Verse 16 starts a new word from God, a new message. We know this because it starts with “the word of the Lord came to me”. The point of this message is God’ vindication of of God’s reputation. His reputation is symbolized by his name, his holy name.
This passage has two parts. First, God describes how Israel profaned his name. Second, He says what he will do to vindicate his name or reputation.
The structure of the passage is a little difficult, because the subject matter of the sentences switches back and forth. But with careful reading, we can sort it out.
God’s concern for his name is shown by the first 3 commandments of Exodus 20:
- no other gods before\beside me
- no idols
- no taking the name of the LORD in vain
First, then, God describes how Israel profaned the land with their sins. Verses 17 and 18 rehearse Israel’s sins in shocking terms. The Lord said that, while Israel occupied the land of Canaan, before the exile, they defiled the land by their ways and their deeds.
Remember that God considers Canaan his. In Leviticus 25:23, God said: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” So, the land is sacred.
Because it is his, whoever lives there must live on the land according to God’s principles. They must treat it as sacred. The Lord gave Canaan to Israel, and destroyed the Amorites who lived there, because of their sin. Israel had to wait over 400 years from God’s promise to Abraham before they began to take possession of Canaan. They had to wait for the sin of the Amorites to be complete. (Genesis 15:16)
The Lord said the nations in Canaan were unclean and had made the land unclean. (Leviticus 18:24-25) They were, therefore ejected from Canaan. (Deuteronomy 9:4-5) God warned Israel not to adopt their practices and also become unclean. (Lev. 18:30) But Israel did become unclean, so God drove them from the land. Remember the example of Eden. When Adam sinned, he was expelled from the Garden and the presence of God. It is also, as I have previously mentioned, the ultimate curse for disobedience of the covenant. (Deuteronomy 29:22-28)
In verse 18, God complained about their violence, shedding blood, and their worship of idols, which defiled the land. God emphasized this uncleanness in a jarring way, saying they were like a “woman in her menstrual impurity”. (Ez. 36:17) A woman was considered ceremonially unclean during her period. Leviticus 18:19 forbid sexual relations during that time. Leviticus 15:19-24 spells out the rules for this. Actually, any bodily discharge made a person ceremonially unclean. You cannot offer sacrifices or participate in any congregational worship if you are ceremonially unclean. So, God drew upon this concept and said the people were ceremonially unclean and had to be driven from God’s land.
In verses 18 and 19, God restated what he did about Israel’s uncleanness. He “poured out his wrath” on them. (18) He scattered them among the nations. (19) He judged them. (19)
Everything in the life of the Old Covenant revolved around the concepts of clean and unclean, of sacred and profane. There were clean and unclean animals. An unclean animal could not be eaten or sacrificed to God. The Israelites were clean, or sacred, and the other nations were profane. When Israel acted like the profane nations, God sent them to live among them.
Verse 20 tells us that when they went to other nations in exile, they profaned God’s holy name there. To “profane” is to treat something sacred with contempt, irreverence or abuse. For example, Leviticus 21:6 says that priests must be holy because they offer sacrifices to God, who is holy. If they are not holy, they profane the name of God. Hebrews 12:1 says that Esau was a profane man for he had no regard for his God given birthright. While living in the land, Israel profaned God’s name by identifying themselves as God’s people, but not living according to God’s law. Living outside of the land, but as God’s people, also brought God’s name into disrepute. It said that God either did not have the power to keep his people in their land and obedient to him. It questioned his sovereignty. Therefore, God decided to act.
God said Israel profanes my name, but “I had concern for my holy name”. (Ez. 36:21) We are not to seek our own glory, but God can seek his glory and can protect his holy name and still be holy. We are to seek to glorify his name also. Jesus said the very first thing we should pray is “hallowed by your name”. (Matthew 6:9)
So, in verse 22, God said he was going to act for the sake of his holy name. Israel would benefit from it, but he was not doing it for their sake. He was doing it for the sake of his name. His actions would be merciful to Israel, but his intent was to restore the holiness of his name. And he said, in verse 23, that the nations will know that he is Yahweh, the LORD God, when they see what he will do. if the only concern of God was punishment of Israel’s sin, he could leave them in exile forever and he would be justly imposing the curses of the covenant.
The idea here is that there is a sort of three way relationship between God, the Israelites and the land. He brought them to the land and established them there as his people. Now, however, they were not there. The nations would, therefore, think that his power was insufficient to accomplish his promise to put them in the land. Therefore, his name was profaned among those nations. The very fact that they were in exile, regardless of how they acted, profaned God’s name.
So, what is he going to do? First, he said he would gather the Israelites from all the places to which they had been scattered and return them to their own land. (Ez. 36:24) That would show that he indeed had the power to accomplish his promise.
Not only would he bring them home, he would make them prosper. Look down to verse 29. He promised to make grain abundant and remove famine. He would make fruit trees produce. (36:30) He will cause cities to be inhabited and desolate places rebuilt. (36:33) We know from Scripture that God did return Israel from exile. The Book of Ezra records the Lord acting on the heart of Cyrus, king of Persia (Persia conquered Babylonia during the Israelite exile) to send the Israelites home and to fund the building of the temple. (Ezra 1) There was a revival and recommitment to obey the covenant. The Book of Nehemiah records his rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem He also worked with Ezra to restore proper worship and commitment to the covenant.
But these things would not be done for their sake. (36:32) They would be done so that the nations around them would know that he is the LORD. Israel would know this and be ashamed. (36:32)
There is still a line drawn between sacred and profane in the New Covenant. But the line has moved. It is no longer between Israelites and Gentiles, but between believers and non-believers, regardless of race. God taught that lesson to Peter. In Acts 10, Peter saw a vision or dream of animals and was told to kill and eat. But Peter refused, saying he had never eaten anything unclean. (Acts 10:14) Interestingly, this statement echoes the statement of Ezekiel in chapter 4 of his book. There, God commanded Ezekiel to cook his food over a fire of human dung. Ezekiel responded by saying he had never eaten anything unclean. God relented and let him do it differently. But when Peter said it, God said “What God has made clean, do not call common (or profane).” He did this three times to make sure Peter got the point. Then, Peter was directed to go and preach to Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who received the Holy Spirit, just as Peter and other Jews had. The line between sacred and profane was no longer a line between races, but between believers and non-believers. Peter then had to go to Jerusalem and defend his association with Gentiles. (Acts 11) After he did, they marveled that God had done this, and they gave glory to God for doing it. Which is a proper response to the sacred.
Second, he will clean them. (36:25) He used the language of ritual cleansing, saying he would sprinkle clean water on them and clean them from all their uncleanness. He specifically mentioned idol worship. This again involves ceremonial cleanness. As their uncleanness was ceremonial, meaning they could not participate in worship or community, this is a restoration of ceremonial cleanness, giving them the ability to again worship God and participate in the community of God’s people.
Leviticus 17 tells us that a person who eats meat with the blood in it is unclean. He is cut off from the community and from worship. He must wash his clothes and bathe in water before he is clean. If he does not, he must bear his iniquity. (Lev. 17:13-16) There are other examples where a person must wash himself to be clean.
Again, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah show the people confessing sin and obeying the law of the covenant.
We can see, then, that the Lord fulfilled the first two statements during the return from exile. But, the third item does not come to fruition until the New Testament time of the church, when the Holy Spirit came.
Third, he would give them a new heart and a new spirit. (26) Their hearts were formerly “hearts of stone”. He used the example of stone as hard and impervious to God’s influence. Even today, we call a person “hard hearted” who does not respond to the normal influences that move the rest of us to sympathy or conviction. We call people who do not respond positively to good advice “hard headed”.
In place of the heart of stone, God will give his people a heart of flesh. (36:26) Here the use of the word “flesh” does not refer to the sin nature, as it often does in the New Testament. Rather, it refers to being soft and pliable. A person with a heart of flesh is open to God and responsive to him.
The new spirit that God will give his people is his Spirit. He will put his Spirit within his people. In the future, God will work on the inward person through this Spirit. So, we have a promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will enable them to walk in God’s statues and obey his rules. Israel abundantly demonstrated that men and women in their own strength cannot obey God’s moral law. They sin. Romans 3:23 says all have sinned. And you know it is true. The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:5-8)
But, upon conversion through faith, we receive the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit directs us to God’s standards and helps us obey them, and want to obey them. Paul wrote “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:17)