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Prophecy Against Damascus and Israel
As we saw in the prophecies of Isaiah to Ahaz (Isaiah 7), Syria and Israel were allies. Chapter 17 starts out as a prophecy against Damascus, the capital of Syria, but by verse 3 the subject is Ephraim and the rest of Israel more than it is Syria.
The dating of this prophecy is not certain. The Assyrians had, at the time of Israel's first deportation in 732 B.C., also destroyed Damascus and taken its citizens captive north to Kir, thereby fulfilling, at least in part, a prophecy of Amos (2 Kings 16:9; Amos 1:3-5). Yet we know that the Assyrians later came against Damascus again, around 720 B.C., and retook it. For this reason, since the prophecy mentions the "remnant of Syria" (Isaiah 17:3), many date the prophecy to the early reign of Hezekiah—to between 729 and 722 B.C.—following the early deportations of Israel and Syria and yet prior to their later fall.
However, Isaiah 17:12-18:7, which contains a message to Ethiopia (Hebrew Cush), seems to be part of the same prophecy or "burden" as the early part of Isaiah 17. And there is reason for dating this section to around 715 B.C. At that time, around the death of Ahaz, "a Cushite dynasty took over Egypt...and probably sent ambassadors to Jerusalem" (Nelson Study Bible,note on 18:1). This is a reference to "Shabako, the Nubian successor to Osorkon [IV]," the latter, apparently known also as King So (2 Kings 17:4), having been defeated by Sargon II of Assyria in 716 (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, pp. 412-413). Thus, as our previous few readings have borne some relation at least to 715 B.C.—and our next reading will refer to an event dated to 713-712 B.C.—this dating seems likely. And the first part of Isaiah 17 seems to date from the same time since, as mentioned, Isaiah 17-18 appears to be a single prophecy.
If that is so, here we have a prophecy of Israel and Syria's fall given after Israel has already fallen. This makes it most likely an end-time prophecy. Supporting this conclusion is the repeated phrase "in that day" (Isaiah 17:4, 7, 9), which often refers to events surrounding the coming of the Messiah to reign over the nations (compare Isaiah 2:11, 17, 20; Isaiah 4:1-2; Isaiah 11:10-11; Isaiah 12:1, 4). Following Israel's ancient captivity, its people journeyed, over the centuries, to northwest Europe—and are now represented, in large part, by the American and British peoples. (For more on this, request or download our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy).
An end-time prophecy of Damascus and Syria could apply to those living in the nation of Syria today. Or it could also refer to Aramaean peoples who were, in ancient days, deported by the Assyrians to Kir, just south of the Caucasus Mountains. Some of these people became the Armenians. And others probably migrated through the Caucasus and into Europe along with the Israelites. Besides Amos 1:3-5, additional prophecies against Damascus can be found in Jeremiah 49:23-27 and Zechariah 9:1.
The Invading Multitude
The Israelites, we are told in Isaiah 17:7-8, will finally turn to God in the midst of the destruction that comes upon them. Then, following more details of that destruction in verses 9-11, the prophecy changes focus. We are told of a massive invasion force that God will punish. "The connection of this fragment with what precedes is: notwithstanding the calamities coming upon Israel, the people of God shall not be utterly destroyed...[and] the Assyrian spoilers shall perish" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on 17:12-18:7). Some have connected Isaiah 17:14 to the overnight destruction of the Assyrian army of Sennacherib that would occur in the days of Hezekiah (see Isaiah 37:36). While a likely forerunner, this is still predominantly an end-time prophecy.
Message to Ethiopia
Notice what the JFB Commentary says regarding the next section addressed to Ethiopia: "Isaiah announces the overthrow of Sennacherib's hosts and desires the Ethiopian ambassadors, now in Jerusalem, to bring word of it to their own nation; and he calls the whole world to witness the event (vs. 3). As ch. 17:12-14 announced the presence of the foe, so ch. 18 foretells his overthrow. The heading in [the] English Version, ‘God will destroy the Ethiopians,' is a mistake arising from the wrong rendering 'Woe,' whereas the Hebrew does not express a threat, but is an appeal calling attention (ch. 55:1; Zech. 2:6): 'Ho.' He is not speaking against but to the Ethiopians, calling on them to hear his prophetical announcement as to the destruction of their enemies" (note on Isaiah 18).
Indeed, in the end time too, the ruler of Assyria—the "king of the North"—will be an enemy of Ethiopia, as we elsewhere see him bringing the Ethiopians as well as the Egyptians under his subjection (see Daniel 11:42-43). This is another reason we may view the defeat of the enemy force in Isaiah 18 in an end-time context. Also, compare verse 6 with Revelation 19:17-18.
Finally, mention is made of a "present" being brought from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. This is stated in Zephaniah 3:10 as well: "From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering."
These verses also appear related to Psalm 68, where David says to God: "Because of Your temple at Jerusalem, kings will bring presents to you... Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God" (verses 29-31). Yet Isaiah and Zephaniah appear to indicate a particular present or offering—singular. As to what all of this might mean we can only speculate.
Interestingly, many Ethiopians practiced the Jewish religion before the days of Christ. (Note the eunuch of the Ethiopian royal court who was in Jerusalem to worship—see Acts 8:27.) In the Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Nagast ("The Glory of Kings"), written down in the 13th century, it is claimed that this tradition goes back to the Queen of Sheba at the time of Solomon. Indeed, it states that Solomon fathered a son by her named Menelik, who then founded the dynasty of Ethiopian rulers.
Whether or not this is true is unconfirmed, as the Bible is silent on it. However, history does tell us of a number of later Jewish colonies in Egypt that eventually disappeared—and there is reason to believe that refugees from these colonies were forced south and resettled in Ethiopia. Surprisingly, Ethiopians are today actually permitted to settle in the state of Israel under the Jewish law of return. While these people are black, it is possible that many are indeed descendants of Jews who intermarried with the native population.
The Kebra Nagast, it should be mentioned in this context, prominently mentions the Ark of the Covenant, the gilded chest built in Moses' day to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. This most sacred of Israelite relics was lost at some point between the days of Solomon and Ezra, though we don't know when, where or how. According to the Kebra Nagast, Menelik, to safeguard it from Solomon's growing apostasy, secretly took the ark with him to Ethiopia, leaving behind a replica that he had asked the faithful priests to make. While this sounds rather unlikely, it is nevertheless widely believed among Ethiopians today that their nation is in actual possession of the Ark of the Covenant—that it sits guarded and unapproachable in an old church in the city of Aksum in northern Ethiopia. In fact, each local church in Ethiopia has its own Tabot, or representation of the ark, to memorialize that conviction.
British journalist Graham Hancock, in his book The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, 1992, actually gives a more plausible explanation, different from the Kebra Nagast, as to how the ark might actually have ended up in Ethiopia. He speculates that the ark was taken out of Judah by the Levites to protect it from the apostasy of Hezekiah's son Manasseh—that when Josiah later told the Levites to put the ark back into the temple (2 Chronicles 35:3) this was never done, as it had supposedly already been moved to a new temple at a Jewish colony in Aswan in southern Egypt. Historically, as mentioned above, these Jewish colonists were later forced to flee from the Egyptians, and Hancock provides some evidence that they migrated south into Ethiopia—with, he maintains, the Ark of the Covenant. This hypothesis is also explored in a 2002 book titled In Search of the Lost Ark of the Covenant by Robert Cornuke and David Halbrook. Author Grant Jeffrey, in Armageddon: Appointment with Destiny,1990, while embracing the Kebra Nagast version of events, lends some support to the ark's residing in Ethiopia today (pp. 108-122, 229-233).Still, there are other theories about the ark's whereabouts that also appear credible—including the possibility that Jeremiah hid it or took it with him at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. The apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees (2:1-8) says he hid it in a cave on Mount Nebo. (Realize, however, that while the apocryphal books can be useful historical sources like many other secular writings, they are not inspired Scripture and often contain errors.) Many others believe the ark was hidden in a chamber under the Temple Mount. There is, of course, also a very strong possibility that God allowed it to be destroyed by the Babylonians along with its precious contents.
Nonetheless, given what we've seen, a number of people have suggested that the particular present the Ethiopians bring in the last days might be the actual Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments. Jeremiah says that some time into the peaceful reign of Jesus Christ, people will no longer talk about or think about the ark (Jeremiah 3:16-17)—but this would seem to imply that it will be an issue immediately before then. There is simply no way to be sure.
Finally, while such matters are certainly interesting, we should avoid getting caught up in them to the exclusion of more important spiritual study.