14 And the word of the Lord came to me: 15 “Son of man, your brothers, even your brothers, your kinsmen, the whole house of Israel, all of them, are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said, ‘Go far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession.’ 16 Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.’ 17 Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ 18 And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 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. 21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord God.”
22 Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. 23 And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city. 24 And the Spirit lifted me up and brought me in the vision by the Spirit of God into Chaldea, to the exiles. Then the vision that I had seen went up from me. 25 And I told the exiles all the things that the Lord had shown me. – Ezekiel 11:14-25 ESV
Ezekiel was an exile living in the distant land of Babylon, alongside thousands of his fellow Israelites who had been taken there against their wills as prisoners of war. The southern kingdom of Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem had been under the control of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon for a number of years. The kings of Judah were little more than vassals to the Nebuchadnezzar and were required to do his bidding. In 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s forces had besieged the city of Jerusalem, forcing its 18-year-old king, Jehoiachin, to abandon his 3-month-long reign and surrender.
In the eighth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, he took Jehoiachin prisoner. As the Lord had said beforehand, Nebuchadnezzar carried away all the treasures from the Lord’s Temple and the royal palace. He stripped away all the gold objects that King Solomon of Israel had placed in the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzar took all of Jerusalem captive, including all the commanders and the best of the soldiers, craftsmen, and artisans—10,000 in all. Only the poorest people were left in the land. – 2 Kings 24:12-14 NLT
It was at that time that Ezekiel found himself one of the thousands of former Judahites who made the long journey to the land of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, as the new king of Judah and changed his name to Zedekiah. For more than a decade, Zedekiah willingly subjugated himself and his country to the will of Nebuchadnezzar, but in the latter years of his reign, he made the fateful decision to rebel.
So on January 15, during the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon led his entire army against Jerusalem. They surrounded the city and built siege ramps against its walls. Jerusalem was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah’s reign. – 2 Kings 25:1-2 NLT
It was this still-pending event that Ezekiel was being warned about. As he and his co-exiles bided their time in Babylon, his contemporaries in Judah were living under the reign of the puppet king, Zedekiah. According to the book of 2 Kings, Zedekiah was an unrighteous ruler who followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, leading the people of Judah to continue their idolatrous ways.
Zedekiah did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done. These things happened because of the Lord’s anger against the people of Jerusalem and Judah, until he finally banished them from his presence and sent them into exile. – 2 Kings 24:19-20 NLT
Yet, the people back in Judah were oblivious to what was about to happen. In fact, they were under the mistaken impression that they were the fortunate ones. After all, they remained in the land while many of their peers had been deported. Surely, God was on their side. In fact, God revealed to Ezekiel that his former compatriots were gloating over their fortunate state of affairs.
“Son of man, the people still left in Jerusalem are talking about you and your relatives and all the people of Israel who are in exile. They are saying, ‘Those people are far away from the Lord, so now he has given their land to us!’” – Ezekiel 11:15 NLT
When Nebuchadnezzar had ransacked the city of Jerusalem, he had taken the best and the brightest, along with the wealthiest and most influential members of the community. “Only the poorest people were left in the land” (2 Kings 24:14 NLT). And these people felt like they had won the lottery. They moved into the abandoned homes of their former neighbors, took over their businesses, confiscated their possessions, and enjoyed all the perks of their unexpected promotion. It was all too good to be true. In a sense, they viewed themselves as blessed by God.
But God saw things differently, and He provided Ezekiel with a message of comfort and encouragement for his fellow exiles.
“Therefore, tell the exiles, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I have scattered you in the countries of the world, I will be a sanctuary to you during your time in exile.’” – Ezekiel 11:16 NLT
God assured Ezekiel that He was in their midst, and He would be with them all throughout their captivity in Babylon. He would be their sanctuary. Yes, they were experiencing all the negative ramifications of an exiled existence in a foreign land. They were little more than refugees who enjoyed few rights or privileges and were viewed as second-class citizens by their Babylonian masters. They would never own land or operate their own businesses. Their former lifestyles of affluence and luxury were nothing more than a distant memory. But God had not abandoned them. And He had great plans for them.
They all longed to return home, but they had begun to lose hope that it would ever happen. But God gave Ezekiel some unexpected and much-needed news.
“I, the Sovereign Lord, will gather you back from the nations where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel once again.” – Ezekiel 11:17 NLT
And God assured Ezekiel that this returning remnant would play a vital role in restoring the spiritual health of the nation.
“When the people return to their homeland, they will remove every trace of their vile images and detestable idols.” – Ezekiel 11:18 NLT
These returning exiles will purge Judah of all the idols, altars, and high places erected by Zedekiah and his predecessors. It will be a time of cleansing and revival. In fact, God even promises to renew the hearts of His rebellious people.
“I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey my decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God.” – Ezekiel 11:19-20 NLT
God will miraculously restore the hearts of His people, providing them with a renewed capacity to serve and obey Him faithfully. And God will reiterate this promise later on in the book of Ezekiel.
“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:25-27 NLT
This promise must have brought a smile to Ezekiel’s face. It was almost too good to be true. The thought that God might restore His exiled people to their land was like music to Ezekiel’s ears. But did God keep His promise? Did He fulfill His commitment to return His exiled people to their land?
The answer is yes. In time, God did restore a remnant of His people to their rightful place in Judah. After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, a group of exiles would return under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. They would make the long journey home and begin the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, reconstructing its walls, and restoring the destroyed temple of God.
But even after their return to the land, the people of God would never recapture their former days of glory and greatness. Israel would remain a second-rate nation without a king or a standing army. And while much of what God prophesied concerning their restoration would take place, the majority of the people would remain distant and disinterested in developing a vibrant relationship with Him. And this would last all the way until the coming of Jesus, their Messiah.
When Jesus appeared on the scene in Jerusalem, He found a people who were simply going through the religious motions. They talked a good game but their behavior revealed the true condition of their hearts. Jesus even quoted the prophet, Isaiah, when declaring their less-than-ideal spiritual state.
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT
So, there is a part of God’s promises that remains as yet unfulfilled. Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). They refused to recognize Him as their Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Instead, they demanded His crucifixion. And their actions revealed the true condition of their hearts. But the apostle Paul reminds us that the day will come when God fulfills the missing element of His covenant promise to Israel.
Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,
“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
And this is my covenant with them,
that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 11:25-27 NLT
For Ezekiel and his peers, they could rest in the promise that they would one day return to the land of Judah. But centuries will have to pass before God brings about the final phase of His plan for the people of Israel. The day is coming when His Son will return to earth a second time and, when He does, God will keep His promise to restore His people to their former position of prominence and glory.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When I cleanse you from your sins, I will repopulate your cities, and the ruins will be rebuilt. The fields that used to lie empty and desolate in plain view of everyone will again be farmed. And when I bring you back, people will say, ‘This former wasteland is now like the Garden of Eden! The abandoned and ruined cities now have strong walls and are filled with people!’ Then the surrounding nations that survive will know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruins and replanted the wasteland. For I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I say.” – Ezekiel 36:33-36 NLT
But Ezekiel’s vision ends with the glory of God departing the city of Jerusalem. God vacates the premises. But He is not done yet. And when Ezekiel found himself back in the land of Babylon, he shared all he had seen and heard with his fellow Jews. There was reason for hope because God had a plan and it included them.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.