CLICK HERE to read Isaiah 17.
This chapter was actually written after chapter 8, when the Israelites (northern kingdom) were aligning with Syria against Judah (southern kingdom). It is placed here in poetic order due to these chapters that are a series of warnings to the different groups about to be conquered by the Assyrians.
Damascus was (is) the capital of Syria, and Isaiah’s “burden” (message) to them is the warning that because they have turned away from the Lord, they will also be destroyed. In fact, he tells them Damascus will be a “ruinous heap” instead of a city (verse 1). This happened when the Assyrians got there in 734 B.C. and literally leveled the city. Isaiah says the city and its surrounding districts were so flattened that the sheep can graze there and even sleep there at night, and have no problems getting around or being afraid (verse 2).
When Isaiah says “Ephraim” in this context, he means all the Ten Tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel (verse 3). The “fortress” he means is the capital of the northern kingdom, which was Samaria. Isaiah is saying that what happens to them (being taken captive by the Assyrians) will also happen to the Syrians. He says that they will fall from favor with the Lord, and so their “glory” will wear thin as the Lord’s patience wears thin (verse 4).
That’s exactly what happened. Tiglath-pileser led the Assyrians across the land the way the harvest is gathered, leaving only the leftovers that have fallen to the ground (verse 5). When the harvesters of vineyards gather grapes, some grapes were missed amongst the leaves, and when they shook the olive trees to harvest olives, some did not fall (verse 6). The Assyrians took all the people with them, leaving few behind (verse 9).
The Assyrian attack will be so sudden and complete that it will shock the people into realization of what has happened to them. They will turn again to the Lord, and ask Him again to be their redeemer (verse 7). The few left behind, the handful of survivors, will abandon their false idols and their sexual sins and turn again to the purity of the Lord who is alive and real and can actually help them (verse 8).
But even then, because in the past they have given way to what was not-of-God, their people will be influenced by the false traditions (“strange” slips are grafts, as in grafting in what was not part of the original) (verse 10). This is how the people were corrupted, but the judgment will fall upon them so severely and completely that it will purge the people. These false traditions will come to nothing, leaving the people in “grief and desperate sorrow” (verse 11).
Verse 12 then has two layers.
First, Isaiah is saying the Assyrians (“multitude of many people”) will rush across the land, conquering it quickly and destroying everything, even flattening it as a flood would (“rushing of mighty waters”). But he warns them that they will also be destroyed, getting what they dish out, being conquered in the same way they conquered the Israelites. This came true when the Babylonians came and conquered the Assyrians.
Secondly, we cannot read any poetic description about the rushing of might waters or the noise of the sea or these kinds of metaphors without thinking of The Living Christ:
Of the Living Christ, the Prophet Joseph wrote: “His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: “I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father” (D&C 110:3–4).
So we also have the application of the final judgment, when the Savior Himself will judge us, and all that is not-of-God will be destroyed. He will judge all the people, or “all the nations” (verse 13).
Isaiah tells the Israelites that the Assyrians will not always be the enemy, and that the enemy will also be judged (verse 14). This is a good reminder for all of us, any time we are choosing to listen to that voice that is as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even when those around us do not. It is a reminder that the Lord is judge, and we are not, and to focus on our own covenant-keeping no matter what is happening around us.