The Return of the Jews
First Things First
The prophets had foretold that after the Jews were scattered throughout the earth, into every nation, they would eventually return to a desolate and unfruitful land.
They were destined to inhabit it, and make the land fruitful and fertile once again. That was the Jewish destiny according to the prophets and it was a vital first step in a process that would herald the return of their King — the Jewish Messiah, who would now save them from their enemies.
This is the ultimate paradox in Jewish history. Some Jewish people have always related strongly to those prophecies, because of their unstinting desire through the ages for military and political success. But they have consistently overlooked the other things the prophets said — that before the Messiah could come as a King, he had to come as a Saviour, to save them from their greatest enemy — Sin and Death.
The Jews are now back in the land, just as God said, after an extraordinary history. The mechanisms that brought about their return have to do with political movements and national decisions. But their return is not the result of human actions alone. Everything that has happened was overseen and directed by God.
God never leaves Himself without people who witness to His purpose. Long ago He chose the Jewish people to be His witnesses to all nations, whether they wanted to be or not. This is what the prophet Isaiah said about that, for the nation had willingly accepted the divine remit many generations before:
“You are my witnesses,” says the LORD, `And my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he” (Isaiah 43:10 and see Joshua 24:22).
In every generation from the time they were formed into a nation, the Jewish people witnessed to the purpose of God. The people who wrote the Bible were almost all Jewish; the events it depicts happen either in Israel or concern Jewish people in the dispersion. It is a Jewish-centred revelation from God.
The whole of God’s purpose is bound up in the future of the Jewish people. The Lord Jesus made that plain and so too did his apostles, even the one who was specifically the apostle to the Gentiles:
“We know what we worship“, Jesus once said, adding “for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). And the apostle Paul, who had been arrested because Jews wanted him to stop preaching about Jesus said: “for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain” (Acts 28:20) and, “Now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain” (26:6, 7).
Israel’s Choice and Ours
It was not inevitable that the Jewish people should be deported and dispersed, so that they could be regathered. They were given the choice of how their national life would work out.
They could either be obedient to God’s commandments and stay in the land; or be disobedient and be dispersed. They chose disobedience, as have all other peoples — for we have all broken the laws of God in many different ways and have failed to honour Him as we should (Romans 3:9,10).
The Jews are no worse than any of us; they are the same as us. What happened with them was
that they were closer to God than were other nations and had a high calling to be his representatives on earth. They failed and in doing so defamed His holy name; so the consequences were grave. For nearly two thousand years they travelled the earth, never being accepted and never having a home they could call their own. And whilst they were away many other nations took possession of the land which became increasingly desolate and uninhabited. One Jewish writer sums up the land’s occupation like this:
“This country has passed through many hands. It has been conquered incessantly and incessantly abandoned. It has known the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Seljukes, the Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottoman Turks and the British, apart from ourselves and the Canaanites before us. The Canaanites exist no more. Other than they and the Jews, the land has never been a home to anyone. It has been a battlefield, conquered territory, a place to plunder, a crossroads or a grazing ground” (David Ben-Gurion: “Recollections”).
That assessment would be challenged by present day Palestinians, who see the reference to “a home” rather differently, but it helpfully summarises the way many nations possessed the land during the years when the Jews were elsewhere. It became largely a desolate and unfruitful place incapable of producing arable crops, stony, swampy and infertile. Yet the Bible said that it would not be like that forever.
Return and Restoration
The prophet Jeremiah foretold the worldwide dispersion and the eventual regathering:
‘Therefore do not fear, 0 my servant Jacob,’ says the LORD, ‘nor be dismayed, 0 Israel; for behold, I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return, have rest and be quiet, and no one shall make him afraid. For I am with you,’ says the LORD, ‘to save you; though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, yet I will not make a complete end of you. But I will correct you in justice, and will not let you go altogether unpunished’ (Jeremiah 30:10,11).
The prophet Ezekiel predicted the changes that have now occurred to the productivity and development of the land:
“But you, 0 mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they are about to come. For indeed I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt. I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and bear young; I will make you inhabited as in former times, and do better for you than at your beginnings. Then you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 36:8-11).
Nation at War
The prophets describe the political environment that was to exist when the Jews returned to the land:
“Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem. And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it” (Zechariah 12:2,3).
All those predictions have come, or are coming, true. The Jews have returned to their ancient land after a period in the political and religious wilderness. They have been subjected to more pressure and difficulty than any other nation has experienced.
When the time was right they were allowed to return and they have indeed tilled and sown the land, grown in number, built cities and settlements and made the land fruitful and fertile. All that time they have been under the scrutiny of the nations around them, most having resented and resisted their arrival.
From the Declaration of Independence in 1948 onwards, the Israelis have been under attack from the nations around and have had to fight to survive. As a result their military forces have become both strong and effective and they have reacted forcefully against anything and everything they perceived as a threat or a challenge to their sovereignty and independence.
But are they still the people of God? Or is God working through them to bring about His purpose despite them? Are they like scaffolding on a building — necessary for the construction phase but then to be dismantled and taken away when the work is completed?
How can a nation which is largely humanist and unbelieving — with only a minority who still believe in God and fewer still who accept the Lord Jesus — be called “the people of God”? What has to happen next?