As Hovering Birds

“Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.” (Isaiah 31:5, RSV)

This text, too, is difficult to explain. The problem is this: How is the comparison to be understood?

It was in the days of Assyria’s greatness that this word was spoken. Assyria as a mighty world power had conquered many nations, including the Ten Tribes of Israel. And now it threatened Jerusalem, the capital city of the Two Tribes, Judah and Benjamin. Its residents became afraid, and tried to contact Egypt, that strong nation to the South. But the Lord warned them through Isaiah, saying that “the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh, and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together” (Is. 31:3). To make this very clear and emphatic the Lord offers the promise of deliverance as in our text, and he does this by way of a specific comparison. But how can we rightly understand it?

To what extent can the flying (“over or around their nests” –J. A. Alexander) of birds be compared with the protection God wills to give his people? The exegetical problem here is so difficult that some have said that we must presume that this verse is actually out of place as we find it. Verses 4 and 5 have become disarranged, we are told. For the sake of clarity we offer them here together:

For thus saith the Lord to me, As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey, and when a band of shepherds is called forth against him is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise, so the Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.

Those who feel that disarrangement has taken place here argue that the picture of the lion in verse 4 should go with God’s act of defending and preserving as mentioned in verse 5, and the words “like birds hovering” should be seen as a comparison belonging with the coming down of the Lord of hosts to fight upon Mount Zion. In this fashion verses 4a and 5b should be taken together, and verses 5a and 4b.

I doubt, however, if such a drastic change is justified or necessary. Verse 4 makes very good sense just as it is in our versions. The real difficulty is not solved in this way, but must be seen to be in verse 5, which is our text for this Bible study. I believe that the big question here is, Which two are to be compared: the Lord and the birds, or, the birds with Jerusalem?

There is no objection which I see against comparing the birds with Jerusalem, so that we read the text this way; “As the Lord of hosts defends and preserves the flying or hovering birds, so he will defend Jerusalem.” This means that we must not he misled by the suggestion that the birds are here depicted as affording protection by hovering over their nests, but that we must rather see them as objects of God’s protecting care while in flight. As God reveals his capacity to defend and preserve in the marvels, say, of bird migration, so he cares for his people.

Now the meaning of the text becomes crystal clear! All who study bird migration express amazement at these flights of even the smallest birds across hundreds of miles of land and water. The Almighty Maker of these creatures defends them against their enemies as they fly. He keeps them over land and sea. He carries them on his wings.

Just for that reason he is here spoken of as the “Lord of hosts,” a name which refers to the fact that he is the Lord of the angelic legions. This comparison is wonderfully comforting! Just so the Lord will defend Jerusalem—God’s City, the Church, his people—tenderly, wonderfully and in a manner quite incomprehensible.

Therefore the text must say that his defense of Jerusalem means perfect protection and deliverance, and his passing over it guarantees its preservation. Please note that God uses here no less than four or five different verbs to indicate the perfection of his love and care!

We are in the hands of that faithful and loving God. We are carried day by day on the wings of that Almighty Lord of hosts. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hid from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’” (Is. 40:27)? Why do we fear?