Sign/ The Second Return to the Land
As we have shown, Jesus' prophecy in the Olivet Discourse that the fig tree would someday leaf out again refers to Israel. But exactly what event in the history of Israel does the rebudding of the fig tree represent? Our first supposition might be that it pictures the regathering of Jews in the land of their fathers. If it does, then Jesus' prophecy has already been fulfilled. Although for long ages after A.D. 70 the Jews lived as a despised people wandering in exile far from their homeland, there now exists in this homeland a Jewish state. The Jews have returned.
Jewish reoccupation of Palestine has been the goal of the Zionist movement ever since it originated about a hundred years ago. With the support of powerful sympathizers, Zionists soon opened the way for many people of Jewish descent to migrate to Palestine. By the time World War I began, almost 80,000 Jews lived there (1). At the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population of the land had swollen to 450,000 (2). Then in 1948, when the number of Jewish settlers had reached nearly a million, the nation of Israel was reborn as a political entity (3). But has the fig tree come alive again?
There is no doubt that Jewish migration to Palestine during the modern era has been in fulfillment of prophecy. When the Old Testament describes the future Messianic age, it clearly anticipates a prior return of Jews to their homeland. Of particular interest is an oracle of Isaiah.
10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
11 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.
12 And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
The "root of Jesse" is Christ. The prediction that the gentiles will seek Christ (v. 10) implies a period of worldwide evangelism after His coming. This oracle is therefore one of the few Old Testament texts that speak of the Church Age. In the next verse (v. 11), the prophet foresees a day when the Lord will accomplish a "second" recovery of His people from exile in remote places. Most commentators suppose that Isaiah is treating Israel's deliverance from Egypt as the first. But the Israelites who escaped from Egypt were not a remnant. They were the whole nation in its infancy, when population was surging to new heights. Nor did they come from any nation but Egypt. Thus, as some commentators recognize, the first recovery by Isaiah's reckoning must be the return from Babylonian captivity (4). The placement of verse 11 after verse 10 suggests that the "second" will occur only after Christ has come and His gospel has been preached to the gentiles.
In fact, Isaiah envisions a third recovery of Jews to the land. The second (v. 11) will be partial, mainly from the nations listed. The third (v. 12) will be complete, from the four corners of the earth. The second will come about through the secret, Providential working of the Lord's hand. The third will happen in response to a public summons from the person of Christ Himself, the "ensign" in verse 12 as in verse 10. The following text describes the third recovery:
19 And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.
20 And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the LORD out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the LORD, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD.
21 And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD.
22 For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain.
Once enthroned, Christ will sift the whole world for any remaining descendants of the twelve tribes and bring them to their ancient homeland. This final regathering is the third recovery foreseen in prophecy.
When will the previous recovery occur—the one Isaiah designates as the Lord setting His hand again the second time to recover His people? The answer is given by Jeremiah.
3 For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.
4 And these are the words that the LORD spake concerning Israel and concerning Judah.
5 For thus saith the LORD; We have heard a voice of trembling, of fear, and not of peace.
6 Ask ye now, and see whether a man doth travail with child? wherefore do I see every man with his hands on his loins, as a woman in travail, and all faces are turned into paleness?
7 Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble; but he shall be saved out of it.
8 For it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off thy neck, and will burst thy bonds, and strangers shall no more serve themselves of him:
9 But they shall serve the LORD their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them.
The prophet affirms that before the time of Jacob's trouble, many Jews will return to the land of their fathers. Students of prophecy equate the time of Jacob's trouble with the Tribulation. Thus, the regathering that Jeremiah foresees will follow by long ages the return of Israel from Babylonian captivity in ancient times and also precede Christ's regathering of Jews after His coming. It must therefore be the recovery that Isaiah designates as the second. Undoubtedly it is the same recovery that has taken place during the last two hundred years of the modern era, as Jews in multiplied thousands have flowed back to Palestine. Yet this historically recent migration of Jews is not in itself the sign that, according to the Olivet Discourse, would announce the end of the world. It is not the rebudding of the fig tree.
Sign/ Rebirth of the Jewish State
One result of the Jews going back to Palestine has been the formation of a Jewish state. This development has also fulfilled prophecy.
In the dream of Nebuchadnezzar which the Lord enabled Daniel to interpret, the king saw a succession of five gentile kingdoms (Dan. 2:41-43). The first four represented kingdoms with authority over an existing state of Israel. The fifth, which is still future, must therefore also refer to a gentile kingdom ascendant over a nation of Jews.
Zechariah is more explicit. He says that when the gentile world mounts its final assault on the land of Judah (an assault preliminary to the great battle known as the Battle of Armageddon), Jews will be living there under the rule of their own governors.
3 And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it.
4 In that day, saith the LORD, I will smite every horse with astonishment, and his rider with madness: and I will open mine eyes upon the house of Judah, and will smite every horse of the people with blindness.
5 And the governors of Judah shall say in their heart, The inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be my strength in the LORD of hosts their God.
6 In that day will I make the governors of Judah like an hearth of fire among the wood, and like a torch of fire in a sheaf; and they shall devour all the people round about, on the right hand and on the left: and Jerusalem shall be inhabited again in her own place, even in Jerusalem.
But, just as the modern return of Jews to Palestine is not the rebudding of the fig tree, neither is the new Jewish state that they have established. To what then does the sign refer? Has the sign been fulfilled? For the answer, proceed to the next lesson.