The Tribes of Israel In The End Times
Jacob’s series of deathbed blessings on his twelve sons in Genesis 49 were also prophecies of what would characterize the tribes that came from each son. All of these prophecies have been fulfilled in the subsequent scriptural history of each tribe. Other Scriptures, however, indicate that the tribes will figure in a significant way in yet to be fulfilled prophecies during the end times. This article will explore some of the false and true ideas about the role of the tribes of Israel in biblical prophecy.
There are two views that give a false interpretation to the future of the tribes of Israel. The first states that there is no separate future prophesied for the tribes apart from their involvement with the Church. This view is usually associated with Amillennialism, which teaches that all the promises to Israel have their fulfillment in the present-day Church which is now supposedly spiritual Israel. The Millennial Kingdom, therefore, is presently being experienced, and all believers, Jew or Gentile, are spiritually the tribes of the new Israel.
The problem with such a view is its principle of spiritualized rather than literal interpretation. According to this principle, prophetic references to Israel, Zion, Jerusalem, etc. are interpreted as God’s people in this age — i.e., the Church. This was not the method employed by the Apostle Paul, however, in Romans 11. In that crucial chapter, he describes the present condition of unbelieving Israel and the future condition of believing Israel (especially Rom. 11:25.27). Any interpretation that regards the first Israel as the Jewish people and the second Israel as the Church is not only inconsistent with the context of the chapter but also empties plain language of any sensible meaning. Yes, according to both the Old and New Testaments, the tribes of Israel do have a future.
The second false interpretation views the future of the tribes, particularly the ten northern tribes, as being associated with England and America. This view, known as British Israelism, was discussed in the last article in this series and shown to be historically, linguistically and scripturally in error. Much emphasis is placed by British Israelites on the prophecy of Jacob regarding Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48:17-22. There Jacob prophesies concerning Ephraim, “his seed shall become a multitude of nations” (Gen. 48:19b). The many nations in the British Commonwealth are supposedly the fulfillment of this prophecy. Apart from the fact that Britain’s commonwealth has practically disappeared, this view neglects the scriptural meaning of nations. The term “goyim,” generally standing for the Gentile nations, is also used for the tribes or families of the Jewish people! Here is a literal translation of the key Scripture: And He said unto me. Son of Man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to nations [the plural goyim in Hebrew] that are rebellious, which have rebelled against me (Ezek, 2:3). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (p. 154) states: “In this general ethnic sense the term goy may even be used of Abraham’s seed” (cf. Gen. 12:2; 17:20; 21:18; Ex. 33:13; Dt. 4:6-7; Josh. 3:17; 5:8). The fulfillment of this prophecy to Ephraim was found in the large population and influence of that tribe in subsequent years, not in the Anglo-Saxon peoples — a people of Japhetic, not Semitic, ancestry.
The New Testament contains some fascinating truths about the future of Israel’s tribes. As a matter of fact, prophecies of the tribes are associated with the four major events of biblical eschatology — the Tribulation, the Second Coming, the Millennial reign, and the new heavens and earth.
The major section of the Book of Revelation (chapters four through nineteen) describes events during a seven-year period commonly referred to as the Tribulation period. Chapter seven is an inset between the sixth and seventh seal Judgments (cf. Rev. 6:12-17 and 8:1). In that chapter appear two large groups of people who represent those who are saved during that awful period known in the Old Testament as “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7). The first group is described in Revelation 7:4-8: “And I heard the number of them which were sealed; and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. Of the tribe of Judah were seated twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Asher were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Naphtali were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasseh were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Zebulun were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand, Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand.”
This group of 144,000 is dearly described as “of all the tribes of the children of Israel” (Rev. 7:4b). There are some, however, who want to reject the plain meaning of Scripture and apply this passage to their own religious cult (e.g., the Watchtower Society). The Apostle John went to much effort, however, to convey to us that this group is entirely Jewish by mentioning that twelve thousand came from each of the twelve tribes and even giving us the tribal names! Furthermore, John contrasts this group with an innumerable non-Jewish group in Revelation 7:9-17, who are described as being “of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9). This should clearly prove the Jewish character of the 144,000 and forever silence those who want to make them the Church or some other religious group.
These seated Jews are those who come to faith in Jesus as Messiah during the Tribulation period. They are further described as “first fruits unto God and to the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4), indicating that they compose the first stage of a final harvest of Jewish souls to be gathered later at the Lord’s coming in glory. Some interpreters have taught that these Jews will become evangelists to all the world during this dark hour. Although this may be true, we must be careful to stick with what the passage teaches, i.e., that a large body of Jews will be saved and protected from the Tribulation judgments. These comprise, the “remnant” of Jews “who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17b).
A comparison of this passage with the other tribal listings in Scripture reveals the absence of Ephraim and Dan. In an earlier article on Dan, notice was taken of the way in which the tribe of Dan was overrun by idolatry since the days of the judges. Interestingly, Jeroboam’s idols were placed in the tribes of Dan and Ephraim (i.e. Bethel, 1 Ki. 12:29). Thus, in the Revelation 7 listing Dan was replaced by Levi (v. 7), Ephraim was replaced by his father Joseph (v. 8), while his brother Manasseh was included to complete the twelve (v. 6).
Many have asked, “If Jews do not presently know their tribal membership, how can this prophecy be fulfilled?” The answer is simply that our inability to know such matters does not limit God’s ability to know and to sort out the details. The sealing will be done by angels who will perform His bidding, regardless of human knowledge in the matter.
The Second Coming
The theme verse of The Revelation describes our Lord’s advent with the words: “Behold, he cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see him, and they also who pierced him; and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen” (Rev. 1:7). The fulfillment of this announcement does not actually occur until Revelation 19:11-16 which takes place after the Tribulation period. Most commentators explain this verse as describing the universal repentance of all the tribes of mankind at the second advent. These interpreters, however, have neglected to see the verse in its Old Testament context.
It is evident that Revelation 1:7 refers to Zechariah 12:10, “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplications; and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.” In that context those who look upon the “pierced” One are the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah, i.e. Jews. The mourning that is done in Zechariah 12:11 ff. is performed by Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel. This mourning is an indication of the penitential remorse to be experienced by Israel at its national conversion prophesied so often in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Hos. 3:5; Rom. 11:25-27).
The word “kindreds” in Revelation 1:7 is the Greek word “phyle,” translated as tribe in Revelation 5:5 (“tribe of Judah”) and in Revelation 7:4-8 (“tribes of the children of Israel”). Therefore, Revelation 1:7 is referring, not to a general mourning of mankind at the Second Coming, but to a mourning of repentance by Israel’s tribes when they recognize their suffering Messiah. A parallel thought was expressed by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24:30, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Perhaps the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 will be the words used to express Israel’s penitential cry. In that crucial chapter Israel describes her suffering Messiah and her response to Him with these words: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4-6). In that day the tribes of Israel will repentantly confess that the One whom they rejected was the One who actually came to suffer as an offering” for their sin (Isa. 53:10).
The Millennial Reign
Following His Second Coming to earth, the Messiah will reign over a restored Israel and a renewed earth for a thousand years (Zech. 14:9; Isa. 11:1-11; Rev. 20:1-6). During that Kingdom period the tribes of Israel will again play a role. This was stated unequivocally by Him in Matthew 19:28, “And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you that ye who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Peter was wondering what would be the result of their forsaking all in this life to follow Jesus. He told them that the physical reward would not come in this life but in the life to come; that reward would be that the apostles would share in the Millennial government.
Jesus referred to this time as the “regeneration” (Mt. 19:28). This word is used only twice in the New Testament. In Titus 3:5 it refers to the regeneration of the individual soul; here in Matthew 19:28 it refers to the regeneration of the earth during the Kingdom. Evidently, restored Israel, represented by the twelve tribes, will be governed by the twelve apostles as vice-regents to the King of kings in the Millennial administration. The eschatological idea of believers judging in the sense of governing appears also in Daniel 7:22; Luke 22:30; 1 Corinthians 6:2; and Revelation 20:4. The exact details of the Millennial governmental administration are not revealed to us in Scripture, but we can rest assured that it will be marked by justice, equity and righteousness (cf. Isa. 11:3-5).
One other passage gives us information on the role of the tribes during the Millennium. Ezekiel 40-48 is one of the most fascinating and difficult passages in the Scriptures. These chapters describe the Millennial Temple, the regulations regarding its sacrifices and priestly duties and the appointment of the land to the various tribes.
The rabbis of the Talmud (Menachem 45a) remarked that only the Prophet Elijah, who will herald the ultimate redemption, will be able to explain these chapters fully. No attempt will be made here to clarify all the details of this section of God’s Word, but particular note should be taken of chapter forty-eight. Here are described the boundaries of the future tribal divisions which differ considerably from the original boundaries described in Joshua 13-19. A consideration of the map will help to illuminate the following details. The whole territory west of the Jordan River is to be divided into twelve parallel portions running east to west. The northern boundary is in the modern country of Lebanon. The southern boundary is roughly the same as Israel’s present boundary with Egypt. Each tribe receives an equal share in the following order from north to south: Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad. Between the territories of Judah and Benjamin is situated the “holy oblation” (48:10), comprising the Temple area, plus the domains of the priests, Levites and the “prince.”
It is noteworthy that the tribes descended from the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, are placed at the extreme ends, farthest from the sanctuary. It should also be noted that the tribe of Dan, although not included in the 144,000 Jews sealed during the Tribulation, will have its own portion in the Millennial kingdom. Evidently this period, referred to by Peter as “the times of restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), will witness the restoration of Dan’s tribal inheritance as well.
Whatever be the precise interpretation of all these facts, it should not be missed that the presence of the glory of the Lord will be hallowed in the land. Jerusalem will even have a name change: “ …the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there” (Ezek. 48:35). The One whom Ezekiel had sadly witnessed as departing in chapters 9-11 will gloriously return to His forsaken Temple (see Ezek. 43:1-5). Moreover, the tribes of Israel, long scattered in the lands of exile, will be regathered, restored, regenerated and ruled over by their Messiah King, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The New Heavens and Earth
The final reference to the tribes of Israel is in connection with John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). In Revelation 21:10 John also sees “that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.” That indescribably beautiful city is to be adorned with “twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written on the gates, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel” (Rev. 21:12). These gates are balanced by the twelve foundations of the wall which have the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14).
Although this reference does not describe a separate role for the twelve tribes in that day, it does speak of the fact that throughout eternity the Old Testament people of God (i,e., the tribes) and the New Testament people of God (i.e., the apostles) will bask together in the light of the glory of God and of His Lamb (Rev. 21:23).
Thus, that which was planted in Genesis, the book of creation, finds its fruition in Revelation, the book of consummation. The sons who originally gathered around their aged father’s bed scarcely realized that their descendants would play such a crucial role in the development of God’s redemptive plan. To the believer, a consideration of the overarching unity of this wide-ranging plan ought to cause us to rejoice in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).