Why is tiny Israel, a nation about the size of New Jersey with a total population of fewer than 8 million people, so often in the headlines?
As this issue was being prepared, Israel was once again slugging it out with Hamas-ruled Gaza, where terrorists fired more than 3,000 missiles at Israeli cities and towns, with Israel predictably launching airstrikes and a bloody ground assault in return.
Terrorists from Syria and Lebanon to the north and the Egyptian-ruled Sinai Peninsula to the south took advantage of the situation to lob a few rockets of their own at Israeli territory. And further to the east, leaders of the newly declared Islamic State threatened attacks while Iranian leaders repeated their view that Israel deserves annihilation while they continued their ill-disguised goal of attaining nuclear arms.
Let's step away from the tension of these threats and ask a critical question: Why does this small Mideast Jewish state, surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors, play such a significant role in the world?
The answer to why Israel matters is important to understanding a greater question about God's faithfulness in all He promises to mankind. The answer involves understanding who the modern state of Israel really is and where it fits within Bible prophecy.
Make no mistake: There are key reasons the state of Israel matters today in the Middle East. We'll examine five.
Key reason 1: Bible prophecy requires the presence of a remnant of ancient Israel in the Holy Land.
In Daniel 9 we find a prophecy known as the 70-weeks prophecy. It deals with the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem but also stretches into the time of the end before the second coming of Jesus Christ. Key parts of this prophecy speak of the "holy city," Jerusalem, and of rebuilding and restoring it.
Critical to this prophecy is Daniel 9:27, which speaks of the interruption of a prophetic week by an "end to sacrifice and offering" brought about by "one who makes desolate, even until the consummation which is determined is poured out on the desolate."
A forerunner of this end-time event occurred about 167 B.C., when an evil ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes offered swine's blood in the temple (Daniel 11:31). Jesus Christ referred to this in Matthew 24:15 as a type or forerunner of another occurrence of such desecration prior to His second coming: "'Therefore when you see the "abomination of desolation," spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place' (whoever reads let him understand) . . ."
These prophecies clearly indicate that Jerusalem is the setting for the events described. They specifically deal with the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem and can only be fulfilled if there is a Jewish state in Israel controlling the city of Jerusalem. That's why 1948, the year Israel was reestablished as a state, is seen as such a pivotal date by students of Bible prophecy.
The presence of the state of Israel matters critically on this point alone. But there's more!
Key reason 2: The Jewish state is part of a larger biblical story.
In the Bible the nation of Israel refers to the people of the 12 tribes who marched out of Egypt under Moses in the story of the Exodus and their descendants. The 12 tribes were descended from the 12 sons of the patriarch Jacob, whose name had been changed to Israel by God (Genesis 32:28). This is the Israel of the Old Testament.
But here is a key factor many people misunderstand. One of these sons was named Judah. His descendants were known as Jews, which comes from the name Judah. This is the origin of the Jewish people. However, Judah was only one of the sons and tribes. There were other sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad and Asher.
The descendants of these 12 sons formed the 12 tribes that made up the nation of Israel, which we can read about in the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. King David ruled over this nation from Jerusalem. His son Solomon built the magnificent temple in Jerusalem.
But the tribe of Judah, or the Jewish people, were only one part of the larger nation of Israel. You don't have to be Jewish to be an Israelite!
So how did the Jews become so prominent, and why do we only remember this tribe, the tribe of Judah, today? It's a good question, and the Bible gives us the answer.
The Bible tells us that after the death of Solomon the nation went through a crisis under his son Rehoboam resulting in a division of the one nation into two. Ten of the tribes residing north of Jerusalem formed the kingdom called Israel. The main tribes of the south, Judah and Benjamin, formed the kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem.
The nation of Israel was never considered Jewish. It was the people of the southern nation of Judah who became known as the Jews. When we read references in the Bible to Israel, we are talking about either the united nation of Israel or the 10-tribed northern nation after the division. Judah refers to a different Jewish state.
We find an interesting scriptural episode that illustrates this in 2 Kings 16. It presents a story of conflict between these two nations—in fact, they are at war with each other here! A king named Ahaz reigned over Judah. Pekah was king over Israel. King Pekah of Israel formed an alliance with a neighboring king of Syria named Rezin and together they attacked Judah. 2 Kings 16:6 says, "At that time Rezin king of Syria recovered Elath to Syria, and drave the Jews from Elath" (King James Version).
This is the first place in the Bible where the word Jews appears—and we find Israel at war with them! It's clear that they are a different nation. Yes, the Jews are descended from Israel, but they do not bear the national title of the kingdom or house of Israel.
So we see in Scripture a distinction between these peoples. Many critical Bible prophecies of the time of the end distinguish between these two nations, calling the northern nation the house of Israel or sometimes Ephraim—this being the name for the leading tribe among the northern nation—and calling the southern nation and its descendants Judah.
The ancient northern kingdom of Israel existed for about 200 years before falling captive to the Assyrian Empire. The people of the northern kingdom were forcibly removed from the land and scattered. They are known in history as the lost 10 tribes of Israel. But they are not really lost. God knows their identity today—where they reside among the world's nations. Furthermore, history and prophecy reveal much to us in this regard.
The nation of Judah to the south survived longer than Israel, but eventually it also fell—to the Babylonian Empire. Most of the Jewish people were taken to Babylon. Several decades later, a group of Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city and the temple. A nation of Jews existed in Jerusalem with their distinctive culture until the Romans destroyed the country. Descendants of this Jewish state, who were scattered primarily throughout the Middle East and Europe, founded today's modern state of Israel in 1948.
This modern Jewish state, called Israel, bears an ancient name but represents only a small part of the entire people called Israel who once lived in the land and to whom so many of the biblical prophecies apply. So where are the rest? The answer to this question is thoroughly discussed in our study guide The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.
Key reason 3: The modern identity of Israel includes the Jewish state but also encompasses other nations.
In current discussion about Israel, the identity of the modern-day descendants of ancient Israel is overlooked. But it matters to our understanding of the conflict in today's Middle East and where it will lead. The state of Israel is tied in many ways to Great Britain and the United States.
A key to understanding this is found in Genesis 48, where Jacob (Israel) blessed the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, and said, "Let my name be named upon them" (Genesis 48:16). He gave them his name and passed on to them the promise of blessings he received from his father Isaac, who had received it from his father Abraham.
So the great national blessings were passed on to the sons of Joseph. In Genesis 49 we see a prophecy about the tribes of Israel in the end time, and regarding Joseph it says that his descendants would receive incredible blessings from God. When we look at the modern world to find nations who have fulfilled these promises we are drawn unmistakably to the major English-speaking nations, led by Great Britain and the United States. (To learn more read The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.)
When you understand the promises God made to Abraham and to his descendants and that much of Bible prophecy is directed specifically to certain modern nations such as America and Britain, then you can begin to really understand prophetic keys that open the Bible to deeper understanding.
When you understand that key prophecies are directed to nations and peoples who have received the physical promises God made to the ancient nation of Israel, you then begin to understand that there is a call to repentance—a call to change the way you live. You have to do something.
God calls all people everywhere to repent—and the English-speaking nations like Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States have a greater responsibility before God.
Our world is rapidly moving to the close of this age of human misrule under the influence of Satan the devil. A different world under the reign of Jesus Christ is about to dawn.
But before this world-saving event occurs, we must pass through an unparalleled time of trouble. Daniel the prophet spoke of the time just ahead of us: "There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book" (Daniel 12:1).
Here in one verse is the dire warning about the time of unparalleled world turmoil and the comforting message of deliverance.
We need to understand where we are today. We see in the Middle East a changing landscape because of the unrest occurring in so many countries. In The Good News we have many times pointed out the threat from Iran as it develops nuclear weapons. We have kept readers abreast of the changing scene in Egypt. We have repeatedly discussed the importance of Jerusalem as the centerpiece of end-time prophetic events.
And we see America, Britain and the other English-speaking nations facing mounting challenges—economic, moral, political and military—in a shifting world order that in the end will lead to the rise of new leaders with a vastly different vision.
Key reason 4: Knowing about Israel helps open up understanding of prophecy for our day—and with that comes the assurance of God's faithfulness to all nations.
God is bringing all history to a time of transition, to the age of Jesus Christ's coming rule on the earth. God is then going to set up a restored, united Israel, far different from the tiny state of Israel today. The Jewish state is but part of one tribe, only part of the story of Israel. Of major importance regarding the Israelis and the Jews scattered around the world is the fact that they have maintained an identity rooted in the law of God. The seventh-day Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew, along with the annual festivals of God and other parts of God's law, have helped shape the identity of this people.
The Jews are a visible sign today that Israel exists. Israel, the nation of tribes with which God entered into a covenant relationship—and this includes Israel's modern descendants —will play a key role in God's plan for the future of all mankind.
In the biblical book of Romans, the apostle Paul tells the story of ancient Israel's rise and fall and hope of restoration. Israel had a deep relationship with God. Their opportunity was to become an exemplary nation based on the law of God and His glory. God made special promises to this people and set them apart from all other nations. All of the physical promises were a type of the spiritual promises found in Jesus Christ, a direct descendant of King David.
But ancient Israel failed. As we saw earlier, they split apart and through a combination of idolatry and Sabbath-breaking they dishonored and disobeyed God—resulting in their defeat, captivity and exile. Over time most of Israel, with the exception of the Jews, forgot who they were.
Yet Paul's desire and his prayer for Israel, his people, was that they would be saved (Romans 10:1). Even though ancient Israel did not obey the gospel, their rejection is not total nor permanent. God has not cast Israel aside. Through Paul, God reveals that a remnant of Israel exists among today's nations and by His grace they will be regathered.
Here, though, is the amazing and little- understood truth: Israel's rejection of God works to His glory and purpose! All other nations and peoples, those the Bible calls the gentiles, have had an opportunity for this same relationship with God based on His eternal promises. In God's time, all will have opportunity to know Him.
Paul says that blindness has come on Israel until the fullness of the gentiles has come in. In a magnificent piece of writing, he is inspired to show that Israel (all 12 tribes) and all the world will have an opportunity for salvation. All nations will have an opportunity to receive the full promises of God, both physical and spiritual.
Notice what Paul says in Romans 11:1-2: "Has God cast away His people? Certainly not! . . . God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew" (emphasis added).
Paul goes on to explain in Romans 11:11-15 that by Israel stumbling temporarily, salvation is opened to the world. And by the Israelites' being brought back into God's grace in the future, all people for all time will be saved—"the reconciling of the world" ( Romans 11:15). All the tribes of Israel, not just the present Jewish state, will be united, and Paul says that "all Israel will be saved," as God "will turn away ungodliness from Jacob" ( Romans 11:26).
When Israel is restored, all mankind will seek God. All nations will come to Jerusalem and learn of His ways (Zechariah 14:16).
So Israel definitely matters—and not just the Jewish state in the Middle East today. All the tribes, including many modern nations, matter to God and to the world.
In one last burst of inspired enthusiasm Paul exclaims: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Romans 11:33).
Understanding the identity of Israel is the key to understanding today's world and the march of history toward the Kingdom of God. What God reveals about Israel shows us the enduring promises of God's salvation for all the nations. Because He is faithful with Israel, He will be faithful in His promise through Christ to all peoples—including you and me. That is the good news of the gospel!
Key reason 5: The state of Israel is a "place marker" in the Holy Land.
The Jews, as the only widely acknowledged tribe of ancient Israel, have a historic and prophetic claim to the land. The prophecies of restoration, planting and reaping the land will be fulfilled. The state of Israel is like a "place marker" in that historic, pivotal piece of land.
Through the prophet Amos, God says: "I will raise up the tabernacle of David which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old . . .
"'The days are coming . . . when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them'" (Amos 9:11-15).
Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent speech at the United Nations was a clear statement of vision and intent for the nation. He said: "We date back nearly 4,000 years to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We have journeyed through time, we've overcome the greatest of adversities, and we reestablished our sovereign state in our ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel."
It's a remarkable story, and in spite of its current threats it will endure to the coming of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. Major challenges and a time of great trouble lie ahead, but the nation will endure and see the time when the house of David will be rebuilt with all the tribes of Israel regathered.
Their presence and this truth is further proof of God's faithfulness to His revealed intent to have all nations come to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the "God of Jacob" (Isaiah 2:3). Yes, Israel matters to the world today!