Covenant Prophecy in Ezekiel 11
19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 11:19-21
This is the first time in the book of Ezekiel that new covenant language is introduced though no explicit mention of a covenant exists. So why is this a new covenant text? Removal of the heart reminds of circumcision (Deut 30:6; Eze 11:19) but more substantial is the covenant phrase “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Eze 11:20). With this in hand, the similarities to Jeremiah 31:31-33 are rather self-evident. With these as a foundation, the spiritual elements “a new spirit” and “heart of flesh” (Eze 11:19) are often associated with the new covenant fulfillment found in Christ’s death through the day of Pentecost. Yet, this ignores the surrounding context of the prophecy.
This chapter of Ezekiel begins with a general prophetic word against the house of Israel (Eze 11:5). The people have chosen to act according to the nations around them and walk against the counsel of God (Eze 11:12). This behavior like the nations is precisely why the Lord is going to take them from their city and put them in the hands of these foreigners (Eze 11:7-9). The scene reminds us of the book of Judges where the people constantly turn to other gods, are subjected to tyranny by the people who worship those God, and then the Lord provides deliverance. So it is not surprising that God’s word begins to leave markers of redemption even in the prophetic judgment. “Have not walked” and “nor obeyed” (Eze 11:12) are common expressions of disobedience for these historical people and contrast well the promises of His deliverance (Eze 11:20). Here though is where the historical elements push themselves to the surface of the text. During the reception of this word, a person of historical interest to the original audience dies. Ezekiel is broken and cries. The very name of the individual means “Jehovah delivers.” The death of this man strikes symbolically against the hopes of Israel. Ezekiel, rightly, wants to know if anyone will make it to the end of this exile (Eze 11:13). Ezekiel is wondering if God’s remnant will return to the promise land. Ezekiel has in mind a remnant that had been dragged out of Israel. They are left wandering in the wilderness.
It is against this backdrop that the word of the Lord comes to Ezekiel again (Eze 11:14) and it is within this context that the blessed covenantal promised are contained. This passage certainly pointed forward to the greater exodus found in Jesus Christ but it also pragmatically pointed to the exodus from exile and captivity for the people Ezekiel knew and loved. The Lord has sent them away to be “among the nations,” but He has not sent them alone — He has “been a sanctuary to them” (Eze 11:16). This word miqdash (H4720) is used of the tabernacle of God that the people carried with them throughout their journey to the promise land (Exo 25:8; Num 3:38; 10:21; etc.). In other words, God has not left His people. He has been traveling with them in their exile the entire time and He will gather them together and return them to “the land of Israel” (Eze 11:17). Their history is a recapitulation of the Israel’s original exodus and trek through the wilderness. Thus, just as Joshua was commanded to conquer and remove the idolatrous from the land (Josh 3:10) so also the people will clean the land again (Eze 11:18). Just as Joshua had to perform a circumcision of the wandering people (Josh 5:1-9) so also the exiles in Babylon will have to be given a new heart and spirit — a new covenant through circumcision (Eze 11:19). The temporal, pre-fulfillment of this passage is a consistent way to approach the text. The historical events of Ezra, Nehemiah, Zerubbabel, and Jeshua are in focus here too.
The exiles that are returned from captivity in Babylon shall be given “one heart” (Jer 32:39) which is a sign of their shared agreement and concern for the matters of the Lord (2 Chron 30:12). This too has a New Testament fulfillment during the time of the early church (Acts 4:32) but it is important to stress that both these examples are of a corporate heart. One of the residual mistakes of the enlightenment is to render this as individual hearts. It is a grave mistake when reading these prophecy in merely modernist terms is which “we” equates to individuals within a covenant community. A corporate heart is exchanged for an ontological reality. But this is a promised new heart for God’s remnant, His covenant people and not for each specific individual in God’s covenant who returns to the land. The validity of this view is shown by the prophecy that even among these people some will follow their own hearts (Eze 11:21).
Similar to the “one heart,” God makes the promise of “a new spirit” that provides a new removal of sin. One can see in this imagery a symbolic cutting away. It is a new covenant and it signifies a new circumcision. Once again this is a corporate circumcision and with this insight, the historical foundation for this heart circumcision is revealed. Given the backdrop of exile, a tabernacle, and entering the Promised Land, this imagery is neither new nor disturbing to salvific history. It is the re-circumcision of the people after they cross the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua (Josh 5:1-8). As the “reproach of Egypt” was removed (Josh 5:9), so the shame of the exile is removed by God as He brings them back into His covenant. For Ezekiel, the exiles held by “the nations” (Eze 11:12) will become “my people” to God (Eze 11:20).
This promise reveals itself in the obedience of the people (Eze 11:20). But this promise contains a warning that the heart that goes against the “one heart and new spirit” that God has given will be cut off. Of note, Ezekiel 11:21 more literally reads “them whose heart walks after the heart of their detestable things and their abominations.” The pronounced emphasis on following the heart of idolatry instead of the heart of God’s spirit provides the important contrast. All those gathered back into the land will be given the corporate heart and spirit. They will be given the new covenant. But those that reject it will receive punishment and judgment upon their individual heads.
This understanding of the historical pre-fulfillment of Ezekiel 11 before the time of Christ will be crucial to understanding other portions of the book. It should not be assumed that every passage has a pre-fulfillment but careful investigation will show that the cyclical pattern of prophecy in Ezekiel does seem to all point to a pre-fulfillment realized in the exodus from Babylon. This reestablishment of the covenant people in Jerusalem helps us define the extent of the new covenant church.