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Third Sunday of Easter: Ezekiel 34:11–16

Jerusalem had just fallen.  Yet the Lord commands Ezekiel to still rebuke those who had contributed to its downfall.  It was a pride which misapplied what God had actually said and turned His grace into a false security.  The people left for a time in the land said things like “Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess” (Ezekiel 33:24).  But how can one be a son of Abraham and yet not do the works which he did (John 8:39)?

Among those who led Israel astray were the false shepherds, the teachers of Israel.  They had been neglecting their calling, and they were feeding themselves (Ezekiel 34:2 ff.).  It is tempting to identify this sin of the shepherds with openly false teachings, which practically repeat the ancient question of Satan, “Did God actually say” (Genesis 3:1).  But while this is certainly included, false prophets are often far more alluring because they are far more subtle.  They take what God has indeed said and misapply it.  “Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity. Its heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us’” (Micah 3:9-11).  “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ezekiel 13:10).  And perhaps the most to the point:  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jeremiah 7:4).  The false shepherds distorted the promises and the grace of the Lord and turned them into a false security.  Surely they, the very sons of Abraham, would not be taken away from the inheritance!  (Consider also Jeremiah 5:12; 14:13-16; 23:17.)

The Lord therefore promises that He will do what the shepherds had not done.  He would seek His sheep even though the shepherds had neglected to do this.  The false shepherds had fed themselves; God would feed His people.  Everything that the shepherds did not do, described in Ezekiel 34:4, God would do, as He says in Ezekiel 34:16.  The Lord is the Good Shepherd, and this passage clearly finds parallels in other well-known and beloved places like Psalm 23 and John 10.

The Lord mentions that He will do all of these things which He promised “on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:12).  This phrase occurs in several other passages.  In Deuteronomy 4:11, it is used to describe the glory of the Lord as it appeared on Mount Sinai.  Joel 2:2 and Zephaniah 1:15 both use the phrase to describe the Day of the Lord.  Job 38:9 does not use the phrase exactly, but uses both nouns in parallel to describe the sea.  Perhaps the most helpful, however, is Psalm 97:2, where the expression is used to directly describe the glory and majesty of the Lord.  Taken together, therefore, the phrase seems to describe the glory which the Lord shows forth when He acts just as He has said.  On the day when the Lord gathers His sheep like a shepherd, His glory will be clearly seen, because He will glorify His name (John 12:28).  The Lord makes this clearer in Ezekiel 36:22 and following, when He says that “it is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name.”

As a final note, it is worth noting that using “shepherd” to describe the teachers of Israel happens in the days of the prophets.  Scripture first uses “shepherd” to describe someone who shepherds people of King David (2 Samuel 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:7; 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; Psalm 78:70-71).  To call Jesus the Good Shepherd thus seems to recall also that He is the Son of David.  Of course, the New Testament also, together with passages like Ezekiel 34, calls ministers “shepherds” (which is identical with the Latin word “pastor”) in 1 Peter 5 and in passing in Ephesians 4:11.  But to call those whom Christ has sent to speak on His behalf shepherds or pastors is always in a derivative sense, for there is only one Shepherd (John 10:16).

Second Sunday of Easter: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Following the account of his call in chapters 1-3, Ezekiel preaches against Israel in chapters 4 through 24. Like many of the other prophets, Ezekiel condemns Israel for her sins and proclaims that the judgment is coming swiftly. Ezekiel’s ministry begins close to the end of the kingdom and continues into the exile. However, he turns his attention against the enemies of Israel in chapters 25 through 32, which is good news for Israel. God has not forgotten His people, even as He punishes them for their sins. Ezekiel then returns to Israel, bringing both more words of reproof as well as words of comfort. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter falls into the latter.

By the time of this passage, Jerusalem has been captured and the kingdom has come to an end. The exiles have begun to despair: “Our bones have dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11). Everything seems to be lost, and all of God’s promises seem to have failed. They are in a foreign land because of their sins, and they are wondering when, or even if, it will end.

Ezekiel 37:1 demonstrates that the valley of dry bones is a vision given to the prophet. Ezekiel says that the “hand of the Lord” was upon him, a key phrase for such visions throughout the book (Ezekiel 3:14, 22; 8:1; 40:1). He is also brought “in the Spirit” into the valley (Revelation 4:2; 17:3). While the Holy Spirit can physically move someone from place to place (such as Philip in Acts 8:39-40), the passage is presented in the language of a prophetic vision. Ezekiel is commanded to go into “the valley” in 3:22, which suggests a physical location, but it is not specified, and he sees a vision both times. If they are the same valley, he does not record the presence of the bones the first time.

Ezekiel 37:2 emphasizes just how many bones there are in this valley, since the prophet is led among them, and it also emphasizes that there is no earthly hope for them. Dry bones have been out in the open for a long time. But the Lord asks him, “Son of Adam, can these bones live” (Ezekiel 37:3)? A rhetorical question, as the Lord already knows what He wants to do (John 6:6; Rev 7:13-14; John 21:15-17). However, Ezekiel recognizes that he should not impose his own thoughts here, but rather answers “Lord God, You know” (compare 2 Peter 1:20).

The Lord commands him to “prophesy” or to speak as he commanded to speak. Ezekiel, in fact, has no choice but to speak in this way, suggesting that for him in particular “the hand of the Lord” is something like a prophetic fit (Ezekiel 3:26-27). It is true that the Lord had loosed his mouth when Jerusalem fell (Ezekiel 33:22), but he still speaks as he is commanded here. It is certainly appropriate to connect this to verses about the Lord being with the mouth of the preacher (such as Jeremiah 15:19 or Luke 10:16), as Ezekiel helps to clarify just how important it is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20-21). But the prophet does so involuntarily or at least does so through most of his ministry.

Nevertheless, it is in the proclamation of the Word of the Lord that all of the things the Lord promises happens to the bones. The bones are commanded to “hear,” which only emphasizes that the Word alone will do what the Lord promises to do (Romans 10:17; Luke 11:28; John 6:63; Psalm 119:25, 117; John 11:43-44). The coming of the Spirit points also to the first creation of man, since the Lord breathed into Adam the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). The Lord alone gives physical life, and the Lord alone gives spiritual life (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 5:18: Hosea 6:1).

Finally, the Lord does nothing without a purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11). He sends this vision to Ezekiel to comfort Israel in the midst of their distress. The beautiful ending of this passage regarding the opening of the graves seems to serve two purposes. First, Israel will be raised from the grave of exile, so to speak, and set back in their own land. Because the major prophets have said this again and again to Israel, even in the face of the coming disaster, “I will bring you into the land” (Ezekiel 37:12, 14) must also carry with it this immediate promise. However, the language is too plain to say that it must only refer to the return from exile. Rather, as Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26; see also 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20:13; et al).

Sidon’s Punishment is Israel’s Joy

In Ezekiel 28, the Lord commands the prophet to speak against Sidon:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, and prophesy against her and say, Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against you, O Sidon, and I will manifest my glory in your midst. And they shall know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her and manifest my holiness in her; for I will send pestilence into her, and blood into her streets; and the slain shall fall in her midst, by the sword that is against her on every side. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”  Ezekiel 28:20-23

Sidon was a city on the coast of the Mediterranean to the north of Israel, closely connected to Tyre.  Ezekiel previously denounced the king of Tyre, because he had taken advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness (Ezekiel 26:2).  Tyre’s previous good will toward Israel made this even worse.  Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon, the region of Tyre, in building his house and the temple (1 Kings 5-7).  Hiram had also sent skilled labor to assist in the project.  But Tyre broke that trust by assaulting Jerusalem when it was weak from the attacks of Babylon.  Tyre’s judgment became Sidon’s judgment.  Lebanon had betrayed Israel.

But Sidon’s judgment is like so many passages in Scripture.  God speaks His judgment against them and describes their punishments in detail.  He has two reasons for doing so:

The first is to emphasize the righteousness and the justice of God.  “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).  He cannot stand by forever and allow sins to pile up.  This is true within the Church, and this is also true within the world.  The iniquity of Lebanon was full, and the time for judgment had come (cf. Genesis 15:16).  Therefore, Tyre and Sidon became a warning for Christians.  Jesus denounced Chorazin, saying that Tyre and Sidon, as wicked as they were, would have repented long ago (Luke 10:13).

This is how Christians usually view the judgments of God.  After all, He threatens to punish and destroy Sidon.  However, consider the passage immediately following:

And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God. Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.  Ezekiel 28:24-26

The destruction of Sidon, and Tyre with it, is good news for Israel.  “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly” (Deuteronomy 32:35).  God will punish the sins of those who sin against His Church, against spiritual Israel.  That day of judgment may seem so far away, almost like it may never come.  But God has not forgotten His people or their affliction.  God remembered His people in Egypt:  “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).  God remembered His people when they turned to Him:  “So Israel put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:16).  God remembers His people and will not forsake them:  “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them” (Luke 18:7)?

The judgment of the enemies of the Church is good news.  Their destruction is the salvation of Israel.  God indeed desires the salvation of all, but He will also not tolerate sins against His bride to remain unpunished.  This is true of the earthly enemies of the Church as well as the spiritual.  Satan himself will pay for everything that he has done:  “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).  Therefore, there is joy and good news in destruction, because God has not forgotten His people.