Isaiah 31
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 31. The Impossibility of Human Help: the Certainty of Divine Protection

The alliance with Egypt (now apparently consummated) is again the starting point of this fifth “Woe.” As in ch. Isaiah 29:5-7, there is some uncertainty as to where the transition from denunciation to promise takes place; but the best division seems to be as follows:—

i. Isaiah 31:1-4. The false confidence of the politicians in the strength of Egypt (1) is rebuked by an appeal to the infinite contrast between the wisdom and resources of the Almighty and all human craft and power (2, 3). In a very striking figure the prophet represents Jerusalem as the helpless prey in the grasp of Jehovah, and shews how impossible it is that any earthly power should intervene for its deliverance (4).

ii. Isaiah 31:5-9. Yet Jehovah will protect and spare Jerusalem (5). If Israel would but repent and turn to Him whom they have forsaken, Who alone is God, able to save them! (6, 7). The Assyrian shall be destroyed by Jehovah’s personal intervention (8, 9).

Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the LORD!
1. Woe to them that put their trust in the horses and chariots of Egypt! The Jews were painfully conscious of their weakness in cavalry as compared with the Assyrians, and this was one of the considerations that made a league with Egypt so attractive in their eyes (see ch. Isaiah 30:16, Isaiah 36:8-9). Egypt was always renowned in antiquity for its strength in this arm (Hom. Iliad ix. 383; Diodorus, i. 45). To the prophets horses and chariots were in themselves objectionable as embodiments of irreligious militarism (cf. ch. Isaiah 2:7); they were of course doubly so when obtained through compacts with foreign states.

neither seek the Lord] i.e. seek His counsel (Isaiah 30:2).

Yet he also is wise, and will bring evil, and will not call back his words: but will arise against the house of the evildoers, and against the help of them that work iniquity.
2. Yet he also is wise] as well as the shrewd diplomatists who have negotiated this treaty! The words are ironical, yet they have a serious meaning; the prophet, alone in his view of the political situation, reassures himself by thinking of the transcendent wisdom of Jehovah and the fixity of His purpose.

and will bring evil] Rather, brings trouble (cf. Amos 3:6) in consequence of His wisdom.

and will not call back (better: and hath not recalled) his words] The “words” are such prophecies as Isaiah 28:16 ff., Isaiah 29:14 ff., Isaiah 30:13 f., 16 ff.

the house of [the] evildoers is Judah (ch. Isaiah 1:4); their help (i.e. “helpers “) is Egypt.

2, 3. A demonstration of the folly of trusting Egypt rather than Jehovah.

Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses flesh, and not spirit. When the LORD shall stretch out his hand, both he that helpeth shall fall, and he that is holpen shall fall down, and they all shall fail together.
3. men, and not God … flesh, and not spirit] In these antitheses Isaiah formulates his religious conception of history. The present crisis has not been brought about by the mere collision of earthly forces (Egypt, Assyria, Judah); faith discerns in it the operation of a spiritual principle, and knows that that principle must be victorious. “Spirit” is the energetic indestructible element in the universe, by which all life is sustained; and that which is distinctive of the teaching of Isaiah and the prophets generally is (1) the identification of this principle with the moral purpose of Jehovah, and (2) the assertion of the supremacy of the spiritual, thus ethically conceived, over the material. That men could not stand against God, or flesh against spirit, Isaiah’s contemporaries did not need to be taught; what separated him from his hearers was the conviction that there is but one Divine Person, and one spiritual power in the universe, viz.: Jehovah and His moral government as revealed in the consciousness of the prophet. Hence he continues:—And Jehovah shall stretch out his hand, and the helper (Egypt) shall stumble and the holpen (Judah) shall fall; and together they shall all of them perish.

For thus hath the LORD spoken unto me, Like as the lion and the young lion roaring on his prey, when a multitude of shepherds is called forth against him, he will not be afraid of their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them: so shall the LORD of hosts come down to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof.
4. The verse reads: As the lion growls, and the young lion over his prey, against whom the whole band of shepherds has been called out—he is not terrified by their cry, nor dismayed at their shouting—so Jehovah of Hosts will come down, &c. Compare with this truly Homeric simile Il. 18:161 f., 12:299 ff. It is unfortunate that so graphic an image should be thought capable of two diametrically opposite interpretations. According to many commentators it expresses Jehovah’s determination to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians. But the figure would certainly be “ill-chosen” if the lion were represented as protecting his prey and the shepherds as anxious to destroy it. The only natural construction is that Jehovah (through the Assyrians, as in Isaiah 29:3-4) will hold Jerusalem helpless in His power as the lion holds his prey; though the noisy crowd of shepherds (the Egyptians) try to scare him away. The only advantage of the other view is that the transition from threatening to promise would be somewhat less abrupt at the beginning of Isaiah 31:4 than at the beginning of Isaiah 31:5; but that is not a sufficient reason for straining the figure in the way proposed.

to fight for mount Zion, and for] Render: to fight against … and against, as in every other case where the phrase occurs (ch. Isaiah 29:7-8; Numbers 31:7; Zechariah 14:12). The translation “upon mount Zion and upon” is only adopted in order to maintain the favourable construction of the verse.

As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it.
5. Jehovah’s protection of Jerusalem is expressed by a very different figure—that of birds hovering over their nests. The word for birds denotes especially small, sparrow-like, birds; and its use here might seem less appropriate than in Psalm 11:1 as a synonym for timidity. It is, however, frequently used of birds in general (e.g. Psalm 8:8).

passing over] The verb is that from which the word Pesaḥ (Passover) is derived; it occurs again only in Exodus 12:13; Exodus 12:23; Exodus 12:27. For preserve read rescue.

6 contains the only summons to repentance in this whole series of discourses. It must not be understood as implying that the deliverance of Jerusalem is conditional upon a national repentance. The verse is connected with Isaiah 31:7; and the thought is that the approaching deliverance will be a decisive manifestation of the sole deity of Jehovah, which will put idolatry to shame; and therefore the prophet calls on his hearers to realise the magnitude of their sin in having forsaken the one true God.

have deeply revolted] cf. Isaiah 1:5. In spite of the change from second to third person (cf. Isaiah 1:29, Isaiah 5:8), the words children of Israel should probably be translated as a vocative.

Turn ye unto him from whom the children of Israel have deeply revolted.
For in that day every man shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which your own hands have made unto you for a sin.
7. Comp. Isaiah 30:22, Isaiah 17:8, Isaiah 2:8 and esp. Isaiah 2:20.

Then shall the Assyrian fall with the sword, not of a mighty man; and the sword, not of a mean man, shall devour him: but he shall flee from the sword, and his young men shall be discomfited.
8. not of a mighty man … mean man] R.V. not of man … men (see on ch. Isaiah 2:9). Lit. “of a Not-man … Not-mortal,” i.e. a superhuman sword.

shall be discomfited] R.V. shall become tributary, “be subjected to bond-service,” as 1 Kings 9:21 f., &c.

8, 9. The discomfiture of the Assyrians will be accomplished by Jehovah Himself. The connexion with what precedes is not very close.

And he shall pass over to his strong hold for fear, and his princes shall be afraid of the ensign, saith the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem.
9. he shall pass over to his strong hold] The clause is difficult. R.V. and A.V. marg. take “his Rock” as subj., “Rock” being a figurative designation either of the king of Assyria or its national deity. This view has nothing to commend it. The A.V. gives a good sense, but a better translation perhaps is: “he shall overpass his rock(-refuge) from terror,” the image being that of a hunted animal, which misses its accustomed hiding-place in its fright.

his princes shall be afraid of the ensign] This rendering might be explained by ch. Isaiah 18:3 : the Assyrian officers shall be affrighted at the signal which Jehovah sets up. A better rendering, however, is: his officers shall be frighted away from the standard, i.e. “even the officers shall desert the standard in panic” (a pregnant construction).

whose fire is … Jerusalem] Better: who hath a fire in Zion and a furnace (lit. “oven”) in Jerusalem. There is perhaps an allusion here to the meaning of “Ariel” in ch. Isaiah 29:1 ff. The expressions symbolise the two aspects of Jehovah’s presence in Zion, light to His friends and destruction to His enemies (as Exodus 14:20). The “oven” is an emblem of the Divine anger in Psalm 21:9; perhaps also in Genesis 15:17.

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