The chapter division is not well located in this case. The theme of chapter 35 is continued in the first 15 verses of chapter 36. 35:1 through 36:15 is thus a single unit. Then a new section begins in 36:16 and continues to the end of the chapter. The first section, from 35:1 to 36:15 contrasts the respective destinies of Edom and Israel, two mountainous nations that shared a long history of animosity and conflict. After the catastrophe of August 586 B.C. Edom, with the encouragement of the Babylonians, had taken advantage of Judah’s vulnerability, lacking, as she did, an effective government, any military to speak of, and with her economy in shambles. Edom invaded Israel, took whatever she could find that the Babylonians hadn’t already removed and made to annex portions of the land (35:10). Although most of the prophesies against the nations surrounding Israel are found in chapters 25-32, we noticed before that there were exceptions and this is one of them. This concerns the situation immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem and here the promise of Edom’s destruction serves as the background for a prophecy of Israel’s restoration. In those ways it belongs in this last section of the book.
- The Edomites slaughtered the Jews they caught fleeing from the Babylonians at the time of the siege of Jerusalem, a crime Obadiah also prophesies will bring Yahweh’s wrath down upon Edom’s head. The ancient hatred harks back to the animosity between Jacob and Esau, Edomites being the descendants of Isaac’s older son.
- The two nations are the southern and the northern kingdom: Judah and Israel.
- As so often in the Bible the punishment is said to fit the crime. Edom rejoiced in Israel’s desolation and, for that reason, she would suffer desolation herself.
- A point that Americans need to take to heart: people who use their strength against others are rarely popular and when they suffer in turn the rest of the world takes a perverse delight in their misery.
- Edom declined steadily under Babylonian, then Persian, then Greek, and finally Roman rule. Its former mountain strongholds are, as you know, now tourist stops in southern Jordan.
- Mount Seir was addressed in the opening of chapter 35 as a synecdoche for Edom; here the mountains of Israel are addressed in a similar rhetorical device. The prophecy is not dated, but it will become clear as we proceed that it was given after the destruction of Jerusalem and during the period of Judah’s lying prostrate before her enemies.
Now, if Edom is to be judged for her sins, what of Israel, now lying in ruins, her people in exile, her kings dead or prisoners of a foreign power, her temple, once the crowning glory of her national life, a heap of charred stones?
- The fertility of land and people are covenant blessings promised in Deut. 28 and Lev. 26. The same covenant remains in force.
- The thought of the other peoples is that Yahweh must not be much if he couldn’t save his people from their present indignities.
- A point that will be made again in v. 32 and often made in the OT. It was not because Israel deserved God’s favor that she received it. Indeed, it was in defiance of her undeserving that God showed his favor to her. It is not a complete explanation, of course; the Lord loves his people and saves them for that reason also, but it was important for the Jews in Ezekiel’s day to hear this: the Lord was acting to show the holiness of his own name, his faithfulness to his own word, not to reward his people for their goodness, because they hadn’t been good. They hadn’t even been good in the sense of being faithful to his covenant, faithful to his grace to sinners; not for a long time. Paul says a similar thing in Romans 9 – that God saves for the demonstration of his glory – but that doesn’t nullify what he says in the same book concerning the love God has for his people. Indeed, here in v. 37 the Lord admits that he will also restore Israel in answer to their prayers and for them.
- Vv. 25-27 are another form of the same promise that we are given in Deut. 30:6-8. The Bible says the same things over and over again!
- Deep contrition is always a mark of the work of the Spirit of God in the heart.
Dr. Henry Krabbendam, until his recent retirement a professor in the biblical studies department at our Covenant College, used to deliver a lecture to new students during orientation week entitled “The Gospel in Joshua 5.” Some of you heard that lecture when you were freshmen at Covenant. It became a tradition at the College that the incoming students would hear Dr. K on “The Gospel in Joshua 5.” He once gave that very lecture to our high school students here at Faith. In that lecture he laid out the fundamental message of the Bible to be sure that students understood this as they began their life and work at the College. In Joshua 5 – you remember the context: Israel has entered the Promised Land and now faces the fortress of Jericho; but the Lord stops her on the march and requires the men of the nation to be circumcised, as they had not been since the debacle at Kadesh Barnea 38 years before; then the Passover is celebrated; and then Joshua has an encounter with the Lord and is required to take off his sandals while he is before him – I say, in Joshua 5 this Gospel message is presented in symbols. In the prophets the same message is presented in the form of promises. And in the Gospels, in Jesus himself we have the substance. And that message, according to Dr. K, comes in three parts:
- In the requirement that Israel be circumcised we learn that the enemy is not outside of us but inside; we have a bad heart; a bad nature; and circumcision is the sign of the cleansing and renewal of that heart and nature;
- In the celebration of Passover we learn that the enemy is not other people – such as those in Jericho – but God himself. We have a bad record before a holy God; we have offended him; and we need a new record; forgiveness and righteousness. Passover is about that.
- And, finally, in Joshua’s taking off his shoes, we learn that the enemy is not our circumstances – such as the difficulties Israel faced at that moment – but our own unholy lifestyle. We have a bad life and need a new life.
People are always worrying about the wrong things. They think their happiness is threatened by people and things that are not really their serious problems at all. Their problems are a bad heart, a bad record, and a bad life. Before the living God that is what they need fixed. And that three-fold problem is what God fixes by his grace. What is especially interesting for our purpose tonight is that, before going to the New Testament to demonstrate how all of these problems are addressed and solved by Christ, Dr. K took his hearers to Ezekiel 36:25-27 to demonstrate that it is these very same three problems that the prophets promised the Lord would solve for his people. Dr. K’s lecture, “The Gospel in Joshua 5,” as he gave it, was also a lecture on the “Gospel in Ezekiel 36.”
What is it that people need? What are the great necessities of their lives? Well they are likely to them to be a host of things: I need this job, or I need that person to like me, or I need more money, or I need to be well, or I need a better marriage, or I need this or that. But what does the Lord promise to do for his people that will restore them to magnificent prosperity and the fulfillment of life?
Well, he promises to do those very same three things that were symbolized so beautifully in Joshua 5.
- First, he promises to give us a new heart or a new nature. As we read in v. 26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” In the Bible, heart and spirit designate the internal focus of emotion, will, and thought. [Block, ii, 355] The heart is what makes us tick as human beings. Out of the heart flow the issues of life; as a man is in his heart, so he is; and so on. As Dr. K famously put it in his lecture: we are inclined to say, as if making a great gift, “Lord, I give you my heart.” But, the Lord doesn’t want that black, foul heart of yours, full of selfish thoughts and impurities of every kind. What you need to say is “Lord, here is my heart; please kill it, destroy it, and give me a new one!” Like that beautiful line from the country music line, “He stole my heart and stomped that sucker flat!” That is the idea. We need a new heart; a new nature that will incline us to the Lord and to what is good and right. The heart we have by nature leads us away from God; we need one that leads us to him.
- Then, in the second place, as in Joshua 5, he promises to address the problem of our record. He promises to give us a new record because we have filled our jacket or our file with sin upon sin; thousands and thousands of them; sins of every kind stain the record of our lives. As we read in v. 25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” If the Bible were being written today, it might read, “I will bring up the entire digital moral record of your life on my computer screen; I will hit the “select all” key; every notice of every sin will be darkened on the page; and then I will hit the backspace key and it will all be erased as if it had never been there. A new record; a new book of your life with all the sins removed.
- And, then, finally, he will address the problem of our bad life and give us a new life. As we read in v. 27, “I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” We will not be what we were before and so we will not live as we did before. Our lives will change and we will live lives that please God instead of lives that offend him.
And then to complete the lecture, Dr. Krabbendam went to the New Testament to demonstrate that it is precisely these gifts that are given to us in Christ: a new heart, a new record, and a new life. In any case, we have “The Gospel in Ezekiel 36.” That much is clear.
But mixed together with these familiar pictures of spiritual transformation, forgiveness of sins, and empowerment to live a new and godly life – the familiar material of the gospel in the New Testament – we have these accounts of earthly blessings in vv. 8-15, 24, and vv. 28 to the end of the chapter. How are we to weave the two pictures together: the spiritual transformation of a human life and this promise of plenty and prosperity in the world. Well, the problem is hardly unique to Ezek. 36. We encounter it everywhere in the Bible and not in the Old Testament only. We find the same in the New Testament. There we read of the same forgiveness, new birth, and new life that are promised here in Ezekiel. But we also read of children honoring their parents and living long lives in the earth, of the followers of Christ giving up houses and fields for Christ but getting back a hundred times as many in this world, of the meek inheriting the earth, and so on. What is more, we also hear of another land, the heavenly country, and are told explicitly that the Promised Land of Israel’s history was a foretaste, an anticipation, and a sign and seal of that eternal land where God’s people will be happy forever.
I have told you before that the promise of the people’s life in the land and prosperity in the land – so significant in the Old Testament promises of God’s favor ever since the Lord first made a promise of the land to Abraham – largely fall away in the New Testament, but not completely. I have read though I have not bothered to check this, that eretz, the Hebrew word for land, is the fourth most commonly used noun in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. But it occurs only rarely in the New Testament. And, in each case it is resignified. The Promised Land in the Old Testament is Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, secured under Joshua, then lost at the exile, and recovered again in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. But in the New Testament, the Promised Land becomes the whole earth. The meek shall inherit the land, we read in Psalm 37:11, but in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord has changed the promise into, “the meek shall inherit the earth.” No one can complain if a promise is restated only to offer more to more people! In Ephesians 6:2 the fifth commandment, the first with a promise, is similarly resignified. To a largely Gentile church Paul writes that children are to obey their parents not, as we read in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, to live long in the land the Lord you God will give you, but so that they may live long lives on the earth. The same promise, the same principle, but in the Gentile age extended beyond the borders of Canaan to embrace the entire world. In Romans 4:13 this becomes even clearer. There Paul says that Abraham and his seed received the promise that he and they would be the heir “of the world.” It doesn’t say “whole world” in Genesis 12; it says “the land,” but that is what is meant. That is what the Promised Land signified: the whole world as the place in which God’s people would find his blessing. The land now definitely has been generalized to the entire world. Eretz, land, has become kosmos, world. The entire inheritance of man, lost on account of sin, will be returned to Abraham and his seed. It is the same promise that was taken up hundreds of times in the Old Testament, it is the same promise God made to Abraham, the promise of a land, but it is now understood in the widest conceivable sense, to apply to believers everywhere and to the entire world. And, then, in Hebrews 11 and elsewhere, we are told that the Old Testament saints themselves understood that the Promised Land stood for heaven and that it was not a piece of this world’s real estate that made it so important in the history of salvation but for what it stood for and anticipated: the heavenly land, the place where the promises of God would be fulfilled for the people of God. All of God’s blessings of earthly pleasure and prosperity are primarily significant as anticipations of the world to come.
All of this being so, then, we should not interpret these pictures of prosperity in an overly literal manner. The Lord, you remember, also uses pictures of earthly prosperity to encourage us. He gives us a picture like that given here in Ezek. 36. For example, if we give up houses and fields for his sake and the sake of the Gospel, we read in Mark 10:29-30, the Lord tells us that we will not fail to receive 100 times as much in this present age (homes and fields included). But it is a fact of history that none of the twelve disciples ended his life as a real estate mogul! Ineffable things must be communicated in understandable ways. The Lord will bless his people greatly and their trust in him will have its wonderful reward. The entire Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, teaches us to understand that these literal pictures of earthly prosperity are to be interpreted with biblical sophistication. And that is precisely our difficulty. Whether we are talking about the spiritual transformation of an individual person or these promises of prosperity for the people of God, it must all be grasped and appreciated by faith and according to the faith. And my point is that it is as difficult to see the spiritual transformation as it is the earthly prosperity.
One of my tasks as a preacher of the Word of God in a day such as ours is to prepare God’s people to face the skepticism and the scorn of a world that repudiates and even laughs at the Christian warning that a Judgment Day is coming and that only those who are faithful followers of Jesus Christ will be acquitted on that Day. People today scorn that idea as unfair, cruel, unsophisticated, out of date, and lacking humanity. Actually, people always have scorned this idea. In his day, in the third century, Tertullian remarked, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that [God] will one day judge the world.” But I remind you that one thing we must always remember – because it is what Holy Scripture teaches us to believe – is that unsaved people are actually much more evil than they appear to be either to themselves or to others. God in his mercy to the world keeps them from being as evil as their hearts would make them: all manner of constraints hem their behavior in. The fear of punishments of various kinds, the fear of the reproach of others keep people from saying and doing things they otherwise would. The influence of the church in the world, of 4,000 years of Christian civilization, of individual Christians, all make people who do not believe in Christ better than they are. So too the law of God written on man’s heart, and published in the law codes of the nations of the world. It is my calling to remind you that the 20th century provided melancholy demonstration that when those restraints are removed perfectly ordinary people, like the people around us all the time, will become vicious and cruel and utterly self-centered to a degree no one would have thought possible beforehand. In Rwanda, people whom, had you met them the day before, you would have thought cheerful, sweet, and kind, nevertheless hacked one another to death in a frenzy of blood-letting! And, it is my duty to remind you that in hell all those restraints will be removed and unbelievers will become in their behavior what they truly are in their hearts and no one looking on that scene will think that God has not been just and fair to the unbelieving! But the difficulty is that now only faith can see unbelieving man for what he is!
But, you see, the same is true in the reverse. When God begins his work in us – that new thing, that new heart, that new record, that new life – what Paul calls “dying and rising with Christ,” or “the new creation,” that is you! That is you, if you are a Christian. The world may not believe it; you may not believe it half the time yourself, because that pure new heart does not yet express itself as it should – encrusted as it remains with the dregs of your former self – and your cleansing is, so far, more in the verdict of God’s heavenly courtroom – where you cannot see it or hear it – than in the verdict of your own conscience or the practice of your own daily life. Nevertheless, that is you – that clean, new, pure life that the Lord has made of you by his sprinkling – that sprinkling made possible by his terrible sufferings for your sins. That is what Dr. K was at pains to point out in his lecture. This new you is what Christ has made you, what he has secured for you by his suffering and death on the cross. We have sprinkling here in Ezek. 36, but we also have it in Isaiah where we read that it is precisely the Servant who suffers for his people, upon whom their iniquity is laid, who will sprinkle many nations and make them clean. It is precisely the suffering servant who takes away our sins and gives us a new record – justifies many in the language of Isa. 53:11 – it is Jesus Christ who also gives us this new life. But that new life is not yet ours in its fulfillment and consummation. We have not yet received the public vindication of our righteousness as we will on the last Day. We have not yet managed to live that new life in anything like the way we know we should. Or to put it in the language of Ezek. 36, we haven’t yet seen the bumper crops and the nations around us are not yet saying that our homes and our churches are like the Garden of Eden.
But, you see, just as if those polite, urbane, perfectly normal unbelieving folk around you could be seen for what they are in their hearts – if their true characters were manifested in their behavior – we would all shrink back from them in hatred and disgust and fear – so, if we could only see what you are in your heart of hearts, if we could only see your life as it will be when what you are in your heart finally is expressed to the end of your fingertips — when you are in your thoughts, speech, and behavior what you are now in that clean heart God has given you through Christ – why, we would be tempted to fall down and worship you. You would seem to us greater than Gabriel and Michael themselves! I say, take the least admired true Christian in this room, the least regarded, the least loved, and make him in his outward life what he is already in his new heart and we could not keep from falling down and worshipping such a person – and he or she would have to rebuke us and remind us that he is only a man or that she is only a woman.
But only faith knows that. Only faith can connect that new heart with what that heart will eventually produce, just as faith alone can connect the Savior’s sufferings with the glories to follow.
Dr. Krabbendam was absolutely right. We have the gospel here in Ezekiel 36: the glorious and immeasurably happy promise of a new heart and nature, of a new record, and of a new life to replace the sin-sick nature and the sin-soaked record and the sinful life of every human being as he is in himself or as she is in herself. But the gospel must be believed. This is truth that is known by faith and by faith alone.
It was hard for the Jews who first heard this prophecy to believe it. They were in exile, slaves in Babylon. Jerusalem and Judea lay in ruins behind them. It was no simple thing to believe that God would put them back in the land and make them the envy of every nation, just as it is no easy thing to believe that we are brand new people on the verge of inheriting the world. Do you believe it? Really believe it? Is there the spring in your step that proves you believe it?
I was in the Pierce County Jail the other night. I was talking to a young man, a husband and a father, whose bad heart and bad life had been found out – hardly anyone knew and most everyone was surprised to find out what he had been doing – and now he is facing the music of his bad record. Most of the time we talked his eyes were full of tears. His life lay in ruins about his feet and he wasn’t sure how to put things right or that he could. So what did we talk about? We talked about what he really needed – more than his freedom, more even than the salvation of his marriage and his family – a new heart and new record and a new life and where they come from; the only place they come from; the only person who can give them to us, the very things, the only things we absolutely have to have.
The fact that the bumper harvest is ours so far only in principle should not make us any less grateful that our great problems have been solved and that we have been given the very things we most desperately needed. We have both a new heart, a new record, and a new life, on the one hand, and the land of plenty on the other. You are a favored people! How happy you must be to have all this as a gift from the Lord.