Why would God, whose intention was to save a people from all nations to himself, conceive in his mind to establish, redeem, and work with the nation of Israel? What was in his mind, when most of the Old Testament is a story about a single nation? Why create this nation, when his purpose is ultimately to sum up all things in Christ (Eph 1:7)?
In other words, what was and is the purpose of the nation of Israel?
While we could cover a multitude of reasons, Paul provides one comprehensive answer in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
In short, Paul says that Israel is in a way, a historical sermon for all believers–and really for all of mankind–to be gleaned and learned from. Their example serves as a sober warning and amazing illustration for all men.
A Survey of Israel’s History
To get a grasp of what Paul means here, it is helpful to look at Israel’s history as a nation:
Israel was an elect nation, chosen by God’s sovereign grace and love (Deut 7:6-10), and promised a land in which the nation could dwell in God’s midst (Gen 12-18). Israel was miraculously redeemed from bondage on the merit of the blood of a spotless lamb (Exodus 11-14), they were led by God’s presence to the land promised them (Numbers 9), and provided for in the wilderness (Exod 16-17, Numbers 11). As God’s redeemed people, he enabled them to be holy as he was holy and to dwell in his presence in the land by providing his Law; and when they transgressed, God provided sin sacrifices to temporarily cover their guilt (Exod 24, Lev). Israel was given a King to mediate for the people and guide them into obedience to God (1 Sam 16-17).
But, in light of all that Israel was given, they broke God’s Law, and were spurned and removed from their place of blessing in the land (Jer 3-4). Being transgressors of God’s Law, they were removed from their land and scattered among the nations, forced to live as exiles and aliens (Hosea 3:4).
And yet, although Israel was stubborn and disobedient to God’s calling, they were promised a Messiah who would fulfill the Law for them, and be the ultimate King, Messiah, and Lamb who could truly wash away their sins and cause them to dwell in the land and in God’s presence without fear of punishment (Is 52-53, Jer 31:31-40, Ezek 36:22-37:28). And through this King, Israel is promised one day to be saved, brought into their land, and placed under the rule of Messiah who will bring peace the the nations (Is 2:2-4, Zech 14, Rom 11).
The Lord has really and truly covenanted himself to this nation. He elected them, loved them unconditionally, and redeemed them to himself. Yet Israel, in her sin, broke God’s holy Law, and brought condemnation onto herself. And although Israel deserves no more grace than they have already been given, God promises to have grace on this nation yet again.
Israel is a Mirror for Our Own Lives
It’s because of this long and drawn out history that Israel is a parable for all mankind. Israel’s story is one of grace and covenantal faithfulness on God’s part, and yet sin and rebellion on Israel’s part. And it’s because of this that Israel’s story is our story.
In his wisdom, God put a small meta-narrative in the middle of human history for all to witness–the story of Israel.
Of Israel’s history, Horatius Bonar gives this insight:
“The history of Israel, in every age, preaches to us the gospel of the grace of God. It is throughout, the story of man’s sin and Gods deep and untiring love. It shows us how manifold, how endless are man’s ways of sinning; and it shows us how still more manifold and endless are God’s ways of forgiving, and loving, and blessing” (Prophetical Landmarks)
Is this not entirely true? God’s tireless love for a rebellious nation is a mirror and illustration of God’s tireless love for me! As a Christian, I am aware that God has elected, redeemed, cared for and enabled me, and promises to lead me to a land where I can dwell in his presence without fear, and yet every single day I sin against this gracious and loving God.
When I see Israel’s failures, I see my own. This is why Paul can say in Romans 3:19:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
Paul says that those who are under the Law are held accountable to the Law. Paul was of course speaking of Israel–God had given this nation the Mosaic Law, and held them accountable to it. And yet, Paul also says that the Law is able to stop every mouth, and hold the whole world accountable (even though not every mouth is held accountable to the Law). What could Paul means by this?
What he means to say is that when we see Israel break God’s Law, and spiral into sin and decay, it makes us realize our own moral inability and sin. To witness Israel’s failure is to see our own failure. And so through Israel’s history, God has not only stopped Israel’s mouth, but everyone’s mouth.
So back to the original question–why does God build and bless this nation, Israel?
God wants to tell the story of every man. He wants to tell the story of his relentless love, of sin and failure, and of grace and redemption. Israel does not, nor will they ever exist for their own purpose. Israel has always and will always exist for the nations. Their story is our story. And our story is theirs.
It is the story of God’s great and lavishing love for helpless sinners in need of salvation.