A brutal attack on a civilian bus and a devastating wave of suicide bombings-some directed at Israeli teenagers in Jerusalem-has once more riveted the world's attention on the ever-volatile Middle East.
Such tragic news, combined with the war against terrorists in Afghanistan, makes us rightly wonder when or even if this troubled area will ever see peace, and what such events may mean for the entire world.
Are events in those areas propelling us to the biblical Armageddon, ever closer to the end of civilization?
A few days before Jesus Christ's crucifixion, He and His disciples sat on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem from the east. He had just foretold the destruction of the temple that stood majestically before them just across the Kidron Valley. Still reeling from His words, His disciples asked Him: "Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3).
Jesus then gave what has come to be known as His Olivet prophecy. In it He outlined a series of trends and events that would occur from that time onwards and eventually lead up to His return. Then Christ gave a specific sign that would indicate the very end of this age, a time when Jerusalem would be surrounded by armed forces: "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies," He said in Luke's account, "then know that its desolation is near" (Luke 21:20).
When that happens, He continued, those in Judea (the modern state of Israel) should flee to the mountains. Those days, He explained, would be filled with vengeance because from that time forward end-time biblical prophecies found throughout the Bible would rapidly be fulfilled. It would be a time of unimaginable distress as Jerusalem is surrounded and occupied by foreign armies (verses 21-24).
Some will point out that events surrounding the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 fulfilled aspects of Christ's prophecy. However, some of Jesus' specific predictions show that its primary fulfillment would take place shortly before His return.
Where are we headed?
Where are events in the Middle East taking us? Are we seeing the stage set for this prophecy's fulfillment? While the war against worldwide terrorism grabs most of the headlines, we need to be aware of other events behind the scenes. Although we can't be certain how end-time events will play out, many recent trends seem to indicate we may be closer to the end than perhaps we had realized.
The war in Afghanistan and continuing turbulence throughout the region underscore the volatility of the current situation. The massive divide between Western culture and values and those of many Islamic nations argues that lasting peace will remain elusive for a long time. Meanwhile, a growing worldwide recession reminds us that the West remains heavily dependent on Middle East oil as the lifeblood of its economies.
Eruptions of violence continue between the Israelis and Palestinians in spite of repeated calls for peace. Formal and informal peace talks alike have broken down, and a negotiated settlement between the two sides, barring outside intervention, seems as unlikely as ever.
A year of tragedy
More than a year has passed since Palestinians launched the current intifada, the latest round of killings, bombings and suicide attacks in Israel. Hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis have since lost their lives.The latest suicide bombings were particularly gruesome in part because of their intended victims-the scores of Israeli teenagers who regularly packed a popular Jerusalem outdoor mall every Saturday night after the Sabbath.
Other incidents have been equally senseless and tragic, like the four Palestinian schoolchildren killed shortly before the Jerusalem suicide bombings when one of them apparently kicked an unexploded shell, causing it to detonate. We can perhaps recall the terrible scene months earlier of a Palestinian father caught in the crossfire between troops, trying to shield his son from the gunfire before the young boy was killed.
Maybe we remember the news of the Israeli doctor, Mario Goldin, who specialized in helping relieve the pain of both Jews and Arabs. He was slain last April while visiting patients in a Palestinian-controlled area. The list of tragedies and missed opportunities in the region goes on and on.
After the most recent attacks, Israel adopted the stance that the current Palestinian leadership cannot be trusted to end the violence and negotiate in good faith. The leaders of the two sides, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, find themselves locked in an uncertain and deadly conflict. The eventual outcome may be far different from what either could foresee or desire.
In August, only a few weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the respected Stratfor Global Intelligence Co. issued a report on its Web site analyzing a line of conflict stretching from the Balkans to the Caucasus and then on to Jerusalem. The report made the connection that these areas were part of the old Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I. Just as that Turkish empire imposed its version of peace on the peoples of that area, a new peacemaking effort is being discussed by modern powers, including the United States and several Western European countries, for imposing a similar "peace" on this region of age-old ethnic conflicts.
The report conjectures that the conflicts could take one of three courses. One is continued war without resolution. The second is the rise of a regional power that would impose a peace on the area. The third possibility, and the one that could fit in with Bible prophecy, is that a stronger outside power would "impose empire on the region."
The article goes on to say that "the only option is the third option: direct intervention by an outside force intended to impose order throughout the former Ottoman Empire" (emphasis added).
This would be an enormous task. It may be achievable, but it would stretch the military capabilities of today's largest military alliance, NATO, to the limit. The quantity of troops needed to impose a "pax NATO" on this region of the former Ottoman Empire would be staggering.
History also has shown that any country that places troops in the Middle East runs a grave risk of having them attacked by terrorists. The 1983 bombing of a military barracks in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. marines is a case in point.
Where could a military force come together that would be large enough to impose order in today's Middle East? What power would dare muster the political and moral will to stop the fighting between Israelis and Arabs to bring peace to the world's most critical hot spot?
Today the United States would seem to be the only world power large enough to even contemplate such a move. Yet such action, if it were to occur, would likely come from another source.
Here we must turn to the Bible for prophetic understanding.
Armed conflict in Jerusalem
The answer begins in the longest prophecy in the Bible, in Daniel 11. Two forces, identified as the king of the South and the king of the North, are described as warring back and forth with each other over a prolonged interval (see "The North-South Struggle for the Middle East," page 7).
In verse 40 we read of events "at the time of the end," when the king of the South will attack the king of the North, provoking such a furious counterattack, one "like a whirlwind," that the king of the North will succeed in overwhelming many countries. Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia will fall before him (verses 42-43).
The prophecy also says he will enter the Glorious Land (verses 40-41). Here we find a prophecy of an army supporting the king of the North entering the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, to establish his control "between the seas [the Mediterranean and Dead Seas] in the glorious holy mountain [Jerusalem]" (verses 43-45, KJV).
This setting also fulfills Christ's specific statement regarding an "abomination of desolation." In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus warned: "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." Christ's warning to flee to the mountains connects this to the same event mentioned in Luke 21:20, where armies also are prophesied to surround Jerusalem.
The end-time abomination of desolation will be a replay of an event that occurred long before Jesus' birth during the reign of the Seleucid Syrian ruler Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) in 167 B.C. (Daniel 11:31). That episode was a partial fulfillment of a greater event to come, the one to occur at the end time according to Christ's prophecy (see "Just What Is the Abomination of Desolation?").
Another forerunner of end-time events
Some would maintain that Jesus' prophecy was fulfilled during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 66-70, when the armies of Titus surrounded Jerusalem and ultimately sacked the city and destroyed the temple. The rituals of the temple ceased and remain inactive to this day.
However, this partial fulfillment of Luke 21:20 was also only a forerunner of the end-time fulfillment that is yet to come. Remember, Christ's Olivet prophecy was in response to the question, "What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). His comments about the abomination of desolation and armies encompassing Jerusalem were made to indicate specific signs that His second coming would be imminent.
When we see armies again surrounding Jerusalem, possibly in an effort to guarantee peace in the area, the stage will be set for the final fulfillment of the abomination of desolation. A man called the "man of sin" and the "son of perdition" is described in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4. He "opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God."
Antiochus Epiphanes' first abomination in the Jerusalem temple area and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies were only forerunners of the final fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy about an abomination of desolation in the temple area during an occupation of Jerusalem.
The Scriptures reveal that an outside power will intervene in the ancient Holy Land during the last days, possibly to impose a forced peace because of the volatile and seemingly unending strife surrounding Jerusalem and the Middle East.
Islamic unrest and oil
Biblical prophecy predicts the rise of a new superpower, an end-time coalition of nations modeled on the ancient Roman Empire, that will play a significant role on the stage of world events. In time this union of nations will become so powerful that all other nations will have to deal with it. Is it possible that out of the present European Union a vastly different power, unlike any seen in history, will develop to fulfill these biblical prophecies?
European nations have increasingly inserted themselves into peacemaking efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few months ago the European Union was instrumental in negotiating an Israeli-army pullout from Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem. The deal to withdraw was brokered by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy.
This was a milestone for European diplomacy in the Middle East. It's also no coincidence that Germany, the most powerful nation in the EU, hosted a summit of Afghani tribal leaders in November and December to hammer out a postwar government and power-sharing arrangement for Afghanistan. Nor is it a coincidence that it has been announced that EU troops will form the peacekeeping force there.
The entire Western world has a strategic interest in the Middle East because of its oil, the lifeblood of Western economies. In the Gulf War, only a decade ago, many Western powers banded together to prevent Iraq from dominating other oil-producing nations and to ensure the free flow of oil to the rest of the world. Many European nations in particular are heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil, having little or no domestic supplies of their own.
Other factors will no doubt come into play at some point. Recent events have shown not only the presence but the strength of Islamic fundamentalist movements in such major oil-producing states as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Analysts worry, and rightly so, that growing Muslim extremism could lead to a more-widespread movement that could repeat events of 1979, when Islamic religious unrest toppled the shah of Iran and instilled a fundamentalist Islamic government in one of the region's major oil-producing countries.
Should Islamic-fundamentalist unrest spread and engulf such politically moderate but strategically crucial states as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan or Pakistan, oil supplies to the West would be threatened. Western powers could easily find themselves in the position of either using force to access those supplies or seeing their economies wither and die.
Trigger of end-time events?
In such a scenario, the oil spigot could easily be used as a major weapon against the West-perhaps the way Daniel predicted the end-time king of the South could "push at" the end-time king of the North (Daniel 11:40, KJV).
Many other Bible versions translate this as "attack." The Hebrew conveys the sense of "ram at." So this prophecy may actually indicate several possibilities that could trigger this end-time invasion of the Middle East by a European-based power: intolerable economic or other pressure, a military strike, terrorist action or some combination of the three.
Iraq and possibly other Islamic countries -not to mention terrorist groups-are actively pursuing building or buying nuclear devices. Pakistan already has them. The Muslim countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan are known to already have or be actively developing deadly biological and chemical weapons. Several of these countries also continue to call for the forcible Muslim conquest of Jerusalem.
Ironically, because of U.S. peacekeep-ing efforts in the region, many Islamic countries-including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan-are heavily armed with the latest American-made fighter jets, tanks and other military hardware, ensuring that the next round of all-out warfare likely will be bloody indeed.
A divided and dangerous world
During the past year we have witnessed an unrelenting escalation in the Middle East conflict between Jews and Palestinians. Then came the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and reports of terrorist attacks planned across Europe.
The realization that ours is a divided and dangerous world dawned on many people, along with the realization that the Middle East-and Israel and Jerusalem in particular-is at the center of much of that division and danger.
Jerusalem will remain a "cup of drunkenness" and "a very heavy stone for all peoples" for the foreseeable future (Zechariah 12:2-3). Yet eventually, according to Bible prophecy, this situation will lead to the intervention of a new and dreadful power, whose land route to modern Israel would come from north of Jerusalem, intervening in and assuming control over much of the Middle East. This will be one of its major steps toward achieving world domination. GN