1.3.8 The Coming Withdrawl of God's Symbolic Presence
Volume 1: Foundations—Chapter 3.8
The Coming Withdrawl of God’s Symbolic Presence
There are ubiquitous prophecies concerning a period of time at the end of the age in which sin will be given free reign. It’s described as the Time of Jacob’s Trouble, the Day of Wrath, and the Hour of Trial that is to come upon the whole world—but its most common title is simply “the Tribulation.” During this time, Satan, barred at last from heaven, will engineer a final offensive upon the earth. We are told, “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:12)
We are also given hints that the Spirit of Yahweh will not be operating in the usual manner during this period of time. “For that day will not come, unless the rebellion [literally, the apostasy, the defection] comes first, and the man of lawlessness [commonly known as the Antichrist] is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.… And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only He who now restrains it will do so until He is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed.” (II Thessalonians 2:3-8) Who restrains the mystery (i.e., the secret purpose) of lawlessness? There is only one logical candidate: the Holy Spirit—the manifestation of Yahweh who now (ever since the Day of Pentecost) personally indwells the life of every believer. If the Holy Spirit is to be taken “out of the way” at some point, it follows that those whom He inhabits—the ekklesia, the called-out of Yahshua—must be removed from the world as well. And we are told precisely how we can expect this to happen. (See for example, I Corinthians 15:51-54 and I Thessalonians 4:15-17—the fulfillment of the fifth Levitical Appointment with God, the Feast of Trumpets.)
I’m not suggesting that Yahweh will completely abandon the planet to its fate during this horrible time, for I believe Elihu’s words still ring true: “If He [Yahweh] should set his heart to it and gather to Himself His Spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.” (Job 34:14-15) And besides, even after the ekklesia of Philadelphia has been kept out of “the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth,” (Revelation 3:10) there is still one more “church” on the Messiah’s mailing list, the assembly at Laodicea, those—if I’m reading this correctly—who will come to saving faith after the assembly of Philadelphia is gone, belatedly repenting, accepting Yahshua’s discipline, and opening the door at which He stands knocking. These neo-Laodiceans, like all believers since Pentecost, will be indwelled with Yahweh’s Holy Spirit, but they will be exceedingly few in number at first.
That being said, I can’t help but reflect upon a persistent theme running through the Bible’s prophetic texts concerning this coming hour of trial. All seven of the symbols that define Yahweh’s character will be withdrawn, at least partially or temporarily, during the Tribulation. It’s as if God is saying to the inhabitants of earth, Okay, if you find My presence inconvenient and unsettling, if you’d rather I didn’t show My face any more, then I won’t—for a little while, anyway. You really don’t understand what you’re asking for, but perhaps My very absence will convince you to reconsider what I’ve done for you. In the meantime, I’ll be standing out here at the door of your heart, asking you to invite Me in.
We’ve seen seven attributes by which Yahweh revealed His character throughout the age of redemption—His “self portrait,” so to speak. Let us now consider them one by one, taking note of how He plans to curtail or conceal the evidence of His existence during the Tribulation. To one who is used to experiencing God in his daily life, who craves His presence and relies upon His counsel, the picture is terribly disturbing. So remember: these conditions will be followed immediately by the thousand-year reign of King Yahshua on earth. Relatively few will live to see it, but those who do will be blessed beyond measure.
Yahweh presents Himself as “light,” but the Tribulation will be a time of darkness, figuratively and literally. Paul points out that the light with which we are blessed in this present age will one day give way to a season of spiritual obscurity: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” (I Thessalonians 5:2-6) There’s a clear distinction here between “them” (the world) and “you” or “us” (believers in Yahshua). He’s encouraging us to be watchful, to remain awake, and to maintain sober vigilance in the light of the present age, for the time is coming when these things will no longer be possible.
The coming darkness will not only be a spiritual phenomenon. There will also be literal, physical darkness to contend with, at least sporadically. The prophets of Israel saw this darkness coming, and to a man, they found it a terrifying prospect: “Behold, the day of Yahweh comes, cruel [i.e., fierce or harsh], with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.” (Isaiah 13:9-10) This darkness is no accident, no coincidence. It is a manifestation of God’s wrath, anger, and punishment. And why is Yahweh so upset? Because of mankind’s evil, wickedness, iniquity, arrogance, pride, and ruthlessness.
Zephaniah is a bit more specific. “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on mankind, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against Yahweh; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” (Zephaniah 1:15-17) He ties the darkness and gloom to warfare. Remember what Saddam Hussein’s retreating armies did to the oil fields of Kuwait—setting fires that blackened the skies over hundreds of square miles? Now imagine that kind of thing on a continental scale. Removing our ability to see clearly with physical eyes is God’s poetic response to our unwillingness to perceive His truth and walk in it.
Darkness at midday is not natural; people don’t take things like this in stride. Joel describes the reaction: abject fear. “Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of Yahweh is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:1-2) It doesn’t much matter whether the reason the light is dimmed is nuclear war, volcanic upheaval, storm clouds, forest fires, or something else. The effect on the populace is the same: they’re terrified. “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of Yahweh comes.” (Joel 2:30-31) The reference to “columns of smoke” is a clue that the source of darkness in the sun and moon is actually air pollution on an unprecedented scale, blocking the incoming light. The fact that the moon can be seen at all—though obscured to a blood-red hue—can only mean that the darkness is not total or universal. But it’s widespread enough and serious enough to make men shake with fear. Amos points out that it’s dark outside because Yahweh Himself has arranged it that way. “‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Yahweh, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.’” (Amos 8:9) At the very least, He has done nothing to prevent it; at most, He has personally caused it to happen. The Tribulation’s woes as predicted in the Book of Revelation seem to shift from the first of these scenarios to the second during the course of the seven-year “hour of trial.” Man’s folly is answered with God’s wrath.
I should explain the structure of the three series of “judgments” described in Revelation—the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls. Although the judgments are apparently chronological within each series (allowing for overlaps), the three series are concurrent, not consecutive. That is, the seals (the only series said to be administered by Christ Himself) are a broad, general description, spanning the entire 2,520 days. The trumpets define seven key catastrophes within this framework. And the bowls describe events that are specifically described as the proactive wrath of God—not merely His unwillingness to restrain human evil or natural forces (tectonic, meteorological, volcanic, etc.) in the world any longer. The restriction of light is a feature of each of the three judgment series.
Toward the end of the “overview” seal judgments, we read, “When He opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (Revelation 6:12-14) This same great sky-darkening earthquake is mentioned in all three judgment series: the sixth seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl, and it is apparently the same one predicted to accompany the resurrection of the two Witnesses. If I’m right about this, then “the big one” will occur very near the end of the Tribulation—five days from the end, to be precise—on the definitive Day of Atonement, the day of Yahshua’s glorious return to planet earth (October 3, 2033, if my math is correct). So it’s rather ironic that as the “Light of the World,” King Yahshua, personally returns to the Mount of Olives, the sun, moon, and stars, the symbols that have been representing Him (and all too often replacing Him in the worship practices of foolish men) will find themselves diminished—bowing down before Him as it were, in humble obeisance.
But this won’t be the first time the light of the sun will be diminished during these dark days. “The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night.” (Revelation 8:12) The first three of these trumpet judgments provide clues as to what will cause the fourth—the cutting of sunlight reaching the earth by one third. The first trumpet (Revelation 8:6-7) predicts widespread nuclear war. Back in the ’50s and early ’60s, when nations were actually contemplating such madness, scientists predicted that full scale nuclear war would result in so much debris being hurled aloft (radioactive and otherwise) that a “nuclear winter” would ensue—a blocking of the sun’s rays, lowering the global temperature and shortening growing seasons, resulting in famine. The second trumpet (Revelation 8:8-9) speaks of what appears to be the collapse of a great mid-ocean volcano. Not coincidentally, the eruption of the historically predictable Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands is decades overdue, and this time it has the potential to split in two, sending a chunk of rock twice the size of the Isle of Man into the Atlantic, precipitating a mega-tsunami the likes of which mankind has never seen. The third trumpet (Revelation 8:10-11) predicts an asteroid strike, something breaking up in the atmosphere and poisoning the fresh water supply over a third of the earth. Again, scientists have identified a potential candidate, designated 99942 Apophis, due to come into very close proximity to the earth on April 13, 2029. All three of these trumpet judgments (one man-made, the other two “natural phenomena”) would tend to contribute to an atmosphere so polluted that sunlight would have a hard time penetrating.
The next trumpet judgment on the list (this one the result of spiritual warfare) won’t help matters: “The fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.” (Revelation 9:1-2) It’s disturbing enough to learn that demons are being incarcerated in a subterranean pit somewhere within the earth. But their release will be a truly terrifying event for the inhabitants of the planet. The added smoke will be the least of their problems, but it will be a problem for people accustomed to eating and breathing. It’s pointless to speculate as to where this “shaft” might be—there’s not a thing anyone can do to stop the fifth angel from blowing his trumpet. (This pit, by the way, is not the same thing as “hell.” It’s a temporary holding tank for evil spirits, while hell is a permanent state from which there is no release.)
The last, and perhaps most terrifying, instance of darkness being imposed during the Tribulation is this: “The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.” (Revelation 16:10-11) This time the darkness cannot be shrugged off as the inconvenient result of natural or man-caused disasters (in other words, bad luck). It is localized, focused, and—unexpectedly—painful. The first bowl judgment had introduced “foul and loathsome sores” on everyone—worldwide—who had received the mark of the Beast. But this judgment, darkness accompanied by painful sores, is focused upon the “kingdom” of the Antichrist. God is making a statement here—He is singling out the “Beast” as the object of His wrath and anger, and He wants the whole world to know it. It’s all reminiscent of the ninth plague of Egypt—the last one before the angel of death slew the firstborn of the land on Passover (Exodus 10:21-23). That one lasted three days, was so thick you could “feel it,” and was restricted to the Egyptians—the Israelites still had light in their homes. The point of the ninth Egyptian plague had been to demonstrate the impotence of the top god in the Egyptian pantheon, Ra, the “sun god.” Something tells me the fifth bowl judgment will say pretty much the same thing: the Beast and the dragon who empowers him are nothing when compared to Yahweh’s Messiah.
Communication is a two way street. It’s surprising enough to find that the Creator of the universe wishes to communicate with the human race—to listen to us as well as teach us, as in a parent-child relationship. But to me, it’s positively astonishing that so many of us would rather not commune with God at all. We either ignore Him altogether, or we prefer lies to truth. Jeremiah laments, “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jeremiah 5:30-31) A prophet’s job is to tell the truth—even if it’s unpopular or inconvenient. Since Yahweh is the ultimate source of truth, a true prophet’s words and admonitions must necessarily align with Yahweh’s—they won’t be calculated to please the populace or raise false hopes when repentance is in order.
The “prophets” of today’s world do not normally proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord,” because their audience isn’t receptive to what Yahweh has to say (besides the fact that these people usually have no earthly idea what Yahweh’s word might be). Today, the politicians, the media pundits, and even those who occupy the pulpits of the land have assumed the role of “prophet.” It is their job to speak forth the unvarnished truth. But instead, they say whatever they think will garner them higher ratings, get them reelected, or keep the contributions flowing. Many of them are quite passionate in what they believe. My point is not that they’re invariably wrong; it’s that even when they’re right, they’re speaking in man’s wisdom, not God’s. And this practically guarantees that they’ll miss the point; they’ll sacrifice truth for mere fact.
Case in point: Americans tend to revere our Constitution, and that’s probably a good thing. Every time our elected leaders get “visions of grandeur” and try to reinterpret this venerable institution to their own advantage, the pendulum inevitably swings back to our founding principles. But our founders were only correct insofar as they followed God’s Word (which, thankfully, they did in many cases). Having seen what kings and clerics could do, they wisely engineered our system to place as little power as possible in the hands of governments. But they couldn’t figure out how to institutionally honor God without giving power to the church, so they placed our fate in the hands of men (the custodians of free will) instead of where they instinctively knew it really rested—in the will of God. We therefore run our country according to a manmade Constitution instead of on the Word of Yahweh. We’ve sacrificed the perfect on the altar of the adequate. That’s why Amos was compelled to report, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord Yahweh, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Yahweh. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of Yahweh, but they shall not find it.’” (Amos 8:11-12) If we refuse to listen to Yahweh, the best advice we’ll be able to get is our own. Man’s wisdom will always run a distant second to God’s.
Solomon told us basically the same thing: “Because I [the personified Wisdom] have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me.” You can only find wisdom by looking for it where it lives—in God’s word. “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of Yahweh, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices.” (Proverbs 1:24-31) God is (pardon the expression) “pro-choice.” That is, He has gifted us with the ability and privilege to choose our own destiny, our own path. But that doesn’t mean that all paths are equally beneficial to us. Only one road, in point of fact, leads to eternal, abundant life. Yes, it is our choice whether to heed Yahweh’s counsel or not, but He would spare us the consequences of choosing poorly. If we refuse to listen, there is calamity in our future.
Further, if we refuse to listen to God, He will return the favor. “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:15) Our obedience to Yahweh’s precepts is the only valid evidence that demonstrates we’ve been listening to His Word. If our “hands are full of blood” when He has said “You shall not murder,” we obviously haven’t been listening. And if we won’t listen to Him, there’s no earthly reason why He should listen to us. That’s awesome power we wield—the power to cut off communication with Almighty God. It’s like being a child who’s found a loaded gun. We need to put it down before somebody gets hurt.
How does all of this apply to the coming Tribulation? Midway through John’s apocalyptic vision, we’re given this enigmatic snippet. “Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.’” (Revelation 10:1-4) The imagery surrounding the mighty messenger tells us that he’s operating as an emissary of Yahweh, and his voice was awesome—it was compared by John to a lion’s roar, or seven peals of thunder, though he himself had no trouble understanding what had been said with such authority. And yet, the prophet was prohibited from telling us what he had heard the angel announce. Why? Looking at this in isolation, it seems strange that God would withhold information from a needy world. But in context it makes a bit more sense. The scene follows the account of the first six trumpet judgments, meaning that chronologically, we’re well into the Tribulation by this time: the Antichrist is wielding uncontested power over all the earth, and demonic activity is rampant. And immediately after the “seven thunders” vignette, we’re told of two witnesses who will announce the plagues from God that will mar the Antichrist’s three and a half year reign of terror (including all seven bowl judgments, if I’m not mistaken). So we’re being told of a window of time when the whole human race (with the sole exception of newly enlightened Jews and small pockets of “neo-Laodicean” Christians hiding out from the authorities as best they can) has turned its back on God’s Word, telling Him with a loud, defiant voice, Go away and leave us alone!
And as we saw in the Old Covenant passages above, Yahweh will do precisely that: He will withdraw His Word from the collective human experience. In what is probably the most depressing chapter in the entire Bible, John records the scene of unrestrained rebellion against Yahweh: “And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months.” This will seem like the longest three and a half years in the history of earth, I’m thinking. God’s Word will be repressed, reviled, and blasphemed. It’ll make living under Nero look like a Sunday School picnic. “It [the beast in his demonic persona] opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming His name and His dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.” He’s talking about the raptured saints and the faithful martyrs who’ll follow them. “Also it was allowed to make war on the saints [those few who are still alive] and to conquer them. Authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.” (Revelation 13:5-8) Satan’s being given three and a half years to live out his wildest fantasy—to “be like the Most High” (see Isaiah 14:14), and all he can do is bad-mouth the previous administration, like some pitiful insecure politician.
But as with each of these symbols of Yahweh’s nature, the Word’s withdrawal will be temporary. Revelation ends with an admonition to take it seriously: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19) If we know what’s good for us, we will neither refuse to listen to Yahweh nor replace His wisdom with our own. We’ll keep the lines of communication with our Father wide open.
The first chapter of Genesis is a synopsis of Yahweh’s creative obsession with life, recording in cryptic scriptural shorthand the incredible lengths God took in order to arrive at His goal: a man who would walk with Him in Spirit. But the biological life with which Yahweh gifted our race is, I believe, merely a metaphor for the spiritual life that defines His nature—a life we can share if we want to, if we’re willing to receive it on God’s terms.
So it comes as something of a shock to reach the end of the story—the last seven years of our age—only to find Yahweh undoing so much of what He had previously done. We now see Him enthusiastically dismantling biological life in the wake of mankind’s almost universal refusal to receive His love and fellowship. “Behold, Yahweh will empty the earth and make it desolate, and He will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants…. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.” (Isaiah 24:1, 5-6)
We are used to reading of God’s judgment falling upon one nation or another in response to their wickedness, beginning with Israel. These things are a matter of historical record. But this is different: Yahweh is now seen dealing with the entire earth: “Yahweh is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure His indignation.” (Jeremiah 10:10) And then, “Behold, the storm of Yahweh! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of Yahweh will not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the intents of His heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly.” (Jeremiah 23:19-20) Man has largely ignored the prospect of God’s anger for almost five thousand years, because since Noah’s day, it has never before loomed as a universal phenomenon. But “in the latter days,” in the next decade or two if I’m seeing this correctly, we will finally begin to understand that although His mercy endures forever, His patience does not. Why? Because “the intents of His heart” are for Yahweh to cleanse the planet of wickedness, set it apart for His own glory, and to celebrate the love that exists between Him and His bride forever, beginning with a thousand-year party—a honeymoon, if you will—the Millennial reign of Christ.
Isaiah, in a passage we visited previously, concurs: “Behold, the day of Yahweh comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it…. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir.” (Isaiah 13:9, 11-12) Human life won’t be extinguished from the earth, but we will become an endangered species. Yahshua Himself explained the grim reality of these days: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:21-22) The book of Revelation lists two separate, specific events that between them account for the deaths of half the world’s population—first a quarter of us, and later, another one third. And there will be hundreds of ways to die (many of which are overtly prophesied) that can’t logically be included in either of these two causes. This all suggests to me that beginning with a population of seven billion souls, more or less, we’re going to be down below the one billion mark—and perhaps far below it—by the time the Millennium gets underway, especially after the separation of the sheep and the goats (a process described in Matthew 25:31-46). My own admittedly wild guess is that about three hundred million people (including about five million Jews) will enter the Kingdom as mortal believers—roughly the population of the earth when Christ first walked among us two thousand years ago.
This is where confusion ensues for most folks. If the church has been raptured out of the world before the Tribulation begins (in clear fulfillment of Revelation 3:10, not to mention the prophetic requirements of the Feast of Trumpets), then where did all these new believers come from? Where did they hear the truth? From two sources, both of which are spoken of together in Revelation 14. The first is a group of newly enlightened young Jewish men, 144,000 of them. I believe their witness is primarily to the nation of Israel. The second source of truth is the angelic witness, described as flying through the air, having “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” (Revelation 14:6-7)
The 144,000 are “sealed,” that is, they cannot be slain in their mortal bodies during the Tribulation. But the neo-Laodiceans are not similarly protected. They will die in horrendous numbers during the great unpleasantness, whether martyred for their new faith or simply because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. (A nuclear weapon or earthquake is very democratic.) Indeed, the same chapter that describes who witnessed to them makes this grim note: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13) These Laodicean believers were instructed and encouraged in two different contexts by Yahshua. In the Olivet Discourse, He said to them, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:16-19) And in very similar language, He spoke to the Twelve as they were sent out to minister (though the instruction was clearly meant for those who would follow in their footsteps—especially during the Tribulation): “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22)
But saved or not, death will be the order of the day during the Tribulation. The seal judgments do not mince words: “When He [Yahshua] opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.” (Revelation 6:3-4) Then, “When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” (Revelation 6:7-8) Lest we should lose our bearings in all this carnage, the One opening the seals unleashing all this death is the same One who said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) There is no contradiction here. The “they” in Yahshua’s statement refers to His “sheep,” His children, those who have placed themselves under His protection. The “sword and famine and pestilence and wild beasts” are meant for those who do not know—who don’t want to know—the Good Shepherd.
I mentioned that there were two well-defined causes of global-scale death in Revelation. The second of these is this: “Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’ So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, were released to kill a third of mankind.” (Revelation 9:13-15) These demonic messengers inspire the “kings of the east” to perpetrate the last great war—a two hundred million man Chinese army (you can tell by the colors in their flag in verse 17) will ravage the Far East, killing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.7 billion souls between Japan, Southeast Asia, and India. This—what I’d call World War IV—will follow the Muslim-triggered nuclear holocaust (WWIII) that will decimate one quarter of humanity in the West by only three or four years. What lies between these two wars? The ascension of the Antichrist to the undisputed throne of planet earth. Blessed are the peacemakers. And vice versa.
Both wars are in view in Revelation 14 (yes, the same chapter that told us of the 144,000 and the angelic evangelist). World War III (described under the fourth seal and the first trumpet) is described first: “Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a Son of Man, with a golden crown on His head, and a sharp sickle in His hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, ‘Put in Your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So He who sat on the cloud swung His sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped….” Grain isn’t supposed to stand out in the field until it’s rotten. At some point it needs to be mown down. And harvest time works out rather better for the farmer than it does for the wheat.
It’s the same basic picture in the vineyard, but this gets a bit messier: “Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, ‘Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’” Note the word “then.” This is a different harvest, a different war. This time World War IV—the war of the kings of the East—is being described. “So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.” (Revelation 14:14-20) Now you know why the sixth bowl judgment (Revelation 16:12) required that the Euphrates River must be dried up: The last battle of the last war will commence west of where they started, at a place called Har Megiddo—the “mountain of rendezvous”—known to the world as Armageddon. The objective: to annihilate Yahweh’s people Israel, once and for all.
Will Satan’s armies succeed? No. It’s a bloodbath, remember? 1,600 stadia is equivalent to about 180 miles—pretty much the entire north-south length of the land of Israel. Zechariah reports, “On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples. All who lift it will surely hurt themselves. And all the nations of the earth will gather against it…. And this shall be the plague with which Yahweh will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths.” (Zechariah 12:3, 14:12) That’s a pretty squishy picture: multiplied millions of the bodies of God’s enemies, not just dead, but mashed to bloody goo three or four feet deep. Who’s going to clean up the mess? Yahweh’s taken care of that, too: “Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, ‘Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great….’ And [they] were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of Him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” (Revelation 19:17-18, 21)
I could go on, but you get the picture: in the end, life is for the living. Yahweh—in the person of Yahshua the Messiah—will, someday soon, separate the dead from the living, even if those who are dead are “still standing on their feet.”
Water is essential for life and efficacious for cleansing, making it, as we have seen, a natural metaphor for the nature of Yahweh. That explains, I suppose, why it has always been used by God as one of the bigger hammers in His toolbox for getting our attention. Only six chapters into the Bible, Yahweh found it necessary to wash the earth clean of its contamination: “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you [Noah].” (Genesis 6:17-18) But normally, judgment via water entails not getting enough of it. Moses warned Israel, “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of Yahweh will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that Yahweh is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:16-17) When we choose dead idols over the Living God, when we prefer the filth of the world to the purity of Yahweh, we should not be surprised to find ourselves reminded by drought of precisely what it is we’re turning our backs on.
Amos, speaking of the rebellion of Ephraim (i.e., Israel’s northern kingdom, Samaria), had revealed Yahweh’s modus operandi: the drought He sent upon Israel was designed to get their attention, to encourage them to repent, to turn back to their God. “‘I withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; yet you did not return to Me,’ declares Yahweh.” (Amos 4:7-8) We see this time and time again in scripture—not wrath, but discipline calculated to wake God’s people up to the error of their ways. The severity of the punishment depends upon how often He has had to correct them in times past (as Moses had pointed out with so much detail in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). The eventual conquest of Israel by Assyria wasn’t God’s opening salvo—it was His last resort.
Speaking to the same people a generation later, Hosea offers the following warning: “Though he may flourish among his brothers, the east wind, the wind of Yahweh, shall come, rising from the wilderness, and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing.” (Hosea 13:15) It’s not all bad news, however, for Ephraim’s repentance will eventually precipitate a very different fate: “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for My anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon.” (Hosea 14:4-5)
Sometimes God’s judgment involves not so much the quantity of water available, but its quality. We are reminded of Israel’s long history of dealing with “bitter water.” "They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried to Yahweh, and Yahweh showed him a log [Hebrew: ’ets, a tree, wood, plank, timber, or even a gallows], and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” (Exodus 15:22-25) It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this “tree” thrown into bitter waters is a picture of the cross of Christ (His stauros, a pole or stake), which, after a three-day sojourn in the “wilderness” of God’s judgment, turned the bitterness of our lives into something sweet, something that could refresh and cleanse us. But we have to come forward and drink it—it will do us no good if we continue to wander in the desert of our ignorance, searching for some other source of water.
In fact, Yahweh warned us that what had been made sweet could just as easily be made bitter again: “And Yahweh said, ‘Because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked according to it, but they have walked according to the dictates of their own hearts and after the Baals, which their fathers taught them,’ therefore thus says Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will feed them, this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.’” (Jeremiah 9:13-15) The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains defines la’anah, translated here as “wormwood,” as “a bitter substance: a very unpleasant substance to consume, which may make one sick, either a root herb, leafy plant oil, or liver-bile; wormwood, i.e., a dark green bitter oil used in absinthe, Artemisia absinthium. Note: possibly in some contexts ‘gall’ is the bitter liver-bile of animal used in medical arts.”
We see the same imagery in Revelation, this time a judgment upon apostate mankind in general: “The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter.” (Revelation 8:10-11) This time (in Greek) “wormwood” is apsinthos, which commentaries often link directly to Jeremiah 9:15. The “bitterness” it causes is the Greek pikraino, meaning to be or make bitter or sour; figuratively, to render angry, indignant, or irritated—to exasperate or grieve. But remember, we’re talking about the effect this “great star,” doubtless an asteroid, has upon the fresh water supplies of the earth. It’s as if Yahweh were saying, You insist on grieving My Spirit, making Me bitter, angry, and indignant through your idolatry and wickedness. The least I can do is return the favor.
The two Witnesses (Elijah and Enoch, if I’m not mistaken) who will be the ants at the Antichrist’s picnic during the second half of the Tribulation, will proclaim a plague of good old-fashioned drought upon the earth—widespread and unrelenting. “They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.” (Revelation 11:6) It occurred to me that when these two Witnesses prophesy plagues, the angels of the seven bowls carry them out. So we read, “The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are You, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’” (Revelation 16:4-6) If you’re keeping score, that makes three different types of water-related judgments during the Tribulation: drought, contamination or poisoning, and being turned to “blood.” (Whether that’s literal or figurative, it’s obvious that the waters so transformed can neither sustain life nor cleanse anything.) Once again, we’re left to ponder what the world will be like when Yahweh withdraws Himself, even if only symbolically, from our world. It’s not going to be a pretty sight.
It is said that God’s Spirit is omnipresent. I’m not sure how that idea might help us understand anything about Him as an objective reality, and it would be well beyond our powers of observation or comprehension to verify the truth of the matter anyway. Personally, I am certain only that the Spirit is not limited by time and space—that is, He is wherever He wants to be, doing whatever He wants to do, at any given moment in our experience. That being said, it is clear that the Spirit can—and does—withdraw Himself in response to our heartfelt desire to be cut off from His inconvenient and convicting presence. Faced with the reality of his own sin, King David, who had seen God’s Spirit depart from his predecessor Saul, was terrified by the prospect. He prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Your presence, and take not Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:10-11) He knew that as uncomfortable as it might be having the Holy Spirit constantly reminding him of how he had failed to meet Yahweh’s standards, it would be infinitely worse to go through life without Him, bereft of fellowship with God. As Yahweh would warn Israel through Hosea, “Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them!” (Hosea 9:12)
Omnipresent or not, Yahweh reserves the right to “depart” from people who don’t want Him around. And as with the other symbols that teach of us Yahweh’s nature, this one—spirit, breath, wind, air—will thus be hidden, compromised, and made unavailable to unrepentant man during the coming Tribulation. The hints are there, if only we’ll look for them: “And from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft.” (Revelation 9:2) “The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’” (Revelation 16:17) Perhaps the clearest use of the air/breath/wind metaphor in the Tribulation is this: “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow [pneo] on earth or sea or against any tree.” (Revelation 7:1) This scene is described just prior to the account of the sealing of the 144,000, something that must precede these things. So it appears that the angel is announcing that the Spirit of God is to cease “blowing” in the lives of men before the unpleasantness gets underway.
Compare these two passages, both of which speak of “breath.” First, the prophet says, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.” (Habakkuk 2:18-19) Then John informs us of what the world can expect to see during the Tribulation: “It [the second beast, the “False Prophet” or the demon that inhabits him] performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain.” (Revelation 13:13-15) The “image for the beast” (that is, in honor of, and for the benefit of, the Antichrist) was given both “breath” and the ability to “speak.” But it’s not real life, and it’s certainly not the Spirit of God, as he’d like you to believe. It’s either sleight of hand or a demonic operation. Why will it fool so many people? Because they have already turned their backs on the true and living God. When the Spirit of Truth has been asked to leave, the father of lies can start to sound almost believable.
The “problem” that makes unregenerate man unable to comprehend the seriousness of the coming Tribulation is that nothing like this has happened in mankind’s historic memory. God’s personal symbols have always been in evidence, even in the worst of times—perhaps curtailed, often diminished, but always there to some extent. Not since the flood of Noah has judgment of this magnitude been visited upon the earth—and for roughly the same reason: universal apostasy. So we might expect what Yahweh said then to be useful to us in understanding what’s going on now. “And Yahweh said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever.’” (Genesis 6:3) I’ve never understood why God would say His Spirit would not “strive” with man. To “strive” means to exert oneself, try hard, to make strenuous efforts; or to contend in opposition, battle, or conflict—to compete. But not only has Yahweh gone to unprecedented lengths to create, love, and redeem us, He has never been in competition with us. This seems to be saying that someday Yahweh’s Spirit will stop trying to reach us—He’ll quit, give up, take His ball and go home. While this might be true, we’ve got a bit of a mistranslation here. The Hebrew word translated “strive,” diyn, actually means to plead a cause, administer judgment, requite, or vindicate. It’s a legal term. What Yahweh was really saying to Noah was that there would come a time when the process of divine justice would be complete: the righteous would be vindicated and the wicked would receive their just due. The trial phase would be over, and guilt or innocence would be pronounced. But until then, the Spirit would plead our cause, intercede for us with the Judge, and—if we’ll agree that we’d rather have mercy than justice—work toward getting the charges dropped.
Now compare that to Yahshua’s promise concerning the Holy Spirit: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you…. The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:16-17, 26) In the final analysis, He’s saying the same thing Yahweh told Noah: there will be a division between those who have the Spirit advocating their case before God, and those who cannot and will not receive His counsel. The same thing that happened to those left behind in the flood is about to happen to those left behind during the Tribulation. God’s Spirit will be withdrawn from the earth. He’s described here as the “Helper.” That’s the Greek parakletos—literally, one who is called to someone’s side to plead their cause—an intercessor. Is this ringing any bells? It’s the very thing that Yahweh warned Noah would someday cease: “My Spirit shall not plead man’s cause forever.”
But if the parakletos, the Holy Spirit, would be with (and within) Yahshua’s people forever, and if the Spirit is withdrawn during the Tribulation (as the pattern is revealing), then the ekklesia must be withdrawn as well—for they (we) now share a symbiotic relationship: we are one. Paul confirms this line of reasoning, stating that the Holy Spirit (called here the “restrainer”) will be “out of the way” before the lawless one (i.e., the Antichrist) is revealed in the world. “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only He who now restrains it will do so until He is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed.” (II Thessalonians 2:6-8)
Yahweh will not force anyone to receive His Spirit—to do so would violate the primary gift He has given to mankind: free will. But if we desire to form a familial relationship with our Heavenly Father, if we want to participate in the second birth described in John 3—being born from above in God’s Spirit—all we have to do is ask. As Yahshua pointed out, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:11-13) But the Tribulation will be a time when, at least at first, nobody wants such a relationship. And although the nature of the times will convince many people over the course of these seven last years that the God they once ignored is real, vital, and willing to give them one last chance to put their faith in Him, the vast majority will choose poorly: they will escalate their apathy and hedonism into active and enthusiastic hostility against the God who created them.
This contrast can be seen clearly in two passages from John. First, he describes the reality of our present age: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already…. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” (I John 4:2-3, 13) Yes, we’re living in a world of spiritual warfare, but at least it’s possible to tell whose side you’re on. It has nothing to do with religion or culture or political viewpoint. The dividing line is as simple as it is clear: if you believe that Yahshua (Jesus) is Yahweh’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One who has come in the flesh, if you’re willing to confess this truth and rely upon the implications of grace this implies, then you are abiding in God’s Spirit, and the Spirit dwells within you. But if you refuse to believe this, if you deny this truth, then you are following the spirit of the antichrist—not necessarily a demon (at least not yet) but the same motivation, the same attitude, the same world view that will characterize the man of sin in the last days. You can try to sit on the fence, but remember, the Word of God is a razor sharp two-edged sword: you’re either on Yahweh’s side or you’re not.
In the second passage, we learn that the Tribulation will make this division even more obvious: “Also it [the beast] was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. Authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.” (Revelation 13:7-8) It’s the saints of the neo-Laodicean assembly (those who have belatedly chosen to admit Yahshua into their lives—see Revelation 3:20) versus the Antichrist’s machine. This final bloody scenario will present the clearest possible choice: do what you know to be right, or do what the whole world is telling you to do, even though you know it’s wrong. It’s going to make the temptation of Eden look like a walk in the park. The remarkable thing is that Yahweh has known from the foundation of the world who would choose to be in which camp. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep, even if they’re lost.
From the very beginning, God’s temporal provision has been an indicator of His favor. Thus Moses’ great “blessing and cursing” passage gives us both sides of the same coin. First, “If you faithfully obey the voice of Yahweh your God, being careful to do all His commandments that I command you today…Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 5) But conversely, “But if you will not obey the voice of Yahweh your God or be careful to do all His commandments and His statutes that I command you today…. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 17) Hunger to the point of cannibalism was promised to Israel in the face of unrepentant idolatry.
Not surprisingly, then, the prophets who were tasked with warning God’s people of coming disaster spoke of famine as part of the formula. Ezekiel, for instance, told the recalcitrant Judah, “I [Yahweh] will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. I will do this that they may lack bread and water, and look at one another in dismay, and rot away because of their punishment.” (Ezekiel 4:16-17) The same prophet made it clear that this would not be a punishment restricted to Israel: any nation that turned its back on God could suffer the same fate: “When a land sins against Me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out My hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 14:13-14) In an echo of the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophet declares that rescue from hunger (as with any other divinely appointed disaster) is reserved for the righteous. This, it seems to me, is more evidence of a pre-Tribulation rapture—those who are deemed righteous (i.e., clothed in the imputed righteousness of the Messiah’s sacrifice) will not suffer from the Tribulation’s famine, but will “deliver their own lives by their righteousness.”
Joel delivers the same message: the physical is symbolic of the spiritual—unfaithfulness against Yahweh will result in famine. “Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man…. Alas for the day! For the day of Yahweh is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up.” (Joel 1:11-12, 15-17) As with so much dire prophecy, a specific warning to Israel or Judah (such as this is) can and should be taken as a microcosm of the greater warning to the whole world. Joel gives precious little in the way of specific reasons for Yahweh’s anger, but the remedy for Judah is the same as it is for us: “‘Yet even now,’ declares Yahweh, ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to Yahweh, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” (Joel 2:12-13)
Amos too makes it clear that famine was designed to awaken them (as it will be to us) to the seriousness of our spiritual plight. Hunger was supposed to encourage repentance: “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to Me,’ declares Yahweh.” (Amos 4:6) “Cleanness of teeth,” of course, is a euphemism for hunger—their teeth weren’t clean because they practiced good dental hygiene, because they brushed their teeth after meals, but because they’d had nothing to put into their mouths to get ’em dirty in the first place. Three more times in this passage, Joel lists trials with which Yahweh afflicted His people to encourage them to repent, and each time he notes, “Yet you did not return to Me.” If we were smart, we would see everything wrong in our lives as an opportunity, an invitation, to realign ourselves with our heavenly Father’s will—to make a “course correction” in our lives.
Unfortunately, we humans aren’t all that smart. Famine is specifically prophesied to be characteristic of the world’s plight in the days just before the Tribulation begins: “Then He said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences.’” (Luke 21:10-11) Famines “in various places” implies that lack of bread won’t be a universal phenomenon before the day of judgment begins, but with these other signs it will be, rather, a warning that something bad is about to happen on a global scale. Check your favorite media outlet: I can almost guarantee that the lead news story on any give day will be one of these four things: war and conflict (even if it’s only ideological bickering in Congress), earthquakes (and the Greek word seismos includes ocean storms and tsunamis), famine or poverty, and disease (the latest pandemic threat). Let us consider these things as warning signs of what’s in our future if we don’t repent: “When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!’ When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” (Revelation 6:5-8)
We have seen that the first six facets of Yahweh’s self-portrait—the images through which He reveals Himself to men in this physical world—will be withdrawn during the Tribulation, at least partially. Light will be curtailed. Communication will be compromised. The life of the human species will become endangered. Water will be in short supply. The very air men breathe will be corrupted. And the bread of God’s provision will become scarce. All of these things will happen because of mankind’s overwhelming rejection of Yahweh and His Messiah. There is only one thing left to explore—the idea that God presents Himself as our sure foundation, our fortress, our shelter from the storms of life, our steadfast Rock. Will this too be taken away?
The principle of Yahweh withdrawing our security and confidence in the face of idolatry and disobedience goes all the way back to the Torah: “And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but Yahweh will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the dread that your heart shall feel, and the sights that your eyes shall see.” (Deuteronomy 28:65-67) It was a warning to Israel but the principle applies to us as well: if we in our pride think we would be better off without Yahweh’s supervision and standards, if we despise the shelter He offers through redemption in Christ, then we can’t really expect to enjoy the security only He can provide. He would have us lead a life of confidence, secure in the knowledge that our Father is all-powerful, omniscient, and vitally interested in our welfare, both in this life and beyond it. But the dread, paranoia, fear, and uncertainty that will characterize the last days are incompatible with such confidence.
It’s one thing to realize that our bodies aren’t built to last forever—to come to grips with the fact that when our time is up, we’ll shed these mortal shells like a plant’s seed throws off its obsolete husk. It is something else entirely to live in fear of this fact, to frantically arrange our entire lives trying to circumvent the inevitable conclusion to our mortal existence, to sacrifice the eternal on the altar of the ephemeral. If Yahweh’s Spirit dwells within us, our bodies are of only passing importance, for we will outlive them. And if that is the case, we have nothing to fear—nothing significant, anyway.
A stable earth is an apt metaphor for this stability of spirit one can enjoy in Yahweh’s presence. Throughout scripture, we see earthquakes used as a symbol of God’s displeasure. For example, “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because He was angry.” (Psalm 18:7) But Yahweh has built our planet with the constant potential for this very thing. We live out our lives standing on big hunks of the earth’s crust, floating about like ice sheets on a frozen river breaking up in the springtime. These crustal plates are absolutely necessary for life as we know it, for our atmosphere would be very different without them—this would be a cold, dead planet without the greenhouse gasses (like carbon dioxide and water vapor) released by the constant shifting of the continental plates beneath our feet. So our world, for all its beauty and bounty, can be a dangerous place. But I think maybe that’s the point, if I may be allowed a bit of blue-sky speculation. We live lives that are defined by free will. Like the earth’s tectonic plates, our freedom to choose our own destiny is as fraught with peril as it is absolutely necessary to our well-being. If we’re smart, we won’t build our homes on a known fault line or in the caldera of an active volcano. In the same way, we’d be foolish to build our lives on a shaky or explosive premise like hedonism, humanism, atheism, or an obviously man-made religion. God has spoken to us in His creation and in His Word. We’re free to ignore Him if we want, but we’ve been warned: there’s danger in doing so.
So we’re told time after time in scripture that we are on shaky ground if we ignore or defy Yahweh: “The mountains quake before Him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before Him, the world and all who dwell in it. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the heat of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by Him.” (Nahum 1:5-6) This has always been the case to some extent, but as a living symbol, the unstable earth will take center stage when mankind’s rebellion approaches the boiling point. We’ve already seen how the days just prior to the Tribulation will be marked with signs indicating the withdrawal of Yahweh’s Spirit. In another context, we read, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences.” (Luke 21:10-11)
Once the Tribulation gets underway, earthquakes will take on a more focused role. We’ll see one, for example, being used as a weapon in Yahweh’s hand during the battle of Magog: “But on that day, the day that Gog shall come against the land of Israel, declares the Lord Yahweh, My wrath will be roused in My anger. For in My jealousy and in My blazing wrath I declare, On that day there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. The fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all the people who 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.” (Ezekiel 38:18-20) This will, according to my calculations, happen about two years into the Tribulation. The earthquake that kills the invading Muslim hordes will be local, but its psychological effect—a quaking fear of the power and purpose of Yahweh—will be felt worldwide.
The most terrifying descriptions of last days seismic activity, however, apparently refer to a single massive earthquake—one felt all over the earth (which I suppose makes it the first earthquake worthy of the name). If the prophecies mean what they seem to mean, then this event will herald the return of Yahshua the Messiah to the city of Jerusalem: the long awaited “second coming.” We first read of it in Zechariah: “On that day His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.” (Zechariah 14:4) It will mark the definitive fulfillment of the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippurim—the sixth qodesh miqra, or holy appointment, on Yahweh’s prophetic calendar. The date? I am convinced this will occur on October 3 (that’s Tishri 10 on the Hebrew lunar calendar), 2033. Feel free to disagree with me about the date, but not about the significance of the event.
There will be a lot going on this day, besides the earthquake. First, the two witnesses who had been declaring plagues against the unrepentant earth for the previous three and a half years—and who had been killed by the Antichrist’s demon three and a half days before this—are seen (on live TV all over the world) rising from the dead. “And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.” (Revelation 11:13) Second (or simultaneously), as we have seen, Christ physically returns to earth. Job number one for Him is the battle of Armageddon (the sixth bowl judgment—Revelation 16:12-16), which Zechariah describes in the context of His return: “Then Yahweh will go out and fight against those nations as when He fights on a day of battle.” (Zechariah 14:3) Note that the returning Messiah is specifically called “Yahweh” here: there shouldn’t be any confusion as to Yahshua’s real identity.
The same day—and the same earthquake—is in view in the sixth seal judgment, where we are given an overview of the impact of this great day: “When He opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” Now there’s something you don’t see every day. “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:12-17) It’s a bit late in the game for that particular epiphany, guys. It’s not like you weren’t warned that this day was coming. You didn’t have to be here. What did you think, that “Armageddon” was a myth, a religious fairy tale told to intimidate the gullible?
Even now, as bad as it looks, we haven’t been given the full picture. But the seventh and final bowl judgment informs us as to just how significant, how unprecedented, this day is—not that our feeble powers of comprehension are anywhere close to being adequate for this. “And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of His wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.” (Revelation 16:18-20) Insurance companies like to call things like earthquakes “acts of God.” Here at last we see one that actually is.
Having no point of reference, most people who’ve heard of the Tribulation underestimate it. They don’t seem to comprehend that this isn’t mere regime change, like voting the corrupt incumbents out of office and trying it again with new faces we hope will do better. It isn’t even revolution, scrapping one form of government and replacing it with another more in line with our Judeo-Christian ideology. No, this is renewal, regeneration, rebirth. As with the flood of Noah, God plans to wipe the slate clean and start over. Yahweh isn’t just going to “reboot” our world: He plans to totally reformat the hard-drive of planet earth.
Look at the object of His wrath in the passage above. Who is Babylon? Is Yahweh really that upset with an ancient archaeological site in Iraq? No: Babylon is a scriptural symbol for everything that’s wrong with our world today. It’s a catchphrase that encompasses everything that fallen man puts before Yahweh in his affections. Babylon has religious, political, cultural, and commercial aspects; it’s not one thing, but everything that falls short of God’s perfect plan. It is the inadequate foundation, the porous and crumbling rock upon which mankind has built its house. Our world can’t be fixed by slapping a coat of paint on it and hanging new drapes. Yahweh has told us what He’s about to do: He’s going to bulldoze the entire structure down to bedrock and start all over again.
Please, my friend. Don’t be asleep in the house when the demolition crew arrives.