Isaiah 31: The Fire in Zion
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Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Isaiah 31 likely takes place shortly before 701 B.C., when the Assyrian army sweeps through Judah and surrounds Jerusalem. Hezekiah and his people are exhorted to trust God, not the Egyptians, for deliverance.
Isa. 31:3 – Egyptians are men, not God; their horses are flesh, not spirit. When the Lord raises His hand [to strike], the helper will stumble and the helped will fall; both will perish together.
Isaiah contrasts the futility of human resources with the strength and security of divine protection. King Hezekiah’s advisors are pressing for an alliance with Egypt to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians, but Isaiah implores them to trust the Lord. “Egyptians are men, not God; their horses are flesh, not spirit,” the prophet reminds them (v. 3). “Assyria will fall, but not by human sword” (v. 8). The Holy One of Israel, who keeps His covenant, will rescue the capital city in stunning fashion, and His people will marvel at His glorious deeds (see. Isa. 37:36).
Isaiah uses the imagery of animals in his efforts to convince Hezekiah and his advisors to trust the Lord. First, he rebukes the people of Judah for thinking that Egypt’s impressive stable of battle-ready horses will deliver them from the marauding Assyrians. The Egyptians’ horses “are flesh, not spirit,” the prophet says (v.3), and the people would be wise to “look to the Holy One of Israel” and “seek the Lord’s help” (v. 1). Then, in verse 4, Isaiah likens the Lord to a lion growling over its prey, undeterred by a band of shepherds who can only make threatening shouts. Finally, in verse 5, the Lord is compared to “hovering birds” who keep a watchful eye on Jerusalem. He will protect, rescue, spare and deliver the city.
A Woe Pronounced (Isa. 31:1-3)
This is the last of four consecutive chapters that begin with woes against sinners among the professing people of God: Ephraim’s drunkards (28:1); Ariel’s unwitting leaders (29:1); Judah’s rebellious children (30:1); and now the southern kingdom’s covenant breakers. Isaiah reminds Judah of her Deuteronomic covenant with God, which specifically prohibits returning to Egypt or acquiring horses there (Deut. 17:16). Returning to Egypt has always been a temptation to the Jews (see Ex. 13:17; 14:11-12; Num. 11:5, 18) and King Solomon ignored God’s warnings against it (1 Kings 10:28-29).
Because God keeps His covenants, He will judge Judah for violating the agreement into which the people willingly entered after the Lord delivered them from bondage. Besides, the Egyptians would prove to be no help against the Assyrians. “They go down to Egypt for help in every exigence, as if the worshippers of false gods had a better interest in heaven and were more likely to have success of earth than the servants of the living and true God” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 31:1). Isaiah reminds them that “Egyptians are men, not God; their horses are flesh, not spirit” (v. 3). King David had it right when he declared, “Some take pride in a chariot, and others in horses, but we take pride in the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7).
The Lord’s Protection (Isa. 31:4-9)
The Lord assures His people that He is sovereign over the nations and will protect them from the Assyrian threat. Just as a lion growls over a herd of sheep and is undeterred by shepherds who make noises to frighten him away, so the Lord of Hosts will fearlessly devour the Assyrian army that encircles Jerusalem. Like birds hovering overhead, the Lord will shield Mount Zion from the advancing army of Judah’s enemy. Warren Wiersbe puts it this way: “Why should the Lord fear the Assyrians? Does a lion fear a flock of sheep and their shepherds? Do the eagles fear as they hover over their young in the nest? God will pounce on Assyria like a lion and swoop down like an eagle, and that will be the end! In one night, the Assyrian army was wiped out” (Be Comforted, S. Is 31:1).
Since God will deliver Judah, Isaiah implores the people to turn from their idols and return to the One against whom they have rebelled. The prophet looks to the day when the citizens of Judah will reject the gold and silver idols they have sinfully made and worshiped (compare Isa. 30:22). “Their future hope in the kingdom should change their present behavior. The future reality should have an ethical impact on their lives” (John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1081).
Isaiah reminds the people once again that the Assyrians will fall at the hands of God, “not by human sword” (v. 8). Seeing Judah’s battle standard and watching as the Angel of the Lord smites their once-invincible army, the Assyrian commanders will be terrified and flee (see Isa. 37:36-37). The Lord will make sure that the “fire … in Zion” – likely a reference to the altar fires at the temple – will continue to burn (v. 9).
Wiersbe writes that there is a contemporary lesson in this passage: “As God’s church today faces enemies and challenges, it is always a temptation to turn to the world or the flesh for help. But our first response must be to examine our hearts to see if there is something we need to confess and make right. Then we must turn to the Lord in faith and obedience and surrender to His will alone. We must trust Him to protect us and fight for us. A friend of mine kept a card on his office desk that read: Faith Is Living Without Scheming. In one statement, that is what Isaiah was saying to Judah and Jerusalem; and that is what he is saying to us today” (Be Comforted, S. Is 31:1).
Gary V. Smith comments: “This message confirms the central theological principle that it is foolish and sinful to depend on human power to bring deliverance from troubles. Human plans to manipulate a nation’s circumstances will inevitably fail, just as an individual’s attempt to determine his future without consulting God will end in frustration…. Grace is not earned or deserved; yet God richly provides hope for some through acts of divine intervention. Even the Assyrian soldiers who survived God’s destruction of their army had the opportunity to respond positively to the experience of seeing the powerful hand of God at work. By grace they had survived to tell the story about God’s defeat of the most powerful army in the world. Everyone who knows about the work of God has the opportunity of glorifying his name by telling others about his great deeds” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 536).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips