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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 17

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Note the following lines from Coleridge;

The Owlet

Sailing with obscene wings athwart the noon,
(He) drops his blue-fringed lids and holds them close,
And hooting at the glorious sun in heaven
Cries out, Where is it?(F1)

The comments of critical scholars inevitably bring to mind these words of Coleridge! We refer to such as this: “Chapter 17 is made up of fragmentary oracles having little apparent relationship to one another!”(F2) On the other hand there is an obvious vital connection in the four parts of this chapter. In the first part (Isaiah 17:1-6), Damascus is addressed as the principal theme; but Damascus has a partner, i.e., Ephraim, a rebellious portion of God’s people; and, as is always the case when God’s people unite with pagans and unbelievers, Ephraim is no longer God’s in the full sense of the word, but holds the secondary status as an ally of Syria (Damascus). Thus his doom is announced in the same verses with that of Damascus with the added indignity of being in second place all the way through the prophecy.

The second part of the chapter (Isaiah 17:7-8) points out the consequence of Ephraim’s forsaking God and their subsequent devastation and debilitation, i.e., that they will, at least in some small degree, restore the true worship and turn away from their false worship of pagan gods.

The third division (Isaiah 17:9-11) has instruction regarding the futility of idolatry, and also further information regarding the worship of false gods by Judah. Note how logically this follows in sequence with what has already been stated through Isaiah in the first two paragraphs.

The fourth and final division of the chapter, as is so frequently noted in Scripture, holds out the assurance that those who are inflicting all of the damage upon God’s people will themselves perish “between evening and morning,” that is, in a single night. Isaiah 17:12-14 are universally admitted, even by critical scholars, to be a perfect description of what happened to Sennacherib in his siege of Jerusalem (about 701-702 B.C.). Does this connect with what goes before? Certainly. Who was prophesied as being the tormentors who would inflict all of that damage on Ephraim and her pagan ally Damascus? The Assyrians, of course! And who was Sennacherib? Assyrian, of course, and did not Isaiah pinpoint these facts in the last line of the chapter? “This is the portion of them that despoil us, and the lot of them that rob us.”

We believe it would be difficult to find a chapter anywhere in the Bible that is any more logically constructed and put together than is this one. It is high time for Christian commentators to stop parroting the old allegations that began in the eighteenth century.

One improvement in the writings of critics, however, must be admitted. Practically of them as far as we have been able to follow their writings now freely admit that this chapter is genuinely from Isaiah.

Verses 1-6

“The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap. The cities of Aroer are forsaken; they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid. And the fortress shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus, and the remnant of Syria; they shall be as the glory of the children of Israel, saith Jehovah of hosts. And it shall come to pass in that day that the glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean. And it shall be as when the harvester gathereth the standing grain, and his arm reapeth the ears; yea, it shall be as when one gathers ears in the valley of Rephaim. Yet there shall be left therein gleanings, as the shaking of an olive-tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the utmost branches of a fruitful tree, saith Jehovah the God of Israel.”

The first three verses here announce “the imminent ruin of Damascus, in which Israel also will be involved.”(F3) Ephraim, the leading tribe of the Ten Northern Tribes loved to refer to his part of the nation as “Israel”; but it was never so. Those tribes were called “Ephraim” some three dozen times in the prophecy of Hosea.

“The cities of Aroer are forsaken” This could be synonymous with “Transjordan,” “there being two cities of that name east of the Jordan, one on the north bank of the Arnon overlooking its deep gorge, and (2) the one before `Rabbah’ (Joshua 13:25, KJV).”(F4) A third city of the same name was “in the Negeb (Negeb: southland) 12 miles south-east of Beersheba.”(F5) Of course, what is meant by a reference like this is that all of the cities and villages that would be traversed by the invaders from Assyria would be treated to the “scorched earth” policy of warring nations in antiquity. All of the cities of Jerusalem, for example, were totally destroyed by Sennacherib’s invasion that ended in his terrible disaster before the walls of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.

The connective word that looms in the background of every line of this chapter is “Assyrian.” The Assyrian destruction of the entire Palestinian area is the subject here.

The mention of the terrible immediate prospect confronting Israel, all of it, applied also to Damascus and all of the other cities overrun by the cruel Assyrians.

“Those prospects are described under these three figures: (1) that of an emaciated body (Isaiah 17:4); that of a harvest field already harvested (Isaiah 17:5); and (3) that of an olive-tree already threshed (or beaten) (Isaiah 17:6).”(F6)

The mention here of a few olives that were left and the gleanings from a harvest field indicate the oft-repeated promise of the Lord that “a remnant shall return” or a remnant shall survive, as symbolized and memorialized in the name of Isaiah’s first son Shear-jashub.

Verses 7-8

“In that day shall they look unto their Maker, and their eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. And they shall not look to the altars, the work of their hands; neither shall they have respect to that which their fingers have made, either the Asherim, or the sun-images.”

This speaks of a revival of the true religion among the Ephraimites, although it must be supposed that it was rejected by the majority of the people. How logically this follows the preceding paragraphs. It is always true that people generally turn to God, the true God, when disasters fall. The Great Depression of the early 1930’s in the United States saw exactly the same kind of “revival” as that indicated here.

During the times indicated here, the Levites were actually able to collect tithes from Manasseh and Ephraim (2 Chronicles 34:9).(F7)

The mention of the altars in Isaiah 17:8 probably referred to the pagan altars at Dan, Bethel, and Samaria; and such expressions as “work of their hands,” and “which their fingers have made” cannot be limited to the altars but must also be applied to the “gods” to which those pagan altars were dedicated. The word given here as Asherim is rendered “groves” in the KJV; but, “This word is now generally admitted to have designated an artificial construction of wood or metal, which was used in the idolatrous worship of the Phoenicians and the Israelites, probably as the emblems of some deity.”(F8)

Verses 9-11

“In that day shall their strong cities be as the forsaken places in the wood, and on the mountain top, which were forsaken from before the children of Israel; and it shall be desolate. For thou has forsaken the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the Rock of thy strength; therefore thou plantest pleasant plants, and settest it with strange slips. In the day of thy planting thou hedgest it in, and in the morning thou makest thy seed to blossom; but the harvest fleeth away in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow.”

What could more logically have been given a place at this point in the prophecy? It had just been pointed out that Ephraim had adopted the idolatrous religion of the pagans. Very well! God here explained what that really meant for his rebellious children. First (in Isaiah 17:9) he pointed out that those very groves and hill-tops where the pagan altars were located were absolutely deserted by their worshippers, the pagan gods and goddesses the people adored being totally helpless to stand before the conquering armies of Joshua. Ephraim would not learn from that experience; so here God said, “It shall happen again!” Just as the pagan gods could not help those who were driven out of Palestine to make room for Israel will also be unable to do anything to help the Israelites who have foolishly taken up their false worship. The text bluntly stated it: “And it SHALL BE desolate.” Then, when Israel came into Canaan, it WAS desolate. Now that Israel has adopted paganism, it SHALL be desolate.

“The sense here is that Israel shall be punished with a desolation like that which the former inhabitants experienced at the hands of the Israelites.”(F9) Furthermore those pagan gods and goddesses the Israelites have adopted will be able to help Israel no more than they could help those former peoples who lived in Canaan. The forsaking of God and the planting of pleasant plants with strange slips, “Are allegorical expressions for the Israelites’ adoption of strange and idolatrous worship and of the vicious and abominable practices connected with it.”(F10) Participation of God’s people in all such pagan rites was strictly forbidden in the Pentateuch. God here promised Israel (Isaiah 17:11) that “grief and desperate sorrow” were the rewards that lay at the end of the road Israel was traveling.

Verses 12-14

“Ah, the uproar of many peoples, that roar like the roaring of the seas; and the rushing of nations, that rush like the rushing of mighty waters! The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but he shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like the whirling dust before the storm. At eventide, behold, terror; and before the morning they are not. This is the portion of them that despoil us, and the lot of them that rob us.”

What a profound blessing appears here! All of the atrocities coming upon the nations to be assaulted and devastated by Assyria is due to have a sequel. God will speak to them also, and “rebuke them.”

The figure of the great flood of waters that emerges here ties in perfectly with the prophecy already given in Isaiah 8:5-8; and no one should miss the point that it is Assyria, no one else, who is the object of this magnificent prophecy. What a shame that Payne did not even mention it; and what an incredible error that Peake dated it after the exile. No orthodox critic could possibly maintain his standing with peers if he admitted any such thing as predictive prophecy! Today, thank God, the great majority of commentators accept this remarkable prophecy as a genuine prediction of the destruction of Sennacherib’s army before the walls of Jerusalem in that terminal invasion of his near the end of the eighth century B.C. (701 B.C.):

Isaiah 17:12-14 refer to the destruction of Sennacherib’s army.(F11)

These verses were especially fulfilled in the destruction of Sennacherib’s army.(F12)

God’s promise that he would rebuke the Assyrians in a night of plague and destruction.(F13)

This vividly and graphically describes the coming of the Assyrians. God is in control. He uses nations to accomplish his purpose, and then brings them to an end. It became clear when Sennacherib’s army was destroyed before Jerusalem.(F14)

This judgment of the Assyrians was to begin in the evening and end before morning.(F15)

It is so applicable to the invasion by Sennacherib and to his overthrow by the angel of Jehovah that by common consent of interpreters it has been regarded as referring to it.(F16)

As a matter of fact, most of the critics do not dare to refer this passage to anything else. How then do they reconcile the obvious truth with their inaccurate and unbelieving premise that “there is no such thing as predictive prophecy”? Kelley spelled it out like this: “Most scholars prefer to date the passage just after 701 B.C. and to identify the foe as the Assyrian Army!”(F17) Any Proof? Certainly not! Furthermore, such adjusters of Bible dates to conform to their infidel rules are not scientific in their application of such rules. For example, Isaiah prophesied two graves for Jesus in Isaiah 53, but do they date that chapter in the first century? Of course not. Why? To do so would expose the inaccuracy of their rule! No reasonable person can suppose for an instant that if Isaiah’s remarkable prophecy of Sennacherib’s destruction had been nothing more than a reference to it “after the event happened,” that his words would have been treasured for twenty-seven centuries afterwards!.

There is one other thing that should be said here. Homer Hailey, after speaking of the remarkable deliverances in past times which God provided for his people, asked this question:

Is there any reason today for God’s people to worry that Humanism, Communism, Zionism, and all other Gogs and Magogs that try to destroy God’s work may ultimately prove successful?(F18)

To ask such a question thoughtfully is to know the answer. We would like to make a specific application of it. Is there any danger, really, that Satan with his flood of corrupt Bibles and Testaments, with his armies of infidel commentators, with his “river of lies” flowing out of the printing presses all over the world, will Satan ever be able to take the true word of God away from men?

Here is the answer:

“I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven, arrayed with a cloud; and the rainbow was upon his head; and his face was as the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire; and he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left upon the earth: and he cried with a great voice, as a lion roareth!” (Revelation 10:1-3).

That little book in the hand of the Rainbow Angel is God’s word; and all of the followers of Satan who ever lived, all of them put together can never erase a single line of it. As our Lord said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away!”

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 17". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-17.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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