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Reflecting on Isaiah 17-18 and Ezekiel 38-39

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Reflecting on Isaiah 17-18

In reading Isaiah 17 yesterday, and then continuing on into 18, a detail came to light that I hadn’t understood before. It seems that they need to be read together as a unit, and that they must be describing aspects of the same event. This is because chapter 17 uses a metaphor of “setting out the finest plants and planting imported vines” (17:10) and getting no harvest. And then Chapter 18 continues with this same metaphor, showing the LORD Himself bringing this harvest to nothing – “before the harvest, when the blossom is gone and the flower becomes a ripening grape, He will cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and cut down and take away the spreading branches” (18:5). In the fuller context it becomes clear that what’s being talked about is a military conflict, with “no harvest” meaning failure of the attackers to accomplish what they intended.

I would have liked to understand this as something which has already happened – perhaps the six-day war of 1967. Certainly there are a number of times since 1948 that the nation of Israel has been attacked by enemies – and Israel’s victory in 1967 was quite striking, clearly by the Lord’s hand. But it doesn’t really match up with what we read here – with probably the most obvious reason being, that up to now, Damascus still stands. But also, despite many enemies opposing Israel in 1948, 1967, and other times as well, I don’t think we’ve yet seen a case where it could be said that the birds and wild animals fed on the slain enemies of Israel all summer and winter.

Here’s the full text, taken just a portion at a time, with reflections on each portion:

Isaiah 17:1-3
An oracle concerning Damascus: “See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins. The cities of Aroer will be deserted and left to flocks, which will lie down, with no one to make them afraid. The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim, and royal power from Damascus; the remnant of Aram will be like the glory of the Israelites,” declares the LORD Almighty.

Damascus will become what for a very long time Jerusalem had been – a heap of ruins, with no more king ruling from there. Note that the focus here is on the royal power which had been centered in Damascus, and this royal power coming to an end. This seems also to be saying that Damascus is/was located in Ephraim. I’m not sure how to interpret this. My first thought would be that Damascus must be in the area that was originally allocated to the tribe of Ephraim. But that’s not the case – with Ephraim having been west of the Jordan, much closer to the Dead Sea than to the Sea of Galilee, just a bit north of Jerusalem, while Damascus is beyond even the most northern tribes of Asher and Naphtali, not in Israel at all, though somewhat close, off to the northeast. Sometimes “Ephraim” and “Judah” refer to the two pieces into which the nation of Israel was split, with Ephraim referring to the whole group of northern tribes which separated themselves from Judah and which first went into exile. I find this in Isaiah 7:1-6,17; Isaiah 11:13; Hosea 5:3-5,9-15,6:4,11:12. Maybe it’s in this sense that “Ephraim” needs to be understood here. And perhaps “Ephraim” can also be understood a bit more broadly, as referring those sons of Abraham who still follow in the spirit of unbelief demonstrated by those northern tribes.

Isaiah 17:4-6
“In that day the glory of Jacob will fade; the fat of his body will waste away. It will be as when a reaper gathers the standing grain and harvests the grain with his arm— as when a man gleans heads of grain in the Valley of Rephaim. Yet some gleanings will remain, as when an olive tree is beaten, leaving two or three olives on the topmost branches, four or five on the fruitful boughs,” declares the LORD, the God of Israel.

This brokenness describes what Israel had become in that future day, with this having been the state of things for many centuries, and only now beginning to finally be reversed. Damascus is now taking Israel’s place as the one whose power is broken.

Isaiah 17:7-8
In that day men will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel. They will not look to the altars, the work of their hands, and they will have no regard for the Asherah poles and the incense altars their fingers have made.

This hope-filled, encouraging word describes what Israel is now becoming, as little by little they work through the transition to finally being their own nation again. They’ve left behind all the former idolatry.

Isaiah 17:9
In that day their strong cities, which they left because of the Israelites, will be like places abandoned to thickets and undergrowth. And all will be desolation.

This brokenness describes what Damascus will now become after the coming destruction.

Isaiah 17:10-11
You have forgotten God your Savior; you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress. Therefore, though you set out the finest plants and plant imported vines, though on the day you set them out, you make them grow, and on the morning when you plant them, you bring them to bud, yet the harvest will be as nothing in the day of disease and incurable pain.

Speaking now to Damascus of the grave error which will bring on their destruction, with the “finest plants and imported vines” representing the people from other nations which they’ve called to join them in coming against Israel.

Isaiah 17:12-13
Oh, the raging of many nations— they rage like the raging sea! Oh, the uproar of the peoples— they roar like the roaring of great waters! Although the peoples roar like the roar of surging waters, when he rebukes them they flee far away, driven before the wind like chaff on the hills, like tumbleweed before a gale. In the evening, sudden terror! Before the morning, they are gone! This is the portion of those who loot us, the lot of those who plunder us.

Speaking now of those nations which Damascus has enlisted to come against Israel – and the response of the Holy One, bringing about their sudden retreat.

Isaiah 18:1-2
Woe to the land of whirring wings along the rivers of Cush, which sends envoys by sea in papyrus boats over the water.

Speaking of a descendant of the land of Cush who, by all his diplomatic negotiations, has tried to assist these many nations in their raging against Israel.

Isaiah 18:2
Go, swift messengers, to a people tall and smooth-skinned, to a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers.

Speaking to messengers from the nation of Israel who will go to seek help from a nation of clean-shaven (non-Semitic) people far away who speak a different language and have a reputation for military might.

Isaiah 18:3
All you people of the world, you who live on the earth, when a banner is raised on the mountains, you will see it, and when a trumpet sounds, you will hear it.

Watch, all you people of the world. When those nations are called to battle against Israel – on the mountains of Israel – you will see it. Perhaps this will be in those mountains bordering Israel and Syria, the Golan Heights – on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, and stretching north from there.

Isaiah 18:4-6
This is what the LORD says to me: “I will remain quiet and will look on from my dwelling place, like shimmering heat in the sunshine, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.” For, before the harvest, when the blossom is gone and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he will cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and cut down and take away the spreading branches. They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey and to the wild animals; the birds will feed on them all summer, the wild animals all winter.

The Lord will just look on at first, letting them think that victory is in their grasp. But then suddenly He will cut them down. This is where it becomes clear that what is being described as grape vines represents the armies which will come against Israel, and the harvest that never happens represents their hoped-for victory against Israel. It may be that the use of this unexpected metaphor of grape planting and harvest reflects something about their purpose in coming against Israel – that they’re hoping to take possession of Israel’s land and make it their own, to begin planting and harvesting crops of their own in the land. The cutting down of the branches seems to be a restatement of what was foretold in Isaiah 17, with this possibly happening at the same time as an attack on Damascus, perhaps coming by the hand of the foreign power to which they’ve gone for help.

Isaiah 18:7
At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD Almighty from a people tall and smooth-skinned, from a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers— the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the LORD Almighty.

And that nation far away which has supported Israel in these things will bring gifts of gratitude to the Lord Almighty, to Mount Zion. That they are brought to Mount Zion, not to the Temple, suggests that this is at a time when the Temple hasn’t yet been rebuilt. It also suggests that the purpose of the gifts might be to assist in the rebuilding of the Temple. Some Christians would say that this deliverance of Israel can’t happen until those who believe in Yeshua have been taken up (raptured) out of the world. But the fact that these supporters of Israel are still here to bring these gifts afterwards requires that view to be reconsidered.

The overall picture I see when taking these two chapters together, is of Syria stepping down, no longer having a ruler of their own, with Israel stepping up, now having fuller control of their own land, and possibly now including a part of what had formerly belonged to Syria.

Reflecting on Ezekiel 38-39

Note the parallels between Isaiah 17-18 and Ezekiel 38-39 –

Isaiah 18:4-6
They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey and to the wild animals; the birds will feed on them all summer, the wild animals all winter.

Ezekiel 39:4
On the mountains of Israel you will fall, you and all your troops and the nations with you. I will give you as food to all kinds of carrion birds and to the wild animals.

We’re seeing here two descriptions of the same kind of event. Armies who had come against Israel failing in their quest, dying in the mountains of Israel, and left to be eaten by carrion birds and wild animals. Is this something that has happened before? Or is this rare enough that perhaps the two passages are describing the same event? If they are the same event, the Ezekiel 38-39 passage can then be relied on to further identify just who this is that will join together and come against Israel (Gog, Persia, Cush, Put, Gomer, Beth Togarmah – 38:1-6), to die there in the mountains, and it further identifies how the Lord will bring this about – by earthquake (38:19), by each other’s swords (38:21), and by torrential rain, hailstones, and burning sulfur (38:22). It will be abundantly clear to the nations that this outcome is by the Lord’s hand (38:23)

In the Isaiah passage this is immediately followed by the gifts to the Lord from a foreign ally being brought to Mount Zion:

Isaiah 18:7
At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD Almighty from a people tall and smooth-skinned, from a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers— the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the LORD Almighty.

In Ezekiel it’s followed by the detailed description beginning in chapter 40 of the construction of the new Temple. So again the possibility is suggested, that these gifts to the Lord from a foreign ally are being brought to Mount Zion in order to assist in the rebuilding of the Temple there.

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