Author: Paul Henebury

Covenant in Ezekiel (Pt. 5)

Part Four

A Literal Reading

The structure of Ezekiel reaches its crescendo in the theme of the returning Glory to the Temple in Ezekiel 43:1-7.[1]   This return must be linked with the abandonment of Solomon’s Temple by the Glory-cloud in chapter 11.  There is a narrative-theological arc extending from Ezekiel 8 and 11 over to Ezekiel 43.

This arc from a literal temple to what is often taken to be a spiritual temple at the end of the book, looks hermeneutically unbalanced and forced upon the prophet’s words.  But if this arc and the other details in this section can be adequately accounted for by not spiritualizing them, then the theological fallout is immense.[2]  The strongly covenantal connections involved would, for example, stimulate a long overdue examination of God’s eternal covenant of peace with Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13) and his descendants the Zadokites (cf. 1 Chron. 6:4-8).

The whole section moves logically from the command to Ezekiel to describe the temple (Ezek. 40:4), to a guided tour of the premises, with measurements related at each step (Ezek. 40:6-42:20).  We get a description of the altar and offerings (Ezek. 43:13-27), followed by rules on who can and who cannot enter the sanctuary (Ezek. 44:1-9).  The two-tier priest system, consisting of Zadokites and Levites, is delineated (Ezek. 44:10-16).  Then basic duties are described (Ezek. 44:17-31).  In Ezekiel 45:1-8 the division of the land around the sanctuary is prescribed, beginning with a large “holy” area for the Zadokites, in which the sanctuary itself sits in its own acreage, situated in the center (cf. Ezek. 48:10).  There will also be a smaller area “adjacent to the holy area” given to “the whole house of Israel” who live in the city (Jerusalem).  The “prince,” receives a portion next to the city portion and the holy portion.[3]  A separate large area is for the other Levites.   Several ordinances and offerings finish off the chapter and continue to Ezekiel 46:15.  Then the gifts of the “prince” are mentioned (Ezek. 46:16-18).  This includes a passage about how the prince is not to take other people’s property (Ezek. 46:18).  Whoever this “prince” is then, he is not divine.[4]

More descriptions close chapter 46, and then there is the description of the healing waters which flow out from the door of the temple (Ezek. 47:1-11).  This is followed by an outline of the land inheritance (Ezek. 47:12-23).  The prophet even includes Yahweh’s recollection of His covenant of land:

Thus says the Lord GOD: “These are the borders by which you shall divide the land as an inheritance among the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph shall have two portions.

You shall inherit it equally with one another; for I raised My hand in an oath to give it to your fathers, and this land shall fall to you as your inheritance.” – Ezekiel 47:13-14 (my emphasis)

To those who place the whole last section of Ezekiel in the past, this is still a late reminder that God has not rescinded the land promise to the nation of Israel.  The reason given for this is the oath He pledged to the Fathers centuries before: To repeat, covenant oaths are hermeneutically fixed points in Scripture.

If the prophetic context is kept in view then the establishment of the nation of Israel around this glorious temple will come to pass in the future in exactly the way the prophet described it.  There has certainly been no such river as is here described in the history of the world until now!  It is not for us to quibble at place names or future sacrifices or sin offerings.  That is not our problem, and the One whose problem it is, is more than capable of resolving any apparent conflicts with our theology.

Ezekiel 48 is remarkable for its two lists of the tribes of Israel.  In Ezekiel 48:1-8, 23-29 lists the borders of each tribe’s inheritance.  Then Ezekiel 48:30-34 the gates of the city are named after the tribes.  But the lists differ!  The list of tribes who are given land is as follows:

Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, and Gad.[5]

    Levi is omitted and Joseph is represented by his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  When we compare the names on the gates of the city, we get the original brothers:

Reuben, Judah, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Gad, Asher, and Naphtali.

    There is no contradiction here.  Obviously, the reasons for the two lists differ.  Because Levi is given land around the temple, the tribe of Joseph is divided between his sons to make up the twelve.

The last verse in Ezekiel puts a time-stamp on the whole section (Ezek. 48:35).  God is present in the new temple (Ezek. 43:1-5).  The tribes of Israel are around it north and south, and Jerusalem is called Yahweh Shammah (“Yahweh is there”).  This is the coming Kingdom. (more…)

Covenant in Ezekiel (Pt. 4)

Part Three

Gog and Magog Against Israel

There has been a lot of debate about Ezekiel 38 and 39.  Those who think they ought to be read symbolically appeal to the apocalyptic character of the descriptions.[1]  But it appears sometimes that appeals to certain genres are a little too convenient; the word being placed over the text like a kind of detour sign in the middle of a road, preventing people from drawing the “wrong” conclusion.  Other expositors find little difficulty with unpacking the details of the two oracles, other than the identification of the names and places.[2]  Stuart, Alexander, and others have shown that it is unwise to attempt to identify “Rosh” in these chapters with modern Russia.  No one can pinpoint “Rosh” as an ancient land,[3] and students of the Bible are not to try to surmise predictions of future nations from mere names.  We are not to read Holy Scripture like the quatrains of Nostradamus. All commentators seem to agree that Ezekiel 38-39 is for the purpose of reasserting God’s defense of Israel.[4]

It is beyond my purpose to enter into the details of these chapters.[5]  The chief character is “Gog,” but it is not clear who this is talking about.  It is probably a generic name for a future invader.  Ezekiel 38:16-17 encourage this understanding of this “prince.”  When does he and his army come against Israel?  Some believe that fulfilment should be sought at the end of the thousand-year term in Revelation 20.  But I think this is a mistake for at least two reasons.  Firstly, it will not surprise my reader to learn that I resist the urge to read the New Testament back into the Old Testament, especially where there is a real danger that one’s perception of the Old Testament in its setting will be altered in the process.

But my second reason for saying that Ezekiel 38-39 do not belong after the thousand years of Revelation 20, is that if we stick to letting the Bible unfold it seems quite obvious where this section belongs.  The mention of seismic devastation in Ezekiel 38:20, and the declaration at the end of the chapter that God’s enemies (as well as Israel and the nations), will know that He is the Lord (Ezek. 38:23; 39:7, 27-28. Cf. Ezek. 36:23; 37:28), makes much better sense if positioned at the second advent, and the commencement of the coming kingdom than anywhere else.  It is hard to conceive of people picking up weapons for seven years (Ezek. 39:9), or burying the dead for seven months (Ezek. 39:11-12) once the kingdom of Messiah is in full swing; there being no apparent period of time, nor indeed any need for such tidying up in Revelation 20:7-11.  Besides, Micah (4:3) and Isaiah (2:4) have men recycling weapons at the onset of the Reign of peace.  The promise of the restoring of “the whole house of Israel” also matches the explanation of the dry bones vision in Ezekiel 37:11f.  Whatismore, that vision includes a New covenant prophecy of the Spirit (Ezek. 37:14), which is found also in the last verse of Ezekiel 39 (Ezek. 39:29).

These chapters fit the “vengeance” passages we see in Isaiah (See my comments on Isaiah 34:8 etc.).  The reference to “the mountains of Israel” (Ezek. 38:8; 39:2, 17) ought to be construed as coterminous with its usage in the eschatological chapters (Ezek. 34-37), where the phrase concerns the establishment of the kingdom era (e.g. Ezek. 34:11-31; 36:8-38; 37:14-28).

In summary, I think “Gog and Magog” in Ezekiel represents the forces which will be arrayed against Israel to attempt to wipe it off the face of the map.  This offensive will, I believe, occur just prior to the coming of Christ in vengeance (Isa. 63:1ff.).  The reason for inserting these chapters here in Ezekiel is to call attention to what Jeremiah calls “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” which the Lord will finally deliver Israel out of (Jer. 30:7).

Ezekiel’s Eschatological Temple

As I have shown already, an End Times sanctuary is projected as part of the prophetic picture of the Old Testament (Ezek. 37:26-28; cf. Isa. 2:2-3; 60:13).[6]  It is this temple that is described in detail in Ezekiel 40 – 48.  As we start our examination of this section I want to remind the reader that I see my job as an interpreter of what God has said in the text and not a reinterpreter of the words that He chose to use.  Whether one can keep these descriptions intact when reading the New Testament is not my concern right now.   If we must adopt typology then let us not do it here.  This book is about listening to what God says where He says it, and as He says it, and not jumping ahead of the Author.  The reader will hopefully see later that there is no need to recast the words into an assumed Apostolic mold.

Many good men cannot bring themselves to accept that there are sacrifices and temple worship after Christ returns. The standard evangelical commentary on Ezekiel believes the whole vision typifies Christ and the Church.[7]      To many Reformed writers, the insistence of some Christians that Ezekiel 40 – 48 be taken literally is viewed as, to use Anthony Hoekema’s word, an “absurdity,”[9] while other writers simply take the non-literal view because it seems more practicable to them.[10]

As well as this many commentators dismiss the idea of a literal temple by pointing to the numerous problems with taking such a line. Daniel Block, for example, mentions the lack of eschatological terminology in the passage such as “on that day,” “in the latter days,” etc.[11]  Block notices that the furnishings in the Sanctuary are absent,[12] the New Moon Offerings are different.[13]  “The apportionment of the land of Israel among the tribes to a large extent disregards topographic and historical realities.”[14]


[1] E.g. Douglas Stuart, Ezekiel (Dallas: Word, 1989), 352; Renz, 117.  Although there is no real problem with accepting that the chapters are “apocalyptic” and taking them more or less at face value.  See Lamar Eugene Cooper, Ezekiel, 328-330.

[2] E.g. Ralph H. Alexander, “Ezekiel,” EBC Revised, 852.

[3] Apparently, the Iliad (xiii, 5-6) grouped all the nations of the north under this name. – Charles Lee Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel, 220 n.1

[4] For sound expositions of these chapters the reader is referred to the commentaries by Cooper and Alexander.

[5] One good survey of the events is Harold W. Hoehner, “The Progression of Events in Ezekiel 38 – 39” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), eds. Charles H. Dyer & Roy B. Zuck, 82-92.  Hoehner opts for a mid-tribulation setting.

[6] Despite the very clear eschatological signposts in these chapters, still some scholars claim that, taken literally, this enormous temple was predicted to be built after the Babylonian Captivity.  E.g., Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 203.

[7] Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48, 505-506.

[8] Curtis I. Crenshaw & Grover E. Gunn, III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow (Footstool, 1989), 221. Emphasis added.

[9] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 204. He believes that the vision pictures the new earth, “in terms of the religious symbolism with which Ezekiel and his readers were familiar.” – Ibid, 205.  Of course, what they were familiar with was a literal temple, they were not at all familiar with a figurative one.  Older writers tended to allegorize the passage.  E.g., John Owen, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), Vol. IX. 180

[10] E.g. Gary V. Smith, Interpreting the Prophetic Books: An Exegetical Handbook, 123

[11] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 504.

[12] Ibid, 501.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 501-502.

Covenant in Ezekiel (Pt. 3)

Part Two

A Valley Full of Dry Bones

     The first vision in Ezekiel 37 is the best known in the book.  If people are ignorant of everything else in the book, they are often aware of the valley of dry bones, though frequently they have no idea what it means.  It surely doesn’t help when commentators apply the whole passage to the Christian church.

The bones stretch out over a wide area, and the prophet is given an aerial view of them.  When the inspection is over, God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man,[1] can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3).  The prophet is wise.  He knows that the answer to all such questions lies with the living God.  So, the Lord gives Ezekiel a command to speak over the bones, and as He speaks the words of God the bones came together and flesh covered them (Ezek. 37:7-8).  As so often in the biblical record, the Lord does not bypass the human instruments He has created to exercise dominion upon earth.  Ezekiel speaks for God and God’s power stands behind the words.

What occurs next repeats the order found in the creation of man in Genesis 2:7.  Life is not ours to bestow.  It is given at the behest of the Creator.  The “great army” (Ezek. 37:10) that stands in front of him is “the whole house of Israel” (Ezek. 37:11).  But which Israel?  We must continue reading to find the answer.  As we proceed, we hear “Israel” say that they are like the dry bones; that they are without a hope and close to being cut off.  This indeed would resonate with the plight of the people in Ezekiel’s time.  They have arrived at this sad end because of their multiplied sins against their covenant God (Ezek. 16:59; 20:37).

The vision of the dry bones becoming living men is further explained in terms of revivication in verses 12 and 13.  God will open their graves and put His Spirit in them and then bring them back into their land (Ezek. 37:14).  The Spirit’s agency suggests not just a bringing back to life but a complete resurrection.[2]  We are back on New covenant territory (cf. Isa. 59:20-21; Ezek. 36:27; 39:29).  But we still have to ask what this all means.  Is there to be a literal resurrection of Israelites under the auspices of the New covenant?  Or is this coming out of the graves a picture of New covenant restoration?  I think it is undoubtedly the latter.  This matches verses 21-23 where God declares He will regather Israel and bring them into their own land, a reunited kingdom, cleansed from their sins.  The resurrection motif amplifies the kind of restoration Israel hopes for.  God’s immense covenant grace is hope’s guarantee.

Whereas the valley of dry bones teaches the revival of Israel in their land, the sign of the two sticks coming together in the prophet’s hand communicates reunification of the scattered tribes.  The visions belong together.  But they must be read entirely.  The prophet is not predicting conditions after the return from Babylon.  He is projecting the realization of God’s covenant promises to the nation.  “David” appears for the last time (Ezek. 37:24-25) first as a king (melek), and then as a prince (nasi).  Although I don’t pretend to know how fit together the Branch as king and David as king, I have no doubt that with a little more clarification there will be no contradiction.  The presiding presence of the God-man (Messiah – Isa. 9:6-7) and the rule of David are not necessarily at odds with one another.  The magnitude of the coming kingdom, coupled with the preeminence of Israel (e.g. Zeph. 3:20), and the insistence of God that men and women participate in the world as image and likeness of Him would indicate that “David, My servant” is indeed David.[3]    (more…)

Covenant in Ezekiel (Pt. 2)

Part One

On the Mountains of Israel

Ezekiel 34 – 39 is bound together by the theme of the return of the presence of God.  But one should also note the repeated refrain “the mountains of Israel.”   The phrase is a favorite one with Ezekiel, who uses it seventeen times.  In fact, it is only found elsewhere in two verses in Joshua (Josh. 11:16, 21).     Up until chapter 34 all four times it is been used it has rung a negative note. But things change in these markedly eschatological chapters.  And whereas in Joshua the phrase was merely topographical, in these last chapters “the mountains of Israel” are not only mentioned topographically, but they are viewed wistfully, even when in Ezekiel 39 the refrain is used of the defeat of Israel’s end-time foe.[1]  The words summon up thoughts of Israel restored to its land.[2]

Ezekiel 34 marks the beginning of the last main section of the book.[3]  The Lord inveighs against the “shepherds” (i.e. the ruling class – e.g. Jer.23:1-4).  They have failed the people (Ezek. 34:4-8).  They have led them astray from the Mosaic covenant.  But where the leaders fail, the covenant God will restore.  He will regather His people and “feed them on the mountains of Israel” (Ezek. 34:13).  He will also judge between them (34:17-22), and, not for the first time, the name of David is brought up.

I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them– My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.  And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. – Ezekiel 34:23-24  

I have commented on this “David” under Jeremiah 30:9 and 33:21-22 in the last chapter.  Here again, although perhaps even more directly, David himself is predicted to rule Israel.  I don’t profess to know how to make sense of this.  Could “David” just be code for “Messiah” here?  That is a common understanding.[4]  But it doesn’t say that.  I am content to leave the text alone and wait and see how it all comes together in the coming kingdom, where I am sure there will be many questions answered that are difficult to understand right now.

What comes next repeats the promises of safety and increase (Ezek. 34:25-27), with even the beasts being pacified (Ezek. 34:28).  That does not sound like post-exilic times.  There is also mention of “a covenant of peace” in verse 25.  Williams says that this phrase, along with “everlasting covenant” (wherever the covenant is not specified), are synonymous with the New covenant, and I think he is right.[5]  This means that we are on New covenant ground here.  This will be the ground the prophet stays on, for the most part[6], for the rest of the book.

Ezekiel 36 and 37 are great restoration chapters.  They contain several key elements within the prophetic picture of the Hebrew Bible.  God is speaking directly to “the mountains” in Ezekiel 36:8-13.  From Ezekiel 36:7-9 it appears that while the land of Israel will be blessed with abundance, the surrounding nations (Edom prominent among them, v.5) will “bear their own shame.”  There is an interesting remark of Yahweh when He says He will “do better for you than at your beginnings” (Ezek. 36:11).  This surely means that the prophetic language about Israel returning to the times of their fathers needs to be understood with this betterment in mind.

In verses 16 to 20 there is a rehearsal of Israel’s history of defection and uncleanness.  The nation has profaned God’s great name (mentioned repeatedly in Ezek. 36:20-23), so God Himself will make sure that the situation is reversed (Ezek. 36:21-23).  He will not ensure this by bypassing the nation that has dragged His name through the mud.[7]  The fate of Israel is bound to God’s name and His renown.  This is why He will perform a great work of restitution on the nation.

And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,” says the Lord GOD, when I am hallowed in you before their eyes…etc.  Read Ezekiel 36:23-30.

The making sacred the Lord’s name referred to in the passage will come about only when Israel finally knows Yahweh, and recognizes Who it is that has chosen them out from among the nations of the world (Deut. 7:6; cf. Isa. 46:13).  The way this will be done is by a gathering of the scattered people “from among the nations” (Ezek. 36:24), and a cleansing of the people, both from their uncleanness and their idolatries (Ezek. 36:25).[8]  Please note that the gathering and the redemption are closely associated.  This indicates the gathering is not the recognition of the nation of Israel in 1948, amazing as that was.  It is, I believe, a gathering connected with the time of trouble spoken of by Isaiah (Isa. 24 – 27); Jeremiah (Jer. 30:7), and Daniel (Dan. 12:1).  This implies that Israel will be driven out of the land again, only to be miraculously brought back and saved.[9]  This cleansing will not be superficial, like in Josiah’s time, but will be a genuine conversion of the people, seemingly en masse (Ezek. 36:26).  Verse 26 also includes the covenant formula, which in the absence of berith shows that the prophet is speaking in covenantal terms.[10]

The transformation of a rebellious people into a redeemed nation will entitle them to “dwell in the land” that was bestowed in the covenant with the Patriarchs (Ezek. 36:28).  Permanent possession of their land through the Abrahamic covenant is enabled by the salvation within the New covenant (we have seen that the New covenant provides the salvation needed for fulfillment of God’s other covenants).  Verses 29 and 30 add the other New covenant guarantee of blessing on the land.  All of this is done by the hand of Israel’s covenant God.

Ezekiel 36:24-30 is a sustained Divine pledge to do good to Israel so that they will finally reflect God’s name to the world as they were called to do (cf. Exod. 19:6; Isa. 44:8).  As the passage continues, we read of the restored people becoming aware of their sinful past and mourning over it (Ezek. 36:31-32).  Whether this repentance happens after the establishment of the kingdom or before it is unsure (cf. Ezek. 43:10-11).  As we keep reading, we see that the renovation of the land of Israel will surpass anything that has been seen since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.  Israel’s ravaged land will “become like the garden of Eden” (Ezek. 36:35. Cf. Isa. 51:3).[11]  A return to Edenic beauty and productivity is a New covenant achievement, brought about solely through Him who is Himself the New covenant.

The need to rebuild (Ezek. 36:33, 35-38) in the context of an eschatological deliverance points to a period of destruction prior to the restoration.[12]


[1] The places where the phrase is used are Ezekiel 34:13, 14 (twice); 35:12; 36:1 (twice), 4, 8; 37:22; 38:8; 39:2, 4, and 17.  The appearance of the phrase in chapter 35 may seem to belie my assertion about the expression being utilized in an eschatological setting in Ezekiel 34 and following.  But the language in Ezekiel 35:8-9, 13 is very final.  The next time Edom is named is in a restoration context (Ezek. 36:4-11).   And when second advent passages like Isaiah 34:1-6; 63:1f. (cf. Amos 9:12) are recalled, in which Edom features prominently, one should not be too quick to push everything in Ezekiel 35 into the past.

[2] Lamar Eugene Cooper, Ezekiel, 335 n.99

[3] See Thomas Renz, The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel (Boston: Brill, 2002), 128-130.  Alexander places the division starting in Ezekiel 33:21 when the news of the fall of Jerusalem reaches the exiles; see Ralph H. Alexander, “Ezekiel,” EBC Revised, 657.  In my opinion Ezek. 33:21-33 fittingly closes off the judgment section of the book (chs. 25-33).   Some writers place the last division at the beginning of chapter 33 (e.g., Michael G. McKelvey, “Ezekiel”, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, 309).  Some other writers divide off the last nine chapters, but I think this is a mistake since important themes in chapters 34 – 39 are continued in the vision of the new temple.

[4] E.g. Ralph Alexander, “Ezekiel,” 836.  But see Charles H. Dyer, “Ezekiel,” in BKCOT, 1295, who thinks it refers to the real David.

[5] Michael D. Williams, Far As The Curse Is Found, 215.

[6] Ezekiel 35 being the possible exception, though see note 4 above

[7] See W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 186, where the author refers to, “the integrity of divine action which continues in accordance with a divine intention to honour promises to Israel.”  When God says He does this act of grace for the sake of His great name it can only be because of His covenants with Israel.  Although Israel repeatedly profanes His name, God will uphold it by being true to His oaths.  It is this alone which guarantees both the restoration and beautification of national Israel and the glorification of the Church.

[8] The promise to “sprinkle (or ‘slosh’) clean water on you” is an image of thorough spiritual cleansing which has been misused as a proof-text for sprinkling babies by both covenant theologians and some dispensationalists.

[9] As we have seen, this involves another exodus (See Isa. 11:11-16; Jer. 23:7-8).

[10] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, 42

[11] These passages have been utilized by those who want to teach an eschatology based on their “Cosmic Temple” model.  It is more likely to view them as simple similes.

[12] On this see George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 2.104-116

Review of ‘Can We Trust The Gospels?’ by Peter J. Williams

A review of Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 153 pages, pbk. 

This excellent little book by the English biblical scholar Peter J. Williams (not to be confused with the apologist Peter S. Williams) is a readable and informative introduction to some of the main questions people have about the four Gospels.  In eight tightly argued but entertaining chapters Williams, who acts as principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, dispels common myths and furnishes many enlightening facts about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, avoiding dogmatic overreach but still making a very solid case for their trustworthiness.

Williams’ first chapter surveys external sources such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus to corroborate many features in the Evangelists.  Tacitus reported on the “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome in AD 64, the year of the great fire (23).  Since there is a distance of over 2,000 miles between Rome and Jerusalem, this testifies to the extent to which the new Faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire in Apostolic times.  Incidentally, such witnesses as Tacitus seem to give the lie to the more conservative estimates for the extent of Christianity in the first centuries (cf. also 27).  These non-Christian sources also confirm the execution of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate.

A real reature of this chapter, which continues throughout the book, is the way Williams appeals to common sense and reasonable expectations to make  his points.  For instance, on page 34 the author observes,

Skeptical readers…might naturally assume that these beliefs [i.e. about the virgin birth] arose through exaggerations over time as word of Jesus as Messiah spread.  The problem with this is finding a context in which such embellishments could spread…According to 1 Corinthians 9:5 (written ca. AD 56) not just one brother, but “brothers” of Jesus traveled with their wives, spreading the Christian message.  This suggests a situation in which the sprouting of novel beliefs about the family origins of Jesus would have been hard.

Notice here how Williams allows for the force of the unbeliever’s argument (“might naturally assume”) while giving an answer which is scriptural and provides food for thought.  This ability of the writer to converse with those dubious of the Bible’s claims provides a model for effective communication with unbelievers.

The second chapter, “What Are the Four Gospels?” identifies them as ancient biographies, early in date, and surprisingly many (four) for an ancient figure (39-41).  It deals with why the Gospel of Thomas is not on a par with the biblical Gospels, and the important matter of the the traditional authorship of the Gospels (43).

Chapter three asks whether the authors got their geographical and cultural facts right, while the next chapter explores the fascinating subject of “Undesigned Coincidences” in the four Gospels, utilizing Lydia McGrew’s recent work on the subject [Hidden in Plain View].  By this term is meant the converging of independent details in different authors which complement and reinforce one another, but without any clear signs of interaction between the sources.  Examples include the way personality traits are noted by Luke and John in separate incidents concerning the sisters Mary and Martha (88-89), or Jesus asking Philip where to buy bread (Jn. 6).  This looks like a random enquiry until we read John 1:44 and Luke 9:10, which informs us that Philip was from the town of Bethsaida, which is close to where the miracle was performed (92-93).

Chapters about whether we still have Jesus’s words; if the the text of the Gospels has been changed (a particular strength of Williams), and contradictions follow.  All are good, especially the first two, although I would have like a little more interaction with alleged contradictions; a few more examples would have helped.

The final chapter is titled “Who Would Make All This Up?”  He begins the chapter with a typically sensible statement:

There are many particulars in the Gospels that the authors would be unlikely to have invented.  Although one can usually think of complex reasons why someone might invent them, those are not the simplest explanations.  The simplest explanation is that these reports are true. (121)

In this chapter the author tackles miracles and the Resurrection, before reaching his conclusion – that the Jesus presented in the Gospels and predicted in the Old Testament is who the Gospels claim He is.  The NT does not simply say that Jesus died, but that He was buried.  Who would bury a convict who had been crucified?  Answer, Jews!  They would make sure that people were buried (133).  And then there are the resurrection appearances.  In a terrific passage Williams sums up the all the varied details of those appearances (134).

Scholarship has well established the strong links between Second Temple Jewish belief and the emergence of Christianity from its milieu (see e.g. Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period).  On the back of this Williams comments,

One can make a good argument that the concept of the bodily resurrection of one person in advance of others would have been very odd within Judaism, and therefore it is unlikely that early Christians would have invented it in an effort to continue the Jesus movement after the death of their leader. (135).

The apologetic method employed could best be described as evidentialist, but since the writer is clear that he is presenting a case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels this should not be seen as a flaw.

In summary, Can We Trust The Gospels? is a fine book which packs a lot of important information within its brief compass.  It deserves a very wide readership and would be an excellent gift for any growing Christian or non-believer with an openness to its message.

This book was provided to me by the publisher without any obligation to give a positive review.

Covenant in Ezekiel (Pt.1)

The Glory of the Lord

Ezekiel begins with a vision of what appears to be a moveable throne, with a kind of platform beneath it (Ezek. 1:22-26).  At its sides, just below the platform were wheels (Ezek. 1:19-21), and creatures full of life (“living creatures”), who had some sort of symbiotic attachment to each other; the creatures energizing the wheels.[1]  These are identified later as cherubim (Ezek. 10:1ff.).  The “voice of the Almighty” seemed to be heard in the wings of these creatures (Ezek. 1:24), and the Figure on the throne is identified as “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” (Ezek. 1:28).  It is significant that a rainbow is seen around the throne and the Figure (Ezek. 1:28); perhaps alluding to the covenant in Genesis 9:11-13.

This introduction serves the purpose of making what happens in the book a reaction of Yahweh to the situation of His people.  The “glory” (kabod) is seen several times by the prophet before it finally abandons the temple in Jerusalem (Ezek. 11:22-23).[2]  Besides a single mention in an eschatological promise in Ezekiel 39:21, the glory of God is not seen again until it enters and remains in the new temple in Ezekiel 43:2-5 and 44:4.  Therefore, the glory leaving the old temple in Ezekiel 11, and the glory returning to the great new temple in chapter 43, forms a kind of theological arc in the book.[3]  There is absolutely no doubt that the temple in the first part of Ezekiel is a literal edifice.  It is Solomon’s temple which was razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.  But there is a good deal of debate about whether the greater temple at the end of the book is literal or just a metaphorical “temple.”  If it is a metaphor then the arc we have noted is an uneven thing.  The glory leaves a physical temple but enters a metaphorical one, with no warning from the author that this is what is happening.[4]

Certainly, the image of God’s glory among His people is a vital idea within the book as a whole.  The departing glory in Ezekiel 11 signifies God giving over the nation to the consequences of their sins (Ezek. 11:1-12).  But then, just as we saw in Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there is a prediction of a turnaround.  Ezekiel is so overawed with the Lord’s oracle of doom, underscored as it was by the death of his enemy Pelatiah (Ezek. 11:13a), that he cries out to God, asking Him if He intends to bring the Remnant of Israel to a complete end (Ezek. 11:13b).

What he gets by way of an answer is a promise that Yahweh will give the land back to Israel (Ezek. 11:17), and at the same time they will be given a clean heart to obey Him (Ezek. 11:19-20).  This is a New covenant promise of salvation, and it is given right before the prophet sees the glory of God, the cherubim, the wheels and all, go up from Jerusalem by the east side of the city (the same side that it will return to when it enters the new temple in Ezekiel 43:1-5).  This same New covenant is what is referred to at the close of Ezekiel 16 (Ezek. 16:60-63) where God promises that He will “provide an atonement” for Israel and establish an everlasting covenant with them.[5]

Ezekiel 20 recounts God’s judicial dealings with Israel.  He reminds them of the oath that He took during the rebellion in the wilderness, that He would not bring the people into the Promised Land (Ezek. 20:13-15).  This refers, of course, to the generation that came out of Egypt and witnessed the mighty acts of the Exodus (Num. 14:26-35; Psa. 95:9-11), but not to their children (Ezek. 20:17-20).

The chapter is notable for its designation of the Sabbath as a “sign” between God and Israel (Ezek. 20:12, 20).  Even though the nation has defected from the Mosaic precepts, the Sabbath still has importance for them beyond its function in helping to preserve a sense of identity.  Quite how the sabbaths are a sign is not spelled out, although it has something to do with Israel’s sanctification (Ezek. 20:12).  The fact that Israel’s sabbaths serve as signs makes the fourth commandment of Exodus 20:8-11 stand apart from the other nine, which may explain why this commandment alone is not enjoined in the New Testament. (more…)

Jeremiah’s Great Eschatological Vision (Pt.5)

Part Four

This is the final installment of this short series.

What Yahweh Thinks of Covenant-Breakers

Having just uttered what is undoubtedly one of the most unambiguous promises in literature, and coming on the back of an entire extended portion on the subject of Israel’s eschatological hope (Jer. 30 – 33), Jeremiah switches gear to relate an incident under the quickly ebbing reign of king Zedekiah.

The background to the story is the desperation of the king and his nobles over the engagement with the overwhelming forces of Nebuchadnezzar, and what was sure to follow (Jer. 34:1f.).  In a last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable, the king and his courtiers turn to Yahweh and, in a fit of religious zeal, they make a covenant before Him in the temple to implement the command contained within the Mosaic covenant (Jer. 34:13-14) to release Hebrew slaves (see Exod. 21:1-11; Deut. 15:12-18).  Dishonorably they went back on their oath and took the slaves back (Jer. 34:8-11); an action that provoked the following response:

you recently turned and did what was right in My sight—every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. ‘Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom you had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’  “Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, everyone to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the LORD—‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. – Jeremiah 34:15-17

All is clear.  Because the king and his nobles initially respected God’s covenant stipulations about the liberating of slaves, but then shamefully went back on their word, they profaned God’s holy name.  The crime was made more shameful by the fact that it was a Sabbatical year.[1]  God in return would proclaim a “liberty” to them – a pun on their treachery – to the instruments of destruction.

Then comes the theological hammer blow:

And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it… – Jeremiah 34:18 (Italics added)

Although most interpreters of Jeremiah pass over it, what Yahweh has just said in this verse is of supremest importance for the right treatment of the biblical covenants, and for the interpretation of Scripture.  The basic lesson is that God takes a dim view of the leaders of Judah who went back on their covenant, and again subjugated those who they had sworn to set free.

But the profound truth which can be rightly inferred from Yahweh’s attitude is that He expects those who enter into a solemn covenant oath to “perform the words (dabar) of the covenant.”  The words spoken in the covenant-making rite mean what they say!  If Zedekiah and the princes did not intend to actually perform these words they ought not to have vowed to do them.  That is the clear message from God to them (and to us).  Covenants are not things you can manipulate after-the-fact to suit yourself.  They were and are inflexible things.  The very unyielding quality of covenants underlined their solemnity and reliability.  That is precisely why God makes covenants.  He wants us to know that He means what He says!

The stunning upshot from this is only fully seen once one has comprehended the fact that the Speaker pronouncing doom upon oath-breakers is a Covenant-Maker bar none!  God Himself requires that those who enter into an oath perform their words (cf. Eccles. 8:2; 1 Ki.2:42-43; Psa. 89:34).  As Ezekiel asks about Zedekiah’s abortive attempt to secure the help of Egypt, which involved him breaking the oath he took before Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. 17:11-19), “Can he break a covenant and still be delivered?” (Ezek. 17:15c).  A covenant that does not mean what it says and whose words are not binding on the one that made the oath is the most foolish and deceitful of things: it is the epitome of the abuse of language.

But it is just at this point that we are confronted by the obvious reference to what God did when making the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15.  He alone passed between the divided animal parts and spoke the “words of the covenant” made with the sleeping patriarch as He did so (see esp. Gen. 15:17-21).  Would the covenant God fail to perform the terms of an oath that He alone entered in to?  If so, what would be the point of being a covenant God (cf. Heb. 6:13-18)?  And if He is at least as faithful to His oaths as He expects others to be (in the midst of repeating His own pledges through the prophet – Jer. 31:31-37 & 33:17-26), then the recipients of a divine oath are on the most solid and unmovable ground imaginable!  It all comes down to “the words of the covenant”!  That is the heart of biblical covenantalism; the very underpinning of this book. (more…)

Jeremiah’s Great Eschatological Vision (Pt.4)

Part Three

The Abundance of Peace and Truth

Jeremiah 33 opens by referencing the destruction that has been made upon Jerusalem (“this city” in v.4), where the inhabitants had to demolish houses to build fortifications (Jer. 33:1-4).  Yahweh declares that although He will not save them from the Babylonians, He does intend to heal the city and bring to it “an abundance of peace and truth” (33:6).  This will involve a return from captivity (33:7), which to the prophet’s hearers would put them in mind of their eventual return from Chaldea.  But again, just as with 32:28-41, we should hesitate to reach that conclusion because God also promises redemption and national preeminence for Israel among the nations of the world (33:8-9).[1]  There is a return to the theme of rejoicing (Isa. 35:1-2; 61:10; 65:18; Jer. 31:13; Zeph. 3:14), but it incorporates cultic elements; the “house of the Lord” being prominent (Jer. 33:11).  These features of salvation, national ascendancy, and celebration push the prophecy into the time of covenant consummation.  What one chooses to do with the temple in verse 11 will depend on the level of sufferance one has for a temple and priesthood in the post-advent kingdom era.

Unfortunately, a survey of the works of both dispensational and covenant theologians will reveals a frustrating neglect of the second half of Jeremiah 33.[2]  Dumbrell ventures to say that the passage adds little to what was said in Jeremiah 31:31ff.[3]  Dispensationalists in particular should see the importance of the section.  But they overlook it, I believe, because they are more concerned about dispensations than they are about God’s covenants.  Verses 14 to 26 together form perhaps the single most sustained challenge to amillennial eschatology in the whole Bible.  Where they are treated, they are often dealt with hurriedly and inaccurately.[4]

The section begins with the promise that “the days are coming” when God’s intentions for Israel and Judah will be brought to pass (Jer. 33:14).  The note of a coming unification of the divided tribes is struck once more.

What follows reminds the reader of what was read in chapter 23:5-6, but there are differences.  The introductory phrase places a definite point of fulfillment before us.  We should look for the realization of these prophecies when “a Branch of righteousness” reigns and ushers in “judgment and righteousness” worldwide.  Repeated in Jeremiah 33:15-16 is the idea of peace and safety in a redemptive context that we have noted several times already.  The most striking difference between Jeremiah 23:5-6 and here is the substitution of the king in Jeremiah 23:6 for the city in Jeremiah 33:16.  In this place, Jerusalem is called by the name of its righteous Sovereign.  This does not mean that the city will no longer be called Jerusalem.  In the Bible people and things are given names of reference as a way of speaking of a characteristic.  In this same way the Messiah is called “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14 and the four (or five) names in Isaiah 9:6.

The next two verses include specific references to two covenants.  Verse 17, although the wording is unique, reminds one of 2 Samuel 7:13, 16, Psalm 89:3-4, 34-37 and underscores the perpetuity of the Davidic covenant in no uncertain terms.  The question which might occur to some is why this covenant needs to be mentioned in light of the great promise of the Branch in Jeremiah 33:15.  I speculate that it could refer not only to the Messiah, but to David himself, whom we may recall was mentioned in Jeremiah 30:9, as well as in Hosea 3:5.  Ezekiel has something to add so I will defer further comments until then.

The sentence continues by introducing another group of men whose survival was threatened by the looming exile.  The Levites were to be left with no temple.  As they had proven themselves unworthy of the temple ministration this was just the culmination of the disaster that had already beset the worship of Yahweh.  Notwithstanding the word of God is clear: the Levites will carry on their work seemingly in tandem with the restored Davidic regency (Jer.33:17-18).  Whether or not this presents a problem of conflict with the New Testament is not for me to decide while I am studying the Old Testament prophets.  I earnestly ask my reader to stick with the unveiling process presented in the Holy Scriptures, and not to introduce material that had not been written in Jeremiah’s time.  The structure of this book deliberately waits to come across revelation as it was revealed in history and seeks to build up a picture of the prophetic and covenant-led landscape.  Reading the Bible backwards is, I firmly believe, a huge mistake, which is almost guaranteed to obscure the unfolding truths of Divine revelation.  What invariably ends up happening is that plain and clear revelation is simply brushed aside in the rush to arrive at conclusions the New Testament writers are assumed to have held.

The Most Strongly-Worded Pledge of God in Either Testament

We have already read an accentuated guarantee that the Lord intends to preserve a united nation of Israel in Jeremiah 31:35-37.  What more needs to be said?  What else needs to be underscored?  In light of the fact that God’s covenant word has been routinely ignored or reinterpreted by the Church throughout its history, these transparent words of the Governor and Sustainer of history exist as a reproof to those who bend God’s promises out of all recognition.[5]

Instead of the descendants of Israel being given categorical guarantees, the lineages of David and of Levi are chosen out for unqualified assurances.  The oracles concern the throne of Israel and the altar (Jer. 33:17-18).  They will have innumerable descendants (33:22), which rather puts the cat among the pigeons for those who believe that the subject of the Davidic oracle is Christ.  Without a doubt the figure in verse 15 is Christ (the Branch), but He cannot be who is meant in verses 22 and 26 because those verses speak of descendants (plural).

This is where we must return to comments made at Jeremiah 30:9 and the prediction of a David redivivus.    The covenant with David holds fast into the Kingdom of Righteousness and Peace, in “the latter days” (Jer. 30:24).  Jeremiah 33:21-22 does not require more than one descendant to occupy the throne.  Only that David will have descendants of whom one will rule.[6]  The details are hard to make clear, but if Messiah the Branch is reigning from Jerusalem, it is possible that another Davidic ruler will also rule under Him,[7] maybe David himself, although verse 21 emphasizes a son.  Prophecies are short things.  They are not full descriptions.  We are forced to piece together a prophetic picture, even though the picture is not complete. (more…)

Jeremiah’s Great Eschatological Vision (Pt. 3)

Part Two

The Guarantee of the Lord of Creation and Providence

Returning to where we left off in Jeremiah 31, after Jeremiah has revealed a New covenant to replace the Mosaic covenant, he is given revelation which underlines its validity.

Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar (The LORD of hosts is His name):

If those ordinances depart from before Me, says the LORD, then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.”

Thus says the LORD: “If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD. – Jeremiah 31:35-37

As Thompson observes, this promise “declares the impossibility of Israel ever being forsaken again by Yahweh.”[1]  It is the God of creation and providence who is the Guarantor of Israel’s permanence.  Just as He has established the fixed orders of the sun, moon and stars at creation week, so He will establish the descendants (seed)[2] of Israel perpetually (Jer. 31:35-36).  But it is the next verse that is really striking, at least to this writer.  It appeals to the human investigation of the way God originally planned out the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1. Cf.  Psa. 33:6, 9).   That is to say, it appeals to God’s decrees; His secret thoughts and actions (Deut. 29:29).  From this we can gather that God’s affectionate choice of Israel, despite “all that they have done,” is of the same substance (Deut. 7:6; Isa. 41:8).  God has spoken.  It is not for men to revise His words and reissue them to fit their theologies.

What function does Jeremiah 32 have within the set of chapters 30 through 34?  It has to do with the prophet’s purchase of his cousin’s field at Anathoth.  The field was worthless, since Nebuchadnezzar and his army were bearing down upon it at the time of writing (Jer. 32:24-25).  Why buy a piece of land which in short shrift would become the possession of the Babylonian Empire?  Even though they are included in what scholars refer to as “The Book of Consolation,” at first the chapter doesn’t seem to fit.  The chapter declares that because of the continued sins of the people He is going to deliver them over to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians (Jer. 32:28-36).  But at verse 37 the narrative turns suddenly to speak once more about a divine rescue where, after God’s fury has subsided, He will regather Israel and make them “dwell safely” (32:37).  Then straight after we find Yahweh issuing His covenant refrain, “They shall be my people and I will be their God” (32:38), followed immediately by these words:

then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them.

 And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me.

 Yes, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will assuredly plant them in this land, with all My heart and with all My soul.’ – Jeremiah 32:39-41

Here is a clear allusion to the spiritual transformation which will be wrought in the hearts of the remnant in accordance with the New covenant.  The “everlasting covenant” which is mentioned in verse 40 is, I firmly contend, the same New covenant, since unlike the Mosaic covenant, this covenant insures the waywardness of Israel will be brought to its end and they will forever serve Yahweh as His special people.  In this way the New covenant succeeds in fulfilling the purpose of God expressed in Exodus 19:5-6 where the old covenant, through unregenerate hearts, inevitably failed. (more…)

Jeremiah’s Great Eschatological Vision (Pt.2)

Part One

The Locus Classicus of the New Covenant

Then we arrive at the prophecy about the New covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).  The verses are immediately followed by a Divine guarantee of future fulfillment (Jer. 31:35-37).  So it behooves us to look at it carefully:

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah–

not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” – Jeremiah 31:31-34

As verse 34 plainly says, the New covenant is a covenant of redemption![1]  None of the other covenants of God have redemption built in to them.  Because of this, they all ultimately rely on the New covenant to be fulfilled.  The New covenant pictures a definitive act of God.[2]

The fact that the New covenant brings redemption is central to a right understanding of the interplay of God’s covenantal Creation Project.

Now I know that as soon as one reads this text the temptation is to turn to the Book of Hebrews and to conclude that it is fulfilled in the Church.[3]  But I want my reader to refrain from turning the pages to the right and to stay with Jeremiah and the prophetic context of which he is a part, and let us see how things I am trying to unfold in this book.  The Old Testament has the right to be heard by itself first.

The promise of the New covenant which will bind once more the divided tribes of Israel is prefaced by the refrain “the days are coming.” (Jer. 31:31): a phrase most often found in this book (15 times).  It can refer to either imminent prophecy, say of the Babylonian captivity (e.g. Jer.7:32-34. Cf. Isa.39:6), or of impending doom (e.g. Jer.9:25; 48:12; 49:2).  But in those places where righteousness and salvation are in view, the context is unwaveringly a “New covenant” eschatological context.  We have seen that in Jeremiah 23:5-7 the expectation of the coming “Branch” who will bring in righteousness.  The same may be said of the great messianic passage still to come in Jeremiah 33:14-16.  The expression is used in Jeremiah 30:3 in connection with a return which will include the raising up of David (30:9).  In Jeremiah 31:27 God promises to build up the nation once more, and while this could be viewed as referring to the return from exile, it seems more in keeping with the New covenant promises that it is in such close proximity to.  Since the New covenant deals with salvation and renewal, one will often find kingdom prophecy where “the days are coming” is found (e.g. Amos 9:13).

As verse 32 declares, this “New” covenant is not a repristination of the old Mosaic covenant.  Rather, as 31:33-34 state, this coming covenant works inwardly, just as was promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 30:6, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”  Ezekiel prophesied the same thing in Ezekiel 11:19-29 and 36:26-27.  The New covenant is the guarantee of transformation to conformity with the outcome of God’s purpose.

The coming New covenant is, I believe, one and the same with the coming Servant who will be made a redemptive and restorative covenant for the people (as we saw in Isa. 42:5 and 49:8).  Because the stated intention of the Redeemer is to restore the fortunes of a united Israel (e.g. Isa. 45:14-17; Jer. 3:13-18; Ezek. 37:11-26), the first function of the New covenant is to facilitate that intention. (more…)