This month, Israel celebrates her 60th birthday; some of you are old enough to remember the 1948 declaration as a truly stunning turn of history. A hope was realized as, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, the independent Jewish state was reconstituted in the land of her ancestors. Over the past 60 years, that hope—that reality— has been challenged and tested. Wars and horrible acts of terrorism have been perpetrated against the people of Israel. Violence and uncertainty remain, as Israel’s very existence continues to be rejected, denied and threatened by many of her neighbors.
Many Christians have enthusiastically celebrated Israel’s rebirth as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some go far beyond that belief and have even used 1948 as a marker for a countdown to Armageddon. Such preoccupation with end times prophesies and conjectures concerning exactly how those events will burst upon us has fueled an entire industry of conferences, books, tapes and tourism.
Other Christians refer to the above views as “proof-texting” and react to what they believe is bad theology by dismissing the modern state of Israel as a mere historical oddity— spiritually and biblically irrelevant. Yet one does not have to buy into a specific scheme of eschatology to acknowledge God’s sovereignty at work in the presence of modern Israel. Several years ago, a prominent pastor and good friend of Jews for Jesus asked my opinion about an article in which he argued that no particular blessing from God rested on Israel because the Jewish people are back in the land “in unbelief.” I could not argue about the unbelief, but I could not agree with his conclusion. (We remain friends despite our disagreement.)
The fact is that Israel is actually much older than 60. We need to understand how God has dealt with the Jewish nation throughout history, including Bible times, if we are to understand how “remarkably well preserved” she truly is.*
In the older Testament, we see many times when only a remnant of Jewish people walked with the Lord, while the majority were in unbelief. Read through the history of the Jewish nation recorded in Scripture and you will see that she was more often in a state of unbelief than belief. But this did not automatically incur the removal of God’s favor or the exile of the Jewish people from the land.
More often than not, God responded to Israel’s unbelief by sending prophets who would call her back to Himself. These prophets proclaimed God’s Word and His truth as a demonstration of His mercy and grace, giving Israel an opportunity to respond and repent. Sometimes God allowed a famine or attack from other nations as part of His sovereign plan to turn Israel back to Himself. The prophets pointed to such events as God’s merciful attempt to bring Israel back to Him so that they might avoid the removal of His blessing and judgment. God’s judgment, or the removal of His blessing, did not come immediately and was often forestalled for centuries. Many times, Israel did repent and receive God’s mercy.
King Hezekiah provides a good example of this. The Assyrian King Sennacherib had attacked Israel, destroying many of her cities. He eventually surrounded Jerusalem and threatened to destroy the entire nation. In the British museum, one can still see Sennacherib’s boast against Israel as it was recorded on a clay cylinder: “I have Hezekiah trapped like a caged bird in Jerusalem.” Things looked bleak for Israel and her King. They no doubt wondered if God had indeed removed His blessing.
Hezekiah was tempted to seek help from Egypt, but the prophet Isaiah encouraged him to trust in the Lord instead. The Psalmist echoed Isaiah’s confidence at this time, writing
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:1, 2, 10).
Israel and King Hezekiah needed to understand that because God was her refuge, she need not look elsewhere for help. The command to “be still” was actually an admonition to Israel and her enemies to stop fighting, to surrender to God and believe. That is exactly what happened. Hezekiah listened and the Lord delivered Israel from destruction. The Scriptures record,
And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses—all dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went away, returned home, and remained at Nineveh (2 Kings 19:35-36).
Did Israel’s righteousness cause God to intervene? No, God delivered her because of His sovereign grace. However, God did not always rescue His people from calamity. On many occasions Israel suffered horrible defeat and even exile, but there is not necessarily a correlation between her spiritual state and God’s exercise of mercy and grace.
God alone determines what His response will be to Israel’s spiritual state. True, the Jewish people are back in the land in unbelief today. Should God’s blessing be any less on Israel because of her unbelief than it is on America, where the majority is likewise in unbelief? The Lord was willing, by Abraham’s entreaty, to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of ten righteous men within their gates. Nevertheless, a growing minority of Israelis are believers in Jesus; these are what the apostle Paul called “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (Romans 11:5). And God continues to send His messengers to call Israel to repentance even as He did in Bible times.
This month, as Israel commemorates the 60th year of the modern state, our Jews for Jesus staff and volunteers are on the streets handing out tracts and proclaiming the good news of the gospel, saying to the cities of Judah, “Behold Your God!” Would you please stop right now and pray for God’s blessing and protection on our BYG campaigners? And pray for much fruit for their labors. Of course, we are not the only ones bringing this life-giving message to Israel today. A vibrant and growing remnant in Israel is evidence of God’s continued blessing on the Land of Israel, even though the majority is still in unbelief.
No doubt, modern day Israel faces dire problems, any one of which could prove fatal, whether it be the public call for her destruction by Ahmadinejad of Iran or the violent threats from terrorist groups like Hamas or Hezbollah. Can Christians who read their Bibles and trust in the sovereign One of history really believe that God has absented Himself from the course of history in the Middle East, or that He has in fact rejected His people whom He foreknew? “May it never be,” was Paul’s reply in Romans 11:1-2, and it is mine. Israel most of all needs to “be still and know” that Jesus is Lord.
I want to celebrate something much greater than Israel’s 60th birthday. I believe the fact that Israel is so remarkably well-preserved is a tribute to God’s faithfulness to His people for these thousands of years, regardless of what is deserved or merited. I hope you will want to celebrate that faithfulness with me because you and I, like Israel, are also remarkably well-preserved by God. It is not our own righteousness that determines His mercy and grace. Let’s pray together that God empowers today’s messengers of that mercy and grace to boldly proclaim the good news of the gospel, so that modern-day Israelis will in fact turn from their unbelief, be still and know that Jesus is Lord.
*Note: I recognize that Jews for Jesus has good friends on both sides of the “in-house debate” among Christians regarding the place of the modern state of Israel in God’s plan. I write as one convinced that God is still dealing with Israel according to His promise to Abraham that his seed would inherit the Land. However, I am grateful to the many friends of Jews for Jesus who may not share this conviction and yet do share my desire to see Jewish people come to faith in Christ.