A fascinating and important end-time prophecy is given in the early chapters of the Book of Jeremiah, which has been muddled in various Bible versions. This passage in Jeremiah 3:18 is rendered in the King James Version, “In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance unto your fathers.”
That this prophecy of Israel’s return would only be fulfilled at the end of this age is confirmed by the evangelical commentary, Barnes Notes, which states, “In those days: This and the phrase ‘the latter days,’ had become under the Messianic teaching of the prophets a regular formula for the time of Christ’s coming, when all the nation’s hopes would be fulfilled.” It is clear that the popular church teaching that the exiled Israelites all returned from Babylon in 537 B.C. is disproved by Jeremiah’s declaration.
Yet understanding this prophecy’s fulfillment has been a problem for expositors as shown in the varying ways it is translated. Many Bible translations state that Judah “shall go to” Israel, rather than the King James’ “shall walk with.” If the KJV is correct, then the two houses of Israel were already reunited and walking together either in Babylon or possibly a considerable time long before their return. However, a significant number of translations disagree. If Judah must “go to” Israel in northern lands, then the two houses of Israel did not unite in Babylon and still remained separate entities a significant period of time after. The range of translations using “go to” includes Wycliffe (1394), Bishops Bible (1568), Young’s Literal, Rotherham, The Scriptures, Douay-Rheims, Bullinger’s Companion Bible, and others.
Interestingly, the Contemporary English Version states, ” Then, in countries to the north, you people of Judah and Israel will be reunited, and you will return to the land I gave your ancestors.” Again, this indicates that the Houses of Judah and Israel were not reunited in Babylon 2,500 years ago, but were to be reunited in the future in some Northern land at the end of this age. In addition, it signifies that both houses of Israel migrated to lands north of the Mideast after Babylon’s fall.
In slightly different language the modern Easy Read Version says, “In those days the family of Judah will join the family of Israel. They will come together from a land in the north to the land I gave to their ancestors.” Again, the Biblical phrase, “in those days,” places the reuniting of the two houses no earlier than the end of the age and dawn of the Millennium.
Where is this “land of the north?” Some commentators ignore Jeremiah’s geography and claim it refers to Assyria or Babylon, populous nations to the east of Palestine. This is clearly incorrect, as can be seen in the meaning of the Hebrew word translated north, “tsaphon.” It means “hidden, dark, used only of the north as a quarter, gloomy and unknown.” (See Strong’s H6828) The regions north of the Caucasus Mountains were an unknown wilderness in Jeremiah’s time, well described by a Hebrew word meaning hidden, dark, gloomy and unknown, terms that bore no association with the settled regions of Assyria or Babylon. Hebrew scholars Keil and Delitzsch commented, “The call to repentance which the prophet is in Jeremiah 3:12 to proclaim towards the region of midnight, concerns the ten tribes living in Assyrian exile. צָפֹנַה, towards midnight, i.e., into the northern provinces of the Assyrian empire the tribes had been carried away (2Ki. 17:6; 2Ki. 18:11)…the faithless Israel is the people of the ten tribes.” Early Europe was indeed the “hidden, unknown, dark region of midnight.”
E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible makes it clear that the two houses are still separate entities when they enter the Promised Land from the North, the location of exiled Israel: “In those days the house of Judah shall go unto the house of Israel, that they may enter at the same time out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance unto your fathers.”
The Pulpit Commentary says, “Toward the north. For Israel had been carried captive into the regions to the north of the Assyrian empire (2Ki. 17:6; 2Ki. 18:11). Compare Jer. 31:8. The historical facts to which the prophecy corresponds are variously regarded…At any rate, one point is clear, that the prophet foresees that the number of the exiles who return will be but small compared with the increase to be divinely vouchsafed to them; see verse 16: ‘When ye be multiplied;’ a common feature in pictures of the latter days (Jer. 23:3; Eze. 36:11; Hos. 2:1).”
Bible commentaries understandably see a problem making prophecies such as this fit the modern Jewish people, who they believe have for 2,500 years already represented in their entirety the reunited houses of Israel. The Century Bible, edited by Dr. A.S. Peake makes this revealing admission concerning Jeremiah 3:13-18: “This section creates serious difficulties. Apparently the meaning is not that the whole of the exiled tribes are to return to Palestine and then a chosen few of these were to be brought to Jerusalem, but that only a small remnant would return from exile, and these would be taken to Jerusalem…it is difficult to imagine that Jeremiah expected a feeble remnant of the northern tribes to come back to Palestine and settle in Jerusalem.”
Yet that is what Scripture itself tells us! It may be difficult to reconcile with popular theology, but only a representative remnant of exiled Israel were to return to Palestine. Ezra 2:64 reveals that less than 50,000 returned from the exile. The prophet Isaiah stated, “…ye shall be gathered one by one, O ye children of Israel” (Isa. 27:12). Jeremiah 3:14 says, ” I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” Reformation martyr, Matthew Poole, commented, “One of a city, and two of a family…this may partly respect the fewness of those that will be found penitents and return. God will have a sprinkling in every city, and in every family, or tribe, or country…this seems to be intimated Isaiah 27:12, a text that points at the same thing.”
Many of the Biblical pronouncements of Israel’s return are actually speaking of their Spiritual return to the Lord in faith and righteousness, an often overlooked fact due to Jewish unbelief. Jeremiah 3:12 reported, “Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; and I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you: for I am merciful, saith the LORD, and I will not keep anger for ever.” Matthew Poole acknowledged this fact: “‘I will bring you to Zion,’ [says] Jer. 31:6; but the ten tribes did never return into their own land, and therefore that text must be understood of a spiritual going up to Zion, viz. when all Israel shall be saved, Rom. 11:26. See Isa. 56:7-8; 66:20; and this chapter, Jer. 3:18.”
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, agreed. “The two kingdoms shall become one…at their last conversion” to Christianity. The uniting of Israel and Judah, he believed, would await the Jews’ conversion to Christ. There is irony in this, for Jeremiah twelve times favored the expression, “backsliding Israel,” (e.g. Jer. 3:6), and used the Hebrew word, “Meshubaw,” literally meaning, “apostasy.” To Jeremiah, Israel was apostasy personified. In fact, Jeremiah drove this charge home with a clever play on words: “Return…backsliding” in Hebrew are “Shubah…meshubah.” Backsliding Israel was indeed to return to the Lord in faithfulness, as outlined beautifully in Hosea chapter 2.
The late British-Israel expositor, Thomas W. Plant, commented, “As the historical facts place the Ten Tribes in captivity about a century before the prophecy of Jeremiah, and this event utterly divorced them from the Mosaic Covenant, the critics cannot understand how, why, or when, the Ten Tribes either have, or will, return with Judah after the Babylonian captivity. Nothing historical seems to fit in with this prophetic forecast. The Jews being condemned to be few in number, Israel’s expansion into a great multitude cannot be explained if they cling to purely Jewish history. The idea of a separate national existence for Israel of the Ten Tribes as a world-widely distributed power of ‘a nation and a company of nations’ noted for successful colonization, never seems to have been realized by these critics, and therefore the solution of these prophecies always escapes them.”
The Annotated Bible (ed: Gaebelin) wisely remarks, “Jeremiah 3, verses 12-18: Here is a message to be proclaimed toward the north, calling on backsliding Israel to return. He promises mercy to them. One hundred years before, the house of Israel had gone northward as captives. The Lord knew where they dwelt and sent them this message of mercy. He knows today where the house of Israel is, the ten tribes…These verses are prophetic.”
Let us have expectation that the time will soon come when the identity of lost Israel will be widely revealed!