Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previous article in this series: September 15, 2009, p. 492.
“Israel means Israel,” is one of the most common lines uttered by dispensationalists. It is a way of saying that there is no need to search the Scriptures to find an answer to the question as to who Israel is. To a dispensationalist, everyone knows by common sense who Israel is. The Jews in Palestine—and really the other Jews scattered abroad as well—constitute this nation. In the mind of a dispensationalist, the promises to Israel are obviously promises to this group of people.
This interpretation is an example of what dispensationalists call the “literal” method of interpreting Scripture. The term “literal” has a number of meanings, one of which is “adhering to the primary meaning of a term or expression.” Since most people today use the term “Israel” to refer to the nation of unbelieving Jews located in Palestine, a “literal” interpretation of Israel would be the one that identifies God’s holy nation with that earthly nation.
Such may be the interpretation of the carnal man; but it is not the interpretation that arises out of faith. Faith holds for truth all that God reveals in Holy Scripture. Faith searches the Scriptures to find the meanings of the key terms and expressions that are found in Scripture. When one approaches the Scriptures in faith, looking to God to explain what is meant by the chosen nation of Israel, one will come to a clear understanding of who Israel is. At the same time he will avoid being deceived by the many fortune-tellers who pose as interpreters of prophecy, and make predictions about what will soon happen to the present-day Israelis.
Let us take a look at how God Himself identifies Israel, the one holy nation that He refers to as His people.
Israel: The Nation Whose God Is Jehovah
God promised that He would make of Abraham a great nation:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing,
Furthermore, He promised that He would forever be the God of this nation:
And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God,
So who is this nation that will forever have Jehovah as their God?
The dispensationalist insists that this nation refers to the nation of Israel as it is known today. But does this people really have Jehovah as their God? Dispensationalists look at these texts and argue that the earthly nation of Israel is God’s special people and that the earthly land of Canaan is to be theirs forever. Yet they overlook something else that is stated in these verses. God says that He will forever be Israel’s God. In other words, the nation spoken of in these verses is the one holy nation that believes in the true God.
Can this be said about the earthly nation of Israel that is commonly in the news today? Is it really the case that Jehovah is their God? Do they love and worship the true God who has manifested Himself in His Word, Jesus Christ?
Before we even take a look at other verses that give a further explanation of who is meant by Israel, these verses alone make clear that Israel is the name for the one nation whose God truly is Jehovah. In other words, it is a name for all the elect people of God who have received the gift of faith, and who trust in Christ alone for their salvation.
What It Means to Be a Nation
But what is it that constitutes a nation? The Hebrew word “nation” originally referred to a body of people who often came from the same father but who also were united under the rule of one head. Let us consider these two ideas.
First, that a nation referred to a body of people who often had the same father is evident from the fact that the father himself is said to be the nation. God told Abraham that he would be a great nation (Gen. 18:18), and He told Rebecca that two nations were in her womb (Gen. 25:23). Abraham, the father of a nation, is said to be that nation. The same is true of Jacob and of Esau.
In Deuteronomy we read that God’s people were told to confess that their father had gone down into Egypt and that there he had become a great nation:
And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous,
So again we see here that the father of the nation is referred to as the nation.
That a nation is a people who often have the same father is also evident from the fact that the nation itself takes on the name of that father. Jacob was given the name Israel, and the nation itself was called Israel.
But to be a nation means more than this. It also means being a united body under one head. This was true of the nation of Israel from the start. Israel was the nation whose king and God was Jehovah Himself. They came forth from one father and were under the rule of the one true God. Thus they were a nation. They were the only nation whose God was Jehovah.
Jehovah Always to Remain the God of His Holy Nation
Now let us take a look at another text that dispensationalists use to prove that the earthly nation of Israel is forever going to be God’s special nation. As so often happens in the providence of God, the text they cite is actually a key passage that refutes their position, rather than supports it. I refer to the following passage from the prophecy of Jeremiah:
Thus saith the Lord, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The Lord of hosts is his name: If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the Lord, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever,
The text clearly states that the seed of Israel will be a nation forever. There is no question about that. The question has to do with who it is that this nation refers to.
The dispensational answer to this question has obvious problems. Their claim that this refers to the earthly nation of Israel is contradicted by other statements made in this very passage. Jeremiah says here that Israel will continue to be a nation just as the ordinances of the sun, moon, and stars continue day after day. Just as these ordinances continue without interruption, so also this nation—without any interruption—will continue to be God’s one holy nation.
To understand the significance of this, we must consider the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jeremiah prophesied this shortly before the Babylonian captivity. After the announcement that Judah was going to be taken into captivity just as the northern tribes had earlier been taken into Assyria, one might be left wondering whether this meant that Israel was going to cease to be God’s one, holy nation. To reassure His people that it did not mean this, God comforted them with the words of this promise. He assured them that just as the sun was going to continue—without interruption—to rise and set while they were in Babylon, so also Israel was going to continue—without interruption—to be a nation before the face of Jehovah God.
In other words, the true Israel is the nation who will forever have Jehovah as its God. Inseparably connected are the words “ye shall be My people” and the words “I will be your God.” The Israel who truly is God’s people is the Israel that truly worships Jehovah as their God.
Who Is the God of Carnal Israel?
Dispensationalists will acknowledge that God promised that His people will continue—without interruption—to be God’s holy nation. They argue that the physical descendants of Jacob really did continue to be a nation even during the years in which the Jews had been removed from the land of Canaan and were scattered among the nations. According to dispensationalist John Walvoord, Israel’s “national characteristics were blurred for many centuries,” yet they continued to be a nation.¹
But is this really true? Leaving aside for the moment the valid question concerning whether the people who today call themselves Israelites really are the blood descendants of Jacob, is it the case that they continued to be a body of people united under a common rule. Who was their king? Under whom were they united?
In the old dispensation, there was a time before Israel had a king who sat on a throne on this earth. Yet at that time they were still a nation, since God was very really their king. They were the one holy nation, the only nation who could honestly say that their God was Jehovah.
Now let us consider the unbelieving Jews in the days before 1948, when they became established as an earthly nation. Did these Jews, while scattered among the nations, continue to have Jehovah as their God? Were they really united under the rule of Jehovah? No, they were not. They were not the nation on this earth whose God is Jehovah. They were not then, and they are not now. Still today carnal Israel is emphatically not the nation whose God is Jehovah.
No group of people can claim to be God’s people, if they do not truly have Jehovah as their God. To be God’s covenant people is to trust in the triune God.
A Warning to Dispensationalists
Those who maintain that carnal Israel is God’s covenant people are in great danger of falling into the error of saying that the Israelis really are worshiping the true God. If carnal Israel is truly God’s people, then Jehovah is truly their God. Let us go a step further. If the unbelieving Jews really do have Jehovah as their God, then Jesus Christ is not the only way to the Father. That is how serious it is to say that Jews who reject Christ constitute God’s one holy nation.
Undoubtedly, there are many dispensationalists who would argue that they vehemently reject such doctrines of devils. Yet teachings do have implications, and such are the implications of their serious error concerning the identity of the nation whose God is Jehovah.