Confusion by those reading the Old Testament’s (OT) prophecies regarding Israel, Judah, Jerusalem, and Zion has resulted in profound disagreements by interpreters. Some (Jews, many Dispensationalist Christians, and some “Hebrew Roots” Christians) believe the prophecies should essentially be taken literally. The Jewish Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem in the future; all people of Jewish descent will return to the land of Israel in the future, and all others in the world will pay homage to the God of Israel in pilgrimages to Zion. This is the view of the majority of Western Christians, as a result of the popularization of the eschatology of Charles Darby in the 1830s, known as “Dispensationalism”.
Others (non-Dispensationalist Christians – the amillennialists or post-millennialists) believe many, if not all, such references refer forward to the “Church age” – the advent of Christ, the time period after Christ and in particular after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70AD by Titus. It is, in fact, the position of this school of interpretation that virtually every single prophetic writing has an interpretation involving Christ and the New Covenant He inaugurated[i].
It is this universal characteristic of their interpretation that has earned this group the label “supercessionists”, which is meant to capture their thinking that all things “Israel” have been superseded by the Church and the New Covenant of Christ.
New Testament Revelation
We need to pay particular attention to this perspective, as it substantially represents the perspective held by the Apostles and New Testament writers. They viewed the scriptures through the lens of Christ. And they did this because that was what their Lord taught them. Unfortunately, we can’t listen in on all of the conversations Jesus had with His followers, perhaps while sitting around a campfire, during which He revealed the truth about Him, the Messiah, embedded in the OT prophecies. But those responsible for the NT’s epistles were privileged to hear these teachings, which constituted new revelation; that is to say, a new interpretation of the OT scriptures and prophecies, and pass that knowledge on to us.
Peter tells us just that in 1 Peter 1:10-12
 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully,  inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.  It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Paul, too, in 2 Corinthians 3:12-17 says Christ Himself provides new eyes with which to understand the prophecies of the OT:
 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold,  not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end.  But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.  But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
However, in applying this lens of interpretation, we have to acknowledge that it is necessary to make many unnatural-feeling substitutions of meaning to otherwise plainly worded OT phrases. Is this the way we should be interpreting these phrases? And if so, how do we tell which phrases to so-interpret, and which to take as they literally read? For example, when does “Israel” mean the literal ethnic nation of Israel, and when does it mean something else? We’ll examine these questions and hopefully develop an approach to interpreting prophecy that gives us confidence that our interpretation is what is intended by the text.
The Language of Hebrew Prophecy
Most of the expressive forms of prophecy in the OT are Hebrew poetry. If one is going to read it to understand its intended meaning, it is best to understand the construction and purpose of this form. These articles serve as a good introduction to the subject and are worth your review – “Poetry in the Hebrew Bible”, and “Understanding Bible Prophecy: The Stunning Simplicity of Prophetic Language”. When one gains a basic understanding of the Hebrew poetic form, it is then necessary to understand the usage in that poetic structure of certain common symbols of prophecy. A representative summary of these is provided in “Understanding Prophetic Symbols And Apocalyptic Language Of The Bible By Comparing Symbols From Old And New Testament Prophecies”.
But please understand: one doesn’t need to be a Biblical Hebrew scholar to get the basic message of these resources. Prophetic Hebrew poetry uses a basic structure, designed to emphasize (through parallelism, etc.) key points, and symbols whose meaning typically is not literal but figurative; which may not be temporal (i.e. of this time and physical place) but spiritual – something true of God or of God’s people now, or at some point. Often times, a temporal event or circumstance (e.g. release of the exiles from Babylon by Cyrus) is used to springboard into a spiritual truth (e.g. God’s faithful redemption of the remnant).
What do you mean, “Israel”?
It is crucial to understand what the prophets were talking about when they used the word “Israel” if we are to accurately interpret their prophecies. Israel was always the term given to God’s chosen “Holy Nation” (Exodus 19:6). Initially, that role was to be fulfilled by the Hebrews. By this I mean that the Hebrews, while in their Egyptian servitude, were chosen by God to be His Holy Nation – as descendants of their faithful father Abraham, to be a nation of “priests” (meaning mediators) between the rest of the world and God Himself. What seems to have occurred, as documented in the OT, is that only a small minority of what was to become the nation of Israel ever, themselves, volunteered for or took on this duty. Only a tiny minority honored God’s covenant with them expressed as: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5), and “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” ( Lev 19:2 )
Israel confirmed their understanding and participation in this covenant on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal after entering the Promised Land (Joshua 24:14-28). This reaffirmation had been commanded, both its blessings and its curses, by Moses earlier (Deuteronomy 27). “Israel” was always to be God’s covenant people – the covenant of the faith of Abraham and the covenant of obedience to God and His law through Moses at Sinai.
The ethnic nation of Israel, as a whole, did not keep God’s covenant, either of faith or obedience, as plainly recorded throughout the OT. Therefore, the Israelites, having abrogated their obligations articulated in the covenant (Leviticus 26:14-18), were, after multiple expressions of mercy and forgiveness by God, judged by Him (Isaiah 1).
Here we encounter the first speed bump in the literalists’ position. Since the promises of God in His Mosaic covenant and subsequent relationship with the nation of Israel were contingent on their honoring their role in that covenant, when they failed to do that, they no longer had a claim on its promised blessings. Only God’s mercy in response to their unfaithfulness prolonged the actual day of their eventual destruction. Since Israel, the nation at large, was ultimately unsuccessful in keeping God’s covenant, none of His promised blessings to them as a nation should be expected to occur now, or ever.
The OT reader will notice beginning with Isaiah a new focus by God on His “remnant” – those among the Israelites who had remained faithful and obedient to Him, while the majority of their brethren had not.
This is where we need to pay attention to what’s going on in the text semantically between God and “Israel”. The meaning of Israel changes from the entire ethnic nation to those of Israel who pursued the Mosaic covenant faithfully (e.g. have no other gods before Me), and who trusted in Him for their preservation – as their Savior (Isaiah 43:3).
It’s at this realization that, for me, the “penny dropped”. What did God always expect from the people of Israel? From the very beginning, God was always looking for two things from His chosen people:
1) A group of people who would be faithful to Him in following His commands and to minister to others who were not His holy ones
2) A group of people out of whom He would produce the Messiah
Israel, the ethnic people group, fulfilled these conditions. Some of them, individually, always trusted and obeyed God. And of those, the Messiah was produced. So God, unsurprisingly, achieved what He intended.
How does this bear on interpreting prophecy? It is crucial in understanding what the prophets were saying, particularly the later prophets, when they used the word “Israel”, or alternatively “Judah”. In the majority of uses, they were describing the faithful – the people God always intended to produce out of the nation/people-group known as “Israel” – a Holy “nation” of priests. Maybe the prophets understood this when they said it. Maybe they didn’t. But God certainly knew what He was saying through them, and to whom He was saying it.
This whole idea is, of course, confirmed by Paul in Romans 9:6-8:
6But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.” 8That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.
There is, I believe, another level of meaning intended by God in the prophets’ use of the term “Israel”. The term, I believe, is meant to refer to all of God’s holy (set apart) people; all of those who trust and follow God and serve as His ministers on earth, no matter when, that culminated with the coming of the Messiah as the holiest and most faithful of all (see Hebrews 1:1-4 ). The prophets often present the message of God to the “remnant” as Israel. More often than not, this is a reference to the faithful, though occasionally it refers to the physical remnant who, for example, chose to return home from Babylon after their exile.
But these faithful aren’t the only “Israel” referenced by God through the Prophets. The other is the set of Israelites who were members by birth of the ethnic tribes of Jacob, but who were unfaithful to God’s call and instruction. These were the majority throughout the balance of their history. When addressing these people we find God admonishing them to repent and return to Him and to renounce and abandon their idols and immorality. God extends the promise of His mercy and restoration to them if they will do so.
So we’re confronted in these prophetic texts with God or the prophet, on the one hand, excoriating “Israel” (the unfaithful) but offering forgiveness and restoration for their repentance, and on the other promising blessing to “Israel” (the faithful) as His reward for their obedience to Him. Sometimes both references occur multiple times within the same chapter – almost the same verse. No wonder casual readers are left with a lingering sense of ambivalence or outright confusion.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that readers (including many OT scholars) are challenged by these juxtapositions of the sometimes wildly divergent divine attitudes toward “Israel” expressed in the prophets.
A particularly stark example of this juxtaposition of promises of blessing to the good Israel and admonishments of “the bad” Israel is found in Isaiah 43:19-44:4. In verses 43:19-21, we read God addressing the faithful of Israel (as He identifies in v20 and 21; “my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”).
Isaiah 43:19-44:4 (ESV)
“ Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
 The wild beasts will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
 the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise.”
Yet from 43:22 on through verse 28, we see a different story. Here God appeals to and admonishes the apostate among Israel, culminating in His curse: “Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary” (the priests), “and deliver Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling.”
“ “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;
but you have been weary of me, O Israel!
 You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings,
or honored me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with offerings,
or wearied you with frankincense.
 You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.
 “I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.
 Put me in remembrance; let us argue together;
set forth your case, that you may be proved right.
 Your first father sinned,
and your mediators transgressed against me.
 Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary,
and deliver Jacob to utter destruction
and Israel to reviling.”
And finally, in 44:1-4, after proclaiming destruction and reviling on Judah and Israel, God does a 180 and pronounces a blessing on “Jacob my servant” and “on your descendants”, claiming they will flourish.
Israel the LORD’s Chosen
[44:1] “But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
 Thus says the LORD who made you,
who formed you from the womb and will help you:
Fear not, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.
 They shall spring up among the grass
like willows by flowing streams.”
From a casual reading of these verses, it can appear that God is at best quite ambivalent about what to do with Israel, and at worst perhaps a bit bipolar on the subject. However, once we understand that those of Israel that return His love and provision with faithfulness and obedience are those He’s blessing, and those who disdain Him are those He is cursing, the picture becomes much clearer.
He, through Isaiah, really brings the fact that He’s talking to two different sets of people into crystal clear focus in Chapter 65. Here He says:
Isaiah 65:9-19 (ESV)
 I will bring forth offspring from Jacob,
and from Judah possessors of my mountains;
my chosen shall possess it,
and my servants shall dwell there.
 Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks,
and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down,
for my people who have sought me.
 But you who forsake the LORD,
who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
 I will destine you to the sword,
and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
because, when I called, you did not answer;
when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my eyes
and chose what I did not delight in.”
 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD:
“Behold, my servants shall eat,
but you (who have forsaken the LORD) shall be hungry;
behold, my servants shall drink,
but you shall be thirsty;
behold, my servants shall rejoice,
but you shall be put to shame;
 behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
but you shall cry out for pain of heart
and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
 You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
and the Lord GOD will put you to death,
but his servants (God referring to Himself in 3rd person) he will call by another name[ii],
 So that he who blesses himself in the land
shall bless himself by the God of truth,
and he who takes an oath in the land
shall swear by the God of truth;
because the former troubles are forgotten
and are hidden from my eyes.
The contrast here is unmistakable. To God, Israel is no longer a monolithic ethnic nation, dutifully following Him out of Egypt and through the wilderness to the land He promised them. It is comprised of two distinctly different types of people – faithful and unfaithful to their God. And, these face two distinctly different futures – blessing or judgment.
Isaiah closes out this chapter relating how God will bless those who dwell in what will be a peaceful, prosperous, fruitful Jerusalem. This leads us to believe that the Jerusalem spoken of here by God is perhaps a “spiritual” Jerusalem – the place inhabited by His faithful people, to ultimately include the faithful from all nations.
When Did the Prophet Write (Relative to the History of What He’s Writing About)?
Perhaps the simplest misunderstanding of prophetic writing to overcome is to know when the text was written. Perhaps the clearest examples are those of the major and minor prophets having to do with Israel (“all Israel”) returning to their land (e.g. Isaiah 11:11-12, etc., etc.). The thing the reader must understand is that all of these prophecies of a return to the land (of Israel), and its associated blessings of peace, prosperity, and safety, were penned before or during the return of the remnant of Israel from Babylon (from 538 BC to 458 BC). So it seems one should assume that the prophets were all writing about that return; not some unspecified future return.
No prophecies of the Israelite people returning to their land were written after the return of their remnant from Babylon, nor do any appear in the New Testament. So if there is some such future event, it won’t be because God disclosed it to us in His word.
This article is extremely useful in informing you as to when specific events mentioned in the Bible occurred and when the prophets who wrote of them lived and wrote.
Did Jesus or the New Testament Writers Say a Prophecy Was Fulfilled?
The interpretation of prophecy is not just an academic endeavor. If God, through Jesus or the apostolically enfranchised New Testament writers, says that a prophecy has been fulfilled, it has been fulfilled, to God’s satisfaction. This is called “progressive revelation” in which the New Testament is used to interpret the Old. For those not submitted to God, this is a stumbling block that can lead to the propagation of false doctrine and endless squabbling between believers. This is a simple misunderstanding that can be easily avoided by simply submitting to the revelation and authority given to the New Testament authors.
An example may (hopefully) help bring this issue into focus for us. In Romans 9:25-26, Paul says (see also 1 Peter 2:10 which makes a similar reference):
 As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
Paul tells us he’s citing Hosea in supporting his point that Gentiles are being called into God’s people. When we read Hosea (2:23), however, we find God talking to Israel, telling them that He will have mercy on them and receive them back to Him and into the Land after He has thoroughly destroyed it. So was Hosea describing God’s mercy on Israel (following their return from Babylon), or His acceptance of the Gentiles of the nations who would put their faith in the Christ?
Both. To Hosea, God revealed His plan for apostate Israel, to bring them back. To Paul (and also Peter), God revealed that He was going to call many Gentiles of faith into His Kingdom, a people of whom it could be said, figuratively, had been called “Not My People” prior to Christ. This phenomenon of an OT prophecy having both an original context of fact as well as a NT context is sometimes referred to as “dual fulfillment”. (More on this is found here.)
Some Textual Difficulties
Adding to the confusion, there is also the issue of semantic imprecision we find in the prophecies. Here I’m speaking about, among other things, the drifting from one phrase to the next of who is speaking; the imprecise use of pronouns that could possibly refer to up to three people or groups previously referenced and, importantly, “when” the statement about “him” or “them” (whoever he or they are) is to be implemented and true. These ambiguities are not undecipherable, but they do require careful reading and study. If, after your thoughtful consideration you’re still unsure, you may want to consult a couple of trustworthy commentaries (though you must realize that those of the dispensational persuasion may provide an eschatological spin that pollute the original meaning).
An Example of Obscure Prophecy
Let’s look at Isaiah 48. This is a completely arbitrary portion of scripture, but one that points out a couple of points of obscurity introduced by the form of OT prophetic writing itself.
Here’s the text we’ll look at with comments noted near to the particular verses.
 “Listen to me, O Jacob,
and Israel, whom I called!
I am he; I am the first,
and I am the last.
 My hand laid the foundation of the earth,
and my right hand spread out the heavens;
when I call to them,
they stand forth together.”
The speaker in these first verses is YHWH – “the first, and … the last”.
 “Assemble, all of you, and listen!
Who among them has declared these things?
The LORD loves him;”
After establishing His sovereign right to act, He issues His prophetic message and announces, seemingly out of the blue, “The LORD loves him;” Loves who? We must read on (not back, in this case) to determine who He is referring to here.
We see that the one He loves is the one who will attack the Babylonians – the ones who have imprisoned His people.
“he shall perform his purpose on Babylon,
and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans.
 I, even I, have spoken and called him;
I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way.
 Draw near to me, hear this:
from the beginning I have not spoken in secret,
from the time it came to be I have been there.”
And now the Lord GOD has sent me, and his Spirit. Who is speaking here? Cyrus?
 Thus says the LORD,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the LORD your God,
who teaches you to profit,
who leads you in the way you should go.
 Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments!
Then your peace would have been like a river,
and your righteousness like the waves of the sea;
 your offspring would have been like the sand,
and your descendants like its grains;
their name would never be cut off
or destroyed from before me.”
In this section YHWH again speaks saying, in effect, if you (Israel) had only followed my commandments, things would have been different, implying they wouldn’t have had to have been exiled in Babylon.
 Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,
declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,
send it out to the end of the earth;
say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
But, He says, nevertheless He will extend mercy to them (“Jacob”) and free them from their captivity, just as He redeemed their forefathers from Egypt “through the deserts”.
 They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts;
he made water flow for them from the rock;
he split the rock and the water gushed out.
 “There is no peace,” says the LORD, “for the wicked.”
Momentarily, the speaker is Isaiah. V22 then appears out of nowhere acting as a renewed warning to the exiles in “Jacob”: God says if you continue in wickedness, I won’t give you peace. (This is also repeated at the end of Chapter 57.) God here is once again making it crystal clear that His blessings for “Israel” are for its faithful (His “servant” Jacob), but those who remain unfaithful (the “wicked”) won’t enjoy them.
This passage, while somewhat instructive, is perhaps a little too easy on us in that it spells out clearly that the prophesied events being described are the exile to Babylon of Israel (607-587 BC), and their return, facilitated by the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian (unnamed here, but identified in history and in various places in Isaiah (e.g. see Isaiah 44:28, 45:1). (The elephant in the room with this passage and all of Isaiah is that at the time of Isaiah’s writing (mid-to-late eight century BC), the northern kingdom of Israel had just been defeated by Assyria (740 BC), over 150 years before the Babylonian invasion of Judah ever occurred, let alone their exile and eventual release and return!)
But it does show us an example of the style of these passages and indicates how some of the sources of ambiguity (particularly rapid change of the speaker from verse to verse, and vague pronoun references) can challenge the casual reader.
When the prophets refer to Jerusalem or Zion (or the Holy Mountain), are they referring to the physical city of Jerusalem, or something else?
This question is somewhat more obscure inasmuch as the texts don’t give us quite the clarity that similar texts give us on “Israel”.
There is a common, “Christological” interpretation of Jerusalem/Zion as the Church – believers in Christ – in many verses that they spiritualize. Are they right in applying this interpretation? And if not, why not?
Here we have to first discern between the references that are clearly to the temporal/physical Jerusalem, and those that may not be. As an example of the temporal/physical references, of the many available, we can use Jeremiah 1:15. Here God is clearly referring to the invasion of the physical city of Jerusalem in 587 by “all the tribes of the Kingdoms of the north”, meaning the Babylonians/Chaldeans.
But what are we to make of, for example, the reference in Jeremiah 3:16-17?
It sounds as if God is asserting that it is a foregone conclusion that at some point in the future, Jerusalem will be known as the “throne of the Lord” and that “all nations shall gather to it in the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.” This was God’s desire for His people and the nations. But, of course, it was conditional: conditional on Israel repenting and coming to Him in faith and obedience, something as a nation they never did.
If we interpret these verses literally, can we find a time in history when this prophecy was fulfilled? Certainly we know that the Ark of the Covenant was last seen prior to the Babylonian conquest. The Ark was believed to be God’s resting place on earth, as if on His throne (also known as the Mercy Seat) – 1 Samuel 4:4 – and was housed in the Temple. (This prophecy would have come as a shock to the Israelites who first heard it, as the invasion had not yet even happened, let alone the loss of the Ark). God knows that the loss of these objects will cause despondency among His faithful.
So He tells them He will make them forget it: “It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again”, assumedly to relieve their grief. It’s certainly conceivable that exactly this happened following their return to and restoration in Israel.
Then it says (v17) that with this restoration Jerusalem will be called “the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem”. We can also visualize this being fulfilled as with the rebuilt Temple, Jewish pilgrims from “all nations” would gather in Jerusalem for their annual festivals.
However, a stumbling block to a literal, fulfilled interpretation follows at the conclusion of v17: “and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.” Now, there may have been a short period following the restoration of Israel/Judah and the reconstruction of the Temple where it could be said that the majority of Israelites lived righteously, including those who would have made their annual pilgrimages from the surrounding nations. It’s a possibility, so far as we know.
While this is possible, the prophet Ezra, writing 150 or so years after Jeremiah, following both the exile and the 3-wave return (over a period of some 90 years), doesn’t give us much optimism for this possibility. In Ezra 9:8, for example, he seems to describe a kind of détente between God and the returned exiles. However, in verses 10-15 of the same chapter, Ezra turns a bit fatalistic about the prospects of the returned remnant ever living up to God’s standards, as they had intermarried with the peoples who had moved into the land following the Israelite exile, a practice obviously forbidden by the Mosaic Law.
Another possible interpretation is the futurist interpretation. They would say that v17 is a reference to the Millennial Jerusalem from which the Lord Jesus (not “LORD”, as written) shall reign on his throne. To support this interpretation they might point out that “the throne of the LORD” was also the term used for the throne from which the House of David ruled (1 Chronicles 29:23), the same throne the Messiah, it is believed, will occupy (Jeremiah 33:17-26).
And finally, we could interpret these verses in a purely spiritual sense and identify Jerusalem as the Church – the place where God lives in a very real, though spiritual, sense – as the “throne of the LORD”. And, we could identify the “all nations” being gathered to it as those who come to Christ as the believers around the world who, through evangelism and the work of the Spirit, are brought into the Church.
So which is it; which interpretation is “right” – the literal historical, the futurist, or the spiritual? You can find commentaries that take each view. Let’s apply our analytical toolset and see if we can figure it out for ourselves.
First off, we find that the New Testament authors don’t mention these particular verses. So they are certainly not candidates for fulfillment through new revelation.
Second, we know that Jeremiah wrote his book from approximately 626 BC to sometime after the Babylonian exile in 587 BC – perhaps a span of 50 years.
So we can say that the exile event was an event that Jeremiah actually saw (although he himself was not one of those exiled). He would not have been alive to see the return of the exiles, the reconstruction of the Temple by Zerubbabel[iii], etc.
He did not live to see the restoration of the Jews in Israel/Jerusalem, nor can we find support for this prophecy in the later Prophets who were there to experience the return. So, for the verses in question, we can’t say, conclusively, that they were fulfilled historically.
So where does this leave us? Is this prophecy fulfilled or unfulfilled? We’ve speculated that Jeremiah 3:17 might have been fulfilled in the months and years immediately following the return of the exiles, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the re-establishment of normal life, including religious life, in Israel.
This is where we should acknowledge that the “lens” of one’s dogma sometimes provides more influence on our conclusions than the text itself. If you’re a dispensationalist/futurist, you will conclude that these verses represent as-yet unfulfilled prophecy involving Messianic Jerusalem, with believers streaming in from all over the world, that will one day in the future be fulfilled.
This period of time included the apocalypse of 70 AD and the final act of the Jewish War in 136 AD. The futurists would look for its fulfillment in the yet-to-be future (now some 2,500 years on) as some culminating redemption of Israel in which worship of YHWH was once again centered in Jerusalem.
If you’re not a futurist, you will conclude that, in all probability, these prophecies were fulfilled upon the return of the exiles from Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple (in 516 BC) and restoration of pilgrimages to it. And that for at least a time, the Jews broke their normal pattern of behavior and found favor in God’s eyes and experienced His blessing.
It is perhaps worth noting that both v16 and v17 are talking about the same “days”; when the Jews (the people being addressed by Jeremiah) will both no longer remember the Ark, and when the nations streaming to Jerusalem “shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.” If we want to spiritualize these verses into the Church age, we basically have to ignore V16 (the Ark no more coming to mind – why would the Church be remorseful about its loss?). And in interpreting V17 we need to replace the nations coming to YHWH’s presence in Jerusalem with the Church. In other words, the Jews and their Ark have nothing to do with these verses to the spiritualizer (though he might argue for some kind of “dual fulfillment”).
So have we seen members of the Church gathering to the Church (“Jerusalem”), to the presence of the Lord? In fact, we have. Even allowing for the fact that vast numbers of the professed church aren’t truly members of the true Church, its sheer growth since the time of Christ is indisputable. Can it be said that the presence of God is in the Church (Jerusalem)? Yes, indeed. That is its definition. But it remains a bit awkward (to me, at least) to take two adjacent verses (16 and 17) that are talking about the same “days” and completely ignore one while spiritualizing the other and projecting it hundreds of years into the future.[iv].
However, even with this apparent success in the spiritual handling of V17, we’re still left with its fundamental incompatibility, both in who it is speaking of (pilgrims to a restored Israel [V15] Vs “all nations” – the Church) and about when it is speaking (following the return of exiles from Babylon Vs. after Christ). To add to the difficulty in applying this “lens”, the next verse, v18, speaking of the same “days” reads:
 In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.
There can’t be much confusion about the context or meaning of this verse. We’re clearly situated squarely in the restoration of Israel following its banishment, not hundreds of years in the future. And as for the futurists, when Cyrus conquered Babylon and the lands of the Chaldeans, he conquered what had been Assyria, into which the northern tribes of Israel had been exiled 300 years earlier. When Cyrus granted the right of return to the Israelites, who’s to say some from the northern tribes didn’t return along with the descendants of the Judean exiles, thus fulfilling v18?
This, I’m afraid, is the nature of the Christian’s interpretation of Biblical prophecy. Certainly, not all verses are as contentious or as obscure as these examples. But many are. And examples like this are the reason we find those who differ on such things to line up in at least two, diametrically opposed camps (in actuality many more) that cannot read a Bible verse and come away with anything like the same understanding.
If we apply the same tests of a text, similar to those outlined here, perhaps we could unlearn some of our prejudices that we have acquired over the course of our religious lives, and actually help each other find the underlying truth they profess.
[i] In many of these cases, it seems these interpreters just can’t help themselves. They are so used to seeing key phrases in these prophecies as “types” of things manifested in the Church age that it is virtually impossible for them to see them as anything else.
[ii] Verse 15 is quite interesting. God seems to be saying that the name of His old covenant people (Jew or Hebrew) He is going to give to his “chosen” as a curse. And that He’s going to give His (faithful) servants a new name. This may be an echo of Isaiah 62:4 where He says, speaking of the “righteousness” that shall proceed from Jerusalem/Zion, “but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married, for the LORD delights in you and your land shall be married.”
But what does He mean “as a curse”? The word rendered “curse” means “something sworn, that is, an oath”. So apparently, He’s saying that His chosen people will use the name Jew or Hebrew when swearing negative oaths in the future, e.g. “May your crops wither like the Jews’”, etc. It appears this verse may have been used profitably by anti-Semites to fuel their hatred, as evidenced by this excerpt from a well-known commentary”
“Is there any name on earth now that is more the subject of reproach and execration than all the appellations by which his ancient people were known? The name Jew – what ideas does it convey to all the nations of the earth? It is connected with reproach; a name regarded as belonging to a people accursed by God; a name more universally detested than any other known among people. And was it not because this name would be thus dishonored, reproached, and despised, that another was given to the true people of God – the name CHRISTIAN – an honored name – denoting true attachment to the Messiah?”
[iii] It is quite widely acknowledged that Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, contributed some of the later portions of the text, as did later editors. But all of these are thought to have not survived to see the return of the exiles beginning in 538 BC.
[iv] Of course you could say “The Church doesn’t remember the Ark”, and you’d be right. But the question is why should they? It never played a role in their lives. It never played a role in their belief system. And it plays no role in Christianity. So it’s a bit of a mute point.