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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Ezekiel 34

 

 

Verses 1-31

THE MESSIANIC KINGDOM

Ezekiel 34:1-31

The term "Messianic" as commonly applied to Old Testament prophecy bears two different senses, a wider and a narrower. In its wider use it is almost equivalent to the modern word "eschatological." It denotes that unquenchable hope of a glorious future for Israel and the world which is an all but omnipresent feature of the prophetic writings, and includes all predictions of the kingdom of God in its final and perfect manifestation. In its stricter sense it is applied only to the promise of the ideal king of the house of David, which, although a very conspicuous element of prophecy, is by no means universal, and perhaps does not bulk quite so largely in the Old Testament as is generally supposed. The later Jews were guided by a true instinct when they seized on this figure of the ideal ruler as the centre of the nation’s hope; and to them we owe this special application of the name "Messiah," the "Anointed," which is never used of the Son of David in the Old Testament itself. To a certain extent we follow in their steps when we enlarge the meaning of the word "Messianic" so as to embrace the whole prophetic delineation of the future glories of the kingdom of God.

This distinction may be illustrated from the prophecies of Ezekiel. If we take the word in its more general sense we may say that all the chapters from the thirty-fourth to the end of the book are Messianic in character. That is to say, they describe under various aspects the final condition of things which is introduced by the restoration of Israel to its own land. Let us glance for a moment at the elements which enter into this general conception of the last things as they are set forth in the section of the book with which we are now dealing. We exclude from view for the present the last nine chapters, because there the prophet’s point of view is somewhat different, and it is better to reserve them for separate treatment.

The chapters from the thirty-fourth to the thirty-seventh are the necessary complement of the call to repentance in the first part of chapter 33. Ezekiel has enunciated the conditions of entrance to the new kingdom of God, and has urged his hearers to prepare for its appearing. He now proceeds to unfold the nature of that kingdom, and the process by which Jehovah is to bring it to pass. As has been said, the central fact is the restoration of Israel to the land of Canaan. Here the prophet found a point of contact with the natural aspirations of his fellow exiles. There was no prospect to which they had clung with more eager longing than that of a return to national independence in their own land; and the feeling that this was no longer possible was the source of the abject despair from which the prophet sought to rouse them. How was this to be done? Not simply by asserting in the face of all human probability that the restoration would take place, but by presenting it to their minds in its religious aspects as an object worthy of the exercise of almighty power, and an object in which Jehovah was interested for the glory of His great name. Only by being brought round to Ezekiel’s faith in God could the exiles recover their lost hope in the future of the nation. Thus the return to which Ezekiel looks forward has a Messianic significance; it is the establishment of the kingdom of God, a symbol of the final and perfect union between Jehovah and Israel.

Now in the chapters before us this general conception is exhibited in three separate pictures of the Restoration, the leading ideas being the Monarchy (chapter 34), the Land (chapter 35, 36), and the Nation (chapter 37). The order in which they are arranged is not that which might seem most natural. We should have expected the prophet to deal first with the revival of the nation, then with its settlement on the soil of Palestine, and last of all with its political organisation under a Davidic king. Ezekiel follows the reverse order. He begins with the kingdom, as the most complete embodiment of the Messianic salvation, and then falls back on its two presuppositions-the recovery and purification of the land on the one hand, and the restitution of the nation on the other. It is doubtful, indeed, whether any logical connection between the three pictures is intended. It is perhaps better to regard them as expressing three distinct and collateral aspects of the idea of redemption, to each of which a certain permanent religious significance is attached. They are at all events the outstanding elements of Ezekiel’s eschatology so far as it is expounded in this section of his prophecies.

We thus see that the promise of the perfect king-the Messianic idea in its more restricted signification-holds a distinct but not a supreme place in Ezekiel’s vision of the future. It appears for the first time in chapter 17 at the end of an oracle denouncing the perfidy of Zedekiah and foretelling the overthrow of his kingdom; and again, in a similar connection, in an obscure verse of chapter 21. [Ezekiel 17:22-24;, Ezekiel 21:26; Ezekiel 21:27] Both these prophecies belong to the time before the fall of the state, when the prophet’s thoughts were not continuously occupied with the hope of the future. The former is remarkable, nevertheless, for the glowing terms in which the greatness of the future kingdom is depicted. From the top of the lofty cedar which the great eagle had carried away to Babylon Jehovah will take a tender shoot and plant it in the mountain height of Israel. There it will strike root and grow up into a lordly cedar, under whose branches all the birds of the air find refuge. The terms of the allegory have been explained in the proper place. {See Ezekiel 20:24-25 ff.} The great cedar is the house of David; the topmost bough which was taken to Babylon is the family of Jehoiachin, the direct heirs to the throne. The planting of the tender shoot in the land of Israel represents the founding of the Messiah’s kingdom, which is thus proclaimed to be of transcendent earthly magnificence, overshadowing all the other kingdoms of the world, and convincing the nations that its foundation is the work of Jehovah Himself. In this short passage we have the Messianic idea in its simplest and most characteristic expression. The hope of the future is bound up with the destiny of the house of David; and the re-establishment of the kingdom in more than its ancient splendour is the great divine act to which all the blessings of the final dispensation are attached.

But it is in the thirty-fourth chapter that we find the most comprehensive exposition of Ezekiel’s teaching on the subject of the monarchy and the Messianic kingdom. It is perhaps the most political of all his prophecies. It is pervaded by a spirit of genuine sympathy with the sufferings of the common people, and indignation against the tyranny practised and tolerated by the ruling classes. The disasters that have befallen the nation down to its final dispersion among the heathen are all traced to the misgovernment and anarchy for which the monarchy was primarily responsible. In like manner the blessings of the coming age are summed up in the promise of a perfect king, ruling in the name of Jehovah and maintaining order and righteousness throughout his realm. Nowhere else does Ezekiel approach so nearly to the political ideal foreshadowed by the statesman-prophet Isaiah of a "king reigning in righteousness and princes ruling in judgment" [Isaiah 32:1] securing the enjoyment of universal prosperity and peace to the redeemed people of God. It must be remembered of course that this is only a partial expression of Ezekiel’s conception both of the past condition of the nation and of its future salvation. We have had abundant Evidence(cf. especially chapter 22) to show that he considered all classes of the community to be corrupt, and the people as a whole implicated in the guilt of rebellion against Jehovah. The statement that the kings have brought about the dispersion of the nation must not therefore be pressed to the conclusion that civic injustice was the sole cause of Israel’s calamities. Similarly we shall find that the redemption of the people depends on other and more fundamental conditions than the establishment of good government under a righteous king. But that is no reason for minimising the significance of the passage before us as an utterance of Ezekiel’s profound interest in social order and the welfare of the poor. It shows moreover that the prophet at this time attached real importance to the promise of the Messiah as the organ of Jehovah’s rule over His people. If civil wrongs and legalised tyranny were not the only sins which had brought about the destruction of the state, they were at least serious evils, which could not be tolerated in the new Israel; and the chief safeguard against their recurrence is found in the character of the ideal ruler whom Jehovah will raise up from the seed of David. How far this high conception of the functions of the monarchy was modified in Ezekiel’s subsequent teaching we shall see when we come to consider the position assigned to the prince in the great vision at the end of the book.

In the meantime let us examine somewhat more closely the contents of chapter 34. Its leading ideas seem to have been suggested by a Messianic prophecy of Jeremiah’s with which Ezekiel was no doubt acquainted: "Woe to the shepherds that destroy and scatter the flock of My pasture! saith Jehovah. Therefore thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, against the shepherds that tend My people, Ye have scattered My flock, and dispersed them, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith Jehovah. And I will gather the remnant of My flock from all the lands whither I have dispersed them, and will restore them to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply. And I will set shepherds over them who shall feed them: and they shall not fear any more, nor be frightened, nor be lacking, saith Jehovah". [Jeremiah 23:1-4] Here we have the simple image of the flock and its shepherds, which Ezekiel, as his manner is, expands into an allegory of the past history and future prospects of the nation. How closely he follows the guidance of his predecessor will be seen from the analysis of the chapter. It may be divided into four parts.

1. The first ten verses are a strongly worded denunciation of the misgovernment to which the people of Jehovah had been subjected in the past. The prophet goes straight to the root of the evil when he indignantly asks, "Should not the shepherds feed the flock?" (Ezekiel 34:2). The first principle of all true government is that it must be in the interest of the governed. But the universal vice of Oriental despotism, as we see in the case of the Turkish empire at the present day, or Egypt before the English occupation, is that the rulers rule for their own advantage, and treat the people as their lawful spoil. So it had been in Israel: the shepherds had fed themselves, and not the flock. Instead of carefully tending the sick and the maimed, and searching out the strayed and the lost, they had been concerned only to eat the milk and clothe themselves with the wool and slaughter the fat; they had ruled with "violence and rigour." That is to say, instead of healing the sores of the body politic, they had sought to enrich themselves at the expense of the people. Such misconduct in the name of government always brings its own penalty; it kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. The flock which is spoiled by its own shepherds is scattered on the mountain and becomes the prey of wild beasts; and so the nation that is weakened by internal misrule loses its powers of defence and succumbs to the attacks of some foreign invader. But the shepherds of Israel have to reckon with Him who is the owner of the flock, whose affection still watches over them, and whose compassion is stirred by the hapless condition of His people. "Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of Jehovah; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require My flock at their hand; and I will make them to cease from feeding [My] flock, that they who feed themselves may no longer shepherd them; and I will deliver My flock from their mouth that they be not food for them" (Ezekiel 34:9-10).

2. But Jehovah not only removes the unworthy shepherds; He Himself takes on Him the office of shepherd to the flock that has been so mishandled (Ezekiel 34:11-16). As the shepherd goes out after the thunderstorm to call in his frightened sheep, so will Jehovah after the storm of judgment is over go forth to "gather together the outcasts of Israel". [Psalms 147:2] He will seek them out and deliver them from all places whither they were scattered in the day of clouds and darkness; then He will lead them back to the mountain height of Israel, where they shall enjoy abundant prosperity and security under His just and beneficent rule. By what agencies this deliverance is to be accomplished is nowhere indicated. It is the unanimous teaching of the prophets that the final salvation of Israel will be effected in a "day of Jehovah"-i.e., a day in which Jehovah’s own power will be specially manifested. Hence there is no need to describe the process by which the Almighty works out His purpose of salvation; it is indescribable: the results are certain, but the intermediate agencies are supernatural, and the precise method of Jehovah’s intervention is, as a rule, left indefinite. It is particularly to be noted that the Messiah plays no part in the actual work of deliverance. He is not the hero of a national struggle for independence, but comes on the scene and assumes the reins of government after Jehovah has gotten the victory and restored peace to Israel.

3. The next six verses (Ezekiel 34:17-22) add a feature to the allegory which is not found in the corresponding passage in Jeremiah. Jehovah will judge between one sheep and another, especially between the rams and he-goats on the one hand and the weaker animals on the other. The strong cattle had monopolised the fat meadows and clear settled waters, and as if this were not enough, they had trampled down the residue of the pastures and fouled the waters with their feet. Those addressed are the wealthy and powerful upper class, whose luxury and wanton extravagance had consumed the resources of the country, and left no sustenance for the poorer members of the community. Allusions to this kind of selfish tyranny are frequent in the older prophets. Amos speaks of the nobles as panting after the dust on the head of the poor, and of the luxurious dames of Samaria as oppressing the poor and crushing the needy, and saying to their lords, "Bring us to drink." [Amos 2:7; Amos 4:1] Micah says of the same class in the southern kingdom that they cast out the women of Jehovah’s people from their pleasant houses, and robbed their children of His glory for ever. [Micah 2:9] And Isaiah, to take one other example, denounces those who "take away the right from the poor of My people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the orphans". [Isaiah 10:2] Under the corrupt administration of justice which the kings had tolerated for their own convenience litigation had been a farce; the rich man had always the ear of the judge, and the poor found no redress. But in Israel the true fountain of justice could not be polluted; it was only its channels that were obstructed. For Jehovah Himself was the supreme judge of His people; and in the restored commonwealth to which Ezekiel looks forward all civil relations will be regulated by a regard to His righteous will. He will "save His flock that they be no more a prey, and will judge between cattle and cattle."

4. Then follows in the last section (Ezekiel 34:23-31) the promise of the Messianic king, and a description of the blessings that accompany his reign: "I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them-My servant David: he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I Jehovah will be their God, and My servant David shall be a prince in their midst: I Jehovah have spoken it." There are one or two difficulties connected with the interpretation of this passage, the consideration of which may be postponed till we have finished our analysis of the chapter. It is sufficient in the meantime to notice that a Davidic kingdom in some sense is to be the foundation of social order in the new Israel. A prince will arise, endowed with the spirit of his exalted office, to discharge perfectly the royal functions in which the former kings had so lamentably failed. Through him the divine government of Israel will become a reality in the national life. The Godhead of Jehovah and the kingship of the Messiah will be inseparably associated in the faith of the people: "Jehovah their God, and David their king" [Hosea 3:5] is the expression of the ground of Israel’s confidence in the latter days. And this kingdom is the pledge of the fulness of divine blessing descending on the land and the people. The people shall dwell in safety, none making them afraid, because of the covenant of peace which Jehovah will make for them, securing them against the assaults of other nations. The heavens shall pour forth fertilising "showers of blessing"; and the land shall be clothed with a luxuriant vegetation which shall be the admiration of the whole earth. Thus happily situated Israel shall shake off the reproach of the heathen, which they had formerly to endure because of the poverty of their land and their unfortunate history. In the plenitude of material prosperity they shall recognise that Jehovah their God is with them, and they shall know what it is to be His people and the flock of His pasture.

We have now before us the salient features of the Messianic hope, as it is presented in the pages of Ezekiel. We see that the idea is developed in contrast with the abuses that had characterised the historic monarchy in Israel. It represents the ideal of the kingdom as it exists in the mind of Jehovah, an ideal which no actual king had fully realised, and which most of them had shamefully violated. The Messiah is the vice-regent of Jehovah on earth, and the representative of His kingly authority and righteous government over Israel. We see further that the promise is based on the "sure mercies of David," the covenant which secured the throne to David’s descendants for ever. Messianic prophecy is legitimist, the ideal king being regarded as standing in the direct line of succession to the crown. And to these features we may add another which is explicitly developed in Ezekiel 37:22-26, although it is implied in the expression "one shepherd" in the passage with which we have been dealing. The Messianic kingdom represents the unity of all Israel, and particularly the reunion of the two kingdoms under one sceptre. The prophets attach great importance to this idea. (Cf. Amos 9:11 f.; Hosea 2:2; Hosea 3:5, Isaiah 11:13, Micah 2:12 f., Micah 5:3) The existence of two rival monarchies, divided in interest and often at war with each other, although it had never effaced the consciousness of the original unity of the nation, was felt by the prophets to be an anomalous state of things, and seriously detrimental to the national religion. The ideal relation of Jehovah to Israel was as incompatible with two kingdoms as the ideal of marriage is incompatible with two wives to one husband. Hence in the glorious future of the Messianic age the schism must be healed, and the Davidic dynasty restored to its original position at the head of an undivided empire. The prominence given to this thought in the teaching of Hosea shows that even in the northern kingdom devout Israelites cherished the hope of reunion with their brethren under the house of David as the only form in which the redemption of the nation could be achieved. And although, long before Ezekiel’s day, the kingdom of Samaria had disappeared from history, he too looks forward to a restoration of the ten tribes as an essential element of the Messianic salvation.

In these respects the teaching of Ezekiel reflects the general tenor of the Messianic prophecy of the Old Testament. There are just two questions on which some obscurity and uncertainty must be felt to rest. In the first place, what is the precise meaning of the expression "My servant David"? It will not be supposed that the prophet expected David, the founder of the Hebrew monarchy, to reappear in person and inaugurate the new dispensation. Such an interpretation would be utterly false to Eastern modes of thought and expression, besides being opposed to every indication we have of the prophetic conception of the Messiah. Even in popular language the name of David was current, after he had been long dead, as the name of the dynasty which he had founded. When the ten tribes revolted from Rehoboam they said, exactly as they had said in David’s lifetime, "What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel; now see to thine own house, David." If the name of David could thus be invoked in popular speech at a time of great political excitement, we need not be surprised to find it used in a similar sense in the figurative style of the prophets. All that the word means is that the Messiah will be one who comes in the spirit and power of David, a representative of the ancient family who carries to completion the work so nobly begun by his great ancestor.

The real difficulty is whether the title "David" denotes a unique individual or a line of Davidic kings. To that question it is hardly possible to return a decided answer. That the idea of a succession of sovereigns is a possible form of the Messianic hope is shown by a passage in the thirty-third chapter of Jeremiah. There the promise of the righteous sprout of the house of David is supplemented by the assurance that David shall never want a man to sit on the throne of Israel: [Jeremiah 33:15-17] the allusion therefore appears to be to the dynasty, and not to a single person. And this view finds some support in the case of Ezekiel from the fact that in the later vision of chapters 40-48, the prophet undoubtedly anticipates a perpetuation of the dynasty through successive generations. {Cf Ezekiel 43:7;, Ezekiel 45:8;, Ezekiel 46:16 ff.} On the other hand it is difficult to reconcile this view with the expressions used in this. and the thirty-seventh chapters. When we read that "My servant David shall be their prince for ever," [Ezekiel 37:25] we can scarcely escape the impression that the prophet is thinking of a personal Messiah reigning eternally. If it were necessary to decide between these two alternatives, it might be safest to adhere to the idea of a personal Messiah, as conveying the fullest rendering of the prophet’s thought. There is reason to think that in the interval between this prophecy and his final vision Ezekiel’s conception of the Messiah underwent a certain modification, and therefore the teaching of the later passage cannot be used to control the explanation of this. But the obscurity is of such a nature that we cannot hope to remove it. In the prophet’s delineations of the future there are many points on which the light of revelation had not been fully cast; for they, like the Christian apostle, "knew in part and prophesied in part." And the question of the way in which the Messiah’s office is to be prolonged is precisely one of those which did not greatly occupy the mind of the prophets. There is no perspective in Messianic prophecy: the future kingdom of God is seen, as it were, in one plane, and how it is to be transmitted from one age to another is never thought of. Thus it may become difficult to say whether a particular prophet, in speaking of the Messiah, has a single individual in view or whether he is thinking of a dynasty or a succession. To Ezekiel the Messiah was a divinely revealed ideal, which was to be fulfilled in a person; whether the prophet himself distinctly understood this is a matter of inferior importance.

The second question is one that perhaps would not readily occur to a plain man. It relates to the meaning of the word "prince" as applied to the Messiah. It has been thought by some critics that Ezekiel had a special reason for avoiding the title "king"; and from this supposed reason a somewhat sweeping conclusion has been deduced. We are asked to believe that Ezekiel had in principle abandoned the Messianic hope of his earlier prophecies-i.e., the hope of a restoration of the Davidic kingdom in its ancient splendour. What he really contemplates is the abolition of the Hebrew monarchy, and the institution of a new political system entirely different from anything that had existed in the past. Although the Davidic prince will hold the first place in the restored community, his dignity will be less than royal; he will only be a titular monarch, his power being overshadowed by the presence of Jehovah, the true king of Israel. Now so far as this view is suggested by the use of the word "prince" (literally "leader" or "president") in preference to "king," it is sufficiently answered by pointing to the Messianic passage in chapter 37, where the name "king" is used three times and in a peculiarly emphatic manner of the Messianic prince. [Ezekiel 37:22-24] There is no reason to suppose that Ezekiel drew a distinction between "princely" and "kingly" rank, and deliberately withheld the higher dignity from the Messiah. Whatever may be the exact relation of the Messiah to Jehovah, there is no doubt that he is conceived as a king in the full sense of the term, possessed of all regal qualities, and shepherding his people with the authority which belonged to a true son of David.

But there is another consideration which weighs more seriously with the writers referred to. There is reason to believe that Ezekiel’s conception of the final kingdom of God underwent a change which might not unfairly be described as an abandonment of the Messianic expectation in its more restricted sense. In his latest vision the functions of the prince are defined in such a way that his position is shorn of the ideal significance which properly invests the office of the Messiah. The change does not indeed affect his merely political status. He is still the son of David and the king of Israel, and all that is here said about his duty towards his subjects is there presupposed. But his character seems to be no longer regarded as thoroughly reliable, or equal to all the temptations that arise wherever absolute power is lodged in human hands. The possibility that the king may abuse his authority for his private advantage is distinctly contemplated, and provision is made against it in the statutory constitution to which the king himself is subject. Such precautions are obviously inconsistent with the ideal of the Messianic kingdom which we find, for example, in the prophecy of Isaiah. The important question therefore comes to be, whether this lower view of the monarchy is anticipated in the thirty-fourth and thirty-seventh chapters. This does not appear to be the case. The prophet still occupies the same standpoint as in chapter 17, regarding the Davidic monarchy as the central religious institution of the restored state. The Messiah of these chapters is a perfect king, endowed with the spirit of God for the discharge of his great office, one whose personal character affords an absolute security for the maintenance of public righteousness, and who is the medium of communication between God and the nation. In other words, what we have to do with is a Messianic prediction in the fullest sense of the term.

In concluding our study of Ezekiel’s Messianic teaching, we may make one remark bearing on its typological interpretation. The attempt is sometimes made to trace a gradual development and enrichment of the Messianic idea in the hands of successive prophets. From that point of view Ezekiel’s contribution to the doctrine of the Messiah must be felt to be disappointing. No one can imagine that his portrait of the coming king possesses anything like the suggestiveness and religious meaning conveyed by the ideal which stands out so clearly from the pages of Isaiah. And, indeed, no subsequent prophet excels or even equals Isaiah in the clearness and profundity of his directly Messianic conceptions. This fact shows us that the endeavour to find in the Old Testament a regular progress along one particular line proceeds on too narrow a view of the scope of prophecy. The truth is that the figure of the king is only one of many types of the Christian dispensation which the religious institutions of Israel supplied to the prophets. It is the most perfect of all types, partly because it is personal, and partly because the idea of kingship is the most comprehensive of the offices which Christ executes as our Redeemer. But, after all, it expresses only one aspect of the glorious future of the kingdom of God towards which prophecy steadily points. We must remember also that the order in which these types emerge is determined not altogether by their intrinsic importance, but partly by their adaptation to the needs of the age in which the prophet lived. The main function of prophecy was to furnish present and practical direction to the people of God; and the form under which the ideal was presented to any particular generation was always that best fitted to help it onwards, one stage nearer to the great consummation. Thus while Isaiah idealises the figure of the king, Jeremiah grasps the conception of a new religion under the form of a covenant, the second Isaiah unfolds the idea of the prophetic servant of Jehovah, Zechariah and the writer of the 110th Psalm idealise the priesthood. All these are Messianic prophecies, if we take the word in its widest acceptations; but they are not all cast in one mould, and the attempt to arrange them in a single series is obviously misleading. So with regard to Ezekiel we may say that his chief Messianic ideal (still using the expression in a general sense) is the sanctuary, the symbol of Jehovah’s presence in the midst of His people. At the end of chapter 37, the kingdom and the sanctuary are mentioned together as pledges of the glory of the latter days. But while the idea of the Messianic monarchy was a legacy inherited from his prophetic precursors, the Temple was an institution whose typical significance Ezekiel was the first to unfold. It was moreover the one that met the religious requirements of the age in which Ezekiel lived. Ultimately the hope of the personal Messiah loses the importance which it still has in the present section of the book; and the prophet’s vision of the future concentrates itself on the sanctuary as the centre of the restored theocracy, and the source from which the regenerating influences of the divine grace flow forth to Israel and the world.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 34:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezekiel-34.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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