Is All This Suffering to Bring Israel to Christ–or Is It Punishment?

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

We read the history of Israel in the Bible with great sadness. From Joshua and Judges on, they fell away so often. Sometimes it seemed as if the Church in the Old Testament would not continue to exist. But even after the Bible was completed, the Jews suffered: during the Middle Ages, and then World War II– even today. Is all this suffering to bring Israel to Christ– or is it punishment? I would like to see an explanation, please. Thank you.

Mr. John Vandebeld
Dunnville, Ontario

The Answer…

Dear Mr. Vandebeld,

Explanations of suffering which are near at hand are often too easy to be true, or too difficult to be of help. But I’ll try to answer this question with broad strokes.

The broadest stroke: It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Scripture itself is an answer to the question of suffering (though it’s not always the answer we sinners would like). Genesis tells us how our suffering began, Revelation tells us how it will end. In between is faith. Faith says Amen to Paul’s statements: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us, and So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Now let’s narrow the field and focus on your question: Israel’s miseries can be divided into three time periods: Old Testament era, New Testament era, Church era. They can be further divided into four kinds (we will not speak of the general miseries which are common to all men [see the Westminster Larger Catechism, 24-27]): Sufferings traceable to of 1) sheer sovereignty, 2) God’s sanctifying purposes, 3) sin (either our own or the sin of those we are covenanted with), and 4) the struggle between Christ and Satan.

(1) At the very covenanting with Abraham, the suffering of his descendants was specified: Then the LORD said to him, Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. We are told many times throughout Scripture how God turned this misery to His glory and Israel’s good. Yet we may properly call this suffering which we can trace only to God’s sovereignty. (Yes, all suffering may be traced ultimately to His sovereignty, but we are sometimes provided with other reasons for suffering.)

(2) The Lord also allowed Israel to suffer for the purpose of sanctifying them (see Deuteronomy 8:1-5; Judges 2:3; many other passages).

(3) Clearly, Israel also suffered for her sins. Even when suffering for her sins, though, God would intend that she be sanctified through the chastisement.

(4) Israel suffered as the Devil raged against her in an effort to cut off the Christ before His advent. See the Book of Esther, for example.

In the New Testament, there is a highhandedness attached to Israel’s post-resurrection sins which resulted in the horrifying and devastating judgment upon Jerusalem, executed in the destruction of the city and Temple in 70AD. See Matthew 23 and 24. Paul seems to call the judgment of that generation the wrath of God coming upon Israel to the full (1 Thessalonians 2:16). It certainly was the wrath which Peter warned Israelites to flee from.

Since the closing of the Canon, however, Israel continued to suffer. With some exceptions, however, this was a peculiarly Christian phenomenon; that is, the Jews suffered at the hands of Christians. See The Anguish of the Jews, or any other book on the anti-Semitism of the last 2,000 years. Very often, Christians sought to justify their torment of the Jews by saying that the Jews deserved it. They are just paying for the sin of their fathers. After all, they said, ‘His blood be upon us and our children. ‘Such people forget that when God chose to discipline His people by means of Babylon, He also swore to destroy Babylon for laying a hand on His people.

Though dangerous to say, one cannot read Israel’s entire history without asking if they ought not to at least consider whether their sufferings are to be connected with the colossal error of their fathers 2,000 years ago. God forbid that any Christian should ever lift a hand against a Jew, or fail to deliver a Jew being threatened! But this does not mean that the Jews should fail to examine themselves and seek to account for their long misery. The first thing anyone should do when suffering affliction is seek a cause which might result in their repentance. The Jewish explanation for the destruction of the Temple and their long dispersion is, frankly, pathetic: they say the Jews of the First Century failed to practice hospitality and failed to obey other (minor) commands. They adamantly refuse to consider if their great error was rejecting the Messiah.

We must also remember the Devil’s interest in destroying the Jewish people. Listen to Geerhardus Vos: The elective principle, abolished as to nationality, continues in force as to individuals. And even with respect to national privilege, while temporarily abolished now that’s its purpose has been fulfilled, there still remains reserved for the future a certain fulfilment of the national elective principle. Israel in its racial capacity will again in the future be visited by the saving grace of God [Romans 11:2,12,25] (Biblical Theology, p.79).

Israel’s reingrafting must occur prior to the consummative return of Christ. Just as the Devil sought to forestall the first Advent by destroying the human ancestors of Messiah, so he will seek to forestall the Second Coming. He thinks that if he can destroy the Old People, he can nullify God’s purposes, and buy time before he is cast into the Lake of Fire.

But God’s Word stands firm: God will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on Jesus, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. Then, when the times of the Gentiles has been fulfilled, they will be taught by their God to say, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.

God’s ways are beyond tracing out. But we know that someday, it will all make sense.


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