We have come to the end of our studies in this long and important book of the Old Testament, the Prophecy of Ezekiel. We began our studies with the first section of the book, a long series of prophesies Ezekiel received and proclaimed prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, prophesies devoted to Jerusalem’s impending judgment. The next of the three sections was devoted to oracles or prophesies of the divine judgment to be directed against Israel’s neighbors, an important prerequisite for her own restoration. The third and final section of the book, beginning in chapter 33, is devoted to prophesies of Israel’s restoration and the last nine chapters of this section to an extended vision of a new temple, a new worship, and a new Promised Land. It is this new Promised Land that is before us in the last chapter and a half of the book. I am going to read some selected verses and give you some account of the surrounding material.
Text Comment: read only the listed verses
What follows is account of the boundaries of the Promised Land, similar but not identical to those provided in Numbers 34, before Israel took possession of the Canaan for the first time. These are the historic boundaries, or nearly so, of the Promised Land as a whole.
The last two verses of chapter 47 provide, and in an emphatic way, for the alien, that is to say the non-Jew, also to be an inheritor of real estate, of land in the Promised Land. Their inheritance is to be the same as native-born Israelites. Now as you remember from the beginning in the Law of Moses the alien had been allowed to seek circumcision and thus membership in the community. But the ban on land ownership meant in the nature of the case that the alien was always to remain an outsider. But here such distinctions between the alien and the native Israelite are completely eliminated. The Gentile becomes the Israelite. Is this not what the New Testament has taught us: Jews and Gentiles together form the Israel of God? [Block, ii, 717-718]
What follows in vv. 2-8 is a geographical distribution of the land by tribe, the tribal allotments within the Promised Land. But if there were any doubt that we have here an idealized picture of the Promised Land it is confirmed in these arrangements. In the original tribal allotments that are described in Joshua 15-21 boundaries twisted and turned with the contours of the land. Some tribes had more territory, others less. The new situation described in Ezekiel’s vision is very different. This is by no means a recapitulation of the ancient arrangements. Everything is “fair and square.” [Stuart, 419] What is more, the allotments are so idealized that they pay no attention whatsoever to the topography of Canaan. The physical geography of Canaan is defined by features that run north and south (the coastal plain, the central mountain ridge, the Jordan valley). But the allotments here all run east and west in a highly artificial arrangement very much like the border that we have with Canada running along a parallel that is as it were artificially imposed upon a map of the world. Seven tribes will be situated north (including Judah which had been the southernmost tribe) and five tribes will be situated south of the east-west strip reserved for the city, the sanctuary, the priests, and the prince. What is more, each allotment is an east-west strip like all the others, from one side of the Promised Land to the other. Each of them therefore is relatively shallow but wider. Finally, there is no territory across, or east of the Jordan such as once was occupied by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh.
Now, we noticed that generally speaking, at least as plotted, each allotment was figured in the same way, an east-west strip with straight lines across the top and the bottom. As we read in 47:14 the purpose is to give each tribe an equal allotment. But, if we are thinking of this as an idealized depiction of the future community of the people of God it is worth noting that differences are inevitable, even, we might say, inequities. Some tribes are much closer to the city and the sanctuary than others. The city is not in the middle with the tribes as it were coming out from it like spokes on a wheel. Some are further north; some are further south than other tribes. Some have larger territories simply in the nature of the case. The width of some of the allotments extends from the Mediterranean eastward to a boundary north of the Sea of Galilee in the case of some tribes, or to its southern tip in the case of others, or, in the case of still others, to the southern tip of the Dead Sea. The respective widths would be quite different as you can tell if you look at a map of Canaan in the back of your Bible. Some would be nearly 100 miles wide, others as little as forty miles wide. We are reminded that even in the kingdom of God, even in its perfection, there is not a perfect similarity such as American democratic ideals might demand. Some will rule over ten cities and some over one as the Lord Jesus said. Peter, James, and John were closer to the Lord than the other nine disciples, and so it will be even in a perfect world.
One intriguing detail regarding the odd arrangement of the tribes from north to south, an arrangement utterly unlike the historical arrangement of the tribes in the Promised Land from Joshua onward, is that the sons of Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, enjoy pride of place nearest the central reserve where the sanctuary is located and the sons of those wives’ handmaidens or maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) are at furthest remove from the central reserve. [Block, ii, 724] That is apparently why Dan, Asher, and Naphtali are the furthest north and Gad the furthest south, with four sons of the true wives immediately north and four sons of the true wives immediately south of the central reserve.
It is also worth noting that Judah is placed with the northern tribes – perhaps as a symbol of the overcoming of the ancient and longstanding animosities that existed between Israel and Judah during the days of the divided kingdom – but Judah, nevertheless, remains the tribe nearest the reserve on the north and Benjamin, the other part of the southern kingdom, the tribe nearest the reserve on the south.
Verses 9-22 concern the central east-west strip reserved for the capital and the sanctuary. It is to be about 8 miles from north to south and, as the other allotments, stretch from one side of the Promised Land to the other east to west. You might think of it as something like Washington D.C. Not a state itself, it serves the interests of all the other states or tribes. Indeed, in the parallel text in Ezekiel 45 where this reserve is also described, a point is made of saying that this part of the land will belong to “the whole house of Israel.” Within this reserve will be territories allotted for the priests and for the Levites and for the prince.
The remainder of the reserve will belong to the prince.
Now the remaining five tribes whose territory will be south of the national zone are listed.
Now the description returns to the city (already described to some degree in vv. 9-22). Once again we have an idealized picture, appropriate to a vision that is describing things much larger than the literal land of Palestine and such a literal city as might be fit into that central reserve. The twelve gates of the city, for example, are named after the twelve tribes of Israel, but in their original listing, not the same twelve tribes whose allotments have been listed previously in this same chapter. Joseph replaces his two sons – Ephraim and Manasseh – and Levi, who generally speaking has been left out of the tribal allotments throughout Israel’s history because the Levites had a special provision made for them by the Lord, Levi is here returned to the list. We have here one of those unusual, unexpected listing of the twelve tribes.
We have another unusual listing, if you remember, in Revelation 7:5-8. There we have Joseph and one of his sons, Manasseh, but no mention of Ephraim, his other son. Levi is listed, but Dan is not. There is no list anywhere in the Old Testament that is like that one in Revelation 7. These odd, unexpected lists of the twelve tribes are signals that there is an idealization going on; the tribes have become symbolic of something; in this case, not literal, ethnic Israel as descended from the twelve sons of Jacob but the whole church of God, Jew and Gentile alike.
A great ending to a great book! It is the presence of the Lord that Israel forfeited by her unbelief and her disobedience. It is the presence of the Lord that shall be returned to her. It is the presence of the Lord that is our good, as the author of Psalm 73 puts it; it will be the presence of the Lord that brings in the great day of salvation, and it is the presence of the Lord to a degree that we have never known that will make heaven heaven! And so the continuing story of the kingdom of God is a story of the presence of the Lord. The story of the new epoch begins with the arrival of Immanuel – God with us – and ends with his coming again to be with us forever.
There is something I think very natural about this vision of the future. We find understandably certain aspects of it alien and difficult to appreciate but, in fact, it is the very thing that we Americans, for example, have long done and the citizens of other countries as well. We have idealized our nation and we have used that idealized picture to communicate our belief in its greatness or to express our hope for better things to come. If you ever stayed up really late in the old days, when television programming would end for the night, the national anthem would be played and the last images on the screen would be of a waving flag superimposed usually over beautiful scenes of natural beauty that we all associate with our national greatness.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!
The pictures were always idealized. The cities were shown in their shimmering glory without a single shot of a slum, or pothole-filled streets, or uncollected garbage, or even one of our ubiquitous urban avenues decorated by fast food shops and strip malls; the land, the natural beauty, was also shown in its perfection: no litter, no strip-mine, usually not even so much as an interstate highway with its truck and RV traffic to clutter up the image.
Well, that is what is going on here but in images that would have been powerful and important to a Jew living in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. They had been banished from their land; humanly speaking they had no hope of a return. Their temple, the embodiment of Yahweh’s presence with his people, now lay in ruins, in fact not one stone lay on top of another. They were a people bereft of everything that had defined their national life and had given them some sense of permanence in their world. Everything had been lost that was significant to them as a nation. They had no king, no government, no land. So to have such a vision reported to them must have been immensely encouraging. Everything back and better than ever before. The Holy Land restored, from east to west and north to south, the same basic dimensions it had had in its ideal form when first defined to them and before Israel entered the Promised Land under Joshua. All of it back in the hands of the people of God. Brotherhood reigning again, all the tribes in unity with one another. The worship of God in a perfect temple being supported by all the people. A prince to lead them. And, supremely, God present among them once more to bless them. Americans and other peoples have spoken almost exactly in the same way about their country and its future, but this is the far more important country, the far more important nation, the kingdom of God.
And it is not difficult at all for a reader of the New Testament to appreciate the meaning of this fabulous vision that concludes the book of Ezekiel. It is quite easy in fact to make the transition from Ezekiel’s description of the future to one more meaningful to us.
- First, as I have mentioned already, the land of Canaan, the Promised Land is resignified in the New Testament and becomes the entire world. The very important OT word “land” is used in only three instances in the NT and in every case it has become the world. “The meek shall inherit the land” in Psalm 37:11 becomes “The meek shall inherit the earth” in Matthew 5:5. The promise that Abraham would inherit the land in Gen. 12:1 becomes the promise that Abraham would inherit the world in Rom. 4:13. And the promise that faithful children would live a long life in the land, in the fifth of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 becomes a promise of long life on the earth in Ephesians 6:3. It is very easy for us, natural even, to extend Ezekiel’s vision of an ideal Promised Land as in fact a promise of a renewed earth.
- Then there is the connection so explicitly and so often made between Israel and the church of God, a connection that is suggested here in Ezekiel 47 and 48 by the dramatic announcement that aliens, non-Jews in other words, would be landowners in the Promised Land and as well by the different listings of the tribes from one chapter to the next. We read in the NT that a believer in Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, that the believing church is the circumcised, and that all the followers of Christ are the Israel of God. But we are reminded in texts like this one in Ezekiel that it was long before understood and promised that all the nations would participate in the promises made to Abraham and to Israel and that the world as a whole would eventually come under the spell of God’s grace.
- And, then, there are these even more specific connections existing between this material in the last few chapters of Ezekiel and the consummation of the kingdom of God and the depiction of heaven in Revelation. I have pointed out already that in the appendix to the standard Greek text of the New Testament, in the list of texts cited or alluded to from the OT in the Greek NT, there are some 108 references from Ezekiel in the book of Revelation and some 14 references in Revelation to these last nine chapters of Ezekiel. Here we read, for example, that the gates of the city in the renewed Promised Land will be named for the twelve tribes of Israel and there will be three gates on each side of the square city. In Revelation 21:12 we read of the New Jerusalem: “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south, and three on the west.”
You get the point. We have in this last section of Ezekiel a picture that has left its mark on the New Testament’s way of setting before us the happy future of the people of God, the consummation of salvation first here on the earth and then in heaven.
The other day Florence and I went to the gym and as we were about to get out of the car she said, “I really don’t want to do this; I don’t want to work out.” Being the faithful, kind, and loving husband that I am, I said, “Yes you do!” Being the sort of stubborn woman that she is, she replied, “No, I don’t.” Being the faithful pastor that I am, I then said, “When you are finished with your workout you will be glad that you did it.” To which she replied, “Well, I know that. But I still don’t want to go in there and workout.” And then, preacher that I am, I said, “You know, I think I feel a sermon illustration coming on.” And she, being the somewhat carnal Christian that she is replied, “Oh, No!”
“When you are finished, you’ll be glad that you did it.” “I know that!” There is the lesson and the meaning and the application and the encouragement of this magnificent vision of the future that we are given that concludes this great biblical book. [By the way, you have my permission to encourage Florence after the evening service by reminding her that she will always be glad that she exercised after she is finished exercising!]
All of you – young and old – can well imagine a wonderful day. You’ve had them or you’ve dreamed of them. Your wedding day. Or you are going off on a holiday with your wife or husband and you’ve looked forward to it for weeks, even months – happy days of being alone together – and now the day has come. Or a date with the one you have fallen in love with. Or the wedding day of one of your children. Or the day of the baptism of your child or grandchild. Or a day in which you accomplish some great feat and have the deep satisfaction of success. Whatever it is, you have the idea of a wonderful day.
And you have an idea of a wonderful place. It may be the mountains for some of you, or the seashore. It may be a great city or a small village. It may a place that beguiles you with its charm or excites you with its attractions. But if you were offered the time and money right now, you know where you would like to go to spend some time.
And you have an idea of what would constitute wonderful company. You know who you would like to spend this time with, whose fellowship you would enjoy, whose stimulating conversation or whose love would enrich your experience of that day. You can also imagine the food you would most like to eat on that wonderful day in that wonderful place with that wonderful friend or friends. The food you would eat and the drink you would drink. You know what kind of weather would be most ideal. Sitting at a sidewalk café of a warm sunny evening or by a chalet fire on a snowy afternoon. All of us can so easily imagine such perfect times and places. We take all of that for granted because we take our imagination so much for granted. But it is worth your asking why do you have this power to transport yourself to another place, another time, another set of circumstances, and to be with other people.
Did not God furnish you with this extraordinary power of imagination because a large part of what we must do if we are to live rightly in this world is to keep in our mind’s eye (another word, another phrase for that power of imagination) on the wonderful world and the wonderful life that lies ahead of us because Jesus Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us so that where he is we may be also.
It has sometimes been alleged that people who are always thinking about heaven are “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” They are all for “pie in the sky by and by.” To which a professor of mine, R. Laird Harris, replied, well pie in the sky is certainly better than no pie at all! But, the fact is, you can’t be too heavenly minded. No one can. To be heavenly minded is to understand rightly the life you are living here in this world. To be heavenly minded is to understand what it means to live life as a person should and to know how that life is to be lived. The end, the destination determines the meaning of the trip and shapes the way in which we think about our traveling. Indeed it shapes the way we travel.
In the Bible the reality of this grand future, the prospect of the unending fulfillment of human life, of a place, a time, a people, a way of life that is in fact the fulfillment of the longing of every human heart, all of that is meant to encourage us, to strengthen, to nerve, to steel us, to face the trials, difficulties, challenges and the temptations of life in this world with calm and with resolve. If life becomes hard, well, we are going to a place where all difficulties will soon be forgotten and if you can see that place in your mind’s eye, undergoing difficulties now is not so difficult. If we must do without, well the time is coming when we shall have everything and that forever and if you can see that place in your mind’s eye, doing without for a time seems not so great a sacrifice to you after all. If we must make sacrifices to live for Christ, well, as he did, we make them willingly for the joy set before us.
But the fact is very few people are very heavenly minded and most of us would admit immediately that we are not very heavenly minded, not nearly as much as we ought to be. Few of us are like the saintly Dr. Basil Atkinson, an early participant in the ministry that was at first Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship in Great Britain, an eccentric but a very godly man, who when preaching in the open air in Cambridge University once mentioned heaven and a heckler yelled at him, “What do you know about heaven?” With his characteristic smile he replied, “I live there.” We are not nearly so likely to be able to reply to a heckler who asks us what we know about heaven in that same way. It is hard to hold fast to a place and a time and a people and a life that you cannot see and must always and only believe. That is one reason why the Bible describes heaven in such extravagant images, to force it upon our minds. But even then, as Jonathan Edwards has it in the title of one of his sermons, “Nothing upon Earth can Represent the Glories of Heaven.” It’s harder still to imagine something so ineffable it cannot be adequately described to us in literal terms and so must be described in symbols and analogies and comparisons that make it more difficult to grasp and imagine. And it is for this same reason that Ezekiel takes such a long time in reporting his vision and why there is so much detail. Reading out a long description like this would have made an impression on the people who first heard it. They would not have read it in Ezekiel, they would have heard it read. They would have got lost in all the detail; they would have rolled the picture that was being painted over and over in their minds as the description went on and on. And that is why you and I need to think and to apply our imaginations to this grand future that lies before us; this impossibly wonderful place and world and life that will be ours one day. It isn’t easy to grasp and so we must work to grasp it.
Once in a dream I saw the flowers
That bud and bloom in Paradise;
More fair are they than waking eyes
Have seen in all this world of ours.
And faint the perfume-bearing rose,
And faint the lily on its stem,
And faint the perfect violet,
Compared with them.
I heard the songs of Paradise;
Each bird sat singing in its place;
A tender song so full of grace
It soared like incense to the skies.
Each bird sat singing to its mate
Soft cooing notes among the trees:
The nightingale herself were cold
To such as these.
I saw the four-fold river flow,
And deep it was, with golden sand;
It flowed between a mossy land
With murmured music grave and low.
It hath refreshment for all thirst,
For fainting spirits strength and rest:
Earth holds not such a draught as this
From east to west.
The Tree of Life stood budding there,
Abundant with its twelvefold fruits;
Eternal sap sustains its roots,
Its shadowing branches fill the air.
Its leaves are healing for the world,
Its fruit the hungry world can feed.
Sweeter than honey to the taste
And balm indeed.
I saw the Gate called Beautiful;
And looked, but scarce could look within;
I saw the golden streets begin,
And outskirts of the glassy pool.
Oh harps, oh crowns of plenteous stars,
Oh green palm-branches, many-leaved –
Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard,
Nor heart conceived.
I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night;
To see them with my very sight,
And touch and handle and attain:
To have all heaven beneath my feet
For narrow way that once they trod;
To have my part with all the saints
And with my God.
[Christina Rossetti, Paradise]
Write a poem yourself about Paradise, about the future Christ Jesus has promised to you, and about the impossibly grand fulfillment of human life that will soon be yours. It won’t be as good as Christina Rossetti’s, but it will require you to think about what all of this imagery means and what is being taught you and what you are being told to expect and to look for and to wait for. We are to live with an eye open to that glorious world and if we do it will, it must change the way we think, and speak, and act here and now. That is the whole point.
And to get us started let me apply our text and its great vision of the happy future of the people of God to one particular matter that in the nature of the case we don’t have reason to talk about very often.
George Sayer, first a student, then a longtime friend, and finally a biographer of C.S. Lewis, tells of reading the Narnia Chronicles to his daughter – something a great many Christian parents have done. At the end she said to him, “I don’t want to go on living in this world. I want to live in Narnia with Aslan.” “Darling, one day you will,” her father replied. [Jack, 193] One day you will. Is that not the way we ought to feel? As the daughter felt? She really would rather go and live with Aslan than to live here in this world. And was not her father’s the proper reply? “One day you shall.”
I’ve had occasion to think recently about the way Christians die in our modern world. And though there are sterling exceptions and there have been some regularly in this congregation, I do not think there is nearly as much dying in the triumph of the Christian faith as there ought to be and as there was in previous generations of Christian life. There is not enough dying in the triumph of the conviction that death is an entrance into that world where “The Lord is there!” And there is unlikely to be many more Christians dying so well if Christians do not plan ahead for this particularly important moment of their life; if they do not bend the powers of their imagination to this as well and bring heaven down to them for that moment when they are leaving this world and entering the next. When Christians beforehand see themselves dying and at that moment applying to their hearts these great truths; when they determine what they are going to think, what they are going to say to others, what they are going to feel as they die, as they face the end of their lives; they prepare in that way to leave a great witness, to have a most important ministry to the people around them, to their family and loved ones, to Christians and non-Christians alike. By such preparation they will themselves die and help others to die in the full and certain hope of the surpassingly wonderful things to come. But you have to think about this, plan for it, and modern Christians usually don’t. They are taken up with the present; they don’t apply a great deal of their thinking to the future, and certainly not to their death.
I want every Christian here, when the time comes, to face the last enemy squarely and to take death in stride. And even more so when it is first announced, when you first hear its approaching footsteps; the doctor gives you the news that you have the disease that is going to take your life or that the treatment that they fully expected was going render that disease impotent in your body in fact has not had that effect. I want you to be ready at that moment; entirely ready! I want to die in this manner myself; I want every one of you to die in such a way that it is perfectly obvious to every one who observes us and hears us that we are and know ourselves to be taking one giant step closer to this world, this surpassingly wonderful world that has been promised us in the word of God and guaranteed to us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The intermediate state the state of the believing dead between their death and the second coming of Christ is not heaven as it will one day be; the soul by itself, without the body, is not the full person it will be after the resurrection. But death itself takes the true believer in Christ as close to the total fulfillment of life as a human being can come until the resurrection, and as the Bible clearly says, it’s far closer to that happy goal than any believer ever gets in this life. “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Those were statements made by Paul and Jesus about what happens to a believer when he dies. And a Christian should act in such a way as to demonstrate that he or she knows this, believes this, and has no doubt about this. It is the settled and happy conviction of our hearts and minds.
Many Christians do not act as if they really do believe and know this. They are so absorbed in their medical treatments, so given over to talking about their prospects for healing that they do not give others the impression that, even if it should require a separation from their loved ones, they welcome death, they welcome it, because of where death will take them, to Paradise and to God. There is nothing wrong, of course, with seeking medical treatment to extend your life in this world. We can be absolutely be happy if that treatment should have that effect. The Apostle Paul was happy to remain in the world even though he admitted he would prefer to leave it to be with the Lord Jesus Christ. But while you are doing so, planning on your recovery and taking steps to insure it, let everyone hear you say with words that make your conviction perfectly obvious, that if it should be the Lord’s will that your life end, well, “to die is gain!” And in one respect you cannot wait to take that journey. Let them hear you say from time to time that you’re not entirely sure whether you really want to be cured because you can’t wait to be where Christ is and to experience the joys of Paradise. Make your faith in the Promised Land and the heavenly city entirely clear. In the car the other day I was taken aback. I heard an ad for a Mexican restaurant whose offerings are so tasty, we were told, that when you eat them you will think you died and went to heaven! I did not imagine that anybody used that phrase anymore or thought it so universally understood and appreciated that they could use it in an ad or a radio station. What an astonishing echo of gospel truth. “You will think you died and went to heaven!” But only a Christian can actually say that seriously, meaningfully, with understanding and conviction about dying and going to heaven as the most wonderful thing you can imagine! But, then, as Christians we must say such a thing. We are going to keep that phrase, keep that adage alive in our culture. We Christians are the ones who know how true it really is, that it is wonderful beyond words to die and go to heaven, and we need to make it very clear that that is precisely what we believe and at no point in your entire life can you make such a powerful a witness to that conviction than when you are actually dying yourself.
John Owen, the great 17th century Puritan, never spoke English very simply, just as he never wrote English very smoothly. You would never confuse John Owen with John Bunyan. People find Owen hard to read, which is why several volumes of his works have now been recently reprinted in literally an English translation even though he wrote English in the first place or was supposed to be writing English in the first place. His sentences are complex and convoluted and he spoke as he wrote and thought, even on his deathbed. On the day he died, his friend William Payne brought him the news that Owens’s last written work, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, was now at the press being printed.
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Owen, “but O brother Payne! The long wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in this world.” [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 213]
Not the most memorable sentence, it does not roll off the tongue; but what a great thing to be thinking and saying an hour or two before your death! Plan to say such things; plan to encourage your loved ones and to leave a witness behind to your Christian brethren and to your unsaved friends by saying such things when you are dying. No one will ever take your testimony so seriously about life after death as when you give it confidently when you are dying. The Lord has promised us this glorious future. It is sheer ingratitude on our part if we are not always looking forward to it and talking about what it will be like to be finally in the city whose name is “The Lord is There.” And the more we think about those things and the more we speak to one another about those things, the more living this hope becomes in our hearts and in the hearts of other believers with us and the more the joy of the Lord will be our strength.