In his book “The Christ of the Covenants,” O. Palmer Robertson argues that the land promise to Abraham was meant to typify the traditional Christian hope of entering paradise. But the manner of Israel’s entry into the land of promise under the leadership of Joshua, and the conquest of the seven nations of the Canaanites dwelling there seems to discredit that interpretation. Similarly the return of the Jews after the exile in Babylon, to a province of the Persian kings, seems to have little in common with a future paradise. Robertson wrote: 
Prophecies concerning restoration to the land of promise received a “mini-realization” at the point of return after exile. Israel did return to the land after 70 years of prophesied captivity had transpired. Yet this small-scale restoration, significant though it may have been, hardly could be understood as fulfilling the magnificent expectations described by Israel’s prophets.
Robertson pointed out that the 70 years of Israel’s exile in Babylon was connected with the sabbatical years, which were not observed under the monarchy. He wrote: 
The Sabbath also relates to the linear dimension of history. In the Sabbath may be seen the pattern of progress in God’s dealings with his people through the entire extent of human history.
The “rest” of Israel’s conquest under Joshua accords with this Sabbath principle. Israel moves from captivity in Egypt through wandering in the wilderness toward “rest” in Canaan. Moses anticipates the “rest” which God was to give Israel from all its enemies (Deut. 12:9, 10). The psalmist subsequently refers to God’s denial of the “rest” for Israel because of their sin in the wilderness (Ps. 95:11). The New Testament interprets this history explicitly in terms of the Sabbath principle. Because Joshua could not give Israel “rest,” a “Sabbath” yet remains for the people of God (Heb. 4:8, 9). The “Sabbath” thereby provides a significant key to the understanding of the history of God’s people. Not only in Israel’s repetitive patterns of weekly worship, but also in God’s ordering of history, the Sabbath plays a prominent role in determining Israel’s history.
Israel’s 70 years of captivity also are interpreted by Scrripture in terms of the Sabbath principle. Because of their sin, the land of Israel had to observe an enforced accumulation of Sabbaths during the people’s exile (Lev. 26:33-35). The years of captivity had to compensate for Israel’s neglect of the sabbatical principle.
Exile from the land of promise clearly signified that the nation had been cut off from the favor of God, and the blessings that were promised to Abraham. Robertson said that Israel’s expulsion from the land of promise reversed the blessings promised in God’s covenant with Abraham. He wrote: 
The expulsion of the people of God from the land of promise at the time of exile dramatizes their massive failure under the old covenant. This manifestation of a fatal deficiency in covenantal administration does not relate simply to the Mosaic covenant of law. For the end of the Davidic monarchy and the devastation of Jerusalem fulfilled the covenantal curse associated with the Davidic covenant as well. Still further, expulsion from the land of promise may be understood only as a reversal of the beneficence expressed in the covenant with Abraham. Though circumcised formally, Abraham’s descendants now were treated as the uncircumcised, and so were cast out of the land. This enactment of covenantal curse in redemptive history vivifies the necessity for some new form of covenantal administration having a more lasting effectiveness than the form by which the covenant was administered through Abraham, Moses, and David.
If dwelling in the land represents going to heaven upon one’s death, then would not exile, and life in the diaspora, symbolize another kind of fate? Is that really what the Bible shows?
Robertson said that the land promise could not be entirely spiritualized, and in regards to the land promise, he advocated an “impure” mix of literal interpretation with figurative. He wrote: 
The new covenant lays a significant stress on internal transformation. A new heart in perfect communion with God epitomizes its blessings. Yet the context of the prophetical message concerning the new covenant resists a pure “spiritualization” of the blessings of this covenant. The language of the prophets contains far too much in terms of materially defined benedictions. The return of Israel to the land, the rebuilding of the devastated cities, the reconstitution of the nation–even resurrection from the dead–play a vital role in the prophetical formulation of new covenant expectations.
The 70 years that Jeremiah foretold was one of the things mentioned in Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks.
Robertson understood that the meaning of the land promise to Israel was connected with the exile in Babylon, and that the inferior condition of the people after their return was not a real reversal of the exile, but that during the 2nd temple period Israel still awaited the fulfillment of the promised restoration. He wrote: 
Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy includes as an integral aspect of its fulfillment the return of Israel to the land of promise after the Babylonian captivity. But still further, Jeremiah spicifically indicates that the return of Israel to the land of promise was to occur within 70 years (Jer 25:12; 29:10). The consequent “mini-realization” of the new covenant promise inherently indicates that some typological factor must be involved in the fulfillment of new covenant prophecy. Obviously the return of Israel to Palestine in 537 B.C. at the decree of King Cyrus of Persia did not meet all the requirements laid down in prophecy concerning the new covenant. Yet it symbolically represented the reestablishment of the people of God in accordance with the provisions of the new covenant.
But is a future in heaven after this present life ends really what the land promise represents? Is the promised land even a reasonable symbol for it? Robertson seems a bit uncertain, in his concluding paragraph: 
Some might insist that “literal” fulfillment of new covenant prophecy requires the return of ethnic Israel to a geographically located Palestine. Yet the replacement of the typological with the actual as a principle of biblical interpretation points to another kind of “literal” fulfillment.
The historical return to a “land of promise” by a small remnant 70 years after Jeremiah’s prophecy encourages hope in the final return to paradise lost by the newly constituted “Israel of God.” As men from all nations had been dispossessed and alienated from the original creation, so now they may hope for restoration and peace, even to the extent of anticipating a “land of promise” sure to appear in the new creation, and sure to be enjoyed by a resurrected people.
If Palestine is a symbol of the Christian paradise, that message seems to be rather obscure in the Bible.
If that interpretation were true, what significance was there in Israel having to fight against the Canaanites for seven years? Robertson’s interpretation in “The Christ of the Covenants” does not seem to fit the historical events.
In the prophecy of the 70 weeks, Daniel identified three periods: seven weeks, sixty two weeks, and one week, which are also periods of “seven times.” Together with the period of exile in Babylon, they amount to four periods of seven times, and these four periods correspond to the four periods of seven times described in Leviticus 26. In the last of these, the people would become reconciled to God, and God would be reconciled to them, and he would remember his covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he would remember the land. In Daniel 9:11, the curse that was poured out upon Israel during the exile may be identified with the first of the four periods of seven times in Leviticus 26.
The first two sections of the seventy weeks point to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. In the final week Jesus confirms his covenant with many. This refers to the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and the Gospel; in Jesus, the promised seed of Abraham, all nations will be blessed. The first half week was the ministry of Jesus and the final half week is symbolic, and spans the whole age of the church.
The land, too, is part of the promise to Abraham. I suggest that the promise of the land of Canaan is fulfilled to those who are Abraham’s children by faith. Their return to “the faith once delivered” is represented by the prophets as Israels restoration to the promised land. As part of fulfilling the covenant, Christ will lead his saints out of all the places where they have been scattered. Prophecies of Israel possessing the promised land represent the saints receiving spiritual blessings such as understanding the prophecies, and the Gospel.
Copyright © 2010, 2012, 2013 by Douglas E. Cox
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