We continue this evening in our study of the third and last major section of Ezekiel, that section we have said on a number of occasions is devoted to prophecies of the restoration of the people of God to the Promised Land from which they have been exiled to Babylon. The first large section of the book, written before the destruction of Jerusalem and the final exile of the Jews to Babylon, was devoted to the coming judgment of the Lord and the reason for it, viz. the betrayal of God’s covenant by the Jews. The second section, chapters, 25-32, is composed of prophesies of coming judgment directed against Israel’s neighbors, promises of judgment and the destruction of the very nations that otherwise would prevent the Jews’ resettlement and national restoration in the Promised Land. Every one of those nations, excepting Egypt, ceased to exist and Egypt, suffering repeated blows and then a long decline, never again recovered the national greatness she enjoyed for two millennia as one of the principle powers of the ancient world. No modern state from the time of Jesus Christ to this time enjoyed such a lengthy period of power and greatness as did Egypt in the ANE, but it came to a shuddering stop. Finally, in this third and final section we have prophesies of the restoration of Israel to the Promised Land – a national restoration we said last time was by every human consideration utterly unlikely if not impossible.
This restoration was vividly portrayed in the vision given to Ezekiel of a valley of dry bones coming to life, the vision that occupies the first half of chapter 37 that we considered last Lord’s Day evening. It is the same restoration that is now depicted in another way in the second half of this 37th chapter.
As we have had cause to notice from time to time Ezekiel has regularly throughout his prophecy referred to Judah and the Jews, the citizens of the southern kingdom, as Israel. Previously Israel had been the name of the northern kingdom, the ten tribes. But the northern kingdom had been finished for more than a century and her people had been scattered to the four winds; Judah was all that was left of the original nation of Israel and, in Ezekiel’s view and in the view of all the prophets, Judah was the heir of both the title and the thing in itself: a divinely chosen people in covenant with Yahweh. Ephraim was one of the sons born to Joseph during his sojourn in Egypt and subsequently one of the twelve tribes. Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, replaced Joseph among the twelve tribes and the number twelve is reached by not counting Levi. The Levites, as you remember, were considered separately as they had no separate tribal inheritance in the Promised Land. Ephraim became a synonym for the northern kingdom not only because it was the principal tribe – all the northern kings came from Ephraim – but also as covering the geographical area in which Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, was located. The addition of the phrases “and the Israelites associated with him” and “and all the house of Israel associated with him” are meant to emphasize that the entire nation of Israel is in view; no one will be left out.
It is not entirely clear what Ezekiel did. Perhaps he held the sticks end to end in his hand and with his fist covered the joint between them, making them appear to be a single stick. In any case, the point is clear: the two nations will again be one.
The people’s puzzlement is due to the fact that Israel as a kingdom had been destroyed so long ago. What could it mean to refer her in connection with Judah?
The NIV often obscures the precision of the original text and does so here. “Israelites” is actually “descendants of Israel.” The significance of that phrase is that it harks back to the origins of the nation and its ancestral roots. In other words, it is a way of speaking of the nation in an idealized way. [Block, ii, 410-411] That is important as we shall see, because the descendants of Israel in view do not really seem to be the people we might imagine at first blush to be referred to in that statement.
It is not only political and social restoration in view but spiritual as well. The people will be renewed in their hearts as Ezekiel has already said in chapter 36 and the first half of 37. That phrase “They will be my people and I will be their God” harks back to the very beginning of God’s covenant promise. That is the way he put it when he first made his covenant with Abraham “I will be your God and you and your descendants shall be my people.” In fact in some ways it is fair to say it is the Bible’s shortest way of saying everything it means by salvation. You get to Revelation 21 and heaven is described as the place where God is their God and they are his people. A short way of saying everything it means to be saved.
We tend to think back on David and remember particularly his fall and the miserable second half of his reign. He had serious failings as a husband, a father, and a king. But he was a man after God’s own heart and it is important to remember that under his reign alone in all the history of Israel was the nation free of idolatry and polytheism. That was a great achievement in a world where idolatry was so much the norm that religion without idols seemed a contradiction in terms to everyone in the ANE. Neither David’s predecessor, Saul, nor his successors were able to preserve Israel from accommodation to the common religious viewpoint of the surrounding cultures. Saul named one of his sons after the Canaanite god Baal – Ishbaal, or Ishbosheth – and Solomon in the later years of his reign gave idolatry and polytheism official sanction in Israel, a step that was to produce immeasurable harm and misery over the centuries to come.
Up to this point, remember, the prophets never considered the northern kingdom, Israel, or its kings legitimate. Israel was an aberration. Her kings were illegitimate. They had no future in biblical prophecy. There was but one legitimate dynasty and it would be a king from that dynasty, the house of David, who would rule over the reunified kingdom. [Block, ii, 399] The term “my servant David” harks back to two uses of the same phrase in the original covenant that Yahweh made with David and his house in 2 Samuel 7 (vv. 5, 8).
The restoration of the temple, or, better, the building of a new temple anticipates a major theme developed in chapters 40-46.
To interpret our text and the texts that follow we must be biblical theologians. We must be or we cannot really understand and appreciate what we have just read and, failing to understand it and appreciate it, we will not apply it correctly to ourselves; we will not understand its bearing on us and our own lives. This text, as Paul reminds us, was written for us, it is God-breathed and profitable for training in righteousness. But how is it so?
We have here on its face a promise of the reunification of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Promised Land, a development at that time, humanly speaking, as unlikely as dry bones coming back to life, as earlier in chapter 37, or as someone giving himself a heart transplant, as in chapter 36. This is an outcome in other words that only the living God could bring to pass! You remember your Old Testament history. After the death of Solomon, the third king of Israel, in 931 B.C, Israel was divided by civil war into northern and southern kingdoms which retained their separate political identities until the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The single people of Israel thus had become two peoples and two nations. The northern kingdom, usually referred to as Israel, with its capital in Samaria, was composed of the ten northern tribes; the southern kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem and usually known as Judah, was composed of the two southernmost tribes, principally Judah but also Benjamin. The kingdoms were hostile toward one another through most of the more than two centuries of their separated history though individuals often preserved the sense of mutual belonging. There were always some folk in the northern kingdom, for example, who appreciated that the temple in Jerusalem was the only legitimate sanctuary for Israelites – heresy to the kings and priests of the northern kingdom who developed their own sanctuaries precisely to keep their citizens from going southward to Jerusalem – and there were certainly kings, especially southern kings such as Jehoshaphat, who appreciated the historic bond that united the two kingdoms and their two peoples as the original people of God the nation of Israel. The Lord’s prophets, of course, always considered the temple in Jerusalem the only authentic Israelite sanctuary and the northern kingdom’s kings as usurpers.
As I said, the prospect of the restoration of the two kingdoms and their peoples would have seemed more than faintly ridiculous to any contemporary observer of the international political landscape when Ezekiel delivered this prophecy sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The northern kingdom, ceasing to exist almost a century and a half before, had been dispersed throughout the conquests of the Assyrian empire and Assyrian imperial policy had been to assimilate captives into the larger population to mix them up and cause them to lose their ethnic and national identity. They were much less a problem then. Assyria was the original “melting pot” if you will. There is some evidence that at least some Jews retained their identity for a time in Assyrian lands, but most would have lost it and all would have eventually. The Jews, on the other hand, the remnants of the southern kingdom were a little people and Jerusalem a little city. It would remain a little city even when rebuilt. To imagine the rebirth and the reconstruction of the Israelite nation and empire such as it had existed in the Promised Land under David and Solomon some four centuries earlier was ludicrous. It would be the equivalent of predicting today that Spain would again rule the world or Rome again dominate Europe. [Stuart, 347]
But, as believers in the Bible, what are we to do with this? How are we to understand this prophecy? Where is this restoration of all of Israel to the Promised Land? The fact is this reunification of Israelites and Jews and this restoration of the nation to freedom in the Promised Land never did take place in the years that followed and it hasn’t taken place in all the years since. In the first place, there never was nor has there been a return to the Promised Land by the Israelites who were exiled under the Assyrians. The Bible never suggests that there was such a return. There were the odd folk from the ten northern tribes who had migrated southward to live in Judah. Remember Anna, who saw the infant Savior in the temple, was of the tribe of Asher we are told in Luke chapter 2. And there were certainly Levites in the southern kingdom throughout its history. But these remnants of the other tribes of Israel were few and far between. What we mean by a Jew today is a descendant of the people of the southern kingdom. So much is this an historical fact that one Biblical scholar called this prediction of the restoration of the people of the northern kingdom to the Promised Land “perhaps the most conspicuous example in the Old Testament of patently false prophecy.” [D.C. Greenwood, “On the Jewish Hope for a Restored Kingdom,” ZAW 88 (1976) 384, cited in Allen, ii, 195] But the problem is greater than simply the fact that the northern kingdom, in fact, has never been heard from again.
There was in the years following no real political restoration for even the Jewish nation such as is here described in the second half of Ezekiel 37, a great nation once again under the rule of a great king. The exiles would return to Judea, to be sure. But Judah never gained true independence again. What was left of the once great kingdom of Israel, after the restoration following the Babylonian exile, remained a tiny client state of first the Persian, then the Greek, then the Seleucid, then the Roman, then the Turkish empires.
So what are we to do with this prophecy? What are we to make of it? This is the question we must face finally here in our studies of Ezekiel because the answer determines how we are going to read the rest of the chapters of the book and particularly the material that follows immediately upon chapter 37, the famous Gog-Magog chapters 38 and 39, and then the elaborate account of the building of the new temple in chapters 40 and following. This is the great question of interpretation that faces the reader of the prophecy of Ezekiel. We have to answer it here and in the chapters that immediately follow because it determines how we read the rest of the book. There is really a single alternative facing those who believe in the trustworthiness of the Word of God and yet have to interpret this particular prophecy and come to understand what is meant by its fulfillment.
First, you can treat the prophecy as do still many dispensationalist interpreters today, as a yet unfulfilled prophecy of Israel’s eventual restoration as a great nation in the Promised Land. They see the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and its history since as preliminary to such a fulfillment. Obviously what we see here in our lifetime is not the fulfillment of the promise of these verses in Ezekiel 37. Today very few Jews in Israel are actively religious and even those who are do not live in obedience to Yahweh’s covenant and they are not in subjection to the messianic king. But the day is coming, so they say, when all of this will come to pass. Israel will occupy the entirety of the original Promised Land, a great temple will be built on Zion’s hill, and the people will live in fellowship with the Lord once again. Some take the view that somehow, in some way the descendants of the northern kingdom Israelites will be found and brought again to their homeland. Accounts of these chapters as scenarios of the end times, as you know, are still being produced today, whether in sermons, or popular novels, or political manifestoes. A phenomenal number of Americans, a great many more than are loyal followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, have read one or more book of the Left Behind series. Such books offer views of the second half of Ezekiel 37 according to that understanding. Some 50 million of those books have been sold so far.
The problem with this approach is that this is not the way the Bible itself treats these prophetic texts. The prophecy we have here is very like a large number of others in the OT prophets, including the most famous of them all, Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant in 31:31-34. That text also forecasts a future that is emphatically for both Israel and Judah. Italso lays emphasis on the entirety of the people being reconstituted and restored; it also lays emphasis on their keeping the laws and commandments of the Lord, what we have here in verse 24. It also speaks of the spiritual renewal of the entire people of God being their God and they being his people in truth once again.
I have now resting proudly on my bookshelf my son-in-law, Joshua Moon’s doctoral dissertation from St. Andrews University which is a study of that Jeremiah prophecy – so very like this one in Ezekiel 37 – and of the history of its interpretation throughout the Christian ages. His conclusion is that the prophecy is a forecast of the consummation, when God’s people will know the Lord, all of them together, and the covenant that God made with his people will finally come to its historic fulfillment. It is a prophecy of the yet unexperienced future. In that sense, we agree with the dispensationalists, the prophecy here has not been fulfilled. But a yet unexperienced future of the salvation that is shared by all the people of God in all the world, that is a difference in our understanding of its fulfillment from that given by the dispensationalists. This prophecy, whether in its form in Jeremiah 31 or here in Ezekiel 37, or many other places in the prophets of the Old Testament, has not yet been fulfilled. We still await its fulfillment in the future with many other prophesies of the consummation of the kingdom of God, when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
But in what terms shall we expect its fulfillment? That is the question. Shall we expect through DNA testing to discover the identity of the descendants of the ten lost northern tribes and stand by in amazement as all the world watches them migrate en masse to the Holy Land? Or is something else intended by these predictions?
Well, the fact is the New Testament makes very clear in many places that these promises, such as we have here in Ezekiel 37, are predictions of the world’s salvation and of the consummation of that salvation in the kingdom of God at the end of history. They are characteristic in other ways of the way in which the Bible speaks about salvation. People are saved now by faith in Christ; their lives are transformed as we said in Ezekiel 36 by the gift of the Holy Spirit, by a new heart, a new record and a new life; but they will be saved in a still more complete and perfect way when Jesus comes again and takes his church to heaven. In the same way, the promise of salvation that we have in such a text as Ezekiel 37 is experienced in principle and in anticipation when any believer embraces by faith the salvation described here: God as our God, Christ as our King, the Holy Spirit as the renewing power of our lives, and so on. But the fulfillment, the consummation of this salvation, the experience of it in its full scope and perfection awaits the end of history. Ezekiel’s prophecy and Jeremiah’s are realized in steps and stages as the Lord makes his salvation known among men but only finally and completely when all the elect host are found together in the world at the same time.
My argument is that we must see the prophecy we have read in these terms because that is how the New Testament understands these prophecies. Jesus can refer to the wine of the Lord’s Supper as the blood of the new covenant, a reference to Jeremiah 31 – and in so doing he refers back to that set of OT prophesies just like this one in Ezekiel 37 – but he also says that he will not drink that wine again until he drinks it new with us in the kingdom of God. There is a sense in which that kingdom has not yet appeared in the world and won’t until the end of history. There is the now and the not yet. The kingdom of God is present provisionally, but we await its coming definitely and finally. Every feature of this prophecy can be understood in this way, and understanding it in this way we do not bring ourselves into conflict with the direct statements that we find elsewhere in the Bible. It is then; let me say again, a prophecy of the future of the people of God as a whole. That is the key thought you must grasp to understand this passage of God’s word aright and the chapters that follow.
What, for example, of Israel and the lost northern tribes? Well, as the New Testament reminds us again and again, and the Apostle Paul especially, a champion of Gentile evangelism, we who believe in Jesus Christ, we are the descendants of Abraham – the very same phrase used here in Ezekiel 37 to describe this people who will be restored we who are baptized in the name of the Triune God are the Israel of God – we are the circumcision; it is our forefathers – even we Gentile Christians – who came out of bondage in Egypt on eagles’ wings. It is not only the case that many Israelites were not Israelites, as Paul put it in Romans 9, not really Israelites because they did not have true and living faith in the Lord; it is also the fact that many non-Jews are Israelites because they do have faith in Jesus Christ. When Paul refers to Israelites according to the flesh (1 Cor. 10:18) he does so precisely because there is such a thing as an Israelite not according to the flesh, an Israelite according to the Spirit. There always had been, of course. This is not a new development. There were provisions in the Law of Moses for receiving believing Gentiles into the Israelite community and making them Israelites – two such women, Rahab and Ruth, were progenitors of the Messiah himself – and so there is nothing terribly new in the idea of Gentile Israelites, but it is a striking, repeated emphasis in the New Testament. The word “church” is applied in the New Testament to Israel in the wilderness in the days of Moses but much more often it is applied to the international community of those who believe in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles alike. In other words, this prophecy of the restoration of the people of Israel the New Testament teaches us is being slowly fulfilled in the world-wide mission of the Christian church. That is the point Peter makes explicitly, definitely and emphatically in Acts 15. By the Gentile mission, the preaching of the gospel and the believing of the gospel among the nations, he said, David’s fallen tent is being rebuilt and Peter then to prove the point cites a text from Amos 9 which is another one of those many prophecies of the restoration of Israel like this one in Ezekiel 37. The nation of Israel, the descendants of Abraham – in their true nature as a community of faith – that nation is being rebuilt, restored, reconstituted by the addition of vast multitudes of believers from every tongue, tribe, and nation, all of whom together, as we read strikingly in Revelation 7 where the whole church of God is described as the twelve tribes of Israel, that community will constitute the renewed and restored people of Israel. That point is made so many times in the New Testament and at such critical junctures of New Testament thought nobody should ever have had any difficulty understanding that. The day is coming when all of this will be magnificently revealed in sight of the entire world and the Lord’s kingdom will be manifest – everyone will see it for what it is, the day of resurrection, the millennium or heaven depending upon your millennial view – but in these ages since Ezekiel 37 the raw material of that great consummation is being gathered from which that triumphant kingdom will be built. Let’s put it plainly, you and I here in Tacoma, Washington in the year of our Lord 2008who believe in Jesus Christ, we are, according to the teaching of the Bible, the Israelites returning to the Promised Land.
But what then of the Promised Land? Well, we are reminded more than once in the Bible that the believers in the ancient epoch fully understood that the promise that had been made first to their father Abraham and often again to them was not really or ultimately about Canaanite real estate. It was about heaven. This is the point the author of Hebrews artlessly rings the changes on in his fourth and then again in his eleventh chapter. The faithful in the ancient epoch were looking for the heavenly country of which Canaan was just a type or an anticipation. These people were not stupid; they knew they were going to die. There wasn’t much to be gained in one particular piece of land or another if that was all God was promising you. They were looking for an eternal rest that they could not find even in a land flowing with milk and honey. It was perfectly biblical for the black spirituals to speak of crossing the Jordan as a metaphor for death and of the Promised Land as a sign of heaven. “I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home…?” Isaac Watts, as we sang a few moments ago, used the same imagery with the same Biblical justification.
It may be, I think it is the case personally that the Bible still holds out a future for ethnic Israel in the salvation of God. Paul seems to say as much in Romans 11. There will be a day when ethnic Jews in large numbers – virtually the entire nation at once – will turn to Christ in living faith and the people will be reborn as the people of God. But when they do, when that happens to them, when that happy day dawns, they will join themselves to a vast already existing Israel, composed mostly of Gentiles, a vast company that has been gathering to enter the Promised Land from every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth.
Now this understanding of Ezekiel 37 (and the many other texts like it in the prophets) has very important implications. I want simply to list them as we will have opportunity to explore some of them in our study of the following chapters of Ezekiel.
- First, the covenant that God made with Abraham and renewed with Israel at Sinai is the theological/spiritual arrangement that you and I live under today as Christians. As the Israel of God – which all true believers in Jesus are – those texts describe us, our life, our privileges, our responsibilities, our future and our salvation. The history of Israel in the Old Testament, as Paul makes an emphatic point of saying in 1 Cor. 10, is our family history and our spiritual history as Gentile Christians. And the future of Israel and Judah prophesied by the Old Testament prophets is likewise our future. Eusebius, the early church historian, said that the saints of the ancient epoch should be referred to as Christians. And as they were Christians, we Christians are Israelites. Accepting this biblical emphasis clears up a great deal of confusion. The Lord insists on speaking of the Gentile people of God as Israelites. He prophesies the future very often in these terms – the restoration of Israel and Judah – but the Bible very clearly teaches us to understand that those prophecies are prophecies of the world’s salvation. There has always been but one people of God, there shall always be but one people of God.
- Second, and related to the point just made, the Bible is a single book, with a single message about a single people and their single Savior. A failure to see Gentile believers as the object of so much of biblical prophecy inevitably leads people to think that the Old Testament has to do with another people and their situation, not with us and ours. Not so. Those first 39 books of the Bible are not only for us, they are about us. There is not a page, there is not a line of Holy Scripture that does not address us, the Israel of God, that does not instruct us, command us, and encourage us. The whole Bible comes alive when it is realized that it is all about us and all to us and all for us! We were at the Reed Sea; we were in the wilderness; we lived under the righteous and the wicked kings; we were beguiled by the pagan culture around us; we were addressed by the prophets; we were sent into exile in Babylon. This is our family history; it is our story, not somebody else’s. Every part of it is about us.
- Third, as Israelites of the new epoch, which is simply another way to say as Christians, we are in the same situation our forefathers were in in the days of Ezekiel. We are waiting for the consolation of Israel. We are waiting for the new covenant to be fulfilled. We are waiting for the restoration of Israel and Judah in the Promised Land. We are waiting for the day when the nations “will know that I the Lord make Israel holy.” Like it or not, as the author of Hebrews reminds us at the end of his 11th chapter, we are waiting just like they had to wait. Our faith is tested precisely in the same way: that we must believe because we cannot see the consummation of our believing. It seems to the world nowadays just as incredible a prospect as the return of the Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem must have seemed to them in Ezekiel’s day that Jesus Christ will return, that the kingdom of Jesus Christ will exercise dominion over this entire world, and that every tongue – Buddhist, Muslim, Secularist tongue – will confess Jesus Christ as Lord. But that is what the Lord has said will come to pass. We cannot see it, we have to believe it which means we have to wait for it. Are we wrong to believe him? No!
- And that is the case, in the fourth place, in part because we are given so many anticipations of this great consummation, so many signs of its coming, so many proofs. The Lord has required us to wait but not without hope.
The return of the Jews from Babylon was one such an anticipation. It was small potatoes sure enough, but it was remarkable for its own sake, an utterly unlikely thing when this prophecy was first given. It was a sign, an anticipation of a far greater return to a far greater Promised Land. The incarnation of the Son of God, his death and resurrection from the dead, and the promise of his coming again, was a still more incontestable proof. The Lord’s changing of our hearts individually – all the ways he has over the course of our lives proved himself to be our God and us to be his children in our own personal history – these too are proofs and anticipations and signs of what is still to come. I am certainly willing to say that the survival of the Jews through the last 2,500 years and the rebirth of their national identity in 1948 is also an evidence a sign that the Lord of history is bringing his ancient prophecies to pass. If he has promised us this future, he will certainly deliver it.
For whatever reason, the Lord God has required us his children, his people, to believe that his dramatic and daring promises will be fulfilled despite the fact that thousands of years have passed since they were first made. It is the great difficulty of our lives; this is where you and I live. If we could see it coming, if every now and then we could look up to heaven and we could see the city of God descending toward us, don’t tell me you and I wouldn’t live different lives. We wouldn’t live with hope and expectation and determination in far greater measure than now we do. The difficulty of our lives is that we must believe because we cannot see. The more we believe the things the prophets have told us, the more we really believe them, the more godly and the more useful will be our lives. But it is not easy to believe them. The world seems to go on very much as it always has. The generations rise and pass away and the church in the world remains an exiled people, hardly the triumphant kingdom of God. The nations do not gather together and have great meetings to discuss among themselves that the churches might and goodness and prosperity and the evident demonstration that the Living God is among us and not with them. Will the day of our vindication ever come?
Oh yes; it will come. Perhaps not in our lifetime. Perhaps not in the next hundred lifetimes. But it will come. The Lord has proved that to you and me a thousand times in ways both great and small. It is ours to remember that all that the Lord has done in us and for us, all that he gives to us now, all the blessing of his love, all of that has in view the great day, the consummation of the kingdom of God in this world, and the demonstration of the truth of God before the entire world. And you and I, who believe in Jesus Christ, will be there! You and I, the Israel of God! And all the words in all the worlds cannot describe how wonderful it will be then to be part of that great nation and people, under her Mighty and Holy King, basking in the love of God, and surveying the glories of the Promised Land.