I was raised in Christian circles that have the basic assumption (to them it is an axiom) that modern Israel is a result of the fulfilment of biblical prophesies. Many Christians in these circles consider this a pillar and vindication of their faith. They also see this clearly taught in various different prophesies.
Just look at this powerful passage:
“34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. 35 And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ 36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:34-36).
It is very easy to see why someone would look at this passage and then at the way Israel has transformed some of its deserts in the modern world and conclude, “Wow this prophecy has clearly been fulfilled in our day. Surely, they must be the people of God. Lands that once laid desolate are now beginning to flourish like the garden of Eden, just like Ezekiel foresaw. Who can deny this is the fulfilling of Scripture?" Indeed, the conclusion of this linked article, which is titled: 'Israel: An Environmental Wonder Making Its Deserts Like Eden' quotes similar prophesies to this one in Ezekiel from Isaiah, and states just that,
“One of the proofs that Israel is the Jewish homeland cannot be ignored. Since they have returned from exile, Israelis have created a brilliant canvas of Israeli nature that has thrived under its rightful owners. The Jewish Agency reports that between 2009 and 2019, the largest numbers of immigrants—out of a total of 255,000—were from Russia, Ukraine, France, the United States, and Ethiopia. Jews from 150 nations have come home to their Holy Land, fulfilling Scripture.”
Many bible believing Christians have concluded that this is powerful proof of the truth of the Scriptures and that modern Israel is the result of the fulfilment of such prophesies. In fact, I used to make this argument once myself, as I was raised in the Dispensational (Christian Zionist) theology that is common in conservative Pentecostal and Baptist churches. However, this argument is easy to poke holes in once you examine it a little more closely, which I eventually did.
To break the spell, all you really need to do is read the context:
Ezekiel 36:16-36 – “16 The word of the Lord came to me: 17 “Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. Their ways before me were like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual impurity. 18 So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it. 19 I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. 20 But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ 21 But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.
22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
33 “Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. 34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. 35 And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ 36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
All you probably really need to read is verse 33, “Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt.” The pre-condition for the fulfillment of this prophesies is that the people of Israel must be redeemed first. It is basic Christian and Old Testament theology to note that forgiveness of sins and redemption is an act of salvation. To be cleansed from your sins means to be brought to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
This precipitates a simple question: is modern Israel a predominantly Christian nation? No. Therefore, it cannot be the fulfilment of this prophecy. As the context requires, because Ezekiel also says,
“25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
The context of this passage requires us to conclude that modern Israel cannot be the fulfillment of God’s prophecy, because Ezekiel notes that when God does fulfill this prophecy the Israelites will reject their previous sins and their idols and will follow God with a new heart. This is the evidence of a redeemed people, a renewed people, a people saved from their sins. Yet Israel is not a believing nation, a nation that accepts Jesus is the Messiah and the fullest revelation of the way of salvation in God, and therefore this prophecy has not been fulfilled in the modern nation of Israel.
This prophecy of Ezekiel is also a prophecy of the ministry of the New Covenant ministry. Indeed, note the similarity between what Ezekiel says in verse 25-27 and what Paul says in Titus 3:3-7 –
“3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Or compare it to Acts Chapter 2:1-5,
“1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.”
Titus shows us that it is all believers, Jew and Gentiles that receive the Holy Spirit and are made new. And Acts 2 shows the beginning of the Old Testament prophesies about the filling of God’s people with the Spirit being fulfilled. And as we know from the book of Acts this was extended to Samaritans (Acts 8) and other Gentiles (Acts 10-11). What Peter says in Acts 10:34-48 is remarkable, because it shows us how the Apostle’s understood the interpretation of prophesies such as this,
34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.”
All these passages show that when Ezekiel is prophesying about the people of God being filled with the Holy Spirit and being given a new heart, this does not necessarily mean the literal descendants of Abraham limited to his children through Isaac. But for all the descendants of Abraham, that is all who believe (Gal. 3), in other words, all who are saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What this proves conclusively is that the modern nation of Israel cannot be a fulfillment of these prophesies, because the modern nation of Israel is not a Holy Spirit filled nation of Christian believers who lift up Jesus as their Lord and King. Most Jewish people in Israel reject Jesus. Some do not, some are believers, but they are in the minority, and it is sometimes a persecuted minority. How can a nation that persecutes at times those who believe in Jesus be considered a fulfillment of anything stated in Ezekiel 36? It is nonsensical.
Does this mean that these prophesies in Ezekiel will not be fulfilled? Of course not, and there is debate over how literally to take them. Because as we have demonstrated, in some sense they were at least partially fulfilled in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts 2, 8 and 10-11 and Titus 3. For them to apply to the physical nation called Israel, this would require the vast majority of Israel and their leaders to be a nation that has turned to Christ. This has not yet happened. It may one day happen, as I know many people who pray for this, but it has not yet happened. It is also possible that these prophesies may be fulfilled in another way.
They may look to the Millennium, the Thousand Year Reign of Jesus Christ. Or they may be a reference to Christians of all nationalities living in Israel. Or they may refer to some future state where God’s people in heaven live in their national heritage homelands, that is people from each nation being restored their national sovereignty under the global leadership of our King Jesus. It is important to note that the nations will survive until the end of time, they are there at the end of Revelation. So, it could be referring to this time in the new heavens and new earth. Or it could simply apply in a spiritual way to the current Church, which is spreading across the world, and even in Israel, and is spurred by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is big debate over how it could be fulfilled, and in this piece I am not seeking to answer all of these potential questions.
What we can say for sure, though, is this: these prophesies cannot be applied as fulfilled in an unbelieving people living in the land of Israel. To be a fulfillment they require a regenerated people, made new by the Holy Spirit that rejects its idols and worships God alone, the God of the Bible, who is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Modern Israel does not in the majority do this and therefore it is clearly the result of human effort, and a work of human striving. This does not mean they should not be doing this, from a national perspective it is understandable. Israel was founded by people who wanted a nation to call their own. Israel has every right to seek national sovereignty as any other people does. It is the right of nations. But Christians need to lift their game when applying biblical prophesies like this, and should not be tying them to clear efforts of man that do not match the actual words of those prophesies when read in context. When this prophecy is fulfilled, however it is fulfilled, at the centre of it will be a people who worship the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords.