Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer devoted a recent article in Adelaide’s daily newspaper, The Advertiser, to the devastating civil war in Syria. He concluded: “Assad will fall but not without a terrible fight with many deaths. Democracy will come.” That final comment might be less assured. As Downer pointed out: “But things in Syria are complicated by its religious and tribal make-up. President Assad is not just the head of state, he’s the leading member of the Alawites, a religious minority associated with Shia Islam in a country that is dominated (numerically) by Sunni Muslims. The Alawites constitute around 13per cent of the Syrian population. There are at least two other minorities worth reflecting on. Ten per cent of Syrians are Christian and another 10 per cent are Kurds.”

The rebels are not just taking on Assad and his group, but there have been reports of persecution of the Christians by the Islamist extremists among the rebels. The US Obama administration has publicly called for an end to violence and for democratic reforms in Syria. It has been reported recently that the Americans have been covertly arming the rebels. Assad has been brutal, though seemingly ineffective in seeking to suppress the insurrection. The Western commentators have painted the usual picture of freedom seeking democrats trying to overthrow a brutal tyrant. The eventual outcome will just as likely see a regime of brutal Islamists in power as any benign democracy. Russian support for Assad, by some accounts has been motivated not only by their desire to preserve a sympathetic regime, and access to the Mediterranean port of Tartus for its navy, but also by a desire to protect a Christian minority which is considered as part of the Eastern Church, supported by Russia’s Putin. Patriarch Kiril 1 of the Russian Orthodox Church secretly visited Damascus a few months ago. He appeared in public with his Syrian Orthodox counterpart, flanked by portraits of Bashar Assad. He praised Syria’s protection of Syria’s Christians, but did not mention the violence which, even then was sweeping the country.

What will be the outcome of this conflict in a country whose capital, Damascus, is so close to Israel’s northern border? Probably a change of government. Probably a new government, even less pragmatic, and more hostile to Israel than Assad. The religious minorities in Syria (Christian and Alawite), with apparently good reason, fear persecution, exile and genocide. Isaiah speaks of the day when “Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap” (Isa17:1). The unfolding tragedies of violence and bloodshed in the Middle East tell us that the day of our Lord’s appearing draws near.

Student loan debt

Finish high school. Go to university. Get student loans to cover all the fees. Finish university, get a high paying job and pay back the loans – what could possibly go wrong? Alas, right across America things have gone horribly wrong with yet another developing debt nightmare. A recent report in the United States from the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys declared: “With student loan debt now topping U.S. credit card debt and few or no options available for distressed borrowers (including unwary parents who co-signed loans and now face the loss of nest eggs, retirement homes and other assets), America faces another major economic threat on a par with the devastating home mortgage crisis.”

The numbers are astonishing. In 2010 the amount of student borrowing per annum passed $100 billion. And the total amount of student loans outstanding in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion. Many former students face loans of in excess of $100,000, and the average is over $25,000 each. Even with home loan interest rates and home prices in the US at historically low levels, many former students cannot get home loans because of the level of student loan debt they are carrying. And for many the promise of virtually certain high paying jobs on graduation is now a grim joke. The jobs have evaporated, along with the capacity to repay their loans. Life styles based on easy credit with seemingly little concept of the requirement to repay and an assumption that “the good times” would roll on forever have run headlong into the brick wall of reality. And easy student loan debt is turning into yet another huge “debt bubble”, now bursting with sad consequences.

Watchmen must learn from these tragic circumstances. If we have forgotten, we must learn to live within our means. Save for a “rainy day”. Borrow with caution and prudence. Our Lord gave sound advice: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). The Apostle Paul counselled: “Owe no man anything…” (Rom 13:8) and furthermore that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1Tim 6:6). The world finds no sympathy with either concept, but “the wise shall understand” and order their financial lives accordingly.

Israel’s gas and oil bonanza

Israel continues to find further oil and gas reserves offshore. So much so that following recent discoveries by Israel Opportunity Energy Resources LP, one commentator noted:

“The new discoveries make it more certain of a virtual revolution in the Israeli economy, with anticipation that Israel will be energy selfsufficient in three years and soon after will be able to export gas and possibly even oil. The Tamar and Leviathan energy fields are being developed, and the infrastructure work has added thousands of skilled jobs to the labour market. Exporting energy will probably strengthen the shekel and help make it one of the strongest currencies in the world.”

Israel for many years (since the peace pact with Egypt) relied for its gas needs on the pipeline across the Sinai desert. Since the uprising in Egypt that pipeline has been sabotaged 14 times. In April 2012, Egypt cancelled the deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calm response: “We have gas reserves that will make Israel totally energy independent, not only from Egypt, but from any other source.”

Sharon Udasin of The Jerusalem Post writing for National Geographic News, pointed out the dimensions of the discoveries. “The Tamar gas field (250 billion cubic metres in reserves) was discovered in 2009 some 50 miles off Haifa’s coast in the Mediterranean Sea … Tamar is large enough to meet all of Israel’s natural gas requirements for 20 to 30 years. This unprecedented offshore bonanza expanded dramatically the following year, when another field, Leviathan, almost double the size of Tamar was discovered another 30 miles to the west. A smaller field, Tanin, with an estimated 33.9 billion cubic metres in natural gas was discovered nearby earlier this year. Israel is on the brink of an historic shift. Instead of being an energy scarce nation amid Middle East oil giants, many of them hostile, Israel now faces a future as a fuel producer in its own right – likely as an exporter and supplier to some of its neighbours, a development that could dramatically alter the region’s geopolitics.”

Already Lebanon is beating its chest about claimed encroachments in its territorial waters. Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon are beginning their own exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Opportunities for future conflict abound. Israel is planning urgently to develop its naval capacity to defend its offshore assets. When “the king of the north shall come against him like a whirlwind” (Dan 11:40) he does so “with many ships”. As Israel grows its offshore resources and its naval capacity, we can now see why the “king of the north” will need his “many ships”.

“To take spoil, and to take a prey; to turn thine hand upon the desolate places that are now inhabited, and upon the people that are gathered out of the nations, which have gotten cattle and goods, that dwell in the midst of the land.” This is part of the “declaration of intent” of the northern confederacy in Ezekiel 38:12. As Israel grows in its latter day prosperity, there may perhaps be more to that verse too than we have imagined!

The West is on the decline

So declared Russian President Vladimir Putin to a meeting of Russian Ambassadors from around the world at the Moscow Foreign Ministry’s headquarters. “Domestic socio-economic problems that have become worse in industrialised countries as a result of the economic crisis are weakening the dominant role of the so-called historical West.” He encouraged his ambassadors to be ready to take advantage of any developments. The Russian economy is doing well on the back of its oil and gas exports. Russia is seeking to expand its military, is looking for further bases for its Navy, is exploiting its advantage in relationships with Ukraine and the former States of the Soviet Union and generally is once again looking to rebuild the power and influence that Putin regards as proper for Russia.

“The future movements of Russia are notable signs of the times, because they are predicted in the scriptures of truth”, Brother John Thomas declared. What was future for him is a present reality for us. Watchmen need to be alert. Israel grows more prosperous while turmoil rages among its neighbours. Russia is asserting itself again. Germany sees Europe’s financial woes as a reason for more political integration in Europe. The West is in rapid decline, at a government, institutional and personal level. The sea and the waves are roaring. Mens hearts are failing them for fear. “Watch ye therefore and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.”