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Background~In 597 BC the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, invaded the small kingdom of Judah and forced its capitulation. The palace and temple were stripped of their furnishings, the king, the royal family and many of the nation’s leading people were taken into exile, including a man named Ezekiel. A puppet king was put on the throne but he rebelled against his Babylonian overlords who, in response, invaded the land a second time, in 587 BC, destroying Jerusalem and its Temple, and forcing more people into exile from the land.
It was between these two events, on July 31, 597 BC that Ezekiel was called to his prophetic ministry among the early exiles in Babylon.
In chapters 1-24 of Ezekiel these people are often portrayed as exhibiting a confidence in their future which was very out of touch with the political, moral, and religious situation of their time and their status as exiles. The prophet was called upon to disabuse them of their notions. In Ezekiel 33:1-39:29 the situation is markedly different. What Ezekiel had been warning the exiles of 597 about came to pass, Jerusalem rebelled and was destroyed by the Babylonians. But all was not lost. The prophet who had predicted disaster for the city and temple now is called upon to preach a coming restoration.
16 The word of the LORD came to me:
17a “Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their doings….
The introductory phrase the word of the LORD came to me (16) is stock prophetic phrasing, indicating the source for what follows. Ezekiel is not like the false prophets who prophecy out of their own minds and who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing. Such people helped bring about the exile (see Ezekiel 13:1-17).
The prophet is addressed as son of man (17), a phrase which is here synonymous with human being; it should not be confused with the profound theological title “Son of Man” applied to our Lord in the NT. God rehearses for the prophet the reasons why the people have gone into exile. The land had been given to them as a gift and they were supposed to keep it (and themselves) pure by living holy lives within it (Deut 8 and Deut 11:8-32), but they defiled it by their ways and their doings (seeJer 2:7; Ps 106:24).
18 So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood which they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it.
Is this verse referring to the shedding of innocent blood by oppression (see Isa 5:7), or the shedding of sacrificial animal (or human) blood to idols? (see the abominations committed in the Jerusalem temple in Ezekiel 8:1-18 and the punishment it would bring in Ezekiel 9 [see Especially Ezekiel 9:9]). Probably both crimes are meant (see Ezekiel 22:3-12).
19 I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries; in accordance with their conduct and their deeds I judged them.
Because of their idolatry, oppression and other crimes God enacted the covenant punishments which culminated in exile (see the lengthy list of covenant punishments given in Deut 28:15-68). The purpose of the covenant punishments was to bring the people to repentance, the amendment of their ways, and to a renewed commitment to God (Deut 4:27-31, Deut 30:1-10).
20 But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that men said of them, `These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.’
21 But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel caused to be profaned among the nations to which they came.
Having forced God’s hand into exiling them they brought God’s holy name (synonymous with his person, power, and faithfulness) into ill-repute among the nations. While God’s people had the benefit of revelation to indicate to them the purpose of their punishment, the people of the other nations did not. They would see the the Israelite’s military defeat, exile, etc., as indicating the weakness of the Israelite god, proof of his lack of fidelity to his people and his lack of power to protect them. See Ezekiel 20 with its interplay between Israel’s sins and God’s acting for the sake of his name.
22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations will know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
Sanctifying and glorifying the name (person and power) of God is what God’s people are called to do, a fact made evident in the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed by Thy Name.” See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Articles 2807-2815.
24 For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.
The punishment of exile (verse 19) will end and will be followed by-as the following verses indicate-a spiritual renewal, reversing the judgment which fell upon the people.
25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
The uncleanness (25) of the people will be removed, i.e., the bloodshed and idolatry mentioned in verses 16-17. We see in verse 26 that these will be replaced with a new heart and a new spirit (the human spirit, not the Holy Spirit, but see note in red below and the next paragraph). In the bible the heart is associated with understanding and behavior, the spirit with dispositions, predilections, moods. Man’s will and temperament will be effected for the better.It is possible that the new spirit spoken of here is not the human spirit but, rather, God’s spirit.
I will put my spirit within you. The new human heart and human spirit mentioned in verse 26 will be the result of God’s spirit working in man.
These verses have had profound influence in the history of the Church’s baptismal practice and theology, its moral teaching, and its pneumatology.
28 You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
You shall be my people, and I will be your God. Refers to God’s salvific and restorative activity on behalf of his people (see Jer 30:22; Ezekiel 14:9-11; Ezekiel 34:30; Ezekiel 37:23; Ezekiel 37:27; Zechariah 8:8).