On no occasion, or generation, has there ever been another prophet to match Isaiah. Isaiah, whose voluminous activity evidences his perpetual unbroken status of having his head in the throne room of heaven simultaneous to him keeping his feet on solidified dense terrain. This is the son of Amoz, whose spirit was immersed in the stuff of eternity at the same time that his mouth and hands were toiling in the murky issues of things of the here and now. We are talking of a man who was never out of earshot from the eternal counsel of Yahweh, while his entire body was contemporaneously moving and breathing in very definite moments and locations in the confines of this time-space world and its hugely complex history. Isaiah stood alone in the days of his flesh and would have done so with or without a school of disciples. He still stands alone even now, as we in the twenty-first century can appraise the entire body of Hebrew prophets. One of the characteristics of biblical holiness is the aloneness and uniqueness of being in God, with God and of God. By its very etymological meaning, one attribute (of many) of holiness is being unique and “one alone,” yet never lonely.
During his life, and especially after his legendary martyrdom, the entire history of the Hebrew people bore, and still bears, the impress of Isaiah’s activity. What he said or did, or prophetically pointed out, is seen as being true and/or fulfilled throughout the centuries in the ups and downs of the land of Israel and the diaspora’d Jews.
It was because of Isaiah’s stature, depth and consistency that prophecy, per se, came to be accepted and treasured amongst the Hebrew people as part of their heritage in God, even though it had been despised and rejected when it was spoken by the likes of men like Amos and Hosea (both contemporaries of Isaiah). These two minor, yet “major” prophets were merely men from a lower income bracket, moving naturally amongst the common people. Yet, they were clearly despised and rejected amongst the professional and upper classes of their day. Amos was seen for what he really was, a simple farmer from the southern Jewish kingdom well out of his comfort zone and geographically out of his own domicile up north in Bethel. There was clearly no mask or pretentiousness nor posturing about him. Hosea, on the other hand, was a figure to be pitied and even mocked. Imagine how he was received in a society where having no children was seen as a curse, but having a child with a prostitute who was his wife and being public enough to call one of his children, “Not Mine!” would have been the basis of a million and one personal and deeply humiliating jokes. It was because of Isaiah that prophecy and the role of a genuine prophet of God became a practical force in the nation’s affairs, not only in the corridors of power within the nation, but in the life of the people and the common man on the street and in the field. Isaiah, it would seem, not only had a group of disciples with him wherever he went, but also had a wife who was a prophetess. To cap it all, he lived and ministered and wrote in the home city of his upbringing. Somehow, however, I cannot even imagine Amos or Hosea being jealous of his circumstances. But by a long life of persistent, consistent and insistent calls to follow after righteousness, I believe he turned the hearts of many towards God Himself.
It is plain to see how we can readily grasp that so great a work within the life of the nation could not have been affected by isolated characters like Amos, or Hosea, who stood apart from all the leaders of the two Jewish states. Neither of them had friend nor disciple to assist in the espousal of their cause. Isaiah, however, won the esteem and reverence of the leaders of a generation. It is generally recognized by academics that Isaiah ultimately became the acknowledged head of a great religious movement, especially in his later years. It is, perhaps, a little too much to say that as an older man he was “The First Man” in Judah, practically guiding the helm of the State, and encouraging Jerusalem to hold out against the Assyrian when all besides had lost courage. I have read some volumes, however that make that very claim. It does have to be conceded nonetheless, even to the political historian, that Isaiah is the most notable figure after David in the whole history of Israel. He was the man of the moment in the midst of a supreme and perfect crisis. He proved himself worthy by guiding his nation through the crisis with nothing but the prophetic word with which to fight and battle.
His commanding influence of prediction, protection, prophecy and direction as well as the glorious anticipation of the coming Messiah remains as a skeletal template splayed out on the history of his nation. It naturally suggests comparisons with other prophets like Moses and his unique leadership characteristics spanning 40 years in harness with eighty years of training. We stand Isaiah next to father figures like Samuel rebuilding the nation of Israel from the rabble sunk into the muck of idolatry and Godlessness. See Isaiah stood back to back and heel to heel with the likes of Elijah, the author of the downfall of the cult of Baal, and Elisha, the prophetic originator of the revolution of King Jehu and his dynasty, and the soulical force of Israel’s great struggle with Syria. These contrasts exemplify the astonishing transformation which little more than a century had wrought in the charisma and objectives of prophets and prophecy. True prophecy was, and always will be the pure word spoken by God to the children of Israel, and was never to be edited or abridged. Yet, as society and the crises and needs of the generations changed, so did the long term vision of each generation’s pastoral prophet. Elisha achieved his first objective by following divine inspiration and speaking into the sphere of ordinary political intrigue. By this means Elisha saw the God ordained downfall of the house of Ahab. Isaiah, on the other hand, somewhat after the model of Elijah, stood distant from all governmental groupings, and his stimulus and input was simply that of his authoritative charisma, and of the majestic word of Yahweh declared both in and out of season with stanch constancy and consistency. Elisha in his latter days was the inspirational spirit of a courageous encounter, inspiring his people to fight for autonomy and liberty, and to repel the Syrian aggressor by armed force. Isaiah intelligently knew quite well that Judah had no battle-hardened metier that could avail for even a moment against the authority and military supremacy of Assyria. Isaiah did not aim at domestic freedom by means of fighting to the death. Rising above the dreams of unrefined nationalism, he was comfortable to accept the unavoidable, and set out for Judah a course of patient submission to alien bondage, in order that Judah could focus itself on the assignment of in-house reformation and restoration, till Yahweh Himself should eliminate the blight prearranged for His people’s debauchery, iniquity and their deep dyed sin. In this idea he took hold of and integrated into one practical aim ideas which had appeared separately and individually in the teaching of each of his prophetical antecedents, Amos and Hosea. In the ultimate catastrophe of the Assyrian wars, Isaiah was no less truly the human fortification of faith for the nation than Elisha had been during the dreadful Syrian wars. Isaiah’s heroism was one of patience and faith, and the supernatural and downright miraculous deliverance came exactly as he had foretold, not by political wisdom or warlike prowess, but by the direct intervention of Almighty Yahweh.
These series of prophetic messages speaking into the turmoil of the Middle Eastern countries of his generation, and many of their futures are just as miraculous as the Angel of the Lord delivering Jerusalem in 701 BC when surrounded by, possibly, something like a quarter of a million soldiers. Having thus far spoken of the exile of Israel before it took place, the rise and fall of Babylon, the collapse of Assyria, the demolition of Philistia, the holocaust that was to sweep across Moab – Yahweh now opens Isaiah’s eyes to see what was to take place in the location that was known as Damascus.
If one trawls through the vast spread of biblical prophecy, no matter where one stands in the interpretation of the predicted events, literal, figurative or metaphorical, one must concede that in the prophetic telescope from Isaiah’s day right through to the very last days, we are told that a horrible series of events will take place in the lands of Israel and Syria. One of these events is the complete annihilation, disappearance even, of the city of Damascus as one of the premiere cities on the planet. Damascus, so we are told, is probably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus has witnessed at least five thousand years of human history, if we are to believe archaeologists and academics. Some historians even believe the city actually dates back to a seventh millennium BC. Not sure about that one!
From scouring through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Zechariah I am convinced that at some critical moment somewhere in the future, be it near or far, Damascus will once again play a major role in human events.
However, the text here in in Isaiah 17 and the first three verses, the prophet Isaiah provides us with God’s own commentary on a foreknown future conflict between Damascus and some unknown and unmentioned force, and in so doing. The prophet declares certain prophecies that have been partially fulfilled in the past. Yet I am strongly of the opinion that the ultimate fulfillment of the majority of Isaiah 17 remains still in our future, that is, I believe it is not all fulfilled.
The current existence of Damascus, which will one day cease to be a city, as well as the historical absence of the coalition of nations prophesied to attack Israel and be destroyed by God, is, to me at least, proof that Isaiah 17 prophesies events yet future. Unless one chooses to pretend it is all allegory and parable of course, in which case it could mean anything one wants it to mean.
Using my own wordy, yet thorough paraphrased interpretation, this is what Isaiah saw and said concerning Damascus:
This divinely revealed prophetic message, this oracle, came to me concerning Damascus: Look! See! Damascus will cease to be and is no longer a city. It will be taken away as a metropolis. It will, disappear and become a heap of fallen ruins, a pile of rubble. The cities of Aroer also will be abandoned, forsaken and deserted. They will be devoted to sheep that will graze in the streets undisturbed and lie down unafraid. There will be no terrorists to make them afraid or to chase them away – Terrorism will be no more. The bulwark of Ephraim will also be removed leaving them without aid or succour, and the royal power of sovereignty in the kingdom of Damascus will end. The few left in Aram (Syria) will be like the splendour of the sons of Israel and share the same fate of Israel’s departed glory. This is the declaration of Yahweh Almighty of Heaven’s Armies, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 17:1-3, Lannon’s own paraphrased interpretation).
What is future and what is already history? I am talking about a major issue when one reads any of the writing prophets both Major and Minor. I have a problem when all the academics and “students of theology” agree with what seems to me to be an easy way out of explaining the intricacies of what the prophets actually said. Let me explain my own conundrum about Isaiah 17.
In 732 BC, Assyria pummelled Damascus and left it standing but depopulated. The Syrian Damascene state had allied with the northern kingdom of Israel just prior to that and had come sweeping southwards to get rid of Judah’s King Ahaz. Why? Because he would not join Damascus and Israel in a futile effort to attempt to withstand Assyria. It was truly ridiculous. It was like Monaco and Luxembourg joining forces to fight Russia, and them getting upset because the Isle of Man would not join them. The discussion and the strategy of it all was like a TV sitcom. That aside, the fact was that the allied forces came down to put their own puppet king – a gentile man – on the throne of David in Jerusalem, to rule over the state of Judah. Unfortunately they had little concept of the line they had crossed with Almighty Yahweh. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but their mission to oust Ahaz failed. Shortly after Damascus was castrated and the majority exiled in 732 BC, and then in 722 BC Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel fell. OK! That is the end of that story. Why am I telling you this?
I share this because here in chapter 17, Isaiah damns the fortunes of Damascus and Israel with the same breath. So, the academics claim that this section of Isaiah is not in chronological sequence with the other batches of prophecy, and that it is therefore, either Isaiah telling the story after the event (why on earth would a prophet do that? Any unbelieving godless Newspaper reporter could do that.). Or, it is an earlier prophecy given and published by Isaiah before 732 BC, predicting the fall of Damascus and Israel the two allies rebelling against vows made to Assyria. Easy peasy jackamasqueezy. Prophetic problem resolved! The claim is, therefore, that we know exactly the full depths of Isaiah’s vision about Damascus. So let’s move on to Isaiah chapter 18.
But wait a minute! Hold on to your horses! I can cope with the possibility that the prophecies against the different nations are not in their real-time chronological sequence. I do not necessarily accept that statement, but I do not think that is necessarily important. But my first question is more important. The first verses of Isaiah 17 explain how Damascus is wiped off the map, and it being so deserted that sheep will graze where Damascus once was. So, how could this prophecy be referring to 732 BC if Damascus was not razed to the ground?
“Don’t worry about that one,” say several of the most widely read commentaries, “Damascus has had many ups and downs over the centuries, so Isaiah must have been talking figuratively or metaphorically when he stated those first three verses. 732 BC fits the bill when Assyria beat Damascus and exiled the majority of its population.”
Well, folks, this writer utterly contemns that opinion, and the degraded definition of Holy Spirit inspiration that birthed it. The reasons why I think that making Isaiah 17 apply only to 732 BC is a fallacy are as follows.
- The fact that Damascus has never been reduced to grazing fields and has never been totally depopulated tells me that the prophecy has either been fulfilled later, or has not been fulfilled at all as yet. That means that the prophecy’s fulfillment was clearly future to Isaiah, and may very well be still future to us in our generation. I totally reject the stuff and nonsense of those that interpret via the suggestion that Isaiah did not mean what he said. Damascus was not destroyed in the Assyrian conquest. Damascus did not”cease from being a city,” and it was not reduced to “a heap of ruins” as prophesied by Isaiah. Matter settled!
- (Just as a “By the way,” to take the conclusion a little further, and to explain the matter from the biblical narrative take note that the Assyrian conquest of Syria (Aram) the capital of which was Damascus, that took place in 732 BC is explained to us in 2 Kings 16 as a historical narrative. Judah’s king Ahaz initiated the Assyrian tyrant and king Tiglath Pileser III to launch an invasion of Damascus which then was under the reign of king Rezin. Believe it or not,Ahaz king of Judah paid for the Assyrian invasion with gold and silver he took from the Temple in Jerusalem. Ahaz was a bit of a faithless man as you can imagine. 2 Kings 16:9 says , “So the king of Assyria heeded him; and the king of Assyria went up against Damascus and took it, carried its people captive to Kir, and killed Rezin.” But to rub in the point that Damascus was not razed to the ground, in the very next verse we see king Ahaz meeting with Tiglath Pileser in the centre of the city of Damascus. It clearly was still standing. In fact I have read books that claim that while Assyria was in charge of Damascus, Damascus enjoyed some of its most prosperous years ever. So absolutely and certainly Damascus was not destroyed in any manner, and most certainly not according to the prophecy here in Isaiah 17. The Aramean Damascene people of Aram-Damascus were deported as was the sickening Assyrian modus operandi after a conquest. The Assyrians then re-populated the city with people from elsewhere within the empire and Damascus has remained a settled city continuously for the past two and a half millennia. Volumes that I have read tell me that Damascus was still mentioned in Assyrian sources in 727 BC, 720 BC, and 694 BC. The city is even mentioned as late as the reign of Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC). Assyrian decline led to Damascus being taken over by Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt circa 610 BC. Damascus then fell to the Babylonians when Pharoah Necho II lost the epic Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC. In the Persian period, Damascus was an important administrative center, and may have been the capital of the satrapy of Trans-Euphrates (Ezra 4:10, Ezra 8:36; Nehemiah 2:7-9). Around 333 BC there occurred the conquest of Damascus under the rule of Darius III of Persia by Alexander the Great. Damascus was thereafter a Macedonian colony and the capital city of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia to 111 BC. At the risk of boring those of you who hate historical dates and statistics we mention the Roman times when Damascus was conquered from the Seleucid’s by Roman General Pompey in 64 BC, and of course. There are, of course, quite a number of references to Damascus in the New Testament, the many references to Damascus in the New Testament. Why do I put all this stuff in the middle of my own thoughts? I do it simply to make the point that the majority of commentary’s and books and teachings on Isaiah 17 nearly all state that Isaiah 17 is about 732 and 722 BC respectively. However, since 2 Kings 16 does not tell us that Damascus ceased “from being a city,” that it became “a ruinous heap” at the hands of Assyria’s Tiglath-Pileser, twe have to conclude that it has not yet been fulfilled as Damascus still stands. )
- The fact that Isaiah likens the dissipation of Damascene glory to the dissipation of Israel’s glory (i.e. the Northern kingdom), and seeing that Samaria was dissipated 11 years after the fall of Damascus, makes it nonsense to apply it to the generation that covers 732 and 722 BC. It would be like prophesying to Kaiser Willhelm of Germany in 1914 that, “Your loss of splendour in this war will be similar to Hitler’s loss for Germany in 1945.” How could that make sense if those words were spoken in 1914. So to say, “Damascus the degradation of your glory will be similar to Israel’s loss of glory,” to the Damascene people would not have meant anything at all, because Samaria was still standing when this prophecy was purportedly declared prior to 732. Such a statement could only be stated to the latter dissipation comparing it to the former.
- Why should Isaiah here suddenly insert a passage that is at least 17-18 years old (probably more) when hitherto everything seems to be chronological? I am not insisting strict chronology, neither am I even hinting that the entire volume needs to be chronological in anyway. In fact, I am sure that the strict chronology of his pieces and sections of his book are way down in the list of priorities of his composition of the book. However, the majority of commentators having concluded, fallaciously I believe, that the fall of Damascus here referred to MUST be the fall of 732 BC, one would definitely have to believe that this disjointed piece is out of place. As said in number 2, I discount the thought that verses 1-3 are referring to the Assyrian strategy that brought Damascus down, but something much more in the future.
Obviously, Isaiah 17 is an unfulfilled prophecy! The bottom line is this: Because of the statement of Isaiah that Damascus will be razed to the ground, and because Damascus still stands, I cannot but conclude that here Isaiah has done a quantum leap in Isaiah 17 and is predicting something in his and our distant future.