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Chapter XXIII. The Conversion Of Israel.

In an early chapter of this volume167167   Chapter V., above. we had occasion to notice some theological principles which appear to have guided the prophet's thinking from the first. It was evident even then that these principles pointed towards a definite theory of the conversion of Israel and the process by which it was to be effected. In subsequent prophecies we have seen how constantly Ezekiel's thoughts revert to this theme, as now one aspect of it and then another is disclosed to him. We have also glanced at one passage168168   Ch. xxxvi. 16-38. which seemed to be a connected statement of the divine procedure as bearing on the restoration of Israel. But we have now reached a stage in the exposition where all this lies behind us. In the chapters that remain to be considered the regeneration of the people is assumed to have taken place; their religion and their morality are regarded as established on a stable and permanent basis, and all that has to be done is to describe the institutions by which the benefits of salvation may be conserved and handed down from age to age of the Messianic dispensation. The present is therefore a fitting opportunity for an attempt to describe Ezekiel's doctrine of conversion as a whole. It is all the more desirable that the attempt should be made because the national salvation is the central interest of the whole 357 book; and if we can understand the prophet's teaching on this subject, we shall have the key to his whole system of theology.

1. The first point to be noticed, and the one most characteristic of Ezekiel, is the divine motive for the redemption of Israel—Jehovah's regard for His own name. This thought finds expression in many parts of the book, but nowhere more clearly than in the twenty-second verse of the thirty-sixth chapter: “Not for your sakes do I act, O house of Israel, but for My holy name, which ye have profaned among the heathen, whither ye went.” Similarly in the thirty-second verse: “Not for your sakes do I act, saith the Lord Jehovah, be it known unto you: be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel.” There is an apparent harshness in these declarations which makes it easy to present them in a repellent light. They have been taken to mean that Jehovah is absolutely indifferent to the weal or woe of the people except in so far as it reflects on His own credit with the world; that He accepts the relationship between Him and Israel, but does so in the spirit of a selfish parent who exerts himself to save his child from disgrace merely in order to prevent his own name from being dragged in the mire. It would be difficult to explain how such a Being should be at all concerned about what men think of Him. If Jehovah has no interest in Israel, it is hard to see why He should be sensitive to the opinion of the rest of mankind. That is an idea of God which no man can seriously hold, and we may be certain that it is a perversion of Ezekiel's meaning. Everything depends on how much is included in the “name” of Jehovah. If it denotes mere arbitrary power, delighting in its own exercise and the awe which it excites, then we might conceive of the divine action as ruled by a boundless egoism, to which all human interests are alike 358 indifferent. But that is not the conception of God which Ezekiel has. He is a moral Being, one who has compassion on other things besides His own name,169169   Ch. xxxvi. 21. one who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he should turn from his way and live.170170   Chs. xviii. 23, xxxiii. 11. But when this aspect of His character is included in the name of God, we see that regard for His name cannot mean mere regard for His own interests, as if these were opposed to the interests of His creatures; but means the desire to be known as He is, as a God of mercy and righteousness as well as of infinite power.

The name of God is that by which He is known amongst men. It is more than His honour or reputation, although that is included in it according to Hebrew idiom; it is the expression of His character or His personality. To act for His name's sake, therefore, is to act so that His true character may be more fully revealed, and so that men's thoughts of Him may more truly correspond to that which in Himself He is. There is plainly nothing in this inconsistent with the deepest interest in men's spiritual well-being. Jehovah is the God of salvation, and desires to reveal Himself as such; and whether we say that He saves men in order that He may be known as a Saviour, or that He makes Himself known in order to save them, does not make any real difference. Revelation and redemption are one thing. And when Ezekiel says that regard for His own name is the supreme motive of Jehovah's action, he does not teach that Jehovah is uninfluenced by care for man; if the question had been put to him, he would have said that care for man is one of the attributes included in the Name which Jehovah is concerned to reveal.

The real meaning of Ezekiel's doctrine will perhaps be best understood from its negative statement. What is 359 meant to be excluded by the expression “not for your sakes”? It might no doubt mean, “not because I care at all for you”; but that we have seen to be inconsistent with other aspects of Ezekiel's teaching about the divine character. All that it necessarily implies is “not for any good that I find in you.” It is a protest against the idea of Pharisaic self-righteousness that a man may have a legal claim upon God through his own merits. It is true that that was not a prevalent notion amongst the people in the time of Ezekiel. But their state of mind was one in which such a thought might easily arise. They were convinced of having been entirely in the wrong in their conceptions of the relation between them and Jehovah. The pagan notion that the people is indispensable to the god on account of a physical bond between them had broken down in the recent experience of Israel, and with it had vanished every natural ground for the hope of salvation. In such circumstances the promise of deliverance would naturally raise the thought that there must after all be something in Israel that was pleasing to Jehovah, and that the prophet's denunciations of their past sins were overdone. In order to guard against that error Ezekiel explicitly asserts, what was involved in the whole of his teaching, that the mercy of God was not called forth by any good in Israel, but that nevertheless there are immutable reasons in the divine nature on which the certainty of Israel's redemption may be built.

The truth here taught is therefore, in theological language, the sovereignty of the divine grace. Ezekiel's statement of it is liable to all the distortions and misrepresentations to which that doctrine has been subjected at the hands both of its friends and its enemies; but when fairly treated it is no more objectionable than any other expression of the same truth to be found in Scripture. In Ezekiel's case it was the result of a penetrating analysis 360 of the moral condition of his people which led him to see that there was nothing in them to suggest the possibility of their being restored. It is only when he falls back on the thought of what God is, on the divine necessity of vindicating His holiness in the salvation of His people, that his faith in Israel's future finds a sure point of support. And so in general a profound sense of human sinfulness will always throw the mind back on the idea of God as the one immovable ground of confidence in the ultimate redemption of the individual and the world. When the doctrine is pressed to the conclusion that God saves men in spite of themselves, and merely to display His power over them, it becomes false and pernicious, and indeed self-contradictory. But so long as we hold fast to the truth that God is love, and that the glory of God is the manifestation of His love, the doctrine of the divine sovereignty only expresses the unchangeableness of that love and its final victory over the sin of the world.

2. The intellectual side of the conversion of Israel is the acceptance of that idea of God which to the prophet is summed up in the name of Jehovah. This is expressed in the standing formula which denotes the effect of all God's dealings with men, “They shall know that I am Jehovah.” We need not, however, repeat what has been already said as to the meaning of these words.171171   See pp. 75 f. above. Nor shall we dwell on the effect of the national judgment as a means towards producing a right impression of Jehovah's nature. It is possible that as time went on Ezekiel came to see that chastisement alone would not effect the moral change in the exiles which was necessary to bring them into sympathy with the divine purposes. In the early prophecy of ch. vi. the knowledge of Jehovah and the self-condemnation which accompanies it are spoken of as the direct result of His judgment on sin,172172   Ch. vi. 8-10. and this 361 undoubtedly was one element in the conversion of the people to right thoughts about God. But in all other passages this feeling of self-loathing is not the beginning but the end of conversion; it is caused by the experience of pardon and redemption following upon punishment.173173   Chs. xvi. 61-63, xx. 43, 44, xxxvi. 31, 32. There is also another aspect of judgment which may be mentioned in passing for the sake of completeness. It is that which is expounded in the end of the twentieth chapter. There the judgment which still stands between the exiles and the return to their own land is represented as a sifting process, in which those who have undergone a spiritual change are finally separated from those who perish in their impenitence. This idea does not occur in the prophecies subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem, and it may be doubtful how it fits into the scheme of redemption there unfolded. The prophet here regards conversion as a process wholly carried through by the operation of Jehovah on the mind of the people; and what we have next to consider is the steps by which this great end is accomplished. They are these two—forgiveness and regeneration.

3. The forgiveness of sins is denoted in the thirty-sixth chapter, as we have already seen, by the symbol of sprinkling with clean water. But it must not be supposed that this isolated figure is the only form in which the doctrine appears in Ezekiel's exposition of the process of salvation. On the contrary forgiveness is the fundamental assumption of the whole argument, and is present in every promise of future blessedness to the people. For the Old Testament idea of forgiveness is extremely simple, resting as it does on the analogy of forgiveness in human life. The spiritual fact which constitutes the essence of forgiveness is the change in Jehovah's disposition towards 362 His people which is manifested by the renewal of those indispensable conditions of national well-being which in His anger He had taken away. The restoration of Israel to its own land is thus not simply a token of forgiveness, but the act of forgiveness itself, and the only form in which the fact could be realised in the experience of the nation. In this sense the whole of Ezekiel's predictions of the Messianic deliverance and the glories that follow it are one continuous promise of forgiveness, setting forth the truth that Jehovah's love to His people persists in spite of their sin, and works victoriously for their redemption and restoration to the full enjoyment of His favour. There is perhaps one point in which we discover a difference between Ezekiel's conception and that of his predecessors. According to the common prophetic doctrine penitence, including amendment, is the moral effect of Jehovah's chastisement, and is the necessary condition of pardon. We have seen that there is some doubt whether Ezekiel regarded repentance as the result of judgment, and the same doubt exists as to whether in the order of salvation repentance is a preliminary or a consequence of forgiveness. The truth is that the prophet appears to combine both conceptions. In urging individuals to prepare for the coming of the kingdom of God he makes repentance a necessary condition of entering it; but in describing the whole process of salvation as the work of God he makes contrition for sin the result of reflection on the goodness of Jehovah already experienced in the peaceful occupation of the land of Canaan.

4. The idea of regeneration is very prominent in Ezekiel's teaching. The need for a radical change in the national character was impressed on him by the spectacle which he witnessed daily of evil tendencies and practices persisted in, in spite of the clearest demonstration that they were hateful to Jehovah and had been 363 the cause of the nation's calamities. And he does not ascribe this state of things merely to the influence of tradition and public opinion and evil example, but traces it to its source in the hardness and corruption of the individual nature. It was evident that no mere change of intellectual conviction would avail to alter the currents of life among the exiles; the heart must be renewed, out of which are the issues both of personal and national life. Hence the promise of regeneration is expressed as a taking away of the stony, unimpressible heart that was in them, and putting within them a heart of flesh, a new heart and a new spirit. In exhorting individuals to repentance Ezekiel calls on them to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit,174174   Ch. xviii. 31. meaning that their repentance must be genuine, extending to the inner motives and springs of action, and not be confined to outward signs of mourning.175175   Cf. Joel's “Rend your heart, and not your garments” (Joel ii. 13). But in other connections the new heart and spirit is represented as a gift, the result of the operation of the divine grace.176176   Chs. xi. 19, xxxvi. 26, 27.

Closely connected with this, perhaps only the same truth in another form, is the promise of the outpouring of the Spirit of God.177177   Chs. xxxvi. 27, xxxvii. 14. The general expectation of a new supernatural power infused into the national life in the latter days is common in the prophets. It appears in Hosea under the beautiful image of the dew,178178   Hosea xiv. 5. and in Isaiah it is expressed in the consciousness that the desolation of the land must continue “until spirit be poured upon us from on high.”179179   Isa. xxxii. 15. But no earlier prophet presents the idea of the Spirit as a principle of regeneration with the precision and clearness which the doctrine assumes in the hands of Ezekiel. What in Hosea and 364 Isaiah may be only a divine influence, quickening and developing the flagging spiritual energies of the people, is here revealed as a creative power, the source of a new life, and the beginning of all that possesses moral or spiritual worth in the people of God.

5. It only remains for us now to note the twofold effect of these operations of Jehovah's grace in the religious and moral condition of the nation. There will be produced, in the first place, a new readiness and power of obedience to the divine commandments.180180   Chs. xi. 20, xxxvi. 27. Like the apostle, they will not only “consent unto the law that it is good”;181181   Rom. vii. 16. but in virtue of the new “Spirit of life” given to them, they will be in a real sense “free from the law,”182182   Rom. viii. 2. because the inward impulse of their own regenerate nature will lead them to fulfil it perfectly. The inefficiency of law as a mere external authority acting on men by hope of reward and fear of punishment was perceived both by Jeremiah and Ezekiel almost as clearly as by Paul, although this conviction on the part of the prophets was based on observation of national depravity rather than on their personal experience. It led Jeremiah to the conception of a new covenant under which Jehovah will write His law on men's hearts;183183   Jer. xxxi. 33. and Ezekiel expresses the same truth in the promise of a new Spirit inclining the people to walk in Jehovah's statutes and to keep His judgments.

The second inward result of salvation is shame and self-loathing on account of past transgressions.184184   Chs. vi. 9, xvi. 63, xx. 43, xxxvi. 31, 32. It seems strange that the prophet should dwell so much on this as a mark of Israel's saved condition. His strong protest against the doctrine of inherited guilt in the eighteenth 365 chapter would have led us to expect that the members of the new Israel would not be conscious of any responsibility for the sins of the old. But here, as in other instances, the conception of the personified nation proves itself a better vehicle of religious truth from the Old Testament standpoint than the religious relations of the individual. The continuity of the national consciousness sustains that profound sense of unworthiness which is an essential element of true reconciliation to God, although each individual Israelite in the kingdom of God knows that he is not accountable for the iniquity of his fathers.

This outline of the prophet's conception of salvation illustrates the truth of the remark that Ezekiel is the first dogmatic theologian. In so far as it is the business of a theologian to exhibit the logical connection of the ideas which express man's relation to God, Ezekiel more than any other prophet may claim the title. Truths which are the presuppositions of all prophecy are to him objects of conscious reflection, and emerge from his hands in the shape of clearly formulated doctrines. There is probably no single element of his teaching which may not be traced in the writings of his predecessors, but there is none which has not gained from him a more distinct intellectual expression. And what is specially remarkable is the manner in which the doctrines are bound together in the unity of a system. In grounding the necessity of redemption in the divine nature, Ezekiel may be said to foreshadow the theology which is often called Calvinistic or Augustinian, but which might more truly be called Pauline. Although the final remedy for the sin of the world had not yet been revealed, the scheme of redemption disclosed to Ezekiel agrees with much of the teaching of the New Testament regarding the effects of the work of Christ on the individual. 366 Speaking of the passage ch. xxxvi. 16-38 Dr. Davidson writes as follows:—

“Probably no passage in the Old Testament of the same extent offers so complete a parallel to New Testament doctrine, particularly to that of St. Paul. It is doubtful if the apostle quotes Ezekiel anywhere, but his line of thought entirely coincides with his. The same conceptions and in the same order belong to both,—forgiveness (ver. 25); regeneration, a new heart and spirit (ver. 26); the Spirit of God as the ruling power in the new life (ver. 27); the issue of this, the keeping of the requirements of God's law (ver. 27; Rom. viii. 4); the effect of being ‘under grace’ in softening the human heart and leading to obedience (ver. 31; Rom. vi., vii.); and the organic connection of Israel's history with Jehovah's revelation of Himself to the nations (vv. 33-36; Rom. xi.).”


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