You are on page 1of 6

The Times of the Gentiles

Walter Russell

Introduction

H

ow lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow is she, who was great among the nations! The princess among the provinces has become a slave! She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears are on her cheeks; Among all her lovers she has none to comfort her. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into captivity, under affliction and hard servitude; She dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; All her persecutors overtake her in dire straits. The roads to Zion mourn because no one comes to the set feasts. All her gates are desolate; her priests sigh. Her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness. Her adversaries have become the master, her enemies prosper; For the Lord has afflicted her because of the multitude of her transgressions. Her children have gone into captivity before the enemy. And from the daughter of Zion all her splendor has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture, That flee without strength before the pursuer. (Lam 1:1-6, NKJV)

second waves of the warlike Babylonians in 605 and 597 BC. However, the third defeat was particularly devastating because it occurred after a lengthy siege of Jerusalem. This siege saw the Israelites commit unbelievably heinous and barbarous crimes against their own children:
The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; They became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people. The Lord has accomplished His wrath, He has poured out His fierce anger; And He has kindled a fire in Zion which has consumed its foundations. (Lam 4:10-11)

How did God’s people sink to such a tragic condition and deserve such an all-encompassing judgment? Was Israel cast off as God’s people as the Gentiles trampled Jerusalem and defiled the temple of God (Lamentations 1:10; 2:7)? And what is to become of the relationship of lsraelites to the Gentiles now that the seed of Abraham has been terribly shattered at their hands? A quick survey of Israel’s history should help to answer some of these crucial questions.

How mournful is this lament of the weeping prophet Jeremiah at the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC. The last remnant of the proud nation of the Israelites has been carried into captivity by the powerful Gentile empire of Nebuchadnezzar. His third and final capture of Jerusalem in 586 followed the first and

God’s Plan for Israel, Abraham’s Seed

The beginning of the nation of Israel was the gracious choice of Abram of Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 11:27-32) to become the father of this great people. This initial calling and promise of God is recorded for us in Genesis 12:1-3 against the backdrop of the repeated universal failure of the people of the world to respond in faith to God

Reprinted with permission from Russell, Walter. Intertestamental and New Testament Periods from a Missiological Perspective, n.d., Chapter 3.

69

70 The Times of the Gentiles

(Gen 3–11). The failure of Adam and Eve to respond in full obedience to God in Genesis 3 is only the beginning. Their offspring, the people of the world, continue the rebellion. Rather than worshipping Yahweh, the people of the world multiply wickedness and precipitate the judgment-flood of Noah in Genesis 6–8. The new beginning of Noah and his family in Genesis 9, however, quickly degenerates into the third failure of this period: the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 10–11 by the people of the world. God’s responding judgment of these people with the confusion of languages thereby creates the division of the world’s people into the world’s peoples or people groups (Gen 11:6-9). It is at this point that the reader is brought to a sense of despair at the repeated cycle of God’s new beginnings and the recurring rebellious responses of humankind in Genesis 1–11. The three cycles of God’s gracious beginnings and humanity’s willful failures in these pre-patriarchal chapters in Genesis seem to underscore that Yahweh has a persistent desire to bless the people of the world. However, the people have a tragic and willful desire to establish their own name, not God’s. Therefore, if God is to establish His presence among them, it appears that He will need to work through a different means. Moreover, the task will be far more complex now due to the multiplicity of peoples through the confusion of languages at Babel. Therefore, the stage is set for the appearance of that means—the one small people among the many peoples of the world—the seed from the man named Abraham. God’s plan to bless the peoples of the world through Abraham is a part of the covenant that God made with him initially in Genesis 12:1-3 and repeated in various forms in Genesis 15:1-21; 17:1-27; 18:16-21; 22:1419. For our purposes, the important part is God’s promised blessing to the peoples of the world through the seed of Abraham: “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3c). God’s vehicle through Abraham’s family continues to be very small during the patriarchal period of Genesis, which covers four lengthy generations: Abraham (Gen 11:26–25:8) Isaac (Gen 25:9–27:46) Jacob (Gen 28:1–38:30) Joseph (Gen 39–50)

However, by the end of Genesis this small family of twelve sons and their wives and children is safely embedded within the unlikely womb of Egypt. At this point, Joseph can boldly assert about his brothers’ disdain for Abraham’s seed that God was superintending their callous and blinded perspective: “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen 50:19b-20). Israel, Abraham’s seed, is safely preserved for the time being in Egypt where she can grow into a great nation within the confines of a nation. The stage is now prepared for Yahweh’s great redemption of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus), His structuring of the civil and religious life of the nation (Leviticus), His leading of Israel to the gateway to the land at Moab after the great unbelief of the first generation at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers), and His instruction through Moses of the new generation about their covenantal obligations to Him before they possess the land (Deuteronomy). At this point, Moses, the first great leader, dies and Joshua, his assistant, assumes the leadership of the nation. Under Joshua’s leadership, Israel roughly subdues the land, but not to the degree that Yahweh had instructed ( Joshua). This leads to the turbulent and cyclical period of the Judges (including Ruth; roughly 1380-1050 BC). During this period of incomplete obedience and consistent waywardness, Israel develops the desire for a king like her neighbors. The persistent failure to subdue the land in its totality feeds the desire to replace the theocracy with a monarchy. Additionally, the chaos when “every man did what was right in his own eyes” ( Judg 17:6 and 21:25) helped create the momentum for a king. The last judge of Israel was Samuel and he anoints the first king of the period of united monarchy, Saul. Because of Saul’s disobedience to Yahweh, he is soon replaced by David (1 Samuel). David’s reign is a part of the high water mark for Israel’s united monarchy and, perhaps, the beginning of one of the better periods of ministry to the surrounding nations (2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles). David’s son Solomon completes the period of the united monarchy by initially enhancing the wealth and ministry of the nation, but then falling into cove­­ nantal compromise by introducing pagan religions into Israel again (1 Kings 1–11 and 2 Chronicles

Walter Russell 71

1–9). Upon Solomon’s death in 931 BC, the kingdom of Israel is then divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12—2 Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 10–28).

The Fall of the Northern Kingdom

The northern kingdom of Israel was born in apostasy regarding her priesthood, her place of worship/temple, and her dynasty (i.e., non-Davidic kings). Therefore, the northern kingdom never really recovered from this tragic and apostate beginning. From her birth at the division of the united kingdom in 931 BC to her end at the hand of the Assyrians in 722 BC, Israel was plagued by unbelief and covenant unfaithfulness throughout her history. None of her twenty kings ever achieved any meaningful level of covenant faithfulness to Yahweh. Therefore, as one might guess, the ministry of the northern kingdom to the nations was one of failure and false doctrine. In the end Yahweh disciplined her almost as severely as He had the Canaanites whom Israel had dispossessed from the land (2 Kings 17). The prophet Amos (approx. 765-755 BC) challenged the northern kingdom to look beyond her temporary financial prosperity at the impending judgment for her greed, injustice, and hypocritical religious practices. God wanted the citizens of the northern kingdom to know that their forthcoming judgment was just and deserved because of her spiritual and social immoralities. This unpolished farmer and sheepherder from Tekoa in Judah (Amos l:l) was given the daunting task of proclaiming to the kings, priests, arid aristocracy of the northern kingdom that Yahweh was about to roar from Zion (Amos 1:2). He proclaimed impending judgments upon the surrounding nations (Amos l–2) and upon Israel herself (Amos 3–9). However, at the end of his prophecies of doom, Amos did give a word of hope (9:11-15):
In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; ... Also, I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, … (Amos 9:11, 14a).

Israel was vividly portrayed by Hosea’s estrangement from the wayward Gomer. Hosea pictured the tragic downward spiral of sin in both Gomer’s and Israel’s lives. Sin would extract a exacting toll for its fleeting pleasures (Hos 2:1-13; 4:1–10:15). However, as Hosea did with Gomer, so Yahweh would do with Israel. He would redeem her out of her bondage to sin and return her from her wanderings among the peoples of the world (Hos 2:14–3:5; 11:1–14:9). Yahweh will restore Israel as His wife after He redeems, purifies, and renews His relationship with her: “Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days” (Hos 3:5).

After the fall of Israel in 722 BC, the little kingdom of Judah struggled on by herself for almost 150 years (2 Kings 16–25 and 2 Chronicles 28–36). She eventually fell to the hordes of Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 BC. However, on the way to this catastrophe, Judah had a remarkable mixture of a few good, yet mostly evil kings: Ahaz (735-715 BC) – evil (2 Ki 16) Hezekiah (715-686) – good (2 Ki l8–20) Manasseh (696-642) – terribly evil (2 Ki 21:1-18) Amon (642-640) – evil/assassinated (2 Ki 21:1926) Josiah (640-609) – good (2 Ki 22:1–23:30) Jehoahaz (609) – evil (2 Ki 23:31-35) Jehoiakim (609-597) – evil (2 Ki 23:36–24:7) Jehoiakin (597) – evil (2 Ki 24:8-l6) Zedekiah (597-586) – evil (2 Ki 24:17–25:30) The prophets Habakkuk, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah, and Zephaniah ministered during this time of downward spiral for Judah. In the end her story looked very similar to the northern kingdom of Israel’s demise: spiritual unfaithfulness to Yahweh, social injustice to one another, and defective ministry to the peoples of the world. Could Yahweh do any other thing than judge His unfaithful people? Could He do nothing else but judge those whom He privileged to be His light in the world because of their darkness? Could He do nothing else but devastate Judah in light of Yah-

Judah’s Struggle Alone

Israel’s prophets decried her sins and bemoaned the lack of virtue in the land of the northern kingdom. Hosea (approx. 760-710 BC) married an adulterous wife to present a heartbreaking picture of Israel as the adulterous wife of Yahweh (Hosea 1). God’s alienation from

72 The Times of the Gentiles

weh’s plan for the world’s peoples? Another way would have to be found.

“The times of the Gentiles” is a phrase that Jesus uses in Luke 21:24b when He says, “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” We can infer from Jesus’ words that “the times of the Gentiles” cover the period of time that Jerusalem and the temple are ultimately under Gentile control. And when did this era begin? Daniel tells us in Daniel 2:3645 that this era apparent­ ly began when God sovereignly and divinely authorized the transfer of world supremacy to Gentile power.1 Specifically, the times of the Gentiles began when God allowed Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to achieve political supremacy, as Daniel explained to King Nebuchadnezzar:
This is the dream; now we shall tell its interpretation before the king. “You, O king, are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory; and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all. You are the head of gold. And after you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you, then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. Then there will be a fourth kingdom as strong as iron; inasmuch as iron crushes and shatters all things, so, like iron that breaks in pieces, it will crush and break all these in pieces. And in that you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but it will have in it the toughness of iron, inasmuch as you saw the iron mixed with common clay. And as the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of pottery, so some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle. And in that you saw the iron mixed with common clay, they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true, and its interpretation is trustworthy.” (Dan 2:36-45)

The Times of the Gentiles

However, the vision that God gave to Nebuchadnezzar that Daniel interprets in Daniel 2 also includes three succeeding Gentile empires that will follow the empire of the Babylonians. We know from the expansion of this vision in Daniel 7–8 that these empires are those of the Medes and Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Apparently, these successive Gentile kingdoms will trample Jerusalem and the temple under their Godgiven authority until the return of Jesus the Messiah (Luke 21:27). The following chart sketches the progression of these four Gentile empires and some of the key events from the beginning of the times of the Gentiles to the birth of Christ.

Key Events of the Times of the Gentiles
All events are BC 586 BABYLONIAN ERA BEGINS: Jerusalem is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonians in 3 waves in 605, 597, and 586 EXILE 539 PERSIAN ERA BEGINS: Babylon falls to Cyrus and the Persians ( Jews allowed to return to Palestine; only a remnant choose to do so in 538; temple rebuilding begun in 537 and stopped; resumed in 520) 515 Second temple completed by Jewish remnant in Palestine (Haggai and Zechariah = motivating prophets) 331 GREEK ERA BEGINS: Alexander the Great gains control of Palestine 323 Death of Alexander; 4-fold division of his empire in 320 (see Dan 8) 301 Egypt and the Ptolemies gain control of Palestine 198 Syria and the Seleucids gain control of Palestine 172 Jerusalem made a Hellenistic city by the Seleucid, Antiochus IV (Epiphanies) 168/167 Persecution of Jews by Antiochus and “abomination of desolation” set up in the Jewish temple (Dec., 168), Mattathias the Maccabee inspires revolt against Seleucids 164 Rededication of temple by Maccabees (Dec., 164: Hanukkah)

Walter Russell 73

164-142 Continued Maccabean success against weakening Seleucids; Simon the last Maccabee establishes independence in 142 142-67 Expansion of the quasi-autonomous Jewish kingdom under the “Hasmonean (Maccabean) dynasty” 67-63 Civil war within Hasmonean kingdom 63 ROMAN ERA BEGINS: Pompey conquers Jerusalem and makes Hasmonean kingdom a Roman protectorate 40 Herod the Great crowned King of the Jews under Romans; begins rebuilding temple in 20 BC; dies in 4 BC; 3 heirs rule As the times of the Gentiles begin, an interesting phenomenon also occurs with the temple in Jerusalem. This is recorded by the prophet Ezekiel through a series of visions he has while in exile in Babylon. Ending eight centuries of God’s Shekinah Glory in the midst of Israel, in Ezekiel 8–11 the prophet records the departing of the Glory of God from the temple. The progression is as follows: Ezekiel 8:4—the glory of the God of Israel was still there. Ezekiel 9:3—the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub, where it had been, to the threshold of the temple. Ezekiel 10:4—the glory of the LORD went up from the cherub, and paused over the threshold of the temple. Ezekiel 11:23—the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain, on the east side of the city. What is the significance of this? Concurrent with the ending of Israel’s political autonomy as a nation under an earthly king is the ending of Israel’s existence as a nation with the personal presence of her Divine King in her midst. The Glory of God has departed from Israel! And soon, Israel herself will depart from the land her Divine King gave her and will languish in exile. The time of Israel’s ministry as a people in her own land has ended for now. Her ministry to the peoples of the world is now entering a new phase. The ministry of the people of Israel to the nations will now be taking place in a new context. Rather than standing as an autonomous people within her own

land, she will now be a subjugated people with varying degrees of freedom and rights until the Messiah comes to liberate her. Israel’s ministry to the various peoples of the world will occur from “underneath” rather than “on top.” She will generally minister as those who are aliens in a Gentile land and who stand outside the structures of political power. She will huddle together in ghettos. She will create new institutions to try to perpetuate the worship of Yahweh and her language and culture. She will seek to survive in hostile communities in the midst of hostile peoples. She will cling to the Mosaic Law as the hope of her ongoing covenant with a God Who is angry with her. However, in the midst of the sin and despair of the exile, God graciously gave Israel a hope for the future. Through the prophets who saw the tragedy of the exile, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God gave a hope to Israel for a New Covenant with Him. We read these promises of a new day in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:24-27:
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” ( Jer 31:31-34) “For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezek 36:24-27)

Therefore, the real hope of Israel is that she will be able to enter into this new covenant with God and be

74 The Times of the Gentiles

restored as a people. However, in the meantime, she must live in a dispersed state among the Gentiles and seek to minister from her position of weakness.

What Is God Doing in History?

God’s plan to bless the peoples of the world through the seed of Abraham is not derailed! Complicated? Yes! Using a different means than a free and autonomous nation? Yes! Decentralized? Yes! Perhaps more effective because of this? Perhaps. Therefore, we should not despair that God is in the heavens wringing His hands. No, He is continuing to work out His plan to bless all the peoples of the world through their faith in Him—by any necessary means! Throughout the intertestamental and New Testament eras, this means was primarily through Israel in her dispersed, decentralized state. This is true because 85%-90% of the Jews in the world never returned to the land after their initial dispersions. During the times of the Gentiles, Israel is primarily living among the Gentiles. Secondly, Israel now enters a very different era as a people as the times of the Gentiles roll in. In particular, the Bible says that Israel will actually go through two phases during the times of the Gentiles. First is the subjugated phase that will continue until Messiah returns to deliver her (Luke 21:24-27). Second is the phase of actually becoming an enemy of God’s plan for universal blessing (Rom 11:28-32). Apparently, this phase began when Israel rejected Jesus of Nazareth as her Messiah. The Apostle Paul discusses this in Romans 11. Only a remnant of Israel will believe in

Jesus at the present time (Rom 11:5). This is because “a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11: 25b). Therefore, from the time of Paul’s writing of these words (AD 56-57) to the return of Jesus Christ, we can assume that Israel will be in this second phase of the times of the Gentiles. Her ministry to the peoples of the world has been given to others during this time and she has largely assumed an adversarial posture. She is now a recipient of the message of blessing, not the proclaimer of it. However, Israel can look forward to that day when she will once again be reunited with her estranged husband, Yahweh:
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins” [Isa 59:20-21]. From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Rom 11:25-29)

Notes

1 This is the phrase of Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1974; originally published by Moody Press, 1968), 125.