I gave a presentation on this topic with slides at a Lamb and Lion conference. You can find that presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQhbFncdgj0
Whether you are a long time or recent subscriber, it is important to understand clearly (or to be reminded) why those that follow Biblical end time prophecy focus so much on the nation Israel. I have spent a lot of time in the church environment or other arenas where those that believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, seven-year tribulation, and the soon arrival of the Antichrist are often criticized. These criticisms often involve accusations of sensationalism, too literal of a hermeneutic, or taking things out of context. There is no doubt that anyone can fall victim to these errors, whether you believe that we are living in the end times or not. We should all seek to avoid these mistakes. However, I want to share in this article why it is legitimate to see Israel as ground zero in understanding ancient and end time prophecy.
The first question for anyone seeking to understand theology of any kind is “how should we interpret the Bible?” The art and science of interpreting the Bible is called hermeneutics. It is generally agreed by all scholars that hermeneutics involves understanding language (and genre), theological intent, and the historical, cultural, and geographical context of any piece of literature. To keep it simple, how do almost all scholars understand the prophecies related to Jesus’ first coming? They recognize and consistently interpret these in a literal straightforward way. There are a few rare occasions that the gospel writers apply an Old Testament passage in a figurative way. One example is Matthew’s quotation of Hosea 11:1 in applying it to Jesus, “Out of Egypt, I have called my Son” (Matthew 2:15). New Testament scholars recognize that Matthew does this in the beginning of his gospel because one of his themes is presenting Jesus as the perfect Israelite and by extension the perfect and righteous personified Israel nation. One instance from Matthew will suffice. Where the Israelites failed in their testing in the wilderness, the perfect Israelite (Jesus) succeeded in being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:11). This is why Jesus resisted the devil by quoting three times from Deuteronomy 6 and 8. These chapters in Deuteronomy are those in which Moses’ recounts the Israelites failures in the wilderness. Again, this is a rare instance, but most prophecies related to Jesus’ first coming are taken by the NT writers in a straightforward literal way.
For example, when Isaiah writes that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (7:14), this is how it happened and was explained by Matthew (1:18-22). When Micah predicts that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), it is not figurative. We know that Jesus was literally born in that location (Matt 2:5-6). Zechariah prophesies that the King would come riding on a donkey (9:9-10). Jesus goes out of His way to fulfill this literally (Matthew 21:1-5). Many more could be demonstrated, but the goal for us is to establish that we should not change the rules in the middle of the game. Just as the prophecies related to Jesus’ first coming should be taken straightforward unless the context or text itself shows otherwise, we would expect prophecies related to His second coming (or the end times) to be understood and interpreted similarly. However, many scholars today either spiritualize the end time prophecies through allegory or they have figuratively transferred many of these “promises” for national Israel to the church. This is a mistake and largely inconsistent on their part. They do not do this in their interpretations of most other prophecies, especially those related to Jesus’ first coming. It seems that those who do not see a future for Israel or other futuristic concepts as found in the Bible, most often only treat end time prophecies as spiritual, symbolic, allegorical or figurative. Why the inconsistency? These same teachers do not spiritualize the atonement or the resurrection.
Dr. David L. Cooper (1886-1965) leaves us with what he describes as the golden rule of Biblical interpretation and we would do well to incorporate this into all of our own Bible study: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”
Are there times when figurative language is used? For sure, but context generally makes it obvious. When Jesus said, “I am the door” (John 10:7), we understand He is using metaphor or other linguistic tools to make His point.
Based on these preliminary thoughts and foundations, I want to share the Biblical data that relate to what God has foretold about the nature and role of Israel throughout all of God’s program of redemption. We will notice that God’s words about Israel have been fulfilled literally in the past and therefore, we look forward to them being accomplished in the future literally as we currently watch in the present.
One of the most shocking discourses to read is Moses’ prophetic words to the fledgling nation of Israel as they were about to enter into the promised land. Imagine the scenario. The parents and grandparents who witnessed the miraculous exodus out of Egypt are all dead and buried in the Sinai wilderness. Moses has been told that he is not allowed to go in to the land of Promise because he struck the rock twice in anger. Now, Moses recounts the last 40 years from coming out of Egypt to the destruction of the Nephilim/Rephaim tribes (Deut 2-3). The people are about ready to cross the Jordan from the plans of Moab. He warns them that if they are disobedient, they or any generation that follows will be cast out of the land. In fact, Moses prophesies that they will in fact be cast out of the land and will return in the latter days (Deut 4:30). We learn from an earlier passage that Moses gave a warning and prophetic message that they will be scattered among the nations while the land and cities will be wasted and a desolation (Lev 26:32-33).
We know from history that the Jews were exiled to Babylon starting around 600 B.C. and lasting for 70 years. This exile was only to one nation and area, Babylon. Later in the Gospel period, because of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as their Messiah in committing the unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:22-31), Jesus pronounced a judgment on that generation (Matt 11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45). That generation would be judged severely and they would not see Jesus again (2nd coming) until they called Him blessed (Matt 23:34-39; Luke 11:51). Their judgment would involve the destruction of Jerusalem and they would be scattered and exiled among many nations (Luke 21:20-24). This began in A.D. 70 and was further fulfilled in the Bar Kokhba revolt of A.D. 132-135.
All of Moses’ and Jesus’ prophecies concerning the people of Israel and Jerusalem were fulfilled literally and straightforwardly. This is important to recognize and acknowledge. The Jews were cast out of the land for centuries until the end of the age arrived and God would begin to implement His plans for the wrapping up of history as we know it.
How do we interpret what we see today in 2022 with the people of Israel back in the land with a restored nation? It is relatively easy to offer a Biblical opinion now, but consulting commentaries before 1948 provides some interesting insights. There are those who might object to the ancient prophecies (2400+ years old) as being changed or tampered with. This objection clearly is without justification. The Bible was finished around A.D. 95-96 with the completion of the Book of Revelation. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940’s and 1950’s showed that the Scripture that we read today has been tremendously well-preserved. We know without doubt that the various history and end time prophecies about the nation of Israel were written well in advance of the 1st century A.D. When we examine what God wrote concerning the return of the Jewish people to their homeland in the latter days, it is simply amazing to have front row seats to watch it all unfold.
Nevertheless, we see from church history that from the third century moving forward there were two main schools of interpretation that came to predominate. The historical and literal approach was centered in Antioch while the allegorical approach flowed out of Alexandria, Egypt. Origen and Augustine were the most influential theologians from Alexandria. Their allegorical methodology of seeing all the Old Testament promises to Israel being transferred to the church became entrenched throughout the rest of the Middle Ages and into modern times. The interpretation of the passages of Scripture referring to a return of Israel from their scattering among the nations was not seen as literal. Therefore, there was often no expectation to see national Israel ever return from the graveyard of nations. These Bible interpreters did not have the benefit of looking back at 1948 as we do. This article is not meant to be exhaustive, but it will be helpful to examine a few Scriptures and how they have been interpreted by various theologians. A sampling of authors and their dates of publication includes John Calvin (1550), Matthew Henry (1710), the Cambridge Commentary (1893), and the International Critical Commentary (1899-1939), ICC.
- “Then it will happen on that day that the Lord will again recover the second time with His hand the remnant of His people, who will remain, From Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. 12 And He will lift up a standard for the nations and assemble the banished ones of Israel, and will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:11-12 NASB)
Historians know that God gathered His people back into the land from the region of Babylon (ca. 539 B.C.). If we read this straightforward, Isaiah reveals that God will regather His people a second time, but on this occasion, it will be from many nations and the “four corners of the earth.” John Calvin interprets this as spiritually or allegorically applying to the church which makes no sense from the context and disallows him to see any reference to a future regathering of the nation Israel. Matthew Henry approaches it similarly, but believes this second regathering is the Babylonian captivity while the first regathering is the Exodus. The Cambridge and ICC also take this second regathering as from Babylon. They ignore and do not address that the text clearly displays a worldwide regathering from many nations and from the four corners of the earth. The fact and prophecies of their scattering to all parts of the world and many nations is consistent with Moses (Deut 4:27; 28:64; Lev 26:33). This undoubtedly is not a regathering from the singular location of Babylon, but predicts a future gathering of the Jewish people back to their land in a worldwide way.
- “After many days you will be summoned; in the latter years you will come into the land that is restored from the sword, whose inhabitants have been gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel which had been a continual waste; but its people were brought out from the nations, and they are living securely, all of them.” (Ezekiel 38:8)
“to capture spoil and to seize plunder, to turn your hand against the waste places which are now inhabited, and against the people who are gathered from the nations, who have acquired cattle and goods, who live at the center of the world.” (Ezekiel 38:12)
This prophecy is about the Gog and Magog war which happens in the latter years (see also 38:16). The description of the land of Israel in this latter time period designates it as being full of people who have come to a land that is no longer a continual waste. It also depicts these people as being gathered from many nations (3x) and who are now living confidently or securely. We can look to Israel today and see this as being fulfilled as it relates to the people and the land being restored. Calvin did not comment on these chapters in Ezekiel. Matthew Henry writes that these are general encouragements of God’s glory, but gives no specifics about Israel. The Cambridge commentary skips over most of it, but spiritualizes it as a time of universal peace. The ICC simply says these verses are vague and mysterious.
- “Therefore behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives, who brought up the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ 15 but, ‘As the LORD lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the north and from all the countries where He had banished them.’ For I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers.” (Jeremiah 16:14-15 NASB)
Jeremiah is a giving a future prophecy where, once again, the Jewish people would be restored from the land from all the countries where they were banished. It is not the Exodus from Egypt, but neither is it from the singular region of Babylon either. This restoration is prophesied to be a worldwide restoration. Calvin applies this to the Babylonian captivity restoration and in which he does not take into consideration the reference to many countries. The Cambridge Commentary and Matthew Henry also ignore the language and apply it to Babylonian captivity.
There are many more passages that this exercise could be applied to. Some of them are Ezekiel 11:16-17; 20:33-44; 36:19-25; Jeremiah 23:7-8, but the results are the same. The commentaries either spiritualize the text or skip over giving any appropriate exegetical explanations. We do not want to be smug against these commentators. I actually feel a sense of compassion for them because they were trying to interpret Scripture prior to 1948. One aspect of the errors they made was that they looked at current events and forced Scripture to fit their historical circumstances instead of allowing the Scripture simply to mean what it says. It will be enlightening to share a few comments made by those prior to 1948 concerning the national restoration of Israel to the Land.
Martin Luther in the early to mid-1500’s wrote, “If the Jews are Abraham’s descendants, then we would expect to see them back in their own land. We would expect them to have a state of their own. But what do we see? We see them living scattered and despised.” He was unable to come to a proper interpretation because he relied on what he observed in his present day concerning the Jewish people.
Charles Hodge penned in his 1872-1873 Systematic Theology, “The literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies relating to the restoration of Israel and the future kingdom of Christ cannot possibly be carried out” (3:808-809). Hodge lists various reasons which ultimately are unconvincing and from our vantage point of history, shown to be incorrect.
A 1919 record of the general conference of the Seventh Day Adventists where they discussed prophecy reads, “Consequently all unfilled prophecies which pertain to national Israel are conditional prophecies that can never be fulfilled to them as such. Heeding this will save us from great blunders. Some of the prophecies of the Old Testament seem to convey the idea that Israelites (the Hebrews) are to be restored as a nation, and that in the last days they will be a separate people from the Gentiles, and that the Lord will use them for the salvation of the Gentiles in the last days. These erroneous views are based upon Old Testament prophecies alone. We will never read them a right until we read them in the light of the meaning of the origin of the name Israel, and the later revelations from God” (p. 51-52). What these writers fail to recognize is that the OT prophecies teach that God brings back Israel to the land in the latter days in a state of unbelief and that it is only later at the end of the tribulation that the nation repents and receives Jesus as their Messiah. Further, it is not just Old Testament prophecy, but the New Testament in Luke 21:24, Matthew 24:15-20, 2 Thessalonians 2: 3-4, Rev 11:1-13, and Romans 11:25-26 give evidence of a future for a national Israel in the land prior to the establishment of the Messianic kingdom where the apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the literal twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28).
Louis Berkhof in his 1939 Systematic Theology writes, “it is very doubtful, however, whether Scripture warrants the expectation that Israel will finally by re-established as a nation, and will as a nation turn to the Lord” (p. 698-700). Many of these scholars were forced to examine the passages referenced above because there were many other Bible teachers in late 1800’s and early 1900’s who took the Bible literally and published works stating their confidence that the Jewish people would return the land of Israel as a nation once again. Here is a sampling:
William E. Blackstone wrote in his 1878 book, Jesus is Coming, “Israel shall be restored to Palestine and no more be pulled out of the land” (p. 234). He goes on to spend an entire chapter (XV) sharing an extensive number of Biblical passages that the Jews will indeed be restored as a nation in the land of Israel.
Ezekiel 37:11-12 reads, “Then He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel” (NASB). Sir Robert Anderson, in his 1894 book, The Coming Prince, comments on this passage, “What the passage means is that God is going to bring back His people Israel, who are buried in captivity in the “Graveyard of Nations” and place them again in their own land.” (p. 64).
James M. Gray, Dean of the Moody Bible Institute, lectured at the Philadelphia Prophetic Conference of May 28-30, 1918. He is recorded to have conveyed to the audience, “Moreover, so far as Israel is concerned, she, too, is suffering the punishment of her unfaithfulness in being scattered among the nations, persecuted, ‘sifted as corn is sifted in a sieve,’ and yet not one grain shall fall to the earth, is the testimony of God. In other words, it is God’s purpose, as all of the prophets’ witness, to bring Israel back to her land, first indeed in unbelief, but afterwards she shall look upon Him who she pierced, and shall mourn because of Him…” (p. 166).
One of the most well-known proponents of the confidence of Israel returning to the land and forming a nation once again is Clarence Larkin. He wrote in 1918 in his book, Dispensational Truth, “If it were suggested that we discuss the future of any other nation than the Jewish nation, I for one, would not attempt it, for the task would be simply a speculative one, based on probabilities that would be likely to be upset by unforeseen circumstances. But the Jewish nation has the unique distinction of having for its historian the “Holy Spirit,” who has not simply recorded the past history of that nation, but has outlined its future. We indulge then in no idle and profitless speculations when we attempt to forecast the future of the Jewish People. All we have to do is to gather together and place in their logical order what the Holy Spirit through the Prophets, has foretold of their future. The method is as simple as the result is sure” (pg. 63).
What is most obvious in this section is recognizing that if you approach the Bible with a tendency to spiritualize or allegorize its message, especially concerning end-time prophecy, you will end up in unfortunate places. Modern scholar and Postmillennialist Loraine Boettner acknowledges this truth when he writes, “This disagreement arises primarily because of the different methods of interpretation. It is generally agreed that if the prophecies are taken literally, they do foretell a restoration of the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine” (1977 article in the IVP book on the Four Views of the Millennium, p. 95).
Why focus on Israel? There are 1189 chapters in the entire Bible. There are 929 in the OT and 260 in the NT. You can slice it in different ways, but at least 75% or more of the Bible is about Israel. God wants us to learn about their past, present, and future. We have seen that when taken in a straightforward way, God has given many prophecies that show us that Israel would be exiled (more than once) and return to their land in the last days. Now that Israel became a nation in 1948, we know that we are living in the last days! Israel is ground zero!
As we look forward, we know that there is going to be a future war with Israel commonly known as the Gog/Magog war. In this conflict, Israel will be attacked by a confederacy of nations in the “latter years” (Ezekiel 38-39; specifically 38:8, 16). We also read that a temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem in the last days (Matt 24:15; 2 Thess 2:3-9; Daniel 9:27; Rev 11:2). God has revealed that a period of unprecedented tribulation is coming upon the world with Israel as its primary focus (Dan 12:1-2; Matt 24:21-23; Jer 30:7). Additionally, we have the hope that Israel will repent and look upon Jesus who they pierced and will mourn over it (Zech 12:10). The two witnesses will be prophesying for 1260 days and be killed in the city of Jerusalem (Rev 11:3-12). Jerusalem will become a point of contention for all the nations in the last days (Zech 12:2-3). There is not room in this article to share many more passages, but this is why we focus and report the news concerning the state of Israel. They are God’s prophetic time clock. All these signs are meant to encourage everyone to be watching and ready for the Lord’s soon return. Jesus said, “what I say to you, I say to all, Be watching! (Mark 13:37). The nation Israel is a good place to start.
If you want to dig into this topic more in-depth, I encourage you peruse any of the books in our online store from Dr. Randall Price or Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum. You will not be disappointed.