It was while he was on his return that he began to read Isaiah. I imagine that he started at the beginning. He had now come to chapter 53, so he had probably read about Isaiah’s call to the ministry earlier: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). He would have read about the seraphim singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty” (v. 3). I think, if he had read Isaiah from the beginning and had come to this chapter, he would have said to himself, “Ah, that is what I long for. I want to know God, the holy God. I want a vision of the one for whom my soul is thirsting.”
As he went on, did he read about the sins of the people and of the fact that sin bars the sinful one from God?
Did he read that great invitation, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters… Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isa. 55:1)?
If he had read all that, he must have understood something about himself and the people among whom he lived. He must have learned that, although God invites us to come to Him, we are nevertheless unable to approach Him, being sinners. Sin bars us from God. That is our problem. That is why things are so bad. Maybe he had begun to understand those truths.
Whatever the case, at this point of his journey he had come to Isaiah 53, and he was reading the words: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”
He was puzzled. “What is this speaking about?” he wondered. “Of whom is the prophet writing? Is he writing about himself? It is possible to write about oneself in the third person. Is he saying that he, the prophet Isaiah, is the lamb led like a sheep for the slaughter? Or is he writing about some other man? If so, who is that man?” He did not know.
This was the moment Philip saw the chariot and approached it. There are no accidents in the life of God’s people, no accidents at all. Certainly there was no accident here. Philip came at precisely the right moment, the moment the Ethiopian had reached what most people regard as the very heart of this prophecy, which also means the heart of the Old Testament.
We are not given the whole conversation between the Ethiopian and Philip. But I imagine that Philip gave a friendly greeting, and the man in the chariot gave a greeting back. Philip had already heard him reading from Isaiah—in those days people generally read everything out loud—so he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (v. 30). It was a good question—inoffensive, yet a subtle but gracious offer to explain the passage if the Ethiopian official was interested in receiving one.
“How can I unless someone explains it to me?” he said. He then invited Philip to sit beside him, and Philip began to expound the passage.