God’s Grace at work during the Second World War

Grace is such a wonderful and amazing conundrum (and I don’t use these terms loosely!). Throughout history, since the beginning of time itself, God has guided and protected us, through trials and tribulations, as well as bestowing upon the world His greatest gift. Every breath we take is another gift from God. How often do we stop to think of His amazing and immeasurable grace in all these many ways?

The Great War (WW1) was billed as the ‘war to end all wars’. How wrong that was! Less than twenty-five years later, the world was plunged into chaos once again (the same old story since the Fall of Man)…

God’s grace during the Second World War

I had the opportunity recently to avail myself of two great little books. War and Grace by Don Stephens published in 2005 by Evangelical Press (EP) and the recent follow-up War and Faith published in 2015. They are short but nonetheless powerful collections of testimonies of the Lord’s grace to a number of people from the Second World War. These range from fighter pilots and submarine commanders to chaplains and ordinary men and women caught up in the whirlwind of the War. Their stories really took my breath away.

Often, it seems, certainly in my circles anyway, we hear much from the great revivals and stories from before the turn of the 20th century and not so much from afterwards, when equally as great works of God continue to abound. Another book I recommend, while I’m at it, also by EP is The Power to Save: A History of the Gospel in China by Bob Davey; we often talk vaguely of ‘things happening in China’, this goes into specifics about the world’s largest country (population-wise) and is an encouraging read for the Christian.

The fact is God was at work in many different amazing ways during the Second World War. Not just in the momentous battles in the sky, the sea, in the country, in cities, in the Cabinet War Rooms or the ‘Wolf’s Lair’, nay God was just as much at work amongst the families and individuals thrown hither and thither by the great conflict; the poor starving Russian peasants, fighting for their lives; the civilians upon whom bombs rained down; the forgotten millions dying in concentration camps; and the masses blindly following Hitler and his Nazi ideology. We ask: how was God at work in such a great manifestation of sin and man’s wickedness?

He was at work in small ways and in big ways. Many tales can be told of remarkable escapes and deliverances, in which God’s hand is clearly seen. Many died for their faith, many cried out to God in their distress (even the most ardent atheists turn to God in times of trouble). As a whole, we can see God’s fingerprints on the way events played out and justice was served.

Two tales I know of, firsthand from those who experienced it, go like this:

Somewhere in the desert, British soldier Les Walker and his jeep were stuck the wrong side of a minefield. He needed to cross this field, to join his comrades on the other side, before Axis forces overtook him. He didn’t really believe in God, but he prayed simply, “Lord, if you’ll get me through this minefield, then I’ll serve you.” Having done so, without any further thought, he put the jeep into gear and drove on, straight through the minefield. God listened to his prayer and he emerged from the minefield unscathed, to the astonishment of his compatriots.
True to his word, once the War was over and he was demobbed, he served in the Lord’s army, being put to good use in the spiritual war that is all-around us.

Even into his nineties he served the Lord, seeking to show people Christ, in his own unique way. Once when on the beach, witnessing to a group of rowdy lads, they began to get ugly at this old man talking such drivel. “I’m gonna beat you up,” said one of them, towering over the elderly figure.

Les looked him in the eye and smiled, “Well, judging by the looks of you and the looks of me, I shouldn’t think you’ll have much trouble.”

“You know what, I like you,” grinned the lad, antagonism gone. And Les had an opportunity to tell them of Christ the Rock of ages, who had been with him throughout his long life.

Another remarkable deliverance, I know of, a world apart from desert minefields, happened on the little island of Malta: The small island with a fascinating history, well worth looking into, from the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked there (the archaeological records of which make for interesting reading) to the Great Siege of the 16th century against a handful of knights called the order of St John, to German and Italian attempts to obliterate the place and doing their utmost to prevent British convoys getting through during the Siege of Malta in the War.

During this last siege (1940-42), a dear lady in our church (a teenager at the time) was with her father, a harbour-master stationed in Malta, taking refuge in a single room with some other civilians. The bombs rained down, heavier and closer at hand than they had experienced before. They crouched under a table nervously waiting and listening, until the all-clear sounded. Her father cautiously opened the door and stepped out, “I think you should see this,” he said shortly. Looking out, the entire area was flattened, obliterated. The building they had been taking refuge in was devastated, but for the room they had been hiding in. The full weight of this remarkable deliverance only struck home later on in her life, when she realised this was the ‘unseen hand of providence’ clearly at work. She can tell of many such experiences.

Discovering forgotten tales of providence

To all you young men and women keeping yourselves to yourselves in your own little corner of the church, playing Pokemon Go on your smartphones: have a natter with some of the older members of the church, and ask them to tell you a story! Once you get past the ‘new technology-can’t-keep-up’ versus ‘old fuddy-duddy’ generational barrier, and laugh off the “How you’ve grown!” comments (their way of breaking the ice), they’ll not only amaze you with how like-minded they are but will be able to relate amazing tales of the Lord’s providence throughout their lives, perhaps stretching back to the War. These might otherwise remain unknown and thereby sadly forgotten. The experience will leave you buzzing, and they’ll be delighted to tell you about the ‘old days’. There’s a challenge for you… do it! Pray about it and for blessing in your conversations. Get a notebook and pen or bring a friend, if it helps. Either way, do write it down!

War and Grace

Don Stephens wrote many of these accounts, in just such a manner, through personal correspondence with those who experienced them.

The first book features some key players’ personal testimonies, from all sides, including: the lead Japanese pilot in the infamous Pearl Harbor raid; the US airman (and former athlete) adrift at sea for weeks before being captured by the Japanese and tortured, the exploits of whom were recently portrayed in the 2014 film Unbroken; the prayerful Royal Navy submarine commander stuck on the bottom of the ocean; the US chaplain who witnessed to Hermann Goering and other leading Nazi war criminals; and a German pastor who gave his life in the Lord’s service.

They are all amazing stories of the Lord’s grace, irrespective of any of the divisions, cultural and diplomatic during that period. He was at work amongst the Allies and the Axis.

War and Faith

Smaller things and little people matter as well as big things and big people. They can all encourage us equally. This is the focus of the second book. Individuals from various backgrounds and ‘denominations’ caught up in the war, including a test pilot, holocaust survivor and a martyr in a land not her own, stubbornly refusing to give in, instead trusting in her Lord till the end.

 

Such stories are so vitally important for us today. Much is forgotten, and so little survives, so we should treasure it all the more. We can learn valuable lessons from them, as well as take encouragement from these rousing tales of God’s grace in troubling times. If we think we’ve got it bad then maybe we ought to think again! I would wholeheartedly recommend having a chat with some of the older folk, with an open mind.

I think it would be fitting to end with the hymn that was the watchword of dear Les Walker’s life on earth (as a young lad, my two memories of him were of this hymn and his love of the book of Isaiah, we always sang and read together), as well as many others:

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

Under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood
or earth received its frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away;
we fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
still be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home!

Nebuchadnezzar: The king of kings

There are a great many valuable lessons we can learn from Nebuchadnezzar’s life; and in the following series of articles I intend to draw some out and apply them to our day and age. So join me as we explore the life of a great man, raised up by God!

I’m nobody special; I don’t have a doctorate or professorship, or even a degree yet. I haven’t studied academically into this area. What will be written here is based on my own personal study of the Bible and simple research and pointers from available commentaries, books, encyclopaedias and the great deal of information available through the internet.

It can be easy to read the Bible (particularly the book of Daniel more so perhaps) as just a story sometimes, but it all happened, it is as true and real as the hair on your head (unless you’re Ben Kingsley, of course) – archaeological finds and Babylonian records back it up too. These people lived, worked and played, just as we do today.

Many people today forget Nebuchadnezzar, or ignore him, yet in his day he was the most powerful man on earth, and a major Biblical character. I’m not going to launch here into how humble, unworthy or poor my attempt is on writing about the life and times of Nebuchadnezzar; you can judge that for yourself.

I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to write about a subject I love! I have attempted to present a balanced and honest picture as far as possible. I am human like everyone, so there are bound to be various mistakes and/or discrepancies. Hopefully, however, others will benefit from these articles, as I trust I will in writing them.

There are many grey areas, which is only to be expected, these events took place 2,600 years ago! Where there are conflicting opinions, I have tried to present all viewpoints equally.

Through Nebuchadnezzar’s life we can see God’s ever-present hand at work, sometimes ‘behind-the-scenes’, but other times more openly.

So without further ado: ahem, ladies and gentlemen, I present the first part…

 

Nebuchadnezzar: The king of kings

This will be the first article of many, I trust; setting the scene for the events that follow, and introducing you to this fascinating man.

Daniel addressed Nebuchadnezzar in the following manner:

“Your Majesty, you are the king of kings.
The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all.
You are that head of gold.” Dan. 2:37-38

In 570 BC the Babylonian Empire was at its fullest extent. It stretched from modern-day Turkey down to Egypt, and from modern-day Iran down into the heartlands of Arabia.

Neo-Babylonian Empire
Neo-Babylonian Empire (Wikimedia Commons)

The Babylonians were the most powerful civilisation of their time, and subdued all challengers to that title in a series of successful military campaigns.

The city of Babylon, from where the Babylonians derived their name, was the central metropolis of the empire with around 200,000 inhabitants – a massive figure at the time. To put it into perspective, London wouldn’t reach this size until the 1600s.

The Babylonians, much like their counterparts throughout the pages of history (Sumer, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, etc.), lead the way in art, architecture, lifestyle, mathematics and learning as well.

At the head of this civilization was the king, worshipped by his subjects like a god, surrounded and supported by ‘great’ and ‘powerful’ gods of gold and stone.

He commanded unparalleled power. Woe to them that caused the slightest displeasure to his person; he would inflict the most severe tortures and punishments upon his enemies, skinning them alive. Those, on whom his favour rested, on the other hand, would be showered with riches untold.

Who made this kingdom what it was? Who was ‘the king of kings’? Who commanded such power and fear?

King Nabû-kudurri-uṣur II; more commonly known as: Nebuchadnezzar II.

Nebuchadnezzar raised Babylon from a backward puppet city-state ruled by Assyria, into the nation that it was. Babylon had been dominated by Assyria for centuries, despite being in a state of near-constant rebellion against them.

At first by his father’s side, but later on his own, Nebuchadnezzar elevated his nation into a major world power. Under his reign, Babylon experienced its golden era.

No other ruler was called ‘king of kings’ in the Bible by God Himself (Ezk. 26:7f), see note 1.

Daniel addressed him with this title too; he did well to do so, Nebuchadnezzar was certainly a man to be feared; he had just previously ordered the death of Daniel and all the wise men of Babylon because of their inability to tell him his dream (Dan. 2:9ff). In verses 5 and 6 of chapter two he says:

“’This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honour. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.’” Dan. 2:5-6.

Piles of rubble can also be translated as ‘dunghill’ or ‘ash-heap.’

In this quote, we get an idea of the character of this man. It also reveals how much he was troubled by this dream.

If Nebuchadnezzar did not get his way, we can clearly see the drastic lengths that he was prepared to go to. Who could stand up to him?

One can imagine his advisers skulking around the palace, not daring to offend or disappoint him; offering up flattery and praise rather than opinion or advice.

Thankfully for Babylon, God did not allow Nebuchadnezzar to carry out his plan which he had ‘firmly decided’. Such a rash action would have deprived Babylon of the vast majority of its rulers and teachers (as well as the resident Jewish contingent); although admittedly, the court ‘magicians’ and astrologers might not have been that useful anyhow!

Here, God clearly intervenes by speaking through Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar, relating his dream (which he apparently had forgotten), and interpreting it for him – a great mercy for all involved; and a classic example of God overruling a man’s plans (Prv. 19:21).

 

Prophecies concerning Nebuchadnezzar

The Bible speaks a lot about Nebuchadnezzar; he was God’s tool – raised up by the Lord to punish those ripe for judgement. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy extensively concerning him.

The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar's Army by Juan de la Corte
The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army by Juan de la Corte (Wikimedia Commons)

Jeremiah’s prophecies (and the historical interludes in Jeremiah) relate his eventual conquest of Jerusalem, after destroying much of it twice, and instilling first Zedekiah as puppet-king and then Gedaliah as governor. Both of whom rebelled against him (or in Gedaliah’s case the people whom he was supposed to be governing), despite the Lord’s repeated warnings through Jeremiah (Jer. 22:25, 25:9f, 27:6f, 28:14, 29:21f, 32:28f, 43:9ff, 46:13ff, 46:26).

Nebuchadnezzar also fulfilled prophecies given by the Lord predicting campaigns against Tyre (Isa. 26, Ezk. 26:7f) and Egypt (Ezk. 29:19f, 30:10f) by name; and Assyria also (Nah. 2).

Unfortunately for Nebuchadnezzar, he did not recognise or acknowledge the fact that he was raised up by God and not by himself, resulting in the Lord humbling him severely; but more on that later.

 

Rise and fall of an empire

This period of Mesopotamian and Israelite history is fascinating with hindsight. The rise (under Nebuchadnezzar) and fall of the Babylonians in the 6th century BC is certainly one of the most dramatic in history. In actual fact the Babylonian Empire rose and fell in a little over half a century.

It should be noted before we continue, that the Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s time is the ‘Neo-Babylonian Empire’ or second empire of Babylon. Babylon had a fairly substantial independent empire eleven hundred years before. They also had a Nebuchadnezzar before, hence why our subject is labelled the second.

Babylon, in the land of Shinar, has a long history; it being the location of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 as well.

 

Rich archaeological heritage

I hope you will permit me a slight diversion (getting side-tracked already!): one note I would like to make on the first Babylonian empire is of special historic archaeological interest, as an example of the richness of Middle-Eastern archaeology. The site of Aqar Quf, a 14th century BC Babylonian city (near modern-day Baghdad, Iraq) is the location of “an unusually well preserved ziggurat.” Rising to a height of 180 feet, the mud-brick core of the ziggurat still stands today, weathering almost 3,500 years of history and conflict. It is remarkable that such a relic from a by-gone age has survived. Think of all that it has witnessed, from Alexander the Great to the Mongol invasions and the Iraq war …

The ziggurat of Dur-Kurigalzu in 2010. © U.S. Army - Spc. David Robbins.
The ziggurat of Dur-Kurigalzu in 2010. © U.S. Army – Spc. David Robbins.

Egypt and the pyramids get all the attention (and rightly so, to an extent), but we do miss out on the (arguably even more spectacular) remains of the Mesopotamian civilisations. Such a building makes archaeology and history in the Near East so amazing. So much still survives from its rich history; but equally so much has been lost, and so much is yet to be found.

 

 

Notes

1 – The only other human being called ‘king of kings’ in the Bible is Artaxerxes, king of Persia. However that was a title he gave himself, in a letter sent to Ezra the priest (Ezra 7:11-13); this was common practice for such rulers in those days.