Is history simply a meaningless patchwork of random events? Or is there a definite design and purpose behind it?
In October, 539 B.C., Babylon, the greatest city of the ancient world, fell to a Medo-Persian army under Cyrus the Great. Less than a half century earlier, the famed city had reached the height of its power and splendor under King Nebuchadnezzar, builder of the magnificent Ishtar Gate and the world-renowned Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. After Nebuchadnezzar’s death, however, Babylonian power declined rapidly. By 539, the stage was set for collapse.
Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon claim that Cyrus achieved entry into the heavily fortified capital by cleverly diverting the waters of the Euphrates River, which flowed under the city’s huge brass gates and through the length of the metropolis.
Upstream, according to the account, Cyrus’ army dug a channel to lead off the water into a huge abandoned reservoir near the river. The level of the river soon began to sink, and Cyrus’s army, under cover of darkness, slipped quietly down into the now knee-deep water and waded under the gates into the unsuspecting city. The Babylonians were taken by surprise, and the city fell with little bloodshed.
The fall of Babylon was one of the decisive events of antiquity, marking the end of an era. The once-great Babylonian realm was absorbed into the Persian Empire, which soon included all of the Near East from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River.
Eventually, however the great Persian Empire followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, falling to armies of Alexander the Great some 200 years later. And likewise, the legions of Rome ultimately swallowed up the one-time domains of Alexander.
The rise and fall of empires is a recurring feature of history. One power rises to prominence, only to decline and eventually by supplanted by another.
The Greek historian Polybius recounts how the great Roman commander Scipio the Younger, while watching the city of Carthage going up in flames in 146 B.C., remarked to him: “A glorious moment, Polybius: but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country for thus it had happened to to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time.”
For centuries historians have pondered the inexorable progression of civilizations. Is history, they have wondered, simply an arbitrary succession of events, a meaningless patchwork of random incidents, devoid of purpose? Or, is there some sort of overall design or recurring pattern in history? The belief that it is possible to discern in the course of human history some all-encompassing pattern or general scheme is very old. Many widely varying theories have been advanced attempting to give meaning to the historical process.
Oswald Spengler, the early twentieth-century German philosopher, drew an analogy between the life cycles of cultures and those of biological organisms. He maintained that all civilizations pass inevitably through a four-period life cycle of birth, maturity, decay, and death.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the fathers of communism saw an endless “class struggle” between the oppressed and the oppressor as the mainspring and primary moving force of history.
Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish essayist and historian, contended it was the actions of a few outstanding figures such as Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon which above all other factors shaped the course of history. “The history of the world,” he wrote, “is but the biography of great men.”
The eminent English historian Arnold Toynbee maintained based on his analysis of 26 civilizations throughout history -- that the growth and continuance of civilizations is the direct result of their responding successfully to challenges, under the leadership of creative minorities. Once a civilization fails to respond successfully, it disintegrates. Unlike Spengler, however, Toynbee did not regard the death of a civilization as inevitable.
Other theorists have attempted to apply scientific procedures to the study of history, hoping to formulate scientific “laws” of historical development. Still others have pursued various religious or metaphysical interpretations of history, such as St. Augustine in his magnum opus, The City of God (A.D. 426), in which he conceives history as the drama of the redemption of man.
Some historians, however, find no overall pattern at all, stressing the overriding role of the contingent, the unforeseen, and the accidental in history.
Most historians today take a diversified or eclectic approach to history, drawing upon elements of each school of thought in analyzing and explaining history. Rather than attempting to discern some type of “grand design,” they limit themselves to exploring the numerous and varied causative factors and influences of the course of history.
Most modern historians, however, have overlooked a major factor in the rise and fall of nations and empires. In their reconstruction and interpretation of history, the vast majority have rejected the notion that the course of history has been directly influenced and guided by providential intervention.
Yet, when the evidence is examined, the conclusion that history in its broad outlines is providentially governed seems inescapably apparent. Many of the actual makers of history, the great statesmen and military leaders at the helms of nations and armies have come to that very conclusion.
Winston Churchill, for example, clearly perceived God’s hand in history. In an address before the U.S. Congress on December 26, 1941, the British prime minister asserted that “he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below.” On another occasion in Britain some 10 months later, the war-time leader further expounded his belief in divine intervention, observing: “I sometimes have a feeling of interference. I have a feeling sometimes that some Guiding Hand has interfered.”
Benjamin Franklin held a similar conviction. Speaking at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in June 1878, Franklin asserted: “The longer I live the more convincing proofs I see that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice (a reference to Matt. 10:29), is it possible that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Historical evidence to support such a belief is abundant. Strange, inexplicable, and miraculous circumstances at certain crucial junctures in the stories of nations and empires seem to point unmistakable to the guiding hand of God. Here are some examples:
In his quest for world domination, King Philip II of Spain sent his “invincible” 124 ship Armada against England in July 1588. After about a week of fighting against the English, who were led by Sir Francis Drake, the Armada crossed the English Channel and anchored at Calais. On the night of July 28, Drake sent blazing fire ships adrift among the anchored Spanish fleet, causing the Spaniards to cut cable and put to sea in confusion.
The Armada fled northward pursued hotly by Drake. The hardest fighting of the entire naval campaign followed, and the Spanish lost heavily. But before Drake could deliver the knockout punch, the English ran out of ammunition! As the Spanish attempted to escape and return home to Spain by way of the North Sea, however, unprecedented gale-force winds arose and drove many of the ships to their doom on the rocky shores of Ireland and Scotland.
For many days, fragments of Spanish vessels were cast by every tide upon the northern coasts of the isles. The tattered ships which escaped disaster limped home to Spain, but many were so badly battered by the severe storms that they were unfit for further service. Philip’s quest for European domination was foiled, in part, by a timely change in the weather.
In commemoration of the Spanish defeat, Queen Elizabeth I aware of the real source of the victory -- ordered the striking of a sliver commemorative medal, bearing the inscription: “God blew, and they were scattered.” Also, in a song of thanksgiving composed shortly after the Armada’s defeat, Elizabeth declared: “He made the winds and waters rise, to scatter all mine enemies.”
Napoleon’s dramatic victory over the combined armies of Russia and Austria at Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, established his dominance over the European continent. But his victory cannot be attributed solely to his tactical brilliance.
December 2 began with thick fog and mist. The Russians and Austrians could have wished for nothing better. Under its cover, they hoped the Austro-Russian armies would be able to complete their maneuvers without the French seeing what they were doing.
“But suddenly,” as one historian describes it, “the sun with uncommon brightness came through the mist of Austerlitz. It was in the blazing sun that Napoleon at once sent a huge cavalry force under Marshal Soult into the gap left between the center and the left of the Austro-Russian battlefield.” This was the break Napoleon needed. His victory was sealed.
Napoleon became the master of Europe, sweeping away the decadent and largely ceremonial medieval Holy Roman Empire and establishing in its place a “revived” version, a short-lived Roman-European civilization dominated by France.
The crucial battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 in which the English succumbed to the Norman French under William the Conqueror, has been described as “one of those battles which at rate intervals have decided the fate of nations.”
In the late afternoon Harold, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings and commander of the English army, was killed in battle shortly after being struck in the right eye by a chance Norman arrow shot into the air at random. As evening neared, the news of his death spread throughout the English ranks. Leaderless and demoralized, the English were unable to rally and re-form, and they fled the field of battle. The Norman conquest of English was assured, laying the foundation for the emergence of a united England as a major world power.
Napoleon’s attempted comeback for exile was foiled at Waterloo in 1815 by a combined British-Prussian army under the Duke of Wellington and General Gebhard von Blucher. Napoleon’s defeat, however, was due in part to a timely pouring rain.
M.A. Arnault and C. L. F. Panckoucke, in their Life and Campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte, observe: “The night of the 17th of June 1815 was dreadful, and seemed to presage the calamities of the day. The violent and incessant rain did not allow a moment’s rest to the French army. The bad state of the roads hindered the arrival of provisions, and most of the soldiers were without food.”
At dawn on the 18th, the rain was still coming down. The weather cleared somewhat by 8 o’clock, but the mud forced Napoleon to postpone his attack lest his cavalry and artillery become bogged down. By the time Napoleon ordered the attack at 11:30, some drying had taken place, but the condition of the ground nevertheless favored the troops on the defensive, namely the British and Prussians.
French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885) observed that “the shadow of a mighty right hand is cast over Waterloo; it is the day of destiny, and the force which is above man produced that day.” Further elaborating on the source of the French defeat, he asserted: “If it had not rained the night between the 17th and 18th of June, the future of Europe would have been changed. Providence required only a little rain, and a cloud crossing the sky at a season when rain was expected. That was sufficient to overthrow an empire.”
During the spectacular evacuation of over 300,000 British troops from Dunkirk (May 26-June 3, 1940), the waters of the English Channel were unusually smooth, calm, and placid. This permitted even the tiniest boats to go back and forth between Britain and France in safety on their emergency rescue runs. Many seamen, knowledgeable of the Channel, remarked at the strangeness of the calm at that critical time. Furthermore, bad weather to the east grounded the German Luftwaffe during part of the evacuation, permitting the British to get away in total safety until the Germans were once again able to get their planes airborne. Little wonder the episode has commonly come to be called “the Miracle of Dunkirk.”
The Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944) is still another example. June 5 the day originally chosen for Operation Overlord (the code name for the invasion) was a weatherman’s nightmare. General Eisenhower wrote that on the morning of that day his camp near Portsmouth in southern England was “shaking and shuddering under a wind of almost hurricane violence, and the rain traveled in horizontal streaks.” Continued high winds and stormy seas were predicted, the best allies Hitler could have. For Eisenhower to have mounted his offensive under those conditions would have spelled disaster.
Then, suddenly, the weather experts predicted a lull in the storm, a short one, to be sure, but long enough to permit a Channel crossing. So General Eisenhower made his “final and irrevocable decision” to proceed with the invasion early the next morning Tuesday, June 6.
Shielded by low clouds, the invasion fleet took the Germans by surprise. Furthermore, because of the storm, the German coastal guards had relaxed their vigilance. The weather, in all respects, had allied itself with the Allies!
Reminiscing about the critical period just prior to the D-Day invasion, General Eisenhower noted years later. “If there were nothing else in my life to prove the existence of an almighty and merciful God, the events of the next 24 hours did it. The greatest break in a terrible outlay of weather occurred the next day and allowed that great invasion to proceed, with losses far below those we had anticipated” (Time, June 16, 1952).
The Battle of Tours, fought in central France on October, A.D. 732, was described by 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke as “one of the most important epochs in the history of the world.” The great victory of Charles Martel and the Franks over the invading Saracens halted forever Moslem expansion into Europe.
The turning point in the fierce day-long battle came when a false rumor of unknown origin spread through the Moslem ranks just as the Moslem cavalry was finally beginning to break through the close-knit ranks of Frankish infantry. The unfounded rumor was that some of the Franks were plundering the Moslem camp, where much spoil was stored in the tents. Fearful of losing their valuable booty, several squadrons of Moslem horsemen galloped off to protect it. Their fellow Moslems, however, thought the horsemen were fleeing from the Franks, and the whole Moslem host fell in confusion. As Abder-Rahman, the Saracen leader, strove to lead his men back into battle, the Franks succeeded in surrounding and spearing him to death. Leaderless, the Moslem host fled in defeat.
Whether or not miraculous circumstances are readily apparent at all crucial turning points in history, the Bible nevertheless repeatedly assures us that God is in complete control of events. The prophet Daniel declares that “God removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:21). To King Nebuchadnezzar of ancient Babylon, Daniel affirmed that “the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory” (Dan. 2:37).
The seven years’ punishment of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4) was for the purpose “that the entire world may understand that the Most High dominates the kingdoms of the world, and gives them to anyone he wants to, even the lowliest of men” (Dan. 4:17).
The prophet Isaiah says it is God who “brings the princes to nothing” (Isa. 40:23). King David of ancient Israel declares that “God is the judge: he puts down one, and sets up another” (Ps. 75:7). It is important to understand, moreover, that God’s intervention in events is not of a capricious, “play-it-by-ear” nature. Millennia ago, God who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10) set forth a definite scheme of history, as revealed in the ancient prophecies of the Bible. At certain times, it has been necessary for God to directly intervene to influence events to conform with the timetable of that overall master plan.
In this regard, Victor Hugo writing with unusual insight in his description of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo -- declared: “It was time for this vast man to fall.”
Few realize that the Bible is nearly one-third prophecy. Prophecy is simply history told in advance. James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, put it succinctly: “History is but the unrolled scroll of prophecy.”
Centuries in advance of their actual fulfillment, the ancient inspired prophecies of the Bible outlined a definite, unmistakable progression of world empires, beginning with the Babylonian and continuing through the subsequent Medo-Persian, Greco-Macedonian, and Roman empires and beyond. Additional prophecies foretold the fates of numerous other major cities and nations. In all cases, the pages of history have confirmed the unerring accuracy of these prophecies.
The 8th chapter of Daniel written some 200 years before the time of Alexander the Great is a remarkable illustrative example of prophecy become history. In it, Daniel describes a struggle, then two centuries distant between the Medo-Persian empire and Greece, predicting two great Grecian victories (Alexander’s triumphs at Issus 333 B.C. and at Gaugamels 331 B.C.), the final collapse of Persia, the untimely death of Alexander, and the division of his kingdom among his four generals all of which later came to pass exactly as foretold!
Moreover, Alexander himself, at one of those rare, fateful moments in history, may have actually seen those very predictions as he was in the process of fulfilling them! The first century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus records in his Antiquities of the Jews (XL, VIII, 5) that in 332 B.C. Alexander the Great, on a campaign through Palestine, met personally with Jaddua, the Jewish High Priest. “And when the book of Daniel was shewed him, wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he (Alexander) supposed that himself was the person indeed, and he was glad.”
Josephus also records that Cyrus the Great whose conquest of Babylon was foretold by the prophet Isaiah nearly 200 years before it happened, may likewise have read the prophecy regarding his role in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem (Isa. 44:28).
Interestingly, the Bible records an example of an actual conference in heaven at which was discussed the best manner of influencing a crucial historical event! Undoubtedly, similar conferences have been held frequently throughout history.
The question at hand (I Kings 22) was how to influence Ahab the most wicked of all the kings of ancient Israel, to go to battle against the Syrians, a battle in which he would surely be killed. With a host of angels gathered around him, God, according to this account, asked for advice: “Who will entice Ahab to go and die at Ramoth-gilead?” Various suggestions were made, until one angel approached the Lord and said, “I’ll do it!” How?’ the Lord asked. And he replied, I will go as a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets’” (I Kings 22:20-22).
So God allowed the angel to influence Ahab’s pagan prophets to falsely assure Ahab that he would be victorious in the war.
On the day of battle, however, the powerful Syrian army, as God intended, easily defeated the Israelites. During the fighting, “someone shot an arrow at random and it struck King Ahab between the joints of his armor” (v. 34) similar to the account of Harold’s’ death at the fateful Battle of Hastings some 2,000 years later.
The Bible also records other supernatural tactics used frequently throughout history, such as God’s destroying the ships of Tarshish with an east wind (Ps. 48:7) and his sending a great storm to rout the Philistine armies preparing for battle against Israel (I Sam. 7:10).
But is God still directing the affairs of nations today, in the fast-moving world of the year 2008-2009? Amazingly, some 90% of the Bible prophecy is yet to be fulfilled! Is it logical, then, to believe that these prophecies would ignore the major power centers of today, the United States, the British Commonwealth, Western Europe, the Middle East, and China? God is still very active in world affairs, possibly now more than ever before! The Bible predicts supernatural events yet to happen that will drastically affect the affairs of man. Make no mistake, there is an unseen hand that is influencing history. His will will be done.