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Chapter 17 The Judgment on Damascus.
In this chapter we see how Isaiah’s burdens concerning the nations have very much in mind His actions concerning His people, for most of this burden is taken up with the impact of the behaviour and powerlessness of Damascus on His people. The indictment on Israel is devastating. Because they have allied themselves with Damascus, and have trusted in them, they will share the fate of Damascus, and are included in the oracle against them. Because they have trusted in Damascus they no longer count sufficiently to have their own oracle. It is Isaiah’s way of demonstrating how far they have fallen.
He then goes on to illustrate this faithlessness in comparison with their similar faithlessness with regard to Canaanite gods and probably also with regard to ‘foreign’ Syrian gods. And yet as he regularly does, Isaiah also includes within his denunciation a message of hope for the remnant (Isaiah 17:7; Isaiah 17:13-14).
Initial Declaration Concerning Syria (Incorporating Israel) (Isaiah 17:1-3 )
· The Burden of Damascus. “Behold Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it will be a ruinous heap (Isaiah 17:1).
· The cities of Aroer are forsaken. They will be for flocks who will lie down, and none will make them afraid (Isaiah 17:2).
· The fortress also will cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus (Isaiah 17:3 a).
· And as for the remnant of Syria, they will be as the glory of the children of Israel,” Says Yahweh of hosts (Isaiah 17:3 b).
In ‘a’ Damascus (which represents Syria) is to be destroyed, while in the parallel Syria is to have its glory so dimmed that it will be like that of (northern) Israel. In ‘b and parallel cities, fortress and kingdom will be forsaken and will cease, along with those of Israel (Ephraim).
‘The Burden of Damascus.
“Behold Damascus is taken away from being a city,
And it will be a ruinous heap.
The cities of Aroer are forsaken.
They will be for flocks who will lie down,
And none will make them afraid.
The fortress also will cease from Ephraim,
And the kingdom from Damascus,
And as for the remnant of Syria.
They will be as the glory of the children of Israel,”
Says Yahweh of hosts.’
This oracle was probably given prior to the sacking of Damascus around 735/4 BC. In it Isaiah links Damascus and Syria, with Ephraim (Israel) and the cities of Aroer. Assuming these to be the cities of Aroer in Moabite territory they had once belonged to the Syrian empire (2 Kings 10:33), and also previously to Israel (Joshua 13:9; Joshua 13:16; Judges 11:26; 1 Chronicles 5:8). That may be why they are linked here. They were the furthest reaches of Syria’s one time empire, and of the old Israel. This then links this passage back to the previous chapter and indicates that the destruction will go as far down as the Arnon in Transjordan, where Moabite territory begins. On the other hand it is always possible that there were other ‘cities of Aroer’. But it may well be that Syria still saw the cities as theirs even though the Moabites had snatched them back.
The prophecy indicates that Damascus will be sacked and cease to be a city, becoming a ruinous heap; that the cities of Aroer (wherever they were) will become deserted and occupied only by sheep, who will be left alone there with no human beings around to disturb them; that Ephraim (Israel) will cease having fortified cities, having totally lost their independence; that Damascus will have lost kingship; and that Syria will become minuscule.
‘They will be as the glory of the children of Israel, says Yahweh of hosts.’ The ‘glory’ of a nation represented what resources it possessed and what status it had (see Isaiah 8:7; Isaiah 10:3; Isaiah 17:4; Isaiah 22:18; Isaiah 60:13; Ezekiel 25:9). Israel will have been minimalised in both departments. Its ‘glory’ will be little. Thus what is left of Syria too will have little status. And all this will be brought about as a result of Yahweh’s word.
The Future That Israel Can Look Forward To (Isaiah 17:4-11 ).
Israel’s future is bleak, but it will make them set their eyes on their Maker, the Holy One of Israel.
Analysis of Isaiah 17:4-12.
a And it will come about in that day that the glory of Jacob will be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh will wax lean, and it will be as when the harvester gathers the standing corn, and his arms reap the ears. Yes, it will be as when one gleans ears, in the valley of Rephaim (Isaiah 17:4-5).
b “Yet there will be left there in gleanings, as the beating of an olive tree, two or three berries at the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost branches of a fruitful tree,” Says Yahweh, the God of Israel (Isaiah 17:6).
c In that day will a man look to his Maker, and his eyes will have respect to the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 17:7).
d And he will not look to the altars, to the work of his hands, nor will he have respect to what his fingers have made, either the Asherim or the sun-images (Isaiah 17:8).
d In that day will his 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 will be a desolation (Isaiah 17:9).
c For you have forgotten the God of your deliverance, and have not been mindful of the rock of your strength (‘your strong rock’) (Isaiah 17:10).
b Therefore you plant ‘desirable’ plants (or ‘plants of the desirable one’), and set it with strange (‘foreign’) slips (Isaiah 17:11 a).
a In the day of your planting you hedge it in, and in the morning you make your seed to blossom, but the harvest flees away in the day of grief and desperate sorrow (Isaiah 17:11 b).
In ‘a’ the future is bleak for Israel, and its harvests will be thin, and in the parallel whatever their efforts they will not enjoy the benefit of their harvests. In ‘b’ even the gleaning will be sparse, and in the parallel it is because they plant foreign plants linked with idolatry. In ‘c’ this will turn their eyes on their Maker, on the Holy One of Israel, and in the parallel this will be necessary because they have forgotten the God of their deliverance, and have not had in mind the Rock of their strength. In ‘d’ they will cease to trifle with the gods who have failed them, for in the parallel their strong cities will be like ancient ruins.
‘And it will come about in that day that the glory of Jacob will be made thin,
And the fatness of his flesh will wax lean,
And it will be as when the harvester gathers the standing corn,
And his arms reap the ears.
Yes, it will be as when one gleans ears,
In the valley of Rephaim.’
If their glory being like that of Israel had raised hopes in Syria, they are now dashed, for here we have confirmation of the reducing of ‘Jacob’s’ glory, the glory of the children of Israel. In the day when God acts it will be made sparse, and much of Israel’s wealth and fruitfulness will disappear. In the same way as the flesh disappears from a very sick man as he lies there in his illness, so will they be lean.
The second picture is of shortage so that the harvester ensures by use of his arms that he drops very little, while the gleaners can thus gather almost nothing. The valley of Rephaim was probably infamous for its poor harvests. It was a place favoured by the Philistine armies when they attacked Israel, possibly suggesting its comparative bareness. And such sparse gleanings from a sparse harvest are a picture of what ‘Jacob’ (Israel) will have to survive on.
‘And there will be left there in gleanings,
As the beating of an olive tree,
Two or three berries at the top of the uppermost bough,
Four or five in the outmost branches of a fruitful tree,
Says Yahweh, the God of Israel.’
When the olive tree is beaten with sticks to bring down its berries there are always a few that are resistant. In this case what will be left will be only two or three at the top, four or five in the outmost branches. Those are the gleanings (what is left for the poor after harvesting). And that scarcity of gleanings is a picture of Israel’s desperate straits. The gleanings will be almost non-existent because of the poverty of the harvest.
‘In that day will a man look to his Maker,
And his eyes will have respect to the Holy One of Israel.
And he will not look to the altars,
To the work of his hands,
Nor will he have respect to what his fingers have made,
Either the Asherim or the sun-images.’
But suddenly, out of the blue, good comes out of bad. This is typical of Isaiah (compare Isaiah 10:20-22). He now describes the holy stock (Isaiah 6:13). The result of this chastening will be that some, the remnant, will look to their Maker, and will give due regard to the Holy One of Israel, for there will be nowhere else to look. Their eyes will be turned and fixed on Him, and they will look to Him constantly in their daily lives and have due regard to His covenant. For their idols will have failed them and they will turn to God from idols and serve the living and true God, and wait for the promised Immanuel. They will turn away from hand-made altars, and man-fashioned idols, whether Asherim (wooden poles or images representing the goddess of the fertility cult) or sun-images. Thus it is clear that the worship of the sun-images and of the Asherah-images was at this time predominant in Israel.
Note the stark contrast between God the Maker (compare Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 51:13; Isaiah 54:5) and man His creation on the one hand (man will look to his Maker), with man the maker, and the gods of his creation on the other (he will not look to his own handywork or to what his fingers have made). They should note that there is only one God Who is never fashioned and shaped by man, the One Who Himself created all things and can never be represented by an acceptable image. He is thus saying, do not look to the altars and their gods but look at them and see what they really are, the works of men’s hands, merely a part of creation and the product of men’s minds and fingers.
‘In that day will his 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 will be a desolation.’
But while some will be pleasing to God the righteousness of the righteous will not deliver the majority in the day when God acts. Their strong, fortified cities will be deserted. They will become like the well known ruins of ancient Canaanite cities in the forest, or on mountain tops, where no one went any longer, cities that had been deserted because of the arrival of the children of Israel in the power of Yahweh. What had been done by His power when they were faithful to the covenant, would be done to them now that they had broken the covenant and lost His power. They were now as sinful as the Canaanites had been for they had copied their ways. Thus the whole land would be a desolation.
‘For you have forgotten the God of your deliverance,
And have not been mindful of the rock of your strength (‘your strong rock’).
Therefore you plant ‘desirable’ plants (or ‘plants of the desirable one’),
And set it with strange (‘foreign’) slips.
In the day of your planting you hedge it in,
And in the morning you make your seed to blossom,
But the harvest flees away in the day of grief and desperate sorrow.’
This is in parallel with Isaiah 17:7. All this will happen to them because they had forgotten God the deliverer. The contrast is between the God of Deliverance (Who is also God their Maker), even the Strong Rock, Who had destroyed those Canaanite cities through His once faithful people, and their present feeble attempts, the product of turning to the ways of the Canaanites, to affect nature by force-growing plants dedicated to a ‘desirable’ god, (a beautiful image), and slips from foreign plants which had similar religious significance, and putting them in pots or baskets and making them grow unnaturally quickly so as to stimulate nature, all feeble attempts to stimulate life. They would discover that it would be useless. They would die just as quickly as they grew (compare Matthew 13:5-6). Thus when the day of grief and desperate sorrow comes the harvest from their efforts will be unable to help them. It flees away in helplessness and embarrassment.
The slips from foreign plants were also a hint of what they were seeking to do in seeking help and alliances from foreign nations. Those too would flee away in the day of trouble.
So the charge is that they have forgotten God their Maker, and they have forgotten the Delivering God Who had delivered them from Egypt, and from many foes since; the Delivering God Who had delivered up the cities of the Canaanites to them; the God Who is a strength-giving Rock; the God Who has proved Himself by His actions, and they have turned to nature gods who have no power, who cannot deliver or protect them, who failed the Canaanites, and who cannot strengthen in the hour of need.
But as a result of all that will befall them those who are left will turn and look to Him. The emphasis on their looking to God as their Maker and the Holy One of Israel may suggest the thought that they are having to go right back to basics. They turn to Him as the One Who had made them, and as the One Who had specially favoured Israel by His own choice. They have lost their right to Him as the Deliverer.
A Glimpse of Hope For The Future (Isaiah 17:12-14 ).
Having depicted the dark future for Israel, apart from the remnant, Isaiah now goes on to encourage all of God’s people who will listen. No earthly power is all-powerful. They are subject to the Creator. So if His people are willing to trust in Him then just as He rebuked the waters at creation, so will He now rebuke the overflowing waters of the enemy so that they will quickly recede before Him.
a Ah, the uproar of many peoples, who roar like the roaring of the seas, and the rushing of nations, who rush like the rushing of mighty waters (Isaiah 17:12).
b The nations will rush like the rushing of many waters, but He will rebuke them and they will flee far off (Isaiah 17:13 a).
b And they will be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like the swirling dust before the storm (Isaiah 17:13 b).
a At eventide, behold, terror. Before the morning they are not. This is the portion of those who spoil us, and the lot of those who rob us (Isaiah 17:14).
In ‘a’ the nations come on with a great rush, seemingly invincibly, but in the parallel terror strikes them, and before the morning they are not. This is the lot of those who attack God’s people. It was illustrated most powerfully in what happened to Sennacherib’s forces before Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:36). In ‘b’ the nations will rush like the rushing of many waters, but He will rebuke them and they will flee far off, and thus in the parallel they will be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like the swirling dust before the storm.
‘Ah, the uproar of many peoples,
Who roar like the roaring of the seas,
And the rushing of nations,
Who rush like the rushing of mighty waters.
The nations will rush like the rushing of many waters,
But he will rebuke them and they will flee far off,
And will be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind,
And like the swirling dust before the storm.’
We have again here Isaiah’s vision of many nations (compare Isaiah 13:4-5), a picture of the tumult and restlessness among such nations, and of their racing to overflow the people of God, only to be driven back by God’s rebuke. At this they will disappear, fleeing as chaff before the wind. The picture is partly based on poetic conceptions of creation when the waters obeyed the voice of Yahweh (Psalms 104:7). Men always seek to overwhelm, but they are subject to Him just as the waters were, for He is the Creator.
That Assyria, which regularly gathered conquered nations under its banner, is largely in mind we cannot doubt. And Isaiah is thus assuring God’s people that if they trust in Him God will finally rebuke them and they will flee, as indeed they did from Jerusalem in the siege of 701 BC (Isaiah 37:36). But he is deliberately keeping his thoughts general, for he wants them to know that this will not only be true of Assyria but of all who come against God’s trusting people. If only they would trust Him this is what would happen.
And through history many nations would roar like a tempestuous sea, and rush in like the raging tide, seeking to swamp Israel, but always in the end they would have to retreat at God’s rebuke. This was Isaiah’s vision. God had not forgotten them. He would preserve His true people, His remnant, through all. And in the end those nations would disappear, blown like chaff across the mountains, like the swirling dust caught up in a storm, scattered and landing no one knows where (except God), while God’s own people will be preserved.
‘At eventide, behold, terror.
Before the morning they are not.
This is the portion of those who spoil us,
And the lot of those who rob us.’
The question here is whether the reference to terror is in respect of Israel’s terror in the face of their enemies, or is God’s terror revealed against their adversaries. Isaiah knew that trust in God did not mean that there would be no trials. There would indeed be times which would arouse terror in many of their hearts, and His people would be spoiled and robbed. But just as evening, and gathering night, soon become morning, so would disappear the dark night of the enemies of God’s people who spoiled and robbed them. Their portion is to disappear at the approach of light.
But Yahweh was also a Terror to their enemies, and this may have in mind especially what happened to the forces of Sennacherib as a picture of God’s continually protecting hand over His people and revealing His terror against their enemies..
Note the inference that those who are evil always seek to do their work in the dark, they are children of darkness. But they disappear when daylight approaches for they are afraid of the light. And in the same way, however dark the night, God always finally brings morning for His people.
If Isaiah had the creation story in mind in his description of the rebuking of the waters, he may well also have it in mind here. The evening comes first, and then the morning, and by morning God’s work is completed. (This would serve to confirm the parabolic nature of the description in Genesis of the cessation of His work). For a similar idea compare Psalms 30:5.
So having delivered his oracle Isaiah adds this appendix to encourage his hearers (‘us’). They need not be afraid, for the One Who brought light out of darkness, the light of the world, the controller of the raging seas, is with them (compare Psalms 46:5).
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 17". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany