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Isaiah 13-29 gave oracles to many nations ending with prophecies to Israel and Judah and finally culminating with the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in Isaiah 29:1-8. The prophet later picks up this theme, again focusing his attention on Jerusalem in Isaiah 34. Here God gathers the nations to Jerusalem for destruction, and the prophecy was soon confirmed by the destruction of the Assyrian army.
Prophecies are often fulfilled more than once. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem a century later, the people of Judah were found to be God’s enemies (Isaiah 63:10). God is impartial in His judgments, and when Judah was in rebellion, God raised up Babylon and empowered them to destroy Jerusalem (Jeremiah 27:6, 8). The same thing happened in 70 A.D. when God sent His Roman army to destroy the city (Matthew 22:7).
Those who think that Israel and Judah were exempt from divine judgment do not understand the law. One cannot play the race card with God and expect to be treated differently.
In the end time battle, wherein Ariel-Jerusalem is turned into the hearth of God and is destroyed by “a consuming fire” (Isaiah 29:6) God enemies are within the camp of Jerusalem. God leads the army of foreigners who are attacking the city (Isaiah 29:2, 3).
The Fig Tree
As we have seen, Isaiah 34:4 uses the metaphor of the fig tree, whose leaves wither in this end-time battle. John later applies the prophecy in Revelation 6:13 to the overcomers during the persecutions of Rome. They are described there as “unripe figs” that are cast to the ground (martyred) before having time to mature to old age.
But this was not the end-time battle but a battle along the way. Isaiah says nothing of “unripe figs.” Isaiah’s “figs” represent the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem in particular. The fig theme was revealed in greater detail in Jesus’ ministry, especially when He cursed the fig tree for its lack of fruit, telling it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” (Matthew 21:19). We then read in the same verse, “And at once the fig tree withered.”
This withering matches perfectly what Isaiah said in Isaiah 34:4, “as the leaf withers from the vine, or as one withers from the fig tree.” The NASB took some liberties in translating this verse. The phrase “as one” is not in the actual Hebrew text, but the translators made it sound like people were withering from the fig tree. It is better understood to mean that leaves were to wither “from the fig tree,” for this matches better with the leaves withering “from the vine.”
Jesus’ curse upon the fig tree was on account of its lack of fruit. It was a prophetic act of spiritual warfare against Judah and Jerusalem. He had come three years as a fruit inspector (Luke 13:7), after taking over the investigation from John the Baptist (Luke 3:8, 9). Having found no fruit, the “tree” was fit only for fuel.
The metaphorical fig tree was burned in 70 A.D. by the Roman army which “set their city on fire” (Matthew 22:7), but this was only a partial fulfillment of the prophecy, because the city was later rebuilt. Jeremiah 19:10, 11 prophesied that the city would never again be rebuilt. Hence, we must look to a later time of destruction to see these prophecies fulfilled completely. So Jesus said in Matthew 24:32, 33,
32 Now learn the parable from the fig tree; when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; 33 so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.
Many have correctly interpreted this to mean that the nation of Judah would again be established, and we see this happening in 1948 when the “fig tree” again put forth its leaves. Most Christians, however, miss the fact that leaves are not fruit. Jesus’ curse said, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” The meaning is plain. The fig tree of Judah will never again bear the fruit that God requires. It does not matter how many leaves it puts forth. Without fruit, the tree is only fit for fuel to be cast into the hearth of God.
It is important to understand this background, so as not to misinterpret what the prophet tells us in Isaiah 34.
The Sword upon Edom
Isaiah 34:5 says,
5 For My sword is satiated in heaven, behold, it shall descend for judgment upon Edom and upon the people whom I have devoted to destruction.
Edom? This seems to introduce an entirely new idea. It suggests that Edom is not only among the attackers but is also leading the nations in their attack upon Jerusalem. This being an end-time prophecy, the question naturally arises: who is Edom today? To answer this question requires some knowledge of history.
Edom is the nation of Esau (Genesis 36:1). Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. But he never intended to honor this transaction, for later, when Isaac declared his intention to bless his son by formally declaring him to be the birthright holder, Esau did not refuse the blessing nor did he defer to his brother, Jacob. Yet Jacob took advantage of his father’s blindness and pretended to be Esau in order to receive the blessing.
The plot worked, though Jacob deceived his father and lied outright (Genesis 27:32). Jacob was guilty of identity theft. Though it had been prophesied even before the twins were born that “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23), Jacob obtained the birthright by unlawful means. He did not have the faith to believe that the prophecy could be fulfilled without some help from the flesh and by a lie.
This created a great controversy that has continued throughout the centuries even to the present time. It was the controversy over who should have the birthright. The prophecy said that Jacob was the inheritor of the birthright, but the law was on Esau’s side. The law said that a firstborn son could not be disinherited without cause (Deuteronomy 21:15, 16, 17). But Jacob took the birthright before Esau had proven himself to be unworthy. Therein was the breach of law that created the controversy and gave Esau legal grounds to complain in the divine court.
In the following centuries, Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, never forgot what Jacob had done, always believing that the Promised Land was rightfully theirs. Years later, when Israel was exiled to Assyria and Judah was exiled to Babylon, they said in their hearts in Ezekiel 35:10, 15,
10 Because you [Edom, or Idumea] have said, “These two nations, and these two lands will be mine, and we will possess them,” although the Lord was there… 15 As you rejoiced over the inheritance of the house of Israel because it was desolate, so I will do to you. You will be a desolation, O Mount Seir, and all Edom, all of it. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”
The Edomite mindset is also revealed in Malachi 1:4,
4 Though Edom says, “We have been beaten down, but we will return and build up the ruins”’ thus says the Lord of hosts, “They may build, but I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant forever.”
Malachi prophesies that Edom would indeed “return” to the old land to claim it for themselves. They were the original Zionists. They were to live there long enough to “build up the ruins,” that is, to rebuild what had been destroyed earlier. But in the end, God says, “I will tear down” what they have rebuilt.
There is no evidence that the Edomites actually reclaimed the land of Israel, because the Assyrians had replaced the Israelites with people of other nations (2 Kings 17:24). A century later, when Judah was taken to Babylon, it appears that no other nation replaced Judah. Seventy years later, Judah returned, and their opposition came only from the Samaritans—those that the Assyrians had resettled in the land. The returning remnant of Judah did not have to displace the Edomites, who still lived south of Judah.
The Conversion of Edom
A few centuries later, a quirk of history occurred, which all Bible scholars know intellectually but few really understand. Judah and Edom (then known by the Greek term Idumea) went to war in the second century B.C. Under the leadership of John Hyrcanus, Judah eventually defeated the Edomites in 126 B.C. and gave them a choice: either convert to Judaism or go into exile. They chose to convert to Judaism.
The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote about this in his book, Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, ix, 1,
“Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would be circumcised, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision and the rest of the Jews’ ways of living; at which time therefore, this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia (1903 edition) under “Edom” agrees with this assessment, saying,
“From this time the Idumeans ceased to be a separate people, though the name ‘Idumea’ still existed (in) the time of Jerome.”
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia, edited by Dr. Cecil Roth and Dr. Geoffrey Wigoder (1970 edition) says under “Edom” on page 587,
“The Edomites were conquered by John Hyrcanus who forcibly converted them to Judaism, and from then on they constituted a part of the Jewish people, Herod being one of their descendants. During Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, they marched in to reinforce the extreme elements, killing all they suspected of peace tendencies. Thereafter, they ceased to figure in Jewish history.”
The Edomite converts were the extremists in their day, aligning with the Jewish school of Shammai that was equally extreme. Being carnally minded and not really understanding that God had placed Judah under the various beast empires, including Rome, they thought that it was their God-given duty to rise up and fight the Romans. Josephus describes their extremist views in his account of the war with Rome. After the fall of Jerusalem, these Edomite Jews ceased to be known as Idumeans, or Edomites. They lost their Edomite identity and were fully absorbed into Jewry.
What few understand today is that “the Idumeans ceased to be a separate people” and “constituted a part of the Jewish people.” In other words, there is no nation today known as Edom or Idumea, because they were absorbed into world Jewry. This merger meant that the biblical prophecies regarding Edom could be fulfilled only through Jewry. The Jews are thus fulfilling two sets of prophecies: the fig tree of Judah, along with prophecies of Edom.
The Destruction of Edom
Isaiah 34:5 prophesies that God’s “sword” will fall upon Edom, which is said to be “the people whom I have devoted to destruction.” This is, of course, consistent with Malachi’s prophecy, which we can understand only when we know the history of Jacob and Esau and the ongoing dispute over the birthright.
Isaiah tells us that Edom’s destruction is to occur at the time that God gathers all nations to Jerusalem (Isaiah 34:1, 2). That is an end-time prophecy. Hence, Edom still exists (in the eyes of God) at the time of the end, even though it ceased to exist in the records of men’s histories. By knowing the history of Edom, this portion of prophecy can be known and understood.