Bible Commentary: Ezekiel 33:21-34:31

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Ezekiel 33:21-34:31

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"They Hear Your Words, but They Do Not Do Them"

Ezekiel 33:21 is a significant turning point in this book. Remember that in Ezekiel 24:26-27, God had foretold the fall of Jerusalem and said to Ezekiel: "On that day one who escapes will come to you to let you hear it with your ears; on that day [of his arrival] your mouth will be opened to him who has escaped; you shall speak and no longer be mute." God, we recall, had forbidden Ezekiel from any spoken communication with the exiles except for the particular things God commanded him to say. Yet now the messenger has at last arrived—in January 585 B.C., seven months after Jerusalem's fall—and Ezekiel is finally able to communicate as normal. Also, whereas everything up to this point was mainly a warning message to Israel and Judah and other nations, the remainder of the book focuses mainly on the hope of Israel's future deliverance.

Many biblical scholars maintain that since Ezekiel was among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, the last chapters are about the liberation of the Jews from ancient Babylon, allowing them to return to Palestine after their 70 years of captivity. But Ezekiel's calling was to prophesy concerning the whole house of Israel, not just Judah. And his prophecies of the end time mostly refer to all of Israel—reunited. The restoration Ezekiel describes involves great miracles and is much grander than the return of a fraction of the Jewish exiles to their homeland after the fall of ancient Babylon. Far from being a mere technical difference in how to explain Ezekiel's writings, this fact is crucial to understanding end time prophecy.

As hopeful and positive as this section of the book is, however, it does begin with a few rebukes and pronouncements of divine judgment. God informs Ezekiel that the remaining survivors in the ruins of the land of Israel have reasoned that, since they are still alive and have escaped deportation, they must be the righteous ones—the faithful remnant. Since Abraham was just one faithful man and God decreed the land his, they think that they, being many faithful and his rightful heirs, will surely be given the land back (33:23-24). Yet they fail to properly assess their own mindset and conduct. They rely on themselves rather than God. Even worse, they are idolaters, murderers and adulterers who persist in abominations (verses 25-26)—no way will they inherit the land of Israel! Instead, they will die as so much of the nation already has.

They fell into the typical trap of looking at circumstances for "signs" of divine favor, something people often do today. If one wants to know if his ways please God, he needs to take a more mature approach. That is, he needs to learn God's will through His Word and come to regard that Word as the highest authority in his life. It's not who you are or what you have that "proves" God's blessing. He plainly says, "I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word" (Isaiah 66:2, NLT).

It may well be that the description and warning of Ezekiel 33:23-29 also apply to those who will be left among the national homelands of modern Israel in the end time.

Ezekiel may have been an eloquent speaker because people talked about how much they enjoyed listening to him (verses 30-32). But God said, "They hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain" (verse 31; compare Isaiah 58:2; Psalm 78:36-37; James 1:21-24). Not much has changed in the last 2,500 years with most religious people. The Bible Reader's Companion states: "The exiles of Ezekiel's day were 'churchgoers.' They made it a regular practice to come to the prophet, sit down, and listen to his words. But to them the prophet's eloquent speech was only entertainment! They did not come to hear, and then put into practice, the word of their God. What a reminder for us today. Do we go to church to see friends, listen to the choir, and enjoy the preacher's jokes? Or do we go to hear God's Word and take it to heart?" (note on Ezekiel 33:30-32).

God's prophets and preachers are to warn the people about the prophesied consequences of failing to obey Him. When the prophecies come to pass, "then they will know that a prophet has been among them" (verse 33). Woe then to those who haven't been obeying God. Indeed, this is quite interesting since, at this point in Ezekiel's book, the ancient destruction of Judah and Jerusalem had come to pass—the news of Jerusalem's fall just now arriving. And yet the wording of verse 33 seems to indicate that there was more to come to prove Ezekiel a true prophet. This may imply that, at least in part, the end-time fall of all Israel is in view here—and that the people gathering to listen to Ezekiel's words may mean people in the modern nations of Israel assembling in church services shortly before that time to hear Ezekiel's words preached in sermons. There are many who go to church services today clamoring to hear sermons on prophecy—but who fail to take personally any exhortations to repentance and spiritual growth.

"Woe to the Shepherds of Israel...!"

Jerusalem had been conquered and burned—the climax of God's punishment on Judah. God now makes it clear that a large measure of the blame for the sinfulness of Judah and Israel and their resulting captivities (both ancient and future) lay at the feet of the rulers, "the shepherds of Israel" (34:2). The metaphor of "shepherds" in this context refers more to kings and civil rulers than priests or prophets, but in God's nation, civil rulers were expected to be spiritual leaders as well—to teach His laws and to set a godly example of submission to His laws (compare Deuteronomy 17:14-20). And, of course, the principles here would apply to religious leaders of the nation as well.

(It should be noted that some have tried to use Ezekiel 34 as a castigation of the ministry of spiritual Israel, the true Church of God, in the end time. However, the "flock" of God in this chapter is, according to verse 30, "the house of Israel," a phrase repeatedly used in Ezekiel and the rest of Scripture to refer to the physical nation of Israel. Of course, the principles in this chapter could certainly refer to some leaders among the Church in the last days. Jesus Christ warned in Matthew 24:48-51 of some of God's servants then abusing others, and we see that same problem throughout the Church age, as all ministers are human and subject to slipping into the self-centered corruption we read of here. Nevertheless, it is a misapplication of this prophecy to claim that it directly foretells corrupt ministers serving the true Church, men who fail to care for God's spiritual flock.)

One of the best examples for rulers, Christian ministers and leaders of all kinds to emulate is that of a good shepherd—a "servant leader." God repeatedly describes in the Bible what makes a good shepherd. God should know—Jesus Christ is "the good Shepherd" (John 10:11, 14), "the great Shepherd" (Hebrews 13:20) and the perfect Shepherd (Psalm 23). Jesus taught that a good shepherd is devoted and self-sacrificing, putting the needs of the sheep above his own desires—he "gives his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). By contrast, a "hireling" will readily abandon the sheep because he "does not care about the sheep" (verse 13). Leaders should have the mindset of being assistant shepherds serving under Jesus Christ, submitting to, following and applying His attitude and approach (see 1 Peter 5:1-4).

Jesus told His disciples, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men hold them in subjection, tyrannizing over them" (Matthew 20:25, Amplified Bible). But here in Ezekiel 34 God says the rulers of Israel—“My shepherds" (verse 8)—have been as bad as gentile despots about advancing and enriching themselves at the expense of the people. They acted more like wolves than shepherds, causing suffering rather than relieving suffering. Therefore, God pronounces, "Woe to the shepherds of Israel...!" (verse 2).

Good shepherds are concerned for every individual, diligently seeking to save even one lamb if it goes astray (Matthew 18:10-14). By contrast, God said the supposed shepherds of Israel had not "sought what was lost" (Ezekiel 34:4). God in His mercy would have saved and "brought back what was driven away"—either from Him spiritually or from the land literally—if the leaders and people had repented and begun to truly serve God.

In verses 5 and 8, God says that "there was no shepherd." Yet in the second reference, note that God says that "there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search..." This might sound like a contradiction. Were there shepherds, or weren't there? What is meant is either that there were no shepherds in their scattered condition or, perhaps more likely, there were no true shepherds over the Israelites. There were people in the positions of shepherds (national leaders)—but not ones who thought and acted as shepherds. (This should help us to see that political rulers were more in mind, for in Ezekiel's day was not Jeremiah a true religious leader? And in the last days, will there not be true spiritual leaders, such as the two witnesses of Revelation 11?)

Because there were no right-minded rulers over the people—because there won't be any at the end of this age—God says He will personally step in to lovingly serve as Israel's shepherd (verses 11-16). He will "bring back what was driven away" (verse 16). While this refers in small part to the liberation of the Jews from their ancient Babylonian captivity, it refers more to the end-time restoration of "scattered" Israelites from all over the world, as the latter part of this chapter shows.

Official rulers are not the only ones guilty of evil. God judges each person individually—“I shall judge between sheep and sheep" (verse 17). All too often the stronger oppress the weaker—the "fat" sheep take advantage of the "lean sheep" (verse 20).

How valuable that King David's boyhood experience was as a shepherd! God foretells that He will one day establish David as the shepherd over Israel and "prince" or ruler under Him (verses 23-24). Critics often don't interpret this literally, saying this is simply a prophecy of the Messiah, who was to be of Davidic lineage. But Ezekiel specifically says that the resurrected and glorified David will once again be king over all Israel (37:24; Jeremiah 30:9; Hosea 3:5). To put it simply, Jesus will be King of all nations. David, serving under Him, will be king of Israel. And the 12 apostles, under David, will each serve as leader over one of the tribes of Israel (see Luke 22:29-30).

During the coming reign of Jesus Christ, God's "covenant of peace" will even extend to the animal kingdom (Ezekiel 34:25, 28). This is also a type of transforming all people to act more like lambs than wolves and other wild beasts. God will cause rain to come in due season; and there will be many other physical and spiritual "showers of blessing" (verse 26). Blissful and wonderful conditions will prevail when all the world is cared for by the Good Shepherd. (To learn more, request or download our free booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom.)