Digging Deep: An Exegetical Look at Ezekiel 34:22-24

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Editors Note: “Digging Deep” is a series of posts that seek to go below the surface level of issues. These are usually 3,000 plus word essays that inform the reader much more than a typical blog post might. Check out the other posts in this category herehere, and here.

The United States of America is experiencing great adversity. With the economy still suffering from the effects of The Great Recession, the ongoing war on terror affecting families nationwide, and selfish, corrupt acts of government officials surfacing at an alarming rate (and let’s not even get started on Trump and Hillary), it is no surprise that American citizens are concerned with the current state of national leadership. Many Americans argue that this leadership is among the most unstable since the founding of the country. Similar to the American citizens of today, Ezekiel found himself grieving for the people of his nation. The kings of Israel were selfish at the expense of their citizens. The result of this selfishness was the steep moral decline of the nation manifested through idolatry, disobedience to the Word of God, and immorality. Ezekiel, while experiencing the exile and destruction of his nation, received a promise from God. God promised to reward His remnant by shepherding them through His servant. Those who remained faithful to God would enjoy the new covenant under a Good Shepherd.

Historical-Cultural Context

The book of Ezekiel has traditionally been attributed to Ezekiel himself. The name “Ezekiel” means “God strengthens.” In the opening verses, the author identifies himself by saying “the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi” (Ezekiel 1:3). Due to this opening statement, evidences abound for his sole authorship. Scholars believe some of the Old Testament prophets used editors; however, Ezekiel seems to be the author and editor of his own book. For the majority of scholars, the perfect chronological reports, the balanced structure of the book, the uniform language, the consistent use of first person, and continuity of themes and symbols of the book as a whole signify that a single author wrote the book.

Ezekiel must be read in the context of the world around him and the history he knew. After King Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Northern Kingdom of Israel lasted around 130 years, however they fell to the Assyrians around 722 B.C. Josiah took the throne in Judah around 640 B.C. He sent the nation into a massive religious reform. He found the “Book of the Covenant” (2 Kings 22:8-20) and destroyed the idols of the land. Judah saw the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C. as God showing favor on them, and from this began a wave of national pride. This pride sent King Josiah and a small army to intercept the Egyptian army at Megiddo on its way to battle the Babylonians. Pharaoh Neco and his armies conquered the Judean army and killed King Josiah. Neco appointed Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, as his vassal king in Judah. After only three months, Neco took him captive to Egypt and set up Josiah’s other son, Jehoiakim, as king (2 Kings 24:1). Babylon soon defeated Egypt and also gained control of Judah. Jehoiakim was plotting to break free of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and Nebuchadnezzar discovered the scheme. This led to Babylon’s first invasion of Judah in 606 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar appointed Jehoiachin, Jehoiakim’s son, as king, and took only a few of the best men into exile. Jehoiachin was no more loyal than his father to Nebuchadnezzar; he refused to pay taxes and hoped to break free from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign as well. This resulted in the second exile in 598 B.C. during which Jehoiachin and Ezekiel were taken (2 Kings 24:14-17). Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Zedekiah as king of Judah (2 Kings 24:17). He joined a rebellion against Babylon led by Pharaoh Hophra. This failed rebellion led to Zedekiah’s death, the exile of the rest of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

Ezekiel states that he is writing “among the exiles by the Chebar Canal”(Ezekiel 1:1). This statement indicates that he was writing while he was in exile in Babylon. Some scholars have challenged this traditional view because of the accurate details of Jerusalem and prophecies against Judah and Jerusalem. However, open lines of communication between the city and the exiles were possible, and these exiles still saw themselves as people of Judah. These arguments against the traditional view of Ezekiel prophesying in Babylon do not stand up.

Literary Context

The book of Ezekiel in its entirety can be defined as prophetic literature. Duvall and Hayes state, “Biblical prophecy includes both prediction of the future and proclamation of God’s truth for the present (usually the emphasis is on proclamation).” Ezekiel’s focus is on the present and the effects it will have on the future. Prophecies are often given in poetic form or figurative language. On the other hand, apocalyptic visions are also a large part of Ezekiel. These are usually characterized with fantastic images. The images are “attempting to say what is really impossible to say, to define, or even to conceive.” In other words, the images and symbols are realistic, but they must be interpreted for the full allegorical message to be understood.

Ezekiel 34 is located in the third section of the book. Ezekiel spent a total of twenty-four chapters prophesying the judgment of Jerusalem and Judah. After he was done prophesying the judgment of his own nation, he spoke seven chapters of judgment against other nations. The third and last section of the book of Ezekiel contains fifteen chapters of restoration prophecies. This includes the restoration of God’s people and His new temple order. Chapter 34 is a warning of judgment on Israel’s “shepherds” and promise of restoration to the true “flock” of Israel (Israel is referred here as the people of God and not the nation). The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God…’” (Ezekiel 24:1-2). This statement is a prophecy spoken by the Lord through Ezekiel. Verses 1-10 discuss the judgment of the shepherds; 11-16 gives God’s promises of Him seeking for the true flock of Israel; 17-22 show judgment that will come upon those who seem to be in the flock of Israel but are not; 23-31 gives the promises of a Good Shepherd and a time of peace.

The Hebrew word roi is used throughout Ezekiel 34 as “shepherd” and literally means “to be a shepherd.” This word functions as a metaphor of Israel’s leaders. These “shepherds” are most likely kings (1 Kings 22:17; Psalm 78:70-72; Isaiah 44:28, 63:11; Jeremiah 10:21, 23:1-6, 25:34-38; Zechariah 10:2-3). No matter the specific leadership positions that Ezekiel was confronting, the “shepherds” set the current for the destruction of the nation. In contrast of these corrupt shepherds, God gives the promise that He will be Israel’s true and good Shepherd, and He will do everything that the former shepherds failed to do (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

God will rescue His flock

 “I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey…” (Ezekiel 34:22a)

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is called God’s flock (Psalm 78:52; Isaiah 63:11; Jeremiah 13:17,  31:10, 50:17; Micah 2:12, 7:14). Ezekiel uses this language to show the nature of God’s relationship to His people. In verse 30, God explicitly declares who His flock is, “…they, the house of Israel, are my people…” However, determining exactly who He is talking about in this passage is not simple. As earlier discussed, the chapter begins with judgment on the shepherds, all using second person. Then, in 11-16, God gives promises to His flock by using third person. Starting in verse 17, God begins addressing the flock instead of the shepherds. He uses second person throughout 17-21 in pronouncing judgment. From 22-30, third person is used. The very last verse in the chapter uses second person again, “And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God” All of this is significant. There seems to be a flock within the flock. The true flock will be the ones rescued. This significance will be discussed later in greater detail.

The Hebrew word yasha is translated as “rescue” in the English Standard Version. It literally means “to deliver or help.” God declares His rescuing with the words “I will…” This phrase is the first of the four consecutive “I will” statements in 22-24 and one of nineteen in the entire chapter. Little discussion exists on the importance of the “I will” statements, but it is the most repeated statement in the chapter. With these statements, God is reassuring His flock of His power. They have undergone years of turmoil because of corrupt leadership in their nation. During this time of turmoil, the flock needed to be reminded of the power of their Shepherd.

As a sheep falls victim to a wolf, so Israel became prey for Egypt, Babylon, and other surrounding countries.  Earlier, in verse 5, God says of the flock, “they became food for all the wild beasts.” This was the effect of the shepherds neglecting their sheep. God now must intervene by seeking the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, and strengthening the weak (Ezekiel 34:16).

God will divide His flock

“And I will judge between sheep and sheep.” (Ezekiel 34:22b)

While Israel is God’s flock, there are sheep within the fold who are not truly His sheep. The usage of second and third person within the chapter is evidence that there are two groups being addressed. This evidence is clearly seen in verse 19, “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” While the kings were addressed as shepherds earlier in the chapter, they are represented here as a part of the fold along with all others who caused the downfall of the nation. The fat sheep were selfish, worried only of themselves, and practiced injustice. They abused the weaker sheep and left them without protection. Their selfish gain had led to the corruption of Judah. The ones afflicted were those obedient to the Lord despite their “shepherd’s” leading. Though God sees Israel as a nation, individual responsibility is also demanded (This idea is addressed in Ezekiel 18). This necessitates a splitting judgment within the flock. One commentator expressed the situation by stating, “Like a shepherd who must judge between sheep to be bred or sold or butchered, the Lord will judge between people who need his care and those who deserve his judgment.”

This idea is not unique to Ezekiel. Jesus declares that He will be the one to administer this judgment in Matthew 25:32, “[I] will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  The sheep lived justly while the goats lived selfishly, just as the two types of sheep in Ezekiel 34. Therefore he says in Matthew 25:46, “[The goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (sheep) into eternal life.” Paul sheds light on this issue of flock separation in Romans 2:28-29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” Paul is saying explicitly that there are people who call themselves Jews and then those who are truly Jews. These “true Jews” are the sheep who will inherit the promises of Ezekiel 34, not the entire flock.

God will establish His Shepherd

“And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23)

The promise of one shepherd comes in a time where the nation of Israel had been divided for about 200 years. The promise was to bring the nation back together, not only that, but under a good shepherd who will feed them and not be selfish. This prophecy must have been relieving for the Jews in exile but simultaneously hard to believe. The Jews were in exile due to the actions of the kings, which resulted in a lack of faith in the kings as leaders. However, there is a king that is foretold by the prophets. This promised shepherd is the Messiah prophesied throughout Scripture (Isaiah 9:7, 11:10, 11:1-5; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Ezekiel 37:24).

In verse 22, the Messiah is described as “David.” He will not actually be David, but a ruler from the line of David. God made David a promise in 2 Samuel 7:16: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” The Davidic line had an impressive life, but it still ended unlike the prophecy foretold (Approximately 1010 B.C. to 586 B.C. Amounts to 424 years). At first glance, it may seem to be an unconditional promise. However, David instructs Solomon to stay faithful to the Lord so that the line would not be cut off (1 Kings 2:1-5). The Lord cut off the line of David after Zedekiah and to this day there has not been a king from the Davidic line on the throne in Israel. After the fall of the Jerusalem, there was not much hope for the Davidic line of kings.

The problem that is noted by many scholars is that earlier in the chapter, God states in Ezekiel 34:15, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” but now He says that David will be the shepherd. This can only be and has only been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He was a descendant of David (Matthew 1:1-17). His birth was announced by an angel as the son of David to rule the house of Jacob (Luke 1:32-33). He is consistently attributed to being of the line of David (Matthew 9:27, 12:23, 20:30-31, 21:9-15, 22:42; Mark 10:47-48, 12:35; Luke 18:38-39; Revelation 5:5). Jesus claimed to be one with the Father (John 10:30). He claimed to be the Good Shepherd that goes after God’s sheep (John 10:14-16). He said, “I am the Good Shepherd… So there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:14, 16). The prophecy in Ezekiel 34 also says that he will feed the people. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51).  Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead to prove that He was this Messiah, King, and God for whom Israel had been waiting.

God will reign over His flock

And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:24)

God promises to be Israel’s God eleven times in Scripture; ten of those refer to the New Covenant (Jeremiah 24:7, 31:33, 32:38 Ezekiel 11:20, 34:24, 37:23, 37:27; Zechariah 8:8. Only one not referred to in new covenant context is Genesis 17:8). Paul and the writer of Hebrews mention this phrase, “they will be My people and I will be their God,” referring to the New Covenant that has come (2 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10). This statement implies the obedience of the people. God will always be Lord of heaven and earth, but to be a certain people’s Lord and God means that they will walk in obedience. In almost all of the references to the Lord being Israel’s God, there is also mention of the people’s obedience. Jeremiah 24:7 precisely states, “I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”

The word translated here as “prince” is the Hebrew word nasi. The title “king” is avoided here; probably due to the negative perspective on kingship at that time. As earlier discussed, Jesus is this royalty. The connection between the prince and God cannot be overlooked. This is a man who will rule like God, for God, and as God. Isaiah 9:6 says that this prince will be called “Mighty God and Everlasting Father.” To Isaiah, the idea of this ruler being God Himself was not too improbable.

The section ends with God reassuring the hearers that He is the one speaking. This is typical speech of God after a prophecy. When God speaks, His word is true. While people cannot be trusted, God can be. Apparently, God, seeing that these might have been unbelievable promises to the exiles in Babylon, chose to remind them exactly who He is and how powerful His word is.

Application

Jesus has come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) just as God promised He would do (Ezekiel 34:16). Jesus is still seeking the sheep that is of His other fold. For anyone who reads Ezekiel 34:22-24 today, they must realize that this promise has and still is being fulfilled. Jesus is the ruler, shepherd, and king. God has placed Him as the prince of His people and He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Everyone must question whether or not they are a part of His true flock.

For the ones who are a part of Jesus’ flock, strong adoration must be given to this long awaited Shepherd. Praise is due His name for He keeps His promises. From Abraham, to Judah, to David, to all the prophets, God kept His word. Even during dark and helpless times as Ezekiel’s time in exile, God promises His people comfort, help, and His presence. When American Christians look at government and other leaders in the nation, and all that can be seen is immorality and failure, Christians are reminded in Ezekiel of God’s promises. Christians have a Good Shepherd; one who is not selfish, greedy, or immoral. He has sought, rescued, and healed His broken people. Finally, there is one flock and one Shepherd.

Conclusion

Ezekiel had a difficult time in exile. He was still coping with all the destruction and ruin of his people and city. He faced the same reality, and maybe even doubts, that the other exiles faced. He saw how the shepherds of Judah had destroyed God’s blessings and profaned His name among the nations. He knew that there was still a true flock, a remnant, within the whole flock. However, unlike many of the other Jews in exile, he stayed faithful. He believed that God would bring all unrighteousness to justice, establish His throne among His people, and His people would live obediently. God rewards His remnant by shepherding them through His servant. That servant has come, and His name is Jesus.

Works Cited

Cooper, Lamar Eugene. Ezekiel. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Enns, Paul P. Ezekiel. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.

Robbins, Ray F. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1975.

Strong, James. The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Thomas Nelson Inc. Nashville TN. 2010.

Stuart, Douglas K., and Lloyd John Ogilvie. Ezekiel. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Wevers, John William. Ezekiel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The Message of Ezekiel: A New Heart and a New Spirit. Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

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