Built into the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai were stipulations that would bring either God’s blessing or His cursing upon the people. The history of the OT reveals a pattern of constant disobedience on the part of Israel. When the people willfully rebelled, forsaking the Lord, God, faithful to His promises, gave the people over to the terms and conditions of the covenant cursings.
John Jelinek writes how Leviticus 26 tells about the five stages of the curses, each stage increasing in severity in response to disobedience: first sickness and defeat by enemies (26:14-17), then second, drought and famine (26:18-20), third, being overrun by beasts or wild animals (26: 21, 22), fourth is the sword and more pestilence (26:23-26), and then fifth, and most severe, exile from the land (26:27-39). [Jelinek, 234-235]
Note that exile from the land is the culmination of the cursing if God’s people do not pursue holiness, but act wickedly. God will literally throw them out of the land. There is theological reason for this action: the Land is God’s Land. As the Lord states in Leviticus 25:23, "The Land is mine," He is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt and into His Land of promise. Hence, God’s character is tied to the Land. Because God is holy, not only are the people to be holy, but the Land is to be Holy also.
In fact, the land can suffer defilement (Leviticus 18:24-27, Jeremiah 2:7), be polluted (Numbers 35:33, Psalm 106:38, Jeremiah 3:1,2), and caused to sin (Deuteronomy 24:4, Jeremiah 16:18). In the same way that Israel was to make atonement for themselves during the Day of Atonement, the land was to experience an atonement, also. For instance, in the case of an accidental murder and the cities of refuge, Numbers 35:32-34 states,
32 And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest.
33 So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.
34 Therefore do not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel.
And in Deuteronomy 32:43 there will be a future atonement for both the people and the land,
43 Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants, And render vengeance to His adversaries; He will provide atonement for His land and His people.
One part of the land’s "atonement" came with the Sabbatical rest the land was to have every seven years (Leviticus 25). The Mosaic holiness codes, then, were not only meant to make atonement for, and sanctify the people spiritually, but they were designed to keep the land sanctified as well. The sanctity of the people was tied to the sanctity of the land. If the people defiled the land, the land became "unholy," and that unholiness incurred God’s curses upon the people, and the most extreme curse was exile, the land "vomiting" the people out.
When God promised Abraham that He would give to him and his descendants the land as an eternal promise, that promise was given with God’s foreknowledge of Israel’s covenant disobedience and subsequent exile. In other words, God knew beforehand, in eternity past, that when He made the covenant with Abraham and his yet to be born descendants that when they came into the promise land, Israel would fail with fulfilling their side of that covenant.
God is omniscient. He decreed in the eternal counsel of His good will that Israel, as a theocratic nation, would fail with keeping the terms of His covenant. They, the "people of God," are "people," meaning they are sinners who are unable to live righteously. Yet God is gracious, for though the people did not have the ability to keep God’s law due to their sin, He also decreed a means by which His people could keep the terms of His covenant. That being, a New Covenant in which the law of God is inscribed on the hearts of His people.
The promise of this New Covenant isn’t fully revealed until the prophet Jeremiah, who was the last major prophet to call Israel to repentance and to covenant faithfulness before they experienced the ultimate curse, exile from the land. That New Covenant, according to Jeremiah 31:31ff., entails the giving to the people a "new heart," removing the "heart of stone" and replacing it with a "heart of flesh" and "writing the law of God on the hearts of the people" so that they will obey the Lord. Additionally, this New Covenant is solely initiated by God alone. He alone takes the divine, sovereign initiative to change their hearts, to cause them to walk in His law. There is nothing the people do of themselves, they merely obey with new hearts.
Even though this New Covenant isn’t fully revealed until Jeremiah, the terminology used to describe the New Covenant is present in earlier portions of Scripture. Most notably, immediately following two crucial passages, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-29, both outlining the cursing against Israel.
Leviticus 26:38, 39 states,
38 You shall perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies shall eat you up.
39 And those of you who are left shall waste away in their iniquity in your enemies’ lands; also in their fathers’ iniquities, which are with them, they shall waste away.
It’s a rather harsh description of Israel being thrown out into exile from the land, perishing among the nations into where they are cast by the Lord. However, 26:40 immediately changes tone. Verses 40-42 states,
40 `But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they also have walked contrary to Me,
41 and that I also have walked contrary to them and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if their uncircumcised hearts are humbled, and they accept their guilt–
42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember; I will remember the land.
Here, we see New Covenant terminology. There is confession of sin, God sovereignly bringing His people back into the land, and hearts being circumcised, a biblical description of "new hearts."
Moving to Deuteronomy, chapter 29:27, 28 states,
27 `Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against this land, to bring on it every curse that is written in this book.
28 `And the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger, in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day.’
Again, God’s anger is aroused, not just against the people, but against the land, to the point God exiles the people.
But notice that chapter 30:1-10 states how God will most certainly bring them out of exile and place them back into the land. There is New Covenant terminology found here as well in verses 6 and 8 which read,
6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live….
8 And you will again obey the voice of the LORD and do all His commandments which I command you today.
It is the LORD who will circumcise hearts, again, biblical language speaking of "new hearts," which will result in a love for God and a willingness to obey the commands of the LORD.
These cursing passages and the promise of a restored Israel have a prophetic ring to them. That is because God anticipates Israel’s disobedience and the initiation of the New Covenant that will create a new hearted people who will most certainly follow God’s laws. They follow those laws because they have been divinely written on the hearts of the people.
In addition to these two passages, there are some complimentary passages found in the prophecy of Ezekiel, who also lived during Jeremiah’s ministry, yet among many of the exiles who had already be removed from Israel to Babylon. In both passages, Ezekiel speaks of Israel’s restoration with the language of the New Covenant.
First, after a blistering remembrance of God’s previous judgments in 20:10-26, God pronounces His judgment against the people in 20:27-32 once again. However, God, with the use of New Covenant terminology, goes on to say in 20:33-49 that Israel will experience special restoration. They will be gathered from every nation where they were scattered and caused by the Lord to serve Him. Secondly, Ezekiel writes in 36:24-32 how Israel will experience spiritual and physical renewal after being gathered from the Gentile nations where they were in exile, will have clean water sprinkled on them, be given a new heart and a new spirit, will put away their abominations and serve the Lord.
All of these passages speak of "new hearts," "circumcised hearts," "a new spirit." Moreover, there is an internal appropriation of God’s law; Israel willingly obeying God’s laws and commands. All of these special works are done by God alone and they all result in a restoration to the land of Israel.
But there remains a question of fulfillment. That being, when Jesus established the New Covenant in His death on the cross, were these prophecies of Israel’s restoration fulfilled? Certainly we can say the establishment of the New Covenant produces the internal heart change within God’s people. Hebrews 8 tells us that much. We can also acknowledge that "God’s people" extends beyond individuals from Jewish Israel to encompass the gentiles of all the nations. However, when exactly has the restoration of Israel happened as these prophetic passages reveal?
It is at this point in understanding the establishment of the New Covenant that Covenant Reformed believers appeal to a typological fulfillment of these prophecies. This is the position O. Palmer Robertson takes in his classic work, The Christ of the the Covenant. Without giving much attention to the exegesis of Leviticus 26:40 ff., Deuteronomy 30:1-10, and even Ezekiel 36:24ff., he declares the promises of geographic restoration to a physical land to be a "typological" fulfillment. It is not meant to be understood "literally." [Robertson, 300].
But why? Why can’t we understand these prophecies as yet to be fulfilled literally in the sense that ethnic Jews will certainly be restored to a real, geographically, geo-political kingdom? If I understand the first portion of the New Covenant prophecy of spiritual renewal and restoration with an inner heart change as being fulfilled literally by the work of Christ, should I not expect the second portion that predicts the renewal of the physical land and a Jewish people being gathered from the nations and returned to the land?
The argument I often receive from Covenant Reformed believers is to say the land promises are expanded beyond the borders of Israel’s physical territory in the same way the imparting of new hearts goes beyond being for the Jews alone. But I am trying to be faithful to the language of the relevant texts. Ezekiel 36:28, for example, specifically says: Then you [the Jews] shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be my people and I shall be your God.
The prophet later develops his prophecy in chapter 37:25 by saying, Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their children, and their children’s children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever. God then says how He will make a "covenant of peace" that shall be an "everlasting covenant" (again, New Covenant terminology).
How else am I to understand "they shall dwell there..forever" and "everlasting covenant"? The words land, dwelling, forever, and everlasting covenant must have specific meaning in this prophecy as well as the others I’ve considered. The only possible meaning I can see is that of a fulfillment of these ordained promises in which Israel, regenerated by a sovereign God, is restored to, and lives in, a geo-political land that was given to them by God.
O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants
H. Wayne House, ed., Israel: The Land and Its People