Isaiah 31:5
As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it.
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(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.



Isaiah 31:5

The immediate occasion of this very remarkable promise is, of course, the peril in which Jerusalem was placed by Sennacherib’s invasion; and the fulfilment of the promise was the destruction of his army before its gates. But the promise here, like all God’s promises, is eternal in substance, and applies to a community only because it applies to each member of that community. Jerusalem was saved, and that meant that every house in Jerusalem was saved, and every man in it the separate object of the divine protection So that all the histories of Scripture, and all the histories of men in the world, are but transitory illustrations of perennial principles, and every atom of the consolation and triumph of this verse comes to each of us, as truly as it did to the men that with tremulous heart began to take cheer, as they listened to Isaiah. There is a wonderful saying in one of the other prophets which carries that lesson, where, bringing down the story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel of Peniel to the encouragement of the existing generation, he says,’ He spake to us.’ They were hundreds of years after the patriarch, and yet had fallen heirs to all that God had ever said to him So, from that point of view, I am not spiritualising, or forcing the meaning of these words, when I bring them direct into the lives of each one of ourselves.

I. And, first, I would note the very striking and beautiful pictures that are given in these verses.

There are three of them, on each of which I must touch briefly. ‘As birds flying, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem.’ The form of the words in the original shows that it is the mother-bird that is thought about. And the picture rises at once of her fluttering over the nest, where the callow chickens are, unable to fly and to help themselves. It is a kind of echo of the grand metaphor in the song that is attributed to Moses, which speaks of the eagle fluttering over her nest, and taking care of her young. Jerusalem was as a nest on which, for long centuries, that infinite divine love had brooded. It was but a poor brood that had been hatched out, but yet ‘as birds flying’ He had watched over the city. Can you not almost see the mother-bird, made bold by maternal love, swooping down upon the intruder that sought to rob the nest, and spreading her broad pinion over the callow fledglings that lie below? That is what God does with us. As I said, it is a poor brood that is hatched out. That does not matter; still the Love bends down and helps. Nobody but a prophet could have ventured on such a metaphor as that, and nobody but Jesus Christ would have ventured to mend it and say, ‘As a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,’ when there are hawks in the sky. So He, in all the past ages, was the One that ‘as birds flying . . . defended’ His people, and would have gathered them under His wings, only they would not.

Now, beautiful as this metaphor is, as it stands, it seems to me, like some brilliant piece of colouring, to derive additional beauty from its connection with the background upon which it stands out. For just a verse before the prophet has given another emblem of what God is and does, and if you will carry with you all those thoughts of tenderness and maternal care and solicitude, and then connect them with that verse, I think the thought of His tenderness will start up into new beauty. For here is what precedes the text: ‘Like as a 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 bow himself for the noise of them. So shall the Lord of hosts come down to fight for Mount Zion.’ Look at these two pictures side by side, on the one hand the lion, with his paw on his prey, and the angry growl that answers when the shepherds vainly try to drag it away from him. That is God. Ay! but that is only an aspect of God. ‘As birds flying, so the Lord will defend Jerusalem.’ We have to take that into account too. This generation is very fond of talking about God’s love; does it believe in God’s wrath? It is very fond of speaking about the gentleness of Jesus; has it pondered that tremendous phrase, ‘the wrath of the Lamb’? The lion that growls, and the mother-bird that hovers-God is like them both. That is the first picture that is here.

The second one is not so obvious to English readers, but it is equally striking, though I do not mean to dwell upon it. The word that is translated in our text twice, ‘defend’ and ‘defending’-’So will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem, and defending will deliver’-means, literally, ‘shielding.’ Thus we have the same general idea as that in the previous metaphor of the mother-bird hovering above the nest: God is like a shield held over us, and so flinging off front the broad and burnished surface of the Almighty buckler, all the darts that any foe can launch against as. ‘Our God is a Sun and Shield.’ I need not enlarge on this familiar metaphor.

But the third picture I wish to point to in more detail: ‘Passing over, He will deliver.’ Now, the word that is there rendered ‘passing over,’ is almost a technical word in the Old Testament, because it is that employed in reference to the Passover. And so you see the swiftness of genius with which the prophet changes his whole scene. We had the nest and the mother-bird, we had the battlefield and the shield; now we are swept away back to that night when the Destroying Angel stalked through the land, and ‘passed over’ the doors on which the blood had been sprinkled. And thus this God, who in one aspect may be likened to the mother-bird hovering with her little breast full of tenderness, and made brave by maternal love conquering natural timidity, and in another aspect may be likened to the broad shield behind which a man stands safe, may also be likened to that Destroying Angel that went through Egypt, and smote wherever there were not the tokens of the blood on the lintels, and ‘passed over’ wherever there were. Of course, the original fulfilment of this third picture is the historical case of the army of Sennacherib; outside the walls, widespread desolation; inside the walls, an untroubled night of peace. That night in Egypt is paralleled, in the old Jewish hymn that is still sung at the Passover, with the other night when Sennacherib’s men were slain; and the parallel is based on our text. So, then, here is another illustration of what I started with saying, that the past events of Scripture are transient expressions of perennial principles and tendencies. For the Passover night was not to be to the contemporaries of the prophet an event receding ever further into the dim distance, but it was a present event, and to be reproduced in that catastrophe when ‘in the morning when they arose, they were all dead corpses.’ And the event is being repeated to-day, and will be for each of us, if we will.

So, then, there are these three pictures-the Nest and the Mother-bird, the Battlefield and the Shield, Egypt and the Destroying Angel.

II. We note the reality meant by these pictures.

They mean the absolute promise from God of protection for His people from every evil. We are not to cut it down, not to say that it applies absolutely in regard to the spiritual world, but that it does not apply in regard to temporal things. Yes, it does entirely, only you have to rise to the height of God’s conception of what is good and what is evil in regard to outward things, before you understand how completely, and without qualification or deduction, this promise is fulfilled to every man that puts his trust in Him. Of course, I do not need to remind you, for your own lives will do so sufficiently, that this hovering protector, this strong Shield, this Destroying Angel that passes by our houses if the blood is on the threshold, does not guarantee us any exemption from the common ‘ills that flesh is heir to.’ We all know that well enough. But what does it guarantee? That all the poison shall be wiped off the arrow, that all the evil shall be taken out of the evil, that it will change its character, that if we observe the conditions, the sharpest sorrow will come to us with this written on it by the Father’s hand, ‘With My love to My child’; that pain will be discipline, and discipline will be blessed. Ah! dear friends! I am sure there are many of us that can set to our seals that God is true in this matter, and that we have found that His rod does blossom, and that our sorest sorrows have been our greatest mercies, drawing us nearer to Him; ‘Defending He will deliver, and passing over He will preserve.’

III. And now let me remind you of the way by which we can make the reality of these pictures ours.

You know that all the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament are conditional, and that there are many of them that were never fulfilled, and were spoken in order that they might not be fulfilled, if only the people took warning. I wish folk would carry a little more consciously in their minds that principle in interpreting them all, and in asking about their fulfilment. Not only in regard to these ancient events, but in regard to our individual experience, God’s promises and threatenings are conditional.

Take that first metaphor of the hovering mother-bird. Listen to this expansion of it in one of the psalms: ‘He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust.’ The word for trust here means to ‘fly into a refuge.’ Can you not see the picture? A little brood round the parent bird, frightened by some beast of prey, or hovering hawk in the sky, and fluttering under its wings, and all safe and huddled together there close against the warm breast, and in amongst the downy feathers. ‘Under His wings shalt thou trust.’ Put thou thy trust in God, and God is to thee the hovering bird, the broad shield, the Angel that ‘passes over.’

Take the other picture of the Passover night. Only by our individual faith in Jesus Christ as our individual Saviour can we put the blood on our door-posts so that the Destroying Angel shall pass by. So, if we would have the sweetness of such words as these fulfilled in our daily lives, however disturbed and troubled and sorrowful and solitary they may be, the first condition is that under His wings shall we flee for refuge, and we do so by trust in Him.

But having thus fled thither, we must continue there, if we would continue under His protection. Such continuance of safety because of continuous faith is possible only by continued communion. Remember our Lord’s expansion of the metaphor in His lament: ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.’ We can resist the drawing. We can get away from the shelter of the wing. We can lift up our wills against Him. And what becomes of the chicken that does not run to the mother’s pinions when the hawk is hovering? That is what becomes of the man that stops outside the refuge in Christ, or that by failure of his faith departs from that refuge. ‘Ye would not; therefore your house is left unto you desolate.’ That house, in the Jerusalem which God ‘defends,’ is not defended.

Another condition of divine protection is obedience. We need not expect that God will take care of us, and preserve us, when we did not ask His leave to get into the dangerous place that we find ourselves in. Many of us do the converse of what the Apostle condemns, we begin ‘in the flesh,’ and think we shall end ‘in the Spirit’; which being translated is, we do not ask God’s leave to do certain things, to enter into certain engagements or arrangements with other people, and the like, and then we expect God to come and help us in or out of them. That is by no means an uncommon form of delusion. You remember what Jesus Christ said when the Devil tried to entice Him to do a thing of that sort, by quoting Scripture to Him-’He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee, to keep Thee in all Thy ways. Cast Thyself down. Trust to the promise as a kind of parachute to keep Thee from falling bruised on the stones of the Temple-court.’ Christ’s answer was: ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ You will not get God’s protection in ways of your own choosing.

And so, brethren, ‘all things work together for good to them that love,’ to them that trust, to them that keep close, to them that obey. And for such the old faithful promise will be faithful and new once more, ‘Because He hath set His love upon Me, therefore will I deliver Him’-that will be the summing up of our lives; ‘and I will set Him on high because He hath known My Name,’ that will be the meaning of our deaths.31:1-5 God will oppose the help sought from workers of iniquity. Sinners may be convicted of folly by plain and self-evident truths, which they cannot deny, but will not believe. There is no escaping the judgments of God; and evil pursues sinners. The Lord of hosts will come down to fight for Mount Zion. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will appear for the defence of his church. And as birds hovering over their young ones to protect them, with such compassion and affection will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem. He will so defend it, as to secure its safety.As birds flying - This is another comparison indicating substantially the same thing as the former, that Yahweh would protect Jerusalem. The idea here is, that He would do it in the same manner as birds defend their young by hovering over them, securing them under their wings, and leaping forward, if they are suddenly attacked, to defend them. Our Saviour has used a similar figure to indicate his readiness to have defended and saved the same city Matthew 23:27, and it is possible that he may have had this passage in his eye. The phrase 'birds flying,' may denote the "rapidity" with which birds fly to defend their young, and hence, the rapidity with which God would come to defend Jerusalem; or it may refer to the fact that birds, when their young are attacked, fly, or flutter around them to defend them; they will not leave them.

And passing over - פסוח pâsoach. Lowth renders this, 'Leaping forward.' This word, which is usually applied in some of its forms to the Passover Exodus 12:13, Exodus 12:23, Exodus 12:27; Numbers 9:4; Joshua 5:11; 2 Chronicles 30:18, properly means, as a verb, "to pass over," and hence, to preserve or spare. The idea in the passage is, that Yahweh would protect Jerusalem, as a bird defends its young.

5. As in the image of "the lion," the point of comparison is the fearless might of Jehovah; so in that of the birds, it is His solicitous affection (De 32:11; Ps 91:4; Mt 23:37).

flying—Rather, "which defend" their young with their wings; "to fly" is a secondary meaning of the Hebrew word [Maurer]. "Hovering over" to protect their young [G. V. Smith].

passing over—as the destroying angel passing over, so as to spare the blood-marked houses of the Israelites on the first passover (Ex 12:13, 23, 27). He passed, or leaped forward [Lowth], to destroy the enemy and to spare His people.

As birds flying; which come from above, and so cannot be kept off; which fly swiftly, and engage themselves Valiantly and resolutely, when they perceive that their young ones are in eminent danger. He seems to allude, and to oppose this, to those boasting expressions of the Assyrian, Isaiah 10:14: compare Deu 32:11,12 Mt 23:37.

Passing over; the destroying angel shall pass over Jerusalem untouched, and shall fall upon the Assyrians. He seems to allude to the history of God’s passing over and sparing the houses of the Israelites, when he slew the Egyptians, in which this word is constantly used, Exodus 12:12,23,27. As birds flying, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem,.... As the preceding metaphor expresses the mighty power of God, this his tenderness and affection, as well as his speed and swiftness in the deliverance of his people. As birds in the air, at a distance, especially the eagle, have their eye upon their nests, and their young ones in them, and when in danger fly to their assistance, and hover over them, and about them, to keep off those that would hurt them, or carry them away; so the Lord, on high, sees his people when in distress, and hastens to help them, and does surround, protect, and defend them: thus the Lord did, when Sennacherib with his army besieged Jerusalem; who boasted, with respect to other nations, that he had "found as a nest the riches of the people", and that "there was none that moved the wing against him", Isaiah 10:14 to which it is thought the allusion is here:

defending also he will deliver it; from present distress, the siege of the Assyrian army:

and passing over he will preserve it; passing over the city of Jerusalem to the army of the king of Assyria, that lay encamped against it; and smiting that by an angel with a sudden destruction, preserved the city from the ruin it was threatened with. The allusion is rightly thought to be to the Lord's passing over the houses of the Israelites, when he destroyed the firstborn in Egypt, Exodus 12:23 where the same word is used as here, and nowhere else.

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.Verse 5. - As birds flying; rather, as birds hovering, or fluttering, ever their young, to protect them. A second simile, expressive of tenderness, as the former one was of power and strength. Defending, also, etc. Translate, defending and delivering, passing over and preserving. In the word "passing over" there seems to be a reference to the institution of the Passover, when the angel, sometimes identified with Jehovah himself, "passed ever" and spared the Israelites. Israel is marching in such a joyful way to a sacred and glorious height, whilst outside Jehovah is sweeping the world-power entirely away, and that without any help from Israel. "And Jehovah causes His majestic voice to be heard, and causes the lowering of His arm to be seen, with the snorting of wrath and the blazing of devouring fire, the bursting of a cloud, and pouring of rain and hailstones. For Asshur will be terrified at the voice of Jehovah, when He smites with the staff. And it will come to pass, every stroke of the rod of destiny, which Jehovah causes to fall upon Asshur, is dealt amidst the noise of drums and the playing of guitars; and in battles of swinging arm He fights it. For a place for the sacrifice of abominations has long been made ready, even for the king is it prepared; deep, broad has He made it: its funeral-pile has fire and wood in abundance; the breath of Jehovah like a stream of brimstone sets it on fire." The imposing crash (on hōd, see Job 39:20) of the cry which Jehovah causes to be heard is thunder (see Psalm 29:1-11); for the catastrophe occurs with a discharge of all the destructive forces of a storm (see Isaiah 29:6). Nephets is the "breaking up" or "bursting," viz., of a cloud. It is through such wrath-announcing phenomena of nature that Jehovah manifests the otherwise invisible letting down of His arm to smite (nachath may possibly not be the derivative of nūăch, "settling down," but of nâchath, "the coming down," as in Psalm 38:3; just as shebheth in 2 Samuel 23:7 is not derived from shūbh, but from shâbhath, to go to ruin). Isaiah 30:31, commencing with ki (for), explains the terrible nature of what occurs, from the object at which it is directed: Asshur is alarmed at the voice of Jehovah, and thoroughly goes to pieces. We must not render this, as the Targum does, "which smites with the rod," i.e., which bears itself so haughtily, so tyrannically (after Isaiah 10:24). The smiter here is Jehovah (lxx, Vulg., Luther); and basshēbhet yakkeh is either an attributive clause, or, better still, a circumstantial determining clause, eo virga percutiente. According to the accents, vehâyâh in Isaiah 30:32 is introductory: "And it will come to pass, every stroke of the punishing rod falls (supply יהיה) with an accompaniment of drums and guitars" (the Beth is used to denote instrumental accompaniment, as in Isaiah 30:29; Isaiah 24:9; Psalm 49:5, etc.) - namely, on the part of the people of Jerusalem, who have only to look on and rejoice in the approaching deliverance. Mūsâdâh with mattēh is a verbal substantive used as a genitive, "an appointment according to decree" (comp. yâsad in Habakkuk 1:12, and yâ‛ad in Micah 6:9). The fact that drums and guitars are heard along with every stroke, is explained in Isaiah 30:32: "Jehovah fights against Asshur with battles of swinging," i.e., not with darts or any other kind of weapon, but by swinging His arm incessantly, to smite Asshur without its being able to defend itself (cf., Isaiah 19:16). Instead of בּהּ, which points back to Asshur, not to matteh, the keri has בּם, which is not so harsh, since it is immediately preceded by עליו. This cutting down of the Assyrians is accounted for in Isaiah 30:33, (ki, for), from the fact that it had long ago been decreed that they should be burned as dead bodies. 'Ethmūl in contrast with mâchâr is the past: it has not happened today, but yesterday, i.e., as the predestination of God is referred to, "long ago."

Tophteh is the primary form of tōpheth (from tūph, not in the sense of the Neo-Persian tâften, Zend. tap, to kindle or burn, from which comes tafedra, melting; but in the Semitic sense of vomiting or abhorring: see at Job 17:6), the name of the abominable place where the sacrifices were offered to Moloch in the valley of Hinnom: a Tophet-like place. The word is variously treated as both a masculine and feminine, possibly because the place of abominable sacrifices is described first as bâmâh in Jeremiah 7:31. In the clause הוּכן למּלך גּם־הוא, the gam, which stands at the head, may be connected with lammelekh, "also for the king is it prepared" (see at Job 2:10); but in all probability lammelekh is a play upon lammolekh (e.g., Leviticus 18:2), "even this has been prepared for the Melekh," viz., the king of Asshur. Because he was to be burned there, together with his army, Jehovah had made this Tophet-like place very deep, so that it might have a far-reaching background, and very broad, so that in this respect also there might be room for many sacrifices. And their medūrâh, i.e., their pile of wood (as in Ezekiel 24:9, cf., Ezekiel 24:5, from dūr, Talm. dayyēr, to lay round, to arrange, pile), has abundance of fire and wood (a hendiadys, like "cloud and smoke" in Isaiah 4:5). Abundance of fire: for the breath of Jehovah, pouring upon the funeral pile like a stream of brimstone, sets it on fire. בּ בּער, not to burn up, but to set on fire. בּהּ points back to tophteh, like the suffix of medurâthâh.

(Note: So far as the form of the text is concerned, kōl has the disjunctive yethib before pashta, which occurs eleven times according to the Masora. Nevertheless the word is logically connected in the closest manner with what follows (comp. 'ēth tōrath in Isaiah 5:24). The âh of mūsâdâh is rafatum pro mappicato, according to the Masora; in which case the suffix would refer to Asshur. In the place of הוא גם we also meet with היּא גם, with this chethib and keri reversed; but the former, according to which הוכן is equivalent to הוכנה, has many examples to support it in the Masora. הוכן has kametz in correct MSS in half pause; whereas Kimchi (Michlol, 117b) regards it as a participle.)

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