March 26 2006 Copyright
© 2006, American Journal of Biblical Theology
Roman Ruins, Damascus
The date is between 735 - 732 B.C. The northern nation of Israel has wandered far from its covenant roots that were founded at Mt. Sinai. Rebelling against Rehoboam, king of Judah, grandson of David, the non-Judean tribes broke away and formed this northern kingdom of Israel. The faithful remnant remained in Judah when Israel was formed, leaving the northern kingdom in the hands of ungodly and pagan kings. The holy shrines at Bethel and Dan had become places of pagan worship. The two nations of Judah and Israel had turned from God and chose to govern themselves in the manner of their neighboring countries, anointing kings to rule over themselves. These kings entered into alliances with their warring neighbors, sweeping them into their wars and conflicts. By 730 B.C., Israel chose to consummate an alliance with pagan Damascus in order to avoid being overrun by the giant nation of Assyria, and by doing so chose sides in Assyria's conflicts with Babylon and Ethiopia/Egypt, the other two large militant nations in the region. The southern nation of Judah refused to enter into this alliance against Assyria, prompting Damascus to attack Judah. Israel is standing with Damascus against Judah in what is known as the Syro-Ephraimite war.
The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.
The word translated, "burden" is frequently translated "oracle," and the content of Isaiah's writing is probably best described as a combination of the two. "Oracle" implies a prophesy, and "burden" describes the nature of that prophesy: a deep and dramatic loss. In his writings, Isaiah teaches of the impending destruction of both Israel and Judah that is the direct result of their rejection of their covenant with God: if they would obey and worship Him and Him alone, God would preserve them in the land of promise. However, they have continually turned from God for approximately 700 years, and they have chosen to remove themselves from God's hand of protection, and seek protection in their alliances with pagan nations. With God's hand removed, it is only a matter of time until these tiny and nearly powerless nations are swept up in the conquests of their large neighbors.
However, Isaiah does not limit his prophesy to the children of Israel. Beginning in Chapter 13, Isaiah writes oracles to Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, and Moab. These nations, like Aram and Damascus it's capitol, had made no covenant with God. What is their accountability towards God? When we look at the contrast between Judah and the pagan nations, we may see a social parallel that exists today in the contrast between Christians and those who have rejected God. The accountability of Christians to God as their Lord is moot. What is the accountability towards God of those who reject His offer of grace? Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (1:20) that God has revealed Himself to all people, and there is consequently no excuse for rejecting Him.
Israel has chosen to put its trust in Damascus, rather than in God. Having rejected God, the doom for Damascus is the same as that of Judah and Israel: God's hand of protection is removed from a people who could have turned to Him in faith. As a city, Damascus formed around the time of King Solomon, so by this time Damascus is grown for about 400 years into one of the largest cities in the region. The city is large enough that it is trying to stand up against Assyria on its own strength and that of the neighbors to the west that it can conquer: Israel and Judah. With it's sights set on the conquest of Judah, Isaiah announces the consequence of Damascus' arrogance (cf. 5:7, 25:2). A time will be coming when Damascus will be destroyed. Damascus will be nothing more than a heap of ashes.
The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
The arrogance of Damascus will bring destruction not only upon itself, but upon the other cities that look upon it for protection. Aroer is mentioned in several Old Testament passages. "Aroer" literally means "ruins," and its plural usage here probably refers to a cluster of cities. Such cities tended to form around larger cities that the smaller use for commerce and protection, like suburban areas today. The downfall of Damascus will be shared by its surrounding cities.
The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus, and the remnant of Syria: they shall be as the glory of the children of Israel, saith the LORD of hosts.
Israel's choice to form an alliance with the doomed Damascus will be one of its final acts as a nation. Israel had no military fortress, so by allying with Damascus, Israel hoped that this city would protect it against the growing threat of Assyria. When Damascus falls, Israel will fall with it, along with all that is left of Aram, the remnant of Syria. Considering the 400-year history of the northern kingdom of Israel, its fall is quite imminent. Damascus fell to Assyria in 732 B.C., very shortly after this prophesy, and Israel fell to Assyria only 10 years later.
And in that day it shall come to pass, that the glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean. 5And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; and it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim. 6Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it, as the shaking of an olive tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost fruitful branches thereof, saith the LORD God of Israel.
"In that day" contains a hit of eschatological judgment. The honor that was once attributed to the nation of Israel will be gone. The end of Israel will be much like the content of the field at harvest time. As a nation, Israel grew from a small seed and had the potential to produce a huge bounty. It is estimated that the time from the birth of Jacob's children to the exile is about 1200 years. If a community of 12 married couples (sons of Israel) are subject to a very conservative pattern of human population growth (1.3 surviving children per adult with average mortality rates), the population of Israel would have grown to over 25 million by the time of the exile. However, the estimated population of Israel and Judah at the time of the exile is far less than this, more in the order of 2 million. This illustrates the extent that Israel assimilated into the pagan culture. As Isaiah illustrates Israel's development as that of a growing harvest, it is quite evident that the harvest itself was not particularly bountiful. Furthermore, the gleaning that Isaiah describes is one of harvesting the apostate, those who have rejected the covenant with God. The gleaning of Israel took place in two passes over the field. First, Assyria destroyed Israel in 722 B.C., and then Babylon destroyed Judah in 587 B.C. Isaiah speaks of the remnant of fruit that is left behind, the two or three berries left in the upper bough, four or five in the outermost branches. This is the remnant of faithful that remained in Judah when it was overrun by Babylon, and many of these were protected by king Nebuchadnezzar when he took them into captivity.
At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. 8And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect that which his fingers have made, either the groves, or the images.
When Judah was destroyed by Babylon, the response of the Judeans was nothing less than astonishment. They felt that that Jerusalem was invincible because God was in the temple. To defeat Jerusalem was to them (and their enemies) defeat their God. They experienced an ignorant security in their fortress walls that they had made with their own hands. They had no idea that they could ever lose those things that they had built, whether it be the altars to their pagan gods, the icons they made, or even the commodities they had produced. Isaiah states that when Israel falls, there will be those who will turn back to God. There will be some who will restore their honor and respect for the Holy One of Israel, looking back again to Him for their security instead of looking to the things of this world.
The Jews came to define their righteousness by the things that they did and the things that they made with their own hands. Some thought that they were righteous simply because they were sons of Abraham. Some thought their righteousness came from their attempt at keeping Mosaic law. Some found their righteousness in the worshipping of icons and images to which they gave an authority greater than themselves. This describes today's culture where people think they are good by keeping to some rule of law, some think they are good because they are members of a good family, or members of a good church. Some still put their trust in things made by man, whether it be the worshipping of icons and images, or if their security is simply found in the hoarding of wealth. The only source of righteousness given to man is that found when one places their faith and trust in God, and in Him alone. The 11th chapter of Hebrews clearly describes how even the patriarchs of the Old Testament were justified by their faith, and not by their works. Isaiah describes the time when some of the Jews will realize this. This is a realization that will come to all people when they come before God at the end of their life on this earth. Will they come before God having placed their trust in the things of this earth, or have they placed their trust in God?
9In that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch, which they left because of the children of Israel: and there shall be desolation. 10Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips: 11In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: but the harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow.
Israel did not have to build the cities when they entered the Canaanite land of promise. They did not have to plant the fields. When they entered, these were already there, and they simply took them over. When the judgment for their apostasy comes, these cities will be desolate. That which God gave them will be taken away. The blessings that they experience in this world, even in their disobedience, will be lost. Why? By rejecting God, they had no reason to acknowledge that these were a blessing from God. They did not look on the cities and see a gift of God, for they were not mindful of God at all. They experienced the blessings from God without acknowledging that they came from Him. Again, this is a model that is consistent with today's world. Across the world people experience the blessings that this earth provides, whether it be the bounty of crops, the accumulation of wealth, the bounty of loving relationships, or anything else that God has provided. Yet across the world very few people truly acknowledge that all of these blessings come from God, and most people fail to place their faith and trust in Him. Like the ancient Israelites, they follow after other gods, gods of man's fabrication as they embrace the myriad of world religions that reject the truth of God's word. For these, the harvest will be a heap of grief and sorrow when they come before the judgment and be found faithless.
1Woe to the multitude of many people, which make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, that make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters! 13The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but God shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind. 14And behold at eveningtide trouble; and before the morning he is not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us.
When we look at the multitudes of this world, we see an overwhelming number of people and cultures that reject God. By revealing Himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (as well as Adam, Noah, and many others in the Old Testament), God presented His true self and His message of salvation to man. During the time of ancient Israel, all people fell into two, mutually exclusive, groups: those who trusted in God, and those who did not. Those who trusted in God remained as a remnant of the children of Abraham and any others who embraced their faith. All others embraced other beliefs, whether they be secular or pagan.
God has not changed, His plan of salvation has not changed, and consequently, the state of the nations of peoples has not changed. The world is populated by those who trust in Him and those who do not. Isaiah describes the noise of the unfaithful like the seas, or the rushing of mighty waters, a roar that has no discernable message. What is the judgment for those who have never placed their faith in God? Isaiah describes is at chaff blown away in a wind, never to be seen again, never to be used for any purpose, separated from the fruit forever. This is the judgment upon those who not only reject God, but also those same people who spoil and rob, or persecute, the people of faith.
As Isaiah presents this oracle, we find that (1) the people of Israel are being held accountable for their covenant with God and will find themselves separated from Him because of their apostasy, and (2) the pagan nations are accountable for their rejection of God, and for their persecution of the faithful remnant. Likewise, (1) the church today is accountable for their covenant with God, and those who call themselves Christians but lack true faith in God will find themselves separated from Him because of their apostasy, and (2) today's pagan and secular nations are accountable for their rejection of the One True God, and for their persecution of the faithful remnant, the Christians.
All people are accountable before God for their faith in Him. The only eternal future for those who reject God is eternal separation from Him. The only eternal security is experienced by those who place their faith and trust in God, the One God who has promised to forgive the faithful of their sin and spare them the condemnation of separation from Himself that sin otherwise demands. The covenant that God has made with the faithful today is the same covenant that He made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. It is the same covenant that He made with Abraham, and the same covenant that He made with Noah, and Adam: God rewards faith and trust in Himself with a promise of eternal protection against the condemnation that sin demands: an eternity separated from God. Why would anyone choose to reject God and experience this judgment? We have the history of Israel to show us the consequence of apostasy. We have the destruction of the pagan cities to show us the consequence of summarily rejecting God.
God has given a task to all Christians to spread the good news of the gospel of salvation to all the world so that none would perish, but all could have an opportunity to place their faith and trust in God. This task is the paramount duty of the church, because all people are accountable before God, and will give that account at the final judgment. God desires the salvation of all people. It is time for the church, the body made up of every individual Christian, to take the task seriously.