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© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

There are quite a number of Old Testament passages which appear to define the eschatological hope of the Old Testament by reference to the physical nation of Israel. It is important that we consider this fact, because it is a key point of disagreement in interpreting Revelation. Revelation itself does not mention such a restoration, but because of the strong Old Testament emphasis on a restored Israel efforts are made to fit this restoration into Revelation.

The following expectations are found several times in the Old Testament:

The promise and the hope that all of Israel’s enemies will be defeated.
The promise and the hope that Israel will be restored to her land.
The promise and the hope that the throne of David will be re-established.
The promise of a restored and glorious Temple.
The promise and the hope that each of the above will be ‘forever’ – ‘everlasting’.

The last of these seems to clinch the validity of the eschatological expectation of a permanently restored political/national Israel.

In addition, each of the Old Testament covenants is described as ‘everlasting’:

The covenant with Noah: Genesis 9:6.
The covenant with Abraham: Genesis 17:7-19; Psalm 105:8.
The covenant with the nation of Israel [at Sinai]: Isaiah 24:5.
The covenant with David: 2Samuel 23:5 [see also Jeremiah 33:20-21].
The ‘new’ covenant: Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 16:60; 37:26.

The English words ‘everlasting’ and ‘forever’ mean ‘for ever and for ever, without end’. However, the Hebrew ‘olam’ is used with a variety of meanings and applications. Here are some of them:

Eternity – above or beyond time.
Without beginning, without ending.
Remote time – from the distant past to the distant future.
A very long time.
In the old times, long ago, formerly.
For as long as it lasts, or as long as one lives.
For an unknown length of time into the future.
For the duration, continually, day by day.

Our assumption that the Hebrew means precisely what our English ‘forever’ and ‘everlasting’ mean is thus flawed. Our problem is how to discern which of these multiple possible meanings is God’s intention. Key factors in our interpretation must always be:

[1] What did Jesus Christ have to say about the political/national future of Israel?
[2] What did the New Testament apostles have to say about the political/national future of Israel?

And the answers to these two questions strongly indicate that not only did Jesus make no effort at all to restore Israel as an independent political nation, or to equip Israel for such an uprising, but also that neither Jesus nor the apostles [after Christ’s ascension] expressed any expectation of a future restoration of either the physical nation or the political throne of David. This expectation appears to be limited to the Old Testament, and its carry-over into the mindset of Christ’s contemporaries.

So we are left with the question of how to understand the Old Testament eschatological expectation of a permanently restored national Israel with a Davidic king.

It would seem that there are four options:

[1] To understand the promises of restoration of national Israel and the Davidic king in a natural, way, and as having been already fulfilled in the post-exilic restoration described in Ezra and Nehemiah (and perhaps continuing into the Maccabean period). This raises problems with the ‘forever’ concept if we understand it in the English sense of ‘without end’, but not if we understand it with the other Hebrew connotations in mind. But it also has problems in the stark contrast between the promised restoration and the actual restoration. The promise is glorious, the reality appears to have been rather mediocre.

[2] To understand the promises about national Israel and the Davidic king in a precise natural/literal/physical way, but as something still to happen in the future. The serious difficulty with this interpretation is that neither Jesus nor the apostles taught anything about it, and that it is not mentioned in Revelation. In addition, given that the promises of ‘forever’ were given to Abraham and David while they were still living, this ‘forever’ is denied by both the history and the current condition of Israel. The meaning of the English ‘forever’ and ‘eternal’ has to be modified even in this interpretation which so strongly seeks to uphold it in a literal physical sense.

[3] To hold to #1 above on the physical level, and also to understand this small scale physical deliverance and restoration of Israel as symbolic of the large scale eternal spiritual salvation enjoyed by anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, who acknowledges Jesus Christ. The problem with this is that this final symbol of redemption is inferior to the original prophetic symbols of redemption: The restoration after the exile is inferior to the redemption of Israel from Egypt, the restored temple is inferior to Solomon’s temple, the restored Jerusalem is inferior to Solomon’s Jerusalem, and the post-exilic kingdom inferior to David’s kingdom. Except by way of contrast, such a symbolic interpretation falls rather flat.

[4] To hold to #1 above, but at the same time to acknowledge that over and above the promises God has made about the natural/national Israel, is his eternal purpose that was in place before the creation of the world [discussed above]. That purpose is ‘everlasting’ in the absolute sense – without beginning, without ending, above and beyond time. It is in the over-arching context of that purpose and that promise that the covenants and the promises made to Abraham, Israel and David have their ultimate meaning and their ultimate fulfilment. Just as the Sinai Covenant, given 430 years after the Covenant with Abraham cannot and does not replace or negate the promises made to Abraham [Galatians 3:17], so also the promises made to Abraham, Israel and David cannot and do not revoke or alter the purpose of God set in place before the beginning of time. Rather these historical covenants and promises are revelatory expressions of that deep and primary plan of God.

Is the covenant with Abraham ‘forever’? Yes, for any of his physical descendants, and anyone else, who have faith like his, it is forever. All with such faith inherit his promises [Romans 4:16,17; Galatians 3:6-9,14].

Is the Sinai covenant with Israel ‘forever’? Yes, because it points beyond its instructive symbols of sacrifice, priesthood, sanctuary and nation to the eternal reality of the permanent once-for-all sacrifice of the Lamb who was slain, the permanent mediation of Jesus, our Great High Priest, and the forever presence of God with his people from all ages and all tribes, languages and nations [Hebrews chapters 2 to 10].

Is the promise of the Davidic king ‘forever’? Yes. For he who sits on the throne, at the right hand of God his Father, is not only the Lion of Judah and the Son of David according to his human ancestry, but also the eternal Son of God, the King of all kings and Lord of lords. His reign is not limited to national/political Israel – he is King of all ages, King of all the earth, King of all peoples, including Israel.

Are the promises made about the Temple ‘forever’? Yes. Because ‘Immanuel’ has come. God is with us in the person of his Son. Yes. Because the Holy Spirit of God indwells the people of God, both Jew and Gentile who believe in the Son. Yes. Because, in the new heaven and the new earth, God and the Lamb dwell in the midst of their people. There is no physical ‘temple’ there, because the eternal reality it symbolised has reached its absolute and permanent expression.

Is the promise of restoration of the land ‘forever’? Yes, but the restoration is not limited to a small plot of Middle Eastern real estate – the entire physical universe will be renewed and restored. Will Israel be there? Yes – all those Israelites who have turned to the Lord in repentance and in faith will be there, enjoying an eternally restored and glorious new earth.

Are the enemies of Israel permanently conquered? Yes, and not only those of Israel, but those also of God, of all believers, and of the whole universe. All that stood opposed to God, all that interfered with his purpose, everything is decisively disempowered and removed forever. God’s eternal peace reigns. There is nothing left to cause distress and destruction ever again.

Israel is not excluded from any of the above, but none of the above are exclusively about Israel.  

Here we are focusing on the BIG, big picture. Here we acknowledge the prophetic and revelatory purpose of the Old Testament. Here we keep in mind that Christ, not Israel, is the centre of the Scripture, and that it is in Christ, not in Israel, that all of God’s promises are fulfilled.

In this BIG perspective we understand the relationship of God to the whole of mankind, the love of God for the whole of mankind, the grief of God over the whole of mankind. Here in this BIG perspective we understand that God is making ALL things new, not just Israel. Israel is not the exclusive focus of God’s gaze and love and action, but the symbolic representation of his ownership of the whole world and of his love for all the peoples of the earth. God’s judgment on Israel’s sin and depravity gives us insight into how terribly the sin and depravity of all mankind impact God.