lord’s work – hardly by her own intention – and so is rewarded for her pains. There isn’t much historical record of this part of Egyptian history but it appears that Pharaoh Amasis had to pay enormous sums to buy off the Babylonians, thus “paying the bill” incurred in the destruction of Tyre. [Stuart, 284]
Chapter 30 is a lament for Egypt, as before Ezekiel composed a lament for Tyre.
A key point in this chapter is that it will not be Egypt only but her allies as well that suffer at the hands of Babylon and that a once great region would suffer devastation. Like the United States, Egypt had never suffered a catastrophic invasion, though the Assyrians, at the height of their power had come and rendered Egypt a client state for a time; nothing in Africa could threaten her militarily, but the “day of the Lord” (vv. 2-3) made all her natural advantages and her historical reputation for impregnability count for nothing. Babylon invaded in 568 B.C. and, after Babylon’s fall, Egypt remained a Persian colony from 525 to 404. She fell to Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.
Chapter 31 likens Egypt to a great tree in Lebanon, but a tree about to be cut down by the Babylonians. It ends with the destruction being carried further still, with language used in the cycle of prophecies against Tyre of going down to the pit, which we said rightly is taken to suggest punishment in the world to come.
Chapter 32 continues with the account of Egypt’s fall, described in the most sweeping terms. Various nations, Egypt among them, are represented as buried in hell together in various stages of ignominy and shame. There they suffer the penalty for their crimes in this world and are conscious; they express grief over their loss, they bear their shame and dishonor. They are, in fact, “living corpses.” [Block, ii, 233]
Egypt was one of the most important nations of the ancient world and was so far longer than any other nation. Located in the northeastern corner of Africa, it was, essentially, an oasis sustained by the Nile, surrounded by deserts on the east and west and, on the south, by a series of waterfalls. It profited from the protection offered by its location. However the richness of the Nile and the lush delta it had created made Egypt interesting to other nations and from the beginning of its national history Egypt had to defend itself from aggressive outsiders and, in doing so, became a great military power. From 3000 B.C. Egypt was a nation for the rest of the world to reckon with. In the middle of the third millennium B.C., from 2700 to 2200 B.C. the great pyramids were built, testimony to the power, wealth, and sophistication of Egyptian culture, still centuries before the life of Abraham. The Great Pyramid at Giza stands 481 feet high and its base covers more than 13 acres! Perhaps more remarkable still, many of the enormous blocks of stone used in the construction of these gigantic monuments were cut and transported from as far away as Aswan, more than 500 miles south of Cairo. Considering the entire recorded history of the world, Egypt is undoubtedly one of the greatest nation states that has ever existed.
Like any great nation, Egypt had its ups and downs: periods of growth and success and, contrarily, decline and stalemate. At times she was preoccupied with her internal affairs and at others actively involved in the world around her.
Bible readers are well acquainted with the important role that Egypt plays in biblical history, from Abraham’s visit to the settlement of Jacob and his family in Egypt to the Exodus some 400 years later. Indeed, the first extra-biblical attestation of the existence of the nation of Israel is found on a stela erected by Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1203 B.C.) commemorating his campaign in Palestine in which he said he laid Israel waste and destroyed her grain. During the history of Israel’s kings, Egypt continued to exert an influence, sometimes more, sometimes less. In a period of Egyptian weakness, David and Solomon consolidated Israel’s strength. Solomon married an Egyptian princess, to formalize a treaty between the two nations, a political alliance that proved short-lived. Egypt invaded Israel during the reign of Jeroboam I taking home the vast reserves of gold that Solomon had accumulated (1 Kgs. 14:25-26). But she proved no match for the Assyrians in a time of her own political instability and Israelites that relied on help from that quarter were bitterly disappointed. The Assyrians reduced Egypt to a client state for a time until they themselves fell to the advancing Babylonians. Pharaoh Necho killed the godly King Josiah when Josiah marched out to do battle with the Egyptian army on its way northward to help the Assyrians attempt to check the advance of the Babylonians. More than once Israel or Judah looked south to Egypt for help with powerful enemies; more than once God’s prophets condemned them for doing so. The weak-willed Zedekiah, ruling while Ezekiel was prophesying Jerusalem’s fall, vacillated between the Babylonians and the Egyptians, finally made arrangements with the Egyptians that led eventually to Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the thoroughly annoyed Babylonians. The Babylonians then made their way southward and took control of Egypt herself.
One reason why Egypt presented such a serious religious temptation to Israel is that the Egyptians were so religious themselves. Herodotus, the Greek Historian, said of them: “They are beyond measure religious, more than any other nation…. Their religious observances are, one might say, innumerable.” Indeed, much of what we know about Egyptian culture in the age before Christ is because of what was preserved for religious reasons, in temples, tombs, and monuments.
In any case, and here is the point, it would have been very difficult for anyone in those years to imagine that Egypt would cease to be the world superpower she had been for most of 3000 years. She was a fixture in the political life of the world if any nation was. She was wealthy in comparison to virtually any other nation but Babylon, she had the Nile to provide her with food, and she had the prestige of her history. Who could imagine that Egypt, of all the nations of the world, would fall from such great heights? But, in fact, unlikely as it must have seemed to his hearers at the time, Ezekiel’s prophecy portended the end of Egypt as a great power. After the Babylonians got through with Egypt she was never again a significant power in the ancient world and, what is perhaps more amazing still, the Nile being what it is, Egypt’s favorable location being what it is, her prestigious history being what it was, Egypt hasn’t been a significant power since. She has been, in effect, since her fall to Babylon, almost always a colony of greater powers throughout the rest of her history and into the modern world – after the Ottoman empire came the French and then the English. A small French force under Napoleon had no difficulty invading and conquering Egypt in 1798, then an outpost of the Ottoman empire, and the French remained until driven off, not by the Egyptians themselves but by a British fleet under the command of Admiral Nelson. Even small European expeditionary forces were capable of bringing Egypt to heel. And today Egypt remains a minor state, economically poor, a cauldron of political tension resulting from the resurgence of Islamic radicalism, which is, in fact, an import; no more Egyptian than McDonalds. And there is plenty of American fast food in Egypt. The Sphinx now stares at a Pizza Hut across the street!
It is in fact highly interesting that the influences of ancient Egyptian culture and religion were finally overcome not by an invading army but by Christianity. By the early fourth century, Christianity was the dominant force in Egypt. Egyptian centers of worship had become churches, the names of Egyptian Pharaohs were plastered over on public buildings and Christian symbols were painted in their place. As one scholar puts it:
“In a sense, the birth of Christianity heralded the death of Egypt as it had been known. Today in Egypt, six to eight million Christians think of themselves as Egyptians, not Arabs. [Only] In the liturgy of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, Coptic – the last vestige of the ancient Egyptian language – can still be heard.” [J.K. Hoffmeier, “Egyptians,” Peoples of the Old Testament World, 283]
Now, it is, to be sure, an important point to be made that Egypt still does exist as a national entity. Most of the political boundaries of today’s Middle East are contrived, the result of European diplomatic settlements rather than the recognition of ancient or natural frontiers. But Egypt today is largely the Egypt of long ago, so far as her national boundaries are concerned. But she is the palest shadow of what she once was. And the first to predict that this would be the case was Ezekiel, the prophet of the Lord; and no more unlikely result could have been imagined at the time.
To be sure, great nations have come and gone before and very often their falls were not anticipated. The American academy, the professors who are supposed to know about such things, were caught entirely flatfooted by the fall of the Soviet Union, a result virtually no one anticipated, including those paid to know about such things. But Russia is still with us, a major world power, and, for all we know, perhaps again a superpower in the making.
But for us a much more interesting comparison is with the United States. Americans, including American Christians, tend to assume that the United States will be tomorrow as she is today. Her institutions, her military might, her economic power, and her geographical location ensure that she will remain the force in the world that she has been, bequeathing to her people material plenty and political security. That is what everyone thought about Egypt until the very day the Babylonians destroyed her vaunted self-confidence; and even then most people would have thought she would bounce back and become again the Egypt everyone knew. Who realized at the time that it was not to be?
The problem is that great nations and the people of those nations, and, very often, the people in thrall to them, see only the nation and its power. They do not see the Lord who raises nations up and who brings them down and compared to whom even the greatest earthly empire is but a drop in the bucket. The nations perceive of themselves as independent, as in control of their destinies, but they are not. They are subject to Yahweh’s absolute control. The fact that Ezekiel forecast specific details of Egypt’s fall, the exile of her people, and so on, is indication that the Lord rules over even the details of a nation’s history.
The Egyptians worshipped their gods and counted on them to save them. They worshipped their gods very impressively to be sure. The temple to Aton at Karnak dwarfs the European cathedrals that take our breath away. But no one worships Aton any more – not even the Egyptians – or any of the other gods of Egypt. They were not gods; they were the imagination of men. And Yahweh made people forget them. The Pharaohs, in their pride, thought they themselves were divine. Yahweh proved in a few moments that they weren’t and now, dug up by the archaeologists, the ancient Pharaohs tour the world’s museums, not to be worshipped but to be gawked at as curiosities of ancient life.
And it will be just as true of modern nations such as our own that flaunt God’s law and live in pride. There is nothing more historically certain than that the United States of America will not survive as a great people and a great power. Like other nations that worshipped themselves she will learn as all must that the Lord is God and her people, save those who trusted in the Lord, will lie as living corpses in the realm of the dead. We may think this an obvious point, but the fact is, you and I need to hear it over and over again because we too are tempted to imagine that the forces that control this world are those that we can see. It is not so. This should be both a warning to us and a magnificent encouragement. Our heavenly Father, our Redeemer stand astride this world and rule it absolutely. No nation can vaunt itself against the Lord unless he allow it to do so and no nation that does so will fail to be judged and broken because it did. Take to heart Shelley’s magnificent verse about Rameses II, one of the greatest of Egypt’s Pharaohs, known to the Greeks as Ozymandias.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The fall of proud nations wouldn’t matter so much, except that Yahweh’s judgment is not imposed only on human beings in this life, but as well upon them in the next. To trust what cannot save; to boast of a power one does not really have; this is the tragic story of human life, of men and of nations. It has been, alas, far too often the church’s sin as it was Israel’s before. The man or the woman or the nation who still commits these sins, in defiance of the lessons of human history, is a fool who will pay dearly for his foolishness. Let us be sure that we are not among them. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. It is ours to be Christians first and last, Americans only in a minor way; it is ours to be subject to the King of Kings, to be obedient citizens only secondly. It is ours to eschew any confidence in our wicked nation and to put our hope in God alone.