The book The Harbinger: the Ancient Mystery that holds the secret of America’s Future by Messianic Jewish Rabbi Jonathan Cahn has been a best-seller and has sparked controversy and much discussion. There is no question as to Cahn’s passion about alerting his fellow countrymen to the spiritual, economic, and moral dangers that the United States faces. But is Cahn’s interpretation of the book of Isaiah correct, and are those Old Testament prophecies applicable to modern-day America?
The back cover of the book clearly labels the book as “FICTION / Suspense,” and the line following the copyright page says, “What you are about to read is presented in the form of a story…” The rest of that sentence is ambiguous: “… but what is contained within the story is real.” If the author is saying that the book’s content is a real message from God to the USA, then it is important to examine his view of the meaning of biblical prophecy.
The story’s opening dialogue reads, “An ancient mystery that holds the secret to America’s future.” This attention-getting assertion is made by the story’s narrator and lead character, journalist Nouriel Kaplan. Kaplan is attempting to persuade Ana Goren, a media executive, to publish information that Kaplan believes will affect the economic, political, military, moral, and spiritual future of the United States. Even though Cahn presents this information in a fictional vehicle, he asserts that it is “real.” Is it?
In the story, a nameless prophet meets Kaplan on a number of occasions, giving him information about how recent events, including the World Trade Center terrorist attacks of 9/11, the housing boom, the war in Iraq, the 2008 collapse of Wall Street, etc., were predicted specifically by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The prophet leads Kaplan to understand that Isaiah not only warned his own nation (Israel) about the danger of abandoning God but, in a mysterious way, also predicted America’s contemporary events.
In drawing parallels between Israel and America, Cahn asserts several things: first, that America was founded on a covenant with God as much as Israel was. Second, that America is being released from God’s protection to suffer the consequences of having marginalized Him. Third, that Isaiah predicted all of this.
Cahn’s prophet in the book tells Kaplan that each of the key American events since September 11, 2001, is a harbinger of America’s coming fall; each disaster is another warning from God for America to return to Him. Cahn’s point, couched as it is in a fictional narrative, is that, unless the U.S. changes course, it will suffer the same fate as the ancient nations. That is, God will allow America’s enemies, external and internal, to bring it down. Cahn sees evidence for his claim in the words of Isaiah 9.
Cahn identifies Isaiah 9:8–10 as revealing the main harbinger of coming disaster: “The Lord has sent a message against Jacob; it will fall on Israel. All the people will know it—Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—who say with pride and arrogance of heart, ‘The bricks have fallen down, but we will rebuild with dressed stone; the fig trees have been felled, but we will replace them with cedars.’” In the original context, God is expressing His anger at Israel over their refusal to repent from their idolatry. Even after receiving God’s discipline in the form of several disasters, the nation of Israel hurled their defiance at God Himself. To paraphrase Israel’s words, they said, “God, You may have allowed our enemies to damage our city, but we will rebuild it even stronger.” This was conscious and deliberate rebellion against God. The Israel of Isaiah’s day would not bow to God, not even under His rod.
Cahn’s prophet in The Harbinger quotes government leaders using similarly defiant words following the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Since U.S. leaders used the words, “We will rebuild” and expressed a “spirit of defiance,” Cahn applies God’s angry words in Isaiah 9 to America. The problem with this interpretation is that when America’s leaders vowed to rebuild the World Trade Center, they were not defying God but the terrorists who demolished it. Israel was defying both their human enemies and God. Cahn’s linking of the two nations with the same prophecy is unfair. The principle behind Isaiah’s prophecy—that judgment may befall any nation that forsakes God—could be applied to America. It may be a fascinating coincidence that Isaiah mentions fallen bricks. The book may be exciting to read. But it is faulty Bible interpretation to take a prophecy clearly meant for Israel and make the details pertain to modern-day America.
Cahn does not claim in his book to be a prophet. Neither does he claim to have received the message of his story directly from God. He writes as a teacher, putting into the mouth of Kaplan what he understands to be both the original and the contemporary meanings of Isaiah’s prophecy. Cahn does not claim that Isaiah uses the name America or the United States in his prophecies. He does not even claim that Isaiah had a dual fulfillment of his prophecies in mind. Cahn’s apparent purpose in his book is to spin a convincing yarn and persuade readers of a real danger America faces in light of Cahn’s understanding of how Israel’s situation in 600–500 BC applies to America’s current situation.
In the book, Cahn creates a fictional means of revealing prophecy from God—clay seals, such as were used to hold impressed signatures on official documents. In The Harbinger, the prophet gives Kaplan a set of nine such seals. Each seal supposedly represents a national event in Israel’s history—a harbinger that warned of final collapse and dispersion into the surrounding pagan nations—as well as a current event in America, heralding ultimate doom if America does not repent.
Cahn connects each seal with a serious American event in the decade following September 11, 2001, and with an object or an event in Israel’s history. Since Cahn is writing fiction, he is free to manufacture not only clay seals but coincidences. His creative way of identifying the coincidences is both fascinating and convincing, as far as the story goes. He sees in the coincidences a pattern of God’s warnings to both His chosen nation, Israel, and the U.S. Each seal and its related dire event are harbingers of ultimate doom. America is being warned to turn back to God.
Persuasive preaching about a real need, yes; accurate interpretation of a Bible text, no. The problem is that Israel is the only nation with whom God has made a covenant, through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). America is not Israel.
If you read The Harbinger, remember that only time can reveal the validity of what claims to be prophecy from God (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). And, even though the book may use some faulty interpretations, do not close your heart to Cahn’s essential message. He is right that America needs to repent. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). The United States of America very likely will meet the same fate as ancient Israel if its people do not repent. Americans need to give their hearts to God and exercise faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. To that end we should pray.