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Friday 27 May 2022

This is one of several passages in Ezekiel that gives a message of hope in contrast with the many oracles of doom that we find elsewhere in this book. But it’s not all about the good news - there is still the problem of persistent evil and judgement to contend with.

Ezekiel 34:11-16Ezekiel 34:20-24

This is one of several passages in Ezekiel that gives a message of hope in contrast with the many oracles of doom that we find elsewhere in this book. But it’s not all about the good news - there is still the problem of persistent evil and judgement to contend with.

Ezekiel has watched the failure and destruction of his beloved Jerusalem and he reflects on how it has happened. He comes to the conclusion that it has happened because of bad government. We can see this in the early part of chapter 34, before today’s passage begins. God begins by addressing shepherds - but actually he is speaking to the kings and leaders of Israel - and they are compelled to listen. God’s first point is this: that governments which are self-serving, greedy and fail to have compassion are in big trouble from God. The kings themselves were probably not wicked, but the system that had developed was self-serving and beneficial only to those with established interests. Those with power have used it to protect their own interests and further their own purposes. The flow of power has been arranged so that the needs of the marginal and the weak simply disappear off the radar, and the kings, the leaders, haven’t even noticed. The relationship between sheep and shepherd has been forgotten.

The theme of “the day of the LORD” is introduced early on in the reading as we have it today, in verse 12. That day was a day of “clouds and thick darkness”, a day of scattering the sheep of Israel. But clearly that day is past, and those who were scattered are now to be gathered together again. This gathering will happen by the grace of God - and the image for God’s compassionate love is that of the dedicated shepherd. In the first section, from verses 11 to 16, the shepherd seeking the lost sheep is clearly identified as Yahweh. Just as a shepherd collects the sheep who are in danger, so Yahweh will bring together all the remnants of scattered Israel. Those who are hungry will be fed in the best pastures, those who are thirsty will be led to pure mountain streams, those who are injured will be healed and those who are weak will be strengthened. God knows how things have gone wrong, but now God speaks out an alternative. God is fully engaged in matters of public power and through Ezekiel God shows what proper rule looks like.

All of this will be done by God’s direct intervention. Yahweh is a personal God who cares deeply for the sheep - the sheep are God’s own possession. We get a strong sense of that through the way the writer uses “I” so frequently. In verses 11-13 we read, “I myself will search for my sheep”; “I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them”; “I will bring them out from the peoples.” We’re reminded over and over again that God is personally involved in the life of the nation. We can’t say if this directly inspired the 23rd psalm, but surely Jesus must have been aware of this passage and it is likely that it prompted the way he spoke about his understanding of his role in terms of being the good shepherd who seeks the lost.

A first reading of this passage might speak to us of the return of the exiles in Babylon to their own land. Ezekiel lived and worked in this exiled community, and elsewhere in this book he speaks as though he has the historical Israel in mind (for example in 37:1-14 with the valley of the dry bones). But actually Ezekiel’s concern goes beyond this, and what seems to be directed at a historical reality also serves as a metaphor for the end times (the eschaton as it is often called). This passage today is not only concerned with Israel in the 6th century BCE, but also with the realities of good and evil in an ultimate sense. Israel’s return from exile in Babylon to the Land of Promise provides an image for the redemption of all God’s people. The work of God, the good and faithful shepherd, is not limited in time and space.

The second part of the set reading (verses 20-22) is pre-empted in verse 16 where we read that Yahweh promises to destroy the fat and the strong, in contrast with the way God sustains the weak. In verse 21 we get a reason for this - the fat and the strong have been instrumental in the persecution of the weak. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but draw some parallels with current political situations. This maltreatment of the powerless has brought about God’s activity as a judge, and in order to save the flock God will judge between sheep and sheep.

It might seem as though God is presenting a rather unrealistic picture. It sounds like heavenly rule on earth which does not seem to directly touch the public reality. So the final two verses move on in order to identify that a shepherd in the line of David will be the special agent through which the salvation of the people comes about. All kings in the line of David should have been agents of justice, righteousness, peace, dignity and humaneness, but they weren’t. And so God has to take things back to David again. David, not just as a shepherd boy but also as reigning shepherd-king, will bring about the liberating purposes of God. This shepherd-king will act as God’s representative and will do all the acts of grace that God has personally set out to do. The text at this point only directly mentions feeding, but we can assume that the watering, healing and strengthening that were mentioned earlier are also implied. All the loving and gracious activity of God will be enacted by the one Yahweh has chosen.

If Ezekiel’s words are simply a historical promise then he joins in the prophetic tradition of longing for the restoration of the monarchy in the line of David after exile. But actually it’s the wider implications of God beyond time and the concerns of the end times that speak to us today. The Sunday for which this reading is set is the last Sunday before Advent. And in Advent and Christmas we remember the first coming of the Dvidic-king-like-no-other - Jesus. This is the incarnation of the promise made by Ezekiel, and in some ways the beginning of its fulfilment. But we can’t forget the second coming towards which our attention is drawn in Advent. The second coming of this same Messiah which we remember in this season will be the final consummation of that promise, and of the hope that Christ’s people have placed in him. In Jesus the new government is at work. In Jesus a new kingdom of justice, righteousness, peace and dignity has begun. The rulers of this world may seem to want to reduce the claims of Jesus to private, spiritual matters, and to let our thinking be shaped by our fears, but the Bible does not allow this to happen. The rule of Christ is just as much concerned with the public, political sphere as it is about the private and the individual. As we think about this reading from Ezekiel on the Sunday when we are encouraged to think about the reign of Christ, we’re reminded of this more strongly than ever. To end with a quote from Walter Brueggemann on this passage: “The kingdom coming is not a private party. It is a new public way in the world.”

For further reflection…

  • Read through this passage again, and if you have time read through the whole of chapter . Take notice of any words and phrases that jump out at you or that stick in your mind.
  • How do you respond to the image of God as a shepherd? Can you think of any other images that Ezekiel might have used if he had been writing today?
  • Do you think it’s time that to declare that any government that is greedy, self-serving or lacking in compassion is in trouble with God? How might we go about doing that?
  • In what ways do you think you personally might be able to help bring about the new public order that Ezekiel prophesies and that Jesus enacts?
  • How does it make you feel when your own ideas, opinions and traditions are criticised or turned on their heads?
  • What might God be wanting to turn upside down in your life today?