Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why Israel Means Israel, Part 1

One of the questions that continues to divide Christians is whether there is a future for national Israel as the people of God. By Israel, I am not referring to the present state of Israel established in 1948 (another question entirely) but rather to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The view of replacement theology (or supersessionism) is that the church has replaced Israel and that the promises given to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled exclusively in the church. In a series of blogs, I would like to address the issue of "why Israel means Israel" and the reasons why a future for national Israel is an important component of Christian eschatology (the doctrine of last things).

I believe there is a future for national Israel's in God's plan first and foremost because the promise of Israel's future restoration is one of the major themes in the Old Testament prophets. The prophets assure that Israel's return from exile will usher in a kingdom era in which Israel will permanently enjoy peace and prosperity in the Promised Land. Israel's historical return from their exile in Babylon do not completely fulfill God's promises to Israel, because the prophetic vision is that Israel will forever enjoy the covenant blessings in their land. The three passages that follow reflect the restoration theology characteristic of the Old Testament prophets.

Amos 9:11-15 "In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, 12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,"declares the LORD who does this. 13 "Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. 14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 15 I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them," says the LORD your God.

Ezekiel 36: 24-32 "I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel."

Jeremiah 33:6-12 "Behold, I will bring to it health and healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. 7 I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. 8 I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. 9 And this city1 shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. 10 "Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, 'It is a waste without man or beast,' in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again 11 the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD: "' Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!' For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD. 12 "Thus says the LORD of hosts: In this place that is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks."

Other prophetic passages reflecting this promise of Israel's restoration include Isaiah 54:4-8; Jeremiah 31:23-25; Hosea 14:4-7; and Zephaniah 3:14-17.

As previously stated, these promises were fulfilled in part when Israel returned from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C. However, there are two reasons why the return from exile did not exhaust the prophetic promises concerning the restoration of Israel. First, the return from exile hardly fulfilled all that Yahweh had promised for Israel's future. As Routledge notes, post-exilic Israel came to realize that "the return was not as glorious as the people expected. It did not result in the establishment of God's kingdom, and, from the way old sins quickly re-emerged, it was clear that the crisis of the exile had not brought about the hoped-for inward renewal." Second, the post-exilic prophets continue to look forward to a future restoration of Israel even after Israel is back in the land. For example, the prophet Zechariah anticipates a future renewal of Israel that includes the following:

  • Zech 9:9-10 a future king who will bring peace to the nations
  • Zech 10:6-12 a return of Israel to the land after a future scattering among the nations
  • Zech 12:10-13 Israel's repentance and return to the Lord
  • Zech 13:1-6 the cleansing of Israel from its past sins
  • Zech 12:1-9/ Zech 14:15 the deliverance of Israel from a future enemy that will attack Jerusalem and take away half its citizens into exile

The return of Israel from the Babylonian exile is merely the prelude to the great and final renewal that God has in store for Israel in the future.

The next blog on this topic will explore in more detail the view of replacement theology that these promises of Israel's restoration are fulfilled exclusively in the church. However, there are two primary reasons why we should continue to read the Old Testament prophets as guaranteeing a restoration of the people and nation of Israel that has not yet occurred. The first reason for a literal understanding of the promises concerning Israel is that the basic function of prophetic prediction was to speak of actual events that were anticipated realities in space and time. Prediction was only a small component of the prophetic message, but when the prophets did speak of the future, there was a basic expectation that the prophets' predictions would come to pass. As Richard Hess notes in his essay, "The Future Written in the Past," prophecy was not unique to Israel, and it was understood throughout the ancient Near East that prophets referred to actual events with words that anticipated literal fulfillments. When an Assyrian prophet delivered a prophecy that a king would have a prosperous reign or defeat his enemies in battle, it was expected that the prophet's words would come to pass as he had spoken. In Israel, the key test of a true prophet was whether or not his predictions came to pass (cf. Deut 18:21-22). The belief that the prophets' promises concerning Israel are fulfilled only at a figurative and spiritual level is fundamentally inconsistent with the basic expectations associated with prophetic language in Israel and the ancient Near East at large. Hess comments, "The prophecies of the Old Testament are best interpreted in a manner that would agree with a one-to-one historical correspondence. Those who listened to the prophets and who read their words would not have instantly assumed a metaphor when the future was being described."

At the same time, the prophets often used highly figurative, stereotypical, and idealized language when speaking of Israel's future restoration and the kingdom era of "the last days." The prophets promised that Mount Zion would be exalted above all the mountains of the earth, that the sun would turn to blood, that the trees would clap their hands, and that the lion and the lamb would lie down together. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the restoration of Jerusalem as the creation of "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17-19), recalling an Akkadian prophecy that the reign of a new Babylonian king would necessitate the redrawing of the plans for heaven and earth. D. Brent Sandy, in his work Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic, demonstrates the high degree of metaphorical language in the prophets and provides a primer on how to read prophecy as figurative language. One of the common faults of many popular treatments of biblical prophecy is an insistence on woodenly literalistic readings of the prophets and forced harmonizations of the prophets' vision of the future with contemporary events. However, even with their use of highly metaphorical language, the prophets were still speaking of real events. For all of these reasons, the safest reading of the prophets is to read them at face value.

The second reason for a literal understanding of the prophets' promises concerning Israel is that these prophets are grounded in specific covenant promises made to the people of Israel. God promised descendants, land, and blessing to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-3; Gen 15:12-18) and specifically promised that Abraham's physical descendants would possess the Promised Land forever (Gen 13:15). When Abraham demonstrated his faith in God's promises by his willingness to sacrifice his promised son Isaac, God swore by himself a binding oath to Abraham guaranteeing the fulfillment of these covenant promises (Gen 22:15-18). Similarly, the Lord promises and swears an oath to establish the dynasty of David forever (2 Sam 7:12-16). Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant that will bring about Israel's restoration in which Yahweh writes his laws on Israel's heart so that they will never disobey him again (Jer 31:31-34), and the prophet assures that Yahweh's covenant with Israel will endure for as long as the sun and the moon (Jer 31:35-37; cf. Jer 33:23-26). Reformed theologians who deny that God has a future for Israel place themselves in the strange position of arguing that Israel's unbelief can in some way thwart God's sovereign decrees and oaths.

The real issues in this debate over the future of Israel are the reliability of God's promises and the faithfulness of God to the covenant he has made with his people Israel. When Paul reminds us in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, he immediately demonstrates the reliability of God's love by pointing to his continued faithfulness to Israel in Romans 9-11. If God keeps his covenant promises to Israel, and he does, then we can also have confidence that he will keep his promises to us.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Dr. Yates! There is so much criticism from the replacement theologians that this is a valuable resource.