Syria’s Setting the Stage for…the End of the World?

September 23, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Credit: The New York Times

Credit: The New York Times

I had to chuckle.  While I was doing research for this blog, an email hit my inbox with an ominous subject line:  “History’s final chapter will be written in Jerusalem.”  It was a promotion for the latest Christian apocalyptic thriller, matrixing today’s headlines with cherry picked Scripture verses which come together to portend disaster.  This email was especially funny to me because I was researching precisely these kinds of doomsday declarations for this post.

These days, of course, doomsday’s ground zero is Syria.  And for those who have a penchant for taking ancient prophecies and sensationalizing them in light of current crises, Isaiah 17:1 has taken center stage:  “See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins.”  Joel Rosenberg, author of a new book, Damascus Countdown, is leading the charge of Syrian doom and gloom, writing on his blog,  “No, we don’t know that these prophecies will come to pass soon, or even in our lifetime. But yes, it is possible that Isaiah 17 … could come to pass in our lifetime.”[1]  Predictably, news outlets are picking up on his new take on this old passage.  Everyone from the Huffington Post to USA Today to Fox News to Mother Jones to The Blaze has run stories on Isaiah’s prophecy and its relationship to the current Syrian imbroglio.

For the record, let me say that I highly doubt the prophecy of Isaiah 17 will come to pass in our lifetimes.  How can I say this?  Because it already has come to pass…over 2,700 years ago.  Isaiah originally proffered this prophecy during the Syro-Ephraimite alliance of 735-732 BC.  This is why the fates of the Syrians and Ephraimites are linked in verse 3: “The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim, and royal power from Damascus.”  Ephraim – that is, northern Israel – made a treaty with Syria in a last ditch effort to defend herself against an immanent attack from Assyria, one of the most menacing superpowers of the eighth century BC.  This is why we read in Isaiah 7:2:  “Syria is in league with Ephraim.”  The alliance did not work.  In 732 BC, the Assyrians, led by Shalmaneser, sacked the Syrians, destroying the alliance between Ephraim and Syria.  Ten years later, the Assyrians came for Ephraim, and northern Israel was no more.  Yet, even after this devastating defeat, God made a promise that His people would endure:  “Some gleanings will remain, as when an olive tree is beaten, leaving two or three olives on the topmost branches, four or five on the fruitful boughs” (Isaiah 17:6).  Isaiah uses an agricultural metaphor to describe how God’s people, though defeated by the Assyrians, will never be destroyed.  There will always be a remnant faithful to Him.

To turn this ancient prophecy, fulfilled some twenty-seven centuries ago, into a modern day harbinger of hopelessness is to do violence to it.  Indeed, I am frustrated that many journalists reporting on this story and the debate between those who think this prophecy has already been fulfilled and those who think it is yet to be fulfilled are casting this debate as one between theologians who look at this text literalistically and others who do not.  Take, for instance, this line from Time magazine:  “Nearly all Biblical scholars … argue that such a literalist interpretation of the text is highly problematic.”[2]  The debate over this text is not between those who read this text in a literalistic manner as a prophecy of things to come and those who read it as already being fulfilled in ancient times.  Being “literal” or “non-literal” has nothing to do with this debate.  Rather, this is a debate over how to handle this biblical text responsibly, carefully looking at its context and seeking to understand this text in the manner Isaiah himself would have understood it.  Thus, a responsible reading of this text would note that this oracle against Syria is just one of a series of oracles against places like Philistia, Moab, and Cush, all of which no longer exist.  In context, then, it is clear that Isaiah is speaking not of modern day Syrian warfare, but of an attack against the Syria of his day along with attacks against other nations of his day, leading to their demise.

Ultimately, what is happening in Syria is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but not of the one in Isaiah 17.  Instead, words from Jesus come to mind:  “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matthew 24:6).  Jesus tells us there will be war.  And not just war, but wars.  The current conflict in Syria is just one such example.  Jesus also tells us that these wars do not mean the end of the world has arrived.  Conflicts are indicative that the end is indeed coming, but they are not determinative that the end has come.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus reminds us that we should not be alarmed at these troubled times.  Indeed, instead of fear, we should feel compassion toward those whose lives have been turned upside down by this terrible conflict.  The fear mongering that passes for theology in many best selling books is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ admonishment to be not afraid.  After all, what do we have to fear?  Jesus has the end of the world – and everything leading up to it – taken care of.

We can trust in Him.


[1] Joel C. Rosenberg, “Pastors: here are 24 pages of study notes on Isaiah 17, Jeremiah 49 & the future of Damascus. Please feel free to share with others,” flashtrafficblog.wordpress.com (9.11.2013).

[2] Elizabeth Dias, “Some Evangelicals See Biblical Prophecy In Syrian Crises,” Time (8.29.2013).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Robert Nordlie  |  September 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Great comments, Zach!

    Reply

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