And the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, your brethren, even your brethren, your fellow exiles, the whole house of Israel, all of them, are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said, ‘They have gone far from the LORD; to us this land is given for a possession.’ Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.’ Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will requite their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.” (Ezek 11:14-21)
It appears that the folks back home had been telling one another that the LORD had cut off the exiles from the blessings of covenant and land. No doubt the exiles themselves feared this to be the case. Had not the LORD already scattered the ten tribes of the northern kingdom? Had he not solemnly pronounced that Judah had broken the Mosaic covenant and activated the divine curses (Jer 11:1-17)? Had he not foretold the Babylonian conquest and captivity (Jer 25:8-11; Isa 39:6)? And now with Ezekiel’s own visions and prophesies of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and temple, all must have appeared hopeless. But then the LORD makes a surprising declaration: “Yet I have been a sanctuary [“little temple”–Jenson] to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.” Even in idolatrous lands, God abides with his people in prayer and prophecy. (The Targum paraphrases: “I have given them synagogues, second only to My Holy Temple.”) Just as he travelled with the twelve tribes during their wanderings in the wilderness, so he accompanied the exiles in their Babylonian captivity. No matter the distance from Jerusalem, God provides himself as their temple. (“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” [1 Cor 3:16].) The LORD then speaks a fourfold promise:
- The exiles will be restored to the land;
- The restored nation will be freed from idolatry;
- The people of Israel will be given a new heart to obey the LORD‘s commandments;
- The ancient covenant will be renewed.
God has judged and punished Israel; but he has not abandoned her. The first two promises were fulfilled, at least partially, with the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, the return of the exiles to Judah, the rebuilding of the temple, and the renewal of covenant life under Ezra and Nehemiah; but the last two promises are strictly eschatological, that is to say, promises that cannot be fulfilled within the terms of fallen history. They require an absolute ending of the present age, states Robert Jenson, and the inauguration of a new age:
Through the Old Testament, we see the promises to Israel grow in scope, from ordinary historical hopes, through hopes implausible within what we know as history, to promises that reach decisively beyond all terms of that history. That the descendants of Abraham should be a great nation was certainly feasible; such things have happened. That by that nation “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3) pushes the limits, but there have been nations that were a blessing to others, and perhaps a people could indeed appear in history that was a blessing to all—it could be argued that the Jews have in historical fact been a general blessing, if one widely unappreciated. But that, under the Davidic dynasty or any other regime, that blessing will be “endless peace” (Isa. 9:7) pushes the limits of this age to their breaking point. And that “mountain of the LORD’s house” shall become “the highest of the mountains” and be a center of a universal worship of the one God and therefore of universal peace (2:2) must require a complete reworking of the regularities of created history. (Ezekiel, p 98)
The “spectacular” promise of personal transformation in holiness and freedom necessarily transcends our present mode of fallen existence. Such may also be said of the similar promise declared years earlier by Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31-34)
We note that the renewal of the covenant (in fact, a new covenant) involves the spiritual transformation of every Israelite. God will write Torah on their hearts; and in an immediacy of personal knowing and love, Israel will obey him freely, spontaneously, joyfully. She will finally and truly be his faithful people.
The prophecy given to Ezekiel also speaks of transformation, both corporate and personal: the LORD will replace Israel’s idolatrous heart of stone with a living heart, a heart of flesh, and put his Spirit within them (Ezek 11:19-20). In chapter 36 he reiterates his pledge:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (36:26-28)
“‘Heart’ (לב, lev),” explains Jenson, “is a key term of Israelite anthropology and is closely related to ‘soul’ (נפש, nephesh), which denotes simply the person, as a living organized whole with an individual stamp. A heart is the pulsating active center of such a soul” (p. 98). A heart of stone, therefore, must be judged an oxymoron: it is not a heart at all. Radical treatment is needed—not just conversion but regeneration; not just regeneration but resurrection; not just resurrection but new creation in the Spirit. As George Montague comments: “The ‘new spirit’ (vs. 26) is the Lord’s own spirit (vs. 27) and that is why it manifests itself in a willing observance of the Lord’s mind for his people, the law (36:27)” (The Holy Spirit, p. 47).
The promise that God will give his ruach to indwell his people represents a new development in the prophetic tradition. References to the Spirit permeate the Book of Ezekiel. In the prophet’s first vision, the Spirit of the Lord is in the wheels of the throne, and whatever direction the Spirit moves, so also the cherubim (1:12, 20-21). “The spirit of the Lord is the force behind the moving cherubim,” notes Montague, creating “a setting of intense dynamism” (p. 45). The Spirit “lifts up” the prophet (3:12, 14), enters into him and sets him on his feet (3:24), falls upon him and compels him to speak the divine Word (11:5).
The promise of the Spirit is fulfilled in the New Covenant actualized in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus Jenson:
Christianity believes that the fullness of everything promised to Israel, though not a possibility within what we now experience as history, is nevertheless actual in the case of the one Israelite, Jesus the Christ. It is precisely because of the impossibility of such a life in this age that he had to die. And eschatologically new life, which can only follow the “end,” is the life into which he was raised. (p. 99)
Jenson is not suggesting that sin in any way characterized or informed Jesus’ thoughts and actions. Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, baptized in the Spirit, lived and died in the fullness of the Spirit. But in a fallen world, life in the Spirit must inevitably bring one into violent conflict with the principalities and powers. Who among the saints, excepting the Theotokos (and perhaps St John the Forerunner), were not guilty of sin? If we conceive the coming Kingdom as “in any way a history continuous with the history of this age, there will continue to be sin and evil and weeping, and so not the sheer love that is promised” (p. 71). Even the Virgin Mary knew the suffering of having her heart pierced by sorrow (Luke 2:35), and she too had to pass through the separation of soul and body into the resurrected life of the Kingdom.
There is a problem here, though. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Church, in fulfillment of the promise given to the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2). The gift of the Spirit is bestowed upon every person baptized into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Life in the Spirit characterizes life of the Church. The charisms of the Spirit are distributed; the fruits of the Spirit, generated. The Apostle Paul boldly declares: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Yet … the baptized continue to sin, commonly and grievously. The Spirit of the Christ is poured out, but often, so it seems, with little effect and power. How are we to understand this tragic and universal anomaly?
For their own persons, Christians join Jews in waiting for new birth and new creation to be completed beyond this age in the kingdom. But they also claim to know this radical new start as something that happens now—ahead of time—at baptism and in baptized persons’ new freedom with respect to sin. Both in the kingdom and in the pilgrim church, believers’ freedom from a heart that is dead to righteousness and their possession of a heart that is alive to God depends on their union with Christ, who has himself already made the step (Rom. 6:1–14) … So when is Israel at last faithful? At “the end of the days” and already—by Christian conviction—in the person of the one Israelite whose own heart was never stony, but who was killed by our stony hearts and who lives as the new heart of all God’s people. (p. 99)
The Kingdom has come—yet is not yet, certainly not yet. As in the days of old, the baptized run after other gods and disobey the Torah of Christ. Jenson is of course correct that the freedom of the baptized from the power of sin and death “depends” on their union with Christ; but what if our hearts have once again become, and perhaps always were, lifeless rocks? Is this the deep meaning of Martin Luther’s simul iustus et peccator?
Jenson orbserves that the indwelling of the Spirit has posed a continuing problem for Western theology. Can divinity inhabit rational creatures without absorbing them into the anonymity of infinite essence?
Moved by this worry, Western theology came to a fateful consensus during the twelfth century: what the Spirit gives cannot be his own personal inward presence; the biblical “gifts of the Spirit” are detached from the Spirit’s person and made to be “created” gifts that he infuses in us. This consensus underlies many unfortunate developments in Western theology: not least its conception of scripture itself, as inspired by a Spirit who from outside the biblical writers “suggests” or even “dictates” what they are to say. The distinction between “created” and “uncreated” undoubtedly has its uses, but it cannot be used to tell us what the Creator can or cannot do. And there was no need for the worry behind this unfortunate theologoumenon, for since “God’s Spirit is the spirit of the Creator, his presence within us can only enhance our created personhood.” (p. 279)
God has spoken, is speaking, beings into being. He is never literally outside his creation and is certainly never metaphysically distant from it. The personal indwelling of God in his people, through the incarnate Word, in and by the Spirit, represents no problem at all. God creates the hearts of flesh he chooses to inhabit. Suddenly the words of Jesus come alive:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:15-20)
Even in exile, we are never abandoned. God is faithful to his promises.