O Palmer Robertson

Palmer Robertson was until 2008 professor of Old Testament at Knox Theological Seminary and principal of the African Bible College in Uganda.

5/8/2005 Updated 15/2/14 Home

A Critique of ‘The Israel of God’, by O. Palmer Robertson

Published 2000, Presbyterian and Reformed, New Jersey.

O. Palmer Robertson has won wide critical acclaim for his seminal examination of the Divine Covenants, ‘The Christ of the Covenants’, and recently for his work ‘the Christ of the Prophets’. His evangelical credentials are solid. This makes his trenchant assertion in another recent work, that unbelieving Israel’s return to her land is unforeseen by Scripture (p 194) and one which ‘may be expected to perish, as all other nations have perished in due time’ (p112) all the more chilling.

The ‘Israel of God’ examines changes in the concept of Israel between the testaments. He devotes chapters to the land, the people, their worship, pilgrim lifestyle and especially its kingdom. He concludes with an exposition of Romans 11 and then crystallises the book with 12 propositions. It is a studious and detailed work. He repeatedly denies advocating ‘replacement theology’. He refutes a dispensational view of Israel, as parallel to but persistently separate from the church, and for which a future return to Levitical forms of worship is legitimate. His main burden is to demonstrate that by fulfilling the Sinaitic shadows and types, Christ has irreversibly broken down the partition between Jew and Gentile. Jesus the Messiah is the only valid priest and sacrifice. To this most will heartily concur.

The problem arises from the conflation of Abrahamic and Sinatic covenants derived from his earlier work. This is especially evident in his handling of the land promise, which he treats as merely a covenant shadow (p13). He compares the belief that Israel’s land should remain the focus of the covenant of grace, to an expectation that the shadow of the brass serpent on the stake, or Jacob’s ladder might be replaced by a bigger and better one (p5,6)! This is to confuse the substance of the promise with the signs that accompany it, an error we would not expect from a theologian of his stature. To show the folly of this kind of comparison, we ask whether the birth of the Messiah resulted in the disappearance of Isaac in Heaven? Isaac was the down payment of the promise of a seed. He was the beginning of the substance of the promise, not merely a sign to be dispensed with.

In a similar vein, he dismisses expectation of a return to the land as similar to expectation of a restoration of the Temple and its sacrifices (p17), a dismal event we expect only to herald the Anti-Christ. This is to confuse the grace Covenant with Abraham, which stands as the foundation stone of the Gospel (Rom.4.3, Gal.3.14) with the law Covenant at Sinai, which was clothed in the symbols of an ineffective Levitical mediation. The land was the focus of the covenant promise to the patriarch, as much as the seed. It was to the land, as Robertson concedes (p.23) to which all three patriarchs and Joseph committed their dust. Why if their expectation was only Heavenly? Is it not because the land belongs by merit to our Emmanuel (Isa.8.8,10)? It is a special down payment for the whole cosmos (Rom.4.13).

Whilst all will agree that Israel’s land was to the patriarchs a token of Heavenly realities, it also remains an inalienable necessity to unbelieving Israel’s nationhood. So to dismiss the land focus of God’s gracious covenant with Abraham as a shadow that has already flown, is to discount the numerous prophecies of a NT restoration of the Jews to statehood, in which the Puritans and their heirs so delighted, e.g. Jer.31.35-7.  It also paves the way for the growing strain of Christian anti-Zionism, a virulent and mutated form of anti-Semitism. The persistent use of the term Palestine for the whole land in question in his work, his citation of a professedly Christian condoner of suicide terrorism (p 28) and simple but serious slips like ‘Palestinian citizens of Israel’ (p33), reveal that brother Robertson is already infected.

His handling of Ezekiel 37 is especially illuminating. From the unbelieving state of national Israel, he concludes that the passage cannot be regarded as fulfilled by contemporary Jewish return to the land (p25). He plays down the emphatic pause in the passage, when the bones are given flesh, skin and sinews but remain lifeless, v.8. He likens the scene to man’s creation Gen 2.7, and claims that the two distinct prophetic stages in Ezekiel 37 v.5-6 and v. 9 are as simultaneous as at creation.

There are several problems with this construction. First, man’s creation was not effected by two separate and distinct commands, only one is revealed in the summary in Gen. 1 v.26. The actual creative process is explained sequentially in the single verse 2.7, but there is no dialogue and no further command before the fiat is complete.

Secondly the distinct separateness of the two stages in Ezekiel’s prophecy is underscored by Ezekiel’s observation, God’s further command, the prophet’s obedient response to Divine Call, and the action of the Wind in consequence to bring life. Thirdly this distinctness is underlined by the distinctness of the interpretation of the prophecy, v.12 ‘I will open your graves’, ‘cause you to come up out’, and ‘bring you into the land of Israel’, then in v. 13, ‘ye shall know that I am the Lord’ after My having done these things, and only then in v.14 ‘shall put my Spirit in you and you shall live’. Fourthly, in the sign of the joining of two sticks, which immediately succeeds, the sequence is the same, v.21 ‘I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen’ and ‘will bring them into their own land’. Only then will they have ‘one king’, v.22, cease to ‘defile themselves’ and be graciously cleansed, v.23, and only then be shepherded by David’s Greater Son, v.24, truly walking in the statutes of Divine Law, and only then enjoy their perpetual inheritance, the covenant of peace, the presence of both the true Tabernacle and the true Sanctuary in their midst.

It is impossible to squeeze into this prophecy the notion that Israel must repent before return. Given there must be some delay between the restoration and the repentance, are we not living in such days today? Should we not all the more ardently pray and hope for the Wind of God to fall upon these enfleshed but lifeless bones? Why then is the church growing faithless and high-minded towards national Israel? Why is she joining unbelievers in condemning Israel’s acts on the partial and tilted foundation of international law? Is she not too in danger of despising the Law of God?

His exposition of Romans 11 will be easily critiqued by readers familiar with the historic commentators. He leans heavily on the flawed Aleph and B manuscripts by inserting a third ‘now’ into v. 30-31. This enfeebles and enervates the glorious mystery of v 25, as Lloyd-Jones reminds us.

This work is a potent stimulant to critically ponder vital issues, issues likely to grow in importance and heat in the near future. It is contains welcome redress to the dispensationalism that often so dominates discussion of Israel’s future. However this writer found himself sharply at odds with 5 of Robertson’s concluding propositions (3-5 and 9 & 10).

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