By Emad Botros
Throughout history, the Church has turned to the Bible to interpret the political situation of its time and to find hope in the midst of disaster. The church in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is not different in this regard. Christians in Egypt, for example, recently attempted to interpret the political situation of the country, as well as the MENA region, in light of oracles about Egypt found in Isaiah 19. Speaking of judgment, for example, when the Muslim Brotherhood arrived to power some Christians began to see the event as a “fulfillment” of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning a “cruel master” who will rule over Egypt (Isaiah 19:4). When some “Egyptian missionaries” visited Iraq to worship with their brothers and sisters there, this was seen as a partial fulfilment of the “highway prophecy” (19:23).
In this post, it is not my purpose to examine these interpretations of Isaiah 19. My goal is rather to examine its prophetic message to us today, and to briefly reflect on this text by addressing two main questions: In a region where war and unrest stain its map red, what is the role of the church? What should motivate the church to stay on track?
Trust in the Lord
During the time of Isaiah, God’s people experienced a time of turmoil somewhat similar to that of ours today. Briefly, the Assyrian empire was in its final period of greatness and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was seriously threatened by this powerful empire. Rather than looking to and seeking help from the Holy One, Judah went down to Egypt and sought to rely on their horses and the multitude of their chariots (31:1–3). It appears that Judah went to Egypt for what they perceived to be its religious superiority, social and economic stability, and wisdom. The message of Isaiah 19:1–15 rebukes God’s people for putting their trust in Egypt, revealing why Judah should not trust them. Most simply, they are the subject of God’s judgment and what currently leads Judah to Egypt will be soon demolished. How so?
- Religiously speaking, the Egyptian gods will not stand before the presence of God; “the idols of Egypt shall tremble at his presence” (19:1). So, what is the point of relying on them?
- Socially and politically speaking, God will stir Egyptian against Egyptian and they will come under the power of a cruel master and a mighty king. For help in such circumstances, the Egyptians will seek idols, the spirits of the dead, the mediums, and the spiritists, but God will confuse its counsel (19:2–4). As we can see, social and political stability in Egypt would be soon shaken.
- Economically speaking, “the source of Life,” that is the Nile, will dry up. As a result, every creature (the plants, the fisherman, those who work with combed flax, all the workers for wages) will be affected by this disaster (19:5–10).
- Finally, if the wisdom of Egypt is “the pillar upon which everything else is founded,” and that the counselors can give Pharaoh a wise counsel, the prophet suggests the opposite: they are foolish and they will lead Egypt astray. Furthermore, these wise men would not understand God’s plan regarding Egypt (19:11–15).
Some MENA Christians, as they struggle to live under Islamic laws and cope with disorienting times, often attempt to turn to the West for help and protection. However, it must always be remembered God’s rebuke of His people in the past and learn from it today. God’s people must not put their trust in world powers to defend and protect them. It seems that God’s people in the MENA must be carefully warned of the same mistake that our ancestors made in the past. Rather, their trust must be always in the One who will never be shaken.
For Christians in the world today, this warning encourages us to examine how we respond to such appeals. While Christians in the West, for example, sincerely strive to obey God’s command to show His love to their brothers and sisters in the MENA region during times of disaster by generously welcoming and sponsoring them, they also should ask: How can we encourage MENA Christians to keep their eyes on the Lord during this time rather than putting their trust in the West?
God’s Dream: Know God and Build a Highway
Rather than turning to Egypt, God invites his people to understand His future plan and live accordingly. In other words, destruction will never be the end. God is One who both strikes and heals (19:22). This healing that will take place “on that day” appears in different forms:
- Egypt will turn to the Lord (v.18)
- There will be an altar and a memorial pillar in Egypt dedicated to God (v. 19)
- Egypt will experience an “exodus,” as God’s people did when they were in Egypt (v. 20)
- The result of this Egyptians’ exodus is that “the Egyptians will know the Lord” (v. 21). This experiential knowledge transforms the hearts of the Egyptians.
The question then comes to Judah: Why do you turn to Egypt, while God’s plan is that Egypt turns to the God of Judah?
However, the end has not come yet. God has a construction project yet to be finished: the building of a highway between these ancient hostile enemies. A highway is a favorite metaphor in this book for the removal of alienation and separation, and to bring unity and peace. This highway will lead all these nations to worship the Holy One together. The message, as Oswalt observes, is clear: “Do not make a highway to Egypt in order to escape Assyria. Your only hope–and Egypt’s– is in your God, who can break down the barriers.”  This should be our hope and prayer during disorienting times: God builds a highway between hostile enemies in order to bring peace and reconciliation.
Looking at the situations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt and the conflict between Palestine and the current state of Israel…etc., I sometime wonder whether there will be a day when a “highway” is built between these hostile countries! Indeed, this is an eschatological plan. But since it is God’s plan to build a “highway,” the church, for the time being, should carry on in its mission with this eschatological dream in heart and mind. This eschatological dream should motivate the church to work with God toward bringing peace and reconciliation to the MENA region. The only question then becomes how?
Being a Blessing
While Judah was working hard to survive in the midst of the political turmoil between Assyria and Egypt, God reminds His people of the purpose for their existence when he first called their father Abraham: To be “a blessing in the midst of the earth” (19:24; cf. Genesis 12:2). Indeed, the most needed voice breaking through in times of instability, uncertainty, and insecurity is God’s voice; it reminds us of our identity and of God’s call on our lives.
This calling to be a blessing in these disorienting times challenges all of us. In a region where war and unrest colors most of its map, the Church in the Middle East may sense that its very existence is under threat. As a result, some MENA Christians, driven by fear, adopt the attitude of self-preservation and survival, simply fleeing the difficult situation. MENA Christians must instead look once again at the map of the MENA with God’s dream in mind, for a highway to be built between hostile countries. They must understand their role as being a blessing in the midst of this region. Then and only then will MENA Christians be able to ask the most important question, “What role do we have to play in God’s plan by staying or returning?” This is God’s plan, and we have a role to play.
The Body of Christ in the world has been generously and joyfully working hard for years to support their brothers and sisters in this region. Yet if God calls you to continue supporting the MENA church, ask yourselves, “How can we help Christians in the MENA region stay and thrive, and how can we get believers to return to their homeland in order to be a blessing?” One simple but crucial way the global Body of Christ has been supporting the MENA church over the years is through prayer. The MENA church is very grateful for your commitments to prayers, and urges you to continue praying God’s dream for this region: PRAY FOR A HIGHWAY.
Emad Botros is currently a faculty member and Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon. His goal is to develop a biblical theology of the Old Testament in the context of the Middle East and North Africa, with research focusing above all on the intersection of the Biblical texts and the Qur’an.
 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, 381. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986.