I need to address one more crucial aspect of the discussion concerning the land promise to Israel, before starting an attempt at some type of conclusion. What really is the timeframe for the fulfillment of the hopes of Zion, for the land?
Up to this point, the main question has been whether or not biblical prophecy was fulfilled by the creation of the modern-nation state of Israel in 1948. But is it so clear that such a question can be easily resolved simply by looking at a single year in history?
On one hand, there are dozens of passages from the Bible that would indicate a future timeframe for the land fulfillment. Here is just one, Amos 9:11-15 (I will just quote the most meaty part):
…I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them…I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the Lord your God.
That seems pretty obvious and clear, is it not? …. Or is it?
A Future vs. Past (Preterist) View of the Land Promise Fulfillment
Many Christians, particularly from a dispensationalist background, would contend that there has never been a 100% fulfillment of passages, such as what we find in Amos 9.1 After all, the ancient Bible borders promised to the Israelites extend all of the way east, over to the Euphrates River in central Iraq. Has the full extent of this border been realized in history? Some say, “Yes,” but many others, perhaps the majority, would say, “No, it has not.”
This being the case, it should be admitted that even the United Nations declaration of the borders in 1948 do not line up anywhere near the borders described in places like Joshua 1:4. So, it might be more proper to say that the land promise was only partially fulfilled in 1948.
However, is the common assumption that Israel has never really possessed the land, at any time in history, actually correct? Let us examine some more of Scripture to find out.
Towards the end of the book of Joshua, after Joshua has completed the conquest of the Promised Land, many hundreds of years ago, we read a rather puzzling claim that challenges this common assumption.
“Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass (Joshua 21:43-45 ESV)”
All came to pass? Not one word? That is startling. On the face it, it would appear that all of the land promises regarding the Abrahamic covenant have been fulfilled! A straight-forward reading where the message of fulfillment is repeated several times is difficult to ignore.2 This would be consistent with a preterist view of the land promises, where “preterist” simply means “that which has passed.”
Yet because of what we read elsewhere in the Bible, many others would say (again) that this is only a partial fulfillment of the land promises. Did the people actually inhabit all of the land extending up to the Euphrates River, in modern-day central Iraq? 3
Furthermore, even the writer of the book of Hebrews, in the New Testament, acknowledges that the people of ancient Israel never fully entered the “rest” that is described here, by the end of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (see Joshua 23:1). Amazingly, in Hebrews 3 and 4, we read such a “rest” was actually fulfilled by Jesus Christ himself, in his finished work at Calvary, for those who continue to believe in Him (Hebrews 4:3) . So, when we read Jesus saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28-30), it would appear that the New Testament is teaching that Christ Himself has truly fulfilled what was originally promised in the Abrahamic land covenant, albeit in a spiritual sense.
To make matters more intriguing, it should be noted that even in Solomon’s day, that the extent of his kingdom did, in fact, go all of the way to the Euphrates River.
And [Solomon] ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt (2 Chronicles 9:26).
It is fair to say that probably there were no Israelites, ethnically, living in these eastern territories near the Euphrates. But if the claims of Solomon’s reign are to be believed, these were vassal peoples all paying tribute to Solomon. So, was this a fulfillment of the original, Abrahamic physical land promise?4
I am not entirely sure what to make of all of this. Has the land promise been fulfilled in the past, or is it still yet future? Nevertheless, I do know, that since all of Scripture is God’s Word, that I must contend with it, even if it challenges some deeply held beliefs. If we do find that the Abrahamic covenant, in a physical sense, was indeed fulfilled in the Old Testament era, it would tie in much easier with the New Testament teaching in Hebrews, that the promise of rest, associated with the Abrahamic covenant, was spiritually fulfilled, in Christ.
The point here is this: many people simply assume that the fulfillment of a literal, physical land promise is only a future thing, which is why dates like 1948 loom large in the minds of many Christians. Even then, perhaps too much emphasis is put on 1948 as a fulfillment, when in fact, it could only be a partial one. We must consider the whole counsel of God on these matters, and not merely assume that adopting a few cherry picked verses are the only important ones.
Who knows? Perhaps it is possible to have both, a spiritual fulfillment and a literal, physical fulfillment of the land promise. What if both are tied together, somehow?5
1. Here is a brief list of a few other passages in the Bible that point towards a future, and not a past fulfillment, of the land promises: Deuteronomy 30:3, Isaiah 11:11,12; 27:12, 13; Jeremiah 23:1-8; 30:8-11.↩
2. Can I just make an observation here? I still find it amazing that so many people who pride themselves in saying that they take the Bible “literally” come up with all sort of ways NOT to take passages like these “literally.” It just demonstrates to me two things: (1) no one really interprets all of the Bible “literally,” even if they say they do, and (2) taking the Bible “literally” sometimes can be a really eluding task. The main task for the reader of Scripture should be instead to interpret the Bible in the sense that the human author and the divine author originally intended. Some other passages in the Bible that point towards a past fulfillment, and not a future fulfillment, of the land promises include these: Joshua 23:14-15; 2 Samuel 8:3; 1 Kings 4:21; Nehemiah 9:8; Jeremiah 11:5. ↩
3. If you have never heard of this perspective regarding a past fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promises, I would suggest you consider the teaching of Steve Gregg, a Bible teacher with Narrow Path ministries. Gregg has a very challenging set of teaching on Israel that is very different from what you find promoted in churches that adhere strictly to a more classic dispensationalist approach to these topics. Even if you do not find his view convincing, it is fair to say that he treats others who disagree with him in a fair and even-handed manner.↩
4. I have heard a counter-argument, suggesting that the land promise during the time of Solomon (and there is evidence even in David’s reign, as well), was not really fulfilled, despite what these passages of Scripture seem to say. Basically, since there were no Israelites actually inhabiting all of these areas, that this can not be a promise fulfillment, despite Solomon’s actual possession of the land. But I have trouble making sense of such an objection. That is like saying that Americans do not actually inhabit all of the United States, because within American borders, we have dozens of various native American nations residing on Indian reservations. The native Americans who have lived in America long before the Europeans and others arrived have surely not appreciated the type of treatment they have received over the centuries. But to my knowledge, native Americans still consider themselves to be Americans. So, why would the native peoples occupying those regions of the Promised Land under Solomon’s control not have considered themselves subjects of Solomon, and therefore not, in some sense, part of the greater Israelite nation?↩
5. Some might call this type of approach to the Abrahamic covenant fulfillment as being of a multiple-fulfillment interpretation. In other words, there could be a physical, literal fulfillment (or perhaps more than one) as well as a spiritual fulfillment. I know that some scholars are not favorable to such an approach, but I think it is still worthy of consideration.↩