FULL ESSAY TITLE: What hope for Israel is there in the book of Ezekiel? In what does Ezekiel ground this hope?
In the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, Ezekiel, who had been prophesying judgment on the people because of their continued apostasy, now began to prophesy hope. And his message carried weight because he had previously prophesied destruction and exile – now that his words were proved true, his standing as a prophet of God was firmly established (33:33). Ezekiel could now give hope because he interpreted their situation for them, showing them that they had a future, that they could look forward to renewed blessing. And the ground of that hope is God.
This essay will show some of the reasons Israel could now have hope.
- God will restore Israel to covenant blessing under a new covenant
- God will restore Israel to the land
- God will appoint a Davidic king over Israel
- God will build a new temple among his people
- It can be seen that the initiator in this is God – he is the only ground Israel has for hope of restoration to their land, and their relationship with God [Adapted from VanGemeren (1988, 755)].
Before considering the hope that Ezekiel brought to Israel, it is important to understand the depth of confusion and despair that Israel suffered at the destruction of Jerusalem. When the Assyrians threatened Jerusalem and taunted God, at its very gates (2 Chron 32:1-23), the Jews were still convinced that, according to the Covenant, king and temple would always remain, that God lived in the temple, and he would never allow an enemy to displace him. With the Assyrian army destroyed that night, their assurance was vindicated. When Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and deported king and people in 597, their assurance took a severe battering but still remained. They looked upon this event as “the great disciplinary purge spoken by Isaiah” and therefore relaxed, probably regarding Zedekiah as the “substitute hope” (Bright 2000, 332).
But when the city and temple were utterly destroyed by Babylon, and Zedekiah taken captive, their assurance crashed and their theology was thrown into chaos. In a war between nations, and therefore between national gods, the victor won because his god was the more powerful (1 Kings 20:23). The Jews were now faced with rethinking their theology to interpret this: Marduk must be more powerful than Yahweh; Yahweh didn’t want to save Israel because he was unjust (33:17, 20); or the gods had punished Israel because they had turned to Yahweh (Jer 44). Deported to a land far from Israel, their lives and worldview shattered, they were on the brink of either absolute despair in believing that Yahweh had abandoned them (Ps 72:1,2,19), or total rejection of Yahweh (20:32). Then Ezekiel, in captivity with them, brought his messages of hope, and interpreted it all for them. He showed them that it was, as he had warned them, Yahweh who had done this. Yahweh was in control, in power and justice using Babylon as his instrument, not to wipe out Israel but to make from the remnant a “new Israel”. VanGemeren (1988, 755) says, “Chapter 34 is the key to the messages of restoration”. However, it is preferable to see it as the turning point in the book of Ezekiel, where the message of doom gives way to hope and restoration. Yet even though Ezekiel’s prophecies of hope basically begin at this point, even earlier, while he was prophesying further judgment on the nation, those who were faithful to God were encouraged with a future hope. The promise of a new covenant (16:60) and return to their land (28:25) were two such examples.
1. In Ezekiel 34:25, God says he will make a new covenant with Israel, a “covenant of peace”. He will first cleanse them (36:25-29), and he emphatically tells them that it is not for their sake that he will do this but for his own holy name (36:32). It is thus a theological consideration that God gives, a “most powerful argument” says LaSor (1996, 367). Israel had repeatedly broken the covenant God had made with them at Sinai (e.g. ch 18; 44:7), and it is this that angered God, provoking him to destroy the nation and terminate the covenant.
But now Ezekiel tells the exiles that God was going to establish a new covenant, far superior to the old. In 34:25, Ezekiel promises that under this “covenant of peace”, the land will be highly productive and there will be peace and safety; “and, best of all, it will re-establish the presence of God with his people” (Pearson, 1990, page reference lost). In 36:26-27, God says he will not only give Israel a “heart of flesh”, he will put his own Spirit in them, and they will then be able to follow him. This was the same as an earlier message (11:19-20). Such a work of transformation was necessary because Israel had demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to keep the old covenant. The result of this new covenant would be, “they shall be my people and I will be their God” (11:20). This is the old covenant formula (Exod 6:7), but it was radically different to the old. The replacement of their “heart of stone” with a “heart of flesh” showed them God’s intimate involvement with them, and that it would be a covenant of grace.
2. That Yahweh would restore Israel to their land was an important promise for the exiles. The land wasn’t simply where their homes had been, it held great significance for them. It was the evidence of their relationship to Yahweh. He had promised it to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:1-3) but it belonged to him (Lev 25:23). And it was where Yahweh himself had dwelt. Because of their greed in preying on the weak, the bloodshed, and their abuse of the land by not keeping the sabbaths, God cast them out of it that it might have rest (Lev 26:34). Consequently, Yahweh was now seen by the nations as “an inadequate national deity“(Craigie 1983, 257); but now he was promising a return to their ancestral land (37:25), and it would yield abundantly in everything, with nothing hurtful there (34:25-29; 36:8-12). It would be a land where the people of the two kingdoms of Israel would be united under one king (37:21-22); a land of purity of worship, freedom from apostasy, and of renewed relationship to Yahweh (37:23); and the population would multiply (36:11).
In chapter 6, Ezekiel prophesied that the mountains of Israel would be judged because of the idolatrous high places. In 36:1-15, he tells the exiles that they would return to these same mountains because Yahweh will sanctify and cleanse the land. The cities would be rebuilt, the wastelands recovered. In 36:11, he says he will do more good to them than ever before. It was a bright future that God held out to his people. But Edom was still in the land, in the mountains of Israel. Edom had taunted and plundered Israel at the time of their vulnerability and possessed their land. Edom would now be judged and cast out (35:1-15). Israel would return to their ancient land and, under their Davidic prince, would live securely and remain there forever.
3. In the parable of the two sticks (37:15-25), Ezekiel brings further cause for hope as he prophesies that Judah and Israel will be brought back from the nations and united under one king in their land forever. Ezekiel repeatedly describes this Davidic king as “my servant”, which, Taylor says, is “a clear Messianic title”. David was the greatest king in Israel’s history. Undefeated in battle, he conquered all Israel’s enemies, extended the nation’s borders and united the nation. The new, Messianic, David, would also be “someone in whom the Lord delighted and who triumphed over the foes of Israel” (McGregor1997, 739). But more, he would be a “supernatural kingly being” (Taylor 1969, 240). And, as was David, so he also would be a shepherd-king. In this king, the covenant would be renewed. Israel’s repossession of the land would be under conditions never previously attained. The promise had been that David’s “throne would be established forever” (2 Kin 7:17). The new Messiah would seal that promise.
4. As evidence of the permanency of their restoration to their land, Ezekiel prophesied that there would be a new temple where God would dwell in their midst. It is significant that Ezekiel sees Yahweh returning to the temple through the east gate (43:4), because in Ezek 10:19 he left the temple by the east gate before Jerusalem was burnt and destroyed. Yahweh’s departure from Jerusalem in judgment is shown to be temporary. Ezekiel assures the exiles that he will return, never to depart; “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord is There” (Ezek 48:35). His presence in the temple means blessing for Israel. The river which flows out of the temple and across the nation is highly symbolic language, signifying that the land to which they are returning will be a new paradise, rivalling Eden for its abundance because of the blessing of God.
Enns (1986, 194) says, “a consistently literal interpretation is essential in interpreting this passage”, i.e. chapters 47 and 48, because of his Dispensational Premillennial theology. But, ignoring any future implications for us which arise from the passage, the exiles would have recognised that, as a vision, it represented the ideal, and was therefore symbolic. The river flowed out from the presence of God, refreshing, and bringing life and healing to a dead land, which was Israel’s homeland. The symbolism would have been clear to them. If they wanted that temple and all that it entailed (i.e. cleansing, healing, new life, abundant fruitfulness etc.) to be their possession, they would have to put away their foreign gods and return to the God of their fathers (McGregor 1994, 742).
5. So Ezekiel gave Israel a future to hope for. With the destruction of their city and especially the temple, Israel’s religion was shattered, their faith reeling. Struggling to come to terms with the fact that God had abandoned them, or that God was not able to protect them against Marduk, Israel questioned their faith. And despite the severe blow Israel’s’ faith had received, it withstood the challenge, “exhibiting an astounding tenacity and vitality” (Bright 2000, 349). Ezekiel assured the exiles that God was still with them, even in exile. By interpreting the chaos of the destruction for them, showing that God was in total control, and that he was preparing them for a new future, he calmed their despair and re-grounded their faith. Eventually trusting in the promises of God for the restoration of their nation, a new community began to emerge. Faith can only be built on a faithful, unchanging God. In chapter 34, Yahweh once again spoke of himself as Israel’s shepherd. All the other blessings that God promised Israel through Ezekiel can be said to come out of this passage. He reveals his love for them in a most tender analogy, expressing his anger at false shepherds and false sheep “fleecing” the flock, and that he will shepherd the sheep himself. As the shepherd, he watches over the sheep, protecting, guiding, providing for, and seeking, the lost sheep. The future blessings he promises emanate from a compassionate heart that wants to see his people blessed. But there are also grounds for hope in that Yahweh will not only bless Israel for their good, but for his own glory. The kingdom he will establish will demonstrate his power and righteousness, and the nations will know that God is among his people. Israel was well aware that the nations thought of God as powerless because he couldn’t protect against Babylon. So the exiles could hope that even if Yahweh wouldn’t restore Israel for their sake, he would do so to vindicate his own name and glory.
Bright, J. 2000, A History of Israel, 4th edn, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.
Craigie, P.C. 1983, Ezekiel, DSB, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, Scotland, and The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Enns, P.P. 1986, Ezekiel, BSC, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
LaSor, W.S., Hubbard, D.A., Bush, F.W. 1996, Old Testament Survey, 2nd edn, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Cambridge, U.K.
McGregor, L.J. 1994, ‘Ezekiel’ in New Bible Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, and G.J. Wenham, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.
Pearson, A.T. 1990, ‘Ezekiel’ in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed. C.F. Pfeiffer, E.F. Harrison, Moody Press, Chicago.
Taylor, J.B. 1969, Ezekiel, TOTC, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England.
VanGemeren, W.A. 1988, ‘Ezekiel’ in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. W.A. Elwell, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan