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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Ezekiel 36

 

 

Verses 1-38

JEHOVAH’S LAND

Ezekiel 35:1-15; Ezekiel 36:1-38

THE teaching of this important passage turns on certain ideas regarding the land of Canaan which enter very deeply into the religion of Israel. These ideas are no doubt familiar in a general way to all thoughtful readers of the Old Testament; but their full import is scarcely realised until we understand that they are not peculiar to the Bible, but form part of the stock of religious conceptions common to Israel and its heathen neighbours. In the more advanced Semitic religions of antiquity each nation had its own god as well as its own land, and the bond between the god and the land was supposed to be quite as strong as that between the god and the nation. The god, the land, and the people formed a triad of religious relationship, and so closely were these three elements associated that the expulsion of a people from its land was held to dissolve the bond between it and the god. Thus while in practice the land of a god was coextensive with the territory inhabited by his worshippers, yet in theory the relation of the god to his land is independent of his relation to the inhabitants; it was his land whether the people in it were his worshippers or not. The peculiar confusion of ideas that arose when the people of one god came to reside permanently in the territory of another is well illustrated by the case of the heathen colony which the king of Assyria planted in Samaria after the exile of the ten tribes. These settlers brought their own gods with them; but when some of them were slain by lions, they perceived that they were making a mistake in ignoring the rights of the god of the land. They sent accordingly for a priest to instruct them in the religion of the god of the land; and the result was that they "feared Jehovah and served their own." [2 Kings 17:24-41] It was expected no doubt that in course of time the foreign deities would be acclimatised.

In the Old Testament we find many traces of the influence of this conception on the Hebrew religion. Canaan was the land of Jehovah [Hosea 9:3] apart altogether from its possession by Israel, the people of Jehovah. It was Jehovah’s land before Israel entered it, the inheritance which He had selected for His people out of all the countries of the world, the Land of Promise, given to the patriarchs while as yet they were but strangers and sojourners in it. Although the Israelites took possession of it as a nation of conquerors, they did so in the consciousness that they were expelling from Jehovah’s dwelling-place a population which had polluted it by their abominations. From that time onwards the tenure of the soil of Palestine was regarded as an essential factor of the national religion. The idea that Jehovah could not be rightly worshipped outside of Hebrew territory was firmly rooted in the minds of the people, and was accepted by the prophets as a principle involved in the special relations that Jehovah maintained with the people of Israel. [Joshua 11:19;, Hosea 9:3-5] Hence no threat could be more terrible in the ears of the Israelites than that of expatriation from their native soil; for it meant nothing less than the dissolution of the tie that subsisted between them and their God. When that threat was actually fulfilled there was no reproach harder to bear than the taunt which Ezekiel here puts into the mouth of the heathen: "These are Jehovah’s people-and yet they are gone forth out of His land". [Ezekiel 36:20] They felt all that was implied in that utterance of malicious satisfaction over the collapse of a religion and the downfall of a deity.

There is another way in which the thought of Canaan as Jehovah’s land enters into the religious conceptions of the Old Testament, and very markedly into those of Ezekiel. As the God of the land Jehovah is the source of its productiveness and the author of all the natural blessings enjoyed by its inhabitants. It is He who gives the rain in its season or else withholds it in token of His displeasure; it is He who multiplies or diminishes the flocks and herds which feed on its pastures, as well as the human population sustained by its produce. This view of things was a primary factor in the religious education of an agricultural people, as the ancient Hebrews mainly were. They felt their dependence on God most directly in the influences of their uncertain climate on the fertility of their land with its great possibilities of abundant provision for man and beast, and on the other hand its extreme risk of famine and all the hardships that follow in its train. In the changeful aspects of nature they thus read instinctively the disposition of Jehovah towards themselves. Fruitful seasons and golden harvests, diffusing comfort and affluence through the community, were regarded as proofs that all was well between them and their God; while times of barrenness and scarcity brought home to them the conviction that Jehovah was alienated. From the allusions in the prophets to droughts and famines, to blastings and mildew, to the scourge of locusts, we seem to gather that, on the whole, the later history of Israel had been marked by agricultural distress. The impression is confirmed by a hint of Ezekiel’s in the passage now before us. The land of Canaan had apparently acquired an unenviable reputation for barrenness. The reproach of the heathen lay upon it as a land that "devoured men and bereaved its population." [Ezekiel 36:13] The reference may be partly (as Smend thinks) to the ravages of war, to which Palestine was peculiarly exposed on account of its important strategic situation. But the "reproach of famine" [Ezekiel 36:30; Cf. Ezekiel 34:29] was certainly one point in its ill fame among the surrounding nations, and it is quite sufficient to explain the strong language in which they expressed their contempt. Now this state of things was plainly inconsistent with the amicable relations between the nation and its God. It was evidence that the land lay under the blight of Jehovah’s displeasure, and the ground of that displeasure lay in the sin of the people. Where the land counted for so much as an index to the mind of God, it was a postulate of faith that in the ideal future when God and Israel were perfectly reconciled the physical condition of Canaan should be worthy of Him whose land it was. And we have already seen that amongst the glories of the Messianic age the preternatural fertility of the Holy Land holds a prominent place.

This conception of Canaan as the Land of Jehovah undoubtedly has its natural affinities with religious notions of a somewhat primitive kind. It belongs to the stage of thought at which the power of a god is habitually regarded as subject to local limitations, and in which accordingly a particular territory is assigned to every deity as the sphere of his influence. It is probable that the great mass of the Hebrew people had never risen above this idea, but continued to think of their country as Jehovah’s land in precisely the same way as Assyria was Asshur’s land and Moab the land of Chemosh. The monotheism of the Old Testament revelation breaks through this system of ideas, and interprets Jehovah’s relation to the land in an entirely different sense. It is not as the exclusive sphere of His influence that Canaan is peculiarly associated with Jehovah’s presence, but mainly because it is the scene of His historical manifestation of Himself, and the stage on which events were transacted which revealed His Godhead to all the world. No prophet has a clearer perception of the universal sweep of the divine government than Ezekiel, and yet no prophet insists more strongly than he on the possession of the land of Canaan as an indispensable symbol of communion between God and His people. He has met with God in the "unclean land" of his exile, and he knows that the moral government of the universe is not suspended by the departure of Jehovah from His earthly sanctuary. Nevertheless he cannot think of this separation as other than temporary. The final reconciliation must take place on the soil of Palestine. The kingdom of God can only be established by the return both of Israel and Jehovah to their own land; and their joint possession of that land is the seal of the everlasting covenant of peace that subsists between them.

We must now proceed to study the way in which these conceptions influenced the Messianic expectations of Ezekiel at this period of his life. The passage we are to consider consists of three sections. The thirty-fifth chapter is a prophecy of judgment on Edom. The first fifteen verses of chapter 36 (Ezekiel 36:1-15) contain a promise of the restoration of the land of Israel to its rightful owner. And the remainder of that chapter presents a comprehensive view of the divine necessity for the restoration and the power by which the redemption of the people is to be accomplished.

I.

At the time when these prophecies were written the land of Israel was in the possession of the Edomites. By what means they had succeeded in effecting a lodgment in the country we do not know. It is not unlikely that Nebuchadnezzar may have granted them this extension of their territory as a reward for their services to his army during the last siege of Jerusalem. At all events their presence there was an accomplished fact, and it appeals to the mind of the prophet in two aspects. In the first place it was an outrage on the majesty of Jehovah which filled the cup of Edom’s iniquity to the brim. In the second place it was an obstacle to the restoration of Israel which had to be removed by the direct intervention of the Almighty. These are the two themes which occupy the thoughts of Ezekiel, the one in chapter 35 and the other in chapter 36. Hitherto he had spoken of the return to the land of Canaan as a matter of course, as a thing necessary and self-evident and not needing to be discussed in detail. But as the time draws near he is led to think more clearly of the historical circumstances of the return, and especially of the hindrances arising from the actual situation of affairs.

But besides this one cannot fail to be struck by the effective contrast which the two pictures-one of the mountain land of Israel, and the other of the mountain land of Seir-present to the imagination. It is like a prophetic amplification of the blessing and curse which Isaac pronounced on the progenitors of these two nations. Of the one it is said:-

"God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth,

And abundance of corn and wine." [Genesis 27:28]

And of the other:-

"Surely far from the fatness of the earth shall thy dwelling be,

And far from the dew of heaven from above." [Genesis 27:39]

In that forecast of the destiny of the two brothers the actual characteristics of their respective countries are tersely and accurately expressed. But now, when the history of both nations is about to be brought to an issue, the contrast is emphasised and perpetuated. The blessing of Jacob is confirmed and expanded into a promise of unimagined felicity, and the equivocal blessing on Esau is changed into an unqualified and permanent curse. Thus, when the mountains of Israel break forth into singing, and are clothed with all the luxuriance of vegetation in which the Oriental imagination revels, and cultivated by a happy and contented people, those of Seir are doomed to perpetual sterility and become a horror and desolation to all that pass by.

Confining ourselves, however, to the thirty-fifth chapter, what we have first to notice is the sins by which the Edomites had incurred this judgment. These may be summed up under three heads: first, their unrelenting hatred of Israel, which in the day of Judah’s calamity had broken out in savage acts of revenge (Ezekiel 35:5); second, their rejoicing over the misfortunes of Israel and the desolation of its land (Ezekiel 35:15); and third, their eagerness to seize the land as soon as it was vacant (Ezekiel 35:10). The first and second of these have been already spoken of under the prophecies on foreign nations; it is only the last that is of special interest in the present connection. Of course the motive that prompted Edom was natural, and it may be difficult to say how far real moral guilt was involved in it. The annexation of vacant territory, as the land of Israel practically was at this time, would be regarded according to modern ideas as not only justifiable but praiseworthy. Edom had the excuse of seeking to better its condition by the possession of a more fertile country than its own, and perhaps also the still stronger plea of pressure by the Arabs from behind. But in the consciousness of an ancient people there was always another thought present; and it is here if anywhere that the sin of Edom lies. The invasion of Israel did not cease to be an act of aggression because there were no human defenders to bar the way. It was still Jehovah’s land, although it was unoccupied; and to intrude upon it was a conscious defiance of His power. The arguments by which the Edomites justified their seizure of it were none of those which a modern state might use in similar circumstances, but were based on the religious ideas which were common to all the world in those days. They were aware that by the unwritten law which then prevailed the step they meditated was sacrilege; and the spirit that animated them was arrogant exultation over what was esteemed the humiliation of Israel’s national deity: "The two nations and the two countries shall be mine, and I will possess them, although Jehovah was there" (Ezekiel 35:10 : cf. Ezekiel 35:12-13). That is to say, the defeat and captivity of Israel had proved the impotence of Jehovah to guard His land; His power is broken, and the two countries called by His name lie open to the invasion of any people that dares to trample religious scruples underfoot. This was the way in which the action of Edom would be interpreted by universal consent; and the prophet is only reflecting the general sense of the age when he charges them with this impiety. Now it is true that the Edomites could not be expected to understand all that was involved in a defiance of the God of Israel. To them He was only one among many national gods, and their religion did not teach them to reverence the gods of a foreign state. But though they were not fully conscious of the degree of guilt they incurred, they nevertheless sinned against the light they had; and the consequences of transgression are never measured by the sinner’s own estimate of his culpability. There was enough in the history of Israel to have impressed the neighbouring peoples with a sense of the superiority of its religion and the difference in character between Jehovah and all other gods. If the Edomites had utterly failed to learn that lesson, they were themselves partly to blame; and the spiritual insensibility and dulness of conscience which everywhere suppressed the knowledge of Jehovah’s name is the very thing which in the view of Ezekiel needs to be removed by signal and exemplary acts of judgment.

It is not necessary to enter minutely into the details of the judgment threatened against Edom. We may simply note that it corresponds point for point with the demeanour exhibited by the Edomites in the time of Israel’s final retribution. The "perpetual hatred" is rewarded by perpetual desolation (Ezekiel 35:9); their seizure of Jehovah’s land is punished by their annihilation in the land that was their own (Ezekiel 35:6-8); and their malicious satisfaction over the depopulation of Palestine recoils on their own heads when their mountain land is made desolate "to the rejoicing of the whole earth" (Ezekiel 35:14-15). And the lesson that will be taught to the world by the contrast between the renewed Israel and the barren mountain of Seir will be the power and holiness of the one true God: "they shall know that I am Jehovah."

II.

The prophet’s mind is still occupied with the sin of Edom as he turns in the thirty-sixth chapter to depict the future of the land of Israel. The opening verses of the chapter (Ezekiel 36:1-7) betray an intensity of patriotic feeling not often expressed by Ezekiel. The utterance of the single idea which he wishes to express seems to be impeded by the multitude of reflections that throng upon him as he apostrophises "the mountains and the hills, the watercourses and the valleys, the desolate ruins and deserted cities" of his native country (Ezekiel 36:4). The land is conceived as conscious of the shame and reproach that rest upon it; and all the elements that might be supposed to make up the consciousness of the land-its naked desolation. the tread of alien feet, the ravages of war, and the derisive talk of the surrounding heathen (Edom being specially in view)-present themselves to the mind of the prophet before he can utter the message with which he is charged: "Thus saith the Lord Jehovah; Behold, I speak in My jealousy and My anger, because ye have borne the shame of the heathen: therefore I lift up My hand, Surely the nations that are round about you-even they shall bear their shame" (Ezekiel 36:6-7).

The jealousy of Jehovah is here His holy resentment against indignities done to Himself, and this attribute of the divine nature is now enlisted on the side of Israel because of the despite which the heathen had heaped on His land. But it is noteworthy that it is through the land and not the people that this feeling is first called into operation. Israel is still sinful and alienated from God; but the honour of Jehovah is bound up with the land not less than with the nation, and it is in reference to it that the necessity of vindicating His holy name first becomes apparent. There is what we might almost venture to call a divine patriotism, which is stirred into activity by the desolate condition of the land where the worship of the true God should be celebrated. On this feature of Jehovah’s character Ezekiel builds the assurance of his people’s redemption. The idea expressed by the verses is simply the certainty that Canaan shall be recovered from the heathen dominion for the purposes of the kingdom of God.

The following verses (Ezekiel 36:8-15) speak of the positive aspects of the approaching deliverance. Continuing his apostrophe to the mountains of Israel, the prophet describes the transformation which is to pass over them in view of the return of the exiled nation, which is now on the eve of accomplishment (Ezekiel 36:8). It might almost seem as if the return of the inhabitants were here treated as a mere incident of the rehabilitation of the land. That of course is only an appearance caused by the peculiar standpoint assumed throughout these chapters. Ezekiel was not one who could look on complacently

"Where wealth accumulates and men decay";

nor was he indifferent to the social welfare of his people. On the contrary we have seen from chapter 34 that he regards that as a supreme interest in the future kingdom of God. And even in this passage he does not make the interests of humanity subservient to those of nature. His leading idea is a reunion of land and people under happier auspices than had obtained of old. Formerly the land, in mysterious sympathy with the mind of Jehovah, had seemed to be animated by a hostile disposition towards its inhabitants. The reluctant and niggardly subsistence that had been wrung from the soil justified the evil report which the spies had brought up of it at the first as a "land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof." [Numbers 13:32] Its inhospitable character was known among the heathen, so that it bore the reproach of being a land that "devoured men and bereaved its nation." But in the glorious future all this will be changed in harmony with Jehovah’s altered relations with His people. In the language of a later prophet, [Isaiah 42:4] the land shall be "married" to Jehovah, and endowed with exuberant fertility. Yielding its fruits freely and generously, it will wipe off the reproach of the heathen; its cities shall be inhabited, its ruins rebuilt, and man and beast multiplied on its surface, so that its last state shall be better than its first (Ezekiel 36:11). And those who till it and enjoy the benefits of its wonderful transformation shall be none other than the house of Israel, for whose sins it had borne the reproach of barrenness in the past (Ezekiel 36:12-15).

III.

The next passage (Ezekiel 36:16-38) deals more with the renewal of the nation than with that of the land; and thus forms a link of connection between the main theme of this chapter and that of chapter 37. It contains the clearest and most comprehensive statement of the process of redemption to be found in the whole book, exhibiting as it does in logical order all the elements which enter into the divine scheme of salvation. The fact that it is inserted just at this point affords a fresh illustration of the importance attached by the prophet to the religious associations which gathered round the Holy Land. The land indeed is still the pivot on which his thoughts turn; he starts from it in his short review of God’s past judgments on His people, and finally returns to it in summing up the world-wide effects of His gracious dealings with them in the immediate future. Although the connection of ideas is singularly clear, the passage throws so much light on the deepest theological conceptions of Ezekiel that it will be well to recapitulate the principal steps of the argument.

We need not linger on the cause of the rejection of Israel, for here the prophet only repeats the main lesson which we have found so often enforced in the first part of his book. Israel went into exile because its manner of life as a nation had been abhorrent to Jehovah, and it had defiled the land which was Jehovah’s house. As in chapter 22 and elsewhere, bloodshed and idols are the chief emblems of the people’s sinful condition; these constitute a real physical defilement of the land, which must be punished by the eviction of its inhabitants: "So I poured out My wrath upon them [on account of the blood which they had shed upon the land, and the idols wherewith they had polluted it]: and I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries."

Thus the Exile was necessary for the vindication of Jehovah’s holiness as reflected in the sanctity of His land. But the effect of the dispersion on other nations was such as to compromise the honour of Israel’s God in another direction. Knowing Jehovah only as a tribal god, the heathen naturally concluded that He had been too feeble to protect His land from invasion and His people from captivity. They could not penetrate to the moral reasons which rendered the chastisement inevitable; they only saw that these were Jehovah’s people, and yet they were gone forth out of His land (Ezekiel 36:20), and drew the natural inference. The impression thus produced by the presence of Israelites amongst the heathen was derogatory to the majesty of Jehovah, and obscured the knowledge of the true principles of His government which was destined to extend to all the earth. This is all that seems to be meant by the expression "profaned My holy name." It is not implied that the exiles scandalised the heathen by their vicious lives, and so brought disgrace on "that glorious name by which they were called," [James 2:7] although that idea is implied in Ezekiel 12:16. The profanation spoken of here was caused directly not by the sin but by the calamities of Israel. Yet it was their sins which brought down judgment upon them, and so indirectly gave occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. There were probably already some of Ezekiel’s compatriots who realised the bitterness of the thought that their fate was the means of bringing discredit on their God. Their experience would be similar to that of the lonely exile who composed the forty-second psalm:-

"As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me;

While they say daily unto me,

Where is thy God?". [Psalms 42:10]

Now in this fact the prophet recognises an absolute ground of confidence in Israel’s restoration. Jehovah cannot endure that His name should thus be held up to derision before the eyes of mankind. To allow this would be to frustrate the end of His government of the world, which is to manifest His Godhead in such a way that all men shall be brought to acknowledge it.

Although He is known as yet only as the national God of a particular people, He must be disclosed to the world as all that the inspired teachers of Israel know Him to be-the one Being worthy of the homage of the human heart. There must be some way by which His name can be sanctified before the heathen, some means of reconciling the partial revelation of His holiness in Israel’s dispersion with the complete manifestation of His power to the world at large. And this reconciliation can only be effected through the redemption of Israel. God cannot disown His ancient people, for that would be to stultify the whole past revelation of His character and leave the name by which He had made Himself known to contempt. That is divinely impossible; and therefore Jehovah must carry through His purpose by sanctifying Himself in the salvation of Israel. The outward token of salvation will be their restoration to their own land (Ezekiel 36:24); but the inward reality of it will be a change in the national character which will make their dwelling in the land consistent with the revelation of Jehovah’s holiness already given by their banishment from it.

At this point accordingly (Ezekiel 36:25) Ezekiel passes to speak of the spiritual process of regeneration by which Israel is to be transformed into a true people of God. This is a necessary part of the sanctification of the divine name before the world. The new life of the people will reveal the character of the God whom they serve, and the change will explain the calamities that had befallen them in the past. The world will thus see "that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity," [Ezekiel 39:23] and will understand the holiness which the true God requires in His worshippers. But for the present the prophet’s thoughts are concentrated on the operations of the divine grace by which the renewal is effected. His analysis of the process of conversion is profoundly instructive, and anticipates to a remarkable degree the teaching of the Old Testament. We shall content ourselves at present with merely enumerating the different parts of the process. The first step is the removal of the impurities contracted by past transgressions. This is represented under the figure of sprinkling with clean water, suggested by the ablutions or lustrations which are so common a feature of the Levitical ritual (Ezekiel 36:25). The truth symbolised is the forgiveness of sins, the act of grace which takes away the effect of moral uncleanness as a barrier to fellowship with God. The second point is what is properly called regeneration, the giving of a new heart and spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). The stony heart of the old nation, whose obduracy had dismayed so many prophets, making them feel that they had spent their labour for nought and in vain, shall be taken away, and instead of it they shall receive a heart of flesh, sensitive to spiritual influences and responsive to the divine will. And to this is added in the third place the promise of the Spirit of God to be in them as the ruling principle of a new life of obedience to the law of God (Ezekiel 36:27). The law, both moral and ceremonial, is the expression of Jehovah’s holy nature, and both the will and the power to keep it perfectly must proceed from the indwelling of His Holy Spirit in the people, It is thus Jehovah Himself who "saves" the people "out of all their uncleanness" (Ezekiel 36:29), caused by the depravity and infirmity of their natural hearts. When these conditions are realised the harmony between Jehovah and Israel will be completely restored: He will be their God, and they shall be His people. They shall dwell forever in the land promised to their fathers; and the blessing of God resting on land and people will multiply the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field, so that they receive no more the reproach of famine among the nations (Ezekiel 36:28-30).

Having thus described the process of salvation as from first to last the work of Jehovah, the prophet proceeds to consider the impression which it will produce first on Israel and then on the surrounding nations (Ezekiel 36:31-36). On Israel the effect of the goodness of God will be to lead them to repentance. Remembering what their past history has been. and contrasting it with the blessedness they now enjoy, they shall be filled with shame and self-contempt, loathing themselves for their iniquities and their abominations. It is not meant that all feelings of joy and gratitude will be swallowed up in the consciousness of unworthiness; but this is the feeling that will be called forth by the memory of their past transgressions. Their horror of sin will be such that they cannot think of what they have been without the deepest compunction and self-abasement. And this sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, reacting on their consciousness of themselves, will be the best moral guarantee against their relapse into the uncleanness from which they have been delivered.

To the heathen, on the other hand, the state of Israel will be a convincing demonstration of the power and godhead of Jehovah.. Men will say, "Yonder land, which was desolate, has become like the garden of Eden; and the cities that were ruined and waste and destroyed are fenced and inhabited" (Ezekiel 36:35). They will know that it is Jehovah’s doing, and it will be marvellous in their eyes.

The last two verses seem to be an appendix. They deal with a special feature of the restoration, about which the minds of the exiles may have been exercised in thinking of the possibility of their deliverance. Where was the population of the new Israel to come from? The population of Judah must have been terribly reduced by the disastrous wars that had desolated the country since the time of Hezekiah. How was it possible, with a few thousands in exile, and a miserable remnant left in the land, to build up a strong and prosperous nation? This thought of theirs is met by the announcement of a great increase of the inhabitants of the land. Jehovah is ready to meet the questionings of human anxiety on this point: He will "let Himself be inquired of" for this. The remembrance of the sacrificial flocks that used to throng the streets leading to the Temple at the time of the great festivals supplies Ezekiel with an image of the teeming population that shall be in all the cities of Canaan when this prophecy is fulfilled.

Such is in outline the scheme of redemption which Ezekiel presents to the minds of his readers. We shall reserve a fuller consideration of its more important doctrines for a separate chapter. One general application of its teaching, however, may be pointed out before leaving the subject. We see that for Ezekiel the mysteries and perplexities of the divine government find their solution in the idea of redemption. He is aware of the false impression necessarily produced on the heathen mind by God’s dealings with His people, as long as the process is incomplete. On account of Israel’s sin the revelation of God in providence is gradual and fragmentary, and seems even for a time to defeat its own end. The omnipotence of God was obscured by the very act of vindicating His holiness; and what was in itself a great step towards the complete revelation of His character came on the world in the first instance as an evidence of His impotence. But the prophet, looking beyond this to the final effect of God’s work upon the world, sees that Jehovah can be truly known only in the manifestation of His redeeming grace. All the enigmas and contradictions that arise from imperfect comprehension of His purpose find their answer in this truth, that God will yet redeem Israel from its iniquities. God is His own interpreter, and when His work of salvation is finished the result will be a conclusive demonstration of that lofty conception of God to which the prophet had attained.

Now this argument of Ezekiel’s illustrates a principle of wide application. Many objections that are advanced against the theistic view of the universe seem to proceed on the assumption that the actual state of the world adequately represents the mind of its Creator. The heathen of Ezekiel’s day have their modern representatives amongst dispassionate critics of Providence like J. S. Mill, who prove to their own satisfaction that the world cannot be the work of a being answering to the Christian idea of God. Do what you will, they say, to minimise the Evils of existence, there is still an amount of undeniable pain and misery in the world which is fatal to your doctrine of an all-powerful and perfectly good Creator. Omnipotence could, and benevolence would find a remedy; the Author of the universe, therefore, cannot possess both. God, in short, if there be a God, may be benevolent, or He may be omnipotent; but if benevolent He is not omnipotent, and if omnipotent He cannot be benevolent. How very convincing this is-from the standpoint of the neutral, non-Christian observer! And how poor a defence is sometimes made by the optimism which tries to make out that most evils are blessings in disguise, and the rest not worth minding! The Christian religion rises superior to such criticism mainly in virtue of its living faith in redemption. It does not explain away evil, nor does it profess to account for its origin. It speaks of the whole creation groaning and travailing in pain together even until now. But it also describes the creation as waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. It teaches us to discover in history the unfolding of a purpose of redemption the end of which will be the deliverance of mankind from the dominion of sin and their eternal blessedness in the kingdom of our God and His Christ. What Ezekiel foresaw in the form of a national restoration will be accomplished in a world-wide salvation, in a new heavens and a new earth, where there shall be no more curse. But meanwhile to judge of God from what is, apart from what is yet to be revealed, is to repeat the mistake of those who judge Jehovah to be an effete tribal deity because He had suffered His people to go forth out of their land. Those who have been brought into sympathy with the divine purpose, and have experienced the power of the Spirit of God in subduing the evil of their own hearts, can hold with unwavering confidence the hope of a universal victory of good over evil; and in the light of that hope the mysteries that surround the moral government of God cease to disturb their faith in the eternal Love which labours patiently and unceasingly for the redemption of man.

THE CONVERSION OF ISRAEL

IN one of our earlier chapters (Chapter 5 above) we had occasion to notice some theological principles which appear to have guided the prophet’s thinking from the beginning. It was evident even then that these principles pointed towards a definite theory of the conversion of Israel and the process by which it was to be effected. In subsequent prophecies we have seen how constantly Ezekiel’s thoughts revert to this theme, as now one aspect of it and then another is disclosed to him. We have also glanced at one passage. [Ezekiel 36:16-38] which seemed to be a connected statement of the divine procedure as bearing on the restoration of Israel. But we have now reached a stage in the exposition where all this lies behind us. In the chapters that remain to be considered the regeneration of the people is assumed to have taken place; their religion and their morality are regarded as established on a stable and permanent basis, and all that has to be done is to describe the institutions by which the benefits of salvation may be conserved and handed down from age to age of the Messianic dispensation. The present is therefore a fitting opportunity for an attempt to describe Ezekiel’s doctrine of conversion as a whole. It is all the more desirable that the attempt should be made because the national salvation is the central interest of the whole book; and if we can understand the prophet’s teaching on this subject, we shall have the key to his whole system of theology.

1. The first point to be noticed, and the one most characteristic of Ezekiel, is the divine motive for the redemption of Israel-Jehovah’s regard for His own name. This thought finds expression in many parts of the book, but nowhere more clearly than in the twenty-second verse of the thirty-sixth chapter: "Not for your sakes do I act, O house of Israel, but for My holy name, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went." [Ezekiel 36:22] Similarly in the thirty-second verse: "Not for your sakes do I act, saith the Lord Jehovah, be it known unto you: be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel." [Ezekiel 36:32] There is an apparent harshness in these declarations which makes it easy to present them in a repellent light. They have been taken to mean that Jehovah is absolutely indifferent to the weal or woe of the people except in so far as it reflects on His own credit with the world: that He accepts the relationship between Him and Israel, but does so in the spirit of a selfish parent who exerts himself to save his child from disgrace merely in order to prevent his own name from being dragged in the mire. It would be difficult to explain how such a Being should be at all concerned about what men think of Him. If Jehovah has no interest in Israel, it is hard to see why He should be sensitive to the opinion of the rest of mankind. That is an idea of God which no man can seriously hold. and we may be certain that it is a perversion of Ezekiel’s meaning. Everything depends on how much is included in the "name" of Jehovah. If it denotes mere arbitrary power, delighting in its own exercise and the awe which it excites, then we might conceive of the divine action as ruled by a boundless egotism, to which all human interests are alike indifferent. But that is not the conception of God which Ezekiel has. He is a moral Being, one who has compassion on other things besides His own name, [Ezekiel 36:21] one who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he should turn from his way and live. [Ezekiel 18:23;, Ezekiel 33:11] But when this aspect of His character is included in the name of God, we see that regard for His name cannot mean mere regard for His own interests, as if these were opposed to the interests of His creatures; but means the desire to be known as He is, as a God of mercy and righteousness as well as of infinite power.

The name of God is that by which He is known amongst men. It is more than His honour or reputation, although that is included in it according to Hebrew idiom; it is the expression of His character or His personality. To act for His name’s sake therefore, is to act so that His true character may be more fully revealed, and so that men’s thoughts of Him may more truly correspond to that which in Himself He is. There is plainly nothing in this inconsistent with the deepest interest in men’s spiritual well-being. Jehovah is the God of salvation, and desires to reveal Himself as such; and whether we say that He saves men in order that He may be known as a Saviour, or that He makes Himself known in order to save them, does not make any real difference. Revelation and redemption are one thing. And when Ezekiel says that regard for His own name is the supreme motive of Jehovah’s action, he does not teach that Jehovah is uninfluenced by care for man; if the question had been put to him, he would have said that care for man is one of the attributes included in the Name which Jehovah is concerned to reveal.

The real meaning of Ezekiel’s doctrine will perhaps be best understood from its negative statement. What is meant to be excluded by the expression "not for your sakes"? It might no doubt mean, "not because I care at all for you"; but that we have seen to be inconsistent with other aspects of Ezekiel’s teaching about the divine character. All that it necessarily implies is "not for any good that I find in you." It is a protest against the idea of Pharisaic self-righteousness that a man may have a legal claim upon God through his own merits. It is true that that was not a prevalent notion amongst the people in the time of Ezekiel. But their state of mind was one in which such a thought might easily arise. They were convinced of having been entirely in the wrong in their conceptions of the relation between them and Jehovah. The pagan notion that the people is indispensable to the god on account of a physical bond between them had broken down in the recent experience of Israel, and with it had vanished every natural ground for the hope of salvation. In such circumstances the promise of deliverance would naturally raise the thought that there must after all be something in Israel that was pleasing to Jehovah, and that the prophet’s denunciations of their past sins were overdone. In order to guard against that error Ezekiel explicitly asserts, what was involved in the whole of his teaching, that the mercy of God was not called forth by any good in Israel, but that nevertheless there are immutable reasons in the divine nature on which the certainty of Israel’s redemption may be built.

The truth here taught is therefore, in theological language, the sovereignty of the divine grace. Ezekiel’s statement of it is liable to all the distortions and misrepresentations to which that doctrine has been subjected at the hands both of its friends and its enemies; but when fairly treated it is no more objectionable than any other expression of the same truth to be found in Scripture. In Ezekiel’s case it was the result of a penetrating analysis of the moral condition of his people which led him to see that there was nothing in them to suggest the possibility of their being restored. It is only when he falls back on the thought of what God is, on the divine necessity of vindicating His holiness in the salvation of His people, that his faith in Israel’s future finds a sure point of support. And so in general a profound sense of human sinfulness will always throw the mind back on the idea of God as the one immovable ground of confidence in the ultimate redemption of the individual and the world. When the doctrine is pressed to the conclusion that God saves men in spite of themselves, and merely to display His power over them, it becomes false and pernicious, and indeed self-contradictory. But so long as we hold fast to the truth that God is love, and that the glory of God is the manifestation of His love, the doctrine of the divine sovereignty only expresses the unchangeableness of that love and its final victory over the sin of the world.

2. The intellectual side of the conversion of Israel is the acceptance of that idea of God which to the prophet is summed up in the name of Jehovah. This is expressed in the standing formula which denotes the effect of all God’s dealings with men, "They shall know that I am Jehovah." We need not, however, repeat what has been already said as to the meaning of these words. Nor shall we dwell on the effect of the national judgment as a means towards producing a right impression of Jehovah’s nature. It is possible that as time went on Ezekiel came to see that chastisement alone would not effect the moral change in the exiles which was necessary to bring them into sympathy with the divine purposes. In the early prophecy of chapter 6 the knowledge of Jehovah and the self-condemnation which accompanies it are spoken of as the direct result of His judgment on sin, [Ezekiel 6:8-10] and this undoubtedly was one element in the conversion of the people to right thoughts about God. But in all other passages this feeling of self-loathing is not the beginning but the end of conversion; it is caused by the experience of pardon and redemption following upon punishment. [Ezekiel 16:61-63;, Ezekiel 20:43-44; Ezekiel 36:31; Ezekiel 20:32] There is also another aspect of judgment which may be mentioned in passing for the sake of completeness. It is that which is expounded in the end of the twentieth chapter. There the judgment which still stands between the exiles and the return to their own land is represented as a sifting process, in which those who have undergone a spiritual change are finally separated from those who perish in their impenitence. This idea does not occur in the prophecies subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem, and it may be doubtful how it fits into the scheme of redemption there unfolded. The prophet here regards conversion as a process wholly carried through by the operation of Jehovah on the mind of the people; and what we have next to consider is the steps by which this great end is accomplished. They are these two-forgiveness and regeneration.

3. The forgiveness of sins is denoted in the thirty-sixth chapter, as we have already seen, by the symbol of sprinkling with clean water. But it must not be supposed that this isolated figure is the only form in which the doctrine appears in Ezekiel’s exposition of the process of salvation. On the contrary forgiveness is the fundamental assumption of the whole argument, and is present in every promise of future blessedness to the people. For the Old Testament idea of forgiveness is extremely simple, resting as it does on the analogy of forgiveness in human life. The spiritual fact which constitutes the essence of forgiveness is the change in Jehovah’s disposition towards His people which is manifested by the renewal of those indispensable conditions of national well-being which in His anger He had taken away. The restoration of Israel to its own land is thus not simply a token of forgiveness, but the act of forgiveness itself, and the only form in which the fact could be realised in the experience of the nation. In this sense the whole of Ezekiel’s predictions of the Messianic deliverance and the glories that follow it are one continuous promise of forgiveness, setting forth the truth that Jehovah’s love to His people persists in spite of their sin, and works victoriously for their redemption and restoration to the full enjoyment of His favour. There is perhaps one point in which we discover a difference between Ezekiel’s conception and that of his predecessors. According to the common prophetic doctrine penitence, including amendment, is the moral effect of Jehovah’s chastisement, and is the necessary condition of pardon. We have seen that there is some doubt whether Ezekiel regarded repentance as the result of judgment, and the same doubt exists as to whether in the order of salvation repentance is a preliminary or a consequence of forgiveness. The truth is that the prophet appears to combine both conceptions. In urging individuals to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God he makes repentance a necessary condition of entering it; but in describing the whole process of salvation as the work of God he makes contrition for sin the result of reflection on the goodness of Jehovah already experienced in the peaceful occupation of the land of Canaan.

4. The idea of regeneration is very prominent in Ezekiel’s teaching. The need for a radical change in the national character was impressed on him by the spectacle which he witnessed daily of evil tendencies and practices persisted in, in spite of the clearest demonstration that they were hateful to Jehovah and had been the cause of the nation’s calamities. And he does not ascribe this state of things merely to the influence of tradition and public opinion and evil example, but traces it to its source in the hardness and corruption of the individual nature. It was evident that no mere change of intellectual conviction would avail to alter the currents of life among the exiles; the heart must be renewed, out of which are the issues both of personal and national life. Hence the promise of regeneration is expressed as a taking away of the stony, unimpressible heart that was in them, and putting within them a heart of flesh, a new heart and a new spirit. In exhorting individuals to repentance Ezekiel calls on them to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit, [Ezekiel 18:31] meaning that their repentance must be genuine, extending, to the inner motives and springs of action, and not be confined to outward signs of mourning. But in other connections the new heart and spirit are represented as a gift, the result of the operation of the divine grace. [Ezekiel 11:19;, Ezekiel 36:26-27]

Closely connected with this, perhaps only the same truth in another form, is the promise of the outpouring of the Spirit of God. [Ezekiel 36:27; Ezekiel 37:14] The general expectation of a new supernatural power infused into the national life in the latter days is common in the prophets. It appears in Hosea under the beautiful image of the dew, [Hosea 14:5] and in Isaiah it is expressed in the consciousness that the desolation of the land must continue "until spirit be poured upon us from on high." But [Isaiah 32:15] no earlier prophet presents the idea of the Spirit as a principle of regeneration with the precision and clearness which the doctrine assumes in the hands of Ezekiel. What in Hosea and Isaiah may be only a divine influence, quickening and developing the flagging spiritual energies of the people, is here revealed as a creative power, the source of a new life, and the beginning of all that possesses moral or spiritual worth in the people of God.

5. It only remains for us now to note the twofold effect of these operations of Jehovah’s grace in the religious and moral condition of the nation. There will be produced, in the first place, a new readiness and power of obedience to the divine commandments. [Ezekiel 11:20;, Ezekiel 36:27] Like the apostle, they will not only "consent unto the law that it is good"; [Romans 7:10] but in virtue of the new "Spirit of life" given to them, they will be in a real sense "free from the law," [Romans 8:2] because the inward impulse of their own regenerate nature will lead them to fulfil it perfectly. The inefficiency of law as a mere external authority, acting on men by hope of reward and fear of punishment, was perceived both by Jeremiah and Ezekiel almost as clearly as by Paul, although this conviction on the part of the prophets was based on observation of national depravity rather than on their personal experience. It led Jeremiah to the conception of a new covenant under which Jehovah will write His law on men’s hearts; [Jeremiah 31:33] and Ezekiel expresses the same truth in the promise of a new Spirit inclining the people to walk in Jehovah’s statutes and to keep His judgments.

The second inward result of salvation is shame and self-loathing on account of past transgressions. [Ezekiel 6:9; Ezekiel 16:63; Ezekiel 20:43; Ezekiel 36:31-32] It seems strange that the prophet should dwell so much on this as a mark of Israel’s saved condition. His strong protest against the doctrine of inherited guilt in the eighteenth chapter would have led us to expect that the members of the new Israel would not be conscious of any responsibility for the sins of the old. But here, as in other instances, the conception of the personified nation proves itself a better vehicle of religious truth from the Old Testament standpoint than the religious relations of the individual. The continuity of the national consciousness sustains that profound sense of unworthiness which is an essential element of true reconciliation to God, although each individual Israelite in the kingdom of God knows that he is not accountable for the iniquity of his fathers.

This outline of the prophet’s conception of salvation illustrates the truth of the remark that Ezekiel is the first dogmatic theologian. In so far as it is the business of a theologian to exhibit the logical connection of the ideas which express man’s relation to God, Ezekiel more than any other prophet may claim the title. Truths which are the presuppositions of all prophecy are to him objects of conscious reflection, and emerge from his hands in the shape of clearly formulated doctrines. There is probably no single element of his teaching which may not be traced in the writings of his predecessors, but there is none which has not gained from him a more distinct intellectual expression. And what is specially remarkable is the manner in which the doctrines are bound together in the unity of a system. In grounding the necessity of redemption in the divine nature, Ezekiel may be said to foreshadow the theology which is often called Calvinistic or Augustinian, but which might more truly be called Pauline. Although the final remedy for the sin of the world had not yet been revealed, the scheme of redemption disclosed to Ezekiel agrees with much of the teaching of the New Testament regarding the effects of the work of Christ on the individual. Speaking of the passage Ezekiel 36:16-38 Dr. Davidson writes as follows:-

"Probably no passage in the Old Testament of the same extent offers so complete a parallel to New Testament doctrine, particularly to that of St. Paul. It is doubtful if the apostle quotes Ezekiel anywhere, but his line of thought entirely coincides with his. The same conceptions and in the same order belonging to both, -forgiveness (Ezekiel 36:25); regeneration, a new heart and spirit (Ezekiel 36:26); the Spirit of God as the ruling power in the new life (Ezekiel 36:27); the issue of this, the keeping of the requirements of God’s law; [Ezekiel 36:27; Romans 8:4] the effect of being ‘under grace’ in softening the human heart and leading to obedience (Ezekiel 36:31; Romans 6:1-23; Romans 7:1-25); and the organic connection of Israel’s history with Jehovah’s revelation of Himself to the nations." [Ezekiel 36:33-36; Romans 11:1-36]

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 36:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezekiel-36.html.

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