William Kelly Major Works Commentary
The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.Isaiah Chapter 17
Assuming that these prophecies, whatever past accomplishment they may have received, have for their centre the day of Jehovah how are we to meet the difficulty about these various peoples and cities which once troubled Israel? How are we to account for these prophecies looking onward to a future day, seeing that they no longer, or very feebly, exist? The answer is that the very same difficulty applies to Israel. No one knows clearly or certainly where the ten tribes are; neither does it seem any one's business to search beforehand. We may leave them in the obscurity that God has put them in. We know, if we believe His word, that as surely as He has preserved the dispersed remnant of the two tribes, so will He bring out of their hiding-place the descendants of the ten. We know that not only the Jews proper are to be restored, but also the full nationality of Israel. To this the δωδεχάφυλον hope to come; the full twelve tribes making one nation in the land, and one King shall be king over them all. "And they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all" (Ezekiel 37:22). Every letter of the promises will be accomplished. Scripture cannot be broken.
Even if we saw no signs, why doubt? Do we need such tokens? It is a proof of feebleness of faith, if we ask a sign. God's word is the best assurance; on this let us take our stand. If God has said that so it shall be, we have a right to expect that He will bring from their recesses the ten tribes, and will save them out of all their dwelling-places wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them. We are far from being fully acquainted even with the little world on which we live. Long ago there were parts of the world better known than they have been till of late. Thus the early accounts of Africa and central Asia, for instance, have been largely confirmed by recent researches. God may have the ten tribes in some of earth's little explored regions; or they may emerge unexpectedly out of a nation with which they have long been confounded. But we are not bound to show where they are. God has declared that He will bring them into their own land, and this in a peculiar manner; for the house of Israel are to pass through the wilderness again, and there be purged of the transgressors in their midst, who thus never reach the land, instead of being destroyed in it like the apostate Jews (Ezekiel 20:36-38). Thus there is a totally different destiny for the ten tribes as compared with the two. If God will accomplish both, nothing will be easier than for the same God to define the descendants of their old Gentile enemies, whether near or farther off. The truth is that the very same principle of faith accepts and accounts for both, as it is mere incredulity which finds a difficulty in either. These remarks apply to almost all these chapters.
Again, some strangely misunderstand the bold figures of the prophets, as if employed to cast their subjects into an enigmatic, if not ambiguous, mould. This is a great error. For they are meant, not so much to throw a cloud over things, as to give emphasis and energy. Many, whose object is to deter Christians from reading the prophecies, talk much of these tropes, as if their presence was evidence enough to show that the meaning is doubtful. Nothing can be more contrary to the fact; for in the inspired writings, as in others, figures are used, by a kind of understood license, to illustrate, adorn, and enforce the sense, and in no case to mystify. Figures and even symbols are quite as definite as plain or literal terms, and are meant to be only more forcible. The very speech of ordinary life abounds in metaphor and simile; but, of course, the poetical language of the prophecies gives occasion to their more frequent usage therein.
Further, the difficulty of scripture does not lie so much in its figurative style as in the depth of its thoughts. In the word of God there is perhaps nothing more profound than the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel. Yet what first strikes one there is the exceeding simplicity of this scripture as a matter of language. It used to be and perhaps is the common habit, of those teaching the Greek language in some parts of the country, to make this Gospel a sort of initiatory exercise. Notwithstanding, in all the Bible you can find no revelation or handling of truth more full of depths, none that will cause the really spiritual to stand more amazed, however attractive the grace it displays in Christ. This will show how entirely unfounded is the notion of such as fancy it is a simple question of words.
The divine depth of scripture is in sober fact the difficulty, not its obscure language. It is difficult because of our darkness morally, because of our want of acquaintance with the mind of God, judging appearances by the natural senses or by the mind, instead of receiving things from God, and reading His words in the light of Christ. So far from the prophetic scriptures being the most difficult part, they are much easier than is commonly imagined. It is a great thing to begin with believing them; intelligence follows and grows apace. If we may compare the various parts of scripture, the New Testament is without doubt the deepest of God's communications; and of the New Testament none exceeds the apostle John's writings for penetration into the knowledge of what God is; and of his writings who would treat the Epistles and the Gospel as less profound than the Apocalypse? None, I am persuaded, but such as are too superficially acquainted with any of them to warrant their pronouncing a Judgement.
This may encourage some to take up the prophecies with a more child-like spirit, always bearing in mind that God looks onward to the future crisis that ushers in "the day of Jehovah." He thinks of His beloved Son, and of His glory here below. This gives importance to the prophecies; they unfold the scene, objects, and ways of His interests. The Jews are the people of whom the Lord Jesus deigned to be born as to the flesh. They have proved what they were to Him; He has now to prove what He will be to them. He means to have an earthly people (Israel), as well as a heavenly (the church), for His glory. The word of God stops not short of this. If it is not fulfilled, yet it is in the sure keeping of God, Who has already given a partial accomplishment. Hence we learn the principle for interpreting prophecy; it is as a whole for the glory of the Lord Jesus in connection with Israel and the nations upon the earth. We speak now of Old Testament prophecy. The New Testament takes another character - the Lord Jesus in connection with Christendom also, besides confirming the oracles about Israel. The church then, too, is outside, and above all in union with its glorified Head in heaven, His body even now on earth.
This may show too why Jehovah attaches importance to a little place or people on the prophetic field. Israel was much in His eyes, because of the Messiah; and His own counsels are not dead if they sleep. Hence too, when God removes the veil from His ancient people Israel, their old antagonists will begin to appear. This is assuredly full of interest. There is a resurrection for every individual. The body will be raised for the manifestation of everything that was done in the body, for it is by the body that the soul acts. Even so will it be with these nations. There is a destiny analogous. As scripture tells us, they are to reappear when Israel does, for the Lord Jesus to take the kingdom; and God will distinguish them according to their original names, not by those they may bear in the process of human history. Jehovah will go up, as He alone can, to the sources. Hence we have their judgement connected with the last days, and not merely that which fell upon them long ago. His words go down to the close. Some may have been more completely accomplished in the past than others, but with this difference, they all look onward to the future.
The last generation will do as their fathers, only with added manifestation of evil by-and-by; then judgement will fall. Thus it is that God will deal with the nations. They will manifest the same hostility to Israel, the same pride against God, as formerly. This may seem a hard principle to some, but it is most righteous. If a child has grown up, knowing his father's dishonour, hearing of his disgrace and punishment, would not that sin be most peculiarly odious in his eyes, if any right feeling existed? The public example of his father's evil ways would be ever before him. But if the son trifled with it, and used it as an encouragement to walk in the same path, is it not just that there should be a still more severe punishment exacted of that son? Besides having the universal conscience of men, he had special witness in his own family, which the heart of a child ought to have felt and pondered deeply to avoid all repetition of its evil.
This is just the principle of God's way in government. Man ought to take the more earnest heed from the past; and God, Who deals righteously, will judge according to that which man ought to have remembered. For he ought to have used the witness of the past as a warning for the future. These nations will then reappear, and, instead of recalling their fathers' ways for their own warning and profit, they take exactly the same road of iniquity; and once more they will also endeavour to root out and destroy the people of God.
So it is in Isaiah 17 Damascus, which was to the north of the Holy Land, was the very ancient and most celebrated city of Syria of old. (See Genesis 15:2) It was to be made a heap of ruins - the cities of Aroer a place for flocks. "The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from [being] a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap. The cities of Aroer [are] forsaken; they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down and none shall make [them] afraid" (vv. 1, 2). And as of old Syria and Ephraim conspired against the realm of David's son to their own discomfiture, so once more the remarkable feature of this judgement is that God will deal with His people as well as with their old ally. "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 Jehovah of hosts. 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 become lean. And it shall be as when the reaper gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; yea, it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim" (vv. 3-5). He will gather out all scandals from them and punish the transgressors; He will employ their enmity to purge that threshing-floor of the land of Israel; He will deal in a judicial manner with His people. The nations may lure themselves and each other on with the hope that it is going hard with Israel; but their conspiracy will be offensive to God, however He may use it for Israel's good. This is here described. "And a gleaning shall be left in it, as at the shaking of an olive tree: two, three berries in the tree-top; four, five in its fruitful boughs, saith Jehovah God of Israel. In that day shall man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. And he will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, nor have regard to [that] which his fingers have made, neither the Asherahs nor the sun-images" (vv. 6-8).
It is well to bear in mind that not Sennacherib but Tiglath-Pileser destroyed Damascus, a ruin that followed the alliance of Pekah and Rezin to depose David's house in Judah, unworthy and false as Ahaz was. This had been predicted by Isaiah in Isa. 7, and our chapter speaks of its being a ruin heap. But the prophecy clearly goes on to its reappearance and overthrow in the latter day.
There is also plainly anticipated at that time a discriminating judgement proceeding in the land of Israel. Compare Isaiah 28:14-22, where the course of the overflowing scourge is described. "In that day shall his strong cities be as the forsaken tract in the wood, and the mountain-top which they forsook before the children of Israel; and there shall be desolation. For thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the Rock of thy strength; therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plantations, and shalt set them with foreign slips: in the day of thy planting wilt thou hedge [them] round, and in the morning wilt thou make thy seed to flourish: [but] the harvest [will be] a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow" (vv. 9-11).
In due time comes the retribution that regards the end of the age set forth with great vigour. "Woe to [or probably Ho!] a tumult of many peoples, [which] roar like the roaring of the seas; and the rushing of nations, [that] make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters! The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters but he will rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like whirling [dust] before the storm. Behold, at eventide trouble; before the morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us" (vv. 12-14). Let the nations gather their multitudes; let them rush on like mighty waters. But the rebuke comes; and they flee and are chased, yea, like thistle-down before the whirlwind. "Behold at eventide trouble; before the morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us." When was all this accomplished in the past, from the day that Isaiah wrote? Where was seen the gathering of all these nations and their complete dispersion? On the contrary, Israel was broken and scattered, as were the Jews afterwards. Here it is not one nation triumphing over God's people, but a gathering of all nations, who seem but waiting for the morning to swallow up Israel, but before the light dawns they and their leader are not. Surely it shall be; for the mouth of Jehovah has spoken it.
The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.