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the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 34

Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral EpistlesFairbairn's Commentaries

Verses 1-10

CHAPTER 34.

THE PROMISE OF THE TRUE SHEPHERD, AFTER THE FALSE SHEPHERDS HAVE BEEN PUNISHED AND REMOVED.

IN the preceding chapter the prophet has announced the first condition of an improved state of things, in reiterating the call to a hearty submission on the part of the people to the demands of God’s righteousness. So long as this was postponed, nothing could be looked for of good. But that position being laid down as the first preliminary to a better future, the way now opened itself for the promise of another the appointment of a good shepherd, one who should be emphatically the good shepherd, to rule over and feed them, in the room of the false ones, who had but sought their own interests and oppressed and ruined the flock. The chapter falls naturally into two parts; in the first of which the misrule of the false shepherds is described, with the fatal results to which it had led; and in the second, the gracious interposition of God, to undo the evils that had arisen from the presidency under which the people had been placed, and set over them one whose benign and careful superintendence would ensure the best and most lasting good.

Ezekiel 34:1 . And the word of Jehovah came to me, saying,

Ezekiel 34:2 . Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, the shepherds, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks?

Ezekiel 34:3 . Ye eat the fat, and clothe yourselves with the wool; that which is fed ye kill; the flock ye do not feed.

Ezekiel 34:4 . The weak ye have not strengthened, and the sick ye have not healed, (The two epithets here, נּחְלוֹת and חוֹלַה , can only have their distinctive import determined by the verbs respectively connected with them strengthening being used with the first, the evil affection referred to must have been feebleness or impotence, the effect of sickness; and healing being the other verb, sickness itself must have been the disorder there to be remedied. That נַּחְלוֹת should have been put in the plural, probably arose from a desire to prevent its being mistaken for נָחְלָה , the inheritance.) and that which is broken ye have not bound up, and the driven away ye have not brought back, and the lost ye have not sought; but with force ye rule over them, and with cruelty. (In this charge of ruling with force and with cruelty, בְּפָרֶךְ , there is a reference to Leviticus 25:43, where this word is used in the instruction given to the judges, as to the way they were not to rule over the people. They had done the very thing which Moses in the law had charged them not to do.)

Ezekiel 34:5 . And they are scattered from their being no shepherd (that is, none worth the name), and they are food to every beast of the field; and they are scattered.

Ezekiel 34:6 . My flock wander upon all the mountains, and upon every hill, and upon the whole face of the earth my flock is scattered, and none inquires and makes search. (Our translators have missed the precise import of the two verbs here, and indeed have rather transposed them: דָּרַשׁ signifying to be concerned about anything, and make inquiry after it in a general way; somewhat like the Latin petere; while בָּקַשׁ means more definitely to make search for, nearly corresponding to quærere. There was no inquisition and no search made for the lost portion of the flock.)

Ezekiel 34:7 . Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of Jehovah:

Ezekiel 34:8 . As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, truly because my flock is become a prey, and my flock is for food to all the beasts of the field, on account of there being no shepherd, and the shepherds have not sought after my flock, and the shepherds feed themselves, and the flock they do not feed;

Ezekiel 34:9 . Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of Jehovah;

Ezekiel 34:10 . Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I require my flock at their hand, and I cause them to cease from feeding the flock; and the shepherds do not any more feed themselves; and I deliver my flock from their mouth, and they shall not be any more for food to them.

This passage evidently points, both as to its subject and the language it employs, to a quite similar and earlier prophecy of Jeremiah (chap. Jeremiah 23:1-6), where in like manner the false shepherds are denounced and judged, that the way might be opened up for the appearance of the Lord’s true shepherd. In both prophecies alike, what is meant by the shepherds is manifestly not priests or prophets, but kings and rulers the supreme head of the commonwealth, in the first instance, though not without respect also to the subordinate rulers of the kingdom. This admits of no reasonable doubt, even from what is said of the false shepherds themselves violent, selfish, and oppressive dealing toward the flock being the crimes charged against them. They were rulers who acted towards their subjects with senseless rigour and cruelty. And it is rendered perfectly certain by the promise in the second part of the prophecy, where the special counteractive to the past evil is declared to be the raising up of David as the shepherd that was henceforth to feed them. Such also is the usual meaning of shepherd in the Old Testament Scripture. It has plainly this meaning in the 23d chapter of Jeremiah. And in an earlier chapter of that prophet, the shepherds are distinguished alike from priests and prophets, leaving no other class of persons to be embraced in the designation but rulers: “The priests said not, Where is the Lord? And they that handle the law knew me not; and the shepherds transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal” (Jeremiah 2:8). This mode of representation originated in the case of David, and had respect partly to the natural employment from which he was taken, and partly also to the essentially pastoral character, when rightly understood, of the higher employment to which he was called. Thus we find the leaders of the people, who came to David at Hebron to invite him to assume the undivided sovereignty of the kingdom, knew perfectly how to connect the lower with the higher in his history: “Also in time past, when Saul was king over us, thou wast he who leddest out and broughtest in Israel; and the Lord said to thee, Thou shalt feed my people Israel, and thou shall be a captain over Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). And still more expressly is the double reference brought into notice in Psalms 78:70-71: “And he chose David his servant, and took him from the sheep-folds, from following the ewes great with young: he brought him to feed Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance.”

The connection between the natural and the spiritual here was certainly not accidental no more than in the case of our Lord’s first disciples, who, from being fishers on the lake of Galilee, were called to be fishers of men. It was intended to be to David himself, and afterwards to his successors in office, a perpetual monitor, reminding them of the kind, watchful, and paternal character of the administration which they were called to exercise in Israel. For the earthly kingdom set up there was not to be after the pattern of the kingdoms of this world, in which everything is too often managed for the gratification of a single man’s ambition, and the purposes of his own selfish aggrandizement. Samuel had foretold it would in all probability grow into this, but at the same time protested against such an abuse, as an entire frustration of the purposes for which the Lord allowed it to be established. The king in Israel was to be the deputy of Jehovah, “ruling in the fear of God,” nay, occupying the throne “in the name of the Lord his God ;” with the law of God before him as his only statute-book (Deuteronomy 17:18-19), and the promotion of a general conformity to its requirements among the people as the great object of his administration. The office of such a king must therefore have materially differed from that of the merely civil ruler of an earthly kingdom. He was the head of a theocracy which, from its very nature, was predominantly spiritual in its aim, and sought nothing in comparison of the moral and religious interests of the people. He was consequently bound to act in all things, not as the organ and representative of the popular will, but as peculiarly the servant of God; as the land over which he presided was the Lord’s heritage, and the people he governed were the flock of the Lord’s pasture. How much David understood this to be his high calling is manifest, not only from his last words in Samuel (2 Samuel 23:1-6), but also from the conflict he maintained through life with the sons of Belial, the efforts he made to revive the cause and regulate the worship of God, and the beautiful identification of himself, in all his sorrows and his joys, his struggles and his prospects, with the truth and the Church of God. In these respects he showed himself, above all others, to be the man after God’s own heart the man who made the cause of Heaven so much his own, that he might be said to live and reign for it; and who has left in the recorded experience of his spiritual desires and earnest contendings for the truth one of the richest legacies ever bequeathed to the household of faith. Some of his successors copied after his example, but none of them came near to him as the representative of God’s heart and mind, in this intense zeal for the interests of righteousness and supreme regard for the good of Zion.

Bearing this in mind, as to the end for which the Lord appointed an earthly head over Israel, we have a sufficient explanation of what seems at first sight a peculiarity in the passage before us its charging upon the kings all the evils that had befallen the heritage of the Lord. It was they who, by their selfish, cruel, and unrighteous administration, had caused the people to become a prey to the ills of life, and to be scattered abroad as the refuse of the earth. We are not to understand from the representation that the people themselves had done nothing to incur these calamities; that had been to belie a large proportion of the earlier part of the Book, and even to contradict the leading purport of the message contained in the chapter immediately preceding. The people had been smitten with the rod of chastisement, because their continued guilt and impenitence had provoked the Lord’s anger against them. But the persons who should have set themselves against this waywardness of the people, who, by a vigilant oversight and a faithful discipline, should have ever checked the evil, and laboured for the establishment of truth and righteousness, those who should thus have done the part of real shepherds of the people, were the very persons who had been most influential in speeding forward the progress of iniquity. Instead of acting as the guardians and regenerators of society, they had, by their selfish indifference and shameful profligacy, fed and nourished its corruptions. So that comparing what they should have done, as exemplified in the case of David, with what they had actually done, the prophet might justly lay at their door, in the first instance, the guilt of all the disorders and desolations that had taken place. If such rulers as David had always occupied the throne of justice, such calamities as they had now to bewail would never have happened.

The judgment of such bad shepherds, therefore, must lie at the foundation of all reasonable expectation of a better future. And so the prospect which God begins here to open up of such a future, starts with the punishment of the shepherds (Ezekiel 34:7-10). Mercy to the flock imperatively required the execution of judgment upon those who had betrayed and injured them. And this being done, as it was in great part at least by the terrible things in righteousness in which God had manifested himself toward them, the way was now prepared for the gracious interposition of God to restore and rectify all: which forms the second and main part of the prophecy.

Verses 11-31

Ezekiel 34:11 . For thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I come (I, the proprietor of the sheep, now appear on the field in their behalf), and seek after my flock, and search them out.

Ezekiel 34:12 . Like a shepherd’s searching of his flock, in the day that he is in the midst of his flock that has been scattered, so will I search out my sheep, and deliver them from all the places whither they have been scattered in the day of clouds and thick darkness.

Ezekiel 34:13 . And I lead them forth from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel, beside the streams and all the habitable portions of the land.

Ezekiel 34:14 . With good pasture I will feed them, and upon the mountains of the height of Israel (On two former occasions (Ezekiel 17:23; Ezekiel 20:40) the prophet had used the expression, “the mountain of the height of Israel,” or its high mountain; but here we have the plural, “the mountains of the height.” The reason of the difference is evident: there the prophet spoke of the centre of the kingdom, where the king was to have his seat, and the people were to meet for the worship of Jehovah Mount Zion; but here he speaks of the kingdom at large the entire region occupied by the flock. The mountains oil which they roam are still, however, the mountains of the height of Israel, because everything in Israel has a moral elevation a height, not as perceived by the eye of flesh, but well known and discerned by the eye of faith; for to it the high places of the earth are always those where God’s kingdom is.) shall their lair be; there shall they lie down in a good lair, and in a fat pasture shall they feed upon the mountains of Israel.

Ezekiel 34:15 . I will feed my flock, and I will make them to lie down, saith the Lord Jehovah.

Ezekiel 34:16 . That which is lost I will search out, and that which is driven away I will bring back, and will bind up that which is broken, and will strengthen that which is weak; but the fat and the strong I will destroy, I will tend them with judgment.

Ezekiel 34:17 . And for you, my flock, thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats. (The parties meant here by the rams and the he-goats are evidently the same as in Ezekiel 34:16, and are called “the fat and the strong,” as contradistinguished from the lean, the weak, and the sick. The Lord would judge between sheep and sheep, the rams and he-goats; that is, between the sheep generally, and this particular class of them, the more robust and headstrong part; for the לָשֶׂה is in apposition with the two expressions that follow, the rams and he-goats; these form the evil-doers that are to be distinguished from the שֶׂח , the flock generally. Many have erred in supposing that by this fat and robust class are represented the rulers of the people, identifying them with the shepherds in the earlier portion; against the connection, for these have already been judged and disposed of (Ezekiel 34:10-11), and also against the natural import of the figure, which treats here of one part of the flock as compared with another. The misconduct of the rulers had been, imitated by the stronger and more ungodly portion of the people, who had dealt unkindly with their poorer brethren, and acted as if it would even be an enhancement of their own comforts to oppress and trample on the rights of others. The description given is of a haughty, insolent, and selfish disposition, the very reverse of that required in the kingdom of God; and hence one that must be judged and punished by him.)

Ezekiel 34:18 . Is it too little for you that ye eat up the good pasture, but that ye tread down the residue of your pastures with your feet? and that ye drink of the deeper waters (i.e., the clearer and cooler), but that ye trouble the residue of them with your feet?

Ezekiel 34:19 . And my flock! they feed on what has been trodden by your feet; and drink of what has been troubled by your feet.

Ezekiel 34:20 . Therefore, thus saith the Lord Jehovah to you, Behold, I come and judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.

Ezekiel 34:21 . Because with side and with shoulder ye have pushed, and with your horns have thrust at all the weak, till ye have scattered them abroad;

Ezekiel 34:22 . And I deliver my flock, and they shall no more be for a prey, and I judge between sheep and sheep.

Ezekiel 34:23 . And I will raise up over them one shepherd, (The emphasis is here on the singleness of the shepherd, רֹעֶה אֶחָד , a shepherd, one: qualified to exercise an undivided superintendence over the covenant-people, as opposed to the old division, fraught with such unhappy results, into the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel. It implies, of course, the possession of singular qualities in the one who should be appointed to hold such a place; he must be in the fullest sense a shepherd after God’s own heart, capable of healing far worse divisions, and rectifying far worse disorders, than those which prevailed when David came to the throne. In this oneness, therefore, of the promised shepherd, an intimation of his pre-eminent excellence lies concealed; as is also presently expressed, in his being called “my servant David” my servant, not pursuing a self-chosen and arbitrary course, as so many of the kings had done, but acting as the faithful administrator of the will of God. In an immense number of passages this appellation is given to David, to indicate his peculiar fitness for the office of ruling in the name of God.) and he will feed them, my servant David, he will feed them, and he will be their shepherd.

Ezekiel 34:24 . And I Jehovah will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I Jehovah have spoken.

Ezekiel 34:25 . And I establish for them a covenant of peace, and cause the evil beasts to cease out of the land, and they dwell in the wilderness securely, and sleep in the woods.

Ezekiel 34:26 . And I will make them and the environs of my hill a blessing; and I will cause the rain to come clown in its season; there shall be showers of blessing. (What is meant by my hill in the first clause of this verse is undoubtedly Zion, for this was God’s hill by way of eminence. But the idea of Hengstenberg, that this hill here designates Israel as the people of God, and that the environs are the heathen who join themselves to Israel, is quite unnatural. The discourse here is simply of Israel, and of the blessings to be conferred on them. They are represented as dwellers on God’s hill of Zion, where, as in the seat and centre of all good, they are richly blessed; but not they alone, the blessing streams forth, and all the environs of the hill partake in the beneficence of Heaven. All the suburbs, the pasture grounds (for the allusion is plainly to that), are refreshed from the Lord’s presence, as well as the people themselves. And so the idea indicated is presently expressed more fully by the promise of rain in plentiful abundance, to produce a rich pasturage. In this promise, as well as in the promise of peace and security, allusion is made to Leviticus 26:2-6, where these blessings are specially connected with the covenant of God.)

Ezekiel 34:27 . And the tree of the field shall yield its fruit, and the land shall give forth its increase, and they shall be on their land in security, and they shall know that I am Jehovah, when I break their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who made slaves of them.

Ezekiel 34:28 . And they shall no more be for a prey to the heathen, and the wild beasts of the earth shall not devour them; and they shall dwell securely, and there is nothing that shall make them afraid.

Ezekiel 34:29 . And I raise up to them a plantation for a name, and no more shall they be taken away by hunger in the land, and no more shall they bear the reproach of the heathen. (By “the plantation for a name,” or renown, that the Lord promises in the earlier part of this verse to raise up, is not to be understood Israel itself, but something for Israel’s benefit, something that would give them a name of honour among the nations, and take away for ever the reproach of poverty and want. It simply means that the Lord would secure for them a flourishing and prosperous condition, under the image of “a place well planted with fruitful trees, rising aloft and growing through the goodness of God, so that the Israelites should be replenished with the means of nourishment, and be no more impoverished with want” (Gussetius Lex.). An allusion appears to be made, as Hengstenberg and Hävernick suggest, to Genesis 2:8-11, where the garden of Eden is described with its trees of all kinds good for food and pleasant to the sight: the land of Israel would become such a glorious plantation a second Eden.)

Ezekiel 34:30 . And they shall know that I Jehovah, their God, am with them, and they are my people, the house of Israel, saith the Lord Jehovah.

Ezekiel 34:31 . And ye my flock, my pasture-flock, men are ye, I am your God saith the Lord Jehovah. (Dathe, Ewald, and others, would understand the declaration in this closing verse as a mere explanation of the parable that the flock are the men of Israel, and the shepherd is God. But there is evidently an emphasis on the men: men are ye; remember your place, you are but men; but remember at the same time that I am your God; so that without me nothing, but with me all. Hitzig prefers the miserable tautology of the LXX.: “ye are my sheep and the sheep of my flock, and I am,” etc., and calls it an excellent sense!!)

A succession of blessings is promised to the covenant-people in this glowing delineation. First, the evils were to be rectified that bad sprung from the former misrule and corruption the scattered flock gathered again from its dispersions, and restored to the good pasturage of the mountains of Israel. Then the internal disorders that had been allowed to exist and grow, like festering sores, among the flock themselves, the selfishness and fraud and violence which had so greatly marred the mutual flow and interchange of good, and aggravated every evil, these were now to be rooted out; for the persons indulging in such unrighteous dispositions were to be judged by God, and hence forth denied a place in his kingdom. Then again, in lieu of the false shepherds who had formerly wasted and devoured the flock, there was to be raised up one, the pre-eminently good shepherd, the Lord’s servant David, who by his wise and faithful administration should prevent such disorders and misrule from again arising, and should establish throughout the whole land, even to its wildernesses and forests, perfect security and peace. Finally, in fit correspondence with this happy state of internal order and settled righteousness, all was to be smiling and prosperous outwardly refreshing showers of rain to fertilize the ground, fruitful fields, cultivated by a free and joyous people, crops everywhere yielding their produce, and trees their fruit in due season all exhibiting the delightful spectacle of a flock pastured by God himself, or a people enjoying the noble distinction of having him for their God, and sharing in the richest manifestations of his goodness.

In principle, it will be observed, this promise of future good is precisely similar to what has already so frequently appeared in the threatenings of judgment. It takes the form of a renewal of the old, with such modifications and changes as might adapt it to the altered circumstances of the time to come. When judgment was the prophet’s theme, the Spirit led him to predict the return of the years of former troubles and desolations, not only of the more general calamities often experienced, of famine and sword and pestilence, but even of the more peculiar afflictions of the Egypt-state of bondage and oppression, and the dreary sojourn in the wilderness. So germane to the prophet’s cast of mind is this mode of representation, that even when he passes out of the territory of Israel, and speaks of what was to befall the nations of the earth there, too, when the delineation is of a lengthened and minute description (as in the cases of Tyre and Egypt), it is as a recurrence of the past that he delights to present the evil to our view: the history of Tyre’s head and representative is a kind of rehearsal of the best and the worst in the general history of man; and Egypt is spoken of as passing through Israel’s peculiar experiences of evil her bondage, her dispersion, and even her forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness; Not that in any of these cases of threatened judgment there was to be the exact reproduction of the old, but only a renewal of its general character and design a repetition of it in its essential moral features. And in each case peculiar traits, we found, were introduced into the delineation, as if on purpose to indicate that not the literal recurrence of the past was intended, but only what chiefly characterised it as a dispensation of God. Now the correspondence in form between those threatenings of evil and this promise of good, warrants us in applying to it the same principle of interpretation; and indeed the earlier here, as in all similar cases, must be taken as the key to the latter. The uniformity that we expect to characterise the productions of the same hand demand that it be so taken. Nor can we fail to perceive here also the introduction of such an ideal trait as was sufficient to show that the past only in character, not in the precise forms and outward conditions of being was to be expected. For while we are told of a recovered possession of the mountains of Israel, and a secure habitation there as in the best periods of the past, and a fruitful inheritance and a united people dwelling under the peculiar favour and blessing of Jehovah, we are at the same time told of David being the shepherd under whose invigorating influence and paternal oversight the Lord’s flock were to rise to such a height of peace and prosperity. But David has long ago slept with his fathers, having “served his own generation according to the will of God;” and not the literal David restored to life again, but a distinguished scion of David’s house, as our prophet had himself already announced (Ezekiel 17:22, Ezekiel 21:27), was to be the future head and leader of the Lord’s people. Shall we therefore consider the name of the father here put for the name of the son? Shall we merely substitute the Messiah for David, and hold that with this exception the whole description must be understood according to the letter? This is what is commonly done, but it is manifestly quite arbitrary; and we can see no reason in the nature of things why the literal and the non-literal should be thus made to alternate and be confounded with each other.

The proper view rather is, not that this individual trait merely, but that the description throughout is of an ideal kind: the prophet foretells simply the nature of the coming future under the form of the old landmarks and well-known relations. The best of the past shall revive again; more than revive, it shall appear free from the defects that formerly intermingled with it, clothed with a perfection and a completeness hitherto unknown. J$ut while the substance should thus coincide in the new and the old, it is not obscurely intimated that the shell would materially differ; for certainly the literal David should not be the prince in whom the promise was to stand, but one unspeakably greater than he. And if the other things in the description should receive a corresponding elevation, ought it to have been a matter of surprise to any? would the terms of the prediction have been thereby contravened? would there not rather have been given to them a wider range of meaning and a nobler realization? Unquestionably, up to the time that the new David came to accomplish the predicted good, believers were bound to look for a fulfilment in the nearest possible accordance with the letter of the description. They would thus get the highest idea of the expected good they were then capable of entertaining. But when the personal manifestation of the promised shepherd gave a new turn and aspect to affairs when he proved to be as much superior to David as the builder of the house is to the house itself when he was found to be the glorious and mighty Lord to whom, as David in the Spirit foresaw, the heritage, not of Canaan, but of all lands and all nations belonged when the flock of the Lord’s pasture thus saw how sublime a turn was given to what may be called the key-note of the prediction, then it behoved them to conclude that all the rest must receive a corresponding enlargement: the region, the people, the inheritance of blessing, must severally be what the old but represented and typified; therefore no longer confined to the ancient land marks and conditions, but found wherever Christ himself is, and reaching as far and as high as the blessings of his great redemption extend. And what Canaan would have been with its David restored again, and all its covenant blessings enjoyed in richest profusion, such, in the new and higher sphere of the Messiah’s kingdom, shall the whole domain be over which he is Lord, when this promise of good things to come attains to its full and final accomplishment. Nothing shall be left in it that can hurt or offend; it shall be the inheritance of the saints in light.

Such, it seems manifest, is the only consistent mode of handling a prophecy like the one before us the only style of interpretation that brings it into harmonious agreement with other predictions that resemble it in form, and binds together its several parts by a common principle of union. But if still it should seem strange to any that the Spirit of God should have led his servant to give forth a prediction of corning good so deeply encased in the literalities of the old land and people of the covenant, while not these precisely, but things far higher and greater, were to constitute the proper fulfilment, let them seriously consider and resolve the question whether it could have been otherwise. It is easy for persons now since the realities of the Messiah’s dispensation have come to say, that if these had been chiefly meant in the promise, they would have been more plainly described, the promise would not have run so exclusively in the form of blessings announced to the land and people of Israel. But the question to be fairly met and determined is, Could the promise of the Messiah, and of the affairs connected with his work and kingdom, have been unfolded to the Church beforehand, with any degree of detail, excepting under the form and shadow of Old Testament relations? We unhesitatingly answer, No; not unless the Spirit of God had violently controlled the minds of the prophets, and superseded the free exercise of their faculties; Which, again, would have interfered with the essential principles of his working in inspiration, as well as in the commoner operations of grace.

In conceiving of the higher, and anticipating the future things of God’s kingdom, the mind must always serve itself of the objects and relations of the present; these are the ladders by which it must rise, the leading-strings by which it must feel its way to what is above and beyond. Man is the highest form of intelligent and animated being with which we are conversant on earth; and it is solely by means of his powers and organs indefinitely expanded, indeed, in the idea, but still by means of these as the forms and elements of thought that we are enabled to think of the higher creatures of God’s universe, and even of God himself. We can ascribe no perfection to God; we cannot, even in imagination, conceive of any belonging to him but what in an infinitely smaller degree we ourselves possess. And so also in regard to the concerns of God’s kingdom, the future must always take shape in our minds from the present or the past, the unknown from the known. We are scarcely sensible how much this is the case, so long as we confine ourselves to a few vague and general ideas; but whenever we attempt to go into detail, our impotence presently betrays itself. Let the purest and loftiest mind under the present dispensation begin to particularize in its thoughts and words respecting the coming dispensation of glory, and what can it do but tell of the removal of existing evils, or the accumulation and enhancement of present blessings? It imagines to itself a state in which there are no longer to be found sin and corruption, sorrow and sighing, bodily diseases, mental infirmities, the numberless evils and disorders of life, or the wide-wasting desolation of death, now so universally experienced; but instead of these, undecaying health and beauty, purity unalloyed, the splendours of an eternal day, rivers of pleasure, feasts of joy, pavements of gold, sceptres, crowns, thrones of glory; what can we say more? and when we have said them, what are they but the best and greatest things that the world, as it now is, presents to our view? And yet we know, that as flesh and blood cannot inherit that world of incorruption, so there shall be no place there for such carnal elements of grandeur and delight. But we have no other means to help out our apprehensions of what is to be hereafter, no other forms and conditions of being under which to shape and fashion our ideas respecting it; and inspired teachers, as well as others, have no alternative but to resort to them. The things that cannot be exhibited thus are things for the present unutterable (2 Corinthians 12:4).

But the position which we now occupy in regard to the more glorious future is precisely that which God’s servants of old occupied in regard to our present. And nearly all the difficulty that is experienced, as also nearly all the misapprehensions that have arisen, in reading the descriptions they have penned of what was to take place in Messianic times, springs from the necessity of realizing their exact position (which requires some effort of mind), and surveying the prospects they delineated from their, and not from our, point of observation. To get a correct understanding of what they wrote, it must be borne in mind that all was conceived and uttered by them under the bond of the old shadows and relations, the impress of whose imperfect image and superscription necessarily appears in what they wrote. It might, no doubt, have been possible for them, without any marked reference to these older forms of things, to have given forth a few vague, and general statements respecting the future dispensation of the Gospel such as, that a great Saviour was to appear, or a glorious work was to be achieved for the good of the Church, or a general diffusion was to take place of peace and blessing throughout the world. But such announcements could not of themselves have served the great ends of prophecy; they could not have met the emergencies that arose in the Church’s history, nor provided for a weak and dim-eyed faith what it required for support and nourishment. Particular and even lengthened descriptions were indispensable. But these could only be presented under the existing forms of things, by telling, as is done here, how the present evils should be abolished, or the past good restored; by filling up the picture with pleasing views of Canaan, Jerusalem, Zion, hills of holiness, sacrifices of righteousness, a seed of blessing, a king and a commonwealth every way worthy of the goodness and majesty of Heaven; by employing, in short, and at the same time expanding and improving upon the old forms and relations, so as to make out of them the picture of a glorious future a picture perfectly true when viewed in respect to its substance, but necessarily imperfect when considered as to its external conditions. One of two things was inevitable: either there must have been no detailed predictions extending into Gospel times, or those given must have been cast into the mould and pattern of what existed in the times going before. And for any one to insist now on having a fulfilment, which shall preserve entire the very forms of the prophetical representations, is just to repeat on the field of prophecy the error of those in apostolic times who, in respect to the things of salvation themselves, sought to retain the shadow along with the substance who clung with childish fondness to the weak and beggarly elements of typical ordinances, after the Divine reality had come and burst the narrow shell, because it then required a larger room and a nobler elevation.

Does any enlightened Christian doubt that the prophecy of the sacrificial types has been really fulfilled in Christ, though he formally offered himself on no external altar, and sprinkled no actual mercy-seat with his blood? Does he not readily understand, that however necessary it might be to present the coming redemption under such aspects before, yet, when the redemption itself came, it was too grand to be wrapt up in these little swaddling-bands? And why should we judge otherwise of a prophecy like the one before us a prophecy in detail, and as such, necessarily written out in the language of Old Testament times? In that language it made promise of a glorious future under Heaven’s anointed King. It told the heart of faith, even in the darkest season, not to despair; for the evils then prevailing should be abolished. The kingdom of God should rise from its depression, and the territory of the kingdom yet become, to its utmost bounds, a region of righteousness and peace and blessing. We see the word beginning to take effect, even before Messiah came, in the partial re-establishment of the Divine kingdom within the ancient bounds, and, as far as was needed, for the higher purposes of the kingdom. We see it advancing afterwards toward its riper fulfilment, when the great object of the prediction came and did the part of the Good Shepherd, by avenging for ever the cause of his elect, and laying the sure foundation of his everlasting inheritance. And we see it still travelling on to its full and destined realization, in every victim that is won from the power of Satan and every conquest that is made by the truth of God over the darkness and corruption of the world.

Thus understood, the prophecy is consistent with itself, and in accordance with others of a like kind in the earlier portions of the Book; while in the form it assumes it bears the natural impress of the time to which it belonged. But if any, determined to hear of nothing but the letter, will still hold by the watchword of literality, will maintain that as it is a literal Israel that is the subject of promise, a literal Canaan, a literal dispersion, and a literal return from it, such too must be all that is to come, then, we say, let them carry it out, and the shepherd by whom the good is to be accomplished must be the literal David, for David alone is expressly named in the promise; and so the Messiah altogether vanishes from the word of which he is the very heart and centre, and there must be no advance in the Divine dispensations, nothing but the formal reproduction of the past. Such is the result of a slavish adherence to the letter; it ends in shutting up the new wine of the Messiah’s kingdom in the old bottles of a transitory and provisional economy. It was necessary that the spirit of prophecy should serve itself of such old things, so long as the old lasted; but it is otherwise now, since the greater and better things have come things so great and good, that “eye hath not seen them, nor ear heard, nor had they entered into the mind of man.” And we do no more than make due allowance for the change that the introduction of these has brought into the Divine kingdom, when we say, that as the new David in the prophecy before us was to be one to whom the heritage, not of Canaan, but of the whole earth belonged, so the flock which he presides over and blesses must be the saints of God, gathered from every region by his grace, and feeding in security on his good pasturage; and that the full realization of the word of promise shall be found only when these saints with him shall possess the kingdom, and the ends of the earth shall be blessed in Christ.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 34". "Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral Epistles". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbn/ezekiel-34.html.
 
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