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The Chronology of the Old Testament Prophets
The sixteen prophets—Isaiah to Malachi—whose writings have come down to us lived during four centuries, from about 800 to 400 B.C. Most of them left chronological data by which the duration of their ministry can be determined, at least approximately. For two of them (Joel and Obadiah), however, no conclusive evidence as to the time of their work exists, and scholars differ widely in their views concerning this matter.
The accompanying chart enables the reader to study these prophets in their historical setting. Many messages and prophecies can be understood correctly only if seen against the background of the time in which the prophets ministered and in the light of the events that happened during their lives.
Inasmuch as it is possible to date the kings of Judah and Israel, especially the later ones, with comparatively high accuracy, the various reigns during which these sixteen prophets ministered have been entered in this chart according to the tentative chronology used in this commentary. The kings of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, whose dates for this period are well established, are shown in a separate column. Most of them are mentioned in the Bible, in either the prophetic or the historical books. One column provides a list of certain special events of this period—some of a political nature, concerning the nations surrounding Israel and Judah, others of a domestic nature. This chart shows only those events that are mentioned in the Bible and that are of importance to an understanding of the prophetic messages.
The following brief summaries contain the evidence on which the various prophets have been entered in the chronological positions in which they are found in the chart.
Isaiah was the great forerunner of the writers. This fact is recognized by the various New Testament writers, who quoted Isaiah more than 90 times. Isaiah was a prophet of the southern kingdom, living in a critical period of his nation. He played an important role during two momentous periods: (1) under Ahaz, during the war between Syria and Israel (chapters 7-11), and (2) under Hezekiah, during a siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib chapters 36; 37). Encouraging Hezekiah and the people through his own trust in God, he was instrumental in saving Jerusalem.
His early ministry seems to have coincided with the last years of King Uzziah’s reign (see Introduction to Isaiah), but his official call to the office of a prophet came in 740/39, the last year of King Uzziah (chapter 6:1). Continuing faithfully under the following three kings, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (chapter 1:1), he seems to have been fiercely hated by Manasseh, Hezekiah’s wicked son. When Manasseh came to the throne as sole ruler upon his father’s death, approximately in 686, he lost little time in removing the faithful seer. According to Jewish tradition Isaiah was sawn asunder. It is possible that Hebrews 11:37 refers to this event.
Isaiah’s whole ministry from Uzziah to Manasseh must therefore have lasted more than half a century.
The life story of Jeremiah is better known than that of any other prophet. He belonged to a family of priests whose home town was Anathoth. Jeremiah had been chosen by God for his office before birth (chapter 1:5), and was called to be a prophet at a tender age (chapter 1:6, 7). Although the Hebrew term na‘ar, “youth,” or “child,” by which the prophet designates himself verse (6), does not give an indication of Jeremiah’s exact age at the time of his call, the context of the passage in which this word appears seems to favor the interpretation that he was still very young, perhaps less than twenty. This call came to him in the 13th year of King Josiah (chapters 1:2; 25:3), about 627. Josiah was also still a young king, having reached the age of but 21 years at that time.
Living in a crisis period of his nation, Jeremiah was called to proclaim many messages of reproof and solemn predictions of doom over his people for their disobedience. During the reign of Jehoiakim he nearly lost his life for his bold messages, and hence went into hiding (chapter 36:26). During the reign of Zedekiah, Judah’s last king, Jeremiah was thrown into prison, being considered a traitor to his country (chapter 37:11-16) because he advised his people to surrender to the Babylonians. After Jerusalem’s fall in 586, Nebuchadnezzar allowed Jeremiah to stay with the remnant of his people who were left in the country (chapter 40:1-6). After the murder of Gedaliah, the new governor of Judea, the Jews of Mizpah, fearing the revenge of Nebuchadnezzar, went to Egypt and took with them Jeremiah as well as his secretary Baruch (chapter 43:6).
In Egypt, Jeremiah raised his voice against the idolatries the Jews practiced there (chapters 43; 44). He probably died in the Nile country. A Jewish legend claims that he was stoned to death by his people. If chapter 52, a historical appendix, was written by the prophet, he must have lived until 561, when Jehoiachin was released from prison by King Evil-Merodach of Babylon (see chapter 52:31). In this case, he was an octogenarian. Those who think that chapter 52 was added as an inspired postscript by Jeremiah’s secretary or one of his disciples, believe that he died some 20 years earlier, about 580 B.C. The chart allows both ideas, indicating his possible ministry during the two decades preceding 560 B.C. by means of a broken line.
The prophet Ezekiel, a priest, was one of the 10,000 Jews taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C., when King Jehoiachin was carried to Babylon. In the 5th year of Jehoiachin’s captivity, 593/92, Ezekiel had his first vision by “the river Chebar,” a canal near the famous city of Nippur in lower Babylonia (chapter 1:1-3). Enigmatic is his statement that this 5th year of captivity was also the “thirtieth year.” It is believed that the prophet refers either to his own age or to that year as the 30th year reckoned from the reform which took place during the 18th year of Josiah.
Several of the prophet’s messages are dated exactly, and the last of these dated prophetic messages was received in the 27th year of Ezekiel’s captivity (chapter 29:17), 571/70. This leaves Ezekiel with a ministry of at least 22 years, from 593/92 to 571/70. However, it is possible that some of his undated prophecies were given at a later time. Hence the year 571/70 must not be considered as necessarily marking the end of his ministry.
Daniel was taken to Babylon in 605 B.C., during the accession year of Nebuchadnezzar (see on chapter 1:1). But it was not until his 3rd year in captivity, the 2nd year of Nebuchadnezzar, that young Daniel gave the first proofs of his prophetic calling (chapters 1:5, 17; 2:1, 19). Hence, the year 603 can be considered as the beginning of Daniel’s ministry as a prophet.
For some time he held a high position in Nebuchadnezzar’s government (chapter 2:48), and became a trusted counselor of the great king. Under Nebuchadnezzar’s successors Daniel’s service seems not to have been desired. However, he is again found playing a role on the night of Babylon’s fall, as interpreter of the mysterious handwriting on the wall (chapter 5). Shortly after this event he once more rose to a high position of honor and responsibility in the newly formed Persian Empire (chapter 6).
All the visions of Daniel recorded in chapters 7-12 were received during the last years of his life, the first one (chapter 7) in Belshazzar’s 1st year (552 or possibly later), and the last one (chapters 10-12) in the 3rd year of Cyrus, 536/35 B.C. It was probably at this time, when Daniel was nearly 90 years of age, that he was commanded to conclude his book and seal it up (chapter 12:4, 13). For these reasons Daniel’s extended prophetic ministry can be dated approximately from 603 to 535 B.C.
The prophet Hosea was a citizen of the northern kingdom of Israel, whose ruler, Jeroboam II, is called by the prophet, “our king” (chapters 1:1; 7:5). A comparison between some of his prophecies and those of Amos indicates that Hosea was a younger contemporary of Amos (cf. Hosea. 4:3 with Amos 8:8; Hosea 4:15 with Amos 5:5; and Hosea 8:14 with Amos 2:5). Having begun his ministry in the time of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam II, king of Israel (chapter 1:1), Hosea continued until the time of Hezekiah, king of Judah (chapter 1:1). However, all his messages were addressed to the northern nation.
The book makes no reference to the fall of Samaria, which took place in 723/22 B.C., and it can therefore be concluded that the prophet’s last message was given prior to Samaria’s destruction. For these reasons his ministry can be dated from about 755 (or earlier) to about 725 B.C.
Nothing is known of the prophet Joel beyond the fact that he was the son of Pethuel (chapter 1:1). His work is characterized by skill in the use of language, a well-balanced syntax, and a lively and impressive poetry. Yet the book contains no clear indication of the time in which the prophet lived. It is impossible to date the devastating plague of locusts that the prophet so vividly describes and compares with the terrors of the coming day of judgment. Scholars differ widely in their views concerning the time of Joel’s ministry. The older generation place him in the 9th century B.C., whereas most commentators are now inclined to assign him either to the time of King Josiah or to the postexilic period. Since no conclusive evidence for any of these three views exists, all are presented here:
1. The 9th-century view.—The great empires of Assyria and Babylonia do not appear within the horizon of the prophet. Hence, he seems to have labored at a time before Assyria played a role in Palestinian affairs. Since the hostile acts of the heathen peoples committed against Judah (chapter 3:4 ff.) seem to refer to those recorded in 2 Kings 8:20-22 and 2 Chronicles 21:8-10, 16, while nothing points to the troubles caused by Hazael, as narrated in 2 Kings 12:17, 18 and 2 Chronicles 24:23, 24, it has been concluded that Joel gave his messages during the time lying between these two events. It is thought, furthermore, that his ministry fell in the years when the high priest Jehoiada acted as regent for the child king Joash (2 Kings 11:17 to 12:2), which fact would explain why the king is not mentioned anywhere in the book, while at the same time the Temple service flourished.
2. The 7th-century view.—This view holds that Joel’s ministry seems to fit into the early years of Josiah, when Assyrian power was nearing its end and Babylon was still a weak kingdom. Hence no reference to these two kingdoms was made by the prophet. Since Josiah came to the throne as a child, he must have lived under a regent, which explains why no king is mentioned by Joel. Furthermore, the fact that the people of Tyre and Sidon do not appear as hostile nations of Judah until the last decades of its history, while they are mentioned by Joel as Judah’s enemies, seems also to point to a late date for the prophet’s ministry. To this can be added the mention of Greeks (chapter 3:6), who hardly played a role in Near Eastern history earlier than the 7th century. For these reasons the 7th-century date for Joel has been adopted in this commentary, although there is no conclusive proof that this choice is correct.
3. The postexilic view.—The absence of any reference to a king of Judah or to Assyria or Babylon, the reference to the hostility of Tyre and Sidon, and the mention of Greeks have been taken by some commentators as evidence for a postexilic date for Joel. However, there is also no reference made to Persia, which would be expected if the book was of so late a date. This fact weakens the arguments for such a late date.
Amos presents himself to his readers as a “herdsman” and a “gatherer of sycomore fruit” (chapters 1:1; 7:14). In the introduction to his book he declares that he worked under the kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel. Since only these two kings are mentioned, Amos seems to have prophesied during the time when both kings were sole rulers in their respective kingdoms. Uzziah was sole king over Judah from 767 to 750, and Jeroboam over Israel from 782 to 753. The ministry of Amos may therefore have fallen in the years 767-753 B.C. A closer dating is impossible in spite of the statement that his first divine message came to him “two years before the earthquake” (chapter 1:1), because the date of this event is unknown. However, that earthquake must have been very severe, for the memory of it was still fresh in the minds of people who lived 250 years later, as Zechariah 14:5 shows.
The prophet was a citizen of Judah, but delivered messages to the kingdom of Israel as well. Several of his messages were against various foreign nations. He went to Bethel, a sanctuary city of the northern kingdom, to deliver prophecies of warning, reproof, and doom to Israel.
The short book of Obadiah, consisting of only 21 verses, is not dated and its chronological setting is uncertain. Obadiah’s prophecy, directed against Edom, presupposes that a looting of Jerusalem and a carrying away of many Jews into captivity had recently taken place. Some believe that the prophet refers to the conquest of Jerusalem at the time of King Jehoram (2 Kings 8:20-22; 2 Chronicles 21:8-10, 16, 17) in the 9th century; others believe that the prophet is speaking of Jerusalem’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. That some of the words he uses are also found in Jeremiah (Obadiah 1, 3, 4; cf. Jeremiah 49:14, 16), and Joel (Obadiah 15, 17; cf. Joel 1:15; 2:1, 32) can hardly serve as evidence for either a late or an early date. The late date is taken here, without prejudice toward an early one.
The prophet Jonah was a Galilean from Gath-hepher. His book contains no direct to establish the time of his mission to Nineveh. However, 2 Kings 14:25 states that Jonah also pronounced a prophecy concerning the expansion of Israel that was fulfilled by Jeroboam II. This prophecy must have been pronounced either before Jeroboam came to the throne (approximately 793 B.C.) or during the early years of his reign. Hence, Jonah was probably the earliest of the prophets under discussion.
So early a date for Jonah1s ministry—about 790 B.C.—fits well into Assyrian history. The only period in which the mission of Jonah to Nineveh, with its results, seems to fit is the reign of Adad-nirari III (810–782). For a short time during his reign Assyria turned from its polytheistic religion to a kind of monotheistic Nabu worship.
Micah was a prophet from Moresheth-gath (chapter 1:1, 14), probably Tell ej–Judeideh in southwestern Judah. He should not be confused with Micaiah, the son of Imlah, a prophet of Israel in Ahab’s time (9th century B.C.). Earlier commentators attempted to equate the two men, because of the use of similar expressions in their utterances (Micah 1:2; cf. 1 Kings 22:28). However, the chronological data given by Micah are against such an identification and show that a century or more lies between the two men. Micah states that his ministry fell in the time of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (chapter 1:1). Since Jotham’s sole reign began after the death of his father Uzziah in 740/39, the initial date for Micah’s prophetic ministry should probably be placed after that date. He was therefore a somewhat younger contemporary of Isaiah, to whose vocabulary and terminology his prophecies show great similarity (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:2-4). Also, Jeremiah (chapter 26:18), quoting Micah (chapter 3:12), testifies that Micah ministered during Hezekiah’s time. All this leads to the conclusion that Micah prophesied from about 740 to about 700 B.C.
Nahum is called the Elkoshite (chapter 1:1), but Elkosh is unknown as a place name, although commentators have tried to identify it with Elkesi in northern Galilee, Alkush near Mosul, and a town near Eleutheropolis in Judah. It is certain, however, that he lived and labored in the southern kingdom, and that his main prophecy dealt with Assyria in general and Nineveh in particular. No chronological data are given, but the prophet speaks of the fall of No (chapter 3:8) as an event of the past. This Upper Egyptian capital city, better known by its Greek name Thebes, was destroyed by King Ashurbanipal in 663 B.C., a date that provides the upper time limit of Nahum’s prophecy. On the other hand, the destruction of Nineveh is described as an event still future (chapter 3:7). The Assyrian capital city of Nineveh was captured and destroyed by the combined forces of Media and Babylonia in 612 B.C., which is, accordingly, the latest possible date for Nahum. The prophet’s vivid description of the catastrophe that had befallen Thebes leaves the impression that the event was still fresh in the memory of the people, whereas Assyria’s power, although waning, was not yet near its end. Hence, 640 B.C., about midway between the two limits, marked by the destruction of Thebes and the fall of Nineveh, would seem to be a reasonable conjectural date for Nahum’s prophetic ministry.
Nothing is known concerning the prophet Habakkuk beyond his name. It is possible that he was a Temple singer, since his third chapter is dedicated to the “chief singer on my stringed instruments” (chapter 3:19). Although no chronological data are found in the book, certain statements permit a comparatively exact dating of Habakkuk’s prophecies. The Temple is mentioned as still existing (chapter 2:20), which shows that the book was written before Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Furthermore, the rise of the Chaldeans and their invasion of the West is predicted, but this seemed at that time completely incredible (chapter 1:5-7). This situation fits best the time prior to the rise of the Chaldean Empire under Nabopolassar, who began to reign in 626/25 B.C., and who, with the Medes, was responsible for the destruction of Assyria. A date, possibly about 630 B.C., but before the Chaldeans had become a power of some importance, would seem most appropriate for the period of Habakkuk’s prophetic activity.
The prophet Zephaniah traces his genealogy back to an important personage by the name of Hizkiah, probably King Hezekiah (the names are the same in Hebrew) of Judah. He states that he ministered under King Josiah (chapter 1:1), who reigned from 640 to 609 B.C. Nineveh’s destruction, which came in 612, is referred to as a future event, indicating that Zephaniah’s work preceded this date. Furthermore, the repeated mention of Judah’s wickedness, described as enormous in his day (see chapters 1:4-6, 8, 9, 12; 3:1-3, 7), points to the time before Josiah’s reform, which began in 623/22. These observations seem to place Zephaniah in the early years of Josiah’s reign, perhaps about 630 B.C., as a contemporary of Habakkuk.
Haggai’s courageous ministry was responsible for the resumption of the rebuilding of the Temple in the time of Darius I, after the work had ceased for some time (Ezra 4:24; 5:1). The book of Haggai contains four addresses, each bearing a precise date giving the day, month, and year of Darius’ reign. The consecutive order of the book of Haggai would indicate that his whole recorded ministry lasted not longer than 31/2 months, beginning (chapter 1:1) on August 29, 520 B.C., and extending, in his last two recorded speeches (chapter 2:10, 20), to December 18, 520. The work of no other prophet can be dated so definitely as that of Haggai.
Zechariah probably belonged to a priestly family (chapter 1:1; cf. Nehemiah 12:12, 16). His call came to him sometime in October/November, 520 B.C., in the same year as Haggai’s first appearance (chapter 1:1). Several prophecies followed a few months later (Zechariah 1:7 to 6:15). Then came a pause in his activity of almost two years, at the end of which Zechariah received another divine message, on December 6, 518 (chapter 7:1), recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The remaining messages and prophecies, found in chapters 9-14, are not dated, a fact that prevents us from fixing the duration of the prophet’s activity. While it is thus known that he began his work in 520 and continued until 518 B.C., the end of his prophetic ministry must be left open. The close of his ministry is tentatively set by some scholars at 510. It is possible that he worked much longer, as part of chapters 9-14 may have been given at a much later time.
It is not known whether Malachi is the name of the author or simply the title of an otherwise anonymous author, since Malachi means “my messenger.” If it is the latter, his is the only anonymous work among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. However, there is no valid reason why Malachi should not be considered a proper name.
Not only is Malachi last in the sequential order of the prophets; it is also the last prophetic book produced in pre-Christian times. Its messages show that it was written after the time of the kingdom of Judah, when a governor ruled over the country (chapter 1:8), a fact that points to the Persian period. The Temple was apparently rebuilt, and sacrifices were regularly offered at the time of the prophet’s activity (chapter 1:7-10). The various abuses rebuked by Malachi are mostly the same as those Nehemiah found when he returned to Jerusalem for his second term of governorship (Malachi 3:8, 9; cf. Nehemiah 13:10-12; Malachi 2:11-16; cf. Nehemiah 13:23-27).
Unfortunately, Nehemiah’s second term as governor cannot be dated, which fact makes it also somewhat difficult to date Malachi. Nehemiah’s first term lasted from 444 to 432 B.C. (chapter 5:14), after which he was recalled to Persia. There, he spent an unknown number of years before his return to Judea and his discovery of the abuses described in chapter 13. These were remedied by the vigorous actions of the governor. This leads us to conclude that Malachi’s work may have followed Nehemiah’s first term as governor, but preceded his return to Jerusalem from the Persian capital. Accordingly, the book can probably be dated about 425 B.C.
The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy
This article surveys the fundamental problem of the interpretation of the prophetic portions of the Old Testament in terms of their message to Israel of old and to the church today. Consideration is given to the role of literal Israel as God’s chosen people, to the way His plan for them was to have been accomplished, to the way in which it actually did work out, and to the eventual transfer of the privileges and responsibilities of literal Israel to spiritual Israel, that is, to the Christian church. A clear understanding of these aspects of the problem is essential to the formulation of a valid procedure for interpreting the messages of the Old Testament prophets. Any interpretation that fails to give these matters due consideration does violence to the Scriptures.
Few passages of Scripture are more commonly misunderstood and variously interpreted than those containing the divine promises made to ancient Israel through the prophets. It is an undeniable historical fact that, to this day, the majority of these predictions have not been fulfilled. In the endeavor to account for this seeming enigma, Bible expositors have set forth various explanations:
1. The modernist school of interpretation denies the predictive element in prophecy altogether, arguing either that the “predictions” were written down after the events thus “foretold” took place or that such “predictions” reflected nothing more than the prophet’s hopes for the future, or those of his people.
2. The futurist school of interpretation contends that the many promises of restoration and world leadership made to ancient Israel are yet to be fulfilled in connection with the establishment of the modern state of Israel in Palestine.
3. The British-Israel movement teaches that the Anglo-Saxon peoples are the literal descendants of the ten so-called “lost tribes” of the northern kingdom and that the promises will, in large measure, be fulfilled to their modern posterity.
4. A less-well-defined school of interpretation bases its approach to the prophetic portions of the Old Testament on the theory that the prophet, while bearing messages to the people of his day, also took occasional excursions into the distant future, with the result that many of his forecasts did not apply to literal Israel at all, but were intended exclusively for “Israel after the spirit,” that is, for the church today. Following this line of interpretation, some have gone to the extreme of proposing a Christian migration to Palestine.
5. Seventh-day Adventists believe that, generally speaking, the promises and predictions given through the Old Testament prophets originally applied to literal Israel and were to have been fulfilled to them on the condition that they obey God and remain loyal to Him. But the Scriptures record the fact that they disobeyed God and proved disloyal to Him instead. Accordingly, what He purposed to do for the world through Israel of old He will finally accomplish through His church on earth today, and many of the promises originally made to literal Israel will be fulfilled to His remnant people at the close of time.
The modernist school of interpretation bases its position on the a priori assumption that any knowledge of the future is impossible, and ignores all evidence to the contrary. The futurist school ignores both the conditional element pervading predictive prophecy, clearly and emphatically proclaimed by the prophets themselves, and the specific statements of the New Testament that affirm that the privileges and responsibilities of ancient Israel have, in Christ, been transferred to the church. The exposition of Scripture attempted by proponents of the British-Israel theory consists of an admixture of selected Bible passages with legend, folk tales, and speculation. The fourth school of interpretation may, at times, arrive at a valid application of the predictive portions of Old Testament prophecy to the church today and to its future experience, but neglects the primary application of these messages to their historical setting, and proceeds, quite arbitrarily, to determine that certain selected passages were written more or less exclusively for the church today. In one way or another each of these attempts at interpreting the messages of the Old Testament prophets neglects significant teachings of Scripture, evades fundamental principles of exegesis, and provides a distorted picture of the predictive sections of prophecy. The following discussion sets forth the principles of interpretation described under “5,” and followed by this commentary, together with the scriptural basis on which these principles rest.
II. Israel as God’s Chosen People
With the call of Abraham, God set in operation a definite plan for bringing the Messiah into the world and for presenting the gospel invitation to all men (Genesis 12:1-3). In Abraham God found a man ready to yield unqualified obedience to the divine will (Genesis 26:5; Hebrews 11:8) and to cultivate a similar spirit in his posterity (Genesis 18:19). Accordingly, Abraham became in a special sense the “Friend of God” (James 2:23) and “the father of all them that believe” (Romans 4:11). God entered into solemn covenant relationship with him (Genesis 15:18; 17:2-7), and his posterity, Israel, inherited the sacred trust of being God’s chosen representatives on earth (Hebrews 11:9) for the salvation of the entire human race. Salvation was to be “of the Jews,” in that the Messiah would be a Jew (John 4:22), and by the Jews, as messengers of salvation to all men (Genesis 12:2, 3; 22:18; Isaiah 42:1, 6; 43:10; Galatians 3:8, 16, 18).
At Mt. Sinai God entered into covenant relation with Israel as a nation (Exodus 19:1-8; 24:3-8; Deuteronomy 7:6-14) upon the same basic conditions and with the same ultimate objectives as the Abrahamic covenant. They voluntarily accepted God as their sovereign, and this constituted the nation a theocracy. The sanctuary became God’s dwelling place among them (see Exodus 25:8), its priests were ordained to minister before Him (Hebrews 5:1; 8:3), its services provided an object lesson of the plan of salvation and prefigured the coming of the Messiah (1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:16, 17; Hebrews 9:1-10; 10:1-12). The people might approach God personally and through the ministry of a mediating priesthood, their representatives before Him; He would direct the nation through the ministry of prophets, His appointed representatives to them. From generation to generation these “holy men of God” (2 Peter 1:21) called Israel to repentance and righteousness and kept alive the Messianic hope. By divine appointment the sacred writings were preserved, century after century, and Israel became their custodian (Amos 3:7; Romans 3:1, 2).
The establishment of the Hebrew monarchy did not affect the basic principles of the theocracy (Deuteronomy 17:14-20; 1 Samuel 8:7). The state was still to be administered in the name, and by the authority, of God. Even during the Captivity, and later under foreign tutelage, Israel remained a theocracy in theory if not fully in practice. Only when its leaders formally rejected the Messiah and declared before Pilate their allegiance to “no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) did Israel as a nation irrevocably withdraw from the covenant relationship and the theocracy.
Through Israel of old, God planned to provide the nations of earth with a living revelation of His own holy character and an exhibit of the glorious heights to which man can attain by cooperating with His infinite purposes. At the same time, He permitted the heathen nations to “walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16), to furnish an example of what man can accomplish apart from Him. Thus, for more than 1,500 years, a great experiment designed to test the relative merits of good and evil was conducted before the world. Finally, “it was demonstrated before the universe that, apart from God, humanity could not be uplifted,” and that “a new element of life and power must be imparted by Him who made the world”.
III. The Ideal: How the Plan Was to Operate
God placed His people in Palestine, the crossroads of the ancient world, and provided them with every facility for becoming the greatest nation on the face of the earth. It was His purpose to set them “on high above all nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:1), with the result that “all people of the earth” would recognize their superiority and call them “blessed” (Malachi 3:10, 12). Unparalleled prosperity, both temporal and spiritual, was promised them as the reward for putting into practice the righteous and wise principles of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:6-9; 7:12-15; 28:1-14). It was to be the result of wholehearted cooperation with the will of God as revealed through the prophets, and of divine blessing added to human efforts.
The success of Israel was to be based on and to include:
1. Holiness of character (Levites 19:2; see on Matthew 5:48). Without this, the people of Israel would not qualify to receive the material blessings God designed to bestow upon them. Without this, the many advantages would only result in harm to themselves and to others. Their own characters were to be progressively ennobled and elevated, and to reflect more and more perfectly the attributes of the perfect character of God (Deuteronomy 4:9; 28:1, 13, 14; 30:9, 10). Spiritual prosperity was to prepare the way for material prosperity.
2. The blessings of health. Feebleness and disease were to disappear entirely from Israel as the result of strict adherence to healthful principles (see Exodus 15:26; Deuteronomy 7:13, 15; etc.)
3. Superior intellect. Cooperation with the natural laws of body and mind would result in ever-increasing mental strength, and the people of Israel would be blessed with vigor of intellect, keen discrimination, and sound judgment. They were to be far in advance of other nations in wisdom and understanding. They were to become a nation of intellectual geniuses, and feebleness of mind would eventually have been unknown among them.
4. Skill in agriculture and animal husbandry. As the people cooperated with the directions God gave them in regard to the culture of the soil, the land would gradually be restored to Edenic fertility and beauty (Isaiah 51:3). It would become an object lesson of the results of acting in harmony with moral, as with natural, law. Pests and diseases, flood and drought, crop failure—all these would eventually disappear. See Deuteronomy 7:13; 28:2-8; Malachi 3:8-11.
5. Superior craftsmanship. The Hebrew people were to acquire wisdom and skill in all “cunning work,” that is, a high degree of inventive genius and ability as artisans, for the manufacture of all kinds of utensils and mechanical devices. Technical know-how would render products “made in Israel” superior to all others. See Exodus 31:2-6; 35:33, 35.
6. Unparalleled prosperity. “Obedience to the law of God would make them marvels of prosperity before the nations of the world,” living witnesses to the greatness and majesty of God (Deuteronomy 8:17, 18; 28:11-13).
7. National greatness. As individuals and as a nation God proposed to furnish the people of Israel “with every facility for becoming the greatest nation on the earth” (see Deuteronomy 4:6-8; 7:6, 14; 28:1; Jeremiah 33:9; Malachi 3:12). He purposed to make them an honor to His name and a blessing to the nations about them.
As the nations of antiquity should behold Israel’s unprecedented progress, their attention and interest would be aroused. “Even the heathen would recognize the superiority of those who served and worshiped the living God”. Desiring the same blessings for themselves, they would make inquiry as to how they too might acquire these obvious material advantages. Israel would reply, “Accept our God as your God, love and serve Him as we do, and He will do the same for you.” “The blessings thus assured Israel” were, “on the same conditions and in the same degree, assured to every nation and to every individual under the broad heavens” see Acts 10:34, 35; 15:7-9; Romans 10:12, 13; etc.). All nations of earth were to share in the blessings so generously bestowed upon Israel.
This concept of the role of Israel is reiterated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God was to be glorified in Israel (Isaiah 49:3) and its people were to be His witnesses (chapters 43:10; 44:8), to reveal to men the principles of His kingdom. They were to show forth His praise (chapter 43:21), to declare His glory among the heathen (chapter 66:19), to be “a light to the Gentiles” (chapters 49:6; 42:6, 7). All men would recognize that Israel stood in a special relationship to the God of heaven (Deuteronomy 7:6-14; 28:10; Jeremiah 16:20, 21). Beholding Israel’s “righteousness” (Isaiah 62:1, 2), “the Gentiles” would “acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed” (Isaiah 61:9, 10; cf. Malachi 3:12), and their God the only true God (Isaiah 45:14). To their own question, “What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?” the Gentiles would answer, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:7, 6). Hearing of all the advantages with which the God of Israel had blessed His people and “all the prosperity” He had procured for them (Jeremiah 33:9), the pagan nations would admit that their own fathers had “inherited lies” (chapter 16:19).
The material advantages that Israel enjoyed were designed to arrest the attention and catch the interest of the heathen, for whom the less obvious spiritual advantages had no natural attraction. They would “gather themselves together” and “come from far” (Isaiah 49:18, 12, 6, 8, 9, 22; Psalms 102:22). “from the ends of the earth” (Jeremiah 16:19), to the light of truth shining forth from the “mountain of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:3; 60:3; 56:7; cf. chapter 11:9, 10). Nations that had known nothing of the true God would “run” to Jerusalem because of the manifest evidence of divine blessing that attended Israel (chapter 55:5). Ambassadors from one foreign country after another would come to discover, if they might, the great secret of Israel’s success as a nation, and its leaders would have the opportunity of directing the minds of their visitors to the Source of all good things. From the visible their minds were to be directed to the invisible, from the seen to the unseen, from the material to the spiritual, from the temporal to the eternal. For a graphic picture of how one nation would have responded to the irresistible appeal radiating from an Israel faithful to God, see Isaiah 19:18-22; cf. Psalms 68:31.
Returning to their homelands, the Gentile ambassadors would counsel their fellow countrymen, “Let us go speedily to pray before the Lord, and to seek the Lord” (Zechariah 8:21, 22; cf. 1 Kings 8:41-43). They would send messengers to Israel with the declaration, “We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23). Nation after nation would “come over” (Isaiah 45:14), that is, “be joined with” and “cleave to the house of Jacob” (chapter 14:1). The house of God in Jerusalem would eventually “be called an house of prayer for all people” (chapter 56:7), and “many people and strong nations” would “come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before” Him “in that day” and be His people (Zechariah 8:22; 2:11). The “sons of the stranger [or Gentile, 1 Kings 8:41; see on Exodus 12:19, 43]” would “join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord” (Isaiah 56:6; Zechariah 2:11). The gates of Jerusalem would be “open continually” to receive the “wealth” contributed to Israel for the conversion of still other nations and peoples (Isaiah 60:1-11, RSV; Psalms 72:10; Isaiah 45:14; Haggai 2:7, RSV). Eventually, “all the nations” would “call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord” and “be gathered unto it,” not to “walk any more after the imagination of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 3:17). “All who … turned from idolatry to the worship of the true God, were to unite themselves with His chosen people. As the numbers of Israel increased, they were to enlarge their borders, until their kingdom should embrace the world” (cf. Daniel 2:35). Thus Israel was to “blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6).
These promises of prosperity and a successful mission were to have “met fulfillment in large measure during the centuries following the return of the Israelites from the lands of their captivity. It was God’s design that the whole earth be prepared for the first advent of Christ, even as to-day the way is preparing for His second coming”. In spite of Israel’s ultimate failure, a limited knowledge of the true God and of the Messianic hope was widespread when the Saviour was born (see on Matthew 2:1). If the nation had been faithful to its trust and had appreciated the high destiny reserved for it by God, the whole earth would have awaited the coming of the Messiah with eager expectancy. He would have come, He would have died, and would have risen again. Jerusalem would have become a great missionary center, and the earth would have been set ablaze with the light of truth in one grand, final appeal to those who had not as yet accepted the invitation of divine mercy. God’s call to the nations would have been, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22). See on Zechariah 1:8.
Had Jerusalem known what it was her privilege to know, and heeded the light that Heaven sent her, she would have stood forth in magnificent prosperity, “the queen of kingdoms,” “the mighty metropolis of the earth”, and would, like a noble vine, have filled “the face of the world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6). “Had Israel as a nation preserved her allegiance to Heaven, Jerusalem would have stood forever, the elect of God” (Jeremiah 7:7; 17:25).
After the great final call to the world to acknowledge the true God, those who persisted in refusing allegiance to Him would unite together with the “evil thought” of laying siege to the city of Jerusalem and taking it by force of arms, in order to appropriate to themselves the material advantages with which God had blessed His people (Ezekiel 38:8-12; Jeremiah 25:32; Joel 3:1, 12; Zechariah 12:2-9; 14:2; cf. Revelation 17:13, 14, 17). During the siege, reprobate Israelites would be slain by their foes (Zechariah 13:8; 14:2). In the prophetic picture God is represented as gathering the nations to Jerusalem (Joel 3:1, 2; Zephaniah 3:6-8; cf. Ezekiel 38:16, 18-23; 39:1-7). He has a controversy with them because they have rebelled against His authority (Jeremiah 25:31-33), and He will judge (Joel 3:9-17) and destroy them there (Isaiah 34:1-8; 63:1-6; 66:15-18). Any “nation and kingdom” that would “not serve” Israel was to “perish” chapter (60:12). “Those nations that rejected the worship and service of the true God, were to be dispossessed”, and Israel would “inherit the Gentiles” chapter (54:3).
The earth would thus be rid of those who opposed God (Zechariah 14:12, 13). He would be “king over all the earth” verses (3, 8, 9), and His dominion “from sea even to sea,” even to “the ends of the earth” (chapter 9:9, 10). In that day “every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 14:16; cf. chapter 9:7; Isaiah 66:23).
IV. Israel’s Failure to Carry Out God’s Plan
God provided Israel with “every facility for becoming the greatest nation on the earth”. When they “brought forth wild grapes” instead of the mature fruit of character, He inquired, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:1-7). There was nothing God could have done for them that He did not do, yet they failed. It was “their unwillingness to submit to the restrictions and requirements of God” that “prevented them, to a great extent, from reaching the high standard which He desired them to attain, and from receiving the blessings which He was ready to bestow upon them”.
Those in Israel who put forth their best efforts to cooperate with the revealed will of God realized, personally, a measure of the benefits He had promised. Thus it had been with Enoch (Genesis 5:24), Abraham (chapter 26:5), and Joseph (chapter 39:2-6). Thus it was with Moses, of whom, to the very day of his death, it could be said that “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Thus it was with Daniel, “a bright example of what man may become, even in this life, if he will make God his strength and wisely improve the opportunities and privileges within his reach” (see Daniel 1:8-20). Thus it was also with Samuel, Elijah, John the Baptist (see on Matthew 3:4), John the Beloved (see on Mark 3:17), and many others. The life of Christ is a perfect example of the character of God would have His people develop (see on Luke 2:52). “Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children. Godliness—godlikeness—is the goal to be reached”.
The glorious era of David and Solomon marked what might have been the beginning of Israel’s golden age). One royal visitor to Jerusalem exclaimed, “The half was not told me!” (1 Kings 10:1-9). The glory that distinguished the early part of the reign of Solomon was due in part to his own faithfulness during that time, and in part to the fact that his father David had seemed to appreciate fully Israel’s exalted privileges and responsibilities (see Psalms 51:10, 11; Isaiah 55:3; cf. Acts 13:22).
Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God warned them not to forget that the blessings they were to enjoy there if they cooperated with Him would come as divine gifts (see Deuteronomy 8:7-14), not primarily as the result of their own wisdom and skill (verses 17-19). Solomon made his great mistake when he failed to realize the secret of Israel’s prosperity, and with a few noteworthy exceptions, leaders and people sank lower and lower from generation to generation until apostasy was complete (Isaiah 3:12; 9:16; Jeremiah 5:1-5; 8:10; Ezekiel 22:23-31; Micah 3).
The kingdom was divided following Solomon’s death (see 1 Kings 11:33-38). This division, though tragic, served to insulate, for a time, the southern kingdom, Judah, from the tide of idolatry that soon engulfed the northern kingdom, Israel (see Hosea 4:17). In spite of the bold and zealous efforts of such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea, the northern kingdom rapidly deteriorated and was eventually carried into Assyrian captivity. Its people were given “no promise of complete restoration to their former power in Palestine”.
Had Judah remained loyal to God its captivity would not have been necessary. Again and again He had warned His people that captivity would be the result of disobedience (see Deuteronomy 4:9; 8:9; 28:1, 2, 14, 18; Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:2-16; Zechariah 6:15; etc.). He had told them that He would progressively diminish their strength and honor as a nation until they should all be carried away into captivity (Deuteronomy 28:15-68; 2 Chronicles 36:16, 17). God designed that Israel’s experience should prove to be a warning to Judah (see Hosea 1:7; 4:15-17; 11:12; Jeremiah 3:3-12; etc.). But Judah failed to learn the lesson, and a little more than a century later her apostasy, also, was complete (see Jeremiah 22:6, 8, 9; Ezekiel 16:37; 7:2-15; 12:3-28; 36:18-23). The kingdom was overturned (Ezekiel 21:25-32) and the people removed from the land, which had been theirs only by virtue of the covenant relationship (Hosea 9:3, 15, Micah 2:10; cf. Hosea 2:6-13). Deported to Babylon, they were to learn in adversity the lessons they had failed to learn during times of prosperity (Jeremiah 25:5-7; 29:18, 19; 30:11-14; 46:28; Ezekiel 20:25-38; Micah 4:10-12), and to impart to the heathen Babylonians a knowledge of the true God.
God did not forsake His people, even during the Captivity. He would renew His covenant with them (Jeremiah 31:10-38; Ezekiel 36:21-38; Zechariah 1:12, 17; 2:12), including its accompanying blessings (Jeremiah 33:3, 6-26; Ezekiel 36:8-15). All that had been promised might yet come to pass if they would only love and serve Him (Zechariah 6:15; cf. Isaiah 54:7; Ezekiel 36:11; 43:10, 11; Micah 6:8; Zechariah 10:6). According to His beneficent purpose, the covenant promises were to have “met fulfillment in large measure during the centuries following the return of the Israelites from the lands of their captivity. It was God’s design that the whole earth be prepared for the first advent of Christ, even as to-day the way is preparing for His second coming”.
It is important to note that all the Old Testament promises looking forward to a time of restoration for the Jews were given in anticipation of their return from captivity (see Isaiah 10:24-34; 14:1-7; 27:12, 13; 40:2; 61:4-10; Jeremiah 16:14-16; 23:3-8; 25:11; 29:10-13; 30:3-12; 32:7-27, 37-44; Ezekiel 34:11-15; 37; Amos 9:10-15; Micah 2:12, 13; etc.). Daniel himself so understood these promises (Daniel 9:1-8). Captivity, he said, had “confirmed” the “curse” that came because of disobedience (verses 11, 12) and Jerusalem lay desolate (verses 16-19). Then Gabriel came to reassure him of the restoration of his people and the eventual coming of the Messiah (verses 24, 25). But, said the angel, Messiah would be rejected and “cut off,” because of the abominations of Israel, and Jerusalem and the Temple would once more life waste (verses 26, 27). Between the return from Babylon and the rejection of the Messiah, Israel was to have its second and final opportunity as a nation to cooperate with the divine plan (see Jeremiah 12:14-17). “Seventy weeks”—490 years of literal time—were “determined” upon the Jews, “to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness” (Daniel 9:24).
Eventually, however, it became apparent that the Jews would never measure up to the standard God required of them, as Malachi makes evident (chapters 1:6, 12; 2:2, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 17; 3:7, 13, 14). Formal worship took the place of sincere religion (cf. John 4:23, 24; 2 Tim. 3:5). Human traditions came to be honored in place of the revealed will of God (see on Mark 7:6-9). Far from becoming the light of the world, the Jews “shut themselves away from the world as a safeguard against being seduced into idolatry” (see Deuteronomy 11:26, 27; cf. Mark 7:9). In their meticulous attention to the letter of the law they lost sight of its spirit. They forgot that God abhors a multiplication of the forms of religion (Isaiah 1:11-18; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:7; Malachi 2:13), and asks of man nothing “but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly” with his God (Micah 6:8; cf. Matthew 19:16, 17; 22:36-40). Yet in mercy, God still bore with His people, and in due time Messiah came (Malachi 3:1-3). To the very last, “Christ would have averted the doom of the Jewish nation if the people had received Him”. When the probationary period of 490 years ended, the nation was still obdurate and impenitent, and as a result forfeited its privileged role as His representative on earth.
V. Why Israel Failed
Israel’s “unwillingness to submit to the restrictions and requirements of God, prevented them, to a great extent, from reaching the high standard He desired them to attain, and from receiving the blessings He was ready to bestow upon them”. They cherished the idea that they were favorites of Heaven, and were ungrateful for the opportunities so graciously afforded them. They forfeited God’s blessing because of failure to fulfill His purpose in making them His chosen people, and thus brought ruin upon themselves.
When Messiah came, His own people, the Jews, “received him not” (John 1:11). They blindly “overlooked those scriptures that point to the humiliation of Christ’s first advent, and misapplied those that speak of the glory of His second coming. Pride obscured their vision [see Luke 19:42]. They interpreted prophecy in accordance with their selfish desires”, because their ambitious hopes were fixed on worldly greatness. They looked for Messiah to reign as a temporal prince (cf. Acts 1:6), to appear as a liberator and conqueror, and to exalt Israel to dominion over all nations (see on Luke 4:19). They would have no part in all that Christ stood for (see on Matthew 3:2, 3; Mark 3:14). They eagerly sought the power of His kingdom, but were unwilling to be guided by its principles. They grasped at the material blessings so generously offered them, but refused the spiritual graces that would have transformed their lives and fitted them to be His representatives. They brought forth “wild grapes” rather than the mature fruit of a Godlike character (Isaiah 5:1-7; cf. Galatians 5:19-23), and because of this failure to bear the fruit expected of them, forfeited their role in the divine plan (see Romans 11:20).
Having declined, thus, to surrender themselves to God as His agents for the salvation of the human race, the Jews, as a nation, became “agents of Satan” for the destruction of the race. Instead of becoming light bearers to the world they absorbed its darkness and reflected that darkness instead. They were doing no positive good; therefore they were doing incalculable harm, and their influence became a savor of death. “In view of the light they had received from God, they were even worse than the heathen, to whom they felt so much superior”. “They rejected the Light of the world, and henceforth their lives were surrounded with darkness as the darkness of midnight”.
In these tragic events the words of Moses met their final and complete fulfillment: “As the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goes to possess it. And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other” (Deuteronomy 28:63, 64). The completeness and finality of this rejection is evident from chapter 8:19, 20: “As the nations which the Lord destroyeth before your face, so shall ye perish; because ye would not be obedient unto the voice of the Lord your God.” The rejection of Jesus by the leaders of Israel (cf. Isaiah 3:12; 9:16) meant the permanent, irrevocable cancellation of their special standing before God as a nation (cf. Jeremiah 12:14-16).
At the time of the Babylonian captivity God had specifically announced that that experience was not to mark “a full end” of Israel as God’s people (Jeremiah 4:27; 5:18; 46:28). But when the Jews rejected Christ there was no such assurance of reinstatement. The present-day return of the Jews to Palestine and the establishment of the modern state of Israel do not imply reinstatement as God’s people, present or future. Whatever the Jews, as a nation, may do, now or in time to come, is in no way related to the former promises made to them. With the crucifixion of Christ they forever forfeited their special position as God’s chosen people. Any idea that the return of the Jews to their ancestral home, that is, to the new state of Israel, may in any way be related to Bible prophecy is without valid scriptural foundation. It ignores the plain statements of the Old Testament that God’s promises to Israel were all conditional.
VI. The Nature and Purpose of Conditional Prophecy
God’s word is sure (Isaiah 40:8; 55:11; Romans 11:29), and His plan for the salvation of man will ultimately prevail (Isaiah 46:10). With Him there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). He is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). His word “endureth for ever” (1 Peter 1:25). Eventually God’s purposes will prevail and the plan of salvation will succeed, irrespective of the failure of any person or group. The plan itself never changes because God never changes. But the manner in which it is carried out may change because man may change. The fickle, human will is the weak, unstable factor in conditional prophecy. God may reject one nation or group of people in favor of another if those first summoned persistently refuse to cooperate with Him (see Jeremiah 18:6-10; cf. Daniel 5:25-28; Matthew 21:40-43; 22:3-10; Luke 14:24). For illustrations of the reversal of threatened judgment, see Jonah 3:3-10; cf. 2 Kings 20:1-5; and of promised blessing, see Exodus 6:2-8; cf. Numbers 14:26-34. The covenant with literal Israel proved faulty, not because God failed to carry out His part of the covenant, but rather because Israel’s fair promises proved evanescent as the morning dew (Hosea 6:4; 13:3; Hebrews 8:6, 7). It should be remembered that God does not force the human will, and that Israel’s cooperation was essential to the success of His plan for the nation.
God’s promises are made conditional upon man’s cooperation and obedience. “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional”. Again and again God warned Israel that blessing goes hand in hand with obedience and that a curse accompanies disobedience (see Deuteronomy 4:9; 8:19; 28:1, 2, 13, 14; Jeremiah 18:6-10; 26:2-6; Zechariah 6:15; etc.). Continued obedience was necessary to the continuance of divine favor, whereas persistent disobedience must inevitably culminate in the rejection of the Jewish nation as God’s chosen instrument for carrying out the divine plan (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Owing to the failure of the Jews as God’s chosen people, many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, such as those affirming the worldwide mission of Israel and the ingathering of the Gentiles (see Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 4:6-8; Isaiah 2:2-5; 42:6; 49:6; 52:10; 56:6, 7; 60:1-3; 61:9; 62:2; Zechariah 2:11; 8:22, 23; etc.), those pointing forward to the eternal rest in Canaan (Isaiah 11:6-9; 35; 65:17-25; 66:20-23; Jeremiah 17:25; Ezekiel 37; 40-48; Zechariah 2:6-12; 14:4-11), and those promising deliverance from her enemies (Isaiah 2:10-21; 24-26; Ezekiel 38; 39; Joel 3; Zephaniah 1; 2; Zechariah 9:9-17; 10-14; etc.), have never been and can never be fulfilled to them as a nation.
Had Israel measured up to the noble ideal, all of the promises contingent upon obedience would long since have been fulfilled. Predictions of national disgrace, rejection, and woe that were to result from apostasy would never have been realized. But because of apostasy it was the predictions of national honor and glory that could not be fulfilled. Yet, since God’s purposes are immutable (Psalms 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isaiah 46:10; Acts 5:39; Hebrews 6:17; etc.), success must and will come—through Israel after the spirit. Though, on the whole, literal Israel failed to realize her exalted destiny, the chosen race did make a worth-while, though imperfect, contribution to the preparation of the world for the first advent of the Messiah (see on Matthew 2:1). Furthermore, it should be remembered that the Messiah, after the flesh, was a Jew, that the charter members of the Christian church were all Jews, and that Christianity grew out of Judaism.
VII. Spiritual Israel Replaces Literal Israel
The formal rejection of Jesus by the Jews, as a nation, marked the close of their last opportunity as the special agents of God for the salvation of the world. It was “last of all” that God “sent unto them his son,” according to Christ’s own words (Matthew 21:37), but they “caught him” and “slew him” (verse 39). Thereafter, God “let out his vineyard [see Isaiah 5:1-7] unto other husbandmen” who would “render him the fruits in their seasons” (see on Matthew 21:41). Upon His final departure from the sacred precincts of the Temple, Jesus said, “Your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:38). The day, before, He had called it “my house” (chapter 21:13), but henceforth He no longer owned it as His. Jesus’ own verdict was, “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof” (Matthew 21:43; cf. 1 Peter 2:9, 10).
The transition from literal Israel to spiritual Israel, or the Christian church, is the subject of Romans 9-11. Here Paul affirms that the rejection of the Jews did not mean that the promises of God had “taken none effect” (Romans 9:6), and explains immediately that they are to become effective through spiritual Israel. He quotes Hosea 2:23. “I will call them my people, which were not my people” (Romans 9:25, 26). Spiritual Israel includes both Jews and Gentiles (verse 24). Peter concurs, saying, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons,” for “in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34, 35; cf. chapter 11:18). Many years later, in writing to the “strangers,” or Gentiles (1 Peter 1:1: see on Exodus 12:19, 43), as the “elect” of God (1 Peter 1:2), Peter refers to them as the “chosen” ones of God, a “holy nation, a peculiar people” (chapter 2:9), formerly “not a people,” but “now the people of God” (verse 10). Paul states the same truth in Romans 9:30, 31, where he makes it plain that the Christian church has replaced the Hebrew nation in the divine plan. Henceforth, he says, there is no difference between “Jew” and “Greek” (chapter 10:12, 13).
Paul emphasizes the fact that the rejection of literal Israel as God’s chosen instrument for the salvation of the world does not mean that individual Jews can no longer be saved (chapters 9:6; 11:1, 2, 11, 15), for he is a Jew himself (chapters 9:3; 10:1; 11:1, 2). But they are to be saved as Christians and not as Jews. It is true, he says, that national Israel “stumbled” at the “stumblingstone,” Jesus Christ (Romans 9:32, 33; 11:11; cf. 1 Peter 2:6-8; 1 Corinthians 1:23) but this need not mean that they are to fall—“God forbid,” he exclaims (Romans 11:1, 22). Literal Jews may still find salvation by being grafted into spiritual Israel, in precisely the same way that Gentiles are to be grafted in (verses 23, 24). “All Israel” consists of both Jews and Gentiles, thus “all Israel shall be saved” (Romans 11:25, 26). Paul makes it clear beyond argument that when he speaks of “Israel” as the chosen people of God he means it in this sense. He says specifically that by “Jew” he does not mean a literal Jew but one converted at heart, whether he be Jew or Gentile (chapter 2:28, 29). All who have faith in Christ are one in Him, and, as a the spiritual “seed” of Abraham, are “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:9, 28, 29).
“That which God purposed to do for the world through Israel, the chosen nation, He will finally accomplish through His church on earth to-day”. The glorious promises originally made to literal Israel are meeting their fulfillment today in the proclamation of the gospel to all men (Revelation 14:6, 7). “The blessings thus assured to Israel are, on the same conditions and in the same degree, assured to every nation and to every individual under the broad heavens”. “The church in this generation has been endowed by God with great privileges and blessings, and He expects corresponding returns. … In the lives of God’s people the truths of His word are to reveal their glory and excellence. Through His people Christ is to manifest His character and the principles of His kingdom”. Now it is spiritual Israel, in the past “not a people” but “now the people of God,” that are to “shew forth the praises” of the One who has called them “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).
We should never forget that “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written” for the “learning” of future generations to the end of time, to inspire patience, comfort, and hope (Romans 15:4). They were “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
The prophets did not always clearly understand messages they themselves had borne pointing forward to the distant future, to the coming of the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10, 11). These repeated Messianic predictions were designed to lift the eyes of the people from the transitory events of their own time to the coming of Messiah and the establishment of His eternal kingdom, in order to afford them a view of the things of time in the light of eternity. However, these messages pertaining to the then-distant future were intended, not only to inspire patience, comfort, and hope in the day they were first given, but also to provide men of Christ’s day with confirming evidence of His Messiahship. The profound conviction that the messages of the prophets had been fulfilled led many to believe in Christ as the Son of God. The prophets thus provided a firm foundation for the faith of the apostolic church and made a direct and vital contribution to the Christian faith.
It was therefore not alone “unto themselves” and to their contemporaries that the prophets ministered, but also to all sincere men and women of later generations (1 Peter 1:12). It is ever the privilege of those who witness the fulfillment of prophecy to “remember” and “believe” (John 13:19; 14:29; John 16:4). Prophecies that Inspiration clearly applies to our day were designed of God to inspire us with patience, comfort, and the hope that all things foretold by these holy men of old will soon meet their final and complete fulfillment.
VIII. Conclusion: Principles of Interpretation
In general, Old Testament promises and predictions were addressed to literal Israel and were to have been fulfilled to them, conditional on obedience. Partial compliance on their part with the will of God made possible a partial fulfillment of the covenant promises on God’s part. Yet many of the promises, particularly those concerning the giving of the gospel to the nations and the establishment of the Messianic kingdom, could not be fulfilled to them because of their unfaithfulness, but would be fulfilled to the church on earth preparatory to Christ’s return, particularly to God’s remnant people, and in the new earth.
When the Jews rejected Christ as the Messiah, God in turn rejected them and commissioned the Christian church as His chosen instrument for the salvation of the world (Matthew 28:19, 20; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20; 1 Peter 2:9, 10; etc.). Accordingly, the covenant promises and privileges were all permanently transferred from literal to spiritual Israel (Romans 9:4; cf. Galatians 3:27-29; see on Deuteronomy 18:15). Promises not already fulfilled to literal Israel either would never be fulfilled at all or would be fulfilled to the Christian church as spiritual Israel. Prophecies that fall into the latter classification are to be fulfilled in principle but not necessarily in every detail, owing to the fact that many details of prophecy were concerned with Israel as a literal nation situated in the land of Palestine. The Christian church is a spiritual “nation” scattered all over the world, and such details obviously could not apply to it in a literal sense. Prophecies of the former classification cannot now be fulfilled because they were strictly conditional in nature and limited in scope, by their very nature, to literal Israel.
The fundamental principle by which we can tell unerringly when any particular promise or prediction of the Old Testament made originally to literal Israel is to meet its fulfillment with respect to spiritual Israel is—when a later inspired writer makes such an application of it. For instance, the prophecy of the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38, 39 was never fulfilled to literal Israel; but John the revelator assures us that in principle, though not necessarily in all details (such as those of Ezekiel 39:9-15), this battle will occur at the close of the millennium (Revelation 20:7-9). But to go beyond that which is clearly set forth by Inspiration—in the immediate context of the passage concerned, in the New Testament, or in the Spirit of prophecy—is to substitute personal opinion for a plain “Thus saith the Lord.” Where Inspiration has not thus clearly spoken it is our privilege to compare scripture with scripture in an endeavor to understand more perfectly the mind of the Spirit. But here, as in all exposition of Scripture, we should avoid affirming as the explicit teachings of the Bible that which is our private, finite view, however plausible it may appear to be. Furthermore, Old Testament prophecy must first be examined in terms of its historical application to literal Israel before the validity of a derived application to spiritual Israel may be undertaken.
One of the main objectives of the Bible commentator is to reconstruct the historical setting in which the declarations of the prophets were originally made. Christianity is a historical religion, and its inspired messages are anchored to the hills and valleys, the deserts and rivers, of the ancient world, and to literal men and women who once walked the earth. There is no surer protection against the speculative vagaries of religious visionaries than a clear knowledge of the historical context of Scripture.
Though the prophet looked at events about him, he also could see far beyond his own day. In a mysterious way known only to God the prophet’s words were sometimes intended to meet their fulfillment in the then far-distant future. At times they had an import, not only for the age in which the prophet lived, but also for a day far future; in other words, they had a dual application. Similarly, the ways in which God dealt with men in crises of the past are often cited as examples of the manner in which He will deal with all the world in the last day (see on Deuteronomy 18:15). For example, the judgment that came upon Sodom and Gomorrah, literal cities of the ancient past, is used by Bible writers as descriptive of the judgment God will eventually bring upon all the world.
The student of the Bible who hopes to secure from it the greatest help will first proceed to reconstruct the historical context of each passage. He will listen to the prophet speaking to Israel of old and endeavor to understand what his words meant to the people who originally heard them. But he will listen also for the further import the prophet’s words may have for later times, particularly, our time. Indeed, this secondary application is for us today the more significant. But it is only against the background of the original historical context of the message that its meaning and value for us can be established with certainty.
A study of the Old Testament prophets that consists primarily of lifting selected passages here and there out of their historical context and arbitrarily applying them to our day—as if the prophet spoke exclusively for our benefit—is fraught with grave danger. In fact, this procedure is responsible more than anything else for the fanciful interpretations that distinguish the teachings of certain religious groups.
In an age when every wind of doctrine is blowing it is well to make certain that our understanding of Bible prophecy rests upon a positive “Thus saith the Lord” (see Deuteronomy 29:29; Isaiah 50:11; Jeremiah 2:13; Matthew 7:24-28; 1 Corinthians 2:4, 5, 12, 13; Eph. 4:14; Colossians 2:2-4, 8; 2 Peter 1:16; Revelation 22:18). In so doing we shall be secure against the fanciful explanations sometimes given certain Old Testament prophecies. We shall be protected against the grossly literal explanation of some expositors concerning the return of literal Israel to literal Palestine to rule the world for a thousand years prior to the close of human probation, and also against other equally unscriptural interpretations that propose to apply allegorically to the church all the details of the promises originally made to literal Israel. Both of these extreme methods wrest the obvious intent of the Scriptures and render a sound understanding of the messages of the prophets for the church today unattainable.
The following simple rules are suggested as a safe approach to the study of each prophetic passage of the Old Testament:
1. Examine the prophecy in its entirety. Note by whom it was spoken, to whom it was addressed, and the circumstances that called it forth. Remember that—generally speaking—it was originally given with respect to the historical circumstances that called it forth. It was ordained of God to meet the needs of His people at the time it was given and to remind them of the glorious destiny that awaited them as a nation, of the coming of the Messiah, and of the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Discover what the message meant to the people of that time. (This rule does not apply to those portions of the book of Daniel that the prophet was bidden to “shut up” and “seal,” or to other passages whose application Inspiration may have limited exclusively to our own time.)
2. Observe the conditional aspects of the prediction and ascertain whether or not, or to what extent, the conditions were met.
3. Discover what application later inspired writers make of the prophecy, and on this basis determine its possible significance for God’s people in this time.
4. Remember that the record of God’s dealings with His people in ages past has been recorded for the benefit of all later generations to the end of time. Our study of messages originally proclaimed by holy men of old to the people of their day is not to become an end in itself, but a means of discovering the will of God for all who would render Him truehearted service now, at the climax of the ages. The voice of God through the prophets distinctly speaks to us today.
If these rules are consistently followed the resulting interpretation can be accepted with confidence. In the inspired utterances of the prophets of old the sincere seeker for truth will thus find messages of inspiration, comfort, and guidance for today.