Chapter 7: Predictions of War
Before the prophets, Israel’s theology was based on past saving events. Deuteronomy 26:1-11 shows how the recitation of Israel’s founding events became an annual liturgical celebration and the basis for Israel’s theological self-understanding. In Judah, the covenant with David furnished an additional basis for theology. God’s decisive actions for God’s people had taken place already. The past was the guarantee of the future. Change was to be avoided.
The prophets came to believe that the proper basis for Israel’s theology, the life-or-death factor in Israel’s existence, was a future event, something God had not yet done, but promised to do. God is a God of change, a God of surprises. The prophets stood in the divine council, heard of God’s intended work, and urged Israel to repent and to have faith, not on the basis of the past, but on the basis of the future.1
The plans of Yahweh, which the prophets heard in the divine council, were ambiguous. They were plans for war, and also plans for peace. We look in this chapter at the predictions of war. The records of Israel’s wars, which we surveyed in chapter 3, are extensive; the prophetic and apocalyptic predictions of war are equally extensive. Taken together, the records and the predictions fill the pages of the Old Testament with the din of battle.
Wars Against Israel
On almost every page of the prophets there are predictions that Yahweh will fight antagonistically against Israel if they do not repent of their sins. We have mentioned this already in chapters 4 and 6. The time has come to examine these predictions at length. Because the people have breached the shalom that God gives, there will be no shalom, but war instead. The great powers, in their incursions into the Fertile Crescent, will be instruments in Yahweh’s hand to punish Yahweh’s sinful and rebellious people.
In Amos, Yahweh speaks of his warfare against Israel: “I will press you down in your place, just as a cart presses down when it is full of sheaves” (Amos 2:13). “I will punish you” (3:2, 14). “1 will tear down” your houses (3:15; 6:11). “I will deliver up the city and all that is in it” (6:8). “I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword” (7:9). . “I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1). The imagery of warfare is everywhere: soldiers fleeing naked (2:16), strongholds plundered (3:11), walls breached (4:3), decimation of troops (5:5), wailing (5:16-17; 8:3, 10), exile (5:27; 6:7; 7:17), desolate sanctuaries (7:9). The LORD’s instrument in this warfare will be “an adversary” (3:11), “a nation” (6:14). The fulfillment of these predictions was not long in coming. As we have seen, the Assyrians came in successive campaigns and finally destroyed the Northern Kingdom less than thirty years after Amos spoke at Bethel.
Speaking a few years later, Isaiah was not as reticent in naming the adversary. He predicted that Assyria would be God’s instrument for the punishment of Judah as well:
Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger –
the club in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder.
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
Yahweh, says Isaiah, will whistle for a people at the ends of the earth, and they will come swiftly. None of them will be weary or stumble. Their armament will be in perfect order. They will seize their prey like lions. The whole land will be in darkness and distress (Isa. 5:26-30). This prediction, too, was rapidly fulfilled. Assyria greatly plundered Judah before the LORD turned and fought monergistically in defense of Jerusalem.
A century later, Yahweh antagonistically fought against Judah again. This time the chosen instrument was the Chaldeans or Babylonians. In Habakkuk, Yahweh declares:
For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
He goes on to paint a fearsome picture of the coming foe: riding horses swifter than leopards, wolves, or eagles; gathering captives like the sand; scoffing at kings; laughing at fortresses; worshiping their own might (vs. 7-11).
Jeremiah makes similar predictions:
I am going to bring upon you
a nation from far away, O house of Israel,
says the LORD.
It is an enduring nation,
it is an ancient nation,
a nation whose language you do not know,
nor can you understand what they say.
Their quiver is like an open tomb;
all of them are mighty warriors.
They shall eat up your harvest and your food;
they shall eat up your sons and your daughters;
they shall eat up your flocks and your herds;
they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees;
they shall destroy with the sword
your fortified cities in which you trust.
The fulfillment of this and similar predictions was the approach of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Zedekiah, king of Judah, was hopeful that ‘the LORD will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done, and will make him withdraw from us. Jeremiah replied, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I am going to turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls; and I will bring them together into the center of this city. I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath” (Jer. 21:1-5). Jeremiah was so certain that Nebuchadnezzar was Yahweh’s instrument that he advised surrender to the Babylonians. When his advice was rejected, he lived to see the destruction of the Southern Kingdom.
Ezekiel, carried to Babylon in the first group of exiles, predicts from there the final end of Jerusalem:
Disaster after disaster! See, it comes.
An end has come, the end has come.
It has awakened against you: see, it comes!
Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you;
I will spend my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your ways,
and punish you for all your abominations.
I will bring the worst of the nations
to take possession of their houses.
I will put an end to the arrogance of the strong,
and their holy places shall be profaned.
(Ezek. 7:5-6, 8, 24)
Similar passages could be gathered from other prophets to demonstrate predictions of Yahweh’s warfare against Yahweh’s own people.
It is important to note that there is a conditional element in these predictions. Up to the last moment Israel can repent and God’s plans can be changed. Amos is typical on this point. In the midst of his direst predictions he says:
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Isaiah pleads again and again for just practices and quiet faith to avert the awesome punishment that is on the way (Isa. 1:19-20; 30:15). Up to the very end Jeremiah declares that Judah has other options (Jer. 4:1-4; 7:5-7; 18:1-11; 21:12; 22:1-4; 27:11; 36:1-3; 38:17).
Wars Against the Nations
The prophets do not confine their prophecies to Israel and Judah. They are prophets to the nations, and most of what they predict for the nations is war.
Amos begins his prophecy with predictions of devastating warfare against Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Ammon, and Moab. Strongholds will be burned, bars will be broken, inhabitants and rulers will be cut off amid shouting and the sound of the trumpet (Amos L3-2:3). These are Israel’s neighboring petty states in the Fertile Crescent. As we have seen, they are to be punished for atrocities in their warfare against each other. The instrument of punishment is not named, but we know it will be Assyria.
Isaiah says that Yahweh will use Assyria to punish Judah, but that does not mean that Assyria has Yahweh’s approval or that Assyria will escape its own punishment.
When the LORD has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria arid his haughty pride….
Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
or the saw magnify itself against the one who
handles it? . . .
For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction.
In Isaiah there are extensive oracles predicting war against Babylon (Isaiah 13-14,21), Assyria (14,30,31), Philistia (14), Moab (15-16), Damascus (17), Ethiopia (18), Egypt (19), Edom (21, 34), Arabia (21), Tyre and Sidon (23).
It is not clear whether the bitter book of Nahum, which we cited in chapter 3 for the excellence of its poetry, is a description of the fall of Nineveh or a prediction.
Habakkuk is puzzled that God would use wicked Babylon to punish the sins of Judah, but he confidently predicts that in the end those whom Babylon has plundered will plunder Babylon (Hab. 2:8). The third chapter is an imitation of Israel’s most ancient war poetry, in which the Divine Warrior comes forth in anger to trample the nations that have oppressed Israel.
Zephaniah predicts war for Gaza, Ashkelon, Ekron, Moab, Ammon, Ethiopia, Assyria (Zephaniah 2).
A whole section of Jeremiah is devoted to oracles predicting war against Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, and Elam (Jeremiah 46-49), followed by a long oracle against Babylon (50; 51).
There is a similar section in Ezekiel 25-32. There Egypt gets the major attention.
The postexilic prophets continue this tradition. The book of Obadiah predicts the military overthrow of Edom, because at the time of Jerusalem’s fall they pillaged, handed over survivors to the Babylonians, and gloated at Judah’s defeat. Zechariah 9:1-6 predicts war against Israel’s enemies: Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, and the cities of Philistia.
It is noteworthy that both the little peoples and the superpowers are included in these predictions.2 Though in some cases punishment is predicted for Assyria and Babylon because of their involvement with Israel, at other times Israel is not in the picture at all. Yahweh sits in judgment on Assyria and Babylon, on Tyre and Egypt, quite apart from his concerns for his chosen people.3 Yahweh is the judge of all the earth and will do what is just (Gen. 18:25). Let superpowers in all ages hear and tremble!
Scattered among the prophetic writings are predictions of a war involving all the nations of the world, a final war where God’s judgment is executed on the whole earth. These predictions are not conditional. There is nothing Israel or any other nation can do to prevent, delay, or hasten these wars. They are part of an unalterable future scenario which is totally in God’s hands. We are here at “the dawn of apocalyptic.”
Apocalyptic writings spring up among people for whom the realities of this world have become unbearable. Human beings seem impotent to influence the flow of events or to determine the future. Human history will no longer support human hopes. Prophetic visions of possibilities within history are replaced by visions of another world breaking into this world, or even of the end of this world and of history altogether. This eschaton, or end event, cannot be hastened or delayed or changed by repentance or any other human action. God will bring it about in God’s own time. But the vision of it is the only way in which faith can be renewed and life reordered.4
Isaiah 13 is entitled “The Oracle concerning Babylon.” Before Babylon definitely comes into view (v. 14?), the war is Yahweh versus the world. Yahweh summons “my consecrated ones, my warriors, my proudly exulting ones” (v. 3). They come “from a distant land, from the end of the heavens” (v. 5). Is this the cosmic army, the host of heaven? An earthly army is also mustered from kingdoms and nations (v. 4). The troops are the weapons of Yahweh’s indignation, “to destroy the whole earth” (v. 5). This is the famed “day of the LORD” (vs. 6,9). The earth will be made desolate (v. 9). Neither stars, sun, nor moon will give light (v. 10). The heavens will tremble “and the earth will be shaken out of its place” (v.13). Yahweh “will punish the world for its evil” (v.11).
Isaiah 24 is a long poem about final war. “The LORD is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate” (v. 1). “A curse devours the earth” (v. 6). The earth will resemble a beaten olive tree, a gleaned vineyard (v. 13). There will be no escape: those who flee “at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit; and whoever climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare” (v. 18; cf. Amos 5:19). The whole earth will be broken, torn asunder, violently shaken (v. 19). Yahweh will punish the host of heaven as well as the kings of the earth (v. 21). ‘The moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed; for the LORD of hosts will reign . . . and manifest his glory” (v. 23).
The oracle against Edom in Isaiah 34 is prefaced by another picture of a final war. The LORD is enraged against all the nations and against all the host of heaven. The mountains shall flow with blood; the skies shall roll up like a scroll (vs. 1-4).
In Micah, also, there is a vision of a future war involving many nations. They are all assembled against Zion, but the LORD has gathered them as sheaves are gathered on a threshing floor (Micah 4:11-12).
Arise and thresh,
O daughter of Zion,
for I will make your horn iron
and your hoofs bronze;
you shall beat in pieces many peoples,
and shall devote their gain to the LORD,
their wealth to the LORD of the whole earth.
The prophet Joel is mainly concerned with a plague of locusts, but in his third chapter he pictures the final war:
Proclaim this among the nations:
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
The nations thus armed will gather in the valley of Jehoshaphat. There God will judge them. Sun and moon will be darkened. The heavens and the earth will shake. The LORD will be a refuge for the people of Israel (vs. 11-16).
There are similar apocalyptic visions of final war in Zephaniah 1:2-3,14-18; Haggai2:21-22; Zechariah 12:2-5; 14:1-5.
The most extensive prediction of a final war is in Ezek. 38-39.5 Many years after Israel has returned from exile, a great army from many nations will be assembled under the leadership of a prince named Gog. It will fall on unprotected, peaceful Israel like a cloud covering the earth. Then Yahweh will fight to deliver Israel:
On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the animals of the field, and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all human beings that are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground. I will summon the sword against Gog in all my mountains, says the Lord Goo; the swords of all will be against their comrades. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur, upon him and his troops and the many peoples that are with him. So I will display my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the LORD. (Ezek. 38:1 9-23)
Note the allusions to features of the ancient warfare of Yahweh in behalf of Israel: the divine confusion, turning armies against themselves (Judg. 4:15; 7:22; Josh. 6:10; 1 Sam. 7:10; 2 Kings 7:6-7), torrential rains (Judg. 5:21), hail (Josh. 10:11), earthquake (1 Sam. 14:15).
Gog will be totally defeated. The weapons of his armies will be burned for fuel by Israel, enough fuel to last seven years. The birds of the air and the wild animals will feast on the slain. It will take Israel seven months to bury all the bones. Peace will be restored and Yahweh will never hide his face from Israel again (Ezekiel 39).
As we have just seen, the predictions of apocalyptic war represent a reuse of the older war materials of the Old Testament. The Divine Warrior is prominent and for the most part the wars are monergistic, but there is a transformation. These wars are not just the defense of Israel from historic foes or the punishment of Israel by those foes. They are the final judgment on the whole earth, indeed on the whole cosmos, and frequently they usher in a final peace.
The one full-blown apocalypse in the Hebrew Bible is the book of Daniel. It is filled with predictions of wars by great world powers, such as Babylon. Persia, and Greece.6 These predictions come in fanciful dreams: a statue whose golden head, silver chest and arms, bronze middle and thighs, iron legs, and feet of mixed iron and clay signify successive world empires (Daniel 2); or four great beasts coming up out of the sea, again signifying successive empires (ch. 7); or a rain and a goat with successive horns sprouting out and being broken, with the same significance (ch. 8).
Each dream ends with a final conflict. The statue is broken to bits by a stone, not cut by human hands; the eschatological kingdom of God brings to an end the succession of earthly kingdoms (Daniel 2). The Ancient of Days puts the boasting horn of the final beast on trial and executes him (ch. 7). The boasting horn of the male goat is broken, not by human hands (ch. 8).
After the final conflict comes a period of stability and order, we might say of shalom. The kingdom of God, signified by the stone, “shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). The Ancient of Days, after the execution of the arrogant earthly king, gives a kingdom to one like a human being who comes on the clouds of heaven.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
After the goat’s-horn king has been destroyed, not by human hands, “the sanctuary shall be restored to its rightful state” (Dan. 8:14).
These statements seem to correspond to the predictions in the earlier stages of apocalyptic that after the final battle there would be safety and stability for God’s people. Perhaps it can be said that though the predictions of war far outnumber the predictions of peace, they are penultimate; they are not the last word.
1. See Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 116-119.
2. See Walter Brueggemann, “At the Mercy of Babylon: A Subversive Rereading of the Empire,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110(1991): 3ff.
3. Donald F. Gowan cites a number of examples of this in Ezekiel. See Eschatology in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 50.
4. 1 follow here the discussions by Paul D. Hanson in The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) and Old Testament Apocalyptic (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987). This leads necessarily to the rejection of Gerhard von Rad’s view that the term “apocalyptic” should be limited to Daniel and the apocalypses in the Pseudepigrapha, and that there is no vital connection between prophecy and apocalyptic. Von Rad sees apocalyptic as the child of the wisdom movement. See his Old Testament Theology. vol. 2, pp. 301-308.
5. See the helpful discussion in von Bad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 2, pp. 49-50.
6. Most scholars regard these “predictions” as predictions after the fact. They date Daniel in the Greek period and believe the writer is relating the history of the Middle East from Nebuchadnezzar to Antiochus Epiphanes under the form of “predictions.” The genuine predictions are the final ones which picture the end of human kingdoms and the coming of God’s kingdom.