The thing about coming to grips with Ezekiel chapters 36-39 as a set – so to speak – is to go back to the original foundation for this framework of understanding Ezekiel. It is essential to remember that of all the Great Prophets, Ezekiel is unique, and as earlier established, well beyond reproach. He is unique because he was formally trained to be a Priest of the Temple. That means he was able to recite from memory the entire Torah (first five books of today’s modern Bible). He was extensively versed in all law (what eventually became the Mishnah) as well as completely familiar with the entire history of Kings and High Priests of Israel/Judah. Ezekiel would have been intimately familiar with all temple practice, orthodox or otherwise, and would have also a pretty standard working knowledge of all “business” transactions, contracts, and covenants made within the walls of the temple and their impact on the government of Jerusalem. Today, Ezekiel would be PHD in Theology, with a double minor in political history and business law. Quite a guy.
Why is that important when considering Chapters 36-39? In order to answer that question, another question must be posed: What would be the primary question that a formally trained Priest of the Temple be most interested in answering – especially to his people under armed occupation so far from their homeland and holy Temple? What question would Ezekiel want to answer most of all?
In my mind, Ezekiel’s most challenging question to answer would be: What kind of God do we worship?
Think about it for a minute. First of all, his people are held prisoner under armed guard and those guards worship a completely different god – or pantheon of gods. And they came to Jerusalem and conquered. It would appear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was powerless to stop it. Worse, it would seem from Ezekiel’s own words that the God they worshipped – those that did keep the faith – seemed to bent on their absolute destruction. So, why should these people put in the effort? Why not change religions and go with the flow in Babylon? Afterall, Jeremiah had recommended that the people just go with Babylon, submit to their rule. Why hold the line on religion? Who is God and what can he do?
A priest of the temple would relish this question and answer it by telling a story, by painting a picture of hope. This is key to understand chapters 36-39 because if we fall into lockstep with the majority of commentaries, we are faced with some very puzzling problems with the texts as written. The problems become so evident, that many authors are forced into large circular paths of apologetics, or fall into a synchronized tactical narrative which portrays the prophet as as A.D.D. afflicted fortune teller crouched eagerly over his crystal ball. This has the unfortunate side effect of casting God – especially as described in the Old Testament – as capricious, fickle, and subject to whims of on-again-off-again affections much like a precocious preadolescent child. In fact, it sounds very much like the type of god-like behavior we become accustomed to when studying classic Greek mythology.
Consider the following sequence of chapter 36-39 as told by Ezekiel:
- Tomorrow – the mountains of Israel will grow again
- Some time in the far future – an army of bones will rise into a real army
- In a short while – the people will be restored to Jerusalem and Israel will be one
- Some time way in the future – a great coalition of evil nations will rise and threaten Jerusalem
- Once all that is done – the fortunes of Israel will be restored.
Did anyone besides me get whiplash from that? Yeah, even with the pretty colors, this just doesn’t make any sense – especially to a bunch of displaced Hebrew civilians living under armed guard.
……….Unless you ask the right question….such as “What kind of God do we worship?”
Here we have Ezekiel, a priest of the temple, answering to his people
we worship a God who can heal the land back to a place of milk and honey – give food to his people like the manna of Moses time.
We worship a God who is capable of defeating death itself and raising the strength of his people
We worship a God who can restore his people, who will go searching for those that are lost and remembers each one
We worship the same God who defeated Pharaoh, and who defeated all the combined nations across the Jordan. He is the same God who will defeat the very worst we can imagine, if……if we stay true to our faith.
And…According to chapter 36, We worship a God who does all of this for His own reasons and for His own Namesake – which is a very interesting concept.
It was always Ezekiel’s mission to call his people back to a remembrance of their origins, to return back to their faith, and to send a message of hope. Chapters 36 through 39 provide answers to desperate questions arising from a crisis of faith.
In addition, these four chapters set up the finale of the book of Ezekiel which moves away from the troubles at hand to Ezekiel’s vision of religious perfection.