Sunday, September 9, 2007

Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 3: Modern Israel and Biblical Prophecy

A lot of dispensationalists (particularly, the Hal Lindsey types) tend to interpret everything that is or will soon happen in current world news as being the literal fulfillment of scriptural prophecies. Even if most do not go to the extremes of Lindsey, a large proportion still think that the modern day creation of a Jewish state in the land formerly occupied by biblical Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy and that this modern state is the focus of a lot of the Bible's prophecy. Unfortunately, there is very little real evidence for this contention, as nice as it sounds. For one thing, it confuses the modern secular state with the biblical nation - these are definitely not the same thing.

For another, it ignores the fact that the Bible's promises or blessings for the Jewish people are not for each Jew unconditionally - they are meant for the "children of promise" (to quote from Paul) since "a man is not a Jew if he is one outwardly but only if he is one inwardly, and true circumcision is of the heart, not the flesh" (to badly paraphrase Paul) and "not all who are descended from Abraham are his children" (Paul, again). That is, it is the Jewish people as a people who have faith in God that are in the center of God's promises - God intends for Jews to have faith in him and then, as a result, receive the inheritance or blessings they were meant to have. To act as if modern Israel was the focus of all this is anachronistic and simply wrong. This is not to say that unbelieving Jews are no better than nonbelievers or that they have no place in the divine economy. Far from it - but that's a subject for a later post.

But what about the prophecies about a return of Jews to the land of Israel? Wasn't that fulfilled by the modern state? Well, no. Again, if you read the actual prophecies it is a purified people who are faithful to God who return - unbelieving Jews such as make up the bulk of the modern state are simply not included in this prophecy. Not only this, but the prediction of a literal physical return to the physical land of Canaan was already fulfilled over 2400 years ago! The Jews (well, at least a lot of them - some were left behind) got carted off to Babylon but the purified remnant (finally no longer so tempted by idols and false gods and now finally zealous for God's law) were allowed by Cyrus the Great and subsequent Persian Kings to return to their land and to rebuild the temple (another prophecy people point to as still to be fulfilled which has in fact already occurred here in the 5th century B.C.).

To be fair, of course, the Bible does speak as if the exile was still going on, as if the return both happened and yet was still to occur. But of course this has to do with the first set of imagery I listed in my last post in this series. The exile was seen as still ongoing, even though they were back in the land, because they were still seemingly under a curse, under sin, slaves, and in need of final restoration from God's judgment on them. And they still needed to return, despite having physically returned, in the sense that the new creation and restoration to a perfect relationship with God was still required in the future. They knew that though they were back in the land, they still had not arrived into full salvation and peace with God. So the physical return and restoration of the physical temple have indeed already happened, but the prophecies are not fully fulfilled yet since the fullness of "creation, restoration, exodus, return from exile, and final vindication or justification" is yet to come (though it was foreshadowed with the physical return and came in its inception - though not yet in its fullness - in the person of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection). Dispensationalists simply fail to notice the levels symbolism and complexity in the relevant prophecies. Indeed, a lot of this prophecy (as hinted at in the last parenthetical remark) was actually fulfilled or will be fulfilled by Christ, who is the true Israel who takes on Israel's destiny upon himself.

This is not to say that there is no prophecy about believing (or unbelieving for that matter) Jews that is yet to be fulfilled - I still believe, for instance, that the land of Canaan was promised to them and that God does not go back on his promises. But I also believe that just as the People of God was expanded to include Gentiles (they were grafted onto Israel according to Romans), so too the promise of the land has been expanded (and I think was already hinted at in the Old Testament) for all believers, Jew or Gentile, to cover the whole earth.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2

Further posts in this series: "The People of God, Israel and the Church" and "The Tribulation and Rapture"


Rey said...

a large proportion still think that the modern day creation of a Jewish state in the land formerly occupied by biblical Israel is a fulfillment of prophecy and that this modern state is the focus of a lot of the Bible's prophecy.

I know very few Dispensationalists who believe that modern Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy and I'm steeped in a Dispensationalist culture. I don't think even Hal Lindsey would go as far to say that Modern Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy.

Ian said...

Well, obviously no one thinks it fulfills all biblical prophecy. But I never meant to suggest that. What I have seen is a very widespread contention that the formation of the modern state was foretold in Scripture. I've also seen people quite often (including some very public figures) appeal to various biblical promises, etc. in favor of supporting the modern state. I'm not sure how anyone could miss those two phenomena, especially if you listen to a lot of Christians when they talk about the Middle East and politics.