Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Jonathan Cahn's "Harbinger": Deconstructing Isaiah

Jonathan Cahn's The Harbinger is currently #54 on (#1 in Religion/Mystery and #2 in Religion/Fiction).  If you have not read it, think of The Bible Code or  The Da Vinci Code without any cool Hebrew language grids, chase scenes or exotic locations.
The narrator meets a mysterious guy who walks him through “harbingers,’ impending signs of doom based on two previously under-appreciated verses in Isaiah.  Harbinger's classification as "fiction" is apparently a nod to the style, not the seriousness with which the subject matter is presented or taken. 
I'll tell you up front:  I think the book has some serious flaws in its reasoning.  Before I explain why, let me point out the things I liked.
The warnings about the pride and arrogance in America, as well as the condemnation of our false gods of wealth and ease, are certainly timely. Cotton Mather once noted that  “Religion brought forth prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.
I appreciate Mr. Cahn's concern for the spiritual well-being of our nation.  I don’t know him;  he seems to love God mightily, and he apparently wrote this book from a sincere desire to warn America about the dangers of its chosen path.
At the end of the book he provides a thorough explanation of the importance of accepting and following Christ.  Considering the astonishing breadth of his audience, he is in a unique position to present the hope of the gospel to many. 
My following comments have nothing to do with the author’s character, heart, or presentation of Christ.  I suspect that if Mr. Cahn and I sat down for lunch, we would have far more in common than not. I'm glad we are on the same team. My comments have to do with the manner in which the book leads readers toward particular conclusions. I am worried that its questionable presuppositions and unusual analysis of Scripture set a precedent that may have detrimental fallout.


The conclusions of the book work only if the foundational assumptions are true. Here are some of the core claims Harbinger presents without a defense:
  • America is Israel
  • America made a covenant with God like Israel did
  • The passages in the Old Testament specifically directed toward a specific group of people at a specific place and time are also for us
  • Actual Middle Eastern trees are meant to be associated with similar iconic North American trees
  • The Founding Fathers were somehow like the Patriarchs of Scripture
  • A private dream can carry as much clout as the Bible
  • Everyone in the world is ordered to observe Jewish Years of Jubilee 
  • Politicians are prophets unaware, similar to writers of Scripture
  • Defiance against terrorism is the same thing as defiance against God
  • The collapse of Wall Street is iconically the same as a "breech in the walls" in Old Testament cities
  • Washington, DC is Samaria
  • The collapse of the global economy was determined 3,000 years ago 
  • When the #7 shows up, something spiritual is happening
  • There are "invisible" messages in Isaiah 9:10
  • The damning “testimony of two or three witnesses” in Scripture refers to the Vice-President, the President, and the Senate Majority leader all saying that America will rebuild 
  • People can speak prophetic curses on entire nations unintentionally
  • Obama pronounced judgment on America while genuinely trying to give an inspiring speech  
  • Because of presidential speeches, the harbingers had to happen
  • The narrator in the book - who I assume is meant to be speaking for Jonathan Cahn - is “the son of God’s light, the declarer” because those words were written on a piece of paper in a vision
If all those previous claims are true, then the book’s conclusions would follow logically.  But assuming they are true and showing they are true are very different things indeed. Mr. Cahn rarely makes the case for them; he simply states them and moves on to conclusions based on these unsubstantiated claims. Perhaps he has published other material in which he explains why he believes these things to be true, but this book gives me no reason to agree with him.


Close to the beginning of the book, we read the following conversation concerning prophets of God:
“How would they know if the message was from God?” 
“It would contain the mark - the fingerprint of the One who sent it.”
“Like a seal.”
“Yes, like a seal.”
Were I skeptical, I would think that this new definition of prophet– completely lacking the biblical mandate for accuracy and truthfulness – was a rhetorical device to let the author use creatively imagined prophetic seals to support his claims while writing from the position of self-described prophet. In the Bible, the prophets of God must past stringent tests before the people were to accept the prophets' word as being from God. If Mr. Cahn is speaking prophecy inspired by God, we will know it by the veracity of his claims, not a "seal."


I happen to be reading Paul Johnsons’s History of Christianity right now, and I recently read his section on the early years of America. 
American history contains a fascinating combination of sincere and shallow Christians.  The first colonists clearly came here to start a theocracy, and they truly thought this new nation was the new Israel.  Just because they thought that does not make it so.  The Mayflower Covenant was their commitment to God; God did not make a similar covenant with them. There were no divine promises; there were no patriarchs; there was no theocracy, or God-appointed king, or prophets writing sacred Scriptures.  There were just people who wanted a theocratic nation – expect for those who didn’t, such as Roger Williams.  Either way, there was no American Abraham. America is not Israel. (For more details on what God's covenants with His people looked liked in the Bible, see here, here, and here.)  
Mr. Cahn says that America was “a vessel of redemption.” I'm not sure what that even means, and Mr. Cahn does not explain.  America saved people?  It only took about 50 years for the first legal documents to record the approval of slavery, as seen in Virginia by 1667. That’s hardly redemptive.
For that matter, George Washington, of whom Mr. Cahn thinks very highly, had some significant moral issues.  I understand he did some admirable things, but he did some really bad things too. Citing a vision in which George Washington’s inauguration is superimposed over Solomon leading the people in temple prayer is both naïve and unsettling.
There are other historical problems.  He claims that 9/11 was the first “breach in the wall,” at least on American soil.  What about Pearl Harbor?  (Hawaii was not a full state at the time, but it was annexed and considered part of American soil). What about other attacks on American embassies around the world, which are also technically American soil?  What about the Revolutionary War (which we have to include, since Mr. Cahn traces America back to the first colonists)?
This strikes me as a selective reading of history, which is necessary to make some of the connections in this book work.


Here is my core observation:  vague prophecy understood only in hindsight is problematic. 
The prophecies of Nostradamus can be made to fit any number of historical events – but only in hindsight.  The information in The Bible Code worked – in hindsight, because Michael Drosnin knew what he was looking for (with one possible exception where he claims to have predicted a future event). 
Taking two vague verses written to Israel thousands of years ago and applying them today is a huge stretch. Frankly, those verses could apply to Northern Michigan recovering from the recent snow storm. “Towers” fell three weeks ago. Uprooted trees are now being replaced with better trees. New buildings are going up, some with quarried stone. "We will dig out, replant and rebuild!"     
We must be careful not to read too much into Scripture.

Sometimes, “tower” is the best word to describe something really tall. Sometimes, really big buildings require really big cornerstones.  Sometimes, people speak Arabic because they are Middle Eastern, not because they are fulfilling prophecy. I’m not trying to be flippant here. My point is that there are many ways to “force read” prophecy. 

If biblical texts written for Israel can be applied to us, where does the correlation end? I read the surrounding chapters in Isaiah, thinking that if two verses can reveal that much about America, several chapters could do so much more. Rather than giving me answers, it raised more questions:
  • What are the fly and bee in Isaiah 7 for which God will whistle?  Is this a harbinger referring to the disappearance of bee colonies recently?
  • What are the "young cow and a two sheep" that we are to keep alive?
  • Is chapter 8 about terrorism against us too?  
  • Isaiah 9:6 -7 are prophecies concerning Christ; does that mean a Christ figure is arising in America?  
  • Who are America's "head' and "tail" in Isaiah 9:15?  
  • Why won't God have mercy on our widows and orphans according to Isaiah 9:17?  
  • Isaiah 9:20 says the people will cannibalize their neighbor and eat their own arms.  How should we read that? 
  • Chapter 11 talks about the reign of Jesse's offspring, a reference to Jesus. Will America be the birthplace of a savior?
I am not trying to be sarcastic or snarky. I'm trying to show that it's not a good idea to isolate content in Scripture. Verses are parts of chapters and books. There is a larger perspective into which individual verses fit.

Mr. Cahn references a lot of political speeches in which Isaiah 9 has been quoted out of context. I have a news flash: That happens all the time.  Speechwriters pander to an audience; they google stuff; they put it on the teleprompter for the talking head, and out pops a misquoted section of Scripture that takes on a life of its own.  
Let’s be honest – Christians do that a lot too.   Millions of hopeful Christians have claimed “You will have none of these diseases” as a verse that will magically help them avoid sickness, but it was just a verse encouraging the Israelites to watch their diet. When I was a kid, my church used “Abstain from all appearance of evil” to explain why I couldn’t go to movie theaters or play cards, when the verse was actually about proper decorum in church services.
Mr. Cahn himself struggles with this deconstruction of texts.  He quotes the classic “I know the plans I have for you “ passage at the end of the book, a passage that well-meaning Christians have ripped out of context over and over again.  I am still waiting for someone to claim the rest of Jeremiah 29 (verses 20-23):
Therefore, hear the word of the Lord, all you exiles whom I have sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon... “I will hand them over to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will put them to death before your very eyes. Because of them, all the exiles from Judah who are in Babylon will use this curse: ‘The Lord treat you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon burned in the fire.’ For they have done outrageous things in Israel; they have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives and in my name have spoken lies, which I did not tell them to do. I know it and am a witness to it,” declares the Lord.
That section somehow gets left out - as if the first part of the chapter was for us, but not the second part. Who gets to make that distinction?  It's not a good way to read the Bible. 


I was troubled by how easily Mr. Cahn identified the language of defiance from public figures as language directed at God. Wanting to rebuild in defiance of terrorism is a very different thing from rebuilding as an act of heavenly treason. In order for this dynamic to be at work in the way in which he claims, the people in question would have to:
  •  believe in the God of the Bible
  •  realize He was judging them 
  •  thumb their nose at him anyway. 
It’s tough to defy God when you don’t know He’s involved.  This is one of the key differences between Israel and us. Israel was a theocracy. They had made a covenant with God and knew His law; they understood what was happening when punishment came their way. This is not the case with America. 

Mr. Cahn says rebuilding the Tower after 9/11 was an act of “apostasy...the most soaring testimony of defiance ever to stand on American soil.” By people who don’t see God involved at all?  You have to believe it’s a judgment from God in order to shake your fist defiantly at him.  Sometimes, rebuilding destroyed buildings is just refusing to let the terrorists have the last word.  


I've been reading or hearing similar observations about America from Chuck Colson, Ravi Zacharias, Os Guiness, Mark Buchanan, John Piper and Tim Keller for years. Mr. Cahn places himself in good company with his poignant observations about the moral fabric of America. The difference is that this is labeled as "prophecy" while the others were not. Perhaps the church needs to have a more careful conversation about what constitutes prophecy, and whether or not something "prophetic" automatically carries more weight.
If you like a moderately interesting story with decent writing, this is the book for you. If you want to confirm what many have already observed about the spiritual state of America, this is also the book for you. If you think the Bible is a code to be unraveled and applied uncritically to events in world history, this is absolutely the book for you. But if you prefer history to be accurate, theology to be carefully developed, and all portions of the Bible to carefully analyzed within their historical, literary, and theological context, this is not the book for you.

As Mr. Cahn's platform continues to expand, I pray his passion for Christ and the world will be clear to all. I did not finish his book worried about his motivation or sincerity; I finished it with a deep concern that the method by which he has constructed his argument cannot sustain the weight of his message.

There is an excellent article at The Alliance For Biblical Integrity which reviews Cahn's follow-up, The Mystery of the  Shemitah.


  1. Thanks for the thorough analysis! I have seen a number of insightful critiques of this book, but as usual yours is very on-point and piercing. Nice post.

  2. Thanks, jw. I am hoping to do an updated version soon.