Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch.Isaiah 17:1-11. The approaching overthrow of Damascus and North Israel
This oracle, the Isaianic authorship of which is beyond question, should be read after ch. Isaiah 9:8 to Isaiah 10:4 and before ch. 7. It deals mainly with the fate of the Northern Kingdom; but the combination of Syria and Ephraim in one prophecy shews that the league between these two nations had already been formed. With a serenity of faith which is more akin to the contemptuous attitude of ch. Isaiah 7:4 than to the impassioned utterances of Isaiah 9:8 ff., the prophet discloses the inevitable issues of an alliance based on practical rejection of Jehovah and the adoption of foreign idolatries (Isaiah 17:10 f.). The date is certainly prior to the Assyrian conquest of Damascus (c. 732), and since there is no mention of the outbreak of hostilities against Judah, we may fix it in the early days of the coalition (c. 735).
The passage divides itself into four sections:—
i. Isaiah 17:1-3. An announcement of the impending ruin of the kingdom of Damascus, Israel’s bulwark against the Assyrians.
ii. Isaiah 17:4-6. A figurative description of the fate of Ephraim: his strength shall be consumed until only an insignificant remnant is left.
iii. Isaiah 17:7-8. The effect of this display of the Divine power on men’s religious attitude.
iv. Isaiah 17:9-11. A renewed description of the judgment, which is shewn to be the fruit of Israel’s apostasy and devotion to heathen cults.
The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.1. The burden of Damascus] See on ch. Isaiah 13:1. The title explains why the prophecy was included amongst those against foreign nations, but is not quite accurate as a description of its contents. The overthrow of Damascus, although mentioned first, is but an incident of the humiliation of its ally Ephraim, which is the principal theme of the oracle.
a ruinous heap] The words in Heb. are in apposition; one of them is an anomalous formation, is wanting in the LXX., and is rejected by some critics as possibly a dittography.
1–3. The fate of Damascus.
The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.2. The cities of Aroer] Hardly, “the (two) cities Aroer” (gen. of appos.), as a name for the trans-Jordanic territory. If Aroer be really a proper name, the phrase must be explained by the analogy of Joshua 13:17 “the daughter cities of A.” But where was Aroer? The best-known town of the name, that on the Arnon (Numbers 32:34; Deuteronomy 2:36, &c.), is much too far south and belonged to Moab. There seems to have been another in Ammon (Joshua 13:25), but it too is outside the territory of Damascus and can scarcely have been important enough to give its name to a district. We must either assume an unknown Aroer in Syria, or take the word in an appellative sense (“the ruined cities are forsaken”) or else adopt the text of the LXX., which reads “(Damascus shall be) deserted for ever” (omitting “cities”).
shall be for flocks … afraid] cf. Isaiah 5:17, Isaiah 32:14, and Zephaniah 3:13; Job 11:19.
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.3. The fortress also … Ephraim] Perhaps: And the bulwark shall be removed from Ephraim, meaning the kingdom of Damascus, which had been like a breakwater, sheltering Israel from the Assyrian onslaught. It is, however, equally possible to understand the “fortress” of Samaria, or collectively of the fortified cities of North Israel; and the parallelism with the next clause may be thought to favour this sense. But the mention of Samaria seems premature in this stanza, which deals with the ruin of Syria.
and the remnant of Syria: they shall be] A.V. here follows the accentuation of the Hebrew; it is better to neglect it and render and the remnant of Syria shall be, &c., letting the first member of the verse end with “Damascus.”
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.4. in that day] simultaneously with the judgment on Syria. the glory of Jacob] i.e. his might, his population, his prosperity, &c. (cf. Isaiah 17:3).
made thin] better, enfeebled. fatness … lean] cf. ch. Isaiah 10:16.
4–6. The fate of Ephraim, in three figures: wasting disease; the reaping of corn; the gathering of olives.
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.5. The succeeding pictures are exceedingly graphic,—an evidence of Isaiah’s intense interest in rural life. The reaper gathers the stalks of wheat with one hand and with the other cuts off the ears close to the head.
and it shall be … Rephaim] Render as R.V. and it shall be as when one gleaneth ears, &c. See Ruth 2:2; Ruth 2:7; Ruth 2:15 ff. The clause might perhaps be read as the beginning of Isaiah 17:6; one simile passing insensibly into another. The “valley of Rephaim,” (=“valley of the giants,”) Joshua 15:8; Joshua 18:16 (cf. 2 Samuel 5:18; 2 Samuel 5:22; 2 Samuel 23:13),—a fertile plain to the south of Jerusalem where Isaiah had watched the reapers and gleaners at work.
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.6. Yet gleaning grapes … olive tree] Render (cf. R.V.) And gleanings shall be left in it as at the beating of an olive tree. The olives were struck down from the higher branches with a stick (ch. Isaiah 24:13; Deuteronomy 24:20); the few that were overlooked were left for the poor.
the uppermost bough] The Hebr. word does not occur again except in Isaiah 17:9, where (if correct) it must bear a different sense.
the outmost fruitful branches] Render, the branches of the fruitful tree,—the last word containing perhaps a play on the name Ephraim.
At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.7. look to his Maker] cf. Isaiah 22:11. “Look to,” i.e. regard with trust and veneration.
7, 8. These verses do not necessarily point to a conversion of the few surviving Ephraimites. They rather describe the impression produced by the vindication of Jehovah’s righteousness on mankind at large. Both in thought and structure, they interrupt the continuity of the oracle, and may have been inserted later (doubtless by the prophet himself). If they are removed we have three equal strophes, the first two ending with a “saith Jehovah,” and the last two beginning with “in that day.”
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.8. the work of his hands … that which his fingers have made] phrases used of idols in ch. Isaiah 2:8; Isaiah 2:20, Isaiah 31:7.
the altars … either the groves or the images] These words overburden the rhythm of the verse and are probably explanatory glosses. An allusion to the brazen-altar of Ahaz (2 Kings 16:10-13) is far-fetched, even if not absolutely excluded by the date. The two last-mentioned objects are never referred to elsewhere by Isaiah.
the groves] R.V., rightly, the Asherim. The Ashçrah or Sacred Pole was an emblem of divinity which seems to have stood regularly by the side of the altar in a Canaanitish sanctuary (Jdg 6:13; Jdg 6:25; Deuteronomy 16:21; 2 Kings 18:4, &c.). It is regarded by some as an artificial survival of the sacred tree, under which the altar stood; by others as the symbol (or image) of a goddess of the same name. Whether a goddess Ashçrah was actually worshipped is a much controverted point; if so, she was probably nothing more than an impersonation of the material symbol here referred to. (See Robertson Smith, Relig. of the Semites, Revd. Ed. pp. 187 ff.)
images] probably sun-pillars: R.V. “sun-images.” The word (ḥammânîm, pl.) only occurs in ch. Isaiah 27:9; 2 Chronicles 14:5; 2 Chronicles 34:4; 2 Chronicles 34:7; Ezekiel 6:4; Ezekiel 6:6; Leviticus 26:30. It seems to be connected with Baal-Ḥammân, a Phœnician deity (best known from the Carthaginian inscriptions) whose name appears to designate him as “Lord of the sun’s heat,” (cf. the Hebrew ḥammâh used in poetry of the sun: Psalm 19:6; Job 30:28; Song of Solomon 6:10; Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 30:26). The “sun-pillars” were probably emblems of this deity.
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.9. his strong cities] cf. Isaiah 17:10,—the “Rock of thy strength.”
as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch] Rather, if the text must be kept: “as the deserted places of the forest and the height” (so R.V.). For “forest” cf. 1 Samuel 23:15; 1 Samuel 23:19; 2 Chronicles 27:4; Ezekiel 31:3 (“shroud”). “Height” is the word rendered “uppermost bough” in Isaiah 17:6, which A.V. here follows. The construction in A.V. is altogether at fault, and the meaning “bough” cannot possibly be retained. But this is a case where the LXX. gives the clue to the true text, which reads like the deserted places of the Amorite and the Hivvite (see R.V. marg.). This alone gives an intelligible force to the next clause, and the textual change is comparatively slight save that the two words have been transposed (“Hivvite and Amorite”).
which they left because of] More strictly, which they forsook before, &c. The passive “were forsaken” (R.V.) is only adopted because the previous clause contains no suitable subject; the LXX. rendering supplies this defect, and at the same time makes the reference clear.
9–11. Continued from Isaiah 17:6. The rejection of Jehovah leads to failure and disappointment.
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:10. God of thy salvation] The only occasion on which this important term (Heb. yesha‘) is used by Isaiah, although it forms an element of his own name.
rock of thy strength] A very frequent name of God, cf. ch. Isaiah 30:29, Isaiah 44:8 (R.V.); Deuteronomy 32. (passim); Psalm 19:14; Psalm 27:5; Psalm 31:2-3, &c.
shalt thou plant pleasant plants] R.V. marg. gives thou plantest plantings of Adonis. The supposed reference is to the Adonis-gardens mentioned by Greek writers (see Plato, Phaedrus 276). They were “pots of quickly withering flowers which the ancients used to set at their doors or in the courts of temples.” It cannot be denied that such an allusion furnishes the most striking image conceivable of the futility of all human projects which (like the Syro-Ephraimitish alliance) are not grounded in the eternal moral purpose of Jehovah. The question is whether it is a fair interpretation of the text. Now, there are a number of scattered proofs, slight but very interesting, that the Syrian deity known to the Greeks as Adonis, actually bore the name here rendered “pleasantness” (Na‘ǎmân). It has been suggested, e.g. that the anemone, the flower sacred to Adonis, derives its name from this title of the god; and in Arabic the red anemone is called by a name which is explained to mean “wounds of Adonis.” For other arguments see Cheyne’s Comm. and the references there. Adonis being a Syrian deity, his worship in Israel was a necessary consequence of the alliance with Damascus. His worship was practised chiefly by women, Ezekiel 8:14. The rendering may at least be accepted as giving significance to a metaphor which is otherwise somewhat colourless.
set it with strange slips] or, plant it with vine-branches of a strange (god); see Numbers 13:23; Nahum 2:2.
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.11. The verse reads: In the day when thou plantest thou makest it to grow, and in the morning when thou sowest thou makest it to blossom, (but) the harvest disappears in a day of sickness and incurable sorrow. “However successful your enterprise may seem in its early stages, it is doomed to failure.” For “makest it to grow” we may render with R.V. “hedgest it in.” The words “plant” and “seed” must be construed alike, both are taken above as infinitives. The word for “disappears” means “heap” in Exodus 15:8; Psalm 33:7; Psalm 78:13 and so A.V. here. But here it is better taken as a verb; R.V. rightly “fleeth away.”
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!12. ‘Isaiah on his “watch-tower” hears, and we seem to hear with him, the ocean-like roar of the advancing Assyrian hosts’ (Cheyne). Whether the invaders are already in the land, or are present only to the imagination of the prophet, it is impossible to determine. The first half of the verse should be rendered: Ah, the roar of many peoples, that roar like the roaring of seas. The “many peoples” are the varied subject nationalities that furnished contingents to the Assyrian army. The comparison of such tumultuous masses of men to the noise of waters is frequent in the O.T.: cf. ch. Isaiah 5:30, Isaiah 8:7; Jeremiah 6:23; Jeremiah 46:7 f.; Psalm 65:7.
Ch. Isaiah 17:12-14. The sudden annihilation of the Assyrians
These verses are regarded by some critics as the continuation of ch. Isaiah 17:1-11, by others as the introduction to ch. 18. Since the reference here is undoubtedly to the Assyrians, the first view has nothing to commend it, the transition being too sudden and abrupt. The second view, in spite of identity of subject and a certain similarity in form with ch. 18, is also improbable because of the well-marked conclusion in Isaiah 17:14 and the completeness of ch. 18 in itself. It is better, therefore, to treat the passage as a short independent oracle springing from the same historical situation as the following chapter.
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.13. The Assyrians shall perish at the rebuke of jehovah. The first clause of the verse is almost identical with the last words of Isaiah 17:12, and is wanting in the Peshito and a few Hebr. MSS. It may have arisen through dittography, although some think the repetition is rhetorically effective, contrasting the long-drawn-out terror of the invasion with the sharp and sudden visitation described in what follows.
but God shall rebuke them] Better: but he (Jehovah) rebuketh it (the tumult of nations). The following verbs should also be rendered as presents and in the singular number: it fleeth … is chased. The “rebuke” of Jehovah is His voice of thunder (Psalm 104:7).
chaff of the mountains] Threshing-floors were chosen by preference on elevated situations, free to the wind, which carried away the stubble without any artificial winnowing process.
a rolling thing] R.V. the whirling dust, as in Psalm 83:13. The translation “stubble,” however, is supported by the analogy of Aramaic and Arabic words.
For the figure, comp. ch. Isaiah 29:5; Psalm 1:4; Psalm 35:5, &c.
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.14. The destruction of the Assyrian shall be accomplished between evening and daybreak. The expression denotes a very short space of time, as in Psalm 30:5; Job 27:19; but the destruction of Sennacherib’s army took place literally in the night (ch. Isaiah 37:36).
And behold … he is not] Render: At eventime, behold terror! before morning, it (the tumult) is gone!
them that spoil us, &c.] the Assyrians; cf. ch. Isaiah 10:6; Isaiah 10:13.