“This is Israel; even our joys are filled with sorrow.”  This poignant yet profound observation was made by a woman I was speaking to on the day that Gilad Shalit was released. You may know the story: Gilad Shalit is a young Israeli soldier who was guarding the Gaza strip (on the Israeli side down towards the Egyptian border) when his unit was attacked by terrorists, his fellow soldiers were killed and he was taken hostage.

Shalit had been held hostage for more than five years but about a month ago Benjamin Netanyahu’s government struck an Egyptian brokered deal with Hamas for his release. Over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were scheduled for release in exchange for this one Israeli soldier. Many of those released are notorious terrorists, including those responsible for planning the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem during which fifteen people – including seven children – were killed. 

The national celebration when Gilad finally came home was mixed. Many wept, but especially bitter was the weeping of those families who lost loved ones at the hands of the terrorists who were released. The terrorists were also celebrated, welcomed as heroes as they returned to Gaza, greeted with signs encouraging Hamas to “capture another Gilad Shalit.” Many Americans have asked, “How could Israel make such a deal?”  The answer is simple. Israelis feel as though Gilad Shalit is everyone’s son.  What wouldn’t you do to gain safe release of your son?

“This is Israel; even our joys are filled with sorrow.” It’s an apt response to the release of Gilad Shalit. This incident is symptomatic of a much wider sense of hopelessness that pervades the country.

Since the so-called “Arab Spring,” Israel is feeling more isolated than ever before. Egypt can no longer be regarded as a peace partner, especially after Israel’s embassy in Cairo was overrun and the intended bloodbath prevented only by U.S. intervention. Syria would like to start a war with Israel in order to draw world attention away from the government’s systematic slaughter of its own citizens.  Hezbollah is now essentially in charge of the government in Lebanon.  Iran is closer than ever to completing production of nuclear weapons, and we all know where they would likely first be used.

On top of these troubles, Israelis are in a desperate struggle with the economy.  Even before the Occupy Wall Street protests got underway here in the United States, Tel Aviv was “occupied” by tens of thousands of Israeli protesters camped out in Rabin Square and other areas of the city. They were drawing attention to the unaffordable price of housing and other economic dilemmas in Israel.  This palpable feeling of hopelessness reminds me of Ezekiel 37:11 where Israel says, “Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!”

While Israel is back in the Land God promised to Abraham and his descendants, she does not appear to enjoy the blessings God promised in that land.  Why is this? Some theologians and pastors teach that the land promises God made to Abraham are no longer valid as they have all been fulfilled in Jesus – for example, Gary Burge in his book, Jesus and the Land.  But as Dr. Darrel Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary has rightly pointed out, Jesus taught a future for ethnic Israel when he said, “you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'” (Luke 13:35), an event scheduled to occur after “the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).  And when his disciples asked him just before his ascension if this was the time he was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” Jesus did not dismiss the question as irrelevant, but merely said they could not know when that event would actually take place (Acts 1:6-7). 

Some theologians and pastors teach that there will be a future for Israel in the Land but that is not now – that presently Israel is not keeping covenant with God and therefore has no divine claim to the Land. (John Piper expounds this view in Israel, Arabs and the Family of God.)  My response is that it is true that Israel is back in the Land in unbelief – but this does not mean that God is not working to fulfill His land promises.

Israel’s present unbelief is not unlike her unbelief during the period of the Judges or under the rule of any number of Kings, when she was still in the Land.  God did promise judgment, but not all judgment included automatic banishing from the Land.  Sometimes judgment was in the form of drought.  

Furthermore, it would seem from the Scriptures that future Israel will enter the last days in a state of unbelief (see Ezekiel 37; Zechariah 12; Romans 11). I believe that the growing presence of the righteous remnant in the Land – i.e. Jewish believers in Jesus living in Israel today – is not only evidence of God’s blessing but also part of the reason why He yet restrains His judgment (see Genesis 18:26f; 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7).

Yes, today even Israel’s joys are filled with sorrows, and will be until she says to Jesus, “blessed are you who come in the name of the Lord.”  But as we actively proclaim the gospel and as Israelis respond in faith, we believe many will come to know righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  That is why I am so committed to our ministry in Israel.  That is why we are continuing to press forward in our Behold Your God Israel campaigns and that is why we are opening up new branches like the one we will open very soon in Haifa.  I have written a letter to you that should be coming to your mailbox very soon about this.  When you receive it I trust you will read it prayerfully and with all of this in mind, read it with great hope and love for Israel’s future salvation.