Written in 2013
Back in the 19th century Church of Scotland minister, Horatius Bonar, preacher and hymn writer, wrote of his faith in the return of the Jewish people to Israel: ‘I believe that the sons of Abraham (the Jewish people) are to re-inherit Palestine and that the forfeited fertility will yet return to that land, that the wilderness and the solitary places shall be glad for them, and the desert will rejoice and blossom as the rose.’ In the 19th century under the influence of Andrew and Horatius Bonar and Robert Murray M’Cheyne the Church of Scotland was generally favourable to the view that there would be a return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel and saw this as a sign of the coming return of the Messiah Jesus.
In a reversal of this position the Church of Scotland published a new report in April 2013, titled ‘The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report on the ‘Promised Land,’ which questions the biblical Jewish claim to the land, saying that ‘Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory. … The ‘promised land’ in the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor of how things ought to be among the people of God. This ‘promised land’ can be found, or built, anywhere.’
The report criticises the ‘widespread assumption’ by many Christians and Jews that the Bible supports ‘an essentially Jewish state of Israel’. It disputes the view that the modern State of Israel is the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants (‘to your offspring I will give this land,’ Genesis 12:7). It says that the exact geography of the land is unclear, and in any case the land was given ‘conditionally to the Jewish people, on the understanding the land is God’s, given in trust to be cared for and lived in according to God’s instruction.’ It then quotes from a number of anti-Zionist writers who argue that Israel and Zionism are acting ‘unjustly’ toward the Palestinian population on the land. Therefore the current State of Israel is not acting according to God’s instructions, and has no theological justification for existence. It also questions the view that prophets like Ezekiel were referring to present day events when they spoke about ‘the barren mountains of Israel’ becoming fruitful and ‘the ruined towns’ being rebuilt as the people returned from exile.
The implication of this report is that events in modern Israel have nothing to do with Bible prophecy, but are an accident of history. Therefore any Zionist claim to the land is invalid and the current State of Israel has no theological justification for existence. This is the view taken by pro Palestinian theologians and generally goes on to the next step which is to say that Israel has no political right to exist, and should be replaced with a Palestinian state (the position taken by the Palestinian National Covenant, the guiding charter of the PLO).
This report reflects the view of ‘replacement theology’ which is dominant in much of contemporary Christianity. According to this view the new covenant through Jesus the Messiah supersedes and replaces the former covenants made in the Old Testament. Therefore God’s covenant with Abraham and biblical prophecies about the return of the Jewish people to Israel should be applied to the church and not be taken literally as having any relevance to modern Israel. So, for example, where the Lord says about gathering the ‘outcasts of Israel’ from the north, south, east and west (Isaiah 11.12, 43.5-6), replacement theology teaches that this means the gathering of people into the kingdom of God (i.e. the church): ‘They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit in the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 13.29).
On the other hand those who take a literal historical view of scripture believe that God’s covenant with Israel remains in place. Therefore the present return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is significant in the light of God’s covenant with Israel and a fulfilment of Bible prophecy.
In Genesis 15 and 17 God promised Abraham that he would have a multitude of descendants and that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan / Israel: ‘I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’ Genesis 17.7-8.
According to Deuteronomy 28, if Israel obeyed the Lord the people would dwell in the land and be blessed with good harvests, peace and prosperity. They would be protected from their enemies and be a light to the surrounding nations. But if they worshipped other gods and disobeyed God’s commandments, a series of disasters would come upon them as a judgement, with the final judgement being removal from the land (Deuteronomy 28.62-64). However, even if this most severe judgement took place, they would not be permanently out of the land but would return in God’s time: ‘If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you and from there He will bring you. Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it.’ (Deuteronomy 30.4-5)
The account of Israel’s history in the Bible can be seen as the outworking of these principles. At times when Israel was faithful to the Lord they were blessed in the land and overcame their enemies. At the height of Israelite power under David and Solomon they reached for a brief while the promised boundaries of the land (2 Samuel 8.3, 1 Kings 4.21). But more often disobedience to the Lord and the worship of other gods caused Israel to be diminished by the surrounding nations, and eventually to suffer exile in Babylon (2 Chronicles 36.14-21). However 70 years after the exile, as prophesied by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Persian Emperor Cyrus gave an edict for the Jewish people to return to the land and rebuild the Temple (Isaiah 44.24-45.13, Jeremiah 29.10-14, Ezra 1.1-4). The covenant with Abraham was being fulfilled.
At this time Daniel, the prophet God raised up to speak for Him during the captivity of Babylon, prayed for the restoration of Israel and of the Temple in Jerusalem. He recognised that the seventy years spoken of by Jeremiah were fulfilled (Daniel 9). His prayer was followed by the restoration of Israel according to the decree of Cyrus. As he was praying, God revealed to him events concerning the future rebuilding of Jerusalem and restoration of the Temple. He also received the message that the Messiah would come during the days of the 2nd Temple: ‘Messiah shall be cut off, (i.e. die a violent death), but not for Himself; And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end of it shall be with a flood, and till the end of the war desolations are determined.’ (Daniel 9:26)
This prophecy and others were fulfilled in the coming of Messiah Jesus / Yeshua as the Suffering Servant to take upon Himself the sin of the world (Isaiah 53.6). Following the resurrection of Messiah and the preaching of the Gospel, God gave Israel a period of 40 years to accept the message of Messiah and enter into the New Covenant. Many did, but the leadership remained opposed to the message of Jesus. In 70 AD the second temple was destroyed by the Romans in fulfilment of this prophecy in Daniel where he says that the city (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary (the Temple) will be destroyed after the coming of the Messiah. This passage in Daniel means the Messiah must have come to be the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, dying as a sacrifice for our sins and rising again from the dead, before the year 70 when the Temple was destroyed.
Jesus also gave a reason for this calamity when He wept over Jerusalem on the day of His triumphal entry into the city: ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’ Luke 19.41-44. ‘The time of your visitation’ means the time of Messiah coming to you. In this way Jesus connected the coming fall of Jerusalem to the failure to recognise Him as the Messiah.
The Lord Jesus spoke about the dispersion of the Jewish people following the fall of Jerusalem: ‘But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. … For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ Luke 21.20-24.
The fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy was the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 and the dispersion of the Jewish people to the nations of the world following this event. Nevertheless the Jewish people remained an identifiable people as the prophecies indicated they would. Jeremiah spoke of Israel being a nation as long as the sun, moon and stars shine in the sky (Jeremiah 31.35-36).
Jesus said Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ The phrase ‘until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’ implies a time will come when Jerusalem will no longer be ‘trampled’ or ruled by the Gentiles and ‘the fig tree’ of Israel’s national life will blossom again: ‘Then He spoke to them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.’’ (Luke 21:29-33)
The fig tree is used as a symbol of Israel’s national life in Jeremiah 24, Hosea 9.10 and Joel 1.7. When Jesus spoke of the fig tree that would be ‘cut down’ if it did not bear fruit in Luke 13.6-9, He was speaking about Israel not bearing the fruit of God’s righteousness and the coming judgement on Israel with the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish people. When Jesus cursed the fig tree and caused it to wither in Matthew 21.19 He meant that the national life of Israel was about to wither. The budding of the fig tree is a sign of the rebirth of Israel’s national life and of a greater event which is to follow – the return of the Messiah.
An early Christian writing, the Apocalypse of Peter, written around 135 AD, at the time of the Bar Cochba revolt which caused the final desolation of the land of Israel by the Romans and dispersion of the Jewish people, clearly identifies the fig tree as Israel and the time of its budding as the time of the end: ‘When Israel comes back as a nation, then the last days would come: (learn a parable) from the fig-tree: so soon as the shoot thereof is come forth and the twigs grown, the end of the age shall come. […] Hast thou not understood that the fig-tree is the house of Israel?’
This ties in with passages in the Hebrew scriptures concerning the return of the Jewish people to the land in the last days of this age. In Jeremiah 31.10 we read: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.’’
In Ezekiel 36-37 there are prophecies of a physical and spiritual restoration of Israel. ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are about to come. For I am indeed for you and I will turn to you and you shall be tilled and sown. I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt.’ (Ezekiel 36.8-10)
This prophecy speaks of physical changes to the restoration of Israel when it goes from being a barren land, denuded of its trees and with its cities forsaken, to becoming a fertile land ‘like the Garden of Eden.’ By the late 19th century Zionist pioneers, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, began to immigrate into Palestine and to purchase land from absentee Arab landlords. They drained the swamps and planted trees and began the process of turning the barren land into a fertile place. The population of Jerusalem swelled from about 15,000 in 1865 to 45,472 in 1896, of whom 28,112 were Jews. The prophecy of the physical rebirth of Israel was beginning.
The Bible speaks of early and latter rains in Israel. Rabbi Menachem Cohen of Brooklyn discovered that the land of Israel ‘suffered an unprecedented, severe and inexplicable (by anything other than supernatural explanations) drought that lasted from the first century until the 19th century – a period of 1,800 years coinciding with the forced dispersion of the Jews.’ The data for 150 years in Israel beginning in the early 1800s and leading up to the 1960s shows that rainfall increased almost every single year with the heaviest rainfall coming in and around 1948 and 1967.
Ezekiel also speaks of a spiritual restoration of the land. ‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgements and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people and I will be your God.’ (Ezekiel 36.24-28)
Studying passages like this in the Hebrew prophets (Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 36-39, Joel 2-3, Zechariah 12-14) led a number of Christian Bible scholars in the 19th century to the conclusion that there would be a return to Zion of the Jewish people. Among them was David Baron (1857-1926), who came from Orthodox Judaism to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. He attended the first Zionist conference in 1897 and saw there the beginning of the ‘dry bones’ of Ezekiel 37 coming together. He believed that Israel would first be ‘born of the flesh’ (come into being as a nation) and then be ‘born of the spirit’ (experience a spiritual rebirth).
The fact that Israel is born of the flesh, but not born of the Spirit means that the sin nature in Israel will not be dealt with until they come to recognise Yeshua as Messiah. It means we should not be surprised that there are things wrong with Israel. We can see many things which are admirable in the State of Israel – the absorption of immigrants from around the world, the attempts to embody the rule of law and human rights for all citizens, Jewish and Arab, in ways which do not exist in surrounding Arab countries. Israel has done wonders with the land, developing techniques for farming arid regions which they have shared with people around the world. They have created medical and technological marvels which they are willing to share, giving medical aid to Arabs from around the Middle East.
We can also see things about Israel which are wrong. There are many aspects of the secular state which mirror the values of decadent western democracies not the law of God, for example a very high abortion rate and Tel Aviv as the homosexual capital of the Middle East. Many ultra Orthodox Jews have used the political system to fund their lifestyle, studying in yeshivas (which teach the traditions of men rather than the Word of God), not paying taxes and not serving in the army and then seeking to impose their legalistic lifestyle in a way which is contrary to love, mercy and justice in Torah.
We would not deny that there are problems in the way Israel has dealt with the Arab population. At the same time most critics of Israel on this subject fail to point out that the majority Arab response to Israel has been to seek its destruction from day one of Israel’s existence as a nation. As a result Israel has had to defend itself against this threat to its existence. In 1948 the Arabs attacked Israel with the aim of eliminating it at birth. In 1967 Nasser of Egypt openly spoke of pushing the Jews into the sea and making an end of the state of Israel in the build up to the 6 Day War. After that war Israel offered to return the territories it gained (east Jerusalem and the West Bank / Judea and Samaria, the Golan Heights, Gaza and Sinai) in return for a peace settlement, but at the Khartoum Conference in 1968 the Arabs gave the ‘Three No’s’ ‘No peace, no negotiations, no recognition of Israel.’
In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed with a charter which describes the establishment of the state of Israel as ‘entirely illegal’ (Article 19), considers Palestine, with its original Mandate borders, as the indivisible homeland of the Arab Palestinian people (1-2), urges the elimination of Zionism in Palestine and worldwide (Article 15), and strongly urges the ‘liberation’ of Palestine throughout. That charter has never been revoked despite Israeli calls for it to be so when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. In 1974 the PLO adopted a so-called ‘Phased Policy’ which said they should aim to establish a Palestinian entity in any territory Israel chose to withdraw from and then use that territory to dismantle what remained of Israel. Despite all this Israel was willing to negotiate a settlement with Arafat and PLO / Fatah in the Oslo Accords and accept in principle the existence of a two state solution, in which Israel would withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 and allow a Palestinian state to exist alongside it.
The present situation is that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza and negotiations have stalled about setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Israel’s experience of withdrawal from Gaza and the territory it occupied in southern Lebanon has seen them fall into the hands of Islamist forces aimed at their destruction, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in South Lebanon, which have fired missiles into Israel from their territories. Today Fatah, the political arm of the PLO, runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, from where its media and education system teach hatred of Israel and Jews and express the long term aim of eliminating Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian State from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean sea.
In fact the problem of relations with Arabs ties in with prophecies describing the time of trouble surrounding Israel in the last days. Psalm 83 speaks of a time when the surrounding nations will say ‘Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be remembered no more.’ Although scripture says that their attempts to destroy Israel will end in failure, end time prophecies make it clear that this will be the big issue facing Israel and even that this issue will have a world wide dimension. Ezekiel 38-9 prophesies a time when an alliance of nations, including Persia (Iran) come against Israel and are defeated by divine intervention ‘on the mountains of Israel.’ (See following article). Daniel 9.27 and Isaiah 28.14-22 imply a false peace process which does not lead to peace but to a time of trouble. The focal point of this process will be the status of Jerusalem which is described as being ‘a burdensome stone for all nations’ (Zechariah 12.12-3). The Bible prophecies also speak of the surrounding nations in turmoil with Damascus becoming ‘a ruinous heap’ (Isaiah 17.1) and Egypt being given into the hands of a cruel master as Egyptian turns against Egyptian and is unable to feed itself (Isaiah 19).
All of this lines up with the current situation in the region. The prophecies speak of a time of trouble which precedes the coming again of the Messiah. They also speak of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The section of Ezekiel which speaks of the war of Gog and Magog passage concludes with the words: ‘And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord God.’ Joel 2 also speaks of such an outpouring of the Spirit following an attack by the ‘northern army’. Zechariah 12 speaks of the spirit being poured out when the inhabitants of Jerusalem looking upon ‘Me whom they have pierced’ (Jesus the Messiah) and mourning for Him as for an only son (Zechariah 12.10). Following this, a ‘fountain shall be opened for sin and uncleanness’ (Zechariah 13.1). All of this would be fulfilled in an acceptance of Yeshua / Jesus as the Messiah when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Jewish people in the last days of this age.
In Zechariah 14 we read of the Lord coming to Jerusalem at a time of great distress when half of the city is taken and two thirds of the people are cut off and die. The text says that His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, the very place that Yeshua ascended into heaven from (Acts 1) and to which the Bible says He will return.
He will then come as King of kings and Lord of lords and rule over the nations of the world from restored Jerusalem, bringing an end to the ‘times of the Gentiles’ and regathering all of the redeemed of Israel to the land which will then become the centre of the world rule of the Messiah in the promised age of peace and justice as the prophets foretold (Isaiah 2.1-4).
In the light of all this, we would affirm that the present return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is in line with the prophecies of the Bible and a sign of the coming return of the Messiah Jesus. We should therefore ‘look up and lift up our heads because our redemption draws near’. This redemption comes only through Jesus / Yeshua, the Messiah for Jews and Gentiles, who is coming to judge the world in righteousness and fulfil all the remaining promises to Israel.