Isaiah prophesied the destruction and abandonment of Damascus, Syria over 2700 years ago. Yet the city continues today, despite so many Middle East wars and predictions that "this year" it will finally come to pass. So what is missing that is holding this prophecy back? Israel’s strike on Iran? Or perhaps the overlooked prophecy in the Psalms about a future Arab war alliance targeted at wiping out Israel. Find out why the Arabs are sure to one day acquire weapons of mass destruction that leads them to finally attack Israel...and how their defeat opens up for the "beginning of sorrows" and Great Tribulation to finally happen.
By Tim McHyde
If you are into Bible prophecy, you have probably heard about the controversial nuclear program of Iran—and Israel's plan to attack Iran over it. In 2002, it was revealed that Iran had secretly been enriching uranium. This is troubling because enriched uranium is the key component of a nuclear bomb, something nobody wants apocalyptic religious state like Iran to have. Even worse, Iran resumed enrichment once President Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 and he has refused to stop it ever since, despite severe sanctions against Iran.
It's no mystery who is most endangered by the prospect of Iran possessing nuclear weapons. Israel has threatened to make a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear sites if sanctions continue to fail. This is no empty threat as Israel has bombed the nuclear sites of hostile nations in the past. Back in 1981, Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor, receiving worldwide condemnation for it at the time. Then in 2007, Israel sent planes to bomb an alleged North Korean made nuclear reactor in Syria.
Given these precedents, prophecy students wonder if an Israeli strike on Iran is not coming and will not inevitably lead to a wider Middle East war. Especially in light of a very familiar unfulfilled prophecy concerning Iran's close ally, Syria, who is also a known sponsor of terror against Israel. The prophecy in question is the burden of Damascus in Isaiah 17:
Isaiah 17:1 (ESV) — An oracle concerning Damascus. Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins.
Of course, the Damascus of the Bible is still recognizable today as the well-known capital city of Syria. Appropriately enough, it even has the famous distinction of being considered the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, inhabited from prehistoric times.
Given that, you would think there is little debate that this prophecy is plainly unfulfilled. Yet, you will find Bible commentaries that mention how Isaiah 17 was fulfilled in other events of the Bible, such as in 732 BC when Assyria defeated the Arameans and their capital Damascus (2 Kings 16:9). The problem is that while although the prophecy has been partially fulfilled in the past, this does not mean it does not have dual fulfillments, as is often the case with Bible prophecies. Usually parts of the prophecy are not fulfilled until a later, final fulfillment. In this case, the part about Damascus ceasing to be a city and become a heap of ruins is plainly unaccomplished. That's a b bleak picture that stands in contrast to Damascus' status as the oldest city. (In fact, Bible skeptics use Isaiah 17 as proof that the Bible is not true!)
If this is correct, then the dire prophecy of Isaiah 17 is that this capital city of 2.5 million people is one day going to end and a heap of ruins will be left in its place.
If you consider history, this prediction is without precedent in modern times. To be sure, there have been several modern cities that have been merely abandoned. A famous example of this is Pripyat, Ukraine. Probably that name does not ring a bell, but this is the city where the famous Chernobyl nuclear reactor leak happened. Due to the radioactive fallout, it was deserted as a ghost town. Decades later it is safe to visit for short periods—as witnessed by the visitor's pictures you can find posted on the Internet, including such sites as the city amusement park.
However, for a modern city to end its run and become an uninhabited pile of ruins is something unprecedented. For example, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the targets of the first atomic bombs, continue as cities to this day, despite having been partially leveled from the atomic blast. The reasons for this are twofold. The first two atomic bombs (Fat Man and Little Boy) used on Japan were on the small side by today's standards. Secondly, the bombs were detonated high above the cities, in what is called an “air burst.” Air bursts produce greatly reduced fallout levels compared to ground strikes. This makes it feasible to rebuild and reinhabit the area, just as Japan did.
Damascus' predicted fate is different than either of these cities or perhaps any other. Its buildings and streets will not just be deserted, but they will be left as a “heap of ruins.” I am not aware of a case in modern times of that happening to a city. There are cities that have been wiped out by tsunamis or even volcanic explosions, but they have been rebuilt and not left as heaps of ruins.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki may provide the best case for how Damascus' complete destruction and abandonment is likely to happen. A nuclear bomb with a larger yield or a series of bombs with smaller yields could turn an entire city to a heap of ruins. This is quite feasible in Damascus' case since it is small, only approximately 40 square miles in area. If a ground burst attack is used instead of air bursts, the lingering radioactive fallout would keep people from coming back to rebuild and reinhabit it.
Israel has long had an arsenal of nuclear bombs and is also a frequent target of attacks from Syria (and the terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon). In fact, Israel has already been in several major wars with Syria between 1948 to 1973.
Importantly, Israel also has the will to use these weapons. Because Israel's enemies are so numerous and able to overrun the tiny nation so easily, Israel has adopted a nuclear policy called “The Samson Option.” The name comes from the famously strong judge of Israel who took his own life by knocking out the support pillars of the temple he was in to avenge himself on his enemies around him. According to this policy, Israel would nuke the cities of her enemies if she was overrun or about to be defeated. Hitting the leadership of Syria at Damascus would be part of this retaliatory attack.
The idea of Damascus' doom coming from a war with Israel is confirmed by several verses. Isaiah 17 continues by describing what happens along with Damascus' destruction:
Isaiah 17:3 (HCSB) The fortress disappears from Ephraim, and a kingdom from Damascus. The remnant of Aram will be like the splendor of the Israelites... 4 On that day the splendor of Jacob will fade, and his healthy body will become emaciated.... 6 Only gleanings will be left in Israel, as if an olive tree had been beaten—two or three berries at the very top of the tree, four or five on its fruitful branches.
In this prophesied event, northern and central Israel are named as taking damage and casualties, although comparatively less than Damascus (Damascus loses the kingdom, but Israel only the fortress). War is never completely one-sided. If Israel is prompted to attack Damascus, they will certainly suffer casualties in the process. Going further in the prophecy we can see that, as has usually been the case, Syria will not be acting alone against Israel:
Isaiah 17:12-14 (HCSB) 12 Ah! The roar of many peoples—they roar like the roaring of the seas. The raging of the nations—they rage like the raging of mighty waters. 14 In the evening—sudden terror! Before morning—it is gone! This is the fate of those who plunder us [Judah] and the lot of those who ravage us.
A multitude of nations attack “us” or the nation that Isaiah addressed in his prophecies: the southern kingdom of Judah (as opposed to the northern nation of Israel). The Jewish people make up the modern State of Israel (which is why they almost called it the State of Judah). Therefore the description fits yet another Middle East war where Israel is attacked by her mainly Arab and Islamic neighbors such as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and probably also Iran (who is not Arab). Yet, like before, Israel will be victorious—and probably even quicker than in the Six Day War of 1967. Notice in verse 14 that it takes only from one evening until the next morning to achieve decisive victory.
It sounds just like the Samson Option is exercised after Israel is left with no choice but to use her nuclear weapons against multiple enemy nations and cities. Their armies will literally be gone, not to mention a large segment of their civilian populations. The nuclear war casualties could easily surpass ten's of million people. No wonder Isaiah says that the situation shifts overnight from terror for Israel to tragedy for her enemies.
With regular eruptions of conflict in the Middle East, prophecy teachers have naturally been expecting and predicting Isaiah 17's fulfillment practically every year. Yet, even after all the wars and the constant tensions, the war that seals Damascus's fate has still not come. What are we missing?
Some think that Iran's nuclear enrichment program is the missing key because of Israel's threat to strike Iran over it and Iran's promises to retaliate strongly in response. It is possible that a wider Middle East war including Syria could be triggered by this conflict. Yet, as covered earlier, preemptive strikes by Israel are nothing new. They have yet to lead to wider war, let alone a military response.
Between 1948 and 1973, Israel fought four wars with her allied Arab neighbors. That's an average of one war every eight years. However, it has now been four decades since that last major war, the Yom Kippur War in 1973. There must be a reason for this record span of time without more major conflicts. It is obvious from the news that the Arabs did not change; they are still hostile and object to the existence of Israel in their midst. Yet they have stopped trying to launch massive attacks on Israel as before. Why?
I think the answer is obvious. Israel's growing nuclear arsenal and increasing capability to deliver it. It is reported that in that last war (The Yom Kippur War), Israel had nuclear weapons loaded on the fighters planes ready to go if things continued to worsen for her. True or not, the Arabs know Israel has these weapons and is willing to use them if necessary just as they are willing to do unpopular preemptive strikes when necessary. This nuclear deterrent would explain the relative quiet since 1973. It has changed the balance of power. Israel's enemies risk inviting asymmetrical force if they try to overrun and take over Israel as they did when the State of Israel formed in 1948. For this reason, I believe the Arabs have not joined in war against Israel again.
Of course, the more radical states, like Iran and Syria still talk and act belligerently. However, most of the Arab states are moderate and have had peace treaties with Israel for years now. Although they may not like Israel, they must realize how much they have to lose cmopared to what little they have to gain by trying to invade Israel now. The prophesied war of Isaiah 17 will simply not happen as long as Israel has a strong nuclear deterrent no matter how much tension with Iran or Syria we see or how many times prophecy teachers predict it.
What has to happen first is revealed in another prophecy. In Psalm 83 by Asaph the prophet (2Ch 29:30) we are given another view of this same war that brings Damascus down:
Psalm 83:1-5, 12 (HCSB) — 1 God, do not keep silent. Do not be deaf, God; do not be idle. 2 See how Your enemies make an uproar; those who hate You have acted arrogantly. 3 They devise clever schemes against Your people; they conspire against Your treasured ones. 4 They say, “COME, let us wipe them out as a nation so that Israel’s name will no longer be remembered.” 5 For they have conspired with one mind; they form an alliance against You 6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, 7 Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre. 8 Even Assyria has joined them; they lend support to the sons of Lot. Selah ...12 who said, “Let us seize God’s pastures for ourselves.”
This describes a massive Arab attack on Israel by a confederacy of nations that has never happened in history (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and probably Syria). Like Isaiah 17 it predicts a devastating defeat for Israel's attackers:
Psalm 83:13-17 (HCSB) 13 Make them like tumbleweed, my God, like straw before the wind. 14 As fire burns a forest, as a flame blazes through mountains, 15 so pursue them with Your tempest and terrify them with Your storm. ...17 Let them be put to shame and terrified forever; let them perish in disgrace.
The analogies used by Asaph bring to mind the fiery, storm-like blast of a nuclear bomb, just as Isaiah 17 seems to demand for Damascus. Like Isaiah 17, Psalm 83 also points to multiple nations' being involved and being obliterated in response.
Most interestingly, it mentions a war covenant, alliance or confederacy among these nations with the “one consent” purpose of wiping out the nation of Israel, even erasing her name from history and taking the land for themselves. With the peace treaties and moderate states among the Arabs, this pact does not seem to exist today. There is no way to win against vastly superior weaponry; such a pact would amount to a suicide pact today. In other words, what is holding back this confederacy from forming is the Arabs having an answer to Israel's nuclear weapons.
Therefore, if Israel's enemies develop nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), this confederacy would finally make sense. This could still take several years especially if Israel goes ahead and strikes Iran. In fact, rather than expecting the wider war to happen from a strike, we should look for the lack of a strike that keeps the inevitable acquisition of WMDs by the Arabs on schedule, rather than delay it.
Many prophecy pundits who expect this prophesied Middle East war often think that it will lead next to the Ezekiel 38-39 Gog Magog war. The reason for this is Ezekiel also talks about an attack on Israel. The attacker named as Gog of Magog is popularly thought of to be Russia, or lately, even Arab or Islamic hoards. But if you put the Magog identity question aside and focus on the timing of this war through linking it up with two parallel prophecies, you'll see that it has nothing to do with any pretrib war. I've written another article explaining this called: The Two Gog Magog Wars.
Instead of the Gog Magog war, the effects of this war sets up for something much worse. The Great Tribulation cannot commence until the Arabs are taken out of the picture. This is because right before the Great Tribulation, the 144,000 Israelites must assemble on the Temple Mount so they can be sealed by angels that appear then (Rev 14) before going out to preach their witness to the world during the Great Tribulation. Also, several passages talk about Israel rebuilding the Third Temple (Mt 24:15; Mk 13:14; Rev 11:1-4; Dan 11:45; 2Th 2:4). Neither of these events are going to happen as long as the Arabs have political control over the site. Once their power is diminished from Israel's devastating Samson Option, it is easy to imagine the Temple Mount will at that time go back to Israeli control.
The other reason this war must come next is that this Middle War prophecy spoken of in so many OT passages cannot fit any other time. In the Millennium and post-mil periods, there will be no wars at all due to God's Kingdom. During the Great Tribulation, the Beast will have power over all nations and bring his own form of peace through dominion—once he defeats Israel himself at the start (Lk 21:20). The only place to fit a war between Israel and the Arabs is in our current pretrib period.
To be sure, Isaiah 17 is a frightening prophecy since it means we will witness the shocking end of a famous capital city along with the millions of people living there (and in other targeted cities). But after full consideration, perhaps the scariest part about it is what it means for the rest of the world. When it's over one of the last major prerequisites in Bible prophecy for the start of the Great Tribulation will be met and the “beginning of sorrows” Jesus spoke of can commence next.
To continue learning on that topic see my article Earthquakes in Prophecy.
Because of the Gaza rockets fired against Tel Aviv and the insurgent group known as ISIS seizing nuclear material at a university in Iraq, many have asked me to comment. They want to know whether Middle East Bible prophecy is ready to fulfill. To answer that, let's review the points of the preceding sections of this article:
When you understand the above, the latest rockets from Gaza and ISIS having nuclear material will not lead directly to Damascus' destruction. The rocket attacks have been going on for years. Israel simply does retaliitory strikes in response. The nuclear material seized is low grade Uranium, not weapons-grade, the kind you need for making a bomb. Even a dirty bomb made with it would not be effective.
The Psalm 83 war alliance still must appear first and none of the above is able to set the stage for that. When more and more Arab nations sound like Syria and Iran, then Damascus' end is nigh. But they will not do that until they have a way to answer Israel's nuclear Samson option. No nukes vs. nukes = suicide. That's why they are actively pursuing enriching uranium.
Nevertheless, at the rate things have been going, it could take a while. I have seen projections of 2-3 years for Iran to have a bomb since the early 2000's. Yet apparently Israel's sabotage and international sanctions have delayed that. I can easily see it taking until the 2020s before the Muslims have a adequate nuclear arsenal (not just a single bomb) and are ready to agree to take on the formidable enemy that is Israel. Until then, I think it's safe to say that the latest incarnation of trouble in the Middle East should be filed under what Jesus warned us to not be troubled by:
Matthew 24:6 (HCSB) — You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet.Update: Here are some common objections to the premise of this article along with my responses:
It's a fair question. To be clear, I'm not expecting a publicly announced alliance. It won't have to be public or announced. We will know by Arab troop movements, arms shipments and change in rhetoric. Again, knowing history helps, especially the wars of 1948, 1967 or 1973.
For example, in 1946-47 Israel saw the writing on the wall. Ben Gurion ordered that they began collecting arms. Because he could see what the Arabs were planning, he was ready for their attack in 1948.
How much more so today. We live in a ultra-connected world. It's hard for anyone to do anything without someone recording it on their phone and posting it to their blog or social media. Big changes in the mentality and plans of the Muslims and Arabs won't escape notice for long anymore.
Also, when the Muslims have nukes, we'll all know soon enough. Israel's intelligence will find out and cry about the coming nuclear holocaust to get the US to take action. Also the rhetoric of the Muslims is sure to change. Today the extremism comes mainly from Syria and Iran. When they unite behind nuclear weapons per Psalm 83, you can trust that things will be different than today and the signs will be there.
If it was as easy as getting a nuke from another country, one must wonder why Iran or others have not already bought one instead of bothering to pursue their own nuclear programs with all the sanctions this brings upon them. I'm no expert, but I imagine several reasons for this:
I think the above reasons can explain why you're seeing nations like Iran going to such drastic, unpopular, boycott-inducing lengths as to have nuclear programs instead of just shopping around for a secret "suitcase nuke," etc.
Speaking of which, it's a myth "you only need one bomb to take out Israel." Israel is no easy target. Bombs can be detected, stopped, or simply even fail. Israel has a world renown intelligence service, the Iron Dome missile defense system and spies adept at assassination and sabotage. Thus, to ensure a successful nuclear strike on Israel, you need an arsenal of nukes, just as Israel has developed (hmm...). No nation is likely to invite a devastating nuclear reprisal from a nuclear power like Israel by attacking them with one stinking bomb.
The Muslims may hate Israel, but they love existence, too. =)
A common objection is basically that the Arabs are not rational people. This means that they are not afraid of a nuclear response like normal people, nor will they wait to acquire nuclear weapons before attacking Israel. Often cited to explain this is a radical Islamic slant. Supposedly, Iran has stated that it would sacrifice most of its country to usher in the 12th Imam.
The problem with this thinking is the history. If the Muslims are so irrational, so bold, or want the Mahdi so badly, then why did they stop launching joint attacks on Israel after 1973's failed Yom Kippur War? Forty years is a long time to keep one's wild, reckless zeal from leading you to launch a massive invasion of Israel.
We may not understand the Arab mentality or their Islamic religion, but I think it's a mistake to write them off as irrational or reckless. I think their reluctance to make war on the regional nuclear power that emerged in the early '70s shows they are more reasonable and calculating then some want to give them credit for. They are waiting for a reason...and pursuing nuclear weapons for a reason.
Syria claims to have hundreds of scud missiles in pointed at Israel. Iran has warned that thousands of missiles will rain down on Israel if the US moves on Syria. Given these claims of conventional power, are nuclear weapons really necessary?
Again, history is our friend to meet the objection. Scud missiles have rained down on Israel before. The result? Almost no casualties each time. I'm always amazed at how ineffective these missiles are. They seem to be more of a nuisance than a game-changer like nuclear bombs are. They're certainly not going to defeat Israel through them. There is no substitute for nuclear weapons to match nuclear weapons.
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Tim McHyde is the founder of EscapeAllTheseThings .com and a blogger on Bible prophecy since 1999. To read more from Tim and not miss a single new article, please sign up for his free newsletter below.
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