Previous article in this series: May 1, 2010, p. 353.
In an effort to prove that the church will not be on earth during the tribulation, Dispensationalists cite passages that speak of judgments that are to come upon Israel. They come up with passages that they say have not yet been fulfilled. Some of these passages refer to the nations coming against Jerusalem. Before this can happen, say the Dispensationalists, the church must be removed from this earth, so that God can once again deal with His first people—the nation of Israel.
One of the main passages to which they refer speaks of the tribulation as a time of Jacob’s trouble:
Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it. For it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off thy neck, and will burst thy bonds, and strangers shall no more serve themselves of him: But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them,
In an effort both to understand and to refute their position, let us consider the meaning of this specific prophecy.
A typical fulfillment
It is good to begin by considering the context. This passage is found in a portion of the prophecy of Jeremiah that mentions the coming Babylonian captivity and the promised deliverance from that captivity. Jeremiah21—29 sets forth in detail the coming judgment that is to be executed upon Judah and the nations by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Then Jeremiah 30-33 speaks of the glorious restoration of Judah and Israel at the end of that Babylonian captivity. It is in this latter section that this prophecy about the time of Jacob’s trouble is found.
Jeremiah 30 begins by focusing on the promised deliverance from this captivity:
For, lo, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it,
Verse seven of that chapter then goes on to say that although the day of judgment is going to be great, God’s people will certainly be delivered through it.
So what is this time of trouble? And what is the deliverance that is promised here?
Some, such as John Calvin, interpret this prophecy to have been fulfilled when Judah, after seventy years of captivity in Babylon, returned to the promised land. In his commentary on this passage, Calvin writes:
It was a dreadful spectacle to see the city destroyed, and the Temple partly pulled down and partly consumed by fire…. Hence the Prophet does not say without reason, that that day would be great, so that none would be like it: and he said this, to shake away the torpidity of the people, for they thought that the holy city, which God had chosen for his habitation, could not fall, nor the Temple perish.
The great day of judgment, according to this interpretation, would refer to the dreadful day when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, burned the temple, and destroyed the city. For seventy years after that, the Jews remained captives to the Babylonians. But then the Lord delivered His people from that heathen land, and brought them back to the land of promise.
There is a sense in which this was indeed a fulfillment of this prophecy. But this fulfillment was only a typicalfulfillment, which served as a sign to point forward to a future fulfillment in the day of Christ.
The fulfillment at Christ’s resurrection
If you tell a Dispensationalist that this prophecy was fulfilled in the history surrounding the Babylonian captivity, they will be quick to point out that verse 9 of this prophecy speaks of the resurrection of David:
But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them.
This resurrection, they will say, did not take place when the Jews returned from Babylon. So this prophecy, in their mind, remains unfulfilled.
To respond to this we must understand that when Scripture speaks of David here it is referring to Christ, whom David represented. As was pointed out previously, the Scriptures elsewhere refer to David reigning over God’s people forever, which is proof that the name David must be a reference to Christ. Dispensationalists take this Jeremiah passage and limit David’s reign to a thousand years. But the Scriptures say that David will reign over God’s people forever:
And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever,
This should be sufficient to prove that the reference to David here is really a reference to Christ, the one to whom David pointed. Christ is the one who reigns everlastingly over God’s people. Calling him David serves to bring out that the northern tribes, who had departed from the house of David, were going to return to the house of David. And that thus all twelve tribes were again going to have “one shepherd.”
This prophecy about Jacob serving a resurrected David was fulfilled centrally in the resurrection of Christ. There was a great day of judgment that came first, and then a great day of deliverance when our Lord arose.
God’s promises are to Christ (Gal. 3:16), and are fulfilled in Christ (II Cor. 1:20). So the return from Babylon could only be a typical fulfillment of the prophecy we are considering. Such an event pointed forward to what would take place in the day of our Lord Jesus. The principle fulfillment took place when the Son of David was raised from the dead, to reign over His people in the heavenly promised land.
A time of sorrow before the coming of our King
But is there another fulfillment of this prophecy? Is this prophecy being fulfilled right now? And how about in the future? Is there going to be a future “time of Jacob’s trouble,” or not? To answer these questions, we must consider who Jacob is, and then look deeper into the question concerning what is meant by this time of trouble.
Jacob here is clearly a reference to God’s elect people, as is evident from the fact that God in these verses promises that Jacob will be saved:
…it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it,
God made a covenant promise to save the seed of Jacob. That promise, like the promise to Abraham, was to Christ (Gal. 3:16), and thus to all those chosen to be in Christ (Gal. 3:29). So the promise here is to all those chosen to be in Christ, the Seed of Jacob.
Dispensationalists, insisting on their erroneous distinction between Israel and the church, will misinterpret this passage. They will argue that Jacob refers to the earthly nation of Israel, and not to the church. It certainly does include a remnant from the blood descendants of Jacob. But the reference here is to all those in Christ, the one Seed promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
So what specifically is this time of trouble? If we look at the preceding verses, we see that God compares this trouble to the travail of a woman with child:
Ask ye now, and see whether a man doth travail with child? wherefore do I see every man with his hands on his loins, as a woman in travail, and all faces are turned into paleness? Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble,
So in an effort to understand this passage, it would be worthwhile to see if we can find other similar passages in which God’s people are said to go through a time of sorrow comparable to that of a woman in travail.
We find a key passage like this in the fourth chapter of the prophecy of Micah:
…the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem. Now why dost thou cry out aloud? is there no king in thee? is thy counsellor perished? for pangs have taken thee as a woman in travail. Be in pain, and labour to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail: for now shalt thou go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field, and thou shalt go even to Babylon; there shalt thou be delivered; there the Lord shall redeem thee from the hand of thine enemies,
Note that those sorrowing like a woman in travail are God’s people who are without their king, and are now dwelling in Babylon.
This leads us to consider a statement our Lord made when He talked to His disciples and told them they would have a time of sorrow likened to that of a woman in travail:
Now Jesus knew that they were desirous to ask him, and said unto them, Do ye enquire among yourselves of that I said, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me? Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you,
Jesus here speaks of His disciples sorrowing during the time that He is apart from them. But then He says that this sorrow shall be turned to joy. Right now they are sorrowing like a woman in travail. But when Christ returns, the time of sorrowing will be over, and they will forget their sorrow, just as a woman forgets the sorrow as soon as the child is born. So the time of sorrow is the time that God’s people sorrow because their King is apart from them. That idea is found in the John 16passage, the Micah 4 passage, and the specific passage that speaks of the time of Jacob’s trouble. For that last passage says that Jacob will have a time of trouble until David (i.e., Christ) comes to reign over them.
A sorrow that will be turned to joy
Understanding this to be the reason for the time of trouble and sorrow, we can see how there is a sense in which right now is a time of trouble and sorrow for the church of Jesus Christ. There is a sense in which our King is with us, and we are experiencing a time of joy. But there is also a sense in which our King is apart from us. This present time is one in which we must submit to heathen rulers, just as God’s people did in Babylon. And it is a time in which our sins keep rising up against us, prevailing day by day. In this sense we are experiencing a time of trouble and sorrow, longing for the bodily return of our King. This trouble and sorrow will get worse at the time of the Great Tribulation, just as labor pains get more severe right before the time of deliverance. But we know that at that time we will be very close to our full deliverance—the moment our sorrow will be fully turned to joy.
So the time of Jacob’s trouble is not a future period of trouble only for the earthly nation of Israel. It is a present and future time of trouble for the church. It is a time of trouble and sorrow that we are presently going through today—a time that will get more difficult in the future—until our King comes for us on the clouds of glory.
We must cling to the promise God gives us in these verses. We shall certainly be delivered from this time of trouble and sorrow. Our King shall come for us. Forever He shall reign over us. Our time of trouble is short. And when our King returns for us, we will forget all about it. Oh what a joy we will have on that day, as we dwell in perfection with our King and Husband whom we love with all our heart.