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The mountains of Ezekiel 36:1-15

July 19, 2012

Bible scholars have suggested various meanings for the mountains of Israel in Ezekiel 36:1-15. These include (1) the land; (2) the people of Israel; (3) either the land or the people; (4) they are metaphors representing God’s promises. Correctly interpreting the mountains is key to understanding the prophecy. Daniel I. Block wrote on the theological significance of this prophecy:

This oracle addresses the heart of Israel’s theology and one of the primary issues behind the spiritual crisis of the exiles: Had Yahweh forgotten his ancient promises to Abraham to give to him and his descendants the land of Canaan as an eternal possession? This promise had been fulfilled under Joshua, when Yahweh dispossessed the Canaanites and delivered the land to his people as their fiefdom. But the devastation of the land and the deportation of its population had cast serious doubt on Yahweh’s willingness or ability to keep his word. The rupture of the deity-nation-land relationship was complete and apparently permanent. The present oracle addresses this theological and national crisis.

The following includes notes and comments on Ezekiel 36:1-15 by various authors compiled by George Barlow et. al. in their homiletic commentary, together with quotes from several other authors.

Ver. 1. “By the mountains, in ver. 1, as the most prominent part, the whole land is represented. What is flat appears as an appendage to the mountains, which are to the land the same as the king and his nobles to the people.” —Hengstenberg.

— “This prophecy is uttered concerning the land of Israel, as is plainly declared in Ezekiel 36:6; whereas in Ezekiel 36:1 and Ezekiel 36:4 the mountains of Israel are mentioned instead of the land, in antithesis to the mountains of Seir.” —Keil.

— “The word ‘mountains’ is used for the land and people of Israel, to keep up the connection (by contrast) with the Mount Seir of the previous chapter. The personification is a strong one, by which the mountains represent the people as well as the land.” —Gardiner.

— “The mountains of Israel not only figures, but also places of the promises to Israel.” —Schröder.

[The idea that mountains are symbols of blessings and promises was also supported by H. A. C. Hävernick, based upon Genesis 49:26 and Deuteronomy 33:15.]

Vers. 1-4. “The grand distinction between the people of God as Israel, and the people of the world as Edom, is, whereas the latter are finally given over to destruction, the former are only chastened for a time, and shall be finally and completely delivered. The people of the world may now seem exalted to a great height, but their elevation is of a carnal and material kind, and is therefore transitory. The elevation of the Israel of God is spiritual, and therefore permanent. Her hills are ‘the everlasting hills’ (Gen. xlix 26). The Mount Zion, as the seat of God’s earthly throne, cannot be removed, but abideth for ever (Ps. cxxv. 1). Therefore Edom’s shout of triumph over the fallen Israel shall be turned into wailing for her own fall. She had greedily thought to take possession of the ancient high places of the people of God. Nay more, she had turned into derision the promise of perpetuity which God had given to His people, as though that promise was now proved to be abortive, and had sneered at Israel’s connection with Jehovah as though He were unable to save them.” —Fausset.

Ver. 2. “Many were the enemies of God’s people, but they so conspired in one design, and were so one in their humours, enmity, and carriage, that the prophet speaks of them as one, and particularly of Edom.” — Pool.

— “Thus they mocked at the promises of God, as if their eternity were now come to an end.” —Berleburg Bible.

— “The scorn of the world an old experience. Thus were the prophets and Christ reproached, and the Lord said that men would speak all manner of evil against His disciples (Matt. v. 11), and Paul, that we should be a spectacle to the world (1 Cor. iv. 9).” —Heim-Hoffman.

— “The ‘perpetual heights’ (ver. 2) are the natural mountains as a figure of the unchangeable grandeur of which Israel boasted, because it had the Eternal for its protector, and in Him the security of its own perpetuity; comp. Ps. cxxv. 2.” —Hengstenberg.

— “This is very nearly the same expression as in Gen. xlix. 26; Deut. xxxiii. 15, where it is translated ‘everlasting (or lasting) hills,’ and is probably an allusion to those passages. ‘The enemy’ is a general term, which may refer to Edom; but from the following verses it is more likely that it is used for the heathen at large. When Israel’s land had been left desolate, the surrounding nations claimed that God’s promise to His people had failed, and that they themselves might now enter upon its secure possession.” —Gardiner.

[The Hebrew expressions are: גִּבְעֹ֣ת עֹולָ֑ם of the everlasting hills; וּבָמֹ֣ות עֹולָ֔ם the ancient heights]

Ver. 3. “Ye are made to ascend upon the lip of the tongue and upon the evil fame of the people. God takes it extreme ill that His people should be traduced and defamed, which hath been their lot in all ages, but He will not fail to vindicate them and to avenge them.” —Trapp.

— “God knows, sees, and hears the misery of His children: that must comfort them, therefore they cannot despair. How ready men often are not only to count up the sufferings of others, but also in their talk to exaggerate still more.” —Starck.

Ver. 5. “What God calls His cannot be lost for ever. He is jealous with but also for His possession.—God lets His people be stricken only by whom He will; one cannot simply open the mouth and devour them at pleasure.” —Schröder.

— “For ‘cast it out,’ in the last clause of the verse, read, empty it out. The idea of casting out a land for a prey is incongruous, and the other sense is admissible. —Gardiner.

[Perhaps it is not only the literal land that is cast out for a prey, but spiritual things that the land represents, the promises of the gospel.]

Ver. 6. “To these lifeless creatures He directeth His speech to show that every creature groaneth and waileth for the redemption of our bodies. It fareth the better also in this life present, for the elect’s sake, as it was once cursed for man’s sin, and hath lain bedridden, as it were, ever since.” —Trapp.

Ver. 7. “The righteous God, to whom vengeance belongs, will render shame for shame. Those that put contempt and reproach on God’s people will sooner or later have it turned upon themselves; perhaps in this world, either their follies or their calamities, their miscarriages or their mischances, shall be their reproach; at furthest, in that day when all the impenitent shall rise to shame and everlasting contempt.” —M. Henry.

— “They shall be paid home in their own coin, be overshot in their own bow, be covered with their own confusion.” —Trapp.

Vers. 8-15. “While Edom and Tyre rejoiced in their sins at the fall of Jerusalem, the jealousy of the Lord was roused to say that they should return, and as Jeremiah had said that fields and vineyards should again be sold in that city. The promises, like clouds of refreshing rain, scatter their blessings on every age. They were in one form or other continually repeated, and in all the glowing powers of Oriental language. But however justified the prophets might be in the use of hyperbole and metaphor, they could not exceed the truth, which would have been the case had their promises been restricted to the weak but rising times of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. And if the waste places were rebuilt, why then, whole Palestina, dost thou lie very much in ruins to this day? Consequently the gracious cloud of covenant blessings only scattered its drops on Jewish ages, and gave showers to the primitive church, reserving its fulness, or the residue of the Spirit, for the mountain of His holiness in the glory of the latter day.” —Sutcliffe.

— “A certain fulfilment of the most literal kind began at an early period to be given to the prophecy. People of the stock of Israel did again possess the land of their fathers; by them the mountains of Israel were again cultivated, and for them the land yielded its fruit; there again, as of old, the seed of man and of beast did greatly increase and multiply, so that the region was known for ages as one of the most fertile and prosperous in Asia, and that too while the old and hereditary enemies of Israel in the neighbourhood sank into comparative insignificance and lost their original place in the scale of nations. Had Israel but seen in all this the hand of God, and viewed the whole in connection with His unchangeable righteousness, there should certainly have been nothing wanting to complete the correspondence between the description of the prophet and the facts of history. But the old relations of the covenant people with the kingdom of God give way; the outward Israel are no longer distinctively the covenant people—all the children of faith of every land become the seed of blessing and heirs according to the promise. And while it is only under the Gospel dispensation that we can expect the perfect realisation of the promised good, we must now no longer expect it after the old form, or according to the simply literal interpretation. The good is too great and expansive to be now shut up within such narrow limits, for since wherever there is a royal priesthood offering up spiritual services to God, there the incense and offerings of the temple are perpetuated (Mal. i . 11; 1 Pet. ii. 5), so wherever there are members of Christ there also are the mountains of Canaan, there are the people who have the promise of all things for their portion, on whom descends the blessing—life for evermore. Nor can the old evils properly return again, for the good is avowedly connected with nothing but a spiritual qualification, and is entirely dissevered from a merely ancestral relationship or a political existence in the world.” —Fairbairn.

Ver. 8. “Thus shall the ruined churches bring fruit, wine, and bread, that is, the mysteries of doctrine to the profit of the people, that they may no longer be rude and ignorant, but a people taught of God. Therefore the spiritual husbandmen, vine-dressers, till and sow diligently. With the plough of fear they turn up the soil of the heart in which they sow the new word of the Gospel, whereby the forsaken churches become planted anew; and these are the mountains which the Lord addresses.” —Heim-Hoffman.

Vers. 9-11. “The Lord declares to the people of Israel, ‘Behold, I am for you.’ Since God is ultimately to be for them, no power can avail anything that is against them. God will ‘turn to’ His people in mercy, and they shall at the same time turn to Him in repentance. The restoration to their own land is to be literal, and all things and all persons in the restored state of Israel are to share in the coming blessedness—’the mountains, the hills, the rivers, the valleys, the desolate wastes, the houses, the cities, man and beast.’ So in the case of the spiritual Israel, the true Church: she is now a little and despised flock, but she shall at last be a multitude which no man can number (Rev. vii. 9); whereas the antichristian faction, and all the carnal, worldly, and unbelieving, who shall for a time seem to triumph over the Church of Christ (Rev. xi. 7-11), shall perish awfully and everlastingly.” —Fausset.

Ver. 9. “It is a blessing to the earth to be made serviceable to men, especially to good men that will serve God with cheerfulness in the use of those good things which the earth serves up to them.” —M. Henry.

— “‘I will turn unto you.’ Look towards you with regard to what has been and is your estate, your sufferings, which were less than you deserved, yet were the greater because ye are mine. Your inhabitants gave me the back and sinned against me, and I turned the back on you and regarded you not: then all darkness covered you, now my face shall be towards you, and you shall prosper and be fruitful to the comfort of those that shall dwell in you and plough and sow you.” —Pool.

Ver. 10. “They are far wrong who consider a great increase of men as a curse because it gives rise to want and distress. God can nourish many as well as few, and we should live moderately, avoid endeavouring to surpass others in expenditure, and seek for concord in families.” —Luther.

Ver. 11. “God’s kingdom in the world is a growing kingdom, and His Church, though for a time it may be diminished, shall recover itself and be again replenished.” —M. Henry.

— “The sitting (ver. 11) forms the contrast to the lying low. ‘Better than in your past:’ this was fulfilled when He appeared in the holy land, who could say of Himself, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,’ and who far outshone Solomon in all his glory.” —Hengstenberg.

— “‘Will multiply upon you.’—The promises of abundant blessing of this, with the previous and following verses, certainly received a partial fulfilment at the time following the return from the exile, and in the subsequent Maccabean period; yet one cannot but feel that the language of promise, if taken only in a literal sense, goes far beyond the historic fulfilment, and hence that these earthly blessings are the shadow and type by which is set forth the higher spiritual blessing given to the Church without stint.” —Gardiner

— “‘Settle you after your old estates.’—This does not mean that particular families are to have again each their own former inheritance—though, doubtless, this was true, as far as circumstances allowed, of the comparatively small number of families who returned—but that they shall in general be settled and prosperous, as of old. And even this promise is eclipsed by the next clause: ‘I will do better unto you than at your beginnings,’ which can only be considered as fulfilled in the spiritual blessings, far higher and, better than anything of earth, of the Messianic kingdom.” —Gardiner.

Ver. 12. “The promised good is always to be understood with the condition that men repent (Mal. iii. 7). The self-evident condition is, that they do not fill up the measure of their sins anew. There is no charter of immunity against Ye would not. How often is the country or a district made to bear the blame when there comes a pestilence among men or cattle, when it should be known that sin gaining the upper hand provoked God’s wrath thereto.”—Lange.

— “As already observed by Jerome, the Jews refer this to a kingdom of a thousand years, when Jerusalem shall be built and the temple of the latter chapters of our prophet erected; while in the opinion of others, the fulfilment took place under Zerubbabel, which cannot possibly be the case, as also Jerome grants, and then compares the Christian Chiliasts with the Jewish dreamers of their millennium. Hence we must abide by the spiritual interpretation regarding these blessings promised to the people, to which we are directed besides by Christ and the apostles.” —Luther.

Ver. 13. “‘Thou land devourest up men.’—Comp. Num. xiii. 82, a passage probably in the prophet’s mind, though he uses it for a different reason. Israel had so often sinned, and so often, in consequence, suffered the Divine punishments, that the heathen, not recognising the true cause, superstitiously attributed the result to something in the land itself.” —Gardiner.

— “With the promises of this chapter comp. Isa. liv. 1—5. It is impossible to interpret that passage otherwise than of spiritual blessings; and Ezekiel, as a devout Jew, as well as a prophet, was thoroughly penetrated with the same hopes as are there expressed by the evangelic prophet.” —Gardiner.

Ver. 15. “‘Thou shalt no more make thy people stumble’ (ver. 15); that is, no more make them unfortunate. Moral stumbling is not to be thought of in this connection. The land had no part in this. The covenant people stumbled afterwards indeed (Rom. xi. 11; 1 Pet. ii. 8); but God’s gift and grace remained the same, even when they were ungratefully despised. The rock on which they stumbled was the rock of salvation! —Hengstenberg.

[Taking the land and mountains in Ezekiel’s prophecy literally causes people to stumble. When the mountains are interpreted as God’s promises and prophecies, the prophecy makes sense; when they are properly understood, they won’t cause people to stumble.]

— “‘Cause … to fall.’—In the last four verses there is a delicate play upon words which cannot well be expressed in English. Two verbs are used, each of them twice (‘bereave’ in verse 14 should be cause to fall, as in margin), one of them meaning to bereave, the other to cause to fall; and these verbs have the same radical letters, but with the first two of them transposed.” —Gardiner.

— “In reviewing this whole prophecy (chaps, xxxv.—xxxvi. 15), it is evident that the time had in view by the prophet was one in which Edom still existed as a nation, and was rejoicing in the fall of Israel. It cannot, therefore, look forward to any literal, but still future, accomplishment, since Edom, as a nation, has long since disappeared; and no future people, occupying the same territory or bearing the same name, could possibly sustain the same historic relations to Israel as are here attributed to Edom. Whatever, therefore, is to be literally understood in the prophecy must have been long ago fulfilled. And this was much. Israel was restored to its land, and there greatly multiplied, so that the country became for ages one of the most fertile and prosperous in Asia. At the same time, the sinfulness of the people, as of old, hindered the fulness of blessing that was within their reach. But a small part of them availed themselves of the opportunity to return to their land; and they who did so suffered themselves so to live that when the crowning blessing of the ages was fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, the mass of the nation rejected and crucified Him. The blessings promised were fulfilled literally as far as the sinfulness of the people allowed; but inasmuch as these prevented anything like the full realisation of the terms of the prophecy, and as no future realisation of these is possible, on account of the total change of conditions and circumstances, it is plain that under these earthly terms the prophet, like his predecessors, Isaiah and the others, sets forth the glories of the spiritual future, and uses earthly blessings as the types of those better ones which are heavenly.” —Gardiner.

References

George Barlow, David Gilkison Watt, Thomas Henry Leale. A homiletic commentary on the Book of the prophet Ezekiel. Richard D. Dickinson, London. 1890.

Daniel Isaac Block. The Book of Ezekiel: chapters 25-48. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1998. p. 336.

Patrick Fairbairn. Ezekiel, and the Book of His Prophecy: An Exposition. T. & T. Clark, 1851. p. 344.

Frederic Gardiner. Ezekiel. In: Charles John Ellicott, ed. An Old Testament commentary for English readers. Vol. v. 1884. p. 302.

Heinrich Andreas Christoph Hävernick. Commentar über den Propheten Ezechiel. Erlangen: C. Heyder. 1843.

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. The prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel elucidated. T. & T. Clark. 1869.

Carl Friedrich Keil. Biblical commentary on the prophecies of Ezekiel Vol. 2. T. & T. Clark. 1876. p. 101.

Wilhelm Julius Schröder. The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel; tr. by Patrick Fairbairn, William Findlay. Johann Peter Lange, ed.: A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: critical, doctrinal, and homiletical, Volume 13. T. & T. Clark, 1876. p. 345.

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