THE WITNESS OF THE CENTURIES
The Sure Word of Prophecy
"We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed." 2 Peter 1:19.
The prophetic scriptures afford infallible evidence that the voice of the living God speaks in Holy Writ. One of the distinguishing marks of divinity is the power that foretells and records the course of history long ages before the events come to pass.
God's challenge to false religious systems in olden time was this:
"Declare us things for to come. Show the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods." Isa. 41:22, 23.
And all the gods of the nations were silent; for they are no gods. The Lord alone, the one who speaks by the Holy Scriptures, is able to tell the end from the beginning.
"I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand." Isa. 46:9, 10.
By this means God has borne witness of Himself through the ages, that it might be known that the Most High rules above all the kingdoms of men, and that men might recognize His purpose to put an end to sin and bring eternal salvation to His people. "I have spoken it," He declares, "I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it."
The fulfilment of the word of prophecy in history is a fascinating story. To the Lord, the future is an open book, even as the present. The word is spoken, telling of the event to come; it is written on the parchment scroll by the prophet's pen. Time passes; centuries come and go. Then, when the hour of the prophecy arrives, lo, there appears the fulfilment. And it is seen in matters pertaining to individuals, as well as in the affairs of cities and empires.
The Word Fulfilled after Long Waiting
In the dream divinely given to the lad Joseph, it was plainly foretold that his brothers would one day come as suppliants before him. His father rebuked him for telling the dream, saying, "Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?" Gen. 37:10. The brothers sold the lad into slavery, to be well rid of him. Yet twenty years later, all unconscious of his identity, these same brethren presented themselves before the prime minister of Egypt, and "fell before him on the ground." Gen. 44:14.
Again: the wicked stronghold of Jericho had been utterly destroyed. Joshua declared:
"Cursed be the man ... that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his first-born, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it." Joshua 6:26.
The hands of angels had thrown down its walls, and its ruin was to stand as a memorial. More than five hundred years later, when the apostate Ahab was ruling, and Israel and Judah had departed from the Lord, Hiel the Bethelite set out to rebuild Jericho. "He laid the foundation thereof in Abiram his first-born."
But accident and death may come at any time. The work on the walls went on, no one thinking of the neglected Scriptures with their warning of long ago. So the full account runs:
"He laid the foundation thereof in Abiram his first-born, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which He spake by Joshua the son of Nun." 1 Kings 16:34.
The fate of some of the mightiest cities the world ever saw has borne testimony through the centuries to the fulfilment of the prophetic word.
The Witness of Nineveh
Nineveh was founded by Nimrod. He built not only his capital here by the Tigris, but other towns round about, conceiving first of all the idea of grouping the capital and its suburbs into one great city, the "Greater Nineveh," as we would say in these days of Greater London and Greater New York. At the dawn of history Nineveh was "a great city." Gen. 10:11, 12. In Jonah's day it was an "exceeding great city."[A] Sennacherib, of the Bible story, was its beautifier. Rawlinson says:
"The great palace which he raised at Nineveh surpassed in size and splendor all earlier edifices."—"Second Monarchy," chap. 9.
A description is preserved on the clay cylinder in the king's own words:
"For the wonderment of multitudes of men
I raised its head—'the palace which has no rival'
I called its name."—Taylor Cylinder, "Records of the Past." Vol. XII, part 1.
At the preaching of Jonah the city had repented; but in later years pride of conquest and luxury and wealth were filling it with blood. The prophet Nahum warned it of certain doom, appealing to those who had any fear of God to turn to Him. The message was:
"The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knoweth them that trust in Him." Nahum 1:7.
Some, no doubt, heeded the warning and turned to God for refuge. But the city's life of sin ran on. Then the prophet Zephaniah spoke the word, just as the stroke was to fall:
"Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city! She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God." Zeph. 3:1, 2.
Prophecies uttered against the mighty city had declared:
"He will make an utter end of the place thereof." "The palace shall be dissolved ["molten," margin]." "She is empty, and void, and waste." Nahum 1:8; 2:6, 10. "How is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in!" Zeph. 2:15.
The Medes and the Babylonians overthrew Nineveh. The king immolated himself in his burning ("molten") palace. Nineveh became a desolation. Describing a battle that took place there in the seventh century of our era, between the Romans and the Persians, the historian Gibbon bears testimony to the fact that it has indeed become "empty, and void, and waste:"
"Eastward of the Tigris, at the end of the bridge of Mosul, the great Nineveh had formerly been erected: the city, and even the ruins of the city, had long since disappeared; the vacant place afforded a spacious field for the operations of the two armies."—"The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," chap. 46, par. 24.
And to this day, the site of Nineveh is pointed out across the river from Mosul, only mounds of ruins, these almost obliterated by the drifting sands of centuries. The word spoken is fulfilled, though at the time it was spoken it little seemed to proud and prosperous Nineveh that such a fate could ever be hers.
"Before me rise the walls
Of the Titanic city,—brazen gates,
Towers, temples, palaces enormous piled,—
Imperial Nineveh, the earthly queen!
In all her golden pomp I see her now,
Her swarming streets, her splendid festivals.
* * * * *
"Again I look,—and lo!...
Her walls are gone, her palaces are dust,—
The desert is around her, and within
Like shadows have the mighty passed away."
From Nineveh's mounds we seem to hear a voice that says: "All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth forever." 1 Peter 1:24, 25.
The Burden of Tyre
Tyre was the greatest maritime city of antiquity. Its inhabitants, the Phœnicians, traded in the ports of all the known world. Ezekiel describes the heart of the seas as its borders. "Thy builders have perfected thy beauty," he says. He tells how all countries traded in its marts and contributed to its wealth. And then, obeying the word of the Lord, the prophet bears a message of rebuke and warning,—"the burden of Tyre,"—and pronounces the coming judgment:
"Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I am against thee, O Tyrus, and will cause many nations to come up against thee.... And they shall destroy the walls of Tyrus, and break down her towers: I will also scrape her dust from her, and make her like the top of a rock. It shall be a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea: for I have spoken it, saith the Lord God." Eze. 26:3-5.
The accounts of travelers bear witness that the prophecy has been fulfilled. As to the site of the island city of Ezekiel's day, Bruce, nearly a century ago, said that he found it a "rock whereon fishers dry their nets." (See "Keith on the Prophecies," p. 329.)
In more recent times, Dr. W.M. Thomson found the whole region of Tyre suggestive only of departed glory:
"There is nothing here, certainly, of that which led Joshua to call it 'the strong city' more than three thousand years ago (Joshua 19:29),—nothing of that mighty metropolis which baffled the proud Nebuchadnezzar and all his power for thirteen years, until 'every head' in his army 'was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled,' in the hard service against Tyrus (Eze. 29:18),—nothing in this wretched roadstead and empty harbor to remind one of the times when merry mariners did sing in her markets—no visible trace of those towering ramparts which so long resisted the utmost efforts of the great Alexander. All have vanished utterly like a troubled dream, and Tyre has sunk under the burden of prophecy.... As she is now, and has long been, Tyre is God's witness; but great, powerful, and populous, she would be the infidel's boast. This, however, she cannot be. Tyre will never rise from her dust to falsify the voice of prophecy.
"Dim is her glory, gone her fame,
Her boasted wealth has fled;
On her proud rock, alas! her shame,
The fisher's net is spread.
The Tyrian harp has slumbered long,
And Tyria's mirth is low;
The timbrel, dulcimer, and song
Are hushed, or wake to woe."
—"The Land and the Book," Vol. II, pp. 626, 627.
The Desolation of Babylon
Yet another city of ancient times there was, the mightiest of them all, whose fate was a subject of prophecy, and whose history bears special testimony for us today; for, more than any other, the Lord used that city as a symbol of the pride of life and the exaltation of the selfish heart against God.
Let us study briefly the desolations pronounced upon Babylon of old.
While Babylon was still the mightiest city of the world, with the period of greatest glory yet before it, the Lord revealed its ignoble end. By the prophet Isaiah He declared:
"Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there. But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged." Isa. 13:19-22.
Never could a more doleful future have been pictured for a city full of splendor, the metropolis of the world. About one hundred and seventy-five years after this word was written on the parchment scroll, the Medes and Persians were at the gates of Babylon. Her time had come, and Chaldea's rule was ended.
"Fallen is the golden city! in the dust,
Spoiled of her crown, dismantled of her state.
She that hath made the Strength of Towers her trust,
Weeps by her dead, supremely desolate!
"She that beheld the nations at her gate
Thronging in homage, shall be called no more
'Lady of Kingdoms!'—Who shall mourn her fate?
Her guilt is full, her march of triumph o'er."
But still, under Medo-Persia, and later under the Greeks, the city itself was populous and prosperous and beautiful. The skeptic of the time may have pointed to it as evidence that here, at least, the Hebrew prophet had missed the mark.
Apollonius, the sage of Tyana, who lived in the days of Nero and the apostles, has left an account of Babylon as he saw it, as late as the first century of our era. Still the Euphrates swept beneath its walls, dividing the city into halves, with great palaces on either side. He says:
"The palaces are roofed with bronze, and a glitter goes off from them; but the chambers of the women and of the men and the porticoes are adorned partly with silver, and partly with golden tapestries or curtains, and partly with solid gold in the form of pictures."
And of the king's judgment hall he reported:
"The roof had been carried up in the form of a dome, to resemble in a manner the heavens, and that it was roofed with sapphire, a stone that is very blue and like heaven to the eye; and there were images of the gods, which they worship, fixed aloft, and looking like golden figures shining out of the ether."—Philostratus, "Life of Apollonius," book 1, chap. 25.
Evidently Babylon was still "the land of graven images," and the desolation foretold by the prophet had not yet befallen its palaces. But that prophetic word, written eight hundred years before, was still upon the scroll of the Book, the sure Word of God, who sees the end from the beginning.
The view given us by Apollonius is perhaps the last glimpse we have of Babylon's passing glory. Even then for centuries the walls had been a quarry from which stones were drawn for Babylon's rival, Seleucia, on the Tigris. And Strabo, the Greek geographer, who also wrote in the first century, had described Babylon as "in great part deserted," adding,
"No one would hesitate to apply to it what one of the comic writers said of Megalopolitæ, in Arcadia, 'The great city is a great desert.'"—"Geography," book 16, chap. 1.
Already pagan writers had begun to describe its condition in the terms of the prophecy uttered so long before. And now what is its state? The doom foretold has fallen heavy upon the city, upon its palaces, and "upon the graven images of Babylon." For a century and more, travelers' accounts have frequently borne witness to the exact fulfilment of the prophecy in the remarkable desolations of that city, once mistress of the world.
"Babylon shall become heaps," said the prophecy, "and owls shall dwell there." This is what Mr. Layard, the English archeologist, found on his visit in 1845:
"Shapeless heaps of rubbish cover for many an acre the face of the land.... On all sides, fragments of glass, marble, pottery, and inscribed brick are mingled with that peculiar nitrous and blanched soil, which, bred from the remains of ancient habitations, checks or destroys vegetation, and renders the site of Babylon a naked and a hideous waste. Owls [which are of a large gray kind, and often found in flocks of nearly a hundred] start from the scanty thickets, and the foul jackal skulks through the furrows."—"Discoveries Among the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon," chap. 21, p. 413.
The prophecy said, "Neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there." The words might be construed to mean that the famous site would never become the place of a Bedouin village. But it is literally true, say travelers, that the Arabs avoid the place even for the temporary pitching of their tents. They consider the spot under a curse. They call the ruins Mudjelibe, "the Overturned." (See "Encyclopedia of Islam," art. "Babil.")
As late as 1913, Missionary W.C. Ising visited the site where Professor Koldeway was excavating the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar's palace. He wrote:
"Involuntarily one is reminded of the prophecy in the thirteenth of Isaiah and many other places, which, in course of time, have been fulfilled to the letter. No one is living on the site of ancient Babylon, and whatever Arabs are employed by the excavators have built their mud huts in the bed of the ancient river, which at the present time is shifted half a mile farther west."—European Division Quarterly, Fourth Quarter, 1913.
Egypt and Edom
The massive ruins by the Nile bear witness to prophecy fulfilled. When Egypt rivaled Babylon, the word was spoken: "It shall be the basest of the kingdoms; neither shall it exalt itself any more above the nations." Eze. 29:15. It was not utterly to pass, as Babylon, but to continue in inferior state. Thus it came to pass. Once populous Edom, famed for wisdom and counsel, now lies desolate, according to the word: "Edom shall be a desolation: every one that goeth by it shall be astonished." Jer. 49:17.
The Testimony of History
Thus the centuries bear testimony to the fulfilment of the prophetic word. The panorama of all human history moves before us in these writings of the prophets. Flinging their "colossal shadows" across the pages of Holy Writ, as Farrar says, we see—
"The giant forms of empires on their way
It is no human book that thus from primitive times forecasts the march of history through the ages.
The Lord not only spoke the word in warning and entreaty for those to whom it first came, but it is written in the Scriptures of truth as a testimony to all time, that the Bible is the word of God, and that all His purposes revealed therein and all the promises of the blessed Book are certain and sure. The prophets who bore messages from God to Nineveh, and Babylon, and Tyre, spoke messages also for our day.
Fulfilled prophecy is the testimony of the centuries to the living God. The evidence of prophecy and its fulfilment is God's challenge and appeal to men to acknowledge Him as the true God and the Holy Scriptures as His word from heaven.
"I have declared the former things from the beginning; and they went forth out of My mouth, and I showed them; I did them suddenly, and they came to pass. Because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass; I have even from the beginning declared it to thee; before it came to pass I showed it thee.... Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it?" Isa. 48:3-6.
Surely no one can look at the evidence in history of the fulfilment of prophecy without seeing that of a truth the One who spoke these words knew the end from the beginning; and finding the living God in the sure word of prophecy, one must be prepared to listen to His voice in all the Scriptures, when it speaks of sin and the way of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Further, the prophetic word also has much to say of events yet future, of the course of history in modern times. It behooves us to give heed to what that word speaks concerning our own times and the events that are to take place upon the earth before the end. The apostle Peter exhorts us to the study in these words:
"We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts." 2 Peter 1:19.
[A] "In the book of Jonah," says Records of the Past, "Nineveh is stated to have been an exceeding great city of three days' journey; and that being the case, the explanation that Calah on the south and Khorsabad on the north were included seems very probable. The distance between these two extreme points is about thirty miles, which, at ten miles a day, would take the time required."—Vol. XII, part 1, January and February, 1913.