Our previous post, “The Bible does not teach that Damascus, Syria is about to be destroyed,” concluded that Isaiah 17:1-6 was fulfilled during the days of the Assyrian empire, even during Isaiah’s own day. In this post we will study the final eight verses of Isaiah 17, and propose that Isaiah 17 is essentially a three-part prophecy which covers:
1. how Assyria defeated Damascus and Syria in 732 BC (verses 1-3)
2. how Assyria defeated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (verses 4-11)
3. how Assyria attempted to defeat Judah and Jerusalem in 701 BC, but miserably failed when God miraculously intervened (verses 12-14).
A Review of Isaiah 17:1-6
Here’s a summary of what we covered in the previous post:
- Amos, a contemporary of Isaiah, prophesied that Damascus was to be punished and defeated, and that the people of Syria would be taken captive to Kir.
- Isaiah 7 – 8 tell us that Syria (led by king Rezin) and Israel (led by king Pekah) conspired together in an attempt to destroy Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah foretold that both Syria and Israel would be soundly defeated by Assyria.
- Isaiah 17 again foretold that both Syria and Israel were about to be defeated, and that Damascus would lose its kingdom and be turned into a ruinous heap.
- II Kings 16 shows Syria and Israel coming together to attack Judah and Jerusalem. This is followed by the king of Assyria conquering Damascus, killing Rezin (their king), and taking the people of Damascus captive to Kir.
- Isaiah 17:4 uses the phrase “in that day” to describe when Israel would be defeated. We know that Israel was destroyed in 722 BC, and that it was at the hand of Assyria. “In that day” was a reference to the defeat of Syria and Damascus foretold in verses 1-3. So if Isaiah 17:4-11 was fulfilled when the northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria, then Isaiah 17:1-3 was also fulfilled around the same time.
- We have the testimony of Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria that he destroyed 591 cities in the 16 districts of Damascus in 732 BC, and other secular testimonies that Damascus ceased to be a kingdom at this time in history (as foretold in Isaiah 17:3).
When Isaiah turned his attention from Syria (verses 1-3) to Israel, he predicted that Jacob’s glory would fade away, his flesh would grow thin, and Jacob would be like an olive tree which had only a few olives in the top branches of the tree (verses 4-6). In 722 BC Assyria struck a fatal blow to the 10 northern tribes of Israel, and they were all carried off to captivity in stages. One way to understand the few remaining olives is to consider that this left only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin to the south, along with the pivotal city of Jerusalem. It could also be a reference to just a few citizens of Israel being left behind, or possibly escaping. The imagery of flesh growing thin may have also been a reference to famine caused by Assyria’s three-year siege from 725 – 722 BC (see II Kings 17:3-6).
The manner in which the Assyrians carried off their captives was humiliating and fairly gruesome. The captives had to march naked, even for hundreds of miles, linked together with string and fishhooks pierced through their lower lips (PG-rated photo at link). Amos predicted that this would come upon Israel:
“The Lord God has sworn by His holiness: ‘Behold, the days shall come upon you when He will take you away with fishhooks, and your posterity with fishhooks. You will go out through broken walls, each one straight ahead of her, and you will be cast into Harmon,’ says the Lord” (Amos 4:2-3).
Isaiah goes on to predict the aftermath of Israel’s fall to Assyria:
“In that day a man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will have respect for the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands; He will not respect what his fingers have made, nor the wooden images nor the incense altars. In that day his strong cities will be as a forsaken bough and an uppermost branch, which they left because of the children of Israel; and there will be desolation. Because you have forgotten the God of your salvation, and have not been mindful of the Rock of your stronghold, therefore you will plant pleasant plants and set out foreign seedlings; In the day you will make your plant to grow, and in the morning you will make your seed to flourish; but the harvest will be a heap of ruins in the day of grief and desperate sorrow” (Isaiah 17:7-11).
What a picture of heartache and futility for the captives of Israel, but also a picture of lessons learned. They would finally see the uselessness of their idols and altars made to other gods, and they would see how true and worthy God was. The Pulpit Commentary (published in 1890) notes that during Josiah’s reign “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)” from the captives. Yet their former cities were forsaken, and their efforts at creating a harvest would yield only “a heap of ruins.” This expression, incidentally, was also used to describe the fate of Damascus (verse 1).
“Woe to the multitude of many people who make a noise like the roar of the seas, and to the rushing of nations that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters! The nations will rush like the rushing of many waters; But God will rebuke them and they will flee far away, and be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind, like a rolling thing before the whirlwind. Then behold, at eventide, trouble! And before the morning, he is no more. This is the portion of those who plunder us, and the lot of those who rob us” (Isaiah 17:12-14).
Here are a couple of questions to ask regarding these final verses of Isaiah 17:
1. Who are the “many people” and “the rushing…nations” spoken of here?
2. Who is Isaiah speaking of when he says “us“?
In the previous post, we saw Syria and Israel forming a coalition to attack Judah (Isaiah 7-8), and Isaiah predicting in detail that they would both be overwhelmed by Assyria. Recall that Isaiah described Assyria as “the waters of the river, strong and mighty” (Isaiah 8:7). This imagery was significant because Israel had “refused the waters of Shiloah that flow softly” (Isaiah 8:6). This was a reference (see Nehemiah 3:15) to the stream of water flowing from the Kidron Valley toward the temple in Jerusalem, the center of worship. Isaiah goes on to describe Assyria in terms of a violent, massive body of water: “He will go up over all his channels and go over all his banks. He will pass through Judah, he will overflow and pass over, he will reach up to the neck; And the stretching out of his wings will fill the breadth of Your land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:7-8).
This indicates that Isaiah is now prophesying against the same entity, Assyria, in this final portion of Isaiah 17. Assyria was an empire made up of many nations, which often had to do Assyria’s bidding “or else.” Just like in Isaiah 8, Assyria was pictured as “rushing like the rushing of mighty waters…the rushing of many waters” (Isaiah 17:12, 13). Assyria would have already had its way with Syria and Israel, so who were they to seek to plunder and rob next (verse 14)? Isaiah includes himself when he says “us.” He’s referring to his own people, and Jewish tradition has it that Isaiah was from Judah. The overall scheme of his book was also “concerning Judah and Israel” (Isaiah 1:1). Assyria would attempt to attack Judah.
This being the case, how and when were the prophecies of verses 12-14 fulfilled? Numerous older commentators are in consensus that Isaiah’s words played out when Sennacherib, another king of Assyria, came against Judah to attack it in 701 BC. This is the opinion of Albert Barnes (1834), Adam Clarke (1831), John Gill (1763), the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary (1882), and The Pulpit Commentary (1890). Matthew Henry (1710), John Wesley (1765), and the Geneva Study Bible (1599) also at least identify Assyria as the attacking army (Source: commentaries on verse 12, verse 13, verse 14). We can see the story of Sennacherib’s attack and resounding defeat in II Kings 18-19, II Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36-37.
In these three accounts we see that Hezekiah, who had much favor from the Lord, rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. In the fourth year of Hezekiah’s reign, Assyria besieged Samaria, finished off the northern kingdom of Israel three years later, and deported the people of Israel to the cities of the Medes and elsewhere. A decade later, Assyria captured the fortified cities of Judah, causing Hezekiah to strip the silver and gold from the temple in Jerusalem and give it to Sennacherib, who had then become king of Assyria. Sennacherib then sent a great army against Jerusalem, believing that he would take this city too. He taunted and even bribed the people of Judah with many words, saying things like this:
“Do you not know what I and my fathers have done to all the peoples of other lands? Were the gods of the nations of those lands in any way able to deliver their lands out of my hand? Who was there among all the gods of those nations that my fathers utterly destroyed that could deliver his people from my hand, that your God should be able to deliver you from my hand? Now therefore, do not let Hezekiah deceive you or persuade you like this, and do not believe him; for no god of any nation or kingdom was able to deliver his people from my hand or the hand of my fathers. How much less will your God deliver you from my hand?” (II Chron. 19:13-15).
Isaiah and Hezekiah prayed and cried out to God together (II Chron. 19:20). Hezekiah specifically prayed these words: “…Truly, Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were not gods, but the work of men’s hands—wood and stone. Therefore they destroyed them. Now therefore, O Lord our God, I pray, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God, You alone” (II Kings 19:7-9). God’s response was amazing:
“And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians 185,000; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh. Now it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the temple of Nisroch his god, that his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer struck him down with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat” (II Kings 19:35-37, Isaiah 37:36-38).
This is how God miraculously intervened when Judah was under threat by the most powerful army in the world at that time. It happened in the middle of the night, just like Isaiah 17:14 predicted. “Then behold, at eventide, trouble! And before the morning, he is no more.” Not only did Sennacherib depart, but he was chased for a long distance. Herodotus, the Greek historian known as “The Father of History,” records that when he retreated from Judah “the Egyptians pursued the army of Sennacherib and slew vast numbers” (The Histories 2:141). Isaiah 17:13 predicted that the surviving Assyrians would “be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind.” The result of these events was that God was glorified, just as Hezekiah had prayed:
“Thus the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all others, and guided them on every side. And many brought gifts to the Lord at Jerusalem, and presents to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations thereafter” (II Chron. 32:22-23).
Isaiah 17 contains fascinating examples of prophecies given and prophecies fulfilled. The way in which they were fulfilled is richer than any futile speculation about how Isaiah 17 might be fulfilled in our own future.