But the fall of Jerusalem in chapter 33 is accompanied by a major shift in Ezekiel’s ministry. He was now to proclaim a message of hope for restoration and renewal. Chapters 34-37 are essentially “the gospel according to Ezekiel.” And it’s magnificent! Ezekiel leaves no stone unturned as he declares God’s plan of restoration.
The range of material in Ezekiel 34-37 can be appreciated when we see what God promises in those chapters. He promises to bring Israel out of anarchy (Ezek 34), into the land (Ezek 35:1-36:15), back from disgrace (Ezek 36:16-38), up from the grave (Ezek 37:1-14) and together out of brokenness (Ezek 37:15-28). It is, in modern jargon, a truly holistic gospel. Ezekiel was ministering to a people who were broken and battered in every conceivable way. There were political, economic, agricultural, social, judicial, religious, personal, relational and spiritual dimensions to their sin and suffering. And God intended to tackle every aspect of that need. Such is the breadth and depth of the biblical gospel. – Christopher Wright, The Message of Ezekiel
Ezekiel’s gospel message is so comprehensive that it’s beyond the scope of this blog. So, let’s zoom in on one aspect of his message and see how Jesus fulfills it perfectly in his coming: Ezekiel promises that a new king will come to reunify one people under a new covenant by the transforming power of the Spirit.
A New Shepherd-King
Chapter 34 begins with God’s accusations against the shepherds of Israel who served themselves at the expense of the sheep. Ezekiel chooses this “shepherd/sheep” metaphor to explain the relationship between Israel’s kings and God’s people. Historically, the monarchy in every period up to the exile had been corrupt and idolatrous (with a few exceptions like Hezekiah and Josiah). They misused their divinely delegated power to get rich and comfortable while neglecting and abusing those whom God cared about most—the orphan, the widow, the hurting, and oppressed. He condemns them in verse 4: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” Therefore, Yahweh was against them and intended to remove these shepherd-like wolves to restore his divine kingship and care for his people (Ezek 34:10).
In verses 11-16, Ezekiel paints beautiful imagery of Yahweh reinstating himself as Israel’s shepherd-king. Israel’s kings had failed, but Yahweh would not. He promises to undo all the damage inflicted upon Israel by bringing them back from the uttermost parts of the earth into a land filled with plenty. The repetitive language in verse 16 emphasizes the divine action that would accompany full restoration: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” Do you see the stark contrast between verse 4 and verse 16? Yahweh will get done what the leaders had failed to do.
From these verses, it’s clear that God himself will rule over his people. But then you get this interesting statement in verse 23: “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd”(Ezek 34:23). So, wait, is Yahweh going to rule over the people as the divine shepherd-king or will there be someone from David’s line to rule over the people as a human shepherd-king? Is it going to be Yahweh or his servant David?
The answer is yes. Here Ezekiel, like the prophets and psalmist before him (think Isaiah 11 or Psalm 45), are binding together human royalty with divine rule. The human shepherd who governs Israel will be from David’s royal line, but he will exercise divine authority in a way that only Yahweh can. Christopher Wright helps us understand this mystery, “The coming ruler will embody all that the rule of Yahweh himself implies. Like the equally mysterious Immanuel figure, his presence will embody the presence of God himself and all that comes with it” (Christopher Wright, The Message of Ezekiel).
So, with a wink and a nod, we wonder “Who is this shepherd-king?” It’s Jesus! The tensions in this passage (i.e., the binding of the theocratic reign of God himself with the messianic reign of a new David) can only be finally resolved through a Christological reading of the text. Jesus’ birth narratives claim that he came both as the son of David (see Matt 1) and the son of God (see Mark 1). Luke brilliantly explains how Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). This is the language of Ezekiel 34!
Jesus himself claimed to be the long-awaited shepherd-king when he announced, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Make no mistake; this isn’t the declaration of fun-loving hippie Jesus who carries little lambs in his arms. Jesus, the great God-man, is announcing that the Davidic Messiah, Israel’s shepherd-king, has arrived in his person. He has come to rescue the weak, bind up the brokenhearted, vindicate the oppressed, and feed his flock with his very own body. But as promised in Ezekiel 34, he had also come with divine authority to judge Israel’s rulers for their neglect of the flock. No wonder they claimed he was demon possessed and wanted to kill him!
The apostle Peter affirmed the fulfillment of the divine human rule in Jesus during one of the most important sermons ever preached on the day of Pentecost. We see in Acts 2 how the church is built upon the belief that Jesus came as the shepherd-king in stride with that great vision of Ezekiel 34 to gather his flock and rule over them in righteousness, truth, and justice. The New Testament portrait of Jesus is saturated with imagery of Ezekiel’s shepherd-king. King Jesus has finally come to reign over his people.