How did God promise to make Israel great again after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC? What has the renewal of the heart and spirit have to do with the rebuilding of Israel? What does it mean to be God’s people, and what are the privileges?
Let us find the answers in the Book of Ezekiel: “25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!
33 “ ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ (Ezekiel 36:25-36)
All God’s bestowal of good must begin with cleansing. The black barrier of sin lies across the stream, and before His full goodness can reach us it must be broken and swept away. Experience teaches us that not only is sin the direct cause of many of our sorrows, but that it so clogs the heart that it keeps God’s love out, like an iron shutter which excludes the sunshine. Our deepest need, then, is to be delivered from sin, and all attempts to banish human sorrow which do not begin with grappling with sin must fail, as they have failed. They are like physicians who treat a patient for pimples when he is dying of cancer.
To sprinkle clean water upon a person or thing which had become unclean by touching a dead body was part of the Mosaic ritual. That practice is probably the source of Ezekiel’s metaphor, as his priestly descent would familiarise him with it. In any case, the substance of the Divine promise is cleansing, and we must not narrow it down to forgiveness only. The difference between that first washing with clean water and the subsequent gift of a new heart and spirit is not so much that the one promises pardon and the other sanctifying, as that the one is mainly negative — the removal of sin, both in regard to its guilt and its tyranny; and the other is positive — the giving of a new nature. Forgiveness never comes alone, but hand in hand with its twin sister, purity. And such double cleansing “from its guilt and power” is a Divine prerogative.
But more is needed than even these blessings. The past having been thus dealt with, the future remains to be provided for. Therefore the prophet holds forth a still brighter hope, and comes still nearer to the very heart of New Testament teaching, in his assurance of the gift of a new life’s centre and power, a “heart of flesh,” from which shall come issues of a God-pleasing and God-inspired life. Two forces act on us all, and our sensitiveness to the one measures our non-sensitiveness to the other. Either we are “flesh” towards God, and “stone” towards the world, impressible by and yielding to Him, and unaffected by earth’s temptations, or our hearts are soft and weak as flesh towards them, and hard as the nether millstone towards God. But Ezekiel was given a glimpse into still deeper and more wonderful abysses of God’s givings, when he learned that the new spirit to be given was “My Spirit” (v. 27). Ezekiel may not have had any conscious dogma about the Spirit of God, but he had been taught by that Spirit at least this much — the possibility of a Divine spirit entering into a human spirit, and being there the motive power.
We know more than he did. Do we feel as deeply as he felt, that the only way by which our spirits can be kept pure, and give forth pure streams, is by God’s Spirit being within us? But what is the end of all these Divine gifts? A life of obedience. We are forgiven, cleansed, made sensitive to God’s touch, inspired with His Spirit, for this purpose most chiefly, that we may shape our lives by His will. Not a correct creed, not blessed emotions, but a life which runs parallel with God’s will, should be the outcome of our religion.
The result of obedience is abundance (v. 28-30). If there were anywhere a nation of people all obedient to God’s laws, no doubt it would be exempt from most of the ills that afflict our modern so-called civilisation. Suppose one of our great cities inhabited only by God-fearing men living by His law, most of the evils that make the scandal of our national profession of Christianity would die out, like a fire unfed by fuel. And if, individually, we ordered our footsteps by God’s word, we should find that even the rough ways became ways of pleasantness. It is forever true that “godliness” has “promise of the life that now is,” even though its promise may not always be what the world calls “good.” The result of these lavish blessings within and without is deepened sense of unworthiness. The penitence that springs from experience of God’s love is far deeper than that which rises from dread of His wrath. When all fear of penal consequences is gone, and a new standard of judging ourselves is set up within by the indwelling Spirit, and when a flood of blessings has been poured on us, then we see, as never before, the sinfulness of sin against such a God. The higher a true Christian goes, the lower he lies. The more sure we are that God has forgiven us, the less can we forgive ourselves. In this way, God preserves us from willful sins (cf. Psalm 19:13; Heb 10:26-27), antinomianism (cf. Rom 6:1-2; 1 John 2:3-6), and reprobation (cf. Rom 1:28-32; Titus 1:16; Heb 6:8).
The holiness and prosperity of the renewed Israel will reveal God to the world. The lives of men and communities, who are cleansed and blessed by God, proclaim Him to the world in His character of being able and willing to repair all the desolation of humanity, and build up our ruined nature in fairer shapes. Christian lives should be illustrated copies of the Gospel. Gardeners pick out their best plants for flower shows; would the great Gardener select us as specimens of what He can do? If not, it is not because His gift has been withheld, but because we have not taken, or not used, “the things that are freely given to us of God.”
Let us ask God for a new heart with the song “Change My Heart Oh God”: