Today many think that the State of Israel is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, but keep in mind that, Abraham never possessed the land, not even enough ‘’to set his foot on’’ (Acts 7:5). The patriarchs inherited the heavenly Canaan (Heb. 11:16), of which the earthly is but a type.
Hebrews 3:19 teaches that the Israelites “could not enter in because of unbelief.” In Ezekiel 33:25-26, God asks the rhetorical question, “Ye eat with the blood, and lift up your eyes towards your idols, and shed blood, and shall ye possess the land? Ye stand upon your sword, ye work abomination, and ye defile every one his neighbour’s wife, and shall ye possess the land?” Clearly impenitence and unbelief were barriers to inheriting the land, so how could unbelieving Jews possessing Palestine in 1948 be the fulfilment of prophecy?
To interpret prophecy with bald literalism requires consistency. Shall the Gentiles keep the feast of tabernacles at Jerusalem (Zech. 14:16-19)? Jesus indicates that geographically-determined worship will cease: “…believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John 4:21). Wouldn’t some future return to the feast of tabernacles be a step back into the shadows (Col. 2:17), and a turning again to the “weak and beggarly elements” of the law (Gal. 4:9-11)? Isaiah prophesies that “it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set his hand the second time to recover the remnant of his people’’ (Isa. 11:11). If this glorious promise, as some maintain, was fulfilled in 1948 with the establishment of a national Israel, where is the restoration of the Philistines, Edom, Moab, and the children of Ammon who are to be her vassals? These nations have disappeared and were not restored in 1948. A literal fulfilment of Isaiah 11 requires that Israel “shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines toward the west…they shall lay their hand upon Edom and Moab, and the children of Ammon shall obey them’’ (v. 14). God hated the Edomites and “laid [their] mountains and [their] heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness’’ (Mal. 1:3). Although the Edomites attempted to rebuild, God threw them down again (v. 4). Indeed, for Jacob’s sake, whom he loved, God had indignation against the Edomites forever (v. 4). That certainly rules out a literal restoration of Edom! Yet a literal future fulfilment of Isaiah 11 requires the restoration of the Edomites and the other obsolete nations (v. 14). To understand what Isaiah means by “the second time” that God brings back his people from captivity (v. 11), we should understand that the first time was the Exodus from Egypt (v. 16). Logically, then, the second return was from Babylon and not in 1948.
The New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament prophecies. How should we understand them since the literalist view leads to absurdities?
The New Testament, as indeed the Old, is chiefly concerned with spiritual Israel. The wider “nation’’ consisted of the elect, “the children of the promise’’ who were “counted for the seed’’ (Rom. 9:8), and the reprobate, “the children of the flesh’’ (Rom. 9:8) who often led the nation into idolatry. In every age, God willed to save spiritual Israel. In the Old Testament, spiritual Israel was found mainly in the nation of Israel. If non-ethnic Jews were saved, such as Ruth and Rahab, they joined the nation of Israel. In the New Testament spiritual Israel consists of all believers in Jesus Christ. New Testament Christians, although consisting largely of Gentiles, are “Jews inwardly’’ and are circumcised “in the heart’’ (Rom. 2:28-29; cf. Deut. 30:6; Jer. 4:4). Paul tells largely Gentile believers in Philippi, they are “the circumcision’’ (Phil. 3:3). Furthermore, Christians are citizens of heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26) and those who “have come to mount Zion’’ (Heb. 12:22).
An unbelieving ethnic Jew, although he may dwell in Jerusalem itself, is not a spiritual child of Abraham (Gal. 3:7) for “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles, who themselves were Israelites “concerning the flesh’’ (Rom. 9:5; Phil. 3:5), repeatedly pointed this out to the unbelievers in Palestine in their day, and they were certainly not anti-Semitic (Matt. 3:9; John 8:39; Acts 7:51; Rom. 9:7). In Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek’’ (Gal. 3:28-29), for “neither circumcision availeth anything, or uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love’’ (Gal. 5:6).
“Israel’’ will never cease to be a “nation’’ (Jer. 31:36) but the “holy nation’’ meant is the church (I Peter 2:9) consisting of Jews and Gentiles, the one spoken of in Matthew 21:43 which was to replace the old theocratic nation of Israel. God has always had a “holy nation.” In the Old Testament it was mainly Jewish, but in the New Testament, that same “holy nation” has become catholic, or universal. All peoples, tribes and tongues are included, yet there is always a remnant of Jews saved with the Gentiles (Rom. 11:5).
Many evangelicals believe in a future for national Israel because so many Old Testament prophecies, when read superficially, seem to be speaking about the nation. For example, Amos 9:11-15 promises that the “tabernacle of David’’ will be raised up and rebuilt “as in the days of old,’’ and that “the captivity of my people of Israel’’ will be brought back.
Incidentally, the promise is also made here that Israel will “possess the remnant of Edom and of the heathen” (Amos 9:12). We have seen that the prophet Malachi rules out any restoration of Edom. It is also absurd to imagine that king David would be resurrected to rule in Jerusalem, and it is inconsistent for the literalist to say that David refers to Christ. Again, a literal interpretation demands consistency!
However, Acts 15:14-18 provides the authoritative, apostolic interpretation of Amos’ prophecy. It has nothing to do with the establishment of a national Israel, and everything to do with the gathering of the Gentiles into the New Testament Church. Isaiah 54 is similar: “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; for thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited’’ (vv. 2-3). Why is the tent to be enlarged? So the Gentiles can come in! James (in Acts 15) uses the prophecy of Amos to make the same point.
Similarly, Hosea promises that the children of Judah and Israel shall be “gathered together’’ as the number of “the sand of the sea’’ (Hos. 1:10-11; 2:14-23) but this has its fulfilment in Romans 9:25-28 and I Peter 2:9-10, not in 1948 when the modern state of Israel was founded. Again, the new covenant made with “the house of Israel; and with the house of Judah’’ (Jer. 31:31-34) was fulfilled in the New Testament salvation of the church of Jesus Christ (Heb. 8:8-12; 10:16-17).
But why did the prophets not just say that? The church of the Old Testament was “under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24). It was taught using figurative language (the land, the temple, reunification of the nation under David, etc). All the types and shadows of the Law were to teach the Old Testament church about Christ. “Had the prophets spoken plainly of the New Testament age, without using figures, the Old Testament saints could not have borne such excess of light’’ (W. J. Grier, “The Momentous Event” [Banner], p. 39). The New Testament therefore gives us the key to interpreting Old Testament prophecy: the prophecies are spiritual (for a spiritual people), not literal.
None of this (a denial of an earthly future for the Jewish people) is anti-Semitism. Jews will be saved in the same way as Gentiles, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is no other way of salvation for Jew or Gentile. It is not part of one’s duty as a Christian to support the modern state of Israel, or to expect future blessings for it, but it is Christ’s command to “love thy neighbour’’ and seek his salvation, no matter what his ethnicity may be.