There is engraved on the human heart a longing for a place to belong. We build houses, coalesce in towns and cities, and proudly call these places our homes. Much of the impulse behind such building lies in our desire to be around other people (even for the most introverted and isolated among us), but along with that social component, we should recognize that there is another impulse pulling us together into places. Whether we live in caves, thatched-roof shanties, two-story homes in the suburbs, or mansions in the hill country, we all long for a place to belong. Not only do we long for a place, but God promises us a place – he promises us a land in which we will dwell and experience his blessings.
Judging by word count alone (which is not always the best method) you would have to admit that “land” is a prominent, even central theme in the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “land” and sometimes “earth” occurs over 2500 times in the Old Testament. More than 300 of those uses are found in the book of Genesis. Strikingly, this word is found twenty times in the first chapter of Genesis alone.
The Bible opens with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (land). The earth (land) was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” In the first of these two occurrences of the word “land,” it is combined with “heavens” to indicate the entire universe. In the second, “land” seems to refer to a more specific place, to the world in which we live. Further in the narrative, we find God commanding, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear.” In this instance it is clear that the word “land” refers to the ground upon which we stand – a further narrowing in meaning.
Recognizing these three uses of the word “land” helps us to see that the concept of “land” is not flat (no pun intended). It can encompass the whole earth, the parts of the earth not covered by water, and, as is most often the case, a particular portion of the earth with boundaries and borders. By far the most frequent use of the term, which is a subset of this third use, is in reference to the Promised Land. So, for instance, God promises Abraham in Genesis 12:7, “To your offspring I will give this land.” The theme of the inheritance of the Promised Land dominates the rest of the Old Testament. It is promised to Abraham, sought after by Moses and the wandering Israelites, conquered and obtained by Joshua and his army, ruled over by David and Solomon, and eventually lost to foreign invaders by disobedient and idolatrous Israel. The promise, pursuit, possession, and then loss of the Land is a heartbreaking story. Even when the Jewish people return to the Land after seventy years in captivity, they are never its true rulers again; it is ruled over by foreigners and invaders. To the casual reader of the Bible, this may seem to be a surprising, even disheartening story. But to the careful reader, the end was written from the beginning, with a better end in store afterward.
I mentioned the frequent occurrence of the word “land” in Genesis 1 for good reason. The “land” that God carefully prepares and populates with plants, animals, and people (Adam and Eve) in the first chapter of Genesis foreshadows the Promised Land of later chapters. In particular, the place of man’s dwelling, Eden, anticipates the place to which God would call Abraham and in which he would bless the descendants of Abraham. But Eden was no permanent residence. When the people of God rejected God and chose to go their own way, he cast them out of the Garden, out of Paradise. Paradise was not so perfect after all, for it had within it the means and opportunity for rebellion against God. A perfect place would exclude even the possibility of sin – and certainly bar entry to the Father of lies, the great Serpent of old, whom Jesus tells us comes only “to kill, steal, and destroy,” (John 10:10).
In the same way, the Land promised to Abraham, described as “flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), is not without its defects. Chief amongst these, of course, is the presence of idol-worshipping nations. The Canaanite peoples present in the land prior to the Israelites were not innocent or naïvely ignorant. They were idolaters and blasphemers, guilty of every form of sin from sexual immorality to child sacrifice. So, their sins having compounded upon one another for centuries (see Genesis 15:16), God finally sent his people into the land to bring judgment upon the nations, and to win their inheritance. The book of Joshua tells the tale of this conquest.
At times in Joshua, the writer seems to indicate that the promises of God concerning the Land have reached their fulfillment. In chapter 11 we read, “So Joshua took all that land, the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. And he captured all their kings and struck them and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a city that made peace with the people of Israel except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon. They took them all in battle,” (vv. 16-19, emphasis added). The conquest appears to be complete, but all is not as it seems. Only two chapters later we read, “Now Joshua was old and advanced in years, and the LORD said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and there remains yet very much land to possess,” (Joshua 13:1, emphasis added). Not all the inhabitants of the Land have been destroyed and portions of the Promised Land remain under the control of pagan peoples.
Near the end of his life, Joshua charges the leaders of Israel, “Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day,” (Joshua 23:6-8). This warning is later followed by a grim prediction: “But Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good,’” (Joshua 24:19-20). It’s Eden all over again. God has brought his people to a place, to a Land of blessing. Yet the means and the opportunity for rebellion are present. Reading these words after the fact, knowing that rebellion and idolatry lie in both the near and far future for the nation of Israel, sounds a note of solemn inevitability. The day will come when Israel’s transgression will result in her expulsion from the Land.
After the reigns of David and Solomon and the division of their kingdom into two nations follows a slow and unstoppable march to that day upon which the Jewish people would be defeated, captured, and taken away from the place God had provided for them. God warned the people of impending judgment through the prophet Jeremiah: “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation,’” (Jeremiah 25:8-9). Because they have broken the covenant, God has banished them from the Land. Eden foreshadows the fall the Judah, and the fall of Judah looks back to Eden.
The prophets, however, looked ahead for better things. Neither Eden nor the Promised Land of Palestine are the final “resting” place for God’s people. Through the very same prophets that pronounced God’s judgment, he sends a message of hope for the future. There will be a day when he removes the sinfulness of our hearts, so that sin is no longer inevitable. The day will come when his Spirit will dwell within his people and they will have the hope of living in the place he has prepared for them forever (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-27). The prophet Ezekiel describes this day in terms reminiscent of the promises made to Abraham: “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God,” (Ezekiel 36:28). These great promises, however, never found their fulfillment during the lives of the prophets. These great spokesmen of God all died, and four hundred hears of silence – four hundred years of waiting – commenced.
The writers of the New Testament unashamedly claim that the New Covenant promises of Jeremiah and Ezekiel find their fulfillment in Christ. Jesus himself tells his disciples, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood,” (Luke 22:20). The writer of Hebrews, after quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, says that Jesus “is the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). God has now begun, in Jesus, to put his Spirit within his people, to write his Law on their hearts, and he will some day complete the work of setting them free, not only from the consequences of sin, but from its effects. The day will come when sin will be no more in the hearts of those who trust in Christ.
But what about the land aspect of the New Covenant promises? The book of Hebrews once again helps us to understand the ultimate fulfillment of the promises of God. The writer tells us, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God,” (Hebrews 11:8-10, emphasis added). Even as he stood in the Promised Land, Abraham was looking ahead to a better land – to a land designed and built by God himself.
This land is not localized to the Middle East, nor is it limited to a single geographical region on any map. This land is the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1). It’s capital is not found in the earthly Jerusalem, but in a heavenly Jerusalem, the people of God who dwell upon the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:2-4). And in this place, we are told, “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life,” (Revelation 21:27). In Eden, the serpent entered and Adam fell. In the New Jerusalem and in the new heaven and earth, there will be no sin, and no possibility of sin. In the Promised Land, foreign nations tempted Israel and the people went after false Gods. In the New Jerusalem and in the new heaven and earth, there are only “those who are written in the Lambs book of life,” and God and the Lamb are the temple in the midst of his people (Revelation 21:22).
The whole earth will belong to God’s people. It will be free of sin, free of pain, and strife, and war, and heartache. Centuries before Christ came to inaugurate the coming of God’s Kingdom in this world, and the transformation of both his people and the place promised to them, Isaiah looked forward to such a day: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness,” (Isaiah 65:17-18).