Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 17

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


The prophecy which comprises Isaiah 17:1-11, professes, by its title, to be against Damascus only. But it relates to the kingdom of Samaria no less than to Damascus. The reason is, that the kingdoms of Israel and Damascus were confederated against the kingdom of Judah. The design of the prophecy may have been to warn the kingdom of Israel of the approaching destruction of the city of Damascus, and, by this means, to keep them from forming an alliance with them against Judah. When it was delivered is unknown. Lowth supposes that it was immediately after the prophecies in the seventh and eighth chapters, in the reign of Ahaz, and this supposition is not improbable, though it is not quite certain. He also supposes that it was fulfilled when Damascus was taken captive by Tiglath-pileser, and its inhabitants carried to Kir 2 Kings 16:9, and when he overran, also, a great part of the kingdom of Israel, and carried its inhabitants captive to Assyria.

In regard to the “time” when it was uttered, there can be little doubt that it was when the alliance existed between Damascus and the kingdom of Ephraim, or Samaria, for on no oilier supposition can it be accounted for, that the two kingdoms were united in the prophecy (see Isaiah 17:3). The scope or design of the prophecy is indicated in the close Isaiah 17:14 : ‘This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us;’ and one design, at least, was to give an assurance to the kingdom of Judah, that the alliance between Damascus and Samaria was not to be dreaded, but that the kingdom of Judah would be safe. No alliance formed against them would be successful; no purpose to destroy them should be an abject of dread.

The prophecy may be regarded as consisting of three parts.

I. The prediction of the divine judgment against Damascus Isaiah 17:1-2.

II. The prediction respecting Ephraim, the ally of Damascus, and its fulfillment Isaiah 17:3-11.

III. A prediction respecting the Assyrians, and the calamities that should come upon them as a nation Isaiah 17:12-14.

The kingdom of Syria, or Damascus, was overthrown in the fourth year of the reign of Ahaz. It is clear, therefore, that the prophecy was delivered before that time. And if so, its proper place, in the collection of the prophecies of Isaiah: would have been immediately after the ninth chapter. The reason why it is placed here, Lightfoot supposes to be, that in the seventh and eighth chapters the special design was to denounce judgment on the two kingdoms of Damascus and Ephraim; but that the design here was to connect the prediction of those judgments with the surrounding kingdoms, and to show how they would be affected by it. The prophecy is, therefore, placed amidst those which relate to foreign nations; or to kingdoms out of the land of Canaan.

Damascus was a celebrated city of Syria, and was long the capital of the kingdom of Damascus. It was a city in the time of Abraham, for the steward in his house, Eliezer, was said to be of Damascus Genesis 15:2. It is situated in a very fertile plain at the foot of mount Anti-Libanus, and is surrounded by hills. It is watered by a river which the ancients caned “Chrysorrhoas,” as if it flowed with gold. This river was divided into several canals, which were conducted to various parts of the city. It rose in the mountains of Anti-Libanus, and it is probable that the branches of that river were anciently called Abana and Pharpar 2 Kings 5:12. This river is now called the Bar-raday, and the unique beauty and fertility of Damascus is owing wholly to it. It rises in the adjacent mountains of Anti-Libanus, and, by numerous natural and artificial channels, is made to spread over the plain on which the city stands. It waters the whole extent of the gardens - an extent of country about nine miles in diameter, in the midst of which the city is situated - and when this is done, the water that is left flows off to the southeast through the plain, where, amid the arid sands, it is soon absorbed or evaporated, and the river disappears. The gardens are planted with all kinds of trees; mostly such as produce fruit, among which the apricot holds the ascendancy. Pomegranate, orange, lemon, and fig trees abound, and rising above these are other trees of huge proportions, intermingled with the poplar and sometimes the willow. Into every garden of the city water is carried, and this river, thus divided, gives to Damascus the beauty for which it has been so celebrated. The Persian geographers say, that the plain of Damascus is one of the four paradises of the East, and it is now said that there is not in all Syria a more delightful place.

From the time of Abraham until David, the Scripture says nothing of Damascus. In his time it was subdued, and brought under his authority. Toward the end of the reign of Solomon, the authority of the Jews was cast off by Rezin, and Damascus became again independent. Jeroboam, king of Israel, again conquered Damascus, and brought Syria into subjection 2 Kings 14:25; but after his death the Syrians again established their independence. Rezin became king of Damascus, and entered into an alliance with Pekah, king of Israel, and, unitedly, they invaded Judah, and made great havoc in its territories (see the notes at Isaiah 7:0; compare 2 Kings 16:5). Tiglath-pileser, however, king of Assyria, came to the assistance of the king of Judah and took Damascus, and destroyed it, and killed Rezin, and carried the Syrians into captivity beyond the Euphrates. To this event, probably, Isaiah refers in the prophecy before us. He, however, did not foretell its utter and “perpetual” ruin as he did that of Babylon. Damascus again recovered from its calamities. Holofernes again took it (Judith 2:27). It is spoken of as flourishing in the time of Ezekiel Ezekiel 27:2. The Romans took it in the time, and by the agency, of Pompey the Great, about sixty years before Christ. It afterward fell into the hands of the Arabians. It was taken by the Ottomans 1517 a.d.; and has since been in the possession of the Turks. At present, it has a population of about 100,000. The name by which it is now known is “El-Sham.” It is a part of the pashalic of Damascus, which extends to the southern extremity of the Dead Sea. Mehemet Ali of Egypt obtained possession of it without resistance, in June 1832, and since that time it has been under the jurisdiction of his son Ibrahim. It is regarded by Mussulmans as a place of special sanctity. According to them, Mecca has the first place, Jerusalem the next, and Damascus the third.

The prophecy respecting Damascus occupies Isaiah 17:1-11. The general sense is, that Damascus and its allies would be greatly enfeebled and almost destroyed. Its fulfillment is to be referred to the invasion of Damascus by Tiglath-pileser and the Assyrians. The remainder of the chapter Isaiah 17:12-14 is a distinct prophecy (see the notes at Isaiah 17:12).

Verse 1

The burden of Damascus - The oracle indicating calamity or destruction to Damascus (see the note at Isaiah 13:1). “Damascus is taken away.” That is, it shall be destroyed. It was represented to the prophet in vision as destroyed (see the note at Isaiah 1:1).

And it shall be a ruinous heap - See Isaiah 35:2. This took place under the kings of Assyria, and particularly under Tiglath-pileser. This was in the fourth year of Ahaz 2 Kings 16:9.

Verse 2

The cities of Aroer - By “Aroer” here seems to be meant a tract or region of country pertaining to Damascus, in which were situated several cities. Grotius supposes that it was a tract of country in Syria which is called by Ptolemy “Aueira” - Αὔειρα Aueira. Vitringa supposes that one part of Damascus is meant by this, as Damascus was divided by the river in the same manner that Babylon was. There were several cities of the name of “Aroer.” One was on the river Arnon in the land of Moab Deuteronomy 2:36; Deuteronomy 3:12; Joshua 12:3. Burckhardt found this city under the name of Aroer. There was another city of this name further north, over against Rabbath-Ammon Joshua 13:25. There was a third city of this name in the tribe of Judah 1 Samuel 30:28. Of the city of Araayr which Burckhardt visited, nothing is now remarkable but its entire desolation. Gesenius supposes (“Commentary in loc.”) that the phrase ‘the cities of Aroer’ means the cities round about Aroer, and that were connected with it, similar to the phrase ‘daughters of a city.’ This city he supposes was near the river Arnon, within the limits of Moab, and that the prediction here was fufilled by Tiglath-pileser, when he carried away the inhabitants of Galilee, Gilead, and other places mentioned in 2 Kings 15:29. There can be no doubt that it was under the jurisdiction of Damascus.

Are forsaken - Are desolate, and the inhabitants have fled.

They shall be for flocks ... - (See the note at Isaiah 5:17.)

Verse 3

The fortress - The strong place of defense; the fortified place.

Shall cease - Shall come to an end; shall cease to be, for so the word שׁבת shâbath is often used, Genesis 8:22; Isaiah 24:8; Lamentations 5:15.

From Ephraim - The name given to the kingdom of Israel, or to the ten tribes, because Ephraim was the largest of the ten, and was a leading tribe in their councils (see the note at Isaiah 7:2). Ephraim, or the kingdom of Samaria, is mentioned here in connection with Damascus or Syria, because they were confederated together, and would be involved in the same overthrow.

And the remnant of Syria - That which is left of the kingdom of Syria after the capital Damascus shall be destroyed.

They shall be as the glory of the children of Israel - That is, as the defenses, or the strongly fortified towns and fastnesses of the kingdom of Israel shall pass away or be destroyed, so shall it be with the kingdom of Damascus. As they are allied with each other, they shall fare alike. The Chaldee reads this, ‘And the dominion shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus.’

Verse 4

The glory of Jacob - “Jacob” is used here to denote the kingdom of Israel, or Samaria. The word ‘glory’ here denotes dignity, power; that on which they relied, and of which they boasted.

Shall be made thin - Shall be diminished, as a body wastes away by disease, and becomes feeble. The prophet sets forth the calamities of Ephraim by two figures; the first is that of a “body” that becomes emaciated by sickness, the other that of the harvest when all the fruits are gathered except a few in the upper branches Isaiah 17:5-6.

And the fatness his flesh shall wax lean - He shall become feeble, as a man does by wasting sickness. Chaldee, ‘The riches of his glory shall be removed.’

Verse 5

And it shall be ... - This is the other figure by which the prophet sets forth the calamities that were coming upon Ephraim - an image designed to denote the fact that the inhabitants and wealth of the land would be collected and removed, as the farmer gathers his harvest, and leaves only that which is inaccessible in the upper boughs of the tree, or the gleanings in the field.

As when the harvest-man gathereth the corn - The wheat, the barley, etc.; for so the word “corn” - now applied by us almost exclusively to maizes means in the Scriptures. The sense in this passage is plain. As the farmer cuts down and collects his grain and removes it from the harvest field, so the enemies of Ephraim would come and remove the people and their wealth to a distant land. This received a complete fulfillment when the ten tribes were removed by the Assyrians to a distant land. This was done by Tiglath-pileser 2 Kings 15:29, and by Shalmaneser 2 Kings 17:6.

And reapeth the ears with his arm - As he collects the standing grain with one arm so that he can cut it with the sickle in the other hand. The word rendered ‘reapeth’ (קצר qâtsar) means here “to collect together” as a reaper does the standing grain in his arm. The word rendered ‘ears’ (שׁבלים shı̂bălı̂ym) means here rather the spires or stalks of standing grain.

In the valley of Rephaim - The valley of Rephaim is mentioned in 2 Samuel 5:18, 2 Samuel 5:22; 2Sa 23:13; 1 Chronicles 11:15; 1 Chronicles 14:9. The name means ‘the Giants;’ but why it was given to it is now unknown. In passing from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, it lies on the left, and descends gradually to the southwest, until it contracts in that direction into a deeper and narrower valley, called wady el-Werd, which unites further on with wady Ahmed, and finds its way to the Mediterranean. The plain extends nearly to Jerusalem, and is terminated by a slight rocky ridge forming the brow of the valley of Hinnom (see Josephus, “Ant.” vii. 4. 1; viii. 12. 4; also Robinson’s “Bib. Researches,” vol. i. pp. 323, 324). It seem to have been distinguished for its fertility, and is used here to denote a fertile region in general.

Verse 6

Yet gleaning-grapes ... - They shall not all be removed, or destroyed. A “few” shall be left, as a man who is gathering grapes or olives will leave a few that are inaccessible on the topmost boughs, or the furthest branches. Those would be usually the poorest, and so it may be implied that those left in Israel would be among the poorer inhabitants of the land.

Two or three - A very few - such as would be left in gathering grapes, or in endeavoring to shake olives from a tree.

Four or five - A very few that would remain on the furthest branches, and that could not be shaken off or reached.

Verse 7

At that day shall a man look to his Maker - Instead of confiding in their strongly fortified places and armies, they shall look for aid and protection to the God that made them, and who alone can help them. National afflictions and judgments often have the effect to turn the eyes of even a wicked and rebellious people to God. They feel their danger; they are convinced of their guilt; they see that no one but God can protect them; and for a time they are willing, even by humiliation and fasting, to seek the divine protection.

His eyes shall have respect ... - He shall look up to, or regard.

The Holy One of Israel - The God of Israel; the true God. As the Syrians were allied with the kingdom of Samaria or Ephraim, they were, of course, acquainted with the true God, and in some sense acknowledged him. In these times of impending calamity, they would be led to seek him, and implore his aid and protection. There is no reason to believe, however, that they would turn permanently to him, or become his true worshippers.

Verse 8

And he shall not look to the altars - That is, the altars of the gods which the Syrians worshipped, and the altars of the false gods which had been erected in the land of Israel or Samaria by its wicked kings, and particularly by Ahaz. Ahaz fancied an altar which he saw at Damascus when on a visit to Tiglath-pileser, and ordered Urijah the priest to construct one like it in Samaria, on which he subsequently offered sacrifice 2 Kings 16:10-13. It is well known, also, that the kings of Israel and Judah often reared altars to false gods in the high places and the groves of the land (see 2 Kings 21:3-5). The Ephraimites were particularly guilty in this respect Hosea 8:11 : ‘Because Ephraim hath made many altars to sin, altars shall be unto him to sin.’

Which his fingers have made - Perhaps indicating that the idols which they worshipped had been constructed with special art and skill (see Isaiah 2:8).

Either the groves - The altars of idols were usually erected in groves, and idols were worshipped there before temples were raised (see Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; Deuteronomy 12:3; Judges 3:7; 1 Kings 14:23; 1 Kings 18:19; 2 Chronicles 33:3; compare the notes at Isaiah 1:29).

Or the images - Margin, ‘Sun images’ (חמנים chamānı̂ym). This word is used to denote idols in general in Leviticus 26:30; 2 Chronicles 24:4. But it is supposed to denote properly images erected to the sun, and to be derived from חמה chamāh, “the sun.” Thus the word is used in Job 30:28; Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 30:26; Song of Solomon 6:10. The word, according to Gesenius, is of Persian origin (Commentary in loc.) The sun was undoubtedly worshipped by the ancient idolaters, and altars or images would be erected to it (see the notes at Job 31:26).

Verse 9

His strong cities - The cities of the united kingdoms of Damascus and Samaria.

Be as a forsaken bough - There has been much difficulty in the interpretation of this passage. Lowth says, ‘No one has ever been able to make any tolerable sense of these words;’ and proposes himself the translation,

In that day shall his strongly fenced cities become

Like the desertion of the Hivites and the Amorites;

Following in this the translation of the Septuagint, but doing violence to the Hebrew text. Rosenmuller translates it, ‘As the remnant of a grove when the thicket is cut down, and when few trees are left.’ The word rendered ‘bough’ (חרשׁ choresh) means, properly, a thicket, or thick foliage, a wood that is entangled or intricate 1 Samuel 23:15-16, 1 Samuel 23:18; 2 Chronicles 27:4; and probably this is the idea here. The phrase may be rendered, ‘as the leavings or residue of a grove, copse, or entangled wood;’ and the idea is, that as a “few” trees might be left when the axeman cuts down the grove, so a few inferior and smaller towns should be left in the desolation that would come upon Damascus.

And an uppermost branch - Isaiah 17:6. As a few berries are left in the topmost branch of the olive, or the vine, so shall I a few cities or people be left in the general desolation.

Which they left - Which “are” left, or which the invaders would leave.

Because of the children of Israel - literally, ‘from the face,’ that is, before the children of Israel. Lowth supposes that it refers to the Amorites, who left their land before the Israelites, or gave up their land for them. Vitringa renders it, ‘On account of the children of Israel;’ and supposes that it means that a few cities were spared by the purpose of God in the invasion by Tiglath-pileser, to be a residence of the Israelites that should remain; or that, for some reason which is not known, the Assyrians chose to spare a few towns, and not wholly to destroy the country. The “general” idea is plain, that a few towns would be left, and that it would be “before” the children of Israel, or in their presence, or in order that they might continue to dwell in them. Jerome interprets the whole as referring to the time when the land of Judea was forsaken on the invasion of the Romans.

And there shall be desolation - The land shall be desolated, except the few cities and towns that shall be left, like the gleaning of the olive tree.

Verse 10

Because thou ... - Because the kingdom of Israel or Samaria had done it.

The God of thy salvation - The God in whom alone was salvation; or who alone could protect thee (compare Micah 7:7; Hosea 2:15).

The rock of thy strength - God. A rock of strength is a strongly fortified place; or a rock which an enemy could not successfully assail. High rocks were selected as a place of refuge from an invading foe (see the notes at Isaiah 1:10, Isaiah 1:21). In allusion to this, God is often called “a Rock,” and a strong tower Deuteronomy 32:4, Deuteronomy 32:15, Deuteronomy 32:18, Deuteronomy 32:30-31, Deuteronomy 32:37; 1Sa 2:2; 2 Samuel 22:2-3, 2 Samuel 22:32; Psalms 18:31, Psalms 18:46; Psalms 19:14; Psalms 28:1; Psalms 30:1-2.

Shalt thou plant pleasant plants - Plants that are suited to produce pleasure or delight; that is, you shall cultivate your fields, and set them out with choice vines and plants in hope of a future harvest, but you shall be disappointed.

And shall set it with strange slips - The word ‘slips’ means the “cuttings” of the vine that are set in the ground to grow; or the shoot or sucker that is taken off and “set out,” or put in the earth to take root and grow, as is often done by farmers and gardeners. The word ‘strange’ here means “foreign,” those which are procured from a distance, and which are, therefore, esteemed valuable; plants selected with care. This does not mean, as Lowth supposes, strange and idolatrous worship, and the vicious practices connected with it; but it means that, though they should be at great pains and expense in cultivating their land, yet the enemy would come in and make it desolate.

Verse 11

In the day ... - Thou shalt cultivate it assiduously and constantly. Thou shalt be at special pains that it may be watered and pruned, in order that it may produce abundantly.

And in the morning - With early care and attention - denoting the pains that would be bestowed on the young plant.

The harvest shall be a heap - The margin reads this, ‘the harvest shall be removed in the day of inheritance, rendering it as if the word נד nêd usually meaning a heap, were derived from נוד nûd, to shake, move, wander; or, as if it were to be removed. Probably the translation in the text is correct; and the sense is, ‘When from the plant which was so beautiful and valuable, and which you cherished with so much care, you expected to obtain a rich harvest, you had only sorrow and inexpressible disappointment.’ The figure used here is supposed by Rosenmuller to be that of hendiadys (ἕν διὰ δυοῖν hen dia duoin)by which the phrases ‘shall be an heap,’ and ‘desperate sorrow,’ are to be taken together, meaning ‘the heap of the harvest shall be inexpressible sorrow.’

In the day of grief - The word rendered ‘grief’ here (נחלה nachălâh) means, properly, “inheritance, heirship, possession,” and should have been so rendered here. It means that in the day when they “hoped” to possess the result of their planting, or in the time of the usual harvest, they would obtain only grief and disappointment.

And desperate sorrow - The word rendered ‘desperate’ (אנשׁ 'ânash), denotes that which is “weak, mortal, incurable” Job 34:6; Jeremiah 17:16; Jeremiah 30:12, Jeremiah 30:15. The sense here is, that there would be grievous disappointment, and that there would be no remedy for it; and the idea of the whole is, that calamities were coming upon the nation which would blast all their hopes, and destroy all their prospects. The prophecy was fulfilled in the invasion by Tiglath-pileser, and the army of the Assyrians.

The twelfth verse commences a new prophecy, which has no connection with that which precedes it; and which in itself gives no certain indication of the time when it was uttered, or of the people to which it relates. It is a broken and detached piece, and is evidently the description of some army rushing to conquest, and confident of success, but which was to be overtaken with sudden calamity. The entire description is so applicable to the invasion of the land of Judah by the army of Sennacherib, and his overthrow by the angel of Yahweh, that by the common consent of interpreters it has been regarded as referring to it (see the notes at Isaiah 10:0). But when it was spoken, or why it was placed here, is unknown. It may be added that many commentators, and, among the rest, Gesenius, have supposed that the following chapter is a part of this prophecy. The general sense of the prophecy is, that numerous hostile nations would overrun Palestine, but that Yahweh would destroy them all.

Verse 12

Wo to the multitude ... - The word ‘woe’ (הוי hôy) may be either an interjection simply directing the attention to them, or it may be a word indicating approaching calamity and judgment (see the note at Isaiah 5:6). Gesenius supposes that it is rather the language of compassion, on account of the evil which they threatened to bring upon the people of God, like 1 Kings 13:30, ‘Ah! wo, my brother!’

The multitude of many people - Or, the tumult of many nations - a description of the noise attending an invading army made up of many nations mingled together, such as was that of Sennacherib.

Which make a noise ... - This is a beautiful description of a vast army, and of the shouting, the tumult, the din, which attends its march. The same comparison occurs in Jeremiah 6:23; Psalms 65:7 (see Ezekiel 43:2; Revelation 1:15; Revelation 14:2; Revelation 19:6).

And to the rushing of nations - The rushing of mighty armies to conquest.

Verse 13

God shall rebuke them - The word ‘God’ is not here in the original, but is evidently to be supplied. The word ‘rebuke’ means that he would disarrange their plans, prevent their success, and defeat their purposes. It shows the great power of God, that he can thus by a “rebuke” - a word - arrest mighty nations, and discomfit thom when they are tumultuously hastening onward in the confidence of victory. This discomfiture refers, doubtless, to the overthrow of Sennacherib and his army by the pestilence (2 Kings 19:35; see the notes at Isaiah 37:36).

And they shall flee far off - The whole army of Sennacherib was not destroyed, but a part with himself returned to Assyria 2 Kings 19:36.

And shall be chased as the chaff ... - Denoting the case with which God would do it, and the certain and entire discomfiture of the army. The figure is one that is very striking in describing an army that is routed, and that flees in disorder (compare Job 21:18; Psalms 1:4; Psalms 35:5; Isaiah 29:5; Hosea 13:3).

And like a rolling thing - Margin, ‘Thistle-down.’ It means, literally, anything that “rolls” (גלגל galgal, from גלל gâlal, to roll). It is applied to chaff, stubble, or anything that is driven about by a whirlwind Psalms 83:14.

Verse 14

At evening-tide trouble - In the time of evening - that is, in the night.

Before the morning he is not - That is, he is destroyed. This is strikingly descriptive of the destruction of the army of Sennacherib on that fatal night when the angel of the Lord killed 185,000 men (see the note at Isaiah 37:36).

This is the portion of them that spoil us - Of those who would plunder us. This is a “general” declaration in regard to the enemies of the Jewish people. This is the lot, the end, the destiny of all who attempt to destroy them. That is, the people of God shall be safe whoever rises up against them; and whatever may be the number, or the power of their foes, they shall be overthrown.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 17". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.