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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 31, or, An Impossible Faith

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Below, as ever, please find a new chapter of Isaiah and accompanying essay.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 31

1. Oh, the doomed go down to Egypt for help; they depend on horses; they trust in chariots, because of how many there are, and in horsemen, because of how very mighty — they have no regard for Israel’s Sacred One. They don’t seek out God.

2. But he himself is wise indeed; he will bring calamity; he will not rescind his proclamations. He stands against the household of the wicked and the assistants of corruption.

3. Now, the Egyptians are human and not divine. Their horses are flesh and not spirit. God will reach forth his hand: then the one bringing aid will falter and the one being aided will fall, and together they will all of them collapse, spent.

4. Because so said God to me: ‘like a lion roaring or a cub growling over its prey, when the full complement of shepherds is summoned against him — he won’t be cowed by their voice or chastened by their ruckus: that’s how God will be, coming down with his Legions in battle formation to fight on the mountain of Zion and on its hillside,

5. Like sparrows fluttering . . . that’s how the God of Legions will mount a defense of Jerusalem — mounting defense and salvation, passing over and bringing rescue.

6. Turn back, sons of Israel, back to the one from whom you defected so far.

7. Because On That Day every man will reject his empty silver gods and his empty gods of gold, which you made for yourselves with your own hands of sin.

8. And Assyria falls at the point of a blade — not a man’s blade. And they will be food for the sword — not a human sword. He flees from the sword, and his chosen sons become tribute-offerings.

9. His fortress of stone will collapse in terror, and his elites will be cowed by the battle-flag, declares God — whose light is on Zion, whose flare burns in Jerusalem.

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Isaiah wanted something impossible from his people. That fact is as stark in this chapter as it is anywhere else in the Bible. Under threat of extinction, in the shadow of an unstable and vindictive empire, with Assyrian forces bearing down upon them in the tens of thousands, the Israelites were called to do . . . nothing. Or at least, they were called not to pursue the only obvious and plausible solution on hand. Egypt was, so far as could be seen, the sole nearby principality with a strength of arms to rival Assyria’s and a willingness to help Israel fight back. If their offer of aid was not accepted, none other with an earthly chance of success would be forthcoming.

And yet Isaiah insisted that the Jewish king Hezekiah ignore the Egyptians. ‘The Egyptians are human and not divine,’ declared the prophet: ‘their horses are flesh and not spirit’ (verse 3). Turn down human aid, he demanded, and demonstrate that you trust in heaven more than you trust in the Egyptian cavalry. God, and not man, will provide victory.

Well sure, you can almost hear Hezekiah saying, but I can see the chariots. They’re right there – the rescue we’ve been waiting for, the one thing we need to make all our problems go away. The nation with the power to rescue Jerusalem was reaching out the hand of friendship – how could a responsible king demur? Isaiah tells us with a heavy heart that the Israelites did not demur: ‘they trust in chariots, because of how many there are, and on horsemen, because of how very mighty — they have no regard for Israel’s Sacred One. They don’t seek out God’ (verse 1).

I defy you to tell me with certainty that you would have done differently. It’s easy, when we’re looking back on this ancient history, to make it all about how faithless Israel was. Those fools, we think, it’s so plain: God had said explicitly that he would help them if they just held out. And that’s true. But can any one of us really be sure that in a true existential crisis, given the choice between a tangible prospect for security and an amorphous promise of divine aid, we wouldn’t go for the sensible, earthly solution? Would you turn down your one job offer, or leave your parachute in the plane, because you had a vague feeling that God would intervene to avert disaster? Could you stare Assyria in the face and pass up an alliance with Egypt?

No. We human beings don’t work that way, not really. In fact, the Bible tells us we don’t work that way: ‘the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). God works on a level and in ways that are inaccessible to the logic of our experience. Absent the most transcendent kind of inspiration by the Holy Spirit, we are forced to reason based on what we see in front of us. Our senses and our minds are simply all the tools we have at our disposal.

But God works for our good in ways that go beyond our senses and defy the powers of our minds. Isaiah 54:9: ‘as exalted as Heaven is high above Earth, that’s how high above your paths my paths are, and my thoughts above your thoughts.’ There are some scenarios in which every one of us would find it nigh on impossible to trust God without a backup plan because, simply put, we can’t see him. There is a level on which we are all blind.

And that is the point of these chapters. Not that Israel or Hezekiah was particularly rebellious, but that we who are broken are constitutionally unable, every one of us, to trust God in the fullest extremity. As Assyrian conquest loomed, God’s demands upon the Israelites were tailor-made to teach that lesson: true faith is beyond you. It is, indeed, beyond the very nature our fallen humanity.

The story of the Israelites, then, is designed to elicit in us not superiority and self-satisfaction, but awe at the God who saves despite our incapacity to believe. This is the great paradox: we must confess that we are incapable of faith if our faith is to mean anything at all. Indeed, when God forces us to realise our faithlessness, only then do we really grasp what it means that he is faithful. Only then do we understand that though we routinely give up on him because of what we are, still because of who he is he will never, not once, give up on us.

Rejoice evermore,
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