Isaiah 17 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Isaiah 17
Pulpit Commentary
The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.
Verses 1-3. - THE BURDEN OF DAMASCUS. The eye of the prophet travels northwards from Moab, and, passing over Ammon as an enemy of small account, rests once more upon Damascus, already threatened in Isaiah 7:1 - 9, and probably already partially punished. Damascus is seen once more in alliance with Ephraim (ver. 3), and the two are joined with a new power, Aroer (ver. 2), which possesses several "cities." Woe is denounced on all the three powers: desolation on Damascus and Aroer; on Damascus and Ephraim, the complete loss of the last shadow of independence. The Assyrian inscriptions point out, as the probable date of the prophecy, the commencement of Sargun's reign - about B.C. 722 or 721. Verse 1. - Damascus is taken away from being a city. According to Vitringa, Damascus has been destroyed oftener than any other town; but it has a wonderful power of rising again from its ashes. Probably a destruction by Sargon is here intended ('Records of the Past,' vol. 9. p. 6).
The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
Verse 2. - The cities of Aroer are forsaken. That the Aroer of this passage cannot be either that on the Arnon, or that facing Rabbath-Ammon (Joshua 13:25), has long been perceived and recognized (see Mr. Grove's article on "Aroer" in the 'Dict. of the Bible,' vol. 1. p. 115). It is evidently a city of the same name lying much further towards the north. Arid it is a city of far greater importance, having "cities" dependent on it. Now, Sargon's annals tell us of a "Gal'gar," a name well expressing the Hebrew ערער, which was united in a league with Damascus, Samaria, Arpad, and Simyra, in the second year of Sargon, and was the scene of a great battle and a great destruction. Sargon besieged it, took it, and reduced it to ashes ('Records of the Past,' 50.s.e.). There is every reason to recognize the "Aroer" of this verse in the "Gargar" of Sargon's inscriptions. They shall be for flocks (comp. Isaiah 5:17; Isaiah 7:25). It marked the very extreme of desolation, that cattle should be pastured on the sites of cities. None shall make them afraid; i.e. "there shall be no inhabitants to make any objection."
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.
Verse 3. - The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim. Sargon did not destroy Samaria on the occasion of his first capture. But he says that he "reduced it to a heap of ruins" on the occasion of its second capture ('Records of the Past,' l.s.c.). And the kingdom from Damascus. We do not hear of any King of Damascus after Rezin, who was slain by Tiglath-Pileser about B.C. 732. Damascus, however, reasserted her independence in B.C. 721, and probably set up a king at the same time. In B.C. 720 she was reduced and destroyed. Nothing more is heard of her until B.C. 694 - the eleventh year of Sen-nacherib - when her "governor" is Assyrian Eponym, and she must therefore have been absorbed into the Assyrian empire. The remnant of Syria. This phrase shows that the great blow which struck down Syria - Tiglath-Pileser's capture of Damascus and slaughter of Rezin - was a thing of the past. Syria was already but "a remnant." Now she was to cease to exist altogether. They shall be as the glory of the children of Israel. Ironical. The irony is made apparent by the next verse.
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.
Verses 4-11. - A DENUNCIATION OF WOE ON ISRAEL, COMBINED WITH THE PROMISE OF A REMNANT. Israel, having united herself with Syria to resist the Assyrians, will incur a similar fate. Her glory will decay, her population dwindle and almost disappear. Still there will be a few left, who, under the circumstances, will turn to God (ver. 7). But it will be too late for anything like a national recovery; the laud will remain "a desolation" on account of the past sins of its inhabitants (vers. 9-11). Verse 4. - The glory of Jacob shall be made thin. There is reason to believe that the deportation of the Israelites was gradual. Sargon, on taking Samaria for the first time, in B.C. 722, carried off no more than 27, 290 of the inhabitants (G. Smith, 'Eponym Canon,' p. 125). Over the remainder he appointed governors, and required them to pay the same taxation as before. About B.C. 715 he placed a number of Arabs in Samaria, probably deporting natives to make room for them (ibid., p. 128). The continuant of a remnant of Israelites in the land down to B.C. 625 is indicated by 2 Chronicles 34:9. The fatness of his flesh shall wax lean (comp. Isaiah 10:16). Depopulation is primarily intended; but there is, perhaps, also a more general reference to depression, wasting, and misery.
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.
Verse 5. - As when the harvestman gathereth the corn. Death is the "harvestman" here, and gathers the Israelites by shocks, or sheaves, into his garner. A great depopulation appears in 2 Kings 17:25, where we learn that lions so multiplied in the land as to become a terror to the few inhabitants. Reapeth the ears. Mr. Cheyne well remarks that the "ears" only were reaped, the stalk being cut close under the ear. This was the practice also in Egypt (Rawlinson,' Hist. of Ancient Egypt,' vol. 1. p. 162). In the valley of Rephaim. The valley of Rephaim was the scene of David's double victory over the Philistines, related in 2 Samuel 5:17-25. It is disputed whether it lay north or south of Jerusalem; but the connection with Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17) and with the cave of Adullam seem decisive in favor of a southern position. A "valley," however ('emek), suitable for the cultivation of corn, in this direction, has yet to be discovered.
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.
Verse 6. - Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it; rather, yet gleanings shall be left in it. There is no mention of grapes, and it is clear that the "gleaning" intended is that of an olive-ground. As the shaking of an olive tree; rather, as at the beating of an olive tree. The olive crop was obtained, not by shaking, but by beating the trees (Deuteronomy 24:20). The owner was forbidden to "go over the boughs again," in order that a portion of the crop might be left for the stranger, the widow, and the fatherless to glean. In the top of the uppermost bough. Where the sticks of the beaters had not reached. Four or five in the outmost fruitful branches; rather, four or fire apiece on its fruitful branches, This is the average that would be left, after beating, on a good-sized branch.
At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.
Verse 7. - At that day shall a man look to his Maker. We have evidence of this revulsion of feeling on the part of Israel in the statement of Chronicles that, in the reign of Josiah, offerings of money were made for the temple service by men of "Manasseh and Ephraim, and of all the remnant of Israel," which the Levites collected and brought to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 34:9).
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.
Verse 8. - And he shall not look to the altars. The altars at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-33) may be intended, or the Israelites may have had other idolatrous altars besides these (2 Kings 17:11; Hosea 8:11). Josiah, about B.C. 631, broke down altars throughout all the land of Israel, in the cities of Manasseh and Ephraim and Simeon (?), even unto Naphtali (2 Chronicles 34:5-7). Apparently he had the consent of the inhabitants to this demolition. Either the groves, or the images, Asherah, the word here and elsewhere commonly translated "grove" in the Authorized Version, is now generally admitted to have designated an artificial construction of wood or metal, which was used in the idolatrous worship of the Phoenicians and the Israelites, probably as the emblem of some deity. The Assyrian "sacred tree" was most likely an emblem of the same kind, and may give an idea of the sort of object worshipped under the name of Asherah (comp. 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2. pp. 235-237). The Israelites, in the time of their prosperity, had set up "groves" of this character "on every high hill, and under every green tree" (2 Kings 17:10). Many of them were still standing when Josiah made his iconoclastic raid into the Israelite country (2 Chronicles 34:5-7), and were broken down by him at the same time as the altars. The "images" of this place are the same as those coupled with the Israelite "groves" in 2 Chronicles 34:7, namely "sun-images," emblems of Baal, probably pillars or conical stones, such as are known to have held a place in the religious worship of Phoenicia.
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.
Verse 9. - In that day. While a remnant of the Israelites shall repent and turn to God, throwing in their lot with Judah, as it would seem the country generally shall feel the weight of God's chastening hand, on account of Israel's former sins and offences. As a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch; rather, as the forsaken tract of woodland and mountain-crest (Kay). The reference is to the condition of the land when it passed out of the possession of the Canaanitish nations. It was then forsaken and desolate. So shall it be once more, when Israel is expelled for the same sins (see 2 Kings 17:7, 8). Which they left because of the children of Israel; rather, which men forsook before the children of Israel; i.e. from which the Canaanites fled as the children of Israel advanced and took possession. The writer ignores the long and fierce struggle which the Canaanites made, and looks only to the result - retirement from a desolated country.
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:
Verse 10. - Because thou hast forgotten; rather, because thou didst forget. The late repentance of a "remnant" which "looked to their Maker" (ver. 7) could not cancel the long catalogue of former sins (2 Kings 17:8-17), foremost among which was their rejection of God, or, at any rate, their complete forgetfulness of his claims upon them. The Rock of thy strength. God is first called "a Rock" in Deuteronomy 32:4, 15, 18, 30, 31. The image is caught up by the psalmists (2 Samuel 22:2, 32, 47; 2 Samuel 23:3; Psalm 16:1, 2, 31, 46; 19:14; 28:1, etc.), and from them passes to Isaiah (see, besides the present passage, Isaiah 26:4; Isaiah 30:29; and Isaiah 44:8). Among the later prophets only Habakkuk uses it (Habakkuk 1:12). Israel, instead of looking to this "Rock," had looked to their rock-fortresses (ver. 9). Therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants; rather, dost thou plant, or hast thou planted. Forgetfulness of Jehovah has led to the adoption of a voluptuous religion - one of debased foreign rites. There is possibly, as Mr. Cheyne thinks, a special reference to the cult of Adonis. Shall set it; rather, settest it, or hast set it. "It" must refer to "field" or "garden" understood. The later Israelite religion has been a sort of pleasant garden, planted with exotic slips from various quarters - Phoenicia, Syria, Moab, etc. It has been thought permissible to introduce into it any new cult that took the fancy. Hence the multiplication of altars complained of by Hosea (Hosea 8:11; Hosea 10:1; Hosea 12:11).
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.
Verse 11. - In the day; or, in a day (Kay). Shalt thou make; rather, thou makest. Each new slip that is planted is forced to take root and grow and flourish at once; the next morning it is expected to have formed its seed and reached perfection. So the harvest is hurried on; but when it is reached, the day of visitation has arrived - a day of grief and of desperate sorrow.
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!
Verses 12-14. - A PROPHECY AGAINST ASSYRIA. This passage is, apparently, out of place. At any rate, it is quite unconnected with what precedes, and almost equally so with what follows. Still, it must be borne in mind that, until the destruction of Sennacherib's army, Isaiah has the thought of the Assyrians, as the pressing danger, always before him, and continually reverts to it, often abruptly, and without preparation (see Isaiah 5:26-30; Isaiah 7:17-25; Isaiah 8:5-8; Isaiah 10:5-19, 24-34; Isaiah 14:24-27). The present prophecy seems, more distinctly than any other in the purely prophetical chapters, to point to the miraculous destruction of the hoot which Sennacherib was about to bring against Jerusalem. Verse 12. - Woe to the multitude of many people; rather, Ho for the tumult of many peoples! The advance of an army composed of soldiers from many nations is descried. They advance with noise and tumult - a tumult compared with that of "seas that are tumultuous." Under the circumstances of the time, it is reasonable to suppose the Assyrians to be intended (comp. Isaiah 22:6, 7). The rushing sound of the advance is borne in strongly upon the prophet's mind, and made the subject of three consecutive clauses.
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.
Verse 13. - God shall rebuke them; literally, he shall rebuke them - he who alone can do so. There is no need to mention his name. They shall flee far off. The destruction of the great bulk of Sennacherib's army in the night was followed, as soon as morning came, by the hasty flight of the survivors (2 Kings 19:36; Isaiah 37:37). And shall be chased. Herodotus says that the Egyptians pursued the army of Sennacherib and slew vast numbers (2:141). As the chaff of the mountains (comp. Hosea 13:3). Threshing-floors were ordinarily placed upon eminences (2 Samuel 24:18; 2 Chronicles 3:1), where the wind had freer course and consequently greater power. Like a rolling thing; or, like whirling dust (Kay). The word used commonly means "a wheel."
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.
Verse 14. - Behold at evening-tide trouble; rather, terror, as the word is elsewhere always translated (comp. 2 Kings 19:35, "It came to pass that night that the angel of the Lord went out," etc.). He is not (comp. 2 Kings 19:35, "They were all dead corpses"). That spoil us... that rob us (see 2 Kings 18:13-16).

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