Every time the situation in Israel-Palestine hits the news, for Christians one of the issues that emerges is whether or not the modern State of Israel is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The main prophetic text appealed to is the later chapters of Ezekiel, particularly Ezekiel 39. But in order to understand whether there is connection between these texts and events in the modern world, we need to look carefully at what Ezekiel says, how it was understood, and most importantly of all, how the writers of the NT understood these passages in relation to the ministry of Jesus.
Colin Chapman, who has written widely on the subject of the Middle East, engages with just these questions in the latest Grove Biblical booklet B 87 Prophecy Fulfilled Today? Does Ezekiel Have Anything to Say About the Modern State of Israel? He starts by noting that this question has been a concern of Christians for nearly 400 years.
It is in discussion about the fulfilment of prophecy in recent history that there is most division among Christians. Since the time of the Puritans in the seventeenth century many have believed that prophecies in Ezekiel and the other prophets concerning the return to the land and the restoration of Israelwould one day be ful lled literally. This view is generally known as ‘restorationism.’ And since the beginning of the Zionist movement in the 1880s many Christians have been convinced that these prophecies—together with biblical promises about the land—were being fulfilled.
To engage with this question, the first thing Chapman does is to put Ezekiel and his prophecy in its context—when Ezekiel was writing, what was the situation, and what questions he is seeking to address.
Ezekiel’s first task was to explain to his people that the fall of Jerusalem and the exile were God’s judgment for the ways in which they had broken the covenant. God had taken away four of the most fundamental and significant gifts included in the covenant—the land, the city of Jerusalem, the temple and the monarchy. Having explained the reason for the exile, in the second part of the book Ezekiel gives his people hope for the future (chapters 33–48). Not only will they be able to return to their land, but they will see that God is going to do something radically new in and through the restoration of the land, the city, the temple and the monarchy.
But when we look at the history of the people in the land after the return and in the next four centuries, it is hard to see much evidence of the national and spiritual renewal and revival that Ezekiel had envisaged. It was not surprising, therefore, that in the intertestamental period people began to dream of a time when God would intervene in miraculousways to ful l the visions of the prophets. Some of these hopes centred round the gure of a messiah, who would be either a supernatural figure coming on the clouds or a military figure overcoming oppressive foreign rulers and restoring Israel’s independence.
These were the kind of hopes of a better future that were held by many Jews in the first century, and summed up by Luke in expressions like ‘the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2.25), ‘the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2.38), ‘the one who was to come’ (Luke 7.18) and ‘the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Luke 24.20). People must have thought, ‘If the visions of Ezekiel and the other prophets have hardly been fulfilled in the history of the nation until now, surely God has to intervene in a dramatic way to demonstrate his faithfulness to his promises!’
Chapman’s central chapter then looks at seven major themes that are associated with the restoration from exile, particular in Ezekiel 34 to 37, and to see how these themes are taken up in the NT. These themes include God acting through a shepherd-king, the hallowing of the name of God, enjoying prosperity in the land, cleansing from sin, the gift of a new heart leading to obedience, a covenant of peace, and God’s temple presence among his people. The most pertinent of these relates to the land.
The promise to bring exiles back to the land looks at first sight as if it has no echoes in the NT. But scholars like N T Wright have argued that Jesus’ use of OT texts concerning the return from the Babylonian exile—taken mostly from Isaiah—suggests that Jesus saw his people as still in a state of exile, and announced that he was going to lead them out of exile. The clearest examples come in his address in the synagogue in Nazareth (‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me…’ Luke 4.18–19, quoting Isa 61.1–2), and his response to the disciples of John the Baptist, in which he describes his healing miracles in the poetic language used by Isaiah to describes the exiles returning to the land (‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk…’ Luke 7.22, quoting Isa 35.5–6).10 It may seem strange to include the words of Jesus about the Son of Man sending his angels to ‘gather his elect’ (Mark 13.27) in this context. But since the word angelos can be translated as either ‘angel’ or ‘messenger,’ it is perfectly possible that Jesus could be speaking about the proclamation of the gospel as a way of gathering the elect into the kingdom of God…
NT writers use OT terminology about the land (in particular the word ‘inheritance,’ kleronomia) to speak about what all believers possess in Christ. Thus Paul in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, echoing Joshua’s farewell address (Josh 23.1–16), speaks about ‘the word of his [God’s] grace, which…can give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20.32). Peter speaks of how all believers experience ‘new birth into a living hope…and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you…’ (1 Pet 1.3–4). The Letter to the Hebrews was addressed primarily to Jewish followers of Jesus, who might have been expected to hold onto the hope that promises and prophecies about the land would one day be fulfilled in a very literal way. But the writer gives no hint of any expectation of a literal fulfilment, and instead develops the theme of the land in a completely new direction. He speaks of the land as ‘that rest,’ saying that ‘We who have believed enter that rest’ (Heb 4.3). And traditional Jewish hopes about Jerusalem for the writer are no longer centred on the actual city of Jerusalem: ‘But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God…to the church of the first born…to God…to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…’ (Heb 12.22–24)…
Christians generally have no difficulty in seeing most of these themes of Ezekiel’s prophecy—about the Davidic shepherd-king, the sanctification of the name of God, the nations knowing that he is God, cleansing from sin, the gift of a new heart and of God’s Spirit, the covenant of peace and God’s sanctuary being among his people for ever—as being fulfilled in the coming of Christ. If the themes concerning the nation and the land can also be related to Jesus and to everything that is offered to every human being through him,it becomes much harder to believe that prophecies about the people and the land are in a special category, separate from all the other themes of Ezekiel’sprophecy, and therefore demand a literal fulfilment.
In the final section of the booklet, Chapman turns the lens the other way around, and asks whether the modern creation of the State of Israel actually matches what Ezekiel predicted—and he expected the return to be marked by peace, by repentance (in fulfilment of the conditions set out in Deut 30), and with all the other features noted above—which are notably absent from the current situation. And in contrast to Ezekiel, when Jesus talked of the destruction of Jerusalem in Mark 13, Matt 24 and Luke 21, he make no mention of the possibility of return and restoration. And Luke’s gospel is the one that sets out most clearly that all the promises of restoration are met in Jesus.
Ezekiel’s visions of the restoration of Israel led to a glorious climax in the temple in which God was going to ‘live among the Israelites for ever’ (43.7) and in the city whose name would always be ‘The Lord is there’ (48.35). If we believe, therefore, that it was uniquely in Jesus that God has come to live among us, we should not be looking to see the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s visions either in the twentieth-century return of Jews to the land, or the establishment of the state of Israel, or the present city of Jerusalem or in a future millennial reign of Jesus in Jerusalem. Perhaps Ezekiel, the priest turned prophet, was using the only language and imagery that were available to him at the time (related to the land, the nation, the city and the temple) to hint at something much more glorious than a return to the land, the revival of the nation and the restoration of a building. Perhaps God was using him to prepare his people and to open their minds for what it would mean when, ve centuries later, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) and ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19). And the Book of Revelation tells us that the best is yet to come—not in the land or in Jerusalem, but in ‘the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God’ and in ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21.1–4).
This booklet will be of interest to anyone trying to make sense of the current situation, and wanting to relate it to Scripture in any way. The claim that Ezekiel prophesied the existence of the modern State of Israel is made by many, and this booklet is an essential tool in assessing whether than claim is valid.
You can order the booklet for £3.95 post-free on the Grove website, or purchase an e-book PDF delivered by email.
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