Isaiah 17:1 Behold Damascus is taken away from being a city
We usually don’t think that cities need permission from God to exist, but Damascus is about to lose its permission slip. The city charter is going to be violently revoked. Damascus, “an ancient city of Syria, standing on a rich plain on the edge of the desert… was conquered by Tiglath-pileser (Assyria) and its inhabitants carried captive about 733 BC.” (Bible Dictionary, “Damascus”) Its fate is tied to the fate of the ten tribes (led by Ephraim) who resided in the Northern Kingdom or the Kingdom of Israel. Syria is conquered by Assyria. Sometimes, it is difficult to remember which is which.
Isaiah 17:3 The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim
We never pay tribute to the notes at the bottom of the page, but the latest LDS edition of the Bible has amazing helps that are convenient and very helpful. In this case, if the first few verses of Isaiah 17 were confusing to anyone, they could read the explanatory note, “Syria and northern Israel (Ephraim) were allies, and both were soon to be conquered by Assyria.” That is just about all you need to know about the first 3 verses!
Think of Isaiah as the prophet before the Assyrian captivity, Jeremiah as the prophet before the Babylonian captivity, and Ezekiel as the prophet of the Babylonian captivity. They are the big three of the Old Testament.
Isaiah 17:5-6 it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim
Again, if we look to the footnotes, we understand that “only a small remnant of Israel will be found after Assyria’s conquest.” Like the few ears of corn that are left, or the few grapes that were not harvested, there won’t be much left. That is the idea. The valley of Rephaim, literally the “valley of the giants,” was a valley between Jerusalem and Bethlehem where David often fought the Philistines. As a battlefield, there was probably very little corn grown there.
Isaiah 17:6, 9 the outmost fruitful branches
One of the dangers of pushing our way through Isaiah is that we might miss the nuggets within the prophetic imagery. So, we will stop to appreciate the branch/bough imagery of Isaiah 17:6. In scriptural history, the imagery started with Jacob promising Joseph he would be as “a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall” (Gen 49:22). Well, the lead tribe of the northern kingdom was Ephraim, son of Joseph, and the fruitful bough is about to be destroyed. But God will preserve a remnant, and save at least a branch. Some will be left in the land, and a separate group, or branch, will be taken captive to become the lost 10 tribes. Zenos’ allegory speaks of this branch long after it was scattered, “that it had brought forth much fruit; and… it was good.” Though we don’t know where, Zenos tells us it was “in the poorest spot in all the land of thy vineyard” (Jacob 5:20-21). These are the outmost fruitful branches.
“Here we see other parts of the full image—that the lofty branch will be forsaken for a time, but eventually it will be grafted with strange plants so that, in the end, the plant will grow and yield a substantial harvest, albeit in a day of grief and sorrow as some are cut off and destroyed in the fire.
“Ultimately, the image of the olive tree is positive for Isaiah. When ‘the days of thy mourning shall be ended, thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified’ (Isaiah 60:20-21). In the end, for Isaiah, the final judgment is compared to a joyous harvest of olives and grapes…” (The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, ed. by Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., FARMS, 1994], 339)
Heber C. Kimball
We [strive] to prove our integrity towards God and his cause; for everything that can be shaken and overthrown will not stand… And those who stand will be like the gleaning of grapes after the vintage is done. (Isa. 24:13) So it will be with this people. It mattereth not what takes place, for it cannot affect the truth, but makes it shine brighter and brighter in the eyes of those who cleave to it, and bring forth the fruits of righteousness. (Journal of Discourses, 11:95)
Isaiah 17:7-8 At that day shall a man look to his Maker and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel
When the Assyrians sacked Damascus and the Kingdom of Israel, it was their apocalypse. For us, it may be quite similar. The wicked will be destroyed, the less wicked remain and begin to turn to God. The pattern is all throughout the Book of Mormon. It takes a cataclysm or an apocalypse to get them to repent.
And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him.
O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world! (Hel. 12:3-4)
What a great phrase—a cataclysmic apocalypse—or an apocalyptic cataclysm! But the scriptures use a different term—the abomination of desolation—or the desolation of abomination. (Matt. 24:15; D&C 84:117) Either way, it takes a lot to get the wicked to look to their Maker and have respect for the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah 17:10-11therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips
“In a prophecy directed against Damascus, Isaiah spoke of the fate of both the Syrian and the Israelite capitals (Isaiah 17:1-11). He likened the ‘remnant’ to ‘gleaning grapes’ and olives left on the tree after the harvest ‘in the top of the uppermost bough . . . in the outmost fruitful branches.’ Israel's cities, he declared, would ‘be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch.’ Israel would ‘plant pleasant plants and . . . set it with strange slips.’ The Hebrew word rendered ‘set’ means to ‘sow’ (for example, seeds), while the word translated ‘slips’ refers to pruned branches. It would appear that Isaiah, like Zenos, was speaking of grafting of foreign branches into the ‘pleasant plants.’” (The Allegory of the Olive Tree: The Olive, the Bible, and Jacob 5, ed. by Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., FARMS, 1994], 406)
Isaiah 17:12-14 Woe to the multitude of many people…the nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters
The heading for chapter 17 says, “Yet the nations that spoil her shall be destroyed.” These verses speak of destruction for the destroyer in imagery of multitudes so great that they overcome as rushing waters on the unwary. The Lord uses the wicked to punish the wicked. So Assyria conquers Israel, and God punishes Assyria at the hands of the Babylonians. The Babylonians conquer Judah, and God punishes the Babylonians at the hands of the Persians. “Behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished.” (Mormon 4:3)