by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 2:57pm

QUERY: I am having a discussion with a dispensationalist friend about God’s promises to the Jews. (I have also been reading what you say about this on pp. 463-470 in your book, “The Faith Once For All,” in the chapter on “Interpreting Biblical Prophecy.”) My question pertains to Amos 9:14-15, which speaks of Israel as never having to leave their land again. My friend says this applies to Israel of today. What is the meaning of these verses for us today? Have these promises been fulfilled, or do they still apply to the physical Jews?

ANSWER: In Amos 9:14-15 (ESV), God speaks thus of Israel: “‘I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. 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.”`

What does this mean? In the first place, it is unlikely that this promise of restoration (beginning in v. 11) applies to physical Israel AT ALL. But if it does, it must be under these conditions. 1) It would be referring to the restoration of the Jews who were taken captive (by God’s plan) by the nations of Assyria and Babylon. Since there was actually no general restoration of those taken by the Assyrians, it would have to refer mainly to the restoration of the southern tribes from Babylon in 536 B.C., who were allowed to return to their homeland by Cyrus (see the book of Ezra). Thus the prophecy as it might apply to OT Israel would indeed already have been fulfilled. It has nothing to do with modern Jews.

2) But what about the promise that “they shall never again be uprooted out of the land”? Of course, if this were intended to imply an eternal, never-ending possession of the land of Canaan by the physical Jews, then the promise failed, since the Jews as a unified people went long centuries in the Christian era without having control of this land. So (granting for the moment that the promise was meant to apply to the physical Jews), would this mean that God failed to keep his promise? No, because the fact is that MANY Old Testament promises to Israel are worded in the language of perpetuity (“never,” “forever”), but were intended to apply to Israel ONLY to the end of the Old Covenant era, at which time Israel as a special people and nation would no longer exist. [Most of the following three paragraphs are from my book, “The Faith Once for All,” pp. 465-66.]

This limit on the promises to Israel is illustrated and demonstrated by the way the OT uses the Hebrew word ‘olam (often translated “forever”), e.g., when God promised Abraham that Canaan would be the “everlasting possession” of Abraham’s descendants. Some take this to mean that the land of Palestine still belongs to the Jews today and will be their homeland forever. This is an erroneous idea and is based on a faulty English translation of the Hebrew word ‘olam. Though this word sometimes carries the connotation of “eternal,” it often means no more than “age-lasting” or “until the end of the age,” namely, the OT age.

This is especially true of OT statements about things related to Israel. God’s provisions for the life and religion of Israel were not meant to endure forever. Here is a list of some other things about Israel that are described with the same Hebrew word (‘olam) and which obviously were intended to become obsolete when the Old Covenant ended: circumcision as a covenant sign, Gen. 17:13; the Passover feast, Exod. 12:24 (see 12:14, 17); Sabbath observance, Exod. 31:16-17; the Day of Atonement, Lev. 16:29, 31; the Aaronic priesthood, Exod. 40:15; the priests’ clothing, Exod. 28:43; the priests’ portion of the sacrifices, Exod. 29:28 (see Lev. 6:18); the priests’ washings, Exod. 30:21; the bread of the Presence, Lev. 24:8; the candlestick, Exod. 27:21; Solomon’s temple, 1 Kgs. 8:13 (see 9:3); and the Levites as custodians of the ark of the covenant, 1 Chr. 15:2 (see 23:13).

From this list it should be clear that the word `olam does not necessarily mean “everlasting.” Regarding things having to do with Israel, it means only “as long as the Old Covenant age lasts.” Thus Israel’s right to claim Canaan as her own possession ended along with all other Old Covenant practices and privileges. If Amos 9:14-15 applies to physical Israel, its fulfillment began in 536 B.C. and ended when the Old Covenant itself was set aside with the death of Jesus in A.D. 30. There is actually no longer a “my people Israel” in the physical sense.

But in the second place, it is quite clear that the main application of this Amos text is to the NEW Israel, the Israel of the New Covenant age, namely, the church. The church is now God’s CHOSEN people (1 Peter 1:1-2; 2:4-10). Amos’s language is figurative; he uses physical imagery to refer to the spiritual blessings that God has been pouring out upon his New Covenant Israel ever since Pentecost. It indicates that this NEW Israel, the Church, will be God’s chosen people forever from that time forward. There will be no restoration of physical Israel to this position of privilege.

The reason we can say this with confidence is the fact that the earlier verses in Amos 9 (vv. 11-12), which are in continuity with vv. 14-15, are cited in Acts 15:15-17 as a prophecy that was fulfilled with the establishment of the church as a combination of remnant Jews and Gentile converts. The OT Jews who first heard Amos’s prophecy would not have understood this, but they would not have understood the possible initial fulfillment in the restoration from Babylon, either. According to 1 Peter 1:10-12, the prophets themselves—the ones who delivered Messianic prophecies—did not understand what they were talking about, because “they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.”

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