Comings of the Lord Among the Nations

by Robert Brow
Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 1998

Chapter 6

History: Looking For His Advent

Herbert Butterfield was one of the few historians who has attempted "a deeper analysis of that moral retribution which seems to be worked out in the very processes of time, that nemesis which makes itself apparent within the course of history" (Christianity and World History [London, 1949], p.51). He noted that "moral defects have something to do with the catastrophes that take place" (p.53).

The moral nature of the Lord's interventions was already obvious to the Old Testament prophets. "Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe, and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow's cause does not come before them. Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself of my foes: (Isaiah 1:23-24; see 3:13-15; 10:1-3; similarly Psalm 76:9; 140:12). The reason is that "I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense" (Isaiah 61:8). Massive social injustice may continue for a time, but eventually we can expect the Lord to intervene.

We have tried to learn from the Old and New Testament the language of day of the Lord's comings, his judgment and wrath, and the kingdom of God. The Bible uses that kind of language for the history of the Jews. But we are told that there is an equally important concern of the Lord for the Arabs (see Genesis 17:20; 21:13; 25:12-18; 36:1-43; as set out in the article on Arabs on this site).

We can assume that if the Lord is King of kings and Lord of lords similar accounts of his reign could be written from the point of view of every people in every nation of the world. We regret our ignorance of how the Lord intervened in the long history of China and India, Tibet and Cambodia. Nor can we hear the day of the Lord stories of the Balinese and Maoris, Gypsies and Armenians, Zulus and Kikuyu, and every tribe of South America. For the Tutsis and Hutu of Rwanda history did not begin with the recent massacres.

So in this chapter we limit ourselves to more recent European history. And we have admitted that we have no exact definition for our use of the day of the Lord and wrath language which we have learned from the Old Testament prophets. There is no way to prove that any one intervention is a day of the Lord in their sense. Prophets can always be mistaken. But that is no reason for ignoring the language of divine intervention. There is similarly no precision to words like melody, anxiety, joy, impression, impressionism, revolution, or any kind of religious experience. But they are all important ways of looking at the reality we live in.

We therefore note some catastrophic events which Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets might have viewed as divine interventions. Based on the language used for the destruction of Babylon, and a previous devastation of Jerusalem, we have suggested that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 was the coming of the Lord which Jesus had predicted. There was terrible wrath on the Pharisee and Sadducee religious elite of the Jewish nation. But at the same time many Jews, and in due course other people around the Mediterranean, and in countries to the east, began serving the Lord as their King.

From the time of Nero in AD 64 Christians in the Roman Empire suffered a series of terrible persecutions. The great persecution under the emperor Diocletian had been particularly savage, but then his son Constantine was suddenly converted in 312. Within a year Christianity was tolerated and came into imperial favour. Christians viewed this astonishing turn of events as a wonderful answer to many prayers. We can guess the Old Testament prophets might have called this a day of the Lord intervention.

Muhammad (571-632) began preaching in 612, took Mecca in 630, and died six hundred years after Jesus Christ in 632 AD. But after his death the unitarian faith of Islam unified and empowered the Arab armies to move out and occupy Damascus 635, and Jerusalem in 637. The great city of Alexandria fell in 642, and the Muslim armies then moved relentless across North Africa to Tangier (642), and had occupied Spain by AD 713.

Christians quaked in terror as it seemed that nothing could stop the terrible advance. By 732, only a century after the death of Muhammad, the Arabs were at the gates of Paris. Then in the great battle of Poitiers (732) Charles Martel leader of the Franks, stopped the Arab advance. Within five years the Arabs were driven back beyond the Pyrenees. It seemed as if the prayers of all Europe had been answered. We don't know if anyone called this a Day of the Lord, but the language certainly seems appropriate.

Nearly six hundred years later another battle of Poitiers (1356) was a turning point in the long wars between the English and French. Edward, named "the Black Prince," was greatly outnumbered by a huge French army. In a fierce all-day battle the French knights were decimated by the English archers, and King John and his son were captured. Barbara Tuchman reports that "the English themselves thought their victory was a miracle, and succeeding generations have found it hard to fathom" (A Distant Mirror [1978], p.153).

Less than seventy years later Joan of Arc heard voices from heaven telling her to take over the leadership of the French army, and she defeated the English in the siege of Orleans (1429). What she did was recognized as a mighty intervention from God, and she was eventually sainted in 1920.

In 1587 Queen Elizabeth I and her countrymen heard that a huge Spanish fleet was ready to invade and bring England back into the Roman Catholic fold. Francis Drake was able to delay the attack for a year by a raid on Cadiz.

But in 1588 the huge, apparently invincible Armada of 100 ships was approaching. Prayers were offered in every parish church, and Drake coolly awaited them as he played bowls in the port of Plymouth. When the huge cumbersome Spanish galleons approached they were harried and routed by the more maneuverable English ships. Hurricane winds scattered the remainder and only half the Armada made it home. For Protestant England that was a wonderful day of the Lord. For the Spanish it was a humiliating disaster.

There was a similar sense of deliverance from disaster in 1940. The whole nation prayed as the routed British army was evacuated in little ships and pleasure boats from Dunkirk. Then the tide turned decisively in the Battle of Britain as a few hundred pilots where able to stop the overwhelming assault of the German air force. For many the only explanation was that God had intervened.

The Boston Tea Party (1773) was an angry American revolt against taxation without representation. But the ensuing War of Independence (1775-83) was seen as a war against colonialism, and eventually it seemed that God had vindicated the cause of freedom.

The beginning of the French revolution in 1789, with the storming of the Bastille, was another major turning point in history. For some it was a day of God's intervention to free the citizens from feudalism. The royal families of Europe saw it as the beginning of the end of monarchy.

The American Civil War (1861-65) was declared as a war of liberation to end slavery in the Southern States. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a clear expression of day of the Lord language. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored" (Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910). Her poem is taken straight from the imagery of the Lord's vindication and redemption in Isaiah. "It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save . . .I have trodden the winepress alone . . . I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath" (Isaiah 63:1-4). To this day some in the southern states wonder whether the freeing of their slaves justified the carnage and devastation that was caused.

For many serfs and middle class persons the Russian Revolution (1917) was celebrated as the end of Czarist oppression. It was the beginning of a new era of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his needs. But, like the French Revolution, the new freedom quickly changed to ruthless tyranny.

Seventy years later millions of people across Russian occupied Europe began praying, and marching silently with candles. They were looking to God to free them from the Communist commissars and the KGB secret police. Suddenly in 1989 on the anniversary of the French Revolution one country after another saw the iron curtain come down. I remember saying to a Greek Evangelical brother in Athens that the Lord had certainly intervened to bring freedom to so many. He answered without hesitation, "The Lord will do nothing till he comes to rapture us and usher in his reign." The astonishing and totally unexpected events of 1989, and that pre-millenial remark, eventually resulted in the writing of this book.

The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945) was more problematical. For the soldiers fighting in the jungles of Burma it was a sudden end to a terrible war. For the American soldiers, sailors, and airmen who had seen their friends dying like flies as each Pacific island had to assaulted against withering Japanese fire, it was a miraculous deliverance from what seemed certain death. For the Japanese it was a humiliating, horrible, and inhuman use of force.

Some days of the Lord become part of the national memory. The Exodus from slavery in Egypt (Exodus, chapters 12-15) is celebrated by Jews every Passover. In the feast of Purim Jews also remember their deliverance from total extermination when Esther had become queen (Esther 3:5-9:35). Those two events celebrate the strange survival of the Jewish people. Other day of the Lord celebrations seem quirkily unhelpful. Very few people know that the deposed James II tried to regain the British throne in a battle by the river Boyne in Ireland (1690). For Orangemen his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne (1690) has for three centuries defined their identity as implacable enemies of Roman Catholic attempts to regain power over Ulster.

It would be possible to collect similar turning points and catastrophic events from the history of all nations. Only two months ago, as I write, I met a Nigerian who had come to Cyprus on business. He had been squeezed out of his work as a university professor, and like many other Nigerians had lost his freedom and dignity under the oppressive regime of General Sani Abacha. He told me that in their desperation hundreds of his Christian friends were meeting every day for prayer. They were asking the Lord to intervene. Just after I got back to Canada I heard that Abacha died on June the 8th. I knew my Nigerian friends would be thanking the Lord for divine intervention to give them freedom again. The Economist reported, "Already, there is a more open atmosphere in the country, replacing the wariness brought about by Abacha's ever present security network" (June 20, 1998).

From the peace and freedom of Canada I would not have noticed the significance of this event far away in Africa if I had not spent a few hours hearing the anguish of my friend. But right now in many countries of the world we know that people are praying for divine intervention in similar intolerable situations. And most Christians can tell of at least one astonishing event in their own lifetime that they can only describe as the Lord coming to deliver them.

To qualify as a day of the Lord, as we have described in Isaiah, the event should be seen to have a moral component. But Butterfield warns us that "[t]he moral judgments that lie in the very nature of history are often long-term affairs, so that one gets the impression that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation; though on further analysis we have to recognize that the later generations suffered rather for allowing the sins to go uncorrected" (Christianity and World History, p.49). It was Louis XIV of France who impoverished his people to build Versailles, and persecuted the Huguenots. Louis XV was controlled by his mistresses, and the excesses of his court horrified Paris. But it was his grandson, Louis XIV, who was guillotined after the French Revolution.

In addition to a moral component, a day of the Lord is often perceived by one party or the other as a righting of wrongs, a freeing from unjust attack or oppression. But Butterfield also reminds us that "it is a dangerous illusion to imagine that if Germany can be proved to have sinned those who were fighting against her may be assumed to have been righteous . . . if Germany is under judgment so are all of us" (p.52).

Another characteristic of day of the Lord interventions is that the pride of man is brought down. Herbert Butterfield wrote, "Judgment in history falls heaviest on those who say that the strength of their own right arm gave them the victory" (Christianity and World History, p.60.) "The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were the kings of the earth" (p.104).

Twenty-five centuries before Butterfield noticed this surprising fact of history, the Old Testament prophets had already described it in vivid terms. "Hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty. The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled . . . For the Lord has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up" (Isaiah 2:10-12, 10:33, 23:9).

A day of the Lord often arrives after a long wait, but when the Lord finally comes there is a joyous sense of vindication and salvation. "It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation" (Isaiah 25:9).

Day of the Lord language is used when we assume that "the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him (Isaiah 30:18). And it not just the faithful in Israel who wait, but the peoples of all nations. "My salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope" (Isaiah 51:5). Our problem is that we find it hard to wait.

And it is very easy to scoff. A text perhaps written in the last days before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 says: "You must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, "Where is the promise of his coming?" (2 Peter 3:3, 4). We have suggested in previous chapters that this was the coming in the generation of his hearers that Jesus predicted, and his followers certainly expected. That coming was a day of the Lord coming in judgment on the Pharisee and Sadducee religious establishment of Jerusalem.

The Book of Revelation ends with "Surely I am coming soon." And the response is "Amen, Come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 22:20). This coming is not the one second coming that some preachers still expect. It seems more likely to be the heart cry of Christians asking the Lord to come and deliver them in the terrible persecution of Nero in the year AD 64. And it is echoed again and again in prayers for a day of the Lord by many oppressed people of the world. It is also the prayer of many Christian families in their own desperate situations all over the world.

We have gathered sufficient evidence to see how the Lord has kept coming again and again in answer to the prayers of those who turn to him. But, as we have seen, there is no way to prove that a series of particular events is a day of the Lord. It is very much in the eye of the beholder. The defeat of the Muslim advance at the gates of Paris, or the English by Jeanne D'Arc, or the Armada by Drake and his sailors, and the days of the Lord in the Bible could also be explained as lucky coincidences and the ordinary fortunes of war.

Rather than a proof of God's intervention, faith uses day of the Lord language in prayer. Both in situations of a nation being oppressed, or a person suffering injustice, we look to the Lord for his liberation, vindication, or deliverance from disaster. Faith is expecting the Lord to come and make his advent in our situation. And how he does that is often totally unexpected.

Chapter 7...

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