Is the promised land a symbol of the earth?
Is the land promise to Abraham symbolic of the earth? In some commentaries, the land promise to Abraham is supposed to mean that he will inherit the whole earth. This idea is based on Paul’s statement in Romans 4:13: “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”
Wilhelm Julius Schröder declared that the land of promise is “a prophetic symbol of the earth.” Is this true? In his commentary on Ezekiel 36, Schröder wrote: 
The combating of the allegorizing method of explanation—for example, by J. A. Crusius, from whom Rosenmüller quotes when commenting on our chapter—is unquestionably in the right against the arbitrary extravagances and exaggerations of Cocceius and his followers; but where the Bible language in general is symbolical, with the prophets, above all, a symbolical way of speaking will be conceded. A natural or historical substratum on which the symbolical is based is supposed with the symbolical itself. Consequently, all that is here said in Ezekiel has a fulfilment in the time after the exile. On the other hand, modern apocalypticism, by its converting the letter of prophecy into future revelations of any and every kind, sets itself against the apocalyptic mode of expression, the characteristic of which, is certainly not literality. The national physiognomy of Israel, as Genesis traces it back to Adam, the father of all men, indicates a reference to humanity as a whole. This reference prevails in Noah’s prophetic discourse, Gen. ix., when Japhet is destined to dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan, the son of Ham, to be a servant in the house. The Holy Land fits in with Abraham to this symbolism of the nation, and Abraham is to be a blessing (as is said in Gen. xii.: “to all the families of the earth, Adamah“), through his seed, which is Christ, as the apostle says in Gal. iii. Hence humanity in Christ will also be the theological point of view in the case of the land of Israel. So long as He who is τέλος νόμου (Rom. x. 4) was not born in the land of promise, the land remained, in respect to the realization of the blessing of Abraham to the race of Adam, a prophetic symbol of the earth, just as the nation was symbolico-prophetic for the nations of mankind.
Both these interpretations seem incorrect, unless qualified; the nation of Israel, the seed of Abraham, represents those who believe in Christ, who are called out of the world; the promised land is a prophetic symbol of the spiritual inheritance of the saints. Schröder continued: 
The land of Israel … like the legal nationality of Israel, has its final fulfilment in Christ. As His beatitudes (Matt. v.) assign to His people the kingdom of heaven, so also do they the inheritance of the land. Hitherto out of Israel shines humanity, and representatively for it the Son of man, the true Israel. The Christian interpretation of the people of Israel as the Church, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, embraces now also the Holy Land in the signification of the land of glory, paradise, and Eden. From the standpoint of the fulfilling of Israel as to its universal human signification by Christ, the Old Testament outward expression of the letter, that is, what is said predeutically and pædagogically in accordance with the economy of the Old Covenant, in the style of the people and the land, may remain in its full force; but what is given with the idea of Israel, namely, that the promises in question are to be fulfilled in a very different sense from the outward literal sense, that they are to be fulfilled “in spirit and in truth,”—this even the literal expression itself demands from its unmistakable depth of meaning, which often makes plainly ridiculous a merely literal interpretation, whether looking to the time after the exile, or to the very last time. All the prophets and the law prophesied until John, the baptizer of Christ (Matt, xi. 13; Luke xvi. 16). And what Christ said (John iv.) of worshipping at Jerusalem: “the hour Cometh, and now is, bears witness to the Messianic (Christological) and in general the spiritual sense of the Old Testament letter; as the setting of it free from every temporary limitation as to place or nation bears witness to its sense for eternity, and to the spiritual interpretation as that which is at the same time interpretation “in truth,” the true understanding, so that the Christian truth of the prophecies is also to be regarded as their true and full reality. The Jewish Christianity of individual expositors (e.g. of Baumgarten) is not the Old Testament Christianity of the prophets.
Schröder also said that the fulfilment of the land promise is “in the world above with Christ, as the apostle Paul says in Phil. i. 23.” But this seems to contradict the idea that the land represents the earth as he asserted in the previous paragraph. Schröder wrote: 
On ch. iii. 17 the characteristic individualization was noted as a mark of the time; but that which is peculiar to the Christological utterances of our prophet (Introd. § 9), his putting of the Christological thought, as ch. xl. sq., in the form of Palestinian worship, and so generally in the manner of the people and land of Israel, is always to be adhered to. Fundamentally, the latter form was only that of the law as early as Ex. xx. 12. But when the Son of man, of the seed of David according to the flesh, realized the kingdom of Israel as eternal—when, by the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, His gift of prophecy became the common property of mankind, then, as with the worshipping in spirit and in truth, the peculiar localization of the sanctuary and the priestly service, always accomplished for the time, ceased; Israel also could, in whatever part of the earth, consider themselves as in their own land, and so much the more as their true King had (John xviii.) witnessed the good confession of the supramundane nature of His kingdom before the representative of the Roman earthly world-power. For the Israel of fulfilment Canaan lay, in the first instance, in the world above with Christ, as the apostle Paul says in Phil. i. 23, where also paradise is (Luke xxiii. 43; 2 Cor. xii. 4); and in this world only, in the renewal of heaven and earth according to the Christian hope. So, likewise, the true, the fulfilled nationality of Israel is to be sought for in the Christian world, in humanity, according to the Spirit of Christ; now in measure, in fulness only hereafter, Rev. xxi. 3.
This is closer to the truth, I think. The land of promise is symbolic of all the promises of God, which are primarily of a spiritual nature. The literal land of Canaan was a type and shadow of the spiritual inheritance of the saints. It was tiny, compared with other lands. Schröder noted that ancient orators, particularly Cicero, spoke of it scornfully, and ridiculed its size. 
The comparison of our chapter with ch. vi. indicates that, in considering the “mountains of Israel,” especially when they are by the best interpreter, the “enemy,” sneeringly termed the “everlasting heights,” we are not to direct our attention to the mountainous character of the Holy Land. Palestine is a hilly country, which leans upon the towering heights of Lebanon and Hermon: but this conformation did not so much qualify it for its significance in the Old World, so that we might at once recur to that, as its position on the boundaries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and again its peculiar isolation, while occupying such a position in the centre of the Old World. In considering this position of the land, its littleness, ridiculed as is well known by Cicero, and from which the Roman statesman would infer the little god of the Jews, has as little, or rather as much, to say as the grain of mustard sited in the parable, Matt. xiii.
However, in the ancient world the eastern Mediterranean had an immense population. Schröder stated: 
It belongs to the local colour of the land, that, when it is spoken of distinctively, its fruitfulness also is spoken of. Comp. for climate and nature of the soil, the well-known passages of Scripture. Writers in the first century still bear witness to what heathens and Jews of former times celebrated with one accord, the immense population of the land, corresponding to its great fertility. At present, indeed, Jerusalem, the largest city of Palestine, has scarcely more inhabitants than the smaller towns of Galilee had in the time of Josephus.
Many things said of the promised land in Scripture reveal that it was always connected to a spiritual meaning, and taking the land as strictly literal, and as referring to the land of Canaan, leads to disappointment, and confusion. This is illustrated in several ways. For example, Psalm 48:8 says Zion is established forever, and Psalm 78:68 and 87:2 both say that God loves Zion; to a Jew in the first century, taking this literally, these Scriptures could have implied that Jerusalem would be a safe place, and surely, God would prevent its destruction, but those who believed this would be disappointed. Historical events in 70 AD and the years that followed appeared to discredit those prophecies. One reason was that as foretold in Isaiah 2:2-4, mount Zion, and Jerusalem, symbolic of the kingdom of Christ, had been raised up; now they were located “above the hills,” in heaven. [Hebrews 12:22-24]
Again, Isaiah 24:1 says that the land will be turned upside down, apparently like a vessel when it is emptied. If the land is the literal land of Canaan, this is ridiculous; how can the literal land be turned upside down? J. A. Alexander translated: “Jehovah (is) pouring out the land and emptying it and he will turn down its face.” He says, “the figure is that of a bottle or other vessel drained of its contents by being turned upside down.” “The land shall be utterly emptied and utterly spoiled.” vs. 3.
If the land is understood in a spiritual sense, the figure of the land being empty and desolate represents the removal of the church from the “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Where are the church’s spiritual gifts? Where is her unity? Where are her gifts of healing, and of prophecy? In a world where Christians are scattered among tens of thousands of sects and denominations, it is difficult for many to even find the church that Jesus established, which he said will remain to the end of the world, and be the light of the world.
Also, things said in the Scripture about landforms, such as mountains, and rivers, are contrary to nature. Psalm 114:4 says,”The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs;” but natural mountains don’t leap. The truths that mountains represent might leap, and skip, when their symbolic nature is realized.
Isaiah 55:12 says mountains and hills sing, but natural mountains and hills do not sing. The mountains represent the promises of God, and there are many songs about the Gospel, which is the greatest of all promises.
In Ezekiel 6 and 36, and Micah 6:1, mountains are addressed in prophecies, but natural mountains do not have ears, and cannot hear.
In Ezekiel 47, a river flowing from the temple gradually increases in depth towards the east, but natural rivers do not increase in size within such a short distance. Also the gradient described is incompatible with existing topography, and the problem for a literal view is compounded if Jerusalem is raised up relative to the surrounding country, as Isaiah said.
In Daniel 2:35, a mountain is generated from a stone, but in nature, stones are generated from mountains. The prophecy refers to the kingdom of God, which is represented by a mountain that fills the earth. Compare with Isaiah 2:2, where the mountain is extended vertically; in Daniel 2, the same mountain is extended laterally, and encompasses all men.
In Joel 3:18, hills flow with milk, and mountains drop wine. This does not happen in nature. The mountains of prophecy are metaphors, representing the promises of God. Wine and milk are used as symbols of God’s word in the New Testament. [Luke 5:37; Hebrews 5:13; 1 Peter 2:2]
The prophet Isaiah said, “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” [Isaiah 35:1] The desert in the prophecy must allude to the present desolate, barren condition of the spiritual reality that is represented by the land of promise.
1. Wilhelm Julius Schröder. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Ezekiel, Daniel. Tr. by Patrick Fairbairn & William Findlay. C. Scribner & co., 1876. p. 342.
2. Ibid. p. 343.
4. Ibid. p. 342.
5. Ibid. p. 343.