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Egypt My People

God's purposes for a troubled Middle East

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1 Aug 2013 (All day)
Egypt My People

Two-and-a-half years into the Arab Spring (or “Arab Winter” as some call it), the regional unrest is still gathering steam. While Israel seems to be an island of peace and economic stability, the rest of the Middle East is increasingly chaotic and no one can foresee what the near future will bring.

It all started in December 2010 when popular unrest began in Tunisia and then quickly spread to Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Arab world. In the case of Egypt, the initial hopes for a democratic spring of true political freedoms soon soured with the election of an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before long, protesters returned to the streets. For some, their hopes for freedom and democracy were being shattered by efforts to impose stricter forms of shari’a law. Others grew anxious over the Brotherhood’s inability to rescue the crumbling economy. The military recently stepped in to take control of the country once more, but all signs are pointing towards a civil war. Already, the unrest has left dozens of civilians dead.

In Syria, the Arab Spring has provoked a brutal civil war which has claimed more lives over the past two years than all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. More than 100,000 people have been killed as troops loyal to the Assad regime battle against rebel forces, and even rebel factions fight against each other.

This mounting death toll follows a decade of war and bloodshed in neighbouring Iraq. Even though American soldiers left the frontlines of battle in Iraq in 2011, another 5,000 people have been killed since then in clashes between various Islamic militias.

The Western world seems lost as to what to do about all this violence and mayhem. Another invasion like Iraq or intervention like Libya is fraught with peril. The situation in Egypt is quite complex. Military coups are in general opposed by Western democracies, however over the past few weeks the guardians of democracy in the West were surprisingly silent as they hope that the military will install a more liberal government.

Western leaders are in a similar dilemma regarding Syria, in that they are ready to get rid of a repressive dictator but concerned over radical Islamist elements in the opposition.

Egypt’s unique history

Despite all of the above, I do believe there is a positive biblical perspective to consider when watching these developments unfold today. A look back in history can help give us a fresh and hopeful outlook on current events.

From ancient times until today, Egypt has always played a central role in the region. The country mentioned in the Bible the most – besides Israel – is Egypt, with some 700 references. The Hebrew Patriarchs spent time in Egypt - Abraham in Genesis 12:10 and Jacob in Genesis 46:3-6. All twelve sons of Jacob, for whom the tribes of Israel are named, died in Egypt. And of course, the great Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt features prominently in Scripture.

Even Abraham’s relations with the Egyptian woman Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, from whom arose the Arab nations.

Egypt’s ignored history

Throughout the Bible the nation of Egypt is generally referenced in negative terms, often alluding to bondage and sin (e.g., Revelation 11:8). But there is another side to Egypt’s history which developed over the centuries.

King Solomon, for instance, established a friendly pact with Egypt when he married Pharaoh’s daughter and even built her a palace in Jerusalem. While the woman became a source of idol worship in Israel, it was the beginning of a political and economic alliance that lasted for a long time - albeit with some often violent interruptions. Yet this alliance was never fully reliable – in fact, God warned Israel not to place their trust in Egypt (2 Kings 18:21).

The main change, however, occurred at the time of the Babylonian Exile when a significant number of Jews fled to Egypt and established a sizable Jewish community there (2 Kings 25:26). According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, this Diaspora community grew to more than one million in number around the second century BC, centered in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. This city grew to great prominence in Antiquity and produced such leading Jewish figures as the philosopher Philo of Alexandria.

Josephus records that during the second century BC even a replica of the Jerusalem Temple was built in Egypt and maintained by Onia, a son of the High Priest in Jerusalem.

It was in Egypt where the Tanakh (the Old Testament) was first translated into a foreign language. This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was called the Septuagint (LXX), referring to the 70 priests/scholars who translated the Scriptures for the legendary library of Alexandria.

The Apostle Paul would often quote from the Septuagint when he referenced Old Testament verses in his New Testament epistles. Thus, the Septuagint became an important tool for preaching the Gospel among the Greek-speaking gentile nations.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus also spent some of his childhood in Egypt when his parents sought refuge there from Herod’s jealous wrath (Matthew 2:13-15, quoting Hosea 11:1).

In Church history, it was Egypt where the new faith in Jesus Christ experienced its strongest early growth, with Christian communities being established all across the country. Members of the Egyptian Coptic Church today claim to be the descendants of this first century church, which would make it the oldest of the historic churches still around. Some of the current revival meetings reported out of Egypt are led by born-again, Spirit-filled Coptic priests. Along with Lebanon, Egypt is still home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, with Copts making up some 10% of the nation’s 80 million citizens.

Hope for Egypt and Syria

When we look at Egypt today, we all should be greatly encouraged to pray for this nation. While many prophecies declare judgment over Egypt, the Bible also assigns it a glorious future.

The prophet Isaiah speaks in chapter 19 most clearly about God’s redemptive purposes for Egypt. He foresees a national revival in Egypt which will be nothing short of miraculous (Isaiah 19:18-25).

Egypt will have a national place of worship - “an altar for the Lord” (v. 19).

“The Lord will be known to Egypt and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day.” (v. 21)

It will culminate in a period of peace for the entire region, which will include Egypt, Assyria and Israel: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria... In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria – a blessing in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 19:23-24)

What a wonderful hope! The goal which all political initiatives in recent decades have failed to produce will come into reality. It is remarkable that Isaiah could see peace and restoration for both great empires – Assyria and Egypt – each of which threatened Israel at the time the prophecy was given.

While on the one hand Isaiah prophesied against “the broken reed” of Egypt (Isaiah 36:6) and against Assyria (“Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger...” Isaiah 10:5), the prophet could also see that God’s plan of salvation would eventually prevail also for these gentile nations that were hostile to Israel.

As we read this remarkable chapter in context, the passage begins by describing great troubles for Egypt. The prophet sees political turmoil coming, in which “Egyptians will be against Egyptians” (Isaiah 19:2). It speaks about a “cruel master” ruling the country for a while (v. 4) and of great natural calamity and economic challenges (vs. 5-10).

People will look for counsel but will find none to give understanding. The prophet challenges the wise to give understanding and to “let them know what the Lord has purposed” (v. 12). Still, nobody is able to give understanding – very much like today. Yet it will be in this time of great trouble when “they will cry to the Lord because of the oppressors, and He will send them a Saviour and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them” (v. 20).

Assyria was the second great world empire at the time of Isaiah. Its borders included much of the modern-day nations of Syria and Iraq. When we look at the current situation, we see not only Egypt but also Syria and Iraq in a state of chaos and civil war as alluded to in Isaiah 19:1-15.

Times of fulfilment

Time will tell whether we will see Isaiah 19 fulfilled in our day, but we have to recognise that much about the current situation fits this passage. I doubt whether there was any period in history when we could see the developments coincide with the prophetic word like today.

Many Bible scholars today recognise that with the re-establishment of the state of Israel and the return of the Jews from exile, we have entered into a new season of prophetic fulfilment. As the prophets foretold, the Jews have returned from all four corners of the earth. The desert is blossoming and Israel has established itself as a prosperous and secure nation even in times of conflict. This enables us to look ahead with expectancy that other amazing prophecies will be fulfilled.

No matter your eschatology, Isaiah 19 should serve as a strong reminder of the great purposes of God with Israel and its neighbours. It might be tempting to focus only on the negative headlines about Islamists seizing power and to just expect judgment ahead. But we all need to understand that the God of Israel has plans and purposes of peace and reconciliation for the entire region (see for example, Jeremiah 48:47; 49:6, 39).

Isaiah 19 starts with a declaration of God being in control: “Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt; The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence.” A mere look at the facts on the ground right now might portend chaos and uncertainty. Surely, the counsellors will fail in their wisdom. But the purpose of God for Egypt is established and it eventually will lead to her national salvation alongside Israel.

Conclusion

It is important to develop a view for the region which looks beyond what we see in the daily headlines. While on the surface a clash of religions and ideologies seems underway and the region appears to be sliding into the hands of radical Islamists, we should never stop placing our hope in the One who says “all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is Lord of all the nations and the next great harvest field appears to be in the Muslim world.

In the Bible, we frequently see a pattern whereby troubles come upon Israel in order to draw her people closer to God. The Book of Judges has much to say about this ongoing cycle of an Israel in distress which repents and experiences peace, and yet when they turn from God again their troubles return. The Book of Hebrew encourages us that times of discipline and correction are a sign of God at work in those He loves (Hebrews 12:3-11).

At the end of the day, God wants to bring this troubled region to a place where he can truly call out to “Egypt My people and Assyria the work of my hands”. Sometimes, God does come “with darkness under His feet” (Psalm 18:9). We have seen this in other countries in recent decades. Just two generations ago China was taken over by a radical Communist regime and yet today it is witnessing one of the greatest revivals in human history. Iran was taken over by apocalyptic Ayatollahs and yet it is currently experiencing the fastest rate of church growth in the world.

Let us not forget that God has a wonderful plan and purpose for every single nation in the earth. Paul said in Acts 17:26-27 that the Lord determines the times and borders of nations (and even their respective rulers) “in order that they might seek Him”.

There is a purpose of God today for every single nation in the Middle East and it is ultimately a purpose of salvation. Let us pray like never before for these countries. The Lord wants people from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East in heaven with Him one day. And God wants to bring His peace to the region and to the entire world. This needs to be our objective and prayer.

 

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