40 years ago Israel fought the Six Day War, winning an astonishing victory against Arab armies whose aim according to Egyptian President Nasser was stated on 27 May 1967: ‘Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel’. On 7 June 1967 Jerusalem was reunited as Israeli paratroopers captured the Old City of Jerusalem. General Moshe Dayan announced ‘This morning, the Israel Defence Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again.’ On 30 July 1980 the Israeli government passed a law declaring Jerusalem ‘complete and united’ to be the capital of Israel.
Of course this status has been bitterly contested by the Arab world whose minimum demand has been the return of the Old City of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Yasser Arafat declared: ‘Anyone who relinquishes a single inch of Jerusalem is neither an Arab nor a Muslim.’ (Voice of Palestine, Algiers, 2 September 1993). Sheikh Akram Sabri the Mufti of Jerusalem (Muslim religious leader) said ‘Jerusalem is under occupation and the Moslems of the world should liberate it by jihad and put it under Islamic and Arabic authority.’ (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 7 April 1995; The Jerusalem Post, 3 May 1995).
Attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict have always foundered on the issue of Jerusalem, notably the Oslo Accords which broke down 7 years after they were signed as a result of disagreements over Jerusalem. Following this the Quartet of the UN, USA, EU and Russia proposed the ‘Road Map’ to peace which worked on the principle of Israel giving land for peace. The recently revived Saudi plan offers Israel recognition by the Arab League in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories occupied during the Six Day War, including the whole of the Old City of Jerusalem and all the surrounding area, which is now heavily built up with Jewish settlements. Despite the efforts of the UN and the great powers, to date no one has succeeded in resolving this problem.
The issue of Jerusalem is not only the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is also the central issue for the prophecies of the Bible about the end of days and the return of the Messiah. Concerning Jerusalem Jesus said: ‘Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ (Luke 21.24). (NB the word Gentiles in Hebrew is ‘goyim’ meaning the non Jewish nations). As this implies rule by Gentiles this raises the question of when the times of the Gentiles end. Was it the capture of Jerusalem by the Israelis in 1967 or does it refer to an event still to come?
First we have to understand what ‘the times of the Gentiles’ actually means and when they began. This period began with the end of the Kingdom of Judah and the line of kings descended from King David in around 586 BC. The Kings of the line of David were to rule as God’s regents under His authority, leading the people to obey the Lord and keep His commandments. When the Temple in Jerusalem was dedicated by Solomon, the glory cloud of God (Shekinah) filled it as a sign of God’s presence with His people (1 Kings 8). God promised King Solomon that He would establish his throne and bless him if he obeyed the Lord. However if he or his sons disobeyed Him and worshipped idols, God would ‘cut off Israel from the land I have given them.’ (1 Kings 9.7).
This warning reached its fulfilment with the destruction of the Temple and end of the line of kings descended from King David. As the armies of Babylon subjugated the people of Judah and took most of them into captivity, the ‘Times of the Gentiles’ began. There were two signs given to mark the beginning of this period.
- The departure of the glory of the Lord / Shekinah from the Holy of Holies in the Temple (Ezekiel 8-11). In this passage we see that the Lord departed slowly, in stages finally leaving by the way of the Mount of Olives: ‘And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain which is on the east side of the city’ (Ezekiel 11.22-3). The Shekinah / glory cloud represents the presence of the Lord in the midst of his people as their ultimate ruler. Once the Shekinah had departed then the way was open for the end of the time of the Davidic kings ruling in Jerusalem.
- The end of the Davidic kings. 2 Chronicles 36 describes the last years of the kings of the line of David before they are taken away into captivity in Babylon. It also gives a reason for this – because they and the people had broken God’s commandments and refused to listen to the prophets whom God sent to warn them to repent (verses 14-16).
However because God has made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants concerning the Promised Land (Genesis 15) even if they go into exile they will return. 2 Chronicles 36 ends with a proclamation made by King Cyrus of Persia that the Jewish people may return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Because this permission was given by a Gentile king, Israel remained in the times of Gentiles even though they were restored to the land. Ezra and Nehemiah describe the struggle of the returning exiles to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Sometimes they made progress but sometimes they were halted as a result of opposition from the local people who persuaded the kings of Persia to go back on their original promise (Ezra 4). This is a pattern for the times of the Gentiles. However although the Gentile rulers may not have realised it they were subject to the Lord as King of Kings. It was He who overruled their decisions and caused them to fulfil His plans by allowing the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of Jerusalem (Ezra 5, Nehemiah 2.1-10).
During the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon God raised up the prophet Daniel to speak for Him and to prophesy the coming events. In chapters 2 and 7 of the book of Daniel we have two accounts from different viewpoints of the Times of the Gentiles. These chapters are interpreted to mean that there will be a succession of empires – Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. There will be some continuation of the fourth empire (Rome) and revival of it in last days. Daniel 2 concludes with a stone which smites the image representing the world empires and destroys it: ‘A stone was cut without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces … And the stone became a great mountain and filled the earth.’ Daniel 2.34-5. The stone smiting the image represents the kingdom of God bringing to an end the time of the Gentiles and filling the earth: ‘And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms and it shall stand forever’ (Daniel 2.44). This means that the Messiah will bring an end to the times of the Gentiles and restore the Kingdom to Israel.
Before this happens there will be a long period of time. Daniel reveals another very important piece of information: ‘After the sixty two months Messiah shall be cut off but not for Himself; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary (the second Temple). The end of it shall be with a flood and to the end of the war desolations are determined’ (Daniel 9.26). This means that Messiah was going to come for the first time during the times of the Gentiles, that He would die a violent death but not for His own sins. Following this event Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed and there would be a long period of wars and desolations. This contradicts the general Jewish expectation of Messiah held today. It confirms the view that Jesus is the Messiah who came during the days of Roman Empire, died for the sins of the world and rose again. 40 years later the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and the long period of Jewish dispersion began.
When Jesus came He prophesied a number of things which indicate the continuation of the times of the Gentiles after His coming.
- The destruction of Temple and Jerusalem: ‘For the days will come when your enemies will build an embankment around you surround you and close you in on every side and level you and your children within you to the ground and will not leave in you one stone upon another because you did not know the time of your visitation’ (Luke 19.41-44).
- Wars and rumours of wars throughout this period: ‘And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not troubled for all these things must come to pass but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the sorrows.’ (Matthew 24.6-8).
- Dispersion of Jewish people and Jerusalem trodden down of Gentiles: ‘For there shall be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away captive into all nations and Jerusalem will be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21.23-4).
All of this contradicted the generally held Jewish view that the coming of the Messiah would mean the end of Gentile domination of Israel and deliverance from the Roman occupation. It is very significant that the Jewish disciples of Jesus asked Him one final question after His resurrection: ‘Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1.6)
By this time the disciples had understood the meaning of Jesus’ first coming – to suffer and to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world in fulfilment of such scriptures as Isaiah 53. Their question actually meant ‘Are you now going to fulfil the rest of the Messianic programme and bring an end to the times of the Gentiles and restore the kingdom by reigning as the promised descendant of King David and bringing back the glory / Shekinah to Jerusalem?’ Jesus response was ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in His own authority’. In other words this event is going to happen but not at a time you can know or even that you need to know. Jesus goes on to say that the immediate requirement of the disciples was to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as would happen 10 days later on the Day of Pentecost (Shavuot) and to take the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (i.e. to the Gentile nations). During this time the Kingdom of God will be entered into by those who are born again of the Holy Spirit through repentance and faith in Jesus the Messiah. Following this Jesus ascended into heaven in the cloud (Shekinah) from the Mount of Olives with a promise from the angels that ‘This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.’ Acts 1.11.
At His first coming Jesus made the way for those who believe in Him to have their sins forgiven and to enter the Kingdom of God by repentance and faith in His name. The people who make this step of faith enter the true church (the Greek word ecclesia means those who have been called out of the world). This is open to all people, Jewish and Gentile.
During the period between the first and second coming of Jesus, evil will still be present in the world which will continue to be dominated by the spirit of Babylon behind which is Satan. Sadly evil will continue to be present in the false church which is a part of the Babylon world system and not included in the Kingdom of God. This false church has often been anti-Semitic and denied the Jewishness of Jesus and God’s plan for Israel’s restoration and salvation.
During this time Israel will remain for the most part in unbelief although individual Jewish people will believe Jesus to be the Messiah. However God will not bring an end to Israel although He will bring the times of the Gentiles to an end. God will allow the dispersion of the Jewish people but at the appointed time the process leading to the end of the times of the Gentiles will begin to take place. One of the major signs of the beginning of this period will be the return of the Jewish people to Israel.
The present restoration of Israel fits in with the pattern of the times of the Gentiles. It has happened as a result of the decree of the UN in 1947 which represents the Gentile nations. As with the Persian powers that permitted the restoration under Ezra / Nehemiah the Gentile powers are capricious and can turn against their original commitment but God’s purposes will stand. The Hebrew Prophets are full of promises of a restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, after a period of world wide dispersion. In Ezekiel 36.24 we read: ‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries and bring you into your own land.’
The prophecy of Zechariah 12.3 tells us: ‘I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will be surely cut in pieces though all nations of the earth are gathered against it.’ This prophecy describes a future situation when the status of Jerusalem will be a matter of concern for all the nations of the world. The only time in history when this has ever been the case is the period from 1967 to the present when the UN which represents ‘all nations’ has passed more resolutions on Jerusalem than any other issue in the world.
According to the Bible the times of the Gentiles will end with a time of unique trouble (known as the Great Tribulation). Before this seven year countdown to the end begins God will supernaturally remove the true believing church in the event known as the Rapture of the Church (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). He will then deal with Israel bringing to a conclusion unfinished business concerning the physical and spiritual restoration of Israel. This time is described in Jeremiah 30, Daniel 12, Zechariah 12-14 and in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21 and in Revelation chapters 6 to 19. It will reach its climax with the final war of this age and the return of the Messiah to the Mount of Olives. As the battle rages over Jerusalem, Zechariah 14.3 tells us ‘Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which faces Jerusalem on the east.’ (See also Revelation 19.11-21).
During this time God will break the power of the Gentiles and will restore the kingdom to Israel through the return of the Messiah Jesus. He will then deal directly with Israel and and bring the remnant of Israel to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. The physical return of the Messiah will cause the end of the times of the Gentiles by the stone (the Lord coming in Glory) smiting the image (the world system in rebellion against God) in fulfilment of Daniel 2.44. At that time we will see:
- The coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven (glory cloud / Shekinah). ‘I was watching in the night visions and behold one like the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven. He came to the Ancient of Days and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting one which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.’ Daniel 7.13. Jesus quoted this verse in relation to His second coming in Matthew 24.30 and 26.64.
- The restoration of the Shekinah / glory cloud by the way of the east / Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. ‘Afterward he brought me to the gate that faces toward the east. And behold the glory of the God of Israel came by the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters and the earth shone with His glory. … And the glory of the Lord came into the Temple by the way of the gate which faces towards the east.’ Ezekiel 43.1-5. This is the reversal of the process by which Ezekiel saw the departure of the Shekinah from the Temple in Ezekiel 8-11, which as we have seen meant the beginning of the Times of the Gentiles. This scripture shows that there will be a rebuilt Temple in the Messianic Kingdom which will be the seat of government of the Messiah.
- The restoration of the kingdom through the Messiah reigning from Jerusalem as King David reigned. ‘Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations and rebuke many people. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ Isaiah 2.1-4. ‘Of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end. Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom to order it and establish it with judgement and justice from that time forward even for ever.’ Isaiah 9.6-7.
The Six Day War in 1967 did not bring about the end of the times of the Gentiles despite the fact that the Israeli flag flies over the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel’s present rule in the land lines up with the conditions of the ‘times of the Gentiles’ with the Gentile powers interfering in the affairs of the nation and concerning themselves with the status of Jerusalem just as Zechariah said they would in chapter 12 of his prophecy. However these events began the process which is leading inevitably to the final conflict which will bring about the return of the Messiah Jesus which really will be the end of the times of the Gentiles.
Jesus is the Messiah despite the fact that there is no peace on earth because we are still in the times of the Gentiles. Israel’s present restoration is within the permissive will of God but because we are still in the times of the Gentiles there is no peace and safety. Because of Israel’s present unbelief there will be unrighteousness in Israel which will continue until the fountain of cleansing is opened following the revelation of Jesus as Messiah prophesied in Zechariah 12.10-13.1: ‘They shall look on Me whom they have pierced and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only Son.’
As a result of this Christians should recognise that the end of the times of the Gentiles will be the restoration of the kingdom to Israel when Messiah Jesus comes back to reign. Therefore the continuation of the Jewish people and the restoration of Israel as a nation even in unbelief in our age is a significant prophetic event. Christians should not ally themselves with those who seek Israel’s destruction but should pray for Israel’s salvation and deliverance and make known the message of Messiah Jesus who alone can save both Jews and Gentiles.