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On the Mountains of Israel
Ezekiel 34 – 39 is bound together by the theme of the return of the presence of God. But one should also note the repeated refrain “the mountains of Israel.” The phrase is a favorite one with Ezekiel, who uses it seventeen times. In fact, it is only found elsewhere in two verses in Joshua (Josh. 11:16, 21). Up until chapter 34 all four times it is been used it has rung a negative note. But things change in these markedly eschatological chapters. And whereas in Joshua the phrase was merely topographical, in these last chapters “the mountains of Israel” are not only mentioned topographically, but they are viewed wistfully, even when in Ezekiel 39 the refrain is used of the defeat of Israel’s end-time foe.1 The words summon up thoughts of Israel restored to its land.2
Ezekiel 34 marks the beginning of the last main section of the book.3 The Lord inveighs against the “shepherds” (i.e. the ruling class – e.g. Jer.23:1-4). They have failed the people (Ezek. 34:4-8). They have led them astray from the Mosaic covenant. But where the leaders fail, the covenant God will restore. He will regather His people and “feed them on the mountains of Israel” (Ezek. 34:13). He will also judge between them (34:17-22), and, not for the first time, the name of David is brought up.
I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them– My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:23-24)
I have commented on this “David” under Jeremiah 30:9 and 33:21-22 in the last chapter. Here again, although perhaps even more directly, David himself is predicted to rule Israel. I don’t profess to know how to make sense of this. Could “David” just be code for “Messiah” here? That is a common understanding.4 But it doesn’t say that. I am content to leave the text alone and wait and see how it all comes together in the coming kingdom, where I am sure there will be many questions answered that are difficult to understand right now.
What comes next repeats the promises of safety and increase (Ezek. 34:25-27), with even the beasts being pacified (Ezek. 34:28). That does not sound like post-exilic times. There is also mention of “a covenant of peace” in verse 25. Williams says that this phrase, along with “everlasting covenant” (wherever the covenant is not specified), are synonymous with the New covenant, and I think he is right.5 This means that we are on New covenant ground here. This will be the ground the prophet stays on, for the most part,6 for the rest of the book.
Ezekiel 36 and 37 are great restoration chapters. They contain several key elements within the prophetic picture of the Hebrew Bible. God is speaking directly to “the mountains” in Ezekiel 36:8-13. From Ezekiel 36:7-9 it appears that while the land of Israel will be blessed with abundance, the surrounding nations (Edom prominent among them, v.5) will “bear their own shame.” There is an interesting remark of Yahweh when He says He will “do better for you than at your beginnings” (Ezek. 36:11). This surely means that the prophetic language about Israel returning to the times of their fathers needs to be understood with this betterment in mind.
In verses 16 to 20 there is a rehearsal of Israel’s history of defection and uncleanness. The nation has profaned God’s great name (mentioned repeatedly in Ezek. 36:20-23), so God Himself will make sure that the situation is reversed (Ezek. 36:21-23). He will not ensure this by bypassing the nation that has dragged His name through the mud.7 The fate of Israel is bound to God’s name and His renown. This is why He will perform a great work of restitution on the nation.
And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,” says the Lord GOD, when I am hallowed in you before their eyes (…etc. Read Ezekiel 36:23-30.)
The making sacred the Lord’s name referred to in the passage will come about only when Israel finally knows Yahweh, and recognizes Who it is that has chosen them out from among the nations of the world (Deut. 7:6; cf. Isa. 46:13). The way this will be done is by a gathering of the scattered people “from among the nations” (Ezek. 36:24), and a cleansing of the people, both from their uncleanness and their idolatries (Ezek. 36:25).8 Please note that the gathering and the redemption are closely associated. This indicates the gathering is not the recognition of the nation of Israel in 1948, amazing as that was. It is, I believe, a gathering connected with the time of trouble spoken of by Isaiah (Isa. 24 – 27); Jeremiah (Jer. 30:7), and Daniel (Dan. 12:1). This implies that Israel will be driven out of the land again, only to be miraculously brought back and saved.9 This cleansing will not be superficial, like in Josiah’s time, but will be a genuine conversion of the people, seemingly en masse (Ezek. 36:26). Verse 26 also includes the covenant formula, which in the absence of berith shows that the prophet is speaking in covenantal terms.10
The transformation of a rebellious people into a redeemed nation will entitle them to “dwell in the land” that was bestowed in the covenant with the Patriarchs (Ezek. 36:28). Permanent possession of their land through the Abrahamic covenant is enabled by the salvation within the New covenant (we have seen that the New covenant provides the salvation needed for fulfillment of God’s other covenants). Verses 29 and 30 add the other New covenant guarantee of blessing on the land. All of this is done by the hand of Israel’s covenant God.
Ezekiel 36:24-30 is a sustained Divine pledge to do good to Israel so that they will finally reflect God’s name to the world as they were called to do (cf. Exod. 19:6; Isa. 44:8). As the passage continues, we read of the restored people becoming aware of their sinful past and mourning over it (Ezek. 36:31-32). Whether this repentance happens after the establishment of the kingdom or before it is unsure (cf. Ezek. 43:10-11). As we keep reading, we see that the renovation of the land of Israel will surpass anything that has been seen since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Israel’s ravaged land will “become like the garden of Eden” (Ezek. 36:35. Cf. Isa. 51:3).11 A return to Edenic beauty and productivity is a New covenant achievement, brought about solely through Him who is Himself the New covenant.
The need to rebuild (Ezek. 36:33, 35-38) in the context of an eschatological deliverance points to a period of destruction prior to the restoration.12
1 The places where the phrase is used are Ezekiel 34:13, 14 (twice); 35:12; 36:1 (twice), 4, 8; 37:22; 38:8; 39:2, 4, and 17. The appearance of the phrase in chapter 35 may seem to belie my assertion about the expression being utilized in an eschatological setting in Ezekiel 34 and following. But the language in Ezekiel 35:8-9, 13 is very final. The next time Edom is named is in a restoration context (Ezek. 36:4-11). And when second advent passages like Isaiah 34:1-6; 63:1f. (cf. Amos 9:12) are recalled, in which Edom features prominently, one should not be too quick to push everything in Ezekiel 35 into the past.
2 Lamar Eugene Cooper, Ezekiel, 335 n.99
3 See Thomas Renz, The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel (Boston: Brill, 2002), 128-130. Alexander places the division starting in Ezekiel 33:21 when the news of the fall of Jerusalem reaches the exiles; see Ralph H. Alexander, “Ezekiel,” EBC Revised, 657. In my opinion Ezek. 33:21-33 fittingly closes off the judgment section of the book (chs. 25-33). Some writers place the last division at the beginning of chapter 33 (e.g., Michael G. McKelvey, “Ezekiel”, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, 309). Some other writers divide off the last nine chapters, but I think this is a mistake since important themes in chapters 34 – 39 are continued in the vision of the new temple.
4 E.g. Ralph Alexander, “Ezekiel,” 836. But see Charles H. Dyer, “Ezekiel,” in BKCOT, 1295, who thinks it refers to the real David.
5 Michael D. Williams, Far As The Curse Is Found, 215.
6 Ezekiel 35 being the possible exception, though see note 4 above
7 See W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 186, where the author refers to, “the integrity of divine action which continues in accordance with a divine intention to honour promises to Israel.” When God says He does this act of grace for the sake of His great name it can only be because of His covenants with Israel. Although Israel repeatedly profanes His name, God will uphold it by being true to His oaths. It is this alone which guarantees both the restoration and beautification of national Israel and the glorification of the Church.
8 The promise to “sprinkle (or ‘slosh’) clean water on you” is an image of thorough spiritual cleansing which has been misused as a proof-text for sprinkling babies by both covenant theologians and some dispensationalists.
9 As we have seen, this involves another exodus (See Isa. 11:11-16; Jer. 23:7-8).
10 Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 42
11 These passages have been utilized by those who want to teach an eschatology based on their “Cosmic Temple” model. It is more likely to view them as simple similes.
12 On this see George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 2.104-116
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.