“How should the evangelical community in America view the present nation of Israel?” I’ve been asked.
I would like to answer, but with this caveat. While I now identify myself as an evangelical Presbyterian, I was raised in Judaism and spent seven years, from ages 6 to 13, almost every weekday in a synagogue Hebrew school. I had relatives who emigrated from Romania to Israel after somehow surviving the Holocaust. One can hardly write on such a topic without admitting freely that with this background it is difficult to be objective.
Jews from time immemorial have looked for a place where they might govern themselves, i.e., control their own destiny and, especially, be free from persecution simply because they are Jewish. The establishment of a place on this globe, even though it is only the size of New Jersey, was welcome news when the State of Israel was established in l948. (My grandmother planted a tree in celebration.) In this I am elated, and I hope, or would like to believe, that evangelicals are in sympathy with all peoples who desire to live without fear.
Not all answers to the aforementioned question can be addressed here. Of course we must hold that we are never to endorse what we discern to be ethically or morally wrong. I was asked point blank by an Arab Christian one time whose side is God on. Was He on the side of the Arabs or Israel? I told him what I believe to be true: that God was always on the side of right. It was hard for him not to agree on that score, but the problem is, everybody thinks they are right! If Israel—or any nation—is right in an endeavor, they should have approval. And if wrong, disapproval. As to the issue of what is meant by support or endorsement, that’s another matter, and the kind of support depends entirely on the issue.
For now, let’s discuss whether or not the constitution of the State of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. How evangelicals view this question, it seems to me, has determined their attitudes—right or wrong—toward support of Israel. To rephrase, if the present nation of Israel is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises, shouldn’t we, as believers who hold the Scriptures to be infallible, give Israel our unqualified support?
God’s dealings with Israel, as they’re presented in Scripture, have been a divisive issue among brothers and sisters for too long. I have close friends, fellow ministers and, I suspect, even colleagues, who look upon the topic differently then I do. I am glad to report that it has made no difference whatsoever in our fellowship, at least none that I can tell. However, I am not dull to the fact that there is a sharp difference in the way we approach these Old Testament prophecies. (Thankfully, there is no discernable squabble regarding the most important aspect of Old Testament prophecies, that a Messiah was promised for God’s people and that Jesus Christ is that Messiah.) With this understanding, allow me to present one perspective on how Christians should view the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and what our support or endorsement of it should be.
Abraham and the Land of Promise
The first question is this: According to Scripture, did God promise the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, Israel? The question is hardly debatable (Genesis 12:7; 13:15-17; 15:7,18, and at least six other references). This promise to Abraham was made in union with a second promise—that God would make from him a great nation (Genesis 13:16; 15:5 and several others). God confirmed His promise to Abraham with an amazing feat. The Lord, like a firepot with a blazing torch to represent His presence, descended between animals that Abraham had cut in two and thereby pledged to the death, as it were, to keep His promise to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 15:17-18).
To state it in the vernacular, God swore to die if He did not keep His word! And we see in Joshua 21:43-45 that God was faithful. Joshua tells us that God’s promises to the patriarchs had all been fulfilled. We see it explicitly in Joshua 21:43-45: “So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their forefathers. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord handed all their enemies over to them. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled [italics added].” God made good His commitment to Abraham. He honored His word. He doesn’t have to fulfill it again.
Does that mean then, that according to the Bible, the land of Canaan belonged to Israel for all times unequivocally? No. And by my understanding of the Scriptures, the founding of the State of Israel was not a fulfillment of prophecy. (See “The Character of Israel’s future in light of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants,” Trinity Journal, Spring 2004, p. 39-59.)
God clearly promised Abraham that the land was his and his seed’s forever as an everlasting possession (Genesis 13:15; 17:8). But it is on this word, forever, that there’s confusion. We must not assume that the Old Testament word that is translated forever always means “always, without reservations.” There are two passages in the Old Testament where this especially is made clear. One is 1 Samuel 2:30. Here the Lord is addressing Eli the priest, whose sons violated their sacred office. “I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before me forever.’ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” It is apparent that the promise of forever to Eli’s house meant as long as Eli’s house honored the Lord. The Old Testament audience surely understood that; anything else would be presumptuous.
Another passage is Isaiah 32:14-15. “The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever, the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks, till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest.” Again, forever is not “always.” It is “until the Spirit is poured out from on high.” Here are two clear-cut examples where forever does not mean “always, without reservations.” In these passages forever is provisional, i.e., a condition understood.
The word means “always, without reservations” if the conditions are the same. The meaning of forever then, as it pertains to Israel and the land, would be clarified throughout Israel’s history, in the progressive revelation of Scripture, and in God’s covenant with Moses.
In the Mosaic Covenant we see that the occupation of the land depended on the nation of Israel’s obedience to the Law of Moses. In other words, God gave the land to Israel to possess as promised—but only for as long as Israel was faithful. The land was never Israel’s; it belonged to the Lord. “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23; Joel 1:6). The Israelites were honored lessees. Israel therefore forfeited their right to the land by their disobedience. They were cast out into the Diaspora, and a better, New Covenant—one without the land promises to Israel—was set in place.
The New Testament never renews any promise of the land of Canaan to Israel.
Israel and the Old Testament Prophets
But what about the Old Testament prophets who made numerous promises/prophecies about the re-establishment of the nation in their land? Do not they describe God’s restoration of Israel as chief among the nations? They most emphatically do. Even a cursory perusal of the prophets reveals this. Shouldn’t these promises of national restoration be taken literally?
A well-favored response today is that these prophecies should be understood in a figurative or typological sense. The promises made to Israel by the prophets speak of higher heavenly realities which would lead to better things to come than the temporal blessings spelled out for a mainly agricultural society of the ancient past. Indeed, they present an enlightened glimpse of what the kingdom of God is, in Christ, by the word pictures of a glorious kingdom promised to Israel. They should be taken as shadows of far better things to come and translated into spiritual blessings for all of God’s people presently. I fully concur.
And while the Old Testament prophets meant for their words to be taken literally or at face value, these promises were explicitly contingent on Israel’s faithfulness. Because of Israel’s rebellion against God, those promises never came to fruition. And when the Mosaic Covenant was annulled, both the conditions and promises they rested on became outmoded (Jeremiah 31:31-32; Hebrews 8:13; 10:1). It was not as though God annulled the Mosaic Covenant. Israel did. “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke …” (Jeremiah 31:32). The word forbroke means to annul or to void, like a husband who could cancel an oath that his wife made (Numbers 30:8-13). Ancient treaties were annulled to make way for new ones. And as to the promises of land to Israel? Israel forfeited them by their rebellion, and included in that forfeiture was the promise of a return to the land if Israel repented. The prospect of those promises set the Old Testament prophets ablaze (Isaiah 62).
Israel and the New Testament
So we see that the New Testament says nothing about a promise to restore the nation of Israel. It does, however, say much about thepeople of Israel—and there is a difference. Israel was a people for more than 400 years before they became a nation, and Israel continued as a people after the nation came to an end. The apostle Paul states this succinctly in Romans 11:25-26. “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.’” While the meaning of Israel in 11:26 is passionately debated, it can’t mean anything other than ethnic Israel, i.e., thepeople of Israel.
What does the apostle mean, then, when he says “all [the people] Israel will be saved?” He says nothing about a restoration of the nation in Palestine after the Old Testament model. (He also never denies it.) To be sure, as one writer put it, “the Spirit’s silence is deafening” pertaining to restoration of Israel in their land in just the place where one would expect it. The salvation of Israel—that is, the future of the people—is a part of the mystery of God’s plan. How this is to come about is not disclosed, and therefore, to avoid misleading others, it is best to leave it as a mystery. So where does that leave us?
The State of Israel and the Present
A remarkable thing occurred in l948. A people who had been widely scattered over this globe for over two millennia reestablished themselves in their ancient homeland. Their survival alone over such a long period of time is astonishing (where are the Philistines, Ammonites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jebusites, Perizzites, Moabites, Hivites, Hurrians, Pezzirites, Jebusites, Philistines, and numerous peoples from that ancient milieu today?), especially in the light of an incredibly long history of anti-Semitism where not thousands but millions of Jews were uprooted and decimated. In light of that and the Jews’ return to their land, how can one say that this is not a work of divine providence? When Oliver Cromwell asked one of his chaplains how one could be sure that the Scriptures are true, his chaplain is reported to have said, “The Jew.” The people of Israel, in spite of it all, are not only still here but also once more a nation.
So while the establishment of the nation of Israel is not a fulfillment of prophecy, it is certainly an act of God’s providence. (How can my brother Calvinists dispute that?) The reconstitution of the “wandering Jew” as a nation after two millennia does injustice to the word remarkable. How this will all play out according to Romans 11:26 and “all Israel will be saved” is a matter of conjecture. But it suggests that in some way, according to God’s divine plan, the people of Abraham are once more in position, as perhaps never before, for a return to the God of Abraham.
So, again, where does that leave us? With regard to the politics of that nation, we must always be on the side of what is right, as best as we can tell. It is not Israel-right-or-wrong, but how a government of any nation behaves. (That is certainly exemplified in the way the Lord Himself dealt with Israel in the Old Testament.) The political issues are complex, ever changing, and difficult to sort through.
Certainly, every government must be responsible for the protection of its people. And since the United States played the major role in establishing the State of Israel amidst a sea of hostility, we are accountable. From a moral perspective, we cannot “leave them hanging out to dry.” They are also allies with us concerning the democratic values we hold dear. And from a utilitarian perspective they maintain a foothold, though small, in an area of the world that desperately needs that kind of influence. I do not maintain that Israel is in that land because the Scripture promised it, but Israel has been reconstituted, I believe, because God, in His providence, has put them there—a part of His undisclosed design.
If one wants to support the State of Israel in worthwhile causes that is, of course, his prerogative and something that can express profound gratitude. For it was that nation and people that brought us our salvation. “Indeed they [the Gentiles] owe it to them [Israel]. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their [Israel’s] spiritual blessings, they [the Gentiles] ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:27). Jesus told the Samaritan woman that salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and we are profoundly indebted. But one should not assume that there is a biblical mandate. Projects to raise funds to support the State of Israel with the assumption that it promotes the return of the Messiah have no Scriptural warrant.
The People of Israel and the Present
So we make a distinction between the government of Israel and the people of Israel. We recognize that more Jewish people continue to live outside of Israel than within that nation, and that the Scripture cited above addresses the future salvation of the people. This is where our focus should be.
The conversion of “all Israel” will bring God’s blessings to untold millions. The apostle said, “Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!”(Romans 11:12). Without question, the salvation of “all Israel” can only bring worldwide benefits beyond imagination. In Pesth, Hungary, a Hebrew professor, John Duncan, in the name of “Him whom the nations abhors,” baptized more than a hundred Jews. Dr. Duncan remarked about his converts, “In reading the New Testament with them, they found it speaks so exactly to their own circumstances—their joys, their hopes, their difficulties, their trials—that they used to read the epistles of Paul day after day, as if they had been letters that had come by that morning’s post.”
The glorious promises made to Israel in the Old Testament serve as a truncated look at the glories to come. Wonderful opportunities forfeited by Israel in the past are but shadows compared with those that are and will be offered on a much grander scale in the future. I would not dare to attempt to describe what lies ahead lest my faltering words detract from that glory. Might it include a restoration of the administration of God’s kingdom by Israel from the land of Israel? Certainly the unprecedented reestablishment of their homeland by this ancient people after almost two millennia argues in favor of such a suggestion. But to leave it at this alone may be to distort our understanding of God’s promise to Abraham and all his spiritual descendants that they would be heirs of the world (Romans 4:13).
A Jewish woman recently told me that we should not attempt to evangelize the Jews. I replied, “We are not attempting to evangelize the Jews. We’re trying to evangelize everybody!” God’s good promise is a compelling motivation to present the gospel to Israel not only for their benefit but for all other nations as well. Pray that the Lord will bring about this revival of hope for the good of all, Jew and Gentile alike.
Robert Vasholz has served as chairman of the Old Testament department at Covenant Theological Seminary for nearly 25 years. His bookThe Old Testament Canon in the Old Testament Church has been translated into several languages. This spring, A Book of Benedictions for pastors and a commentary on Leviticus are forthcoming.
The Significance of Israel Today
ByFaith asked two pastors this question: What is the spiritual significance of the present state of Israel? Here are their replies:
—Christopher Robins, senior pastor, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Ga.:
The significance of the nation state of Israel means nothing, and yet it means everything.
How can it mean nothing? We cannot confuse the modern state of Israel with the ancient people of God who were called the namesake of Jacob. At a practical level, as the genealogies show us, there must be proof of descent from the 12 tribes. The records are lost, and without them there is no credibility. At a spiritual level, there is no connection. Ethnicity eclipses the religious identity that is necessary for claiming prophetic fulfillment.
How can it mean everything? What little eschatology we understand, we know this: Our God is no abstraction, and neither is His work. It happens in space and time, and in the past He appointed this strip of land called Palestine for His revelation and incarnation. And now, as the fulfillment of all things approaches, this place will again have amazing significance. We will be witnesses of what happens in Jerusalem, and the whole earth will cry out as John did, “We have beheld the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth.”
—Dr. Robert Orner, senior pastor, Christ Church, Newnan, Ga.:
The land occupied by the current nation of Israel is rich in history and an important resource for a deeper understanding of Scripture. It is a stark reminder that believers are citizens of the eternal and unshakeable kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. This kingdom far exceeds any earthly nation and in it, all the promises of Scripture are being fulfilled. It expands through the faithful proclamation of the gospel, as God draws to Himself peoples of every ethnic and cultural group, including Arabs. Particularly God will gather to Himself a vast multitude of His much-loved Jewish people.