The Hope of Israel
by Baruch Maoz
Israel has always had grounds for hope, although the people have not always exercised that hope. The religion of Israel was conceived as a religion of hope: hope promised, lost and regained. The nation was born in hope: Abraham was called to leave his homeland and step out into the desert, away from his familiar turf, to a land God would indicate to him as he proceeded (Gen. 12:1). He obeyed, leaving much behind, hoping in God without an inkling of an idea where he would end up (Heb.11:8). Abraham, his son and his grandson lived in Canaan, owning not much more than a burial ground, yet hoped against hope for the day when God would fulfil the promise and give them the land of their residence. Meanwhile, they struggled to maintain the hope Gods promise inspired.
God spoke to 99-year old childless Abraham and said, I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers you will be the father of many nations I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God (Gen 17:1-14). In unbelieving response, Abraham fell face down; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?". And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!". But Isaac was born, and he inherited the promise.
Years later, in bondage to Pharaoh, the people of Israel lost hope until Moses arrived on the scene. Led by him and motivated by the promise that God will lead them to a land of peace, security and prosperity, the people dared the wrath of Pharaoh, the forbidding desert of Sinai and the well-armed, thoroughly fortified cities of the Canaanites. They left Egypt, walked through the Red Sea and, for forty years, through the desert, crossed the Jordan, invaded Canaan and, by the grace of God, made that country their own in spite of the overwhelming odds.
Sometimes what they did seemed ridiculous, yet their confidence in God was justified time and again. Imagine a nation marching up to the Jordan River in full swell. Imagine that same nation marching around Jericho, or its leader pointing a finger at the heavens and commanding the sun and the moon to stand still!
Yet the river parted, the walls of Jericho fell and the sun and the moon came to a halt. Later, without so much as a battle, the conquering host of Assyria turned away from Jerusalem, leaving the city intact. God repeatedly showed himself to be one who never fails those who put their hope in him.
God gave the people priests and sent them prophets. In response to their plea, he granted them kings. But most of the priests turned out to be less than admirable, even the best of the kings failed to provide the perfectly godly, righteous and successful leadership for which the people craved and even many of the prophets were but false prophets who served their bellies rather than faithfully serving the Lord. In response, Israel turned once again in hope to God: he would grant them a holy priest, a faithful prophet, a perfect king-Messiah who would effectively represent them before the Almighty, lead them in the ways of God, and secure their ongoing happiness.
When Judah sinned and was threatened with the covenantal punishment of exile, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah, were instructed to combine their divinely-inspired threats with equally inspired promises of grace and restoration, so that the people had hope even when they were to be punished. Thus, as Zion mourned the destruction of Jerusalem because she has no comforter (Lam. 1:17, 21) and because God had become like an enemy to Zion (Lam. 2:5), yet still her heart cried out to him (Lam. 2:18) because she hoped for grace from him. She is also exhorted, Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at the head of every street (vs. 19). Why? On what grounds if the Lord himself had become an enemy? The answer is not hard to find: Because of the LORDs great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him" (Lam 3:22-24). Israel has always had grounds for hope, although the people have not always exercised hope.
After seventy years, the people returned from the Babylon to the ruined land of Judah and set about restoring it, rebuilding the temple and renewing the worship of God. They had hope for the future, so much so that they were described as prisoners of hope (Zech. 9:12). Zechariah describes their hope in 9:9-10 of the book of his prophecies: Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. Who is this mysterious he of whom the prophet speaks? Of this, more anon.
The peoples hope was bolstered by such prophecies from Zechariah and his compatriots, Haggai and Malachi, no less than by the bold initiatives of men like Ezra and Nehemiah. They firmly expected that the glory of the restored temple would be greater than that in the days of Solomon, or of any day since, and that God would fulfil his promise of Hag. 2:9: In this place I will grant peace. Such hope lent a spring to their step and vigour to their efforts in the face of determined opposition. It enabled them, by the grace of God, to overcome their fears and weakness, and to bring the project forward although the odds seemed to be very much against them.
The Hasmonean revolt was also born in hope, and for a while it appeared as if that hope would be immediately and fully rewarded. Surprising victories against overwhelmingly large and well-equipped armies created a sense of confident expectancy, only to be dashed against the hard rock of a disappointing reality. Although victorious on the battlefield, the Hasmonean kings were discovered to be as corruptible as any human, and they soon succumbed to their weakness. The Hasmonean kings were as humanly corrupt as any in the history of Israel.
The Romans replaced the Syrian Greeks as the sovereign rulers of the land. Rome would brook no deviations. Its heavy hand was felt throughout the country: taxes, rapacious tax collectors, Roman roads traversed by the tramp, tramp, tramp of Roman legionnaires and building projects that seemingly altered the course of nature, Roman appointees who served as kings and High Priests, and a sometimes heartless Procurator these all served as unequivocal evidences of who was now in charge. The Jewish people retreated into an anxious hope, based on an ever increasing, political and materialistic concept of the ancient promises, kept alive by the sheer pain of reality.
In the passing of years, the focus of Israels hope had crystallized in the wrong direction. Israel had always hoped for a salvation that would accord it political and material benefits, and God had not withheld to promise his blessing in these terms. But the focus was never on the things of this world, however important they might be. The focus was on the spiritual and moral transformation of both Israel and the world, and on the nation becoming a spiritual and moral blessing to the nations of the world. Israel well understood why the sinners in Zion are terrified; [and] trembling grips the godless. The reason is given in the form of a question: "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?" And the answer is: He who walks righteously and speaks what is right, who rejects gain from extortion and keeps his hand from accepting bribes, who stops his ears against plots of murder and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil – this is the man who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. His bread will be supplied, and water will not fail him. (Isa. 33: 14-16). But who among men is so perfect? Where can be found a mysterious he who could meet these high standards and realise them in the hearts of the people?
Israel knew that, in their natural state, they could not presume to bring one such from their midst. Yet God had given them reason to hope. So they waited and longed for the fulfilment of the promise God had given: I am going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. In that day," declares the LORD, "you will call me my husband; you will no longer call me my master. I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked (Hosea 2:14-17).
When that would happen, even the most mundane things of life will be sanctified to the Lord, as Zechariah had put it, On that day HOLY TO THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORDs house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the LORD Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty (Zech. 14:20-21).
Jeremiah described it most effectively in his well-known prophecy of the new covenant: This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, Know the LORD, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer. 31: 31-34). This promised transformation of Israel is to be but a harbinger of the transformation that is to come over the world. The earth is to be as full of the knowledge of God as the seas are full of water (Hab. 2:14). Kings will fall down before the Lord and all the nations will serve him (Psa. 72:11). Isaiahs view of that glorious future in terms of wolves and lambs living at peace with one another is an excellent example of the wonderful hope that beat in many a Jewish heart, a hope founded on the promises of God. It is also an example of the this-worldly aspect of a truly biblical eschatology. Haolam HaBa (the World to Come) is nothing less than this world, redeemed. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. Our present earthly bodies are to be transformed and resurrected. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. The splendour of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendour of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendour, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendour. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (I Cor 15:35-58).
The biblical hope is not for an ephemerally spiritual existence but a spiritual reality that is as concrete no, far more concrete than the present material world as we know it. It is everlasting and will never pass away (Dan. 7:14).
That is one of the major contributions of the commonly called Old Testament to theology. To the extent that our theological thinking is divorced from the five books of Moses and from Israel s prophetic writings, theology in general and eschatology in particular tend to lose touch with this world, its realities and its redemption. Theology then tends to focus on the non-material, as if this earth of dust and water is the creation of a demiurges, and its only redemption is in its destruction.
To the extent that theological thinking takes into account the message of the Hebrew Bible, its hope becomes that much more concrete without losing an iota of its spiritual focus. Paul demonstrates this in the way he moves in Romans chapter 8 to and fro between the expectation of our final redemption from the influence and power of sin, and the eager expectation entertained by the physical creation of its own redemption. Jewish people have always been the in the vanguard of efforts to improve this world precisely because, directly or otherwise, they have been motivated by a high view of this present world. Such a view comes forth from the womb of Old Testament theology.
But Israels hopes have been repeatedly dashed to the ground. Not only did its prophets, priests and kings fail, but also Israel failed as well, and was twice sent into exile. Torture, relentless persecution, acrimony and homelessness followed Israel for the two thousand years after the second exile. The Jewish people were hounded from one country to the other, shamed, robbed, despised, abused, murdered, raped and threatened. When Shabtai Tzvi first appeared, a flicker of hope emerged, only to be cruelly quenched by the false Messiahs conversion to Islam and the exposition of his false pretensions.
Later, informed by a humanitarian secularism, impacted by what ultimately became a form of socialism, and following the most horrific catastrophe ever experienced by a people, the Jewish State emerged out of the ashes of Auswitzch and Treblinka. At last, there was ground for hope again. I am old enough and have lived long enough in Israel to recall the utopian fever that energized much of Israels early life. That hope, too, has been dashed. In contrast to the hearty celebrations that characterized Israels former Independence Day celebration, present celebrations are hollow, forced and plastic. Israel has developed a selfish, aggressive and corrupt society in which the amount of tax paid barely exceeds that of taxes evaded, where more people have died on the roads because of reckless driving than in all of Israels military conflicts, and where Zionism has become a byword rather than an expression of national hope. The grounds of Israels resurgence of hope were shaky, to say the least. They were not established on the promises of God, who never fails. Yet, that mysterious he for whom Israel had formerly hoped has apparently not yet arrived. When will he come?
The world as we know it, with its Judaeo-Christian values, is threatened by a fundamentalist Islam that has no difficulty exposing the ills and evils of western society in which the Jewish people are as eager participants as any others. The number of Jews lost to the national fold through assimilation is growing to an extent that causes Jewish leaders grave concern. Will there be a Jewish people in the year 2200? Perhaps the only right course is indeed to give up, assimilate and let the world run its course to nowhere. Is there no hope? And what of the world? Nazism, Communism and the failure of secular materialism have all convinced thinking people that there are no grounds for hope, so many Jewish people have followed the trend and receded into mysticism in its various forms.
Is there a hope for Israel? Is there a hope for the world? Or is hope just a comfortable illusion and would best eat, drink and be merry until death knocks on our door, as he has knocked on the door of every human being from the beginning of human history?
We are here to call Israel back to its original hope. As David put it, why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God (Psa. 42:5). The mysterious he for whom Israel has longed all these years has come God sent him and he is working today for the accomplishment of all Gods promises and of Israels holy hopes. Jesus, he who was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, who taught and worked miracles in Galilee and Judea, who died and rose in Jerusalem and who now sits on the right hand of God is Israels promised Messiah and the saviour of the world. He has the ability to transform human hearts he transformed ours. He has the ability to convert nations he did this in the past and will yet do it again. He has the ability to remake this world into what it was originally meant to be. Just as he healed the sick and raised the dead, he will free this world from the corruption that sin imposed upon it and, in the words of Isaiah already quoted, make the lamb lie down with the wolf.
What is more, he will transform human society into one of godly love, mutual respect, humility and goodness. In light of the history human evil, it is hard to believe that this could be. But has sworn to accomplish this, and he is a God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2). The message we have to declare is one of hope in the most ultimate sense, and of a hope grounded in reality more than any hope that mankind has ever entertained, because it is grounded in the promises of God. It the hope that once beat in the hearts of our forefathers, that inspired the biblical prophets and that informed the ministrations of the Aaronic priests.
Jesus saves. He saves completely (Heb. 7:25). He saves from sin: its power, its corruption, its guilt and its consequences, including its punishment. He saves from suffering, and will wipe every tear from the eyes of his redeemed. Then Israel will sing, in the words of Isaiah, O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done marvellous things, things planned long ago You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. The Lord will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces in that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation. Trust in the Lord for ever, for the LORD, the Lord, is the Rock eternal (Isa. 25:9-26:4).
We are here to praise God and to tell our people that the God of Israel has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he promised through holy prophets long ago. He provided us salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. All this he has done to show mercy to our fathers and to be faithful his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear. He further promised to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of his tender mercies, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:68-79).
We are here, therefore, to call upon our people to believe in Jesus, to recall them to the hope God had given our forefathers many years ago. Messiah has come. He name is Jesus, son of David, Son of God. Israel must turn and believe in him.
The above article was presented at the recent Jewish Christian conference as the final address. We bring it here to our readers for their interest and edification. In the near future the papers presented at the conference will be made available to the public both in print and on the Internet.
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