December 17, 2021
A “dead man walking” mournfully foretold the forthcoming doom of his onlookers, their children, and the entire city. His prophecy of eventual doom might have come as a surprise to those who overheard it, because it seemed to contradict what another prominent prophet had once promised regarding the Promised Land and the City of Jerusalem. Who was right about the city’s future, then — the Prophet Ezekiel, or the condemned Nazarene, dripping blood and staggering on the way to his gruesome crucifixion?
From someone else, it might have come across as a condemned man’s final vindictive, bitter curse. But his gloomy comments were not directed against his persecutors. He was instead speaking to a group of women who might have included some of his loyal supporters. They were there to observe and weep at his horrifying fate. While being led to his crucifixion, on the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha, Jesus told those women not to weep for him, but to weep instead for themselves and their children (Luke 23:28-31). Quoting the final sentence of Hosea 10:8, Jesus then informed his sympathizers that when the time of destruction arrived “They [that is, the residents of Jerusalem] will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’”
Again, this gloomy, terrifying Via Dolorosa Prophecy seemed to contradict a much rosier civic and national future, as prophesied by the Prophet Ezekiel centuries before. The whole of Ezekiel Chapter 36 describes the wonderful, permanent (see Ezekiel 36:13-15) restoration and exaltation of the exiled House of Israel within their hereditary homeland. And in the first century AD/CE (that is, the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry), the restoration and exaltation promised by Ezekiel appeared to be a likely, imminent possibility, especially since it had already been partially fulfilled. Many of the Jewish people had already returned to their hereditary homeland. Furthermore, when he first began his public ministry, Jesus spoke a lot about the Kingdom of God, and about it being “at hand.” Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God’s imminence only encouraged the thought that the exaltation part of Ezekiel’s wonderful prophecy was about to transpire. But no, the exaltation of the House of Israel was not about to transpire. Instead, Jesus’ Via Dolorosa Prophecy proved grimly accurate.
Rather than being restored and exalted within their hereditary homeland, the opposite occurred. In 70AD/CE, after rebelling against the Romans, the Jewish people were subjected to a crushing, almost absolute defeat. The City of Jerusalem was destroyed. Its marvelous Temple was demolished. And the few Jewish people who remained alive were sent off into exile yet again. The Jewish people would not return from exile en masse to their hereditary homeland until the mid Twentieth Century, after the Nazi’s attempted genocide of them during World War Two.
All of which is to say, Ezekiel Chapter 36 appears to be an aborted prophecy. It was once apparently on its way to fulfillment. But then something cataclysmic occurred. The hopes of the Jewish people were dashed, or, at very least, seriously delayed.
However, I am not suggesting for a moment that Ezekiel’s prophecy was wrong. I believe that it will still be fulfilled. The question I pose to anyone who takes Ezekiel Chapter 36 seriously (as legitimate prophecy) is whether it can be meaningfully fulfilled unless it is fulfilled quite literally, within Israel, the hereditary homeland of the Jewish people. A lot of my fellow Christians seem to believe the prophecy can be (and already has been) fulfilled figuratively and/or spiritually, and that it therefore simply does not apply to the physical descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people. Personally, I have a hard time squaring what Ezekiel prophesies in Chapter 36 with anything but a literal, physical fulfillment.
The implications of how an interpreter understands Ezekiel Chapter 36 (and similar passages, like Zechariah Chapter 12 and the entire Book of Zephaniah) are very significant. This is not to say that I will not argue for a figurative reading of some prophetic material, because I certainly will; and I do. But it is to say that some of these prophetic passages seem to become altogether meaningless unless they are read literally. The interpretive issue, as I see it, is whether the relevant prophetic passages themselves give good reason to take a figurative approach or a literal approach. If a given prophetic passage presents itself as literal, should it not be read as literal? I think so, unless there is an extremely compelling reason not to. In my estimation, Ezekiel Chapter 36 presents itself as altogether literal, and therefore should be read that way. And because we know for certain that it has not been fulfilled yet, we can and should await its literal future fulfillment. Now with that said, I encourage you to go read Ezekiel Chapter 36.