Isaiah 20 is one of the shortest chapters in the Bible, and it is also particularly notable for the oddity of God telling Isaiah to be unclothed while prophesying about Egypt and Ethiopia (Cush). But why did Isaiah preach naked (Isaiah 20:1–4)?
Isaiah’s prophecies were not just about God’s judgment and restoration for the nation of Israel. Isaiah wrote of other nations as well, including Egypt. Isaiah 19:1–15 describes Egypt’s idolatry and judgment that was coming upon them at the hand of a mighty king (Isaiah 19:4). Egypt had worshiped other gods and pursued their own wisdom, but even in judging this wickedness God would show grace and mercy. God would send to Egypt a savior (Isaiah 19:20), and Egypt would be delivered. Egypt would one day know and worship the Lord (Isaiah 19:21). Yes, judgment would come (Isaiah 19:22), but God would ultimately save and heal the people.
In the year 711 BC God spoke through Isaiah (Isaiah 20:1–2). While on most other occasions Isaiah was simply delivering a verbal message, in this instance God told Isaiah to provide a visual as well: “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet” (Isaiah 20:2, ESV). According to Isaiah 20:3, Isaiah preached naked or at least nearly naked (he may have been wearing a loin cloth) and barefoot for three years as a sign for Egypt and Cush (Ethiopia). These peoples would be led into captivity by Assyria, shamed and naked (Isaiah 20:4). Those who depended on Egypt (including Israel) could no longer look to that nation for deliverance, but instead should only depend on God. That Isaiah preached naked (or nearly naked) illustrated vividly that Egypt was not to be the source of anyone’s deliverance. It served as a reminder to Israel that they needed to trust in God. It was a sign to Egypt that their prideful idolatry would be judged and they would be ashamed. In 701 BC, just as Isaiah had prophesied, Egypt fell to Assyria at Eltekah. Judgment had come, and deservedly so. Yet God would bring a savior and a future restoration.
Isaiah’s preaching naked is a reminder to us that God is patient and gracious. God did not have to warn the people of Egypt, but He allowed them to have three years of warning so that individuals could prepare and even turn to the Lord. Further, God did not have to show Israel another example of how other nations could not deliver Israel, yet God did teach them this lesson over and over again. God wanted Israel to trust in Him and lean on Him, not on other peoples.
We see God’s patience and grace in our own lives as well. While Isaiah’s “ministry” of preaching naked wasn’t in our time, it shows that God cares about humanity and has used various means to communicate His message. The ultimate means of God’s communication is in and through His Son—the Savior in whom we can trust for our deliverance (Hebrews 1:1–2). God has made His love and way of deliverance clear to us in Jesus Christ (John 3:16), and it shouldn’t take Isaiah preaching naked for us to understand that and to trust in Him.