Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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!XXXI.
(1) Woe to them that go down . . .—The Egyptian alliance was, of course, the absorbing topic of the time, and Isaiah returns to it yet again. As in Isaiah 30:16, the princes of Judah were attracted by the prospect of strengthening themselves in their weakest point, and reinforcing the cavalry of Judah, which could hardly be mentioned by an Assyrian ambassador without a smile (Isaiah 36:9), with an Egyptian contingent. Isaiah once more condemns this as trusting in an “arm of flesh “instead of in the “Holy One of Israel.”
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.—The words have a ring of sarcasm in them. Isaiah admits ironically that the counsellors of Hezekiah were wise in their generation. He reminds them that there might be some little wisdom in Jehovah, and in the prophet by whom He spake.
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) The Egyptians are men . . .—We hear again the key-note of Isaiah’s teaching. The true strength of a nation lay in its spiritual, not in its material, greatness: in seeking the Holy One of Israel by practising holiness. Without that condition the alliance with Egypt would be fatal both to those that sought for help and those who gave it.
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) Like as the lion . . .—The similitude is note worthy, as for its fulness and vividness, so also for the fact that the lion is made the symbol, not of destruction, but protection. As the king of beasts stands haughtily defiant over the prey which he has made his own against the shepherds who seek to rob him of it, so will Jehovah, in His character as the Lord of hosts, refuse to surrender Jerusalem, His peculiar possession, to the armies of the Assyrians. (Comp. Homer, Il., 18:161.)
To fight for Mount Zion.—The preposition has been differently rendered as for, on, against. The lion in the last case is claiming the sheep as his own prey, and will not suffer interference from without. Jehovah, using the Assyrian armies as His instruments, will fight against Jerusalem, and will not allow the Egyptian allies to interfere with His chastisements. (Comp. Isaiah 29:7-8.) The second clause simply marks Jerusalem as the scene of the conflict, but agrees in substance with the first. Looking to the verse that follows, the idea of protection seems more natural than that of hostility. The thought of supreme ownership, however, includes both; Jerusalem belonged to Jehovah to protect or to chastise.
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) As birds flying . . .—The picture that follows (Æschylean, as the former was Homeric; see “Æsch. Agam. 49-54, though there the point is the wailing of the parent birds over the plundered nest) is, at least, not doubtful in its meaning, whether it be meant as a counterpart or antithesis to that which precedes it. The eagles hovering over their nest, and scaring off man or beast that attacked their nestlings, supplied the most vivid image possible of protection. (Comp. the image, like, but not the same, in Deuteronomy 32:11.)
Passing over.—The word is the same as that used in connection with the Passover festival, and may perhaps imply a reference to it.
Turn ye unto him from whom the children of Israel have deeply revolted.(6) Turn ye unto him.—Then, as ever, this was the sum and substance of the prophet’s teaching, conversion; with that, all was hope; without it, all was fear. (Comp. 2Chronicles 30:6.)
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) In that day every man shall cast away . . .—The act is the same as that of Isaiah 2:20, but with a marked difference of motive: there it springs from the terror of despair, here from the repentance which is the ground of hope.
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 . . .—The Hebrew has no adjectives, but the nouns are those which are commonly opposed to each other in this way, as in Isaiah 2:9, like the Latin vir and homo. The thought expressed is, of course, that the whole work would be of God, and not of man. The “sword” was that of the Divine judgment (Deuteronomy 32:41), perhaps, as in 1Chronicles 21:16, of the destroying angel of the pestilence.
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 for fear.—Most recent critics translate, His rock will pass away for terror, the “rock” (not the same word, however, as that elsewhere, e.g., Deuteronomy 32:31, used for God) being the symbol of Assyria’s strength. The laws of parallelism point to our taking the noun as the subject of the sentence, corresponding to “princes” in the next clause, and so exclude the Authorised version.
Whose fire is in Zion.—Fire, as the symbol of the Divine glory, giving light and warmth to the faithful, and burning up the evil. (Comp. Isaiah 10:16-17.)