RESTORATION AHEAD Ezekiel 33–36
“I will place over them . . . My servant David, and he will tend them . . . and be their shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23).Though Jerusalem was in ruins, God had not abandoned His people. However grim present circumstances may appear, there is always a future for the people of God.
From chapter 33 on, the prophecies in the Book of Ezekiel look forward. Prior to that Ezekiel focused his listeners’ attention on the history of sins that made Jerusalem’s imminent fall certain. But with the city fallen and the homeland depopulated, the prophet was able to speak about the future. God would restore scattered Israel. Many wonderful promises in these four chapters underscore this glorious hope. Yet the fate of the individual still rests on his or her personal choice, to hear and obey God’s Word, or to ignore and reject. For us too, Scripture is filled with promising tomorrows that we can claim. But today as in ancient Babylon, the experience of God’s blessing requires us to hear and to live by His Word.
Ezekiel began a new phase of his ministry by restating key truths: he was a watchman (33:1–11), and each individual was responsible to respond to God’s Word (vv. 12–20). To avoid Jerusalem’s fate, God’s people must take His Word to heart (vv. 27–33). God would replace wicked leaders with the Messiah (34:1–24), and there would be peace (vv. 25–31). Edom would fall (35:1–15), but the mountains of Israel would be cleansed and repopulated by a people transformed by the Lord (36:1–38).
Understanding the Text
“I have made you a watchman” Ezek. 33:1–11. We see it even in nature. As the herd grazes, one male stands alert, head raised, sniffing the air. The watchbeast stands aloof from the crowd, and the welfare of the herd depends on how vigilant he is. Ezekiel was a watchman for Israel. This was established in chapter 3, and the charge is repeated here. Ezekiel was faithful in warning the people of Judah before the city fell: he must continue to warn. Ezekiel was required to be alert, to warn his people of spiritual dangers. The responsibility was heavy: Ezekiel would often be alone, standing apart from the crowd. But the very lives of his fellow Jews depended on his faithfulness. Are we ready to pay the cost of being watchmen for our friends and neighbors? Are we prepared to share Jesus, warning others of the eternal cost of rejection, inviting them to accept the forgiveness and renewal Christ died to provide? “He has done what is just and right; he will surely live” Ezek. 33:12–20. The message of personal responsibility was also found in the first half of Ezekiel, in chapter 18. There Ezekiel warned that responsiveness to God’s word was the key to survival for those under siege in Jerusalem. That siege was over now, and the bones of the wicked of Judah were scattered in Jerusalem’s ruined streets. But the principle of personal responsibility had not been altered. In the future too, God will make a distinction between the good man who hears and obeys His Word, and the wicked man who turns his back on the Lord. God’s promises are for all His people. But they can be claimed only by those who trust—and obey. “The people living in those ruins in the land of Israel” Ezek. 33:21–29. The few thousand Jews left in Judah had learned nothing from the recent devastation. Despite continued sinning (vv. 25–26), they supposed they had inherited Abraham’s title to the land! But God does not reserve His gifts for the wicked. What He reserves for them is punishment. The Book of Jeremiah tells how the remnant in Judah refused to accept God’s guidance, and fled toward destruction in Egypt after the assassination of their Babylonian-appointed governor (cf. Jer. 40–44). “A beautiful voice” Ezek. 33:30–33. Ezekiel had suddenly become popular among the exiles in Babylon! Everyone came to listen to him, and they were all full of compliments. Ezekiel heard, “Fine sermon, Ezekiel,” everywhere he went. Folks just loved to come out every time Ezekiel held a meeting! The trouble was, it was entertainment to the exiles (cf. v. 32). They listened and smiled and shouted, “Amen”—and probably had the gaunt preacher over for after—service dessert—all without taking his words to heart. “They hear your words,” God told Ezekiel, “but do not put them into practice.” The true measure of a modern ministry isn’t how popular a preacher becomes, or how many thousands come out to hear him. The true measure of a modern ministry is hearing. Does the congregation then put God’s words into practice? “Prophesy against the shepherds of Israel” Ezek. 34:1–10. The term “shepherd” is often used in the Old Testament to designate Israel’s kings and her spiritual leaders. Now Ezekiel looked back and identified the leadership flaws which contributed to Judah’s recent disaster. The real purpose Ezekiel had in mind, however, was to create a background against which a coming Shepherd he was about to describe would stand out. What flaws in Israel’s and Judah’s leaders brought the nation to disaster? The Hebrew kingdom’s rulers had thought only of themselves rather than the flock (v. 2). They greedily exploited the flock for personal gain (v. 3). They refused to intervene on behalf of the weak and injured (v. 4). And they permitted the flock of God to be scattered throughout the nations (vv. 5–6). Because of these sins, God would “remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves” (v. 10). James 3:1 warns against stepping presumptuously into a leadership role, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Any person who views leadership as a position “above” others, rather than a position of service “under” them is not yet ready to be a spiritual leader. “I Myself will tend My sheep and have them lie down” Ezek. 34:11–23. Human leaders have failed miserably to protect God’s flock. In this powerful messianic passage God promises to intervene directly. He Himself will tend His sheep. God will “place over them one shepherd, My servant David.” When the promised Descendant of David appeared, God’s flock would at last have a Leader whose sole concern was their well-being. How beautifully this thought is picked up by Jesus, who identified Himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10. In Christ, at long last, the people of God have a Shepherd who willingly “lays down His life for the sheep.” Rather than grasp, this Shepherd gives. He is no hireling, but cares deeply for the sheep. His sacrifice of Himself proves once and for all that we are loved and secure. As we hear His voice, and follow Him, He will do us nothing but good. “I will make a covenant of peace” Ezek. 34:25. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel introduced the concept of a New Covenant which God will make with His people. In this chapter Ezekiel emphasized the material blessings associated with that covenant, while Jeremiah stressed the spiritual. What material blessings are foreseen for that future time? The prophet emphasized a rescue of the Jews from the lands where they have been scattered. Then, in their ancient homeland, they will know a time of peace, safety, and prosperity. This picture of the Jews restored to an abundantly fertile homeland is frequently found in prophetic images of a coming golden age (cf. Hosea 2:22; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13–15; Zech. 8:12). All this is promised to Israel when at last David’s promised Offspring appears as Ruler of every land. Many understand such prophecies to teach a literal restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel at Christ’s second coming. But there is a spiritual application too. When Christ reigns in a person’s life, whatever the outward strife, there is peace within. Hidden in our hearts, beyond the reach of circumstance, there is a garden to which we can retreat, and there find rest.
God’s Holy Name(Ezek. 36)
Looking around our little Phoenix congregation, I saw so many familiar faces. There was the young man who’d been so driven by sex that he lost his job and family, and almost his mind. There was the ex-hippy, who’d thought nothing of buying a record he wanted when his kids were without shoes. There, near the front, was the wife who’d been caught in adultery with a family friend, sitting by her husband. Everywhere I looked there were people I loved. People who brought honor to God’s holy name. Many people would be shocked at that last statement. But this is just the sort of thing Ezekiel was talking about in this 36th chapter of his book. Earlier, in chapter 6, Ezekiel prophesied “against” the mountains of Israel. Their high places, the sites selected for orgiastic pagan worship rituals, were to witness the destruction of God’s rebellious people. Judah had dishonored the Lord, and He would proclaim His holiness by punishing them (36:16–21). But now, Ezekiel prophesied “to” these same mountains. Their slopes will again be populated and fruitful (vv. 8–15). The mountains will observe the descendants of sinners, dancing and rejoicing in the Lord. And in that repopulation, God will affirm His holiness. As the Lord said through Ezekiel, “I will show Myself holy through you before their eyes” (v. 23). How? What is it that the mountains and surrounding peoples will witness that demonstrates God’s holiness? The next verses tell us, as the Lord continues to speak through His prophet. As for the returned exiles, God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees and be careful to keep My laws” (vv. 26–27). That’s what I saw in church Sunday morning. People who were sinners. But people whom God had changed. And the glory of God’s holiness was revealed in their transformation.
Transformed sinners still bear witness to the holiness of God. And sinning saints remain a blot on His holy name.