For many years in public lectures brethren have quoted this prescient passage from Elpis Israel: “There is, then, a partial and primary restoration of Jews before the manifestation [of Messiah], which is to serve as the nucleus, or basis, of future operations in the restoration of the rest of the tribes after he has appeared in the kingdom. The pre-adventual colonisation of Palestine will be on purely political principles; and the Jewish colonists will return in unbelief of the Messiahship of Jesus, and of the truth as it is in him. They will emigrate thither as agriculturists and traders, in the hope of ultimately establishing their commonwealth, but more immediately of getting rich in silver and gold by commerce with India, and in cattle and goods by their industry at home under the efficient protection of the British power” (Elpis Israel, 14th edition, pages 441 and 442).

Brother Thomas’ prognostications in this passage are remarkable for several reasons:

  1.  In 1850 it was almost impossible for Jews to emigrate to the land of Israel
  2.  Even if it had been possible, very few Jews knew anything about agriculture at that time—in many parts of the world there were laws preventing them from becoming farmers; and
  3.  At that time the land called Palestine was an economic wasteland and a political backwater.

In spite of these impediments these remarkable prognostications largely were fulfilled. In all but one respect Brother Thomas’ expectations were fulfilled during the century after he published Elpis Israel. The one aspect that was not fulfilled concerned “commerce with India”.

The expectation that Jews returning to the land would become wealthy through agriculture and trade was based on Ezekiel 38:8–13. Verse 8 indicates clearly that Israel is to be returned to its ancient homeland. Verse 12 tells us that the Jews who return would establish a prosperous society, for “spoil” can only be taken from people who are wealthy. Hence we have reference to “cattle and goods” in verse 12 and to “spoil … silver and gold … cattle and goods … and great spoil” in verse 13. It is these references to cattle or livestock that provided the clue that the Jews would become known for their agricultural success.

In 1850 the prospect of Jews as prosperous agriculturists living in considerable numbers in their ancient homeland would have seemed wildly remote. Yet history records that in the 150 years since this was written this is exactly what happened, in accordance with Bible prophecy.

Why did Brother Thomas suggest the returning Jews would engage in trade with India? What Scripture suggested this idea to him? The answer is Ezekiel 38:13.

When the Jews who have returned to the land are attacked at the time of the end by a hostile power, certain nations will take up their cause. Although he does not say so explicitly, it is clear that Brother Thomas expected that India would be among the powers embraced by the term “merchants of Tarshish”. The word “merchants” gives us the idea of trade and commerce. But in what sense is India Tarshish?

Western Tarshish

It is evident from the Bible that there were two places known as Tarshish in the ancient world. There was a Tarshish to west of Israel. That was the land to which Jonah tried to flee when he took a ship from Joppa on the Mediterranean Sea coast of Israel. It seems likely that the western Tarshish was Britain, and in the subsequent pages of Elpis Israel Brother Thomas discusses a number of passages referring to this western Tarshish as he develops his theme of Britain facilitating the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

Eastern Tarshish

1 Kings 9:26–28 speaks of trade with nations to the east of Israel being carried out from the Red Sea port of Ezion Geber, near modern day Eilat. The remains of this port may be seen today and they are a popular tourist attraction. 1 Kings 9 mentions trade with Ophir, about whose location scholars are divided. Suggestions vary between Africa, Arabia and India.

In 1 Kings 10:21,22 there is a clearer reference of Ezion Geber being used for trade with India, in this passage under the name Tarshish. Evidently Solomon entered into a joint venture with Hiram, King of Tyre, the Tyrians being noted sailors, which the Israelites were not. It seems that Solomon provided the port and capital and Hiram the skills to conduct this joint trading venture with Ophir and Tarshish.

From the Red Sea ships could travel to many places. How do we know that trade with Tarshish was in fact trade with India? We can tell from the merchandise mentioned in verse 22. Gold, silver and ivory could have come from either Africa or India, but apes and peacocks are distinctive products. In terms of Scripture, apes and peacocks are very unusual animals—mentioned in the Bible only here and in the parallel passage in 2 Chronicles. The word for ape is of Sanskrit origin, in particular from the Malabar region of India, and it refers to various kinds of monkeys. The word for peacock also is of Sanskrit or Tamil origin. Monkeys are found in India and in other parts of the world, but peacocks are native to India and Ceylon.

So it is clear from linguistics and the cargo that trade with Tarshish in this passage means trade with India. 1 Kings 10:23 says that the trade greatly enriched Israel. Apes and peacocks have little intrinsic commercial value. They are luxury items and therefore evidence of a generally prosperous society. The fact it was a joint venture suggests that it was a difficult enterprise. It involved a three-year round trip, so there was ample time for things to go wrong.

The trade seems to have been abandoned after a relatively short time. In 2 Chronicles 20:35–37 we read of an attempt to revive the trade in another joint venture operation, this time organised by King Jehoshaphat. Again difficulties inherent in the enterprise brought the trade to an end, albeit as divine judgment. Why did Jehoshaphat do this? Probably the memory of the massive wealth from Solomon’s day was an influence. Perhaps Ezekiel was also conscious of this history when he spoke of Israel prospering through trade with Tarshish. Certainly the economic conditions described in Ezekiel 38:8–13 are reminiscent of those that applied in the days of Solomon.

Eastern Tarshish Today

But all this is ancient history. What of the relationship between modern day Israel and India? Until a decade ago relations between modern Israel and India did not reflect the expectations of Brother Thomas in Elpis Israel. In fact the relationship was quite hostile. There was no sign at all of significant trade or warm relations that might make it likely for India to speak up for Israel when she is invaded in the way Ezekiel 38 describes. Although a member of the British Commonwealth, for many years India was more closely aligned with Russia and other nations hostile to Israel.

It is a coincidence that Israel and India both attained their independence in 1948. For most of the years after that relations between the two states were cool at best. In 1950 India recognised Israel but would not establish diplomatic relations. Trade with the Arabs was more vital to India’s interests (and remains extremely important to India’s economy) and so there was hardly any trade with Israel. It seemed, perhaps, that this part of John Thomas’ prognostication had not been an accurate reflection of what the text in Ezekiel 38 meant.

In the last decade, however, all that has changed quite dramatically. In 1992 India and Israel established diplomatic relations and relations between the two nations have been growing warmer and warmer ever since. An article in The Testimony, August 1997, chronicles the first five years of the improved relations between the nations. It documents rapidly growing trade, especially in relation to defence and agriculture, between Israel and India.

Islam a Mutual Source of Concern

In recent months India and Pakistan have been close to war. Simmering tensions over Kashmir have threatened to spill over into all out war. India has always had a difficult relationship with its Islamic neighbour and in this regard it would have the sympathy of Israel. It is significant that in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 June 1998 it was reported that the Pakistani government suspected Israeli involvement in India’s nuclear weapons program. It is no secret that India is a major customer of Israeli made weapons; so the Pakistani suspicions might be well founded.

At the time of the abortive Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in July 2000 the United States pressured Israel not to sell an advanced missile defence system to China. It may be a curious example of how the angels work to bring about God’s plan that this led to another development in Israeli-Indian relationships. Stratfor reported on 14 September 2000 that Israel made arrangements to sell the very same system to India.

Another interesting development in 2000 in Israel’s relations with the region involved Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka had not had diplomatic relations with Israel for many years until a sudden and unexpected announcement in May 2000 that relations would be re-established. The reason became clear within a matter of days when Israeli military supplies were shipped to Sri Lanka for use by the government in its battle against Tamil rebels.

More Recent Developments

In the last few months there has been a flurry of activity that suggests commercial and military ties between Israel and India continue to grow. An article in The Globalist Magazine, 17 January 2002 focused on what it described as “a new triple alliance” emerging between India, Israel and Turkey. It noted that all three nations are regional powers with highly regarded military forces, pro-western and concerned about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. This concern bubbled to the surface early in March when sectarian violence flared in western parts of India leading to the slaughter of many Moslems by radical Hindus.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres visited India in January to discuss matters of mutual concern with his Indian counterpart—the third such meeting in twelve months. Arabic News on 9 January 2002 reported that Israel and India have concluded an intelligence sharing agreement, giving Israel access to information obtained via Indian satellites. Later Arabic News on 19 January 2002 reported that Prime Minister Sharon planned an official visit to India in February, although escalating violence at home appears to have delayed this trip.

India’s traditional trading partners in the Arab world are concerned about the growing military cooperation between India and Israel. Quoting a report in the British journal Jane’s Weekly, Arabic News on 18 March 2002 said that India’s inclination in recent years to support Israel is alienating her Arab friends. The report noted that at one time India “automatically” condemned Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, but in recent years has spoken of “Israel’s practice of self-control” in relation to the Intifada. This view certainly is not popular in the Arab world!

On 20 February Agence France-Presse reported that India’s defence budget this year would rise by between 25 and 30 per cent. That is a significant increase, especially when it is appreciated India already has one of the largest defence forces in the world. The increased budget allocation is necessary to pay for new weapons. On 8 February CNN reported that India is negotiating with Russia to purchase long-range nuclear capable strategic bombers, nuclear powered submarines and an aircraft carrier. On the same day the Press Trust of India reported that India would lease submarines to fill the gap in her navy while the new Russian submarines are being built. These items are not necessary for any war that might break out between India and Pakistan. Rather, they indicate Indian resolve to exercise military influence throughout Asia. India is also negotiating to purchase arms from France and continues to purchase weapons and military technology from Israel.

Since 11 September India has been a strong supporter of the US led war against terrorism. This would in part be because India is a target for Moslem terrorists, but it is also motivated by the desire of the current Indian government to court the favour of the US. In that respect the policy appears to be paying dividends. On 28 February Defense News reported that the US would lift an arms sales freeze that had prevented it selling arms to India since May 1998. The US is preparing to sell India surveillance aircraft, Hercules transport aircraft, advanced radar systems, Black Hawk helicopters and other military hardware.

The last ten years has seen amazing developments in the relations between Israel and the Indian sub-continent. Israelis are now prospering through trade with India as John Thomas suggested they would in 1850 based on his study of Ezekiel 38, and India is becoming closely linked with the US and other likely supporters of Israel.

We must resist the temptation to be wiser than the Scriptures. The history of the relationship between Israel and India demonstrates that God does not always move in the ways we might assume from the conclusions we draw from the prophetic record.

The fact remains, however, that at the time of the end when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to the earth to establish God’s kingdom, the Bible says that the Jews will be back in their ancient homeland and will be a prosperous community. It also suggests that a power named Tarshish will, for commercial reasons, be supportive of Israel at the time of the end.

Events might yet take an unexpected turn. Israeli-Indian relations might turn sour, but that would not invalidate God’s overall plan, just as the cool relations that prevailed for forty years could never frustrate the will and purpose of God. All the signs about us confirm that Christ is near—and he is never more than a heartbeat away for any one of us. Are we ready for the return of our redeemer?