Interpreting Ezekiel

In the earlier post “Ezekiel and The Warnings of Scripture” I mentioned that,

In the book of Ezekiel I am often left to meditate on and ponder the full depth and meaning of the symbolism given, and the relation of Ezekiel’s prophecies to the person and work of Christ.

And,

I admit the book of Ezekiel is very difficult to understand. From the very beginning of the book where we find the revelation of God to Ezekiel, it is evident that there is a lot of symbolism. The writing is full of extensive symbolism, and while some instances and layers may seem fairly obvious, some do not, and at times it feels like you are standing in the shallow end of a pool and staring at a depths you wish you could plumb.

When is the last time you read Ezekiel?

Perhaps you have read Ezekiel and puzzled over what is written there. Maybe in particular you have puzzled over the closing chapters of Ezekiel, 34-48. Have you ever wondered what is meant when it is said,

” ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.

” ‘As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

” ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.

(Ezekiel 34:11-24)

Or have you pondered what is meant when it is said,

” ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 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. 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. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness.

(Ezekiel 36:24-29)

Or have you struggled to understand what is meant when it is said,

‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

” ‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’ ”

(Ezekiel 37:21-28)

Have you stopped to consider what Ezekiel says? So many Christians don’t. Many don’t even read Ezekiel, and plenty (most?) who do skate right over it quickly, like a skater on thin ice. Why? Because they don’t have a clue. Not a clue. They are confounded. They don’t have even the beginnings of a framework or a reference in which to try to approach or interpret what Ezekiel has said. They are without map and without guide–completely lost. So, they leave Ezekiel in the dustbin, or leave it in the closet of shame where Scripture we don’t understand is regulated to molder in darkness.

That is not right, and it isn’t spiritually good or healthy.

I’m not about to present you with a line by line exegesis of Ezekiel. I don’t presently have the time or the gifts. But what I would like to do is present what I believe is the proper framework and guide for approaching Ezekiel–a foundational understanding, you could call it. Such a framework and understanding won’t immediately answer every question regarding Ezekiel or instantly unravel every knotty passage, but a proper framework will set you on the right path and provide a solid foundation for further study, (either with others or by yourself,) and it will provide a guard against wandering into erroneous interpretation and applications . . . of which there are many out there.

I desire to do this not only because I wish to get some of my own thoughts down on paper, and because I wish to help others in their search to understand Scripture, but also because I am deeply troubled by the errors and failed interpretations and applications that spring from Ezekiel, and particularly in the final portion of chapters 34-48.

If you followed what I said in “Ezekiel and The Warnings of Scripture” about the judgments upon Israel and how “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11) then hopefully you understand at least broadly how the failures and judgments of Israel speak about the failure to believe and obey, the failure to to live righteously, and the need of redemption from sin, and as such are warnings for us. Thus the story of Oholah and Oholibah (Ezekiel ch. 23) is not as perplexing as the final chapters of Ezekiel (though equally worthy of study), and while the oracles of judgment on Israel and the nations may not seem particularly clear, they do not dwell under quite the same cloud of misunderstanding and misapprehension as the final chapters of Ezekiel. Those things deal with the past sins and judgments of Israel (which we ought to consider and apply to ourselves), but what about the future blessings of Israel? That is where we get into Ezekiel chapters 34 and forward.

How are we to understand the future blessings of Israel? Do they have any relation to us, and if so, what?

Are we to understand what Ezekiel says in a literal fashion? Will David come back to be king? Or is Ezekiel speaking in figurative language, using signs and symbols to convey truth?

When faced with difficult passages of Scripture, and these type of questions, it is absolutely imperative to follow the teaching given by Scripture itself for interpreting Scripture. This provides a vital check on incorrect interpretation, and a guide for right understanding.

For example, we are told that,

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

(1 Peter 1:10-12)

Thus we understand from the teaching of the New Testament that (as I have said before) all of the Old Testament points to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. Therefore, we are obligated, according to the instruction of the New Testament, to approach the Old Testament from this perspective. We might not understand it now, but Ezekiel is speaking about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow from that. Ezekiel’s message is Christ centered.

But, while this is the key interpretive guide for all Scripture, there is still the question of how what we read in Scripture relates. It is well and good to affirm (as Scripture declares) that all of the Old Testament looks forward to the sufferings of Christ and glories to follow, but how does that inform what we read? To particularize it to our present occasion, how does this truth actually aide us in understanding what Ezekiel has recorded for us?

If you read the chapters of this last portion of Ezekiel you see that they are concerned primarily with the blessing of Israel–whether that be expressed in the renewal of Israel’s spiritual life, judgment of their enemies, or in the imagery of restored temple worship. All those things are expressions of blessing upon Israel. Our first step in understanding the meaning of this is to recognize that Christ Jesus is the source of all blessing (John 1:16). Recognizing this gives us the very beginnings of a picture of what is going on here. God will bless–He will restore and redeem Israel–and that is tied up in, and will be accomplished in, Christ.

That is a beginning for understanding, but now we return to the question I asked earlier. “How do we relate to the blessing of Israel in Christ? What does that mean for us as Christians?”

Once again, our understanding must be guided by the interpretation given by the Bible itself. What I mean is, we say, “How do we relate to the blessing of Israel, and what does it mean for us?” But first we must go to the Bible and ask, “Who is Israel?

That might seem like a foolish question, but it is one that needs to be asked if we’re going to talk about the future blessing of Israel. The issue of the blessing of Israel has been one people have struggled with since the beginning of Christianity. If one recognizes that Christ is the source of all blessing, and God has promised to bless Israel, there appears to be something of a problem in that the nation of Israel has largely rejected Jesus Christ. People throughout the ages, up to this very day, have come up with various solutions to this problem, and unfortunately most do not take into account what Scripture itself says very explicitly.

Paul deals with this question of Israel quite directly in Romans chapters 9-11. In responding to this question Paul says,

It is not as though God’s word had failed.” (Romans 9:6)

Then he goes on to explain,

Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

(Romans 9:6-9)

It is not the natural children who are the people of God, Paul says. Rather,

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”

and,

“It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them,
‘You are not my people,’
they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ ”

(Romans 9:25-26, Hosea 2:23, 1:10)

So we see that the true Israel, and Abraham’s children, are those who are called according to God’s promise. As Paul says in Galatians 3:29 “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. And as Paul says elsewhere, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” (Galatians 4:28)

Why is this so? “In order that” Paul says, “God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works buy by him who calls” (Romans 9:11-12)

Therefore, it does not depend on human descent, but on God’s will–His call. As we read in John 1:13,

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

And again,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.

(Romans 9:15-16)

Therefore,

God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18)

So we see in the New Testament the fullness of what was hidden in ages past–that the true Israel of God is not defined by human lineage or descent from the man Jacob, but rather the Israel of God is defined by God’s call. From among every tribe and nation He has called His spiritual Israel which He will bless in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, in answering the question, “What is our relation to Israel and its blessings?” We must say that Christians are the Israel of God. We are Israel, and the blessings promised to Israel are our blessings.

People persist to this day to see Ezekiel’s promise of future blessing as applying to Israel descended from the flesh of Jacob. But what does Scripture say, as we have just read? Not all Israel are Israel . . . and so on.

By this point we see the beginnings of the framework for understanding these latter chapters in Ezekiel. Through the Old Covenant types and shadows, God was declaring the coming redemption. The Old Covenant sacrifices, Sabbaths, and Temples, pointed to Christ. As it is said,

“[. . .] with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17)

And,

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

(Hebrews 9:1-10)

And,

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (Hebrews 10:1)

And further,

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

“The time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

(Hebrews 8:7-13, Jer. 31:31-34)

So, in accordance with the teaching of the New Testament we must see what is written in Ezekiel 34-48 in the forms of the Old Covenant as illustrations and shadows of the realities that are in Christ. This guides us into a proper understanding of these chapters, and guards us against errors which can range from taking everything literally (some hold that David will actually return to reign in Israel), to those who take only some of the Old Covenant forms as being continued in the future (that is, in accord with God’s will another temple will be built for the continuance of sacrifices–never mind how that contradicts scripture–or that the people of God will be literally picking up bones as in Ezekiel 39:12-17). People seem determinedly persistent in variations of this, in spite of the fact that we have been told how that covenant is “obsolete” and that those were “illustrations” and we have been instructed that those are “weak and beggarly elements” (Gal. 4:9, NKJV).

I have sought to lay out the foundational framework for understanding Ezekiel. Hopefully you see by the Scripture I have presented that we are to see what Ezekiel says as Old Testament types and figures speaking about the spiritual truths of this present age. To understand that in general, of course, does not immediately present us with all the answers to particular questions, which are plentiful. As I said at the beginning of this writing, I am not going to attempt such a detailed exegesis now, but perhaps what has been discussed will help you should you consider things further in your own thoughts and studies.

However, in closing, I want to momentarily look at one portion of what Ezekiel has said and relate it to New Testament teaching. I think the valley of dry bones section in Ezekiel 37:1-14 forms something of a central point to the latter portion of Ezekiel. It compacts the ideas and themes of this final portion of Ezekiel down into one wonderful section.

In that section we read,

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”

(Ezekiel 37:1-14)

The imagery of Ezekiel 37:1-14 is that of being dead, utterly and completely dead–so dead that all flesh is gone and the bones are dry–and then being made alive by the word, the call, of God. That is the state of the whole house of Israel, which we understand to be all whom God has called in Christ prior to the out-pouring of His Spirit begun at Pentecost. What is being spoken of here is being made alive in Christ, expressed in Old Testament imagery. In the New Testament we read the same, only it is said,

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

(Ephesians 2:1-10)

It is the same language of being dead and made alive, fashioned by God, as contained in Ezekiel.

And if we continue reading in Ezekiel we read,

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

(Ezekiel 37:21-23)

And as we continue in Ephesians we read,

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

(Ephesians 2:11-22)

This is what Ezekiel is talking about. Ezekiel is talking redemption. We were dead in our sins, separated from God and under judgment. But praise be to God who has brought us redemption and newness of life in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is our hope and joy, but (and this needs to be stressed) this is the same hope and joy of the believing Israelites from the Old Covenant. They looked forward and rejoiced by faith in that day to come. What Ezekiel has written is for us, but it was for them too. You see, for the Israelite of faith who understood and believed all that God had said through Ezekiel up until this final section of the book–this believer is faced with the truth that the people of God are sinful, under God’s judgment, and unable to save or redeem themselves. This is a crushing truth. But to the Old Testament believer God gives a word of hope and salvation–one for them and us too. It is a prophetic promise that those who are spiritually dead will be made alive again. God has promised his Spirit to come and dwell in us, that we might live in holiness and obedience.

So we, along with those of faith through all ages, may, by faith, take hold of God’s promise–our salvation.

One could go on. We could look at Ezekiel’s use of the temple, and then interpret that through Jesus application of the temple to his own person (John 2:19-22) and also interpret Ezekiel’s temple and the river (Ezekiel 47:1-12) in light of the New Jerusalem contained in Revelation chapters 21 and 22 . . . but I will stop here for now.

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