When Donald Trump was running for the office of President of the United States, one of his campaign promises was to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a symbolic act would have huge geopolitical ramifications, but why? It all boils down to how you read the Bible.
Look at the prophet Amos. The Book of Amos is mostly a rather devastating prophetic critique of the ancient, northern kingdom of Israel. After discussing all of the problems with Israel’s neighbors, Amos launches into a scathing attack on Israel, and how they are in many ways worse than their neighbors. God pronounces judgment, showing how God’s people do not pass the standard set by God’s plumb line (Acts 7:7-8), and the prophecy came true when Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. It is a rather sober message for a disobedient people.
But at the very end of the book, Amos gives the people a message of hope:
- “‘In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,’
declares the Lord who does this.“(Amos 9:11-12 ESV)
Many Jews and Christians today understand “the booth of David” to be a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the center of worship for the Jews, and with the destruction of the first temple, built by King David’s son, Solomon, not many years after this prophecy was made, it gave hope to the Israelites that God would one day restore God’s people to the land, along with a rebuilt temple. A second temple was eventually built but subsequently destroyed in 70 C.E. With the reconstitution of modern Israel, partially centered around Jerusalem, there are many who still hope for the rebuilding of yet a third temple, and the full restoration of Israel promised by Amos.
President Trump’s campaign pledge would imply a type of endorsement to this hope. Yet setting aside the geopolitical issues, there is a major question as to how we are to read the Bible on this point: Is this really how we should read the prophecy of Amos today, regarding a future rebuilt temple in Jerusalem?
Reading Amos Through a New Testament Lens
Reading Amos in this way is complicated by how the New Testament cites the same text. In Acts 15, we read about a council convened by the leaders of the early Christian church to discuss a big problem with how the church was growing. Earlier in Acts, the original followers of Christ were nearly all Jewish in background, and they still sought to keep the Law of Moses, such as with the requirement for circumcision. Eventually however, Gentiles, or non-Jews, were also coming to follow Jesus and join the Christian movement. But many of the Jewish Christian believers insisted that these Gentile converts should submit to circumcision, whereas others, like the Apostle Paul, said that they do not need circumcision.
In order to resolve the matter, the council arrived at a solution that would allow the Gentile Christians to join the movement without requiring circumcision. In explaining their decision, James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, made an appeal to Amos, recognizing that God indeed was transforming the hearts and minds of these Gentiles, through their faith in Christ:
(13) After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. (14) Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. (15) And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
(16) “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
(17) that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things (18) known from of old.’
(19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,
Many contend today that a future rebuilding of the temple is not in view, as it would appear that James is teaching that the expectation of Amos has been fulfilled with the new gathering in of these Gentile converts into the people of God. If this is indeed the case, it would indicate that the prophecy of Amos, instead of predicting a restoration of a physical temple, is instead being fulfilled in the New Testament era, by the inclusion of the Gentiles among God’s people. In other words, the New Testament church has become the fulfillment of God’s purposes for the Jewish temple. Therefore, there is no need for the rebuilding of a future temple.
There are a few things to observe in how James is quoting Amos, as the quotation is not identical to what most Bibles have back in Amos itself:
- In the earlier Amos text, the text in most Bibles today is taken from the earliest Hebrew manuscripts, the Masoretic text.
- In the Acts 15:16-17 reference to Amos, James is quoting from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in common use by Greek-speaking Jews and Christians of James’ day.
- The Masoretic text reading has, at the beginning, “In that day…,” whereas the Septuagint version has, “After this….”
- The Masoretic text reading has “the booth of David that is fallen,” whereas the Septuagint version has, “the tent of David that has fallen.”
- The Masoretic text reading has “that they may possess the remnant of Edom,” whereas the Septuagint version has, “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord.”
Different commentators on the Bible react differently to these pieces of evidence from the text. With regard to the “booth” or “tent” of David, some say that this is a reference to the temple in Jerusalem, mainly because a “booth” or “tent” suggests a physical structure. Essentially, the original tabernacle in the Sinai wilderness was a movable “temple,” as it was indeed a “booth,” or “tent.”
Many other scholars disagree, and they say that this is really a type of reference to the dynasty of King David. In other words, what is being promised, is not necessarily a restoration of a physical temple, but rather, it is the restoration of a future Davidic reign, through David’s son or sons.
But even if you follow the view that this is about the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, it does not resolve the question of when this restoration takes place. Some say that the “after this” introduction, from the Septuagint, teaches that the actual fulfillment of the prophecy will come after the events in the Book of Acts have taken place, which would indicate a future fulfillment, presumably during a future millennial reign of the Messiah.
Others protest this interpretation, noting that the “this” in “after this” is actually a reference to the days of Amos, not the days of Acts. This would imply that the fulfillment of the prophecy is future with respect to Amos’ time, and not James’ time. Therefore, James is treating the Amos’ prophecy as being fulfilled in the New Testament church.
Finally, there is the curiosity about “Edom.” Many scholars would agree that “Edom” is used in Amos as a way of speaking about the Gentiles, in general. Amos is therefore saying that the Gentiles are, in some sense, included in the promises of God. But there is a lingering debate as to whether this Gentile inclusion as prophesied by Amos was fulfilled in the early church of Acts, or will be fulfilled during a future millennial period, along with the restoration of national Israel.
An alternative solution to resolve this debate suggests that the prophecy of Amos was partially fulfilled in the Book of Acts, such as with the inclusion of the Gentiles, into the people of God, with yet the rest of the fulfillment to occur at some future time, such as a restoration of the Davidic monarchy in physical Jerusalem, or even a rebuilding of the physical temple. However, to be fair, there are various other proposals within this solution paradigm, with respect to what has been fulfilled in Acts, and what will be fulfilled, in the future.
My own conclusion is that Amos 9 does not have the hope for a rebuilt, physical temple in Jerusalem in view. You would have to look elsewhere in Scripture to see this. On the other hand, James’ reference to Amos in the Book of Acts leaves open the very real possibility that the temple of God finds its fulfillment in the building of the New Testament church, as Jews and Gentiles come together to follow Christ.
The point of all of this is to say that the question of whether or not Amos is predicting a literal rebuilding of a future, third temple in Jerusalem is far from being an open and shut case. Bible scholars have been debating the meaning of these texts for centuries, and there is yet no clear, conclusive consensus, as to the specifics. On the other hand, it is clear from both Amos and Acts that the Bible does speak of a type of hope for the people of God, and that this hope has the final word. We may not always be able to nail down all of the specific details about that hope, but part of trusting in the promises of God is that while we may not have all of the answers, we can have confidence in a God who does.
For more information about topics concerning a prophetic future for Israel, and how that relates to our world today, please check out the Veracity blog series on “Zionism,” part-one, published in 2016. Also, there are some great, scholarly articles available on the web that address the conundrum of how Amos 9 fits with Acts 15:
- Amillennialist Bible teacher and covenant theologian Sam Storms has a very accessible treatment from his perspective.
- Traditional dispensationalist and premillennial Bible teacher Thomas Ice presents an accessible view from his perspective, though unlike some other dispensationalists, Ice does not see that the rebuilding of the (third) temple is in view here, though he does believe that other passages in the Bible do point towards a literal rebuilding of the temp.
- Edward Glenny has an academic paper looking at specific issues regarding the Septuagint translation of Amos 9.
- Dispensationalist J. Paul Tanner’s paper for the Evangelical Theological Society.
- An essay by traditional dispensationalist John Walvoord, with other passages mixed in. Walvoord is not entirely clear to me on the literal temple issue, with respect to Amos, though I know that elsewhere from the Bible, he believes that there will be a future rebuilding of the physical temple.
- An excerpt from Beale and Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
- Michael S. Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast on this topic. Heiser points out that those who argue for the “literal interpretation of Bible prophecy” have a problem here, since the Amos text in Hebrew and the Acts quotation of the same passage in Septuagint Greek are not literally identical.