We've all taken history classes in school. Many of us didn't find them all that interesting. I know that was the case with me. I mostly recall having to memorize a lot of ancient dates and remote places that seemed to have little importance today.
But at a certain point in my life history suddenly became fascinating to me.
It was when I came to understand how history relates to the prophecies of the Bible. A whole new world opened up to me. It was enthralling! I now saw many historical events as valuable evidence that the Bible was truly inspired by God. And I realized that prophecy provides a framework for history, covering the past, present and even the future!
Of course, not all of history directly relates to Bible prophecy, but you would be surprised to find out how much of it truly does. As I discovered, much of history is simply the result of the best and worst of human nature played out in world events within the framework of biblical prophecy.
The great what ifs of history
What happens when history and prophecy converge? You can then have a new appreciation of what has occurred on the world scene. Events that historians marvel about as seemingly lucky breaks or incredible coincidences often turn out to actually be the fulfillment of Bible prophecies.
Let me show you some astonishing examples. This was not something I expected when I bought the book What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (1999), edited by Robert Cowley, the founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.
The book discusses some 50 key events in world history, with renowned historians asking, What if things had turned out differently? They conclude that it would be a vastly different world. If crucial events had turned out differently, we could easily be practicing the culture, language and religions of the great conqueror nations: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Russia, Mongolia, Germany or Japan.
Incredibly, of the 50 key historical events mentioned in the book, I counted 48 that tie in with biblical prophecy! In other words, of the world's most pivotal events as listed by these secular historians, God had a hand in more than 95 percent of them!
Space and time don't allow me to elaborate on each one—it would take an entire book—but we will look at a few outstanding examples.
Example 1: The plague that saved Jerusalem
What is the first and most important example in this book written by modern history professors? It is an event found in the Bible as well as in world history—what these historians call "The Plague That Saved Jerusalem."
William McNeill, professor emeritus of history at the University of Chicago, writes: "Military events, even seemingly insignificant episodes, can have unforeseen consequences . . . It seems appropriate to begin this book with such a moment in history, the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, then the seat of the tiny kingdom of Judah, in 701 B.C.
"That siege, by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, was lifted after a large part of his army succumbed to a mysteriously lethal contagion . . . But what if disease had not intervened? What if the walls had fallen, and the usual pillage, rape, murder, and forced exile of the population had been Jerusalem's lot? What would our lives, our spiritual underpinnings be like 2,700 years later?
". . . Jerusalem's preservation from attack by Sennacherib's army shaped the subsequent history of the world far more profoundly than any other military action I know of" ("Infectious Alternatives," What If?, pp. 1-3).
A "mysteriously lethal contagion" struck the Assyrians just at the right moment to save Jerusalem. What a seemingly lucky coincidence! As the Assyrians were about to besiege and destroy Jerusalem, obliterating the Jewish faith, suddenly something devastated the Assyrian army and spared the beleaguered city.
Back in Assyria, the king inscribed on his palace walls a graphic depiction of his invasion of Judah and destruction of its walled cities. But Jerusalem is conspicuously missing! In an official record of his campaign, now known as the Sennacherib Prism, he boasted that he had King Hezekiah trapped in Jerusalem "like a caged bird." But nothing is said about actually conquering the Jewish capital and its king.
This points to a defeat for Sennacherib here, as ancient kings typically didn't record their losses, only their victories.
The Bible tells us what actually happened: "Now it came to pass in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah that Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. Then the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem" (Isaiah 36:1-2).
After hearing the threats and orders to surrender from the Assyrian military commander, King Hezekiah went to God in earnest prayer. He was heard, and God answered him through the prophet Isaiah, who told him God had promised complete deliverance from the Assyrians.
Isaiah said: "Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: 'He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shield, nor build a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same shall he return; and he shall not come into this city,' says the Lord. 'For I will defend this city, to save it for My own sake and for My servant David's sake'" (Isaiah 37:33-35).
Here, then, was a prophecy of what would come to pass. And what happened? "Then the angel of the Lord went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh" (verses 36-37). The humiliated king never threatened Judah again, and in time he was assassinated by his own sons, as noted by both the Bible and Assyrian records.
Historians unwilling to accept the Bible's supernatural explanation here seek a naturalistic one. They point out that Sennacherib's defeat was recorded by not only the Bible, but also the Greek historian Herodotus, who gave an account of Sennacherib's humiliation in his Histories (written around 450 B.C.). Citing an Egyptian source, he attributed the miraculous defeat of Sennacherib's army in the campaign against Egypt (which included Judah) to mice overrunning the camp and wreaking great havoc.
He wrote: "An army of field-mice swarmed over their opponents in the night . . . [and] gnawed through their quivers and their bows, and the handles of their shields, so that on the following day they fled minus their arms and a great number fell" (Book 2:141).
Putting Herodotus' mention of mice together with the Bible's description of widespread death among Sennacherib's forces is where the idea of the aforementioned "mysterious lethal contagion" springs from. Some scholars speculate that since mice are often carriers of deadly diseases, such as the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages, something similar could have happened in the Assyrian army.
Of course, it is certainly possible that God worked through such means to destroy the Assyrian forces. But the perfect timing was no coincidence. Jerusalem was saved by God, just as Isaiah foretold.
Here we see the first example of how history and prophecy converge. God had promised hundreds of years before that the nation of Judah would survive through the centuries, escaping annihilation time and time again, to eventually bring forth the promised Messiah from the line of David. And God specifically promised Hezekiah that Sennacherib would be turned away.
So He acted to fulfill His prophecies. Cowley remarks: "What if a mysterious plague had not smitten the Assyrian besiegers of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.? Would there have been a Jewish religion? Or Christianity?" ("Introduction," What If?, p. xiii).
Those are good questions. But knowing a bit about Bible prophecy would have answered it. Instead of this crucial event being merely a lucky coincidence, it turned out to depend on God's sure Word.
Example 2: The unlikely Greek naval victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C.
The next example in the book is also crucial in world history. The outcome permitted Western culture to develop and become part of the European heritage—instead of Europe ending up as part of Persian history, culture and religion.
The famous German historian Georg Hegel said about this naval battle between the Greeks and the Persians: "The interest of the world's history hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism, a world united under one lord and sovereign, on the one side, and separate states, insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality, on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle" (quoted by Victor Davis Hanson, "No Glory That Was Greece," What If?, p. 17).
"What if the Persians had won?" asks historian and popular columnist Victor Davis Hanson, former classics professor at California State University, Fresno, and Stanford University. "It nearly happened. It should have happened. If the rowers commanded by the Athenian statesman-general Themistocles had not prevailed, would there be, some 2,500 years later, a Western civilization in the form we know it?" (p. 16).
At Salamis, the Greek forces faced a navy three to four times larger. The Persian army enjoyed an even greater numerical superiority, outnumbering the Greek infantry up to 10 to one. Yet they lost, and the Greeks were able to establish their empire and contribute to arts, culture, science—paving the way for Christianity.
"In late September 480," he adds, "Themistocles and his poor Athenians not only saved Greece and embryonic Western civilization from the Persians, but also redefined the West as something more egalitarian, restless—and volatile—that would evolve into a society that we more or less recognize today" (p. 35).
What was behind this incredible Greek victory against overwhelming numbers of Persians? Was it just a fortunate turn of events? Again we have to look at Bible prophecy for the answer.
The Bible foretold, long before it became a reality, the ultimate outcome of the struggle between the Persian and Greek empires. It foresaw that, against all odds, the Greeks would eventually defeat the Persians and absorb their empire. The battle of Salamis was an important part of that ultimate Greek victory.
The prophet Daniel received the prophecy of this outcome from God around 548 B.C.—even before the Persian and Greek empires had arisen on the world scene!
He wrote: "In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar [of Babylon] a vision appeared to me . . . I lifted my eyes and saw, and there, standing beside the river, was a ram which had two horns, and the two horns were high; but one was higher than the other, and the higher one came up last. I saw the ram pushing westward, northward, and southward, so that no animal could withstand him; nor was there any that could deliver from his hand, but he did according to his will and became great.
"And as I was considering, suddenly a male goat came from the west, across the surface of the whole earth, without touching the ground; and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. Then he came to the ram that had two horns, which I had seen standing beside the river, and ran at him with furious power.
"And I saw him confronting the ram; he was moved with rage against him, attacked the ram, and broke his two horns. There was no power in the ram to withstand him, but he cast him down to the ground and trampled him; and there was no one that could deliver the ram from his hand" (Daniel 8:1-7).
The angel Gabriel explained to Daniel that "the ram which you saw, having the two horns—they are the kings of Media and Persia. And the male goat is the kingdom of Greece" (verses 20-21).
Here we see that although the Persian Empire was incredibly powerful, the Bible foretold that the Greeks would eventually defeat them. So the Greek victory at Salamis was not a fluke, but a step toward God fulfilling what He had promised years earlier in the Scriptures!
Had the Greeks lost at Salamis, they would have been incorporated into the Persian Empire rather than later conquering Persia, as foretold in Daniel. This prophesied conquest would come with the march of Alexander the Great.
Example 3: The remarkable rise and fall of Alexander the Great
A very pivotal era in world history was the time of Alexander the Great. But what if he had been killed at the beginning of his career, as almost happened? And why did he die when only about 33, at the height of power?
At the Battle of the Granicus River, during Alexander's first major military engagement against the Persians, he was surrounded by enemies and received a devastating blow to the head from an axe that cleaved his helmet. Stunned, he was unable to defend himself.
Just as the Persian warrior was about to strike the second blow and kill Alexander, a bodyguard stabbed the attacker with a spear. Alexander was saved and went on to conquer most of the known world.
Why was he miraculously spared in that split second? Again, historians talk about these lucky accidents. "What if Alexander had been just a bit less lucky at the Battle of the Granicus?" asks Princeton historian Josiah Ober ("Conquest Denied," What If?, p. 47).
He goes on to say: "It would be a world in which the values characteristic of the Greek city-states were lost in favor of a fusion of Roman and Persian ideals . . . A profound reverence for ritual, tradition, ancestors, and social hierarchy—rather than Greek reverence for freedom, political equality, and the dignity of the person—defined the ethical values of a small 'cosmopolitan' elite that would rule over a diverse mosaic of cultures.
"And this could take place because [in this alternative history] there was no long and brilliant 'Hellenistic Period'—and so no integration of a wider world into a Greek cultural/linguistic sphere. Without the challenge of strong Greek cultural influence and subsequent Roman mismanagement in Judea, Judaism would have remained a localized phenomenon . . . The New Testament (whatever form it took) would never have been composed in 'universal' Greek and so would not have found a broad audience" (pp. 55-56).
All of these culture-transforming historic trends hinged on Alexander's conquests and the spreading of Hellenistic culture throughout Europe and the Middle East.
But why was Alexander destined to survive and become a conqueror, establishing the Greek empire and then to die at the height of his power at an early age? It was all prophesied hundreds of years in advance.
In the second example given earlier, we quoted Daniel 8:1-7 about the goat (Greece) defeating the ram (Medo-Persia). This was ultimately fulfilled in the conquest of Alexander. Let's continue in verse 8:
"Therefore the male goat grew very great; but when he became strong, the large horn was broken, and in place of it four notable ones came up toward the four winds of heaven."
In verses 21-22 the angel Gabriel explained to Daniel the vision's meaning: "The male goat is the kingdom of Greece. The large horn that is between its eyes is the first king [Alexander the Great]. As for the broken horn and the four that stood up in its place, four kingdoms shall arise out of that nation, but not with its power."
The Bible contains an even further elaboration of this prophecy, given to Daniel years later, when the Persians had risen to power after defeating the Babylonians. It foretold what would happen to Alexander:
"And when he [Alexander] has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken up and divided toward the four winds of heaven, but not among his posterity nor according to his dominion with which he ruled; for his kingdom shall be uprooted, even for others besides these" (Daniel 11:4).
As prophecy foretold, Alexander died at a young age (again, about 33), and his empire was divided into four parts and ruled by four of his generals—not by any of his family members or descendants.
These three examples, all major turning points in the course of civilization, remind us that Bible prophecy is behind much of world history. Much more importantly, it also reveals what will happen in the future. Will you make the effort to discover what lies ahead? GN