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Is Spoken Hebrew a Fulfillment of Bible Prophecy?

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While flipping through TV channels while on vacation, I came across a program hosted by the late prophecy enthusiast Grant R. Jeffrey (1948–2012). Jeffrey dogmatically claimed that our generation is the generation that will see Jesus’ return. In a previous article, I made the comment that modern-day prophecy speculators are more dangerous than Harold Camping because while Mr. Camping made a prediction that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011 and was proved wrong, today’s prophetic speculators still linger about assuring us that Jesus’ return is right around the corner.

Some of the arguments these date-setters use have no biblical support. They are made up.

On this particular broadcast, Jeffrey was giving reasons that he believes point to the incontrovertible truth that Jesus’ coming is imminent.

The one that caught my attention was his use of Zephaniah 3:9–10 and the claim that the revival of the Hebrew language under the work of Eliazar Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is a fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy. There is no doubt that Ben-Yehuda’s work to revive Hebrew as an everyday spoken language was a major accomplishment.

I first heard the argument that Ben-Yehuda’s work was a fulfillment of Zephaniah 3:9–10 when I was preparing for my debate with Jim Fletcher:

You can walk through any city in Israel today and you will hear Israelis who come from a hundred different nationalities speaking one language. In Zephaniah 3:9 the Lord had predicted, “I will return unto you a pure language.” A hundred years ago when Ezra Ben-Yehuda began to revive Hebrew, people thought he was crazy. But now you can walk through those cities in Israel where you hear them speak one language, and it’s Hebrew. You don’t hear people today speak Babylonian. You don’t hear them speak Assyrian. You hear them speak Hebrew. So that’s a dramatic example of fulfilled prophecy.

The claim is made by Jeffrey and Fletcher that Zephaniah 3:9–10 refers to the return of Jews from around the world to Israel and that they speak a purified Hebrew language. Not only is this passage not referring to modern-day Israel, the Hebrew spoken today is not “pure Hebrew.” Keep in mind that Hebrew was not a lost language. It was used by scholars and in liturgical settings. Early English translators of the Bible knew Hebrew.

After doing more research on the subject, I found that Fletcher most likely took his claim verbatim from Jeffrey.

The casual reader of these types of arguments will find them convincing. They have been conditioned to believe that any scrap of evidence put forth by prophecy “experts” is key evidence that the return of Jews to their land in 1948 is a fulfillment of end-time prophecy. The problem is, there is not a single verse in the New Testament that says anything about Israel returning to the land. And there’s nothing in Zephaniah 3:9–10 that supports Jeffery’s argument, laid out in detail in his books The Signature of God and Triumphant Return.

The main problem with Jeffery’s argument is in the translation of the passage he sees as evidence of the fulfillment of Bible prophecy related to the return of the Jews to their land. It’s ironic that Jeffrey mentions the “pure language” of Hebrew but never bothers to look at the actual Hebrew text or the context of the prophecy.

The King James Version translates Zephaniah 3:9 this way: “For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent.” The Living Bible, as it almost always does, interprets rather than translates: “At that time I will change the speech of my returning people to pure Hebrew so that all can worship the Lord together.” The words “pure Hebrew” are not found in the text.

In a note, the editors of The Living Bible state: “Literally, ‘. . . I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech. . . .’ See Isaiah 19:18.” O. Palmer Robertson comments: “The translation of The Living Bible, which has been used to explain the revival of modern Hebrew in Palestine today as a fulfillment of Zephaniah’s prophecy concerning a ‘purified lip.’” [1] The Hebrew word often translated as “language” is actually the word “lip,” and in some contexts refers to “confession” rather than the language someone speaks.

“Returning people” is an interpretation, not a translation. It is not a reference to the Jews returning to their land, either after the Babylonian captivity or in 1948. The context refers to the nations surrounding Israel, “from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia. . .” (Zeph. 2:10). These aren’t dispersed Israelites. Even the dispensational-oriented Liberty Bible Commentary understands the Zephaniah 3:9 passage this way:

The people in view are the remnant of the Gentiles who survived God’s judgment because of their conversion. Jehovah will give them a pure language . . . so they can call upon the true Jehovah.” [2]

John Hannah, a professor at the dispensational Dallas Theological Seminary, puts the passage in its proper historical context:

Zephaniah predicted that the nations will be renewed both morally (v. 9) and spiritually (v. 10). The purifying of the lips of the peoples does not mean they will speak a new language (as the KJV seems to imply by its trans. “a pure language”). Instead it means the renewal of once-defiled speech. One’s lips represent what he says (the words spoken by his lips), which in turn reflect his inner life (cf. Isa. 6:5–7) [3]. . . . As a result the nations, turning to reverential trust in God, will call on the name of the LORD and will evidence their dependence on Him by their united service (shoulder to shoulder).” (John D. Hannah, “Zephaniah,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, 1533.))

Albert Barnes also offers a helpful commentary:

I will turn—contrary to what they had before, “to the people,” literally, “peoples,” the nations of the earth, “a pure language,” literally, “a purified lip.” It is a real conversion, as was said of Saul at the beginning 1 Samuel 10:9; “God” (literally) “turned to him another heart.” Before the dispersion of Babel the world was “of one lip,” but that, impure, for it was in rebellion against God. Now it shall be again of “one lip;” and that, “purified.” The purity is of faith and of life, “that they will call upon the Name of the Lord,” not as heretofore on idols, but that every tongue should confess the one true God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, in Whose Name they are baptized. This is purity of faith. To “call upon the Name of the Lord Jesus” Acts 22:16; Romans 10:13 is the very title of Christian worship; “all that called upon the Name” of Jesus, the very title of Christians Acts 9:14, Acts 9:21; 1 Corinthians 1:2. . . .

God gave back one pure language, when, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the Author of purity, came down in fiery tongues upon the Apostles, teaching them and guiding them “into the whole truth” John 16:13, and to “speak to every one in his own tongue, wherein he was born, the wonderful works of God” Acts 2:8, Acts 2:11. Thenceforth there was to be a higher unity than that of outward language. For speech is not the outer sound, but the thoughts which it conveys and embodies. The inward thought is the soul of the words. The outward confusion of Babel was to hinder oneness in evil and a worse confusion. At Pentecost, the unity restored was oneness of soul and heart, wrought by One Spirit, whose gift is the one Faith and the one Hope of our calling, in the One Lord, in whom we are one, grafted into the one body, by our baptism Ephesians 4:3-6. The Church, then created, is the One Holy Universal Church diffused throughout all the world, everywhere with one rule of Faith, “the Faith once for all delivered unto the saints,” confessing one God, the Trinity in Unity, and serving Him in the one law of the Gospel with one consent.

One by one the passages that dispensationalists claim are a fulfillment of Bible prophecy are beginning to collapse under the weight of exegetical scrutiny.

  1. O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 328, note 2.[]
  2. Paul R. Fink, “Zephaniah,” Liberty Bible Commentary: Old Testament, eds. Edward E. Hinson and Woodrow Michael Kroll (Lynchburg, VA: The Old-Time Gospel Hour, 1982), 1781.[]
  3. “Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven’” (Isa. 6:5–7). This is hardly a description of Isaiah speaking pure Hebrew after his lips were touched.[]
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