MELBOURNE, Fla. — The deadly violence percolating half a world away in Syria and the warnings of a possible U.S. attack have some people not only looking ahead to what might happen in the coming days — but also looking backward into ancient, apocalyptic prophecies in the pages of the Old Testament.
In recent weeks, some dire prophecies have turned up on websites, in book stores, as the subject of Bible studies and in sermons by some Christians and others who see a link between the old passages and modern-day events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
"Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city, and will become a fallen ruin," reads Isaiah 17, a passage some Christians say they believe details a horrific event that leaves the city uninhabitable and leads to worldwide tribulation and the second coming of Christ.
Damascus is the Syrian capital and one of the world's oldest cities.
Another passage in Isaiah 19 deals with civil war in Egypt and the rise of a "fierce king."
Talk of those prophecies has intensified as President Barack Obama considers a U.S. military strike on Syria in response to what Washington says is evidence that the Syrian leadership used chemical weapons against its own people. In turn, Syria vows to retaliate against neighboring Israel if the U.S. strikes.
"The prophecies are not new to our group because we do (Bible) studies every Friday night. We have looked at that prophecy, but one of the things I try not to do is make a big assumption. That can be dangerous," said Pastor Gary Cristofaro of the First Assembly of God in Melbourne. "We try to find balance by immersing ourselves in prophecy rather than being affected by it."
"The situation in Syria as it relates to scripture could be something that we're witnessing, but we should be cautious. What prophecy really is about is the faithfulness of God's word.''
Prophecy has long played a role in the formation of American faith and, even, politics.
A number of congregations including the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses can trace their roots to the "Great Disappointment" of 1844, a year when a preacher named William Miller moved thousands of Christians to give away their possessions with prophecies detailing what he thought would be the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Millions of Americans also listened as Herbert W. Armstrong, a warbled-voice minister belted out dire prophecies of famine, war and pestilence in the late 1930s – during the Dust Bowl drought and just before the onset of World War II. President Harry Truman, an avid student of the Bible and its prophecies regarding the return of Jews to the Holy Land, was the first world leader to recognize Israel in 1948, a moment some Christians believe began a new prophetic era for events in the Middle East.
Tom Lombardo, a San Franscico-based author and researcher of end time beliefs, believes that the Syrian prophecy is the latest example of some Christians turning to ancient biblical writings to make sense of a modern, complex world.
"Interpreting events doesn't lead to an understanding of what's going on. I believe it actually clouds the understanding," said Lombardo, whose novel American Underground touches on religious themes, political divisions and geopolitical conflict.
Lombardo said followers of prophecy tend to look at world events and search through biblical prophecies for what he calls clues on the timing of the events. "You have some prophecy teachers that argue that the tribulation has begun now. So every time something happens, it has to fit into the narrative," he said.
Christian bookstores such as Family Christian Ministries in West Melbourne report that book sales of prophecy-themed works by charismatic minister Perry Stone, Pastor John Hagee and novelists such as Joel Rosenberg have increased in recent weeks since tension in Syria and Egypt escalated.
"We sold a lot of Perry Stone books, and he's really good with the end times. A lot of our customers say their churches are doing something on prophecy," said Kaylee Snodgrass, assistant manager at Family Christian Ministries.
Some, though, like Pastor Ralph Nygard of Eau Gallie First Baptist Church in Melbourne, urge caution about any speculation and say the prophecies of the bible must be seen in their historical context.
"All I've been teaching recently has been the Book of Revelation and sharing information about the time in which it was written," Nygard said.
"What you have to decide is whether the prophet Isaiah was dealing with the ancient nation of Israel or foretelling the future. You can have a dualistic approach and see the way it was written and the time," and what it may mean for the future, he said.