Israel in Prophecy (Between the Testaments)

If you start reading the Bible from the start, it doesn't take very long before you run into the concept of the "Chosen People." The most obvious starting point for this is in Genesis 12, where God makes a covenant with Abram (later Abraham). Eventually this covenant gets upgraded when God confirms a similar covenant with Abraham's descendants, the nation of Israel (Exodus 19 and 24). And so, throughout the rest of the Bible, the Israelites are clearly identifies as the chosen people of God. So far, so clear.

But when the New Testament comes around, the identity of "God's people" seems to get redefined in some ways. Suddenly, Gentiles (non-Jewish/Israelite people) are being welcomed into the family of the Abrahamic covenant, worshipping Abraham & Israel's God and knowing him through the person of Jesus. Some of the language that was used in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) for the Israelites (Exodus 19:6) gets used in the New Testament to refer to the Christian Church (1 Peter 2:9). The question, then, becomes who makes up "the people of God" now? And what about God's promises and plans for the literal nation of Israel? Does God have a separate plan for them aside from his plan to send Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and to start the church?

This question is very important and pressing for us today because for many Christians, beliefs about how the Israel of the Hebrew Bible relates to the Christian Church and Biblical prophecy affects real-world politics and social events. Some Christians strongly believe that supporting the modern state of Israel is an unquestionable requirement in order to be faithful to God, and many further believe that Israel as a modern nation state is necessary for God's prophetic timeline and the second coming of Christ to be fulfilled.

Dispensationalism

Because of a particular brand of theology known as dispensationalism, many people today - especially in North America - think of Christian teachings about the end times (eschatology) in reference to things like the Rapture, the seven years of tribulation, and events taking place in the Holy Land and the literal city of Jerusalem. Dispensationalist teachings have been popularized in the imagination of Christians and non-Christians alike by the Left Behind fictional book series, which depicts the end-time events through the lens of dispensational theology.

But is the dispensationalist framework an accurate way of interpreting the Bible? For one thing, this approach to interpreting the scriptures, and especially prophecy, was not really used by any Christians until the 1830s. Perhaps one of the biggest face-value problems with dispensationalism is it's connection to Fundamentalism - a movement in the late 19th and especially early 20th centuries that sought to resist liberal movements in theology by taking a more literal approach to the scriptures. Dispensationalism came from an assumption that the best way to interpret the Bible was literally, which required that any predictions about historical "Israel" would have to be literally fulfilled.

Last week we looked at Paul's own analysis of the relationship between Israel, the Messiah, the Church, and the world in Romans 9-11, and how it blurs the line between Church and Israel. This week, we are going to take a look at how to interpret prophecies about Israel from the Hebrew Bible and understand how they get fulfilled in the New Testament in a way that affirms the truth and accuracy of the Old Testament prophecies without requiring an application to literal Israel every time.

Interpretive Frameworks

There are four major ways we can approach the fulfilment of prophecies from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament and beyond. First, a humanistic approach or purely secular view would deny the possibility of the Bible accurately predicting things ahead of time. If a prophecy seems unfulfilled, that is simply because it was only a human prediction and nothing more, so of course it could be wrong. But conversely, Bible scholars who approach the scripture from a secular viewpoint will also often assume that prophetic literature that accurately describes later events (for example, chapters 7 and 8 in Daniel) must have actually been written later in history, after those events happened. In such a case, the authors would have simply been writing as if their book had been written a long time ago and predicted the future.

Secondly, there is the spiritualizing approach, which is the polar opposite of the humanistic view. Here, predictions about Israel as God's people that seem not to be fulfilled are, instead, fulfilled metaphorically, allegorically, or "spiritually," usually through the Church. In this case, the predictions were never really "about" Israel in the first place, but rather, were always ultimately about the Church. This approach allows the interpreter to say that everything in the Hebrew Bible has "come true," but it doesn't account for passages in the prophets that seem to point beyond the time of Jesus and indicate the end of the world. Those things certainly haven't been fulfilled yet! This spiritualizing approach may also go too far, since we can tell within the Hebrew Bible that there is definitely a serious concern with the literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Thirdly, there is the consistent literalist approach that is related to both Fundamentalism more broadly and Dispensationalism more specifically. In this approach, in order for an Old Testament prophecy to be fulfilled, it must be fulfilled literally. One of the crucial points here is that dispensationalists believe that in order for all biblical prophecy to be fulfilled - and therefore, in order for Jesus to come back - the literal nation of Israel must return to live in the Promised Land. The problem is, this has not occurred in earth's history, so the dispensationalist is left with only one option: some of these prophesies are still unfulfilled, and need to be fulfilled sometime in the future. Under this paradigm, it is possible to develop a theology where the modern state of Israel is an absolutely essential part of God's plan.

Because of their commitment to these dispensationalist beliefs, many Evangelicals believe it is their religious duty to support the modern state of Israel, in order for all the promises and predictions contained in scripture to be fulfilled for that nation. Take, for example, a passage like Isaiah 65:17-25, which starts off describing a "new heavens and new earth." It would seem to be describing the new creation, the world after the second coming of Christ. But this passage also contains references to people growing old and dying, just at a much slower rate:

17 For I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
   or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
   in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight.

[...]

20 No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

[...]

25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
   the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
(NRSV)

This passage we just quoted is interesting. It contains language that many of us might associate with heaven (the wolf and the lamb shall feed together), or perhaps the new creation (see verse 17 above). But it also treats death as if it's still a present reality, something that still comes for people, though at a much later time. This is significantly different than the picture we see in the book of Revelation - where death itself is destroyed:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 NRSV)

Do you notice how there are similarities and differences between Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21? In both passages, there is talk about a New Heavens and New Earth. In both passages, there is a mention of Jerusalem. And in both passages, there is some kind of reference to the removal of harm, pain, weeping, and/or destruction.

To make it more complicated (sorry!), the Isaiah 65 passage assumes the ongoing reality of death, although a different passage, Isaiah 25:8, does mention the removal of death (the NIV notes this verse as the likely reference being made in Revelation 21:4):

6 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
   a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
   the best of meats and the finest of wines.
7 On this mountain he will destroy
   the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
8    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
   from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
   from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 25:6-8 NIV)

Interestingly, the Isaiah 25 passage also seems to have a significant focus on Mount Zion, the hill where the Temple was built. This seems to have a more universal scope - talking about all the nations coming together. But the passage also contains a reference to the specific destruction of the ancient civilization of Moab (see verse 10), which seems a little out of place if we interpreted the passage today as being about the future. Moab no longer exists, strictly speaking, so a prophecy about the destruction of Moab is not something we could see being fulfilled literally today.

Obviously, there can be some serious puzzles when interpreting prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. So how can we make sense of this?

As I alluded to above, there is a fourth possible approach to interpreting Old Testament prophecy, which involves distinguishing between Conditional and Unconditional Prophecy. Unconditional prophecies are things that depend solely on God's action. God has decided that something will take place (Jesus, the Son, coming to earth to die for humanity's sins), and that is going to happen no matter what. As a result, the world will never be the same. This kind of prophecy does not depend on human actions in order to make it come true.

On the other side, Conditional Prophecies are predictions that accompany warnings and instructions. Essentially, they say, "This good thing will happen to your nation if...," or "This terrible thing will happen to you all if...." Sometimes, this conditional "if" language is not spelled out explicitly and must be gathered from the context. These kinds of prophecies seem to appear all over writings of the Hebrew prophets. Because their job is not merely to predict the future but mostly to help guide and purify the lifestyle of the people of Israel in their own time, the prophets spend a lot of time pointing the people back to their covenant agreement with God, reminding them that there are conditions for them to receive God's favour and maintain their partnership with him. Deuteronomy 28 famously lays out blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience - reminders that Israel must follow God's ways in order for their purpose to be fulfilled and for God's blessings to flow through them.

In Ezekiel 40-48, the prophet sees a vision of a grandiose, beautiful rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. While the description is pretty awe-inspiring, a temple matching this description has never been built. But in Ezekiel 43, this crucial detail is given:

5 Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.

6 While the man was standing beside me, I heard someone speaking to me from inside the temple. 7 He said: “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever. The people of Israel will never again defile my holy name—neither they nor their kings—by their prostitution and the funeral offerings for their kings at their death. 8 When they placed their threshold next to my threshold and their doorposts beside my doorposts, with only a wall between me and them, they defiled my holy name by their detestable practices. So I destroyed them in my anger. 9 Now let them put away from me their prostitution and the funeral offerings for their kings, and I will live among them forever.

10 “Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins. Let them consider its perfection, 11 and if they are ashamed of all they have done, make known to them the design of the temple—its arrangement, its exits and entrances—its whole design and all its regulations[d] and laws. Write these down before them so that they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations. (NIV)

As you can see from verses 9 and 10, Ezekiel is experiencing this vision while the Israelites are still in captivity, in exile, and God is using this vision of a beautiful, restored temple to motivate the people to repent of their sins and follow God's law again. Assumedly, if they don't do this, then the vision may not ever come true. And this situation - the people not having enough of a change of heart to fully leave behind sin - is the situation we run into in Daniel 9. There, God tells Daniel that, in fact, the people haven't been fully repentant, and so the 70-year exile will be extended 7 times over!  So it seems that Ezekiel's dream was never to come true.

But complicating it further, the prophet Haggai (after the exile) reinforced the hope that the new temple in Jerusalem would be more glorious than the original one built by Solomon. In spite of the new temple built by Zerubbabel not being nearly as beautiful or impressive as the first, Haggai said:

‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the Lord. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

6 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (Haggai 2:3-9 NIV)

So, somehow a number of seemingly contradictory things must be true at the same time:

  1. God promises to give Israel a great and glorious temple that is basically the center of the world if they repent and obey. (Ezekiel 40-48) In Ezekiel 47 we specifically see that God's power will come out from this temple and flood the whole world with healing.
  2. Israel doesn't repent and obey. They may end up going home from Babylon, but their exile is being extended 7 times longer. (Daniel 9)
  3. The second temple they end up building isn't very impressive. (Haggai 2)
  4. God will eventually make the second temple more glorious than the first. (Haggai 2)

It seems like some of these points are a little contradictory, and possibly like this never gets fulfilled. We know that the second temple - the one built after the exile - got beautified a bit under the leadership of the Herod dynasty, but ultimately was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and has never been rebuilt to this day.

But what we get instead is a change in what the prophetic predictions meant. God might have given Israel the temporal restoration they were promised in Ezekiel's time, with a temple that served as the central place for all nations to come meet God. But instead, their rebellion meant that God would fulfil this same idea in a different way. The temple that the people got, which was more glorious than either of the physical temples that had been built before, was Christ himself - God him human form. In Christ, Israel's God did return to be present in the temple in Jerusalem (compare Ezekiel 43 to Jesus in the gospels). Christ's body, acting as the temple hosting God's presence, was the vehicle by which God's healing power reached out far beyond the literal temple to touch the world with grace and mercy. Christ comes to enact his ministry near the end of the time period of extended exile mentioned in Daniel 9.

In this regard, we can see that the prophecies in the Old Testament were partly conditional, partly symbolic, and also, partly applicable to the distant future but in a new way. For example, the language used in Ezekiel 47:6-12 about the possible future of the temple in literal Jerusalem gets picked up and re-interpreted in Revelation 21:9-22:5.

Conclusion

If this seems complex, it's because in many ways it is. Understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments can be very challenging, but it's one of the most rewarding and deep parts of studying scripture. One thing that is for sure is that Jesus himself did not always take every prophecy in the Hebrew Bible literally. While Ezekiel and Haggai made predictions about the physical temple in Jerusalem, Jesus comes along and announces that his own body is the new Temple of God (John 2:13-22). It is not safe to only look for literal fulfilment of prophecy. We have to keep in mind the complexity of God's word and God's ability to bring out new and unexpected meanings that we might not have known to look for.

Most importantly for this study, always keep in mind that many (but certainly not all!) of the prophecies about the People of God in the Hebrew Bible part of the covenant relationship between Israel and God, and as such are conditional on Israel's faithfulness to the terms of the covenant. Next week we will look at apocalyptic prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and how it points to an unmovable, unchangeable, unconditional plan that doesn't depend on the faithfulness of humans, but only on the faithfulness of God.

Study Questions:

Here are some questions for you to read through that will help you understand the relationship between Israel and the Church. Read through the passages and write down your answers to the questions, or talk through them with a friend.

  • Read Deuteronomy 28 and make note of anything that stands out to you. How does conditionality work in God's covenant with Israel?
  • Read Isaiah 65:17-25, and note which parts seem like they line up with descriptions of Heaven and the New Creation, and which parts don't. Use the last three chapters of Revelation for comparison. Do the same with Isaiah 25:6-8. Which parts seem to be universally applicable and which parts seem to be about a specific time and place? Can these distinctions be harmonized?
  • Read and compare Ezekiel 8-10 to Ezekiel 43:1-12. How do you think the later passage would have come across to Jewish people who had been exiled from their land, seen their temple destroyed, and felt like God had abandoned them?
    • Do you notice any conditional sounding language in the Ezekiel 43 passage?
  • Read Ezekiel 45:7-12. How would this passage have come across to Jesus' disciples? (Consider their experience/perspective in Acts 1:4-7, Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30.
    • Do you notice any conditional sounding language in the Ezekiel 45 passage?
  • Read Haggai 1:13-2:9. How does this prediction get fulfilled in Luke 19:45-20:8, 21:1-6, 21:37-38, John 2:13-22.

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

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