The civil war in Syria has caused untold misery in the lives of thousands of people. The civil war in Syria began in March 2011 when people unhappy with President Bashar al-Assad and his government began a demonstration trying to overthrow Assad and the leaders of the Ba’ath government.
Since 2011 more than 100,000 people have been killed and many thousands of Syrians have become refugees in Jordan and Turkey.
A few days ago, it was reported that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the fight against the rebels and as a result, more than 1,400 people were killed. The use of weapons of mass destruction has caused much concern to the Western countries who oppose the use of chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry said recently that the United States would respond to the massacre with military power.
The potential of war between the United States and Syria has convinced some Christians that a war between the two countries may be a prelude to the Second Coming of Christ. As evidence for their conclusion, they cite a prophecy of Isaiah. In an oracle pronouncing the destruction of Damascus, the capital of Syria, Isaiah wrote:
“An oracle concerning Damascus. See, Damascus will cease to be a city, and will become a heap of ruins. Her towns will be deserted forever; they will be places for flocks, which will lie down, and no one will make them afraid” (Isa. 17:1-2).
Tina Sfondeles discusses Christian speculation about the events of the last days in an article published in the Chicago-Sun Times. She wrote:
In light of Syria’s escalating civil war – including allegations that the government unleashed a chemical attack on civilians and the United States contemplating an air strike in return – several Christian blogs have linked the events there to the end of the world. In one, the author recommends to “keep watching the Middle East as we head towards the end of the age.”
“We don’t know the timing of those verses and passages, but Isaiah 17, it could be tomorrow, it could be in 10 years, in 100 years,” said Jan Markell, founder and program host at Olive Tree Ministries. “To say what’s happening now [in Syria] is going to lead to that would be pretty reckless but I think it’s safe to say what’s happening could lead to that.”
Markell, whose radio show discusses current events and their link to end of world Bible prophecies, believes a chemical weapon could level Damascus for the first time in its history, and could refer to the Bible’s reference of the city being uninhabitable.
Markell also believes the destruction of Damascus in the Bible is linked to Jesus’ Second Coming: “Yes, it [Damascus] is all [connected to] an end of time scenario.”
The problem of relating the Syrian civil war in the twenty-first century AD with the words of the prophet Isaiah who were pronounced in the eighth century BC, is that those who use the words of Isaiah to predict the end of the world take the words of the prophet out of his historical context.
The words of Isaiah were proclaimed in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite war. After Tiglath-pileser III became king of Assyria in 745 BC, Assyria posed a threat to Israel and to Syria. In 735 BC, Pekah, the king of Israel, and Rezin, the king of Aram (Syria), made an alliance to fight against Assyria. Pekah and Rezin wanted Ahaz, king of Judah, to join the alliance in their struggle against Assyria.
Ahaz refused to join the alliance, so Pekah and Rezin attacked Jerusalem hoping to depose Ahaz and place on the throne someone who would support the struggle against Assyria. Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and paid Tiglath-pileser to help him against his enemies: “Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me’” (2 Kings 16:7).
Isaiah was against Ahaz’s decision to appeal to Assyria for help. It is at this time that Isaiah proclaims the destruction of Damascus. Isaiah said:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:14-16).
As a result of Ahaz’s alliance with Assyria, Tiglath-pileser invaded Damascus and deported many of the Arameans to Kir, an area in the Assyrian empire: “The king of Assyria listened to him; the king of Assyria marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir; then he killed Rezin” (2 Kings 16:9).
Tiglath-pileser also invaded the Northern Kingdom and deported a large number of its population: “In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried the people captive to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29).
The defeat of Pekah and Rezin was a fulfillment of the words of Isaiah: “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:16).
The words of Isaiah about the destruction of Damascus (Isa. 17:1-2) came out of his condemnation of Damascus for its involvement in the Syro-Ephraimite war. Isaiah’s oracle has nothing to do with the Syrian crisis today or with the Second Coming of Christ in the future. After the Assyrian invasion, Damascus continued to be the capital of Syria. The city was captured again by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in the sixth century BC.
Christians believe that Christ will come again, but I doubt that it is a civil war in Syria that will bring about the end of the world.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary