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Israel - Accident of history or fulfilment of prophecy? [page 1]

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To answer this question we have to look back over events, which happened over a period of nearly 4000 years, recorded in the Bible. So we will look at this subject as a foundation for the next chapter, which will deal with what is happening in Israel today.

 

Back in Genesis God made a covenant with Abraham, making him two amazing promises:

 

‘Look now toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be’ (Genesis 15.5).

 

‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to inherit it’ (Genesis 15.7).

 

Concerning the first promise about having innumerable descendants, Abraham believed that God meant what he said, and so the Lord ‘accounted it to him for righteousness’ (i.e. He confirmed the promise on the basis of Abraham’s faith). Today a vast number of people claim descent in some form from Abraham.

 

Concerning the second promise God did something, which we find hard to understand, but Abraham would have had no problem understanding. He told Abraham to take some animals, ‘a three year old heifer, a three year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon’ (Genesis 15.9) and to cut them in two and leave a path between the pieces of the divided animals. Then ‘there appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces’ (Genesis 15.17). The smoking oven and burning torch represent the presence of God, which passed between the divided animals.

 

‘On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River  Euphrates”’

(Genesis 15.18)

 

What was all this about? In Abraham’s culture if two parties were making a land deal, they did not go to the estate agent and the solicitor. They cut animals in two, passed between the divided animals and said in effect, “May God (or the gods) do to us as we have done to these animals if we do not keep our word.” Now it was not the best day in the life of those animals when they were cut in two, so the people making the covenant were invoking a curse upon themselves if they did not keep their word. God put Abraham to sleep so that he did not have to pass between the divided animals. By doing this God was communicating something very important. This covenant, by which He was giving the title deeds of ownership of the land to Abraham and his descendants, depended on God’s faithfulness not theirs. God would keep his side of the covenant even if Abraham’s descendants did not keep theirs.

 

The major problem from Abraham’s point of view was that he did not have even one descendant, let alone a multitude, and his wife Sarah was barren and past childbearing age. So Sarah suggested that Abraham had a child by Hagar, her maid, which he did. So Ishmael was born, but God told Abraham that this son would not inherit the promise. Instead Sarah would have a son supernaturally and this child was to be called Isaac:

 

‘Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant and with his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes and I will make him a great nation’

(Genesis 17.19-20).

 

God says that the covenant relating to the land applies to Isaac and his descendants and not to Ishmael and his descendants. Ishmael will become a great nation, but the covenant will be with Isaac. Today the conflict over the land of Israel involves the Jewish people who claim descent from Isaac and the Arab people who claim descent from Ishmael. In Islam, the dominant religion of the Arabs, Abraham is believed to be a prophet of Islam and the promised son is believed to be Ishmael and not Isaac. Therefore the promises given to Abraham go to Ishmael and his descendants, the Arabs, and not to the Jews.

 

A few years ago I visited the burial place of Abraham, the Machpelah in Hebron, and saw a large impressive mosque, where Muslims were praying with a section separated off for Jews to pray at, heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers. Is it a coincidence that one of the major flash points of tension in the conflict today is the site of Abraham’s burial place?

 

The promise given to Abraham was repeated to Isaac (Genesis 26.2-5) and to Jacob (Genesis 28.13-15). It was the basis on which God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land (Exodus 6.6-8). As they made their way through the wilderness God gave them the Torah (Law / commandments), which he told them to live by. God also made provision for their failure to keep his commandments, by giving them a system of sacrifices to be offered at the Tabernacle and later at the Temple, by means of which their sins could be forgiven.

 

According to Deuteronomy 28 if they obeyed the Lord they would enjoy the land with good harvests, peace and prosperity, and they would defeat their enemies and be a light to the surrounding nations. But if they worshipped other gods and disobeyed the commandments, a series of disasters would come upon them as a judgement, with the final judgement being removal from the land:

 

‘You will be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven in multitude, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God. And it shall be that just as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good and multiply you, so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you and bring you to nothing; and you shall be plucked off the land, which you go to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all peoples from one end of the earth to the other’ (Deuteronomy 28.62-64).

 

In these verses we see the reversal of the promise given to Abraham. They would become few in number and be removed from the land. However even if this most severe judgement took place, they would not be permanently out of the land but would return in God’s time.

 

‘If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you and from there he will bring you. Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it’ (Deuteronomy 30.4-5).

 

These verses also say that the return to the land will be accompanied by a return to the Lord, which is actually more important because God is much more interested in where we are spiritually than where we are physically.

 

Much of the Old Testament can be seen as the outworking of these principles. At times when Israel was faithful to the Lord they were blessed in the land and overcame their enemies. At the height of Israelite power under David and Solomon they reached for a brief while the promised boundaries of the land (2 Samuel 8.3, 1 Kings 4.21). But more often disobedience to the Lord and the worship of other gods caused Israel to be diminished by the surrounding nations, and eventually to suffer deportation from the land (2 Kings 17, 24-5).

 

Jeremiah was the prophet who God raised up to speak to the generation before the deportation of the Jewish people to Babylon. As a prophet he did three main things:

 

1. He told them what was going to happen.

2. He gave a reason for it.

3. He gave a promise of restoration.

 

For forty years Jeremiah warned his generation that the Babylonians were going to invade and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple and take them into captivity unless they repented of their sins. The reason why it was going to happen was the worship of idols and the breaking of God’s commandments:

 

‘Behold you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name and say “We are delivered to do all these abominations”?’ (Jeremiah 7.8-10).

 

Far from repenting, Jeremiah was mocked and rejected as the people preferred false prophets who said they were going to have peace and safety. But Jeremiah was not just a prophet of doom. He also promised a return from Babylon:

 

‘For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform my good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I have towards you says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29.10-11).

 

This promise was fulfilled when the Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire and the Persian Emperor Cyrus issued a decree that the Jewish people should return to the Promised Land and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1.1-4). In this way the covenant was being fulfilled as the descendants of Abraham returned to the land God promised to Abraham.

 

Jeremiah also looked beyond the return of the Jewish people to a time when God would make a new covenant with the house of Israel. The terms of this covenant would be different from the covenant God made with Israel when he brought them out of Egypt:

 

‘This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts: and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother saying ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest of them says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more’ (Jeremiah 31.33-34).

 

The new covenant points to the Messiah who was to come to deal with the problem of the sin nature, which causes us all to break God’s commandments. According to Isaiah 53 this one would be a suffering servant of the Lord:

 

‘He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from him: He was despised and we did not esteem him. Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows: Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53.3-6).

 

When Jesus came in fulfilment of this and many other prophecies he brought in the new covenant, through dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the world at the time of the Passover. At the time that the Jewish people were offering the Passover lambs to remember the blood of the lamb, which protected them from the Angel of Death (see Exodus 12), Jesus was put to death by crucifixion in fulfilment of Psalm 22, Daniel 9.26 and Zechariah 12.10. He was the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). He saves all those who come under the protection of his blood from eternal death.

 

Did the coming of the new covenant mean that God was finished with the Jewish people and that the covenant made with Abraham no longer applied? Much of the church actually teaches this in so called ‘replacement theology’ which means that the promises to Israel are now given to the church. But it is significant that after God gave his promise of the new covenant he said that as long as the sun, the moon and the stars exist, so long will Israel be a nation before the Lord (Jeremiah 31.35-36).

 

If we look carefully at Jesus’ words we discover that in relation to Israel, Jesus too functioned in the same prophetic way that Jeremiah did.

 

1. He warned of the coming catastrophe.

2. He gave a reason for it.

3. He gave a promise of restoration.

 

As Jesus was riding into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week which would lead up to his crucifixion and resurrection he stopped half way down the mount of Olives and wept over the city. He said:

 

‘If you had known even you especially in this your day the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and level you and your children within you to the ground; and they will not leave on you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation’ (Luke 19.41-44).

 

Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. He told those who believed in him to flee from the city when they saw the armies gathering, because this was going to lead to a time of terrible slaughter and destruction:

 

‘For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled’ (Luke 21.20-24).

 

In these verses Jesus warned of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the Jewish people into the lands of the Gentiles. He also gave a reason for it: ‘Because you did not know the time of your visitation’. In other words the dispersion happened because Jesus was not recognised as the Messiah. Of course there were many Jewish people who did recognise Jesus as Messiah and went out into the world to preach the Gospel, but the religious leadership rejected his claim and continued to offer the animal sacrifices for sin in the Temple, after Jesus had come as the final sacrifice for sin. After the sacrifice of Jesus, the offering of the sacrifices became an act of unbelief, rather than faith, because the blood of the animals had been replaced with the blood of Jesus as the means whereby sin was atoned for. The Letter to the Hebrews warns Jewish believers in Jesus not to go back to the animal sacrifices in the Temple.

 

For this reason Jesus said, ‘Your house (the Temple) is left to you desolate; for I say to you (i.e. Jerusalem), you shall see me no more until you say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”’ (Matthew 23.28-9). ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ is not just any old phrase. In Hebrew it is ‘Baruch ha ba be shem Adonai, the traditional greeting for the coming Messiah.

 

In this verse, Jesus is pointing to a time when the desolation of Jerusalem will be reversed and the city will no longer be ‘trampled (ruled) by the Gentiles’ (Luke 21.24). What will cause this change in the fortunes of the city to happen will be the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and the resulting outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who call on His name.

 

A number of Old Testament prophecies tie in with this. In Ezekiel 36-37 there are prophecies of a physical restoration of Israel, from being a barren land, denuded of its trees and with its cities forsaken, to becoming a fertile land ‘like the Garden of Eden.’ But more importantly there is also a prophecy of the spiritual restoration of the people:

 

‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgements and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be my people and I will be your God’ (Ezekiel 36.24-28).

 

This passage points to Israel being born of the flesh and then born of the spirit, the very process which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about when he said ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said unto you, “You must be born again”’ (John 3.6-7).

 

Several scriptures point to the method by which God is going to bring Israel to this point of spiritual rebirth – a time of unique trouble:

 

‘For thus says the Lord: “We have heard a voice of trembling, of fear, and not of peace. Ask now and see whether a man is ever in labour with child? So why do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labour and all faces turned pale? Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it”’ (Jeremiah 30.4-7). See also Ezekiel 38-9, Daniel 12, Joel 2-3, Zechariah 12-14, Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Revelation 6-19.

 

This time of trouble involves all nations and precedes the event known in the Old Testament as the Day of the Lord and in the New Testament as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But before the final time of trouble begins Israel will sign a ‘peace settlement’ with the coming world ruler. He is a deceiver, also known as the beast or Antichrist and the treaty turns out to be a ‘covenant with death’ (Isaiah 28) leading to Israel being persecuted and brought to the brink of annihilation (Daniel 9.27, 11.29-12.1, Zechariah 12-14, Revelation 12, 16).

 

In this time of trouble God is seeking to correct something, which Israel has got wrong: ‘For I am with you says the Lord to save you; though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, yet will I not make a complete end of you. But I will correct you in justice and not let you altogether go unpunished’ (Jeremiah 30.11).

 

What could this be? Israeli treatment of the Palestinians? The fact that Israel is a secular state? All the different branches of Judaism and the often hostile relations between them? Or the identity of the Messiah?

 

If you were to ask 100 Jewish people how they would identify the Messiah, you would come up with maybe not 100, but certainly a good number of different answers. These are some of the main ones I have heard:

 

Messiah is a great man who will create world peace, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and bring the Jewish people back to the Torah.

 

Messiah is Rabbi Schneerson of Lubavitch, who died in 1994 and who will rise again from the dead.

 

There is no personal Messiah, but there will be a Messianic age in which people will live in peace and harmony together and wars will cease.

 

There is no Messiah and the whole idea is a superstition, which Jewish people need to put behind them so they can work out their problems by Themselves.

 

The crisis in the Middle East is creating an interest in the issue of the Messiah amongst Jewish people today. In an article on the Orthodox Jewish web site, ‘Aish’, Rabbi Wilson has written:

 

‘We are living in very turbulent times, to say the least. Whereas only two years ago the world and the people of Israel were optimistic about a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict, today that optimism has been replaced by fear and depression. Fear of unbridled and senseless terrorism, and, depression from what appears to be a no-win situation for the State of Israel.

 

‘Now, more than ever before over the last 50 years, the Jewish people, and even the world in general, need a saviour. We need someone who can, somehow, perhaps even mystically, bring about more than just a tenuous cease fire between two warring peoples. We need someone who can, once and for all, bring an end to all human conflict, especially in the Middle East. And, if he can do that, a tall order, then perhaps he would also be able to destroy whatever other evil exists in the world. As he engineers this long-dreamed-of world peace, let him make unethical and immoral behaviour a thing of the past, too. In other words, this saviour, if he is truly a saviour, should usher in a permanent utopian society where virtuous living is the main theme and second- (if not first) nature. And, what shall we call this modern-day hero of Biblical proportions? In Judaism, he has always been called ‘Moshiach’ (Messiah), ‘the anointed one’, because, as a Jewish king he is to be anointed upon taking office, so-to-speak.’

 

Of course Orthodox Judaism strongly denies that this Messiah is Jesus. In a book called, ‘The Real Messiah’, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan rejects Jesus as Messiah and points to a Messiah figure who does not sound too different from some of the New Age messianic hopes now being propagated. He describes the coming Messiah as ‘a charismatic leader greater than any other in man’s history. Imagine a political genius surpassing all others. With the vast communication networks now at our disposal, he could spread his message to the entire world and change the very fabric of society.’

 

He describes a possible scenario, which brings him to power. ‘One possible scenario could involve the Middle East situation. This is a problem that involves all the world powers. Now imagine a Jew, a Tzadik (literally a ‘righteous one’) solving this thorny problem. It would not be inconceivable that such a demonstration of statesmanship and political genius would place him in a position of world leadership. The major powers would listen to such an individual.’

 

He goes on to describe how he would re-gather the exiles to Israel, cause the Temple to be rebuilt and teach all mankind to live in peace and follow God’s teachings. He concludes, ‘As society reaches toward perfection and the world becomes increasingly godly, men will begin to explore the transcendental more and more. As the prophet said (Isaiah 11.9), ‘For all the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea.’ More and more people will achieve the mystical union of prophecy, as foretold by Joel, ‘And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.’

 

Jewish messianic hopes centre on a great man coming to make world peace and rescue Israel, but the biblical prophecies show that this is a vain hope and will lead to deep disillusion and betrayal. These prophecies also give a clue to the true identity of the Messiah. The prophet Zechariah has some amazing information on this subject. He describes a world conflict over the status of Jerusalem, a question, which will not just affect the countries of the region, but the whole world:

 

‘And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; and all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it’ (Zechariah 12.3).

 

When the armies of the world gather together against Jerusalem to battle, God says, ‘I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as one mourns for his only son’ (Zechariah 12.10).

 

Following this Zechariah says, ‘The Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. … And the Lord shall be king over all the earth’ (Zechariah 14.3-4, 9).

 

These scriptures fit in exactly with the message of Jesus. He is revealed in the Gospel as the only Son who has been ‘pierced’, dying by crucifixion, in order to redeem the world, and who will come the second time to judge the world according to how we have responded to his message.

 

Jesus gave his teaching on his second coming on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), the same place Zechariah says the Lord is coming to in order to save Israel. Jesus ascended into heaven from there and the angel spoke to the disciples saying: ‘This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven’ (Acts 1.11).

 

The event described in Zechariah when Israel looks on one who has been pierced will be the same event as the one I have already quoted in Matthew 23.39 when Jesus said concerning Jerusalem, ‘You shall see me no more until you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”’ When Jesus is welcomed and accepted as Messiah by the Jewish people, he will come to the earth and finally bring peace to Israel, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah:

 

‘Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’ s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2.2-4).’

 

The Battle for Israel

 

From the last chapter we should expect to see the following sequence of events taking place regarding Israel:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we look at Jewish history and current events in Israel what do we see? The Jewish people have been scattered to the nations of the world, where for the most part they have been treated shamefully, especially by those who claimed to be Christians. Many have been persecuted as the Christ killers when Jesus himself said, I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself (John 10.17-18). Whether it was in Islamic lands or in Christendom they kept their identity and never lost their desire to go back to the land of Israel. Each year at Passover they end the meal with the words Lshana ha ba birushalayim, Next Year in Jerusalem. In Russia and Poland, at one time the home of the majority of Jews, they would remember the New Year of Trees in January. There is not much chance of planting trees in the snowy lands of the north in January, but they were remembering the time when trees were planted in the Holy Land. By such reminders the desire to return to the land of Israel was kept alive through the long years of exile.

 

According to Ezekiel 36 during the time of this exile the land would become desolate wastes with cities that are forsaken (Ezekiel 36.4). This was exactly the condition Mark Twain, the American author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, found when he visited Palestine, at that time a backwater of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, in 1867. He described it in his book, The Innocents Abroad: Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince … It is a hopeless, dreary, heart broken land … Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. … Palestine is desolate and unlovely. Of Jerusalem he wrote: Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt abound, lepers, cripples, the blind and the idiotic assail you on every hand. Jerusalem is a mournful, dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here.

 

By the late 19th century Zionist pioneers, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, began to immigrate into Palestine and to purchase land from absentee Arab landlords. They drained the swamps and planted trees and began the process of turning the barren land into a fertile place. The population of Jerusalem swelled from about 15,000 in 1865 to 45,472 in 1896, of whom 28,112 were Jews. The prophecy of the physical rebirth of Israel was beginning:

 

But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are about to come. For I am indeed for you and I will turn to you and you shall be tilled and sown. I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt (Ezekiel 36.8-10).

 

At around this time the Zionist movement began to organise seriously. At the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, Zionist leader, Theodor Herzl, wrote in his diary on August 29th 1897: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted with universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in fifty, everyone will see it. On November 29th, 1947, exactly 50 years later, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed by 33 votes to 13, with 10 abstentions (including the British), the resolution to partition Palestine, which led to the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

 

Herzl dreamed of an orderly return to Zion from the nations of the world. In fact the return and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came through the agony of the Holocaust and the destruction of one third of the world Jewish population. It also came in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Arab world and from the British government, which had the Mandate for Palestine at that time. Despite all this, the United Nations took the decision to partition Palestine and allow the establishment of a tiny Jewish state on a fraction of the land originally promised by the British government through the Balfour Declaration.

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