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Chapter 36 Israel Will Be Restored.
This glorious picture of the restoration of Israel emphasises their spiritual restoration in the land, a restoration which will make the nations recognise that He is Yahweh. This in the end is always God’s purpose for Israel, that through them and their witness all nations will come to the light of Yahweh (Genesis 12:3; Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6-7; Isaiah 56:7; Isaiah 60:3; Isaiah 66:18; Zechariah 14:9; Zechariah 14:16-21).
The idea of ‘Israel’ has always been both inclusive and exclusive. Those of any nation who sought to enter the covenant with Yahweh were welcomed and adopted into Israel (Exodus 12:48). Those who disobeyed His covenant would be rejected (Exodus 32:33; Leviticus 20:6; Hosea 1:9; Zephaniah 1:4-6; Romans 11:20. That indeed was the significance of the death penalty for many transgressions in the Law. They were cut off from Israel). Thus the stranger was officially always welcomed and could become an Israelite by adoption, circumcision and commitment (Exodus 12:48; Deuteronomy 23:3 also assumes it with reservations). Indeed a great multitude from many nations were so adopted in Exodus 12:38, and entered into the covenant at Sinai. Throughout Israel’s history the same happened, and thus we have such people as Uriah the Hittite clearly recognised as Israelites.
The Jews in the period before the birth of Jesus also recognised Gentiles who turned to Israel’s God, and were circumcised, as on equality with them (in theory at least). And the great controversy over circumcision in the early church was precisely because Christians were seen as becoming a part of the true Israel, as Paul regularly stressed (Romans 11:17; Galatians 3:7; Galatians 3:29; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:13-14; Ephesians 2:19). Indeed he saw Israel as an olive tree into which branches could be grafted, and from which branches could be cut off. Believing Gentiles were grafted in, as they always had been. Unbelieving Jews were cut off. And if unbelieving Jews wished to be restored to being Israelites they must be grafted in again by believing (Hosea 2:23; Romans 11:17; Romans 11:23). It was the church which was now the true Israel (Galatians 6:16; Revelation 7:4-8; Revelation 12:17).
Thus Peter and James could describe Christians as ‘the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion’ (James 1:1) or as ‘the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion’ (1 Peter 1:1) (the Dispersion was the name given to Jews scattered around the world). Neither give any hint that they are distinguishing between Jewish and Gentile Christians, which would be remarkable if it were so, especially as Peter in his letter refers to Gentiles as non-Christians.
So ‘Israel’ has always been a fluid conception and the church was seen to be Israel in truth, not just some vague idea of a ‘spiritual Israel’. Indeed the above facts exclude anyone else as being finally seen as Israel by the church. The Jews were the Jews. The church was the true Israel, foreknown by God (Romans 11:2 compare Romans 8:29). It is true that Paul calls the Jews ‘Israel’ in Romans 9-11, but he also specifically says there that they were not really Israel (Romans 9:6). The elect were Israel. The rest were blinded. Indeed all who are truly Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26). So he did not see the old Israel as really Israel any more. It was not a question of Israel being superseded by the church, the church was seen as the true continuation of Israel. We must bear this in mind as we consider this chapter.
The first part of the chapter splits into two parts. Ezekiel 36:1-7 reflect on God’s judgment on the surrounding neighbours, and Ezekiel 36:8-15 confirm the blessing that is to come on Israel.
“And you son of man, prophesy to the mountains of Israel, and say, ‘You mountains of Israel, hear the word of Yahweh. Thus says the Lord Yahweh. Because the enemy has said against you, “Aha!”, and “The ancient high places are ours in possession”.
Having spoken words of doom to Mount Seir, Yahweh now spoke to the mountains of Israel. He gave as the background against which He was going to work in restoration the cynicism of Edom, which reflected on Himself. Firstly they had said, “Aha!” in a knowing way. They had cast doubts on what Yahweh was doing, and had hinted that He was powerless and unable to help His people. And secondly they had claimed that Yahweh’s inheritance was theirs to take possession of.
That they recognised that they were acting against Yahweh comes out in that they saw themselves as taking possession of ‘the ancient high places’. This was ironic. To them the ancient high places were the heart of Israel’s religion (compare 2 Chronicles 32:12; Isaiah 36:7 for a similar misconception). They had seen the fervid activity there and had thought that it was central to Yahwism. Now they gloated, they and their gods would take possession of them. The use of ‘ancient’ might suggest that they felt that Israel and Yahweh had usurped them in that they were there before Israel arrived. So this was intended to be a direct attack on Yahweh.
There were of course ancient high places such as at Bethel, Shechem, Gibeon and Gilgal, to name but four, which had had an honourable (as well as a dishonourable) history (see Genesis 31:13; Genesis 35:7; Joshua 24:1; Joshua 24:25-26; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1Sa 9:13-14 ; 1 Samuel 9:19; 1 Samuel 10:8; 1 Samuel 11:15; 1 Kings 3:4). They were local sanctuaries where men had felt that they could meet with God and offer sacrifices other than before the tabernacle, probably places where they considered that God had recorded His name (Exodus 20:24). And some therefore see this verse as indicating a deliberate attempt by Edom to take over the genuine ancient sanctuaries of Judah and Israel. Then ‘ancient’ is seen as signifying that they had been given to them by Yahweh long ago so that it was blasphemy to seize them. But the ‘high places’ had become a source of Israel’s downfall, as Moses had realised that they would, and elsewhere in Ezekiel ‘high places’ always has a bad sense, so that that would suggest we see it as having the same sense here.
Others however see ‘high places’ here as simply indicating the hills and mountains of Israel (compare Amos 4:13; Micah 1:3; Habakkuk 3:19) which Edom purposed to take over, seeing the verse as indicating Judah’s longstanding right to be there as having been given the land by Yahweh. Its use elsewhere in Ezekiel, however, tends to be against this interpretation.
“Therefore prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord Yahweh, because, even because they have made you desolate and swallowed you up on every side, that you might be a possession to the residue of nations, and you are taken up on the lips of gossips, and the evil report of the people. Therefore you mountains of Israel hear the word of the Lord Yahweh, Thus says the Lord Yahweh to the mountain and to the hills, to the watercourses (streams and rivers) and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes and to the cities which are forsaken, who are become a prey and a derision to the residue of the nations who are round about, therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh, Surely in the fire of my jealousy I have spoken against the residue of the nations, and against all Edom, who have appointed my land to themselves for a possession, with all joy in their heart, with malice of soul, to cast it out as a prey.”
Note the continual use of ‘therefore’ (see also Ezekiel 36:6-7) and the way the sentences pile up. It is intended to indicate the depths of feeling behind the words. The words were spoken in passion.
God was angry because His people, having been made desolate, had been made further desolate by what was left of the scavenging surrounding nations, who had swallowed them up and sought to take possession of them. He was also angry that they had become the subject of casual conversation and rumour and evil reports (Ezekiel 36:3). So He in turn has spoken against those nations (Ezekiel 36:5), and He declared to the land of His inheritance (‘My land’) (Ezekiel 36:5), which those nations were trying to possess, that He would take further action (Ezekiel 36:7).
‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh to the mountain and to the hills, to the watercourses (streams and rivers) and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes and to the cities which are forsaken, who are become a prey and a derision to the residue of the nations who are round about.’ Note the complete description taking in every part of the land. It indicated that He was fully aware of its position and was concerned for every part of it. Not one part would be ignored.
‘Surely in the fire of my jealousy I have spoken against the residue of the nations, and against all Edom, who have appointed my land to themselves for a possession, with all joy in their heart, with malice of soul, to cast it out as a prey.’ Indeed He was so concerned for the land that He had given His people, for ‘His land’, that he had passed sentence on the aggressors in the ‘fire of His jealousy’, that is, in His deep concern over what was His. Note too that He points out the attitude of the aggressors. They acted with a fierce joy and with deep malice. They had no scruples. They enjoyed taking their revenge. This more than justified the action against them.
Note too the point that He was protecting Israel’s land ready for their return. It could not be given to the nations because He yet had a purpose there for His people (Ezekiel 36:8).
“Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel, and say to the mountains and to the hills, to the watercourses and to the valleys, Thus says the Lord Yahweh, Behold I have spoken in my jealousy and in my fury, because you have borne the shame of the nations (those outside of the covenant), Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh, I have lifted up my hand, saying, Surely the nations who are round about you, they will bear their shame, but you, O mountains of Israel, you will shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they are at hand to come.”
The whole section from Ezekiel 36:3 to this point is one long expression of passion and concern. It was bringing out God’s deep concern for His people, and how they had been treated by those who were not the rod of His anger. He could chastise them for their good, but woe betide anyone else who sought to chastise them for the wrong reasons. Now we come to the crunch point. Those nations will bear their shame as they have shamed Israel, while Israel will eventually be restored.
‘Behold I have spoken in my jealousy and in my fury.’ That is His deep passion and concern for His people and anger at the sinfulness of men who oppose them.
‘Because you have borne the shame of the nations (those outside of the covenant).’ The word for ‘nations’ includes the idea of being those outside the covenant. ‘The nations’ were those who were in contrast with the chosen people, the covenant people of God. And now the local nations had shamed Israel by their treatment of her, by sneering at her, by degrading her God, and by possessing her land.
‘Surely the nations who are round about you, they will bear their shame.’ What they have done to Israel will rebound on them. They too will be sneered at, their gods will be revealed as nothing, and their land will be taken from them.
‘But you, O mountains of Israel, you will shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they are at hand to come.’ In contrast Israel’s land, indeed Yahweh’s land, will yet prosper and be fruitful on behalf of His own people Israel. For while they may yet be absent, they will return, ‘they are at hand to come’. They are nearby awaiting the call, once they have received their deserts for their past sins.
“For behold I am for you, and I will turn to you and you will be tilled and sown, and I will multiply men on you, all the house of Israel, even all of it. And the cities will be inhabited and the waste places built”
The reason that the land would one day again be Israel’s was because Yahweh was ‘for them’, on their side and acting on their behalf. For He would again turn towards them and be their God. And the land would be possessed again by people from all the twelve tribes (‘all the house of Israel’ - and note the stress on this, ‘even all of it’), and would be farmed and well populated. The cities would be rebuilt and inhabited.
That this occurred history demonstrates. While there were Jews who had become disconnected from mainstream Judaism, intermarried or disowning their old nationality as they were absorbed by the nations, or wandering far away and losing contact, members of all twelve tribes were permanently resident in the land up to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and were among the exiles in Babylon, and others would undoubtedly have returned to it from other places once it began to prosper again. (The concept of ‘Israel’ was ever fluid. Still today ‘Israel’ is only a small portion of Judaism). And the land would again be populated and prosper, inhabited by those who acknowledged the covenant.
But why was the actual land so important? It was promised to Abraham (Genesis 12:7 and often) to whom the possession of a future land was very important, it was given to his descendants and those who had joined with them in the covenant, and it was essential for the development of a people who would be witnesses to Yahweh as one people. Without the land they would have become divided and fractionalised, and their witness would have been watered down and have disappeared. But once that witness was established and crystallised through the writings of the Old Testament, and the son of David had come, and the Spirit had been poured out, the land ceased to be important and was taken away from them (Luke 21:24). The message had replaced the land.
But the graciousness and faithfulness of God is revealed in that God has not forgotten His promises concerning the land so that it has now, in our day, been returned to those who see themselves as the earthly sons of Abraham. We must not overstress His purpose in this, but His purpose for the future in bringing them back to the land is possibly so that, having brought them together, He can do a great work among them in the eyes of the world by bringing large numbers of them to Christ their Messiah. While Scripture does not specifically require this there are suggestions that this might be so. So we can hope that their receiving again of the land is a preliminary to their finally enjoying the working of the Spirit, as God calls what were once His people to once again become part of His people and accept the Messiah (Romans 11:25-29). The land has become secondary, the blessing of all nations is primary, but this reminds us that God fulfils all His promises, even the secondary ones.
“And I will multiply on you man and beast, and they will increase and be fruitful, and I will cause you to be inhabited after your former estate, and will do better than at your beginnings, and you will know that I am Yahweh. Yes I will cause men to walk on you, even my people Israel, and they will possess you, and you will be their inheritance, and you will no more henceforth bereave them of children.”
As regularly in prophesy there is a nearer more literal fulfilment and a further fulfilment which is more in terms of idea. We have seen this, for example, with regard to the prophecies to the nations. There was the near literal fulfilment in terms of invasion and the later fulfilment in terms of the idea of final everlasting desolation (e.g. Ezekiel 26:7-14, which was completed in stages. Nebuchadnezzar humiliated Tyre, but he did not take the island fortress. That was left to Alexander the Great. And it was still later that it became a deserted place for the spreading of nets). The same applies here.
After the return of the exiles the land did gradually blossom and flourish, population and flocks and herds increased, things were even better than they had been before. Israel walked over the land (contrast Ezekiel 35:7) and they possessed it, and accepted it with gratitude as their inheritance. And the people rejoiced and thanked God and lived at peace ( 1Ma 14:4 ; 1Ma 14:8-15 ). But the further idea is of final blessing and rest, not for a thousand years, but forever. ‘You will no more henceforth bereave them of children.’
‘You will no more henceforth bereave them of children.’ Some see this as the avoidance of bereavement that results from drought, famine and wild beasts, others see it as referring to death by enemy invasion, and this already then suggests the perfect land, but surely the prophet has gone into even more idealistic mode, and the idea is of an ideal land, a land where people do not die for any cause, (compare Isaiah 65:20 where the lifespan of all is an idealistic one hundred years. Ezekiel goes even further), a land truly of blessing, which we know will never be found in this world. It looks to the world beyond. It is Ezekiel’s vision of immortality (compare Daniel 12:2).
‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, “Because they say to you, ‘you are devourer of men, and have been a bereaver of your nation,’ therefore you will devour men no more, nor bereave (another reading is ‘cause to stumble’) your nation any more,” says the Lord Yahweh, “nor will I let you hear any more the shame of the nations, nor will you any more bear the reproach of the peoples, nor will you cause your nation to stumble any more,” says the Lord Yahweh.”
These words are still spoken to ‘the land’ as representing Israel. In Numbers 13:32 the land of Canaan is described as a land that ‘devours its inhabitants’. The idea there would seem to be that it was seen as a land of trouble and unrest, a land where death was commonplace. Here the parallel ‘bereaver of your nation’ would confirm this. But in the future there will be no more violent or premature death, nor will there be any reproach or shaming, nor will men stumble. Again we are carried into the environment of eternity with God, when all death and sin is done away.
The alternative reading ‘cause to stumble’ may well be correct. It is repeated in Ezekiel 36:15 and Ezekiel is fond of repetition. But the overall meaning is the same. The word signifies weakness, and therefore here stumbling morally through weakness. Compare Jeremiah 18:15; Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 14:9 for parallel thoughts.
Israel’s Past (Ezekiel 36:16-20 ).
‘Moreover the word of Yahweh came to me saying, “Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their way and by their doings. Their way before me was as the uncleanness of a woman in her separation.”
The blood that was poured out through violence is here likened to a woman’s menstrual flow. The menstrual flow of blood was looked on with something akin to horror by the Israelite male. According to the Law it rendered the woman ‘unclean’ (Leviticus 15:19-24), so that anyone who touched her was unclean. So here the defiling of the land by their behaviour could be looked on as similar to the menstrual discharge. It rendered the land unclean before God, as ‘unholy’, and therefore not touchable by Him. Thus God withdrew in horror and kept apart. (The menstrual flow was presumably used as an example because the behaviour of the people included the wrongful spilling of blood).
Israel’s Inglorious Past and Their Glorious Future (Ezekiel 36:16-38 ).
As we consider this section we should pause to consider the nature of Biblical prophecy. A Biblical prophet was not a foreteller like Nostradamus is seen as being, who declared events that would happen in the future so that people could mark them off and satisfy their curiosity about particular future historical events, he was rather one who declared what God was going to do. In his prophecy he was concerned with ends rather than specific historical events, except is so far as those events brought about the ends. Thus he would describe processes and then the end result, and the processes might occur at different points over periods of time, and the ends would not necessarily all occur at the same time. There were partial fulfilments followed by deeper fulfilments.
God does not split history into time periods (‘ages’) like we do, He sees the whole process going through from beginning to end in a continual line. Thus to the Apostles the time that they were living in was ‘the end of the ages’ (1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 9:26-28; 1 Peter 1:20), ‘the last days’ (Acts 2:17). There was nothing beyond but eternity. And His way of salvation was always the same, obtained through grace, by faith, and revealed by response to Him and seen as resulting from the work of the Spirit (Ezekiel 18:31; Psalms 51:10-12; Psalms 139:7; Psalms 143:10). That the outward manifestation of that faith altered through the ages is true, beginning with the primitive worship of Adam and Seth (Genesis 4:26), continuing with the family worship of Abraham (Genesis 12:8), moving on to the covenant worship resulting from Sinai, and then the Christian worship resulting from the new covenant, but at the heart it was the same and through it men came to God in responsive faith.
Thus prophecy took in all elements of this activity of God. And as the prophets looked forward, guided by the Spirit, they saw that certain things must be because of Who and What God is. But they did not attempt to present them chronologically, or in a time scale. What mattered was that they would happen, not the sequence or time schedule in which they would happen. Some they saw clearly, others they described pictorially, because they prophesied of things that were beyond their ability to put into words or to fully appreciate. They had no concept of Heaven, or of an afterlife, or of eternity. They saw the future as life continuing for ever as it was in the present, but at a different level. And they prophesied in those terms. It was the New Testament writers who were able to take those descriptions and demonstrate how they dealt with ideas that the prophets could not even have dreamed of. This will come out in the passage we are now to study.
“Because of this I poured out my fury on them, for the blood which they had poured out on the land, and because they had defiled it with idols, and I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. According to their ways and according to their doings I judged them.”
The consequence of their behaviour was that God expelled them from the land so that it could be purified. Stress is especially laid here on two things, violence and idolatry. They shed blood wrongly, defiling the land, and they introduced idols which were an abomination to God. And He stresses that their judgment was based on their behaviour. They had brought what happened on themselves.
“And when they came to the nations to which they went, they profaned my holy name in that men said of them, “These are the people of Yahweh, and have come forth out of his land.”
But the other consequence was that it reflected on God’s name and reputation. By what had happened to them they had brought God’s name into disrepute, because the nations saw that they had had to leave the land and thus assumed that Yahweh their God could only be weak and helpless. Thus they degraded Yahweh to being a minor god of no importance.
God Will Restore His Reputation By What He Will Do In Returning the People to the Land and Pouring Out His Spirit on Them (Ezekiel 36:21-38 ).
“But I had pity for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they went. Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord Yahweh, I do not act for your sake, O house of Israel, but for my holy name which you have profaned among the nations to which you went. And I will sanctify my great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in the midst of them, and the nations will know that I am Yahweh,” says the Lord Yahweh, “when I am sanctified in you before their eyes.”
A ‘holy name’ is a name set apart by its uniqueness, distinctiveness and power, as well as by its righteousness. But none of this was apparent to the nations as a direct result of what had happened to Israel. They saw rather the opposite. So Yahweh was about to act so that the nations would recognise both His uniqueness, distinctiveness and power, and His righteousness. His uniqueness, distinctiveness and power because of the restoration of His people, and His power because of what he would do in them, and His righteousness because they would recognise why Israel had been expelled from the land, and would see the new righteousness resulting from the activity of Yahweh.
This brings out how Israel had failed so badly in their responsibility to be a kingdom of priests to the nations (Exodus 19:6). They had instead profaned His name before the world. But it was important for the world to know the living God, the Creator. So Yahweh Himself would perform the function of revealing Himself to the nations by His activities on Israel. He did not do it for their sakes but for the world’s sake, so that the world might know Him as He is.
His name would be set apart as holy and distinctive by two things. By the restoring of His people to their land, a land which He had ensured would still be available to them when they returned, and by indwelling His Spirit within their lives in a total moral transformation. These were two separate activities, and certainly there is no reason to argue that the second would only happen once (and indeed the first has also happened more than once). In a sense it would be a continual process through which He would separate out a people for Himself.
‘I do not act for your sake.’ This is a vital lesson to learn. They, and we, deserved nothing. They had failed Him in every direction, and they had failed themselves. But far more important than them, and us, is that God should be known and revealed to the world. Without that there could be no salvation, no deliverance. Without that the saving purposes of God would fail. So by their own folly Israel had ceased to be important except as a means by which the world could see the glory and love of God, for they had forfeited their right to any privilege. That is why the concentration had now to be on redeeming the situation by using them as a means to reveal that love and glory.
“For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you to your own land.”
This gathering of the people of Israel back to the land began as a relative trickle on the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:0), and continued over a long period, with more and more people returning from all over the known world, until Israel was a recognised nation again established in its own land with its own capital city, relatively free from idolatry and worshipping in its own way. Interestingly enough the same is true of the present day restoration of Israel to its land. That too has been a slow process which is still going on. So neither was a once for all event. Both were continual events, in the first case at least, taking centuries.
“And I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean. From all your filthiness and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will also give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.”
Let us first consider what was here on offer. ‘Clean water’ is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. The ancients did not think in terms of clean water and dirty water. The only clean water could be caught in the falling mountain springs, and was comparatively rare, and they mostly bathed and drank with what we would call dirty water, but which they saw as relatively clean. Thus this description must be seen as having a special significance, and that significance was that it was ‘cleansed water’, water that had been (at least theoretically) made clean through sacrifice, sprinkled with blood or with the ashes of a heiffer.
In Leviticus the cleansing of a defiled house required sprinkling with a mixture of blood and ‘living’ water, the bird having been slain over the water (Leviticus 14:51), and in Numbers 8:7; Numbers 19:2-22 the ‘water of separation’ (Numbers 19:9; Numbers 19:20 - this was also called ‘living water’ - Numbers 9:17) is mentioned. It was water that had been sprinkled with the ashes of a red heiffer (Numbers 19:2), and was kept aside for the purifying by sprinkling of those who had touched a dead body. Thus in both cases the water had been cleansed by sacrifice and the shedding of blood.
So when the priestly Ezekiel spoke of ‘clean water’ he had in mind water that had been cleansed by sacrifice. And indeed this was the only kind of water that was ever sprinkled. Thus the cleansing was to be through the blood of sacrifice, applied through the sprinkled water. This was probably also what the Psalmist had in mind in Psalms 51:7 (note the parallel phrase).
But this water was here to be sprinkled by God Himself acting as the high priest. Before anything else the people need to be cleansed, by the divine water of separation sprinkled on them by God, from their defilement brought on them by their sinful ways and their idolatry. There is no cleansing without the shedding of blood. This pointed forward to the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness (Zechariah 13:1), and its efficacy depended on the One Who would be slain as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, Whose benefit reached backwards to ‘sins done aforetime’ (Romans 3:25).
It should be recognised and acknowledged that to the priest Ezekiel there could be no entry back into the promised land, now cleansed from defilement by time, without such a cleansing. Otherwise what purpose in the exile?
(We should note that washing with ordinary water never cleansed. It was only preparatory, and was regularly followed by the phrase ‘and will not be clean until the evening’. It only represented the washing away of ‘earthiness’ preparatory to cleansing (see Ezekiel 44:18). It did not itself cleanse).
Then they were to receive a new heart and a new spirit, indeed God’s Spirit (Ezekiel 36:27). The heart included the mind, the will and the emotions, it was the whole of the inner man. The spirit was the life principle within, the inner impulse, and while it could include the activities of heart, mind and will, it was also that which was Godward (Ecclesiastes 3:21; Ecclesiastes 12:7), and was affected by God’s Spirit. So the idea here is of the renewing of the whole inner man, and of awakening towards God.
Its effect is then described. ‘And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.’ Instead of hardness there would be tenderness, instead of obduracy there would be yielding, instead of coldness there would be warmness, instead of disobedience there would be obedience. The law would be put in their inward parts and in their hearts, and they would ‘know Yahweh’ individually through the new covenant (compare Jeremiah 31:33-34).
These wonderful words must not be restricted to any particular moment in time, important though Pentecost was. This is the nature of Biblical prophecy. We need not doubt that it began on the first returning exiles, and it continued in the time of Haggai and Zechariah, when God worked through His Spirit in the life of Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:6). It was continually on offer to His people (Ezekiel 18:31). But it certainly had a full expression at and after Pentecost (2 Corinthians 5:17), and through the ministry of Jesus (John 3:1-6; John 4:10-14; John 4:24; John 6:63; John 7:37-38; John 20:22), and continues today and will continue to the end. What began to be fulfilled at the return from exile has continued through the ages. The cleansing is constantly needed.
“And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them, and you will dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you will be my people and I will be your God.”
Now quite unequivocally we have mention of the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit. It was to be through God’s Spirit that this great work would come about. It is He Who would cause them to walk in His statutes and keep in their hearts and in their lives His judgments. God’s Spirit has been at work through all ages. He was at work in the time of Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:6). When John spoke of ‘the Spirit’ as being ‘not yet’ (John 7:39) he was referring to the mighty experience in the upper Room and at Pentecost, but he was not denying that the Spirit was at work before that. For Jesus Himself had made clear that the Holy Spirit had already been available through His ministry (John 3:1-6; John 4:10-14; John 4:24; John 6:63; John 7:37-38; John 20:22).
Strictly speaking these words of Ezekiel are not parallel to such promises as Isaiah 44:2-5; Joel 2:28 where a great outpouring of the Spirit in the future is mentioned, although containing similar elements (but see Ezekiel 39:29). This is not so much a promise of such an outpouring, but of a steady work of the Spirit in men’s hearts as men are cleansed by God. We must not, however, be too pedantic when dealing with such prophecies. The same Spirit works in all.
Mention is often made of the connection between the outpouring of the Spirit and the coming of the Messiah in the Messianic age. And that is true. But we must not limit the work of the Spirit to one event. In a sense Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:6-14) was probably himself seen as a minor Messiah (before the Messianic idea had taken full root), and the Spirit was certainly seen to be at work through him, although of course the great fulfilment of the promises was at the coming of the Messiah, which resulted in Pentecost and after, when as the ‘drencher (baptiser) in the Holy Spirit’ He ‘drenched in the Holy Spirit’ those who were His. And it may well be that there will be a further pouring out of the Spirit in the final days of the age. But we must beware of being dogmatic about the latter. Things may not occur in the way that we expect.
“And you will dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you will be my people and I will be your God.” This confirms that this work of the Spirit was to begin when the exiles returned in faith to the land of their inheritance. The words were spoken to the true Israel, the Israel within Israel, as Paul explains (Romans 9-11). Those whose hearts were true would be truly His and He would be their God.
It also has application to all Christians in that they have become citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20), residents in a better land, God’s greater land, being His people and knowing Him as their God, something beyond the conception of Ezekiel and therefore having to be prophesied pictorially in the form of an idea (see on Ezekiel 37:26-28). He could not know then that the land of God’s inheritance would become a heavenly land. That would be revealed in the future, and the final words are specifically applied in Revelation 21:3 to the new Heaven and the new earth
“And I will save you from all your uncleannesses, and I will call for the corn and will multiply it, and lay no famine on you. And I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field, that you receive no more the reproach of famine among the nations.”
The application is twofold, as ever the near and the far. The near refers to the fruitfulness of the land once the return from exile was complete, a fruitfulness which would bring joy and blessing. But its deeper significance is again the idea of the perfect world to come, when all needs would be met, all that a man could want would be available, and there would be no lack for anyone to draw attention to, so that no one could criticise God’s provision for His own. God was offering His people perfection.
“Then you will remember your evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. Not for your sakes do I do this,” says the Lord Yahweh, “be it known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.”
That there were such periods of repentance after the exile we need not doubt (e.g. Ezra 10:1; Nehemiah 9:0). By the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile a deep lesson was learned by Israel, especially the true Israel. So His true people mourned over their past sins, and loathed themselves for what they had been. They really were ashamed and confounded to think of what had been. The same should be true for true Christians today. They rejoice in their forgiveness, but they loathe what they were and wonder how they could ever have been like it.
“Thus says the Lord Yahweh, In the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited and the waste places will be built. And the land that was desolate will be tilled, whereas it was a desolation in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, ‘The land that was desolate has become like the Garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are fenced and inhabited.’ Then the nations that are left about you will know that I Yahweh have built the ruined places, and planted that which was desolate. I Yahweh have spoken it and I will do it.”
One significance of this passage is that the nations who had observed the fall of Israel would also observe her rise. This again confirms that there is here a near fulfilment of the prophecy. Note that the cleansing is connected with the restoration. There can be no restoration without cleansing. Then the land and its cities would be restored, and the land be fruitful ‘like the Garden of Eden’. It is an idealistic picture.
But mention of the restoration of the Garden of Eden may also be seen as taking us on to the end of time and the heavenly land. It is there that there will be the tree of life (Revelation 22:2) and no more curse (Revelation 22:3). It is there that the true and better Garden of Eden will flourish.
There are those who argue that this whole passage refers solely to the end times, and to the Jews as ‘Israel’. They seek a literal fulfilment in the last days. They claim that what is described here was never literally fulfilled as described because they look for fulfilment to the letter. But that claim is two-edged. There is the problem for those who would apply it to the ‘end days’ that this, a return and a building of cities and restoration of desolation following exile, is promised to take place AFTER Israel’s cleansing, while in the present day the return of the Jews to Palestine and the buidling of their cities has already taken place before Israel is cleansed. Thus we could argue equally that the current return to Israel cannot be in mind here. Nor are cities now fenced. Or are they suggesting that Israel will need to exiled yet again awaiting a further restoration?
These are not problems for a combined interpretation, for it reasonable to accept that there was a purifying of the remnant of Israel before they returned to the land. That was indeed why they were so desirous of returning. But they are a problem for a literal one applied to one situation. Furthermore it is inconceivable that God would speak through Ezekiel to these people in exile and have nothing to say about their own future. We may happily take great chunks of the Old Testament and apply it to what we see from our perspective as the end days, ignoring the past, but to these people Ezekiel was declaring a message of hope for their future and we do him an injustice if we transfer most of what he said to ‘the end days’ ignoring all that has gone between.
End of note.
‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, “For this moreover will I be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them. I will increase them with men like a flock. As the flock of holy things, as the flock of Jerusalem in her appointed feasts, so will the waste cities be filled with flocks of men, and they will know that I am Yahweh.”
This final touch emphasises the closeness of the connection between the promises just given and the people to whom Ezekiel ministered. God was open to their enquiry on these matters so as to do it for them. And His promise was that just like sacrificial sheep and goats (‘the flock of holy things’) were brought in large numbers into Jerusalem ready for various sacrificial rituals at the feasts (compare 2 Chronicles 35:7), so would men be gathered together in large flocks in what had been the waste cities of Jerusalem. There is possibly a hint here that His people are to be seen in the restoration as entering in as offerings to Yahweh, a holy people for His own possession.
So Ezekiel’s vision of the future can be summarised as follows. (1) The preeminent motive in Israel’s redemption is the honour of God’s name (Ezekiel 36:22; Ezekiel 36:32). (2) Israel will know ultimately that He is truly Yahweh, the God Who acts (Ezekiel 36:38). (3) There will be an abhorrence of their previous sins (Ezekiel 36:31-32). (4) They will receive full cleansing from their sins through the divine ‘water of separation’, which is connected with a sacrificial offering (Ezekiel 36:25). (5) They will be totally transformed spiritually (Ezekiel 36:26-27; compare Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 18:31). (6) The gift of the Holy Spirit will be granted to them (Ezekiel 36:27; compare Ezekiel 37:14). (7) This will result in obedience to God's laws (Ezekiel 36:27; compare Ezekiel 11:20). (8) They will finally enjoy a place of great blessing and fruitfulness.
This sequence could be applied equally to every true conversion, both of post-exilic Israelites becoming true Israelites by response to God, and of Christians today. That it occurred in many exiles at the restoration is surely certain. They returned to great hardship because of their love for Yahweh. That it occurred during the ministry of Jesus and of the Apostles is manifest in the Gospels, Acts and epistles. It continues to happen today. And it may well be that it will also happen during a great turning to Christ among unbelieving Jews in the future (although we must be careful not to enforce our ideas on God). But all are part of the one great fulfilment.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 36". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26