Is the Modern State of Israel a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy?
NOTE: This essay is an appendix from my forthcoming book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate. For further explanation of the ideas found in the essay, please see the book, and also some of the writings previously posted on this blog.
Many premillennarians confidently assert that the creation of the modern nation of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Dispensationalist Thomas Ice says it this way:
There are dozens of biblical passages that predict an end-time regathering of Israel back to her land . . . I believe that modern Israel is a divine work and is in the process of fulfilling Bible prophecy. I believe that Israel, as she is constituted today, is a work of God in progress, preparing the nation for the Tribulation, which will lead to her national conversion, the second coming of Christ, and His millennial reign.1
These words invite careful—very careful—reflection. Certainly all Bible believing Christians would agree with Ice that the creation of the modern nation/state of Israel is a “divine work,” since Scripture clearly teaches that God, by his providence, creates every nation of the sons of Adam, having predetermined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation (Acts 17:26). But is it true that dozens of OT Kingdom prophecies predict this latter-day return of the Jews to Palestine? In God’s sight, are these unbelieving Jews (who make up the vast majority of the modern of Israel) still his people, his “Israel”? In God’s sight, is Palestine still their land? And is God really preparing modern Israel for a seven-year Tribulation, national conversion, the second Coming of Christ, and the inauguration of a millennial reign centered in (a supernaturally transformed) Palestine?
In the body of this book, I have addressed these questions at length. Since, however, many Christians believe that the creation of the modern Israeli state lends credence to premillennial scenarios, a brief review is in order.
My approach in this essay will be to consider three questions: What is God’s present relation to unbelieving Jews, wherever they happen to live? Is the creation of the modern Israeli state a fulfillment of OTKP? And if it is not, how are we to understand it? Again, this is a review of material already covered in the body of my book. Therefore, I will not offer much in the way of proof texts. For my Scriptural support, please refer to the relevant chapters and exegetical discussions.
1. What is God’s present relation to unbelieving Jews?
This is a subtle question, one that cannot be answered without the help of NT teaching on the true identity of the people of God, and the relation of the New Covenant to the Old. Let us briefly review our findings.
In the course of our journey we learned that from eternity past God has always had a single plan for the salvation of his people, the Eternal Covenant. Importantly, this is none other than the New Covenant instituted by Christ.
The parties to this Covenant are God and the elect. The elect are his chosen people of all times and places, whether Jew or Gentile. They are the Church: God’s called out ones, whether Jew or Gentile. They are the saints: God’s separated ones, whether Jew or Gentile. They are the one Body, the one Bride, the One Flock, and the one Holy Nation of God and Christ, whether Jew or Gentile.
The provision of the Covenant—that which makes the Covenant possible—is Christ, both his divine Person and saving Work. The promise of the Covenant is eternal life: spiritual life throughout the remainder of this present evil age (i.e., the Era of Proclamation), and spiritual and physical life in the eternal Age or World to Come. The proviso of the Covenant—or its condition of entry—is repentance from sin and faith in Christ alone. The penalty for spurning the Covenant is eternal punishment. Here in the Eternal Covenant we therefore have the great redemptive “mystery” of God celebrated by the apostles throughout the NT.
What is the exact relationship between the Eternal Covenant, the Old Covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Law), and the New Covenant? In our study, we addressed this question at length. We learned, for example, that in OT times God promised, pictured, and prepared for the manifestation of his Son and the Eternal Covenant, while in NT times he fulfilled all that he had promised, pictured, and prepared for. This relation is particularly evident in God’s dealings with the family of Abraham, which, in due season, he constituted as a nation at Sinai by giving them the Mosaic Law. Under the Law, ethnic Israel pictured the universal Church, the human parties to the Eternal Covenant; so too did the Temple, Jerusalem, and other OT institutions (Eph. 2:19-22, Rev. 21:1f). Under the Law, the prophets, priests, kings, and sacrifices pictured Christ, the provision of the Covenant, in all his offices. And under the Law, the land pictured the World to Come, the promise of the Eternal Covenant in its fullness (Rom. 4:13).
Very importantly, we also learned that when Christ entered the world and inaugurated the Eternal Covenant by the shedding of his blood, he fulfilled the Old Covenant, thereby abolishing it forever (Mt. 5:17). The veil of the temple was rent (Mt. 27:51). The fig tree was cursed (Mark 11:12-14). The old wineskins were cast away (Mt. 9:17). In all these things, the Spirit depicts for us the permanent laying aside of the OT institutions, their perpetual obsolescence (Heb. 8:13). Accordingly, since the Day of Pentecost, when the apostles first proclaimed the finished work of Christ, it has never been safe for any man—Jew or Gentile—to shelter his soul under Moses (John 1:17). Indeed, the NT casts those who stubbornly try to do so as rebels against God (2 Thess. 1:8, 1 Peter 4:17). In the words of Christ, unbelieving, Gospel-opposing Jews clinging to the Law constitute a synagogue of Satan (Rev. 2:9, 3:9). In the words of Paul, they are citizens of the Jerusalem below, and not the Jerusalem above; they are children of Hagar, and not Sara; they are slaves to sin, condemnation, and wrath, and not free men in Christ (Gal. 4:21-31). So then, now that Christ has entered the world, everything has changed for the physical seed of Abraham: Israel according to the flesh must become Israel according to the Spirit, or cease being Israel at all.
Once we understand all this—once we understand how the New Covenant fulfills the Old and renders its several elements forever obsolete—then we can understand God’s relation to modern unbelieving Jews. It is not a mystery. Just like unbelieving Gentiles, they are “not his people” (Hosea 1:9). They are outside the Covenant. Indeed, they are outside two covenants. They are outside the New Covenant because they remain in sin and unbelief; and they are outside the Old Covenant because the Old Covenant no longer exists. At the risk of some confusion, one might call these people Israelites in a strictly anthropological sense, since they are indeed the physical descendents of Jacob. But spiritually speaking, they are no longer Israel at all. Though God certainly loves them, and though he may yet have great plans for them, at present he does not regard them as his people, his family, or his nation. In the NT, such honorifics are reserved exclusively for the elect parties of the New Covenant. In NT times, there is only one Israel of God, Christ’s Church (Gal. 6:16, 1 Peter 2:9-10).
This important truth bears heavily on the question before us. Premillennarians assert that in OTKP God spoke of a latter day restoration of ethnic Israel to their land. But we have seen that in Scripture the latter days are the days of the New Covenant (Heb. 1:1f). How then, in those prophecies, could God have been speaking of anyone other than the parties of the New Covenant; of anyone other than Christ’s called out ones, whether Jew or Gentile? No, when God promised to draw eschatological “Israel” into an everlasting covenant with himself, and to give them a beautiful new homeland, he was not speaking of unbelieving Jews, but of his whole Church (Hosea 2:14-23). Even so, in every genuine OTKP, God had in view, not the restoration of unbelieving Jews to life in Palestine under (the institutions of) the Old Covenant, but the restoration of his believing Church to life in the Spirit, in the stages and under the institutions of the New Covenant.
All this enables us to think clearly about the vexed question of the “right” of unbelieving Jews to the land of Palestine. Suppose that in the years immediately following Pentecost, Israel at large had repented of their sin and trusted in Christ as their Messiah. Then she would indeed have had a divine right to the land. However, that right would not have been grounded in God’s Old Covenant promise of a physical homeland, because the Old Covenant, at that point, was obsolete. Therefore, their right to the land would have been grounded solely in the workings of divine Providence: Formerly, God had placed them there, much as he had placed other peoples in their own respective homelands. In order for them to remain there, they had only to walk in obedience to Christ, just as other nations must do if they hope to remain in their appointed lands, secure and prosperous. In other words, by divine covenant, believing Israel would have had a right only to one land: the land above (Heb. 12:22), and the land up ahead (2 Peter 3:13). The upshot of this is clear: If, at that time, the land would not have been theirs by divine covenant, certainly it is not theirs by divine covenant today.
We know, however, that as a matter of historical fact things turned out very differently. Not only did ethnic Israel at large reject their Messiah, they persisted in their unbelief until God judged them through Titus in 70 AD, and later scattered them to the four winds. This situation was altogether different from Israel’s earlier expulsion from the land. For when God sent Israel into Babylon for seventy years, the nation was still in covenant with him, as the prophet Daniel well knew, and to which fact he fervently appealed (1 Kings 8:33-35, Jer. 29:1f, Dan. 9). In God’s sight, the land still belonged to his OT people, so that they still had a right to return to it, all in his good time. However, after Calvary, when Christ sealed the New Covenant in his blood—thus fulfilling, dissolving, and rendering the Old Covenant obsolete—unbelieving Israel no longer had a divine right to the land, for she was no longer in covenant with God. Nor does she have such a right today. She does, however, have a divine right to a far, far better homeland, which she may enter upon condition of simple faith in her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In reflecting upon the condition of modern Israel, one is therefore inclined to think of ancient Israel in the wilderness, when, having rejected the good word of Joshua and Caleb, the people tried to press into Canaan and make it their own, though God was not with them in the attempt, and though he had warned them against it (Num. 13-14). It is much the same today. Having spurned the good word of the Gospel, ethnic Israel at large seeks to press into Palestine, if perhaps they can somehow reclaim the glory days of David and Solomon. However, after more than six decades of continual conflict, it is abundantly clear that this can never be, for apart from Christ, they can do nothing (John 15:5). Moreover, even with Christ, there is no guarantee that a believing Israel would physically survive the vicissitudes of the final conflict any better than an unbelieving Israel, seeing that all God’s New Covenant people are destined for physical (but only physical) trampling beneath the feet of the unbelieving nations (Mt. 10:16-31, John 16:2, Rev. 11:1-2)
So then, ethnic Israel’s greatest need—and ours—is to make sure that their true citizenship is in heaven, from which also they ought eagerly to wait for a Savior who will welcome them into the glories of the only land that counts, the land of the World to Come (Phil. 3:20-21). Accordingly, Christians—whether Catholic of Evangelical—do their Jewish neighbors no favor by encouraging them to think that even now, in their unbelief, God has somehow accepted them; or that he has planted them in Palestine out of pure good favor towards them; or that the mysterious events of 1948 are a prelude to millennial privileges and joys yet to come. No, let all who honor Scripture instead lovingly remind our Jewish neighbors that he who believes in the Son has eternal life, but that he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him (John 3:36). Let us invite them to turn their eyes away from the Jerusalem below, and lift them to the Jerusalem above, where the Savior of the world is seated at God’s right hand. And let us urge them to join us in confessing that no matter where we live, we are strangers and exiles in this world; exiles who are confidently seeking a better homeland—a heavenly one—that Messiah will make ours at his soon return (Heb. 11:13-16).
2. Is the creation of the modern Israeli state a fulfillment of OTKP?
Our premillennial brothers tell us that in OTKP God has promised to restore latter-day ethnic Israel to Palestine, where, after a brief season of severe tribulation, they will live and worship for a thousand years with Christ as their king. Some simply say that all the OT prophecies of Israel’s eschatological restoration were fulfilled in 1948. Others, like Thomas Ice and Arnold Fruchtenbaum, fine tune this doctrine: In 1948 some OTKP’s were fulfilled by the restoration of unbelieving Israelites to the land (Isaiah 11:11-12, Ezek. 36:22-26, 37:1-14); however, in the near future still more of these prophecies will be fulfilled by a restoration of believing Israelites to the land (Deut. 30:1-10, Isaiah 43:5-9, Jer. 31:7-10, Amos 9:14-15, Zech. 10:8-12). In any case, all are agreed that the true sphere of fulfillment of all such prophecies is ethnic Israel and the land of Palestine.
We have just seen, however, that this is impossible, since, according to the NT, the true sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP is the New Covenant, the New Covenant people of God (the Church), and the New Covenant homeland of God (i.e., heaven above during the Era of Proclamation; and the new heavens and the new earth during the eternal Era of Consummation). If, then, we are rightly to understand OTKP’s of “Israel’s” eschatological restoration to the Land, we must interpret them within this paradigm. And this means that OTKP says not a word about a latter day restoration of ethnic Israel to Palestine.
How, then, are we to interpret these prophecies? In the body of this book I have sawn a great deal of theological lumber in an effort to show the way. There we uncovered three simple principles to guide us in our interpretive labors. Let us briefly review them here.
First, there is “simple” OT prophecy. These prophecies are fulfilled in OT times, under the Old Covenant. These we interpret literally. For example, Jeremiah 29:1-14 is a simple OT prophecy of ethnic Israel’s restoration to the land if Palestine. It was literally fulfilled in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, when a chastened, penitent, and prayerful people returned to their homeland to rebuild their lives, their homes, their villages, and their temple (Dan. 9:1f). It should be carefully noted, however, that this lesser restoration served as a picture of the far great restoration of eschatological “Israel” under the New Covenant. And it is of this greater restoration that Jeremiah and the other prophets almost always speak (Jer. 23:1-8, 30:1ff, 31:1-30, 31:31-40, 32:36ff, 33:14-26).
Secondly, there is OTKP. These prophecies are fulfilled in NT times, under the New Covenant. These we interpret with the New Covenant Hermeneutic; these we interpret typologically, christologically, eschatologically, and ecclesiologically; these we interpret as having their sphere of the fulfillment in the New Covenant, Christ, the Church, and the two-staged Kingdom of God.
Now if this is so, then every OTKP in which premillennarians find God predicting a latter-day restoration of ethnic Israel to the land is actually an OTKP, which means that every such prophecy must be interpreted figuratively, by means of a skillful use of the NCH. In our journey together, I have sought to exemplify this approach many times.
For example, premillennarians claim that in Isaiah 11:11-16 God is speaking of two restorations of ethnic Israel to the land. The first was accomplished under Ezra and Nehemiah, the second under the United Nations, in 1948. We have seen, however, that this literal interpretation cannot possibly be correct, since it requires us to look for modern ethnic Israel fighting against nations that long ago passed from the stage of history (e.g., Philistia, Edom, Moab, etc.). No, the context indicates that here Isaiah is speaking “mysteriously” of the Messianic era (11:1-5, 10); an era in which God will gather unto Christ a new nation of Gospel warriors (11:10); an era in which those warriors will engage in such victorious Gospel combat that multitudes of previously unbelieving enemies will walk the highway of holiness into God’s Kingdom and into his people’s eschatological homeland (11:14-16). Just as God, in the first Exodus, rescued physical Israel from Egypt through Moses, so in a second eschatological Exodus will he rescue spiritual Israel from the Domain of Darkness through Christ (11:16). And when the great contest over, the Messiah will execute final Judgment against all his remaining foes (11:4), and then bring in the eternal World to Come (11:6-9).
Again, premillennarians say that in 1948 God fulfilled his ancient promise to give birth to a nation in a day (Isaiah 66:7-8). However, in our careful exegesis of this text, we saw that the new Land, Nation, and City of which Isaiah spoke is actually Christ’s Church, born on the Day of Pentecost as a result of the Person and redeeming Work of the boy-child to which OT Zion, embodied in mother Mary, gave birth (11:7-8, 10).
Next, we have Ezekiel’s famous vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Without doubt, it is the premillennarian’s favorite proof-text on this score (Ezek. 37:1-14). Thomas Ice declares that it gives us “a multi-stage” process: First ethnic Israel is restored to the land in unbelief, and so is pictured as a vast sea of lifeless bodies, physically whole but spiritually dead. This stage supposedly began in 1948 and continues to the present. Then, possibly during the seven year Tribulation, the second stage begins: God brings the nation to faith, so that now it stands on its feet, a great army of Jewish evangelists for Christ. I showed earlier, however, that the NCH gives us a very different and far superior interpretation of this text; that it pictures God, who physically created man from the dust, spiritually re-creating the One New Man—Christ’s Church—from the dead (Eph. 2:15). It gives us Christ, from the Day of Pentecost on, breathing into the nostrils of his elect, raising them to newness of life, and sending them as a vast army into triumphant spiritual warfare for the cause of Gospel (John 20:22, Rom. 6:4, 2 Cor. 2:14f, Eph. 2:5-7, 6:10f, 2 Tim. 2:4, Rev. 19:19).
Premillennarians also like to point to Amos 9:13-14, which they claim anticipates the agricultural fruitfulness that we now see, or soon will see, in modern Israel. However, the NCH gives a far more edifying interpretation, finding here a beautiful prophecy, cast in rich OT symbolism, of the eternal fruitfulness of the Church in the Paradise of God, the new heavens and the new earth (Rev 2:7, 22:2, 22:14). And we know that this is the correct interpretation because of the verses immediately prior (Amos 9:11-12). According to the explicit NT word of God, they speak of the eschatological restoration of the fallen Davidic dynasty through the birth and growth of the Christian Church, a growth that includes the gathering of all the Gentiles who are called by God’s name, after which comes the end and Paradise (Acts 15:16-18).
Finally, we have Zechariah 8:1-8, yet another picturesque prophecy of the restoration of God’s people to their eternal homeland and holy city, Jerusalem. Premillennarians confidently assert that this too was fulfilled in 1948, or will be in yet another migration of Jews to Palestine, since it was written after the restoration under Ezra and Nehemiah. However, even a cursory reading of this heart-warming text will persuade the reader that the happy scenes depicted here cannot possibly speak of life in modern war-torn Israel. No, as we saw earlier, this prophecy uses familiar OT imagery to speak of the blessedness of Christ’s Church, both in the present Era of Proclamation, and in the World to Come.
And so too do all the other OTKP’s that premillennarians cite to defend their idea that the Bible predicts a latter day return of ethnic Israel to their ancient homeland in Palestine.
3. How are we to understand the creation of a modern homeland for the Jews?
Certainly every Bible-believing Christian senses in his spirit that the creation of the modern Jewish state is a remarkable act of God’s providence, an act that cannot be without eschatological significance. Indeed, I imagine that even unbelievers, in their unguarded moments, find this strange phenomenon arresting, even troubling; that they cannot help but marvel at the preservation of Abraham’s physical seed over centuries of struggle, marginalization, persecution, and near destruction; that they cannot help but see, hovering over the events of 1948, the hand of the invisible God, moving purposefully, in love, over the lost and scattered descendents of his OT people. Some things all of us know in our knower. Surely God’s abiding concern for ethnic Israel is one of them.
Here, and in the body of my book, I have argued that the creation of the modern state of Israel is not in fulfillment of OTKP; that it is not a prelude to the premillennial return of Christ, or to a thousand years of temple worship in Palestine, etc. However, I have not ruled out other possibilities. To reject the premillennial interpretation of ethnic Israel’s return to Palestine is not to turn it into mere accident of history. So again I would ask: What does the birth of modern national Israel mean? How does it figure into God’s plan of salvation? What is its eschatological significance?
Earlier, I suggested a plausible answer to these fascinating questions. In particular, I argued from our exegetical study of Romans 11 that the spiritual rebirth of Israel at large is one of three great NT signs of the imminence of Christ’s Parousia. As Paul wrote, “If their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be, if not life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15)?
The creation of the modern state of Israel fits well into this scenario. Indeed, the words of our Lord himself may teach this very thing. When, some two millennia back, he spoke God’s word of judgment over ethnic Jerusalem and Israel, he left us—and Israel—with a notable glimmer of hope:
Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. — Luke 21:23-24
Now, it is certainly the case that since 1948 the Gentiles are no longer trampling Jerusalem underfoot. Could it be, then, that Israel’s unexpected rise to nationhood signals that the times of the Gentiles are now fulfilled; that the Gentile’s (often cruel) domination over the Jewish Dispersion has come to an end; that God’s redemptive thrust into the Gentile world is now nearing completion; and that, as Paul prophesied, the Gentiles are about to be broken off, while ethnic Israel at large is about to be grafted back in (Rom. 11:17-24)?
I am strongly inclined to think so. And if this is so, it becomes all the more urgent for the Church to bring the Gospel to the Jews, not only in Palestine, but wherever they may live. In so doing, we will only be hastening the coming of our Lord (2 Peter 3:12). As he himself told us, when Israel again learns to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” then they—and we—will finally see him again (Mt. 23:39)!