In trying to understand Ezekiel’s prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel, we must realize that he was giving hope to his immediate audience who were the Jews in exile. He was giving them a message from God that told them that all was not lost and that their nation would be restored in the future. This restoration would take place beginning when many of the Jews returned to Palestine under Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel and the temple was rebuilt. However, we cannot say that Ezekiel’s prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel were fully fulfilled in this return of the Jews from exile. True, there was a definite restoration and the temple was rebuilt. Yet, his prophecies pointed to more than just that return from that first exile of the Jews in the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel.
For one thing, Ezekiel prophesies that David would be their shepherd and king. Now, David was long dead when they returned from the first exile. So, this prophecy could not have been fulfilled then if Ezekiel was referring to the David in Israel’s history. He would have to be referring to another David who would yet come. Who then was that David and had he come when that first restoration from exile took place? We read in Ezekiel 34:23-24 – “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.” Again, we read in Ezekiel 37:24 – “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.” This David could only be referring to the Messiah who would yet come and not to the historical David who had already died. David was a type of the Messiah who would come in the future. When the people of Israel came back to their homeland under Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel, the Messiah had not yet come, but He would come to their descendants in the future.
Certainly there was a beginning of the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecies at the first restoration. The Jews came back to their homeland and rebuilt the temple. It was this same temple to which the Messiah would come. Two passages point out the significance of this second temple and its relation to the coming of the Messiah. First is Haggai 2:6-9 which says, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” Another passage is Malachi 3:1 which also points to the Messiah and says, “’See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” The Messiah did come to His temple when Jesus came. He visited the temple, He taught in the temple, He cleansed the temple, He prophesied concerning the temple, and eventually brought judgment on the temple in 70 AD.
This first return of the exiles prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah by the rebuilding of the temple and it would be their descendants such as Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, and others who would welcome Him when He came. He would also be welcomed by all who believed on Him during His earthly ministry.
Though David had died long before, yet His descendant was there in Jesus Christ. It was this descendant of David who was recognized and welcomed as the Messiah. On the Day of Pentecost Peter declared that Jesus was indeed the descendant of David who would come that it was this Jesus who was the Messiah. In Acts 2:29-36, Peter says, “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Not only had the Messiah come but He had poured our the Holy Spirit upon His disciples to be with them reminding us of Ezekiel’s prophecy in Ezekiel 37:27 where he says, “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
So, we can say that Ezekiel’s prophecies were fulfilled when the Jews returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple at the first restoration and was further fulfilled when Jesus came to the temple Himself being the David that was promised. It was further fulfilled at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out and came to live in and with the disciples. However, we cannot say that this completely fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecies for there seems to be more yet to come.
One thing we must make clear is that God’s people were continued in and through the church. Even now Ezekiel’s prophecies are being fulfilled through the church, the new Israel, as people come to the new David, Jesus Christ and as God’s Spirit lives in and among them. There is a definite continuation of God’s people in the church of Jesus Christ and we cannot accept the sharp distinction made between Israel and the Church by some popular teachers today. This can be the only proper interpretation of passages like Ephesians 2:11-22 – “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men) – remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
This passage and others like it in the New Testament seem to teach that the church is a continuation of Israel and the people of God. The prophecies of Ezekiel point to a time when the people of Israel would serve David, their King. Certainly a beginning of the fulfillment of this prophecy happened at Christ’s first coming. The New Testament church was begun by the descendants of those who heard this prophecy of Ezekiel the first time. The New Testament church was founded by Jewish descendants of the very ones that Ezekiel gave the promise to.
Again, we read Ezekiel 37:24-25 – “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. The will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.” The founders of the New Testament Church were certainly the ones to whom this prophecy initially referred. They lived in the land of Israel and they served the new David, Jesus Christ. However, we cannot say that they completely fulfilled this prophecy for it speaks of their living in the land forever.
Therefore, we must look for a further restoration of the Jews in which they would return to their own land and this time would not leave it again. We must remember that in 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were disbursed among the nations. So, the first restoration was not a permanent one for the Jews. There would have to be another restoration in the future to see these prophecies of Ezekiel fully completed. Chapters 38 and 39 seem to point to some future period beyond the first restoration. It would be a time when the Jews would once again return to their homeland but this time they would not be scattered about but would remain in the land. Although nations would attack them, the Jewish people would remain for God would rescue them. It would also be a time when they would turn to the Lord and the implication is that they would accept the Messiah at that time and as a whole would become the followers of the new David as their shepherd. Ezekiel 39:21-29 describes this wonderful conversion of the Jewish people to the Lord – “I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations will see the punishment I inflict and the hand I lay upon them. From that day forward the house of Israel will know that I am the Lord their God. And the nations will know that the people of Israel went into exile for their sin, because they were unfaithful to me. So I hid my face from them and handed them over to their enemies, and they all fell by the sword. I dealt with them according to their uncleaness and their offenses, and I hid my face from them. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name. They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward me when they lived in safety in their land with no one to make them afraid. When I have brought them back from the nations and have gathered them from the countries of their enemies, I will show myself holy through them in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind. I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
Ezekiel 38-39 corresponds remarkably to Zechariah 12-14 and seems to describe the same events. God pours out His Spirit on the Jews in both passages. Zechariah 12:10 says, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” It is true that in the early church there were Jews who mourned over their rejection of Jesus and then turned to Him. Yet they were only a remnant of the total Jewish population. Many Jews continued to reject Jesus and also persecuted the Christians. The prophecy in Zechariah mentioned above seems to show a mourning of a much greater extent encompassing all of the Israelites. Zechariah 12:11-14 tells of the extent of the conversion that takes place among the Jews – “On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land will mourn, each clan by itself, with their wives by themselves: the clan of the house of David and their wives, the clan of the house of Nathan and their wives, the clan of the house of Levi and their wives, the clan of Shimei and their wives, and all the rest of the clans and their wives.”
This future conversion of Israel predicted by Ezekiel in chapters 38-39 seems definitely to be a future event that is yet to come. Though the Jews are even now back in their homeland in Palestine, the Jewish people have not as a whole been converted to Christ. Yet, that day will come according to the Apostle Paul who seems to describe a future conversion of Israel in Romans 11; 25-27 (ESV) – “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” Earlier Paul talked about the olive tree representing the people of God. Israel was the root of the tree but some of her branches had broken off and had been replaced by others showing that the Gentiles had been grafted into the olive tree. Yet, he points out that the Jews could yet be grafted in again to their own olive tree. In Romans 11:23, Paul says, “And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” Romans 11 predicts a future conversion of the Jews associated with the fullness of the Gentiles. This could very well be pointing to a future worldwide revival including the conversion of the Jews to Christ.
Unlike my dispensational friends, I believe that Israel’s future conversion will not be a separate event from the church but rather a wholesale coming into the church and becoming followers of Christ. Their coming in will be accompanied by an extensive revival among the Gentiles as well (fullness of the Gentiles).
What we see in Ezekiel 34-39 points to the Messianic age and a future conversion of the Jews. Parts of those chapters are fulfilled in the New Testament church but they also point to a future conversion of the Jews to Christ and a future grafting in of the Jews into the church.
This article is not a detailed study of Ezekiel 34-39 but rather a simple overview showing that the prophecies given there point not just to the first restoration of Israel from exile but rather to a further fulfillment some of which occurred when Jesus came the first time and more will be fulfilled in later times when the Jews as a whole are restored and accept Jesus as their Messiah.
Works Cited All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1978) unless indicated otherwise. Pratt, Richard L., ed. Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2003.
Now, we are living in a time of great spiritual and moral decline in this land. God's judgment on the nation has already begun though we refuse to see it. Will we continue in this decline or will things change for the better? Will we become a more righteous nation in the future? Will we once again return to the God of our forefathers? All of that remains to be seen. We have sunk to a low that we have never reached before. Only a tremendous outpouring of the Spirit of God can bring us back. It is for this that we must constantly pray.