Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 17

Calvin's Commentary on the BibleCalvin's Commentary

Verse 1

1.The burden of Damascus. Here he prophesies against the kingdom of Syria, and mentions the chief city in which the seat of the kingdom lay. It was proper that this calamity, like others which came before it, should be described, that the righteous might confidently believe that God would one day assist them, and would not always permit them to be oppressed by the wicked without end. The king of Syria had formed an alliance with Israel against Judah, as we saw formerly in the seventh chapter; and as the Jews were not able to contend with him, and were deprived of other aids, they might also entertain doubts about God’s assistance, as if he had utterly abandoned them. To free them, therefore, from these doubts, he threatens the destruction of that kingdom, from which they would readily conclude that God fought in defense of his people.

It is uncertain at what time Isaiah uttered this prophecy, for, as I have already remarked, he does not follow the order of time in threatening against each nation the punishment which it deserved. But, as far as I am able to conjecture, he foretold those events at the time when those two kings, that is, the kings of Israel and Syria, invaded Judea, and entered into a league to destroy it and the whole Church, (Isaiah 7:1;) for, by joining together the Israelites and the Syrians, he summons them to a mutual judgment, in order to show that the only advantage which they had derived from the wicked and disgraceful conspiracy was, to be involved in the same destruction. In this manner Isaiah intended to comfort godly persons who were of the tribe of Judah; for he has his eye chiefly on them, that they may not be discouraged, and not on the Syrians, or even the Israelites, whose destruction he foretells.

Behold, Damascus is taken away. The demonstrative particle, Behold, seals the certainty of the prophecy. When he expressly mentions Damascus, it does not follow from this that the other parts of the kingdom are exempted, but it was customary with the prophets to take a part for the whole, so as to include under the destruction of the metropolis the fate of the whole nation; for what must ordinary towns expect when the citadel of the kingdom has been stormed? Yet there is another reason why the Prophets pronounce heavier threatenings on the chief and royal cities, and especially direct their discourse against them. It is, because a polluted flood of crimes overflows from them into the whole country.

Verse 2

2.The cities of Aroer are forsaken. It is not probable that Aroer here denotes the city which is mentioned elsewhere, (Numbers 32:34;) but it is rather the name of a country. He draws the picture of a country which has been ruined; for he shews that those places in which cities had been built will be devoted to pasture, and that no habitation will be left there but huts and shepherds’ tents; for if any inhabitants remained, the shepherds would drive their flocks to some other place.

Verse 3

3.The fortress shall cease. (4) He points out the reason why the Lord determines to cut off the kingdom of Syria. Amos (Amos 1:3) enumerates additional reasons, but the most important was that which the Prophet mentions, namely, that they had drawn the kingdom of Israel to their side for the purpose of making war against the Jews. The Israelites were undoubtedly allured, by the blandishments of the Syrians, to form an alliance with them against their brethren. It was a pretext exceedingly fitted to impose upon them, that the Syrians would aid them against all their enemies; and hence also the Israelites placed confidence in the forces and power of the Syrians to such an extent, that they reckoned themselves able to oppose any adversary. All Israel is here, as in many other passages, denoted by the name Ephraim, which was the chief tribe of that people. Now, “the assistance and kingdom” are said to “cease” from any place, when its strength is broken and its rank is thrown down.

And the remnant of Syria. That is, both of these nations, the Syrians and the Israelites, shall be brought to nothing; and, for the purpose of giving additional weight to the prophecy, he states that it is God who declares it; for he immediately adds these words, saith Jehovah of hosts Now, when the Lord punished so severely those two kingdoms, he unquestionably promoted in this way the benefit of his Church, delivering it by the destruction of its enemies. And, indeed, in destroying both nations, he employed as his agents the Assyrians, to whom even the Jews had applied; and although in this respect they had heinously sinned, yet their offense did not hinder the Lord from promoting the benefit of his Church, or from delivering it by bringing its enemies into conflict with each other. Hence we perceive how great is the care which God exercises over us, since he does not spare even the greatest kingdoms in order to preserve us. We ought also to observe, that though all the wicked enter into a league, and join hands to destroy us, yet the Lord will easily rescue us from their jaws. Besides, we ought to remark that it is advantageous to us to be deprived of earthly aids, on which it is in vain for us to rely in opposition to God; for when we are blinded by our prosperity, we flatter ourselves, and cannot hear the voice of God. It therefore becomes necessary to remove these obstructions, that we may perceive our helplessness, as was the case with the Israelites, who were bereft of their aid after Syria had been destroyed.

(4)Le secours venant d’Ephraim cessara;” — “The assistance coming from Ephraim shall cease.”

FT262Sera diminué;” — “Shall be made thin.” — Eng. Ver.

FT263 “‘Like the leaving of the ploughed field, or on the topmost bough.’ I adopt with pleasure the interpretation of this disputed passage proposed in the excellent Lexicon of Parkhurst, v.חרש as being most natural, and in strict conformity with the Jewish law, Leviticus 19:9; Deuteronomy 24:19; which commanded ‘a leaving of the ploughman, and of the branches of the vine and olive,’ to be given up to the use of the poor in harvest. Avarice would be apt to make these leavings very scanty.” — Bishop Stock.

FT264 Whom they left. — Eng. Ver.

FT265 Woe to the multitude. — Eng. Ver.

FT266Mais il me semble plustost qu’il se prend ici pour Helas.” — “But I rather think that here it stands for Alas!”

FT267Toutes les fois donc que nous voyous les merchans avoir la bride sur le col pour nous ruiner.” “Whenever then we see the wicked have the bridle on their neck to ruin us.”

FT268 “And like the gossamer before the whirlwind.” — Lowth. “And like thistle-down before the storm.” — Stock.

Verse 4

4.The glory of Jacob shall be diminished. (5) Although he had undertaken to speak of Syria and Damascus, he takes occasion to join Israel with the Syrians, because they were bound by a mutual league, and were united in the same cause. The Syrians, indeed, whom Isaiah chiefly addresses, were like a torch to inflame the Israelites, as we have already said. But the Israelites themselves were equally in fault, and therefore they were justly drawn, by what might be called a mutual bond, to endure the same punishment.

It is not easy to say whether under the name Jacob he speaks of the whole elect people, so as to include also the tribe of Judah. But it is probable that he refers only to the ten tribes, who laid claim to the name of the nation, and that it is in mockery that he describes them as glorious, because, being puffed up with their power and multitude and allies, they despised the Jews their brethren.

And the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean. When he next threatens them with leanness, his object is to reprove their indolence, as the Prophets frequently reprove them for their fatness (Jeremiah 5:28.) On account of their prosperity and of the fertility of the country, they became proud, as horses that are fat and excessively pampered grow restive. Hence also they are elsewhere called “fat cows” (Amos 4:1). But however fierce and stubborn they might be, God threatens that he will take away their fatness with which they were puffed up.

(5) Bogus footnote

Verse 5

5.And it shall be as when the harvest-man gathereth the corn. He shews by a comparison how great will be the desolation. “As the reapers,” he says, “gather the corn in armfuls, so this multitude, though large and extended, will be mowed down by the enemies.” Now that he may not leave a remainder, he adds that at the conclusion of the harvest the ears will be gleaned, as if he had said, that when the multitude shall have been destroyed and the country laid bare like a field which has been reaped, even the shaken and scattered ears will not be left. Besides, he employs the metaphor of a harvest because the people, trusting to their great number, dreaded nothing; but as the reapers are not terrified by the large quantity of the corn, so he declares that their vast number will not prevent God from utterly destroying them. This may also refer to the Assyrians, but the meaning will be the same, for they were God’s servants in executing this vengeance.

We need not spend much time in explaining the word gather, for it means nothing else than that the slaughter will resemble a harvest, the conclusion of which has been followed by the gleaning of the ears. When the ten tribes had been carried away, the Assyrians, having learned that they were meditating a revolution, destroyed them also (2 Kings 17:4). He especially mentions the valley of Rephaim, because its fertility was well known to the Israelites.

Verse 6

6.Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it. This metaphor has a different meaning from the former; for as if the name of the nation were to be entirely blotted out, he had expressly foretold that nothing would be left after the slaughter. He now adds a consolation, and thus abates the severity of the destruction; for he declares that, although the enemies had resolved to consume and destroy everything, still some remnant would be left. In like manner the gleaning of grapes is never made so completely as not to allow some grapes or even clusters to remain, which were concealed under the leaves, and the olive tree is never so thoroughly shaken as not to leave at least some olives on the tops of the trees. Consequently, to whatever extent the enemies may rage, and even the vengeance of God may be kindled, still he foretells that the Judge, notwithstanding his severity, will reserve for himself a small number, and will not allow the attacks of enemies to fall upon his own elect.

Hence it follows, that amidst the heaviest vengeance there will still be room for mercy. The present discourse relates to the posterity of Abraham; and though they had revolted from God so as to deserve to be cast off, yet the goodness of God rose above their wickedness. They had indeed rendered themselves unworthy of such goodness, but the covenant of God must remain firm and impregnable, and a proof of that firmness must be given by him in some remnant, though the nation entirely set it aside as far as lay in their power. This ought to be carefully observed, so that when we perceive no traces of the Church, and when the godly appear to be destroyed, still we may not think that the Church has perished; for the promise of the Lord stands, that it will continue for ever (Genesis 17:7). Some remnant, therefore, will always remain, though frequently it is not visible to our eyes.

Verse 7

7.At that day shall a man look to his Maker. He now shews the fruit of this chastisement, and this is the second consolation with which the godly ought to fortify themselves amidst their afflictions. Although they perceive nothing but the wrath of God, yet they ought to reflect that the Lord, who never forgets himself, will continually preserve his Church, and not only so, but that the chastisements will be advantageous to them. After having spoken, therefore, about the continual existence of the Church, he next adds, that men will look to God This is the most desirable of all, for when men betake themselves to God, the world, which was formerly disordered, is restored to its proper order; but when we have been estranged from him, no one repents of his own accord, and therefore there is no other way in which we can be brought back than to be driven by the scourge of chastisements. We are thus reminded that we ought not to be so impatient in enduring chastisements, which cure us of the fearfully dangerous disease of apostasy.

To look to God means nothing else than that, when we have turned away, we return to a state of favor with him, betake ourselves and are converted to him. For how comes it that men abandon themselves to every kind of wickedness but because they forget God? Where the knowledge of God exists, there reverence dwells; where forgetfulness of God is found, there contempt of him also prevails. Yet this relates properly to faith, as if he had said, “When chastisements so severe shall have tamed the Israelites, they will then perceive that there is no help for them but in God.” For this reason he immediately adds the expression, To his Maker. It was indeed a proof of abominable indolence that they did not rely on God alone, who had bestowed on them so many precious gifts. The Prophet therefore says, that when they had been subdued by distresses and afflictions, they would afterwards return to a sound mind, so as to begin to hope in him who had bound them to himself by so many acts of kindness. And indeed he calls God their Maker, not as having created the whole human race, but in the same sense in which he likewise calls him The Holy One of Israel. Although therefore all men were created after the image of God, (Genesis 1:27), yet Israel was peculiarly his workmanship, because he was his heritage, and his holy and chosen people (Exodus 19:6). This repetition, in accordance with the ordinary custom of the Hebrew language, is employed to denote the same thing. He therefore calls God Holy, not only as viewed in himself, but from the effect produced, because he has sanctified or separated to himself the children of Abraham. Hence it follows, that the creation which he speaks of must be understood to relate to spiritual reformation, in reference to which he is especially called the Maker of Israel (Isaiah 45:11; Hosea 8:14).

Verse 8

8.And he shall not look to the altars. This contrast shews more clearly that the looking which he spoke of in the former verse relates strictly to hope and confidence, for he says that every kind of sinful confidence will vanish away when men have learned to hope in God; and indeed in no other manner can any one obtain clear views of God than by driving far from him all superstitions. We are thus taught that obstacles of this kind ought to be removed if we wish to approach to God. It is vain to think of making a union between God and idols, as the Papists do, and as the Jews formerly did; for that vice is not peculiar to our age, but has prevailed in all ages. Every obstruction ought therefore to be removed, that we may look to God with such earnestness as to have just and clear views of him, and to put our trust in him.

The work of his hands. It is for the purpose of exciting abhorrence that he calls the false gods the work of their hands, that the Israelites, being ashamed of their folly, may shake off and drive away from them such a disgraceful reproach. On this vice, however, he dwells the more largely, because they were more chargeable with it than with any other, and because none can be more abominable in the sight of God. There were innumerable superstitions among them, and in places without number they had set up both idols and altars, so that Isaiah had good reason for reproving and expostulating with them at great length on account of these crimes.

It might be objected that the altar at Jerusalem was also built by men, and therefore they ought to forsake it in order to approach to God. (Exodus 27:1). I reply, that altar was widely different from others, for although it consisted of stone and mortar, silver and gold, and was made like others by the agency of men, yet we ought not to look at the materials or the workmanship, but at God himself who was the maker, for by his command it was built. We ought therefore to consider the essential form, so to speak, which it received from the word of God; other matters ought not to be taken into view, since God alone is the architect. (Exodus 20:24; Deuteronomy 27:5). Other altars, though they bore some resemblance to it, should be abhorred, because they had not the authority of the word. Such is the estimate which we ought to form of every kind of false worship, whatever appearance of sanctity it may assume; for God cannot approve of anything that is not supported by his word.

Verse 9

9.In that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough. He follows out what he had begun to say about driving out the inhabitants of the country; and as the Israelites, trusting to their fortified cities and to their bulwarks, thought that they were in safety, he threatens that they will be of no more use than if enemies were marching through desert places. The view entertained by some, that חורש (chōrĕsh) and עזובתzūbăth) (6) are proper names of towns, is a forced interpretation. I understand them rather to denote unpleasant and disagreeable places, or that the walls and ditches will contribute no more to their defense than if the Israelites dwelt amidst thickets and bushes.

As they left. (7) Here the particle אשר, (asher,) I have no doubt, denotes comparison; and therefore I have rendered it in like manner as, which makes the statement of the Prophet to be, in connection with what had been already said, that the people would tremble and flee and be scattered, in the same manner as God had formerly driven out the ancient inhabitants. Those who think that אשר, (asher,) is a relative are constrained to supply something, and to break up the thread of the discourse. But it simply brings to their remembrance an ancient example, that the Israelites may perceive how vain and deceitful is every kind of defense that is opposed to the arm of God. It is a severe reproach; for the Israelites did not consider that the Lord gave to them that land, as it were, by hereditary right, in order that they might worship him, and that he drove out their enemies to put them in possession of it. And now, by their ingratitude, they rendered themselves unworthy of so great a benefit; and, consequently, when they had been deprived of it, there was good reason why they should feel distresses which were the reverse of their former blessings.

This passage will be made more plain by the writings of Moses, whom the prophets follow; for in the promises he employs this mode of expression, “One of you shall chase a thousand,” (Leviticus 26:8; Joshua 23:10), and in the threatenings, on the other hand, he says, “One shall chase a thousand of you.” (Deuteronomy 32:30.) Accordingly, as he struck such terror into the Canaanites, that at the sight of the Israelites they immediately fled, so he punished the ingratitude of the people in such a manner that they had no power to resist. Thus the Lord gave a display of his power in two ways, both in driving out the Canaanites and in punishing his people. The Prophet, therefore, by mentioning that ancient kindness, reproaches the people with ingratitude, forgetfulness, and treachery, that they may acknowledge that they are justly punished, and may perceive that it proceeds from the Lord, that they are thus chased by the enemies to whom they were formerly a terror.

(6) Bogus footnote

(7) Bogus footnote

Verse 10

10.Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation. He shews the reason why the Lord exercises such severity against the Ten Tribes, that they may not complain of being unjustly afflicted or too harshly treated. The sum of what is stated is, that all those evils come to them because they have wickedly despised God. It was excessively base and altogether inexcusable ingratitude, after having received so many favors, to prostitute their hopes to heathen nations and to idols, as if they had never in any respect experienced the love of God. Indeed, no unbelievers, when they are called to account, will vindicate themselves from the charge of offering an insult to God by wandering after creatures. But the argument was applicable, in a special manner, to the people of Israel, to whom God had revealed himself in such a manner that they ought to have left off all the impostures of the world and relied on his grace alone. They are therefore justly accused of ingratitude, for having buried in forgetfulness the object of true faith; and indeed, when God has once allowed us to taste the delight of his goodness, if it gain a place in our hearts, we shall never be drawn away from it to anything else. Hence it follows that they are convicted of ingratitude who, not being satisfied with the true God, are unsteady and driven about in all directions; for in this manner they despise his invaluable grace.

Accordingly, the Prophet expressly calls him the God of salvation and the God or Rock of strength צור (tsūr) has both significations; for it was a monstrous thing that they were not kept in fidelity to God, who had so often preserved them, and, as it were, with an outstretched hand. When he adds that they had not been mindful, this is an amplification; for he indirectly charges them with base slothfulness in not considering in how many ways they had formerly been made to know the kindness of God.

Therefore thou shalt plant. Next follows the punishment, that they might not think that this ingratitude would remain unpunished. That is, because they forsook the fountain of all good, though they labor to obtain food, yet they will be consumed by famine and hunger; for all that shall be obtained with great labor the enemy will either carry away or destroy. This passage is taken from Moses; for it is a curse pronounced amidst other curses.

“The fruit of thy land, and all thy labors, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up.” (Deuteronomy 28:33).

Hence we see what I have often mentioned before, that the prophets borrow many things from Moses, and are the true interpreters of the law. He speaks of choice vines and branches taken from them; because the greatness of the loss aggravates the sorrow.

Verse 11

11.In the day. This denotes the incessant labor which is bestowed on plants and seeds. Yet we might understand by it the fruit which is yielded, as if a vine newly planted would immediately produce wine. And this agrees with the next clause, in which the morning is put for the day. This appears to denote sudden maturity, unless perhaps this also be supposed to denote carefulness, because from the very earliest dawn they will devote themselves to labor.

The words are somewhat ambiguous; for some render them, “the removing of the branch on the day of affliction.” But as נחלח (năchălāh) means “an inheritance,” here, in my opinion, it literally denotes produce. It is not derived from חלה (chālāh,) and I do not see how the word “Branch” agrees with it. I grant, indeed, that as vines are mentioned, the word Harvest is employed (καταχρηστικῶς) differently from its natural meaning.

It might also be rendered a Collector; and yet I do not choose to dispute keenly about those two significations, for the meaning will be the same, provided that נחלח (nāchălāh) be understood to denote “the gathering of the fruits.” In this way the passage will flow easily enough. “Though you labor hard in dressing the vines, and though you begin your toil at the earliest dawn, you will gain nothing; for by the mere shaking of the branches the fruit will fall off of its own accord, or your vines will be plundered.” Thus, by a figure of speech in which a part is taken for the whole, the word plant denotes that unwearied toil which husbandmen and vine-dressers are wont to bestow on plants and vines.

This is a very severe punishment, and undoubtedly proceeds from the curse of God; for if he who has no possession be driven out and banished from a country, he will not be rendered so uneasy as the man who has well cultivated fields, and particularly if he has bestowed his labor on them for a long time. In this manner the Lord determined to punish the Israelites, because they abused the fertility of the country and grew wanton amidst their abundance. A similar punishment is also threatened against the wicked in general terms, that “in vain do they rise early, and vex themselves with unremitted toil;” for they gain nothing by it. (Psalms 127:2). On the other hand, it is declared that they who trust in the Lord will undoubtedly receive the reward of their toil, for the blessing of God will accompany their labors. (Psalms 128:2).

Verse 12

12.Alas (8) for the multitude! Some render Woe, making it to denote execration. Sometimes, as we have seen elsewhere, it is employed in calling to a person; but on the present occasion I rather think that it betokens sorrow, (9) for he groans on account of the calamity which he foresees will befall Israel, and he does so either out of brotherly affection, or in order that the prophecy may make a more powerful impression on the minds of a sluggish and indolent people. It is certain, that the prophets regarded with greater horror than other men the vengeance of God, of which they were the heralds; and although, in sustaining the character assigned to them, they threatened severely, still they never laid aside human feelings, so as not to have compassion on those who perished. But the chief reason was a consideration of the covenant which God had made with the seed of Abraham; and we see that Paul also had this feeling to such an extent, that he “wished to be accursed for his brethren.” (Romans 9:3). When therefore Isaiah brings the fact before his mind, he cannot but be deeply affected with grief; and yet, as I have hinted, it tends to make the fact more certain, when he places it before his eyes as if he actually saw it.

The word multitude is here employed, because the army had been collected out of many and various nations, of which the Assyrian monarchy was composed. The metaphors which he adds are intended for no other purpose than to exhibit more forcibly what has been already stated; for he compares them to a sea or a deluge, which overflows a whole country.

(8) Bogus footnote

(9) Bogus footnote

Verse 13

13.The nations shall rush. Although he appears to follow out that threatening, which he formerly uttered, yet he begins to comfort believers by repeating the same statement, as if we should say, “They who were unmindful of God must be punished for their wicked revolt, and must be, as it were, overwhelmed by a deluge; but the Lord will restrain this savage disposition of the enemies, for, when they have exercised their cruelty, he shall find a method of casting them out and driving them away.” This is a remarkable consolation, by which he intended to support the remnant of the godly. Nor does he speak of the Jews only, as is commonly supposed, for hitherto he has addressed his discourse to the ten tribes, and it is certain that there were still left in Israel some who actually feared God, and who would have despaired if they had not been upheld by some promise.

By these metaphors he describes dreadful storms and tempests. When the Holy Spirit intends to bring comfort to the godly, he holds out those objects which are wont to terrify and discourage the minds of men, that we may learn that God will easily allay all tempests, however violent and dreadful. As the winds and seas and storms are at his command, so it is easy for him to restrain enemies and their violence; and therefore immediately afterwards he compares the Assyrians to chaff.

As the chaff of the mountains before the wind. Although with regard to the Israelites their attack was terrible, yet he shews that before God they will be like chaff, for without any effort he will scatter all their forces. Hence it follows that we ought not to judge of their resources and strength by our senses. Whenever therefore we see the restraints laid on the wicked withdrawn, (10) that they may rush forward for our destruction, let us indeed consider that, so far as lies in ourselves, we are ruined, but that God can easily frustrate their attacks. גלגל (galgal) means a rolling thing, (11) which is easily driven by the wind.

(10) Bogus footnote

(11) Bogus footnote

Verse 14

14.And, behold, at evening tide trouble. The meaning is, “As when a storm has been raised in the evening, and soon afterwards allayed, no trace of it is found in the morning, so will cheerful prosperity suddenly arise, contrary to expectation.” The Prophet intended to state two things — first, that the attack of the enemy will be sudden; and secondly, that the ravages which they shall commit will not be of long duration. As the Assyrians rose suddenly against the Israelites, so their fall was sudden.

From this passage all the godly ought to draw wonderful consolation, whenever they see that everything is in disorder, and when dreadful changes are at hand; for what is it but a sudden storm which the Lord will allay? Tyrants rush upon us like storms and whirlwinds, but the Lord will easily dispel their rage. Let us therefore patiently wait for his assistance; for though he permit us to be tossed about, yet through the midst of the tempests he will at length conduct us “to the haven.” (Psalms 107:30.) And if the Prophet comforted a small remnant, who appeared to be almost none at all, this promise undoubtedly belongs to us also. True, we are almost none, and a wretched church is concealed in a few corners; but if we look at the condition of the kingdom of Israel, how few were the servants of God in it! And these hardly ventured to mutter, such was the universal hatred of religion and godliness. Although therefore the Lord destroy the multitude of the wicked, yet to the small number of the godly, who may be said to be tossed about in the same ship with them, he will hold out a plank to rescue them from shipwreck, and will guide them safely and comfortably into the harbour.

This is the portion. He addresses the believers who were concealed in the kingdom of Israel, and joins them with the Church, although, as is frequently the case with the children of God, the members were scattered in every direction. We see here what will be the end of the wicked who have persecuted us. Though we are exposed to their rage, so that they tear and plunder and trample upon us, and inflict on us every kind of insult, yet they will be like storms which are subdued by their own violence and quickly disappear. We ought to expect that this will be the lot of all the tyrants who at the present day wretchedly harass the Church, and treat cruelly the children of God. Let this consolation be engraved on our minds, that we may know that the same thing will happen to them.

Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Isaiah 17". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.