Palestine – 31st October 1917

“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up” (Rev 16:12).

One of the fascinating and wonderful privileges we have as students of Bible prophecy is to look back over history with the benefit of hindsight and identify God’s hand at work as He brings to fruition His predetermined plan. This year – 2017 – sees the 50th anniversary of a very significant event in world history – an event that proved to be a vital step forward in the lead up to and the eventual establishment of the nation of Israel and the eventual occupation of the city of Jerusalem by the Jewish people.

Since AD70, the city of Jerusalem had been under foreign control, “trodden down of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24) and for almost 400 years Jerusalem had been under the control of the Muslim Ottoman Sultans. Selim I (Selim the Grim, 1512 – 1520) had conquered and annexed most of the Middle East including Syria, Palestine and Egypt in 1517. His son, Suleiman the Magnificent, had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 1520 and the territory had remained under Ottoman control since then.

Australian Light Horse riding through Palestine 1917

Bible prophecy, however, had foretold that this would not be a permanent situation. The Bible predicted the return of the Jewish people to their own land in a process of being “re-gathered” from their diaspora. Several prophecies, which describe an ultimate fulfillment of a fully restored Israel under God, also imply and indicate a partial return beforehand. Some prophecies, such as the “Valley of Dry Bones” in Ezekiel 37 give the distinct impression of progressive stages in this process (see also Jer 31:10 and Ezek 20:34).

This being the case, Bible students looked for a major change in regards to the occupation of this territory. John Thomas anticipated “two stages in the restoration of the Jews” (Elpis Israel Page 441, 1849). The first stage he referred to as a “partial and primary restoration” characterised by emigration to the land as “agriculturalists and traders”. How could such emigration and regathering occur while the territory was still controlled by the Ottoman Empire?

The book of Revelation had provided the answer. The last grouping of historical symbols used in the book of Revelation is referred to as the 7 vials (or bowls) in Revelation 16. The history represented in these vials could be referred to as modern history. These symbols take us from the events following the French Revolution (1789) through the subsequent Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, which began a process of secularisation and socialism in the modern world that would lead to, and eventually terminate in, the battle of Armageddon when God intervenes in world affairs in an open and direct way at the end of the 6th vial. (Rev 16:16). The end of the 6th vial period, then, marks the end of man’s rule upon the earth.

The 6th vial period, then, is of vital importance to us. It is the last historical vial period in the last grouping of symbols depicting the last events of human control of this planet. In the words of v12: “And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.”

The Euphrates River had already been referenced in a previous apocalyptic symbol as part of the 6th trumpet (cp 9:14) where it represented the area inundated by the various Ottoman hordes: the opposite of what would happen under the 6th vial.

Euphrates Flooding – the Rise of the Ottoman Turk

The flooding of a river in Bible prophecy symbolises empire spreading and expanding its territory. In Isaiah 8:7-8, the empire of Assyria is likened to a river overflowing its banks as it increases its size in territorial conquest. So when the scriptures speak of a river receding or “drying up” we have the opposite occurring – an empire is losing its territory.

The river in question in both the 6th trumpet and here in the 6th vial is called the River Euphrates. In Scripture, a river can be used to refer to the nation through which it flows, for example the River Nile is often used to refer to Egypt etc.

At the time when the prophecy was poised to see fulfilment, the River Euphrates ran through the geographical domains of the Ottoman Empire. The flooding and spreading of this river in the 6th trumpet refers to the geographical expansion of successive waves of marauding and conquering Turkish tribes, including the Seljuks, Moguls, Tartars, and lastly represents the Ottomans, who established the powerful and expansive Ottoman Empire.

Euphrates Drying Up – the Shrinking Influence of the Ottoman Turk

So just as the flooding river of the 6th trumpet represented the spread and growth of the Turkish empire in the 15th to 16th centuries, the drying up of the river in the 6th vial would represent the contraction of the same empire in the 19th to 20th centuries.

The Great War – The Start of the Last Historical Period

This now brings us to World War I or the Great War. The opening of the 6th vial is the opening phase of the final time period in human history before the visible intervention of Almighty God at Armageddon.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, on 28 June, 1914, by a Serbian Nationalist in Bosnia, would spark a chain of events and trigger a number of international treaties that would plunge the world into a global conflict. 16 million people would lose their lives and the world would be subjected to carnage and bloodshed on an unprecedented scale in human history.

The world was lined up, with the Allies – predominately Britain, France and Russia – facing off against the Central powers led by Germany. It appears that Turkey was initially reluctant to enter the war, but events transpired (in the providence of God) that brought her into the war and in direct opposition of the British empire of which Australia and New Zealand were part.

Gallipoli and the ANZACs

The British planned and executed the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, which was an attempt to strike at the very heart of the Ottoman Empire.

Those of us who have grown up in Australia or New Zealand are all too familiar with the “legend” of the ANZACs. It was an ambitious project by the Allies to control this vital shipping lane with the intended outcome of taking Turkey out of the war.

In March 1915, allied troops landed at Gallipoli and were met with unexpected and fierce resistance from the Turkish defenders. The campaign bogged down into a bloodstained stalemate, during which over 44,000 men of the Allied armies would perish, until the project was eventually abandoned and the troops evacuated in January 1916.

In hindsight, one can’t help but see the hand of providence in the failure of this mission. To take Turkey out of the war so early would have meant some sort of peace treaty involving Turkey agreeing to withdraw from the war in exchange for keeping her empire intact. This would have probably meant a status quo being maintained in regards to her territories, including the Middle East.

In fact, by looking at the symbols God used in the 6th vial, one could have anticipated the failure of this attempt. A river dries up from its extremities, not from its heart. As the River Euphrates represented the Turkish Empire, the territories of this empire needed to gradually dry up from its outer boundaries.

The River Dries Up

The ANZAC troops were withdrawn to Egypt, augmented and reorganised into the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EFF). They would now participate in the Sinai and Palestine campaign and this time they would do so with great success against their Turkish adversary. The river would slowly, yet surely, evaporate.

Initially the EEF had great success and forced the Ottoman army to withdraw from the Sinai. Crucial battles such as Romani (Aug 1916), Magdhaba (Dec 1916) and Raffa (Jan 1917) saw the Euphrates continue to contract. However, the EEF experienced a major setback when it was defeated in two bloody and unsuccessful battles to take Gaza, firstly in March and then in April of 1917. The EEF was decimated with the loss of about 10,000 casualties.

This commenced a stalemate period which would last for many months, during which time the Ottoman army, in conjunction with its German counterparts (the crack Asia Corps) received reinforcements and dug in a solid defensive line from Gaza to Beersheba (50 kms long) with major defensive outposts constructed and supported by over 150,000 rifles, 374 machine guns and 330 heavy artillery guns. It looked like the river had stopped drying up.

Enter General Sir Edmund Allenby – “The Bull”

General Allenby

With this stalemate occurring, the war cabinet lost confidence in the commander of the EEF, General Murray, and replaced him with the experienced and robust General Allenby, who was given the mandate by the Prime minister, Lloyd George, to get things moving and take Jerusalem by Christmas. Allenby, nicknamed “The Bull” wasted no time. He began planning the next major stage of the war – to take Beersheba. The success of his strategy and the involvement of the Australian Light Horse would change history forever.

A British journalist, Mark Urban, stated that “If the Ottoman Empire continued in its pre-war frontiers after the war (and before Allenby arrived in Egypt, the British had not advanced very far) then it is probable that the nations of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq would not exist today”.

Beersheba – Oaths and Water

As Christadelphians, with our unique appreciation of the promises made to the Patriarchs, there is amazing significance in the town of Beersheba. The repeated themes of oaths and water associated with this place in scripture have ironical significance in this historical event. As we shall see, water is going to play a major factor in the history we are currently considering.

The Charge at Beersheba – October 1917

This place had always marked the southern extremity of the land promised to Abraham in the oft repeated formula “from Dan (North) to Beersheba (South)” (1 Chron 21:2, 2 Sam 24:2-7, Jud 20:1). It is located on the edge of the Negev desert about half way between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea and is one of the strategic southern gateways into the land proper.

Here the father of the Jewish people, Abraham, made a covenant involving a well of water (Gen 21:27,31,33) and called on the name of the Lord. The name is based on the Hebrew root ‘shabha’ – to swear.

Water is also a theme in Hagar’s experience (Gen 21:14, 19); she had run out of water while traveling through “the wilderness of Beersheba” and God had provided for her and her son Ishmael (the father of the Arab peoples) a “well of water”.

Later the Lord also appeared to Isaac here (Gen 26:23) and gave him a confirmation of the promises made to Abraham. Isaac’s servants (knowing the history of the place) dug a well in this place and sent word to Isaac (vs 32): “we have found water”.

It was also here that we have the last reiteration of the promises made to the Patriarchs. This time God appeared to Jacob (Gen 46:3), instructing him to go down into Egypt to be with his son Joseph and reinforcing the great promise of providence: God will make of thee “a great nation” and will also “surely bring thee up again”.

As a people who are blessed to understand the significance of all these concepts – the oath, the promises, the land, the people, the return, the blessings – we are privileged to recognize the hand of God in all of this. Truly the pulse quickens with a rising sense of appreciation that we have witnessed divine things: we are walking, as it were, on holy ground.

Unknown to the allies, the forces assembling from the ends of the earth, were about to become the liberating forces of the “king of the South” ready to push back the flow of the Turkish “Euphrates river”.

“Take Beersheba today”

Allenby had appointed Colonial Richard Meinertzhagen as his head of military intelligence. Meinertzhagen was a Jew and a zealous Zionist. It was his idea to deceive the enemy into thinking that the preparations for the attack on Beersheba were simply a deception and the main attack would be further along the line, thereby forcing the Turks to spread out their defensive resources away from Beersheba. He bravely dropped a haversack in the desert that contained false information and this succeeded in making the German commander divert vital resources from Beersheba, thereby weakening its defence.

31st October, 1917, is a day that will be remembered as crucial in the development of the State of Israel. At 5:10am, the battle for Beersheba began. The battle raged during the day with the British forces engaged in desperate fighting and making some significant progress. However, by 2:00 pm the main city was still in Turkish hands. It was essential that Beersheba be taken that day with its wells intact, to provide water to 58,000 soldiers and the 100,000 animals who, together, required 1,800,000 litres of water. And supplies of water were running extremely and dangerously low.

If the water at Beersheba was not captured that very day, the attack would be a failure, the men and horses would have to withdraw, the element of surprise would be lost, the Turks would be able to further consolidate their position and the objective of moving further into Palestine and taking Jerusalem would be severely hampered, if not dashed.

Evening was approaching; a decision had to be made. Allenby had ordered that Beersheba be taken before nightfall. It was 4:30pm and the sun was setting and the light fading. The 4th Light Horse Brigade had been kept in reserve, protected by a hill and waiting in a wadi. The order was given to mount up and move forward to the edge of the 5 km plain that led to Beersheba. The order was given: “we are going to ride straight into the Turkish position. It has never been done before”.

At 4:30pm, 800 bayonet-wielding Australian horsemen in three columns set off across the plain in an epic cavalry charge (ironic and deceptive because the Australians were technically not cavalry but mounted infantry).

The Turkish commanders had instructed their men to wait until the Australians dismounted before opening fire because they had recognised that the charging horsemen were infantry and not cavalry. They were anticipating a dismount that never came. Instead the horses increased from a canter to a gallop and charged directly at the Turkish defenders in the trenches outside Beersheba. The Turks had set their gun sightings further out anticipating an infantry attack on foot but in no time the horsemen were “under the guns”.

The first line of horsemen thundered across the plain and directly at the trenches, many jumping the trenches and riding madly into the city itself in an attempt to secure the wells, ignoring the fact that the Turks had wired them with explosives so they would be destroyed if lost to them. Others dismounted at the trenches and engaged in fierce hand to hand combat with the Turkish defenders. The breach had been made, however, this was a knock-out blow and the Turkish defence soon crumbled. The city was taken and the vital water sources secured.

A book produced jointly by the Australian and Israeli governments called Australia and Israel (2008) commented on this charge:

“If the wells of Beersheba had not been captured, the horses would have perished soon afterwards and any follow up movement by the EEF forces northward to Jaffa and Jerusalem would have been severely delayed.

The taking of Beersheba was the first crucial step in bringing an end to Ottoman rule in Palestine and began a chain of events that culminated in the establishment of Israel in 1948. On the day Beersheba was captured, the British War Cabinet approved the text of a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations to be made by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, which was published two days later.”

These official words from the two governments authorising this publication show that we have not exaggerated the importance and significance of this historical event.

A Sign for Us

The consideration of such events is not simply a study of history or world politics. It is an insight into the hand of God at work, providentially bringing His plan to pass. How privileged we are to know and believe these things.

This year, 2017, is a significant year in many ways. It is: 100 years since Beersheba, 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, 100 years since the taking of Jerusalem from the Turks, 70 years from the establishment of Israel in 1947 and 50 years from the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967.

Truly such things remind us that we have not “followed cunningly devised fables” but instead have based our faith on a “more sure word of prophecy whereunto ye do well to take heed” (2 Pet 1:19).