“Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city…” Isaiah 17:1
Isaiah 17 is not an eschatological (end-times) prophecy against Damascus. This passage serves as an indictment to Israel who had trusted in Damascus (a.k.a. Aram) for its security and protection rather than confiding in and obeying their own God. In effect, what God is telling Israel is their sinfulness and idolatry will initiate a chain reaction of events beginning with their strategic partner, Damascus, who is to be destroyed. Following the judgment of Damascus Israel’s own cities will fall as well.
It is widely believed that when the prophet Isaiah spoke these words in the eighth century B.C. the Northern Jewish Kingdom (Israel) had enjoyed tremendous economic prosperity, was well fortified with somewhat secure borders, and had military superiority over the region. Israel was overtly religious during this period, too; yet the Israelite kings and their priests had merged the rightful worship to the one true God, Yahweh, with wrongful worship to pagan deities. Furthermore, Israel was cheating the poor, even selling their own people into economic slavery (Amos 2:6-8). Israel had fashioned a clever religious system that had over time developed into big business. It synchronized wealth and affluence with religious hypocrisy.
This wickedness enraged The Almighty. After sending many prophets to warn Israel to repent of their sin (Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, and a host of others) God sent judgment not only upon Israel but upon anyone who was affiliated with her.
Isaiah’s prediction that Damascus would be destroyed was literally fulfilled shortly after the evil Israelite king, Pekah, had developed unholy alliances with its neighboring countries. Fearing that the powerful Assyrian ruler, Tilglath Pileser, would one day attack their own kingdoms, King Pekah and his new Syrian (not to be confused with Assyrian) partner, Rezin, planned a preemptive strike by staging a military campaign against the Assyrian emperor. In the South, King Jotham and his co-regent son, Ahaz, of Judah refused to join the campaign, so kings Pekah and Rezin retaliated by attacking Judah instead (2 Kings 15:37; 2 Kings 16:5; 2 Chron. 28:5-6). Ironically, Tilglath Pileser agreed to come to Judah’s rescue. In 732 B.C. he destroyed the Syrian capital Damascus, and took Syrians and Northern Israelites into exile (2 Kings 15:27–29; 16:1–9; Amos 1:5; Isaiah 7:8-9). A decade later the newly enthroned Assyrian kings, Shalmaneser and Sargon, respectively finished off the invasion of the territories their predecessor, Tilglath Pileser, began. From that time on Damascus remained a heap of rubble until the Greeks and Romans rebuilt it.
A lot can be learned from this story. First, there are dreadful consequences whenever the men and women of God live a relentlessly wicked and idolatrous life, blending true worship with false worship, all the while believing they can escape the judgment of the Almighty by negotiating earthly alliances instead of repenting from their sins. Second, it is possible to become self-deceived by presuming military superiority. Third, economic prosperity will not save a nation from the wrath of God. Fourth, God has many times in history used pagan nations to bring judgment upon His own people whenever they wander from Him and openly disobey His ordinances.
Religious synchronism and idolatry of any sort is a very dangerous game for God’s people to play.