Chapter 20 opens in the year that Assyria’s King Sargon defeated the city of Ashdod.
God tells Isaiah, “Go, take off the mourning clothes from your waist, and remove the shoes from your feet.” And Isaiah did this, walking naked and barefoot.” And then the Lord said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot three years, as a sign and omen against Egypt and Cush, 4so will the king of Assyria lead the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush, both young and old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks bared, humiliating Egypt.”
So did Isaiah really walk around completely naked for three years?
I believe he would have, but most commentators don’t seem to think so. When God told Isaiah to take off his mourning clothes (and that is m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g, not m-o-r-n-i-n-g), otherwise known as sackcloth in other translations, He was telling Isaiah to remove his outer layer of clothing.
(By the way, this is a similar kind of clothing Elijah wore, and John the Baptist, although Elijah’s outer garment was fur and John the Baptist’s was camel hair.)
Sackcloth was a dark colored coarse linen or hairy overcoat worn by those in mourning, either against the skin or over a tunic.
In this culture, in which clothing was very modest, a person was considered naked if an outer garment was not worn. So by removing his outer garment, Isaiah was seen as going against the accepted norm. He was not wearing the dress of one in mourning or that of a preacher who called for repentance. By appearing in public without his outer garment, he appeared as one who had been robbed and disgraced, or a beggar or prisoner.
And for three years, whenever he appeared in public, his appearance told the people that God’s judgment was coming.