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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Isaiah 31

 

 

Verse 1

Isaiah 31:1

Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help

The abundance of horses in Egypt

The abundance of horses in Egypt is attested, not only in other parts of Scripture, but by profane writers.
Homer describes Thebes as having a hundred gates, out of each of which two hundred warriors went forth with chariots and horses. Diodorns speaks of the whole country between Thebes and Memphis as filled with royal stables. The horses of Solomon are expressly said to have been brought out of Egypt. This kind of military force was more highly valued, in comparison with infantry, by the ancients than the moderns, and especially by those who, like the Hebrews, were almost entirely deprived of it themselves. Hence their reliance upon foreign aid is frequently identified with confidence in horses and contrasted with simple trust in God (
Psalms 20:7). (J. A. Alexander.)

Seeking God:

To “seek Jehovah” is not merely to consult Him, but to seek His aid, resort to Him, implying the strongest confidence. (J. A. Alexander.)

Looking

I want you to remember how much often depends in life on a straight and steady “look.” A few weeks ago there was a great rehearsal of Sunday-school choirs. All the children were assembled in a vast building, and away in front of them stood a man holding a little stick in his hand. And he said a few words to them. “To succeed,” said he, “you must keep your eyes on me and watch the movements of my hand.” Every now and then part of the choir went wrong in the time; they had taken their eyes off the conductor; they were not steadily, earnestly, intelligently looking to him. (C. Silvester Horne, M. A.)

Unholy alliances

I. THE UNHOLY ALLIANCE which the Jewish people formed with Egypt. God had promised to be their Protector; He had also prohibited alliances with heathen nations (Exodus 23:32; Deuteronomy 7:2). This alliance with Egypt was a violation of this command.

1. This unholy alliance is an old sin. They could see and feel the horses and chariots of Egypt. They allowed their senses to be their sovereigns, instead of making them their servants. Has not this been the ruin of the race? Fleshly lusts “war against the soul.” History is crowded with examples. Eve in Eden; Esau; the Israelites in the wilderness; David.

2. This unholy alliance is marked by peculiar features.

3. This unholy alliance incurred severe punishment. “Woe,” &c. Sin leads to punishment. The safety of a nation does not consist in the strength of her army, nor in the extent of her commerce, but in her loyalty to God Proverbs 14:34; Isaiah 60:12).

II. This unholy alliance is COMMON IN THE PRESENT DAY. This unholy alliance is formed--

1. When relief is looked for from wrong sources in the day of trouble. God is a refuge and helper to all true souls in trouble who trust in Him. Yet how common it is for many in the day of trouble to enter into a league with sin and make a covenant with death! A woe follows such, and sooner or later will overtake them.

2. When happiness is sought in wrong paths. True happiness is obtained when our will is brought into harmony with God’s will. Many look for it in other directions. E.g., the miser, the sensuous, the ambitious, the worldling.

3. When salvation is expected in any other way than through Christ.

4. When unworthy means are employed to spread the Gospel. Conclusion:--True loyalty to God will bring safety, happiness, heaven. Horses may bestrong, numerous, and swift; but they shall die and be forgotten. Chariots shall become lighter than dust; but they who do the will of God abide for ever. “Some trust in chariots,” &c. (J. Wileman.)


Verses 1-9

Verse 2

Isaiah 31:2

Yet He also is wise

God works in history

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
. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)

Forgetfulness of God

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. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)

The religion that ignores God

It is the temptation of an ordinary Christian, churchgoing 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. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)

Man no match for God

After Moscow, Napoleon is reported to have exclaimed, “The Almighty is too strong for me.” (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)


Verse 3

Isaiah 31:3

Men, and not God . . . flesh, and not spirit

Spiritual existences the chief forces of the world

It is here evidently implied that a spirit is mightier than a horse.
The ancients attached the idea of immense force to a well-trained war-horse.

I. SPIRIT IS THE ORIGINAL POWER We see power everywhere around us. We see it in the inanimate world, as the effect which one element produces upon another, and in the motion which one body, in a certain relation, produces upon another. We see it, also, in the world of life: in the plant that turns to its use, and transmutes into its own essence, the elements that play about it; in the beast that drags along the farmer’s harvest-wain, and in the bird that rises on the wing, and chants its victories over that force that binds the earth and links it to the sun. All these powers are manifestly effects, not ultimate causes--are derived, not primal. All true science suggests this, and the Bible declares it. Spirit is the fontal force. It was spirit that gave to the elements the proclivity to act and re-act on each other; and that so poised the masses of the universe that one should gently press its fellow into lines and ratios of motion, and thus conduce to the harmony and well-being of all. And the forces of life too, whether in the fibres of plants or the muscles of flesh, are but the breathings of that Spirit which “reneweth the face of the earth.” “He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.” “By His Spirit He hath garnished the heavens; His hand hath formed the crooked serpent.”

II. SPIRIT IS THE SUBORDINATING POWER. The horses of the Egyptians were “flesh and not spirit.” Implying, probably, the fact, that the Egyptian cavalry lacked that intelligence and skill necessary to render the noble animal of service in the field of battle. The value of the steed in the strife is ever in proportion to the skill of the rider. “Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” Reason is mightier than brute force. What force is there on earth that man cannot subordinate to his will? Man can press every element into his service as well as every living creature. Let us rise to a sense of the greatness of the nature with which God has endowed us. We are spirit; emanations of the Infinite Mind, and members of that spiritual system for which matter, in all its functions and forms, was made. Let us assert our supremacy over the material--“use the world as not abusing it.” In one sense we can never think too highly of ourselves. “what shall it profit a man?” &c. (D. Thomas, D. D.)

Spirituality of the Divine nature

In these words we are reminded of an important and infinite disparity between God and man, arising from a great peculiarity in the character of the former, which rendered the Egyptian monarch and his cavalry infinitely inferior to Him in power, and Gall those other qualities which entitle the possessor of them to confidence and trust.

I. The spirituality of the Divine nature is intimately connected with THE POSSESSION OF ALMIGHTY POWER. The vulgar notion which would restrict the exercise of power to what is corporeal, and deny it to that which is spiritual and immaterial, is a mere prejudice, founded on gross inattention or ignorance. If we inquire after the original seat of power, we shall invariably find it in mind, not in body; in spirit, not in flesh. The changes we are able to effect in the state of the objects around us are produced through the instrumentality of the body, which is always previously put in motion by the mind. As we can move certain parts of our bodies at pleasure, and nothing intervenes betwixt the volition and the corresponding movements, so the great original Spirit impresses on the machine of the universe what movements He pleases, and without the intervention of any other cause. “He speaks, and it is done; He commands, and it stands fast.”

II. His spirituality is closely connected with His INVISIBILITY. “The King eternal, immortal, invisible,” “whom no man hath seen, nor can see.”

Whatever is the object of sight must be perceived under some determinate shape or figure; it must be, consequently, bounded by an outline, and occupy a determinate portion of space, and no more; attributes utterly incompatible with the conceptions of an infinite being. He was pleased formerly, indeed, to signalise His presence with His worshippers by visible symbols, by an admixture of clouds and fire, of darkness and splendour; but that these were never intended to exhibit His power, but merely to afford a sensible attestation of His special presence, is evident, from the care He took to prevent His worshippers from entertaining degrading conceptions of His character, by the solemn prohibition of attempting to represent Him by an image or picture.

III. That God is spirit, and not flesh, is a view of His character closely connected with His OMNIPRESENCE. Matter is subjected to a local circumscription; God, as a Spirit, is capable of co-existing with every other order of being.

IV. Because God is spirit and not flesh, He is possessed of INFINITE WISDOM AND INTELLIGENCE. Thought and perception are the attributes of mind, not of matter; of spirit, not of flesh; and, for this reason, the original and great Spirit possesses them in an infinite degree.

V. The spirituality of the Divine nature lays A FOUNDATION FOR THE MOST INTIMATE RELATION BETWEEN THE INTELLIGENT PART OF THE CREATION AND HIMSELF. He is emphatically “the Father of spirits.”

VI. The spirituality of the Divine nature FITS HIM FOR BECOMING OUR ETERNAL PORTION AND SUPREME GOOD. (Robert Hall, M. A.)


Verse 4

Isaiah 31:4

Like as the lion and the young lion roaring on his prey

A Homeric passage

There is no passage in Isaiah which is so Homeric in ring as this; cf.
Iliad, 18.161 f., 12.299 ft. (F. Delitzsch.)

The lion and the shepherds

Is it an unworthy figure of the Divine Claimant for this city, who kept unceasing hold upon her after His own manner, mysterious and lionlike 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. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)

The lionlike mercies of God

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, lionlike though they be, than on the weak benevolenees and officious pities of the best of human advisers. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)


Verse 5

Isaiah 31:5

As birds flying

Three pictures of one reality

I.
THE VERY STRIKING AND BEAUTIFUL PICTURES. There are three of them.

1. “As birds flying,” &c. 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 old 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. 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. “Like as a lion,” &c. 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 one 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? 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.

2. The second picture is not so obvious to English readers, but it is equally striking. The word that is translated in our text twice “defend” and “defending,” 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 from the broad and burnished surface of the almighty buckler, all the darts that any foe can launch against us.

3. “Passing over, He will deliver.” 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 are swept back to that night when the Destroying Angel stalked through the land, and “passed over” the doors on which the blood had been sprinkled.

II. THE REALITY MEANT BY THESE PICTURES. They mean the absolute promise from God of protection for His people from every evil.

III. THE WAY BY WHICH WE CAN MAKE THE REALITY OF THESE PICTURES OURS. All the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament are conditional, and there are many of them that were never fulfilled, and were spoken in order that they might not be fulfilled, because the people took warning.

1. Put thou thy trust in God, and God is to thee the hovering bird, the broad shield, the angel that “passes over.”

2. 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.

3. Another condition of Divine protection is obedience. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

A twofold representation of God

Like a lion descending from the mountains (Psalms 76:4) to seize its prey, whom the shepherds are impotent to dismay, so Jehovah at the head of the Assyrian battalions, will advance against Jerusalem; the city is already within His grasp--when suddenly the image changes, and the impetuous lion is transformed into a bird protecting and shielding its threatened nest. (Prof. S. R. Driver, D. D.)

God’s care for His people

Egyptian horses cannot fly, but “as birds flying, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem.” The image is clear and impressive. There lies the fair city, more a thought than a thing, a poem in architecture, God’s poetry set forth in types and letters of stone, and the Lord Himself is as a thousand birds, curling, circling, watching, protecting His loved Zion. No figure is to be driven to its furthest issues; we are to take out of it that which is substantial in reason and in truth: and from this figure we extract the doctrine that God hovers about His people, cares for them, watches them, sometimes sends a raven, it may be, to help them when they come out of their dream-sleep, wondering in daze and bewilderment what the universe was made for, and what they themselves can do, Any image that brings God nearer to us is an image that the memory should treasure. The Lord knows what the issue of trusting in Egyptian horses will be, and what the end of all idolatry will be. (J. Parker, D. D.)


Verse 9

Isaiah 31:9

The Lord, whose fire is in Zion

The Lord’s furnace

This very remarkable designation of God stands ere as a kind of seal set upon the preceding prophecy.
It is the reason why that shall certainly be fulfilled. And what precedes is mainly a promise of a deliverance for Israel, which was to be a destruction for Israel’s enemies. We shall not understand these great words if we regard them as only a revelation of destructive and terrible power. It is the very beauty and completeness of this emblem that it has a double aspect and is to less rich in joy and blessing than pregnant with warning and terror.

I. IN THE CHURCH GOD IS PRESENT AS A GREAT RESERVOIR OF FERVID LOVE. Every language has taken fire as the symbol of love and emotion. He dwells in His Church, a storehouse of blazing love, heated seventy times seven hotter than any creatural love, and pouring out its ardours for the quickening and gladdening of all who walk in the light of that fire and thaw their coldness at its blaze. Then, how comes it that so many Christian Churches are ice-houses instead of furnaces? If God’s blazing furnace is in Jerusalem, it should send the thermometer up in all the houses of the city. But what a strange contradiction it is for men to be in God’s Church, the very focus and centre of His burning love, and themselves to be almost down below zero in their temperature! A fiery furnace with its doors hung with icicles is no greater a contradiction and anomaly than a Christian Church or a single soul which professes to have been touched by the infinite lovingkindness of God, and yet lives as cold and unmoved as we do. There is no religion worth calling so which has not warmth in it. We hear a great deal about the danger of an “emotional Christianity.” Agreed, if by that they mean a Christianity which has no foundation for its emotion in principle and intelligence; but not agreed, if they mean to recommend a Christianity which professes to accept truths that might kindle a soul beneath the ribs of death and make the dumb sing, and yet is never moved one hair’s-breadth from its quiet phlegmaticism. If there is no fire, what is there? Cold is death. We want no flimsy, transitory, noisy, ignorant, hysterical agitation. Smoke is not fire. If the temperature were higher, and the fire more wisely fed, there would not be any. But we do want a more obvious and powerful effect of our solemn, glorious, and heart-melting beliefs on the affections and emotions of professing Christians, and that they may be more mightily moved by love to heroisms of service and enthusiasms of consecration which shall in some measure answer to the glowing heat of that fire of God which flames in Zion.

II. GOD’S REVELATION OF HIMSELF, AND PRESENCE IN HIS CHURCH, ARE AN INSTRUMENT OF CLEANSING. Fire purifies. In our great cities now there are “disinfecting ovens,” where infected articles are taken, and exposed to a high temperature which kills the germs of disease, so that tainted things come out sweet and clean. That is what God’s furnace in Zion is meant to do for us. The true way of purifying is by fire. To purify by water, as John the Baptist saw and said, is but a poor cold way of getting outward cleanliness. Water cleanses the surface, and becomes dirty in the process. Fire cleanses within and throughout, and is not tainted thereby. The Hebrew captives were flung into the fiery furnace; what did it burn? Only their bonds. They themselves lived, and rejoiced, in the intense heat. So, if we have any real possession of that Divine flame, it will burn off our wrists the bands and chains of our old vices, and we shall stand pure and clear, emancipated by the fire which will burn up only our sins, and be for our true selves as our native home, where we walk at liberty and expatiate in the genial warmth.

III. GOD, IN HIS GREAT REVELATION OF HIMSELF BY WHICH HE DWELLS IN HIS CHURCH, IS A POWER OF TRANSFORMATION. Fire turns all which it seizes into fire. And so God, coming to us in His “Spirit of burning,” turns us into His own likeness, and makes us possessors of some spark of Himself.

IV. This figure teaches that THE SAME DIVINE FIRE MAY BECOME DESTRUCTIVE. The emblem of fire suggests a double operation, and the very felicity of it as an emblem is that it has these two sides, and with equal naturalness may stand for a power which quickens and for one which destroys. The difference in the effects springs not from differences in the cause, but in the objects on which the fire plays. We may make the furnace of God our blessedness and the reservoir of a far more joyful and noble life than ever we could have lived in our coldness; or we may make it terror and destruction. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

The fiery ordeal of the Church

I. Let us endeavour to understand THE NAMES BY WHICH GOD’S CHURCH IS DESIGNATED, particularly under the Old Testament--“Zion” and “Jerusalem.” They are very significant. Some tell us that the word “Zion” simply signifies a monument or heap of stones in memorial. Nothing could be more significant with reference to the Church of God--a chosen monument of grace, constituted of a heap of stones. “Jerusalem.” It is very evident from the termination of it--Salem--that it signifies “peace”; and it is conjectured by some to have been the capital of Melchizedec; but one thing is certain, it was the organised city of the great King, the King of peace, and so is the Church of the living God. No city on the face of the earth was ever so warred against as Jerusalem. And, in this respect, Jerusalem was exactly the picture of the Church of God. What was her paramount glory? Not her extent; she never was a large city. Not the tractableness and teachableness of her sons, for they were very rebellious against even the Lord their God. What then was the glory of her city? The name and presence of her God there. This is our stay, this is our confidence, this is our joy, this is our constant expectation. His presence must be sensibly enjoyed, in order to know that He is here.

II. THE ORDEAL THROUGH WHICH THE CHURCH OF GOD MUST PASS. “His fire in Zion, and His furnace in Jerusalem.” The saints of the living God may expect, and whether they expect or no, they are sure to meet a succession of trials, both in a temporal and a spiritual sense. I would take another view of the subject: if there were no “fire in Zion,” and no “furnace in Jerusalem,” there would be no sacrifice, no burnt-offering, no clouds of incense; and therefore God says, it shall ever be burning. In this sense, it is the emblem of life Divine, the Holy Spirit’s work. I would name three things which God is doing with the “furnace.”

III. THE TENDENCY AND THE TERMINATION OF THIS PROCESS. The tendency is the exercising of all the graces in personal religion; the termination is to demonstrate Divine love and faithfulness in the deliverance and ultimate glorification of His saints. (J. Irons.)
.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Isaiah 31:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/isaiah-31.html. 1905-1909. New York.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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