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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 31

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-9



ABOUT 702 B.C.

Isaiah 31:1-9

CHAPTER 31, which forms an appendage to chapters 29 and 30, can scarcely be reckoned among the more important prophecies of Isaiah. It is a repetition of the principles which the prophet has already proclaimed in connection with the faithless intrigues of Judah for an alliance with Egypt, and it was published at a time when the statesmen of Judah were further involved in these intrigues, when events were moving faster, and the prophet had to speak with more hurried words. Truths now familiar to us are expressed in less powerful language.

But the chapter has its own value; it is remarkable for three very unusual descriptions of God, which govern the following exposition of it. They rise in climax, enforcing three truths:-that in the government of life we must take into account God’s wisdom; we must be prepared to find many of His providences grim and savage-looking; but we must also believe that He is most tender and jealous for His people.


(Isaiah 31:1-3)

We must suppose the negotiations with Egypt to have taken for the moment a favourable turn, and the statesmen who advocated them to be congratulating themselves upon some consequent addition to the fighting strength of Judah. They could point to many chariots and a strong body of cavalry in proof of their own wisdom and refutation of the prophet’s maxim, "In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength; in returning and rest shall ye be saved."

Isaiah simply answers their self-congratulation with the utterance of a new Woe, and it is in this that the first of the three extraordinary descriptions of God is placed. "Woe unto them that go down to Egypt for help; upon horses do they stay, 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, and Jehovah they do not seek. Yet He also is wise." You have been clever and successful, but have you forgotten that "God also is wise," that He too has His policy, and acts reasonably and consistently? You think you have been making history; but God also works in history, and surely, to put it on the lowest ground, with as much cleverness and persistence as you do. "Yet He also is wise, and will bring evil, and will not call back His words, but will arise against the house of the evil-doers, and against the help of them that work iniquity."

This satire was the shaft best fitted to pierce the folly of the rulers of Judah. Wisdom, a reasonable plan for their aims and prudence in carrying it out, was the last thing they thought of associating with God, whom they relegated to what they called their religion-their temples, worship, and poetry. When their emotions were stirred by solemn services, or under great disaster, or in the hour of death, they remembered God, and it seemed natural to them that in these great exceptions of life He should interfere; but in their politics and their trade, in the common course and conduct of life, they ignored Him and put their trust in their own wisdom. They limited God to the ceremonies and exceptional occasions of life, when they looked for His glory or miraculous assistance, but they never thought that in their ordinary ways He had any interest or design.

The forgetfulness, against which Isaiah directs this shaft of satire, is the besetting sin of very religious people, of very successful people, and of very clever people.

It is the temptation of an ordinary Christian church-going people, like ourselves, with a religion so full of marvellous mercies, and so blessed with regular opportunities of worship, to think of God only in connection with these, and practically to ignore that along the far greater stretches of life He has any interest or purpose regarding us. Formally-religious people treat God as if He were simply a constitutional sovereign, to step in at emergencies, and for the rest to play a nominal and ceremonial part in the conduct of their lives. Ignoring the Divine wisdom and ceaseless providence of God, and couching their hearts upon easy views of His benevolence, they have no other thought of Him than as a philanthropic magician, whose power is reserved to extricate men when they have got past helping themselves. From the earliest times that way of regarding God has been prevalent, and religious teachers have never failed to stigmatise it with the hardest name for folly. "Fools," says the Psalmist, "are afflicted when they draw near unto the gates of death; then," only then, "do they cry unto the Lord in their trouble." "Thou fool!" says Christ of the man who kept God out of the account of his life. God is not mocked, although we ignore half His being and confine our religion to such facile views of His nature. With this sarcasm, Isaiah reminds us that it is not a Fool who is on the throne of the universe; yet is the Being whom the imaginations of some men place there any better? O wise men, "God also is wise." Not by fits and starts of a benevolence similar to that of our own foolish and inconsistent hearts does He work. Consistency, reason, and law are the methods of His action; and they apply closely, irretrievably, to all of our life. Hath He promised evil? Then evil will proceed. Let us believe that God keeps His word; that He is thoroughly attentive to all we do; that His will concerns the whole of our life.

But the temptation to refuse to God even ordinary wisdom is also the temptation of very successful and very clever people, such as these Jewish politicians fancied themselves to be, or such as the rich fool in the parable. They have overcome all they have matched themselves against, and feel as if they were to be masters of their own future. Now the Bible and the testimony of men invariably declare that God has one way of meeting such fools-the way Isaiah suggests here. God meets them with their own weapons; He outmatches them in their own fashion. In the eighteenth Psalm it is written, "With the pure Thou wilt show Thyself pure, and with, the perverse Thou will show Thyself froward. The Rich Fool congratulates himself that his soul is his own"; says God, "This night thy soul shall be required of thee." The Jewish politicians pride themselves on their wisdom; "Yet God also is wise," says Isaiah significantly. After Moscow Napoleon is reported to have exclaimed, "The Almighty is too strong for me." But perhaps the most striking analogy to this satire of Isaiah is to be found in the "Confessions" of that Jew from whose living sepulchre we are so often startled with weird echoes of the laughter of the ancient prophets of his race. When Heine, Germany’s greatest satirist, lay upon a bed to which his evil living had brought him before his time, and the pride of art, which had been, as he says, his god, was at last crushed, he tells us what it was that crushed him. They were singing his songs in every street of his native land, and his fame had gone out through the world, while he lay an exile and paralysed upon his "mattress-grave." "Alas!" he cries, "the irony of Heaven weighs heavily upon me. The great Author of the universe, the celestial Aristophanes, wished to show me, the petty, earthly, German Aristophanes, how my most trenchant satires are only clumsy patchwork compared with His, and how immeasurably He excels me in humour and colossal wit." That is just a soul writing in its own heart’s blood this terrible warning of Isaiah: "Yet God also is wise." "Yea the Egyptians are men, and not God, and their horses flesh, and not spirit; and when Jehovah shall stretch out His hand, both he that helpeth shall stumble, and he that is holpen shall fall, and they all shall perish together."


(Isaiah 31:4)

But notwithstanding what he has said about God destroying men who trust in their own cleverness, Isaiah goes on to assert that God is always ready to save what is worth saving. The people, the city, His own city-God will save that. To express God’s persistent grace towards Jerusalem, Isaiah uses two figures borrowed from the beasts. Both of them are truly Homeric, and fire the imagination at once; but the first is not one we should have expected to find as a figure of the saving grace of God. Yet Isaiah knows it is not enough for men to remember how wise God always is. They need also to be reminded how grim and cruel He must sometimes appear, even in His saving providences.

"For thus saith Jehovah unto me: Like as when the lion growleth, and the young lion over his prey, if a mob of shepherds be called forth against him, from their voice he will not shrink in dismay, nor for their noise abase himself; so shall Jehovah of hosts come down to fight for Mount Zion and the hill thereof." A lion with a lamb in his claws, growling over it, while a crowd of shepherds come up against him; afraid to go near enough to kill him, they try to frighten him away by shouting at him. But he holds his prey unshrinking.

It is a figure that startles at first. To liken God with a saving hold upon His own to a wild lion with his claws in the prey. But horror plays the part of a good emphasis; while, if we look into the figure, we shall feel our horror change to appreciation. There is something majestic in that picture of the lion with the shouting shepherds, too afraid to strike him. "He will not be dismayed at their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them." Is it, after all, an unworthy figure of the Divine Claimant for this city, who kept unceasing hold upon her after His own manner, mysterious and lion like to men, undisturbed by the screams, formulas, and prayers of her mob of politicians and treaty-mongers? For these are the "shepherds" Isaiah means - sham shepherds, the shrieking crew of politicians with their treaties and military display. God will save and carry Jerusalem His own way, paying no heed to such. "He will not be dismayed at their voice, nor abase Himself for the noise of them."

There is more than the unyielding persistency of Divine grace taught here. There is that to begin with. God will never let go what He has made His own: the souls He has redeemed from sin, the societies He has redeemed from barbarism, the characters He has hold of, the lives He has laid His hand upon. Persistency of saving grace-let us learn that confidently in the parable. But that is only half of what it is meant to teach. Look at the shepherds: shepherds shouting round a lion; why does Isaiah put it that way, and not as David did-lions growling round a brave shepherd, with the lamb in his arms? Because it so appeared then in the life Isaiah was picturing, because it often looks the same in real life still. These politicians - they seemed, they played the part of shepherds; and Jehovah, who persistently frustrated their plans for the salvation of the State-He looked the lion, delivering Jerusalem to destruction. And very often to men does this arrangement of the parts repeat itself; and while human friends are anxious and energetic about them, God Himself appears in providences more lion like than shepherdly. He grasps with the savage paw of death some one as dear to us as that city was to Isaiah. He rends our body or soul or estate. And friends and our own thoughts gather round the cruel bereavement or disaster with remonstrance and complaint. Our hearts cry out, doing, like shepherds, their best to scare by prayer and cries the foe they are too weak to kill. We all know the scene, and how shabby and mean that mob of human remonstrances looks in face of the great Foe, majestic though inarticulate, that with sullen persistence carries off its prey. All we can say in such times is that if it is God who is the lion, then it is for the best. For "though He slay me, yet will I trust Him"; and, after all, it is safer to rely on the mercies of God, lion like though they be, than on the weak benevolences and officious pities of the best of human advisers. "Thy will be done"-let perfect reverence teach us to feel that, even when providence seems as savage as men that day thought God’s will towards Jerusalem.

In addition then to remembering, when men seem by their cleverness and success to rule life, that God is wiser and His plans more powerful than theirs, we are not to forget, when men seem more anxious and merciful than His dark providence, that for all their argument and action His will shall not alter. But now we are to hear that this will, so hard and mysterious, is as merciful and tender as a mother’s.


(Isaiah 31:5)

"As birds hovering, so will Jehovah of hosts cover Jerusalem; He will cover and deliver it: He will pass over and preserve it." At last we are through dark providence, to the very heart of the Almighty. The meaning is familiar from its natural simplicity and frequent use in Scripture. Two features of it our version has not reproduced. The word "birds" means the smaller kind of feathered creatures, and the word "hovering" is feminine in the original: "As little mother-birds hovering, so will Jehovah of hosts protect Jerusalem." We have been watching in spring the hedge where we know is a nest. Suddenly the mother-bird, who has been sitting on a branch close by, flutters off her perch, passes backwards and forwards, with flapping wings that droop nervously towards the nest over her young. A hawk is in the sky, and till he disappears she will hover-the incarnation of motherly anxiety. This is Isaiah’s figure. His native city, on which he poured so much of his heart in lyrics and parables, was again in danger. Sennacherib was descending upon her; and the pity of Isaiah’s own heart for her, evil though she was, suggested to him a motherhood of pity in the breast of God. The suggestion God Himself approved. Centuries after, when He assumed our flesh and spoke our language, when He put His love into parables lowly and familiar to our affections, there were none of them more beautiful than that which He uttered of this same city, weeping as He spake: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathereth her brood under her wings, and ye would not!"

With such fountains in Scripture, we need not, as some have done, exalt the Virgin, or virtually make a fourth person in the Godhead, and that a woman, in order to satisfy those natural longings of the heart which the widespread worship of the mother of Jesus tells us are so peremptory. For all fulness dwelleth in God Himself. Not only may we rejoice in that pity and wise provision for our wants, in that pardon and generosity, which we associate with the name of father, but also in the wakefulness, the patience, the love, lovelier with fear, which make a mother’s heart so dear and indispensable. We cannot tell along what wakened nerve the grace of God may reach our hearts; but Scripture has a medicine for every pain. And if any feel their weakness as little children feel it, let them know that the Spirit of God broods over them, as a mother over her babe; and if any are in pain or anxiety, and there is no human heart to suffer with them, let them know that as closely as a mother may come to suffer with her child, and as sensitive as she is to its danger, so sensitive is God Almighty to theirs, and that He gives them proof of their preciousness to Him by suffering with them.

How these three descriptions meet the three failings of our faith! We forget that God is ceaselessly at work in wisdom in our lives. We forget that God must sometimes, even when He is saving us, seem lion like and cruel. We forget that "the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind."

Having thus made vivid the presence of their Lord to the purged eyes of His people, patient, powerful in order, wise in counsel, persistent in grace, and, last of all, very tender, Isaiah concludes with a cry to the people to turn to this Lord, from whom they have so deeply revolted. Let them cast away their idols, and there shall be no fear of the result of the Assyrian invasion. The Assyrians shall fall, not by the sword of man, but the immediate stroke of God. "And his rock shall pass away by reason of terror, and his princes shall be dismayed at the ensign, saith the Lord, whose fire is in Zion, and His furnace in Jerusalem." And so Isaiah closes this series of prophecies on the keynote with which it opened in the first verse of chapter 29 that Jerusalem is Ariel-"the hearth and altar, the dwelling-place and sanctuary, of God."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 31". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/isaiah-31.html.
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