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Verse 3

The order of God’s threatenings seems to have been addressed to gain the hearing of the people. The punishment is first denounced upon their enemies, and that, for their sins, directly or indirectly, against themselves, and God in them. Then, as to those enemies themselves, the order is not of place or time, but of their relation to God’s people. It begins with their most oppressive enemy, Syria; then Philistia, the old and ceaseless, although less powerful, enemy; then Tyre, not an oppressor, as these, yet violating a relation which they had not, the bonds of a former friendship and covenant; malicious also and hardhearted through covetousness. Then follow Edom, Ammon, Moab, who burst the bonds of blood also. Lastly and nearest of all, it falls on Judah, who had the true worship of the true God among them, but despised it. Every infliction on those like ourselves finds an echo in our own consciences. Israel heard and readily believed God’s judgments upon others. It was not tempted to set itself against believing them. How then could it refuse to believe of itself, what it believed of others like itself? “Change but the name, the tale is told of thee ,” was a pagan saying which has almost passed into a proverb. The course of the prophecy convicted “them,” as the things written in Holy Scripture “for our ensamples” convict Christians. “If they” who “sinned without law, perished without law” Romans 2:12, how much more should they who “have sinned in the law, be judged by the law.” God’s judgments rolled round like a thunder-cloud, passing from land to land, giving warning of their approach, at last to gather and center on Israel itself, except it repent. In the visitations of others, it was to read its own; and that, the more, the nearer God was to them. “Israel” is placed the last, because on it the destruction was to fall to the uttermost, and rest there.

For three transgressions and for four - These words express, not four transgressions added to the three, but an additional transgression beyond the former, the last sin, whereby the measure of sin, which before was full, overflows, and God’s wrath comes. So in other places, where the like form of words occurs, the added number is one beyond, and mostly relates to something greater than all the rest. So, “He shall deliver thee in six troubles; yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee” Job 5:19. The word, “yea,” denotes, that the seventh is some heavier trouble, beyond all the rest, which would seem likely to break endurance. Again, “give a portion to seven, and also to eight” Ecclesiastes 11:2. Seven is used as a symbol of a whole, since “on the seventh day God rested from all which He had made,” and therefore the number seven entered so largely into the whole Jewish ritual. All time was measured by seven.

The rule then is; “give without bounds; when that whole is fulfilled, still give.” Again in that series of sayings in the book of Proverbs Proverbs 30:0, the fourth is, in each, something greater than the three preceding. “There are three” things that “are never satisfied;” yea, “four” things “say not,” it is “enough” Proverbs 30:15-16. The other things cannot be satisfied; the fourth, fire, grows fiercer by being fed. Again, “There be three” things “which go well; yea, four are comely in going” Proverbs 30:29-31. The moral majesty of a king is obviously greater than the rest. So “the handmaid which displaceth her mistress” Proverbs 30:21-23 is more intolerable and overbearing than the others. The art and concealment of man in approaching a maiden is of a subtler kind than things in nature which leave no trace of themselves, the eagle in the air, the serpent on the rock, the ship in its pathway through the waves Proverbs 30:18-19. Again, “Sowing discord among brethren” Proverbs 6:16-19, has a special hatefulness, as not only being sin, but causing widewasting sin, and destroying in others the chief grace, love. Soul-murder is worse than physical murder, and requires more devilish art.

These things - Job says, “worketh God twice and thrice with man, to bring back his soul from the pit” Job 33:29. The last grace of God, whether sealing up the former graces of those who use them, or vouchsafed to those who have wasted them, is the crowning act of His love or forbearance.

In pagan poetry also, as a trace of a mystery which they had forgotten, three is a sacred whole; from where “thrice and fourfold blessed” stands among them for something exceeding even a full and perfect blessing, a super-abundance of blessings.

The fourth transgression of these pagan nations is alone mentioned. For the prophet had no mission to “them;” he only declares to Israel the ground of the visitation which was to come upon them. The three transgressions stand for a whole sum of sin, which had not yet brought down extreme punishment; the fourth was the crowning sin, after which God would no longer spare. But although the fourth drew down His judgment, God, at the last, punishes not the last sin only, but all which went before. In that the prophet says, not, “for the fourth,” but “for three transgressions and for four,” he expresses at once, that God did not punish until the last sin, by which “the iniquity” of the sinful nation became “full” Genesis 15:16, and that, “then,” He punished for all, for the whole mass of sin described by the three, and for the fourth also. God is longsuffering and ready to forgive; but when the sinner finally becomes a “vessel of wrath” Romans 9:22, He punishes all the earlier sins, which, for the time, He passed by.

Sin adds to sin, out of which it grows; it does not overshadow the former sins, it does not obliterate them, but increases the mass of guilt, which God punishes. When the Jews killed the Son, there, “came on” them “all the righteous bloodshed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias” Matthew 23:35-36; Luke 11:50-51. All the blood of all the prophets and servants of God under the Old Testament came upon that generation. So each individual sinner, who dies impenitent, will be punished for all which, in his whole life, he did or became, contrary to the law of God. Deeper sins bring deeper damnation at the last. So Paul speaks of those who “treasure up to” themselves “wrath against the Day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” Romans 2:5. As good people, by the grace of God, do, through each act done by aid of that grace, gain an addition to their everlasting reward, so the wicked, by each added sin, add to their damnation.

Of Damascus - Damascus was one of the oldest cities in the world, and one of the links of its contact. It lay in the midst of its plain, a high table-land of rich cultivation, whose breadth, from Anti-libanus eastward, was about half a degree. On the west and north its plain lay sheltered under the range of Anti-libanus; on the east, it was protected by the great desert which intervened between its oasis-territory and the Euphrates. Immediately, it was bounded by the three lakes which receive the surplus of the waters which enrich it. The Barada (the “cold”) having joined the Fijeh, (the traditional Pharpar” , a name which well designates its tumultuous course ), runs on the north of, and through the city, and then chiefly into the central of the three lakes, the Bahret-el-kibliyeh, (the “south” lake;) thence, it is supposed, but in part also directly, into the Bahret-esh-Shurkiyeh (the “east” lake ). The ‘Awaj (the “crooked”) (perhaps the old Amana, “the never-failing,” in contrast with the streams which are exhausted in irrigation) runs near the old south boundary of Damascus , separating it probably from the northern possessions of Israel beyond Jordan, Bashan (in its widest sense), and Jetur or Ituraea. The area has been calculated at 236 square geographical miles .

This space rather became the center of its dominions, than measured their extent. But it supported a population far beyond what that space would maintain in Europe. Taught by the face of creation around them, where the course of every tiny rivulet, as it burst from the rocks, was marked by a rich luxuriance , the Damascenes of old availed themselves of the continual supply from the snows of Hermon or the heights of Anti-libanus, with a systematic diligence , of which, in our northern clime, as we have no need, so we have no idea. “Without the Barada,” says Porter , “the city could not exist, and the plain would be a parched desert; but now aqueducts intersect every quarter, and fountains sparkle in almost every dwelling, while innumerable canals extend their ramifications over the vast plain, clothing it with verdure and beauty. Five of these canals are led off from the river at different elevations, before it enters the plain. They are carried along the precipitous banks of the ravine, being in some places tunnelled in the solid rock. The two on the northern side water Salahiyeh at the foot of the hills about a mile from the city, and then irrigate the higher portions of the plain to the distance of nearly twenty miles. Of the three on the south side, one is led to the populous village Daraya, five miles distant; the other two supply the city, its suburbs, and gardens.”

The like use was made of every fountain in every larger or lesser plain. Of old it was said , “the Chrysorrhoas (the Barada) “is nearly expended in artificial channels.” : “Damascus is fertile through drinking up the Chrysorrhoas by irrigation.” Fourteen names of its canals are still given ; and while it has been common to select 7 or 8 chief canals, the whole have been counted up even to 70 . No art or labor was thought too great. The waters of the Fijeh were carried by a great aqueduct tunnelled through the side of the perpendicular cliff . Yet this was as nothing. Its whole plain was intersected with canals, and tunneled below. : “The waters of the river were spread over the surface of the soil in the fields and gardens; underneath, other canals were tunnelled to collect the superfluous water which percolates the soil, or from little fountains and springs below. The stream thus collected is led off to a lower level, where it comes to the surface. : “The whole plain is filled with these singular aqueducts, some of them running for 2 or 3 miles underground. Where the water of one is diffusing life and verdure over the surface, another branch is collecting a new supply.” “In former days these extended over the whole plain to the lakes, thus irrigating the fields and gardens in every part of it.”

Damascus then was, of old, famed for its beauty. Its white buildings, embedded in the deep green of its engirdling orchards, were like diamonds encircled by emeralds. They reach nearly to Anti-libanus westward , “and extend on both sides of the Barada some miles eastward. They cover an area at last 25 (or 30) miles in circuit, and make the environs an earthly Paradise.” Whence the Arabs said , “If there is a garden of Eden on earth, it is Damascus; and if in heaven, Damascus is like it on earth.” But this its beauty was also its strength. “The river,” says William of Tyre , “having abundant water, supplies orchards on both banks, thick-set with fruit-trees, and flows eastward by the city wall. On the west and north the city was far and wide fenced by orchards, like thick dense woods, which stretched four or live miles toward Libanus. These orchards are a most exceeding defense; for from the density of the trees and the narrowness of the ways, it seemed difficult and almost impossible to approach the city on that side.” Even to this day it is said , “The true defense of Damascus consists in its gardens, which, forming a forest of fruit-trees and a labyrinth of hedges, walls and ditches, for more than 7 leagues in circumference, would present no small impediment to a Mussulman enemy.”

The advantage of its site doubtless occastoned its early choice. It lay on the best route from the interior of Asia to the Mediterranean, to Tyre, and even to Egypt. Chedorlaomer and the four kings with him, doubtless, came that way, since the first whom they smote were at Ashteroth Karnaim Genesis 14:5-6 in Jaulan or Gaulonitis, and thence they swept on southward, along the west side of Jordan, smiting, as they went, first the “Zuzim,” (probably the same as the Zamzummim Deuteronomy 2:2 O) in Ammonitis; then “the Emim in the plain of Kiriathaim” in Moab Deuteronomy 9:11, then “the Horites in Mount Seir unto Elparan” (probably Elath on the Gulf called from it.) They returned that way, since Abraham overtook them at Hobah near Damascus Genesis 14:15. Damascus was already the chief city, through its relation to which alone Hobah was known. It was on the route by which Abraham himself came at God’s command from Haran (Charrae of the Greeks) whether over Tiphsaeh (“the passage,” Thapsacus) or anymore northern passage over the Euphrates. The fact that his chief and confidential servant whom he entrusted to seek a wife for Isaac, and who was, at one time, his heir, was a Damascene Genesis 15:2-3, implies some intimate connection of Abraham with Damascus. At the time of our era, the name of Abraham was still held in honor in the country of Damascus ; a village was named from him “Abraham’s dwelling;” and a native historian Nicolas said, that he reigned in Damascus on his way from the country beyond Babylon to Canaan. The name of his servant “Eliezer” “my God is help,” implies that at this time too the servant was a worshiper of the One God. The name Damascus probably betokened the strenuous , energetic character of its founder.

Like the other names connected with Aram in the Old Testament , it is, in conformity with the common descent from Aram, Aramaic. It was no part of the territory assigned to Israel, nor was it molested by them. Judging, probably, of David’s defensive conquests by its own policy, it joined the other Syrians who attacked David, was subdued, garrisoned, and became tributary 2 Samuel 8:5-6. It was at that time probably a subordinate power, whether on the ground of the personal eminence of Hadadezer king of Zobah, or any other. Certainly Hadadezer stands cut conspicuously; the Damascenes are mentioned only subordinately.

Consistently with this, the first mention of the kingdom of Damascus in Scripture is the dynasty of Rezon son of Eliada’s, a fugitive servant of Hadadezer, who formed a marauding band, then settled and reigned in Damascus 1 Kings 11:23-24. Before this, Scripture speaks of the people only of Damascus, not of their kings. Its native historian admits that the Damascenes were, in the time of David, and continued to be, the aggressors, while he veils over their repeated defeats, and represents their kings, as having reigned successively from father to son, for ten generations, a thing unknown probably in any monarchy. : “A native, Adad, having gained great power, became king of Damascus and the rest of Syria, except Phoenicia. He, having carried war against David, king of Judaea, and disputed with him in many battles, and that finally at the Euaphrates where he was defeated, had the character of a most eminent king for prowess and valor. After his death, his descendants reigned for ten generations, each receiving from his father the name (Hadad) together with the kingdom, like the Ptolemies of Egypt. The third, having gained the greatest power of all, seeking to repair the defeat of his grandfather, warring against the Jews, wasted what is now callcd Samaritis.” They could not brook a defeat, which they had brought upon themselves.

Rezon renewed, throughout the later part of Solomon’s reign, the aggression of Hadad. On the schism of the ten tribes, the hostility of Damascus was concentrated against Israel who lay next to them. Abijam was in league with the father of Benhadad 1 Kings 15:19. Benhadad at once broke his league with Baasha at the request of Asa in his later mistrustful days 1 Chronicles 16:2-7, and turned against Baasha (1 Chronicles 16:2-7 and 1 Kings 15:20). From Omri also Benhadad I took cities and extorted “streets,” probably a Damascus quarter, in Samaria itself 1 Kings 20:34. Benhadad II had “thirty-two” vassal “kings” 1 Kings 20:1, 1 Kings 20:24, (dependent kings like those of Canaan, each of his own city and little territory,) and led them against Samaria, intending to plunder it 1 Kings 20:6-7, and, on occasion of the plundering, probably to make it his own or to destroy it. By God’s help they were twice defeated; the second time, when they directly challenged the power of God 1 Kings 20:22-25, 1 Kings 20:28, so signally that, had not Ahab been flattered by the appeal to his mercy 1 Kings 20:31-32, Syria would no more have been in a condition to oppress Israel. Benhadad promised to restore the cities which his father had taken from Israel, and to make an Israel-quarter in Damascus 1 Kings 20:34.

If this promise was fulfilled, Ramoth-Gilead must have been lost to Syria at an earlier period, since, three years afterward, Ahab perished in an attempt, by aid of Jehoshaphat, against the counsels of God, to recover it 1 Kings 22:0. Ramoth-Gilead being thus in the hands of Syria, all north of it, half of Dan and Manasseh beyond Jordan, must also have been conquered by Syria. Except the one great siege of Samaria, which brought it to extremities and which God dissipated by a panic which He infused into the Syrian army 2 Kings 7:6. Benhadad and Hazael encouraged only marauding expeditions against Israel during the 14 years of Ahaziah and Jehoram. Benhadad was, according to Assyrian inscriptions defeated thrice, Hazael twice, by Shalmanubar king of Assyria . Benhadad appears to have acted on the offensive, in alliance with the kings of the Hittites, the Hamathites and Phoenicians ; Hazael was attacked alone, driven to take refuge in Anti-libanus, and probably became tributary .

Assyrian chronicles relate only Assyrian victories. The brief notice, that through Naaman “the Lord gave deliverance to Syria” 2 Kings 5:1, probably refers to some signal check which Assyria received through him. For there was no other enemy, from whom Syria had to be “delivered.” Subsequently to that retreat from Samaria, he even lost Ramoth 2 Kings 9:14-15 to Jehoram after a battle before it 2 Kings 8:29, in which Jehoram was wounded. It is a probable conjecture that Jehu, by his political submission to Assyria, drew on himself the calamities which Elisha foretold. Hazael probably became the instrument of God in chastening Israel, while he was avenging Jehu’s submission to a power whom he dreaded and from whom he had suffered. Israel, having lost the help of Judah, became the easier prey. Hazael not only took from Israel all east of Jordan 2 Kings 10:32-33, but made the whole open country unsafe for the Israelites to dwell in.

Not until God “gave Israel a saviour,” could they “dwell in their tents as beforetime” 2 Kings 13:5. Hazael extended his conquests to Gath 2 Kings 12:17, intending probably to open a connecting line with Egypt. “With a small company of men” he defeated a large army of Judah 2 Chronicles 24:23-24. Joash, king of Judah, bought him off, when advancing against Jerusalem, with everything of gold, consecrated or civil, in the temple or in his own treasures 2 Kings 12:18. Jehoash recovered from Benhadad III the cities this side Jordan 2 Kings 13:25; Jeroboam II, all their lost territories and even Damascus and Hamath 2 Kings 14:28. Yet after this, it was to recover its power under Rezin, to become formidable to Judah, and, through its aggressions on Judah, to bring destruction on itself. At this time, Damascus was probably, like ourselves, a rich, commercial, as well as warlike, but not as yet a manufacturing (see the note at Amos 3:12) nation. Its wealth, as a great emporium of transit-commerce, (as it is now) furnished it with sinews for war. The “white wool” Ezekiel 27:18, in which it traded with Tyre, implies the possession of a large outlying tract in the desert, where the sheep yield the whitest wool. It had then doubtless, beside the population of its plain, large nomadic hordes dependent upon it.

I will not turn away the punishment thereof - Literally, “I will not turn it back.” What was this, which God would not turn back? Amos does not express it. Silence is often more emphatic than words. Not naming it, he leaves it the rather to be conceived of by the mind, as something which had been of old coming upon them to overwhelm them, which God had long stayed back, but which, since He would now stay it no longer, would burst in, with the more terrific and overwhelming might, because it had been restrained before. Sin and punishment are by a great law of God bound together. God’s mercy holds back the punishment long, allowing only some slight tokens of His displeasure to show themselves, that the sinful soul or people may not be unwarned. When He no longer withholds it, the law of His moral government holds its course. “Seldom,” said pagan experience , “hath punishment with lingering foot parted with the miscreant, advancing before.”

Because they have threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron - The instrument, Jerome relates here, was “a sort of wain, rolling on iron wheels beneath, set with teeth; so that it both threshed out the grain and bruised the straw and cut it in pieces, as food for the cattle, for lack of hay.” A similar instrument, called by nearly the same name, is still in use in Syria and Egypt. Elisha had foretold to Hazael his cruelty to Israel; “Their strong holds thou wilt set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child” 2 Kings 8:12. Hazael, like others gradually steeped in sin, thought it impossible, but did it. In the days of Jehu, “Hazael smote them in all the coasts of Israel from Jordan eastward; all the land of Gilead, the Gadites and the Reubenites and the Manassites, from Arorer which is by the River Arnon, even Gilead and Bashan” 2 Kings 10:32-33; in those of Jehoahaz, Jehu’s son, “he oppressed them, neither did he leave of the people to Jehoahaz but fifty horsemen and ten chariots, and ten thousand footmen, for the king of Syria had destroyed them, and had made them like the dust by threshing” 2 Kings 13:7. The death here spoken of, although more ghastly, was probably not more severe than many others; not nearly so severe as some which have been used by Christian Judicatures. It is mentioned in the Proverbs, as a capital punishment Proverbs 20:26; and is alluded to as such by Isaiah Isaiah 28:28. David had had, for some cause unexplained by Holy Scripture, to inflict it on the Ammonites 2 Samuel 12:31; 1 Chronicles 20:3. Probably not the punishment in itself alone, but the attempt so to extirpate the people of God brought down this judgment on Damascus.

Theodoret supposes the horrible aggravation, that it was thus that the women with child were destroyed with their children, “casting the aforesaid women, as into a sort of threshing-floor, they savagely threshed them out like ears of grain with saw-armed wheels.”

Gilead is here doubtless to be taken in its widest sense, including all the possessions of Israel, east of Jordan, as, in the account of Hazael’s conquests, “all the land of Gilead” 2 Kings 10:32-33 is explained to mean, all which was ever given to the two tribes and a half, and to include Gilead proper, as distinct from Basan. In like way Joshua relates, that “the children of Reuben and the children of Gad and the ha! f tribe of Manasseh returned to go into the country of Gilead, to the land of their possessions” Joshua 22:9. Throughout that whole beautiful tract, including 2 12 degrees of latitude, Hazael had carried on his war of extermination into every peaceful village and home, sparing neither the living nor the unborn.

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