Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Finally! The devastating words of judgment have begun to fade. Jerusalem has fallen. The worst that can happen lies in the background.
Now God begins to restore. Now God offers hope. The first 32 chapters of Ezekiel have been dominated by words of judgment, primarily against Judah, but against the nations as well in 25-32. Chapter 33 begins the transition to oracles of hope, with the report of the conquest of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 33:21.
Did I say that the words of judgment had begun to fade? Not for the leaders! The first part of the chapter contains angry denunciations of the “shepherds” of Israel. (Even though the book of Ezekiel deals with the southern kingdom of Judah, “Israel” is a theological term for God’s people as a whole.) The first part of the chapter accuses the shepherds (leaders) of Israel of looking after themselves and ignoring the needs of the people.
That word of judgment against the leaders of Israel sets up God’s promise to act as the true shepherd of Israel, starting in Ezekiel 34:11. “Shepherd” served as a metaphor for king. Other Old Testament passages that refer to God as “shepherd” include Psalm 23 (of course), Psalm 80, Jeremiah 23:3, and Isaiah 40:11. Other passages that talk about God gathering the exiled people as would a shepherd include Micah 4:6 and 7:14.
The part of Ezekiel 34 that forms the reading for our purposes describes God’s actions in taking initiative and showing compassion. The people have been scattered in the exile. As Psalm 137 indicates, the deportation caused great suffering and humiliation.
Now God promises to act as a shepherd. God will seek out the exiles and bring them back. God will not wait for them to return, but will search out the exiles. God will feed and nurture them, and will heal them. God will provide justice for them by confronting those who have failed them. For experiencing displacement, God will bring them back. For their misery, God will nurture and feed them. For their hurt, God will heal them. For their neglect and mistreatment, God will vindicate them. Within the world of the text of Ezekiel, the words of comfort come right on the heels of the announcement of the fall of Jerusalem. Historically, of course, the restoration did not happen for decades. Even though the distance between Ezekiel 33 and 34 does not reflect the historical experience, Ezekiel gives us profound theology.
Even a casual reading will reveal the connection between Ezekiel 34 and the sheep and goats judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46. In Matthew, God also separates animals, only God separates the sheep from the goats. A clear connection forms in the way that God, in both passages, notices the victims, and identifies with those who suffer.
This passage, and the whole book of Ezekiel, gives the preacher/theologian the opportunity to reflect on God’s judgment. Contemporary Christians do not like to hear about judgment. We naturally resist the notion that we need judgment. Christian teaching about God’s judgment has fallen prey to distortions from the “fire and brimstone” crowd. Ezekiel proclaims a God who punishes, even shames, but as part of a process of forming the people into a community that can be in relationship with God. The passage (and book) invites reflection on the God who plunges the people into exile, but also seeks them out, feeds them and binds their wounds.
The preacher can reflect theologically on the purpose, nature and efficacy of judgment. Ezekiel assures us that God does not punish out of cruelty, unreasonableness, pettiness, or vindictiveness. For the “fat sheep,” God judges because they have hurt the vulnerable sheep, and failed in their duty. The exile itself, however, was a judgment, affecting the whole community. Ezekiel insists that the exile was an integral part of God’s intention to restore and renew. In what ways does judgment get our attention, break down our defenses, puncture our self-assurance, rip away our arrogance? In what ways do we need those things before we become available to experience God’s restoration?
This passage lends itself to a number of situations to which contemporary preachers must speak. Although Ezekiel considers the exile a step in God’s program of renewal, the text does not give support to the idea that all suffering is part of “God’s plan.” The exile happened because of the people’s sin. Not all suffering derives from punishment for sin.
A primary way in which a preacher can use this text is to speak to those who feel displaced, hurt, broken, abused, or betrayed. The passage speaks specifically to those who feel out of place. To displace homemakers, immigrants, the unemployed, or simply the homesick, Ezekiel announces that God cares, and offers healing. The preacher might not have warrant to preach that God will change the circumstances of all those who need a new situation. Nevertheless, Ezekiel gives support that God cares about those who feel like they are in the wrong place.
God notices. God reaches out. The passage might offer a special word of healing to those who feel abused or guilt-tripped by the church. Within Ezekiel 34, God offers care to those who were hurt by the failings of shepherds, those in authority positions. For those who have felt damage from the church, this passage offers God’s initiative-taking care. God will hold accountable those who have caused the hurt.
The ambiguity in Ezekiel — that the God who worked in the exile also brings back from the exile — opens up an opportunity to explore how life can hurt. God created the world, and may have — in some sense — called into ministry those who have caused hurt, also offers healing from the hurt. The preacher will want to explain carefully that abuse or suffering is not God’s punishment for sin. God does bring healing from the hurt of the world God created. That is how God (and Christ) reign.