Isaiah 17:1 (NASB) 1 The oracle concerning Damascus. “Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city And will become a fallen ruin . . . 3 The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim, And sovereignty from Damascus … .
Damascus is the modern-day capital of Syria. In the 8th century BC, Syria was known as “Aram.”1 Damascus was the capital of Aram in that day as well. The importance of this city lies not in one era but in many eras. Today, the importance of Damascus lies in the impending threat of retaliation by the United States of America against the government of Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people. The importance gains weight when one considers the implications to the greater Middle East and to the world because of the increased likelihood of the advent of World War 3 as a result of the domino effect of the fall of Syria. It is the purpose of this post to consider the likelihood that the fall of Damascus, Syria, in the modern-day is the fulfillment of Isaiah 17:1 -3 NASB.
The Bible declares Jerusalem to be the “center of the earth” (Ezekiel 5:5); but Damascus is a city of distinction as well. It is the city that has never ceased to be a city — yet. Historians tell us that Damascus is the oldest continuously populated city in the world.2 (Read more). (Read more). To understand why that matters, we need look at the context for the writing of Isaiah 17.
First, the Assyrian Empire in the 9th – 7th centuries BC was the “superpower” of the day. At the greatest extent the Empire extended from modern-day Iran in the east to Egypt in the west and modern-day Turkey in the north; and, the entire Middle East to the northern border of Arabia was Assyrian. Amazingly, the only nation that did not fall to the Assyrian Empire was the small kingdom known as Judah, modern-day Jerusalem and the neighboring hills (the small yellow area in the map above).
The Assyrian Empire was advancing across the Middle East when Isaiah 17 was prophesied by the prophet (perhaps 750BC). In order to stop the advance of the Assyrians, a coalition was formed between two nations in its path — Syria (“Aram”) and Ephraim (“Israel,” but not the modern-day nation of Israel).3 The powerful Assyrian army was greater than either of the two nations standing alone. The two nations joined forces and then sought the assistance of a third nation, Judah, blood relatives of the Ephraimites. However, King Ahaz of Judah refused to join the alliance. The result was that the two nations turned against King Ahaz and attacked him even while the Assyrians threatened all three nations. King Pekah of Ephraim and King Rezin of Syria (Aram) attacked Jerusalem but were unsuccessful in their attack (Isaiah 7:1-2 NASB). God’s judgment was to bring the powerful Assyrian army upon Syria and Ephraim (Isaiah 8:5-8 NASB). Thus, the prevailing thought is that Isaiah 17 prophesies of God’s judgment upon the two kingdoms, Syria and Ephraim.
First, it is without question that Isaiah 17 prophesies of the fall of Syria and Ephraim to the Assyrians. But we must not overlook the specific wording of Isaiah 17:1-3 NASB to determine the extent of the prophecy’s fulfillment. The text states, “Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city and will become a fallen ruin…” Damascus is the oldest continuously populated city in the world. It is not a “fallen ruin,” and even continues to bear its ancient Biblical name.4 How can the prophecy of Isaiah 17 relative to Damascus have been fulfilled if the city still remains?
If one looks closer at the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “remove” in Isaiah 17:1 NASB, we find the following. The word is found in several passages, including Leviticus 4:35, 1 Samuel 21:6. In these passages, the word has the meaning of ceasing to exist from its place. (See BDB Hebrew Lexicon). Certainly, Damascus has not been moved from its place; and neither does Damascus lie in ruins; so how can fulfillment have occurred?
Some interpreters might conclude that we are pressing the point; that is, when the Assyrians defeated the Syrians the prophecy was fulfilled even though the city still remained, literally. I don’t think so. Words are important in Scripture. This is particularly the case for Bible prophecy; and, although Damascus was not removed, the “fortified cities” of Ephraim were and the prophecy uses different words to distinguish Ephraim from Damascus. The existing population of Ephraim is prophesied to be replaced with livestock (Isaiah 17:2-3 NASB). This occurred when the Assyrians defeated Ephraim. Ephraim, as a kingdom, ceased to exist with the Assyrian conquest. When Assyria defeated Ephraim in 722BC, the people were taken into captivity and resettled in other Assyrian captor states. (2 Kings 15:29 NASB). In the process, the Jews of Ephraim lost their national “identity” and became slaves of the Assyrian Empire. They lived among the repopulated vassal states of Assyria throughout the Assyrian Empire. The fortified cities of Ephraim “disappeared” because Ephraim was defeated by the Assyrians and its people repopulated elsewhere. Ephraim was the name for the ten tribes to the north of Judah and the descendants of ten of Jacob’s twelve sons. In fact, these ten tribes are known to the modern-day as the “ten lost tribes” of Israel. Ephraim’s fortified cities were removed but Damascus was not.
There is another reason. Later in the chapter, there are three “in that day” prophecies (Isaiah 17:4, 7, 9), each of which serves to date the occurrence of the events in Isaiah 17:1-3. The second “in that day” prophecy is important because it prophesies of an event that also has yet to occur:
Isaiah 17:7-8 (NASB) 7 In that day man will have regard for his Maker And his eyes will look to the Holy One of Israel. 8 He will not have regard for the altars, the work of his hands, Nor will he look to that which his fingers have made, Even the Asherim and incense stands.
When has humanity (not limited to Israel) had regard for his Maker? His eyes looking to the holy one of Israel and not to the idols of his hands? Not happened — yet; and likely not to be fulfilled until the second coming of Jesus Christ. If we combine this “in that day” saying with the removing of Damascus, the likely conclusion is that the two are linked — one occurs before the other. That is, the fall of Damascus ushers in the tribulation; and the time of the wrath of God occurs thereby purifying the earth and bringing in the righteousness of God for the Millennium. The wrath of God having been satisfied, humanity is made ready to “have regard for his Maker…” Daniel 9:24 NASB.
Another important aspect of the prophecy is that even though Damascus will not be removed as a city upon Assyrian conquest, the sovereignty of the city will be removed. (Isaiah 17:2-3 NASB). According to the BDB Lexicon the word “sovereignty” translates from a Hebrew word meaning, “kingdom, sovereignty, dominion, reign; … royal house (Amos 7:13); royal seed, children, 2 K 11:1”. King Rezin was the sovereign of Damascus at the time of the Assyrian onslaught (Isaiah 7:8 NASB). Rezin was killed by the Assyrians. The royal house of Rezin was replaced by the Assyrian house; and the sovereignty of Damascus changed upon Rezin’s death. (2 Kings 16:9 (NASB). The sovereignty of Damascus changed many times after that. In fact, each time an empire was defeated, the sovereignty of Damascus changed. This occurred when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians in 605BC, the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 533 BC, the Greeks defeated the Persians in 334 BC, the Romans in 168 BC, the Muslims in 634 AD, and the British and her allies in World War 1. Each time a successor empire replaced the former, this prophecy was fulfilled.
One final aspect of the prophecy is worth noting, Isaiah 17:3 NASB. Consensus on the proper interpretation of this part of the prophecy is also lacking. This interpreter finds its meaning in this way. The continuous population of the ancient city is by God’s hand. Only He could have done that and He has done that so that we will know that He is the Lord. Ezekiel 39:28 NASB. It is like His fingerprint on the prophecy identifying God as its author.
Another fingerprint is the surviving “remnant of Syria.” The remnant of Syria will also survive; just like the remnant of Israel has survived — to the glory of God. In spite of the many times Israel has been enslaved all the way back to the Egyptians (Genesis 45:7), then the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Muslims, Israel as a nation and people group still survive. That is only because God has kept His people for Himself and has saved the remnant for His name sake. Isaiah 10:20-22, 37:32, Jeremiah 23:2, Romans 9:27, 11:5. The remnant of Syria will likewise be spared — to the glory of God. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, the people were taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel and his three friends were slaves in Babylon — and their lives were spared by their exile. The prophet Ezekiel was also taken captive from Jerusalem; except his captivity was not in the palace but among the Jewish people, slaves to the Babylonians. It was in captivity that Ezekiel prophesied of the fall of Jerusalem, its destruction and its exiled people. This was the remnant that God saved for himself — as exiles and aliens in foreign lands. The same will happen to Syria. The people will be exiled from Damascus, from Syria, and in the process their exile will spare them.
Modern-day Syria has been under the dominion of Islam since its fall to the Muslims in 634AD (prior to its fall to Islam, Christianity was the predominant faith). Syria remained under Muslim dominion until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I whereupon it came under the authority of France. In 1946, Syria became an independent republic but for the next several decades it experienced one military coup after another. Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens. Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1970 to 2000. On 15 March 2011, the popular demonstrations known as “Arab Spring,” spreading across the Middle East began in Syria. The populous demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, and civil war has resulted in the death of almost 100,000 Syrians. During that time, however, “over a million Syrians have fled the war …, bringing the total outside the country up to 2 million. Half of them are children.” This is the remnant that Isaiah 17:3 is likely speaking of.
Damascus has yet to be “removed from being a city.” If the events of the modern day are the fulfillment of this prophecy then one can only conclude that the fulfillment is an important piece towards the ushering in of other prophecies, e.g., Ezekiel 38-39, Daniel 7:22-25, 9:24-27, Revelation 13 and 17.
Jesus come quickly.
- Matthew George Easton, “Syria,” in Illustrated
Bible Dictionary: And Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography,
Doctrine, and Literature, (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1897), WORDsearch
CROSS e-book, Under: “Syria”. [↩]
- Burns, Ross (New edition 2007). Damascus: A History. Routledge, p2. [↩]
- Ephraim is known by two other names in the Bible – the “Northern Kingdom” and “Israel.” This people group represents the descendants of ten of the twelve sons of Jacob. After the death of Solomon, the tribes of the twelve sons of Jacob were divided into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom, representing the ten tribes to the North and the Southern Kingdom, the two tribes to the south, referred to Biblically as “Judah.” [↩]
- The English name is the same as the Greek Δαμασκός, Damaskós. The Hebrew name is דַמֶּשֶׂק, Dammaseḳ, but the Aramaic form דַּרְמֶשֶׂק, Darmeseḳ, occurs in 1 Chron. 18:5; 2 Chron. 28:5.
James Orr, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Chicago: Howard-Severance Co., 1915), s.v. “DAMASCUS,” WORDsearch CROSS e-book. [↩]