or Supernatural Foresight?

By David Down

(Investigator 17, 1991 March.  Reprinted courtesy of SIGNS OF THE TIMES 1983 Volume 98 Number 6)


TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I made my first visit to the Middle East. I built a caravan in India and hauled it through to London and back, a journey of seven and a half months, most of which was spent in the lands of the Bible. What I saw made an indelible impression on my mind, for not only did it confirm the historical reliability of the Bible, but everywhere I went I saw the fulfilment of specific prophecies. The prophets had predicted the future of villages, cities and nations.  Sometimes slowly, but sometimes with dramatic suddenness, the predictions had been unerringly fulfilled. Now, 2,000 years after their time, I visited these places and saw them as the prophets, looking ahead through the centuries, had portrayed them.

Since then I have made eleven trips to the Bible lands, and every time a new sense of awe envelops me as I walk the streets of ruined towns and cities, mute testimonies to the accuracy of Bible prophecy.

Some who are more familiar with the oracles of Greece than the prophecies of the Bible, have protested that the prophecies can be interpreted in several different ways. This is not so when we deal with the literal utterances concerning cities and nations. One of the first places I visited was Babylon. At the height of its prosperity and power the prophets had predicted, "Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, the haunt of jackals... The broad wall of Babylon shall be levelled to the ground." Jeremiah 51:37, 58.  "And Babylon….will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. It will never be inhabited or dwelt in for all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there." Isaiah 13:19, 20.


Only One Interpretation

There is nothing ambiguous about these prophecies. They could only be interpreted in one way. Yet Jeremiah wrote while Babylon was at the zenith of its power. Isaiah wrote even before Babylon achieved supremacy in the Middle East.  No one could have foreseen the utter desolation of this magnificent city unless inspiration had revealed it.  Yet this is precisely what has happened.

The first time I visited Babylon I parked my caravan among its ruins and slept there, and I had the city to myself.  Well, almost.  Just before I dropped off to sleep I was startled to hear a pack of jackals howling among the ruins. On another occasion my daughter disturbed a fox which raced through the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's summer palace. Naturally I recalled Jeremiah's prediction that "Babylon shall become…the haunt of jackals."

King Nebuchadnezzar was a compulsive builder.  He erected temples and palaces, walls and ornate gateways.  It was his ambition to establish an empire that would survive for ever, a dynasty that would never end.  But it was not to be.

Nebuchadnezzar's grandson, Belshazzar, was holding a great feast when a mysterious hand wrote on the palace walls, "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN" (Daniel 5:25). And the interpretation given was, "Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians." That very night Cyrus the Persian marched his troops up the bed of the Euphrates River and occupied the city. Two hundred years later Alexander the Great's successor, Seleucus, built a new city fifty kilometres away, and old Babylon was almost demolished to provide building materials for the new city.

As for the site itself, over the centuries a salty crust has formed over most of the ground. Only the hardiest tussocks can survive, and these are not fit food for sheep. No shepherd would bother to graze his sheep among the ruins of Babylon.

Divine Retribution

But Nineveh is a different story. The Assyrians once terrorised the surrounding nations with their merciless cruelty. Prisoners were impaled or flayed alive. Cities were razed to the ground and whole populations deported from their homelands. The prophets foretold that divine retribution would fall upon the city of Nineveh, capital of the great Assyrian empire. "He will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and he will make Nineveh a desolation… Herds shall lie down in the midst of her." Zephaniah 2:13, 14.

Here is no guesswork.  The prophecies were specific.

Babylon – "No shepherds will make their flocks lie down there," but Nineveh – "herds [or flocks] shall lie down in the midst of her."  The first time I visited the ruins of Nineveh, I wondered whether I would be fortunate enough to see a flock of sheep there.  I need not have worried. I saw many shepherds minding their sheep and goats among the dunes. The grass grows well and the animals looked fat and healthy.  What a contrast to Babylon!

The Medes and the Babylonians launched a fierce attack against Nineveh in the year 612 BC, and destroyed it. The king and his harem perished in the palace flames, and Nineveh was never rebuilt. Within two hundred years, the dust of time had buried its crumbling walls, and even its location was lost. In 1845 when Henry Austin Layard excavated Calah, thirty kilometres to the south, he thought that it was Nineveh, and returned to London and published a two-volume book, Nineveh and Its Remains. It was not until Sir Henry Rawlinson deciphered the Assyrian cuneiform that the location of Nineveh was identified at Kuyunjuk, opposite Mosul.

Downfall of the Edomites

Petra was different again. It was neither destroyed nor buried. But it did become uninhabited. This secluded valley was once the home of  Esau's descendants, the Edomites. The Bible prophet Obadiah devoted his whole book (the entire one chapter of it) to the doom of the Edomites. Jeremiah also predicted their judgment: "You who live in the clefts of the rock, who hold the height of the hills. Though you make your nest as high as the eagle's, I will bring you down from there, says the Lord... No man shall dwell there, no man shall sojourn in her. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified." Jeremiah 49:16-18.

The Edomites thought that they were safe. They were encircled by a ring of precipitous stony hills. Access was through a narrow defile one kilometre long, that could be defended by a handful of soldiers. If the enemy did break through these defences, the populace could retire to an isolated pinnacle of rock with sheer sides.  Petra seemed impregnable. But about 300 BC an Arab tribe, the Nabateans, occupied Petra and squeezed the Edomites out. The Nabateans then proceeded to carve their temples and tombs out of the rock face. Exquisite sculptures chiselled out of the solid mountainsides exposed the rainbow-coloured strata of Petra's valley. It became the wonder of ancient historians and because it commanded the trade routes and could extract toll from the passing caravans of camels laden with costly spices. It prospered. But stories of Petra's wealth reached the ears of the conquering Romans and in AD 106 Petra fell to Imperial Rome.

Still Petra's doom was delayed. The tombs hewn out of the colourful rocks now became the facades of Roman palaces. A well-paved Roman road ran through the valley. A new form of architecture appeared. A temple to Zeus was built from blocks of stone, and still Petra prospered.

Then Christianity came to Petra.  Crosses were carved in the old tombs, and inscriptions were left on walls. But the trade routes were changing. The camel caravans plodded along the road to Suez, bypassing the fabled city, and little by little the populace drifted away. When the Muslim invaders swept over the countryside, Petra lost the reason for its existence, and by the end of the first millennium only a few stragglers remained.

The Crusaders came and built a fortress behind the old Roman temple, but when they departed, the valley lapsed into silence. Marauding Arabs combed its temples for anything of value, but to the outside world it was a lost city.  Historians had extolled its architectural wonders and recorded its fabulous prosperity, while scholars pondered their writings, but of its whereabouts there was no trace.  Petra, the city of rock, had vanished.

In 1812 the Swiss explorer, John Burckhardt – posing as an Arab, speaking the language, and professing the religion of Islam – was on his way to Mount Hor to sacrifice a goat within sight of the tomb of Aaron perched on its summit, when he was told of a secret valley containing deserted tombs. He could hardly suppress his excitement when he beheld its rainbow wonders, and nearly lost his life when his guide accused him of being a spy. He hastily sacrificed his goat and then emerged to tell an astonished world of the amazing wonders of the lost city of Petra.

"If thieves came by night, would they not destroy only enough for themselves?" the prophet asked when the Edomites were occupying Petra in peaceful security. "But I have stripped Esau bare."  Jeremiah 49:9, 10.  It took more than a thousand years for prophecy to triumph, but its delay did not avert its doom.

The Saga of Tyre

One more ancient city merits consideration. While nations battled for supremacy on land, the Phoenicians, the mariners of the Mediterranean, plied the waters of the sea and traded their merchandise in lands afar. If would-be conquerors cast covetous eyes on their coastal city of Tyre, the Phoenicians withdrew to the safety of their offshore islands. Nebuchadnezzar, the powerful potentate of Babylon, occupied the coastal city of Tyre and besieged the island fortress for fourteen years, but all to no avail. A steady stream of supplies came from overseas trading posts, and the people of Tyre island could afford to sneer in defiance at Babylon's military might. They felt eternally secure.

But the prophet Ezekiel knew better. "I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers; and I will scrape her soil from her, and make her a bare rock. She shall be in the midst of the sea a place for the spreading of nets; for I have spoken, says the Lord God... You shall be a place for the spreading of nets… I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more; though you be sought for, you will never be found again, says the Lord God." Ezekiel 26:3-5, 12, 14, 21. A very different prophecy from that concerning Babylon, Nineveh or Petra, but just as specific. Just as surely fulfilled.

In 332 BC Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army had marched across the Hellespont to defeat the Persians and conquer the cities of Asia Minor, Syria and Phoenicia. Now they turned to Tyre. The people of Tyre promptly withdrew to their island fortress. Thousands of tonnes of earth and rock were dumped into the sea. Every building in Tyre was demolished, and its materials used to extend the growing causeway. When still more was needed, the topsoil was scraped off the rock foundations.

Finally the causeway was completed, and although the men of Tyre's island fought valiantly, they were no match for Alexander's seasoned soldiers. The island city was conquered, and 30,000 of its inhabitants sold into slavery. The old shore city was never inhabited again. But a curious thing happened to the causeway. Ceaseless tides washed sand and debris against the narrow neck of land that Alexander had built, and gradually the offshore island and the coastal land became one.  Arab fishermen erected their houses on the site, and gradually it grew into a modern city located on what was once a causeway and an island fortress.  At night the fishermen spread their nets in the sea for a haul, and during the day they dried their nets on the bedrock of the old city. I have seen them.

"You Will Never Be Found"

The last time I visited Tyre, just before the Palestinians made it a PLO stronghold, I watched an archaeological team at work with bulldozers front-end loaders and more delicate tools of excavation.  I talked with the man in charge, and he told me a lot about the interesting discoveries they had made.

Then I asked him whether he had found any remnants of ancient Tyre of Old Testament days. "No," he said, "and we never will."  "Why not?" I asked.
"Because," he replied, "the land by the shore has sunk down during the centuries and the Tyre of Old Testament days is now below the level of the Mediterranean Sea. Whenever we try to probe down further, our excavations fill with water. Science has not found a way to cope with this problem. Old Testament Tyre will never be excavated."

"Though you be sought for, you will never be found," said the prophet.

Amazing, isn't it, the unerring accuracy of what the prophets wrote. It happened too often to be a coincidence. It was too specific to be brushed off as wishful thinking. It could only be the product of divine revelation.

"We have the prophetic word made more sure." 2 Peter 1:19.

* All quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

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