Flesh and Spirit

“The Egyptians are man, 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.” (Isaiah 31:3).

The opening sentence of Isaiah 31:3 caught my eye this week with this description of the horses being ‘flesh, and not spirit’. I’d just been preaching on Romans 8 and there the apostle Paul’s use of the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ frame much of his argument. Romans 8:1-17 revolves around these two opposing spheres of influence: ‘life in the flesh’ and ‘life in the Spirit’. Thus, in Romans 8:5 we read:

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”

But I hadn’t given much consideration to an Old Testament background for the apostle’s thinking, not until I happened to read Isaiah 31 after the Sunday sermon. Isaiah is warning about the danger of going to Egypt instead of consulting the LORD (31:1). Egypt’s strength is expressed in the form of its horses and chariots but Isaiah casts this into the realm of the flesh as opposed to the spirit. The theme of chariots and horses, of course, echoes the line of Psalm 20:

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psalm 20:7).

The circumstances which led to David writing Psalm 20 are not made explicit, however, the Psalm certainly provides a perfect fit for the events of 2 Samuel 15 and what follows in the rebellion of Absalom. The psalm provides a commentary on this day of peril as he finds his reign under its fiercest attack. 

‘Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright. O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call.’ (Psalm 20:7-9) 

Of course, at the start of 2 Samuel 15, from David’s perspective the validity of these sentiments is yet to be tested. But Absalom has made clear his choice from the opening verse: ‘After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him.’ (2 Samuel 15:1). Here is the mark of royalty as far as Absalom is concerned. The power of a king is seen in the flesh. The narrative will proceed to expand upon David whose faith will be evidenced in his prayer on the Mount of Olives as he calls on the name of the Lord his God (2 Samuel 15:30-31). David’s faith will be vindicated – he is the anointed king who knows where the power truly lies. (The word translated ‘trust’ in Ps 20:7 is the verb zakar ‘to remember’. It is also used in Ps 20:3. In 2 Samuel this verb is used on three occasions: 14:11, 18:18 and 19:19.)

Isaiah 31 develops the theme in the time of the Assyrian crisis by this allusion to the faith of David whose reign revealed the wisdom of looking ‘to the Holy One of Israel’ (Isaiah 31:1 – compare 2 Samuel 15:30-31).

How did the apostle Paul come to think in these two categories – flesh and Spirit? Normally, I’d turn to somewhere like Ezekiel 36-37 as a first port of call. But Isaiah 31:1-3 has opened another door, and all the more in view of the Egypt-exodus imagery in Romans 8:1-17. Actually, in view of the ‘Abba, Father’ reference (Romans 8:15), I’d be inclined first to turn to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Lord’s words: ‘the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Mark 14:38). But that scenario itself echoes the Davidic journey of 2 Samuel 15 (eg up the Mount of Olives) and so again I find myself moving back to Isaiah 31.

Still, while my spirit might be stirred by such reflection, dinner is on. So, Home James and don’t spare the horses!

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