Years ago, some friends and I were swindled out of $70 shortly after arriving in Paris. We were at the train station, puzzling through the French display on the ticket machine. A friendly man appeared, popped his credit card into the machine, and told us he was purchasing two-day train passes for each of us and we could pay him back with cash. It happened fast, and our French wasn’t good enough to double-check him. Besides, he seemed kind and reliable. So we forked over the money. Several minutes later, after boarding the train, we discovered that he had in fact bought us single-use tickets worth $2 each. By then he was long gone. I felt angry and ashamed for the rest of the day.
That experience is a parable of sin and its ways. Sin is a swindler. It covers its deceit with kindness and sweet promises. We sin because we believe the lies. We gossip because the gossip whispers to us that we’re in the know and that people will appreciate us. We envy because we believe that if we only had what others have, we’d be content. We take undue pride in our accomplishments because pride assures us that we’ll feel better about ourselves. But in the end, sin never makes good on its promises. Instead, it leaves us unsatisfied and ashamed.
That’s why the Bible consistently unmasks the falsehoods of sin, warning us that whenever we trust in something or someone other than God, we will be ashamed. One of the most powerful and dramatic instances of this in all of Scripture is an often-overlooked story recounted in Isaiah 20. It contains a stark warning and a sweet promise for God’s people.
The year is 711 BC. Ashdod, a city in Philistia, has been part of a multiyear rebellion against the mighty nation of Assyria — a rebellion encouraged by Egypt to the south. The prophet Isaiah has already warned that Philistia’s rebellion will fail. And that’s exactly what now happens, according to Isaiah 20:1. Ashdod is captured by Assyria. We know that the king of Ashdod subsequently fled to Egypt and that, when Assyria came looking for him, Egypt didn’t protect him. They gave him up.
As Assyria crushes Ashdod, God speaks to his prophet Isaiah: “At that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, ‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,’ and he did so, walking naked and barefoot” (Isaiah 20:2).
This is surely one of the least desirable prophetic commissions ever received. God commands him to strip naked, not in the privacy of his own home, but in public (that’s the implication of the word go, and of Isaiah’s response of walking) and not just for a short time, but for three years (Isaiah 20:3). Perhaps Isaiah wonders why God couldn’t have asked him instead to do the things other prophets were told to do: lay siege to a brick (Ezekiel 4:1–3), cut some of his hair with a sword (Ezekiel 5:1), or anything else, for that matter. In any case, Isaiah obeys God, apparently without protest. He is, after all, God’s servant (Isaiah 20:3).
Why this strange three-year nakedness for God’s prophet? In order to understand what’s happening, it’s crucial to know that nakedness in the ancient world was deeply shameful (see the riveting story in 2 Samuel 10), often associated with helplessness, vulnerability, and lack of protection.
According to verse 3, Isaiah’s odd actions are to be a “sign and a portent” against Egypt and Cush (ancient African nation). Specifically, Isaiah’s nakedness will vividly and unforgettably signify the future shameful nakedness of Egypt’s young and old when they themselves will be led away as captives by the king of Assyria (Isaiah 20:4). And that’s in fact the way it actually happened: forty years later, in 671 BC, Assyria defeated Egypt.
But why does the fall of the city of Ashdod in Philistia (verse 1) lead God to enact a sign of the future fall of Egypt (verses 3–4)? Because Philistia was trusting Egypt (which was encouraging their rebellion against Assyria), and because the people of Judah were watching closely to see whether powerful Egypt, the last best hope against dominant Assyria, would come through for Philistia in their time of trouble. The answer was an emphatic no, and Isaiah depicts that reality not just with words, but with his own naked body.
God means for naked Isaiah to be a sign and portent “against Egypt and Cush” (Isaiah 20:3) but Isaiah’s shame is really a sign for God’s people who are tempted to rely upon Egypt rather than upon God. Verses 5–6 proclaim that all who hope in Egypt in the face of the Assyrian threat will be gravely disappointed and shamed.
How much does God love his people? According to this passage, he loves them enough to warn them of the humiliating shame of sin in a way they can’t ignore or forget. Isaiah’s exposed flesh is God’s means of exposing the false promises of sin. Powerful Egypt will soon be naked and shamed, and those who trust Egypt will follow soon after. When we trust in that which is not trustworthy, we ourselves will be ashamed.
There’s a ray of hope in this somber passage — the hint of a sweet promise in a story that issues a stark warning. Consider this: in order to portray the shame that will fall upon Egypt and Cush, God requires his own prophet, his own loyal and obedient servant, to experience the very real shame of public nakedness. God could have chosen one of his enemies to be the symbol of coming judgment. But instead he chooses his righteous, faithful servant Isaiah. You might say that as Isaiah walks around naked before his neighbors, he takes upon himself a hint, a measure, of the shame that will later fall upon God’s enemies.
This certainly has the feel of something God might do. In fact, much later in history, we see God go a step further. God’s perfect servant Jesus, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52–53 (the word servant in Isaiah 52–53 is the same word used to identify Isaiah as God’s servant in Isaiah 20), is stripped naked and humiliated as he hangs on a cross, identifying with the shame of God’s enemies.
In fact, Jesus identifies so profoundly with their judgment and shame that he actually takes it upon himself. He suffers not only as a sign of their coming judgment but as a substitute, so that if God’s enemies trust in Jesus, they won’t have to suffer themselves.
It may be that you’re currently being tempted by sin’s whispered lies. Perhaps even though you know God’s goodness and power, you’re drawn to find security, comfort, peace, or meaning elsewhere. Don’t do it. The path away from God leads nowhere good. Sin is a swindler. When we trust in that which is not trustworthy, we will be ashamed.
How much better to trust the one who bore shame for us, suffering in our place? How much better to glory and boast in his shameful suffering (Galatians 6:14)? When we trust in him, we will never be ashamed.