For those of us who attended the Worldwide Church of God in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, one topic was never far from any conversation: that the church would flee or at some point in time be taken to a Place of Safety and hidden from the Great Tribulation that God's Word prophesies will come on the earth (Matthew 24:21-22). At the time, many of us believed that Herbert W. Armstrong would make an announcement to the church, and we would prepare to go to this place.
Mr. Armstrong had visited many of the world leaders throughout the Middle East, and we would wonder if one day he would give King Hussein of Jordan a phone call and off we would go to the ancient city of Petra. This expectation was always hanging around in our lives, and as each holy day approached, we would ask ourselves, "Will this be the day? Will something happen that will precipitate the church being taken away to her place?" (see Revelation 12:14).
Some of the same things that we heard in the news back then are being trumpeted again, and the threat of all-out war in the Middle East seems to be more certain. In 1967, Israel fought the Six-Day War against its Arab foes, and the rest of the world suffered through a three-month oil embargo. Again, in 1973, another oil embargo, this one a consequence of the Yom Kippur War, sent oil prices higher and our economy into recession, raising tensions with the OPEC nations.
Today, with its threats of shutting down shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has raised tensions, as well as oil prices, at a time when the world economy teeters on the brink of collapse. For the most part, Iran has ignored threats from the West, and against further warnings, it intends to conduct military exercises in the Persian Gulf in February. Unlike the crises of forty years ago, Iran now has the technology to weaponize nuclear fuel. Are Iran's leaders afraid that they will be overthrown, just as the leaders of Iraq, Egypt, and Libya have been, and perhaps Syria will be? One wonders how far they will go to preserve their positions.
Kept From Tribulation
It has been 26 years since the death of Herbert Armstrong, and many of the world leaders that he visited have since died, like King Hussein of Jordan, or been overthrown, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Even the Worldwide Church of God is no longer in existence! So much has happened in the intervening years that we may question if things have changed prophetically.
Do we still believe there will be a Place of Safety? Do we still believe that the church will be taken out of the turmoil of the Tribulation and hidden? For a long time, we held an underlying belief that being part of the Worldwide Church of God meant that we were Philadelphian Christians, which meant that, according to Revelation 3:10, we would be kept from the hour of trial. Yet, that church organization is gone! So where are the Philadelphians?
How many of us believed that, if we could just make it to the Place of Safety, we were okay? In those days, where was our spiritual focus? Where is it now?
One of the prophecies of Ezekiel—Ezekiel 5:1-3, which we understand to be written to the end-time church—speaks of "somebody" being kept in a safe place. Initially, Ezekiel is commanded to shave his head and beard and divide the hair into three parts, and he is instructed to use a balance to weigh them equally. One third is to be burned with fire, another third is to be struck with the sword, and the final third is to be scattered to the wind—but he is told to "take a small number of them [from the final third] and bind them in the edge of your garment" (Ezekiel 5:3). The prophet divides out four sections of hair, but the one to be bound in his garment is a much smaller portion.
In Revelation 2-3 in the messages to the last four churches—Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—Jesus mentions His coming, but in the messages to the first three, He does not. This certainly seems to imply that the four He warns about His return are still around in some form when He comes. Could the four churches possibly coincide with the four sections of hair?
Whether they do or not, Philadelphia is the only one that God promises to protect: "Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth" (Revelation 3:10). "Keep" here may relate to the word "bind" in Ezekiel 5:3, as this Hebrew word means "to bind," "to keep in a secret place," "to guard," "to look after," and "to hide," among others.
This final meaning, "to hide," bears consideration.
The idea of hiding is not foreign to the Bible, as the Old Testament mentions it over 200 times and the New Testament, 35 times. More often than not, people hide because of guilt, shame, or fear, but hiding can be a courageous act or a wise move. The idea occurs in the Bible very early with Adam and Eve hiding from God in Genesis 3:8. Tamar hid her identity from Judah (Genesis 38:14-15). Many of the prophets found themselves in hiding, for instance, Elijah hid from Jezebel (I Kings 19:1-3).
Was anyone more adept at hiding than David? He is one of the most courageous men who ever lived, yet he seems to have spent a great deal of his time running and hiding from someone. He often hid from Saul, and later in life, he ran from Absalom.
Even God hides! After killing his brother Abel, Cain lost favor with God, and he knew that God would hide His face from him (Genesis 4:14). God has hidden His truth from men. Our Savior Jesus was not above hiding to escape the crowds or from danger (John 8:59; 12:36). The day of His return has been hidden so that no one knows the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36).
Consider Moses for a moment. Moses was at first hidden by his parents, but after that, he was brought up right under Pharaoh's nose! Pharaoh had issued an order to kill all the male Hebrew children, yet this child was reared right in his own house. Did Pharaoh know that Moses was Hebrew? Whatever the case, God hid Moses right in front of them! Perhaps this explains why Moses fled for the desert after he killed an Egyptian, if he was afraid that his Hebrew identity would be revealed, and he would thus face execution (Exodus 2:11-15).
The Place of Safety is where God will hide His faithful children at the end. There are as many ideas about where the Place of Safety will be as there are about when the church will flee there. Some believe it is somewhere in America—perhaps Utah or Texas or Colorado, and even a few weeks ago, someone suggested the North Carolina mountains, which would be nice and convenient for those of us already living in the Carolinas. Some have suggested that God will protect us wherever we are, and God could certainly do that if He chose.
However, examining Ezekiel 5:3 a little further brings out the detail that God tells the prophet to bind the small pinch of hair in the hem of his garment. Because my mother worked as a seamstress most of her life, I have seen many hems, and they are very small compared to the size of the garment. In addition, when a person binds or sews something in a hem, it is secure; it cannot come out. We should also note that Ezekiel was not only a prophet, but he was also a priest (Ezekiel 1:3). So, putting this all together, Ezekiel's small bit of hair is bound as a whole and quite securely in a priest's garment!
What can we glean from God's patterns throughout the Bible? Abraham left Haran with a huge entourage: his entire family and everyone else in their employ, along with all their possessions. Jacob did the same when he left Laban. Even in slavery while in Egypt, the Israelites dwelled together in the land of Goshen, and when they left, they all left together in one group with everything they had. Will it occur that way again?
Is it mere coincidence that the Bible frequently refers to God's people as sheep? Sheep are herd animals; they move in flocks. When I was in high school many years ago, I took a Future Farmers of America class. While studying cattle, we learned that a rule of thumb for inspecting a herd was that, if a cow was off to herself, she might warrant a little more attention because this could indicate that she was sick.
We have all seen nature programs in which predators are shown hunting (see I Peter 5:8), and it is obvious that they look for the weakest members of the herd or one that is isolated from the rest. Such an animal alone has little chance of fending off a pack of merciless, ravenous beasts. There is strength and security in numbers.
If this pattern of God keeping His people together holds true in the end time, we can conclude that our High Priest, Jesus Christ, will have His chosen people close to Him, safe and secure in one place.
However, our focus should not be just on making it to a Place of Safety. Notice Ezekiel 5:4 again: "Then take some of them again and throw them into the midst of the fire, and burn them in the fire. From there a fire will go out into all the house of Israel." If this prophecy does indeed describe God's elect being taken to a Place of Safety, verse 4 shows that part of those who are hidden at first will be removed to face severe testing, probably persecution and martyrdom!
This is downright scary! It reveals that our focus must be, not on making it to a Place of Safety to save our skins, but on being worthy to enter the Kingdom of God at Christ's return. That is where true, permanent security is.
One of the more disturbing things that we have heard through the years since the breakup of the Worldwide Church of God is about church members judging other groups, declaring that this group is Laodicean, that group is Sardis, this other group has to be Thyatira. In addition, some groups say that, if you are not with us, you are not Philadelphian and so are headed straight into the Tribulation. Yet, a reading of the messages to the seven churches shows that these judgmental people cannot really know which of the seven churches they belong to.
Jesus says that the Laodiceans are blind and do not even know it! Would a true Philadelphian show so little love for his brethren in judging them so harshly? If we were to warn a church member who was showing signs of being spiritually dead, as those in Sardis are described, they would probably disagree! Would a Thyatiran own up to his spiritual corruption?
We have been told for many years that the church in the end time would have all seven characteristics in it. Who can say with any certainty which attitude is dominant in any group? The last time I went to get a haircut, I paid a little more attention to the hair that was cut off, and lying there on the floor; it all looked the same!
One more detail about the prophecy in Ezekiel 5 needs to be mentioned: It is Ezekiel, the priest, who divides the hair. In this case, he seems to be a type of Christ, our High Priest. This squares with what we see in Revelation 2-3, where it is Jesus Christ who judges the churches, and He decides who is who and who goes where.
Recall that in Revelation 3:10 Jesus promises to keep those who persevere from the hour of trial. What are they persevering in? Verse 8 tells us that, though they have only a little strength, they "have kept My word, and have not denied My name." These are people who take following God seriously and do not give in an inch to this world. Jesus will be looking for these traits in those He chooses to protect from tribulation.
This subject would not be complete without a quick look at Zephaniah 2:2-3. Most people do not realize that the name Zephaniah means "Yahweh has hidden or protected." This idea is a major theme of his preaching.
The timing of the book of Zephaniah is also interesting. He prophesied at the same time three other prophets were prophesying as well: Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Nahum. So there were four of them proclaiming God's warning message at the same time. Do these four correspond to the four sections of hair in Ezekiel 5 and the four "I am coming soon" statements in Revelation 2-3? Time will tell.
Notice the urgent warning and loving advice God gives through Zephaniah:
[The time for repentance is speeding by like chaff whirled before the wind!] Therefore consider, before God's decree brings forth [the curse upon you], before the time [to repent] is gone like the drifting chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you—yes, before the day of the wrath of the Lord comes upon you!
Seek the Lord [inquire for Him, inquire of Him, and require Him as the foremost necessity of your life], all you humble of the land who have acted in compliance with His revealed will and have kept His commandments; seek righteousness, seek humility [inquire for them, require them as vital]. It may be you will be hidden in the day of the Lord's anger. (The Amplified Bible)
The time seems to be drawing ever closer. God tells us that His judgment will begin at His sanctuary (see Ezekiel 9:6; Revelation 11:1), and from there, He says in Ezekiel 5:4, the fire will go out to all Israel! God will decide who is hidden from the hour of trial, and perhaps it will be you!