Question: "Has Israel's territory ever encompassed the promise in Joshua 1:4?"

Answer: In Joshua 1:4 God promised Joshua that the land of Israel would include territory extending “from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.” This territory would include the land from the southern tip of Israel along the Red Sea to the Euphrates River on the east, the border of Syria on the north (land of the Hittites), and the Mediterranean Sea (Great Sea) to the west. As of yet, Israel has not controlled this entire land area.

In Joshua’s time, much of the land of Canaan was brought under Israelite control. In the time of David and his son Solomon (approximately 1000 BC, or 400 years after Joshua), a wide area of land was under Israel’s control or influence. Yet the entire territory promised to Israel in Scripture, both in Joshua 1:4 and elsewhere, has yet to be fulfilled.

Some point to a passage later in the book of Joshua as contradicting the promise of Joshua 1:4. After the conquest of Canaan, the historical account says, “So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:43–45). There is really no contradiction. At the time referred to in Joshua 21, all of Israel’s enemies were subdued. No one posed a threat to God’s people. God had given them a right to everything He had promised in Joshua 1:4, and they were authorized to take possession of the entire land—all the way to the Euphrates—as soon as they needed it and as soon as they called on the Lord for aid. The fact that they never did so does not negate the fact that God had kept His promise.

After Joshua’s death, the book of Judges teaches, the Israelites turned away from God. As punishment, God allowed their enemies to increase in power, and Israel lost territory that God had given earlier. Judges 2:14 says, “In his anger against Israel the LORD gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.”

Various judges arose during this period, and there was an ongoing battle for the control of Israel’s territory. Later, during the reigns of David and Solomon, Israel controlled the largest part of the Promised Land to date. After Solomon’s reign, the kingdom was divided into the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. Both kingdoms eventually sinned to such a degree that God allowed outside nations to defeat them, and most of the Jews were exiled.

Yet God was not done with His people, and He restored Israel’s territory. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah document the return of the Jewish people from Babylon seventy years after their exile. The temple was rebuilt, and worship in Jerusalem was re-established. Israel continued in their land until AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the temple and overtook Jerusalem.

It would not be until 1948 that the modern nation of Israel was established following World War II. Now, more than sixty years later, Israel has become a thriving nation and the longest-established democracy in the Middle East. Yet many of its neighbors remain hostile, and a Palestinian movement seeks to develop its own nation within the borders of modern Israel’s territory.

The Bible teaches that God will eventually fulfill the promise to give Israel full control over the Promised Land. Israel’s full territory will ultimately be ruled by the Messiah during the Millennium (Revelation 20:1–6). God’s promises, partly fulfilled throughout history, will have complete, literal, fulfillment prior to God’s creation of new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21—22; cf. Psalm 72:8).