Things are not right in our world: A large, powerful nation invades its weaker neighbor. Three years on we are still reeling from the effects of the global pandemic. We are deeply divided along political lines, with some seemingly willing to resort to violence. Despite advances, we continue to struggle with racism.
Even the church is torn by disunity and division. We seem farther from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-21 than ever before. Schism rends the fabric of church as we address the issues of a rapidly changing society. While secularism relentlessly advances, our focus has turned inward. But this is not the first time that nations and the world, even God’s people, have experienced such disunity.
A disappearing kingdom
The Hebrew people were called to be set apart from the nations around them. This included their form of government. The nations had kings; the Israelites had judges—for only God could be their king.
Under increasing military pressure and threat of conquest from neighboring tribes, such as the Philistines, their leaders demanded that a king be appointed following the pattern of other nations. Receiving divine authorization to do so, Samuel reluctantly anoints Saul as the first king.
The glory years of the kingdom of Israel are normally dated from 1047 to 930 BC. Rulers such as Saul, David, and Solomon—although facing challenges within and without—managed to consolidate and extend centralized administration. An outstanding achievement of Solomon’s rule was the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem, circa 958 BC. This cemented the role of the Holy City as the capital of the kingdom and the center of the Hebrew faith.
With the death of Solomon around 926 BC and the enthronement of his son, Rehoboam, the kingdom began to move toward division. The 10 northern tribes, retaining the name Israel, separated around 931 BC with Jeroboam as their king and Samaria as the capital city. Rehoboam was left as the king of Judah, still centered upon Jerusalem.
Two hundred years pass. Then, in 722 BC Israel, sometimes called the northern kingdom or Ephraim, was conquered by the Assyrians. Like many empires old and new, the Assyrians relocated the 10 tribes throughout their territories and resettled alien populations in their place.
The southern kingdom, or Judah, continued until the Babylonian conquest and captivity, climaxed by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BC. Unlike those who were scattered by the Assyrians, the Judeans were able to maintain their ethnic and religious identity in exile. It is at this point that the prophet Ezekiel begins to issue words of comfort and consolation concerning the future God has planned for them.
Prophet and priest
Ezekiel, whose name means “God’s strength,” was a priest in the temple in Jerusalem. Along with about 5,000 of the Judean elite, he was among the first wave of deportees to Babylon in 598 BC. His active prophetic ministry began in 593 BC and extended at least until 571 BC.
Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. Both had a similar calling—Ezekiel in Babylon and Jeremiah in Jerusalem—to convince their listeners of the inevitable fall and destruction of Jerusalem as a consequence of their iniquities. However, like most prophets, his oracles are not only those of judgment, but also of redemption and restoration, albeit of a remnant.
The first half of Ezekiel’s prophecy, chapters 1-24, focuses on the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s message is that God’s glorious presence, the shekinah, is not limited to Jerusalem or Judah, but can also be found in other places. That said, he warns them that the idolatry of the people has caused God to remove the divine presence and, thus, the divine protection. The capital of Judah and the holy temple would fall and be destroyed. Babylon will serve as the agent of God’s punishment.
The second half, chapters 25-48, are centered on God’s restoration of Jerusalem and the people of God. Even when they are unfaithful, God always demonstrates faithfulness to the covenantal promises. A remnant will return, and Jerusalem will be restored. Even the breach between the northern and southern kingdoms will be healed. A prince of the Davidic line will rule over a reunited Israel.
Two sticks bound together
Ezekiel is instructed to inscribe a stick (or rod) with the words, “For Judah, and the Israelites associated with it” (v. 16). This represents the kingdom of Judah and the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Then he is directed to engrave a second stick with “For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with it” (v. 16). This symbolizes the former northern kingdom of Israel, composed of the other 10 tribes. Ezekiel is then ordered to bind them together as one stick.
When the people ask what this means, Ezekiel is to say that the two kingdoms are to be one stick in the divine hand. This is the prelude to the prophetic oracle that God will take the scattered people of Israel, including the “ten lost tribes,” from throughout the worldwide diaspora and bring them to their own land. They will be reunited as one nation with one ruler. Never again will they defile themselves with idols, their detestable things, nor through their transgressions.
This renewal of kingdom will not come through the efforts of the defeated, weakened, and dispersed people. God is the dynamic cause of this restoration and unity. God is by nature gracious. Even though the Israelite people had broken their covenant with God over and over again, God is unreservedly faithful. God graciously extends the assurance of an indestructible covenant demonstrating love and mercy to an unfaithful people. God promises to save them from their apostasies and to cleanse them. This cleansing or purification reflects the sacrificial rites outlined for the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:14-19), familiar to Ezekiel from his temple duties, but is spread upon the heart by God and is perpetually effective.
Then God declares, “They shall be my people, and I will be their God” (v. 23). God achieves this by delivering them from their sin and cleansing them. Once again, the reunified nation of Israel will become God’s people.
God’s people restored
The entire course of God’s claiming of the people, their cleansing, their compliance, and God’s place of abode with them is explained in terms of a covenant of peace (v. 26). Some scriptural covenants, such as the one proclaimed by Ezekiel in this passage, are “everlasting.” These are based upon the action and promise of God, hence there is no “human side” of the agreement which the people must maintain for fear that the covenant will cease.
On the other hand, the Mosaic covenant with the Hebrews at Sinai (Deuteronomy 31:16-17) is profoundly conditioned. The continuance of this covenant is reliant on the Hebrews steadfastly obeying God and fulfilling their obligations. All the laws involved become divinely ordained. As a result, any violations are considered sins.
The promises of this section of Ezekiel’s prophecy are marked by the word “shall,” which points toward a future reality, not yet realized at that time. The first promise is that the reunited kingdom shall be ruled over by someone from the Davidic line (v. 24a). For Ezekiel, this “shepherd” will function in a messianic role and accomplish for Israel what its previous rulers had not. This is a symbolic reference to the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7), in which God promises an eternal king from David’s line to rule over God’s people.
The shepherd king concept had tremendous influence on the New Testament, particularly the words of Jesus in John 10:1-18 , where he describes himself as “the good shepherd” (v. 11). The transformation of God’s people to reflect the divine character is the greatest proof that they are God’s (v. 24b). Because of the nature of this covenant, their obedience and observation are not forced, but a free response to what God has done.
The promise that they shall live in the ancestral land forever (v. 25) is, at the least, a sign that their captivity and diaspora will not last forever. It is a note of hopefulness in the midst of national calamity. God will bless, multiply, and establish God’s sanctuary with them (vv. 27-28).
David Shumate is Annual Conference secretary for the Church of the Brethren. An ordained minister, he served almost 30 years as executive minister in Virlina District.