Many evangelical Christians believe the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel to its homeland and that this in turn reveals the nearness of the rapture, the Tribulation, and the return of Christ. Hal Lindsey asserts that the political restoration of Israel in 1948 is “the most important prophetic sign to herald the era of Christ’s return.”
Israel’s establishment as a nation is indeed a most remarkable event, and it is not surprising that many Christians and Jews see in it a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Let’s examine some of these prophecies to see what they say. Two in particular stand out.
First is God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit Palestine forever. “ ‘All the land that you see,’ ” God said, “ ‘I will give to you and your offspring forever,’ ” and “ ‘the whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God’ ” (Genesis 13:15, emphasis added; 17:8, emphasis added).
Second is God’s promise to David: “ ‘ “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” ’ ” (2 Samuel 7:16). God repeated this promise to David’s son Solomon, who succeeded him as king, adding, “ ‘ “You shall never fail to have a man to rule over Israel” ’ ” (2 Chronicles 7:18; see also Jeremiah 33:17, 20–26).
Promises are conditional
There is no question that God wanted Israel to live in Palestine forever and that His plan was for David’s dynasty to continue unbroken forever. However, His promise was conditional on Israel’s obedience to His covenant requirements. The promise to Abraham and his descendants was not only that they would inherit the land forever but also that He would be their God. And later God said to Abraham, “ ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come’ ” (Genesis 17:9).
The conditional nature of God’s promises is perhaps best stated in Jeremiah 18:9, 10, where the Lord declares, “ ‘If . . . I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.’ ”
God’s promise to David and Solomon that their dynasty would be established forever and that they would never lack one of their descendants to sit on the throne of Israel was clearly conditional on obedience. Israel was not a kingdom for most of the past two millennia, nor has it had a descendent of David as its king since the captivity by the Babylonians 600 years before Christ!
The claim that modern Israel’s restoration as a nation is a fulfillment of Bible prophecy completely ignores the principle that God’s promises are conditioned upon obedience. From a Christian perspective, Israel’s primary disobedience has been its refusal to believe in Jesus as the Messiah for nearly two thousand years.
Restoration in unbelief?
Those who view modern Israel as a fulfillment of God’s restoration promises appeal to certain Old Testament passages, which they say teach that the Jews are to be gathered back to their land in a state of unbelief, and only after their restoration will they accept Christ as the Messiah. One of these texts is Ezekiel 22:17–22, in which God says that “ ‘ “I [will] gather you in my anger and my wrath.” ’ ”
However, God’s “gathering” of the Jews in His anger and wrath refers not to a return to Palestine but to God’s judgment upon their disobedience, which took place at the time of the Babylonian invasion. The purpose of this gathering was for judgment, not restoration. Ezekiel 22:21 makes that clear. In that verse, God says, “ ‘ “I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of My wrath, and you shall be melted in its midst” ’ ” (NKJV).* There is nothing here about restoration to Palestine.
Another text that is often cited to support the return-in-unbelief view is Ezekiel 36:24, 25, “ ‘ “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” ’ ” The fact that the promise of territorial restoration precedes the spiritual cleansing of the people in this passage is taken to mean that the Jews will return to Palestine in unbelief first and then they will be cleansed and redeemed.
A major problem with this interpretation is that it flies in the face of numerous other biblical statements in which God told the Israelites that He would restore them from their captivity by foreign nations when and if they repented (see, for example, Deuteronomy 30:1–5; Isaiah 1:27, 28; Ezekiel 20:39–42). Ezekiel’s words cannot contradict this basic premise.
Ezekiel did not say that God would re-gather the Israelites first and then cleanse them. He simply said that God would do two things for His people: He would both re-gather and cleanse them. Ezekiel did not specify the sequence of these events, nor did he hint that an undetermined length of time would separate them.
Historically, it was unbelief that prevented the Israelites from entering the land of Canaan shortly after their deliverance from Egypt (Numbers 14:23). If unbelief prevented the initial entrance into the land of Canaan, it can hardly be the condition for a return!
A future fulfillment
This is not to say that there can never be a future fulfillment of God’s Old Testament promises to Abraham and His descendants. For one thing, it can hardly be disputed that the restoration prophecies were not completely fulfilled following the restoration of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Consequently, it is appropriate to look for a more complete fulfillment at a later time. However, in looking for a greater fulfillment, it is important to recognize that prophecies regarding Israel’s restoration can be fulfilled in two ways: literally and figuratively.
God’s territorial promise to Abraham’s descendants was fulfilled literally when the Israelites took over the land of Canaan following their exodus from Egypt. Joshua declared, “The Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there. . . . Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Joshua 21:43, 45).
Also, the Old Testament prophecies predicting the restoration of the Jews to Palestine following their Babylonian captivity were literally fulfilled by the remnant of Jews who returned to Palestine under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
However, both God’s promise to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants and His promise to restore Israel following the captivity in Babylon have also been fulfilled figuratively. Paul explained that the promises God “made to Abraham and to his seed” have been fulfilled through Christ, because He is the epitome of the true Seed of Abraham (see Galatians 3:16, 29).
This figurative fulfillment can be understood in two ways. First, it has been fulfilled for the past 2,000 years by the ingathering of Gentiles into the Christian church. This point is especially clear from a statement the apostle James made. James presided at a church council that met for the explicit purpose of deciding how to relate to the many Gentiles that Paul was bringing into the church on his missionary tours through Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Europe.
When the council seemed to have reached an impasse, James said, “ ‘Brothers, listen to me. Simon [Peter] has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return / and rebuild David’s fallen tent. / Its ruins I will rebuild, / and I will restore it, / that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, / and all the Gentiles who bear my name, / says the Lord, who does these things’ / that have been known for ages” ’ ” (Acts 15:13–18).
James here quoted a prophecy by the Old Testament prophet Amos regarding the restoration of David’s kingdom (see Amos 9:11, 12), which would bring about the ingathering of the Gentiles. He declared that this prophecy was being fulfilled through the ingathering of the Gentiles—not into literal Israel but into the Christian church. This is a clear example of a figurative New Testament fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy regarding the restoration of Israel.
The new earth
We see another figurative fulfillment of God’s promise to restore Israel to the Promised Land in the New Testament’s promise of the ultimate possession of the new earth by all of God’s people. Hebrews, for instance, explains that Abraham and his believing descendants saw the final fulfillment of the promise of the land of Canaan, not in a return to that land, but rather in reaching “a better country—a heavenly one” (11:15, 16). Consequently, Abraham, who had been promised the land of Canaan, “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10).
This future city will be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that he would possess the land of Canaan forever. For embedded within Revelation’s description of the New Jerusalem and the new earth are words that are reminiscent of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants: “ ‘I will be their God’ ” (Genesis 17:8). Revelation says, “ ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God’ ” (21:3, emphasis added). This promise will be fulfilled on the new earth for all the spiritual descendants of Abraham, both Jews and Gentiles.
Every believer in Jesus is an heir to the promise God made to Abraham regarding the land of Canaan. Even those who are not blood descendants of Abraham, if they are in Christ, are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).