“I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night … till he establish and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth” (Isaiah 62:6–7)

In response to questions from his disciples about the end of the Jewish age the Lord Jesus Christ stated, “But when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by” (Luke 21:9). The end of that age is equally a type of ours. The word “commotions” (Gk akatastasia) signifies ‘disestablishments’ or ‘overthrows of established orders’ and is translated in newer versions by the more modern term ‘revolutions’. Other “great signs … from heaven” (v11) include earthquakes. These events inspire fear in the hearts of men because they remind us just how fragile the world that we have created is. “Be not terrified”, said Christ, “these things are not ends in themselves, but heralds of ‘the end’ which will certainly come”.

Changing landscapes

Like the earth, history is never static. National and international politics seldom remain stable for long; they move and at times shift suddenly with frightening consequences. Like a wise man who builds his house on a rock, it is the certainty of stable political landscapes that man craves, but seldom finds. In history there have been periods of relative stability and yet its pages are filled with times of volatility; the 50 year period after World War II is now noted for its stability, despite its daily threat to unravel in global war. When that age finally passed, it shifted with a momentous upheaval in the landscape of both Europe and the wider world. A series of political earthquakes shifted the landscape and stunned the world. At the commencement of 2011 the world again watches in anticipation of political earthquakes and holds out a hope that history will repeat itself in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

‘History never repeats’… but it does rhyme

In 1989 a wave of “commotions” swept across Eastern Europe. To the amazement of the watching world, entrenched rulers, governments, economic and political systems that had been the certainties of the post war world were suddenly and abruptly overthrown. Their end came not from without, in a long feared war between the Eastern Block and the West, but unexpectedly from ‘below’. When the oppressed people of these nations rose up in defiance of their leaders they achieved the akatastasia of regimes that appeared all but indestructible. In a rapid succession of “earthquakes” repressive governments fell. The great icons of the age: the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Block, Soviet Communism and ultimately the USSR itself were thrown down. Such was the power of this wave of revolutions that the map of Europe was redrawn in little more than two years.

Looking back, it seems that the post-war world has been all but forgotten in the mad rush of the past twenty years. A “new world order” was heralded by the victorious West and in 1991 the world experienced a moment where it was hoped, if only for that moment, that the freedoms and prosperity won in Europe might spread throughout the world. This earthquake was, however, localised and oppressive regimes persisted, most notably in Africa and the Middle East. Which brings us to 2011.

Despite the stories of dramatic suffering and bloodshed that have filtered out of northern Africa and the wider Middle East, the commotions of the last five months have been received by the watching world with hope. Popular revolts in nations right across the region showed that the democratic spirit of oppressed people is alive and well. At least initially there was talk of the wave of revolts reaching as far as China. The expectation of early 2011 was that history was about to repeat itself. Yet though the Bible describes the state of Europe at “the time of the end” as being under the influence of the democratic “spirits like frogs” (Rev 16:13) that emerged from France in the 1789 Revolution, the Bible describes the state of North Africa at the same time as being a state of civil war. It has been fascinating to watch the move from February’s optimism to the dawning realisation in March and April that what is coming in North Africa may be the complete opposite of Europe in 1991.

Civil war

In Isaiah 19 the prophet foresees Egypt, biblically the land of north eastern Africa and the Nile Valley, in a state of ongoing civil war: “And I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom” (v2). This state of affairs will continue for a prolonged period of time until the coming of the “fierce king (who)shall rule over them” (v4), that is, the King of the North. In verse 4 Isaiah understands that only this King is able to “shut up” (margin) or ‘bring to a close’ the anarchy that from our point in time is about to erupt over the region. We read of this King’s movements south in Daniel: “He shall stretch forth his hand also upon the countries: and the land of Egypt shall not escape. But he shall have power over the treasures of gold and of silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt: and the Libyans and the Ethiopians shall be at his steps”. (Dan 11:42–43). Isaiah notes in verse 3 that the nation which gave us the wisdom and understanding in which Moses was taught, is now about to be plunged into a chaos that will defy understanding and all attempts to calm it. The Bible is clear; the overthrow of regimes in 2011 will not end in freedoms as was the European experience twenty years ago, but will set the scene for the coming of the fierce and cruel King of the North.

Why was Europe different?

Africa is not Europe. Over 1989–1991 emerging states experienced tremendous challenges, but in most cases new governments emerged capable of building nations in the form of modern western democracies. Egypt, and especially Libya, lack any real alternative leaders; they have no effective opposition politicians, let alone modern western institutions. Gaddafi’s four decade rule in Libya has so successfully wiped out the political opposition that his predictions of chaos following initial revolt seem self evident.

Europe’s transition prospered because of the existence of opposition groups and alternative popular leaders. Such was the case in Poland in the Solidarity movement. In the case of the USSR, the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin was able to draw on centuries of Russian culture and history in order to strengthen the new state. In 1991 Russia readopted the Tsarist coat of arms and its flag and even rehabilitated the Eastern Orthodox Church to ensure national stability. West Germany took on the vast challenge that was (and still is) East Germany and though the failures of the former Yugoslavia in its breakup were notable, the events of 1989–1991 have been a success.

Overall it has been the European Union that has offered stability and an overarching structure to what might well have been a mass of struggling states. Northern Africa up until a century ago was either a fractured and fractious Bedouin clan culture or, as in the case of Egypt, a state at the mercy of the great powers. Northern Africa does not have a stabilising history to fall back on, neither does Africa have an effective overarching political body such as the EU to bring stability. As Isaiah foresaw, North Eastern Africa will resort to desperate means to try to achieve stability. The open-ended American and NATO intervention to enforce a ‘No Fly Zone’ appears only to be creating a state of prolonged conflict.

What this emerging state of affairs will mean for the world in terms of oil prices, for the great artery of world trade, the Suez Canal, and for the ongoing troubled state of the world economy, is clearly a matter of concern. Iranian navy ships have already entered the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution, much to the anger and apprehension of Israel. This we know, that Europe confederate under Russia moves south to settle the flames of anarchy in the region (Dan 11).

Tunisia – the spark

How these commotions began once again shows how the hand of God is able to use the simplest of means to throw down what appears to be the strongest of nations. These events are a reminder of just how unstable even the most rigid of man’s structures are.

The wave of commotions began in Tunisia on December 18, 2010. The self-immolation of a street trader was the spark that quickly aroused popular anger and led to street demonstrations. Yet as is often the case, the immediate cause drew on long standing frustration with the government and the Presidency of Zine El Abidine Bin Ali. Mohammad Bouazizi was a well-known local figure on his street where he had been a trader for many years, yet he had also been harassed and publicly humiliated by police and government officials over a long period. His defiant death and the inadequate government response triggered popular outrage in his neighbourhood. Street demonstrations soon grew well beyond a reaction to Bouazizi and as they grew in size and spread, the government was taken by surprise. Attempts to quash these protests only fuelled unrest and focused attention on the flaws of the government. In a matter of a few days these protests led to nationwide strikes and attacks on ruling party offices and police stations. In little more than a month the government was overthrown. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, fled the country. A little drop of hope, defiance and swift success sent ripples out along the Mediterranean coast and captured the mood of dominated peoples in neighbouring countries.

The wave spreads

To date Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Oman and Yemen have all seen major protests. Minor incidents have occurred in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. Only Tunisia and Egypt have experienced revolutions to date. Libya is in a state of civil war. The widespread scope of the commotions owes much to the similar underlying hardships in the region: the failure of national economic and political systems.

In the last decade the literacy rate and education levels of the average North African have increased dramatically. The standard of living and income levels, though still limited, have also increased, as has the index of human development. The average age in many of these nations is also significantly lower than that in the developed countries. This situation has led to a rise in the aspirations and hopes of much of the population at a time when frustration at the heavy hand of national governments has deeply alienated the population. Repressive authoritarian governments that use the power and fear of State and Secret Police have bred a generation that lives in fear with their hopes unrealizable. Corrupt economic systems and ineffective financial management, only amplified by the effects of the Global Financial Crisis, have raised the cost of commodities such as food and other raw materials. The internet and social networking sites have had as much a profound impact as satellite television did in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s in raising the awareness and the hopes of subject peoples. The critical role of Al Jazzera in reporting a non-government, unbiased perspective on the region has been widely criticised by repressive regional leaders. This pent-up pressure is, when released suddenly, akin to an earthquake.

Earthquake

The February earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the March earthquake off the coast of Japan have reminded us just how unstable the physical world is – from which we are not immune in wealthy developed countries. Political and physical commotions remind us all just how unstable the foundation of our world is. Revolutions are the political equivalents of physical earthquakes (cp the earthquake events of Revelation). A simple review of the statistics reminds us of their ability to inspire terror.

The Japanese earthquake was caused by a 9.0 magnitude undersea megathrust earthquake, the epicentre being approximately 72km east of the Oshika Peninsula of the Tohoku region of Japan. Prone to daily earthquakes, Japan is remarkably resilient to these seismic events, both in the physical strength of its built structures and the resilience of its people. Yet the Tohoku earthquake demonstrated the futility of placing confidence in man. The magnitude of the quake was unprecedented in Japan’s recorded history and at 9.0 on the Richter scale it was one of the top five most powerful earthquakes in the 111 year history of modern record keeping.

It was not, however, the earthquake that caused the destruction that followed but a tsunami with waves of up to 26.6m (97ft) which struck the coast some minutes after the quake. Such was the energy transferred to the water by the quake that tsunami waves travelled some 10km (6 miles) inland. As we go to print the death toll from the tsunami has been officially stated at 11,578 deaths, with 2,873 injured and 16,441 missing. As well, 125,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed and there has been massive infrastructure damage including the damage to the buildings at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, “In the 65 years after the end of World War II, this is the toughest and most difficult crisis for Japan.” On March 21st the World Bank estimated the damage between US$122 and $235 billion. The tsunami could well be the most expensive natural disaster in recorded history and its impact on the still unstable global economy is uncertain.

“Be not terrified”

As with revolutions and earthquakes we are reminded just how unstable the human world is. When the strongest regimes that use violence against their own people to maintain their own position are toppled in a matter of days, and the ground beneath our feet shakes and claims the lives of people, we fear. The world is much less stable than man likes to believe; all of our lives are prone to commotions and overthrow without warning. Man cannot function properly with the constant reminder that all his certainties are built on clay, especially when national economies are built on confidence. Christ’s warning and exhortation to his disciples is, “Be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by.” We are witnessing the great ‘chess board’ of the nations take the shape predicted in the prophets. These are only movements of the landscape and the end awaits. Christ’s stealthy advent will be “as a thief in the night”. As for his brethren, we do not necessarily need to see the outworking of “these things” before we are called to judgment. Let us heed his words: “Be not terrified”; our future is not bound up in these things.