Skip Navigation Links

The unseen hand in History

Is history simply a meaningless patchwork of random events?
Or is there a definite design and purpose behind it?


In October, 539 B.C., Babylon — the greatest city of the ancient world — fell to a Medo-Persian army under Cyrus the Great.

Less than a half century earlier, the famed city had reached the height of its power and splendor under King Nebuchadnezzar, builder of the magnificent Ishtar Gate and the world-renowned Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

After Nebuchadnezzar's death, however, Babylonian power declined rapidly. By 539, the stage was set for collapse.

Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon claim that Cyrus achieved entry into the heavily fortified capital by cleverly diverting the waters of the Euphrates River, which flowed under the city's huge brass gates and through the length of the metropolis.

Upstream, according to the account, Cyrus' army dug a channel to lead off the water into a huge abandoned reservoir near the river. The level of the river soon began to sink, and Cyrus' army, under cover of darkness, slipped quietly down into the now knee-deep water and waded under the gates into the unsuspecting city. The Babylonians were taken by surprise, and the city fell with little bloodshed.

The fall of Babylon was one of the decisive events of antiquity, marking the end of an era. The once-great Babylonian realm was absorbed into the Persian Empire, which soon included all of the Near East from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River.


Design in History?

Eventually, however, the great Persian Empire followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, falling to the armies of Alexander the Great some 200 years later. And likewise, the legions of Rome ultimately swallowed up the one-time domains of Alexander.

The rise and fall of empires is a recurring feature of history. One power rises to prominence, only to decline and eventually be supplanted by another.

The Greek historian Polybius recounts how the great Roman commander Scipio the Younger, while watching the city of Carthage going up in flames in 146 B.C., remarked to him: "A glorious moment, Polybius; but I have a dread foreboding that someday the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country. . . [For thus it had] happened to Illium . . . and to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time. . ."

For centuries historians have pondered the inexorable progression of civilizations. Is history, they have wondered, simply an arbitrary succession of events, a meaningless patchwork of random incidents, devoid of purpose? Or is there some sort of overall design or recurring pattern in history?


Differing Views

The belief that it is possible to discern in the course of human history some all-encompassing pattern or general scheme is very old. Many widely varying theories have been advanced attempting to give meaning to the historical process.

BABYLON — 539 B.C.

ISSUS — 333 B.C.

Oswald Spengler, the early twentieth-century German philosopher, drew an analogy between the life cycles of cultures and those of biological organisms. He maintained that all civilizations pass inevitably through a four-period life cycle of birth, maturity, decay, and death.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels — the "fathers of communism" — saw an endless "class struggle" between the oppressed and the oppressors as the mainspring and primary motive force of history.

Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century Scottish essayist and historian, contended it was the actions of a few outstanding figures such as Alexander the Great, Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon which — above all other factors — shaped the course of history.”The history of the world," he wrote, "is but the biography of great men."

The eminent English historian Arnold Toynbee maintained — based on his analysis of 26 civilizations throughout history — that the growth and continuance of civilizations is the direct result of their responding successfully to challenges, under the leadership of creative minorities. Once a civilization fails to respond successfully, it disintegrates. Unlike Spengler, however, Toynbee did not regard the death of a civilization as inevitable.

Other theorists have attempted to apply scientific procedures to the study of history, hoping to formulate scientific "laws" of historical development.

Still others have pursued various religious or metaphysical interpretations of history, such as St. Augustine in his magnum opus The City of God (A.D. 426), in which he conceives history as the drama of the redemption of man.

Some historians, however, find no overall pattern at all, stressing the overriding role of the contingent, the unforeseen, and the accidental in history.

Most historians today take a diversified or eclectic approach to history, drawing upon elements of each school of thought in analyzing and explaining history. Rather than attempting to discern some type of "grand design," they limit themselves to exploring the numerous and varied causative factors and influences on the course of history.


Major Factor Overlooked

Most modern historians, however, have overlooked a major factor in the rise and fall of nations and empires. In their reconstruction and interpretation of history, the vast majority have rejected the notion that the course of history has been directly influenced and guided by providential intervention.

Yet, when the evidence is examined, the conclusion that history in its broad outlines is providentially governed seems inescapably apparent. Many of the actual makers of history — great statesmen and military leaders at the helms of nations and armies — have come to that very conclusion.

Winston Churchill, for example, clearly perceived God's hand in history. In an address before the U.S. Congress on December 26, 1941, the British prime minister asserted that "he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below. . ." On another occasion in Britain some 10 months later, the war-time leader further expounded his belief in divine intervention, observing: "I sometimes have a feeling of interference. . . I have a feeling sometimes that some Guiding Hand has interfered."

Benjamin Franklin held a similar conviction. Speaking at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in June 1787, Franklin asserted: "The longer I live the more convincing proofs I see that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice [a reference to Matthew 10:29], is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"


Changing the Course of History

Historical evidence to support such a belief is abundant. Strange, inexplicable, and miraculous circumstances at certain crucial junctures in the stories of nations and empires seem to point unmistakably to the guiding hand of God. Some examples:

•      In his quest for world domination, King Philip II of Spain sent his "invincible" 124-ship Armada against England in July 1588. After about a week of fighting against the English, who were led by Sir Francis Drake, the Armada crossed the English Channel and anchored at Calais. On the night of July 28, Drake sent blazing fire ships adrift among the anchored Spanish fleet, causing the Spaniards to cut cable and put to sea in confusion.

TOURS — 732 A.D.