Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.XVII.
(1) The burden of Damascus.—Syria, it will be remembered, had been “confederate with Ephraim,” i.e., with the kingdom of Israel, against Judah in the reign of Ahaz, and the prophet had then foretold its overthrow by Assyria (Isaiah 7:1-16). In 2Kings 16:9, 2 Chron. 28:29, we have a partial fulfilment of that prediction. Writing probably early in the reign of Hezekiah, Isaiah now looks forward to a further fulfilment in the future.
Damascus is taken away from being a city . . .—The words emphasise the result of the Assyrian invasion. The city of ancient days (Genesis 15:2) should lose glory and be no more worthy of the name; struck out, as it were, from the list of the great cities of the world.
The cities of Aroer are forsaken.—The LXX. and other versions seem to have followed a different text, and give, “The cities are forsaken for ever.” Taking Aroer as the right reading, we note that there were two cities of the name, one in the tribe of Reuben (Deuteronomy 2:36; Deuteronomy 3:12), afterwards in the possession of Moab (Jeremiah 48:19), and the other in that of Gad, near Rabbah of Ammon (Numbers 32:34; Joshua 13:25; 2Samuel 24:5). The present passage seems to imply a closer connection with Damascus. and therefore a more northern position than that of either of these cities. The latter of the two Just named may, however, have been in alliance with Damascus, and so have shared its fate during the Assyrian invasion. Possibly it may have been chosen for special mention on account of the significance of its name (“laid bare”) as ominous of utter ruin. The picture of the “flocks” wandering through the streets of the city reminds us of that of Babylon in Isaiah 13:21.
The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim.—The alliance of the two kingdoms is still prominent in Isaiah’s thoughts. Both shall fall, he predicts, together; and, with a stern, grave irony, he paints the downfall of “the remnant of Syria.” It shall be “as the glory of the children of Israel,” i.e., shall be fleeting and transient as that had been proved to be. There is, perhaps, a special reference to Hosea 9:11, “Ephraim, their glory shall fly away like a bird.”
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) The glory of Jacob shall be made thin.—The word is the same as that rendered “impoverished” in Judges 6:8. “Jacob” stands as commonly in the prophets, like Israel, for the northern kingdom, and the words point, therefore, to the downfall, or, adopting the prophet’s figurative language, the emaciation, of that kingdom.
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) And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn.—The work of devastation is described under another image. The conqueror shall plunder the cities of Israel as the reaper cuts off the ears of corn. With his usual Dantesque vividness the prophet localises the imagery. The valley of Rephaim, or, as in Joshua 15:8; Joshua 18:16, “of the giants,” lay to the south-west of Jerusalem in the direction of Bethlehem. It was famous for its fertility, and was often on that account attacked by the Philistines, who came to carry off its crops (2Samuel 23:13). The prophet had looked on the reaper’s work and had seen in it a parable of that of the Assyrian invader.
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 shall be left in it.—The idea of the “remnant” is still in the prophet’s thoughts, even in the case of the northern kingdom. First the vineyard, then the olive-yard, supplies a similitude. The “shaking” followed on the “beating” of Deuteronomy 24:20 (comp. Isaiah 24:13), but even after that a few berries might be seen on the topmost bough.
At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.(7) At that day shall a man look to his Maker.—The words are words of warning hardly less than of promise. There is to be a return to the true faith of Israel, but that return will be brought about by a bitter experience of the results of idolatry. The eyes of men will turn in that hour of their calamity 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.(8) The groves or the images.—Literally, the Asherah or the sun-images. The former were conical, tree-like pillars which symbolised the worship of a Canaanite goddess, the giver of good fortune. (See Notes on 2Kings 21:7; 2Chronicles 34:3-7.)
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) In that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough.—Better, his fortified cities shall be like a forsaken tract of forest and hill-top. These were naturally the usual sites of fortresses (2Chronicles 27:4), and the gist of the prediction is that they shall be left uninhabited and in ruins. The LXX., it may be noticed, either followed a different reading or else give a curious paraphrase, “thy cities shall be forsaken, like as the Amorites and Hivites forsook them before the face of the children of Israel.” The whole verse reminds us of the “great forsaking” of Isaiah 6:12.
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) Hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength.—Jehovah, as the true defence, the fortress rock of His people (Deuteronomy 32:4), is contrasted with the rock-fortresses in which the people had put their trust. They had forsaken the One, and therefore, by a just retribution, the others should be forsaken.
Therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants.—Better, thou didst plant. The word for “pleasant” is found here only as a common noun. The singular appears as a proper name in Genesis 46:21, Numbers 26:40, and in the more familiar instance of Naaman the Syrian (2Kings 5:1). It would appear that the prophet chose the peculiar term to indicate the foreign, in this case the Syrian, character of the worship to which he refers as the “plant” which Israel had adopted. Mr. Cheyne, following an ingenious suggestion of Lagarde’s, connects it (1) with the Arabic Nahr No’man, the name of the river Belus near Acre, and (2) with the Arabic name (Shakaiku-’n-nomân) for the red anemone. The former was near the head-quarters of the worship of Thammuz, the Phœnician Adonis, and the flower was sacred to him, and so it is inferred that the prophet refers to “the gardens of Adonis,” fair but perishable (Plato, Phœdr. p. 276 B), in which Israel had delighted (Ezekiel 8:14). The addition of “strange slips,” literally, vine-slips of a strange one—i.e., of a strange god (comp. Jeremiah 2:21)—confirms at least the general drift of this interpretation.
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) In the day shalt thou make.—Better, thou makest, or, thou fencest, thy plant. The alliance between Syria and Ephraim is compared in the rapidity of its growth with the “gardens of Adonis.” All the “harvest heaps” from such a planting would end, not in the wonted joy of harvest (Isaiah 9:3), but in “grief and incurable pain” There is no sufficient evidence for the marginal reading of the Authorised version.
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) Woe to the multitude of many people.—The three Isaiah 17:12-14 stand as an isolated fragment, probably placed here as beginning like Isaiah 18:1. They may have been connected with the progress of Sennacherib’s army. In the “rushing of mighty waters” to describe the march of an army we have a parallel to Isaiah 8:7-8.
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) But God shall rebuke them.—Better, He shall rebuke. The insertion of the word “God” weakens the force of the sublime indefiniteness of the Hebrew.
Like a rolling thing.—The Hebrew word is the same as the “wheel” of Psalm 83:13, and probably refers, like the “chaff of the mountains,” to the whirling dust-clouds driven from an elevated threshing-floor before the wind (Psalm 1:4; Psalm 35:5). There is no sufficient authority for the “thistle-down” of the margin.
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) And behold at eveningtide trouble.—The words, though spoken in general terms, received a special fulfilment in the destruction of Sennacherib’s army (Isaiah 37:36). Possibly the parallelism they present to Isaiah 17:11 may have led to the insertion of the oracle in this place.