IV. Prophecies of Israel’s Restoration (Ezekiel 33:1–39:29)

PLUS

IV. Prophecies of Israel’s Restoration (33:1–39:29)

33:1-9 Ezekiel had been speaking words of judgment for seven years, otherwise keeping silent in obedience to God’s command (see 3:26-27) as part of his original commission to his prophetic office (beginning at 3:16). He had proclaimed that the people of Judah, the only ones who remained of Israel, would be punished for their sins (chapters 1–24), as would the nations around them (chapters 25–32). But from here to the end of the book, the message to Israel becomes one of restoration, because God did not intend to abandon his covenant people forever. The nation of Israel was going to be brought back to him (and these messages spoke to the entire nation, not just to Judah).

Since Ezekiel’s message was going to change, it was appropriate that God recom-mission him to his ministry. For seven years prior to the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel had remained mute when not delivering a prophetic oracle from God. But when news arrived that Jerusalem had fallen, God lifted that restriction and Ezekiel was free to speak (see 33:21-22).

This chapter may not sound like good news to God’s people, but he had to do some spadework before he could begin rebuilding. The people of Judah who stayed behind in the land, and all of the Israelites, still needed to understand that they were personally responsible before God for their actions. God brought this point home by appointing Ezekiel as Israel’s watchman, with the responsibility to blow his trumpet to warn of coming danger (33:2-3). Anyone who ignored a faithful watchman’s warning and lost his life would be solely responsible for his own death. But if the watchman failed to give the warning and people died, the watchman would be held accountable for their deaths (33:4-9). In this way God stressed the personal responsibility of both the watchman (Ezekiel) and those who heard his message of repentance that was to follow.

Similarly, it is the role of spiritual leaders today to warn God’s people of his just judgment against sin and call them to repentance. Leaders who fail to fully carry out this sacred duty are accountable.

33:10-11 That message finally penetrated the hearts of his fellow Israelites. For the first time, they acknowledged that it was because of their transgressions and sins that they were wasting away, and they asked in despair, How then can we survive? (33:10). God told Ezekiel to give them words of comfort: God did not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, and their sin could be forgiven (33:11).

33:12-16 God’s declaration that a person is righteous—in right standing before him—is always based on faith that expresses itself in right actions. That’s the message Ezekiel delivered here. It was an invitation for the people to repent of sin and do what is just and right (33:14). It was a message that all the people of Israel desperately needed to hear and heed. One of the problems of the exiles, in fact, was that they loved to hear Ezekiel speak, but they didn’t put his words into action (see 33:31). In today’s terms, they shouted “Amen!” on Sunday, but lived as they pleased on Monday through Saturday. They voted for God’s kingdom agenda with their mouths but voted for their own agenda with their hands and feet.

33:17-20 One way we know the Israelites of Ezekiel’s day needed his preaching of personal responsibility was that they were still blaming God for being unfair in the way he dealt with them. This was the height of blasphemy, an instance of the creature accusing the Creator. But God turned their accusations around and reminded them that it was their ways that brought them into judgment, certainly not any unfairness on his part.

33:21-23 Verse 21 is a huge turning point in the book and in Israel’s history. Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple burned in August 586 BC, but news of that didn’t reach the exile community in Babylon until January 585 when a survivor reported it to Ezekiel. The prophet knew something major was coming, since the Lord had opened his mouth the evening before (33:22). The word of the Lord (33:23) that God gave Ezekiel to deliver involved more of the spadework God needed to do in removing the rubble of Israel’s sinful attitudes before its people were ready for healing and restoration. Both groups, those who remained in the land after Jerusalem’s fall and the exiles in Babylon, were the recipients of God’s word through Ezekiel.

33:24 The first group addressed here was hiding among the ruins in the land of Israel, having escaped death at the hands of the Babylonians. Incredibly, they were claiming to be a righteous remnant, the true sons and daughters of Abraham to whom God had given the land by an eternal covenant based on his faith. Their argument sounded like this: “Sure, things are bad for us now, but we’re ‘naming and claiming’ our inheritance and expect God to restore our fortunes.”

33:25-29 God’s reply to them was this: “You have broken my covenant, relied on yourselves instead of on me, and committed detestable acts. And then you appeal to me on the grounds of my covenant with righteous Abraham? I don’t think so.” (33:25-26). The bad news for these survivors was that they had only temporarily escaped judgment. The same disasters that took down the other people of Jerusalem would catch up to them (33:27-29).

33:30-33 Ezekiel’s message to his fellow exiles was different, but their fundamental problem was the same—failure to put God’s Word into practice. In contrast to the obstinate refusal of those back in Judah to pay any attention to Ezekiel’s messages, his “congregation” in Babylon had grown large. They were passing the word along that this preacher who was silent for most of the past seven years was speaking freely now and had a message . . . from the Lord (33:30). People came in crowds to hear God’s words through Ezekiel, but they didn’t obey them (33:31). Yet a day of reckoning was coming, probably referring to the day when all people will stand before God to be judged by him, when Ezekiel’s hearers would know he had spoken the truth.

34:1-4 Even though God had severely judged his people for their sins, they were still the sheep of his pasture that he loved. And now, with his sheep scattered all over the hills and in the caves of Israel and far away in Babylon, it was time to call their shepherds, their leaders, to account for their complete failure to lead his flock righteously. What was God’s message to these rulers of his people? Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! (34:2). Shepherds are to care for their sheep, but the nation’s leaders preferred to feed themselves rather than to tend the flock (34:3). They did not care for the poor or meet other legitimate needs of their people. Yet, their sin was not mere neglect. They also treated the weakest members of society with violence and cruelty (34:4).

34:5-10 It’s little wonder the people were scattered for lack of a shepherd with no one searching or seeking for them, because their false leaders didn’t care (34:5-6). When government and religious leaders fail to fulfill their God-ordained calling in his kingdom program to uphold justice, keep the peace, and punish evil, then chaos, loss of freedom, and tyranny follow. That, in fact, is exactly what happened in Israel. Its bad kings, false prophets, and faithless priests had failed to carry out God’s agenda. Therefore, God called them into his courtroom to hear the charges against them and their sentence. He read the indictment in 34:7-8 and the sentence in 34:9-10. The flock of Israel would be taken away from these greedy shepherds, who would never again be allowed to fatten themselves at the expense of God’s people (34:10). This warning applies to church leaders today (see Acts 20:28-35).

34:11-16 Nevertheless, God’s people were still scattered and leaderless, so God said he would become their shepherd himself. These promises of his care were not fulfilled completely when the people returned from exile in Babylon. These verses describe Israel in Christ’s millennial kingdom when Israel is fully regathered and restored under its good shepherd. The nation’s false leaders had allowed the people to be scattered, but Christ will bring them out from the peoples, gather them from the countries, and bring them to their own soil (34:13). Instead of taking advantage of the weak, he will strengthen them. In place of exploitation, there will be justice (34:16).

34:17-24 Before Christ establishes his kingdom, a judgment must be held to separate the righteous from the wicked—that is, the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-46)—because these two groups will still exist in that day as they did in Ezekiel’s. The wicked are those who not only devour the good pasture and the clear water for themselves, but also ruin it for the weak ones so that they have to subsist on leftovers (34:17-19, 21). God promised to establish his true shepherd over his people: his servant David, Jesus Christ, the Son of David, who will be Israel’s perfect shepherd and prince (34:23-24). As David was a faithful shepherd (see 1 Sam 17:34-37), so the Lord Jesus will be even more so (see John 10:11-18).

34:25-31 Since Christ will rule Israel, God said, I will make a covenant of peace with Israel (34:25). These verses echo other Old Testament prophecies that speak of Israel’s safety in the land from both dangerous animals and human enemies. The land of Israel itself will also be perpetually productive during the kingdom age. Most important of all, the people of Israel will recognize their true Messiah, their shepherd. They will bow in worship to Jesus Christ. The Lord has declared it.

35:1-4 A declaration of judgment on Edom (35:1-15) might seem out of place in this section on Israel’s restoration. But on closer examination, this chapter fits the theme because Edom stood for all of Israel’s enemies that God would judge when he restored the fortunes of his chosen people. This was Ezekiel’s second prophecy of judgment on Edom (see 25:12-14), but the current passage is more detailed. Even though the Edomites and Israelites were closely related (they were the descendants of Esau and Jacob, the sons of Isaac, respectively), Mount Seir, the range south of the Dead Sea where the Edomites lived, was under God’s judgment. When this judgment fell, God said Edom would know that I am the Lord (35:3-4; see also 35:9, 15).

35:5-9 One reason for Edom’s judgment was its people’s perpetual hatred against the Israelites. The Edomites gave them over to the power of the sword in the time of their disaster (35:5) as an ally of the Babylonians when they destroyed Jerusalem. Therefore, because of the Edomites’ actions, God would destine them for bloodshed until Mount Seir was filled with those slain by the sword (35:6-8).

35:10-15 Edom would also come under God’s wrath because when the two nations (Israel and Judah) fell, Edom greedily desired to take their two lands for itself, even though they were promised to the Jews (35:10). The Edomites hated God’s people, blasphemed him, rejoiced when he judged the mountains of Israel, and boasted against God (35:11-13). Since Edom rejoiced when Israel was made a desolation, God would make Edom a desolation (35:14-15).

36:1-5 Ezekiel 36 is a tremendous picture of Israel’s restoration to favor in both God’s eyes and among the nations that had formerly ridiculed and attacked it. Coming on the heels of Judah’s downfall, this prophecy might have sounded too good to be true to the exiles in Babylon. So God tied his promises to his character, not to Israel’s present circumstances in captivity. No fewer than ten times in this chapter, God sealed his promise by saying, This is what the Lord God says (36:2-7, 13, 22, 33, 37). Israel’s future restoration was as good as done in God’s mind.

Notice how God also tied Israel’s future blessing to the judgment he pronounced on Edom as the representative of all the nation’s enemies (36:5). Edom’s mountain, Mount Seir, would be destroyed because, in part, Edom thought it could seize the land of Israel after God had punished his people for their sins. Israel’s enemies gathered around like vultures, saying, Aha! The ancient heights have become our possession as Israel became an object of people’s gossip and slander after its conquest (36:2-4). Of course, this meant that Israel’s enemies were really slandering the Lord, the true God, who would not let their cruelty toward his people and blasphemy toward him go unpunished.

36:6-12 God’s burning zeal (36:6) would bring about blessing, fruitfulness, and salvation for Israel (36:8-15). In the prophets, God’s “zeal” (or “jealousy”) speaks of his exclusive covenant love for Israel and determination to act on his people’s behalf (e.g., Isa 42:13; 63:15; Zech 1:14; 8:2). In this case, the land will produce abundantly, the people will flourish, and the ruined cities will be rebuilt (36:8-10). Israel will be better off than ever before, and the people will never again be driven off their land or suffer loss (36:11-12). These promises clearly await Christ’s millennial kingdom for their fulfillment.

36:13-15 In the kingdom age, God will also take away Israel’s reproach when her Messiah rules the nations. Israel’s enemies had a saying: You devour people and deprive your nation of children (36:13), an insult that God said would no longer be heard against his people because there would no longer be any truth in it (36:15).

36:16-21 The bulk of this chapter is devoted to prophecies about the regathering of Israel’s people that will be accomplished as God brings the tribulation period to an end and ushers in the millennium with Christ’s second coming. Ezekiel received this message from God, which begins with a review of the people’s sinful conduct. His audience was painfully aware of this because Jerusalem’s destruction and the exile gave God’s enemies the opportunity to profane his holy name (36:20).

36:22-23 But God would still act to restore his people and land. However, they needed to understand that it was not their merit or righteousness that moved him but zeal for his holy name (36:22). They had profaned it, but he would honor it again in the sight of the nations (36:22-23). This restoration is a further promise of blessing in the millennial kingdom, when Israel’s rejection of its Messiah will end and Jesus Christ will reign as King and Savior on the Davidic throne in Jerusalem. These verses include Israel’s spiritual restoration.

36:24-30 Israel’s blessing in the kingdom will definitely include a return to the land God has given the nation by an eternal covenant. And with his people in their homeland, God will proceed to restore them spiritually. He will sprinkle clean water on them, give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them (36:25-26). He will also put his Spirit within his people (36:27), a description of the “new covenant” (see Jer 31:31-34) that was inaugurated with the death of Jesus Christ and that will be applied to Israel when he returns and his people confess him.

36:31-37 When Israel experiences God’s grace in Christ, its people will loathe their sins and realize that God has saved them because of his grace and mercy (33:31-32). Israel’s inward cleansing will be accompanied by the restoration of the land to a beauty and fruitfulness that will make the land like the garden of Eden (36:35). Israel’s splendor in the kingdom will be such that everyone will know God has fulfilled all his promises to his covenant people.

37:1-3 Chapters 37–39 are probably the most well known and highly debated chapters in Ezekiel. Chapter 37 is known as “the dry bones” chapter, and chapters 38–39 discuss Gog and Magog.

The prophet received two signs in chapter 37. The valley filled with very dry bones was the first (37:1-2). God asked Ezekiel, Son of man, can these bones live? Ezekiel cautiously answered, Lord God, only you know (37:3). Ezekiel may have been reluctant to speak more confidently given that Israel was in ruins and the bones of Jerusalem’s people were still lying in the city’s rubble.

37:4-14 Since Ezekiel wouldn’t answer, God completed the vision for him and then gave him the explanation. How was he going to revive the disconnected, lifeless bones of Israel? He would do it through two key words: Word and Spirit.

Ezekiel was told, Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! (37:4). Then, as Ezekiel obeyed, God caused the bones to begin knitting themselves together as tendons, flesh, and skin gave them shape again (37:7-8). But the Word had to be accompanied by the giving of the Spirit as breath entered these bodies and they came to life (37:10), providing a classic illustration of spiritual revival. Chapter 36 had already revealed that Israel’s receiving the Spirit of God will occur in the kingdom when Jesus Christ returns and God’s chosen people are given a new heart as promised in the new covenant. In that day, God said, I will put my Spirit in you, and Israel will be settled in its land (37:14). The dry bones will become a new nation.

Similarly, the Word and the Spirit bring spiritual revival to God’s church today. When one or both are absent, then God’s people have no living experience of his reality in their midst (see 2 Cor 3:17-18).

37:15-17 Ezekiel was then told to perform another visible sign or object lesson in front of his fellow exiles; it’s the last one in the book. He was to take two sticks and write on them the names of the two most prominent tribes of the divided kingdom. Judah was the dominant tribe in the southern kingdom, while Ephraim, whose patriarch was one of Joseph’s sons, was the largest tribe in the northern kingdom (37:16-17). But with both kingdoms gone, the future of Israel would be one of unity, not division.

37:18-24 The people watched Ezekiel write on the sticks, and they knew what the names meant. But in their seemingly hopeless circumstances, they couldn’t grasp what he was trying to tell them. So he made it plain: God was going to reunite Israel by his mighty hand (37:18-19). Moreover, the people would one day be regathered from exile and live in their land, where one king will rule over all of them (37:20-22). God’s interest was not merely physical restoration but spiritual revival and salvation. His people would be cleansed of their sins and become the holy people he had designed them to be. This will be possible because they will have new hearts ruled by Jesus Christ, the one shepherd for all of them (37:23-24), when he returns to reign.

37:25-28 Then God’s people will live in the land forever under an eternal covenant of peace, worshiping God in his sanctuary (anticipating the prophecy of the rebuilt temple in Ezek 40–43), where he will be among them forever. Then, he declared, I will be their God, and they will be my people (37:25-27).

38:1-6 The identities of Gog and Magog (38:2) are key to understanding the cataclysmic battle described in the next two chapters and God’s judgment on Israel’s enemies. “Gog” is a person, and the ancient Jewish historian Josephus identified “Magog” as the land from which the Scythians descended around the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in an area now occupied by Russia and several other nations of the former Soviet Union. Gog was called the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal (38:2), areas located in modern-day Turkey. Ezekiel named these and other nations because God is going to draw them into battle against Israel at a strategic time in history, when his and Israel’s enemies will be massed against them (38:4). The armies aligned against Israel will include Persia . . . Cush . . . Put . . . Gomer . . . Beth-togarmah (38:5-6).

38:7-9 The time of this attack has been debated. Some identify it with an attack at the end of the millennium (see Rev 20:7-9), but the details between the passages are vastly different, and in the latter case these names are probably used symbolically of God’s worldwide enemies. The best choice for Ezekiel’s battle seems to be around the middle of the tribulation, when Israel is regathered and is living in peace (38:8), but this peace may be that of its false covenant of peace with the Antichrist (see Dan 9:27; Matt 24:15-22), which he will violate. Israel at this point has not recognized its Messiah, and has more purging to undergo. Thus, Gog’s troops will mass against Israel like a cloud covering the land (38:9).

38:10-16 Gog will think this is his own plan; therefore, he will be confident of success because he assumes Israel is undefended and will be easy pickings for spoil (38:10-13). But Gog and his allies do not know that God is gathering them to his land for another purpose entirely. Gog won’t know that he and his massive army are heading straight into God’s trap, so that the nations may know who the true God is when he shows himself holy to the whole world (38:14-16).

38:17-23 This judgment is then elaborated on. When Gog and his armies reach Israel, God’s wrath will flare up. In his zeal and fiery rage, he will send a great earthquake to Israel that will make every living creature tremble and will demolish natural and manmade objects (38:18-20). Gog’s troops will be so panicked and confused that they will begin fighting and killing each other, and the slaughter will be helped along by other natural, God-sent disasters (38:21-22). Gog’s invasion will be crushed as the world watches God display his greatness and holiness, leaving no doubt to the unbelieving world during the tribulation that he alone is God (38:23).

39:1-8 God’s judgment against Gog continues in chapter 39. After God has driven Gog’s armies into the land of Israel from the remotest parts of the north, God will weaken these forces and they will fall in battle on the mountains of Israel, becoming food for the birds and wild animals (39:2-4). God will also punish Magog, the homeland of Gog, and all the people who sent their armies to attack Israel (39:6). Israel’s people themselves will come to regard God’s name as holy, and the nations will know that he is the Holy One in Israel (39:7).

39:9-13 The slaughter of this battle will be so great that its description almost defies the imagination. Many commentators have a hard time seeing a literal burning of the weapons, which would suggest they are like ancient wooden weapons that could be easily burned. But this is what the text says, and 39:10 is even clearer, stating that during this period of seven years (39:9) Israel would not need any other source of firewood. The burial time for Gog’s troops also suggests the extent of the slaughter—seven months of burials in order to cleanse the land as the surrounding nations hear of the great victory God gave Israel and see his glory on display (39:12-13).

39:14-20 The importance in Israel of burying every bone so as not to defile the land with unburied corpses will lead to a full-time cadre of men searching for remains for seven months, during which they will find so many that the gravediggers will live in their own city until the job is done (39:14-16). God will also announce a “feast” to the creatures of Israel to fatten themselves on the corpses of Gog’s troops, which is a reversal of God’s usual sacrificial feast in which people eat the flesh of animals. This time, God will prepare the meal (39:17-20).

39:21-29 Two results of this stunning defeat of Gog will be that the nations will see God’s glory manifested, as noted above, and Israel will turn back to God after experiencing his judgment (39:21-24). If this battle occurs during the tribulation, it will help prepare for Israel’s restoration in Christ’s millennial kingdom when God will restore the fortunes of Jacob by bringing his people back to their land where they will live securely . . . with no one to frighten them (39:25-26). Not one Israelite will be left behind when Jesus Christ returns and institutes the new covenant of salvation and restoration with his people (39:27-28).