God’s promise to Abraham to make a great nation of his descendants was only partially fulfilled when the twelve tribes of Israel settled in the Promised Land. Abraham’s grandson Jacob was the father of the twelve men from whom the twelve tribes became established. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel after he was overpowered by him in an all-night wrestling match (Genesis 32:28). The name Israel means “he will rule (as) God” (3478). When the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria and its people sent into exile, it appeared that God’s effort to establish a nation from Abraham’s descendants had failed, but the nation of Israel was never intended to be a political institution. God wanted his spiritual kingdom to be manifested physically on earth.
A nation is similar to a body in that its individual members are considered to be a single unit that functions interdependently. The real purpose of a nation is to give its people a shared identity. When God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, he was giving him a new identity, one that would remain in tact until God’s kingdom was manifested on earth. In order for the nation of Israel to look like God’s kingdom, all of the twelve tribes had to be included. Speaking of the final outcome he was working towards, God told Jeremiah, “The fierce anger of the LORD shall not return, until he have done it, and until he have performed the intents of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it. At the same time, saith the LORD, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 30:24-31:1).
The issue that had to be resolved in order for Israel to be restored to a single united kingdom as it had been in king David’s day was its people had to turn away from their practice of idolatry. Isaiah described the situation as a covenant with death (Isaiah 28:15). God’s remedy was Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. He said, “Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation…And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand” (Isaiah 28:16,18). God’s love for his chosen people was so powerful that his grace became a way for him to turn them away from their idols. He said, “For I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow… And my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:13-14).
God’s restoration of the nation of Israel was identified as a “new thing.” Isaiah declared on behalf of the LORD, “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you them” (Isaiah 42:9). The voluntary return of God’s people to their homeland was considered a new thing because they had rejected him over and over again. The only way to adequately describe the difference between the former things and the new that was expected to take place was a transformation of the heart. The once proud and rebellious people of the northern kingdom of Israel would become like an adoring bride (Jeremiah 31:22). All of Israel will one day embrace with tender and unfailing love the one they crucified.