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God Protects (Where Do You Turn in a Crisis?): Isaiah 31

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

IMPACT Your One Summary

Scroll to the very bottom of this article to see this week's "Impact Your One" emphasis.

This week: Judah seemed to think it would be wiser to rely on Egypt's army rather than God for defense against Assyria.

Who Do You Trust?

Sadly, this sign to the left really exists. Other sign-makers have redeemed it by changing it to "Prayer Succeeds When All Else Fails", but that doesn't fix the attitude that some (many?) Christians have: when all else fails, pray.

[Unnecessary aside: this particular sign company also makes that wonderful next sign, so it could be that everything they do is just sarcastic, which would make that first sign amazing.]

When you're in need, what's your first reaction? You're probably going to have to think about this for a while and be honest with yourself. Consider these sample tough situations. If they were to happen to you, what would be your first reaction - what would you do first?

  • Your credit card gets declined.

  • Your kid comes in with a nasty gash on his leg.

  • The bank calls: "We've been hacked."

  • You find out that your boss has said some unflattering things about you.

  • You come home to find your front door broken open.

  • You have a sudden chest pain with a shortness of breath.

  • Your kid calls: "I've been in an accident."

  • Your friend is making decisions that will put him on a dangerous path.

Pick a scenario (or make one up) that would really bother you. What's the first thing you do? If that first reaction is "I need to call my lawyer" or "I need to call my friend on the police force" or "I need to call my doctor" or "I need to scream", then I pray that you're able to take this week's passage to heart. Your reaction is the very one that most of us have most of the time, but it's not how God wants us to react. God wants us to immediately turn to Him in a crisis.

[Strangely, this truth has been interpreted by some Christians to mean "only turn to God", and so they will never call a doctor or the police or a lawyer or whatnot. That's not what God means, and so that's not what I'm saying.]

Our gut reaction to something reveals our true object of trust -- our god, if you will. It's where we really think we're going to get the best help. Not convinced? Think of it this way: did you teach your kids to call you first if they were ever in an accident or some sort of crisis? Why? So you could help them walk through what they needed to do next -- so you could help them calmly respond and get safe as quickly as possible. And also because you want them to trust you more than the person they may be with. Right?

When we find ourselves in a crisis, God wants our first reaction to be to go to Him. Always, and in every situation. And I can tell you from experience how that exchange might go: "God?" "I'm with you. You need to call 911." Faster than my own brain could process what had happened and what I needed to do, God put me on the right path and helped me calmly take the next step. This isn't like calling your dad, where you have to find your phone, make a call, and hope your dad answers, and then gather your thoughts. No, going to God is instantaneous. It's also the best thing we can do. In my experience, God has helped me process my situation and take the best next step. Sometimes that has been to immediately call a doctor or call a friend or call the bank. And sometimes that has been to wait and let other things happen before acting. But every time, the step God has helped me take has been the best possible choice.

[Note: in full and necessary disclosure, that "best possible choice" does not mean that God then miraculously undid the consequences of a poor previous choice I made, or miraculously undid the outcome of a tragedy that just occurred. It means that God was with me and helped me do the best thing I could in that moment.]

In this passage, we are going to learn why our first reaction needs to be to go to God for our help, not someone or something else. This is a critical lesson for every Christian.

Our Context in Isaiah

Two weeks ago, we covered the woe oracles of chapters 13-23 -- God is Lord over those nations. Last week, we dove into the "Little Apocalypse" of chapters 24-27 -- God is Lord over the whole earth. The next major section of Isaiah is chapter 28-35, another set of woe oracles but this time focused on Judah. It leads into chapters 36-39, the amazing account of the attack by and defeat of Assyria at Jerusalem about 700 BC. It would make sense that these messages were delivered sometime right before the full invasion by Assyria so that, "when push comes to shove", King Hezekiah will not listen to his advisors secretly negotiating with Egypt but rather to Isaiah. Here's the outline:

  • 28:1-13 -- a repeat of a woe Isaiah told the northern kingdom of Israel (~722 BC) when they had made the mistake of allying with Syria, used now as an illustration for Judah -- "don't make the mistake Israel made".

  • 28:14-29 -- a message to the leaders in Jerusalem that whatever choice they make will be a referendum on their faith in God.

  • **Jesus uses 28:16 to tell the Jewish leaders in His day that they face a similar referendum: will they listen to God or themselves.

  • 29:1-8 -- Jerusalem faces the same devastation as God's enemies because of their sin, and yet even then God can defend them.

  • 29:9-14 -- God stands ready to defend Jerusalem, but her leaders are just as "drunk" and stupid as the leaders in Israel were when she fell.

  • **Jesus uses 29:13 to tell the Jewish leaders that they are in the same situation

  • 29:15-24 -- God sees that Jews are trying to secretly negotiate with Egypt for help which is not only futile but completely unnecessary.

  • 30:1-18 -- a repeat of the theme: it is futile to trust in Egypt but not in the Lord.

  • 30:19-33 -- even after all of the times Judah has failed to trust God, God will still save them if they repent by defeating their enemies and blessing their land.

  • 31:1-32:20 -- a repeat of the theme: it is futile to trust in Egypt but not in the Lord; this section goes into much more detail about the salvation God will provide for His people -- the fall of Assyria, the coming of the True King, and the coming of the Spirit.

  • 33:1-24 -- another prophecy that God will destroy the destroyer (Assyria?).

  • 34:1-35:10 -- the conclusion -- those who trust the nations will live in a desert; those who trust in God will live in a garden; which will you choose?

Over and over again: trust in God or trust in the nations.

It's a simple question, but it makes even more sense when we know the history around it.

It's History Time!!

This is one of my favorite parts about studying the Old Testament. Having briefly glanced at the rest of the lessons in Isaiah, it seems like this is the best week to talk about this stuff, so here we go!

The Rise and Fall of Egypt and Assyria

In our passage this week, God makes some historical comments about both Egypt and Assyria. Assuming you're not an expert in ancient civilizations, I can share some context about this.

Assyria is one of the "Big Bads" of the Old Testament. From 911-631 BC, they built what is largely considered the first modern world empire. They built it entirely through conquest and maintained it entirely through terror. The Bible's perspective is in 2 Kings 15-19.

  • In 743 BC, Assyria invades Israel for the first time.

  • In 732 BC, Assyria conquers Syria/Damascus (Syro-Ephraimite War)

  • In 722 BC, Assyria conquers Israel/Samaria

  • In 698 BC, Assyria is miraculously defeated at Jerusalem (next week's lesson)

  • From 680-660 BC, Assyria resettles Israel with non-Jews

Where and How Egypt Enters the Picture

When you rule an empire entirely based on terror, you create many, many enemies. In 631 BC, the last strong ruler of Assyria (Ashurbanipal) died and civil war erupted. The greatest threat came from an alliance of Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, and Persians.

  • In 612 BC, Babylon conquers Nineveh, causing a large-scale retreat to Haran

  • ~612 BC, Assyria calls in a military favor from Egypt who mobilizes for war

  • In 609 BC, Egypt marches through Canaan; Josiah intervenes only to be killed and Judah made a vassal of Egypt (Battle of Megiddo)

  • In 609 BC, Babylon defeats the Assyria/Egypt alliance at Haran

  • In 605 BC, Babylon defeats the remnants of Assyria/Egypt at Carchemish

  • In 605 BC, Babylon occupies Jerusalem and deports many Jews

  • In 586 BC, the last of the Jews flee to Egypt

  • In 525 BC, Egypt is fully conquered by the Persians

If you don't like maps and dates, this great little 5-minute video is for you!

If you only like maps and dates, this 5-minute video is for you!

And if you felt like I ignored Egypt, this 12-minute video is for you!

(Start at the 10:00 mark for the time period in question in our passage.)

And if you think I'm taking this way too seriously, this Steve Martin video is for you!

What It All Means

Let's take a trip down memory lane to Isaiah 7 and the Syro-Ephraimite War. Around 740 BC, Assyria had exerted its dominance over Israel and Syria. Those two nations decided to form an alliance to resist Assyria, and when Judah (King Ahaz) refused to join them, they attacked Judah. Through Isaiah, God told Ahaz to trust Him for defense. Ahaz did not, but rather appealed to Assyria for military defense. In 732 BC, Assyria conquered Syria and took control of both Israel and Judah. In 722 BC, Israel rebelled, and Assyria destroyed them. So now, Ahaz is king in name only, and Assyria is the dominant power in the region.

Fast-forward about 20 years. Hezekiah is now king in Jerusalem, and he wants God to be the Ruler of Judah and not Assyria, so he rebels and Assyria attacks. I'm not going to say anything else about that because that's the context for next Sunday's lesson. But here's God's point: in these unstable times of nation warring against nation, it is very tempting to think that military alliances are your best bet for victory. And that is exactly what the world thinks! God's people have been oft-tempted to do the same, and that's a huge mistake. After the conquest of the Promised Land, God said to Israel that He would be their strength and shield. Their new "weapons" would be His law and gospel, and through that they would bless the entire world. (Jesus told us the same thing.) Here's what military alliances accomplished for God's people:

  • Forming an alliance with Syria to resist Assyria got Israel destroyed.

  • Requesting an alliance with Assyria for defense got Judah vassal-ized.

  • Relying on God for defense against Assyria led to a miraculous victory for Hezekiah.

  • Trying to intervene in Egypt and Assyria's alliance against Babylon got Hezekiah killed.

  • Forming an alliance with Assyria got Egypt vassal-ized.

  • Seeking refuge from Babylon in Egypt got Jews killed.

But on the other hand,

  • Forming an alliance gave Babylon and Persia the strength to defeat Assyria.

  • Forming an alliance gave Persia and Media the strength to defeat Babylon.

  • Greece (an alliance of independent city-states) conquered them all in the end.

My point: military alliances are the tools of the world. Every time God's people entertained that notion, it led to disaster. And frankly, every nation mentioned above was either conquered by or betrayed by a military alliance. Maybe war is just a disaster.

In Summary

A common theme of Isaiah's messages to the various kings of Judah was "trust in God first for your defense, not a military alliance with another nation". In the years after the fall of Israel (basically, kings Ahaz and Hezekiah), Isaiah hit this message over and over again (because the neighbor nations were constantly plotting ways to get rid of Assyria), and those messages were compiled in chapters 28-35.

Our lesson comes from one such message, a woe oracle that summarizes God's warnings to the kings of Judah.


Part 1: False Hope (Isaiah 31:1-3)

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and who depend on horses! They trust in the abundance of chariots and in the large number of horsemen. They do not look to the Holy One of Israel, and they do not seek the Lord. 2 But he also is wise and brings disaster. He does not go back on what he says; he will rise up against the house of the wicked and against the allies of evildoers. 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 one who is helped will fall; both will perish together.

People "depend" on things, right? There are things that you probably sleep better at night because you know that whatever-thing will always be there. Identify this picture:

Why is it called that? That specific term? If it were only about being regular, it would be called "Old Regular". No, there's something more to it. Something about the constancy that actually brings comfort. For some people, it's the stars; for others, it's a tree they grew up with; for others, it's their parent's house. For a lot of people, this "it will always be there" thing brings them comfort and security. And we derive comfort from them at our own risk.

Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Matt 24:35). Interestingly, He said that in the context of talking about the end of the world. What's His point? If we can see it, it's not eternal. Everything in the world around us, no matter how strong or permanent or trustworthy it might seem, will eventually perish and turn to dust. Even the stars in the heavens have a life span! Let's say you don't believe any of this Bible mumbo-jumbo, that it's all a bunch of hooey. Even your best scientists say that the sun will burn out in 5 billion years and the earth will be destroyed in it's red giant phase. So, if everything in your universe will eventually disintegrate into nothing, what do you have hope in? For atheists, there is nothing. Every motivation they give themselves to make it through another day is a mirage.

But if there is a Creator-God . . .

Then all of a sudden, there is meaning and purpose to everything. Even the most violent supernova has its part to play in bringing the universe toward it's given end. And all of these things that we look to for peace and comfort (like Old Faithful) have meaning and purpose. But they should not be the source of our comfort and peace -- they should only point us toward the One who gave them (and us) meaning and purpose and thus comfort and peace.

Trusting in the creation rather than the Creator is beyond foolishness.

Here's one way you can illustrate this: in 2010, the US gave $1.3B in military aid to Egypt. So, should Israel rely on modern Egypt for aid against modern Syria? Or should it look to modern US who already gave it $2.8B in aid in 2010 and had a defense budget of $664B in 2010? The whole idea is ridiculous, right? Replace "US" with "God" and it's worse.

According to Isaiah 30:1-7, envoys from Israel went to Egypt looking for military aid. We do not know if they went in official capacity from King Hezekiah, but either way Hezekiah was not providing good leadership for his people to feel secure about. And how foolish! Listen to what God says in Isaiah 30:15-18:

15 For the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said:

“You will be delivered by returning and resting;

your strength will lie in quiet confidence. But you are not willing.”

16 You say, “No! We will escape on horses”— therefore you will escape!—

and, “We will ride on fast horses”— but those who pursue you will be faster.

17 One thousand will flee at the threat of one, at the threat of five you will flee,

until you remain like a solitary pole on a mountaintop or a banner on a hill.

18 Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy,

and is rising up to show you compassion, for the Lord is a just God.

All who wait patiently for him are happy.

Their decision to look to Egypt for help rather than to God looks worse and worse.

Aside on horses and chariots. So, the horse is apparently native to the northern Middle East/southern Russia, and they were domesticated around 2500 BC. The wheel had been invented in the Middle East around 3000 BC. The oldest chariots date to about 2000 BC in the southern Ural mountains, and that's right about the time the word for "horse" appears in Mesopotamia. So, apparently, people in the region of south Russia used the imported wheel to create a chariot for their horses (the oldest reliefs of horses are always with chariots, never with people riding on horseback; no one knows for sure why they didn't want to ride on horseback except that perhaps the earliest horses were weaker and had to be bred for generations to carry a rider) which they then took south to Babylonia.

Syria was the first nation to use the chariot in the ancient Near East, and that's how they created their "empire" starting in 1800 BC. If you remember me talking about the "Hyksos" who surprisingly conquered parts of Egypt in 1650 BC, well, they used chariots to do so, and that's how the Egyptians obtained chariot technology. The most famous chariot battle in history took place in 1294 BC between the Egyptians and the Hittites at Qadesh on the Orontes River in Syria. Only 50 chariots participated on each side. Chariots were expensive and very powerful compared with the standard infantry.

The chariot was the dominant military weapon from 1700 BC to 500 BC. With it, the Hittites, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Persians all conquered their empires. So, that's why the Israelites were so enamored with chariots.

[Incidentally, chariots were "market-corrected" by mounted knights. once iron armor and weapons appeared, the chariot became very inefficient. It would be thousands of years before the tank became the new mobile fighting platform.]

But the Israelites should have known better than to put their hopes in chariots! What happened in the Exodus? Pharaoh charged after the basically helpless Israelites with 600 of his best chariots. This would have been around 1450 BC, plenty of time for the Egyptians to get very good at using chariots. The Israelites were literal sitting ducks! And wasn't that the point? God miraculously defended them against an enemy they could not possibly hope to defeat. "Both horse and driver He has hurled into the sea" (Ex 15:1).

But clearly they forgot.


Part 2: True Faithfulness (Isaiah 31:4-5)

4 For this is what the Lord said to me: As a lion or young lion growls over its prey when a band of shepherds is called out against it, and it is not terrified by their shouting or subdued by their noise, so the Lord of Armies will come down to fight on Mount Zion and on its hill. 5 Like hovering birds, so the Lord of Armies will protect Jerusalem; by protecting it, he will rescue it; by passing over it, he will deliver it.

Animal keepers will all tell you that the predators they are the most cautious with are the ones who are not scared away by your approach. A shepherd is no match for a bear or a mountain lion if that predator chooses to stand its ground! That's the interesting image that God uses to illustrate His relationship with His people. Judah is like a sheep that's being herded around by other nations (Egypt, Assyria, etc.) (note: a very different image than they have for themselves!!), but those other nations are no more than simple shepherds compared with God the Lion. Even the "mighty" Assyria is nothing more than that.

The bird illustration is interesting, and there's not complete agreement on what God means by it. Certainly, it's birds protecting a nest. Around here, it's most humorous in the grackles and mockingbirds chasing off crows and squirrels from their nests. They are fearless in dive-bombing those much larger and stronger animals to protect their young. I haven't seen this myself, but according to the internet, fierce birds like hawks and eagles also defend their nests from predators, and those guys can actually do serious damage to even large predators if they want to. Your Leader Guide leans into the more helpless bird approach -- as in the mother sacrificing herself to distract the predator from the nest. I suppose that could be it, but it makes much more sense to me as the very-capable-of-defending-itself hawk. God is identifying Himself consistently as the apex predator.

The progression of actions is also interesting. By "protecting" He will "rescue"; then by "passing over" He will "deliver". At the basic level, this means that God first protects His people from danger and then delivers them from harm. It's intentionally comprehensive; God is not like the superhero who swoops in for the battle and then leaves during the aftermath. But this is also the same word used of the "Passover" in Exodus 12. That's the second clear reference to the Exodus! Do you think God is making a point? In the Passover (which is the only other place this word is used), God destroyed Israel's enemies but protected Israel. I think this is to show that God is both a defender and an attacker -- but even in His attacks He protects His people.

This section makes me think of a similar war in which God miraculously delivered His people from a superior army: 2 Kings 6 and the Arameans.

16 Elisha said, “Don’t be afraid, for those who are with us outnumber those who are with them.”
17 Then Elisha prayed, “Lord, please open his eyes and let him see.” So the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he saw that the mountain was covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

Why would humans ever think they are better off relying on a human army rather than on God? You can read the rest of 2 Kings 6 to see how that was resolved; it's wise, it's gracious, and it brings about a conclusion that we should always hope for.


Part 3: Repentance Demonstrated (Isaiah 31:6-9)

6 Return to the one the Israelites have greatly rebelled against. 7 For on that day, every one of you will reject the worthless idols of silver and gold that your own hands have sinfully made.
8 Then Assyria will fall, but not by human sword; a sword will devour him, but not one made by man. He will flee from the sword; his young men will be put to forced labor. 9 His rock will pass away because of fear, and his officers will be afraid because of the signal flag.
This is the Lord’s declaration—whose fire is in Zion and whose furnace is in Jerusalem.

Here is the meat of the passage. All of that to get to this! EVEN NOW THE ISRAELITES CAN RETURN TO GOD. After all of their terribly dumb choices, He will forgive and accept them back.

"On that day" -- meaning the day they repent -- is a callback to Isaiah 30:19-33. That's an incredible passage. It includes the famous, "and whenever you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear this command behind you: 'This is the way. Walk in it.'”, as well as the allusions to the final victory in Revelation. Read those verses and let your soul be refreshed.

In the end, Assyria did fall (twice, really). In the next section of Isaiah, which we will talk about next week, God gave Jerusalem a miraculous victory over the Assyrian army, significantly damaging their power. They remained on the offensive in other locations for a few more decades, but they would eventually be overwhelmed by the Babylonians. So, this is a multi-layered fulfillment. Part of Assyria's army was destroyed by God at Jerusalem. In the destabilizing fallout, the rest of the army would be whittled away and either killed or captured and turned into slaves. "His rock" is a metaphor for a stronghold. The Assyrians ultimately lost multiple strongholds: Nineveh, then Haran, then Carchemish.

Why and how? Because they threatened Jerusalem. And God has chosen Jerusalem to be His "dwelling place" on earth -- the location of His temple. Even post-Jesus, when every believer is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, Jerusalem still has a special meaning to God. In Revelation 21, God's dwelling place on earth is called the "New Jerusalem". (Note: this doesn't mean that the new Holy City is physically located in the same place as old Jerusalem, but I don't see why it wouldn't be; it's all about God's good pleasure.)



That leads us to the "Impact Your One" moment for the lesson. Please leave about 3-5 minutes at the end of your lesson to bring this up. As a reminder, in the spring (pre-COVID), we had a "Who's Your One?" campaign in which we asked our church members to identify someone(s) in their life who needed to hear about Jesus. It was a good and effective campaign that was interrupted by the shutdown. So, we want to spin it back up again with a one-month "refresher" called "Impact Your One".

The first week, our emphasis is reminding church members that it is our job to share the message of Isaiah 31. In verse 6, God says, "Return to the One you have rebelled against", which takes us back to verse 5, in which God says that He will rescue and deliver.

Jesus said many similar things in His ministry, one of my favorites being, "The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10).

The mission of God has always been to return lost humanity to a personal relationship with Him. And God has always taken the initiative to make that restoration possible, culminating in Jesus allowing Himself to be sacrificed that our sins might be atoned for.

God has accomplished His part of the mission, and now it is to us to share that news with the rest of lost humanity. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Our passage in Isaiah makes it clear that God will destroy all who oppose Him, but any can repent and return to Him and instead find protection and deliverance.

In the next few weeks, we will briefly remind ourselves how we do this. This first week, all we need to do is remember that we are supposed to do this.


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