As we consider what God is doing to accomplish His pronouncements for the nation of Israel, we realize the process is far from complete. Through His compassion, the Lord has once again "chosen" Israel and begun to settle them in their own land. (Isaiah 14:1) Though many of the Jewish people are now back in that promised land, most do not acknowledge the One who performed it. There is little regard for the God of Israel, little acknowledgment of Him by most of the Israeli population. Israel is as godless and unholy a nation as any other in the world. And even those who do make an appearance of worshiping that God are operating in the framework of a man-made religious system which is not the gateway to an animate relationship with Him.
Yet we know from the Scriptures a dramatic change will occur in Israel, a spiritual revitalization unparalleled in world history. "I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel", declared the Lord God through the prophet Ezekiel. What will be the impetus for this dramatic transformation?
It will be a process similar to what many of us have experienced individually as the Lord brought us to Himself. We endured devastating circumstances that cast us into a desperate state, until all we could do was cry out to God for mercy and help. But it was His kindness that took us to that state, so He could restore us to Himself. In the Bible, we see this repeatedly in the ancient history of Israel.
Prophetically, we see it as well, in Isaiah chapter 17, which describes that future "day men will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel." (v 7 NIV). This "looking" will be with new spiritual eyesight, imploring God for succor, in sincere repentance. The next verse indicates that Israel will no longer look to their man-made religion, "the works of their hands." But first, let us take a verse-by-verse examination of this chapter, which begins with a foretelling of doom for the city of Damascus, Syria.
The demise of Damascus is prophesied in three different places in the Bible. Isaiah 17 is one of them. If this prophecy is yet future, awaiting fulfillment, it could happen soon. Damascus is a central hub of terrorism today. Several of the most prominent terrorist organizations have their headquarters there, and coordinate their operations from there. With the United States and Israel aligning against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, it is not hard to see today how circumstances could quickly fall into place.
When examining Bible prophecy, the question is not "if" what God said will happen, but "when". So our initial question for this chapter is this: has the destruction of Damascus, described here, occurred in history?
(Isaiah 17:1 ESV) An oracle concerning Damascus. Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins.
(Isaiah 17:1 JPS) The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.
(Isaiah 17:1 NIV) An oracle concerning Damascus: "See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins.
Looking at these three different translations, we see the prophecy is not only about the destruction of Damascus, but the thorough dissolution of its status as a city. Its "cityhood" will be taken away. After this oracle is fulfilled, there will never be a city called Damascus again. If Isaiah had only said "Damascus will be destroyed", then presumably, it could be rebuilt. But the impact is stronger than that. "Damascus will be negated from being a city." (Stone Edition Tanach)
A phrase in verse three also confirms this. The sovereignty, the royal power, the kingdom "will disappear from Damascus." Though it is the seat of government, capital of Syria, that status will be removed, and it will no longer function as such.
So we see that this prophecy could not have taken place, or else Damascus would not now exist as a city. Yet some commentators claim this was historically fulfilled in 732 BC by the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser III. However, neither the Bible (which records the incident in 2 Kings 16:9) nor the ancient Assyrian inscriptions found at Ninevah say the city was destroyed, just captured. It certainly did not cease to exist.
Also, it is important to note that the three Biblical prophecies about the doom of Damascus (Isaiah 17, Jeremiah 49, Zechariah 9) were written over a span of 200 years. Therefore, even a fulfillment in Isaiah's day would not satisfy the requirements of the other prophecies, written later. Regarding Jeremiah's prophecy about Damascus, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar did conquer the city in 605 BC, but there is no record of it being destroyed then. Neither did Zechariah's prophecy receive a fulfillment. Alexander the Great did also subsequently take Damascus in 332 BC, but without bloodshed or destruction.
Therefore, we can conclude that all three of these prophecies about Damascus are referring to a tragic event yet future. God does not tell us directly in this chapter His reasons for the severe pronouncement of doom against Damascus. But God is a just God, and does not take such drastic actions arbitrarily. Therefore, Damascus apparently does something to deserve this fate. Though the reasons are not directly stated, we might be able to infer them from dire circumstances that Israel suffers in the context. So our supposition is Damascus is responsible for those circumstances, as we shall see later.
As we continue in our verse by verse examination, this reference to "Aroer" is a bit puzzling. It is a region on the northern bank of the Arnon River in what is today Jordan. At the time of Moses, it marked the southern boundary of the territory given to the two and a half tribes who received their land inheritance on the east side of the Jordan River. That Aroer was in the territory of Reuben. There was another Aroer in the territory of Gad as well, very near Rabbah. Rabbah is today called Amman, the modern capital of Jordan. So Isaiah may be indicating that the Jordanians will be involved as well.
(Isaiah 17:2 ESV) The cities of Aroer are deserted; they will be for flocks, which will lie down, and none will make them afraid.
Does this mean that the nation of Jordan will be party to whatever conflict causes the destruction of Damascus? The textual proximity of prophecies against Moab and Ammon (who resided in today's Jordan) in Isaiah 15-16 and Jeremiah 48-49 to the prophecies against Damascus provide circumstantial evidence for this. In fact, Jeremiah 49:1-2 uses similar terminology when describing the fate of Rabbah (Amman) as Israel regains possession of its land on the east bank of the Jordan. So it is possible that both Amman and Damascus will be destroyed in the same actions, and the "flocks that will lie down" there in safety are the Jews who will repossess that land.
Just as in the previous verse we saw a possible hidden reference to Amman, Jordan, here we see a possible hidden reference to the Palestinian Authority. The territory allocated to the tribe of Ephraim sits at the very heart of the so-called "West Bank". So the "fortifications" described in verse 3 are probably a symbolic reference to the terrorist strongholds that will be eliminated. If Isaiah were writing it today, he might say, "The PLO forces will vanish from the West Bank."
(Isaiah 17:3 ESV) The fortress will disappear from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus; and the remnant of Syria will be like the glory of the children of Israel, declares the LORD of hosts.
This seems to hint that the Palestinians as well will be involved in whatever events lead to the destruction of Damascus. At the same time the governing authority disappears from Damascus, the military units of the Palestinians disappear from the West Bank. "Not a sign of a fort is left in Ephraim, not a trace of government left in Damascus." (v. 3, The Message Bible)
The final phrase in verse 3, "the remnant of Aram will be like the glory of the sons of Israel," is another emphatic statement about the scope of the judgment against Syria. Isaiah was writing in the days when the Assyrians had devastated the northern kingdom (ten tribes) of Israel. So Isaiah is saying that Syria's ultimate fate would be similar.
In the next section, the focus changes from Damascus to Israel. In fact, Damascus is not even directly mentioned in the rest of the chapter. However, because of the structure of this oracle, we surmise that the effects on Israel described in the remaining verses are in conjunction with the conflict with Damascus.
(Isaiah 17:4-6 NIV) "In that day the glory of Jacob will fade; the fat of his body will waste away. It will be as when a reaper gathers the standing grain and harvests the grain with his arm-- as when a man gleans heads of grain in the Valley of Rephaim. Yet some gleanings will remain, as when an olive tree is beaten, leaving two or three olives on the topmost branches, four or five on the fruitful boughs," declares the LORD, the God of Israel.
Isaiah uses several metaphors to describe the consequences on Israel. Some of those consequences are very negative, but they lead to a positive spiritual revolution described in verses 7-8.
But first, the negatives. Verse 4 describes a process of enfeeblement and emaciation for Israel. Then verses 5-6 depict visuals of privation and desolation. This desolation seems to effect Israel's "strong cities", according to verse 9. This would be a reference to Israel's population center on the Mediterranean coast, where the major cities are. Later on in the chapter, Isaiah calls it "a day of grief and incurable pain."
How might we interpret these scenes, given the context? It seems plausible that the destruction leveled against Damascus is God's response to devastation it has wreaked upon Israel's population center, the "strong cities". Those cities will be like "deserted places", according to verse 9 -- "all will be desolation".
If this is the correct interpretation of these verses, it means a great deal of sorrow and suffering for many people. But out of this suffering comes a remarkable spiritual transformation in Israel.
God will apparently use the desperate circumstances to turn the gaze of Israel to Himself. This seems to be the answer to the question "what will it take for the nation of Israel to come back to their God?" It is confirmed in Zechariah 9 as well, one of the other places where doom is declared upon Damascus.
(Isaiah 17:7 -8 ESV) In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made, either the Asherim or the altars of incense.
"The burden of the word of the LORD is against the land of Hadrach, with Damascus as its resting place (for the eyes of men, especially of all the tribes of Israel, are toward the LORD)," (Zechariah 9:1 NASB) What happens to Damascus, and the accompanying misery for Israel, will be a very effective attention-getting exercise.
The Message Bible puts it this way: "Yes, the Day is coming when people will notice The One Who Made Them, take a long hard look at The Holy of Israel. They'll lose interest in all the stuff they've made - altars and monuments and rituals, their homemade, handmade religion - however impressive it is." (v 7-8)
Homemade, handmade religion is an impediment to knowing God. But when the extreme circumstances compel Israel to seek their God, it will not be on the basis of their religious traditions. "At that time the people will turn and trust their Creator, the holy God of Israel." (v 7 CEV) Those who worship God must worship Him in Spirit and in truth, and this is how Israel will take a fresh approach to him.
"That day" presumably corresponds to the time when Damascus is destroyed.. But the "strong cities" mentioned are Israeli cities, not Syrian. We know this from the next verse, where God gives His reason for the action described: "You have forgotten God your Savior".
(Isaiah 17:9 ESV) In that day their strong cities will be like the deserted places of the wooded heights and the hilltops, which they deserted because of the children of Israel, and there will be desolation.
So whatever is happening to these "strong cities" is the Lord's corrective action. When Isaiah says they will be "like the deserted places", he is comparing it to the initial conquest of the land by Israel under Joshua. The original Canaanite inhabitants deserted their cult places of shrine worship "because of the children of Israel". An alternate translation of this verse makes it clearer: "In that day your towns will be like the waste places of the Hivites and the Amorites which the children of Israel took for a heritage, and they will come to destruction." (Isaiah 17:9 BBE)
It is possible, however, that portions of this prophecy were already fulfilled when Sennacherib the Assyrian swept through Israel in Isaiah's day. He conquered much of the territory, taking the ten northern tribes (Israel) into captivity. But he was not able to subdue Jerusalem, for God responded to King Hezekiah's plea in dramatic fashion.
But Sennacherib was successful in wreaking devastation on the "strong cities" of Israel. So in the interest of correct interpretation of Scripture, we must acknowledge that this portion may have already been fulfilled. However, since it is given in the context of Damascus' destruction, which did not occur then, it may still have a future application.
One of the challenges in understanding Bible prophecy is often there is a mixture of short-term and long-term prophecies in the same scene. In this case, we are sure that certain portions have not yet been fulfilled. The prophet's objective was to give us a long view of God's remedial measures for Israel. Those measures were active in Isaiah's day, and continue through today.
Regardless of how we interpret the phrases about Israel's "strong cities", we can see that difficult circumstances are ahead for Israel. But Jerusalem will not be affected by the clash with Damascus. Jeremiah provides more details:: 'Concerning Damascus: "Hamath and Arpad are dismayed, for they have heard bad news. They are disheartened, troubled like the restless sea. Damascus has become feeble, she has turned to flee and panic has gripped her; anguish and pain have seized her, pain like that of a woman in labor. Why has the city of renown not been abandoned, the town in which I delight?'" (Jeremiah 49:23-25 NIV)
This seems to coincide with Isaiah's and Zechariah's prophecy regarding Damascus. Hamath and Arpad are other cities in Syria - could it be the "bad news" they are hearing is the obliteration of Damascus? The degree of their distress at hearing the news is powerfully portrayed by Jeremiah. They "are convulsed with anxiety" (NJB) and Damascus herself is "aghast" and gripped with panic.
Regarding the last sentence - "the town in which I delight" is obviously Jerusalem. According to Jeremiah, it "had not been abandoned" - implying that given the events he saw prophetically might have expected people to flee, but they did not. The Amplified Bible puts it this way: "How [remarkable that] the renowned city is not deserted, the city of my joy!" This is all conjecture, but consider this: one thing that would prompt Israel to use weapons of mass destruction (nuclear) against Damascus would be if they were responding in kind to the use of weapons of mass destruction (biological and/or chemical) by the Syrians. Perhaps that is what Jeremiah saw, and thus would have expected to see people abandoning Jerusalem, except for the fact that Israel put a stop to it by bombing Damascus?
This is the reason for God's corrective actions. Though Israel was founded by Him in an act of divine love, though Israel has been regathered by Him in these last days as a continuation of that love, still they do not acknowledge Him. This is the essence of the problem. It has been a long-standing issue, still not resolved, according to the Bible.
(Isaiah 17:10-11 ESV) For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge; therefore, though you plant pleasant plants and sow the vine-branch of a stranger, though you make them grow on the day that you plant them, and make them blossom in the morning that you sow, yet the harvest will flee away in a day of grief and incurable pain.
The "planting" analogy in verse 11 may be pointing out that all of their own efforts in planting the nation are useless until they come back to their God who made it possible. They may carefully tend and cultivate the plants, but God will not bring the blessing of harvest until they look to Him in repentance. All of their political efforts to establish themselves as a respected nation in the international community will be for naught, because they have disregarded their Maker. They have refused to trust Him and have relied on their own contrivances instead.
Despite that, His compassion for Israel continues. One of the most frequent themes of the prophetic Scriptures is God's change of disposition towards Israel. He will draw them to Himself in lovingkindness, finally coming forcefully to their aid when they call to Him in sincerity. That is what the final verses of the chapter are about, how God defends Israel against worldwide animosity.
These verses, which complete the Damascus oracle, convey a distinctive change in tone and perspective. They describe the international reaction to the events prophesied above. Extreme, off-the-scale outrage will be the world's reaction to Israel's destruction of Damascus. The world already hates the nation of Israel. Can you imagine the level of loathing that will be unleashed if Israel is forced to use nuclear weapons against Damascus? No matter how justified is Israel's case, no matter how imperative their need to go nuclear, the world will go berserk.
(Isaiah 17:12-14 NIV) Oh, the raging of many nations-- they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples-- they roar like the roaring of great waters! Although the peoples roar like the roar of surging waters, when he rebukes them they flee far away, driven before the wind like chaff on the hills, like tumbleweed before a gale. In the evening, sudden terror! Before the morning, they are gone! This is the portion of those who loot us, the lot of those who plunder us.
Let's examine how this might come about. For the first time in history, we are on the brink of a setting where this prophecy could be fulfilled. What is now being called the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is a grave threat to Israel. Iran's persistent campaign to acquire nuclear weapons continues unabated, weapons it has vowed to use for the destruction of Israel. Of course, Israel cannot allow that to happen, and has indicated it will take preemptive action against Iran.
This course seems a certainty. Iran will not sit back passively if Israel strikes, it will use all its means to attack Israel, including its allies in Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah, based in southern Lebanon, has a formidable arsenal of 13,000 missiles to use against Israel, some reportedly with chemical or biological capabilities. They are poised to strike the population centers along Israel's Mediterranean coast, where the majority of Israel's citizens live.
Hezbollah cannot act without the permission and coordination of Syria, who is the occupying power in Lebanon. Therefore, Israel holds Syria also responsible for Hezbollah's actions. Syria itself also has a substantial missile arsenal ready to use against Israel, also with WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities.
You can probably see how this current situation fits precisely into the scenario of Isaiah's prophecy. If Israel is struck by chemical or biological WMD from Syria and/or Hezbollah, they will have no choice but to utilize nuclear weapons against Damascus. Why? Because the time needed to mount a conventional military attack against Damascus would be measured in days. And each of those days would leave Israel vulnerable to tens of thousands of civilian casualties from more WMD missile attacks.
Once any of the hostile parties to Israel has opened the bottle of non-conventional weaponry, it gives Israel the justification, and indeed the compulsion, to respond in a non-conventional (nuclear) manner.
It does not take very much imagination to foresee what world reaction to such a scenario would be. That reaction would be the foaming uproar described by Isaiah in verses 12-13. Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism will explode around the world to a degree never before seen. But notice that God Himself will deliver an overwhelming rebuke to the nations. Once Israel turns to Him in true contrition and trust, He will respond to their plea.
Interpretative summary: Because Israel has ignored their God, who chose them as a nation and planted them in the land, He takes decisive action to direct their attention to Himself. A war with Syria is the means He chooses. In that war Damascus inflicts grievous injury on Israel's cities, but Jerusalem is spared. In response, Damascus is completely and irreversibly annihilated. In addition, the Palestinian terrorist forces are eliminated from the West Bank.
Israel suffers greatly in the war. The aftermath is awful devastation in Israel's population centers, as well as the emaciation of Israel's national status. Because of Israel's role in the destruction of Damascus, the international community expresses unprecedented, extreme rage against Israel. But God comes vehemently to Israel's defense, and through the whole process, a remarkable spiritual transformation takes place in the nation. They turn their eyes to their Maker, abandoning all man-made religion.