Through the centuries, God’s people have faced many enemies, some of them symbolized by a person, some by a nation. The most notable enemy superpowers included Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, and Rome.
Some of Israel’s smaller neighbors also came in for strong words of rebuke by the prophets: Philistia, Tyre and Sidon, Syria, Moab, Ammon, Edom. Sometimes cities could be notorious as symbols of evil: Sodom and Gomorrah, Damascus, Ninevah, and Babylon. Often these cities were the capitals of the countries they represented.
The prophet Amos was particularly clever in his method of presenting his “oracles” against the nations. The book of Amos opens with a rebuke of Damascus, the capital Syria, Israel’s neighbor to the NE; from there the prophet moves to Gaza, a key city of the Philistines, Israel’s enemy to the SW; from there he moves to Tyre in the NW, then to Edom in the S and SE, then to Rabbah and the Ammonites in the E, then to Moab, also in the E. Then the prophet strikes right next door against Judah, the worshipers of Yahweh in the South. Finally, the prophet drops the hammer on Israel itself, the other Yahweh-worshiping nation in the Ancient Near East:
“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go into the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine with fines they imposed.” Amos 2:6-8.
1. When the bad turn good. In the light of Isaiah 19:18-25, how “permanent” is God’s judgment against evil nations?
Note: Assyria and Egypt were two of Israel’s most deadly enemies.
3. When the bad turn good and the good turn bad. What light does Ezekiel 18 shed on the question of whether a person is doomed to evil or privileged for salvation? Could the same principles apply to nations as to individuals?
4. When God uses the bad to punish his own people. In Jeremiah 25:1-14, God calls Nebuchadnezzar “my servant” (vs. 9). Yet Nebuchadnezzar’s own land, Babylon, was also punished for its evil. What light does this passage shed on evil nations and God’s relations with them?
5. Recurring symbols. As the biblical text itself makes very clear, all the major powers represented in Daniel 2 and 7 were all evil. The classic Protestant interpretation of those powers (Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome) has no bearing whatsoever on what the biblical text makes clear. The little horn power in both Daniel 7 and 8 is particularly noted as a coercive power. Does one need to know the specific identity in order to make an appropriate application in our day?
Note: Critical scholars of the Preterist school have often viewed the book of Daniel as focusing exclusively on the figure of Antiochus Epiphanes because of his outrageous treatment of the Jews and their sanctuary. For three years (168/67 – 165/64, BCE) the temple was polluted by Antiochus with pig being offered on an altar to Zeus, an altar erected over the altar of burnt offering. Both 1st and 2nd Maccabees use the language of Daniel to describe this abomination. The popularity of this interpretation has been noted even by historicist interpreters.
Mervyn Maxwell, for example, in his devotional commentary on Daniel 11, openly states that the seeing Antiochus Epiphanes as the desolator of the sanctuary was “the most popular” interpretation in Jesus’ day. “Josephus, the famous Jewish historian, held this interpretation in the first century A.D. It is possible that Christ’s disciples did also.” A few paragraphs later, in connection with Jesus’ statement that the desolating sacrilege was still future, Maxwell makes this striking assertion: “In other words, old interpretations are bound to be inadequate. Only interpretations made in relatively recent years have any chance of getting the real issues straight.” (God Cares, vol. 1: The Message of Daniel for You and Your Family [Pacific Press, 1981] 269, 270)
Along similar lines is Maxwell’s comment on p. 282: “In spite of its shortcomings, the Antiochus Epiphanes interpretation bore such an apparent relationship to the career of the little king that it seems to have been believed by many Jews in the time of Christ. As we noted on page 269 it is possible that even the disciples believed it. If so, they were startled when – sitting with Jesus on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Jerusalem temple on a cool spring night shortly before the crucifixion – they heard Jesus invite them to ‘understand’ that the ‘abomination that makes desolate’ was still in the future.”
In short, it is possible to see one desolating power as a type of another, and all types pointing to the greatest Desolator of them all, Satan. Thus in the book of Revelation, even when Rome was dominant, the inspired author did not use the name Rome, but reverted to the more ancient symbol of Babylon. But regardless of the name, the nature of the evil represented is clear for all to see.
6. Adventists: Saying less about Rome, acting more like Rome. Ellen White’s comments about Rome illustrate the fluidity of the biblical symbols. On the one hand, she seemed to be concerned that Adventists were too pre-occupied with Rome:
There is need of a much closer study of the word of God; especially should Daniel and the Revelation have attention as never before in the history of our work. We may have less to say in some lines, in regard to the Roman power and the papacy, but we should call attention to what the prophets and apostles have written under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit has so shaped matters, both in the giving of the prophecy, and in the events portrayed, as to teach that the human agent is to be kept out of sight, hid in Christ, and the Lord God of heaven and His law are to be exalted.- Letter 57, 1896 (Counsels to Writers and Editors, 65).
At the same time, however, a couple of quotations from the pen of Ellen White indicate that she was concerned that Adventists were acting more beastly, more like Rome, in some of the ways they were handling church work:
The present is a time of special peril. In 1890 and 1891 there was presented to me a view of dangers that would threaten the work because of a confederacy in the office of publication in Battle Creek. Propositions which to their authors appeared very wise would be introduced, looking to the formation of a confederacy that would make Battle Creek, like Rome [emphasis supplied], the great head of the work, and enable the office of publication there to swallow up everything in the publishing line among us. This is not God’s wisdom, but human wisdom. (Letter 71, 1894 [April 8], cited in Olson, Thirteen Crisis Years, 147)
When men who profess to serve God ignore His parental character, and depart from honor and righteousness in dealing with their fellow men, Satan exults, for he has inspired them with his attributes. They are following in the track of Romanism [emphasis supplied]. (Testimonies to Ministers, 362)
In short, both in the Bible and in the writings of Ellen White, the symbols for both good and evil can be shown to be rich in possibilities. If we can understand the principles of good and evil the application of the symbols become almost self-evident.