Chapter 17 is a “burden,” or prophecy of doom, regarding Damascus. Damascus and the northern kingdom of Israel would be conquered and scattered by Assyria, and both would lose their identities as nations. Israel would be scattered because she had forgotten God; yet because of the promises made to Israel the nations that spoil her would be destroyed.
Verse 1 commences with Isaiah’s statement of purpose: “The burden of Damascus,” meaning message or prophecy of doom regarding Damascus. It continues: “Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.” This statement foretells the destruction of the whole nation of Syria, not just the capital city, Damascus.
Verse 2 describes cities in Ephraim, or the northern kingdom of Israel, that would be destroyed at the same time as Damascus: “The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” The cities of Aroer were located in the kingdom of Israel, on the “brink of the river Arnon”1 which formed the border with Moab east of the Dead Sea.2 Following their destruction, the cities of Aroer would be useful only as places of refuge for flocks of sheep. Destruction of the kingdom of Ephraim resulted in captivity of the ten tribes which comprised that kingdom.3
Verse 3 continues the description of the fall of Ephraim and Syria: “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.” The governments of Ephraim and Damascus would be destroyed, soon to be conquered by Assyria. The remnant of Syria “…shall be as the glory of the children of Israel….” means that Syria and Israel would be left in comparable greatly weakened circumstances. Damascus would no longer be a strong place for Ephraim to flee for protection.
Verse 4 further describes the devastation that would befall the kingdom of Israel: “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.” “Glory” as used here and in verse 3 means military strength, which would be obliterated in both countries by the destruction.4 “Fatness of his flesh” is another description of military strength.
Verse 5 compares the work of destruction by the Assyrians to a reaper harvesting a field of grain: “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.” The valley of Rephaim, noted for its abundant harvests, was located southwest of Jerusalem;5 it was named for a pre-Israelite nation that inhabited the area who were distinguished by their large stature.6
In verse 6, scarce survivors in Ephraim and Damascus are compared first to “gleaning grapes” left in a vineyard, and then to the few olives left in a tree following the harvest: “Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it [the land], 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.”7, 8
Comparison of Israel to an olive tree suggests that Isaiah may have been familiar with the writings of the prophet Zenos. The writings of Zenos were included on the plates of brass, along with those of Isaiah, that were possessed by the Nephites. Jacob, the brother of Nephi, quotes the allegory of the olive tree from the writings of Zenos.9 The Apostle Paul may have also been familiar with Zenos’ allegory of the olive tree,10 although these writings are lost from Biblical texts today.
Following the destruction, in their bereavement the survivors would begin to repent as described in verses 7 and 8. Verse 7 begins: “At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.” Repentance and blessings often follow catastrophe.
In verse 8, the survivor will forsake his idolatry: “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.” “Groves” is a biblical euphemism referring to a form of idolatry characterized by ceremonial illicit sex;11 “images” means idols and their worship. The Hebrew word Asherah means “sacred tree or pole,” translated as “groves” in this verse in the King James Version. Asherah was the name of the Canaanite goddess of fortune or luck; she was the wife or consort of Baal.12
Verse 9 recalls the metaphor of the harvested olive tree from verse 6: “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.” These few survivors would be left by the Assyrians because of the promises of the Lord to the children of Israel. Because the survivors are few in number, as olives on a bough neglected by the harvesters, men turn to the Lord for strength. Because of the destruction, survivors would repent and forsake their idolatry.13
Verses 10 and 11 remind fallen Israel of her apostasy. Verse 10 explains: “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.” Forgetting the Lord would lead to apostasy, idolatry and the foretold destruction and captivity of Israel. “Pleasant plants” and “strange slips” refer to the idolatrous practice of “the groves.” Gardens were planted and maintained to provide a pleasant setting for their idolatry, with varieties of exotic plants brought from Babylon.
Verse 11 continues: “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.” The only harvest to be obtained from the idolatry represented by the culture of “pleasant plants” and “strange slips” is sorrow.
Verses 12 through 14 are a woe oracle, attesting that the nations that spoil Israel would be destroyed. Verse 12 begins: “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 rushing of many waters is a metaphor meaning the Assyrian empire, which itself consisted of many nations.14
Verse 13 continues: “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.” Despite their immense power, the nations comprising the Assyrian empire would be destroyed by the hand of the Lord—reduced to insignificance, as the “chaff of the mountains.” Note that “mountains” means “nations.”15
Verse 14 summarizes: “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.” Although Israel was to be scattered because she forgot God, the nations that spoil her would be destroyed.
Verses 12 through 14 contain a chiasm:
A: (12) Woe to the multitude of many people,
B: which make a noise like the noise of the seas;
C: and to the rushing of nations,
D: that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters!
E: (13) The nations shall rush
F: like the rushing of many waters:
G: but God shall rebuke them,
G: and they shall flee far off,
F: and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind,
E: and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind.
D: (14) And behold at eveningtide trouble;
C: and before the morning he is not.
B: This is the portion of them that spoil us,
A: and the lot of them that rob us.
“Woe to the multitude of many people” complements “the lot of them that rob us,” providing identification as to who are the “many people.” The ascending side of this chiasm (elements in verse 12 and the first part of verse 13) describe the marauding Assyrians, using five repetitions of “rushing” or a form of the word, whereas the descending side of the chiasm (the latter part of verse 13 and all of verse 14) describe the flight and destruction of the Assyrian army after God’s rebuke. Some of the phrases in the descending side complement, or complete the thoughts of, their counterparts in the ascending side.
1. See Deuteronomy 2:36.
2. See Bible Map 9.
3. See 2 Kings 17:6-8; Isaiah 7:8; 8:4; 42:24; 43:6; 49:12; 54:7.
4. See Isaiah 8:7; 10:18; 16:14; 20:5; 21:16-17; 22:18; 66:12.
5. Donald W. Parry, Jay A. Parry and Tina M. Peterson, Understanding Isaiah: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1998, p. 168.
6. See Bible Dictionary—Rephaim.
7. See Deuteronomy 24:20; compare Isaiah 24:13.
8. Verses 3 through 6 contain a chiasm: Saith the LORD of hosts/glory of Jacob shall be made thin/fatness of his flesh shall wax lean/and it shall be as when the harvestman/gathereth the corn/reapeth the ears/and it shall be as he that gathereth ears/yet gleaning grapes shall be left/two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough/saith the LORD God of Israel.
9. See Jacob 5.
10. See Romans 11:17-24.
11. See Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 14:15, 23; 2 Kings 17:10-11; 18:4; 23:14; 2 Chronicles 14:3; 17:6; 19:3; 24:18; 31:1; 33:3, 19; 34:3-4, 7; Isaiah 27:9; Jeremiah 17:2; Micah 5:14.
12. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 842, p. 81.
13. Verses 7 through 9 contain a chiasm: At that day shall a man look to his Maker/ he shall not look to the altars/ work of his hands/ that which his fingers have made/either the groves/in that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough.
14. Isaiah 8:7; 28:2, 17; 43:2.
15. See Isaiah 2:2; 13:4 and pertinent commentary.