Friday, June 24, 2016

Israel and the Promised Land

The land promised to Israel and the patriarchs is described in the Old Testament as God’s gift to his covenant people (Gen. 12:1, 7; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:1-8; Deut. 1:5-8; Ps. 44:1-3). The land of Palestine was, in fact, God’s gracious gift to Abraham and his descendants, and carries with it a salvific significance.[1]

Holwerda notes that “the promises of salvation have an unbreakable tie to the land. From the call of Abraham (Genesis 12) to his conflict with Lot (Genesis 13), from Abraham’s concern about an heir (Genesis 15) to the promise of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 17), God promises again and again to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. . . . The land was promised and this promise was confirmed by an oath sworn by God.”[2]

Despite the land being God’s gift to Israel, it never belongs to Israel. The Promised Land belongs to God. In reality, the land is never at Israel’s disposal. It cannot be permanently bought, sold, or given to others. Leviticus 25:23 states clearly that, “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” The Israelites are never owners, but sojourners of the land in Palestine.

The land belongs to the God of the covenant, and the Israelites are only tenants in His land. Psalm 78:54 reminds us that the land is “His holy border” (NKJV) and “his holy land” (NIV). Holwerda writes:

“The land is first of all and always the Lord’s, not Israel’s. Amazingly, the people Israel are called “aliens and tenants” in the Lord’s land since they have no permanent title to it and possess it with no absolute legal right to it (Leviticus 25:23). Thus the land never ceases being a gift, even when Israel possesses it.”[3]

Furthermore, Israel’s occupation of the land in Palestine is dependent on their faith in Yahweh, and the resultant obedience which flows out from this faith. During the wilderness wanderings, God warned the Israelites:

“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you (Lev. 18:24-28).”

When Israel turned from the law and commandments of God, Jeremiah wrote, “And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination” (Jer. 2:7).

The Lord God Jehovah, through the prophet Hosea, pronounced an impending judgment upon the wayward, apostate Israel, “They shall not dwell in the LORD’S land; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean things in Assyria (Hosea 9:3).” With Israel’s continual unfaithfulness to Yahweh, the Lord of the covenant eventually removed the land from Israel’s possession (Jer. 17:1-4; 15:13-14). With the culminating rejection of the Messiah in the Gospels, apostate Israel ceased to be heirs of the earthly Jerusalem.

Israel cannot claim possession of the Promised Land apart from faith in the Messiah. Rejection of Christ Jesus would only mean the rejection of Israel by Yahweh. Holwerda observes:

“If Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the one who represents and takes the place of chosen Israel, what is the status of Old Testament Israel? If the promises given to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus and if in Jesus the kingdom of God has appeared, the eternal kingdom promised to David by which God rules his people Israel, what happens to those who do not accept the testimony of Jesus? If Jesus is Emmanuel, the prophesied presence of God with his people, what happens to those “heirs of the kingdom” who do not acknowledge that presence? . . . Continued possession of promises cannot be maintained apart from the faith that God gives to his people.”[4]

The Land of Palestine as an Everlasting Possession

Dispensationalists (and Bible Presbyterians, if I may add) reason that the land of Palestine, specified by its geographical borders, was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8).” But they fail to understand that God has intended a better possession for the elect. The saints and patriarchs “desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city (Heb. 11:16).” That “city” is not an earthly Jerusalem or a piece of land in the Middle East; it is a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). In the New Testament, God has expanded the Abrahamic land promise to include both Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant, and the inheritance to include the new heavens and the new earth.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).” The meek shall inherit the earth, not just the land of Palestine. It is significant that our Lord did not reiterate the geographical boundaries of the Promised Land. The discerning reader will also notice that “the boundaries of the promised land were never defined with geographic precision. Various descriptions were given at various times and under varying historical circumstances.”[5]

As we shall see in this series of blog posts on the land promises, the Promised Land is a typological representation of a physical reality presented in the New Testament; it points towards the inheritance of the elect, namely, the renewed creation and the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

The Abrahamic land promise was unconditional in the sense that, “while enjoyment of the promised land was denied to those who lacked faith and were disobedient, the behaviour of that one generation did not result in the nullification of the promise. Rather, ‘the promise continued even though possession of the land was deferred.’”[6]

On the other hand, we must not ignore the conditional nature of God’s land promise to Israel, which is reiterated in the Bible.[7] Only the faithful and obedient Israelites would inherit the land. Immediately after the rebellion of the Jews on hearing the reports of the twelve spies, God pronounced His verdict upon the disobedient nation:

“Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me, Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness (Numbers 14:29-32).”

It is obvious that God’s covenant is not unconditional in the sense that an apostate nation will continue to claim the right of inheritance to God’s promise. Disobedient Israelites will not inherit the Promised Land.

After the Israelites were delivered from the land of Egypt, Moses proclaimed, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever (Exod. 14:13).” But only forty years later, when Moses addressed the children of Israel, he warned the Jews of the consequences of disobedience, “And the LORD shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you (Deut. 28:68).” Therefore, after pronouncing that the Israelites will apparently see the Egyptians “no more for ever (Exod. 14:13),” Moses assured them that they would be brought “into Egypt again with ships (Deut. 28:68)” if they failed to keep God’s covenant requirements.

The prophet Jeremiah, likewise, reiterated the conditional nature of God’s promise to Israel:

“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them (Jeremiah 18:6-10).”

In the same manner, the apparently unconditional promise of blessings to the house of Eli was forfeited through disobedience (1 Sam. 2:30-32). Therefore, “curses of exile and destruction like that which fell on Sodom and Gomorrah will fall on Israel if it violates the commandments and forsakes the covenant of the Lord; blessings of prosperity and continuous possession of the land will fall on Israel if it keeps the commandments and walks in the Lord’s ways (Deuteronomy 27-29).”[8]

Without further reference to other parts of Scripture, the prosaic meaning of the phrase “everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8),” which refers to the land in Palestine promised to Abraham, appears to point toward an unconditional possession. But a perusal of similar, seemingly unconditional, promises mentioned in the Bible will show otherwise. The word “forever” must not be interpreted apart from the other statements made in connection to the land promise to Israel. It is apparent that no promise will be fulfilled to a defiant and rebellious people.

Concerning the words “forever” and “everlasting”, Loraine Boettner elucidates, “But the same thing [that is, the words “forever” and “everlasting”] is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex.31:17) and David’s throne (2 Samuel 7:13, 16, 24). But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away.”[9] For example, the high priest of the Church is not of the order of Aaron, but of the order of Melchisedec. He is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:11). Clearly, the “everlasting” in Exodus 40:15 does not mean until “eternity future.” The normal, prosaic reading of a sentence does not always convey the divine, authorial intent. Scripture must always be studied in the light of the other portions of Scripture. This is the Reformed, hermeneutical principle of the analogy of faith.

In his polemic against Christian Zionism, Stephen Sizer raises similar criticisms against the dispensational understanding of the Abrahamic land promise. He writes:

“The statement God made to Abraham that the land would be “an everlasting possession” is not necessarily understood in literal terms. Insisting on literal fulfillment is a double-edged sword. In 1 Chronicles 15:2, for example, David insists that the Levites would carry the ark of the Lord and minister before Him forever. Was this fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 1 Chronicles 23:13 God similarly promises that the Aaronic priesthood would continue “forever”. The same question may be asked, is this being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 2 Chronicles 33:7 God says that he has put his name in the temple in Jerusalem forever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? In 1 Chronicles 23:25, God promises that He has come to dwell in Jerusalem forever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? Likewise in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promises that a descendent of David will sit on his throne forever. Is that being fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ?”[10]

The answers to Sizer’s rhetorical questions are obvious to any Reformed theologian. As Willem VanGemeren has aptly answered, “the Messiah is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and as such his work encompasses the realization of all of God’s promises.”[11] We shall continue to refute the dispensational understanding of the land promises in the next post.


[1] As the theology of the land is too vast in scope to discuss in any detail in blog posts, the reader is advised to refer to the following books for more in-depth treatment of this subject: David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995); O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000); Philip Johnston and Peter Walker, eds., The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000); Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).
[2] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 88-89.
[3] Ibid., 92-93.
[4] Ibid., 53-54, emphasis mine.
[5] Ibid., 89. Also cf. Genesis 15:17ff.; Exodus 23:31ff.; Numbers 34:1-10; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:2-4.
[6] Paul R. Williamson, “Promise and Fulfilment: The Territorial Inheritance,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 23-24, quoting Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 89. Passages that seem to emphasize the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic land promise are Genesis 12:7; 13:15, 17; 15:7, 18-21; 28:13, 15; 35:12; Exodus 3:8, 17; 6:8.
[7] Cf. Exodus 20:12; 23:23-33; 34:24; Lev. 18:3, 24-27; Deuteronomy 4:1-5, 40; 5:33; 6:18; 8:1; 11:8ff.; 16:20; 18:9-14; 19:8-9; 21:23; 24:4; 25:15; 30:16; 32:47.
[8] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 92.
[9] Loraine Boettner, “A Postmillennial Response,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 98.
[10] Sizer, An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land.
[11] Willem VanGemeren,Israel as the Hermeneutical Crux in the Interpretation of Prophecy II,” Westminster Theological Journal 46, no. 2 (1984): 295.

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