The Land as Covenant Backdrop, Part 7

January 28, 2011

Epilogue: The Theological Elephant in the Room

Before closing, I feel it would be evasive if I did not briefly address the ever-present overarching question in this area of study: Is there a legitimate biblical basis for Israel currently being in the land of Palestine?  Allow me to initially say, “The case I’ve made to this point argues that Israel will be in the land at the end of the age.  Also, I do believe there is a legitimate scriptural basis for their possession of the land in the early twenty-first century, but the issue deserves more of an explanation than a Yes or No answer.”

In a concerted effort to be concise,[1] I will cut to the chase and say that it seems to me that Ezekiel 36-37 contain the most directly relevant passages to this issue in the entire Bible.  Though not including the wording “new covenant,” Ezekiel 36 is, without question, a highly significant complementary revelation of the new covenant,[2] written barely a decade after Jeremiah 31:31-34.[3]  Then, the first half of Ezekiel 37, the well-known “Valley of Dry Bones” apocalyptic vision, actually explains in more depth how the new covenant promises of chapter 36 would play out in the future.

One of the major ways Jeremiah 31 contrasts the new covenant with the previous one made with Israel coming out of Egypt (v. 32) is by the Lord declaring “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts” (v. 33, HCSB).  Ezekiel 36:26-27 makes it clear that the agency by which this internalization takes place is the Holy Spirit:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe my ordinances (HCSB).

The role of the Holy Spirit in regard to the new covenant is critically important to understand.  Paul refers to the Spirit as that which “produces life” (Gk. zoopoieo, a word which also refers to resurrection in the New Testament [see, e.g., Jn. 5:21; Rom. 4:17; 1 Cor. 15:22]) in relation to the ministry of the new covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:6.  The very strong imagery Paul employs here is less surprising,[4] though, when it is recalled that is exactly what is pictured in the Valley of Dry Bones vision in Ezekiel 37: (corporate) resurrection!

For the purposes of this paper, though, it must be noted that the vision in Ezekiel 37 does not allow the reader to think of this spiritual rebirth for Israel without bringing the land into play.  In 36:24, the Lord promises, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land” (HCSB).  (As will be discussed below, the wording in v. 24 is quite unusual, given that what was being immediately envisioned was Judah’s return from an exile to one nation: Babylon.)  Then, using resurrection imagery, 37:12 echoes: “… I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel” (HCSB).

In carefully considering the message of the vision in Ezekiel 37:1-14, there appears to be two sequential steps pictured:

Step 1– The nation is raised from the grave (i.e., made to have a hope for a future as a nation) and returned to the land

Step 2– The nation, now in the land and portrayed as “a vast army” (v. 10, HCSB), has the ruach (LXX pneuma) of God, which v. 14 identifies as the Holy Spirit, breathed into it 

Here is the main point I am driving at from Ezekiel 36-37: The first step (i.e., a renewed national hope and a return to the land) has occurred twice since Ezekiel’s prophecies of the new covenant were revealed.  The first time was after 70 years in Babylon, as Jeremiah predicted in 25:11-12 and 29:10.  The second time, “from all the countries,” as the wording in Ezekiel 36:24 reads, happened in A.D. 1948. 

However, the second step is a very different matter.  Yes, the Holy Spirit, promised in connection with the new covenant in Ezekiel 36-37, indeed came into the lives of many individual Jews who became believers, especially in the early chapters of Acts.  However, that is still nowhere close to “the whole house of Israel,” the predicted recipients in Ezekiel 37:11.  In other words, Step 2 has not happened yet. 

In looking to the Apocalypse for a likely location of when the Valley of Dry Bones vision might be fulfilled at the end of the age, the closest thing to a picture of “a vast army” (Ezek. 37:10) of Jews is Revelation 7:1-8.  There, the 144,000 “from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (see Ezek. 37:11, 15ff.) are pictured in what appears to be a military formation, much like the 12 tribes camped in the wilderness (Numb. 2).  Such an understanding is strengthened by the wording that the 144,000 “slaves of God” (HCSB) —clearly believers at this point, if not before—are “sealed” (Rev. 7:3-4).  While the meaning of “seal” (Gk. sphragizo) infers the Lord’s ownership, as well as serving as protection from at least some of the onslaught of the trumpet judgments (see 9:4), that does not exclude the idea of the sealing of the Holy Spirit, a key aspect of the Spirit’s new covenant ministry (see Eph. 1:14; 4:30),[5] being in play here.

Is it, then, merely coincidental that the 144,000 of Revelation 7:1-8 are later referred to as “redeemed from the human race as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (14:4, HCSB, italics mine)?  That is unlikely.  Certainly, the godly quality of their lives reflects one aspect of the meaning of the concept of “first fruits.”  However, the firstfruits (i.e., that which is initially brought in) of a harvest also assumes the larger proportion of the harvest still to be gathered.[6] And, since 14:14-16 describes just such a “harvest of the earth” (v. 15) by Christ, the Son of Man (vv. 14, 16), only a few verses after 14:4, this second meaning is surely in play.  That harvest may well be what was focused on in this paper in 11:13: a massive revival in Jerusalem that includes both Jews and Gentiles.

All this is to say that, since Step 1 (see above) has happened twice, but Step 2 has not yet taken place in the predicted corporate sense (i.e., “the whole house of Israel,” “a vast army”), two possibilities could occur in the time ahead: 1) the Jewish people now in the land could, by whatever means, at whatever point in time the Lord sees fit, move into the circumstances in which the massive conversion of Revelation 11:13 (see above) takes place; or 2) they could be removed from the land yet another time, only to return again at some later point.  Ezekiel 37 will definitely be fulfilled, but there is no way to know when.  That, however, is not problematic, as Peter wisely counseled:

Dear friends, don’t let this one thing escape you: With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.  The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:8-9, HCSB).

[1] Numerous entire tomes have been written on whether or not the modern state of Israel has a divinely-given right to the land.  Frankly, it is much easier to be lengthy than succinct when addressing this subject.

[2] S.B. Cowan, “Covenant,” in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, gen. eds. Chad Brand, Charles Draper and Archie England (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2003), 358.

[3] I concur with Charles Dyer, who dates Jer. 31 in 597 B.C. (Dyer, “Jeremiah,” in the Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, eds. J.F. Walvoord and R.B. Zuck [Colorado Springs: Victor Books, 1985], 1126) and Ezek. 36-37 in 585 (Dyer, “Ezekiel,” BKC: OT, 1293).

[4] Another thing that makes Paul’s usage less surprising is that Ezekiel 37:1-14 is the most likely candidate for the passage Jesus had in mind when he asked Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” (Jn. 3:10, HCSB).  The new birth by the Holy Spirit (vv. 5-6) is simply another analogy Jesus employs to make the point of new life through the Spirit that is the focus of the vision in Ezek. 37.  Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he should have recognized that description of the centerpiece of the new covenant, according to Ezekiel.

[5] See A.B. Luter, “Seal,” in the Logos Bible Dictionary, gen. ed. John Barry (Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, forthcoming).

[6] See Luter, “Firstfruits,” Logos Bible Dictionary, forthcoming.


One Response to “The Land as Covenant Backdrop, Part 7”

  1. Duncan said

    I am a preterist, so my take on most things is quite different from yours (see here, Unlike most preterists, however, I look for the Gog and Magog invasion to happen to Israel in the not too distant future. In terms of step 2, doesn’t Ezek. 39:21-29 seem to indicate that it is only after Israel’s deliverance from the Gog and Magog invasion that God reveals himself to them again?


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