Posted by Tim McHyde
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 stike 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.
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 enriching uranium is one of the steps towards creating nuclear weapons, 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 threatened 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 twice 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.
Unfulfilled Destruction For Damascus
Given these precedents, prophecy students wonder if an Israeli strike on Iran is not next 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 yet future. This is very strong language that stands in contrast to Damascus’ status as the oldest city. In fact, Bible skeptics list Isaiah 17 as proof that the Bible is not true.
If this is correct, then the bleak message 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.
How Does a City Become A Ruinous Heap?
If you think about it, this prediction is perhaps 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’ 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.
Perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki provide the cloest concept 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 strong fallout would keep people from coming back to rebuild and reinhabit it.
Why Israel Would Nuke Damascus
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 quickly. 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 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.
Why the Arabs Have Not Tried to Destroy Israel Since 1973
Aware of the above, prophecy teachers have naturally been expecting and predicting Isaiah 17’s fulfillment practically every year. 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 five 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 wipe Israel out as before. Why?
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 changed the balance of power. Israel’s enemies risk inviting asymmetrical force if they try to defeat 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.
The Missing War Alliance/Confederacy of Psalm 83
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 that they have too much to lose and too little to gain by trying to destroy Israel now. The prophesied war of Isaiah 17 will simply not happen under these conditions 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 obviously does not 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.
After Arab’s Defeated, Next In Prophecy…
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 38-39 also talk 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, the144,000 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. But 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.
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