Ezekiel 36:24-38 A New Heart
7/19/15 D. Marion Clark
A few weeks ago a soloist sang for the prelude the song that we know as “Dem Bones.” I was struck by the rendition of it, which presents more than a funny children’s song, but gets the message across about the power of God’s word. Next week we will consider the text it comes from. The message this morning treats the passage that precedes the Valley of Dry Bones passage in Ezekiel 37.
This passage is famous in its own right, especially verses 25-27. Here is the context. Jerusalem has fallen to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. The nation of Judah has ended. The northern kingdom of Israel had been broken up over a century earlier and the inhabitants deported throughout the Assyrian empire of that time. A decade earlier, Judah had succumbed to Nebuchadnezzar who had then taken many of the people, especially the nobles, to Babylon. Daniel and the prophet Ezekiel were in that number. He had kept the Judean king on the throne, but that king, Zedekiah, revolted, bringing final destruction upon Jerusalem and Judah.
Ezekiel had prophesied that this destruction would take place and had explained why. It was for the same reason that all of the other prophets had said, namely, for Judah’s rebellious sins. Even so, destruction is not the last word for God’s people. Let’s listen in.
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.
This is the good news of redemption – of being brought out of exile and restored to their homeland. God has not forgotten the people of Israel. (And from now on, they will no longer be known as Israel, the northern kingdom and Judah, the southern kingdom. They are the one covenant people of Israel.)
But deliverance from exile is not the heart of Ezekiel’s message. The good news is not merely that God’s people will move back home but that a transformation will take place within them.
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.
In these five and a half verses “I will” occurs eight times, speaking of what God will do.
The first thing God will do is give the people a new start.
1) 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you….29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.
The Jews are in exile, not because a stronger military defeated their military force, but because of their sins, which received the judgment of God. Just before the destruction of Jerusalem, God has Ezekiel give this message to the people:
On account of your unclean lewdness, because I would have cleansed you and you were not cleansed from your uncleanness, you shall not be cleansed anymore till I have satisfied my fury upon you. 14 I am the LORD. I have spoken; it shall come to pass; I will do it. I will not go back; I will not spare; I will not relent; according to your ways and your deeds you will be judged, declares the Lord GOD” (24:13-14).
God punished the people for their uncleanness, but now he is giving them a new start by cleansing them. He will sprinkle clean water. This image is found in Numbers 19:17ff. To cleanse a person who has become unclean, a clean person dips a hyssop branch into a bowl of water mixed with the ashes from a sin offering and then sprinkles the unclean person with that water. (With apologies to my immersion brothers and sisters, the Old Testament image of cleansing with water is that of sprinkling.) That is why Peter refers in the opening verses of his letter to those who have been sprinkled with the blood of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:1-2).
And so, the problem of us all before God is not that we have somehow grown apart from him, have somehow become distant from him; it is that we are unclean before a holy God, and to be brought near we must be cleansed of our sins. We need God to sprinkle us with the water that is mixed with the sacrifice of our Lamb.
2) 26 And I will give you a new heart… And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
God will cleanse his people, giving them a new start. God will give them a new heart. God had earlier spoken to Ezekiel about this.
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God (11:19-20).
The heart problem of the people of Israel is that they are stubborn. As God puts it in 3:7, “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” What can they do about it? Actually, nothing. They need a heart transplant that only God can perform. He will take out the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh – a heart that is malleable to his teaching.
Likewise, we all must be given new hearts. The heart of the old nature is made of stone; it cannot respond to the gospel nor can it be molded to be a pure heart that is true to the Lord.
God will give a new start by cleansing his people. He will give them a new heart that is responsive to him. He will give a new spirit.
3) 26 and a new spirit I will put within you….27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Heart and spirit are close in meaning. Heart is the seat of the intellect, will, and emotions. The spirit is the “impulse which drives the man and regulates his desires, his thoughts and his conduct.” We naturally have a stubborn stone heart with the impulse to sin – to disobey and transgress God’s law. The Lord God will put a new spirit in us by putting his Spirit within us, thus giving us a desire to follow God’s commandments.
And that is what happens in salvation. In our natural state, we will not obey because we cannot do what God commanded the house of Israel to do in Ezekiel 18:31: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” God received from Israel what he receives from modern sinners – blank stares. We are hearing without perceiving.
Some of us might think we are responding. We become religious. We do good works. We dress up our hearts to look pretty, and we feel nice feelings in our spirits. But we give ourselves away by failing to receive and to understand the gospel that teaches how utterly sinful we really are, how our hope rests solely in the work of our Lord’s good work on the cross, and how through such an understanding the Holy Spirit can produce in us the works that are pleasing to him.
As Jesus said, we must be born again in order to enter into the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit must first do the regenerating in our hearts in order to possess and to exercise faith. It is then that the Spirit causes us to walk in the statutes of the Lord.
God will give a new start by cleansing his people. He will give a new heart that is responsive to him. He will give a new spirit through his own Spirit that will cause them to walk in his ways. And he will give a new relationship.
4) 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
It is more accurate to say that the Lord will renew his covenant relationship with his people. They had broken their covenant vows. At Mt. Sinai, after the giving of the commandments, they made the following covenant vow: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7).
Suffice it to say that they were not obedient, and so God divorced them. To impress this point, he instructed Hosea to give his son a tough name to bear: “And the Lord said, ‘Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God’” (Hosea 1:9). Even so, in the very next verse God goes on to say:
Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
Ezekiel is speaking of this same covenant renewal. But it is also the extension of the covenant relationship to peoples outside of Israel. The numbers will be like the sand of the sea because people of all nations will be gathered into the covenant. And so the Apostle Paul could tell the Gentile Christians:
…at one time you were…alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19).
We now are the people of the Lord, and the Lord is our God.
A new start, a new heart, a new spirit, a new relationship – these are great works that the Lord promised the house of Israel. The remaining verses – 29b-38 – present the results of the Lord God’s work in and for his people.
1) And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations….33 “Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. 34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. 35 And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’
Verse 33 connects becoming clean with prosperity. “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities” is when conditions will change for the good. This looks back to the promises made at the onset of God’s covenant with his people:
And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. 2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 28:1-2).
Is this passage, then, teaching the prosperity gospel? Well, does the prosperity gospel teach repentance? Does it take the time to list our sins, what makes us unclean, the idols that we have replaced God with? Does the prosperity gospel teach first of all the holiness of God and that what matters most is the glorifying of God’s name? For all of these things compose the message of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel here is speaking of material prosperity, but even that prosperity is about more than just physical prosperity. The primary blessing is the return of the house of Israel to their home – their spiritual home. The land of Israel with Jerusalem in particular represents living in the kingdom of God in his presence. This is not a message of prospering in exile but of being brought home – brought home to their God.
This is a passage that to a degree was fulfilled in the literal return of the Jews to their homeland seventy years after being exiled. Over time there was some prosperity but never to the degree promised in this and other Old Testament visions. Even now Jews look to its greater fulfillment.
We, who believe in the Messiah and that he has come, we see even now its being fulfilled. For we now prosper in Jesus Christ. We possess the riches that are in him. Shall I name them? Forgiveness of our sins; being cleansed, being given a new start, a new heart, a new spirit, a new relationship with God. Sounds familiar? Let’s continue. We have been given good works to do, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the seal of the Holy Spirit assuring that we will receive our inheritance. The list can continue, but these make clear that we are prosperous indeed.
Increase in People
The people will be prosperous and fruitful. Their numbers will multiply.
37 “Thus says the Lord GOD: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. 38 Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people.
God had promised that the numbers of his people would be like the sands of the sea. Israel did eventually grow again, but it is in the spread of the gospel where this prophecy is truly fulfilled. For untold millions over the ages have been born into the kingdom of God so that the vision in Revelation 7:9 reports: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Humility of the People
There will be prosperity; there will great numbers of people. Such fortunes typically lead a people to be proud, but these people will be humble.
31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
The unmerited blessings of God will lead them to repentance. God makes an enlightening statement about his own motivation in verse 32: “It is not for your sake that I will act.” For whose sake will he act? For his own. Here are the verses prior to our passage:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes (vs 22-23).
It is a humbling thought, isn’t it? The great work of salvation is accomplished, not because God felt indebted to us, not because he thought us worthy, but out of concern for his own glory.
Glory of God
And so we come to the last three verses, which express this concern for his glory.
36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.
37 “Thus says the Lord GOD: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. 38 Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the LORD.”
That phrase, “know that I am the Lord,” expresses the theme of Ezekiel. “I am the Lord” occurs no less than eighty-two times in the book. God wants to be known. He wants to be glorified. This is God’s chief aim in our creation and certainly in our salvation. Our catechism gets it right: “What is the chief of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
Let’s recap. Using God’s promises to the house of Israel for our model, we learn that God has promised us – those who call on Jesus’ name – a new start. He will cleanse us from our uncleanness. He will give us a new heart, whereby we can now be responsive to him. He will give us a new spirit whereby we will desire to be obedient to him. And he will give us a new relationship with him in which he is our God and we are his people.
In that new relationship we will be prosperous as we possess the riches that are in Christ. We will multiply in number as people from all people groups are brought into Christ’s kingdom. We will not take pride in our new relationship and prosperity, but rather all the more will be humble as we accept that we are saved not for anything good found in us, nor that God needs us, but for the sake of his own glory which God prizes above all else.
To his glory, for his name’s sake will we worship him, live for him, and take joy in him.