The homecoming of Israel
bespeaks the healing of all creation.
— Walter Brueggemann (Isaiah 1-39)
Dorothy had it right: there’s no place like home. I find that no matter how great a vacation is, there’s a satisfying feeling when you walk through the door to your own home. This is even true when I go camping. I spend four or five months getting excited about a trip. Then, a day from the end of the journey, all I can think about is a hot shower, Chinese buffet, and crashing in my own bed. Maybe you have felt the same way.
Now imagine being exiled from your home for a lifetime. How strong would your desire to arrive at home be? This is the hope God placed before his people at the end of Ezekiel.
. . .
If the word exile sends chills and shivers down the spine of any Jewish person, the word return is its polar opposite. Israel was exiled from their land in judgment, they will return to it in restoration. This is the culmination of the book of Ezekiel, and the ultimate hope for God’s first nation.
The simple, formulaic verses we’re looking at today are able to sum up a number of themes that have been woven throughout the book of Ezekiel as a whole.
- Israel will return in unity:
We looked at this remarkable concept back in 37:14-21 when Ezekiel wrote the names of the divided kingdom on two sticks, then prophetically joined them together. Let’s revisit this. After the reign of Solomon, Israel split into two nations. The southern nation was called Judah, and the northern kingdom was called Israel. Israel was more wicked than Judah, so they were destroyed first. A while later, Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon—the setting for the book of Ezekiel. In the minds of the exiles that Ezekiel was talking to, that northern nation was a non-entity! Still, when God spoke prophetically about the city the exiles would return to, he included all the tribes—not just the tribes that made up the southern kingdom of Judah! God always desires unity.
- Israel will return in equality:
The picture God gives Ezekiel of this restored city is a perfect square with three gates on each of the four sides. Like earlier in chapter 48 when God was redistributing the land equally, here each tribe had an equal gate to the city. No one group of people was better than any other group.
- Israel will return in peace:
Cities were walled in that era for safety reasons. Strong walls with a minimal number of gates were the norm for establishing a safe and prosperous city. God’s restored city will have twelve gates. This many gates would seriously defeat the purpose of having walls in the first place—there were twelve different places that needed extra defense. The reason for the abundance of gates, of course, is that there will be no need for walled security. God’s people will return in peace. Yahweh himself will be their security.
- Israel will return in original favour:
The distribution of the tribal gates include a certain peculiar detail if you look at them carefully. Usually Joseph is replaced in the tribal lists by his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, while Levi is removed because they are priests who are to be content with God himself. In this list, Ephraim and Manasseh are replaced by Joseph, and the Levites have a gate of their own. The reasons for this are not too clear, but I see a couple possibilities. First, you get the sense that God is returning to his original covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The years of disobedience—from faithlessness in the desert to lawlessness in Canaan—are forgotten as God remembers his original covenant with the Patriarchs. The second possibility is admittedly a long-shot. Could it be that this is a prophetic foreshadowing of the day when we have one High Priest and the services of the Levites and Zadokites are unnecessary? Of course, this couldn’t have been on Ezekiel’s mind, but could it have been anticipated by the Spirit that compelled Ezekiel to write?
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Lord God, thank you for your blessing. Thank you for your shalom. Thank you for not giving up on your people. In Jesus’ name, Amen.