Tuesdays with Isaiah (Chapter 17)

While the heading for this chapter in my ESV translation says, “An Oracle Concerning Damascus”, the chapter deals with the impending judgment on both Syria and Israel.  Previously, in chapter 7, we read how Syria and Israel were joining forces to threaten Judah and its king, Ahaz.  In chapters 7-9, Isaiah had delivered several prophetic pronouncements against this Syria/Israel alliance.  Here in chapter 17, we find a similar injunction.  God will bring judgment upon both Syria (including its capital city—Damascus) and Israel.  In doing so the Lord will be showing His protection for Judah: “This is the portion of those who loot us, and the lot of those who plunder us” (14).

The opening verse of the oracle announces total devastation upon Syria’s capital city, Damascus (1).  Destruction will be so complete that Damascus will “cease to be a city”, becoming only a “heap of ruins.”  Damascus is not alone, the “cities of Aroer” will likewise be deserted (2).

In verses 3-4, Isaiah’s prophecy widens to include “Ephraim” (Israel) as well as Syria.  The Lord declares that the “glory” of both countries will be “brought low” and humbled (3-4).  Using an agricultural word picture, Isaiah compares both nations to wheat fields and olive trees that are harvested, leaving only gleanings behind—“two or three berries in the top of the highest bough, four or five on the branches of a fruit tree” (6).

The result of this destruction will be to turn hearts and eyes upwards towards the Lord: “In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel” (7).  They will turn away from their idols and false altars (8).  Judgment will have a humbling, chastening effect. “In that day” Israel will see the desolation all around (their cities become wilderness—9) and remember what they forgot!  “For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge” (10).

When people forget God and look to other gods and the work of their own hands, the hopes wither.  For a time, things may look promising; for a time, they may see things sprout, grow and blossom (11).  But the harvest they hope for will be empty and painful: “yet the harvest will flee away in a day of grief and incurable pain.”  The harvest vanishes, either because it withers or because it is taken by invaders.

Isaiah concludes this vision with a curious but encouraging coda (12-14).  He sees many nations roaring and thundering like the waves of the sea, ready to wash over Judah.  As evening darkens, things are terrifying for God’s people.  But by morning, everything has changed.  God has routed the roaring nations, chasing them away like the wind blows the chaff.  “This is the portion of those who loot us, and the lot of those who plunder us” (14).  The message is the same the one Isaiah give to king Ahaz: trust in the Lord to protect you for those who plunder you.  He is the Lord of the nations.

Behold Your God

The Lord uses trouble to turn our eyes to him.  After the harvest of devastation experienced by both Syria and Israel, they finally look up: “In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel” (7).  Pain and suffering cause them to turn away from their own handiwork and their idols which have proven worthless (8).  The same is often true for us.  When we sow the wind and reap the whirlwind, we are left looking up to God for help and hope.  Trouble can have a humbling, sanctifying effect.

The Lord shatters and safeguards nations.  In Isaiah 17 we see the Lord moving to humble and decimate Syria and Israel (likely through the invasion of the Assyrian armies).  By contrast, we see Him as the Rock of refuge who safeguards His people (10); He chases away the threatening nations have plundered His people (13-14). 

Here Am I

I must keep my eyes on the Lord as my help and protector.  Verse 10 indicts the people who have “forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge.”  God sent trouble to reorient their focus from what they had made to their Maker (7-8).  He still uses trouble to turn our eyes upward.  I want to keep my eyes on him at all times, not waiting for trouble to force me to do so.

I must trust God to deliver even when things look dark and terrifying.   The final verse in the chapter reminds us God can rescue when life has been painful and things look bleak: “At evening time, behold, terror!  Before morning, they [the invaders] are no more!” (14).  Similar to Psalm 46, the Lord comes through in the darkest of night: “God will help her when morning dawns” (46:5).  I can “be still” and know His is God (46:10).

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