The Promised Land

It is surprising to discover from Stephen’s speech in the New Testament that Abraham never received the land promised from God! 

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans… into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.” (ESV)

When Did Abraham Expect to Receive the Promise?

Throughout Genesis, the faithful man Abraham, and his sons, Isaac and Jacob, lived as nomads in tents. Yet Abraham had come from the city of Ur, a civilized, ‘modern’ city with running water and libraries. Cities and houses had been common dwellings long before Abraham lived. Why did Abraham choose to dwell in a tent? Why did he and his sons not claim the land and build homes and establish their presence in the land? It was only when Abraham needed a place to bury his wife, Sarah, that he bought a section of the land for a cemetery (Genesis 23). He had to buy land – yet God had promised it to him as a gift.

Obviously, Abraham chose to live as a nomad for a reason. God had clearly defined the boundaries to the land (Genesis 15:17-21) and numerous times he reiterated the promise in Genesis, but it was never fulfilled. In the New Testment, the writer to Hebrews confirms that the promise was not received, adding details that indicate Abraham did not expect to inherit the land in his lifetime! The KJV is a little easier to understand for this passage, so we will use it instead of the ESV:

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God… These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” (KJV)

Notice what we are told:

  • Abraham lived in the promised land in a tent – “tabernacles”, as a stranger.
  • He died without receiving his inheritance, looking for a “city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”.
  • He was looking for a “heavenly” country. 

A “Heavenly” Country?

This can seem confusing. If Abraham didn’t get the promised land in his lifetime, will he get it in the future? Was Abraham really promised land on earth, or was the promise made for an inheritance in heaven – as we are told he looked for a “heavenly” country?

If Abraham was promised a place in Heaven, then why would God tell him, “I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it”? (Genesis 15:7). And why did God tell him to look at the land in all directions and walk through it, promising, “For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” (Genesis 13:14-17)

An inheritance in the Heavens would not fulfill this promise.

Did Abraham Expect to Receive the Promise Himself?

Some say that God was only promising to give the land to the Jewish people – Abraham’s offspring. But if you look at the verses above from Genesis 13, you will notice that God specifically adds, “to thee will I give it.” The promise was made to Abraham, as well as to his seed.

More Questions

So, all this begs the question, When will the promise be fulfilled?

The only way for Abraham to inherit the land of Israel with his descendants, is for Abraham and his descendants to be resurrected from the dead. They must live again on this earth, in a body that can no longer die, as was the hope of the faithful in Old and New Testament times. (For instance see Job 19:25-27; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:1-3; 7:13-27; Acts 26:22-23; 1 Corinthians 15)

So, why is the Promised Land referred to as ‘a Heavenly City’?

For this reason – the future God has planned for the land of Israel involves His Son reigning as King in Jerusalem. It will no longer be an earthly city governed by the will of man, but a city governed by the will of God – therefore a ‘Heavenly City’.

“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Isaiah 2:1-4

There is a very exciting time ahead for the future of this world. Abraham set his hopes upon the promises in the future, and so must we. The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is the beginning of these prophecies being fulfilled (Ezekiel 37: 21-28). If you’d like to investigate this subject a little further, print out the Discovery Lesson and see for yourself 🙂