Isaiah 17:1-14 (text); Acts 26:12-23
© Rev. Nollie Malabuyo • September 15, 2013 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear friends: Syria: another Middle East conflict, another money-making opportunity for prophecy pundits. Another impending blackeye on evangelicals.
Every time there is a Middle East crisis or war, “prophecy experts” revise their failed false prophecies. They revise their prophecy books again and again to suit the current world news. Remember the North Korean threat? Lots of people were scared at the prospect of nuclear war so close to the Philippines, but there were no prophecy pundits then, because it was not in the Middle East and doesn’t involve Israel.
One of these prophecy “experts” wrote “Damascus, Syria, and Isaiah 17” in Rapture Forums (always on the lookout for the Rapture):
One of most intriguing Bible prophecies in the end times has to do with Isaiah 17. The prophecies in Isaiah 17 point to the end times destruction of Damascus, Syria. The Bible states that the destruction of Damascus will be so great that the city will be nothing but a “ruinous heap” after the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy … The utter destruction of Damascus will be an event that only the sovereign Lord could have predicted, yet he warns in Isaiah 17 that Damascus does have a date with destiny in the near prophetic future.
These rapture-tribulation-millennium-obsessed pundits have even found Psalm 83 to hasten their end-time scenarios, “As of this writing, the conditions are ripe for the fulfillment of Isaiah 17 and Psalm 83, paving the way for the rapture of the church and the beginning of the tribulation.” They say that God’s chosen people Israel today are surrounded by enemies planning and conspiring against them.
Today, we will look at what Isaiah 17 actually is all about, and what it is to us today. The Word of God is for all of God’s people, whether they lived 3,000 years ago or today, or whether they were in the Ancient Near East or in the global world we live in today.
First, let’s look at the historical-geographical background of Isaiah. The whole book of Isaiah deals with the immediate political threat to Judah of the anti-Assyrian alliance of Israel and Aram (Isaiah 7-8).
The people of the northern kingdom (Israel) did not heed Yahweh’s warning not to ally with the pagan nation Aram (Syria) to defend itself against the Assyrians. God assured them that he would deliver them from the Assyrians if they trusted in his promises. The alliance was defeated, and Damascus was destroyed in 732 B.C. In turn, Samaria itself, the capital of the northern kingdom, was also destroyed by the same Assyrians ten years later in 722 B.C. (Isa 7:16-17; 8:4).
Isaiah 17 was fulfilled 2,700 years ago in 732 B.C. It is not anywhere “in the near prophetic future,” but was about geopolitical events that transpired way back then. These prophecy buffs don’t have anything better to do than arbitrarily lifting Scripture texts such as this one from their redemptive, historical, geographical, social and literary contexts. And many of them have demonized Arabs because of their love for present-day Israel as God’s “chosen people.”
But what they do not know is that the people of Israel are ethnically related very closely with Arabs, especially Syrians. How is that possible?
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Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, and his father Terah, came from Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia, the area which we now call Iraq. From Ur, Abraham was called by God to Canaan. On their way, they sojourned first in a place called Haran, which many link geographically to Paddan-Aram. Various Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias say that Paddan means “plain” and Aram means “highland,” so Paddan-Aram refers to the table-land of Aram in the northern Mesopotamia Sometimes, Paddan-Aram is also called “Mesopotamia,” which in Hebrew is “Aram naharayim,” which means “Aram of the two rivers” (Gen 24:10). It is also called simply “Aram,” the place where Jacob found his wives, “Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife” (Hos 12:12; Gen 28:2, 5). This area is now part of present-day northeastern Syria.
Aram was one of the sons of Shem, who also fathered Arpachshad (Gen 10:22), from where Jesus’ lineage descended (Luke 3:36, Arphaxad). The people of Aram were called Arameans, and even Jacob was called “a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). Rebekah, Isaac’s wife (Gen 25:20), and Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives (Gen 28:5), were from Paddan-Aram. Rebekah’s father was called “Bethuel the Aramean” and Leah’s and Rachel’s father was called “Laban the Aramean.” In the older translations, both of these men were called “Syrians,” precisely because the land of Aram is also called Syria.
The language of Arameans is commonly called Aramaic, a language related to but distinct from Hebrew. It spread north and west from Aram, and became the main language of the region. As early as Jacob’s time, Aramaic was already spoken by Arameans, as Laban did (Gen 31:47). Then, during King Hezekiah’s time, we find that some Jews already knew how to speak Aramaic (2 Kgs 18:26). After the Babylonian exile, it became known as the Syriac, the principal language of the Jews in Palestine, instead of Hebrew.
So Jesus and his disciples mostly spoke Aramaic, and probably some Greek, since they were from Galilee, where many Greek-speaking Gentiles lived. They probably spoke some Hebrew as well. This is why when Jesus was crucified, the Romans wrote the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” on the cross in three languages—Aramaic, Latin and Greek.
The early church expanded from Jerusalem to the surrounding regions. In addition to Jerusalem, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome in Italy, and later Constantinople in Asia Minor, became centers of Christianity. Damascus played an important part in Paul’s conversion, because Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus where he planned to arrest Christians. Paul made Antioch in Syria his home base for his mission work. It was in Antioch where the disciples of Christ were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26), and where the first church in Syria was established in 36 A.D. Antioch was also an important refuge for the early Christians who fled the persecution by Jews in Jerusalem.
Syria produced some of the earliest Christian documents, including the Didache and the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts,” Psa 25:1). Some of the most prominent Syrian Christians included Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who was a disciple of the Apostle John; Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian and hymn writer; John Chrysostom, 4th century Bishop of Constantinople; and John of Damascus, a great 7th century Eastern Orthodox theologian. The Syrians also produced the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Old Testament, and sent missionaries to Ethiopia.
A great majority of Syrians were Christians until 635 A.D., when the Omayyad Muslims overran Syria. By the 11th century, Christians became the minority, but they were tolerated by the new rulers. Syrians call the Omayyad dynasty their “golden age,” until the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Omayyads in 750. Still, Christians were generally tolerated, even up to the present rule by the al-Assad family. Today, only six percent of the whole population of Syria are counted as Christians, and are under great persecution from the Muslims fighting the government.
“The Glory of the Remnant of Syria and Israel”
Verses 3-4 of Isaiah 17 tells us, “The fortress will disappear from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus; and the remnant of Syria will be like the glory of the children of Israel, declares the LORD of hosts. And in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low, and the fat of his flesh will grow lean.” In the Old Testament, Ephraim is another name for the northern kingdom, called Israel. Damascus is the capital city of Aram or Syria.
The first three verses are the only ones dealing with Damascus or Syria. Isaiah predicts the destruction of the city, deserted and a heap of ruins. Their land will be inhabited only by flocks that will not be afraid, because there are no people around them. The kingdom will cease to exist.
The people of the northern kingdom thought that they still had the “glory of Jacob.” They were not listening to Isaiah’s warning of coming destruction upon them. This fake glory “will be brought low,” so that the people will be like sheep that will starve and get lean.
Throughout their history, from the wilderness until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, God dwelt with the Israelites. His glory-cloud was always with them in the Tabernacle and Temple. But soon, the glory-cloud will depart from Israel because of their unbelief and rebellion against God. That day will be like the day when the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant from Israel during the time of Samuel. One of Eli’s daughters-in-law named her newborn baby Ichabod, because the name means “the glory has departed,” “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured” (1 Sam 4:22).
Israel will be destroyed, but not completely. A picture of a reaper of the field emerges in verses 5-6. But the reaper is not the farmer, but God himself. He is a “grim” reaper who will harvest, not for his own use, but for gathering the harvest and throwing them into the fire because they are unfruitful. Yet the reaper will leave some of the grain and olives for gleanings, and we shall see later, this a glimpse of hope both for Israel and for the nations.
“You Have Forgotten the God of Your Salvation”
Chapter 17 is a prophecy against Damascus and Syria, but mostly against Israel, and it’s in the middle of prophecies against nations that surround Israel, Chapters 13-23. Why is the judgment against Israel in the middle of these prophecies against the pagan nations? Because Israel has become like a pagan nation in the sight of God. They “have forgotten the God of [their] salvation” (verse 10).
Their strength and their alliances with pagan nations are their own fortresses (verse 3), forgetting that the Lord was their real fortress (Psa 48:3). But God will destroy their fortress cities and their alliances. All over their land, they could see the ruins of the fortresses that God destroyed before them, such as Ai and Jericho.
Now they fall into the same misplaced trust. They too trust in fortresses rather than in the Lord who overthrew them in the time of their forefathers. They forgot their real Rock. David trusted in the LORD, declaring, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psa 18:2). The psalmist also laments Israel’s forgetfulness, “They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt” (Psa 106:21). Notice also how close Isaiah 17:5, 10 are to Deuteronomy 32:15-16:
But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger.
In his prosperity, Jeshurun [Israel] grew fat and heavy. God warned Moses before Israel entered the Promised Land that this is exactly what Israel will do once they have settled and prospered there, “For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey … and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant” (Deu 31:20). They will forget the LORD their Rock, Fortress and Savior, and turn to other gods and break God’s covenant with them. They will be just like their pagan neighbors.
How often do we do this? When things go wrong, we are full of prayers for help in our times of need. But when things are good, we forget God who had provided all kinds of blessings for us!
“Man Will Look on the Holy One of Israel”
The prophet Hosea also foretold of the destruction of Israel’s fortified cities because he has forgotten God in his prosperity, “For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds” (Hos 8:14).
But there is a hint here of hope and salvation. The word remnant is a term for those God will save, and Aram has a remnant to share Israel’s glory. God is merciful even when he is wrathful, “In wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2). After their cities, fields and their temple have become a heap of ruins, this remnant from God’s people Israel will heed the LORD’s call to return to him. After being exiled and enslaved in foreign lands, they will return to the Promised Land.
Instead of looking on the altars of their many idols, they will again “look on the Holy One of Israel.” Instead of sending incense to their female idol in their Asherah poles, they will look on Yahweh their Maker. Their Asherah poles probably represented the “queen of heaven” that the Jewish exiles in Egypt worshiped for which God condemned them (Jer 44:24-28).
The LORD as the “grim” reaper does not harvest everything to be destroyed. After the branches of the olive trees are shaken, there will be a few olives left in the highest boughs. After the ears of grains are gathered, there will be some grain left for gleaning. The gleanings are the remnant, for even in his wrath, God will remember the promises he made to Abraham that he would have a multitude of descendants and all the families of the earth will be blessed through him (Gen 12:2-3).
Earlier, Isaiah prophesied about this very small remnant, “In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth” (Isa 10:20). The remnant will now lean on the true Rock.
Yet God promised not only a remnant of Jews, but a Gentile remnant too! Isaiah prophesied that not only a remnant of Israel will recover their glory, but also a remnant from all Gentile nations throughout the earth will be gathered in a future harvest:
In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea” (Isa 11:11).
Even those who have been Israel’s enemies throughout the centuries will be included in this glorious harvest, and there will be such peace that “ In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians” (Isa 19:23).
But this remnant will come out of God’s judgment against the nations led by Assyria. In verses 12-14, Isaiah describes the nations’ rebellion against God and their final destruction. They will thunder like the roaring sea. But God will rebuke them and they will run away like chaff driven by the wind. Isaiah also prophesied later against Sennacherib king of Assyria, that his great army will be destroyed. And this prophecy was fulfilled when Sennacherib’s army surrounded Jerusalem, “And that night the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies” (2 Kgs 19:35).
Because they have plundered and looted God’s people, the coming day of judgment will be like the Assyrians’ night of terror. By the break of light, God will have destroyed all his enemies and they will be gone forever. God’s people will at last enjoy their promised rest for all eternity.
Beloved friends, do not be afraid whenever there are wars and rumors of war. All that has happened in the world from its creation, and is part of God’s plan to return a remnant of his people to him in glory.
Christians are persecuted all over Syria, Egypt and the whole Mideast. Restrictions are placed against churches in preaching against homosexuals, same-sex marriage. False gospels preached by false teachers and false prophets abound all over the world. These have been with us since Jesus prophesied that these things will occur from the time he first came until he returns a second time.
The Syrian conflict has been upon us the last two years, and many prophecy pundits have warned—again and again—that this is yet another sign of the end times. But they forget that Isaiah 17 is about events that happened 2,700 years ago, and not about al-Assad, Obama and Netanyahu. If this is so, what is it for us today? What lessons can we learn from Syria and other events like these in the world?
First, as stated earlier, whatever is happening in the world today, it is part of God’s sovereign decree and plan from even before the creation of the world. Isaiah says “declares the LORD …” twice in this oracle (verses 3, 6).
Second, the best interpreter of Scripture is not CNN, or the New York Times, or the Hal Lindsey Report. It’s the Scripture itself. The whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is not about superpowers and nations. On the contrary, it is about God’s redemptive plan for his people through the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.
Third, no nation and no individual is exempt from God’s wrath—not me, not you, not Syria, not Israel, not the Philippines, not even America. Whether it is America or the Philippines, no nation is a “Christian” nation, the only Christian nation being the Kingdom of Christ, the only nation that God calls “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1Pet 2:9). Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Finally, even when there is so much apostasy, heresy and spiritual decay in the church today, God will preserve a remnant of his people. Our hope is not in the Rapture or Armageddon or millennium, but in the King of Kings who would return and end this present spiritual darkness when he establishes his eternal kingdom in the new heaven and new earth. In this new creation, all of God’s remnant people from all the nations will be singing:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever (Rev 11:15).
“Christian exodus from Syria” by Al-Ahram Weekly, August 5, 2013
“Some Evangelicals See Biblical Prophecy In Syrian Crises” by Elizabeth Dias, Time, August 29, 2013
Isaiah 17:1 Is Syria War Part Of Jesus’ Second Coming? Christians And Muslims Quote Scripture by Yasmine Hafiz, The Huffington Post, August 29, 2013
“Syria” by MERF.org