The Prophet Series: Isaiah part 13; chapter 17-18: The Oracle of Syria (Damascus) and Ephraim (Who rules the world and whose will is accomplished?)

Posted: Tue. Aug, 6 2019

Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) makes his first appearance in the oracles of chapters 13-20, but he is not presented strong and independent as he should be as a son of God. He walks on to the prophet’s stage arm-in-arm in adultery with Syria with whom he is destined to be destroyed. Ephraim sought security in an unholy alliance with Syria while the Lord shouted at him to take refuge under His rock (17:10).


ISA 17:10

For you have forgotten the God of your salvation

And have not remembered the rock of your refuge.


These oracles are historical and also speak of a near future as well as a distant future when the Lord will bring all things to a delightful end under His will. Sometimes we have specific names of nations and peoples, and sometimes we do not. By doing this, Isaiah reveals that whether the names are there or not, the principle is always there.


All history is organized by God and is fully under His control, so that:

            The good of God’s people: Babylon oracle

            To ensure Davidic promises: Philistia oracle

            To ensure the promise to the Gentiles: Moab oracle

            To show that God rules and, in the end, only His will is accomplished: Damascus Oracle


(and there is more to come)


History is a blank canvas upon which God draws proof of His promises and He calls all men to look and see.

Ephraim opted for an alternative trust to the Lord’s and that trust is destroyed (17:1-2). However, not everyone in those lands will be forsaken. There is a remnant in both lands, meaning Jew and Gentile, who have believed in Yavah Elohim for deliverance, and God will save them (17:3).

The glory of Jacob (17:4), was a false one because it was based on worldly power status. Israel gloried in her wealth and human alliances, but inward dissolution had been seething in both kingdoms for years. It turns out that unbelief is a festering cancer, slowing growing at first, then silently conquering neighboring organs, and then, seemingly sudden due to its stealth, taking control of the entire body.


Imagery of the harvest.

Isaiah turns from his focus on Ephraim and Syria to the world’s kingdoms. Their fates are relatable.

Imagine you have planted a number of large fields with fruit trees, olives, and vines. You have cared for them, watered them, pruned them, and tended to them with back-breaking labor and sweat for months. You rejoice to see the buds appear in the summer. Soon after the buds yield themselves to new fruit still unripe, but bountiful on all of the branches. You continue to work day and night to protect your harvest, keeping bugs and birds away, keeping them safe and generously making sugar. Then, after all this, the time has come; the unripened fruit have all matured and are beautiful, almost bursting their sweet juices and ripe for harvest. You go to your bed that night happy and content, anticipating sweet dreams filled with the smells of harvest, for tomorrow you will reap and fill your barns. It is going to be a very prosperous year. You wake up early in the morning, feel the crisp autumn air, your thoughts are full of nothing but pictures of overflowing boxes and barrels of fruit as you gather your tools, and you walk out onto your fields and are absolutely shocked to find almost all of the fruit off the trees and on the ground where countless birds and beasts are feasting on them. Someone has knocked them all off the trees and the vines and left them as carrion.


ISA 18:5-6

For before the harvest, as soon as the bud blossoms

And the flower becomes a ripening grape,

Then He will cut off the sprigs with pruning knives

And remove and cut away the spreading branches.

6 They will be left together for mountain birds of prey,

And for the beasts of the earth;

And the birds of prey will spend the summer feeding on them,

And all the beasts of the earth will spend harvest time on them.


This is the picture that Isaiah gives us of the world’s plans for themselves. The kingdoms of the world, the rulers of the earth, plan and scheme in the face of the inevitable conflicts that they will face. In this oracle, Assyria is not mentioned by name, but she is a very good example. Assyria conquered all of Palestine and had only one more city to swallow up, Jerusalem. Confident of the harvest, she camped around the city and fell into an easy sleep. In the morning, the surviving men awoke to find 185,000 of their number had died in the night leaving Jerusalem perfectly safe. “Wait for Me,” says God, “My plans have been in action since before the worlds were made. Take comfort and have courage. Believe and rejoice, for I am going to deliver you.”

In Isaiah’s day, Assyria is the ever present threat to the entire area. Isaiah witnesses the councils of Egypt, Syria, Judah, Ephraim, Moab, Philistia, and his prophetically gifted eye can see the workings of God’s hands through it all. Isaiah sees Israel center stage, being pulled on all sides by the offers and threats of the nations around her while she also feels the heat of oppression that is sure to come from the bloodthirsty and land-thirsty Assyrians. In the midst of it all is God, who is using Isaiah and other prophets to call to Israel as well as the other nations with invitations to come to Himself. In a past oracle, Elohim invited Moab to find refuge behind His walls. In this oracle, Elohim, the God of salvation, invites them to find refuge under His Rock.

But Ephraim has forgotten the God of salvation and will prefer to trust in an alliance with Damascus.


ISA 17:10

For you have forgotten the God of your salvation

And have not remembered the rock of your refuge.

Therefore you plant delightful plants

And set them with vine slips of a strange god.


The whole world is in view (including Israel):

Whether it is their fortified cities (17:1-3), or their political alliances (18:2) the world imagines that they will somehow find the needed power and influence that will secure them. Preservation is in the heart of every people. Rome was sure that they were going to last forever. The Nazi’s had plans for a thousand year reich. They are ruins. The lesson is repeated by Isaiah since his life is given to God for the purpose of opening the eyes of the blind in Israel - security is only found in the Lord.


False religion:

In the prior oracle of Moab, God asked that the idols be brought into a courtroom (they couldn’t walk on their own) and prove themselves by predicting the future. He does something similar in this oracle.


ISA 17:7-8

In that day man will have regard for his Maker,

And his eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel.

8 And he will not have regard for the altars, the work of his hands,

Nor will he look to that which his fingers have made,

Even the Asherim and incense stands.


These who have regard for their Maker are the people restored (likely in the Millennial Reign), the remnant, both Jew and Gentile. Isaiah uses them to turn our attention to the question of trust, i.e. having our eyes on the Lord only. The eye represents our desire and expectation. God entitles Himself “Maker” here, and this is in contrast to the gods who are “the work of his (craftsman) hands” and “which his fingers have made.” In contrast to God’s possession of desire and fulfillment, the man-made gods possess nothing to look for.

All false religions are religions of works and are ultimately nothing more than an exercise in self-reliance. The gods and their religions are always the “work of his hands”. The worshippers in false religions have to make altars for drawing near to god, poles (Asherim representing fertility) to share in divine life, and incense to seek divine favor. God is pointing out to them, “You have to make these things and then you call them god.” The one, true God draws near to man, coming into the world by His own power. He dies so that we can have His divine life. He bestows favor by grace alone. He creates grace gifts and then gives them to us who are undeserving.


Instead of faith (17:10 above), Israel “sowed foreign seedlings.”


ISA 17:10-11

Therefore you plant delightful plants

And set them with vine slips of a strange god.

11 In the day that you plant it you carefully fence it in,

And in the morning you bring your seed to blossom;

But the harvest will be a heap

In a day of sickliness and incurable pain.


This is more harvest imagery; which Isaiah uses a lot of (9:3; 16:8; 17:11; 18:4f; 23:3; 37:30). In vs. 11, these are plants that germinate quickly (blossom in the morning). The reference is to the use in false religions of the device of sympathetic or imitative magic. The promise is that by some ritual, incantation, talisman, rosary, etc. that the worshipper can incite some magical effect to their personal pleasure or to the ill of another. In this way, it’s a lot like witchcraft. In germinating quickly, like the magic, results are had instantaneously. There is none of that boring, cumbersome, and difficult waiting, perseverance, or patience required.

Human initiative seeking to provoke a divine response lies at the heart of false religion and every perversion of biblical-religion. Yet Divine initiative is always the real case. You ever ask yourself, and subsequently God, usually with a bit of righteous indignation, and, at least at the time, it feels right, “Why aren’t You doing to me what I asked of You?” (I made that a run-on sentence on purpose for our minds run on and on and on with how we can bend God to our will) Did you do what I’ve done, and actually recently did with a pretty solid feeling of justification - made a deal with God. “If You do this, I’ll do that.” How impressed He must be with our irresistible deals, sweetened by our willingness to do something for Him. On top of that, we initiated the process.

Prayer is not initiating God, it is seeking God’s will and guidance. God always initiates, unlike non-biblical religions. He has to. We have no way of knowing what is good for us, never mind what is best for us. “Help my unbelief," said the man with the demon possessed child.


MAR 9:22-23

But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!" 23 And Jesus said to him, "'If You can!' All things are possible to him who believes."


God calls to us after He has opened a door. He did this at salvation, and after we walked through that narrow door, I imagine we all have many, many more doors to walk through. “One at a time dear Lord, please, be patient with me.” When He opens a door He lays all around the path to that door things personally designed to draw you to it. Along the path there are also posted signs with promises written on them that reveal what the results will be if you walk though. All the while God is waiting for your responsive faith.

We cannot initiate with God. Only He knows what is best for us. It is up to us to ask, seek, and knock and respond in faith to His plan. I always think about Paul’s thorn in the flesh when I contemplate the many parts of the plan of God for my own life that I couldn’t possibly conceive of.

Now, for false religion there is a harvest, but it is very different from what was sought for - it ends in incurable pain (vs. 11 above).


Isaiah 17:12 - 18:7

Isaiah is after the answer to: Who actually rules the world and whose purposes in the end will be accomplished?

In 17:12-14 we find “roaring seas.” This is the restless, hostile world. This fits Assyria in Isaiah’s day, but it is also the truth about every nation. They all ultimately fall upon historical unrest. God attests that He can rebuke any nation and make them flee like chaff before the wind. Chaff is always a picture of swift acting judgment in the Bible, before which its victims are helpless.


18:1-7 The land of whirring wings.

In 715 BC the Kushite king Piankhi mastered Egypt and he desired to play a part on the world stage. He sent envoys to all of the states in Palestine promising them aid against the Assyrians. Isaiah doesn’t mention this but uses it in revealing a common conclusion in world politics - security is found in collective strength.

The lesson is thus repeated (2 Peter 1:12 Therefore, I shall always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them) - security is only found in the Lord. Strong cities and alliances have come and gone over the centuries. All that is left of them are history books and ruins for tourists to visit. The Lord’s security lives on, generation after generation. 2,800 years later, we are still reading Isaiah’s words and they are as powerful as ever.

“Whirring wings” could refer to Egypt due to her many insects, but Egypt is not mentioned. It is more likely that Isaiah simply has the busy world in mind.

The envoys in vs. 2 are not sent to any one people, but to any nation that they can reach. “Tall and smooth” can also mean “long-standing and fighting trim,” which would refer to all the stable nations in the region.


In vs. 3 there is a shift.


ISA 18:3

All you inhabitants of the world and dwellers on earth,

As soon as a standard is raised on the mountains, you will see it,

And as soon as the trumpet is blown, you will hear it.


Certainly the envoys sent out by king Piankhi wouldn’t entreat the world to look for God’s standard raised. Rather, when these envoys reached Judah, Isaiah imagines them bringing a different message - his message. Isaiah pictures them as his own evangelists sent out to say - “All you nations, wait expectantly for God’s banner and trumpet, for He is coming.” And in the final part of this chapter, Isaiah gives the explanation of that message.


Vs. 4 - the Lord waits unobserved. Heat and dew are present but unseen.


ISA 18:4

For thus the Lord has told me,

"I will look from My dwelling place quietly Like dazzling heat in the sunshine,

Like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest."


Vs. 5-6 - The harvest which the Lord reaps and then leaves for the birds and the beasts to gobble up is that which the rulers on earth intended to reap for themselves. Just at the time they anticipated reaping, it was lost to them. All attempts to run the world by imperialism or diplomatic schemes will collapse.

This is one of the reasons that we have to be patient. It may look like the wicked are prospering, but we must behold their end. God is always working for His good and ours. We must be patient and trust.

Vs. 7 - There will be a time when those in the world who waited for the banner and the trumpet of God will become pilgrims and bring a homage gift to the Lord of Hosts at Zion. The Lord will bring all of His saved ones home to Zion.


ISA 18:7

At that time a gift of homage will be brought to the Lord of hosts

From a people tall and smooth,

Even from a people feared far and wide,

A powerful and oppressive nation,

Whose land the rivers divide —

To the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, even Mount Zion. 


Come Lord Jesus, 

Pastor Joe Sugrue