Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Those Latter Days

While every Christian thinks it desirable for individual Jews to be brought into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith, I continue to be astounded at the number of evangelicals who reject the possibility of any future blessing for Israel as a nation. The number of expositors and online commentators who insist that the Old Testament prophecies of future glory for Israel have either been abrogated once and for all when Israel crucified its Messiah, completely fulfilled in the Church, or both, is truly mind-boggling.

In some hopefully rare instances, the popularity of this prophetic view is probably a natural by-product of the anti-Semitic spirit that has always been at work in the world. Jews have been hated and persecuted for centuries, many times without any cause at all. Sadly, that is no new thing, even among Christians. One hates to think Judenhass would poison anyone’s eschatology, but history tells us we cannot entirely rule it out.

Another Possibility

But there are other possibilities. Not all discontentment with the behavior of high-placed Jews in the West is intrinsically anti-Semitic. With the advent of the internet and the breakdown of the mainstream media monopoly on controlling the news cycle, it is becoming increasingly evident that influential Jews in the former Soviet Union, Europe and the United States have been extraordinarily successful over the last century at manipulating the polities of their host countries to the benefit of their own national interests. If this is indeed the case, it is neither racist nor anti-Semitic to point it out. The degree to which America, for example, has been repeatedly convinced to muck about militarily in the Middle East to zero positive effect is finally begun to sink in with the evangelical community. It is hard to miss the fact that the media talking heads lobbying most frantically for war with Iran in the past few weeks have been of Hebrew extraction almost to a man.

This being the case, it is not completely outside the realm of possibility that some evangelicals are allowing disappointment with powerful Jewish special interest groups to affect their view of what the Bible teaches about the future of their nation.

Kneejerking and Disappointment

If it seems a little unreasonable to blame secular Jews in government, business and the media for nepotism and self-interest when almost all other ethnic blocs in Western countries do precisely the same things — and it should seem unreasonable to single out Zionists — bear in mind that vast numbers of evangelicals have passionately supported the nation of Israel for decades. More than a few of us were naive enough to uncritically assume that if Bible prophecy speaks of a future full of blessing for national Israel, then surely there must be some exceptional intrinsic good within the Jewish community.

That argument is neither logically nor theologically sound. Then again, it is equally illogical to base our eschatology on our political dislikes. In fact, secular Jews deserve neither the quasi-beatification they have occasionally received from some evangelicals, nor the near-demonization they encounter from others. As individuals, they need Jesus Christ just like everyone else. As a group, they obviously need freedom to self-determine and a place to call home. I support Israeli statehood not because scripture teaches there is anything especially moral or wonderful about the current generation of Jews either in the U.S. or Israel, but because I believe every identifiable ethnic subgroup that seeks to be recognized as a state ought to be allowed the same basic privileges others enjoy.

Obscuring the Meaning

In summary then, it should not be difficult to understand that what the Bible says about the future of national Israel and how you or I feel about the actions of individual Jews in the present day are completely unrelated issues. It is best to keep them that way. Let us assume, then, that we will leave aside any natural or inculcated biases either for or against the modern state of Israel when we approach the prophetic scriptures and try to deal exclusively with the theological problems we encounter there.

One of the greatest difficulties I have with supersessionism (or “replacement theology”) is that it either invalidates or else “spiritualizes away” huge swaths of Old Testament prophecy. This is not just the case within the prophetic books themselves, but throughout all the books of the Old Testament. Whether the supersessionist is reading Genesis or Ezekiel, he is often forced by his theology to exclude the most obvious natural reading of a text in favor of a highly obscure and doubtful prospective application for the Church.

The Scope of “Latter Days”

Consider one relevant example. The expression 'achariyth yowm (“latter days”) first appears in Genesis, where Jacob tells his sons “what shall happen to you in days to come.”

Assuming “latter days” always means at least approximately the same sort of thing, this initial usage provides us with a little bit of scope for the expression. For Jacob, it is not explicitly apocalyptic. It is not the “last days” of this present era in human history which Jacob has exclusively in view, though in some cases these events may be included. Rather, the patriarch speaks sometimes of what would be characteristic of particular Israelite tribes once they had reached maturity, and sometimes of specific historical events concerning those tribes.

What we can say with certainty is that Jacob did not anticipate these “latter days” immediately (hence the ESV’s “days to come”). Glancing over the various predictions Jacob makes, the earliest possible partial fulfillments begin to be seen in Israel’s history a little over 400 years later during the period of the judges, when it could be objectively verified that, for example, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf.” In other cases the prophecies appear to stretch forward in time as far as the millennial reign, placing the thousand year reign of Christ within the scope of these “latter days”.

What Israel Will Do

We do not encounter the expression again until the book of Numbers, and Balaam’s final oracle, in which he tells Balak and his emissaries what Israel will do to “your people” (Moab, and maybe Midian as well) in the latter days. Balaam notes the following:
“A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!”
When faced with a statement about what Israel will do to any particular group of people, the obvious response is to ask when.

Not Now, Not Near

Here the “star out of Jacob”, a ruler out of Israel, is explicitly seen “not now” and “not near”. The original conquest of Moab by Israel, which happened almost immediately thereafter, is therefore not at all what Balaam had in view. David’s kingdom offers a partial fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy, but the vast majority of interpreters have traditionally agreed these words cannot be completely fulfilled except in Christ. It is pointed out that the star and scepter may be considered names and titles of Messiah. Even allegorizer-supreme Matthew Henry feels compelled to observe that “Our Lord Jesus, the promised Messiah, is chiefly pointed at.”

Here is where the natural reading and the supersessionist reading of scripture part company, as is often the case. If Balaam’s prophecy is indeed Messianic — and I believe it is — it is exceedingly difficult to see in what sense David’s Greater Son could be said to have crushed the forehead of Moab, dispossessed Edom and Seir, and destroyed even the survivors during his first advent. This was simply not the mandate of the Lord Jesus in his first century visit to his people, and we have no record of any such thing. If we take Balaam’s words literally, they cannot reasonably be interpreted to speak of Messiah’s first coming. Those who wish to read the prophecy figuratively are therefore obliged to tell us which spiritual truths are signified by these words, and how it is they have been fulfilled, are being fulfilled, or remain to be fulfilled in the history of the Church.

Two Possibilities

I have yet to see this successfully accomplished. Matthew Henry certainly attempts it, referring to the extension of the kingdom beyond the borders of Israel through the spreading of the gospel message. How the preaching of the gospel might be said to result in crushed foreheads and dispossession is not immediately obvious to the casual reader. The reason Edom, Moab and Seir are specifically singled out for this dubious privilege remains equally obscure. In summary, the effect of Henry’s allegorizing is to rob Balaam’s words not only of any literal sense, but of any sense at all.

Thus we are left with two possibilities: either there remains a future national fulfillment for Israel, or else Balaam’s prophetic vision has failed as a result of Israel’s setting aside. Yet, if we assume the prophecy has indeed failed utterly, it is difficult to see why the Holy Spirit would have preserved it for us. And if it has not, then the restoration of Israel to nationhood and prominence seems at bare minimum to be broadly hinted at here.

That really troubles some Christians. It should not.

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