Back to Eden Ezekiel 36:22–38
In the beginning, God planned a beautiful creation. He created seas and a place of lush vegetation. He made creatures to inhabit the seas and the dry land. He created a man and a woman in His image to rule His newly formed world.
This brief summary of the first two chapters of Genesis describes God’s original intent for our planet. Tragically, sin entered the new world and spread its infection to the first human beings, the seas, the land, and the creatures. The remainder of the Bible details God’s plan to restore this fallen creation to its original condition. God is moving His creation back to Eden.
Israel is God’s major player in this drama of redemption. Abraham was God’s choice to father a race of people to be His channel of blessing to the world. His promises to Abraham of a land, a seed, and blessing reflect God’s goal of restoring the world to Eden’s perfection. Sadly, the descendants of Abraham sinned against God and violated the covenant He later made with Moses. In two dispersions, the Israelites were driven out of the land God had promised. The first dispersion occurred in the eighth century B.C. and the second two centuries later. Ezekiel proclaimed God’s message to the exiles dispersed to Babylon around the year 580 B.C. After explaining the reasons for their exile, he painted for the Jewish people a glorious picture of a return to the land and, more importantly, to their Lord.
A Physical Return to the Land of Israel
God announced through His prophet, Ezekiel, that He would rescue the house of Israel out of all the countries where it had been dispersed. Israel’s home was to be the land from which they had been expelled (36:24)—the land that was unconditionally promised to Abraham in an eternal covenant recorded in Genesis 15:7–21. The prophet reminded the exiles that Israel was “the land that I gave to your fathers” (36:28). The promise extended back some 1,500 years—God never forgets His promises! He promised that the land would one day produce crops in abundance. He would supply the fruit trees and fields of grain to abolish all famine (36:29–30). Cities will be rebuilt, and desolate areas will be cultivated (36:33–34). Just as flocks of sheep covered the hillsides, so flocks of people will cover the land (36:37–38). God’s blessing will cause a population explosion. The full realization of God’s plan since mankind’s fall into sin is unveiled in Ezekiel’s prophecies. The land of Israel will be compared to the sinless creation: “And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden” (36:35).
In 539 B.C., the exiled Israelites returned to the land from Babylon. However, that return did not completely fulfill these promises. Only ten percent of the people returned. The majority of the Israelites—like Esther and Mordecai—remained behind. Ezekiel spoke as his fellow prophet, Isaiah, did a century earlier when he wrote, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, who shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isa. 11:11–12). This second exodus is to bring Jewish people out of every nation on the earth. Only in our century have we witnessed Jewish people returning to Israel from the four corners of the earth.
As you can see from this chart on Jewish population, the number of Jewish people living in the land of Israel has been increasing. The most dramatic surge has occurred since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The percentage of Jewish people in Israel has increased from about 5 percent in 1948 to 33 percent in 1996. What a unique privilege is ours to see the beginning of Israel’s return to the land.
But the promised return still awaits a complete fulfillment in the future, because Israel’s restoration to the land is only the beginning of a sequence of unparalleled spiritual blessings.
A Spiritual Return to the Lord of Israel
Along with a return to their land, God promised to return the Israelites to full fellowship with Himself. He will first cleanse His people by sprinkling them with clean water (36:25). Sprinkling with water is an Old Testament symbol of purification from sins (see Num. 19:13–20). Repentance with godly sorrow will accompany their cleansing (36:31). Another prophet described this future day of grief: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn” (Zech. 12:10).
God also promised to give His beloved people a new heart and a new spirit (36:26). Their natural heart was compared to a stone—lifeless, hard, and unresponsive. Their new heart will be alive and in love with their God. From the core of their being, the people will long for God. The prophets had castigated Israel for its wayward heart. Some day Israel will change from the inside out.
The divine command for the Israelites to love God with their entire being (Dt. 6:5) will be met by divine enablement. In addition to giving His people a new heart, the Lord God promised to place His Spirit within them (36:27). The presence of God Himself within the Israelites will provide a new motivation to obey God. How wonderful it would be if parents could get their children to obey by placing their own spirits inside their children’s hearts! This is exactly what God intends to do for the Jewish people.
Finally, Ezekiel prophesied that God will embrace the Israelites as His people (36:28). God intended this reciprocal relationship with them from the very beginning. Moses, speaking for God, said to the Israelites, “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 6:7).
Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, also prophesied about this restoration to Eden’s perfection. He called it a “new covenant,” in contrast to the “old covenant.” “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah….I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lᴏʀᴅ; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lᴏʀᴅ; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31, 33–34). The following chart compares both prophets’ descriptions of the material and spiritual blessings awaiting Israel.
When will these awesome blessings be given to Israel? When they repent as a nation and recognize their Messiah. Other Scriptures indicate that this will occur after a time of unparalleled distress for the nation (called “Jacob’s trouble” in Jer. 30:7; “great tribulation” in Mt. 24:21). When Jesus returns in glory, Israel will gaze in faith at their Messiah who was pierced (Zech. 12:10). Then “all Israel shall be saved” as “the Deliverer” comes from the heavenly “Zion.” He will “turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Rom. 11:26–27). The new covenant will be fulfilled for the generation of Jewish people alive at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus. The words of Ezekiel will become a reality. The Garden of Eden will be magnified in the land of Israel.
It is this same new covenant that provides the blessings of God for Christians today. The Lord’s Supper looks back to the establishment of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood (1 Cor. 11:25). Paul considered himself a minister of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6). The letter to the Hebrews proclaims a host of better things. The priesthood and laws of the old covenant have been replaced by Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant. In fact, now that the new covenant has come, the old covenant is obsolete (Heb. 8:13). The “blood of the everlasting covenant” provides the basis by which God is “working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight” (Heb. 13:20–21). God’s Spirit has been poured out on His church. Believers today are new creations with hearts that have been “born again.” Jesus spoke of this new covenant to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). The spiritual blessings now enjoyed by the church are only a preview of what Israel will inherit when their Messiah returns in glory.
Ezekiel reminded his readers of the reason for this glorious future. It will not be due to Israel’s own goodness. Rather, God desires to put His own glory on display throughout the world. As the nations of the coming Millennial Kingdom gaze at a restored Israel, they will glory in a holy and sovereign God. “They shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 36:38). What will they see? Another, more glorious Garden of Eden.