Contextual Uncleanness & God's Covenant in Ezekiel 36
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. - Isaiah 64:6
If you are like me you have heard this verse a thousand times. Typically brought forward as a persuasion of our inherent sinfulness this verse is quite graphic in what it portrays. But what is it really saying? And wait, isn't this post on Ezekiel 36?
16 Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, 17 “Son of man, when the house of Israel was living in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds; their way before Me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity. 18 Therefore I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they had shed on the land, because they had defiled it with their idols. - Ezekiel 36:16-18
See the similarities? Now let's give these passages some contextual consideration. This might turn into a "sit down you're rocking the boat" type of moment but neither of these verses is speaking directly to the sinfulness of any and all particular individual(s). From an audience perspective, it is speaking to and about God's covenant people. This is why the Scriptures says they "have become like one who is unclean" (Isa 64:6). This is not a description of perfection unto sinfulness (aka re-hash of Adam's fall) but a description of Israel in covenant with God and defiling herself.
Similarly in Ezekiel, the "house of Israel" had been brought into the land. God's covenant promise to Abraham had seen fulfillment. Then "their ways and deeds" were defiled. This isn't speaking of inherit sinfulness but of rebellion against the covenant of God. And once again God describes this behavior as "the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity" (Eze 36:17).
Now perhaps one could ask if these verses can't apply to the generic sinfulness of man. I guess they could but they're being ripped out of context badly. So badly in fact that I no longer wonder why the average layman struggles to understand the prophets. For only a specific and accurate concept of this uncleanness will help us to understand the rest of the chapter. Beware, long Biblical quote coming.
24 For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. 25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. 28 You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God. 29 Moreover, I will save you from all your uncleanness; and I will call for the grain and multiply it, and I will not bring a famine on you. 30 I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field, so that you will not receive again the disgrace of famine among the nations. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. 32 I am not doing this for your sake,” declares the Lord God, “let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!” - Ezekiel 36:24-32
I've highlighted the "important parts." We have some exegetical work to do. When was/has this been fulfilled? Many seeing "uncleanness" as a generic representation of our sinfulness might be inclined to say this was fulfilled with Christ in His death for the purging of our sins. And I would reply by saying this surely foreshadows it but there is much more. Just start from the beginning:
- In verse 24 the preface is gathering from the nations. The people of Israel will be returned to their land. This is repeated in verse 28 and described in detail to close out the chapter. This is not mere symbolism and explains why some pro-Israel exegesis sees Ezekiel 36-37 as remaining to be fulfilled.
- In verse 25 the levitical rituals for uncleanness are applied (Lev 15). These passages are littered with baths as symbolic of purity (Lev 14-16). The people are in fact dirty and God will fulfill the washing for them. Certainly, in a sense, this points to Christ's work for us but let's remember the specific and accurate content of uncleanness as covenant unfaithfulness. This cleansing is specifically for Israel.
- It is within this historical context that God has promised a new heart and new spirit for the covenant people of Israel via verse 26 and verse 28. This is properly either an event that has not yet occurred or in fact did occur when the people were brought in their land after their exodus from Babylon.
- In verse 27 the giving of God's law and obedience in similar to both Ezekiel 11 and Jeremiah 31. God is promising a new spirit to obey the Torah. If this promise remains to be fulfilled in the future, then Jewish (and perhaps even Christian) obligation to the full Torah has not ceased.
- In verse 28 the oft repeated "you will be My people, and I will be your God" points back to God's covenant vow to Abraham (Gen 17:8) concerning the land of Israel.
- In verse 29 this cleansing, restoration to the land, and renewed covenant vows are described as saving "from all your uncleanness."
The ramifications of these thoughts and the application to the book of Isiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are incredibly helpful to understand their focus on God's covenant with Israel. Far from being a confusing text, the passage is quite plain except in one area: when did/will this occur? Those who seek to turn this primarily into a spiritual fulfillment found in Jesus Christ are missing the mark. For reasons addressed in other posts and documents, I hold that this was fulfilled in Israel's return to the land to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. This was in fact all a foreshadow of Christ leading a new people out of bondage to a new Zion and temple.