By Christina Wilson, February 21, 2020.
Isaiah 17:1-14 Link to LXE Modernized Jeremiah 49:23-27
How Did Damascus Originate?
The biblical city of Damascus was located in the north central portion of the Kingdom of Damascus.
The Kingdom of biblical Damascus was also known as Aram, and its people Arameans. Searching out the genealogy of the Arameans, we find that Noah had three sons. Shem, one of Noah’s sons, had five sons. One of these, Aram, gave rise to the people of Damascus, the Syrians. Another of Noah’s sons, Arpachshad, was the ancestor of Abraham (Genesis 10:22-24, Luke 3:34-36).
A search with a concordance reveals a long history between the Arameans and Israel. Sometimes these two nations were enemies. Other times they were “friends” (Isaiah 17:3). Readers may recall how Israel and Aram joined together to attack Judah, as recorded in Isaiah 7:1-9 (see Devotional Journal 25).
Most importantly for the context of Isaiah, the religion of the Arameans was pagan. Israel (the northern kingdom), at least at one time, followed the one true God, who had called them through their father, Abraham.
Two Vines Intertwined
Just as the history of Damascus and Israel intertwined throughout the historical books of the Old Testament, so does the prophecy against them in Isaiah 17. The chapter is not just against Damascus. Isaiah also speaks against Israel.
Perhaps as a reflection upon myself alone, I find the language of this chapter difficult to untangle, much as the relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Damascus. Various translations treat the chapter a bit differently from each other. This chapter is one of the few times so far in this devotional that I recommend the Masoretic text above the Septuagint. Overall, its language is easier to understand, although ultimately, both textual versions say the same thing. The NKJV presents a coherent storyline.
What Does Isaiah Say?
Isaiah prophesies that Damascus will be severely reduced, just as Israel will. Beginning with words against Damascus (Isaiah 17:1-2), the prophet then compares the future of Damascus with the future of Israel in a single verse. Isaiah 17:3 states that the future of Aram will be like the future of Israel. He states, “…for you are no better than the children of Israel, even than their glory” (Isaiah 17:3, CAB). Both will be reduced to a remnant. It does not appear that Isaiah prophecies total destruction for either nation (cf. Isaiah 17:5-6).
Isaiah’s Three Metaphors
In the next section, Isaiah 17:4-6, “the Lord, the God of Israel” (LXE) speaks directly against Israel. The imagery clearly speaks of a stripping down that leaves a very small remnant. Isaiah uses three metaphors.
- Israel will be like a man who has lost a great deal of weight after a severe sickness (vs 4).
- It will be like a field of grain after a harvest (vs 5).
- It will be like the small number of olives that straggle on the branches after the complete harvest is done (vs 6).
Because Aram is no better and neither is its glory, it, too, will be stripped to a mere remnant.
Looking Back to God and the Utter Futility of Proceeding Without Him
Verses 5 and 6 describe how only a remnant will be left in Israel. If the reader maintains a linear continuity, then verses 7-8 describe how the remnant will turn back to God their Creator and see again the Holy one of Israel. Remember that a remnant is a very small number. This is not a widespread revival. Even today, many people seek out God their Maker during times of extreme trial. Some continue in their new found faith, while others leave God again shortly after their situation improves.
Verse 9 jumps back to describing the desolation. Verse 10a repeats the reason for the judgment–that the people forgot the God who saves them. Verses 10b-11 describe the utter futility of attempting to succeed in their efforts in their own strength.
- Their strong cities will be empty. (vs 9)
- The cause of all this is that they have forgotten God their creator (vs 10, and see comment above concerning verses 7-8).
- Their grapes will not grow, even if they use the best farming techniques (verses 10-11). For an agrarian economy, even one cropless year would be devastating.
Closing Metaphors Against the Attackers
In the Old Testament, God uses nations to punish nations. Isaiah 17 does not name who the attacker is. Isaiah 7:17-20, however, several times names the attacking nation as Assyria. Just as Assyria will also attack Judah and not prevail (see Isaiah 8:8), so Isaiah 17:12-14 introduces a ray of hope.
The KJV and NKJ adopt the interpretation that verses 12-14 are against the attacking nation. They are compared to a multitude of people, who cry loudly like the noise from the sea and the crashing roar of great waves. “…But God will rebuke them and they will flee far away, And be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind, Like a rolling thing before the whirlwind (Isaiah 17:13 NKJ)”
The NKJ just quoted lies within the Masoretic tradition. And, the Septuagint clearly labels the closing phrases of the prophecy against Damascus and Israel as being against the attacker.
Isaiah 17:14 Toward evening, and there shall be grief; before the morning, and he shall not be. This is the portion of them that spoiled you, and the inheritance to them that robbed you of your inheritance. (CAB)
Closing Thoughts and Applications
It is said that, “Elephants never forget,” but neither does God. For the last several chapters, whenever Isaiah mentions that Israel, the northern kingdom, will not be completely destroyed but left a remnant, I am reminded of Jesus’s ministry to the woman at the well in a town of Samaria.
Many pastors amplify a certain phrase that falls near the beginning of this narrative, “But He needed to go through Samaria,”(John 4:4 NKJ). The Samaria of Jesus’s day lay in the former area of Israel, the northern kingdom. Often, pastors emphasize that Jesus’s need concerned the woman herself. This is most likely true. But as concerns Isaiah, I think that Jesus’s need sprang from God’s faithfulness to his former child. This was the child who rebelled and left him completely–except for that very small remnant that he spared.
After the Samaritan woman believed and ran back to evangelize her whole town, Jesus stayed with them two whole days (John 4:28-29, 32-42). God is faithful, even when we are not (2 Timothy 2:13).
Isaiah 17 shouts a warning to the Christian church and to individual Christians of every era. In God’s eyes, the Arameans and the Israelites of the northern kingdom were nearly inseparable. This is demonstrated by the way the judgments against them intertwine. Further, Israel’s history after the death of Solomon reveals an unbroken sequence of unfaithfulness to God himself and to his precepts. Theirs was a history of compromise and self-concern.
Even while the New Testament was being written, faithful Christians were tempted to compromise their basic tenets of faith in order to fit in with and placate their neighbors. The temptations have never ceased. What are some compromises various churches have made in our own generations?
For example, which Scriptural beliefs have churches compromised in order to blend in with those who believe life occurred and developed through evolution? What about the New Testament miracles of Christ? Or, to what extent is the virgin birth emphasized by Christians today? How many Christians continue to tithe a full ten percent? Most readers can surely compose their own list of temptations and compromise rather readily.
But what about God? As an individual Christian, I judge no one’s heart. Believe me, I have a difficult enough time judging my own heart. God is the final arbiter of faith issues, as we live our lives before him. Nevertheless, Isaiah 17 tells an Old Testament prophetic history of a nation called by God. This nation forsook God’s ways and their faith in him. Ultimately, their character and habits became indistinguishable from the pagan nations around them. This was so much so, that God judged them along with their pagan neighbors. The judgment that applied to the one also applied to the other. Are churches of today headed in that direction?
It is even possible that verse 14b refers to Aram (Damascus), or even to the Assyrians who bring the devastation. However, the latter interpretation would involve a sudden change of subject.