Isaiah 17 and the Destruction of Damascus
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Isaiah 17 and the Destruction of Damascus
Copyright © March 10, 2012 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.
Recently, RaptureReady.com posted an article
found here by author
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:
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
(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).
and royal rule in Damascus.
Aram is a remnant
like the “glory” (which) the Israelites have become.
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 RaptureReady.com. 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 NewEdisonGazette.com. You may contact him at
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