The Land of Promise
Many Christians believe that the mission entrusted to Israel in the OT has been continued and expanded in the Church since Pentecost, and that the nation of Israel as such has lost forever its previous position and privileges. A logical, if not inevitable, development of this doctrine is Christian Palestinianism—an idea taught in some professedly Christian circles that the Jews have no right to be in their historical homeland. Now many view the current troubles in Israel and the surrounding area in purely political terms, but the issues there actually run to the heart of what we believe as Christians. I may take no notice of either politics or prophecy, but if I am a true believer, then I most definitely have an interest in the promises of God. Why? Because my salvation depends upon these promises. And yet, if “the land of promise” (see Heb. 11: 9, my emphasis) ceases to be such for the Jew, then how can the Christian rely on the promises of God for his inheritance in Christ (see Eph. 1: 11)? If the Jew cannot rely on God’s Word for earth and time, how can the Christian rely on God’s Word for heaven and eternity? He cannot. Again, what is a Christian? One who has believed God’s Word. So what does that Word say? “He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd his flock” (Jer. 31: 10). Now if the scattering was literal, will not the gathering be as literal as the scattering? And if the scattering was of national Israel, will not the gathering be of national Israel as well? The answers are obvious. It is one thing to draw spiritual lessons from God’s dealings with Israel (as recorded in the Bible), and quite another to allegorise the terms which describe that nation and their land, thus making the promises of God say whatever we want them to say.
The Word of God leaves us in no doubt that the physical land of Canaan was promised to Abraham and his descendants: “Unto thy seed will I give this land … I am Jehovah who brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give thee this land to possess it … On the same day Jehovah made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates … And I give to thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojourning, all the land of Canaan … Unto thy seed will I give this land …” (Gen. 12: 7; 15: 7, 18; 17: 8; 24: 7). Furthermore, it was to be “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17: 8, my emphasis) and was given, not to Ishmael or Esau, but to Isaac and Jacob and their seed after them (see Gen. 21: 10; 35: 12; 48: 4; 50: 24)—that is, to the children of Israel.
However, the land was not just promised to Abraham but sworn to him—Abraham recounts not only how God had “spoken to me” but also how God had “sworn to me, saying, Unto thy seed will I give this land” (Gen. 24: 7, my emphasis). This matter of the divine oath is frequently referred to by the OT writers before and during the conquest of Canaan (see Gen. 26: 3; Exod. 13: 5; 33: 1; Deut. 1: 8; Josh. 21: 43 etc.), and as Paul says, an “oath is a term to all dispute, as making matters sure” (Heb. 6: 16). However, the question might arise as to why God swears, when His bare word of promise cannot be broken, it being “impossible that God should lie” (v18).
In order to answer this, consider another characteristic feature of the nation of Israel. I refer to the Aaronic priesthood, an office which was instituted with a set of exceedingly solemn sanctions, such that “no one takes the honour to himself but [as] called by God” (Heb. 5: 4). However, this priesthood could and was “changed” (see Heb. 7: 12) to make way for the priesthood of Christ and the spiritual priesthood of all believers in Christ. Why could it be changed? Because it was instituted “without the swearing of an oath” (v21). Christ, however, “has the priesthood unchangeable” (v24) for “with the swearing of an oath … The Lord has sworn, and will not repent [of it], Thou [art] priest for ever” (v21). Anything instituted by God for a temporary purpose (as was the Mosaic system—see Gal. 3: 23–25) had no oath attached to it, and could thus be set aside or abolished when its purpose had been fulfilled, but anything confirmed by an oath remains unalterable. Thus those who doubt Israel’s title to the land of promise not only must believe that God can break a promise, but that He can also violate an oath. That really is an untenable position for any true believer. The truth is that when God wants to “shew more abundantly to the heirs of promise the unchangeableness of his purpose” He intervenes “by an oath” (Heb. 6: 17). Such an oath applies to the land of promise (see Deut. 31: 23 etc.). It is of course true that their disobedience resulted in the children of Israel being removed from the land and scattered “from one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth” (Deut. 28: 64). However, this does not at all undermine the promise of God. He cannot forget Zion (see Is. 49: 15, 16), and ultimately Israel will possess the land forever (see Amos 9: 15).
The Figment of Past Fulfilment
Those who deny that the Jews have a current claim on the land of Israel often contend that the prophecies relating to Israel’s restoration to the land were fulfilled on their return from the Babylonish captivity. A number of Scriptures can be brought in to refute this view.
To begin with, the restoration from Babylon was from a limited area, and consisted of only about fifty thousand persons. The restoration that Isaiah speaks of is clearly much more extensive: “And it shall come to pass in that day, [that] the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to acquire the remnant of his people which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall lift up a banner to the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Is. 11: 11, 12). The carrying away to Babylon towards the end of the sixth century BC was local, but the dispersion after AD70 was universal. Israel was never in the four corners of the earth until then, and consequently the gathering back into the land can only be fulfilled after that point in time.
Next, the Bible predicts a restoration to the land by the Jews after which there shall never be another dispersion. This was clearly not the case with the return from exile in Babylon. “Thy people also shall be righteous: they shall possess the land for ever—the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified … But Judah shall abide for ever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation. And I will purge them from the blood from which I had not purged them: for Jehovah dwelleth in Zion (Is. 60: 21; Joel 3: 20). Again, Jeremiah 24: 5 can hardly said to have been completely fulfilled with the edict of Cyrus: “And I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am Jehovah; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart” (vs. 6, 7). It is quite ludicrous to suggest that this was the state of Judaism in the post–captivity period. Like many prophecies, it has an incomplete initial fulfilment, but much more waits for the future.
Then there is the fact that the land of promise has never been possessed in all its promised dimensions. God called the land “a good and spacious land” (Exod. 3: 8), and the promise was “Unto thy seed I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15: 18). Now it is admitted that a great deal of this territory was under tribute to David and Solomon (see 2 Sam. 8: 6; 1 Kings 4: 21 etc.), but for the prophecies to be fulfilled, Israel must be in actual possession of every bit of it (see Deut. 11: 24). A future restoration of Israel to the land in its fullest geographical sense is thus a legitimate inference.
Finally, the tribes are to be differently located and the land differently distributed, from any previous possession of the land. This will be abundantly evident from a comparison of Josh. 13, 18–19 and Ezekiel 48. Reuben, for example, will then have an inheritance over the Jordan (see Ezek. 48: 6). These prophecies have never been fulfilled, and are incapable of being spiritualised in any intelligent way. They thus demand a future restoration of the Jews to the land.
Fulfilment in the Church?
Many contend that the Jew has no claim upon the physical land of Israel because the concept of a land of promise has been transferred to the spiritual inheritance allotted to the Church. Now it is undeniable that Christians do have an inheritance, and that Scripture both parallels and contrasts that inheritance with the land of Canaan. Thus Peter, writing to Jewish believers, speaks of how they have been “begotten … again to a living hope through [the] resurrection of Jesus Christ from among [the] dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled and unfading inheritance, reserved in [the] heavens for you” (1 Pet. 1: 3, 4). Like the two on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24: 21; see also Acts 1: 6), the expectation of these godly Jews of a Messiah reigning over Israel had been all but extinguished by the Lord’s crucifixion. However, a much better hope had since dawned in their hearts, concerning an inheritance which was not material in nature, but in “the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1: 3). This inheritance (unlike Canaan) is also open to Gentile believers (see Acts 26: 17, 18) and is eternal (see Heb. 9: 15). The Holy Spirit makes it real to the believer even now (see Eph. 1: 14), for “our struggle is not against blood and flesh” (as in Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, but “against spiritual [power] of wickedness in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6: 12).
The manifestation of a hope “laid up for you in the heavens” (Col. 1: 5) while superseding any earthly hope for believers now, does not, however, mean that the earthly hope is done away forever. The disciples question and the Lord’s answer in Acts 1: 6, 7 indicates very plainly that there will come a time when the nation of Israel will again return to the fore: “They therefore, being come together, asked him saying, Lord, is it at this time that thou restorest the kingdom to Israel? And he said to them, It is not yours to know times or seasons, which the Father has placed in his own authority” (my emphasis). Any Jew converted now loses his Jewish identity in the “one new man” (Eph. 2: 15), and his hopes become heavenly not earthly. However Scripture is explicit that the hope of Israel is not lost forever, and when the Church has been called to glory, that this hope will be revived by God: “And he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off! Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Behold I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O my people, and bring you into the land of Israel” (Ezek. 37: 11, 12; my emphasis).
Why must the Jews return to the Land?
Few of those who believe in the return of Israel to their ancestral homeland ever stop and consider why it must be so. God’s purpose is never arbitrary, and there is no exception here. When Joseph made himself known to his brothers, all of them had to be there. This is but a feeble hint of how the Lord will gather his earthly brethren together, so that He may address their guilt with them, and save a people for Himself: “And it shall come to pass in all the land, saith Jehovah, two parts therein shall be cut off [and] die; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part into the fire, and I will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on my name, and I will answer them: I will say, It is my people; and they shall say, Jehovah is my God” (Zech. 13: 8, 9). Certainly the Jews “shall look on me whom they pierced” and in “that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem”, but in the mercy of God it also says that there will be a “fountain opened … for sin and for uncleanness” (Zech. 12: 10, 11; 13: 1)! We must never forget that while God gives the nations their inheritance in the earth, God’s own inheritance is Israel (see Deut. 32: 8, 9), and they remain, despite their current estrangement, “the apple of his eye” (Zech. 2: 8).
Attention has often been drawn to the account of the glory of God departing from the temple in Ezekiel 10 and 11, but the same glory is described as returning in chapter 43 (see vs. 2–5). The prophet is not left in doubt as to the meaning of all this: “and he said unto me, Son of man, [this is] the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever; and the house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name, they nor their kings” (v7; see also Zech. 8: 3, 8). It is patently obvious that none of this has been fulfilled in relation to Israel, and it is fanciful in the extreme to attempt to transfer the prophecy to the Church instead. Either all of this is yet future, or God’s Word is false.
God’s purpose for Israel is for that nation to be the centre of the earth: “This is Jerusalem: I have set her in the midst of the nations, and the countries are round about her” (Ezek. 5: 5). This is more than a matter of mere geography, for God will have Israel to be the strategic centre of the world, the nation through whom divine favour can be administered to the nations, “a blessing in the midst of the earth” (Is. 19: 24). Thus it is prophesied that “many nations shall go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and Jehovah’s word from Jerusalem” (Mic. 4: 2). Hence it will come to pass that just as they were a curse among the nations, so the Jews will be a blessing (see Zech. 8: 13), and men of “all languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you; for we have heard [that] God is with you” (v23). In that day “my people shall never be ashamed” (Joel 2: 27). Has this ever been true of the Jew since the captivity in Babylon? All history testifies to the contrary.
Christians are the recipients of “exceeding great and precious promises” (2 Pet. 1: 4; AV), heavenly in character and centred in the Man in the glory (see Eph. 1: 3–14). God, however, has not given up his thoughts for the earth, and a day will soon dawn when He will gather Israel from the four corners of the earth to “a good land, a land of waterbrooks, of springs, and of deep waters, that gush forth in the valleys and hills; a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig–trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive–trees and honey”, a land where they shall “eat bread without scarceness” and where they shall “lack nothing” (Deut. 8: 7–9). Thus both heaven and earth shall display, according to their character, the beneficence of God. Let us not then ‘hesitate’ at any of the promises of God “through unbelief” but be “fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do” (Rom. 4: 20, 21)!