25 “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name. 26 They shall forget their shame and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, 27 when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. 28 Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore. 29 And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 39:25-29 ESV
In verse 25, God singles out the patriarch, Jacob, for special attention, and God makes it a point to use Jacob’s old name. Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, whose name (yaʿăqōḇ) means “heel-holder” or “supplanter.” According to the Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, it can also mean “layer of snares.” And Jacob lived up to his name. He was a deceiver, an old-fashioned con artist who repeatedly used his uncanny ability to manipulate others for self-promotion. He somehow convinced his slightly older twin brother, Esau, to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew. Later on, with advice from his mother, Jacob tricked his own father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn that rightfully belonged to Esau. Years later, Jacob would use further subterfuge against his unsuspecting father-in-law in order to build his own flock while decimating the flock of Laban.
It was not long after leaving the land of Haran where he had lived as part of Laban’s family for 20 years, that Jacob received his new name from God.
“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 ESV
At this encounter with God, Jacob received far more than a new name; he was given a new identity. Just moments earlier, he had been engaged in a wrestling match with an unidentified “man” who he later recognized as none other than God.
“I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” – Genesis 32:30 ESV
Jacob had literally wrestled with God, who had appeared to him in human form. But Jacob had not bested God. There was no cry of “uncle” from the lips of God. Jacob had tried to manipulate God by demanding a blessing from Him, but the blessing had been Jacob’s all along. No manipulation was necessary. Jacob didn’t need to try and manhandle God to get what he wanted. It was already his. So, based on the context, Jacob’s new name, Israel, would be best translated “let God rule.” The Almighty was placing on Jacob an expectation of willful submission to His sovereign authority.
The new name given to Jacob is Israel, and the explanation following is that Jacob has struggled with God, and with men have succeeded. There is a play on sound in yiśrā’ēl (“Israel”) and śāritā (“you have struggled”). The original meaning of Israel is much debated (“God rules?”, “God heals?”, “God judges?”), as is the relationship between yiśrā’ēl and the verb śārâ (“struggled”). Uncertaintly about the meaning of śārâ is engendered by the fact that it occurs only one other time in the OT, Hos. 12:4. Hosea’s reference to Jacob, “he strove with [śārâ ‘et] God.” The ancient versions disagreed on the meaning of śāritā in Gen. 32:29. LXX, Vulg., and Pesh. derive it from srr (Aramaic), “be strong.” Aquila and Symm. derive it from śārâr, “to rule.” As already noted, Targ. Onqelos attempts to eliminate the idea of a mortal engaged in combat with God: “For you are great [or: ‘a prince,’ reading sar for śāritā] before the Lord and among men, therefore you have prevailed.
It seems that in Gen. 32 one must interpret Israel as “El will rule or strive,” or “Let El rule,” rather than as “he has striven with El. For one thing, it is very unusual for the theophoric element in a personal name to serve as anything but subject. Up to this point in Jacob’s life Jacob may well have been called “Israjacob,” “Jacob shall rule” or “let Jacob rule.” In every confrontation he has emerged as the victor; over Esau, over Isaac, over Laban, and even more startingly over this “man.” – Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis
In verse 25 of Ezekiel 39, God uses both names to drive home an important point.
“Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel.” – Ezekiel 39:25 ESV
The “fortunes of Jacob” refers to God’s promise of a land, a seed, and a blessing. It was the same promise given to Abraham and Isaac.
“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.” – Genesis 28:13-14 NLT
Jacob, the deceiver, and manipulator, had been graciously given the promise of the inheritance offered to Abraham and Isaac, and he had done nothing to deserve it. In fact, his progeny had continued to follow his deceptive practices, living in open rebellion against God. They feigned obedience through the observance of His required feasts and festivals but, all the while, their lives were marked by idolatry and immorality. Yet, God promises to restore their fortunes by returning them to the land and restoring them to a right relationship with Himself.
And God states that He will “have mercy on the whole house of Israel.” By using Jacob’s new name, God is including all 12 tribes of Israel, the descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons. Even though the kingdom of Israel was divided immediately after the reign of King Solomon and remained two separate kingdoms for centuries, God announces that there will be a grand reunion and reunification of His chosen people. He will show mercy to them all and, for the first time since their inception as a nation, they will “let God rule.”
“For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.
“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 36:24-27 NLT
“I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” – Jeremiah 24:7 NLT
God has punished His people for their sins. The audience to whom Ezekiel spoke and for whom he penned the words of this book were experiencing the reality of God’s judgment. They were living as exiles in Babylon, as divine punishment for their failure to “let God rule.” And even when future generations of Israelites find themselves graciously relocated and restored to the land of promise, they will fully recognize how undeserving they are of this marvelous act of mercy from God.
“They will accept responsibility for their past shame and unfaithfulness after they come home to live in peace in their own land, with no one to bother them.” – Ezekiel 39:26 NLT
God states that He will vindicate His holiness in the sight of many nations. How does He intend to do that? By making the unholy holy. By transforming His unrighteous and disobedient children into faithful sons and daughters of God. And this miraculous transformation of His people will allow Him to take up residence among them – for eternity.
“I will unify them into one nation on the mountains of Israel. One king will rule them all; no longer will they be divided into two nations or into two kingdoms. They will never again pollute themselves with their idols and vile images and rebellion, for I will save them from their sinful apostasy. I will cleanse them. Then they will truly be my people, and I will be their God.” – Ezekiel 37:22-23 NLT
“I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant. I will give them their land and increase their numbers, and I will put my Temple among them forever. I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And when my Temple is among them forever, the nations will know that I am the LORD, who makes Israel holy.” – Ezekiel 37:26-28 NLT
There is a day coming when God will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel. God’s people will no longer suffer division, dispersion, attack, or mistreatment. They will no longer be apostate, idolatrous, and immoral. And they will never have to fear falling from God’s grace again.
“And I will never again turn my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit upon the people of Israel. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 39:29 NLT
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.