Today: [Isaiah 17] Who Are the 144,000? In chapter 17 of Isaiah we find the prophet speaking against the northern kingdom. The 10 tribes to the north have called on their ancient enemies in Damascus to come against the city of Jerusalem. There is a great fear of Assyrian invasion and both the northern and southern kingdoms have forsaken trust in God and turned to foreign powers for help. As a result Isaiah predicts the 10 tribes to the north will be completely decimated and lost to history. This brings an interesting question then from Rev. 7 regarding the 144,000. If 10 of these tribes disappeared in captivity, being bred out of existence, then what does Rev. 7 refer to? Likewise the overall message is for us that our trust must be in the God of heaven when things get difficult and not turning to outward resources rather than the living God.
[Isa 17:1-14 KJV] 1 The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from [being] a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap. 2 The cities of Aroer [are] forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make [them] afraid. 3 The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus, and the remnant of Syria: they shall be as the glory of the children of Israel, saith the LORD of hosts. 4 And in that day it shall come to pass, [that] the glory of Jacob shall be made thin, and the fatness of his flesh shall wax lean. 5 And it shall be as when the harvestman gathereth the corn, and reapeth the ears with his arm; and it shall be as he that gathereth ears in the valley of Rephaim. 6 Yet gleaning grapes shall be left in it, as the shaking of an olive tree, two [or] three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four [or] five in the outmost fruitful branches thereof, saith the LORD God of Israel.
In Isaiah thus far Isaiah has prophesied to Jerusalem and the southern kingdom, Assyria, Babylon, and Moab. Here in chapter 17 he continues reproving the northern kingdom (referred to as Ephraim) and the Syrians with their capital in Damascus. The northern kingdom is made up of the remnants of the 10 tribes of Israel who separated from king Rheoboam after the death of king Solomon. This division of the kingdom was ordained by God in the beginning but the northern peoples turn to idolatry and in this case made a treaty with their ancient enemies, the Syrians to attach their brother kingdom to the south in order to force them to join in battle against the encroaching invasion of the Assyrians. Rather than surrender to the southern kingdom, Ahaz in the south called on Assyria itself to defend Jerusalem and put the entire region in jeopardy to being overthrown first by the Assyrians and later by the Babylonians. All of this set the stage for the temporary extinguishing of the line of David on the throne of Jerusalem in later years. The reproof of Isaiah continual is that the people of Israel and Judah should look to God and not to foreign powers to deliver them from their oppressors. The northern and southern kings while outwardly faithful to Jehovah were deeply involved in idol worship and paganism and therefore had no faith to trust in the living God.
Because of this verse 1 of our chapter tells us that both Damascus and (v.3) Eprhaim will be taken away into captivity and destroyed. Verse 4 says that the glory of Jacob will be made thin with only a very small remnant left of these once great 10 tribes of Israel. The fact of the matter is that ancient Syria was overthrown and the 10 tribes disappear from history for the most part with only a few faithful ones who crossed over to the south to take refuge in Jerusalem and the southern kingdom under the successful reign of king Hezekiah. Because these northern tribes consequently bred themselves out of existence during their Babylonian captivity we can conclude that the 144,000 witnesses (12,000 from every tribe) cannot refer to natural Israel because 10 of those tribes no longer exist and haven’t been in the earth since several centuries before Jesus. This is why the New Testament teaches that the church in a measure represents the spiritual Israel of which natural Israel is but a shadow. This is not to say that the church replaces natural Judaism but as Paul teaches in Romans we are grafted in by the plan of God to that destiny.
7 At that day shall a man look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel. 8 And he shall not look to the altars, the work of his hands, neither shall respect [that] which his fingers have made, either the groves, or the images. 9 In that day shall his strong cities be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch, which they left because of the children of Israel: and there shall be desolation. 10 Because thou hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and hast not been mindful of the rock of thy strength, therefore shalt thou plant pleasant plants, and shalt set it with strange slips: 11 In the day shalt thou make thy plant to grow, and in the morning shalt thou make thy seed to flourish: [but] the harvest [shall be] a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow. 12 Woe to the multitude of many people, [which] make a noise like the noise of the seas; and to the rushing of nations, [that] make a rushing like the rushing of mighty waters! 13 The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but [God] shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind. 14 And behold at eveningtide trouble; [and] before the morning he [is] not. This [is] the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us.
Why is God dealing with the southern and northern kingdoms in such a way? Because they have looked outwardly for what they should have looked to the Lord for. This is what constitutes idolatry. Idolatry is looking elsewhere for the trust and security that can only be found (for us) in Christ. Where do we look when we are under pressure? Do we look to man? Do we trust in the political systems? We would never dare to turn our hearts from God but consider the words of Jeremiah:
[Jer 17:5 NKJV] 5 Thus says the LORD: “Cursed [is] the man who trusts in man And makes flesh his strength, Whose heart departs from the LORD.
Verse 8 tells us not to look to the high places. In ancient times the high places are groves and sacred trees where idol worship was taking place. Today our high places have names like the Capitol building, Washington DC, and the Oval Office. Verse 10 warns us not to forget the God of our salvation, or to fail to remember the rock of our strength that is found in God and none else. In our day we compartmentalize our lives and see no contradiction between the spiritual and the political. Faith is one thing and politics are another and never the twain shall meet – but from a biblical perspective whatever stirs your passion indicates your fidelity toward one and infidelity toward another. People that would never raise their voice in church will get stirred up and deeply passionate about the political not realizing they are revealing themselves much deeper than they might ever know.
In this case the Lord tells the people through Isaiah woe to them because of the noise they are making over the relatively minor threat before them – because of they fail to put their trust in God there will come a greater threat (in this case Babylon) that will cause the threat of Assyria to pale by comparison. What is the answer for us? Like my wife Kitty says “we pray before we get in trouble…” Remember that the preaching of Isaiah began in relatively prosperous times. Anchor yourself in Christ before difficulty finds you lest you not find the strength to trust Him when you are tested.
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