Home > Ezekiel, Literalism, Promised land > Patrick Fairbairn on Ezekiel 37:24-25

Patrick Fairbairn on Ezekiel 37:24-25

May 21, 2011

There was a striking change in Patrick Fairbairn’s approach to interpreting prophecy in the years between 1840 and 1855. This change involved his switch on how Israel in the Old Testament prophecies should be understood; do the prophecies apply to the Jews after the flesh, or to Israel in a spiritual sense, that is, the Christian church? It was a radical and fundamental change, that affected all of Fairbairn’s subsequent writing about prophecy. He became one of the most influential prophecy interpreters in the nineteenth century.

The changes in Fairbairn’s thinking are illustrated when we compare some of his comments on Ezekiel 37:24-25 made in 1840, with comments written a decade later. The prophecy states:

Ezekiel 37:24-25
And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them.
And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever.

Fairbairn’s note in his discussion of the prophecy, and other similar prophecies, defended the literal view that interpreted the above verses as meaning a restoration of the Jews to the land of Canaan. He wrote: [1]

In this quotation from Ezekiel, the language is so peculiarly definite and express, as completely to shut out the possibility of explaining the terms used, otherwise than by understanding them of a literal restoration; and we find even Scott, with all his leanings to the other side, speaking of it as “impossible to interpret the language of the prophet of any events, which took place before the coming of Christ, and yet it seems plainly to mean,” he adds, “that the Jews should dwell in Canaan under the rule of Christ, from the time intended, through all generations to the end of the world.” They are not merely to be united, according to the prediction, under one head, and incorporated into the same body—which might possibly have been understood of their conversion to the faith of Christ—but in this incorporated state it is expressly declared, that they shall form one nation—shall exist as such upon the mountains of Israel—shall inherit the very land in which their fathers have dwelt, and which had been given in covenant to Jacob. Indeed the terms of that covenant alone might teach us the necessity of the restoration of the Jews, without any such fresh and explicit assurances as those we have been considering; for Canaan was to be given to the seed of Abraham by the line of Jacob, “for an everlasting possession.” Gen. xvii. 1 8. How imperfectly this has been as yet accomplished, we may easily understand, if we only consider, that the whole seed did not dwell in the land for upwards of seven hundred and thirty years, and that the utmost term, during which even the tribe of Judah possessed it, was one thousand four hundred and eighty. And that the Spirit of prophecy did not look upon either of these terms as at all fulfilling the provisions of the covenant, the Spirit has himself in another place plainly testified. “Return for thy servants’ sake, the tribes of thine inheritance; the people of thy holiness have possessed it but a little while.” Isa. lxiii. 17, 18:—So far from being with any propriety considered “everlasting,” it was only, in the judgment of the Divine Spirit, “for a little while.” The chief burden, therefore, of the covenant with Jacob, in as far as it respected the land of Canaan, must be regarded as still prospective. And we may just add, that this precisely accords with the interpretation of the covenant as given also by Moses—for in the xxx. chap, of Deut. he clearly tells us, that a period of final return to the land promised to their fathers, and great increase there, and uninterrupted blessing, should succeed to the period of cursing, during which they were to be scattered and peeled to the utmost ends of the earth.

Fairbairn’s comments above show he believed that Ezekiel’s prophecy required a literal restoration of Jews to their land. But a few years later, Fairbairn’s views completely changed. In his commentary on Ezekiel he supported the opposite, non-literal approach; these same verses refer to Christ who is already ruling on the throne of David. Fairbairn wrote: [2]

There is nothing absolutely new in the prophecy; it is substantially a fresh exhibition of the prospect already unfolded in chaps, xxxiv. and xxxvi.; but rendering prominent what was there implied rather than broadly asserted, the formal union of the covenant-people, along with their sanctification and blessedness, under the presidency of David. That there has been no adequate fulfilment of the prophecy in what may be called the literal sense of its terms, is too plain to require any lengthened proof. Some advances were of old made towards it,—that is all that can be said. There was a return, to some extent, of the covenant-people, chiefly indeed of the house of Judah, though not without representatives from the other tribes; a visible display of union among such as did return, a partial repossession of the land of the covenant, and an external reconstruction of the temple and its worship—enough to show that God had not forgotten his word, and that he was ready to bless to the full, if his people had been willing to seek to him for the blessing. But still all, not excepting even the things connected with the temple (see on chap. xxi. 26), were found in a very imperfect and mutilated condition, not after the bright pattern furnished here by the hand of the prophet. And the most characteristic part of the description—the cementing, strengthening, benignant rule of David—had not even the appearance of a literal fulfilment in the post-Babylonish history of Israel. The prophecy, therefore, has not been accomplished according to the letter in the past; and, with so strong and prominent a feature of an ideal sort as the eternal presidency of David, it seems amazing that any one should expect it to be realised after that manner in the ages to come. For to that end it were indispensable that the literal David should be raised from the dead, and again set over the heritage of God, vested there even with perpetual sovereignty; notwithstanding that Christ has expressly received, by Divine appointment, the throne of his father David. The prophecy is a detailed picture of coming good, drawn, as such a picture must have been, under the form of the old covenant relations. It exhibits the prospective good, as a revival of Israel’s best periods, freed from their still remaining defects and oft-intermingling judgments; and a picture that could be realised only in part, while the old covenant stood, both from its own inherent imperfections, and from the wilful neglect and obstinacy of its people. Not till the new covenant enters does the comparatively perfect begin to develop itself. For with the coming of Messiah, the head and centre of the new, as David was of the old, everything connected with God’s kingdom takes a loftier flight and a wider range; the shadows vanish away, being supplanted by the substance; and that which before was partial and restricted, presents now the aspect of an expansive freedom and a universal adaptation. The whole earth is as much Christ’s rightful heritage as the territory and people of Canaan were David’s; and only when it becomes his actual possession, can the prophecy respecting him, as the New Testament David, reach its destined accomplishment. So that to speak now of the prophecy still requiring for its fulfilment a literal Israel, a literal Canaan, a literal tabernacle, with the many outward and fleshly conditions therewith connected, and that too in the face of the palpable incongruity in the heart of the prophecy of a non-literal David, is as if one were to reduce the lofty tree again to the puny dimensions of the plant, or send the man of full-grown stature back to his cradle,—as if, in short, against all the experience of the past, which is ever moving on to something higher and better, we should expect the chariot-wheels of God’s providence to return to their former courses, and keep within the ancient landmarks.

It was the peerless glory of Israel as a nation, to give to the world the new David, who was to be for humanity the one child of hope, and to furnish to his hand the first builders of that spiritual house, which was to be formed of renewed souls, and reared on the foundation of his perfected redemption. But there their distinctive honour ceases—not as if their real privileges and blessings were lost, but because these must henceforth be shared in common by the household of faith. The very mother that bore Jesus, and his nearest kindred, could attain to no peculiar place in his kingdom by reason of their earthly connection with him: not these, he said, but every one that heareth the word, and doeth the will of my Father in heaven, is my mother and sister and brother. Thus the fleshly bond was broken at the centre, and it must vanish to the farthest circumference; everything founded on natural relationships and genealogical descent was, with the handwriting of ordinances, nailed to the cross of Christ, and buried in his grave, as a part of that bondage to the elements of the world, from which the church had at length escaped, and which should never more be heard of in her borders. The one relationship to be accounted of is union to Christ, which renders all who possess it children of Abraham, and heirs according to the promise—heirs, that is, of all that was given to Abraham in promise; more even, if more could be, for they are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ himself. Therefore, it is folly to speak of robbing the Jew by putting him on a level with the believer in Christ; for to put him there is to raise him to the highest standing that a child of humanity can enjoy, and give him a share in that, which being large enough for all, is not diminished, but rather enhanced by the numbers who partake in it. And for the church herself, seeing that her exulted Head is now at the right hand of the Majesty on high, with power and authority to make the whole earth his possession, instead of seeking to revive the old distinctions, which have served their day, or hanging her hopes on effete outward arrangements, it is alike her wisdom and her duty to press forward the spiritual conquest of the world,—plying with unwearied diligence the means of its regeneration, and withal waiting and praying for the time when, nature itself being regenerated, the earth shall become the fit abode of manifested Deity, and all shall be full of the knowledge, and resplendent with the glory of the Lord. Then in the fullest sense shall the vision of our prophet be realised; for then the entire territory of the new covenant shall be reclaimed for righteousness, and the tabernacle of the Lord most truly be with men.

In closing this section, we present a brief outline of the view that has been taken of the prophecies contained in the three closely related chapters, xxxiv., xxxvi., xxxvii.; and which in substance applies equally to many other portions of the prophetical Scriptures.

1. They were originally given to revive and animate the hearts of God’s covenant-people, by holding out to them the assured prospect of a reversion from the present evil, and their still certain destination in God’s purpose to the highest and most honourable place on the earth.

2. It was the duty of those to whom such prophecies were delivered, at once to believe the word spoken to them, and apply themselves in earnest to do what was needed to secure its accomplishment; and had they only done this, a far larger measure of the promised good would have been reaped than they actually experienced; this later prospect of blessing, like the earlier, given before entering Canaan, greatly failed through their own sinful unbelief.

3. But there being manifestly ideal features introduced into the delineation, especially the good spoken of being so peculiarly connected with the rule and presidency of David, clearly betokens a kind and degree of blessing, which could not have been completely fulfilled under the old covenant, nor intended to be altogether fulfilled anytime according to the letter. It shows the prophecies in question to be, like several of an earlier kind in Ezekiel, descriptions of the future under the form and image of the past—not as if the past were actually to return again, but that its general spirit and character were to revive.

4. The new things thus to be looked for in the future, could only meet with their full and adequate accomplishment in Christ, who is certainly the David of the promise. They are consequently of a higher and more comprehensive nature than any that could be enjoyed under the old covenant, when the kingdom of God was so straitened in its dimensions, and so outward and earthly in its visible constitution. But still, they were of necessity described under the hue and aspect of the things belonging to the old covenant —as if it were these only returning again, or these with certain alterations and improvements, such as might give the future a pre-eminence in glory over the past. For, only by means of what belonged to existing or previous dispensations of God, could the prophet have given any detailed exhibition of what might be expected under another and higher dispensation. The details of the future must have been cast into the mould of the present or the past.

5. Therefore, in forming one’s conceptions now of the real import of such prophecies—now that the transition has been made into the new and higher dispensation—we must throw ourselves back into the narrower and more imperfect relations, amid which they were’ written, and thence judge of what is still to come. Thus, as the David of the promise is Christ, so the covenant-people are no longer the Jews distinctively, but the faithful in Christ; and the territory of blessing no longer Canaan, but the region of which Christ is king and lord. What was spoken immediately of the one class of personages and relations, may most fully be applied to the other; and by such a method of interpretation alone do we get a uniform and consistent principle to carry us through the whole. While those, on the other hand, who would find a literal Israel, and a non-literal David, or a literal restoration in Christian times, and a non-literal tabernacle and ritual of worship, arbitrarily confound together things dissimilar and incongruous, and render certainty of interpretation absolutely impossible.

6. Sixthly, the view thus given is confirmed by the re-production of some of these prophecies in the field of the New Testament Church, set free, as was to be expected, from the outward distinctions and limits of the Old. Thus, in particular, the resurrection-scene of this 37th chapter substantially recurs in the 20th chapter of Rev., and is followed precisely as here by the attack from the embattled forces of Gog and Magog; while not a word is said, which would confine the things spoken to the land of Canaan, or the literal Israel; it is the church and people of Christ at large that are discoursed of. We say nothing respecting the probable time and nature of the events there referred to, but simply point to the identity in character of what is written with the prophecies before us. In those visions of the Apocalypse, the inspired Evangelist stretches out the hand to Ezekiel, and shows how the word spoken so long before by that servant of God, freed from the peculiarities of its Jewish form, is to find its application to the Christian church. The shell has gone, but the substance remains.

7. We may add, lastly, that the common interpretation, which understands Christ by David, and takes all the rest literally, must inevitably tend to justify the Jew in his unbelief. For he naturally says, Your Messiah has not done the thing you yourselves hold must be done, to fulfil the prophecy; he has not set up his throne in Canaan, and gathered Israel there, and re-established the old worship in its purity; this was the very purpose for which he was to appear, and we must wait till he comes to do it. On the basis of the literal interpretation, there seems no satisfactory answer to this; and it is well known, that, since it has become prevalent, many Jews believe that Christians are coming over to their view of the matter. We are not surprised to hear, as we have heard, of converted Jews declaring, that with such a mode of interpretation, they would go back to Judaism.

In 1840 Fairbairn was the minister of Bridgeton Parish in Glasgow. He was one of about 450 ministers who left the Church of Scotland in 1843, and formed the Free Church of Scotland, in a schism known as the Disruption. The issue of contention was the Church’s relationship with the State. Fairbairn  was appointed Professor of Theology at the Free Church Theological College in Aberdeen in 1853. He was elected Moderator of the Free Church’s General Assembly in 1864.

In his 1840 article on the Jews, Fairbairn supported the idea of the future restoration of Jews to the promised land, but the same prophecies that speak of a restoration to the land also speak of their reconciliation to God, and imply conversion to the Christian faith. In the gospel, however, “neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” [Colossians 3:11] In the New Testament the tokens of the old covenant are identified as types and shadows of spiritual things that are possessed by all of the saints. Thus the literal land promised to the descendants of Abraham must be reinterpreted. This is evident even in the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah said:

Isaiah 65:17
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.

Perhaps this means the literal land will not be remembered, when it is properly interpreted, and when its role as a shadow of better things promised to the saints is understood. David wrote: “Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” [Psalm 85:11] The promised land is a shadow and a figure of invisible things promised to the saints, one of which is that the Spirit will guide them into the truth. [John 16:13] Perhaps the promised restoration of the land means that all the saints will be restored to understanding the truth of the gospel. This interpretation of the land would provide a fresh perspective on the land in many prophecies, such as this one:

Isaiah 62:4
Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the LORD delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.


1. Patrick Fairbairn. The Future Prospects of the Jews—Restoration to their own Land—Universal Conversion to the Faith of Christ. Church of Scotland General Assembly, Committee on the conversion of the Jews. A course of lectures on the Jews. Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1840. pp. 405-442. (Note on p. 422-423.)

2. Patrick Fairbairn. Ezekiel and the book of his prophecy: an exposition. T. & T. Clark, 1855. p. 409-414.

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