Isaiah 17

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning,
that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4

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A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2006 James Melough

17:1.  “The burden of Damascus.  Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.”


Damascus, meaning silent is the sackcloth weaver, was a principal city of Syria, famous for its delicate textiles, the derivative name damask being still applied to any finely woven cloth.  The meaning of the name conveys the subtle suggestion of the city’s demise, which occurred in 732 BC at the hand of the Assyrians, though it was later rebuilt, and exists today with a population of over one and a quarter million. 


The literal destruction described in this chapter is the OT foreshadowing of the devastation that will be in the impending Great Tribulation, not just of a city, but of the whole world.


17:2.  “The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down and none shall make them afraid.”


Aroer means destitute, it and its surrounding towns being left in that condition by the invading Assyrians, as will be much of the world as a result of the activity of the Beast, and also as a result of the coming terrible Tribulation judgments.  The transformation to pastureland of the sites of once great cities is but a preview of the coming worldwide Tribulation-age devastation.  But the picture here continues beyond the Tribulation, for the peaceful grazing of flocks without any fear of harm, anticipates not only the peace and abundance of the millennial earth, but also the blessedness of the redeemed in the eternal state.


17:3.  “The fortress also 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 the Lord of hosts.”


The literal demolition of Ephraim’s fortresses declares the Divine destruction, not only of her power: it foreshadows also the overthrow of the Beast, and of the nations, in the Great Tribulation.


The destruction of Damascus and of Syria points also to the ruin that will overtake the nations in the Great Tribulation.  Their being “as the glory of the children of Israel” is the metaphoric assurance that as Israel’s glory had fled, so would also that of these other nations.


17:4.  “And in that day it shall come to pass, that the glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean.”


As has been noted already, Jacob is the name associated with the activity of the flesh, as Israel is with that of the spirit, so that here Jacob points to the earthly, rather than spiritual character of Israel during the Tribulation era; his being thin and lean declaring the spiritual poverty of the nation.  Regrettably the same description applies not only to today’s apostate professing church, but also in a measure to its genuine counterpart, the true Church.


17:5.  “And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; and it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim.”


At first glance it might seem that this is the description of abundance, but it is rather the picture of abject destitution as portrayed by fields already harvested, and now bare.  Rephaim, means the dead: giants: healers, the first two meanings having an evil connotation, and rendering inexplicable the good but dissonant third meaning healers.


The picture continues to be of Israel suffering Divine chastisement; but prophetically it points to the world-wide suffering that will be in the Great Tribulation.


17:6.  “Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it, as the shaking of an olive tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost fruitful branches thereof, saith the Lord God of Israel.”


In the OT age Satan was viciously persistent in his attempts to destroy the remnant, from which line the Lord Jesus Christ was to come; but having been foiled in that evil endeavor he now vents his malicious hatred against those who belong to Christ.  The verse we are now considering however, portrays God’s preservation of a small believing remnant, not only in that distant past day, but also in the coming Great Tribulation.  See my comments on Isaiah 1:9.


17:7.  “At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.”


The description continues to be of the Great Tribulation, the terrible judgments of which will impel some to look to God for salvation; but drive others to even grater defiance of Him, see Revelation 16:9-11,21, “And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to given him glory ... and they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds ... and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail: for the plague thereof was exceeding great.”


17:8.  “And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect that which his fingers have made, either the groves, or the images.”


This record of the past also anticipates what is yet to be in the Great Tribulation.  In their unbearable misery and pain, earth’s rebels will forsake their altars, groves, and images, finally realizing the impotence of their so-called gods.


17:9.  “In that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch, which they left because of the children of Israel: and there shall be desolation.”


Just as Israel had invaded the land after being delivered from Egyptian bondage, and had caused the Canaanites to flee, so now would God cause rebellious Israel to become the victim having to flee from before the invading Gentile armies in the Tribulation. 


The forsaken bough and uppermost branch is a figurative way of saying that in their panic to escape, the fleeing Israelites wouldn’t have time to gather together their cherished possessions, but would abandon them to the invaders.


This was fulfilled in AD 70 when Israel fled from before the Romans, but the ultimate reference is to her future desperate flight from the Gentile armies in the now impending Great Tribulation.


17:10.  “Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips:”


The “pleasant plants” and “strange slips” are generally understood as referring to the humanly contrived innovations with which they had replaced the God-appointed order of worship; and it requires little stretch of the imagination to see the counterpart of this in the magnificent buildings, impressive ritual, hireling clerics, gorgeous robes, and high-sounding titles, choirs, etc., which are deemed essential to the so-called worship of today’s Christendom - Roman Catholic and Protestant, the latter having aped the error of the former. 


Where do we find Scriptural authorization for any of this?  The first Christians, for the most part, met in one another’s homes to eat the Lord’s Supper on the first day of each week, and to study the Scriptures, in which there cannot be found even a hint of the need of a theological education as a requirement for those who would minister God’s Word.  Those whom God has gifted as elders, evangelists, and  teachers are they who are responsible for ministry in the churches, a  theological education being a travesty of Roman Catholic origin, and is an anathema to God, because it stifles the development of spiritual gift, and is largely responsible for the shroud-like pall that envelopes today’s Christendom.


17:11.  “In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: but the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow.”


This continues to describe the human innovations that have replaced the Divine order of worship and service, and that will bring loss instead of reward at the Bema.  He is a wise man who takes care to ensure that his worship and service are according to Scripture, and are not the product of his own fleshly mind.


The ultimate tragedy will be to have filled a life with religious activity, but without ever having been born again; all the imagined good works proving to have been but “wood, hay, and stubble” rather than the spiritual equivalent of “gold, silver, and precious stones,” 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.


17:12.  “Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters.”


It is ominously significant that Scripture likens earth’s unconverted masses to the restless sea, “The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt,” Isaiah 57:20.  It is also instructive to note that they are described as “the multitude of many people,” in stark contrast with believers, whom the Lord describes as few, “Enter ye in at the strait (narrow) gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,” Matthew 7:13-14. 


The roar of earth’s restless rebellious agitation drowns out the “still small voice” of God from the ears of all but the few who have the wisdom to obey His command, “Be still, and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10.


17:13.  “The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but God shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind.”


There is vivid contrast between the thunderous roar of storm waves crashing on a beach, and the silent movement of chaff or dust blown by the wind, the antithesis demonstrating the difference between man’s imagined might, and God’s omnipotence.  It is He Who has created both, and it is He Who controls the movements of both for the accomplishment of His own purposes.


17:14.  “And behold at eveningtide trouble; and before the morning he is not.  This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us.”


In the first sentence the trouble is that suffered by Israel at the hand of her enemies, the Assyrians, that time of persecution being likened to the darkness of night; but “the morning” represents the end of her trouble, and the destruction of her enemies, (185,000 Assyrians died in one night while they slept, see 37:36), the ultimate application being to her experience in the impending Great Tribulation, out of which a believing remnant will be brought, first into the enjoyment of millennial blessing, and then into eternal bliss when there will be a new heavens and new earth. 


The application relates also to believers of every age. The “night,” the time of earthly trial, will be succeeded by the morning of eternal blessedness.   Here on earth we may suffer persecution, but that brief night will be followed by the morning of God’s everlasting day, when we will bask in the sunshine of His presence in heaven.  The portion of unbelievers will be dramatically different.  They will be banished first into the fire of hell, and then eternally into the torment of the unquenchable flames of the dreadful lake of fire.

[Isaiah 18]

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