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The Beautiful Land: God's Future Plan for Israel

‘Yahweh said to Abram…“Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your seed forever.”’

- Genesis 13:14-15 -


What is God’s plan for the nation Israel? This question evokes passionate responses. To ask something broader but related, are events from A.D.70 to the present day connected to biblical prophecy or are they irrelevant to God’s end-time plans, Israel included? Some think events like Israel’s reemergence as a nation in 1948 have nothing to do with prophecy. Others think God isn’t done with Israel, and, in the future, He will work His eschatological purposes through the nation.

 

Those who believe God has a plan for national Israel typically think biblical prophecies about Israel will have a ‘literal future fulfillment.’ This includes the restoration of Israel to its land, its protection from enemy annihilation during a 7-year tribulation, a spiritual renewal leading Jews to faith in Christ, and the enjoyment of 1,000 years of spiritual/material blessings on this present earth as Jesus rules from His capital in Jerusalem. This all falls under a dispensational/premillennial view of eschatology.


 

Others believe God is done working with Israel. They say God is now fulfilling promises to a ‘spiritual’ Israel. They believe the church is a new Israel in whom Old Testament promises now find their fulfillment. These theologians believe they are upholding the integrity of God’s promises, even though this fulfillment voids the restoration of national Israel. Many who see the church as a new ‘spiritual’ Israel accept the literalness of Old Testament warnings to and punishments of Israel, but deny that prophecies of restoration and blessing relate to national Israel. They say we cannot know what the Old Testament means unless the New Testament tells us, which sidesteps proper exegesis and ignores historical and literary context. They rely on allegorical and typological methods to force exegesis to fit their theology.


Let’s start by asking if events from A.D. 70 to today are significant in terms of eschatology. The answer is both yes and no, and the analogy of a chess match helps show why. Every move in chess is related to a final move that produces a checkmate. Likewise, when it comes to historical events, we can’t discern the significance of events not directly prophesied in Scripture, but such events will still work together to produce situations predicted in the Bible. For example, Scripture doesn’t describe the USA, and while it’s possible that America may have a significant role in the end-times, but at present it’s difficult to say what that role might be.



On the other hand, some events have a connection to biblical prophecy, even though we may not consider such events as directly fulfilling prophecy. The most significant event in modern times is the reestablishment of Israel as a nation in 1948. For over 1800 years, Israel did not exist as a nation. Despite Rome crushing Israel and driving masses into exile in A.D. 70 (even banning Jews from their capital city, Jerusalem, in A.D. 132), the Jews maintained their identity as a people in a state of dispersion.

 

No other people in history have upheld their identity over such a long period without a land or nation. What’s more, no other nation has been without its land for so long only to become a nation again. But for Christians, the restoration of Israel to its ancestral land comes as no surprise. This is just the kind of thing God said He would do in these last days. But a word of caution is in order about how to explain the rebirth of Israel.

 

It is best we hold back from calling 1948 a fulfillment of prophecy. It is true that Ezekiel 37:21-22 says: ‘Thus says Lord Yahweh, “Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king will be king for all of them; and they will no longer be two nations and no longer be divided into two kingdoms.’ This is an explicit promise from the 6th century B.C. that God will bring Israel back to her land and remake her into a nation.


True, this began to take shape in 1948. But in fuller context, this promise speaks of the restoration of the Davidic dynasty. Verses 24-28 say when these things take place, God will bring the nation everlasting peace and make Israel a unique place for His own dwelling. These events will see fulfillment after the great tribulation and the second coming of Christ, but they have not presently been fulfilled. Yes, Israel has come back to its land, but it is more precise to look at such current events as setting the stage for a fulfillment of prophecy proper. One move on the road to a final checkmate.



Genesis 12 describes God calling Abraham and Abraham’s response of faith (Gen. 12:1-3). There are three key promises in this Abrahamic Covenant: land, seed, and blessing. God promises to give Abraham “seed,” that is, children. By this time, Abraham and Sarah are childless and getting old. Through repeated promises, God assures the aging pair that they will not only have a son, but their physical descendants will grow to be almost innumerable. This has seen literal fulfillment in the expansion of Israelites from just one man and one woman.

 

Yahweh also promises that Abraham will bless the whole human race (Gen. 12:3). History makes it patently clear that God favors Israel in a unique way. Even in times of war when others seek to bring curse and destruction on Israel (Num. 22-25), God never rescinds His promise to bless them. As Paul tells the Romans: ‘The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (11:29). Yes, God will deal with the sins of Israel, as the Mosaic Covenant promises punishment for disobedience. Yet nothing can alter God’s much earlier promise to bless the seed of Abraham.

 

God’s covenantal land grant to Abraham is specific and oft-repeated, including the promise that the land will belong to his descendants forever: ‘Yahweh said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your seed forever”’ (Gen. 13:14-15). Later, in Genesis 15, Abraham ponders the certainty of this yet unrealized promise, so God performs a ritual sacrifice to confirm His oath. This leaves no room for uncertainty. God surely swore the land of Israel to the Jews ‘for an everlasting possession’ (Gen. 17:8).

 

In time, as Abraham’s family grows, God reaffirms His covenant promises. In Genesis 21:12, He tells Sarah that special promises will flow exclusively through her son Isaac, not through Hagar’s son, Ishmael. Then, at the birth of Isaac’s twins, Jacob and Esau, God assures Isaac and Rebekah that covenant promises will flow through Jacob, not Esau and his descendants (Gen. 25:23-26; 35:10-12). This includes the promise that the people of Israel will have the land of Canaan as an eternal possession.



God promises Abraham that his descendants will suffer for 400 years in Egypt, only to return and possess the promised land. Genesis 37-50 says this temporary exile begins in Jacob’s days when famine forces his family to Egypt. 400-years later, God raises up Moses to lead His people to take possession of Canaan. God then delivers all Israel from bondage and establishes an administrative covenant at Sinai. This new Law promises blessing to the newly freed nation as well as punishments for covenant disloyalty.


Despite constant rebellions in the wilderness, God preserves His young nation as a people so His purposes might be fulfilled. His promises to Israel (and for that matter, to anyone) cannot fail. Then, just before Israel enters the land, God reveals Israel’s future to Moses; that a day will come when she turns from the covenant is exiled: ‘Moreover, Yahweh will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known’ (Deut. 28:64).

 

We must recognize this is not all God says. He also tells Moses that the nation will one day earnestly repent (Deut. 30:2), leading to a restoration of covenant relationship with Yahweh and a return to Canaan: ‘Yahweh your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers’ (Deut. 30:5). Not only will God give them back the land, but He will bring about radical renewal: ‘Moreover Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed, to love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live’ (Deut. 30:6). It is therefore reckless to say God will not fulfill His gracious promises just as He has spoken.

 

God’s promise of restoration for Israel includes promises of curse and punishment upon nations that seek Israel’s harm and destruction: ‘Yahweh your God will inflict all these curses on your enemies and on those who hate you, who persecuted you’ (Deut. 30:7). Yet Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity in 536 B.C. did not fulfill these promises. Persia may have released Israel, but as Nehemiah writes in post-exilic days, Jews remained under Gentile dominion despite dwelling in the land again: ‘Behold, we are slaves today, and as to the land which You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its goodness, behold, we are slaves in it. Its abundant produce is for the kings whom You have put over us because of our sins; they also rule over our bodies and over our cattle according to their desire, so we are in great distress’ (9:36-37).



God’s purpose for Israel has always been that she will have a king and a capital. God promises to establish an eternal dynasty through David and choose a special place to make His dwelling (2 Sam. 7:10). At the first temple’s dedication, Solomon clarifies that Jerusalem is that place of eternal dwelling. From that point on, God raises up prophets when His disobedient people need to be called back to covenant loyalty. Their message is two-fold: the people and leaders must repent lest they be driven into exile, but one day God will restore the nation.

 

Joel makes this two-fold promise in the 9th century B.C., that God’s Spirit will pour out on Israelites who respond in repentant faith (2:28-32). He swears restoration of wealth and blessings that Israel lost by disobedience (3:1), and judgment upon nations seeking her destruction (3:2, 9-17). A century later, Hosea says separation between Israel and God will be restored by the Davidic dynasty (3:4-5). Isaiah also prophesies that one day all nations will visit Jerusalem as the place for proper worship: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us from His ways and that we may walk in His paths” (Isa. 2:3). This restoration of Israel (4:3-4) will usher in a new age when God remakes His special dwelling in Jerusalem (4:2, 5).


Later, Jeremiah makes similar promises. Eschatological Israel will endure tribulation (30:4-7) but God will prevent her destruction (30:7b). Then, in her restoration, she will throw off Gentile dominion (30:8). Messiah, the priestly king, will rule from Jerusalem (30:21) and Israel will recover her covenant relationship with Yahweh (30:22). All this takes place, though, not according to the Mosaic Law. Restoration will come by a New Covenant (31:31) that includes the permanent removal of sin. It will be an unbreakable covenant (unlike the Law) from which Israel will never fall. Once again, it is explicit that this covenant includes a full and eternal restoration to the land of Canaan (32:15).


God knows that many will doubt these promises, so He reminds Jeremiah that nothing is too difficult for the Lord (32:17-18, 27). His promises are sure as they are based on God’s character and His sworn oath. God says: “[Israel] will be to Me a name of joy, praise, and beauty before all the nations of the earth which will hear of all the good that I do for them, and they will be in dread and tremble because of all the good and all the peace that I make for it” (33:9). Not only will Messiah rule on David’s throne under this New Covenant, but He will restore His Levitical priesthood (33:18). God swears all this by Himself (33:19-26). The language is emphatic: God will fulfill His promises to Israel!



During the Babylonian exile, Daniel predicts that Israel’s messianic restoration will see the utter destruction of all hostility to Israel (Dan. 2:35, 45). The world powers will seek Israel’s annihilation only to receive it themselves (7:10-11). Daniel reveals that a 7-year period will precede the establishment of God’s kingdom (9:27). This tribulation begins when a non-Israeli leader brokers a 7-year peace between Israel and her adversaries. He then breaks this peace and invades Israel with forces fixed on her destruction. But by God’s grace and Christ’s return, Israel’s enemies will be ‘killed with the sword which came from the mouth of [Christ], and all the birds were filled with their flesh’ (Rev. 19:21).

 

In Zechariah, God says a day is coming when He “will dwell in [Israel’s] midst, that “many nations will join themselves to Yahweh in that day [and] Yahweh will inherit Judah as His portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem” (2:10-12). God’s promises involve specific land. Jerusalem (and Judah) will regain its special covenant status as in pre-exilic times. No amount of allegorizing can claim that this is fulfilled in the church age. This is a plain promise about Israel living in the land, possessing the land, and (after Israel’s repentance) God bringing that land back into a proper covenant relationship with Himself.

 

Yet more crucial, God promises to again dwell in her midst. The expression shekinah describes Yahweh’s special dwelling. Shekinah was that literal, physical pillar of God’s presence that guided Israel in their wilderness wanderings (Num. 12:5; Neh. 9:19). After the tabernacle was built, that glory became localized at the center of Israel’s worship. Later, in 1 Kings 8, it comes to dwell in Solomon’s temple and remains there until the time of exile.

 

Ezekiel has a fascinating account of the shekinah departing from Israel before Babylon wrecks the temple and overthrows Judah. Ezekiel sees (from his home in Babylon) that ‘the glory of Yahweh rose up from the cherub to threshold of the house, and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of Yahweh’ (10:4). God’s glory rises from the temple, moves east, hovers at the Mount of Olives, and departs. In this tragic event, God removes His presence from His people.



Ezekiel 33-39 spans the great tribulation, but Ezekiel 40-48 reveals the messianic kingdom to come, complete with a restored land and temple. In chapter 43, we see God reverse His condemnation. The shekinah glory returns to the temple, ‘coming from the way of the east’ (the direction to which it had departed) ‘into the house by the way of the gate facing toward the east’ (43:2-4) and there ‘the glory of Yahweh filled the house’ (43:5). Never in history has this taken place, but one day it will, for God has foretold it.


No longer will there be war or conflict. This kingdom will be a time of peace for Israel. Zechariah says she will “become a blessing” (8:13). God once “purposed to bring about evil” to punish her sin (8:14), but a day is coming when He will “do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (8:15). At long last, national Israel will be that priestly nation God always intended her to be: “many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek Yahweh of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of Yahweh…In those days ten men from every tongue of the nations will take hold of the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you”” (8:22-23).

 

These promises are unrealized up to our time. But none should doubt or wonder if they will be fulfilled. God has decreed them. It will happen! The Old Testament is neither ambiguous nor unclear. Those who claim otherwise have an a-priori commitment to reject a literal future for national Israel. How else could God say: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth…so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what pleased Me, and without succeeding in the matter for which I send it” (Isa. 55:10-11).

 

The New Testament never changes God’s gracious promises to Israel. Such would be impossible as God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). His promises are unbreakable (Heb. 6:18). It speaks volumes that the final book of the Bible emphasizes the restoration of Israel and salvation of the Jews: ‘I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out…“Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of those having been sealed, 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel’ (Rev. 7:2-4). So why do some theologians act intellectually dishonest and deny that John is describing literal Jews being spent out to evangelize fellow Israelites?



Later, John sees hostile Gentile nations attacking Israel in the great tribulation; events predicted in the Old Testament. In this persecution, Israel is shown as ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (12:1). As in many other prophecies, God protects Israel from annihilation. By chapter 20, the destruction of these hostile forces launches the millennial kingdom on earth: the first portion of God’s eternal kingdom. Then, after the final judgment of the unsaved at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15), God brings forth a new heavens and a new earth and the realization of His purified universe.

 

It is unbiblical to argue that the church is a new ‘spiritual’ Israel. From beginning to end, Israel is Israel and the church is not Israel. Yes, the church is realizing redemptive blessings in Christ in these last days, but the nation Israel will one-day enjoy God’s redemptive promises. She will be brought back to the land. She will know hardship in a future tribulation, only to be delivered from annihilation by God’s intervention. She will experience spiritual conversion through faith in Christ and enter an age of eternal peace and blessing. Then, at long last, Israel will become the center of worldwide worship of her Messiah.

 

So remember, just as God’s gracious promises are true for Israel, they are true for every individual. God promises eternal life to all who trust in His Son. Hear the words of Jesus: “All that the Father gives me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). God’s faithfulness and sovereignty guarantee His Word will not fail. As Peter says: ‘we have as more sure the prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts’ (2 Pet. 1:19). Amen and amen! Come Lord Jesus.



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