Isaiah Chapter 17


The Burden of Damascus. History ever repeats itself.

Once more the rod of the Lord falls, and now it strikes Damascus, the representative city of Syria. But as the ten tribes have joined themselves to Syria, entering into an offensive alliance with it against Judah and the House of David (chaps. 7 and 8), they too must share in the infliction, for such a communion always means a "partaking of the evil deeds," and so necessarily of their punishment (2 John 11). In looking back, we are really looking forward at a scene that will be reproduced in the future, for this history will be repeated, only, of course, with different actors, in a day fast approaching. Once more, as Ephraim joined Syria, so shall the mass of the Jewish nation, again restored to its own land, put its confidence in the military resources of the Gentiles (Daniel 11:38), with whom a covenant will be made for seven years. This shall again bring on them, both Jew and Gentile, as here on Damascus and Ephraim, a very heavy "burden."

1: Consider Damascus!'tis taken away,
No longer a city is counted,
'Tis naught but a heap of bare ruins.
2: Flocks are now lying in pastoral peace,
In the towns of Aroer all emptied,
Reposing with none to affright them.
3: Ephraim's stronghold existeth no more:
Gone, too, the realm of Damascus:
Gone the remnant of Aram!
Thus shall their glory as transient be
As that of the sons of Israel
So saith Jehovah Tzebaoth!
As far as the past history is concerned, this dual judgment on Syria and Ephraim was fulfilled by Tiglath-Pileser (2 Kings 15:29). But the value of the record for us consists in underlying principles that always hold good, and in that history repeating itself in a day still future. Another Gentile shall be found in the revived Roman Empire, and another Ephraim (Jewish, as it ever was) shall be found in an apostate mass of Jews: the alliance between these shall again bring down the divine judgment here foretold. But in both scenes there is a remnant of faith, and to this our prophecy now turns. That remnant is described.
4: Then shall the glory of Jacob too shrink,
The fat of his flesh become leanness.
5: Then shall it be as when reapers do grasp
The stalks of the wheat, and then cut off
The ears with a sweep of the sickle.
Or in what time a gleaner doth pick
Ears in the vale of Rephaim.
6: So a small gleaning shall still be left there,
As when an olive tree's shaken:
Two or three berries on loftiest boughs,
Four or five on the branches most fruitful,
Saith Jehovah, the God of Israel.
7: Then to his Maker shall a man look,
Turn his eye to Israel's "Holy";
8: No count will he make of the altars he built;
Nor care for the fruit of his labor:
Neither Asherim nor Sun-gods.
Little do we think of the vital interest that the whole race of men has in such an apparently negligible passage as this. In that afflicted remnant low indeed shall Jacob be brought, yet shall not be utterly destroyed. As there was a stump left to the cut-down tree in chapter 6, from which a fresh sprig shoots, so here the glory of Jacob shrinks, till nothing is left of those who can still be owned as belonging to Jacob, save so few that they may be likened to two or three olives that may be left on the tree after it has been shaken. These stand for that pious remnant of faith from whose hearts, when turning to the Lord, the veil is removed. For each component of this remnant gives up all other confidence and looks expectantly alone to his Maker. The Asherahs and Sun-gods correspond with the Venus and Jupiter of the Greeks: the Moon and the Sun in the heavens: the female and the male principles identified respectively with those two forms of evil: "Corruption" and "Violence." This pious, penitent remnant becomes the "all Israel" of Romans 11, and this settles it that the prophecy has had no final fulfilment yet, and that God still has much use for that people.
9: In that day his strong cities shall be as a tract,
In forest or hill-top, forsaken,
What time 'fore the sons of Israel they fled
So shall there be desolation.
That is, the same desolation should come to "Jacob" as came to the original possessors of the land in the day of Joshua. Then those inhabitants fled before the victorious hosts of Israel, and the ruins of their cities might still be seen deep in the forests that have covered them, or standing on the bleak hills as monuments of the transient character of mere human glory apart from God.
10: For thou hast forgotten thy Saviour, thy God,
Nor the rock of thy strength hast remembered;
'Tis this that hath led thee fine gardens to plant,
And to set the strange vine-slips within them.
11: In the day thou didst plant, thou didst put up a fence,
With the morn made thy sowing to blossom;
But the harvest shall be a heap piled up,
In the day of sad grief and dread sorrow.
In the reminders of the past, seen in verse 9, the future may be seen, for the same cause brings out the same consequence. But what was that cause? They had simply forgotten who it was to whom they owed everything, and in place of following the faith of their fathers they had devised a plan that was in their esteem as beautiful as a garden filled with choice plants. Aye, but these were "strange plants," as their policies were foreign to that principle of faith in God that resulted in their fathers' victories. It is true that all looked favorable at first. Like the garden, they have hedged it about, and for a time all has apparently gone well. It is but a deceptive prosperity. The wind may blow softly just outside Fair Havens, and they may suppose that they have gained their purpose, but Euroclydon is not far off, and the end of all policies that leave God out was, is, and ever will be "grief and dread sorrow."
12: Woe to the roaring of nationsa mass,*
Like the roaring of seas is their roaring!
Woe to the surging of peoples that surge
Like the surging of ocean's vast waters!
13: The peoples may surge as the surging of seas,
He rebukes, and lo, they are far off:
Are chased by the gale as the chaff of the hills,
Like the whirling of dust 'fore the whirlwind.
14: As evening shades fall, lo, the terror is great,
But when morning dawns, lo, they are not!
Of them that would spoil us, this is the doom:
The fate of all who would rob us.
It is a grand picture of the onward sweep of a victorious army. "It spreads, and stretches out as if it would never cease to roll and surge and sweep onward in its course" (Drechsler). It would be strange, if remembering this, we did not call to mind the similar picture that our Lord drew of those same days, which are yet so much like those in which we live that he is insensible indeed who fails to heed them. There shall be, just before the end of these days, "Upon the earth, distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea, and the rolling surge" (Luke 21:25); for even now, although the great war has ended at least for a time, the nations continue in tumult, and are as a troubled sea that still tosses its waves in a restlessness that foretells a renewal of the storm. [Ed.: First published 1935.]

In the past, the Assyrian host came on; and it was thus the evening saw them encamped in enveloping folds all around the city that seemed inevitably doomed to fall. But ere the morning broke, that host had melted away, its thousands sunk in the sleep that knows no waking here, and His people were free! So again shall it be in a day yet before us. Once more the nations shall envelope a doomed city. This time it will be Jerusalem, and then dark will be the night that appears as if about to settle over poor Israel in that sole remaining remnant of the Jews. But says another prophet, "At evening time it shall be light" (Zech. 14:7). The night shall not fall, the threatening darkness shall flee before Him whose feet shall stand upon that mountain they left long ago, and Israel's everlasting light shall have broken upon her, as the sun rose upon their forefather Jacob after his time of "great tribulation" (Gen. 32:31).

Our lot is cast neither with the Assyrian of the past, nor with the Assyrian of the future, yet all these actors may be found as energetic and active as ever they were or will be. We must find "Ephraim" in that proneness of the flesh to lean on what is esteemed tangible and real. "Syria" may be discerned in the various false confidences, as, for instance, our material resources as a defence against poverty, and thus this poverty itself may well stand today as an illustration of our "Assyrian," or anything that displaces dependence on a Father's care ever shielding those whose hearts' confidence is in Him as revealed in Christ our Lord. May His grace make us so to trust.


* "The destruction of Asshur is predicted here, but not of Asshur as Asshur, but of Asshur as the imperial kingdom, which embraced a multitude of nations" (Delitzsch)that is precisely the conclusion that has been repeatedly expressed in these pages.