In 2010 visitors to Syria would still have found a quiet and peaceful country, though under the surface resentment seethed against a Ba’athist dictatorship that had ruled the country for almost half a century.
But in March 2011 everything changed for Syrians, as a revolution and civil war turned vibrant cities like Kobane and nearby Aleppo, their suqs, mosques, and richly ornamented houses, into ruins. Both government and rebels sought outside alliances, precariously harnessing the self-interest of foreign powers. To compound matters, ISIS (so-called Islamic State) took every opportunity to advance its bloody campaign. By 2017, 400,000 Syrians had been killed and millions had fled their homes in search of peace and security for their families. Meanwhile, the ruling family and their supporters lived in safety in Damascus, protected and defended by foreign military allies.
In 721 BCE the world changed for Israel as well: Samaria was devastated and shortly after, Jerusalem was attacked. Their leaders too had become indulgent, turning dangerously to Egypt for assistance. The people would suffer for their misguided priests ‘bloated with rich food … overcome with wine’ (Isaiah 28:1b).
This photograph offers a poignant glimpse into modern Syria’s suffering. A Kurdish Syrian woman is returning with her son to her home in Kobane in March 2015, after it was reclaimed from ISIS, and seeing the devastation of her city. The destruction of cities and the direct experience of these events are apparent in both this photo and the words of Isaiah: these ‘documents’ expose us to devastation as they narrate not from a distance, but in close-ups.
International aid to Kobane has been pitiful, and most of the city is still a wilderness. But Isaiah promises something that seems hard to imagine when faced with such catastrophic scenes of devastation: that God will be a spirit of justice and strength (v.6). That in the midst of their loss, a standard of justice and a vision of beauty will appear, holding out hope for a ‘crown of glory’ (v.5) to a people ‘broken and snared and taken’ (v.13c).
After devastation, there may still be a return; a renewal.
Van Dam, Nikolas. 2017. Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I. B. Tauris)
Watts, John. 1986. The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
28Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Eʹphraim,
and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!
2Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,
he will cast down to the earth with violence.
3The proud crown of the drunkards of Eʹphraim
will be trodden under foot;
4and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
which is on the head of the rich valley,
will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer:
when a man sees it, he eats it up
as soon as it is in his hand.
5In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory,
and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;
6and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.
7These also reel with wine
and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
they are confused with wine,
they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
they stumble in giving judgment.
8For all tables are full of vomit,
no place is without filthiness.
9“Whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
10For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.”
11Nay, but by men of strange lips
and with an alien tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
12to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
yet they would not hear.
13Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
here a little, there a little;
that they may go, and fall backward,
and be broken, and snared, and taken.
14Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers,
who rule this people in Jerusalem!
15Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
16therefore thus says the Lord God,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘He who believes will not be in haste.’
17And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet;
and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”
18Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
you will be beaten down by it.
19As often as it passes through it will take you;
for morning by morning it will pass through,
by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.
20For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it,
and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.
21For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Peraʹzim,
he will be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon;
to do his deed—strange is his deed!
and to work his work—alien is his work!
22Now therefore do not scoff,
lest your bonds be made strong;
for I have heard a decree of destruction
from the Lord God of hosts upon the whole land.
23Give ear, and hear my voice;
hearken, and hear my speech.
24Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
does he continually open and harrow his ground?
25When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cummin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and spelt as the border?
26For he is instructed aright;
his God teaches him.
27Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin;
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cummin with a rod.
28Does one crush bread grain?
No, he does not thresh it for ever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
with his horses, he does not crush it.
29This also comes from the Lord of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel,
and excellent in wisdom.