Isaiah 17-19: The Striking and the Healing
Updated: May 5
Isaiah continues his oracles against the nations surrounding Judah; this time, those to the north and south.
Although my Bible titles this section “A prophecy against Damascus,” as you read on, you’ll see that it’s really addressed to Damascus (Aram) and Ephraim (Israel). Since the time the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the Arameans had been their mortal enemies, but now, in their common quest to manipulate Judah, the two had become so tight that the destruction of one meant the destruction of the other. In this oracle, Isaiah prophesies a time when their cities will be destroyed and their land will be full of sheep. Now, when I picture a land full of sheep, I think “peace.” But when Isaiah speaks of a land full of sheep, he means “empty.”
Verse 5 introduced me to a new perspective, too. As a church girl, when I think “harvest,” I think of God’s Spirit picking people out of the field of the world and placing them in God’s Kingdom. But the harvesting Isaiah speaks of here is the Assyrian powers plucking the Arameans and the Ephraimites out of their land and replanting them in lands the Assyrians controlled. So it’s not a good thing. But Isaiah offers a ray of hope. He promises that not all of God's people will be harvested; some “gleanings” will remain. A remnant. Again, in judgment the Lord remembers mercy, and in the end, although the end is out of sight, Isaiah sees that it’s all good.
“In that day people will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
They will not look to the altars, the work of their hands,
and they will have no regard for the Asherah poles
and the incense altars their fingers have made.” (Isaiah 17:7-8)
Well, that was a promising parenthesis, wasn’t it? But in verse 9, Isaiah is right back with the bad news. The “that day” Isaiah speaks of in verses 1-5 and 9-14 is obviously not the “that day” of verses 7 and 8. So how do we know which is which? We have the benefit of history. History tells us these nations have been destroyed, so it’s evident that “that day” has been fulfilled, at least once. But the turning away from false gods to the one true God and the redemption of the nations? We know that hasn’t happened yet. So that “that day” is still a promise of what’s to come. And what of verse 6, you ask? Transition. Redemption is a process. Restoration takes time. We are living verse 6 right now—those that were left after the cleansing harvest have passed the heritage of God on to their children and their children’s children. The seeds (pits, in this case, I guess; seed just sounds so much better) had life in them and did what good seed does—passed that life on to the next generation. So through the ages, the remnant has been reproducing, keeping hope alive in the faithful throughout the world. We, the church, watch and pray.
But what of those who opposed the plans of God?
In that day their strong cities, which they left because of the Israelites,
will be like places abandoned to thickets and undergrowth.
And all will be desolation.
You have forgotten God your Savior;
you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress.
The oracle addressed to Cush is unique—it doesn’t seem to include an imminent prophecy, only a promise for the days far ahead.
Isaiah refers to Cush as the “land of whirring wings.” Most say that’s because of the swarms of flying insects there. (I wonder if Moses had anything to do with that.) Or, some say, because of their fleets of papyrus boats, with rows and rows of rowers rowing and sails flapping in the wind. In any case, the whirring wings present a picture of the frantic activity of the time—diplomats scrambling to make alliances, military commanders scrambling to make plans. Sounds like our busy, restless world, yes?
Isaiah says that from His seat, the Lord calls out to the people of the earth: “Watch! What you are about to see will make things clear. Men’s frenzy is a sign that I am at work.” Isaiah calls his hearers to share in that divine viewpoint. The LORD is neither busy nor restless, but watching and waiting quietly for when the harvest is ripe. Not for the gathering, but for the scattering. He will strip away everything that fuels man’s pride, leaving them with ashes and displaying the futility of all in a world without Him.
It is then, in the middle of the pruning, that the tall and smooth-skinned people, aggressive and feared at the beginning of Isaiah’s oracle, become the tall, smooth-skinned people on their way to Mount Zion, bringing gifts to the Lord of All.
They got it.
Egypt is a familiar player in the history of Israel. They were Israel’s savior in the time of famine, but they became Israel's masters in time of plenty. Someone had to make the bricks. Their interference in Hebrew affairs didn’t end with the Exodus. In Isaiah’s time, when Aram and Israel were swept out of the way, Egypt became the major force opposing Assyria and so became the false hope of Judah.
In prophecy, Egypt represents bondage in a world of pleasure, with hope in everything but the goodness of God. We see this at work today in cultures and governments around the globe. The deterioration of society, economics, and politics is guaranteed to any nation without devotion to God.
The process goes something like this:
First, social collapse. Infighting at all levels; man’s plans frustrated. What’s always worked no longer works and the futile search for solutions leads to the empty promises of idols: in today’s language, false deliverers like money, entertainment, or status. Isaiah says the Egyptians will be handed over to “a cruel master.” A cruel master seldom means a man with a whip; there are masters much crueler than that. Like addictions, lust for power, or debt. All spring up from the insecurity that lives in a heart without God. And the fruit of it?
Economic collapse, perhaps? The drying up of the Nile is actually in progress right now, but don’t worry; educated men are taking the challenge in hand, exploring options to ensure that it doesn’t happen. I’m guessing that the God who frustrates the plans of man may frustrate these efforts as well. Why? Because Isaiah said so. Drought, erosion, agricultural decline, the collapse of the fishing industry, manufacturing industries destroyed. All because the Nile dries up.
There’s nothing more combustible than hungry people. You know what you’re like when you haven’t eaten all day; you’ll do almost anything to get to the refrigerator. Multiply that by 365 days a year. Now multiply that by the entire population of a hopeless nation. If starving people still have the strength to riot, they will. And in places where there’s plenty of food, see paragraph above. The results will be the same.
So it’s not hard to understand why economic collapse leads to political disaster. Everyone wants an easy answer, which many are willing to dispense. It seems that foolishness is the common denominator in places of power. Real problems are pushed behind the curtain while showmanship takes center stage. Irresponsible counselors can’t see the truth, or if they do, they mislead—anything to protect their positions of power. So the LORD will impart a “spirit of dizziness” on them and world leaders won’t know where to turn. Earthly wisdom will leave them bankrupt and their nakedness will be exposed.
But in the oracle to Egypt, there comes an amazing turnaround. The LORD shows His face, not just His hand. What appears to be irreversible destruction will be the beginning of blessing. The remnant will watch in awe as by divine intervention and without human hands, world powers that humbled the weak will now be brought down before them. All that is evil will tremble when men see the favor of God on a people who are wholly His. When man is brought to the end of himself, all that’s left is the fear of God.
What Isaiah prophesies is almost unimaginable! The people of Egypt, God’s arrogant wannabe adversary, will swear their allegiance to Him! They will cry out to the Lord and He will rescue them. They will know Him, acknowledge Him, worship Him, be faithful to Him.
God shows Himself as their Savior in this: “He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and he will respond to their pleas.” He will show Himself as the God of all power and the source of all love.
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:23-25)
There is a well-traveled road between Egypt and Assyria—the Via Maris. It’s a major trade route that was established in the Bronze Age, and it runs right through Israel. What a strategic place for God to plant His people! He set Abraham down between the powers of the day to be a resting place for the weary and a highway to prosperity. But Israel refused to be who God called them to be—that time around. But God’s plan hasn’t changed; a remnant survives. And in the transition? He’s building His church in this age to show the world His glory.
What a powerful picture of the way God intends it to end: the peoples of the earth becoming the people of God, and His Promised Land and ransomed people smack dab in the middle of it all.