FIRST-PERSON: Does Israel still matter?
FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--Four thousand years ago in the extreme south of today’s war-torn land of Iraq, the ancient city of Ur boasted among its inhabitants a man named Abram. In Genesis 12:1, God told Abram to leave his country and go to a land that He would show him.
God promised to give Abram that new land. God promised to bless those who blessed Abraham, curse those who cursed him, and to use him as the vehicle through which all the families of the earth would be blessed. Abraham’s obedience to God resulted in a God-made covenant that was reconfirmed with Abraham and his posterity on numerous occasions. Through hardships and sorrows, through Egyptian slavery, episodes of idolatry and moral failure, mixed with acts of incredible prophetic significance and heroism, Israel stayed in the Promised Land until 586 B.C.
The Northern Kingdom -- known as Israel -- fell in 722 B.C. In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar overran the Southern Kingdom -- known as Judah -- and took most of the Israelites captive to Babylon. The few poor Jews left in the land were so frightened that they took the biblical prophet Jeremiah against his will and forsook the land, fleeing to Egypt.
When the Exile came to an end 70 years later, some of the Jews returned to the Promised Land led by Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel. But the vast majority of them remained in what is today Iraq and even Iran (ancient Persia) where the events of the Book of Esther occurred.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jews had re-established themselves in the Promised Land. Then, once again, the Jews were decimated when Titus, the Roman general, destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and scattered the Jews once more by means of the now-famous Diaspora throughout all the nations of the world. Very few Jews remained in the land after that.
Some were there during the days of the Ottomans, whose rule was essentially from 1517 to 1917. A few more Jews made their way to Israel under the British mandate, which existed from 1922 to 1948.
As Jews began to come back into the land, they were not welcome. In some ways this was understandable. The land had been in Arab hands for generations, and seemingly there was not enough room for both Jew and Arab in such a small area of land.
In 1948 Israel declared itself to be a nation once again. In 1948 and 1949, a brutal war for independence erupted. Succeeding wars -- the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and even the Palestinian intifadas today -- have left the land in turmoil.
Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), a Jew who was born in Hungary and grew up in Austria, was the leading spokesman and proponent of Zionism in the late 19th century. In 1897, he convened and presided over the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which put him on the world stage as a proponent of re-establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1882, Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, a Lithuanian Jew, brought the long-since-forsaken Hebrew language back to life. Finally, in 1917, a political accident known today as the Baulfour Declaration set forth that the country then called Palestine was to become the home of the Jews once again.
Since that day, the tiny little country of Israel, boasting not a drop of oil, has nevertheless become a “political football” for the nations. This effort at a modern democracy has been supported by America, and to some degree Great Britain, but increasingly the world seems hostile to Israel.
This reaction in itself should be no surprise to Christian believers who have read Revelation 12 and understand that Satan’s inability to bring about the destruction of Israel despite all his efforts in history -- culminating in the Holocaust -- causes him to turn upon the offspring of Israel, namely those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Revelation 12:17). Satan focuses his hatred not only upon Israel but on those who are followers of Christ.
Surrounded by hostile enemies, and with few friends on the face of the globe, does Israel have a chance to survive? Should she even survive?
Many Christians believe that God’s promises to Abraham are still to be taken seriously. After all, as my pastor Dr. Criswell used to say, “If God does not keep His promise to Abraham, how do I know that He will keep His promise to me?” But other Christians seem to feel that the Jewish rejection of their Messiah meant that Israel no longer had a place in the plan of God.
But, the Bible seems to indicate that Israel has a place in the plan of God. For example, Ezekiel 37 records the prophet’s famous “valley of dry bones” vision. Though often preached as an evangelistic sermon, this chapter is actually nothing of the sort. Ezekiel’s prophecy is that Israel, both northern and southern kingdoms, would once again be united in the land of Israel. That, of course, was never fully realized until the modern day.
In Romans 9-11, the Apostle Paul takes up the theme of God’s promise to the descendents of Israel. Paul refers to Israel’s future in the land by reaffirming that “the promises” still “belong” to the “Israelites.” In Romans 11:26, Paul even declares that there is coming a day when “all Israel shall be saved.” We should not understand that reference to be every Jew who has ever lived but, rather, all living Israel who survive until that time when the Jewish people realize that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.
Occasionally, someone objects to such a view and asks me the understandable question, “Why would God love the Jew more than He does the Arab?” I believe the answer to that question is that God does not love the Jew more than the Arab or more than any other Gentile. As a Gentile, I am profoundly grateful for this fact. But, God does say clearly in Ezekiel 36 that He has concern for His great name, which Israel has “profaned among the nations” wherever they have been scattered.
Ezekiel continues to speak for God and prophesies a re-gathering of Israel in 36:24: “For I will take you [Israel] from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land.” But Ezekiel also declared that this would not be done for Israel’s sake. Verse 38 records the voice of God saying that the purpose is so that “they shall know that I am the LORD.” God’s name will be glorified and honored, and all men will know that He is indeed God when He is honored in His own ancient people, the Jews.
In light of the scriptural teaching that God has a plan for the future, which will eventually bring the Jewish nation to the land of Israel, what should the attitude of the Christian be toward the Jews and toward Israel?
-- We are told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6).
-- We ought to urge Israel to promote religious liberty within its own boundaries. Tragically, the Jewish state has chosen to define religious liberty as the right of a man to remain in the religion into which he was born, but Israel really has not given freedom to its people, for example, to become believers in Jesus, the Messiah, if they wish. Many inhabitants of Israel are even atheistic or agnostic. The government of Israel is correct to tolerate that view, as tragic as such may be, but they should also tolerate those who choose to follow Jesus as the Messiah.
-- We should work among all peoples -- Jews, Palestinians and other Arabs -- to dissuade them from the policy of retaliation, which has come to characterize the Middle Eastern theater. Until the string of efforts to retaliate for wrongs is brought to an end, there can be no real peace in the land.
-- We can see the land and allow the people of the land to see the love of Christ as exemplified in Christian pilgrims.
-- We can witness to Jews and Palestinians and other Arabs alike, sharing the love of Christ.
Some years ago, when I sat in the guest house of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad, Iraq, and shared with Yasser Arafat, then-president of the Palestinian people, I proposed to him the possibility of a real peace in the Middle East. I read to him the following verses from the eighth-century B.C. prophet Isaiah:
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria -- a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance’” (Isaiah 19:23-25).
I said, “Mr. Arafat, there is coming a day when there will be peace in the Middle East, and in those days, God will say, ‘Assyria, My people; Egypt, My people; and Israel, My inheritance.’ That peace can only come in the land and in the heart of an individual when Jesus is made the King.”
May God help us all to share that message with the precious people of the Middle East.
Paige Patterson is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.