Genesis records that after the flood, the people of the earth
began to build tower, and a city, but God confounded their languages,
and so they
became scattered over the earth. [Genesis
In the 12th chapter of Genesis, God called Abram out of his homeland, to another land. The promise of Genesis 12:3, "in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" alludes to the gospel, as Paul indicates in Galatians 3:8.
The entire Old Testament is about the descendants of Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, and the promises made to them, and Israel's possession of the
promise, and their removal from it. There was a partial return, after a
period of captivity in Babylon, but the prophets spoke of a yet future
restoration of the people both to the land, and to God.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann stated:
Land is a defining theme in Old Testament tradition.
The Old Testament is
preoccupied with the concrete particularity of land, thereby assuring
that Israel's faith is in touch with the public, material,
economic aspects of living in the world. For that reason, one cannot
consider the faith of the Old Testament or the God of the Old Testament
without at the same time being concerned with socioeconomic analysis,
land is not just a "good idea," but actual real estate that evokes and
hosts profound hope, imaginative social policy deep moral conflict,
savage acts of violence, and acute communal disappointment.... The
story of the early part of the Bible thus is the
movement from land
anticipation to land governance and finally to land loss, culminating
the deportation and displacement from the land, signalled as "exile."
Remarkably in this tradition preoccupied with land, the exile is the
defining signature event of ancient Israel. The exile, moreover, became
the matrix in which the ancient promises of land were reiterated
Thus the great prophetic traditions of Isaiah 40--55, Jeremiah 30-31,
Ezekiel 33-48 all assure exilic Israel that God will once again give
to Israel as it was first given to the heirs of the ancestors (see Isa.
49:19-20; 51:2-3; Jer. 31:12-14,
utterances the gift of land is again in prospect. Again YHWH
guarantees, and again Israel is to trust the promise and receive the
themes, by Walter
Brueggemann. [Westminster John Knox Press, 2002] p. 120-123
While the journey to the promised land, conquest, possession of it, and then loss of the land is the defining theme in the history of Israel in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, the OT promises concerning the land are reinterpreted; the children of Abraham become those who believe in Christ, rather than his literal flesh and blood descendants. Paul wrote, "For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel," [Romans 9:6] showing that the name "Israel" does not mean those who are literal descendants of Jacob, but it now applies to those having faith in Christ.
"Israel" was thus redefined, and included Gentile believers, who were brought nigh to the commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of promise, by faith. These include the hope of the resurrection from the dead, and immortality, that was demonstrated by the fact that Abraham received a promise that he would receive the land, but did not receive any of it in his lifetime. The promise of a resurrection exceeds any land promise, whatever its extent!
In Ephesians 2:4-11, Paul spoke of Gentile Christians having been "made nigh" to the commonweath of Israel by Christ's blood. He said the "middle wall of partition," a wall in the court of the Jewish temple that separated Jew from Gentile, was now gone, so now, both Jew and Gentile had access to God through Christ.
In view of this, the promise of possession of the land must be understood in a different way. Like the ritual sacrifices, it too was a type, and a figure of better and greater things that are promised to the saints.
O. Palmer Robertson wrote:
The possession of the land under the old covenant was
not an end in
itself, but fit instead among the shadows, types, and prophecies that
were characteristic of the old covenant in its presentation of
truth. Just as the tabernacle was never intended to be a settled item
the plan of redemption but was to point to Christ's tabernacling among
his people (cf. John 1:14),
and just as the sacrificial system could
never atone for sins but could only foreshadow the offering of the Son
God (Heb. 9:23-26),
in a similar manner Abraham received the promise
of the land but never experienced the blessing of its full possession.
this way, the patriarch learned to look forward to "the city with
foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10).
[O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. P&R, 2000] p. 13.
The "land promise" made to Abraham, and his not receiving it, is a
doctrine in the New Testament, as it implies his resurrection for its
fulfilment. The same promise of eternal life is what is promised to the
saints. It is what the land promise pictures; our eternal inheritance.
But the saints may have a foretaste of that promise now. The prophecies
given around the time of the exile and return of the Jews from Babylon
picture the church again possessing their land, under the figure of
Israel being brought back from all the countries where they were
scattered. These prophecies could not be referring to Jews returning to
Palestine, as they speak of the people having a "new heart" and spirit,
which are New Covenant promises, applied to the church in Hebrews 8 and
The prophet Ezekiel spoke of the people of Israel as sheep, in Ezekiel 36:24-28. They are described as scattered over the face of the earth. God says, "For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God."
The Jews in Israel today don't fulfil this prophecy; they are not
like sheep at all. Their armed forces are equipped with nuclear
weapons. Their leaders persue a policy of aggressive expansion and
encroachment upon the
territory of their Palestinian neighbours.
I suggest Ezekiel's prophecy applies instead to the church, those
who Christ called his sheep, when it is restored to
faith once delivered to the saints." [Jude 1:3]
Similarly, in Ezekiel
37:21-24, the Israelites being gathered from
among the heathen and brought into their own land, where they are
settled upon "the
mountains of Israel," pictures the church restored to their promises;
mountains are symbolic of the promises, prophecies and revelations of
Ezekiel said "David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd." Jesus reigns on the throne of David [Luke 1:32]; he is the one with the "key of David." [Revelation 3:7] The prophet speaks of Jesus under the figure of David, as he is the promised Messiah of David's line. Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep; even David said, "The Lord is my shepherd." [Psalm 32:1]
While the transcendent nature of the land promise, and the prophecies of the Old Testament, was recognized by the apostles, who invariably applied them to Christ, and to the church, their spiritual intent was also clearly evident in the Old Testament. The return to the land foretold by the prophets was always accompanied by repentance, and reconciliation to God, which are entirely missing in the modern secular Jewish state. In A Christian Approach To Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel, Chris Wright wrote:
Moreover, even in the Old Testament itself, there was an awareness that the fulfilment of prophecies that were made in terms of the concrete realities of Israel's life and faith would actually go beyond them. The familiar dimensions of Israel's national life are transcended in various ways. For example: the restoration of the exiles would be a reunification of ancient Judah and Israel into one renewed and repentant people, an event which never happened historically (Jer. 50:4f., 33; Ezek. 37:15ff.); the people of God would be restored to the full, perfect and eternal experience of their covenant relationship with Yahweh (Jer. 50:5, Ezek. 36, 39:25-39); the law would not only be perfectly obeyed by Israel, but also be sought out by all the nations of the earth (Jer. 31:33; 32:39-41; Isa. 2:3; 51:4f.); the new Davidic kingdom would be worldwide, and the new king would be perfect in all those respects where the historical kings had failed (Isa. 9:6f., 11:1-5, Jer. 23:1-6, Ezek. 34:1-24, 37:15-28); the new temple would be miraculously filled with the glory of God and the river of life (Ezek. 43:1-5, 47:1-12). In other words, there seems to be an awareness that although the future has to be described in concepts drawn from Israel's historical nationhood, it will in fact ultimately transcend them.
Thus to claim that Old Testament prophecy can have a deeper spiritual meaning than its literal form is not some kind of Christian 'trick'. The dispensationalist's accusation that those who interpret prophecy in terms of a spiritual rather than a literalistic fulfilment are not taking the Old Testament seriously is false. For the Old Testament itself sometimes sees beyond the literal forms of its own eschatology.
Copyright © 2010, 2012, 2013 by Douglas E. Cox
All Rights Reserved.