MH17 fallout & Gaza conflict today! A maverick seer’s rumblings of long ago?

Newsrooms are straining to keep up with the crises reverberating around our planet in recent days. The World Cup is a distant memory in the wake of these emergencies. ISIS pushing Iraq to the brink of splintering; the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine; to the juggernaut of conflicts – the bombardments between Hamas in Gaza and Israel leading to an ongoing ground war.  Riots and demonstrations for both sides in this conflict are popping up around the world. We are witnessing these events take our world by storm.

I have been reading and listening to experts and statesmen trying to predict where these events will go and what the fallout will be. Perhaps you have too. It may be useful to hear also from another witness. He is not an expert in the traditional sense – he has no credentials, he is not a celebrity, nor does he head any State or agency. In fact, he has been dead for about 2700 years. Yet before he died he penned a very significant but highly controversial book. Academic tradition has it that he was sawn in half (!) because of the audacious themes in his book. He was a seer of sorts – a maverick who, though he had no army or following, authored the doom and the rise of many kings and states. Ancient yet timeless, his work was bizarre in that he purposefully wrote for a future audience.

The Sprouting Branch

Even for us today?  You judge for yourself; here is how he starts a key excerpt of his book:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Jesse was the father of King David (i.e. of Goliath fame) who founded the city of Jerusalem ca. 1000 BC. When these words were penned Jesse had been dead about 300 years but through David a royal dynasty from Jesse was ruling in Jerusalem. The maverick seer wrote that this dynasty, like a tree when felled by an axe, would one day be reduced to a ‘stump’, i.e., the kingdom would fall. (No wonder he was sawn in two with this kind of seditious writing against his state.) But then after this dynasty was ‘stumped’ a ‘Branch’ would ‘shoot’ up from that very same stump. This Branch would ‘bear fruit’. What or who would this Branch be?  What about the ‘fruit’?

Our maverick seer was part of a very select squad who also wrote similarly seditious works. What was unique about this squad was that the members by-and-large never met. You can imagine the immense difficulty in coordinating a consistent theme with people you have never met. Look at the difficulties our political leaders are having in coordinating a consistent response to all the precipitous events today – and they communicate regularly. We know the members of this squad never met because they lived several hundred years apart. Separated through time they still managed to build a consistent theme of this Branch in their writings that was so important for us to know.

I have delved into what this squad wrote about the Branch. Why not invest 10-15 minutes to learn what they had to say. Because in their works you see:

The Branch and the Nations today…

It is worth our time to understand this because it is affecting our lives today – including these events now dominating headlines. How do I know? Because in this Branch excerpt the maverick seer continued seamlessly on and wrote how a Current of Events would flow from the Branch’s career climax, flooding into the future. Here is how he put it:

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious…

Jewish regathering today

The seer (by the way, his name was Isaiah) wrote that this Branch, or ‘Root of Jesse’, would have nations ‘rally to him’ in a future ‘day’ or time. When? He continued:

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush,from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Sea.

He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish, and Judah’s enemies will be destroyed;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.

That ‘day’ for the Branch will be the same ‘day’ that the Lord ‘will’ for a ‘second’ time reclaim ‘his people’ from states all around the globe. Isaiah was quite clear who these people would be – the ‘exiles of Israel’, the ‘scattered people of Judah’.

Below is a historical timeline of the Jews (taken from a more in-depth article). You can see that they had a first re-gathering from a Babylonian exile about 530 BC (just after the short red section). But since Isaiah specifically foresaw a ‘second’ exile he was looking to the end of the whole timeline. This dispersion, inaugurated with the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 AD was truly worldwide, and it lasted 1900 years. The return from this second exile is literally as Isaiah the seer wrote 2700 years ago – from ‘the four quarters of the earth’ (i.e. North, South, East & West).

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile

Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

When did this worldwide reclaiming from exile occur? Why is it ongoing right now! In fact, this is a major reason why there is so much turmoil in Israel and Palestine today and is the underlying reason why the rockets and ground warfare have been going on in Israel and Gaza these past few weeks.

Re-gathering to one nation

Below is a map showing the nations in the day Isaiah penned this excerpt. You can see that back then the Jews were divided into two rival kingdoms – Judah & Israel – rather like the Koreans today who are divided into two opposing countries – North & South Korea.

Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC vs. map of Israel and countries today

Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC vs. map of Israel and countries today

When Isaiah looked into the future and wrote

Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim

He meant that when the Jews re-assembled from this world-wide exile they would not be divided anymore, as in his day, but united into one nation. This is what has happened as this modern-day return from exile was triggered in 1948 when a United Nations resolution birthed one single modern state: Israel.

Israeli & Palestinian conflict

If you look closer at this map of the nations in Isaiah’s day you will see Philistia sandwiched between Judah and the Mediterranean Sea and Moab, Edom and Ammon directly to the East. Note the states in the corresponding places today and you will see that they are Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank was captured from Jordan in the six-day war of 1967 by Israel. Armed with this insight, we can make sense of the rest of Isaiah’s excerpt.

They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will subdue Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.

When Isaiah saw the Israelites returning from that long, second, world-wide exile and foresaw the birth of the one modern Jewish state which would then ‘swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west’ he was envisaging an intense confrontation of the Israelis into Gaza – just like we are witnessing now. The ‘subduing’ of the people of Edom, Moab and Ammon is the modern-day Israeli control of the other Palestinian enclave – the West Bank. It is like Isaiah was 2700 years ahead of our current events.

The Branch: seen in the MH17 aftermath

But this return from world-wide exile and conflict in Gaza and the West Bank was to happen in the day that the Branch was to be a banner to peoples around the world, with nations rallying to him. What did Isaiah mean?

Below are photos of peoples around the world mourning the other great tragedy of this month – the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

Victims of the MH17 plane crash are commemorated during a memorial service in the Saint Bavo cathedral in Haarlem, The Netherlands (from EPA)

Victims of MH17 are commemorated during a memorial service in a cathedral in Haarlem, The Netherlands (from EPA)

People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 20 in Hilversum, Netherlands.  (from CNN)

People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of MH17 on July 20 in Hilversum, Netherlands. (from CNN)

People pray for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a church outside Kuala Lumpur (from CNN)

People pray for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at a church outside Kuala Lumpur Malaysia (from CNN)

Memorial service in Australia for victims of MH17 (from the Guardian)

Memorial service in Australia for victims of MH17 (from the Guardian)

Notice the common context in the photos though the mourners are not conscious of it, and we are apt to miss it because it has become such a familiar part of culture.  We are witnessing peoples in diverse nations seeking comfort in the face of death in the context of churches, liturgies and prayers founded from the life and career of one unique person – Jesus of Nazareth – the Branch that Isaiah foresaw would one day be a banner for the nations. The MH17 memorial photos cry out as one instance of Isaiah’s vision of the Branch becoming ‘a banner for the peoples’, with ‘nations rallying to him’.

The Branch & The Re-gathering: Farfetched yet seen from Isaiah’s viewpoint

We may dismiss this by noting that there is nothing remarkable about funerals and liturgies in churches, for which Jesus is somehow a banner, since it is part of our heritage and has been so for several centuries. But in Isaiah’s day, 2700 years ago, that was hardly a foregone conclusion. In that day the world was a vast ocean of pagan idolatry with no tendency towards worship of one God, nor devotion to any redeemer figure. Nothing of the impact of Jesus’ career on the generations coming after him, which we now take for granted, would have been self-evident in Isaiah’s day. Living 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah saw past Jesus’ career to the impact that it would have on nations around the planet long after the Branch had completed that career. No one else back then, except for Isaiah and his squad, was betting that the die would be cast in that direction. And Isaiah explicitly timed the cresting of the Branch’s impact to that of another global current – the regathering of the Jews back to Israel and the resultant upheavals and bitter conflicts that this would cause. The two crises dominating our news this week – the grieving over the downing of flight MH17 and the conflict in Gaza/Israel – are vivid illustrations of this remarkable double-edged foresight coming to pass in our time.

Prophetic Overarching Themes, not random sayings

Perhaps you agree with me. Or perhaps you think I am reading way too much into Isaiah. The fact that these themes run through the rest of that squad tips it for me since they form multiple-sourced, consistent themes.  Starting with Abraham, then Moses and down to Ezekiel & Jeremiah we see the theme for Israel.  Starting at the dawn of human history, again to Abraham & Moses, then to DavidDaniel & Zechariah there is a clear theme of a coming redeemer.  I did not draw it from one random paragraph of Isaiah.  It is like one Mind was writing through this squad of authors.  At the minimum it is worth being informed of their themes.

Isaiah, The Branch, You & A Promise

But so what anyways? So what if Isaiah foretold the modern-day re-birth of Israel complete with the turmoil surrounding it? So what if he and the squad foresaw the global veneration (even if only cultural) of the coming Branch – Jesus of Nazareth? What difference does that make to you and me?

Isaiah never claimed to have innate powers of foresight. He was not a clairvoyant. He claimed that God – who created our planet and the universe, who is sovereign over all states, both Jewish and non-Jewish – revealed this to him. And if he was right about these things visible today then we have reason to take him seriously about his Source. He did not only write this little excerpt that we are looking at. He also wrote, as a mouthpiece for this God

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you…
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:1-7)

Here is an ongoing invitation, through the pen of this maverick seer that this same God who controls destinies on a global and enduring scale is inviting you and me to come to Him, to listen to Him, receive pardon – and even find Him. If there is even a chance this seer was correct about the global events he foresaw, then he will be right about this invitation for us as well. An invitation on this scale warrants weighing Isaiah and the squad’s ‘Branch’ case. The case can be examined even to textual, historical and prophetic details.

Isaiah & Euphrates River today

Speaking of details, I did not finish this excerpt we started. Right after Isaiah wrote those lines about the Jews returning from world-wide exile while in conflict with those around them, he concluded with:

The Lord will dry up the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand over the Euphrates River.
He will break it up into seven streams so that anyone can cross over in sandals. (Isaiah 11)

That is a rather extreme detail to be projecting down centuries. The reality is that water shortage & drought has become a great concern through that region in the last decades – somewhat in sync with the world-wide return from exile that started in earnest almost 70 years ago. But more recently, since ISIS has taken Northern Syria they control the mid-stream reservoirs of the Euphrates, setting them on a collision course with Turkey which controls the Upper Euphrates. Turkey has just now shut off the taps. While the world has been fixated on MH17 & Israel/Gaza, conflict over Euphrates water, brewing for several years now, has reached new heights as notified in a recent bulletin of the Middle East news outlet Al-Akhbar

The Turkish government recently cut off the flow of the Euphrates River, threatening primarily Syria but also Iraq with a major water crisis. Al-Akhbar found out that the water level in Lake Assad has dropped by about six meters, leaving millions of Syrians without drinking water.

…Violating international norms, the Turkish government recently cut off the water supply of the Euphrates River completely. In fact, Ankara began to gradually reduce pumping Euphrates water about a month and half ago, then cut if off completely two weeks ago, according to information received by Al-Akhbar.

The Euphrates is drying up! Perhaps it would be wise to keep our eyes looking through the lense that this maverick seer and his cohorts penned so many centuries ago that seem to stalk the events occurring in our day.

Best, Sudden Death ‘n the World Cup

As the World Cup in Brazil continues in the Sudden Death of the Quarter Finals the drama  intensifies.  Early favorites Spain and Italy crashed in the group stage while Uruguay’s Suarez bizarre gnawing of an Italian opponent fueled ‘biting’ commentary in the football gossip column.  In the Round of 16, high-profile diving (Netherland’s Robben against Mexico) as well as nail-biting penalty kick deciders (Coast Rica’s dramatic win over Greece) has vaulted both intrigue and suspense into the games.  With every game closely matched the favorites have gone to the edge of sudden death elimination as scrappy underdog teams have fought them every minute of play.  The BBC states that a wide variety of statistics show that this is the best World Cup tournament ever.

For pundits and social media discussions a question remains:  Who is the best player?  Prior to the tournament Messi was an early favorite.  Though he has played very well, Neymar has also excelled.  Columbia’s 22 year old Rodriguez’s tournament leading 5 goal performance and brilliant touch has vaulted his name into the ranks of the contenders.  We await the coming super-star showdowns as the Sudden Death knock-outs continue.

With such world-wide attention riveted on the World Cup and the drama surrounding the teams, games and players it might lead one to wonder whether our devotion will make a lasting mark on us and the world, melting our problems away.

George Best - the best footballer of his generation

George Best – the best footballer of his generation

But then I am reminded of another football player – also a household name – but in a previous era.  Then, like now, this player’s actions both on and off the pitch engendered much discussion and speculation.  He was, in the spirit of our reality TV and celebrity gossip world an ‘idol’.  Regarded as the best player in the world, the irony was that this was also his name – George Best.  He was one of those rare individuals who actually lived out his name.

Best - on the pitch

Best – on the pitch

In spite of arguably being the best football player in the world, George Best had a problem.  This problem is also one that you and I face.  As you can guess, his problem was not lack of football trophies, though heralding from a non-powerhouse football country of Northern Ireland, a World Cup performance eluded him.

best3

Best brings home another trophy

Best’s charm and good looks gave him the nickname “the 5th Beatle” and a steady entourage of girlfriends and wives surrounded him – so his problem was not a lack of relationships and popularity.  Best also had a reputation for drink and fast-living, so his problem was not a lack of fun and good times.

Much of what we hope will give us the ‘good life’ Best got: talent, fame, money, friends and lovers.  He was the talk of the day, admired, loved and followed by so many.

best4

Best – the 5th Beatle

But Best still had this problem that would not go away.  It is one so widespread and common, and so unavoidable that he probably kept himself from thinking about it too much – just as you & I are also tempted to.  Like Best, we may figure that the problem is too intractable and unsolvable that we are better off not thinking about it – perhaps by remaining singularly focused on the revolving sports and entertainment headlines of today.

George Best - Old & Sick

George Best on the left; Older.

George’s problem was that he got sick … got old … and eventually … he died.  True, he accelerated his demise by drinking to excess, but even had he been the picture of sobriety all his life he would only have delayed the inevitable – just as we can (perhaps) only delay the same inevitable fate that awaits us by healthy diet and proper exercise.

It is the utter finality and inescapability of death that pushes us to almost  denial.  Though it is not Sudden Death as in the knock out stage of the World Cup, it is Certain Death that is continually creeping up on us.  We do all we can not to think about it – since after all what can we do about it?  So for many of us our motto becomes “I’m not here for a long time, I am here for a good time”.  We fill our waking hours with work and with good fun – like mesmerizing ourselves with the latest in the non-stop sports and entertainment machine.

Maradonna - Invincible in the 1986 World Cup, here up against 6 Dutch players

Maradonna – Invincible in the 1986 World Cup up against 6 Dutch players

But with the perspective of seeing formerly invincible World Cup champions succumbing to the advances of Death I know that this generation of ‘idols’, in spite of their breath-taking prowess today, also are held in the steely grip of this unseen enemy, stronger by far than any opponent they face on the pitch.

Now if there was no possible solution out there then I would probably concur that it is better just to ‘live for today’ and not think about it.  After all, there is nothing out there that can avoid this approaching sting of Death.

Or is there?  This actually is the central facet of the gospel, the very reason that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’.  The gospel is not about religious observances, whether worthwhile or

Maradonna - losing his invincibility

Maradonna – losing his invincibility

not; it is not about what we should do; nor is it about some ethereal heaven.  The gospel is that Jesus conquered death, erasing its sting, when he rose alive from the dead, not as a ghost, not like some zombie, nor as a spiritual metaphor – but historically, in the reality of this world, and in the flesh.  And he will give this same resurrection as a gift to any who would take it.

Now some do doubt whether this indeed did happen.  Fair enough, but consider this.  Many of the matches in this World Cup have ended with a dramatic goal in the last minute – even in extra time.  In the last seconds of play, the pessimists (fancying themselves as realists) on the sidelines could rightly say “The chance of scoring is very low”.  But the players in the game and their fans know that until the whistle actually blows there is still hope to seal the game.  In this hope they continue to give everything they have, trying every avenue that opens up to get that last precious goal.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by chasing every loose ball and running down every open lane.  All of us expect this from them.

So what about even an offhand possibility that Jesus could have risen as the gospel states?  The stakes are so game-changing that it is surely worth the effort to check it out.  And it can be scrutinized with an investigative, open-minded outlook; it need not be, as some suppose, believed with a religiously narrow-minded don’t-look-at-the-facts attitude.  For starters the textual reliability (ie whether the Biblical documents have been changed or messed with) of the New Testament accounts can be reasonably evaluated and the message of the gospel understood in summary.  Then the events of the alleged resurrection can be weighed with what we know happened in history.   And the Old Testament (written hundreds of years before Jesus ever walked the earth) can be evaluated to see if they really are prophetic utterances, woven together with a consistent theme predicting well in advance whether this indeed was a Divine plan.  There are many openings available to us to seek a lane that is suitable for our position.

I am planning to enjoy the rest of the World Cup, to be captivated with the drama of sudden death knock-outs, the finesse, as well as the prowess displayed by today’s top players of the ‘beautiful game’.  I hope that this would be a memorable tournament for you as well.  We will soon see who the best player in the world is today.  But perhaps with the perspective of knowing that this crop of contenders have only replaced yesterday’s older ‘Greats’, and in Qatar 2018 many of them will be supplanted by the next generation – and that (in the words of Pink Floyd)

You’re older … shorter of breath and one day closer to death

This is why Jesus came and this is why the gospel deserves to be considered.  I hope that you do.