Scores of Muslims are reportedly turning to Christianity in Europe. A report by The Daily Beast claims thousands of Muslim refugees living in countries like Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark,
With everything that is going on in Syria today, it is hard not to include Isaiah 17 as a frequent read. As many of you know, Isaiah 17:1-3 predicts that Damascus will be “removed from being a city.” Just as important to the modern-day is the latter part of Isaiah 17:3 NASB which makes me wonder if the many refugees from Syria that are coming to know Jesus is the remnant the text is prophesying about:
“The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim, And sovereignty from Damascus And the remnant of Aram; They will be like the glory of the sons of Israel,” Declares the LORD of hosts. –Isaiah 17:3 (NASB) (Emphasis supplied)
Damascus is the modern-day capital of Syria. In the 8th century BC, Syria was known as “Aram.” 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 central role in plays in the Middle East conflicts. The importance gains weight when one considers the implications to the greater Middle East and to the world as the violence in Syria continues.
The Bible declares Jerusalem to be the “center of the earth” (Ezekiel 5:5). 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. (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. The map shows the extent of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire was advancing across the Middle East when Isaiah 17 was prophesied by the prophet (perhaps 725 BC). In order to stop the advance of the Assyrians, a coalition was formed between two nations in its path — Syria (“Aram”) and Ephraim (“Israel,” the ten northern tribes of Israel (but not the modern-day nation of Israel)). 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). God’s judgment was to bring the powerful Assyrian army upon Syria and Ephraim (Isaiah 8:5-8). Thus, the prevailing thought is that Isaiah 17 prophesies of God’s judgment upon the two kingdoms, Syria and Ephraim.
I agree with that view. But we must not overlook the specific wording of Isaiah 17:1-3 to determine whether the prophecy has been completely fulfilled. In other words, is there any part of the prophecy that is a “not yet” 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. Damascus continues to bear its ancient Biblical name. How can the prophecy of Isaiah 17 relative to Damascus have been fulfilled if the city has not been removed?
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 “ceased to exist from its place.” If it had, it would no longer be called Damascus. Although Damascus did not cease to exist, the “fortified cities” of Ephraim did and the prophecy uses different words to distinguish Ephraim from Damascus. The existing population of Ephraim is prophesied to be replaced with livestock (Isaiah 17:2-3NASB). When Assyria defeated Ephraim in 722 BC, the people were taken into captivity and resettled in other Assyrian captor states (2 Kings 15:29). 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. 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 why I do not believe Isaiah 17 has been completely fulfilled. 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 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”? 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 some stage of the tribulation; and the time of the wrath of God is poured out as this age ends and the Millennium is brought in. Humanity is now made ready to “have regard for his Maker…”
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 17:3). King Rezin was the sovereign of Damascus at the time of the Assyrian onslaught (Isaiah 7:8). 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). 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 605 BC, 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 cannot help but wonder when Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, falls, if the “not yet” portion of the prophecy will be fulfilled thereby bringing in the balance of the prophecy.
Which brings us back to where we started – how is it that the “remnant” of Syria will be “like the glory of the sons of Israel” to God? (Isaiah 17:3)?
I have found in my ministry that nothing glorifies God more than when a “captive” is rescued from the “ditch” and put back on his or her feet. In this sense, “captive” has the meaning of someone broken, beaten down, shackled by sin and its consequences much like the prodigal son found himself slopping hogs in Luke 15:15-16; someone that society views as beyond the pale of rescue, often addicted to drugs or alcohol, and homeless; or addicted to their own anger from the wounds they have received throughout most of their life. When the captive is rescued, I find myself marveling at the power of the cross; salvation brings God glory, particularly when we think it is never going to happen.
The remnant of Syria? Imagine if Muslim refugees who have fled for their lives and left everything behind are the prophesied remnant of Syria in Isaiah 17:3? The text is not talking about the successful resettlement of Syrian refugees in Europe or America. It likens what happens to the remnant as comparable to the glory a son brings his father; hence, the glory the sons of Israel bring to God (Psalm 17:6-8). How so? Satan has had the hearts of most Muslims since birth. The refugees have never known the love of God, only submission to Allah, who they believe are one and the same. Imagine the freedom a Syrian refugee will experience when the land he thought was going to be another captivity proves to be the doorway through which God sets him free! Talk about a testimony that will never stop being told! Talk about the glory of God. Talk about a rescue! (Colossians 1:13-14). Pray that this is precisely what God intends to do.
Jesus come quickly.