When Nations Shake: A Prophetic Perspective
Introduction: Timely reflection
TIME magazine chose as their person of the year 2011, ‘the Protester.’ Armed with twitter and facebook accounts, youthful freedom-loving Arabs protested. They played a key role in a series of uprisings that rippled across the Middle East but TIME’s optimistic interpretation of unfolding events gives little attention to another group of protesters, the Islamists. To say that this faction doesn’t have a reputation for upholding freedom would be an understatement. Nor has there been strict secrecy about how this group has capitalized on the opportunity to bring their agenda to the table. In fact, Islamists in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have gained the upper hand on mechanisms that will determine the shape of the future. TIME seems to have the attitude, "Let’s hope things turn out for the better," but is this realistic? Perhaps we ought to glean insights from the Scripture which says God "will shake the nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations." (Haggai 2:7, NKJV)
Considering the events of 2011, it seems appropriate to speak of nations being shaken! As for the second part of the prophecy, Bible students have come to understand, "the Desire of All Nations," as a foreshadowing of the long-awaited Messianic King who will rule the world in righteousness and peace. Ironically, Islamists also expect Isa/Jesus to return to earth and establish a worldwide peaceful kingdom during the last days! The thrust of this article will be to examine this prophecy in more detail, but first let us consider a foundational question which provides helpful background.
What moves sinners to come to God?
Most Christians would highlight how sinners are drawn by God’s love. This is evident in the following Scripture quotes, “love is the greatest” … “We love because he first loved us” and, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 John 4:19; John 15:13; cf. 3:16) Muslims, on the other hand, are inclined to emphasize the fear of judgement as a motivation for turning to God.
Unfortunately there are many so-called Christians who diminish the significance of judgement. According to the Bible it is clear that love is not the only factor that draws people to God; sinners also turn to the Lord because of judgement. Look for example at Isaiah 26:8-9 where the prophet said, “In the path of your judgements, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” (ESV)
Notice in the next paragraph: judgement is painful and unpleasant. Isaiah humbly acknowledged, “O LORD, in distress they sought you; they poured out a whispered prayer when your discipline was upon them.” (v. 16) It is God’s intention that discipline and judgement ought to correct our waywardness and rebellion. He wants to see us repent and return to him.
This is also evident in the writing of prophet Habakkuk. God warned that he was sending the ruthless Babylonians against the Israelites to ‘punish’ and ‘correct’ them. (Habakkuk 1:12; 3:18) In a similar way, Hosea warned the Israelites of impending judgement but he also explained that these painful experiences would cause them to seek the LORD. (Hosea 5:15; 6:1-3; 3:4; 11:11; 14:1-9) Indeed, this pattern pervades Scripture. We see countless examples of God’s discipline (and judgement) causing wayward people to turn back to the LORD. We also see this in the personal testimony of the psalmist, “I used to wander off until you disciplined me; but now I closely follow your word.” (Psalm 119:67; cf. Psalm 78:34-35)
Psalm 83 shows how this pattern worked out, not in relation to Israel, but in relation to surrounding nations; the Ishmaelites, Moabites, Hagrites, Amalekites and people of Tyre. All these nations hated the people of Israel. In fact, the psalmist explains that they formed an alliance so as to “destroy Israel as a nation.” (v. 5) So the psalmist petitions the LORD to vindicate himself in judgement against these nations. He also prays, “Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD... Let them know that … you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” (Psalm 83:16,18, bold added for emphasis. Later, we will explore these twin bold themes in more detail.)
This Psalm was written more than 25 centuries ago but the current political landscape is not really different. Today’s descendants of these ancient enemies of Israel (as listed in Psalm 83)1 still hate the Israelites and plot to “destroy Israel as a nation.” Is this just a coincidence? Interestingly, the religious beliefs of this modern-day alliance are clearly rooted in the Qur’an. Authoritative Muslim writings condemn the Jewish people and incite hatred against them. Indeed, the Hadith plainly predicts that in the last days the followers of Muhammed will wage war against the anti-Christ and his army of Jewish confederates, ultimately annihilating them.2
Are protests, upheavals rippling across the Middle East spiritually significant?
The year 2011 has seen unprecedented uprisings in many Islamic nations. Corrupt regimes have been overturned. It would seem true – Islamically speaking – that Allah (Al Mudhill) has humiliated boastful rulers, like Gaddafi, who claimed for himself the preposterous title, King of kings. Many God-fearing people resonate with the biblical description. They see these momentous events as God “shaking the nations” in keeping with what the prophets foretold,
Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land, and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory … The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ says the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:6-8, NKJV)
Two highly respected theologians, John MacArthur and James Hamilton, have endorsed the NKJV translation of Haggai’s prophecy as quoted above. In regard to translating the heart of this prophecy, there have been slight differences of opinion, nevertheless, virtually all interpreters agree that the core of it points to Messiah’s reign. Given space limitations, I don’t intend to discuss the pros and cons of the two main interpretations of the title, “Desire of All Nations.”
Instead I will simply quote James Hamilton’s explanation. He says that the title, “desire of all nations is reminiscent of Samuel’s words when he said to Saul, ‘And for whom is all the desire of Israel?’ (1 Sam. 9:20) The echo of 1 Samuel 9:20 in Haggai 2:7 seems to indicate that the desire of all nations that Haggai says will come is a king who will bring righteousness and peace to the world.”3 (bold font added for emphasis)
The anticipation of a righteous, peaceful Messianic King is an important theme running through the Bible. However, the idea of a long-awaited, just Messiah is not exclusively Christian. Cultic Samaritans had a similar hope (John 4:25), as do Muslims. As we have already hinted earlier, Muslims believe a righteous Messianic King will come in the end times and bring peace on earth!4 They believe that in the end times Isa/Jesus (along with the Mahdi) will defeat anti-Christ (Dajjal). He will bring an end to Jihad and usher in a period of universal peace similar to what is predicted in Isaiah 11. Furthermore, Muslims believe that during the reign of Isa wealth will be widespread and no one will lack anything. (Some Muslim readers may be inclined to see Haggai’s prophecy about gold and silver as confirmation of the Islamic view of wealth being distributed widely during the reign of Al Masih.)
Of course, the appeal of a just Messianic King is accentuated by the present day scenario, where rank and file Muslims feel frustrated at experiencing so much disunity, corruption and poverty. This scenario affords Muslim preachers a golden opportunity to rally Muslims. Sermons in mosques recall a former golden age when Muslims were unified under one Caliph, providing a launching pad for raising Muslim expectations of a new golden age in the end times when Al Masih will resolve innumerable problems plaguing today’s Ummah, i.e. the world-wide community of Muslims.
Shame as a prelude to seeking the face of God
You recall in Psalm 83:16 how the psalmist prayed, asking God to cover the faces of Israel’s enemies “with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD... Let them know that … you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” (bold added for emphasis) We noted that God’s judgement can convict the conscience of people, causing them to turn to the LORD. Earlier, I asked readers to consider whether they see God’s judgement in the shaking and toppling of dictators across the Middle East. Also it is worth pondering the significance of ongoing protests in countries like Syria, where 5,000 Muslims have been killed (so far) by fellow Muslims. (as of mid December, 2011)
Since 9/11 many leaders – Muslim and non-Muslim – have proclaimed Islam as a religion of peace. Not only so, Muslims often proudly speak about the unity of the Ummah. However, on both counts it seems Islam falls short (*, *).
Five thousand Muslims have been killed in Syria during 2011 at the hands of Muslims. Not only so, in the previous decade more than 12,000 Muslims were killed in the Iraq war at the hands of fellow Muslims (suicide bombers). In this regard, Mirza Y Baig, a Muslim from India, asks a heart searching question,
“Muslims tell the world, loudly from all roof tops, that the Qur’an tells us that to kill a single person unjustly is equal to killing all of mankind. So what was the crime of the 70 Shia college students who were killed by Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq? Was that justified or was that equal to killing all the people of the world 70 times over?”5
As deplorable as these statistics are, there’s another statistic that is even more shameful – a shockingly high death toll of Iraqi civilians at the hands of suicide bombers during the fasting month of 2010. The British Medical Journal reported during that period there was a notable increase in civilian casualties; “But for Iraqis, August was one of the more deadly months of the year. On August 15, the country was struck by a barrage of suicide bombings, car bombs and gunfights that left 84 people dead and 200 wounded.” Muslims believe that during the holy month of fasting, observant Muslims are shielded from sin and Shaitan is bound. If this is true, one would expect a marked decrease – not an increase – in suicide attacks during Ramadan!
Again and again the world reads news stories exposing the shame of Muslims who are killing fellow Muslims. These sordid stories are all too common, not just in Iraq, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan, where sectarian Sunni-Shia violence has repeatedly exploded in mosques, shrines and on holy days!
Salim Mansur, a devout Muslim and Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, makes a candid confession in his article, The Mark of Cain,6
We have witnessed uninhibited Muslim on Muslim violence in Taliban [sect from] Afghanistan, Darfur’s rolling genocide, the decade-long siege of Algeria, Saddam’s massacre of Iraqi Kurds, the bloodletting among Palestinians, and the clan warfare in Somalia. Muslim on Muslim violence, crippling the Arab-Muslim world, is documented in R.J. Rummel’s Statistics of Democide. He provides the grisly example of Pakistan’s 1971 genocide in East Pakistan, which “succeeded in killing perhaps 1,500,000 people, created 10,000,000 refugees who had fled to India, provoked a war with India, [and] incited a countergenocide of 150,000 non-Bengalis.” As a young adult, I saw firsthand what Rummel describes.
Confessions such as Mansur’s and Baig’s are rare. Many Muslims prefer to suppress these embarrassing facts to save face. Nevertheless, as the proverb says, actions speak louder than words. On the other hand, there are some Muslims who are perplexed – maybe even disillusioned – as they struggle to understand why their religion of peace is yielding such a crop of violence.
There is, however, another reason why Muslims feel shame. Countries dominated by Muslims have a notorious track record in terms of harassing and persecuting Christians, especially former Muslims who are now regarded as apostates.
Jesus taught his followers that they should expect to face persecution. He also taught, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, ‘Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 5:43-45) God’s Word also instructs believers, “Repay no one evil for evil... Beloved do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’” (Romans 12:17-20, NKJV)
The figure of speech, ‘heap coals of fire on his head’ is explained in a footnote to Romans 12:20 in The MacArthur Study Bible. This peculiar phrase “refers to an ancient Egyptian custom in which a person who wanted to show public contrition carried a pan of burning coals on his head. The coals represented the burning pain of his shame and guilt. When believers lovingly help their enemies, it should bring shame to such people for their hate and animosity. (cf. Proverbs 25:21-22)”
Across much of the pan-Muslim world we are seeing an escalation in the persecution of Christians. Along with persecution there is an upsurge of prayer. More and more Christians are praying that God will show mercy (and in due time justice) on those who are oppressing our brothers and sisters. The tragic fact is, many are even dying as martyrs. (Revelation 18:24-19:2)
It is significant to recall the prayer in Psalm 83, especially since it speaks of shame. “Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD... Let them know that … you alone are the Most High over all the earth.” (bold added for emphasis) As we conclude our discussion, I would ask, “Is your conscience pricked? Is God nudging you to seek his face?” Perhaps your heart is resonating with the psalmist who prayed;
One thing I have desired of the LORD,
That I will seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to inquire in His Temple...
When You said, “Seek My face,”
My heart said to You, “Your face LORD I will seek.”
(Psalm 27:4,8,9 NKJV)
David’s prayer in Psalm 27 (above) echoes Isaiah’s prayer as quoted earlier, “In the path of your judgements, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and remembrance are the desire of our soul. My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgements are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” (Isaiah 26:8-9, ESV)
Interestingly, these ideas are not new to Muslims, they resonate with them. Indeed, such traits are of utmost importance; as seen in Surah 29:45, “And remembrance of God is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt.” Furthermore, Muslims are told in Surah 18:28 not to focus on “the pomp and glitter of this Life. [But instead] seeking the Face of God … morning and evening.”
A concluding word to Christians, (of whom many seem inclined to emphasize love at the expense of God’s justice)
Revelation has more to say about end times and judgement than any other book of the Bible. Regardless of your particular approach to interpreting prophecy, there is no doubt that the judgements described therein are terrifying. Strong imagery is employed to communicate that God will pour out his wrath on a world in rebellion against him. Wouldn’t you agree, it seems fitting that on three occasions Scripture foretells the judgements falling on the world in the last days will be worse than at any previous time? We read in Jeremiah 30:7,11 (NKJV)
“Alas! For that day is great,
So that none is like it;
And it is the time of Jacob’s trouble,
But he shall be saved out of it...
‘For I am with you,’ says the LORD, ‘to save you;
Though I make a full end of all the nations where I have scattered you,
Yet I will not make a complete end of you.
But I will correct you in justice, and will not let you go altogether unpunished.”
Similarly we read in Daniel 12:1, (NKJV)
At that time Michael shall stand up,
The great Prince who stands watch over the sons of your people;
And there shall be a time of trouble,
Such as there never was since there was a nation,
Even to that time.
And at that time your people shall be delivered,
Jesus prophesied in a similar way, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (Matthew 24:21, NKJV)
A concluding word to Muslims
You recall from our earlier reading of Psalm 83 that we saw a glimpse or foreshadowing of today’s situation where most Muslims, especially those living near Israel, hate the Jews and want to get rid of them. It seems obvious, from what we have just read in Jeremiah 30:7,11 and Daniel 12:1, that God intends to save a remnant of Jews, albeit after they survive a period of painful judgement and purging. Here is my question to you, “Can you see that biblical teaching is very different from the the Qur’an and Hadith in regard to Israel?” Whereas the Hadith teaches the Jews will be defeated and annihilated, the Bible clearly says Israel will be saved.
The bitter animosity of many Muslims against the Jews, puts them in a similar situation to the first century Samaritans. Note: for centuries the Samaritans were locked in religious debates and rivalry with their cousins, the Jews. Speaking of the Samaritans, Jesus said, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22, NKJV) Did this statement show Jesus was prejudiced? Not at all, he knew very well that God’s plan was to bring his salvation into the world through his servant the Messiah. (Isaiah 49:6)
We began our discussion by looking at two very different ways of being drawn to God – love and judgement. It is fitting to conclude by seeing an example where love and judgement were inextricably interwoven.
Testimony of a sinner who was drawn by God’s love
A devout Muslim who we’ll call Ismail was approached one day by Masood, a former Muslim who enthusiastically shared his new-found faith in Jesus Christ. Of course, Ismail did not accept Masood’s message. Over the next few months he became more hostile towards Masood as he saw several other Muslims accepting Masood’s witness to Jesus and even being baptised. Efforts to bring Masood back to Islam failed. Finally, Ismail became so provoked about this whole situation that he invited Masood to come over to his home, suggesting he wanted to hear more. But this was a cunning trick.
Ismail pretended to listen but then he betrayed and killed him (without anyone in the community knowing that he did it or how he did it). Several months went by and Ismail carried on with life pretty much as normal. But then disaster hit. He was struck down with a mysterious disease which left him paralysed. In the days that followed, Ismail was shown love by a friendly Christian. Others who he expected to be there for him didn’t care for him. The testimony of this Christian resonated with what Masood had told him a year earlier. His conscience (which had been hardened) was somehow reignited and he spent many sleepless nights under a cloud of shame and guilt. The mental agony and weight of this burden dragged on for months. Life was miserable. Finally he decided to unburden himself by talking to someone who he recognized as a friend of Masood. This Christian showed neither suspicion nor a desire to avenge Masood’s blood, as Ismail expected. Instead he genuinely listened as Ismail shared his painful (and shameful) story. He encouraged Ismail to humbly confess his sin to God who freely pardons through Jesus, the Lamb of God who died in his place on the cross. (Isaiah 55:7; 52:5-7) This new friend also counselled Ismail to confess to Masood’s friends, which he did in the following weeks. That night Ismail slept peacefully for the first time in many months. [I trust the reader will ponder and appreciate how God’s justice and discipline are woven into this story along with love, forbearance and forgiveness.]
All biblical quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated. Quotations from the Qur’an are taken from Yusuf Ali’s translation.
I would be happy to continue this discussion with you. Please feel free to contact me.
Appendix: Responding in worship