Sunday School Lesson
Lesson 3 (KJV)
Devotional Reading: Isaiah 50:4–9
Background Scripture: Ezekiel 37:15–28
21 And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land:
22 And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all:
23 Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God.
24 And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shep herd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them.
25 And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever.
26 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.
27 My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
28 And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.
My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people.—Ezekiel 37:27
The Righteous Reign of God
Unit 1: The Prophets Proclaim God’s Power
After participating in this lesson, each learner will be able to:
1. State the identity of “my servant.”
2. Defend that identification.
3. Make a plan to change one area of his or her life that is inconsistent with being one of God’s people.
How to Say It
A. Establishing Trust Again
There is an old story of a man who comes to two great teachers and demands of them, “Teach me the Law of Moses while I stand on one foot.” The first one tells him that his request is unreasonable and sends him away. The second one tells him that the Law of Moses is about loving God and neighbor. “All the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
We remember that Jesus said much the same thing in Mark 12:29–31. But behind the elegant simplicity of that observation lies the hard fact that learning the ways of God requires work. And for that work to yield valid and fruitful results, the seeker must demonstrate honesty and open-mindedness. That gets to the heart of the matter: learning God’s Word is about trusting Him. Learning to trust God requires a lifetime of effort. But a commitment to do so pays daily and everlasting dividends.
Hearing, accepting, and trusting God’s Word involves more than just intellectual ability (again, Mark 12:30). It requires us to reorient our desires. We must want to trust, to hope, and to love. Today’s text helps clarify this needed reorientation.
B. Lesson Context
Ezekiel lived at the time Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC (Ezekiel 1:1–2; 33:21). That destruction and accompanying exile was preceded by two other deportations. The first of those came in 605 BC, when Daniel and his friends were taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:1–2; Daniel 1:1–6). Ezekiel’s relocation to Babylon became part of the second deportation as he found himself among the 10, 000 of the elite citizenry taken in 597 BC (2 Kings 24:12–14). Daniel and other Jews were taken to serve “in the king’s palace” (Daniel 1:4), while Ezekiel found himself “among the captives by the river of Chebar” where “the hand of the Lord was there upon him” (Ezekiel 1:1, 3).
The book of Ezekiel features many astonishing word pictures. One of the most famous is that of the valley of dry bones, in Ezekiel 37:1–14. It is followed by the much less famous illustration of two sticks in 37:15–28. Both of these metaphors speak of the restoration of Israel while emphasizing different aspects of that reunification. Today’s lesson explores the significance of the metaphor involving the two sticks. As our text opens, Ezekiel had just been directed to show to an audience the stick on which he had written “For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions” and a second stick on which he had written “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions” (37:16). The explanation follows.
I. Return to the Land
A. Regathering (v. 21)
21a. And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD.
The beginning word and connects what follows with the previous verses that introduced imagery of two sticks (see the Lesson Context). The explanation, which now begins, is introduced by the familiar declarative phrase thus saith the Lord. This phrase and its variations occur hundreds of times in the Old Testament. That which follows the phrase is authoritative!
21b. Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land.
This verse introduces a series of specific future realities that together paint a picture of a new life to come. The predicted reality of the Israelites being regathered into their own land had been stated before (Ezekiel 34:13) and would be stated again (39:25–28). It was a message that bore repeating! And indeed it was repeated by other prophets as well (examples: Isaiah 14:1–2; Hosea 11:10–11; Amos 9:15).
The dispersion and scattering of the children of Israel—commonly known as the Diaspora—continued into the time of Jesus (compare James 1:1). It seems unlikely, therefore, that the prophets expected each and every person of Israelite descent to return to Palestine. As the books of Ezra, Esther, and Daniel make clear, some Jews chose not to return to the homeland, and they continued to live in Gentile settings. There they continued to reflect deeply on how to maintain faith as a minority that was often persecuted. Even so, the return home and the rebuilding of the temple signaled to everyone the presence of God.
My grandmother grew up in a large, impoverished Appalachian family. As the oldest of 10 children, she watched her mother work hard to keep them all clothed and fed. That lifestyle produced in my grandmother a fierce loyalty to family, an intense work ethic, and a determination not to live the life her own mother had lived. So she turned down marriage proposals and made her way north to work in a factory during World War II. There she met and married my grandfather.
Driven to improve the economic status of her family of origin, she invited one sibling after another to live with her as they reached adulthood. They found jobs and spouses and settled down into a better life. Eventually even my grandmother’s parents moved next door to her and my grandfather. Yet despite the improvements that the move brought to their lifestyle, this close-knit family mourned the loss of their community and connection.
No matter how much a family can mourn a loss of such connection, God’s pain is so much the greater in that regard (Hosea 11:8; etc.)! Does this perhaps cause you to see a problem with all the divisions within Christianity today? —L. M. W. B.
Reunification (v. 22)
22. And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all.
The one nation of Israel had split into two nations in 931 BC, following the death of King Solomon (1 Kings 11:41–12:24). That situation may have seemed permanent, given the facts of two exiles (Assyrian and Babylonian) and the passage of three and a half centuries. But Ezekiel expected the 12 tribes of Israel to be reunified nonetheless.
In that regard, the verse at hand offers us an opportunity to clarify the use of some tribal names of Ezekiel 37:15–20 (see Lesson Context). The 12 tribes of Israel were descended from the 12 sons of the patriarch Jacob (died about 1860 BC), who had his name changed to Israel (Genesis 32:28; 35:23–26).
Two of his 12 sons were Judah and Joseph. In the naming of the 12 tribal territories, one territory each is named after Jacob’s 12 sons, with two exceptions: the tribe of Levi (which received no territory as an inheritance, per Deuteronomy 18:1) and the tribe of Joseph. In the latter case, two tribal territories were named after Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Numbers 34:23–24; Joshua 14:4). In time, the names Israel and Ephraim became synonyms in referring to the 10 northern tribes, while Judah became the designation for the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin (2 Chronicles 11:1; 30:1; Jeremiah 3:8; Hosea 11:12; etc.).
When no longer divided between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, the people would enjoy a renewed unity. This reunification would happen under one king, in distinction to the two kings that had characterized divided Israel between 931 and 722 BC.
A difficulty here, of course, is that the monarchy was not restored after the return from Babylonian exile. Instead, the people had “governors” (Nehemiah 5:14–15; Haggai 1:1; Malachi 1:8). Promises such as Ezekiel’s here came to be seen not as literal predictions of a singular human king ruling in a specific place, but as anticipating the Messiah, whose rule would encompass all things.
C. Rededication (v. 23)
23a. Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions.
The forthcoming restoration was also to be characterized by the end of idolatry in all its forms. The verse at hand features two words that refer to false gods. The first, translated idols, is Ezekiel’s favorite in this regard; the underlying Hebrew appears 39 times in his book, out of 48 times in the Old Testament as a whole. The second word, translated detestable things, occurs 16 times in Ezekiel, out of 50 total Old Testament occurrences; this word is also translated “abomination(s)” in Daniel 9:27; 11:31; and 12:11.
The double impact of both Hebrew words together occurs only here and in Deuteronomy 29:17; 2 Kings 23:24; and Ezekiel 20:7–8. The worship of false gods was the prime reason for all of the Israelites’ other problems. It had led to the defilement of the land in general and of the temple in particular (8:1–16). Cleaning the land and the temple of such religious filth would be important (compare 2 Kings 23:4–16). Cleaning idolatry from hearts would be all the more so (compare Ezekiel 14:2–7).
What Do You Think?
What in your life threatens to steal your attention and devotion away from God alone?
What people or practices help you identify and reject potentially idolatrous thoughts and behaviors?
23b. But I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them.
However deep Israel’s problem with idolatry had been in the past, Ezekiel prophesied that the future would be different. Ezekiel did not think that the people could completely purge idolatry by their own willpower. Rather, God was to cleanse them. The people would experience the sort of physical and spiritual purification necessary for anyone going to the temple to worship (see Psalm 24:3–4). The forthcoming purification would affect all of life—life with God and life with one another.
What Do You Think?
What other Scriptures encourage you that cleansing is God’s work, not yours?
What are your responsibilities following being cleansed by God?
23c. So shall they be my people, and I will be their God.
The wholeness of the approach becomes clear in the last line of the verse. Instead of being alienated people suffering under divine judgment, the returning exiles will again become God’s people. Given Ezekiel’s priestly background (Ezekiel 1:3), the context of his thinking may be a text like Leviticus 26 or the similar Deuteronomy 28. Those texts expect expulsion from the promised land as the punishment for community-wide sin. But in connecting our verse’s outcome with Deuteronomy 14:2, we see a further connection to the New Testament era in Titus 2:14 and 1 Peter 2:9.
D. Reign (v. 24)
24a. And David my servant shall be king over them.
This verse expands on Ezekiel 37:22, above, in specifying the “one king” to be David. Davidic kingship, not just monarchy in general, was being prophesied. Ezekiel did not expect the literal, physical reincarnation of that ancient ruler, dead for nearly 400 years by Ezekiel’s day. Rather, the expectation was that of the rise of a new ruler who was to be like David in one or more ways.
An example of this kind of interpretation presents itself in the case of John the Baptist, whom Jesus declared to be “Elias [Elijah], which was for to come” (Matthew 11:14) as predicted in Malachi 4:5. John the Baptist was not literally the prophet Elijah resurrected. Rather, John the Baptist was the one who ministered “in the spirit and power” of that long-ago prophet (Luke 1:17; compare Matthew 11:14; 17:10–13).
24b. And they all shall have one shepherd.
Anyone who rules over God’s people should function as a shepherd. That designation describes someone who protects others from harm. The one shepherd to come would stand in stark contrast to the worthless shepherds who had exploited the people (Jeremiah 23:1–6; Ezekiel 34:1–10). The contrast between good and bad shepherds continues into the New Testament (John 10:1–16; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:20–21; 1 Peter 5:1–4; Jude 12).
What Do You Think?
How do you experience Jesus’ shepherding in your present circumstances?
How can you become more attuned to Jesus’ leading?
24c. They shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them.
This partial verse describes the behavior of the people that will result from the rule of the one shepherd-king to come. People tend to behave as their leaders do, and this fact was a driver of ending up in exile (Jeremiah 44:16–17). The shepherd-king will be a model of behavior that reflects the opposite. The result will be an era of justice, in which faithful people obey God’s judgments and statutes fully.
E. Residence (v. 25)
25. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever.
This verse summarizes promises already stated (compare Ezekiel 11:17; 28:25; etc.). But it also adds a new idea: for ever. The return to the land and the rule by the servant David will both be permanent in some sense. But as we noted in lesson 2, the Hebrew behind the wording for ever does not necessarily require us to think in terms of “eternity without end,” since it may signify “age enduring” or “to the end of the age” (compare Psalm 132:12).
II. Covenant of Peace
A. Permanent Sanctuary (vv. 26–27)
26. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.
In the Bible, a covenant indicated a long-term, usually permanent agreement between two parties, in which each party assumed a set of responsibilities. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 describe the relationship between God and Israel as a covenant. When the Israelites violated the terms of the covenant, God gave them chances to repent. But when they refused,
In the Bible, a covenant indicated a long-term, usually permanent agreement between two parties, in which each party assumed a set of responsibilities. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 describe the relationship between God and Israel as a covenant. When the Israelites violated the terms of the covenant, God gave them chances to repent. But when they refused, the punishments of the covenant were activated. The ultimate punishment involved Israel’s expulsion from its own land (Leviticus 18:25, 28).
Ezekiel insisted that even after the catastrophe of exile, God would renew the covenant; this promise was nothing new (see Deuteronomy 30; 1 Kings 8:46–51). Ezekiel calls the new arrangement a covenant of peace, a designation he uses also in Ezekiel 34:25. This is a fairly rare phrase in the Bible, occurring elsewhere only in Numbers 25:12; Isaiah 54:10; and Malachi 2:5.
The focal point of the people’s renewal (multiply them) was to be the (rebuilt) temple in Jerusalem (my sanctuary). That building was a symbol of God’s abiding presence among the people (1 Kings 8:10–11).
The promised peace would therefore be more than a mere absence of conflict. Rather, it was to be a condition in which the people would flourish as God intended. Ezekiel insisted that this new arrangement would in some sense be permanent, given that the terms everlasting and for evermore are translations of the same word translated “for ever” in Ezekiel 37:25, above.
What Do You Think?
When have you experienced peace as more than just the absence of conflict?
As far as it depends on you, what can be done to share such peace with others?
27. My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Paul quotes this verse in 2 Corinthians 6:16. There he uses “temple” in place of tabernacle; the two served the same function in the Old Testament, the temple being the successor and permanent version of the portable tabernacle. Paul’s usage is in the wider context of Christians personally being “the temple of the living God.”
The word translated tabernacle is also translated “habitation(s)” in Psalms 78:28; 132:5 and “dwellingplaces” in Jeremiah 30:18, which again underlines the idea of God’s presence. The Israelites knew, of course, that God did not literally reside in a building in the same way that human beings do (see 1 Kings 8:27; compare Acts 7:48–50; 17:24). Yet the temple was a sort of magnet for the prayers of the faithful as they sought God’s guidance and protection. A wrong view eventually came into thinking when the people held the temple in such high regard that they viewed it as something of a good-luck charm that made them immune from attack (Jeremiah 7:1–8). Even so, the verse at hand emphasizes the willingness of God to be among the people who were to return from exile and to aid them in various ways.
B. Worldwide Knowledge (v. 28)
28. And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.
This section concludes by announcing the awareness of non-Israelites to God’s intent for Israel. The Hebrew word behind the word heathen is usually translated “nations” and sometimes “Gentiles” in the King James Version, perhaps with less negative overtones (examples: Isaiah 11:10; Ezekiel 4:13; 5:5). One might imagine that neither God nor the Israelites would care about the opinions of those outside the covenant of promise. However, the Old Testament, especially the book of Ezekiel, witnesses several references to God’s concern for His reputation among non-Israelites (20:9, 14, 22; 36:20–23).
Having noted some possibilities regarding the term for evermore in Ezekiel 37:26 above, we should also take note of Revelation 21:3. That text and others promise a future when God will be immediately present to His people for all eternity.
What Do You Think?
What evidence can nonbelievers see in your congregation that God lives among you?
What, if any, congregational issues might distract nonbelievers from experiencing God’s presence in your assembly times?
When Healing Becomes Testimony
The mother held her baby for the last time. Tears poured down her cheeks as she rocked the unconscious infant. Engulfed in her grief, she seemed oblivious to her husband’s attempts to comfort her. Each of the other mothers present felt the stab of grief as if it were her own. When this mother rose to leave her baby’s lifeless body, she paused at the door to look at him one last time, sure she could not live a whole life without him.
Several years later, this same woman organized a retreat for mothers grieving for the same reason. She had found comfort and healing in relationships with other moms who had lost children, and she determined to pass that comfort along. It’s been said that “God never wastes your pain,” and hers was not wasted.
The Scriptures witness frequently to God’s promise to heal His people’s pain. Those watching would know that God had extended great care to His people. How can God use your difficult experiences as a testimony to His greatness and salvation? —L. M. W.
A. Finding Life Again
Rebuilding a community after any kind of disaster is difficult work. For progress to be made, those affected must acknowledge their pain, find resources for renewed hope, and take practical steps to build a new life. The Judean prophets, priests, and other leaders of the sixth century BC took precisely those steps during and after the Babylonian (Chaldean) exile. God made sure that they did!
Connecting practical steps with the values, commitments, and dreams of a congregation presents an ongoing challenge, as all church leaders know. We easily drift into saying, “We must do something; here is something; therefore, we must do this.” Clear thinking about why we need to act in a certain way easily gets lost. Ezekiel made sure that his audience thought deeply about what to do and why. He held out the hope not just of reclaiming lost spaces and practices, but of reentering the deeper meaning of those very spaces and practices.
We need constant renewal in this regard. Before assuming that “God is on our side,” we should ask, “Are we on His?” The latter question will invite a season of self-reflection and prayer. That in turn puts us in a position for being made “perfect in every good work to do his will … through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever” (Hebrews 13:20–21).
God of all generations, who restores and renews us after catastrophes of our own making, grant us a deeper sense of Your presence in our lives. May Your church then become an example to all the world of what those created in Your image may be. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Bless your successors by your own hope-filled obedience to God.
Standard Publishing. KJV Standard Lesson Commentary® 2022-2023 (p. 991). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.