What was the rest God swore the unbelieving Israelites would not enter?
It has been conjectured that the ‘rest’ God ‘swore’ ancient Israel would not enter because of unbelief in Hebrews 3:9-11 was the Kingdom of God:
“Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, 'They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.' So I swore in My wrath, They shall not enter My rest.” (NKJV)
However, according to what God said in the Old Testament, the land of Canaan was the promised place of rest for Israel. The biblical account of Israel’s history shows it was that ‘rest’ God prevented them from entering because of unbelief – not the Kingdom of God.
Was the Kingdom of God preached to ancient Israel?
One likely reason why some people have believed that the ‘rest’ spoken about in Hebrews 3:9-11 refers to the Kingdom of God is because of the way some Bible versions have translated Hebrews 4:1-3 into English. For example, the way the verse is translated in the King James one is left with the impression that the Gospel of the Kingdom that was preached to Christians was also preached to the ancient Israelites:
“Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” (Hebrews 4:1-3; NKJV).
However, a careful study reveals that the English word ‘the’ in the above translation, which is combined with the words gospel preached , does not appear in the original Greek. Strong’s concordance explains how ‘the’ was added: NT: 9999: NOTE: ...This word was added by the translators for better readability in the English. There is no actual word in the Greek text. In contrast, more literal Bible versions translate the original Greek as follows:
“For indeed we have had glad tidings presented to us, even as they also; but the word of the report did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard” (Hebrews 4:11; Darby).
“...for we also are having good news proclaimed, even as they, but the word heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard...” (Hebrews 4:11; YLT).
In the above two translations the word ‘the’ is left out, which retains the sense that both Israel and Christians have had good news preached to them, however by leaving out ‘the’ in the sentence there is no longer an implication that the good news in both cases was about the Kingdom of God.
Barnes commentary explains the correct intended meaning of the verse below:
[For unto us was the gospel preached as well as unto them] This translation by no means conveys the sense of the original. According to this it would seem that the "gospel," as we understand it, or the whole plan of salvation, was communicated to "them," as well as to "us." But this is by no means the idea. The discussion has reference only to "the promise of rest," and the assertion of the apostle is that this "good news" of a promise of rest is made to us as really as it was made to "them." "Rest" was promised to them in the land of Canaan-an emblem of the eternal rest of the people of God. That was unquestioned, and Paul took it for granted. His object now is, to show that a promise of "rest" is as really made to us as it was to them, and that there is the same danger of failing to secure it as there was them.
Only physical blessings promised in Old Covenant
A study of promised blessings for obedience under the terms of the Old Covenant shows that they were only physical in nature, and that no blessing of eternal life in the Kingdom of God was in the agreement. This fact further substantiates that the good news (gospel) mentioned in Hebrews 4:11, in connection with ancient Israel, was about a promised rest in the Land of Canaan. See now the following verses taken from the Old Testament where promised blessings were made for obedience and how they were all physical:
“If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall last till the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last till the time of sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely
. I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid; I will rid the land of evil beasts, and the sword will not go through your land. You will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. 'For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you.
You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new. I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; I have broken the bands of your yoke and made you walk upright.” (NKJV).
"Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you;
He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flock, in the land of which He swore to your fathers to give you.
You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be a male or female barren among you or among your livestock. And the Lord will take away from you all sickness, and will afflict you with none of the terrible diseases of Egypt which you have known, but will lay them on all those who hate you. (NKJV).
No promise of Holy Spirit in Old Covenant
Even though ever since Adam and Eve, there have always been individuals whom God predestined to receive and be led by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and partake of the Kingdom of God in the first resurrection – no such promise was made to the nation of Israel under the terms of in the Old Covenant. Instead they were led by the Lord on a physical journey to the land of Canaan, which was only intended to be a type of Spiritual Israel being led by the Holy Spirit on a spiritual journey toward a spiritual promised land (Kingdom of God consisting of Spirit beings). One major reason God instigated this situation and have it written about was so Christians could learn from Israel’s physical example, and avoid making the same mistakes on a spiritual level:
“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11; NKJV).
Further proof that the Holy Spirit was not given under the Old Covenant is the fact that God had to make a contrasting new covenant in which the Holy Spirit was given to dwell in a person’s mind:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Hebrews 8:8-11;NKJV).
“...who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”(2 Corinthians 3:6; NKJV)
“Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, 'Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!' Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God: "Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live,...” (Ezekiel 37:11-14; NKJV).
The above verses clearly show that it is only people who are no longer under the old covenant, but under the new, who are given the Holy Spirit. Therefore, taking into consideration the above, we can conclude that, because people under the old covenant in general did not have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them – the gospel preached to them at that time was about the promised rest in the land of Canaan and not about the Kingdom of God.
God swore the unbelieving Israelites would not enter Land of Canaan.
There are many verses in the Old Testament concerning ancient Israel showing that the land of Canaan was the promised place of rest, and not the Kingdom of God. They are as follows:
“But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies round about, so that you dwell in safety,... (Deuteronomy 12:10; NKJV).
“Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance,...”(Deuteronomy 25:19; NKJV).
"Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, 'The Lord your God is giving you rest and is giving you this land.' (Joshua 1:13-14; NKJV).
“The Lord gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers.”(Joshua 21:44; NKJV).
“And now the Lord your God has given rest to your brethren, as He promised them; now therefore, return and go to your tents and to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan”. (Joshua 22:4-5NKJV)
Notice now in Deuteronomy 1:34-36 how God swore that ancient Israel would not enter the promised land (not the Kingdom), and how it is almost an identical description to that given in Hebrews 3:9-11, when He swore that the Israelites would not enter His rest:
"And the Lord heard the sound of your words, and was angry, and took an oath, saying, 'Surely not one of these men of this evil generation shall see that good land of which I swore to give to your fathers, (NKJV).
The above verse is solid evidence that the rest that God swore the unbelieving Israelites would not enter because of unbelief in Hebrews 3:9-11 was the Land of Canaan, and not the Kingdom of God.
The following has now been established concerning ancient Israel:
1) They were never promised entrance into the Kingdom of God under the Old Covenant.
2) They were never given the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
3) The land of Canaan was their promised place of rest according to the Old Testament.
4) God swore ancient Israel would not enter that rest in Deuteronomy1:34-36.
Therefore, we can confidently conclude that when God swore in Hebrews 3:9-11 that the unbelieving Israelites would not enter His rest, He was referring to the promised rest in the land of Canaan – not the Kingdom of God.