What is the Meaning of ‘All Israel’ in Rom. 11:26?
I quote in full from Israel’s Restoration by John F. Walvoord, Th.D. in Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct. - Dec. 1945). “The confusion in the minds of expositors of Scripture concerning the meaning of Romans 11:26 is one of the obvious facts of biblical interpretation. Not only various schools of thought disagree, but the passage is a problem to all. An important clue to its interpretation is found in its preceding context. The entire chapter of Romans eleven deals with the question, ‘Did God cast off His people?’ (Rom. 11:1). The answer given to this leading question is that ‘God did not cast off His people which He foreknew” (Rom. 11:2). The argument proceeds to the pointing out that there has always been a remnant of Israel who believed both under the law and under grace. The fact that this group was only a small portion of the nation of Israel is explained as the occasion of the present grace extended to Gentiles: ‘I say then, Did they stumble that they might fall? God forbid: but by their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealosy’ (Rom. 11:11). The argument then turns on the point that if the unbelief and ‘fall’ of Israel as a nation was the occasion of blessing on the Gentiles; how much more will be the blessing: “Now if their fall is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?” (Rom. 11:12). These facts combine to serve as a warning to Gentiles not to be high-minded and serve as an encouragement to Israel that a future time of blessing is in store, The contrast throughout the passage is not between the believer and unbeliever but between Gentiles as such and Israel as a nation. In Romans 11:25, the issue is brought to a head with the revelation that Israel’s present blindness and unbelief will be concluded at the same time that the present Gentile opportunity is ended. Then follows the event described as ‘all Israel’ being delivered.
The issues involved in the passage under consideration can be resolved into a series of questions: (1) What is the meaning of ‘all Israel’? (2) What is the nature of the deliverance? (3) When will the deliverance occur? (4) What are the concomitant events? Any answer to these questions involves both premises based on interpretation of the entire Scriptures and exegesis of the passage itself. The history of its interpretation has revealed a tendency to determine the meaning of the passage largely on the basis of other Scriptures. Hence, most Amillennialists have denied that the reference is to Israel in the flesh and have given a spiritual interpretation of the passage. Premillennialists have insisted upon a more literal exegesis. The issue is determined by the meaning of the key words.
It is apparent that the construction placed upon the word Israel practically determines the exegesis of the entire passage. The question is answered by at least three important considerations: (1) What is the use of the word in the context? (2) What is the use of the word in the New Testament as a whole? (3) What is the relation of the question to doctrine in general?
A study of the context bears out the fact that the word Israel as used in this passage is in contrast to GENTILE. This is clear in Romans 11:1, where Paul identifies himself as an Israelite because of his connection with the tribe of Benjamin — a racial and national relation rather than spiritual. The contrast is made further in Romans 11:11 ff. The use of ‘ye’, i.e., the Gentiles, is opposed to ‘they’, i.e., the Jews. In other words, the entire chapter carefully preserves the distinction between two classes — Jews and Gentiles. Further, the Gentiles are in most cases those who have believed in Christ and members of the Church. The contrast is not, therefore, between believing Israel and unbelieving Gentiles, but rather the two groups are treated racially. There is no ground whatever in this passage for the idea that Israel is a reference to all believers as such — the interpretation advanced by Origen, furthered by Calvin, and embraced by most amillennialists. This interpretation would nullify the very theme of the chapter.
The immediate context also brings out the contrast between Israel and Gentiles. In Romans 11:25, both terms occur in contrast. As far as the general context and the immediate context is concerned, there is no ground for SPIRITUALIZING THE WORD ISRAEL. Even A. T. Robertson, who is not a premillennialist, rather reluctantly admits that the context would indicate that the Jewish people are indicated. (Word Pictures in The New Testament, Vol. 4, p. 398). Charles Hodge, who is also not a premillennialist, states flatly, ‘Israel, here, from the context, MUST MEAN THE JEWISH PEOPLE, AND ALL ISRAEL, AS THE WHOLE NATION. THE JEWS, AS A PEOPLE, ARE NOW REJECTED: AS A PEOPLE THEY ARE TO BE RESTORED’ (COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS, P. 589). The Amillennial view that Israel refers to all believers, must be held in spite of the context. It is noteworthy that Dr. Oswald T. Allis, who more than any other recent amillennial writer has attempted formally to refute premilliennialism, passes by Romans 11:26 with only a footnote reference in which he tries to sustain his thesis that Romans eleven says nothing of Israel’s restoration (Prophecy and the Church, p. 305). In brief, his argument is that if Paul believed in Israel’s restoration, he would have mentioned restoration to the land.
In other words, because Paul does not include all the elements of Israel’s restoration, he cannot be speaking on the subject at all. If words are to be taken in their ordinary meaning, Paul is speaking of Israel’s spiritual and national restoration throughout the chapter. The fact is that Romans 11:26 is an embarrassing passage to the amillennial school of interpretation and, as they have no satisfactory interpretation of it, they are prone to give none.
The predicament of the amillennialist in interpreting Romans 11:26 is further disclosed by examination of their theory that Israel as a term is constantly used in the New Testament as a synonym of the Church composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Their prejudice is expressed well by Dr. Allis when he states that when the Brethren Movement “insisted that Israel must mean Israel, and that the kingdom promises in the Old Testament concern Israel and are to be fulfilled to Israel literally that they were carrying to an almost unprecedented extreme that literalism which is characteristic of Millennialism.” Yet Allis himself admits that premillennialism was extensively held in the Early Church and that it was superseded only when Augustine advanced the idea that the millennium was to be interpreted spiritually as fulfilled in the Christian Church (Prophecy and the Church, p. 218). As a matter of fact even a casual study of the writings of the early Fathers reveals that millennialism was not only “extensively held” but was in fact the outstanding characteristic of early Christian eschatology. Dr. Wilbur Smith in his review of Dr. Allis’ book quotes Schaff to this effect: “The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the Church embodied in any creed or form of devotion; but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenacus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius (Sunday School Times, Nov. 24, 1945, p. 940). Dr. Allis’ unprecedented literalism was, in the impartial hands of doctrinal historians, the prevailing opinion of the Church until the perversions of Augustine and Roman Catholicism began to have weight. After all, is it such “unprecedented literalism” to believe that the Bible means Israel when it uses the term? Is not the burden of proof on the amillennialist to prove that the word means other than its ordinary meaning?
It is not difficult to prove from Scripture that Israel is frequently used in the New Testament to mean what it meant in the Old Testament — the nation descending from Abraham through Jacob. Further, there is not a single reference in the New Testament to Israel which cannot be taken in its plain meaning. Not a single instance requires the term to include Gentiles. In a word, there is no justification based on usage in the New Testament to interpret the word Israel as ever including Gentiles.
The question remains concerning the relation of the passage to biblical doctrine as a whole. This involves the issues which determine premillennialism and amillennialism as systems of doctrines — a subject which is too large to be treated here. This much is clear; the premillennial system of interpretation is in full harmony with the interpretation that Israel in this passage refers to Jews in the flesh rather than to all believers, Jews and Gentiles alike. The Amillennial system demands that the passage be spiritualized or their whole system is in jeopardy. The nature of the argument is illuminating, however. The Amillennialist usually argues that Israel must be spiritualized because to do otherwise involves what is to him the extreme literalism that Israel means Israel. In other words, he argues from the system of doctrine to its necessary interpretation of the passage. On the other hand, the Premillennialist appeals to the immediate context —the contrast between Israel and Gentiles; the general context — the discussion of Gentile privilege because of Israel’s fall; and the useage in the New Testament as a whole. From the standpoint of arriving at biblical doctrine, the hermeneutics of the Premillennial argument is obviously sound.
A difficulty for all systems of interpretation is the use of the word “all.” What is meant when it is stated that “all Israel shall be saved”? This has been referred to as a difficulty of the Premillennial interpretation. Obviously, all Israel is not saved. Israel in view in the prophecy must first of all be limited to living Israel, that is, those living on earth at the time. It is not true that all Israelites of all generations are to be saved. Further, the Scriptures reveal that a large portion of Israel will be martyred during the time of trouble preceding the consummation of the period before the second coming of Christ (Zech. 13:8, 9). There are other complications in the doctrine when the judgment on Israel is taken into consideration (Ezek. 20:33-38). What is meant, then, by all?
Before attempting to answer the question, it should be noted that the same difficulty attends the Amillennial view, or any other view which attempts to find an actual event in this passage. While Israel according to the Amillennialist means “all believers,” it is also obvious that all believers are not saved at the end of the age by the coming of Christ. For the proper interpretation of the passage both principal millennial views must limit the fulfillment to those living at the time. The difficulty is not, then, a result of the premillennial viewpoint.