Iran in Prophecy?

By Neil Earle

Teachers of Bible Prophecy are now claiming the book of Daniel predicts a war with nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran lies north of Jerusalem so Iran must be the King of the North of Daniel 11, say some Bible students.But is that necessarily so? Why are even ardent and sincere students of Bible prophecy always getting Daniel wrong? It’s time for a fresh approach.

Digging Deeper

To explain why popularizers of prophecy (including this writer in days past) get it wrong it is necessary to broaden the canvas considerably. We need to draw upon carefully reasoned insights from the big wide world of Judaeo-Christian scholarship. Be advised: These experts are not always easy to follow but they are more worth than trouble. We’ll be drawing upon the work of Yale’s Old Testament expert Brevard Childs as blended with the work of J.J. Collins and John Goldingay. All these writers held a healthy respect for the text of Scripture. Contemplating Daniel 11 and its seeming blow-by-blow account of historic events in the centuries just before Jesus and the early church does raise people’s interests because this prophecy seemingly jumps off the page with Daniel 11:40 – “the time of the end” in many translations.

Our church founder, Herbert Armstrong (1892-1986) once issued a very popular reprint titled “The Middle East in Prophecy” drawing upon Daniel 11’s rendition of conflicts between the King of the North (Syria) and the King of the South (Egypt) in Daniel’s time. The dramatic “time of the end” reference was and is still applied by strict literalists as “dating” this prophecy for the near future. Hence the King of the North has been identified even in my lifetime as (erroneously we now know) the USSR, Assad of Syria or most lately Saddam Hussein. Now the President of Iran comes into the picture, but this is highly doubtful. These countries do lie north of Jerusalem (“the glorious holy mountain” in Daniel 11:45) but that is a flimsy basis on which to tell church audiences that all-out war between Iran and Israel will lead to the end of the world (see John Hagee’s latest book, Jerusalem Countdown).

Why do people get it wrong?

Creative Miscalculations

During World War II Herbert Armstrong miscalculated that the Axis powers would capture Egypt and Jerusalem and face defeat at the hands of the returning Christ based on Daniel 11:40-45. The British defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Allied victory led HWA to project this fulfillment off into the future. Another King of the North would arise in the form of a United European leader who will invade the Middle East provoked by an Arab leader who would be the King of the South. The early days Worldwide Church of God explained this in a 1960 reprint titled “The 2300 Days”:

The Roman system of government became the “Kingdom of the North.” It has existed to our time in Europe. In the Middle Ages it was called the Holy Roman Empire. Its amazing history is described in Daniel 11:36-41…In Daniel 11 the last King of the North is pictured as occupying “the glorious land Palestine (verse 41)…A great crisis is yet to occur in Palestine. After nearly 19 centuries apart of the tribe of Judah – the Jews – has come back to Palestine. In their war of independence in 1948 they gained possession of the new part of Jerusalem, but the Arabs still control old Jerusalem. Not only Jerusalem but the whole land of Palestine is divided. It is an armed camp likely to ignite at any moment! 5

Some of this, of course, is timeless, evidence of WCG’s abiding interest in Biblical relevance. The Middle East is still an armed camp. The old city was still in Arab hands even when this appeared later in The Plain Truth in 1965. The quote goes on the give the flavor of WCG prophecy teaching in the 1960’s:

We must watch world news to see discover how and when it will happen. The will come World War III and the occupation of Palestine and half of Jerusalem. A great European Church-State union will be in control of Palestine and the whole Western World. It will prohibit the truth…It will persecute and martyr God’s Holy People…It is the time of the two witnesses who will prophesy in the streets of Jerusalem for 1260 days, then be killed, and –just immediately before the return of Christ – be raised from the dead in the sight of the people…God will suddenly intervene in human affairs. He will put an end to this wicked idolatrous system.

The above quotes takes everything in Daniel at face value which is admirable in some ways but flawed in that the events never work out. The more careful, cautious Childe-Collins-Goldingay approach, however, sets Daniel’s writings in a broader perspective than is usually given over the airwaves. For starters, these commentators follow most 20th Century scholarship in proposing a “late dating” for Daniel 11 and 12. This is the argument that Daniel – especially his last six chapters – was written in the Maccabean period of Israel’s history (c. 167-63 B.C.) rather than the time of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (605-562 B.C.).

Most scholars today accept the earlier critical claim that the “Later Daniel’s” purpose in writing was to give hope and encouragement to the Jewish people then being savagely persecuted by the Syrian king to the north, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.). 6 Daniel was thus a text for the times. In his respected Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture Brevard Childs proposed that the theory of Daniel 11 and 12 being later additions does not invalidate either the prophecy or the book. Childs, Collins and Goldingay reject the hyper-critical argument that Daniel is but a “pious forgery.” They quite reasonably ask: How could a prophetic work of sheer fiction could offer help to people facing possible extinction?

John Goldingay of Fuller Seminary takes up on this argument to show that there was enough “partial fulfillment” in Daniel’s visions – Judah was saved by the Maccabees after all – to give the rabbis the confidence to canonize this book. It found a place among those Scriptures that spoke and speak forcefully to both Jews and Christians. It “gave them the perspective with which to view analogous crises.” 7 In Childs’ reconstruction, the author of Daniel 11 saw the fateful “crisis at the close of history” (his version of Daniel 40), as quite possibly occurring right then and there before his very eyes, an event signaled by the grisly desolation and pollution of the temple by Antiochus.

The Supreme Crisis

The crisis that sparked the Maccabean revolt of pious Jews against Syrians and fifth columnists in their own nation were desperate times indeed. In some ways it was the supreme crisis of Judaism. The existence of the nation seemed at stake. Many Jewish believers could have wondered: Might this be the time foretold earlier in Daniel 2:44 when the God of heaven would intervene for his people and set up his eternal kingdom? This is an understandable reaction. It parallels what people too often think today when catastrophes occur: Is this the end of the world? Might the Messiah soon return? If the question hangs in the air today it very much hung in the air in the 160’s B.C. God’s people were very much in need of a “word from the Lord” that would speak to the crisis provoked by the near-extermination of the Temple system. For Collins, Daniel’s visions from chapters 8-12 are primarily concerned about how God would deliver his people in the land of Judea, a people whose very existence then hung in doubt. As Childs explains it:

The vision was a mystery, hidden from the human mind, which only God could reveal…Regardless of how sure the interpretation of these [symbols] may have seemed to the wise, nevertheless, they always required a translation. The vision itself remained veiled…Therefore, if Antiochus did not prove to be the Old Testament Antichrist and the Kingdom of God was not ushered in with his death, then for the canonical editors it was not the prophecy which was at fault, but the earlier identification with those specific historical events. 8

In other words, the devout searchers of Scripture in the land, “the Wise who understand” (Daniel 12:10), of whom Later Daniel was one, says Collins, believed that the God they served, the God who “rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:17), was still alive. Moreover, this God was eminently capable of speaking a new word to his people. Perhaps he had spoken already in their sacred texts – texts such as Daniel 2. What was needed was a new reworking of such verses as Daniel 2:44 and Daniel 5:34-35, a reinterpretation that would make sense of the present crisis. This, claims Childs, is the background to Later Daniel’s additions and his colorful recreation of the recent past – most notably, the carefully detailed exploits of the Kings of the North (Syria) and the South (Egypt) in Daniel 11. These events can be followed by any history book. This chapter is thus history but history described as prophecy. The account is given to lead to the sure conclusion that the God of Earlier Daniel rules in the kingdoms of men and that this same God, who delivered their forefathers, would yet deliver them. “Your people shall be delivered,” the vision concludes (Daniel 12:1).

No Fraud Here

Unquestionably, Childs’ interpretation elevates Daniel 11 and 12 to a higher level than merely being a ”pious fraud” or a “a prophecy after the event” as more liberal scholarship likes to contend. Like all true prophets he is giving hope to his people in a particularly desperate time. Childs explains:

Although the modern [scholar] can characterize the description…as a prophecy-after-the-event, the biblical writer came to his material from a totally different perspective…He was firmly convinced that what he now saw was intended by the original vision. By studying the sacred writings he was able to clarify the divine message. The writer did not view his own role as independent of the visions of Daniel…Rather, it arose from a profoundly theological sense of the function of prophecy which was continually illuminated through the continuing reinterpretation of Scripture. 9

In Childs' view, the author of Daniel 11 is writing in the spirit of Daniel 1-6. He is true to the spirit of Daniel just as “the men of Hezekiah” who added selected chapters to the book of Proverbs were true to the spirit of the Proverbs (Proverbs 25:1). Later Daniel takes his cue from a careful study of Earlier Daniel’s central claim that the “Most High rules in the kingdoms of men” and, incidentally, sets up over it sometimes “the basest of men” (Daniel 4:17, AV). To Jewish martyrs in the 160’s B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes fit that template perfectly. This makes Daniel 8-12 a word of force and power to God’s people facing near extinction. Goldingay’s claim that Later Daniel belonged in the canon as inspired because it gave God’s people “a perspective to view analogous crises” rings true. The prophecy of base men ruling not only hit home to the people in 167-165 B.C., it also spoke forcefully to people in the time of Jesus, who in Matthew 24 alluded to some of these same events about to be fulfilled when the Romans conquered Judea in 70-73AD (see Matthew 24:15-22).

Bible prophecy has many such “open texts” which allow people who teach Scripture to interpret as applying to their day. Bible teachers have ready candidates for such villains as the King of the North and the Beast of Revelation. Thus there was John Darby (Napoleon), Cyrus Scofield (the Kaiser – “the Beast of Berlin’’), and Herbert W. Armstrong (Hitler and Mussolini). Perhaps such powerful and devoted preachers can be forgiven their excess of zeal in light of the ingenious way God caused his word to be written. Scripture is indeed a hammer that breaks the rock and a scorching fire (Jeremiah 23). But we are plainly told that every private interpretation will fail (2 Peter 1:20). The track record so far has been perfect – no one has got it right. So we need to watch Iran and pray and work for peace but never lose sight of WHO the real subject and object of prophecy really is (Luke 24:44).

(From Neil Earle’s forthcoming biography of Herbert Armstrong titled “Blow the Dust Off Your Bible.” Check the web site to view a video on more of these Middle Eastern events titled “Is This The End Time?”)

5 Herman L. Hoeh, “The 2300 Days,” Ambassador College Press Reprint Series #192 (1960).

6 J.J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Vision of the Book of Daniel (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1977), page 8. Collins bases his argument on the internal pointers and overall coherence of the book though he concedes Danile 1-6 could be based on earlier material. See Desmond Ford’s Daniel (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1978) for a conservative rebuttal. 

7 John Goldingay, Word Biblical Commentary: Daniel (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1987), pages 312-313.

8 Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pages 617-618.

9 Childs, page 618.