A Special Nation called Israel
What qualities might one expect in a nation chosen to be God’s special people? What characteristics could differentiate just one nation from all the others in the world?
Should this special nation display the greatest military prowess, architectural brilliance, technological aptitude, artistic skill, legal sophistication or philosophical insight? Might it have the most representative government or the fairest social law? Should it be situated in the perfect geographical position? Or might it be special for its endurance over centuries?
Should citizens of this nation be the humblest, the kindest, the wisest, the cleverest, the most compassionate or the greatest of spirit?
God gives us the answer, and it is none of these things. One nation in the world is special, standing slightly apart from all others: Israel.
At the formation of the nation of Israel, Moses speaks to the people on behalf of God (Deuteronomy 7:6, KJV):
‘thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God; the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.’
But that’s not fair, is it? If only Israel is accorded this honour, surely every other nation on earth can complain of divine favouritism. Perhaps not; the nation of Israel was special because it had a job to do, and a national agreement with God (Exodus 19:5–6, NET):
‘And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
In Isaiah 43, God is very blunt about why Israel is his own special nation (v 12, NET): ‘“You are my witnesses”, says the LORD, “that I am God.”’
So the Israelites were not to be exclusive beneficiaries of God’s favour, but keepers of his covenant, messengers to the whole world about God. They were always meant to do this, whether or not they actually did what God wanted. God would keep his end of the bargain even if his special nation broke its promises to him, in which case it would be remarkable for all the wrong reasons (Deuteronomy 28:36–37, NET):
‘You will become an occasion of horror, a proverb, and an object of ridicule to all the peoples to whom the LORD will drive you.’
Nearly a thousand years after this was spoken, it happened. First Assyria and then Babylon descended from the north to take the Israelites captive, and, in 586 BC, to destroy Jerusalem. There are many prophecies about this, because God sent many prophets to warn his people. It was a last resort to preserve them, really – it stopped them from becoming indistinguishable from the nations around them.
But God was not finished with his people. He makes this clear in Jeremiah 31. Just look at his credentials as he does so (vv 35–37, NET):
‘The LORD has made a promise to Israel.
He promises it as the one who fixed the sun to give light by day
and the moon and stars to give light by night.
He promises it as the one who stirs up the sea so that its waves roll.
He promises it as the one who is known as the LORD who rules over all.
The LORD affirms, “The descendants of Israel will not
cease forever to be a nation in my sight.”’
In these verses, God stakes his control of the natural world against the claim that Israel will survive.
And this unlikely survival of the nation without a land was noticed by many throughout history, including the American writer Mark Twain, who wrote the following in 1898, 50 years before the State of Israel was re-established:
‘The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. […] All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.’
Even in exile, Israel continued to witness to the world that God keeps his promises.
In the New Testament, this idea of God’s special nation is developed in a way that early Israel would have recognised, but that many Jews of the time could not accept (1 Peter 2:9–10, NET):
‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.’
Peter’s words sound just like those verses from Deuteronomy and Exodus, but instead of speaking only to Jews, he is addressing all Christians, Jew and Gentile alike, who are trying to live as a spiritual nation apart from the world. Although God is not finished with his special people Israel, the promises he made them can now apply to anyone who lives as if they are a part of this special spiritual nation.
And, most comforting of all, the national principle that we saw with Israel in Exodus – not chosen for being the biggest, most successful nation – operates on a personal level too (1 Corinthians 1:26–29, NET):
‘Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence.’
So where does that leave Israel, God’s special nation? A witness to God’s existence by its continued presence on the earth, and an integral part of his plans for the future.
And where does it leave us? We can choose. If we trust the promises that God made three and a half thousand years ago, we can be counted as a part of his special nation, inheritors of the same obligation to witness, and the same sure knowledge that he will always take care of us.