Before beginning to read chapter 34, let me point out to you that its themes are also found in another famous text, Jeremiah 23:1-6. It is understandable that, given their similar historical situation and their identical theology, Jeremiah and Ezekiel should have so much in common. But it is certainly interesting that both prophets, who were forwarding to their respective communities long miles distant from one another messages the Lord had revealed to them, delivered messages that were often strikingly the same down to the details. We find the same phenomenon in, for example, the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah, contemporaries as they were, and Hosea and Amos, contemporaries as they were. It is not as though these men compared notes before they preached. It was simply that the Lord gave the same message to more than one prophet.
We are, I suspect, more likely to think of “pastors” or “ministers” when we read of shepherds; pastor, after all, is simply an English word for shepherd, and “shepherd” is employed in the New Testament as a metaphor for the leadership of the church, especially in 1 Peter 5:4. But here “shepherd” is a reference to Israel’s kings, neither her prophets nor priests. The likening of kings to shepherds is, in fact, a commonplace in the Ancient Near East. There is even a Babylonian proverb that reads very familiarly to anyone who knows the New Testament: “A people without a king is like a sheep without a shepherd.” And, if you remember, when Micaiah prophesied the death of King Ahab, he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd.” [1 Kings 22:17; [Block, ii, 281] In the Bible, at least when employed metaphorically, shepherd is usually a reference to the king, not to the priest or the minister. The fact that later in this chapter the good shepherd that the Lord will appoint to rule his people will be a descendant of David and a prince confirms that we are talking about kings in this chapter; bad kings and then a good king.
Israel’s kings had not only abused their position by using it to aggrandize themselves, but had failed to care for the people of God in their charge. They were guilty of sins against their office and their people of both omission and commission. Of the 42 kings who ruled from Saul to Zedekiah, from approximately 1030 B.C. to 586 B.C. – almost half a millennium – only a few were consistently faithful to their stewardship as vice-regents of the people of God, faithfully carrying out their responsibilities before him for Israel’s spiritual and physical welfare – think of David and Hezekiah – some others were more or less faithful – think of Solomon, Uzziah, or Josiah – but most of them were scoundrels whose reigns substantially contributed to Israel’s spiritual and political death. [Stuart, 321] The fact that Israel was now scattered in exile was the direct result of the malfeasance of her kings as many prophets make a point of saying. Here again, as so often in the Bible, the spiritual condition of God’s people is said to depend upon the faithfulness of those who are appointed to lead them.
Their fate is that Yahweh will hold them accountable and that must prove deadly to them because he has already judged them to be and have been unfaithful. His great interest, however, is not to punish the rulers but to rescue his sheep from them.
Yahweh is now going to take matters into his own hands.
Utterly unlike the selfish rule of Israel’s kings, Yahweh will attend to the needs of his people and provide for them. In fact, v. 16 is the mirror opposite of v. 4: Yahweh will do the things, precisely the things that Israel’s kings did not do. The “sleek and the strong” are apparently those who would take advantage of the weak and the poor. Yahweh will not allow that.
Even Yahweh having intervened doesn’t immediately bring an end to all the problems that would be faced by the returning exiles. And as becomes clearer in the following verse, the problem being described continues to be that of the strong and wealthy people taking advantage of the poor and weak people.
As in the Book of Judges, the judge is also a deliverer.
But now appears a new thing; not simply preventing wicked men from troubling his people, but providing for them a new king, a single man who will perfectly embody the kingly ideal. This promise, of course, links up with a number of others in the prophets, and is based on the covenant that the Lord made with the house of David that we read about in 2 Samuel 7. If it may have seemed that the collapse of Judah, the capture of her kings, and the exile of her people to Babylon had signaled the end of that covenant with the house of David, this amounts to an announcement that the covenant with David had by no means been revoked. The promise is still in force; David’s descendant will again sit on his throne. He will be Yahweh’s servant, not his own; he will care faithfully for the people; and he will be a ruler among them, identifying with the people not keeping himself separate from them. We are reminded that the original covenant promise to Abraham and his descendants – “I will be your God and the God of your descendants after you” – included the idea that the Lord would “dwell among them.” [Exod. 29:46; Lev. 26:12] They would know him because of his presence with them. That is the idea here as well.
With the appointment of this new king, the Lord will establish a covenant of peace with Israel. What follows are the standard images of blessing and prosperity that the covenant will bestow upon the people of God, such as are found in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
Many of you are familiar with the gospel song, “There shall be showers of blessing…” That phrase is taken from this text. What is found here in these verses are the standard forms of covenant blessing and prosperity that you have in the great covenant documents themselves Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. All the things that God has promised Israel would be hers are now going to be realized.
The fulfillment of the covenant is described in typical terms. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” The promise made to Abraham is still in force and will be fulfilled. The Lord himself will see to it.
Now there are two features of this prophecy that demand special attention. The first is a characteristic of biblical prophecy that we found shot through the Bible’s predictions of the future when we did our study of biblical eschatology or the biblical predictions about the end times a few years ago. It is the technique that is variously referred to as “prophetic foreshortening” or the “prophetic perspective.” By this is meant that the prophets often, indeed usually see the future as a unity a unity that time in fact reveals to be, in fact, a succession of events, even many events, even a succession of events spread over long periods, even eras, of time.
In our studies of eschatology, I illustrated this prophetic foreshortening this way. If, for example, I were to say that at the beginning of the 19th century two Englishmen would appear who would stop the advance of Napoleon and crush his empire, I would be stating as a unity events that, in fact, transpired over a number of years. Many battles would be fought, Trafalgar and Waterloo only the greatest and most decisive of them, and I’ve mentioned nothing of that. I have said nothing about the birth, the youth, or the development of the two English heroes, Nelson and Wellington, nor have I said when they would first engage the French fleet or army, I didn’t even mention that one was an admiral and one a general, nor did I state the number of battles that would have to be fought or the number of years it would take finally to vanquish the great French emperor. Nor did I mention that between Trafalgar and Waterloo would fall Napoleon’s first defeat, his exile, his return and the hundred days. But, what I said was true, was a fair summary of the history, and, more to the point, the material things that had to be known if only the great and final result was to be stated. Well so it is with biblical prophecy all the time and everywhere. It is, at the last, not really interested very much in the details, but in the great sweeping vision of the future, the way history will turn out in summary. And so that is the way the future is predicted in the Bible. There are a few details, but only a few, enough to prove that God knows and is in control of those as well.
How often we encounter this in biblical prophecy. The prophet mixes together in a single vision of the future the first and the second coming of Jesus Christ, his atonement and his eventual triumph at the end of history. Here, in a very typical paragraph, we hear of the appointment of the Messiah, the promised Davidic king, and the peace and prosperity that will be the result of his rule. A reign of peace and prosperity such as Israel had never enjoyed in her history. In this, Ezekiel 34:23-29 is like many prophesies of the Messiah: he will come and establish peace on the earth. There is a reason why the people of the Lord’s Day, the time of his ministry, thought that the Messiah would come and would immediately establish peace and prosperity for his people in the world. Take the first of the servant songs in Isaiah 42:1-9.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom
I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the
nations. … In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter
or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.”
Reading that prophecy, or this one in Ezekiel 34, you do not expect that the Messiah, the coming Servant of the Lord, will come, be rejected by his people, suffer and die, ascend to heaven, and rule over the world from his unseen throne while his church and kingdom makes fitful advances among the nations of the world, interrupted by regular retreats and long periods of stasis or decline, and that now, some 2,000 years later, we will still seem far from that reign of peace and prosperity long ago promised in the prophets. Nor does the reader of such prophesies gather that it will not be until the Messiah comes a second time that the long awaited fulfillment of his kingdom will come to pass and his people will finally live in undisturbed and uninterrupted happiness and holiness.
The point of such prophesies as these is, very clearly, not to lay out in detail a scenario so that we know ahead of time precisely how the future is going to unfold, either as proof of the truthfulness of the Bible or because as some people think you need to know in advance how history will unfold step by step so that in every step along the way you’ll know what to do, you’ll have a sense of the right thing to do. That is never the Bible’s view. What you need to know is what the Lord has told you in his Word, that God will be faithful to his promise and his covenant and that those who trust in him will not be ashamed. What you need to know is that the ancient promises of God’s grace are still in force and will certainly be fulfilled. What you need to know is that Christ is the king and will accomplish all his Father’s will. What you need to know is that you are on the winning side. That is all you need to know. If God thought you needed to know more than that, he would not have instructed his prophets as he did and they would not have forecast the future in the manner that they did.
What Ezekiel has told us is entirely true. The Lord will send a king to sit on David’s throne. He will rule over us, but, as a king, he will be among us. He will take a personal interest in his people. We will know him and his presence. He will defeat our enemies and rule over us in justice and wisdom so that under his reign we will finally come to experience all that the Lord has ever promised to us: everlasting peace and joy in communion with himself. From our historical vantage point it is obvious that we stand between the accomplishment of much of that king’s great work and its eventual fulfillment in our lives and in the life of the world. That the king is to come to the world twice, that he is to reign over the world from outside the world and by his Spirit, that so much time should separate his redeeming work from its consummation; all of this comes honestly as a surprise, but, as the New Testament is at pains to remind us over and over again, the first is the guarantee of the second; the cross and the empty tomb are the earnest guaranteeing Christ’s second coming and the eternal life of Christ’s people in heaven. That the Israel of God should include the nations of the world and that a reign of peace and prosperity in the promised land should in fact be a picture of the worldwide blessing of the church and people of God, this too comes at least as something of a surprise. But it can easily enough be seen to be the fulfillment of many of the promises of God’s word, not least that through Abraham all the nations of the earth will be blessed or that the knowledge of the Lord will eventually cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
That is the first thing to understand about this prophecy of the future king and his kingdom, we are going to hear a good bit more about this in the chapters that follow: it is given to us, this prophecy, with characteristic prophetic foreshortening. The future is presented to us as a singularity, a complete unity. We see the mountain range in the distance, and marvel at the beauty of the jagged snow-capped peaks, our souls are lifted up by the magnificent vista; but we are too far away to see that some peaks are in fact quite closer than others and that great valleys, cut by roaring rivers difficult to cross, separate the closer ranges from the more distant.
But there is a second feature of this prophecy, also very typical of biblical prophecy, that deserves our careful notice. This vision of the future is presented entirely in terms of what God will do and what his king will do. It is particularly striking, coming after chapter 33 that we considered last Lord’s Day evening with its emphasis on the absolute necessity of man’s faith and repentance, that turning to the Lord that we considered. It is striking that we hear nothing about that in chapter 34. We hear only that the Lord will see to the restoration and the blessing of his people. This is something we find very often in the Bible, in the Old Testament and the New Testament: a description of salvation in which there is no mention of anything done by us. All the emphasis falls on what the Lord does and brings to pass. How is the Lord to address the plight of his people? Well, he will take matters into his own hands, judge and punish their evil rulers and appoint a righteous king, and that king will establish them in peace, righteousness, and prosperity. There are many prophecies like that. The greatest of the ancient prophesies of the work of Jesus Christ, the servant song of Isa. 52:13-53:12, is like that. The servant comes and he suffers greatly on his people’s behalf and, as a result, sees his offspring and justifies many. There isn’t a line in that famous chapter of the Bible about our need to believe in him or to repent of our sins or to follow him in obedience. He saves his people from their sins. He does it; all by himself. We contribute nothing to this salvation except the sin and misery from which we need to be delivered.
More remarkable still, we have the same sort of statements made frequently in the New Testament. Salvation is described over and over again as if we had no part or place in it at all. The angel told Joseph of the boy to be born to his virgin mother, “He shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus would later say, “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.” Or, still more memorably, we have Paul in Romans 8:29-30:
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
Where are we in that description of our salvation other than the objects of God’s decision and Christ’s work and the Holy Spirit’s work in us? Where is our faith, our choosing of Christ, our repentance, our perseverance? Well, it is certainly clear in the Bible that without faith it is impossible to please God, that without our believing we cannot be justified, without a persevering faith in Christ we will not receive what has been promised. But again and again our salvation is described or accounted for in the Bible without any reference to such things at all, proof if we needed it that faith and repentance on our part are not our own contribution to our salvation, as if salvation resulted from some form of cooperation between ourselves and God, but are simply the way God works out his plan and purpose in our lives. Faith and repentance are everywhere in the Bible God’s gift to us and God’s work in us, and we believe not in order that Christ’s live, death and resurrection might become effective for us, we believe because it is effective for us.
Perhaps the most potent illustration of this fact is provided in the Bible by the fact of the salvation of infants. By faith and repentance—the turning that we considered last week from chapter 33—by faith and repentance the Bible ordinarily means states of mind and heart and acts of the will that only those of a certain age and ability can perform. It is this faith we were thinking of this morning from Mark 9. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. We are justified by faith. Faith without works is dead. Being justified by faith we have peace with God. For it is by grace you have been saved through faith… If faith and repentance are what we contribute to our salvation, if salvation is suspended upon our believing in the Lord, it is very difficult to know how children too young to believe, too young to repent, too young to obey, too young even to understand the first word of the gospel of Christ, could be said to be the objects of God’s saving grace, but they are emphatically so said to be in the Bible.
To be sure, our theologians have not typically said that babies still in the womb, newborn infants, and little children cannot have faith. They have taken all the teaching of the Bible together and concluded that infants who are saved have been given what Calvin called “the seed of faith.” But in regard to this question it matters not. The fact is infants do not believe in the ordinary sense of the word, nor do they repent in the ordinary sense of that word; faith and repentance require knowledge and they require acts of the will. They don’t repent, they don’t believe in the ordinary sense of those words and yet they are saved. If they have the seed of faith it is a gift, obviously, they have received from God, it is certainly not an intellectual decision or certainly not an act of their will. It is this confidence that children of believers are saved that has sustained untold generations of the church who suffered the loss of their precious children when still in their infancy. They could not point to the child’s faith or to the evidence of his repentance. The child, in many cases, had never uttered a word nor ever understood a word spoken to him. But God had promised to be the God of those who believe in him and their children. And they took the Lord at his word. And they noticed those places where the Bible artlessly draws attention to new life existing even in an infant’s heart, even when still in the womb, as very dramatically in the case of John the Baptist in Luke 1. And they noticed such things as David’s expression of confidence that he would see his now dead infant child, a child of just a few days life, in the next world.
This is why a person’s view of the spiritual situation of the little children in the church, of the children of believing parents is so important and why the issue surfaces as repeatedly as it does in Christian theology. It is a test of your understanding so scheme of salvation itself. Can you fit the salvation of infants into your scheme? The Bible does so without difficulty because it does not, at the last, rest salvation on human thoughts or actions. They are not unimportant to be sure, but they are not the main thing; they are not the thing that makes the difference.
It was for this reason that it was not difficult for our reformed theologians to incorporate into their understanding of salvation the salvation of infants because they understood salvation as a divine act and a divine gift, not a human achievement in any sense whatever. They understood that, important as faith and repentance are in the outworking of salvation, necessary as they are, faith and repentance are, in the first place, what the Lord gives to us and does within us they are first that before they are what we do ourselves. This is put in many different ways according to the Bible. Sometimes we are taught that faith and repentance are the inevitable outworking of the new birth and the new birth is a fundamental change in a human being that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Let a man be born again, he will believe; it is as simple as that. But it is the Holy Spirit who gives new life to a dead man. Ezekiel will talk about this divine work by which a man is restructured from the inside out in chapter 36. Or you can take note of the fact that faith and repentance are God’s gifts to us. The Bible often says that. Or you can point out that the Bible says that faith and repentance are the consequences of Christ’s atonement, his dying on the cross for us. The Lord makes a point of saying this in John 10 and it is a point made elsewhere.
But the fact is if salvation is profoundly and decisively and in that ultimate sense entirely a divine work and a divine gift, then there is no reason why it cannot be performed on behalf of and within any human being, however young, however immature. It was precisely the salvation of infants that Augustine used in his argument against Pelagius. If God saves those who cannot “do,” then our “doing” cannot be the ground of, or the reason for, or the basis of our salvation. It is why, at the Synod of Dort in 1619, the divines, in their first article, raised precisely this issue in discussing the nature of election and of salvation as a sovereign gift of God.
“Since we must judge concerning the will of God from his own Word, which solemnly declares that the children of believers are holy, not indeed by nature, but as a gracious blessing of the covenant, in which they are comprehended with their parents, pious parents ought not to doubt concerning the election and salvation of their children whom, while still infants, God calls from this life.” [I, xvii]
That is how much salvation is God’s work and God’s gift and not man’s. It can be given to a human being before that person is capable of understanding a single thing about that salvation or exercising his or her will to choose to follow the Lord.
The implications of sola gratia, of salvation by grace alone, by God’s work alone, as God’s gift alone are innumerable as we know. In the matter of children who die young, it is a doctrine of almost inconceivable consolation particularly to those who take the issue of heaven and hell seriously, who understand that every human being is conceived in sin and guilt, but who, instructed to do so in the Word of God, can nevertheless believe that their infant children are with the Lord and will be with them in glory.
Babes, caught away from womb and breast,
Have cause to sing above the rest;
For they have found that happy shore
They neither saw nor sought before.
For some heartbroken mothers and fathers, sovereign grace is as wonderfully particular a consolation and hope and joy as that! But it is not specifically of this comfort that Ezekiel is speaking. He is talking to people whose life has taken a turn for the worse. Their circumstances are depressing. The world does not seem in any way weighted in their favor even though they are the people of God. And here they are being reminded that the Lord will have the last word. He has a plan for his people and for this world and that plan will come to pass. There is a king coming and his rule will be rule indeed even as it will be gracious, generous, and personal and it will provide unprecedented, unimaginable peace and plenty and prosperity to his people.
Now, ask yourself, are you and I not in need of this very same encouragement? Whether thinking of our own life individually or the life of the church and the kingdom of God in our day, do we not need to be reminded of the very same thing because there is so much around us and in us that tends to make us forget, that we who trust in the Lord will find vindication at the end of the day and that vindication will be perfect and complete and entire. Sin and injustice will not survive; it will be punished, it will be eradicated. And those who trust in the Lord will prevail.
Woody Allen in his God (A Play) makes the remark: “The trick is to start at the ending when you write a play. Get a good strong ending and then write backwards.” That is, the meaning of the play, the importance of the story, the impression and impact that it is going to have on you depends entirely on the ending, the conclusion, the result. The significance of everything that happens in the story is determined by how the story ends. And that is right. Take any story, novel, play, or movie, take any piece of history and give it a different ending and it becomes a different story altogether with a different meaning altogether, a different impression, a different impact on our minds and hearts. Imagine how dramatically different the history of the revolution, or the Civil War would seem to us had the English put down the revolution and had the South won the Civil War. How utterly different the meaning of all of that, all of that suffering, all of those sacrifices, all of that heroism, how utterly different its meaning. Well the Bible is always looking at the past and the present in terms of the ending of this great drama of human history. And the ending it constantly reminds us is fixed. The Lord’s promises will be fulfilled, every one of them and gloriously; the Lord’s enemies will be judged and punished; and his people will be brought into a place of unprecedented joy, peace, hope and love. That is how it is going to end.
The moral power of that vision of the future has through the ages understandably proved itself to be very great. If such is the ending, we say to ourselves, and godly people have said from time immemorial, if that is the ending, then surely I should live in grateful devotion to this God and king who will do all this for me and bring me to such a place; if that is the ending surely I should repudiate in my life all that is displeasing to him and contrary to the great vision of human life and its consummation he has set before me; and if that is the ending, surely I should spend my days and my nights doing what seems most important to do given the way my history and the history of the world will come to its end.
How many times, when a matter is concluded, do we wish we had behaved differently? Once faced with the outcome, how many times have we wished we had said this or done that or carried ourselves in this way than in fact we did. If only we could have seen the end from the beginning we would have acted so differently. But, of course, we weren’t anticipating that outcome at the time. But there is no excuse for us as Christians in this regard. We already know the ending, we know the outcome. It is ours then to speak and act and carry ourselves accordingly. Square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you belong to the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ and that the day is soon to dawn when all will be well with the world. Live for the day!