Isaiah 17 and the Destruction of Damascus

View Of The City Of Damascus

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Isaiah 17 and the Destruction of Damascus

Copyright © March 10, 2012 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

Recently, posted an article found here by author Britt Gillette where he proposes that modern-day Damascus in Syria will be utterly destroyed in a single day. This will probably be by a nuclear holocaust. He suggests that this event may only be months away. Gillette uses the following passages from the Old Testament Prophets to prove his thesis. Isaiah chapter 17 in its entirety, Psalm 83, also in its entirety, and of course, Ezekiel 38-39 are all appealed to. No good dispensationalist thinker can ever leave us with just the Scriptures to support their ideas, and Gillette is the same. Since there never was another time in history when an entire city could be brought to total ruin in a single day, the annihilation of Damascus must be something that will take place in the very near future. Thermonuclear war is the most likely way that these scriptures will be fulfilled, possibly in the same time frame as the destruction of the Northern Confederacy of Gog and Magog spoken of by Ezekiel.

I am one of a growing multitude of Bible students growing weary of the premillenialist tendency to interpret the prophets by reading modern day headlines into them. Time has born witness to the terrific failure of that “method” of Bible interpretation. A more level-headed and time-worn approach to Bible interpretation is to simply let the Bible speak for itself. The prophets do not need the testimony of the news-wires to prove their authority. But then we must be faithful to our interpretive decisions as well! In other words, we must be willing to return to the texts at hand and see what they really say. Is it possible that Isaiah 17 and Psalm 83 do actually speak to a future (to our times) holocaust in the regions of Damascus? If Britt Gillette is correct, then we should be able to find the evidence for his claims in Scripture.

First, a simple reading of Isaiah 17 makes clear that Damascus is not utterly destroyed, but instead loses her former glory among the nations. This takes place in the same context as the loss of Ephraim’s national strength. After the death of Solomon the United Kingdom of David split into a northern and southern confederacy. Ephraim refers to the northern kingdom of Israel which fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC. The southern kingdom of Judah continued until the Babylonians over ran it in 586 BC. Isaiah 17:3 makes it reasonably clear that Ephraim and Damascus receive the same judgment. They had been in league together for the sake of mutual defense against the Assyrians. But more wickedly, they had joined forces to obliterate southern Judah during the reign of Ahaz (Isaiah 7:1-9). Isaiah declares that Damascus and Ephraim will fall together because they are in pact together. They will lose their glory among the nations together, at the same time. Isa 7 verse 8 goes so far as to declare that within 65 years Ephraim (the northern kingdom of Israel) would cease to exist entirely. Contrary to this Gillette argues that Isaiah 17 refers to the annihilation of modern day Damascus but that modern day Israel somehow will not be hurt along with them. That is certainly not what Isaiah says. This alone should be sufficient proof against Gillette’s argument for a future annihilation of Damascus and Syria.

Franz Delitzsch in his authoritative work on Isaiah says the following on Isa. 17: “The curse pronounced on them [Damascene Syria], however, falls upon the kingdom of Israel also, because it has allied itself with heathen Damascus, in opposition to its own brother tribe to the south, as well as to the Davidic government…” (Keil-Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, volume 7, Isaiah, p. 339.) Professor J. Ridderbos says the following regarding the burden of Damascus “Although Isaiah speaks also, and even more extensively, of Ephraim, the superscription mentions only Damascus. This is perhaps intended to indicate that Ephraim, who made themselves a dependency on a Gentile power, will also share in its lot…” (Bible Student’s Commentary: Isaiah, pp.155-156.)

Second, we see from reading the full text of Isa. 17 that the prophet’s chief concern is Israel, not merely Syria, and how Israel will be punished. The enemies that destroy Syria and Damascus are the same enemies that destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. Specifically, those enemies were the invading Assyrians under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser, the most feared and terrible war-mongers of their day. The “glory” of Israel and Syria (v. 3) will be the same before their invading hordes: both will fall, and only a few weak survivors will remain in the land. The mocking tone of Isaiah in verse 3 is not really clear in many translations, but it becomes quite clear in the following:

Fortification has ceased in Ephraim
and royal rule in Damascus.
Aram is a remnant
like the “glory” (which) the Israelites have become.

(Translation by John D.W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary, 24, Isaiah 1-33, p.235.) Isaiah mocks Israel’s “glory” because it really has no glory or power left. They have forsaken Yahweh, the true glory of Israel, for idols. They have forsaken the united strength they had before rebelling against the house of David. And now they have become a mere satellite of the Syrians to their north. Soon they would be razed along with Syria and cease to exist altogether. Only then will the remnant in Israel forsake their idolatry and seek God (verses 7 and 8).

Third, it is significant that northern Israel since its inception was known as an idolatrous people over and above the people of southern Judah. Only after the fall of Samaria and the northern kingdom did southern Judah gravitate to the worse sins of her northern sister. After the Babylonian captivity idolatrous worship such as Isaiah describes here, was virtually unheard of. The returning Jews in Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s days were no longer an idolatrous people. They had learned their lesson, and a monotheistic commitment to Yahweh become central to their practice as well as their theology. This anti-polytheistic and anti-totemistic (idol-worship) attitude has prevailed in Judaism to our own times. Strangely, Gillette is using a passage that clearly speaks of Israel as an idolatrous people who worship stone and wood images. That is so far away from a description of modern day Israel, that it makes Gillette’s ideas look ridiculous.

Fourth, there is not the slightest evidence in this entire text from Isaiah of a total conflagration of the sort that a nuclear holocaust would engender. That is utter nonsense. It just is not there. Certainly there is a measure of hyperbole like as we may find in any poetic passage, but none so close as to imply anything more than total war. The fact that there are still people and animals remaining in the land, however impoverished, is enough to prove this. The remaining people are still capable of gleaning at least a subsistence life from the land.

Fifth, Isaiah 17:12-14 goes on to describe how the enemies of Israel will also be destroyed, in like manner as they destroyed Israel. Assyria came to utter ruin once the Babylonian empire took its ascendancy. The very nations that destroyed Israel and plundered her were soon themselves destroyed. The text does not say those nations (Assyria and her associates) would be destroyed in a holocaust, but that God would chase them off like the whirlwind and they would flee away. When Babylonia came in, the power and might of the Assyrian conquerors was crushed, and they fled back to the north once again. From that point on their might among the nations decreased drastically, and Assyria was gradually assimilated into the Babylonian empire.

Sixth, returning to verse one, I find it very hard, based upon the evidences set forth above, to interpret “Damascus will cease from being a city” to mean that it would become perpetually uninhabitable. The passage speaks of desolation, sure, but not of perpetual desolation, so that our own recourse would be to push the prophetic fulfillment off to our own future. Verse 3 says Damascus’ glory would be the same as Ephraim’s; i.e., an anachronism among the nations pitied by them because of the loss of their former powers. On this one point Gillette’s whole argument falls down, since if Damascus is to be utterly and eternally destroyed, then the same fate belongs to Israel. The fate of the one is the fate of the other since their “glory” (or shame) is the same in nature. If Damascus’ fate is a future total destruction, and if her “glorious shame” is the same as Ephraim’s, then we cannot escape the conclusion that Israel’s future fate is also total destruction. You cannot get around this fact! There is no premillenialist who would ever admit to such a thing, but Gillette has unwittingly sold himself to this complete reversal of his theology by the illogic of this position. He has fallen on his own sword!

Now coming very briefly to Psalm 83, I will say a few things, which should be confined to a single paragraph, since I think we have already thoroughly devastated Gillette’s thesis, and need do no more than clean up work with the rest. (On the subject of Ezekiel 38-39 there is too much to say to take time here, and others have dealt with it quite adequately. It really is another subject entirely and has no significance for the present texts.)

It seems obvious that every nation down through history has had a similar declaration against God’s chosen people in their mouths; that is, a determination to destroy them off the face of the earth. This is the same sort of lamentation against the nations that is found in other psalms (for instance, Ps. 2, 3, 22, 68, 79, 120). There is no need of interpreting this as some future confederacy, since all the nations listed in Psalm 83 no longer exist and have not existed for thousands of years. The fact that Assyria is listed as a part of this confederacy obviously agrees with all we have said above. If Psalm 83 and Isaiah 17 refer to the same event (which is hardly likely), then we cannot deny that Isaiah 17 refers to the invasion of ancient Israel by Assyria. Beyond that we also see similar language applied to the divine judgment meted out here that we see in Isaiah 17: the whirlwind that turns Israel’s enemies into chaff and drives them off. And yes! We may go so far as to say that this was a very lasting judgment upon all those nations. They were confounded and dismayed forever. They all ceased to exist as a people. They certainly do not exist today despite the fanciful interpretations of modern-day prophesy writers like those found at In this alone we have the testimony that Yahweh (verse 18), whom we know as Jesus Christ, is the Most High [King] over all the earth.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


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