The Harbinger

by Glenn on December 18, 2020

Someone recommended that I read Jonathan Cahn’s The Harbinger (Lake Mary, Florida: FrontLine, 2011). In retrospect, I’m not sure if they were recommending the book or the DVD teaching series about the book. I read the book. It’s not great, and I wonder what I would think about Cahn and his work had I been exposed to his teaching rather than his writing.

The book does give you a lot to think about. It opens with this: “What you are about to read is presented in the form of a story, but what is contained within the story is real.”

This made me flashback to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code (New York: Second Anchor Books, 2003), which makes a similar appeal at the outset: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

So the first question is into which category do we place The Harbinger? Is it fiction? Well, no, because it says “what is contained within . . . is real.” Is it non-fiction? Well, no, because the events that follow did not happen. How are we to separate truth from fiction?

In one sense, it’s obvious. Things that are footnoted are real. They can be looked up and verified. But there are other things that can’t be verified or aren’t true and they sort of cloud things a bit.

For example, there is this prophet in the book who passes along the meaning of certain messages to the protagonist of the book. In the book this prophet is presented as a kind of supernatural figure—angelic?—who apparently can appear and disappear (as far as the protagonist can tell) and travel across distances without the need for human forms of transportation.

So, if in the book the message is being delivered by a supernatural character, are we then to conclude that the message of the book was obtained supernaturally? Was this book a revelation to the author or a project of study and research? By framing the message as given from God in a direct sort of way (as opposed to, say, a message that was discerned), we instantly have the problem that there is no arguing with the voice of God. To disagree with anything in the book puts you against God. It feels a little bullying.

If the message of the book is written by a human, then we can question it. I’d like to ask some questions. But the claim of this book is that this work of fiction is the voice of God. That’s hard to deal with.

Something else hard to deal with is the fact that Cahn clearly has some things he would like to say, but those things don’t actually take that long to say. The story exists to turn a small amount of information into a book. This wouldn’t be bad if the story was good. This story is just awful. And it feels like it is stretched out in an unreasonable way.

There is a device used in the story of clay seals that are given one at a time to the protagonist of the story. The seals have images that force him to try and solve a kind of puzzle that will be impossible for him to solve. But what are we to do with these ancient seals? Are they real or made-up? They are an essential part of the story. But if they are made up, in what way should we trust them?

I have no problem with a fictional story embodying truth. That is what stories do. But I’m not sure fictional stories should be passed off as true. That’s not quite fair. I don’t believe that the seals in the story, for example, which are presented as a kind of archeological exhibit, actually exist.

*   *   *

The story begins with an unnamed and unidentified protagonist meeting a high-up member of the media. Our protagonist is wearing a black leather overcoat that he hasn’t bothered to remove because he is focused on delivering his message.

(Apparently prophets wear black leather overcoats because our protagonist will be meeting with a dark coat-wearing prophet over the course of this book. And, somewhere along the line, it has perhaps occurred to our character that he should do the same thing. A worse reading would be that our protagonist is some kind of split personality who has imagined everything.)

We will eventually learn the name of our protagonist. He goes by Nouriel Kaplan. More on this name later—it is part of the conclusion of the story.

Once our character’s name is revealed to this mysterious person in media (whose name is never given), she recognizes it and says, “You’ve done pieces in magazines and on the Internet.” [7] Not a lot of specificity there. (Something odd here is how it is that this important person in media has a meeting scheduled with a person whose name she wasn’t given?)

But we’re supposed to get the idea that this guy is legit. He’s a real writer so we’re supposed to take him seriously. Except he’s not a real writer. He’s fiction. And he’s not a great writer. Here’s something attributed to him in the book: “I was a writer of articles, the purpose of which being to entertain my readers or, at best, to provoke them.” [239] At least the narrator could have given our protagonist the chance to edit himself.

The lack of specificity about the lead character is a little annoying. Contrast this with the DaVinci Code where the main character, Robert Langdon, is a Harvard professor who is a symbologist. (If I recall correctly.) The specificity gives it such power as Langdon’s ability to understand symbols helps move the story along.

We don’t know what Nouriel knows. We will never understand any sort of subject-area expertise for Nouriel. More significant appears to be the simple fact that his name is Jewish (which comes out in his name at the conclusion) but there’s no sense of what sort of religious affiliations Nouriel has. Nouriel is a flat character. I suppose he is a device rather than a character with an arc. He does not seem to change over the course of this book.

And we never learn who this media person is. One might conclude that this New Yorker is an editor of some sort and will become the person who publishes the story that Nouriel tells, but the reality is different. In reality this story was published by a Christian publisher in Florida. Not that there’s any problem there, but in the story we’re given the idea that the story is of interest to a sophisticated New Yorker media person. Is it? Was it?

Is this an attempt to make the story more impressive, to add credibility? If a significant New York media person is engrossed by this story, then I guess I better get engrossed. The media person will become thoroughly caught up in the story that Nouriel tells. So caught up that she cancels all appointments and they continue to talk into the night. Is she a device to tell us that we should care as much as she does? If so, I’m not sure it works.

The design of the story is rather confusing. Nouriel is having this conversation with this media person where he is relating events from the past. Then we jump to the past. It’s not clear why we are doing this.

One possible answer comes at the end. Nouriel is talking with the media person. They are discussing how the message should be communicated. She says to put the prophecy into the form of a narrative and “have somebody telling it . . . a narration.”

“But it’s a prophetic message.”

She explains to him, “The Bible uses stories . . . pictures and parables to communicate messages of divine truth, doesn’t it? [The media person seems to have more biblical knowledge than Nouriel.] The point is to get the message out to as many people as possible. The story would be the vehicle, the vessel through which the message, the mysteries, the revelations, the prophetic word would go forth.”

“But if it takes on the form of a narrative, they might not realize that the revelations are real.” [Things have suddenly become rather strange here. The made up people in the book are discussing how to write the book. We’re finding out in the book the form that this book should take. But then there’s the question, again, which part of this book is reveal? To what are the revelations limited?]

“They’ll realize it.”

“And who would narrate it?” he asked.

“You,” she replied. “You’d write it just the way you told me. [Wait, an imaginary character is telling another imaginary character to write this book? So confusing.]

*   *   *

Nouriel begins to tell his story. He was sent a clay seal in the mail. He didn’t know what to do with it, so he put it in his pocket “and went for a walk along the Hudson River.” [8] The narrator tells us, “It was a windy day. The sky was dark, filled with ominous-looking clouds.” [8] There’s not a lot of weather that enters this story, but when it does, I wish we’d get a sense of temperature. And seasons.

Nouriel sits on a bench pulls out the seal and then hears a voice that says, “Looks like a storm.” There is no description of the man, which would be helpful at this point. But the man initiates a conversation about the seal Nouriel is holding and its significance. He identifies the language on it as Paleo-Hebrew and connects it to the kingdom of Judah. The man speaks of the importance of the word of God spoken through messengers, servants, and prophets. [9] The man dismisses his importance as a prophet—the one speaking for God—because he has only one qualification—being called—and only one job—to represent “the One who sent him.” [10]

Of course there’s the problem of knowing who is and who is not a prophet. Nouriel asks a reasonable question, “How would they know if the message was from God?” The man explains that the message “would contain the mark, the fingerprint of the One who sent it.” [10] Nouriel responds, helpfully, “Like a seal.”

One of the weaknesses of the story is how repetitive it is. Often it is mind-numbingly so. The protagonist will have a conversation that is part of a flashback. Then we flash forward to the protagonist relating his conversation. Then there are questions of clarification about the conversation. If subtly is a value in art, then we are lacking in art, here.

In his dialogue with Nouriel, the man says that a prophet “could be sitting right next to you, and you’d have no idea you were sitting next to a prophet.” [10] Now the story cuts back to the meeting with the representative from the media. You can’t put anything past her. She has figured out that “The man on the bench . . . he was the prophet.” [10]

First of all, why is everyone so gullible? A New York media person wouldn’t just accept this on face value. I don’t accept this at face value. Instead, she asks what the prophet was wearing. Why does that matter? But Nouriel answers, “A long dark coat.” And then the story goes from their dialogue back to the dialogue between Nouriel and the prophet.

And then how come no introductions are made? On the one hand it adds a little mystery to things because the prophet seems to know who Nouriel is while Nouriel is in the dark. When he later calls Nouriel by name it is a moment of confirmation that the man is a prophet.

The point of this interaction between Nouriel and the prophet is that it is time for a mystery to be revealed and for it to go forth. [13] One problem is that it will be years before the entire message is revealed. A lot can happen in years? Does Nouriel have a family? And if this message is so important, why the lack of urgency?

*   *   *

The theme of this book is “An ancient mystery that holds the secret of America’s future . . . and on which its future hangs.” [1] This ancient mystery is “behind everything from 9/11 to the economy . . . to the housing boom . . . to the war in Iraq . . . to the collapse of Wall Street. Everything in precise detail.” [3]

That’s big. One wishes that such an important message was placed in a little nicer container. But maybe we should see the flowers and ignore the vase.

A first seal was sent to Nouriel’s home. He trades this seal with the prophet for another one. The prophet says that ancient Israel forgot

“Their purpose, their foundation, that which made them unique. No other nation had been called into being for the will of God or dedicated to His purposes from conception. No other people had been given a covenant. But the covenant had a condition. If they followed the ways of God, they would become the most blessed of nations. But if they fell away and turned against His ways, then their blessings would be removed and replaced by calamity, as they did, and as it was.” [16]

Israel forgot God. They messed around with idolatry. The various prophets attempted to get the people back on track to no avail. The prophet goes on to say that Israel was not the only country with a special relationship with God. He says,

“Those who laid America’s foundations saw it as a new Israel, an Israel of the New World.” [19]

Nouriel wonders if America was a “new Israel.” [19] The prophet says,

“America is America and Israel is Israel. The one doesn’t replace the other. [This, ostensibly to refute any suggestions that this story is about replacement theology.] But America’s founders established the new commonwealth after the pattern of ancient Israel. They dedicated it to God and saw it as in covenant with Him.” [19]

To clarify, the prophet will not say that God had established a covenant relationship with America. But Nouriel will conclude that “America was patterned after Israel . . . And they saw themselves in covenant with God.” [19]

I feel like there is a little sleight of hand here. Israel had a covenant relationship with God. America doesn’t, but some people thought they did, so for the purposes of this story let’s just see America as in a covenant relationship. The problem is that it wasn’t like everyone America came America for this reason. And patterned after ancient Israel could use some explaining.

The prophet explains the belief of the early founders:

“They believed that if America followed the ways of God, it would become the most blessed, the most prosperous, and the most powerful civilization on earth.”

Then this caveat,

“Not that it was ever without fault or sin, but it would always aspire, one way or another, to fulfill the calling envisioned by its founders at its inception.” [19]

America would be

“a vessel of redemption, a light to the world. And so it would give refuge to the world’s poor and needy, and hope to its oppressed. It would stand, more than once, against the dark movements of the modern age that threatened to engulf the world . . . and / liberate millions from oppression. And in the process it would become the most blessed, the most prosperous, the most powerful, and the most revered nation on the earth.” [19–20]

It might be nice to at least mention, if only in passing, the horrific institution of slavery.  Otherwise these words are terribly ironic—a land of “hope to its oppressed” unless those oppressed had dark-colored skin and were brought here to perform slave labor for wealthy, white landowners.

The Civil War does come up a couple of times in the book. There is an idea that the bloodshed of the war was part of God’s justice. But here at the outset, it feels like America’s flaws are minimized.

The prophet lectures Nouriel about a problem that happened in the middle of the twentieth century: “America began officially removing God from its national life.” [21] I agree with part of this. It is certainly true that the Ten Commandments are no longer welcome on public property, but it’s also true that the statement, “under God,” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance on June 14, 1954. “In God we trust” has been on U.S. coins since the Civil War. I wonder if it would be more fair to say we have had and continue to have a complicated relationship with religion?

Nouriel will be given one seal at a time. The premise of the book is that he needs to figure out the meaning of each seal, except that he won’t be able to. The prophet will appear and then help him. The book then settles into a predictable pattern. For spice, I suppose, we cut back to present time where Nouriel is talking with this member of the media who hangs on every word.

Nouriel has been on a kind of journey that he is about to tell this person in the media. I think we’re supposed to get a DaVinci Code or National Treasure vibe, but ultimately we don’t.

The member of the media asks why Nouriel thinks the prophet worked this way. Nouriel’s idea is that the process of trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to figure things out is what led him each time to the next encounter with the prophet. He also believes it was “so that each Harbinger would be burned into my consciousness.” [25]

*   *   *

Nine Seals and Nine Harbingers

The First Harbinger: The Breach

This is 9/11. The prophet references the Civil War which is interesting because the scale of that national trauma is so much greater.

The Second Harbinger: The Terrorist

For ancient Israel it was the Assyrians. God used the Assyrians (See Isaiah 10) to exercise judgment. I can’t pretend to be an expert, but the prophet says that “The Assyrian invasion [of 732 B.C.] would ultimately draw ancient Israel into military conflict, war, and a final and tragic national drama.” [39] Wasn’t it a little more one-sided than this. Wasn’t Israel simply overrun and carried off into exile?

Intervention—The Oracle

The worst set of dialogue comes in Chapter 6, titled “The Oracle.” Nouriel is trying to figure out what the image on the seal means.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“A few minutes.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“I was waiting.” [For what? The reason is never explained.]

“So this is the place of our next meeting. I wasn’t sure I was on the right track.”

“You’re not,” he replied. “And this is not the place of our next meeting.” [Well, obviously it was, but now it won’t be.]

The prophet states this is an intervention. Nouriel is searching in the wrong place. And then this:

“Then the word isn’t in this place?”

“It is in this place.”

“Then how can I be off track?”

“It is here, but you didn’t have to come here to find it.”

The prophet is so cagey. It’s annoying. But now the prophet reveals some words. It’s the text of Isaiah 9:10, though he doesn’t identify it that way, yet:

“The bricks have fallen,
but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
but we will put cedars in their place.”

The prophet actually says this in Hebrew, translating a word at a time. There’s a not so subtle reference to knowledge of the Hebrew Bible as a kind of interpretive authority.

Isaiah 9:10 will be a key to unlocking the mystery of all the Harbingers.

The Third Harbinger: The Fallen Bricks

The World Trade Center came down. But we didn’t take this as the alarm it was meant to be. [55]

The prophet likes to quote commentaries. We understand the scriptures of having been presented to Isaiah directly. The prophet appears to be trying to discern the message of God through an interpretive process. Doesn’t this imply there could be other interpretations? Why is the prophet not talking to God directly? One of the problems that will emerge is that after we have used up the material in Isaiah 9:10, we will then use phrases from commentaries to describe the remaining harbingers. In my mind this puts scripture and scriptural interpretation on a similar footing. This seems dangerous.

The Fourth Harbinger: The Tower

A statement of defiance was made by U.S. Senator John Kerry. The rebuilding of a tower was to  replace the World Trade Center. A funny thing happens here. The prophet refers to the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) version of Isaiah 9:10 which is quoted as,

“The bricks are fallen down . . . but come . . . let us build for ourselves a TOWER.” [66]

What’s funny about this is we are getting an English translation from a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. When you translate the Hebrew directly into English, you don’t get the tower. But Biblical languages is not an area of competence for me. I get the feeling I’m not supposed to ask any questions. I’m just supposed to be impressed.

The prophet’s point is that the rebuilt tower is “the most soaring testament of defiance ever to stand on American soil.” [66]

The Fifth Harbinger: The Gazit Stone

This seal has an image of a mountain from ancient times. Nouriel finds a mountain that looks like it in the Adirondacks. What are the odds? Or is it that a number of mountains engraved on a clay seal could look similar? Anyway, a large stone from this mountain in New York was used as a cornerstone for this rebuilt tower.

The Sixth Harbinger: The Sycamore

There’s a lot of translational information needed to make sense of this sixth harbinger. The problem is that the sycamores of the Middle East are not found in North America. [79] Fortunately, the English sycamore does grow in North America. So, as it turns out there was a “sycamore tree growing at the corner of Ground Zero” [83]

A couple of things are going wrong for me at this point. First, we’re supposed to see things lining up at this point in an amazing sort of way. The problem is that it’s hard to tell the difference between coincidence and God’s actions.

Second, there is a decided lack of urgency in this story. Weeks and months go by between visits with the prophet. If this is an important message, shouldn’t we get a move on?

The Seventh Harbinger: The Erez Tree

Again, we have to modernize a little bit to make the ancient events line up perfectly with post-9/11 events. A cedar tree was not replanted, but another conifer tree was. The implication is that this is all fulfillment of prophecy.

The prophet wants us, like Nouriel, to be overwhelmed by all of this evidence:

“Think about it, Noriel. Who could have put it all together? The tower fell because of the terrorists. It happened to fall exactly as it did in order to strike down that one particular tree. The tree just happened to be a sycamore, which just happened to be growing at the corner of Ground Zero. The tree that would replace it just happened to be given as a gift from outsiders who had nothing to do with anything else, but who just happened to feel led to give it. Their gift just happened to be the fulfillment of the biblical Erez Tree, which just happened to be the same tree spoken of in the ancient vow—the tree that must replace the Sycamore. They just happened to lower it into the same soil in that the fallen Sycamore had once stood—exactly as in the Hebrew of the ancient vow.” [95]

As I read this book, one of the associations that came to mind is the old list of coincidences between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. For example, “Lincoln” and “Kennedy” each have seven letters. Both presidents were elected to Congress in ’46 and, later, to the presidency in ’60. Both lost a son while living in the White House. Both assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald were born in ’39 and were known by their three names which are both composed of fifteen letters. On and on it goes. Some of the things in this book feel similar.

The Eighth Harbinger: The Utterance

On September 11, 2004, Vice Presidential Candidate and Senator John Edwards quoted Isaiah 9:10.

The Ninth Harbinger: The Prophecy

Senator Tom Daschle quoted Isaiah 9:10 on September 12, 2001.

There are moments in the story where it’s just not believable. After hearing about this ninth harbinger on Capitol Hill. The narrator says, “There was silence. The revelation of the Ninth Harbinger was finished . . . and I was still shaken.” [123]

A couple of things. Who is the narrator? Is it Nouriel? What is this silence like? I’ve been to Washington, D.C. My experience is that it is never silent.

Chapter 14 opens with, “Again the prophet was silent, and he gazed out into the expanse of the Washington Mall, appearing to be preoccupied.” [125] We’ll never find out if he actually was preoccupied. And if he was, why? The prophet isn’t real. His character, like Nouriel’s, like the media person, is one-dimensional.

At one point the prophet asks, “And how have you been, Nouriel?” The narrator, which has to be Nouriel at this point comments, “It was the first time he ever asked me that.” [132] We’ll never know the significance of this.

Now there come four mysteries. The reaction to 9/11 was that the U.S. would establish a Department of Homeland Security, start a global war on terror, fight conventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. [137] What was supposed to happen is that America was supposed to repent. Instead we went on a spending spree.

Now we’re into Ezekiel and a prophecy from Ezekiel 13:14

“I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

On May 17, 1792 Wall Street began with the signing of the Buttonwood Agreement. [147–148] The key here is that a buttonwood is a kind of tree. It is a . . . [wait for it] . . . sycamore tree. The point is that the fall of the World Trade Center also brought the fall of Wall Street.

The prophet usually does not have a sense of humor, but then in Chapter 17 we get this zinger. Nouriel asks the prophet what he is doing in the middle of a wheat field. The answer back, “I can tell you I’m not here for the farm work.” [154]

There’s a long section on the Shemitah. This is the biblical year of rest. This is “The Year of the Fall or The Year of Letting Fall.” [175] The timing of bailouts and non-bailouts is introduced and we are made to feel that it is all very consequential and on a biblical timeline.

And then we move forward to the presidency of Barak Obama and his first major address to Congress. On February 24, 2009 he said, “WE WILL REBUILD.” We’re supposed to note “the strangeness” of this comment, “the peculiarity of its appearance” in this message. [182–183]

The book claims that prior to this moment, when you did a Google search for “We will rebuild,” you were given references to Isaiah 9:10. Now you got the president. [184–185]

There are a couple more places to visit. It feels like National Treasure, now, except that this search is exhausting rather than exhilarating. We go to St. Paul’s Church near Ground Zero in New York. Nouriel has a dream where he sees Solomon at the Temple in Jerusalem and then Solomon turns around only now it’s not Solomon. It’s George Washington. You see, “Solomon was the king of Israel. Washington was the first president of the United States.” There’s a connection there. [195] Except we might note that Solomon was the third kind of Israel. They don’t line up that perfectly.

The narrative quotes Washington’s appeal to Divine Providence:

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.” [201]

The action moves to St. Paul’s Chapel. There is a sycamore tree there called the Tree of Hope because it saved the chapel from destruction when the towers came down. We are led to believe this was providential because St. Paul’s is where people prayed at the founding of this country.

Washington once wrote, “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself hath ordained.” [213]

And here comes 2 Chronicles 7:14:

“[I]f my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

So here’s my problem. The book is not enjoyable to read, but there is no arguing with the relevance and appropriateness of the message of repentance in the book: We need to repent of our

“apathy . . . complacency . . . compromises with darkness . . . ommissions . . . serving of other gods . . . sins committed in secret . . . withholding of life . . . failure to fulfill their call.” [224]

One questions: Is this a message for an entire country or is it a message for individuals?

Now the big surprise at the end is we find out that Nouriel is our protagonist’s middle name. His full name is Baruch Nouriel Kaplan. Kaplan is a priestly name. [245] Nouriel “the light of God” [246] and Baruch which means blessed [251].

Somehow he had these names and was not aware of their meaning or significance. But now after all these years of chasing these clues around, he is ready to take on his role of prophet.

*   *   *

While I didn’t enjoy the book, I can say the connections that Jonathan Cahn makes in the 2000’s to this one verse in the Hebrew scriptures is beyond impressive.

I agree with the central message of the book about repentance. But I find myself a little skeptical about the claims of the harbingers. I just wonder to what extent the connections made in the book are real. Was Isaiah 9:10 written 2700 years ago so that God could make a point in the 2000’s? Or are these spectacularly clever connections that we are making in this book just that—they aren’t actually in the mind of God.