The best interpreter of Scripture is not CNN, or the New York Times, or the Hal Lindsey Report. It’s the Scripture itself. So if Isaiah 17 is about Syria today, then America is Babylon or Assyria. If Isaiah 17 is not about al-Assad, Obama and Netanyahu, what is it for us today?
Syria: another Middle East conflict, another money-making opportunity for prophecy pundits. Another impending blackeye on evangelicals.
One of these prophecy “experts” wrote “Damascus, Syria, and Isaiah 17” in Rapture Forums (always on the lookout for the Rapture):
One of most intriguing Bible prophecies in the end times has to do with Isaiah 17. The prophecies in Isaiah 17 point to the end times destruction of Damascus, Syria. The Bible states that the destruction of Damascus will be so great that the city will be nothing but a “ruinous heap” after the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy. This is noteworthy because presently the city is recognized as the world’s longest constantly inhabited city. The utter destruction of Damascus will be an event that only the sovereign Lord could have predicted, yet he warns in Isaiah 17 that Damascus does have a date with destiny in the near prophetic future.
These rapture-tribulation-millennium-obsessed pundits have even found Psalm 83 to hasten their end-time scenarios:
As of this writing, the conditions are ripe for the fulfillment of Isaiah 17 and Psalm 83, paving the way for the rapture of the church and the beginning of the tribulation.
They say that God’s chosen people Israel today are surrounded by enemies planning and conspiring against them.
This is not only “intriguing.” It is also manifest nonsense (as R. C. Sproul would put it). How? Here are 8 reasons why you shouldn’t be deceived by false prophets whom you hear these days.
1. Isaiah 17 was fulfilled 2,700 years ago in 732 B.C. It is not anywhere “in the near prophetic future,” but was about geopolitical events that transpired way back then. These prophecy buffs don’t have anything better to do than arbitrarily lifting Scripture texts such as this one from their redemptive, historical, geographical, social and literary contexts.
The people of the northern kingdom (Israel) did not heed Yahweh’s warning not to ally with the pagan nation Aram (Syria) to defend itself against the Assyrians. God assured them that he would deliver them from the Assyrians if they trusted in his promises. The alliance was defeated, and Damascus was destroyed in 732 B.C. In turn, Samaria itself, the capital of the northern kingdom, was also destroyed by the same Assyrians ten years later in 722 B.C. (Isa 7:16-17; 8:4).
2. The focus of Isaiah 17 was not even Damascus. Out of 14 verses in this chapter, only verses 1-3 deal with Damascus, and verses 12-14 deal with the nations. The chapter is mainly about Israel, and how God would punish her for her idolatry, but in the end, God will save a remnant.
The destruction of Damascus is mentioned only as a warning to the northern kingdom (Ephraim) that they would also be destroyed because of their idolatry and their unfaithfulness to Yahweh. “The remnant of Syria will be like the glory of the children of Israel” (verse 3). Isaiah says that the destruction of Damascus will also mean that the “glory of Jacob will be brought low” (verse 4). But in the LORD’s mercy, there will be a remnant left from the harvest that he will “glean” (verses 5-6). These will be the few faithful ones in Israel who will turn away from the Asherim idols and “will look on the Holy One of Israel” (verses 7-8).
3. When the Bible says that Gentile enemies of Israel will be “no more” (verse 14), it doesn’t mean they are destroyed forever. Damascus has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since it was destroyed by Assyria in 732 B.C. Apocalyptic language is never to be taken literally. Consider Ezekiel’s oracle against Egypt:
When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light (Ezk 32:7).
Obviously, this didn’t happen when Babylon overran Egypt in the 6th century B.C. This is an allusion to the plague of darkness in Egypt when God punished the Pharaoh and his people for not freeing Israel from slavery. The defeat of the nation is metaphorically described in cosmic proportions (see also Isa 13:10).
Or how about this prophecy in Zephaniah 1:2-3?
“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,” declares the LORD.”
Was Zephaniah prophesying the end of the world? No, he was prophesying the destruction of “Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (verse 4).
4. Psalm 83 is not about Israel today fighting against its Arab neighbors. Like Isaiah 17, Psalm 83 has long been fulfilled more than 2,000 years ago. The people of Israel prayed this prayer during times when they were being threatened or attacked by Gentile armies. They prayed that God will protect them, and even make their enemies come to know him.
But isn’t Israel God’s chosen nation even today, so Psalm 83 can apply to Israel today? However, what escapes most evangelicals is that Israel ceased to be God’s chosen nation when Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Who is the chosen people today? It is the church made up of Jews plus Gentiles who believe in Christ as the Son of God, Savior and Lord (Gal 3:29). They are the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). Consider especially Peter’s declaration about the church as the new Israel of God fulfilling Exodus 19:5-6:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession … Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people …” (1Pet 2:9-10).
Jesus even said that he is the Temple, which means that all who believe in him are God’s people who worship him (John 2:19-21). He also said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). His kingdom is definitely not Israel; it is the holy nation, his church.
Why do most evangelicals think that Israel is still God’s chosen nation today? Because evangelical Zionists have taught them over the last century that God has two peoples, Israel and the church, and he has two distinct plans for them. This is because God’s promises to Abraham and Israel have not yet been fulfilled. This is as puerile as it gets, because Joshua will definitely disagree:
Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers… not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass (Jos 21:43-45; emphases added).
not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed (Jos 23:14; emphasis added).
Besides, why would you rebuild the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles again (it seems that evangelicals are so fond of rebuilding walls and temples!), after Paul says it has been demolished 2,000 years ago when Christ sacrificed his body and blood on the cross?
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh … alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:11-22).
5. The Bible never describes specific nations at war during the end times. Yes, there will be “wars and rumors of wars.” But this is not a sign that Christ’s return is at hand, … “but the end is not yet” (Matt 24:6). Sure, there are also many false Christs, falling away from the faith, famines, and earthquakes. But these signs have been present in the world for 2,000 years now since the time of Christ. But he says that “all these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt 24:8). If these signs are likened to birth pangs, they are to continue intensifying in severity and frequency until the end.
Who then is able to pinpoint the day, hour, or even the year of his return when we do not know when the birth pains will end to usher in the return of Christ? Who’s to say that we have reached the peak of the labor pains in the Syrian crisis? So to predict that the Rapture is “in the near prophetic future” is absolutely making a false prophecy.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, there are only two sure signs before the end: (1) a great apostasy or falling away in the church, and (2) the Antichrist will be revealed.
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thess 2:3).
Armageddon is not a nuclear war or a military mother of all wars in Megiddo. Armageddon is Har-Magedon, the Mount of Assembly where Satanic forces gather to make a final assault to destroy God’s church represented by Mount Zion. On that last day, Satan will gather all the unbelievers on earth to make war against Christ and the holy city (Rev 19:19; 20:8; see also Rev 16:14), “the city of the living God” (Heb 12:23), “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). This last battle is not World War III among nations, but the kingdom of Satan in its final assault against the kingdom of God.
6. Evangelicals have demonized Syria and all other Arab countries, but God will also save a remnant from them. He will save “the remnant of Syria” (Isa 17:3), and the remnant from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9). In fact, we can trace the roots of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel all the way back to Shem.
Shem also fathered Aram, who was the ancestor of the Arameans. Jacob was even called “a wandering Aramean, and his two wives were from “Laban the Aramean.” Even the father of Isaac’s wife Rebekah was called an Aramean. We know that Abraham wanted the wife of his son Isaac to be from his original home in Paddan-Aram. “Aramean” is synonymous with “Syrian,” and the language that Arameans spoke was Aramaic. So it is possible that Abraham also spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew.
Antioch and Damascus were both important centers of Christianity starting from the apostolic era until the 7th century, when Syria was overrun by Muslims. During those first six centuries, about 90 percent of Syria’s population were Christians. Some of the most important Christian theologians during this period were from Syria.
You can read more details about the connections between the Hebrew patriarchs, Arameans, Aramaic language, Christianity, and present-day Syria in the ADDENDUM at the end of this article.
7. If Isaiah 17 is about Syria today, then America is Babylon or Assyria. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary and an expert on Isaiah’s prophecy, says that the prophecy pundits’ interpretation of Isaiah 17 and Psalm 83 is absurd and silly:
You cannot read the Bible that way. It is an ancient poem about an ancient context. If we are going to contemporize it with such an easy connection then we have to learn to read the text against the United States as well because the United States now plays the role of Babylon and all those ancient superpowers. We have to tread very gently about making such silly connections.
8. If Isaiah 17 is not about Al-Assad, Obama and Netanyahu, what is it for us today? Here are some “lessons” to learn from this chapter:
a. Whatever is happening in the world today, it is part of God’s sovereign decree and plan from even before the creation of the world. Isaiah says “declares the LORD …” twice in this oracle (verses 3, 6).
b. The best interpreter of Scripture is not CNN, or the New York Times, or the Hal Lindsey Report. It’s the Scripture itself.
c. No nation and no individual is exempt from God’s wrath—not me, not you, not Syria, not Israel, not even America. No nation is a “Christian” nation, the only Christian nation being the Kingdom of Christ. Brueggerman warns, “No nation has high moral ground. That is a bite against every exceptionalism, including American exceptionalism.”
d. Even when there is so much apostasy, heresy and spiritual decay in the church today, God will preserve a remnant of his people. Our hope is not in the Rapture or Armageddon or millennium, but in the King of Kings who would return and end this present spiritual darkness when he establishes his eternal kingdom in the new heaven and new earth.
Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, and his father Terah, came from Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia, the area which we now call Iraq. From Ur, Abraham was called by God to Canaan. On their way, they sojourned first in a place called Haran, which many link geographically to Paddan-Aram (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament and Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary). Various Bible dictionaries and encyclopedians say that Paddan means “plain” and Aram means “highland,” so Paddan-Aram refers to the table-land of Aram in the northern Mesopotomia. Sometimes, Paddan-Aram is also called “Mesopotamia,” which in Hebrew is “Aram naharayim,” which means “Aram of the two rivers” (Gen 24:10). It is also called simply “Aram,” the place where Jacob found his wives, “Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife” (Hos 12:12; Gen 28:2, 5). This area is now part of present-day northeastern Syria.
Aram was one of the sons of Shem, who also fathered Arpachshad (Gen 10:22), from where Jesus’ lineage descended (Luke 3:36, Arphaxad). The people of Aram were called Arameans, and even Jacob was called “a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). Rebekah, Isaac’s wife (Gen 25:20), and Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives (Gen 28:5), were from Paddan-Aram. Rebekah’s father was called “Bethuel the Aramean” and Leah’s and Rachel’s father was called “Laban the Aramean.” In the older translations, both of these men were called “Syrians,” precisely because the land of Aram is also called Syria.
The language of Arameans is commonly called Aramaic, a language related to but distinct from Hebrew. It spread north and west from Aram, and became the main language of the region. As early as Jacob’s time, Aramaic was already spoken by Arameans, as Laban did (Gen 31:47). Then, during King Hezekiah’s time, we find that some Jews already knew how to speak Aramaic (2 Kgs 18:26). After the Babylonian exile, it became known as the Syriac, the principal language of the Jews in Palestine, instead of Hebrew (“Gospels, Synoptic,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 533).
So Jesus and his disciples mostly spoke Aramaic, and probably some Greek, since they were from Galilee, where many Greek-speaking Gentiles lived. They probably spoke some Hebrew as well. This is why when Jesus was crucified, the Romans wrote the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” on the cross in three languages—Aramaic, Latin and Greek.
The early church expanded from Jerusalem to the surrounding regions. In addition to Jerusalem, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome in Italy, and later Constantinople in Asia Minor, became centers of Christianity. Damascus played an important part in Paul’s conversion, because Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus where he planned to arrest Christians. Paul made Antioch in Syria his home base for his mission work. It was in Antioch where the disciples of Christ were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26), and where the first church in Syria was established in 36 A.D. Antioch was also an important refuge for the early Christians who fled the persecution by Jews in Jerusalem.
Syria produced some of the earliest Christian documents, including the Didache and the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts”). Some of the most prominent Syrian Christians included Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who was a disciple of the Apostle John; Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian and hymn writer; John Chrysostom, 4th century Bishop of Constantinople; and John of Damascus, a great 7th century Eastern Orthodox theologian. The Syrians also produced the Peshitta, the Syriac translation of the Old Testament, and sent missionaries to Ethiopia (“Ancient and Medieval Church History” by David Calhoun).
A great majority of Syrians were Christians until 635 A.D., when the Omayyad Muslims overran Syria. By the 11th century, Christians became the minority, but they were tolerated by the new rulers. Syrians call the Omayyad dynasty their “golden age,” until the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Omayyads in 750. Still, Christians were generally tolerated, even up to the present rule by the Al-Assad family. Today, only six percent of the whole population of Syria are counted as Christians, and are under great persecution from the Muslims fighting the government.
“Christian exodus from Syria” by Al-Ahram Weekly, August 5, 2013
“Some Evangelicals See Biblical Prophecy In Syrian Crises” by Elizabeth Dias, Time, August 29, 2013
Isaiah 17:1 Is Syria War Part Of Jesus’ Second Coming? Christians And Muslims Quote Scripture by Yasmine Hafiz, The Huffington Post, August 29, 2013
“Syria” by MERF.org