Welcome to the 11th lesson in the “Bible Prophecy and You” series!
For many decades the Middle East has held the attention of the world, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C., and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
The geographic focus of the Bible is on the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In the Bible it is called (at different times) Canaan, Israel and Judah, and, in the New Testament, Judea, Samaria and Galilee. The name “Palestine” is not in the Bible but was used by Herodotus and later Greek and Roman writers, evidently deriving from the Philistines who had earlier settled there. The Romans decided to use this former designation after putting down Jewish rebellion and expelling many Jews.
The area of the nation of Israel is tiny, not much larger than the U.S. state of New Jersey and a little smaller than Sicily. Why does it get so much attention in the news? There are many factors—historical, religious, cultural and political. Anti-Semitism continues throughout the world, Iran pursues nuclear weapons, Syria is devastated by civil war, the Israeli-Arab conflict is explosive, and many militant Muslims want to destroy the very existence of the state of Israel! The same people also usually hate America for giving support to Israel.
All of this would be terribly confusing, but because of God’s revelations in the Bible, we can understand the past, present and future of the Middle East. And thankfully, though terrible events will come first, the story will have a happy ending!
A short history of Jerusalem and the Holy Land
The “land of Canaan” is first mentioned in Genesis 11:31. After Abraham had lived there for 24 years, God promised “all the land of Canaan” to him and his descendants “as an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8).
Then 430 years later, after the Israelites had become enslaved in Egypt, God miraculously delivered them out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses (Exodus 12:40). God promised “to give them the land of Canaan”—a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 6:4; Exodus 3:8).
Under the leadership of Joshua, God enabled the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites and to settle in that land. However, for about 400 years, the Israelites never fully conquered the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:63). It was King David who finally took full control of the city, also known as “Zion,” which came to be known as “the City of David” (2 Samuel 5:6-7).
Israel became a powerful nation under David and Solomon, with Jerusalem as the capital. Solomon built a magnificent temple on Mt. Moriah, the same hilltop where Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:2; 2 Chronicles 3:1). After Solomon’s death, when the nation split in two, Jerusalem continued to be the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar ca. 587 B.C. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the survivors were taken as captives to Babylon. But in 539 B.C., Babylon was conquered by the Persians, and captives were allowed to return to their homelands. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews who chose to return rebuilt the city and temple, although not to the level of their former glory.
When Judea eventually came under the domination of the Roman Empire in the first century B.C., King Herod enlarged and beautified the temple. Most of Jesus Christ’s ministry was in Galilee and Judea, and many of the important events that took place during His ministry occurred in Jerusalem, including His crucifixion and resurrection. The beginning of the Church came when Christ’s disciples received the Holy Spirit as they were gathered in Jerusalem to observe the biblical festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
When the legions of Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion in A.D. 70, Jerusalem and the temple were once again destroyed. A final quashing of Jewish rebellion by the Romans came in 135. Centuries later, in 638, Muslim Arabs took the city. In 692 Muslims completed the Dome of the Rock, many believing it was built on the site where the temple had previously been. Since then, Jerusalem has changed hands several times. In 1517, the Ottoman Turks seized control and dominated the Middle East for four centuries.
In 1917, during World War I, the British defeated the Ottoman Empire and gained control of the Holy Land, then still referred to as Palestine. Finally, in 1948, after Britain announced it would relinquish control of the area, the United Nations voted to divide the land between the Arabs and the Jews.
As the British withdrew, the modern state of Israel was born. Within hours, armies from five surrounding Arab nations attacked Israel, determined to destroy it. After months of fighting, Israel was the victor. But Israel has had to fight additional all-out defensive wars in 1956, 1967 and 1973 and several other major conflicts since then.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israelis gained control of the Old City—the eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. However, to lessen tensions and avoid a major confrontation, Israel allowed Muslims to maintain religious control of the Temple Mount.
Today, there are 57 Islamic nations, including 22 Arab countries. Since many of these surrounding nations are hostile toward Israel, the tiny nation of Israel often sees itself as David facing a giant Goliath.
Today, Jerusalem is considered a holy city in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. God chose Jerusalem to be “the holy city” but, shamefully, for much of its history, it has been more like “Sodom and Egypt” (Revelation 11:2, 8).
Jerusalem means “possession of peace,” its early-used shorter form Salem just meaning “peace” (see Genesis 14:18; Psalm 76:2; Hebrews 7:1-2). However, the city has not lived up to that either. Over the course of its history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times and captured 44 times.
In the future, after Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, returns to the earth, Jerusalem will become the capital of the entire world (Isaiah 2:1-3). It will truly be a holy city and city of peace! Then after the Millennium, it will be replaced by an even greater city—the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2).
You can read much more fascinating history of the Middle East in our study guide The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.
What does the Bible say about the Middle East?
Biblical history, current world news and end-time prophecy are largely focused on the Middle East. The conflicts and potential conflicts there strongly affect the rest of the world and will do so increasingly. It’s critically important that we understand the Middle East from a biblical perspective.
Was Jerusalem prophesied to be a focus of much end-time conflict?
“Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it . . .” (Zechariah 12:2-3).
Jerusalem was foretold to be the center of controversy and conflict in the end time—“a cup of drunkenness” and “a very heavy stone for all peoples.”
Will Israel be right in the middle of major end-time wars?
“At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him [the king of the North]; and the king of the North shall come against him [the king of the South] like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through. He shall also enter the Glorious Land [the Holy Land], and many countries shall be overthrown; but these shall escape from his hand: Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon [where Jordan is located today].
“He shall stretch out his hand against the countries, and the land of Egypt shall not escape. He shall have power over the treasures of gold and silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt; also the Libyans and Ethiopians shall follow at his heels. But news from the east and the north shall trouble him; therefore he shall go out with great fury to destroy and annihilate many.
“And he shall plant the tents of his palace between the seas and [or in] the glorious holy mountain; yet he shall come to his end, and no one will help him” (Daniel 11:40-45).
The land of Canaan, later known as Israel and even later as Palestine, has always been a major crossroad and has often been coveted and conquered by competing great powers. There will, “at the time of the end,” be major conflict between the two powers specified here—kings or kingdoms of the North and the South from the perspective of the land of Israel.
Prophecies in Daniel, Revelation and elsewhere make it clear that “the king of the North” will be a European revival of the Roman Empire. But until recent times, it was hard to imagine a coalition of forces to the south that would be strong enough to compete with the European power. However, in the last few decades, we’ve been seeing the growing power of Islamic fundamentalism that could increasingly unite the Muslim world.
Why were 1948 and 1967 key prophetic turning points in history?
“‘And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. Therefore when you see the “abomination of desolation,” spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place’ (whoever reads, let him understand), ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains’” (Matthew 24:14-16).
This passage refers to “the holy place,” implying a place for the worship of God. Jesus referred to the prophecy “spoken of by Daniel the prophet,” so He must have been referring to Daniel 12:11, especially since we know that prophecy is for “the time of the end” (Matthew 24:9).
In Daniel 12:11, we see that the setting up of “the abomination of desolation” coincides with the time when “the daily sacrifice is taken away.” Therefore, “the holy place” must refer to a Jewish temple and/or altar where animal sacrifices are offered. For Judaism, there is only one city in the world qualified to have a temple or altar—Jerusalem. And the Jews had no control of the Holy Land until 1948, and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem until the Six-Day War of 1967.
Many prophecies are dual, having a former fulfillment and a later, more complete final fulfillment. In fact, Daniel’s prophecy has had two former fulfillments. One was in 168 or 167 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple and forbade Jewish sacrifices, referred to in Daniel 11:31. The other was in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the temple and abolished the Jewish priesthood and sacrifices (Luke 19:43-44).
To understand Daniel 12:11 (a future event), it is vital to understand these past events, as God often steers history to repeat itself. Again, many historic and prophetic details are explained in our free study guide The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.
What else can we learn by comparing Luke’s parallel account of Jesus’ prophecy?
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
“But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles [non-Israelites] until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-24).
Jerusalem’s “desolation” happens right after Jerusalem is “surrounded by armies.” There will be spiritual desolation and “great distress” when freedom of religion is taken away. There will be desolation (devastation) of the city when “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles.” And Jerusalem will become largely desolate (empty) of its citizens because many “will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations.”
Does the Bible tell of an end-time confederation of Arabs and others determined to destroy the nation of Israel and its chief backer, the United States?
“Do not keep silent, O God! Do not hold your peace, and do not be still, O God! For behold, your enemies make a tumult; and those who hate you have lifted up their head. They have taken crafty counsel against your people, and consulted together against your sheltered ones. They have said, ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.’
“For they have consulted together with one consent; they form a confederacy against you: the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites; Moab and the Hagrites; Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek; Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; Assyria also has joined with them; they have helped the children of Lot” (Psalm 83:1-8).
Who are these peoples and places today? Note the following about this passage quoted from “Prophecy of an Arab Confederation” in our free study guide The Middle East in Bible Prophecy:
“Edom includes the Palestinians and some of the Turks. The Ishmaelites, descendants of Ishmael, are many of the Arab peoples throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Moab is the area of central Jordan. The Hagrites appears to refer to other descendants of Hagar, mother of Ishmael.
“Gebal . . . is commonly equated with the Phoenician city of Byblos, modern Jubayl in Lebanon. Ammon refers to northern Jordan around Amman, the capital (which gets its name from Ammon). Amalek appears to refer to a branch of Edomite Palestinians. Philistia is the area around what is today known as the Gaza Strip.
“Anciently Tyre was a major city-state in southern Lebanon along the Mediterranean coast. Assyria ethnically appears to refer to inhabitants of Central Europe who migrated there many centuries ago, while geographically Assyria is in what is today northern Iraq. The children of Lot refers to Moab and Ammon—again, regions of modern-day Jordan.”
The last part here seems to indicate European and Middle Eastern powers at first joined together against Israel before striking against each other in the North-South conflict mentioned earlier.
Will the great battle commonly called “Armageddon” take place in the Holy Land?
“For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. ‘Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.’ And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (Revelation 16:14-16).
The final battle is actually called “the battle of that great day of God Almighty.” But before the actual battle, the demonic spirits will have “gathered them [the armies] together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon”—a reference to Megiddo to the northwest of Jerusalem in the northern part of Israel (Revelation 16:16).
The actual battle will be at “the Valley of Jehoshaphat,” meaning “God judges” (Joel 3:2; Joel 3:12). This will ultimately be at Jerusalem. There, God says, “I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem” and “will go forth and fight against those nations” (Zechariah 14:1-3). The armies then planning to fight each other will turn and “make war with the Lamb,” but “the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14). We will cover more about these apocalyptic events in future lessons.
To better understand what’s taking place in the Middle East, be sure to read our free study guide The Middle East in Bible Prophecy. Then “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6). Moreover, pray for Jesus Christ to return soon to bring peace to not just Jerusalem but to all nations. In that day, at last, no nation will “learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).