Two Sticks, One Cross, One Nation (Ezekiel 37:15-28)
This is the twelfth in a series of posts dealing with the proper interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). If you’re new to this subject (or to my blog), you’ll want to read the essay with which I introduced the series (just click here).
My goal in these eschatological adventures is two-fold.
First, I want to open up something of the Christ-centered truth and beauty of OTKP to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Secondly, I want to reason a little with my premillennial brethren. In particular, I want to make the case that we all will best understand, enjoy, and profit from OTKP when we see that its true sphere of fulfillment is: 1) Christ, 2) the New Covenant he instituted by his blood, 3) the two-staged spiritual Kingdom he has already introduced (and will soon consummate), and, 4) the New Covenant community he is creating out of elect Jews and Gentiles: the Church.
In short, I would like my premillennial brothers to reconsider the amillennial approach to the interpretation of OTKP.
Since the end of the age will soon be upon us, it is important that we stand together as much as possible. Seeing eye to eye on eschatology would definitely help. These essays—and the book in progress from which they are extracted—represent my best effort at contributing to that worthy goal.
Since the prophetic texts I deal with are quite long, I have not reproduced them here. You will need to bring an open Bible to each blog. My hope and prayer is that you will enjoy them all.
Two Sticks, One Cross, One Nation
In this short OTKP, the prophet’s theme is the Restored Unity of Eschatological Israel. It’s a promise that must have meant a lot to the Jews of Ezekiel’s day.
As far back as patriarchal times, there had been rivalry between Judah and Joseph. In the days of the Judges, tensions flared between Ephraim (Joseph’s son) and the other tribes. Then, under David and Solomon, the nation was briefly united. But all too soon “sin in the flesh” split the nation into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, each with its own center(s) of worship. And thus they remained, even until the deportation of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) at the hand of the Assyrians.
One can well imagine that Ezekiel’s devout contemporaries would have despaired of the twelve tribes—now scattered to the four winds—ever being united again as one nation, as one Kingdom under God.
In God’s Hand, the Two Shall Become One
This OTKP is God’s antidote to such despair. Here he promises that in the restoration to come he will forever reunite the “Israel of God.” In particular, he will cause the “stick” of Israel and the “stick” of Judah to become one stick in his hand (vv. 15-19).
How will this miracle come to pass? God answers fulsomely: There will be one regathering “from every side” (v. 21); one deliverance from “all the dwelling-places where they sinned” (v. 23); one cleansing from idolatry and transgression (v. 23); one new nation, planted in their eternal homeland (v. 22, 25); one new Shepherd-King, whom Israel will continually serve (vv. 22, 24); one New Covenant, under which Israel will ever live (vv. 24, 26); and one (new) sanctuary “in their midst” where the God of the Eternal Covenant will ever dwell (27-28). Seeing all this come to pass, the nations will know that the LORD is God, and that he himself has done it (v. 28).
Of Whom Does the Prophet Speak?
Christian interpreters ruled by the NCH thrill to read this beautiful OTKP. Why? Because in it they see a Restoration and a spiritual unity of which they themselves are an integral part: The ingathering and upbuilding of Christ’s one New Covenant people—the Church—throughout the entire Era of Proclamation and Probation (i.e., the Gospel Era).
As we have seen, the apostles themselves opened the door to this new understanding of OTKP. They taught, for example, that the Body of Christ is the new Temple or Sanctuary in which God is henceforth pleased to dwell (Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21:3); that heaven itself is the new Land and the high Mountain into which the saints are being called (Heb. 12:22); that by faith, and through the inward working of the Holy Spirit, believers, even now, are planted in that Land and seated upon that Mountain in Christ, their heavenly Shepherd-King, where they eagerly await the happy day of his return and the coming of the Kingdom in its glorious fullness (Eph. 1:20, 2:6, Heb. 12:22).
“This prophecy,” says one old English commentator, “can never be fulfilled except by the ingathering of God’s spiritual Israel into their permanent inheritance, the Christian Church and the heavenly Canaan.” (Whitby)
“The territory of blessing,” says another, “is no longer Canaan, but the region of which Christ is King and Lord.” (Fairbairn)
Joseph, Ephraim, and Judah
We must, however, honestly wrestle with Ezekiel’s specific references to Judah, Joseph, Ephraim, and their respective companions, the factious tribes of the house of Israel (vv.15-20). Does not such language—so deeply rooted in the history of ethnic Israel—oblige us to conclude that the subjects of this prophecy are indeed literal ethnic Jews, and that the fulfillment of the rest of the prophecy must therefore also be literal, just as our premillennarian brethren insist?
My response is three-fold.
First, the premillennial interpretation is impossible, since the prophecy itself repeatedly affirms that the conditions here promised will last forever (vv. 22, 23, 25, 26, 28). This is no millennium, but the eternal state of “the Israel of God.” True, the emphasis here is on the first stage of the Kingdom: the Era of Proclamation. But as we saw earlier, both stages of the Kingdom share a common essence; both are part of a single redemptive sphere of rescue and restoration in Christ. Therefore, even after the Last Battle (Ezek. 38-39), and even after the appearing of the Temple, the City, and the Land in their final form (40-48), nothing fundamentally new will have been added. Rather, the fundamental things will simply have been perfected. So then, at its heart, our prophecy does indeed picture the one eternal Kingdom of God, and not a temporary millennial phases thereof.
Secondly, it is undoubtedly the case that since the Day of Pentecost a remnant of ethnic Jews descending from each of the twelve tribes has come to know and enjoy the marvelous unity that is found in the Body of Christ (John 17:20-23, Eph. 4:1f, Gal. 3:28). In other words, one could argue that here the Spirit is indeed addressing ethnic Jews, yet promising them a distinctly spiritual restoration and a distinctly spiritual unity in Christ, rather than a physical restoration and unity in the historic land of Canaan.
But thirdly, it also quite possible—and, I think, preferable—simply to say that here divided “Israel” is put forth as a type of all God’s elect, whether Jew or Gentile. For just as ethnic Israel, because of their sin, was broken down into rival tribes, exiled from their homeland, and scattered among the nations, so too was God’s spiritual Israel, his overall elect. Because of their sin, they too were broken down into rival cultures and ideological “dwelling-places,” exiled from their Edenic Homeland (as well as the corrupt unity of Babel), and scattered throughout the world-wide Domain of Darkness.
On this view, the restoration here spoken of—and the unity here celebrated—is found strictly in Christ (Col. 1:13). And, indeed, it was for just such a restoration, and just such a unity, that Christ himself prayed, asking his Father to send the one Spirit to his own, so that they might become spiritually one, even as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-26, Eph. 4:4); so that they might become a singlel light shining in the darkness, a single city set upon a (very high) hill (Mt. 5:14); so that men of nations might know that even now God the Father, through his incarnate Son, is sanctifying his eschatological “Israel,” a chosen and beloved people in whose very midst he is pleased to dwell—forever (Ezek. 37:28, John 17:21, 23).
Two Sticks, One Cross, One Nation
In obedience to God’s word, Ezekiel takes two sticks and makes them as one in his hand (37:17). Centuries later, by his all-controlling providence, God himself did much the same, causing an unknown Roman carpenter to take in hand two sticks and make them into one Cross; the Cross upon which Israel’s promised King—the eschatological Son of David—would die (37:24-25).
Could it be, then, that way back in Ezekiel’s day God gave us a hint—a subtle picture—of the means by which he would reunite spiritually divided and warring humanity?
I am inclined to think that the man who wrote the following words might well answer in the affirmative:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the middle wall of division between us, having abolished in His flesh the enmity—the Law of commandments contained in ordinances—so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus establishing peace; so that he might reconcile both to God in one Body through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near, for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:13-18).