The Future Of Israel And The Palestinians
Solutions to the problem between Israel and the Palestinians seem to be further away than ever. To whom does this “Holy Land” belong? Is Israel in a position to claim, on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, the whole area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, or even more? And how about the Palestinians? Who will have compassion on them?
A Complicated Problem
There are many subjects which are not directly discussed in the Bible, but that cannot be said of Israel. The Old Testament particularly, but also the New, speaks extensively about the place this people occupies in God’s written history – past, present and future.
Nor is there a lack of contemporary information either. Jerusalem – a small city compared to Middle East capitals like Cairo, Damascus, Amman, Beirut and Bagdad – seems to be the focal point of world events. Israel is always a top story in world news broadcasts: from the setting up of the State of Israel in 1948, to the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, to the Lebanese war from 1982 on, to the two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings) – the last continuing to this day in the form of suicide bombings. Israel continues to get the highest media attention worldwide.
But how to connect the Bible and contemporary news is a lot harder. This became clear to me when in the ’80s I was invited to speak in churches of Palestinian Christians about a biblical view on the future of Israel. But I also observed back home in the Netherlands how a prophetic view of Israel is not generally accepted, and with good reason. Let’s briefly identify the problems with four broadly-worded biblical questions apart from, yet connected to, political and historical issues.
- Who are God’s people in the Middle East? Is it Israel? Or does the Church take the place of Israel? Or what?
- Where are God’s promises in Scripture? Are there still unfulfilled promises pertaining to Israel?
- What meaning does Scripture attach to the country of Israel? Under which heading can we discuss the borders of the country? More fundamentally, are the promises about the land, the people, or what?
- How are the people, the promises and the country mutually connected according to God’s thoughts? And in terms of present reality, is Israel as a people in a position to claim God’s promises for the country in the present situation?
God’s People In The Middle East
The American theologian, Colin Chapman, now teaching at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, has written a book entitled, Who are God’s People in the Middle East? Immediately, one might say, “That’s easy. It’s Israel!” But as one reads the book, several profound questions emerge. Whoever travels through the Middle East will admittedly see in Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee how God’s people lived and believed in the past. But today, souls with whom you can share in prayer, in the Word of God and in the work of the Lord, are very rare in that area, even though the number of Messianic Jews in Israel has increased remarkably.
What is perhaps even more remarkable, but goes unnoticed by many, is that in this same country and its surrounding area one can find believers in Jesus Christ almost everywhere. There are evangelical Christians among the Palestinians (even in PLO circles!), Anglican Arabs, Syrian orthodox Christians in Iraq, Coptic Christians in Egypt, international churches with a wild melting pot of expatriates in the big cities, Lebanese Maronites, Armenian Christians, and also Jewish Christians. While there are, unfortunately, many nominal Christians with little or no commitment to Christ, there are also thousands who truly love Jesus as their Savior and Lord. We find, in short, exactly the situation that we expect from reading the New Testament – “that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, indeed all … who bear My name” (Acts 15:17 NIV).
From the nations and from God’s own people a new people has been formed, not taking the place of Israel, but “grafted in” among the branches of the old olive tree, Israel. They will eventually be taken from there, “until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Then it’s Israel’s turn again, and “all Israel will be saved” when “the Redeemer comes from Zion” (Rom. 11:17-25). This means we should love the people of Israel heartily, but realize that, for the time being, they are, as God says in Hosea 1:9, “not My people.” And our heart should at least go out equally towards the poor (but sometimes spiritually rich) Arabic, Palestinian, Armenian, Iraqi, Syrian and Jewish Christians.
The Old Testament is full of God’s promises for Israel: this is especially the case with the prophetic books. And the New Testament confirms that no reason can be found to think that God will ever go back on those promises: “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). The last book of the Bible, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, is filled with many direct and indirect references to Old Testament prophecy.
Many theologians have suggested that we should spiritualize God’s promises for Israel and apply them to the Church, calling it “the spiritual Israel.” One may read the Old Testament like this, as an allegorical or typical application, but it cannot be true that God’s promises would come to an end in such a way. There is so much that the Lord has guaranteed to His people that has not yet come about. We would not promise our children a beach holiday, and then only let them play in the sand box after a rain shower. The future will show that God’s promises in Christ are all “Yes … and … Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20).
While not spiritualizing God’s Old Testament promises, but taking them literally, we should also allow a special place for the land of Israel. Without exception, all prophets speak about a restored nation in a restored land. Strictly speaking, the land is not Israel’s; it belongs to the Lord, and His people may stay there as strangers and sojourners (Lev. 25:23).
In a time to come, Jerusalem will be the dwelling place of God’s glory and the throne of Messiah (Zech. 14:3), and the name of this place will be forever associated with Divine Presence: “the Lord is there” (Ezek. 48:35). This is the place that He has chosen for His name to dwell, and it will also be the place where Jesus will return on the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4; Acts 1:11-12), and where He shall reign, as depicted in prophetic language in Psalm 72, for example. There’s a lot more to be said about the size and the exact borders of the country, but the Bible is clear that God has not only chosen His own people, but has also prepared for them their own special place.
People, Promises, Land
Looking again at the contemporary situation, what is the connection between the people, the promises and the land? In which way may the people of Israel claim God’s promises for the country? This again has very much to do with our relationship with Israel.
We should certainly love Israel, as they are the object of God’s love, “the apple of His eye” (Zech.2:8). And we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps.122:6-9). We should also wait patiently for the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ. But at the same time, we must recognize that it is not yet the appointed time, and that we cannot uncritically support everything being done by present-day Israel. God’s promises cannot be claimed without walking in God’s way, and His promises will never be fulfilled without Christ.
If leaders in Israel want to appropriate the land for themselves, we should not be happy about that. In Ezekiel’s time, the men of Israel eagerly pleaded God’s promises. “Abraham was only one man, and yet he possessed the land. But we are many; surely the land has been given to us as our possession.” However, in indignation, the Lord responded through the prophet: “Since you … look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land?” (Ezek. 33:24-25).
From the very beginning, the take-over of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Zionist pioneers in Israel has not been characterized by compassion towards men or by reverence towards God. Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the visionary of Zionism, was an absolute agnostic. David Ben-Gurion, founder of the state of Israel in 1948, and the whole first generation of Jewish leaders started with cruel attacks on civilian targets – and they have continued. Recently whole Palestinian villages have been bulldozed away.
Israel was not a “country without a people for a people without a country” as many people think, with its inhabitants literally having second-rank civil status. Many of the colonists of the West Bank are not pioneers generally, but people who enjoy tax exemptions for their second home, while Palestinians living a few miles away do not even have sufficient drinking water. Such facts are not often told, but facts they are, and we should not close our eyes to them.
We want to continue to love Israel, even though many things are wrong there. But as we love Israel, we also want to present the prophetic warnings of the Lord in Scripture. And above all, we need to maintain a biblical perspective. No, not Jenin, but the Mount of Olives is the place. And no, not Ariel Sharon, the current prime minister, but Jesus Christ, the Messiah, will bring real peace. The enemies will be brought to nothing, and compassion and grace will flow again from Jerusalem.
by Henk Medema
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.