Allen Jackson - Israel and God's Promises - Part 1
I'd like to spend a few sessions and explore a little bit with you Israel, the nation of Israel and the Jewish people, and God's promises. I think, in general, the Christian church and particularly the American church, it's where I have the most experience, are pretty unaware of God's intent for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. We may have some fuzzy peripheral awareness, but I would submit to you that the Bible really cannot be deciphered if you don't understand the purpose and the place of the Jewish people and the nation of Israel in God's unfolding story. It's not just an Old Testament component. It's a valuable part of the New Testament, and so it's worth spending some time with and asking God to give you some insight around.
Just from a purely biblical perspective, I think it is just essential to understanding our role and understanding how God will deal with us and what we can anticipate in his attitude towards the church. And so I think it is valuable to understand both biblically and to understand what God is doing in the earth, and to know how to pray. You know, the purpose in studying our Bible is not to acquire theoretical knowledge about how God used to behave and what might happen at some point in the future that is beyond us, but I believe the point of our faith is to help us be ambassadors for the kingdom of God in the moment; and to do that, we have to be aware of what God has said would happen.
And so this study... and this is really intended to be an introduction. I'm going to read a little bit more Scripture than perhaps we would typically, but I think if we ground this in the Scripture, it will help us as we walk through it in the next session or two. And I thought Jeremiah... you know the prophet Jeremiah? One of the major prophets. We call them major not because they were bigger, not even because they were necessarily more important. Every book in the Bible is important. Jude is important. Lamentations is important. Every book in the Bible is important. We call them major prophets because their body of work is larger. Isaiah and Jeremiah are court prophets. They're prophets of the palace. They're speaking to national and international events in the midst of the political machinations that were a part of that unfolding story.
Jeremiah has a very difficult assignment. He is the prophet in Jerusalem that is given the assignment of saying to the establishment that you're going to lose your freedom. The Babylonians are coming, and there's really nothing you can do about it. It was a very, very difficult assignment, and he suffered a great deal for it, and he had to witness the decline and ultimately the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. I can't hardly imagine that, that God would give you the perspective that it's coming, and to have to deliver that message to a group of people, understanding that there was nothing to be done to turn that back. But in the midst of Jeremiah, there's some amazing promises, and that's where I want to begin tonight is a bit with the declaration of God, his judgment and then... but his promises of restoration, because we need both halves of that.
Jeremiah 31... and really Jeremiah 30 through 33, if you want to do a little extra focuses in on this whole season. But we'll take chapter 31 and read the first 14 verses. "'At that time,' declares the LORD, 'I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they will be my people.'" I think the authority that this is being delivered with is noteworthy. God said, "I'm making this as a declaration. I'm not whispering this. You can shout this from the mountaintops. I'll be the God of all the clans of Israel". The biblical pattern of organization of people is family, clan, and tribe. The family is the fundamental building block of how God intersects with people, as beyond the individual level. It's never changed. It hasn't changed from the opening chapters of Genesis until today, and one of the great repudiations, one of the great rejections of the biblical worldview and a rebellion against God is the assertion that we can redefine what a family is.
God didn't ask us for that. He didn't put it to a vote. He's the Creator and the designer, and you should understand that when you take God's definition of family and set it aside, you put yourself in rebellion against him. That's not a church opinion. That didn't even begin with the New Testament. "'I'll be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they'll be my people.' This is what the LORD says: 'The people who survive the sword will find favor in the desert; and I will come to give rest to Israel.' The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: 'I have loved you with an everlasting love; and I have drawn you with lovingkindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and you'll go out to dance with the joyful.'"
I have a memory when I read that. My brother and I tended Hebrew University some time ago, and we arrived there. I really had very little information. It was before the Internet. And so the information I had was around correspondence through snail mail. I had finished some graduate work at Vanderbilt, and we wanted to spend some time in Israel. So, we applied rather hastily, and we were put into a program for overseas students, graduate students. And we arrived, and we had 10 weeks of language classes 6 days a week, 7 hours a day, immersive, all Hebrew, no English. And I knew about as much Hebrew as you know. So, it was a bit of an adventure. And during language school, they put up a sign somewhere on campus, because the whole university wasn't back yet. It was their summer break. They put some sign up and said there will be a tiyul, a trip.
And, you know, I was in whatever was going on, so we'd go get on the bus and go wherever the trip was. Well, they put up a sign one time, and they said for Shabbat we were taking a tiyul to Masada, which some of you know the story of Masada. We left campus about sundown, about the time Shabbat started on a Friday night. And they dropped us in the desert. It's right on the shores of the Dead Sea. They built a big bonfire, and we had some brown bag meals to eat. But about the time the sun set, and the desert was settling, they started playing Jewish folk music and dancing around that fire. It was a phenomenal thing, I mean, through the night, in the early hours of the morning. And our Hebrew, this was a couple of weeks in.
My Hebrew's really limited, and I didn't know the words, but I was penny in for a pound. And then we climbed Masada. It was a fortress that Herod the Great built in the desert. We climbed Masada in the dark to see the sun come up over the Dead Sea. Sounds really fun unless you've been up all night, and you have to climb a mountain in the middle of the night. And we walked back down, and then after sunrise, then we took a short trip to En Gedi, which is not far away. It's an oasis where David hid from Saul. This has very little to do with your lesson, but it's Wednesday night. And we hiked back up this gorge where there's a spring that comes out of the desert from the mountains that head towards Jerusalem.
It's been there for thousands of years. It's still there today. And we hiked back up this gorge, and the further you went, the more vegetation there was, until there was a little waterfall. I mean, it didn't look like Niagara Falls, but there was some water falling into the desert, into a pool. I'll never forget, I'm leaned back against this rock wall with that waterfall. I felt pretty good. And I'm looking out, and there's this desert. There's absolutely zero vegetation except where this stream of water is flowing, and there's palm trees and all sorts of lush vegetation.
And I heard in my head Jesus in the gospel of John say, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. And out of his innermost being will flow streams of living water". And I thought, "The difference that the Holy Spirit makes in our lives is the difference between a desert and lush vegetation". And I certainly didn't then, and I'm sure I don't know now understand all the implications of that, but I determined to begin to say, "I will cooperate with the Spirit of God. I will cooperate with the Spirit of God". So, all of that slips into my head when I read in Jeremiah, "You'll take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful". Because the students I was dancing with were from New Jersey and New York and Boston and a handful of sabras, Israelis.
"Again, you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, and the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit". And the language is a little ambiguous. It's an old language. It's true either way. The farmers will plant their vineyards on the hills of Samaria, and the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit or drink their wine. I'm not arguing for or against either.
"There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, 'Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.' This is what the LORD says: 'Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard and say, 'O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.' I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. And among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel's Father, and Ephraim is my firstborn. Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: 'He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.' For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion. They will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD: the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and the herds. They'll be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then maidens will dance and be glad, and young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness. I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,' declares the LORD".
Ten times in that passage, God says, "I will do this. I will do this". He didn't say that the Jewish people would have to do something or the nations of the world would cooperate. He said, "I'm going to do this. I'm telling you I will do this". This is in the midst of a book of prophecies that have been collected, saying, "You're leaving here, and you're not leaving here on a vacation or a missions program. You're leaving here in chains. You're leaving here with your children being slaughtered in the streets and your pregnant women dying of hunger. You're leaving here, but I will bring you back". It's the most remarkable declaration and chapter. And if you've had enough birthdays, and you've been paying any attention, we've watched God fulfill this in recent decades.
Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and it was under a series of Gentile rulers, the nation, until 1948, but Jerusalem until 1967. Mark Twain, the American humorist, visited the Middle East, and he wrote of his visit to Israel and to Jerusalem, and he said, "It's a treeless, godless, joyless place, not fit for human habitation". And I mean, he was kind of a funny guy, but not about there. So, when the Israelis began returning, and they first began going back about the turn of the 20th century, about 1900, some wealthy European Jews would purchase some portion of property, and a few Jews that weren't welcome particularly in Europe. The Holocaust did not spring from new cloth. The Holocaust gave expression, gave shape to a sentiment that was widely held in Christian Europe that the Jewish people were not welcome, that they had been rejected by God; and, therefore, they were being rejected by the Christian community.
We'll talk more about that in some detail in another session. So, a few of the Jews had begun to immigrate back. They weren't allowed to own land in Europe, for the most part, so they had to learn agriculture again, but they began to plant trees and plant crops. And in 1948, when the nation was reborn, one of the first initiatives that they launched was to begin to reforest the land of Israel. If you visit Jerusalem today, to the west of the city is a beautiful forest. It just wasn't there 70 years ago. Anywhere you drive in Israel today, there are trees and forests and vegetation, and some of the most celebrated fruits and vegetables in the world come from the farms of Israel today.
So, when I read this passage, God has fulfilled it in such a remarkable way. When he says, "You'll plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria," Samaria is the hill country between Jerusalem in the south and the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights in the north. Today, it's often referred to as Palestinian territory or the occupied territory, but the hills of Samaria is the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. When Joshua led them into the promised land as a part of the conquest, some of the Canaanites were more technically advanced than the Israelites. The Philistines, for instance, knew how to use iron. So, they had chariots with iron wheels and swords, and they had a technological advantage, so the Israelites didn't want to face the Philistines on the coastal plain. Their technological advantage made them almost impossible for the Israelites to defeat.
So, the Israelites settled on the hill country, the mountains of Samaria. That is the ancient heart of Israel. And if I can pick you up and take you today, I'd take you to the Psagot about 20 miles north of Jerusalem in the mountains of Samaria and introduce you to the kibbutz, the group of people that have planted vineyards. And just about any place you drive in the land of Israel today, you'll see the vines growing. Throughout the mountains, the heartland, or in the Golan Heights, or in the Negev in the south, God has quite literally brought that to fulfillment, and even describes the emotions with which they will come. "I'll bring them from the north, and I'll gather them from the ends of the earth, and among them will be the blind and the lame and the expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng of them will return".
It's how they came back at the end of World War II. Six million Jews or more had died in the Holocaust. And Europe really had no appetite for processing the survivors. It was too awkward. It was too uncomfortable. Their property had been confiscated. Their assets had been confiscated. Nation after nation in Europe had turned their backs on the Jewish people and turned deaf ears and blind eyes to what was happening; and now with the war over, it was very awkward. There was this international problem. What are we going to do with these refugees? And they began to make their way back to this little strip of land at the end of the Mediterranean. And the British empire used all the influence they had to oppose that. They did everything they were capable of doing to withstand the return of the Jewish people. They won the war, and they lost the empire, in no small part, because of their attitude towards the Jewish people.
And finally, they got so weary with the struggle, they just basically said, "We just take our hands off of it". And in May of 1948, the modern state of Israel was recognized by the United Nations, in no insignificant part to the prompting of Harry S. Truman, the United States President. He had a business partner in Kansas City who was Jewish, and he had some appreciation for the plight of the Jewish people. And the day that the modern state of Israel was recognized, five surrounding Muslim nations declared war on them, nations with standing armies, nations with economies, nations with a military that already had armaments. The messaging in all the media outlets of the Middle East was take a two-week vacation if you live in the land of Palestine. We're going to drive the Jews into the ocean.
And really, inexplicably, the military or historical, the Jewish state survived, and they're still there today. And what God described in Jeremiah, we have watched be played out on the mountains of Samaria and the valleys in the desert just in their last few years, the Israelis have brought on desalination plants. They lead the world in desalination technology. There's a series of desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast. And for the first time in the history of the modern state of Israel, they have all the water they need, and they are literally making the desert bloom. God kept his word. So, when Jeremiah says, "This is what the Lord declares, and this is what the Lord says," and when 11 times he says, "This is what I will do," I think it should have our attention because you and I are dependent upon the promises of God to understand that our future is secure.
The United States government cannot secure our future nor will they. They cannot secure our freedoms and our liberties or our economic well-being or the opportunities for our children or our grandchildren. Governments fail, empires fall. They have done it as long as human beings have organized themselves. But Almighty God and his Word is true and faithful, and it is the best basis for your life and for securing your future, and for ordering your priorities and establishing the things that are valuable to you. We have responsibilities to pray for those in authority over us. I believe that, I participate in that on a daily basis. But I want to be certain that my future, I understand that it is supported and affirmed by God's promises and nothing less. Now, there's one perhaps biblical point that I would make here.
Some scholars will say that Jeremiah was fulfilled, that the Babylonians came to Jerusalem 587 BC. There was some layers to Jerusalem's ultimate collapse to the Babylonians, but the ultimate destruction and the destruction of Solomon's temple in Jerusalem took place 587 BC. And for about 70 years, the Jewish people were exiled, not allowed to live in the land of Israel. And that's one of the most fruitful times in Jewish history was during that period of exile; because when they weren't in Jerusalem, and they didn't have access to the temple, and they couldn't make their pilgrimage feast for Passover or Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, they were afraid they would lose their faith and lose their heritage.
So, they put much of what we know to be the Old Testament down on paper during that period. It's where we meet some of our biblical heroes. It's where we meet Queen Esther. That's where we meet Daniel. A very important time, the exile, in their history. But after 70 years, they got to go back. And some scholars will say that what Jeremiah was describing was simply the return from the Babylonian captivity, from that exile. But I don't believe what happened, when the exiles returned, fits with the description that Jeremiah gives us, and there's several reason for that. I'm not going to go into them fully. I gave you a couple of things. It was 587 when the Babylonians destroyed the temple. Babylon fell to the Persians about 50 years later, 539, but it was about 70 years after the exile began that the Jewish people began to go back.
Does anybody remember the Persian king that gave the edict, that gave them permission to go back? It was Cyrus, a new leadership. The Persians had a different attitude towards captive nations. They allowed the Jewish people to begin to return and to rebuild their temple. Anybody remember who built the second temple? Zerubbabel. And if you spell it, you get bonus points. The Jewish people until today tell their history in terms of the first temple and the second temple, and that second temple, in one form of another, stood in Jerusalem until 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed it. The New Testament talks about a third temple, but that's for another session.
Father, I thank you that you love us. I thank you that in your great mercy and compassion, you have made a way for us to be at peace with the Creator of all things, that you're not angry with us, that you are not resentful of us, that you have welcomed us into your kingdom and made peace with us through Jesus Christ. I thank you for that today. Nothing is hidden from you, no part of our past, no thought within us, and yet you love us. May that love grow in us every day and bring a boldness and a courage within us to face the challenges before us. In Jesus' name, amen.