With the transition to chapter 31, Isaiah is approaching his climactic appeal. But in building to that climax, like a good preacher that he is, he reiterates his two main points: Egypt’s help is worthless and in any case unnecessary, for the Lord Himself will fight for Zion and overthrow the Assyrians. This latter point is then repeated in verses 8-9, after the appeal of verse 6, as if to underline the fact that while grace is promised before repentance, that the same grace can be fully experienced only when repentance has taken place.
The first reason for repentance is the threat of impending judgment. The Woe of verse 1 is the last pronounced on Judah in this part of the book, and may well have been sounded later than the others when Sennacherib was on his final approach to Jerusalem. By then the futility of looking to Egypt for help had become fully apparent and it was clear to all that disaster was imminent. It was no time for mincing words or pulling punches, and Isaiah certainly doesn’t do so by the hard-hitting verses 1-3. It’s clear in verse 3 that it is an unequal contest; human beings cannot fight against God and win. As verses 4-5 immediately makes clear, another possibility still exists; unless there is a radical change on Judah’s part, the Lord will fully implement His threat and nothing that people can do will stop Him. We have to know that God cannot be manipulated before we are ready to throw ourselves upon God’s mercy.
The second reason for repentance is the promise of salvation or more precisely, of a Savior – a true, effective one instead of the false, worthless one that Egypt had proved to be. That Savior is of course the Lord, pictured as a lion in verse 4 and as birds hovering in verse 5 and the two are complementary. As Savior the Lord is both strong and determined (like the lion) and solicitous and protective (like the birds). The logic of verses 1-5 as a whole seems to be as follows: Woe to those who go down to Egypt (vv. 1-3), for the Lord, and He alone, is Jerusalem’s true Savior. What the pictures of verses 4-5 amount to, is a promise that the Lord Himself will fight for and protect Jerusalem. That promise still stood when Sennacherib’s envoys were finally at the gates, and Hezekiah then had, at last, the wisdom and humility to claim it.
Repentance is radical. It is not just giving up this or that sin, but a complete turnabout in our stance towards God, and it goes right to the root of our sinfulness. As for the prodigal son, it is a recognition that we are rebels, and a return to the One we have so deeply offended (v. 6). Its consequences too, are radical: all other gods have to go (v.7) in order to clear the way for the full enjoyment of God’s blessing (vv. 8-9). For Isaiah, idolatry was the ultimate outward sign of rebellion against God. Idolatry had taken hold before the alliance with Egypt was conceived. It was, we may say, the cancer which lay at the root of all the nation’s ills, for it showed that the Lord no longer had His people’s undivided loyalty. Its natural, therefore, that in calling for radical repentance, Isaiah should again point to the casting away of idols as the evidence that will confirm it.
The final two verses (vv. 8-9) put the seal on this call to repentance by reiterating God’s promise to deal decisively with the Assyrians. But now a new element is added: the Assyrians shall be destroyed by a sword…not of man or of mortals (v. 8). That is, the people of Jerusalem will not even have to fight. The Lord will intervene miraculously, and they will receive His promised salvation as a gift. Such is His grace to those who repent.
In view of all this, the expression ‘in that day’ in verse 7 must be allowed to point beyond the events of 701BC (wonderful as they were) to something more distant and more perfect, as it so often does elsewhere in the book. There was no perfect repentance or perfect salvation in 701BC. But God’s gracious goodness to His people when they cried out to Him then was a foretaste of something far greater and more glorious which He has in store for all who turn to Him for salvation.
Isaiah 31:1-9 Reflection Questions:
What lessons do we learn from the timing of verses 1-5?
What is your “Egypt” in your life?
What “other gods” do you need to clear away?
What is in the way of giving God your undivided loyalty?