The Book of Ezekiel is filled with particularly difficult language and imagery, causing some folk to throw up their hands and apologize for their inability to make sense of obscure passages. The mystical vision of God in the opening of the first chapter, as well as the end of the book (chapters 40-48) where the laws of Torah are contradicted by Ezekiel's legal material, caused great consternation among certain rabbis who wished the book to be removed from circulation (much as Luther wanted the book of James removed from the Christian Canon).
Ezekiel prophesied from Babylon to the first deportees from Jerusalem, which indicates his audience would have consisted of the religious and political elite, to include the exiled king and priests of the temple. Jeremiah, a contemporary, prophesied in Jerusalem. There was a lively exchange between the exiles in Babylon and the remaining folk in Jerusalem (recorded in Jeremiah concerning his adversaries) and a great deal of disagreement.
The political background of this era is very confused. Assyria had been the world super power, but had started to crumble. Egypt, Babylon, and Judah began to have visions of restored independence and autonomy. Egypt and Babylon, however, wanted to control the former Assyrian Empire. That left Judah with some who felt they should ally with Egypt, some with Babylon, and some with neither, preferring an independent Judean State restored to the prominence of the Davidic Kingdom. What they ended up doing was to occasionally ally with Egypt, occasionally ally with Babylon, and occasionally to assert their independence from both. The result was that they were always in trouble with one or the other, or both, and you had competing factions on all sides trying to gain the upper hand.
As to religious questions, they were no less confused. What did the deportation and exile mean? Was it going to be limited or complete in scope? In other words, were only the first ones deported guilty and was that the end of God's judgment against Israel? What did that mean for those in Babylon? Had God abandoned them? Could Ezekiel really prophesy from Babylon? Could you even worship Yahweh in Babylon? Then, finally, the second, larger deportation occurred, scattering the population from Egypt to Assyria and Babylon, while Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed.
"Despite the complexity of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet's message is relatively simple and can be easily summarized. The city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah would inevitably be punished because of their sins, which were both religious and social. Not only was the current generation sinful and deserving of punishment, but the entire history of Israel had been a history of disobedience and rebellion against God (chap. 20). Repentance might still save individuals who led a righteous life (chap. 18), but the righteous few, if they existed at all, could not save the rest of the nation.
Yet, in spite of this unequivocal message of doom, Ezekiel also prophesied that after the city had been destroyed and the people punished, God would bring the exiles back to the land, and the Temple would be restored according to a divine plan (chaps. 40-48). However, the return will be a pure act of grace. God will bring the people back in order not to profane the divine name (36:16-32). In contrast to Jeremiah, who believed that the Exile would cause Israel to recognize its sins and repent and that because of this repentance God would restore the people to the land (Jer. 31:16-22), Ezekiel was pessimistic about the long range religious effects of the exile.in Ezekiel's scenario.God will first restore the people to the land to preserve the holiness of the divine name. The people will then realize what God has done. They will repent and live faithfully in the land, newly purified from their sin."
Our text today (34:11-16, 20-24) is culled from the larger pericope dealing with (a) the leaders (Kings) of Israel (34:1-10); (b) the way God will lead the nation (34:11-16); (c) the way God will judge the sheep (34:17-24), and the final covenant of peace (34:25-31) God will establish with Israel.
God is going to step in to take the place of the corrupt kings who have plagued the nation with their own interests and for their own gain. God is also going to judge between sheep and sheep, so that those who push and butt to have their own way at the expense of others will be separated from the flock, while the remaining sheep will be entrusted to David.
Finally, with the weak sheep restored to the land and with David to tend them, a new covenant of peace will be established to "restore proper and harmonious relationships of all sorts in the land." They will no longer be visited with acts of judgment, but with restoration. In fact, the land itself will gladly yield its fruit (reversing the curse of Genesis?). In short, the Davidic Monarchy will be restored, Jerusalem will be established as the mountain of the LORD (the footstool of God who oversees all the earth).
'The Son of Man (Messiah) sitting on the throne of judgment is reminiscent of a similar description in Enoch: "And thus the Lord commanded the kings and the mighty and exalted and those who dwell on the earth and said, 'Open your eyes and lift up your horns if you are able to recognize the Elect One,' And the Lord of Spirits seated him on the throne of His glory.and he will deliver them to the angels for punishment to execute vengeance on them because they have oppressed His children and His elect."' 
While the Ezekiel passage assumes a judgment within history (and not beyond history), this passage suggests a final judgment accruing to all who dwell on the earth. While the Ezekiel passage is an allegory or a parable, this is neither - it is an apocalyptic vision of the last judgment. The basis for judgment is the means by which the nations have treated "the least of these who are members of my family," (NRSV, 25:40), or ".these my brothers" (Greek text). Like Enoch, then, the question is whether or not those nations and those in positions of power and authority have recognized Christ / Messiah in the faces of God's elect (the body of Christ, the followers of Christ, or the people of God in general (Israel complete with God-fearers?)).
Previous parables in this section of Matthew have dealt with the delay of Christ's visible, assured, heavenly enthronement. Yet, here, with Ezekiel, Matthew assures his hearers that every living creature will encounter God in judgment, and that judgment is based on what one has practiced rather than what one has professed to believe.
An interesting debate could be held as to whether or not mere
human need, irregardless of affiliation with Christ, is the watch word for
those who would choose to be faithful to Christ's teachings / laws
(Matthew). Does Christ appear in the face of all who have need irrespective
of their practice? Or, is the point that those in power and authority have
failed to see Christ in the weakness of human need? This argument plays out
in questions about the imago dei (the image of God). By serving human
creatures, are we serving God? Or, are we serving God only when we serve
those human creatures who are portraying the image of Christ? One could go
farther afield than the vision itself to ask whether or why the image of God
is limited to humanity rather than creation, and this would drag the debate
even farther away from the original scope, i.e., those with power and
authority will be judged on the basis of whether or not they have perceived
and welcomed Christ in his person and in the person of his disciples.
- Harper's Bible Commentary, James L. Mays, Ed., copyright 1988 by the Society of Biblical Literature, Robert R. Wilson, "Ezekiel," p. 652
- ibid, pp. 659-60
- ibid, p. 690
- Lachs, Samuel Tobias, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, copyright 1987 Lachs, p. 393
(Comments to Michael at email@example.com.)
First Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Berwick, Pennsylvania (Susquehanna North Branch)