Isaiah (Part 18): Judgment - Moab and Damascus (Ch 15-17a)
The judgment of Moab covers two chapters—a much longer treatment than that given to Assyria and Philistia. With the greater coverage we learn additional aspects about the judgment of God. Chapter 15 begins by emphasizing the extent of Moab’s judgment. The city Ar, mentioned in verse 1, is on the northern border of their territory, which begins from their northern boundary at the Arnon River, flowing into the Dead Sea on the east at about the center of the north-south length of the sea, and extends south to several miles below the latitude of the Dead Sea’s southern tip. Besides the city Ar, verse 1 also mentions “Kir in Moab.” Kir is not a name, but rather the word for “city.” Thus, “Kir in Moab” most likely refers to the main city or capital of Moab. The point, then, of the verse is that this judgment of God is no localized event, but extends from the border to the capital.
Verses 2 through 4 continue this thought of all-encompassing judgment. Verse 2 mentions Dibon—quite possibly the capital, but at least the major center of their worship. The LXX translation provides greater insight as to the meaning of the verse. In the LXX, we read, “Grieve for yourselves; for even Dibon, where your altar is, shall be destroyed: you shall go up to weep.” In other words, Dibon was the main center of worship for the Moabites. But even here where they approached their god, they could not find rescue or relief.
The shaving of hair shows humility and distress. The people wear sackcloth and wail in the streets. In the cities they cry out. In the remotest towns they cry out. Even their military offers no hope. The picture given to us shows a people who have absolutely no place to turn. They are without any hope. They see the advancing Assyrian army (God’s instrument of justice on them) as inevitable impending doom.
In verses 5 through 9, the picture for them is not changed. But in these verses we view the coming judgment and the Moabites’ reaction from God’s perspective. As we have seen before, our God presented here is not the unsympathetic tyrant that people traditionally think of when considering the God of the OT. This is a God who, because of the purity of his justice, must mete out judgment, but does so while his “heart cries out over Moab” (15:5). The crying out, verses 5 and 6 tell us (using the Hebrew “for” or “because”) of the Moabite distress in weeping, crying out about the destruction and desolation. Yet even in this travail, and even while God’s heart aches over them, the judgment continues. And God promises an even greater judgment by the lion to come (15:9, indicating ultimate judgment against sin through Christ).
At the beginning of chapter 16, we peek in on what seems to be a meeting of the leaders of Moab, trying to decide what to do. Verse 1 begins mentioning lambs to be given as tribute. Moab was a sheepherding people, and therefore any payment made by them would not come in the form of gold or silver, but rather sheep. But notice to whom they are paying tribute. The lambs are not going to pay of Assyria. Moab knows that Assyria will not withdraw with payment (just as in Judah’s case). Rather, Moab is considering sending tribute to Jerusalem. The cities mentioned at the end of chapter 15 were cities of Moab located in the southern and western regions of their land. In other words, they are fleeing the Assyrian invasion from the north by fleeing south and then west around the Dead Sea. The tribute to Jerusalem is in request of protection to escape into Judah’s territory. Moab is hoping to hide out in Judah until Assyria leaves their land.
In verse 2, they show their distress in thinking of the women of their nation who live at the Arnon River, being displaced by the advancing Assyrian army. The picture is one provoking sympathy for these whose homes and protection are suddenly threatened, as a bird flutters in distress being forced from its nest. The Moabites cry out to Judah in verses 3 and the beginning of 4 for shelter and refuge.
In verses 4b-5, God answers. He welcomes Moab, promising security. But he has a condition. When the Assyrians have left and they are free to return to their land, God tells them that they must remember and follow the God of Judah who showed them love, righteousness, and justice.
In verses 6 through 8 we discover Moab’s decision concerning God’s condition. Moab continues under the persecution of the judgment. Although they wanted protection and cried out for help, they could not bear giving themselves to Judah’s God.
Yet, even still, God mourns for Moab. Verses 9-12 reveal God drenching the Moabite cities with his tears (9) and moaning like the sound of a lyre (10). But the Moabites run back to their own gods and find their prayers are futile (12).
The last verses of chapter 16 indicate that Isaiah had given this prophecy to Moab previously. Now, with the recording of it, Isaiah also indicates that the prophecy would realize fulfillment within three years.
The judgment against Damascus (Syria or Aram) is connected to judgment against Israel (specifically, the ten northern tribes of Israel, often referred to by the largest member tribe, Ephraim). The first three verses pronounce general judgment. Note that in verse 3, the remnant of Aram is likened to the splendor of Israel. In this, Isaiah and God are using sarcasm to get the point across that the judgment is just as expansive and complete as the judgment just prophesied for Moab. Verse 4 tells us that Israel’s splendor will fade, becoming emaciated. Therefore, when we read in verse 3 that Aram’s splendor will be like that of Israel, we are to understand that Aram’s splendor will fade just as Israel’s would. There is no hope in these verses. The glory is departing.
In verses 4-6, we view specifics of the judgment. But these verses also give us a clue that God never forgets those who trust in him. A remnant, even in Ephraim and in Syria, is pictured in the gleanings and few berries that are left.
Verses 7 and 8 go on to tell us that a remnant will look to God, rejecting their false gods.
The last three verses of this section concentrate on the reason for the judgment. Verse 9 recounts the continued distress, and verses 10-11 explain that this is because the people have forgotten God, who is the God of rescue and security and the God of provision. The difference between Ephraim—a nation of covenant relationship with God—and Syria—a foreign nation without covenant—should not stop us from linking all nations and all people to the common heritage and responsibility to God, the Creator and Lord of all the earth.
Each of these nations has a history to study to see the pattern of God abandonment. But our conclusion must focus on the themes presented and not merely the history (although the history does help us understand the themes more fully).
Here are the themes:
Assyria (14:24) - God will accomplish his plan (live according to his plan)
Philistia (14:32) – God will provide protection (look to him for security)
Moab (16:4-5) – God will be worshipped (even other nations are welcomed)
Damascus (17:5-6) – God will keep his remnant (God honors faith, hope, and love for him)