CHAPTERS 38-39 OF EZEKIEL are among the most difficult chapters in the entire book. In many ways they stand apart from what comes before and after. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the following. Chapters 40-48 are so much later than most of the book (the twenty-fifth year of exile, 40:1) that they are almost like an appendix to the rest of the visions and oracles. If so, then chapters 38-39 must be seen as a conclusion to the preceding thirty-seven chapters, but not necessarily as a bridge to chapters 40-48. Precisely how this prophecy against Gog serves as a conclusion to all that comes before it in Ezekiel depends very much on how these two chapters are interpreted. Even to catalog the possibilities would turn these brief meditations into a commentary, so I must largely restrict myself to some tentative conclusions.
It cannot have escaped notice that in several previous chapters I chose not to comment on certain sections. In part this was nothing more than selectivity based on my restricted space. But in part these passages belong to the same genus, and can usefully be thought about together. For instance, Ezekiel 37:25-28 anticipates the time when Israel, under God’s servant David, will live in the land “forever,” and “David my servant will be their prince forever.” God’s “sanctuary is among them forever.” Such language must either be taken at face value—a temple in Jerusalem, with a Davidic king, the throne and temple enduring forever—or it points beyond itself. For reasons that will become clearer, I am inclined to think that these and similar prophecies look forward to the glorious messianic future, but are largely cast in terms of the familiar categories of the old covenant. These same categories, the New Testament writers insist, have a predictive function fulfilled in Jesus the son of David and all that he brings.
Along similar lines, Ezekiel 38 begins by denouncing “Gog, chief prince of Meschech and Tubal” (Ezek. 38:3). The suggestion that these names refer to Moscow and Tobolsk is without linguistic merit. The pair of names appears elsewhere (Gen. 10:2; 1 Chron. 1:5; Ezek. 27:13; 32:26) and refers to the known tribes of Moschoi and Tibarenoi. Gog is perhaps to be identified with Gyges, king of Lydia (called Gûgu in some ancient records). More importantly, this anticipated horde of opponents to God’s people comes from the “far north” (Ezek. 38:6)—which is the direction from which the worst of Israel’s foes always came. The chapter ends in apocalyptic imagery (Ezek. 38:18-23)—which begins to make the scene feel like an idealized and final outbreak against the people of God, in which God vindicates his name and his cause. Thus all previous outbreaks anticipate, and are concluded by, this final apocalyptic struggle.
SINCE THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel has been promising new leadership, a restoration to the land, and moral and spiritual transformation. But just as his earlier announcement of the fall of Jerusalem was met with considerable skepticism, so now his announcement of blessings to come meets with the same. Their nation is shattered, their cities destroyed, and many of their people are scattered abroad, living as exiles in foreign lands. It is hard to detect even a glimmer of hope. They cry, in effect, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off” (Ezek. 37:11). In Ezekiel 37, God provides a vision and an object lesson to engender and nurture that hope.
The first is the vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14). Ezekiel is shown these “very dry” bones and is asked, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3). The bones represent the Israelites in exile. The northern tribes have been in exile for a century and a half. The exilic community in Babylon where Ezekiel is living has been there a decade. The bones are very dry indeed. First Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the bones. Miraculously, the bones come together and are covered with flesh and skin—but we have moved only from skeletons to corpses. Then Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the “breath” (rûah, which equally means “Spirit” and “wind”). Now the corpses come to life and stand on their feet—“a vast army” (Ezek. 37:10). In other words, although preaching of itself effects some changes, what is required is the sweeping power of the Spirit of God. Within the metaphorical world, this is nothing less than resurrection from the dead (Ezek. 37:12). The meaning of the vision, however, is that God will pour out his Spirit, and the exile will end (Ezek. 37:14).
The second part of the chapter is devoted to the object lesson of the two sticks (Ezek. 37:15-28). The first stick represents Judah; the second represents the northern tribes of Israel. Ezekiel stands for God. As he puts the two sticks together, so God declares that in the promised restoration there will no longer be two kingdoms, but one. “There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms” (Ezek. 37:22). Once again, the promise of inner transformation surfaces: “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezek. 37:23). Most important of all, the promised Messiah will lead them: “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24).
JUST AS IN CHAPTER 35 God through Ezekiel addresses Mount Seir (the region of the Edomites), so in Ezekiel 36 he addresses the mountains of Israel (Ezek. 36:1-15). This rhetorical device has the effect of linking chapters 35 and 36 together, not least since Edom is again specifically singled out (Ezek. 36:5; see yesterday’s meditation). The first part of the address to the mountains of Israel condemns the enemies who have ravaged and plundered them, not least Edom (Ezek. 36:1-7); the second half (Ezek. 36:8-15) foresees a time when the mountains will be prosperous again. The promise that the mountains will once again be fertile and densely populated is exactly the opposite of the curse pronounced against Edom (Ezek. 35:3, 7, 15).
As if thus addressing the mountains of Israel brings with it the danger that the Israelites will start thinking of themselves as mere victims and not as sinners calling down devastation on themselves, God provides a short historical review (Ezek. 36:16-21). Its purpose is to reiterate that God poured his wrath on the land because the covenant people themselves were so wicked. They themselves “defiled it by their conduct and their actions” (Ezek. 36:17).
But to a watching pagan world it looked as if the God of Israel was not able to protect his own people. So because God is committed to showing his holiness among the nations of the world, before whom the covenant people have profaned it, God will take action. He will not do so for the sake of the house of Israel (Ezek. 36:22)—i.e., as if they deserved it—but for his own name’s sake (Ezek. 36:22-23). And what action will he take to vindicate his glory? First, he will physically return the exiles to their native land (Ezek. 36:24). Second, he will follow this up with powerful moral and spiritual changes. The sprinkling with clean water (Ezek. 36:25) means more than forgiveness of sins. The language derives from ritual washings (Ex. 30:17-21; Lev. 14:52; Num. 19:17-19), but here it is tied to cleaning up the people from the dirt of idolatry. The gift of a “new heart” and a “new spirit” does not suggest mere aspects of human personality, but the transformation of all of human character. This is the equivalent of Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31ff.); its language is taken up by the Lord Jesus in his description of the new birth (John 3); the transformation is described by Paul (e.g., Rom. 8). This is what drives genuine repentance (Ezek. 36:31-32).
ONE MIGHT WELL ASK WHY EDOM should be specially denounced in Ezekiel 35. Doesn’t this material belong in chapters 25-32? Shouldn’t this passage be connected with the brief denunciation of Edom in Ezekiel 25:12-14? The easiest solution, of course, is to suppose that this is a late interpolation (which is what some critics allege). But that simply knocks the question back: why was the interpolator such an idiot? Moreover, if we can find reasons why the location of this chapter makes sense, then of course it makes sense if placed here in the original text.
Formally, Ezekiel 35 preserves some of the structure of the denunciations in chapter 34: “because … therefore” (e.g., Ezek. 35:5-6, 10-11). More importantly, of all the neighboring nations Edom was in one respect a special case. The nation of Edom was descended from Esau, and the old rivalry between Jacob and Esau was passed down into the rivalry between Israel and Edom, two nations of relatives divided by a common animus. Edom is not specifically mentioned in this chapter, of course; the reference instead is to Mount Seir (Ezek. 35:2)—i.e., the mountain region east of the Arabah, the valley running south from the Dead Sea. There they harbored their “ancient hostility” (Ezek. 35:5). But the four references to “blood” in this chapter (Hebrew dam) may be a deliberate pun on the unmentioned word Edom, as a way of pointing out that Edom’s callous treachery was all the more repugnant because of the degree of kinship they sustained with Israel. When Jerusalem was on the verge of collapse, Edom hoped that it could profit from the destruction of the “two nations” (Ezek. 35:10, Israel and Judah) for territorial aggrandizement. Probably they tried to trade support for Nebuchadnezzar for the promise of territorial gain. Above all, their gloating over their fallen rivals (Ezek. 35:12-15) is in God’s perspective nothing less than defiance of the Lord himself: “I the LORD was there” (Ezek. 35:10), God declares; “You boasted against me and spoke against me without restraint, and I heard it” (Ezek. 35:13), God warns. In fact, part of the restoration of Israelite exiles to the land will involve making it safe for them: the land must be rid of the “wild beasts” (Ezek. 34:25) that have ravaged it. If this subtly alludes to the surrounding tribes that tried to move in, this prophecy of the destruction of Edom is suitably placed here (see also tomorrow’s meditation.)
Thus quite apart from implicit warnings against nurtured bitterness and feud-like vendettas, this chapter also implicitly reassures the covenant people of God of his continuing commitment to their good—including the destruction of their enemies. What New Testament passages preserve the same tune, transposed to the key of the new covenant?
“SHEPHERD” WAS A COMMON METAPHOR for “king” in the ancient Near East, not least in the Old Testament (cf. Isa. 44:28; Jer. 10:21; 23:1-6; Mic. 5:4, 5; Zech. 11:4-17). The shepherd provided not only care and nurture for the sheep, but leadership, medical attention, and defense against foes. Doubtless it was an excellent metaphor to apply to hereditary monarchs who might be tempted to think of their calling in terms of power and privilege but not in terms of responsibility. Conversely, when David confesses that the Lord is his shepherd (Ps. 23:1), the metaphor includes the notion that God is king. The sheep pass under the rod (Ps. 23:4—the same word used for royal scepter).
The chapter (Ezek. 34) begins with a scathing denunciation of the shepherds who have been leading Israel (Ezek. 34:1-10). The charges are basically two. (a) They have been greedily fleecing the sheep, exploiting the flock to make themselves comfortable and rich, but they have not nurtured and cared for the sheep entrusted to them (Ezek. 34:2-4). (b) Far from protecting the sheep by keeping them in one flock, the conduct of the shepherds has led to the sheep being “scattered” (Ezek. 34:5-6)—a term that signals the exile. So what God will do is ensure that these false and dangerous shepherds will never have charge of the sheep again (Ezek. 34:7-10). It is difficult not to detect in these lines the demise of the Davidic dynasty as then understood, along with the Levitical priesthood.
What God will put in their place is—himself. He will himself come to shepherd his sheep. Read the moving lines from verse 16 on, and count the number of times God says “I will …” or “I myself will …” Not only will he protect the flock (Ezek. 34:10-16), he will also exercise judgment within the flock (Ezek. 34:17-22), for inevitably some sheep are corrupt or bullies. The flock will be purified not only of its greedy leadership but also of its wicked members, not least the “fat” sheep who butt the others away from plenty.
Suddenly the language changes. All along God has been declaring that he himself will shepherd his flock. Now he says, “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken” (Ezek. 34:23-24). Indeed, the promised reformation will bring a transforming new covenant (Ezek. 34:25-31). This covenant will be effective (that is what “covenant of peace” suggests).
A transforming shepherd who is both Yahweh and someone in David’s line? Meditate on John 10.
EZEKIEL 33 MARKS A TURNING POINT in the book. Chapters 33-37 record oracles related to the fall of Jerusalem. Although the warnings and calls for repentance continue, one now hears a rising note of comfort. As long as the exiles found it difficult to believe that Jerusalem could fall, Ezekiel was full of warning. Once the fall has taken place, God in his mercy gives Ezekiel words that will comfort the exilic community, nurture their faith, and steel their minds and wills.
Before that turning point arrives, the first half of the chapter returns to a theme first introduced in Ezekiel 3:16-21: Ezekiel the watchman. The theme returns because Ezekiel now begins a new phase in his ministry. In a sense, he is being recommissioned. At the same time, the news he is about to deliver regarding the fall of Jerusalem provides the people with a new opportunity to repent and trust God. So the first half of the chapter (Ezek. 33:1-20) divides naturally into these two themes. On the one hand, God reminds the prophet of his awful responsibility as a watchman (Ezek. 33:1-9). He is committed to standing somewhat apart from his fellow exiles. He must keep a vigil, listen to God, and proclaim faithfully what God tells him to say, warning of judgments to come and eliciting faith in God’s faithfulness. On the other hand, the people are called to respond to the watchman’s warnings (Ezek. 33:10-20). They are neither to trust their own righteousness nor to slide into fatalism. The appropriate response is always to heed God’s watchman, for God himself is the One who declares, “As surely as I live … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).
So the news arrives: Jerusalem has fallen (Ezek. 33:22). Ezekiel is now released from the silence God earlier imposed: he can converse openly and can say things other than what was given to him as a prophet. But all that he says in the rest of this chapter are more words from the Lord. He has two themes. (a) Regarding the people left among the ruins of Jerusalem, they are ever the optimists. They think they will reestablish themselves, even though they have not renounced their sins. So God will continue his chastening until there is only desolation, so that they will learn that he is the Lord (Ezek. 33:23-29). (b) As for the exiles whom Ezekiel addresses directly, they have learned to enjoy listening to him, as one enjoys listening to a gifted orator—but they have not learned to repent.
Where are the closest analogies to such stances today?
PROBABLY PSALM 80 WAS WRITTEN BY Asaphite singers at another time of national disaster—when the Assyrians captured the northern kingdom, destroyed its capital, and exiled many of its people. The shock felt by the godly remnant in Judah must have been considerable. It accounts for the refrain, “Restore us, O God” (Ps. 80:3, 7, 19; cf. v. 14).
Perhaps the most striking feature of this psalm is the peculiar use it makes of the extended vine imagery (Ps. 80:8-18):
(1) We have often seen Israel portrayed as a vine: see, for instance, the meditation for May 7 (on Isa. 5). In the most dramatic of these passages, Israel is a vine that God carefully planted and nurtured, but sadly it produced only bad fruit. The vine ultimately proved so disappointing that in due course God resolved to destroy it.
(2) But here the emphasis is not on the terrible quality of the vine’s fruit (though that is presupposed), but on the wretched condition of the vine now that the Lord himself has broken down the protecting wall he had built around it. God himself brought the vine out of Egypt, planted it, nurtured it, and watched it spread from the (Mediterranean) Sea to the (Euphrates) River (Ps. 80:8-11). “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” (80:12). Even the wild beasts from the forest trample it and ravage it (Ps. 80:13).
(3) So the appeal is that God would have compassion on his own vine. Without dwelling on why God broke down the protecting wall—though Asaph recognizes that it is God’s smoldering anger (Ps. 80:4), God’s righteous rebuke (Ps. 80:16)—the psalmist makes a frankly emotional appeal to God to protect the vine that he himself has nurtured and protected: “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted” (Ps. 80:14-15).
(4) Interlaced with this theme is a reference to the “son” God raised up for himself (Ps. 80:15). The Hebrew word can refer to a branch or a bough (as in Gen. 49:22), but in this poem it is also preparing the way for Psalm 80:17. Probably in the first instance we are to detect a reference to Israel, a reference stemming from Exodus 4:22: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’ ” The psalmist pleads for compassion for God’s “son.” Even in verse 17 the “son of man” and the man at God’s right hand, i.e., God’s firstborn, envisage, in the first instance, Israel.
In the larger horizon, the ultimate answer to these petitions of Asaph would come when the true vine (John 15), the ultimate Son of Man, emerged from Israel.
ON THE FACE OF IT, PSALM 79 depicts the outrage bound up with the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Before we reflect on a few of its themes, we should pause to ask how both Psalm 78 and Psalm 79 can purport to come from Asaph. Psalm 78 was clearly written at the beginning of the Davidic dynasty; Psalm 79 was apparently written four-and-a-half centuries later, at the destruction of Jerusalem. So how can they both be psalms of Asaph? The Asaph we know was a contemporary of David.
The best guess is that the dozen psalms attributed to Asaph were variously written either by him or by the choir he founded. Just as some psalms are attributed to “the sons of Korah” (presumably another musical foundation), so also in this case.
Here Asaph does not question the justice of God’s burning “jealousy” (Ps. 79:5), but (as in Ps. 74; see meditation for September 23) its duration: “How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever?” (Ps. 79:5). Note how some of Asaph’s themes mesh with what we find in the prophets.
(1) “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name” (Ps. 79:6). But the major prophets insist, as we have repeatedly seen, that the pagan nations will also be held accountable by God. They are not given a free pass. Meanwhile believers should always recall God’s words to his people through Amos (Amos 3:2): “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (italics added). In a world under the curse, Christians too must grasp that punishment that steers us back toward repentance can only be a good thing (cf. Heb. 12:4-13).
(2) “Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers” (Ps. 79:8): review Ezekiel 18 (see meditation for September 15).
(3) “[M]ay your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need” (Ps. 79:8). Such a plea simultaneously asks for the only help that can save us, and reflects the attitude of dependence and trust so utterly lacking in the defiant rebellion and self-reliance that brought down the judgment in the first place.
(4) “Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake” (Ps. 79:9). Once again there is no attempt to whitewash the sins. The appeal is to God’s glory, so that pagan nations will not conclude that God is too weak or fickle to save his people (Ps. 79:10). How much of the driving force behind contemporary evangelical praying is motivated by a passion for the glory of God?
THE MAY 25 MEDITATION IN the first volume of this two-volume set focused on Psalm 78:40-72, especially on verses 40-41: “How often they rebelled against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel” (cf. also Ps. 78:56). The repeated failures of the covenant community were cumulatively a defiance of God that put him to the test, until he responded in anger: “He was very angry with his inheritance” (Ps. 78:62). That is a powerful theme in the psalm. But there is another side to this theme that one should think about.
The closing verses of the psalm (Ps. 78:65-72) picture the Lord rousing “as from sleep” (Ps. 78:65), beating back his enemies. What did he do? He did not choose “the tents of Joseph” (though Joseph had been the governor of Egypt). Rather, “he chose the tribe of Judah.” “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens” (Ps. 78:70); indeed, he chose “Mount Zion, which he loved. He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever” (Ps. 78:69). “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Ps. 78:72).
But you and I are today reading these lines while at the same time reading Ezekiel, and we know that David’s line provided little enduring stability. Within two generations the Davidic dynasty lost the northern ten tribes, and its history from that point to the exile turned out to be as fickle and as repulsively wicked as anything described in this psalm, which scans the period from the Exodus to the beginning of the Davidic dynasty. In other words, this psalm looks back on the debris of failure and the well-deserved wrath of God, but sees the appointment of David and the choice of Zion as spectacular marks of God’s grace and goodness, an encouraging basis for stable faithfulness in the years ahead. But when we look back from the perspective of Ezekiel or Jeremiah, we find a still longer string of failures and still more well-deserved wrath. So is Psalm 78 simply naive?
At each stage of the Bible’s plot-line, in the midst of wrath God intervenes in mercy. The human race was sliding into a miasma of sin, so God chose Abraham. In the debauchery of the twelve sons, God chose Joseph. In the abyss of Israelite slavery, God chose Moses. In desperate cycles of rebellion, God raised up the judges. Each step marked glorious hope. And now God raises up David. But living as we do three millennia later than David, we look back and breathe our profound thanks for how God disclosed himself “in these last days” (Heb. 1:1-4)—in the finality of his Son.