The Unlikeliness of Israel

To mark the 60th anniversary of the birth of the modern State of Israel, let’s listen to a voice from 100 years before this state was born.

Who was it that said in 1867 that the existence of the Jews in the modern world was an insurmountable obstacle in the way of reasonable unbelief? It was J. C. Ryle. And who was he? J. I. Packer, quoting Richard Hobson and calling it a “just estimate,” describes Ryle like this:

He was great in stature; great in mental power; great in spirituality; great as a preacher and expositor of God’s most holy Word; great in hospitality; great as a writer of Gospel tracts; great as an author of works that will long live; great as a Bishop of the Reformed Evangelical Protestant Church of England, of which he was a noble defender; great as first Bishop of Liverpool. I am bold to say, that perhaps few men in the 19th century did as much for God, for truth, and for righteousness, among the English speaking race, and in the world, as our late Bishop. (Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle, 13-14)

Ryle observed the astonishing unlikeliness of the existence of the Jewish people in his day when so many other peoples of history have vanished or have been assimilated. Here is what he said:

I have not the least idea how questions like these are answered by those who profess to deny the divine authority of Scripture.... In fact it is my firm conviction that among the many difficulties of infidelity there is hardly any one more really insurmountable than the separate continuance of the Jewish nation.... God has many witnesses to the truth of the Bible, if men would only examine them and listen to their evidence. But you may depend on it, there is no witness so unanswerable as one who always keeps standing up, and living, and moving before the eyes of mankind. That witness is the Jew...

I assert that the peculiar position which Israel occupies in the earth is easily explicable in the light of holy Scripture. They are a people reserved and kept separate by God for a grand and special purpose. That purpose is to make them a means of exhibiting to the world in the latter days God’s hatred of sin and unbelief, and God’s almighty power and almighty compassion. They are kept separate that they may finally be saved, converted and restored to their own land. They are reserved and preserved, in order that God may show in them as on a platform, to angels and men, how greatly he hates sin, and yet how greatly he can forgive, and how greatly he can convert. Never will that be realized as it will in that day when “all Israel shall be saved.” (Are You Ready for the End of Time? 137-138)

Confirming Ryle’s assessment of the apologetic power of Israel, Anne Rice, the vampire novelist that several years ago turned from 30 years of atheism, said,

I stumbled upon a mystery without a solution, a mystery so immense that I gave up trying to find an explanation because the whole mystery defied belief. The mystery was the survival of the Jews.... It was this mystery that drew me back to God. (Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, 308-309)

None of this is a commentary on the prophetic place of the political State of Israel. It is a commentary on the eschatological meaning of the enduring reality of the people of Israel. And I think it is right.

For my thoughts on the place of the State of Israel see “Do Jews Have a Divine Right in the Promised Land?

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.