Posted by: mattcolvin | August 22, 2010

Questions and Notes on Isaiah 31-37

1. In 31, what is the reason why the Egyptians are not to be trusted to bring success?
2. What is meant by the question “Who shall dwell with the devouring fire” (33:14-16)? What is the parallel to this question in the Psalms? And in the New Testament? What is the answer?
3. What is wrong with “the scribe” in 33:18? Why does Paul echo this in 1 Corinthians 1:20?
4. What is the significance of the location where the Rabshakeh confronts Hezekiah’s officers? (33:2)
5. Why don’t Hezekiah’s officials want the people to hear the Rabshakeh talking in Hebrew?
6. What does 36:7 prove about Assyria’s knowledge of YHWH?
7. What does Assyria offer in 36:17? Why can’t Judah accept that offer?
8. How is YHWH’s deliverance in 37 like the Exodus?


31:1-3 – Reiterates the theme that mere political calculation, be it ne’er so precise, is utterly inadequate to bring success. Chariots are “many”; horsemen are “very strong”, and these are, let’s face it, good reasons for relying on them. Against these reasons is the fact that the Egyptians are “men, not God” and their horses are “flesh, not spirit” — all meaning that they can die, and they will.

31:4 – great metaphor. YHWH is like a lion with Prey, beset by shepherds, but not caring about them. Straight out of Homer.

31:5 – note the language “passing over, He will preserve it.” His deliverance of Zion will not be like a battle, in which those who have the most chariots and horsemen can be relied upon to prevail. No, it will be like the Exodus, in which YHWH “passed over”, and the chariots and horsemen perished. Israel of all the nations on earth has least reason to conclude that Egypt’s horsemen are to be relied upon for victory. The song of Miriam, with its crowing over “the horse and rider thrown into the sea”, is virtually the Yankee Doodle of Israel.

31:7 – the result of YHWH’s victory over the Assyrians will be that Israel casts away its idols.

31:8 – very explicit prediction of how Assyria will be defeated — “a sword not of man”.


32:1-4 – prediction of the reign of Hezekiah, who is a type of Christ.
32:14-15 – desolation of the land until YHWH sends for his Spirit. Israel is to experience of corporate and national resurrection.


33:14-16 – almost verbatim echo of Psalm 15. The question “Who shall dwell with the devouring fire” (i.e. with YHWH) is a way of asking, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So, when in Luke 10:25, a “certain lawyer” asks Jesus this same question, and He replies by asking “What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?” this is not a clever trick by Jesus to try to show the fellow that salvation comes by faith apart from works. Indeed, when the fellow tries to justify himself, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan and then gives the lawyer a parting admonition. What is that admonition? Not “so you see that trying to obey God is a pointless exercise in frustration. Just have faith.” No, He tells him, “God and do likewise.” So here, the list of things to do if you want to dwell with the devouring fire has to do with social justice. But it might give us pause if we ask how we, in affluent North America, are doing on all these points. Do we “despise the gain of oppressions”? Do we “stop our ears from hearing of bloodshed”?

33:18 – The question, “where is the scribe?” is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:20. In both cases, it has reference to those who make their calculations by this-worldly measures — “weighing” and “counting towers” rather than by the words of the prophets and apostles who announced God’s miraculous salvation, whether from Assyria, or in Christ.


A chapter full of threats against the nations that resist YHWH and threaten Jerusalem. They are said to be “utterly destroyed” — a phrase taken from Deuteronomy 20:16-17, which announces genocidal total warfare against the cities of the Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite.

34:9 refers to “its streams”, meaning Edom’s streams. Edom plays a representative role, standing in for all peoples who resist the purposes of YHWH.

The rest of 34 gives a catalogue of atrocious wildlife that is going to inhabit Edom.


Chapter 35 is a vibrant vision of renewed life for Israel, of return from exile, especially 35:10. The miraculous recovery of sight and hearing is to be in the back of our minds — as it would have been in 1st century Jewish minds — when we read about Jesus’ and the apostles’ miracles. To heal a blind man or a dumb man would have been instantly understood as a fulfillment of this prophecy about the return from exile.


Story of Hezekiah and Sennacherib’s army.

36:1 – Assyria has taken “all the fortified cities of Judah.”

36:2 – The Rabshakeh, meaning “chief of princes” was a title given to the chief vizier of the Assyrian royal court. Note that he stands “by the aqueduct from the upper pool, on the highway to the Fuller’s Field” — exactly the location at which Isaiah confronted Ahaz in 7:3. We are thus given a direct contrast between the two kings.

36:3 — Note that Hezekiah does not himself go out to talk with the representative of the King of Assyria. Royal dignity demands that he communicate via subordinates.

36:4-10 – The Rabshakeh’s opening speech is straight Isaianic theology. The term bth occurs 6 times in the speech. It means “to trust”, “to rely upon”. The speech opens with rhetorical questions “On what do you base this confidence of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom are you relying now, that you have rebelled against me?” These questions are designed to mock Jerusalem as utterly unprepared and powerless to resist the might of Assyria.

36:7 – The abolition of worship at the high places is simultaneously a reference to Hezekiah’s crackdown on idolatry and worship at sites other than the Temple. (He broke up the bronze serpent (Nahushtan) and removed the high places. 2 Kings 18:4) But a secondary implication, on the level of communication from Isaiah to us rather than the level of the Rabshakeh’s intent, is that the Assyrians are fundamentally outsiders and ignorant of YHWH’s religion and worship if they think that removal of the high places was an offence against Him.

36:8 – “Give a pledge” is the Hebrew ‘arab, which could equally be rendered “make a wager.” It is etymologically related to the verb “to mix or interweave.” Here, it is a mocking bet by Sennacherib: I bet you can’t even put riders on two thousand horses, that’s how unprepared for war you are.

36:9 – An audacious claim that Sennacherib, not Hezekiah, is doing the will of YHWH. It is of course true that 10:5 had indeed said that Assyria was “the rod of my anger”,but this cannot be read without 10:15 – “shall the ax boast itself against him who chops with it?” – which is precisely what Sennacherib is here doing.

36:11 – This request to speak in Aramaic rather than Hebrew is an attempt by Hezekiah’s servants to hide the embarrassing ultimatum from the entire people of Jerusalem. They would rather the people were ignorant of it. But in the providence of God, the people hear the threats, so that their faith may be tested as well, and not just that of their king.

36:12ff is, according to Brueggemann, “designed to rob the crown of public confidence and therefore public support.” Again and again, the people are told, “Do not listen to Hezekiah, do not let Hezekiah deceive you, beware lest Hezekiah persuade you…”

Assyria offers peace, but it really means surrender. This peace is a two-stage business: first, you can “eat of your own vine and fig tree” — the archetypical image of peace and prosperity. This will take place first in your own land, but then…

36:17 presents the final consequence of surrender: exile. The Assyrians specialized in this. It looks like a nice offer: “a land like your own land, a land of grajnand new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.” But, says Brueggemann, “for the people of Judah, lands are not replaceable parts.” Of all the nations on earth, Judah must surely refuse exile, because of her special relationship with YHWH and the place He has chosen for His name. When exile does happen, it is not a mere swapping of one land for another “just like it”. Rather, it is a matter for laments like Psalm 137, because it was the geographical, experienced absence from the Temple and presence of YHWH. That is what the Rabshakeh does not understand, and what Hezekiah does, with his insistence that “you shall worship before this altar.”

36:18-20 is, as Peter Leithart says, a piece of comparative religion. It mistakes the uniqueness of YHWH among the gods of the nations.

36:21 – Hezekiah’s servants offer no reply. This is not, perhaps, because they are wise to hold their piece, but because they can think of nothing to say, and are abashed and silenced by the Rabshakeh’s threats. Their tearing of their clothes is not the action of a bunch of men confident of victory because of their trust in YHWH. This contrasts with Hezekiah’s similar action because, though he too is abashed and cannot see a way out, he consults YHWH’s prophet Isaiah. Thus he does not do his political and military calculations without YHWH.

37:3 – We’ve seen this metaphor before: “brought forth wind.”

37:5-7 is Isaiah’s response. He does not pray; he does not need to pray, because as one of YHWH’s privy councillors, the prophets, he is already able to speak with authority about what YHWH will do. The prophet provides the king with a viable alternative to this-worldly calculations of foreign policy.

37:8-13 – Assyria is a little more urgent this time, because Ethiopia has started making war on her. The Rabshakeh reiterates the threats of his second speech, but this time changes his tack a little: where before he attempted to undermine the people’s trust in Hezekiah, this time he attempts to make Hezekiah think about his own eventual fate, by suggestively asking about the fates of other kings (37:13).

37:14-20 – Hezekiah’s faithful response to the Rabshakeh’s speech is no longer to be abashed, but to take the provoking words and present them to YHWH. What a relief it must have been for him to realize that the fight was no longer between himself and Sennacherib, but between YHWH and Sennacherib. That confidence – that YHWH is on your side – is one that you can only have by placing your trust in Him. How much better it is than relying on Egypt!

37:22 – gives us an image of Jerusalem as an unattainable woman, mocking her would-be assailant (rapist?).

37:23 with its question “whom have you blasphemed?” might have expected the answer, “Judah.” But the stakes are higher because Assyria has insulted YHWH.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s