Isaiah 17: Damascus/Syria

Isaiah 17: Damascus/Syria

Original Publication Date
August 7, 2018
Jan 28, 2023 12:46 AM
IsaiahChapter StudyJudgementProphecyAssyriaSyria
Bible References
Isaiah 17
Table of Contents
This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on August 7, 2018 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.


Damascus is the capital of Syria. It's an old city that's been around for quite some time and is mentioned Biblically for the first time in Genesis 14:15 (during the time of Abraham). The city is North East of the Sea of Galilee.

Distance from Israel

You could drive from Capernaum—a city Jesus spent much time in—to Damascus in about 4 hours according to Google Maps. Since modern wars and politics have affected the area, the land between Capernaum and Syria is the disputed territory known as Golan heights, Google can't find direct route and maps a convoluted route south, then east through Jordan, and finally back north to Syria. It's probably a 2 hour drive if you could find a direct route; which means it's probably a day's journey by horse, maybe two on foot.[2][3]

Damascus in the U.S.

Like with Moab, I quickly discovered that Damascus is a popular namesake for cities in the United States. Maryland and Virginia both have a city named Damascus within the state.

Meaning of Damascus

Most areas mentioned in the Bible are named for a person (e.g., Moab) or an event (e.g., Babylon is near the site of the tower of Babel). So, where did we get the word Damascus? Reportedly the oldest city in the world to have existed continuously, there's actually no known origin for the name of the city.[4][5]

Pronouncement of Judgement

Isaiah 17 is where Isaiah records the vision he receives concerning the downfall of Damascus—Amos also sees the destruction of Damascus (Amos 1:3). The vision may be of Tiglath-pileser III absorbing the city into the Assyrian empire.[6] Isaiah 17:4 seems to give an identifier for when these things would occur: when the glory of Syria was like that of the Israelites. God's people were to be set apart, but Israel had a tendency to fall into the ways of the nations around them, just as we have a tendency to fall into the ways of society today. If Damascus was prospering greatly, it would make sense that the Israelites might begin to pattern themselves after the Syrians, causing the two nations to become indistinguishable. In doing so, however, Israel's glory would be taken away, as well.

Spiritual and Literal Interpretation

In Isaiah 17:5, God describes Israel as thin and lean; they have lost their fat. This could be a literal description of a famine or economic poverty, but it could also be a spiritual description. Remember the Israelites were not to eat the fat of an animal, because it was to be given to God as part of the offering (Leviticus 7:323). Animals in the offering represented the people, so the fat of the animal was a stand in for the fat of the people. This is something that was to be given to God, but the Israelites wouldn't have any if they lost their fat. As I said, to literally become thin, requires a lack of food, but to become spiritually thin it requires a lack of spiritual food. Jesus said we don't live by bread alone, but by the words that come from God (Matthew 4:4). The fact that for Israel to be experiencing a literal famine, they would have had to turn their back on God and thus be experiencing a spiritual famine as well, means that both interpretations are probably valid.


Isaiah 17:10-11 reiterates the idea of famine. God warns that the people will plant "pleasant plants" but the harvest will not flourish. This is a great reminder that no matter how perfect the plant, or how good the conditions, it is still up to God whether the plant will bear fruit. Spiritually, this is a reminder that we cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit without surrendering to the Holy Spirit, first. I also find this particular line interesting because, from a modern perspective, we do so much to our food in the name of making it grow bigger and faster. Between GMOs and the cultivating of seedless plants, you have to wonder how long the insanity will last.


A similar situation is discussed in 2 Kings 16. In this chapter, we see the alliance between the king of Syria and the king of northern Israel (sometimes referred to as Ephraim) striking fear into the heart of the southern kingdom's King Ahaz. Instead of consulting God, the king lobbies an alliance with Assyria and relies on Tiglath-pileser to protect them. The Assyrians succeed in defeating Syria and Ahaz instructs one of his men to copy the design of an altar found in Damascus. Ahaz stops using the holy altar God instructed them to create, and begins using this pagan altar. He also gets rid of things that link the king to the Temple to show his alliance to Assyria.

Does this not sound like a fulfillment of prophecy and a spiritually devoid Israel? Even though Israel has a sovereign king, he's basically a puppet because of his dependency on Assyria. To be honest, reading about Ahaz's actions to please the king of Assyria reminded me way too much of Donald Trump's actions concerning Russia in Helsinki a few weeks ago.[7]


Isaiah mentions a city called Aroer in conjunction with Damascus. Although we can't be certain the Aroer spoken of by Isaiah is the same Aroer mentioned in other places, it's interesting to note that there was an Israelite city by the name of Aroer. That city was built by the tribe of Gad, but had been taken over by the Amorites (Numbers 32:34 and Joshua 12:2). There was also an Aroer that was associated with Moab (Jeremiah 48:18-20).


In Isaiah 17:5-6, God uses a two part metaphor to illustrate His point.

The first part of the metaphor speaks of a person harvesting corn. To understand what God is telling us about the day of Syria's judgment, we have to understand what harvest corning is like—something that would have been well understood by Isaiah's contemporary audience.

Well, to understand what harvesting corn is like we first have to realize that when the Bible says "corn" they aren't talking about the same kind of corn we are. When the European settlers came to America, they had never seen corn before, because corn is native to the Americas.[8] The word often translated to "corn" is most likely means grain, generically. So the harvester could be picking almost anything.

When you harvest crops, you go down the row methodically, plucking off ripe fruit, or in some cases, shaking the bush for ripe fruit to fall. In today's society, the harvester would leave the bush bare, but God commanded the Israelites to leave some behind for the poor to clean.

The second part of the metaphor picks up this concept by illuminating the ripe fruit left behind. Despite shaking the plant or laboring to harvest the crop, some would be left behind. It would be out of reach and impossible to obtain. This is how exactly how mankind is. If we think of shaking as God's judgment, we can easily see the connection of the fruit (people) falling. As the events that are foretold in the Bible take place, many of us will get caught in the middle. Some will be swayed by the rhetoric of the antichrist, but those who are left will hold tight to God's word, similar to the fruits that do not fall from the tree. Confirmation that it is the faithful that remain comes in the next few verses about seeking out God. God points us to a day when all of mankind recognizes God's sovereignty. In that day, there is no more idolatry, and the pride of going after our own creations will cease.

The Valley of Rephaim

In the metaphors mentioned above, God specifically mentions the valley of Rephaim. Rephaim was the name given to a group of people who were known to be giants and enemies of Israel.[10] The valley may have been where these giants lived.[11][12] Perhaps this reference is meant to remove the Israelites from the holiness of Jerusalem and place them deep into place of sin.

Woe: City Life

Anytime a passage starts with woe, you know it's about to be intense. Isaiah 17:12-14 begins just that way. Here, God rebukes large nations with many people, stating that when evening falls the trouble begins and by the morning the people are gone (i.e., dead). Like I said, intense.

God associates these populous nations with water (a symbol that will come up again throughout prophecy) due to the sound and the rushing. Having seen the stark contrast between country towns and big cities, I totally understand this analogy. In the city, people are always rushing to and fro; there's so much to do and to see that it's easy to neglect things like reading the Word, praying, and fellowshipping with our fellow believers. Unfortunately, even in the more rural areas of the U.S., society still places us in a rushing frenzy that means we have to work to slow ourselves down.

Another interesting point about comparing these nations to rushing waters, is that the current of the water will always carry objects in the water with it. If your society or nation is moving in one direction, it's very difficult for you to move in the opposite direction, just as a branch in a river can't move opposite of the current.

References and Footnotes

  1. Nasser O. Rabbat. "Damascus". Encyclopædia Britannica. July 26, 2018
  2. "Golan Heights". Encyclopædia Britannica. May 1, 2013
  3. "Damascus, Syria to Capernaum, Israel". Google Maps; visited July 2018
  4. Douglas Harper. "Damascus". Online Etymology Dictionary; visited July 2018
  5. "Damascus".; visited July 2018
  6. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible, pg. 1151. 2014
  7. Jeremy Diamond. "Trump sides with Putin over US intelligence". CNN. July 16, 2018
  8. Larry Hilaire. "Corn: An American Native". Spanning the Gap; visited August 2018
  9. "Corn". Bible Hub; visited August 2018
  10. "Rephaim". King James Bible Online; visited August 2018
  11. "Valley of Rephaim". Bible Gateway; visited August 2018
  12. W. Ewing. "Valley of Rephaim". Bible Hub; visited August 2018

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