I wish to continue in my study of premillennialism I had reintroduced before the holidays. The focus of my study is the land promises God made to Israel throughout the OT and their significance as they pertain to the future hope of Israel in the eschatological future.
As I noted in my introductory post, many of my covenant Reformed brethren believe those promises have been fulfilled when Israel entered Canaan under Joshua. The greater “fulfillment” of those promises are not to be understood as Israel being restored to a “literal” geographic territory. Rather, they have been fulfilled in the work of Christ by uniting in one body, the Church, all the “elect” remnant of Jews who come to faith in their Messiah, with the “elect” gentiles who also come to faith in Christ. The Christian Church is now the “New Israel.” Thus, the greater fulfillment of those land promises given to Israel in the OT, extends beyond the meager, physical territory of the “land of Israel” to now the entire world, so that the “meek,” God’s New Covenant people, “will inherit the earth.”
Adding to this view, the covenant Reformed believer will further note that the NT writers never mentioned a literal fulfillment of the land promises in a physically restored nation of Israel. If God had intended to “restore” Israel in a literal kingdom in the physical, geopolitical territory known as “Israel,” why didn’t the NT writers provide details to such a restoration?
That point is often repeated throughout Reformed polemical literature against future premillennialism. But is it an accurate claim about the NT and Israel’s restoration? Or is it a conclusion forced upon the various texts by other external theological considerations, particularly the redemptive-historical hermeneutic utilized by covenant theology? I think it reflects the latter. I’ll back-up and begin by outlining what the Bible tells us about Israel and their land promises with this article, and address Israel’s restoration in the next. As I move along, I’ll respond to the main arguments put forth by my Reformed covenant friends against my position.
First, it is important to recognize that the land promises God made to Abraham were the major center piece to the overall Abrahamic covenant.
Beginning in Genesis chapter 12, God called Abraham to this land and there He stated He will make him a great nation (Gen. 12:1-2). Then, in Genesis 13:14-17, after Abraham separates himself from Lot, God again makes this promise to him,
14 And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are– northward, southward, eastward, and westward;
15 “for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.
16 “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.
17 “Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.”
Coming to Genesis 15 God makes an official “covenant” with Abraham regarding the inheritance of the land. Verse 18 sums up the promise God made in that covenant when He says, To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates… This same promise concerning the land is reiterated once again by God in Genesis 17. God comes to Abraham, changes his name “Abram” to “Abraham” and promises, by oath of the covenant He made with him in Genesis 15, states,
7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.
8 “Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
Jumping over to Exodus 32:13, when Moses intercedes for the people against God’s judgment, Moses reminds God of the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the terms of that covenant being the promise God made to give their descendants the land forever. After his plea, God relents His judgment against Israel.
These are just a brief smattering of passages describing God’s covenant with Israel and the promises of the land He made to them. Considering the data so far as outlined in these passages, we can observe a few points:
1). First, the language is straight forward and clear that it is physical land God has in mind to give Abraham and his descendants. In fact, the land is identified with the “land of the Canaanites,” the geographic area that becomes the land occupied by the Jews and known as Israel.
2). Second, nothing in the language suggests that God meant anything other than physical territory when He promised the land to Abraham. In other words, God was not telling Abraham, “I will give this land to you and your descendants, but really it’s just a type for heaven, so don’t take my words in a “wooden, literal fashion.” As far as Abraham is concerned, he believed he was being promised the possession of physical territory that he and his descendants will occupy forever.
Now, covenant Reformed apologists will argue that promise was “expanded” by God in His redemptive purposes so that now we shouldn’t take it in a “wooden, literal fashion” like premillennialists do. I would agree God later “expands” upon this promise to include the gentiles and extend salvation throughout the global nations, but “expanding” on the promise is different from nullifying, cancelling, or replacing specific terms of that promise. The inclusion of the gentiles in the New Covenant doesn’t cancel those land promises God made to His people, the Jews.
3). Adding to that last point, God says several times that He gives the land to Abraham and his descendants “forever.” Moreover, in Genesis 17:7, 8, this covenant promise is described as an “everlasting” covenant and the land is described as an “everlasting possession.” Now, if we take the words “forever” and “everlasting” in their normal meaning, they describe something that is “forever” and “everlasting.” Thus, no matter if Israel’s possession of the land is interrupted due to their disobedience and the people are removed from the land, the idea of “everlasting” means God will come through with the fulfillment of His promise and restore them at some future point.
Keeping these observations in mind, many covenant Reformed proponents argue that the idea of “forever” or “everlasting,” particularly in Genesis 17:8 where God says the land of Canaan will be an “everlasting possession,” does not necessarily mean “everlasting” in a literal sense [i.e., Crenshaw/Gunn, 241ff.*]. In other words, “everlasting” should be understood in a conditional sense. The reason being is that context defines the meaning.
Though it is true, they explain, that “everlasting” typically means “everlasting” in the sense of “eternal” and “never ending,” it doesn’t carry this meaning in every passage. For instance, in Exodus 40:15, the priests are said to be “anointed” so as to be admitted to a “everlasting” priesthood. We know the priesthood ended when the “Great High Priest” came.
Moreover, the occupation of the land was conditioned upon Israel’s obedience to the covenant God made with them. Deuteronomy 4:25-27, for example, reads,
25 “When you beget children and grandchildren and have grown old in the land, and act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything, and do evil in the sight of the LORD your God to provoke Him to anger,
26 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess; you will not prolong your days in it, but will be utterly destroyed.
27 “And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you.
Obviously, according to that passage, the idea of the land being “an everlasting possession” is conditioned upon Israel faithfully maintaining the terms of the covenant. We know the people were not faithful and were removed from the land in exile during the Babylonian captivity, and when they rejected their Messiah, they were permanently removed from their land in 70 AD.
At first glance, I can sorta see how this may be compelling argumentation, but there are some problems with it.
I’ll sketch out my response.
Honestly, I do not find any exegetical or theological warrant in the biblical text, OT or NT, to redefine the word “everlasting” in a conditional sense as it describes the land promises.
Of all the major covenants mentioned in the Bible, the Noahic (Genesis 9), the Abrahamic (Genesis 15, 17 etc.), the Mosaic (Exodus 19, 20), the Palestinian (Deuteronomy 30:1-10), the Davidic (2 Samuel 7:12-16), and the New (Jeremiah 31:33-34), all of them except the Mosaic covenant are described in terms of being “everlasting” or being “forever.” That is because they are unconditional, established by God’s divine sovereignty in spite of the response of the receiving party, in this case, Israel.
One can argue that the Mosaic covenant was established by God’s divine sovereignty in that He alone freed Israel from Egyptian bondage and gave His law to be kept by them. However, it is not defined as being “everlasting” because it was not designed to be “everlasting” in the same manner the others were. The Mosaic covenant functioned as a national constitution for Israel as a theocratic nation. It was also meant to demonstrate the holiness of God and point to the need for a perfect, everlasting sacrifice, what the New Covenant foretold and was ratified in the work of Christ.
The Mosaic covenant did have specific conditions set upon the occupants of the land that if they disobeyed the terms of the covenant they would forfeit their occupancy in the land. But those conditions do not nullify the previous promise made to Abraham for his descendants to possess the land forever as Paul writes to the Galatians in 3:17.
When we come to the NT, all of the unconditional covenants revealed in the OT culminate in the ratification of the New covenant. But the NT writers narrowly focus upon the soteriological aspects of the New covenant. Such things as the fulfillment of the priestly sacrifices, God’s laws being “written on the heart,” a new heart that willing obeys those laws, and the out pouring of God’s Spirit. That is understandable, because Christ’s first coming was for the purpose of securing eternal life for His elect. R.K. McGregor-Wright explains the New covenant this way,
This covenant was the subject of much OT prediction and was announced to his people by Jesus as the new Moses in the Upper Room, and ratified by God on the Cross (Heb. 13:20). It is called “eternal” in Isa. 24:5, 61:8, Jer. 32:40, 50:5 and in Hebrews 13:20. It was made with “spiritual” Israel, i.e., with the Elect of God in Christ, and contains at least a dozen specific promises to them, including some of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. It includes the future regenerate Israel and therefore will later incorporate promises of the Palestinian and Davidic covenants. Its fulfillment rests ultimately on the gracious “I will” of Jehovah himself. It absolutely guarantees the salvation of the elect and includes no one else. It was to be made only with those who “know the Lord,” according to Jer. 31:33-34, and therefore cannot be a “family” or “national” covenant like the Mosaic was, but is entered into only by believers upon the exercise of saving faith.
The New covenant has at this time salvific implications to God’s spiritual people, the elect, both Jew and gentile. It will have physical implications in the future when God, through the work of the New covenant, saves all of national Israel in the eschatological future. What Deuteronomy 4:29-30 prophecy as happening during the “latter days.”
As I noted at the outset, It is important to understand that the “everlasting possession” of the land is a key element to the Abrahamic covenant which factors significantly in the establishment of the New Covenant. I don’t believe God’s promise to save Israel’s can be separated from His promise to give them the land. In fact, when we examine the OT passages where God declares His intention to save Israel, that salvation always includes the promise to establish the people in the land. Additionally, it will be a holy people willing obedient to their God because of the spiritual renewal He sovereignly brings upon the people.
Consider the “New” covenant sounding language in Deuteronomy 4:29-31; 30:6, Ezekiel 36:24-28; 37:14, 22-23, 26-28; Zechariah 14:20-21. There is mention of Israel receiving new hearts, having circumcised hearts, obeying from the heart God’s law, sovereignly awakened by God to see their Messiah, having clean water sprinkled on them, and having God’s Spirit dwelling with them, and all of these spiritual promises of salvation are in conjunction with the promise to be reestablished in the physical land. Now Israel can meet those conditions of obedience in order to dwell in the land because they will obey from a divinely changed heart.
*If you read Crenshaw and Gunn you will note how they cherry pick passages to support their position. For example, by only citing the first part of Deuteronomy 4 concerning the curses brought upon Israel and their removal from the land, they ignore the latter part of the chapter where God tells of Israel’s restoration.
Curtis Crenshaw and Grover Gunn, Dispensationaism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow
John Feinberg, ed, Continuity and Discontinuity
R.K. McGregor-Wright, Historical Doubts Concerning One “Covenant of Grace [unpublished paper]