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Previous article in this series: January 15, 2012, p. 188.

This thing is from me (I Kings 12:24). So said the Lord through the prophet Shemaiah concerning the division of the kingdom. And then, through the prophet Hosea, these words: “They have set up kings, but not by me: they have made princes, and I knew it not” (Hosea 8:4).

A contradiction, it would appear: God did it…and God did not do it. The two prophets, however, though they speak concerning the same history, view it from different perspectives—God’s and man’s. Shemaiah makes clear that God ruled the defection of Jeroboam and the ten tribes by His own secret counsel. He had in fact announced to Jeroboam, “Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee” (I Kings 11:31). “This thing is from me.” However, neither Jeroboam nor the people of Israel rebelled against Rehoboam in obedience to God. The ten tribes knew full well that in separating themselves from the house of David they were rebelling against the revealed will of God for them. “They have set up kings, but not by me.” Never could the ten tribes attribute their secession to God’s decree. Says Calvin, “God so works, that this pretext does not yet excuse the ungodly, since they aim at something else, rather than to execute his purpose.”

“This thing is from me.” True, that was, of the secession of the ten tribes at the beginning of their history as a separate kingdom. True, also, at the end of their history when they were destroyed by the Assyrians, the rod of God’s anger. The loss of the ten tribes was of the Lord.

But how can that be? Did not God have better things in mind for Israel? Did the striking prophecy of Balaam, who was given a glimpse of Israel’s future, come to nothing? “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side…. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies…” (Num. 24:3-9). And this: “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!” (Num. 23:23). And: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? … He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel; the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them” (Num. 23:19-21).

Yes, God indeed did, and does, have something better in mind for Israel.

But who is Israel? That is the question.

Surely the twelve tribes in the desert, the people who inherited the land of Canaan, the people of the northern and the southern kingdoms, the people who were exiled in Babylon—these were Jacob and Israel. They were God’s special people in the old dispensation.

But what an imperfect manifestation they were of the true Israel of God! The chaff with the wheat. “The glory of the remnant according to the election,” writes Herman Hoeksema, “shrouded in the shame of reprobate Israel according to the flesh.” That was the Israel that Balaam saw before him in the plains of Moab. But then, for just a moment, the range of his vision extended beyond the earthly manifestation of the Israel of God. God gave him to see Israel in its real nature. Not, in the final analysis, the kingdom of David and Solomon—though the vision of Balaam was in a sense realized in the golden age of Israel under those two great types of Christ. But that typical realization was both imperfect and short-lived. Nor, for that matter, can Balaam’s eulogy be applied to the church in the new dispensation, as to her physical, earthly manifestation. Poverty and persecution are the true church’s lot. What Balaam was given to see was the church as to its spiritual character. A spiritual kingdom with Christ at its head, gaining a spiritual victory with spiritual power against spiritual enemies. This is the Israel of God. Ultimately, the church triumphant. But the church as she always is, essentially and spiritually.

“The shout of a king is among them.” Again, typically, David. But in fulfillment, Christ. By Him Israel gains the victory. For by Him they are redeemed from sin and delivered from the power of death. By Him they overcome the world. By Him the Israel of God has the victory already now and is assured of the final victory at Christ’s return in judgment. No iniquity in Jacob. No perverseness in Israel. Because God sees them as they are in Christ.

Israel’s very history, in fact, demonstrates that. Jacob, loved; Esau, hated…before they were born (Rom. 9:11-13). Egypt, given for Israel’s ransom (Is. 43:3). Israel, chosen by God to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth (Deut. 7:6)—to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises (Rom. 9:4). Defection from David/Christ—annihilation (II Kings 17:22, 23). The natural seed of Abraham as the sand of the sea…a remnant saved (Is. 10:22). Ninevites, repentance, salvation (Matt. 12:41). The whole of Israel’s history, like one grand mural with this theme: salvation…by grace (Rom. 9).

In the clearer light of the new dispensation, we can understand that. Did Old Testament Israel have any sense of it?

What stood on the foreground in the old dispensation was an earthly kingdom. The favor of God was reflected in Israel’s political independence and in her material prosperity. And her battles were fought with spears and swords. True, the people of Israel did learn repeatedly, by experience, that the outcome of the battle was not decided by numbers or weaponry, but by faith. Joshua, Gideon, Samson, Jonathan, David, and many others would have testified to that. But did they understand that the salvation of the “house of Jacob” (cf. Luke 1:32, 33) never hinged on the outcome of the nation’s wars against her enemies?

In large part they did not. The Jews of Jesus’ day looked for, and wanted, an earthly Messiah. Even Jesus’ disciples, up until the time of the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, were unable to rise above the typical. They clung tenaciously to the notion that redemption must somehow be tied to the earthly commonwealth. “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” they ask Jesus just prior to His ascension.

No wonder, then, that Jonah was unsettled by the conversion of the Ninevites and feared that all would be lost if Israel were to be swallowed up by the world powers of his day. He did not understand that the Israelitish state was but a shadow of the heavenly. As he saw it, were the northern kingdom to perish, God’s covenant with Abraham, at least with respect to ten of the twelve tribes of Israel, would come to nothing.

But such was not the case. Why not? How is it to be explained that the promise of God to Abraham did not fail, either in whole or in part, when He “removed Israel out of his sight” (II Kings 17:23), or when He later rejected the Jewish nation. The explanation is not to be found only in this, that God’s promise to Abraham (that his seed would be as the sand of the seashore) was realized in the coming in of the Gentiles—as if this were an alternative plan made necessary when those with whom God had originally established His covenant proved unworthy. Nor is the explanation simply this, that the promise of God to Abraham was not limited to his natural children but included also believing Gentiles; for then it would appear that the promise failed with respect at least to part of those who were included in His covenant. Of critical importance here is this, that, as Hoeksema put it, “the Jews as such never were the seed of Abraham.”

Certainly it is true that during the old dispensation the true seed of Abraham were to be found almost exclusively among Abraham’s natural descendants. But Scripture never equates the two, as if “seed of Abraham” and “Jew” were one and the same. Of whom, in reality, was Abraham father? Scripture is clear. “Of all them that believe” (Rom. 4:11). Paul drives the point home: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; … but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly” (Rom. 2:28, 29). And to whom was the promise made? “To Abraham and his seed” (Gal. 3:16). And the inspired apostle adds, “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ.” Those only, therefore, who are in Christ are, with Him, heirs of the promise: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

“Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Christ said the same. “I know that ye are Abraham’s seed,” He declared to the unbelieving Jews with reference to their natural descent (John 8:37). But, He added, “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39).

In studying the history of Israel, therefore, we must be careful to distinguish, as it were, between Israel and Israel—that is, between natural and spiritual Israel. The former lived, as we say, in the “sphere of the covenant.” But God’s love, God’s promises, God’s compassion, God’s covenant—always these were and are particular (i.e., to the elect only). Isaiah could cry, “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved” (cf. Rom. 9:27). Does this mean that “the word of God [i.e., His promise to Abraham’s seed] hath taken none effect” (Rom. 9:6)? No, for “they are not all Israel that are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children” (Rom. 9:6, 7). The truth is that “all [not part of] Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).

Israel as a nation served as a type. And it is in the nature of a type that it fails. It must disappear and leave the heirs of the promise longing for a “better country, that is, an heavenly” (Heb. 11:16). The Israel of the old dispensation, as a type, found its fulfillment spiritually in the Israel of the new. No longer is there a physical aspect to the battle of the church. For the church is no longer a nation among nations, but the gathering of those that are called out of every nation. And the battle of the church, the battle between light and darkness, cannot be waged with physical weapons of any kind, for “we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” (Eph. 6:12). It is fought with the “whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11). The strength of the combatants is faith. Their only weapon is the Word of God. And the battle is the Lord’s. “The shout of a King is among them.”

Already they are “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37), for their Lord is raised from the dead, exalted in the highest glory, and given all power in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18). Not yet, however, does the beauty of their inheritance shine forth in all its glory. For that, the church awaits the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then will be the final fulfillment of the Old Testament type of Israel and Canaan. Then will the tabernacle of God be with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God (Rev. 21:3).

Next time: Israel’s treacherous sister.