Say to the House of Israel, "The Lord God says this: I am acting not for your sake, House of Israel, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I am going to display the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord - declares the Lord God - when in you I display my holiness before their eyes. For I shall take you from among the nations and gather you back from all the countries, and bring you home to your own country. I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your filth and of all your foul idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practise my judgments. You will live in the country which I gave your ancestors. You will be my people and I shall be your God."
At long last, following chapter after chapter of relentless challenge and accusation, following diatribe after diatribe against ritual sacrilege and social profanation, the prophet utters a quiet word of hope. Finally, after harsh indictment and stark symbol, Ezekiel is enlightened by a salvific glow.
Ezekiel is the first prophet to speak from exile, from outside the Promised Land, from Babylon, capital of the colonial empire. His voice is heard for some 22 years (BCE 593-571). From bitter banishment, he grapples with God's apparent failure. Who can respect a god who cannot even protect the god's own people on their own land? The three pillars of the Torah have evidently collapsed: the pledge of land to ensure fecundity, the security of a Davidic dynasty to guarantee justice, the promise of a temple and priesthood to proclaim God's Word authentically.
The prophecy of Ezekiel is not for the faint-hearted, for those who look for an instant salvific solution before courageously facing utter catastrophe. For the world of Ezekiel is a world in chaos; the empire has seemingly won while God's people is fast assimilating itself to occupation at home and settling down to marginalization in exile. God's people have proved fickle and faithless, swiftly embracing the dominant values of the empire, the idols of cultic, military and political might. The social fabric is crumbling, for greed and violence are as infectious as they are numbing. The poor are ignored and God's holiness profaned among the nations. In times like these, Ezekiel has little time for the tenderness of an Isaiah or the encouragement of an evangelist.
And yet, when death has seemingly won at home and abroad, the prophet resists every attempt to be "normalized", to conform, to be assimilated into the world around him. If it is true that "only dead fish follow the current", there would seem to be little evidence of life among the exiles in Babylon. Yet as long as the prophet's faith is alive, he will not grow spiritually numb.
And yes, the prophet finally sees that we are not beyond redemption, that the political, religious and ecological mess we have made of God's world may indeed be healed. Dawn is breaking for those who have squarely faced the long darkness. Long delayed, these are words of renewal and restoration: a new people with a new spirit return to their ancestral land and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezek. 40-48). Renovation is to be carried out under a renewed leadership in the hands of shepherds after God's own heart (Ezek. 34).
In Ezekiel 36:22-32 we read the core of Ezekiel's theology of salvation: the "failed" god of 12 minor tribes is none other than the universal God of the nations. God, witness to our wrongdoing, is giving this people a new heart and a new spirit. A transformed humanity will channel God's holiness and witness to God's glory among the nations. God's glorious name is being revealed in a new leadership for a renewed people who are being reinstated in their ancestral lands. Sola gratia, salvation solely through God's initiative and God's grace; sola fide, a people cleansed from ritual pollution and social stain in God's clean water.
The human heart is the centre of personality, the source of every thought, the fountain of the will. Gone is the insensitive, preoccupied and grasping heart of stone, replaced by a responsive heart of flesh, a heart fully awake and wholly aware. Gone is the numbing assimilated spirit, replaced by a life force that truly moves and motivates, directing intentions, thoughts and attitudes. The presence of God's Spirit within transforms motivation; only then are we capable of living according to God's Word.
Not for Ezekiel a planting of God's law within our present heart (as against Jeremiah 31:31-34), but rather a total heart replacement and an utterly new spirit. With new heart and new spirit the people can look at life from God's own viewpoint and live as a community rather than as scattered individuals. This is the sign of a new age, the age of the Messiah (see Ezek. 37:14, 39:29, Joel 2:28-29) when "You will be my people and I shall be your God". This key covenant formula is found elsewhere in Ezekiel (Ezek. 14:11; 37:23, 27), in other prophetic writings (Jer. 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, 31:33, Hos. 2:23, Zech. 8:8) and in the Torah itself (Ex. 6:7).
The new heart and new spirit heal the people from loss of hope due to the apparent loss of God's promises (land, kingship, temple). The people are restored to a new sense of mission and once again become a channel to the nations flowing with God's holiness.
Having apparently lost everything, a small, prophetically-inspired group of exiles later showed themselves at their most creative: they compiled the Hebrew Bible. This written scripture, produced in exile, has proved more secure than any homeland, more permanent than political kingship, and has opened more hearts to God's Word than any quantity of temple sacrifice.
Personal/group reflection and study
Prayerful reflection in three steps
1. Read through the passage slowly. Remain silent for a while until a particular word or phrase stands out. In a group each person is given an opportunity to say aloud the word or phrase that is most striking to the reader. More than one person may have chosen the same phrase.
2. Read through the passage slowly again. Remain silent for awhile, and then each person who wishes may briefly mention why that particular word or phrase is striking. No long sermon, just a simple sharing.
3. Read through the passage slowly once more. Remain silent for awhile, and then each person who wishes may turn the phrase they have chosen into a short prayer.
Study in context
One or more of the following themes may be shared and discussed.
What values of the surrounding culture have been assimilated by your Christian community? What numbing influence does assimilation bring?
What biblical values stand out in stark contrast to those of contemporary society?
Do you feel closer to Ezekiel's small community bravely living a "contrast culture", or to the larger Hebrew community that had already assimilated itself to Babylonian society?
Assimilation brings numbing indifference and gives scope to shallow personal ambition. What changes need to take place in order for our intentions, thoughts and attitudes to be attuned to God's Word?
Witness to God's holiness
Share your experience of God's grandeur. What impact does God's greatness have on your daily life?
Give examples of how God's holiness has pierced the shallow, consumer culture of the global market or softened the crass, violent culture of domination.
New heart, new spirit
Share inspiring examples of someone who has become a "completely new person" and left behind the values of wealth and power, and now witnesses to the God of compassionate justice and truthful love.
The repressive Babylonian state brought about harmony through coercion. Oppression and exploitation preserved the status quo. In these unpromising conditions a minority group of exiled Hebrews creatively produced a written scripture. The "People of the Book" rose again in hope, with a new sense of mission.
However unpromising our present day situation, how could a new heart - fully awake and wholly aware - give us a new sense of mission