We are approaching the year 2018, which will mark seventy years from Israeli statehood on May 14th, 1948. Jewish sages have remarked that modern Israel’s years should be reckoned in the same way as the man mentioned in Psalm 90:10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” They have written that the formative generation of Israel is nearing 70 years and is therefore, almost at an end; after that, they say, world events will usher in Messiah and the Kingdom.
Christians, reading the New Testament’s Olivet Discourse, remember what Jesus said about this idea, which holds a very special place in the hearts of Christians everywhere. Its setting on the Mount of Olives invokes a dramatic vista in the mind of the reader, as Jesus answered
His disciples’ questions concerning the future. In His reply to them, He made a remark that has stimulated a number of conjectures over the years. He said, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34).
His pronouncement refers to what has been called “the last generation.” This is the generation that witnesses events leading up to the Great Tribulation. Is ours the generation that Jesus spoke of? To answer this question, we shall examine several biblical expressions that use the term.
There is a Hebrew phrase that is usually translated in the Old Testament as, “the generation to come.” This idiom is taken from some form of ha dor ha acharon [iurjtv rusv]. The most direct translation of this phrase is, “the last generation.”
As we shall see, the meaning of Jesus’ prophecy to His disciples is greatly clarified by an understanding of this phrase and its common use in the Old Testament. A bit later, we will return to this expression to show how it points forward to the period of the latter days.
As He spoke to them, Jesus was well aware that the meaning of a “generation” would be something of a mystery to his hearers. But He spoke in a context that had meaning to them. One imagines them seated in the shade of an ancient olive tree, as they gazed across the Kidron Valley toward the magnificent complex of concourses, stairways, porticos, palaces and courtyards. The centerpiece of their attention was the Temple, itself.
Construction on this huge project – considered one of the wonders of the ancient world – had begun some fifty years earlier! At the time Jesus spoke, it would still be almost twenty years before the completion of the whole Temple complex. Tragically, the completed development would only last about a year before being completely destroyed by the Roman forces of Titus and Vespasian in A.D. 70.
As Jesus addressed the inner circle of His followers, He spoke of future world wars, famines and diseases. In this context, He mentioned the latter-day rebirth of Israel, something the disciples could not have understood at the time. He commented upon Daniel’s prophecy of the antichrist in the Temple. He used the term, “great tribulation,” to describe the events surrounding Israel’s regathering. He even spoke of His Second Coming in the clouds of glory.
It was at this point, that He spoke one of his most famous parables:
“Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:32-34.)
It’s safe to say that from the day He made this pronouncement, right down to the present day, men have not ceased trying to understand precisely what He was saying.
What Did Jesus Say?
Today, those of the preterist persuasion teach that He was referring to the generation then alive. The longest-lived among His disciples was John, who survived until the end of the first century. Under this premise, one could stretch Jesus’ prophetic words to that time. So the wars, abomination, famine, earthquakes and great tribulation all took place in that time period. Instead of interpreting His prophecy as a global phenomenon, they make all His prophecies fit into the local setting of first-century Jerusalem.
It is true that Israel is the centerpiece of the prophecy, but its context must agree with all other New Testament prophecy, the book of Revelation in particular. There, the prophecy is global in scope.
Nevertheless, His reference to the key prophetic generation of the entire Bible is given in the image of a fig tree. This tree, symbol of national Israel, is depicted “putting forth leaves,” as it would in the spring, when getting ready to bear fruit. The point is, the prophetic tree is growing, not diminishing.
So, “this generation,” is the “fig tree” generation, and often goes by that name. A key prophecy given by Jeremiah makes this connection crystal clear:
“Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel; Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans for their good. For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up. And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24:5-7).
Here, the good figs are the leaders of Israel. Their wholehearted return to the land of Israel is not the near fulfillment witnessed in the Israelite return from Babylonian captivity. It is their final return, when they shall receive a new heart and revival in the Spirit of the Lord.
Jeremiah says that they will be planted and not pulled down. They were, in fact, pulled down in A.D. 70, and again in A.D. 135, following the revolt led by Simeon Bar Kochba. In the final regathering, they will be permanently replanted. And what do you get when you plant a fig? You get a fig tree!
This is the generation to which Jesus undoubtedly referred.
When Was the Fig Tree Planted?
The dark years following Israel’s first-century diaspora finally began to brighten in the year 1882, when a few Russian Jews pioneered efforts to “make aliyah” (go up to the Land), and establish settlements in the stark deserts and swamps of a then-desolate Israel. Their efforts, and the work of those who followed them, raised the consciousness of world Jewry. In 1897, the first World Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland. Plans were laid out to win back Israel, then held by the Ottoman Turks.
World War One brought Israel into the sights of British politicians and generals. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 promised Israel access to their Land. But before that could happen, Jews of the diaspora were forced to bear the torture of World War Two, the Holocaust and the ravages of international anti-Semitism.
Following the United Nations Mandate of 1947, Israel’s David Ben-Gurion declared statehood on May 14, 1948.
Metaphorically speaking, Jeremiah’s description of the planting of figs corresponds with Israel’s laborious restoration of the Land. Through many difficulties, wars, pogroms and the enormous obstacles of weather, drought and financial need, the Jews converted the barren Land to remarkable fertility. The first half of the twentieth century saw the first planting of trees come to fruition. By the year 1948, the leaves of the tree began to shoot forth. Expressed differently, the tree of national Israel had grown to the point that it was recognized as viable and strong.
Israel is placed in an international context in Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse:
“And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled” (Luke 21:29-32).
Here, the text adds an additional note of clarification. Not only are we to watch the “fig tree” (national Israel), but we are to watch other trees, as well. If Israel is represented by the fig tree, the other trees would be the nations that rise up at roughly the same time Israel became a nation.
Recent history reveals precisely this kind of development. At the midpoint of the twentieth century, most of the current “nations” were third-world enclaves of tribal illiteracy. In the last fifty years or so, they have rapidly grown (both in numbers and capability) to become important players on the world scene. The following brief look at the U.N. membership roster shows just how rapidly their numbers have grown.
On April 25, 1945, representatives from 50 nations met in San Francisco at “The United Nations Conference on International Organization.” They agreed upon a charter, which was signed on the 25th of June of that year.
By 1948, membership had grown to 58. The following year, Israel became a member, bringing the total number of represented nations to 59. By 1960, membership had grown to 99. Growth continued at a rapid rate. By 1970, 127 nations were included. In 1980 the number had risen to 154. In 1990, the number was 159. The year 2000 saw 189 nations in the roster.
Currently – and remaining nearly stable since 2002 – U. N. membership now encompasses 193 nations.
Their rapid growth meets the biblical prediction that they would “shoot forth.” Trees that had languished under the long winter of the dark ages, feudalism and colonialism are now realizing modernization through international banking and high-tech telecommunications. Real-time satellite transmission and the Internet have brought them into the cultural medium of the twenty-first century. As the angel told the prophet Daniel, “But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased” (Daniel 12:4).
Just as Luke’s Olivet text predicted, we have now seen the latter-day multiplication of nations erupting with unprecedented speed. He added that when this phenomenon was observed, “summer is now nigh at hand.” Summer, of course, is the time of harvesting the fruit of the trees. And Jesus, Himself, said, “… the harvest is the end of the world.” Here, He refers to the completion of the “age,” from the Greek word aion. In context, He is speaking of the grain harvest as a metaphor of the final judgment. It should be remembered that summer is the season when both grain and fruit are harvested:
“The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world” (Matthew 13:38-40).
There are many expressions of the harvest as judgment in the Day of the Lord. One of the clearest is found in Micah, Chapter 7:
“Woe is me! for I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits, as the grape gleanings of the vintage: there is no cluster to eat: my soul desired the first ripe fruit” (Micah 7:1).
Here, Micah expresses the same thought as did Jesus in His famous discourse. He speaks as the plaintive voice of national Israel at the time of judgment, when the tiny nation faces the persecution of a massive world system during the Great Tribulation. When the nations spring forth as trees, the harvest judgment is near. This is the generation of which Jesus spoke.
Ha Dor Ha Acharon
This brings us back to the Hebrew expression we mentioned at the beginning of this article. It is ha dor ha acharon [iurjtv rusv]. It is first found in the book of Deuteronomy, in a prophecy that foretells the dispersion of the Jews, as they are scattered to the four corners of the world. This phrase is found in the following passage, where it is translated, “the generation to come:”
“So that the generation to come of your children that shall rise up after you, and the stranger that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses which the LORD hath laid upon it; And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath: Even all nations shall say, Wherefore hath the LORD done thus unto this land? what meaneth the heat of this great anger?” (Deuteronomy 29:22-24).
Here, we have a prophecy of latter-day Israel, ravaged by sin and time, its people dispersed and despised. The generation mentioned here is the generation that will come back to restore the Land. As we have seen, the first stage of this regathering has already begun. This passage must be referring to “the last generation.”
It is most important to understand that ha dor ha acharon [iurjtv rusv] can just as easily be translated as, “the last generation,” since the word acharon [iurjt] means, “hindmost, last in order, last of a series” or simply, “last.” It is clear that this prophecy is referring to the last generation – the one that comes back to prepare Israel to bring in the Kingdom Age.
Other variations of this expression are also found within the framework of Israel’s latter-day regathering. Psalm 48 offers an excellent example of the placement of the “last generation” into a prophetic context. This Psalm is focused upon Mount Zion, the Temple Mount. It opens upon a chorus of praise for Jerusalem and the Holy Mountain:
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King” (Psalm 48:1,2).
In these words, there can be no doubt that Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are the focus of the Lord’s long-term redemptive plan. This Psalm opens with praise for the City of God, then closes with a command to Israel. It uses a variation of the “last generation” phrase found in Deuteronomy 29:
“Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments. Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:11-14).
Here, Israel’s leaders are urged to survey the Holy Mountain, marking its chief features and foundations. This is exactly what modern Israelis have done, since the earliest days that Israel was replanted in the Land. But note the closing reference, which we have highlighted above.
Here, the phrase, “to the generation following” is a translation of the Hebrew l’dor acharon [iurjt rusk]. Again, we find the term acharon [iurjt], meaning “last of an order,” or simply, “last.” This is a reference to the generation that would return to Israel, there to be charged with the responsibility of surveying and restoring the ancient Temple Mount. It is the “last generation.”
The political obstacles to their task are formidable, yet they have made a great deal of progress toward the establishment of the Temple. (Not too long ago, the newly- refounded Sanhedrin even called for the preparation of a prefabricated Temple that could be quickly assembled on the Mount).
Psalm 78 offers another reference to the last generation. Here, it is given in the context of Israel’s latter-day spiritual condition. The Spirit of the Lord is shown giving them guidance, in spite of their continued unbelief:
“Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children” (Psalm 78:1-6).
In the verses above, we find two occurrences of the phrase l’dor acharon [iurjt rusk], that we have identified as referring to “the last generation.” Note that the Lord is making an impassioned appeal to this last generation. He asks them to listen and understand the ancient words of Scripture. There, they will find “dark sayings.” That is, they are to search the Scriptures for the hidden, inner meanings that will illuminate God’s plan for them. Chiefly, these would be Messianic prophecies, which have been hidden to Israel for many generations.
Now, in this “last generation,” they are urged to look deeply, so that they will be prepared for that which is shortly to come.
The Restoration of Zion
There is yet another reference to the last generation, using the same Hebrew term. It is found in Psalm 102. Again, this Psalm refers to the restoration of Zion. Note that it speaks of the very building blocks (“stones”) in the ancient architecture of Zion. The rebuilding of Zion is the heart of this prophecy:
“But thou, O LORD, shalt endure forever; and thy remembrance unto all generations. Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come. For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof. So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth thy glory. When the LORD shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer. This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD” (Psalm 102:12-18)
It would be hard to find a prophecy as distinct and specific as this one. The rebuilding of Zion is the destiny set out “for the generation to come,” in other words, the last generation. When Jesus told His disciples, “This generation shall not pass away, till all these things be fulfilled,” He was speaking of the generation of the “fig tree,” and “all the trees.”
If the leaves of the fig tree can be said to have sprung forth in 1948, then the generation is now sixty-five years old. Of course, no one can be certain about the actual birth date of the last generation. On the other hand, there is hardly any doubt that we are witnessing the conditions surrounding the initial restoration of Zion. We must, therefore, be in the last generation, and it is a mere five years until Israel reaches the grand old age of seventy … the years of a man.