THE SOVEREIGN LORD & THE MOUNTAINS OF ISRAEL
In Ezekiel 33-39
In a conversation with a wonderful Christian young couple a few months ago, we were sharing some of our thoughts about Israel and our experience working there. Our passion for the land and the Jewish people who are gathering back into their land became central to the conversation. As the conversation concluded, the young lady asked a question that exists in the minds of many people, Christian and secular, here in the West: "What is so special about that land?"
As I was writing this blog, re-reading, digging into and reflecting on Ezekiel 33-39, I realized that I was in the midst of an answer to her question. So, come with me into these prophetic chapters.
Although somewhat similar phrases do appear in a few of the other Prophets, Ezekiel is the one who gives us the phrase, “the mountains of Israel” to refer to Judea and Samaria, the heartland of Israel and the cradle of Hebrew civilization. (This is the part of Israel that Jordan occupied after the armistice that brought the 1947-48 war against Israel to a halt; re-naming it their West Bank in 1951) Mount Zion, God’s Holy Mountain, is part of this spine of the physical land, and the center of any metaphorical/spiritual value assigned to the phrase. Elon Moreh, from which Abraham first viewed the land that the LORD told him his descendants would possess, Shiloh, the home of the LORD’s tabernacle for almost 400 years, Bethel, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron all lie in these mountains; and all of them are again becoming home to descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (In Ezekiel 33-39, the phrase occurs 13 times and twice in a “synonym” phrase, “the mountains and hills, to the ravines and valleys”, and once simply as “my mountains”). Every one of these expressions, Ezekiel hears in the voice of “the Sovereign LORD”, or as “the word of the LORD came to me”; it is not a phrase that we ever hear in Ezekiel’s own voice. In other words, “the mountains of Israel” is an expression used by the SOVEREIGN LORD HIMSELF when He speaks about the LAND that He personally chose for the earthly residence of HIS HOLY NAME; no wonder He says, about the regathering, that “It is not for your sake O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name”.
These chapters of Ezekiel, spoken about 600 years before the 70 CE destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora, take us all the way from the devastation of the land, the Shepherding issue in the land, what happens to nations that say “contemptible things … against the mountains of Israel”, the regathering of “my people Israel” to “walk upon you”, (which continues to happen as I write), and become “one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel” to, finally, the utter devastation of nations that gather to threaten Israel and the SOVEREIGN LORD saying, “I will no longer let my holy name be profaned, and the nations will know that I the LORD am the Holy One of Israel.”
“I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me”, says the SOVEREIGN LORD to Ezekiel. As the watchman then, he declares, “you rely on your sword, you do detestable things, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife. Should you then possess the land?” Obviously, this is a rhetorical question given what the Sovereign LORD continues to say: “I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end, and the mountains of Israel will become desolate so that no one will cross them. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have made the land a desolate waste because of all the detestable things they have done” (Ezekiel 33).
Israel’s expulsion from the land then, the Northern Kingdom by Shalmaneser V in 722 BCE, the kingdom of Judah to Babylon in 586 BCE, and finally, those who remained in what the Romans had re-name "Palestine" in their attempt to destroy the Jewish heritage, by the Romans in 70 and 134 CE into the Diaspora, fulfills this prophetic declaration. From this time on, not only Jerusalem, but all of the land deteriorates into a desolate wasteland; and remains such for about 1800 years, until the prophesied return begins. (There were, of course, a few small Jewish communities left that have been continuously inhabited to this day, and a few non-Jewish settlements).
This scattering is the result of disobedient, unjust and ungodly leadership; bad Shepherding. So, the LORD tells Ezekiel, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. … I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. … There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.”
Interestingly, although He says that He Himself will be their Shepherd, a few paragraphs later He declares, “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.” David, of course, had died long before Ezekiel spoke these words, and the words prophesy events way out into the future; a future that we today are watching unfold. A future in which, at some point, “they will know that I, the LORD their God, am with them and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the LORD. You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God, declares the LORD.” The Sovereign LORD Himself is the Good Shepherd.
Chapter 35 digresses into a prophecy of destruction for Edom, the land of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. Destruction will not only be complete, but, the LORD says, “I will make you desolate forever”. Additionally He says, “you will know that I the LORD have heard all the detestable things you have said against the mountains of Israel.” The destruction, then, is not arbitrary or random; the nation being destroyed has acted cruelly and unjustly toward Israel and thus placed themselves under judgement.
I would hear this as a dire warning to nations today who boldly say all manner of demonizing things about Israel, including genocide, and fire rockets into civilian territory while there is supposedly an agreed upon cease-fire in place. Not only nations, but many individuals, including Christians, declare lies as truth. Genuine criticism is, of course, always acceptable; I’m talking about misinformation, untruth and outright lies that people speak sometimes.
This brings us to the heart of this passage and the heart of the matter.
As I was re-reading Ezekiel's text, preparing to write, on March 20th, 2014, on our calendar, 18th Adar II, 5774, on the Jewish calendar, at 11:55 am, I was quite overcome by the LORD's presence in His WORD. I suddenly experienced some of the intense intimacy and feeling expressed by the Sovereign LORD as He addressed His mountains, "the mountains of Israel". My wife Grace didn't quite know what to do with me. She heard me weeping at my laptop and came over, placing her hands on my shoulders to experience this moment with me. I did get it together and began to write.
However, since this is getting too long for one blog, I will need to invite you to return next Monday when I will continue my reflections; the heart of the matter that I suddenly saw so much more intensely, centers in the intimacy with which the Sovereign LORD speaks of His mountains. In this light, the phrase the mountains of Israel seems like a "pet name" that He alone uses for this Heartland. I know this is sounding rather more personal than academic, but that is the way I am; and the way I have been writing.
I do attempt to research as much as I can, but finally it all percolates inside my mind, heart and spirit and flows out as personal observation; and I trust that the flow is what David means when he says, "Praise the LORD O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name."