For centuries, the great powers have tirelessly jostled with each other for control of the Middle East. As the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate in the 19th century, Britain and France competed with each other for control of the region and cooperated together to stop Russia from gaining a foothold in the area. After the discovery of oil in Iran in the early 20th century and the subsequent rise of the petroleum industry, the geopolitics of the Middle East has largely been driven by access to oil. Now, recent discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea seem set to change the balance of power in the region once again

Oil in the Levantine Basin

In the 21st century, Israel was the only country in the Middle East without oil. Then, in 2009, the Tamar gas field was discovered, followed in 2010 by the Leviathan field. In 2011, Cyprus discovered Aphrodite and in 2015, Egypt discovered Zohr. Then Cyprus discovered Calypso (2017) and Glaucus (2018). These fields are in what is called the Levantine Basin (from “Levant”, the area of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq).

The significance of these finds is not just that they will commercially benefit the countries that own them but that they are on the doorstep of the EU, one of the world’s largest gas importers.

The US Geological Survey1 estimates that the Levantine Basin holds 122 trillion cubic feet (3400 billion cubic metres) of gas. To put this in context, the EU imported 401 bcm of gas in 2018, so the Levantine fields hold more than 8 years of EU supply at current consumption rates.

Gas supplies to Europe

Historically, Russia has been Europe’s main supplier of gas2. In 2018, the EU imported almost 40% of its gas requirements from Russia, giving Russia a significant influence over the region. Interestingly, much of this gas was transported through pipelines that transited the Ukraine. Russia’s relationship with the Ukraine deterioriated significantly after its annexure of Crimea in 2014, so Russia is building additional pipelines to Europe that avoid Ukranian territory. This enables Russia to retain energy control over the Ukraine, cutting off gas supplies as necessary (as it did in 20093), without affecting its other European customers.

One of these additional pipelines is the 1200km Nord (North) Stream 2 pipeline, which will connect Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea and which is expected to be operational by early 2020. It is intended to provide Europe with a sustainable gas supply while providing Russia with more access to the European market. However, Western countries are sceptical of the purely economic reasoning attributed to the project. In August 2018, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s former president, stated that “North Stream 2 is the Kremlin’s Trojan horse against European energy and, ultimately, geopolitical security”. US Vice President Mike Pence said in April 2019 that Germany would become “literally a captive of Russia” once the pipeline was completed. For its part, Washington has threatened to sanction every company involved in the pipeline’s construction. Yet, despite these statements, Europe understands its own vulnerabilities. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German media, “The project has been fully approved. Geo-strategically, Europe can’t sever ties with Russia4.”

Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean

It is for this reason that discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean Sea have worried Russia. Oil prices are expected to remain at modest levels for the next decade5 and Russia depends heavily on its export gas revenues.

Discussions between regional Mediterranean neighbours have commenced. Extracting these new-found reserves is expensive and best done cooperatively. But this is a complex business. It could compel historic enemies to cooperate or it could escalate tensions and lead to armed conflict.

For now, at least, the former path is being pursued. In 2017, Cyprus and Israel signed up to an EU-backed initiative to construct a €6 billion, 2000km undersea pipeline to carry 1.6 billion cubic feet of gas per day to Greece and Italy6. (Despite their need to preserve a relationship with Russia, the EU sponsored this study because it knows it needs to diversify its gas imports.) In addition, the prospect of a pipeline between Israel and Turkey has helped normalise relations between the two countries and reopen embassies in Ankara and Tel Aviv after closures post the Mavi Marmara incident7 in Gaza in 2010. Meeting in Cairo in January 2019, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt announced the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to cooperate in the production, consumption and marketing of regional resources and to transform the eastern Mediterranean into a new energy base8.

These developments clearly coincide with what we expect to happen prophetically:

  • Israel will dwell safely, at rest, without walls and having neither bars nor gates (Ezek 38:8,11);
  • Israel will be the target of a great spoil—silver, gold, cattle and goods (Ezek 38:12-13);
  • Egypt will also become a target because of her gold, silver and precious things (Dan 11:42-43);
  • The merchants of Tarshish will be upset by these events (Ezek 38:13). Note that this is a reference to her merchants, not to the military power of Tarshish. These are Western business interests in the Middle East. But the two are linked. It is noteworthy that recent exploratory drilling around Cyprus by Exxon Mobil (a US oil company) was accompanied by US warships9.

But central to the eastern Mediterranean energy issue is the little island of Cyprus. Not only has Cyprus discovered its own gas reserves but any pipeline connecting the region to Europe or Turkey would necessarily go through Cyprus. Cyprus has always been important to the Western powers as a strategic military location in the Middle East, but now it may have commercial prospects as well. This is very significant because Cyprus is also the subject of an end-time prophecy.

Cyprus in Bible prophecy

In Numbers 24:15-24, we have the fourth prophetic utterance of Balaam in which he speaks of events that would come upon the Middle East in the latter days (v14). Verses 15-19 speak of the second coming of Christ, who shall deliver the nation of Israel and destroy all her enemies. Verses 20-24 then contain a number of parables concerning the Amalekites:

  • Amalek was Israel’s first enemy (Ex 17:8). He shall perish forever (Num 24:20);
  • The Kenites will be taken captive (v22 mg) but live. The Kenites dwelt with the Amalekites but supported Israel. They separated from the Amalekites before Saul destroyed them (1 Sam 15:6);
  • “he” shall perish forever (v24), a verbal link with the “he” of verse 20. We suggest that the “he” of verse 24 is the latter-day Amalekite (v14), the last of Israel’s enemies who shall also perish forever;
  • Further proof of the suggestion that there will be a latter-day Amalekite is found in the fact that Israel’s king (v17) shall be higher than Agag (v7). The ancient Amalekite nation was destroyed in the days of Hezekiah (1 Chron 4:42-43), so this must have a latter-day application;
  • The NKJV in attempting to add clarity to this section translates the end of verse 24 as follows: “And so shall Amalek, until he perishes”. “Amalek” is not in the original, so the NKJV has it in italics, but the translators clearly (correctly!) believe Amalek to be the subject of the destruction.

This prophecy is a reference to the coming battle of Armageddon, which will result in the defeat of Gog (Ezek 39:1) and the exaltation of Israel after the return of Christ to the nation. Interestingly, the LXX translation of Agag in verse 7 is “Gog”. Then, in an enigmatic passage at the end of this section, we read these words (Num 24:23-24):

“And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this! And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish forever.”

The first phrase is interesting: “Who shall live when God doeth this?” The phrase “doeth this” means to put forth or appoint. Who is God going to appoint? Gog, the latter-day Agag!

Chittim is the ancient name for Cyprus10. Asshur is the ancient name for Assyria, or modern-day Iraq. Eber (or Heber) means “the region beyond”, speaking of the region beyond the river Euphrates. It is related to the word “Hebrew” which means “one from beyond”, also speaking of the region beyond the river Euphrates. It is often thought that Eber refers to the Hebrew people, but Eber was the father of Peleg (the ancestor of the Jews, Gen 10:25) and Joktan (the ancestor of the Arabians, Gen 10:26), so cannot refer to the Jewish people exclusively. Eber’s ancestral homeland was beyond the Euphrates, which today is the area of north-eastern Syria (see map).

So, in this final prophecy of Balaam we have the description of a maritime invasion of the area of Syria and Iraq in the last days by ships originating from the island of Cyprus. The ultimate result of this conflict is that Gog (Amalek) shall perish forever.

In the battle of Ezekiel 38, Gog and his allies come against the land of Israel (vv2-8). They are opposed by the Tarshish group, representing Britain, her allies and the Gulf States of Arabia.

The question is: Who controls the ships of Chittim (Cyprus) – Gog or Tarshish? Or, put simply, is the invasion from Chittim a Gogian invasion to take the land of Syria and Iraq, or is it a Tarshish-led response to what Gog has already done in the region?

To answer this question, we must consider what we know of Chittim:

  • Chittim (also called Kittim) is mentioned in the Bible eight times11, three of which are associated with Tarshish. Kittim was the brother of Tarshish (Gen 10:4) so from the first, they were united as brothers, the sons of Javan;
  • Chittim and Tarshish have a lot in common. They are both known for their maritime prowess; Scripture speaks often of the ships of Tarshish, but also of the ships of Chittim;
  • Chittim and Tarshish were allied in trade, both being part of the Phoenician empire of Tyre (Isa 23:1). When the island power of Tyre fell to Alexander, the trading capital moved first to Chittim (Isa 23:12) and ultimately to Tarshish (Britain) (Isa 23:6). Ezekiel also mentions Chittim, Tarshish and Tyre in his judgment on Phoenicia (Ezek 27:3,6,12);

In Daniel 11:30, Roman “ships of Chittim” came against the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes as he threatened to take the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and persuaded him to retreat from the city. These ships approached Alexandria from the direction of Cyprus12. In this reference, the ships of Chittim supported the king of the south (Egypt) against the king of the north (the Seleucid Empire, occupying the area between Syria and Afghanistan). The parallels between Daniel 11:40-45 and Ezekiel 38 lead us to the conclusion that Russia is the latter-day king of the north. We might therefore expect him to be opposed by the latter-day “ships of Chittim”.

So, from a scriptural point of view, the historical and prophetic evidence would suggest that Chittim will be aligned with the Tarshish powers and not with Russia in the last days.

Britain in Cyprus

Cyprus was a territory of the Ottoman Empire until 1878 when, by a secret treaty with the Ottoman government called the “Cyprus Convention”, it became a British protectorate. Under this treaty with the Sultan, Britain took over administrative control of the island with Turkey remaining nominally sovereign. This allowed Britain to defend its trade route to India through the Suez canal in return for supporting Turkey against Russia. When Turkey joined the Central powers against Britain at the outbreak of WWI, Cyprus was formally annexed to the British crown and became part of the British empire. After WWII, the British colonies that had fought alongside Britain for the freedom of the world now wanted freedom for themselves. Britain commenced an extensive period of de-colonisation, but Cyprus was an exception. Geographically, the island was too valuable to give up. From Cyprus the Royal Air Force could easily reach three different continents. The Middle East is only 100 miles away and the Suez Canal is 200 miles away. NATO planes taking off from Cyprus can reach Syria in 15 minutes. From a military point of view, the island is regarded as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.

Britain did grant Cyprus independence in 1960, but it retained the two military bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia on the south and east of the island. What makes these bases unique is that they are British sovereign territories located on the soil of another sovereign country. The land they occupy is part of Britain. Over time, these bases have supported British military action in WWI, Lybia, Iraq and most recently Syria13. Cyprus is a significant NATO asset. In a delightfully evasive comment, Wikipedia notes that “the United States may have a significant presence in these territories”14.

Today, the US is the most powerful naval power in the world by a considerable distance, possessing a battle carrier fleet in each of the world’s seven oceans. The US sixth fleet is based in the Mediterranean and comprises some 50 ships. Naturally, as NATO allies with a significant cultural, historical, political, legal and religious overlap, Anglo-American relations are strong, so any biblical reference to the military power of Tarshish will necessarily involve the US.

The fate of the ships from Chittim

From the foregoing, it is clear that there will be a future maritime invasion from Cyprus by the Tarshish powers against the latter-day king of the north. It is likely this will be after Russia’s invasion of the Middle East and Israel. In the context of Ezekiel 38, this would appear to be the maritime response to the question “art thou come to take a spoil?” (Ezek 38:13). The result of the invasion will be that the latter-day Amalek will perish forever (Num 24:24). But this destruction will evidently not be in the way the Tarshish powers intend. Amalek will indeed perish forever, but not at the hand of Britain, for we are told in two other places:

“Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind” (Psa 48:7);

“For the day of Yahweh of armies shall be upon everyone that is proud and lofty…and upon all the ships of Tarshish” (Isa 2:12,16).

Brother Thomas, commenting on these verses in 185815, said the following: “The British lion is a proud and lofty beast; and its dominion, a high mountain and lifted up. This is also the character of all the kingdoms and empires of the world. Now, the scripture saith, ‘Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.’ He has therefore delivered himself concerning them in these words, in reference to the fate that awaits them in the day when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth, and he alone shall be exalted: ‘The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of Yahweh of armies shall be upon everyone that is proud and lofty…and upon all the ships of Tarshish’” (Isa 2:10-22).

This is explained in the Psalm 48, which is prophetic of the time when Zion, the city of the Great King, shall be the joy of the whole earth. But before this comes to pass, it foretells the assembing of the kings against her (Zion); that is, the kings of Gog’s confederacy. It is then added as a contemporary event: “Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind”. This implies that the ships broken and scattered are a fleet of the Mediterranean, which would be exposed to a hurricane from the east. This will doubtless be the British Mediterranean fleet cooperating with the land forces against the Russian armies in the Holy Land. The pride of Britain, and probably of America in maritime alliance with her against the common enemy of constitutional government and liberty, will be laid low by the wreck of the most powerful fleet that ever floated upon the sea of Tarshish (the Mediterranean). This will cause the maritime powers to abase themselves and to yield obedience to the “shepherd, the stone of Israel” (Gen 49:24), whom “even the winds and the sea obey” (Matt 8:27).

We watch world events and the movements of nations with an open Bible and wait patiently for the time when “the Lord alone shall be exalted” (Isa 2:17).

References

  1. https://www.engineerlive.com/content/update-israeli-natural-gas-industry
  2. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-13/why-world-worries-about-russia-s-natural-gas-pipeline-quicktake
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Russia%E2%80%9Ukraine_gas_dispute
  4. https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/russian-gas-pipeline-divides-west-punishes-ukraine-190604115459499.html
  5. https://www.thebalance.com/oil-price-forecast-3306219
  6. https://www.thenational.ae/business/cyprus-calypso-gasfield-could-resurrect-country-s-energy-sector-1.701572
  7. Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish-owned ship, Mavi Marmara, which was attempting to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza on 31 May 2010. The action resulted in the deaths of 10 activists and created a diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey.
  8. https://www.dailysabah.com/op-ed/2019/09/09/the-geopolitics-of-natural-gas-resources-in-east-mediterranean
  9. https://ahvalnews.com/us-mediterranean/us-boosts-naval-presence-exxon-explores-cyprus
  10. Cyprus is the principal meaning; however, the name acquired a wider usage in scripture, including other islands in the Aegean and even Italy (Dan 11:30). When viewed from the Holy Land, Chittim is the only island visible, so it became a general term for all islands to the west because any ship from the west would appear to come from Chittim, cf the “isles of Chittim” (plural) Jer 2:10; Ezek 27:6. The ancient capital of Cyprus was Kition, which is in present day Larnaca. See also Gesenius (3794) who says Chittim in the first instance is Cyprus.
  11. Chittim Num 24:24; Isa 23:1,12; Jer 2:10; Ezek 27:6; Dan 11:30; Kittim Gen 10:4; 1 Chron 1:7
  12. Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible (Dan 11:30): “These ambassadors came by the way of Greece, and in Grecian vessels, and their coming might properly be described as ‘ships from Chittim’. They went from Rome to Brundusium, and then passed over to the Grecian shore, and from thence by the way of Chialcis, Delos, and Rhodes, to Alexandria. https://bible- hub.com/commentaries/daniel/11-30.htm
  13. https://newint.org/features/2017/05/01/caught-in-the-middle
  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akrotiri_and_Dhekelia
  15. Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, March 1858, pp54-55