Isaiah 17: Partners in Crime
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Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
The oracle in chapter 17 describes the fall of Damascus and the fortified cities of Ephraim (the northern kingdom of Israel). The events described in this chapter belong to the period of the Syro-Ephraimite War (734-732 B.C.), when Judah’s king Ahaz asks the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III to rescue him from the attacks of Syria and Ephraim.
Isa. 17:10a For you have forgotten the God of your salvation, and you have failed to remember the rock of your strength.
J. Vernon McGee writes: “Because of the confederacy between Syria and Israel (often for the purpose of coming against Judah), Israel is linked with the judgments pronounced on Syria. Partners in crime means partners in judgment” (Isaiah Volume 1, p.137).
Despite harsh words and a bleak outlook for Israel, the Lord reminds His people of His purpose in judgment – so they will “look to their Maker and will turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel. They will not look to the altars they made with their hands or to the Asherahs and incense alters they made with their fingers” (Isa. 17:7b-8).
Prophecy Against Damascus (Isa. 17:1-3)
The northern kingdom of Israel (also called Ephraim) and Damascus, the capital of Syria (or Aram), have joined forces against Judah. For this they will suffer together. Both will be besieged and deported by Assyria (see 2 Kings 15:29; 17:6). The Assyrians conquer Aram in 732 B.C. and, according to their custom, deport many of the citizens, leaving the cities deserted and the land untended. They also likely burn the houses and demolish the fortifications, leaving the capital city a “ruined heap” (v. 1).
Isaiah also says the cities of Aroer, a Syrian province, are forsaken. “God is righteous in causing those cities to spue out their inhabitants, who by their wickedness had made themselves vile; it is better that flocks should lie down there than that they should harbour such as are in open rebellion against God and virtue” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 17:1).
The Syrians are the ringleaders in the confederacy against Judah, so they are punished first and most harshly. The glory of Israel will be no comfort to the Syrian survivors.
Judgment Against Israel (Isa. 17:4-11)
Now Isaiah turns his attention to Syria’s ally, Ephraim. He uses several graphic images to describe the northern kingdom’s imminent downfall: the fading splendor of Jacob (v. 4a); the emaciation of a sick person (v. 4b); the gleaning of a small harvest (vv. 5-6); the abandonment of woods and mountain peaks (v. 9); and the sudden decay of a garden (v. 11). On that day the people will come to their senses and realize that their idols cannot save them. They will turn to their Maker, but it will be too late (v. 7; see also Prov. 1:20-33). In 722 B.C., Assyria sweeps into the northern kingdom, and she is no more.
Warren Wiersbe comments:
The emphasis in this section is on the God of Israel. He is the Lord of hosts (the Lord Almighty), who controls the armies of heaven and earth (Isa. 17:3). He is the Lord God of Israel (v. 6), who called and blessed Israel and warned her of her sins. He is our Maker, the Holy One of Israel (v. 7); He is the God of our salvation and our Rock (v. 10). How foolish of the Israelites to trust their man-made idols instead of trusting the living God (v. 8; 1 Kings 12:25-33). But like Israel of old, people today trust the gods they have made, instead of the God who made them; these include the false gods of pleasure, wealth, military might, scientific achievement, and even “religious experience” (Be Comforted, S. Is 17:1).
Isaiah’s words are echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans more than 700 years later. Though the Asherah poles used to worship the Canaanite fertility goddess are no longer standing, the first-century world still clung to idols: “For though they knew God, they did not glorify
Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles” (Rom. 1:21-23).
Judgment Against the Nations (Isa. 17:12-14)
These verses spell out the consequences for those who plunder the people of God. Even though God uses surrounding nations to judge Israel, he holds them accountable for their actions and brings them to justice. This passage seems especially to take aim at Assyria, which, after aligning itself with Judah, invades it unsuccessfully. As Matthew Henry writes, “If the Assyrians and Israelites invade and plunder Judah, if the Assyrian army take God’s people captive and lay their country waste, let them know that ruin will be their lot and portion” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, S. Is 17:12).
The Assyrian army is diverse, made up of many nations. What’s more, its soldiers are noisy and boastful, “like the roaring of the seas … like the raging of mighty waters” (v. 12). They make boisterous threats in order to frighten their enemies into submission and prevent surrounding nations from coming to their enemies’ defense. But God will punish them, scattering them “like chaff on the hills, and like dead thistles before a gale” (v. 13). “How appropriate that though Assyria brought terror in the evening, the enemy would be gone before morning, for such was the case with the Assyrian army (37:36-37). Though the Assyrian soldiers had plundered many cities of Judah, 185,000 soldiers were slaughtered over night” (John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1065).
Matthew Henry comments: “It was in the night that the angel routed the Assyrian army. God can in a moment break the power of his church’s enemies, even when it appears most formidable; and this is written for the encouragement of the people of God in all ages, when they find themselves an unequal match for their enemies; for this is the portion of those that spoil us, they shall themselves be spoiled. God will plead his church’s cause, and those that meddle do it to their own hurt” (S. Is 17:12).
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips