For the Love of God, Volume 2/May 18
From Gospel Translations
Numbers 27; Psalms 70—71; Isaiah 17—18; 1 Peter 5
IN CHAPTERS 14—16 ISAIAH records oracles against Philistia (to the west of Jerusalem) and against Moab (to the east). Now (Isaiah 17—18) he speaks against Syria to the north (with its capital Damascus) and Cush to the south. Ancient Cush was made up of modern Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somaliland, i.e., a large area south of the fourth cataract of the Nile River. By the late eighth century B.C., Cush had merged with Egypt, which is still in view in chapters 19—20. Indeed the twenty-fifth dynasty, which ruled this huge region, were Ethiopians.
Recall that the crisis King Ahaz of Judah faced in Isaiah 7 was an alliance between Syria and Israel, designed to thwart Assyria; Syria and Israel tried to force Judah to join their alliance. So this oracle is against Damascus (17:1) the capital of Syria, and includes Ephraim (17:3—another name for the northern kingdom of Israel). Syria and Israel, so threatening to Judah, would soon be destroyed by Assyria. Damascus fell in 732, Samaria ten years later. After their destruction they would be like an emaciated man (17:4), like a field after harvest with only a few stalks left (17:5), like a grove of olive trees in which the fruit has been plucked and beaten with only a few olives left (17:6). The ultimate cause of the destruction of these nations is their idolatry (17:7-8), bound up with fertility cults (17:10-11).
The means for destroying Syria and Israel is depicted in 17:12-18—almost certainly Assyria, which is in turn destroyed. Yet Isaiah speaks of “many nations” (17:12): once again we have stumbled across prophetic foreshortening, Assyria serving as a model both of all the means of temporal judgment that God uses, and of the fact that he brings all nations to account, even those his providence has deployed as the club of his wrath (cf. 10:5).
If there is no help for Judah and Jerusalem in the nations of Israel and Syria (and still less in Assyria), there is also no help in the other regional power, Egypt/Cush (chap. 18). Egypt sends its ambassadors to Judah (and doubtless to other minor states) to try to woo them into their camp (18:1). Isaiah speaks to them (18:2)—almost certainly he actually speaks to the king in a prophetic oracle about the ambassadors, rather than addressing them directly—and in brilliant rhetoric describes the destruction of their nation. Yet he also heralds a time when Egyptians, just one of the many “people of the world” (18:3), will see the banner the Lord raises and bring gifts to “Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the LORD Almighty” (18:7).
Why fawn over pagan nations (and thinkers!) when the Lord himself will judge them, and when they will one day bow to him?