“And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land,” saith the Lord YHWH (Ezekiel 32:7-8).
You either flock to “apocalyptic” passages of Scripture or prove at least a little apprehensive about them. They look weird. Hollywood could take notes on what is portrayed.
Many are convinced no such passage has been yet fulfilled since we have not seen such cosmic signs in the sky. Yet maintaining such an expectation unnecessarily literalizes prophetic imagery, creates impossible expectations, and misses out on the prophet’s main lesson. People read apocalyptic passages and expect the end of the world; the prophet is warning the people regarding the end of their world.
Ezekiel’s message regarding Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8 can help us better understand the nature of such “apocalyptic” prophecies. From 587 until 585 Ezekiel received a series of messages against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; one such message came in 570 and represents the final prophecy given by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32). Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt remained consistent throughout: YHWH would send the king of Babylon and his army against Pharaoh and his host, Pharaoh would be humiliated, the people would suffer exile, and Egypt would no longer rise as a kingdom among the nations. Ezekiel 32:7-8 is given in this context; in Ezekiel 32:11, he explicitly associated this “apocalyptic” message with the promise of the arrival of the king of Babylon against Egypt.
This “apocalypse,” therefore, was expected quite soon. Nebuchadnezzar did send a Chaldean Babylonian army against Egypt in 567 to help deposed Pharaoh Wahibre (Apries) regain his throne against the upstart Ahmose II (Amasis). The invasion proved unsuccessful. The Egyptians would not experience an exile in the way Ezekiel originally promised, but the “apocalypse” would come upon their land: Ahmose’s son Psamtik III would be defeated by Cambyses king of Persia in 525, deposed, and exiled to Susa. Egypt would be incorporated into the Persian Empire, and beyond a brief stint of home rule in the 4th century BCE, would continue to serve as a pawn for successive empires until 1953 of our own era.
For us today such a conclusion might seem underwhelming, and not much of a fulfillment. It does not seem sufficiently dramatic to us. Yet consider the situation from Ezekiel’s own perspective. When he was born around 622 BCE the world around him remained as it had been for the better part of 500 years: sure, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Assyrians still ruled, Babylon laid in wait, Jerusalem stood, and Egypt remained as it had been for millennia. A visitor from a few centuries earlier would have recognized that world. By the time Ezekiel received these messages from YHWH, Assyria had fallen, no longer a going concern; Chaldean Babylon was now ascendant; Jerusalem had been destroyed. Within another century Persia, in Ezekiel’s day one among many peoples subject to the Medes, would conquer the known world, eliminating both Babylon and Egypt as independent nations. This was a completely new world; nothing like it had ever been seen. Surely the collapse of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms proved more catastrophic, and yet even then Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt remained. Babylon had been founded in 2300 BCE; Assyria, 2500; Egypt, 3100. Within one century all would fall, never to rise again. All of them had in their own way oppressed Israel the people of God; all of them were denounced by the prophets; all thus endured the Day of YHWH.
Therefore, even though by our standards we might find it hard to accept these “apocalyptic” prophecies met their fulfillment, the historical evidence makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Assyria was at the apex of its power under Ashurbanipal who died in 631 BCE; who could imagine it would be destroyed 20 years later? Josiah of Judah oversaw a renaissance in Judah; within 25 years of his death Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed, and the Davidic Kingdom of Judah would never rise again. Nebuchadnezzar presided in Babylon as king of the world; within 25 years it would all become the possession of a king and a nation which was not even an independent force when he died. Ahmose II and his fellow pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty presumed to restore the glory of Egypt and imitated Old Kingdom art; yet Egypt in their day would become subject to distant foreigners, and would remain so for about as long as it had enjoyed independence. All of these collapses happened suddenly. The world had not ended; but their world was gone, never to return.
If we understand the gravity of the events which took place between 625 and 525 BCE, we would recognize how imagery like the sun, moon, and stars turning dark is more than appropriate. Everything the people of the nations had taken for granted for centuries, if not millennia, was suddenly overturned. For anyone who was invested in the status quo which had developed in the first half of the first millennium BCE the events proved to be an unmitigated disaster.
No one would come out the same. Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and the small surrounding nations would undergo Hellenization after the conquest of Alexander the Great, syncretizing their cultural and religious ideologies with those of the Greeks. Some Judahites would return from Babylonian exile, yet they would not return to the syncretized ways of their ancestors; Second Temple Judaism would prove as uniquely distinct from the practices of the days of the Solomonic Temple as it would from the Judaism which developed after the second Temple was destroyed.
Such is how it goes with “apocalypses.” The world does not end, but the world will never be the same again. A world has come to an end.
As Christians we confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings; we recognize the nations of the world are empowered by God but enslave themselves to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18, 19:16). We look forward to the day on which the Lord Jesus will return and fully defeat death, the final enemy, and receive unto Himself all of every nation who serves Him, and to share in eternity in the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 20:11-22:6). In the meantime we have every confidence that the nations and their fates remain in the hands of God just as they did in the days of the prophets; the fact John can see judgments on Rome in terms of the judgments against the nations according to the prophets provides such testimony.
To this end we might well experience “apocalypses” as we await the ultimate Apocalypse, the final appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Lord. These “apocalypses” are not the end of the world, but they will represent the end of a world. They might be personal in nature; they might afflict a particular group of people; they may afflict a nation or the entire world. In these times things people took for granted and assumed to be predictable become so no longer. What used to be “normal” becomes impossible. Life might well go on for many, but it will not look like it did before.
God has never promised to remove us from such forms of distress, but He has left us the same promise He has always left His people in difficult times. He will strengthen and sustain us through whatever we must endure, but only if we turn to Him and cling to Him as our refuge and strength. Ultimately we have no basis in confidence and reliance on any thing in this creation, and “apocalypses” remind us of this: they all fade and fall apart (1 Peter 1:23-25). At the same time, nothing in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39): no force can tear us away from God. In Christ we can endure anything as long as we maintain our faith and trust in Him come what may.
No one ever asked to live through an “apocalypse.” No one wants to experience a day and time in which metaphors of cosmic dislocation seem just about right or perhaps even a little understated. And yet according to God’s sovereign purposes such times come upon mankind. They end a world; but they have not yet ended the world. They have often allowed for transformation and new life to grow. Whether we live in times of comfort or distress, stability or “apocalypse,” we do well to maintain our confidence in God in Christ, and not in anything He has made, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry