“I will take note of you as you pass under My rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.” (Ezekiel 20:37)
One of the distinctives of the Reformed Faith is its emphasis on the covenant of grace. We believe that God has graciously initiated an agreement between Himself and believers and their children. In this covenant, God promises to be the God of His people, and His people promise to live a life of faith and obedience.
In Ezekiel 20, the prophet is confronted with a serious question. It is also a question that confronts us practically. Is this covenant breakable? Can the disobedience of man nullify God’s hold on his people? Can a covenant boy or girl or man or woman walk away from God’s covenant?
During the time of Ezekiel the people had violated God’s covenant and had been exiled from the covenant land as punishment. A group of elders from Israel had come to the prophet Ezekiel to question God regarding His covenant faithfulness. The Lord turns their questions around against them. They are, in fact, the ones who have been covenantally unfaithful God forbids them to inquire of Him. Instead he will do the inquiring.
The Need for Covenant Binding
At this point in redemptive history, the covenant between God and His people appears to be in jeopardy. That covenant, which was to be a never-ending relationship between God and His people, seems to be unraveling. It seems as if God has let His people go, sent them into exile, and canceled out His covenant. That is exactly what some of the Israelites want: “We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world, who serve wood and stone” (32).
Israel is expressing her desire to be released from the bond of the covenant. They were already living in violation of the covenant terms and now they wanted it to be canceled, like an unfaithful spouse who sues to cancel the marriage covenant. They yearned for the covenantal cords to be severed so that they would be free of its obligations. They are saying, “We want to be rid of this covenant. We do not want its responsibilities; we do not care for its blessings. We want to be just like the other nations who serve a god of their own choosing on their own terms.
Why would God’s covenant people want the bond of the covenant to be broken? Perhaps they wanted to worship a god that they could see, a “real” god. They may have felt that Jehovah was too hidden, especially since they were away from the visible objects of their religion; the land, the temple, and its priests. Jehovah’s requirements are too intrusive, they thought. They did not want to submit to the covenant obligations. In their opinion, this covenant was not very beneficial: “look at us, we are in exile.” But the main reason they wanted out was because they wanted to live like the world, to fit in with their neighbors.
There were indeed real pressures to fit in, as there are now. Think about what happened to God’s covenant keeping people in the midst of the Gentiles. Daniel kept covenant with God throughout the exile. He continued to pray, as he always had done, even though he was in Babylon. Because of his faithfulness, the king threw him into the lions’ den. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego kept covenant, and they were thrown into the fiery furnace. You can see why many of the people told God “we want to be like the rest of these people.”
It is no different today. There are social and personal consequences for keeping God’s covenant. Christian teenagers are ridiculed by the world today for keeping sexual purity. Christian business men are called legalists or fundamentalists for refusing to profit on the Lord’s Day. People who take firm biblical stances before synodical meetings are labeled as hard liners or schismatics. It is much easier to accept a compromise that will enable the church to remain united.
The reasoning then was the same as it is today: “It is not beneficial for us to stick out, or to be different. We do not want to be thrown into lions’ dens or into fiery furnaces. We do not want to be the objects of ridicule or scorn for being different, for being wholly committed to the Lord our God. We want to blend in. We are in Babylon now, and we want to be like the Babylonians.”
Does this sound familiar? There are children of the covenant today, both young and old, who effectively say the same thing: “We want to be like the nations, like the people of the world who serve wood and stone.” Some of us have aunts and uncles who have walked away from the Lord. Some of our classmates are trying to live outside of the covenant relationship with God. Some of our baptized children have rejected the covenant and said that they want to be like the nations.
The Process by which God Binds His Covenant
The people have said, “We want to be like the world.” But God says, “You will never be like them. You cannot be like them.” God’s language is emphatic, “What you have in mind will never happen!” God’s initiative in binding the people to His covenant is shown in the rest of Ezekiel 20 by nearly twenty statements of what He will do: “I will rule over you…I will bring you out from the people…I will gather you…I will bring you into the wilderness…I will exercise judgment upon you…I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant…” What you have said will not happen; you will never be like the world. But what I have said, I will surely do; I will rule over you.”
Covenant breakers cannot simply walk away from the covenant and think that it is canceled. They can break covenant in terms of their responsibility, they can reject the covenant blessings, but they cannot break covenant in terms of God’s ruling over them.
We need to understand the way in which God describes this process of exerting His covenant rule. Both physical and spiritual language are being used in Ezekiel. In one sense, God is speaking to physical Israel. And so He describes the process by which He applies the bond of the covenant in physical terms. Israel was living among the world in Babylon. God says that He will separate them from the nations and deal with them face to face. He will bring them back to the land of Israel, binding them to the covenant. But this is also a spiritual description of how God will deal with all covenant members including those of our day.
The first thing that God will do is to gather the people from the nations. These words remind us of the exodus where God’s people were distinguished from the nations around them. God is beginning to prove that His people are different. In order to gather one thing from among other things, there has to be a difference between them. Imagine a pasture filled with several hundred head of black and white Holstein cattle. Mingled among them are a few dozen brown Herefords. These cows may be eating the same things, mooing the same words, walking the same paths. These Herefords may think that they are mingled among the masses, the cows themselves may not even know the difference but the farmer can easily pick them out. This is the idea here. Covenant people may think that they are blending in with the world. To the average person, their lives may be indiscernible. Humans cannot see that Trinitarian “water-mark” on the foreheads of covenant people, but God can. So God will separate His people as the farmer separates the Herefords from the Holsteins. He will gather them from the nations.
From there, Ezekiel 20 says that God will judge His people in the wilderness (35,36). Again, this is compared to the exodus. There, in the wilderness outside of Egypt, the people were judged according to the covenant promises and curses. The covenant people of Israel were distinguished from the Babylonians. Now God begins to separate those within the covenant and to deal with them in covenantal terms.
As we continue the movement of the passage, we see that the result is that the people pass under the rod into the bond of the covenant (37). Here is God’s answer to His people who say, “we will be like the nations; we will be done with God and have nothing to do with Him anymore.” God rages against this thought. He is the shepherd, and He rules over the entire flock that is called by His name. God is addressing all of us who have been baptized into His covenant. Christ is the ruler of His whole church, the invisible church and the visible church. God will make the entire covenant community to pass under the rod.
The Result of the Lord Bringing Israel into the Bond of the Covenant
When God brought Israel into the bond of the covenant He demonstrated that they all belonged to Him. He has a claim on them. He will rule over them. But He will rule over each person according to their true covenant relation to Him.
First we see how God will deal with hypocrites in the covenant. They will not enter the land. How should we understand this threat of God? We know that when exiled Israel returned to Canaan toward the end of the sixth century, there were unbelievers in the midst. They did enter the land.
It is evident that we must make a distinction between the physical and spiritual character of this prophesy. When the reprobate Israelites were released from physical exile and re-immigrated back to Israel, they had not entered the land in the truest sense of the word; that is, they did not enter into the rest of the Lord, or enjoy the fruit of His promises (Hebrews 4:1-8). In this sense it is true that they did not enter the land. Calvin says of these covenant hypocrites that “wherever they might dwell, their station was in the wilderness; and even in the very bosom of the land of Canaan they were exiles.”
Covenant breakers, while they might enjoy some limited physical blessings from God, will not enter His promised land in their unbelief. The covenant that you entered into, even if it was without your knowledge, is binding. If you break covenant you will not enter into the rest of the Lord. Let no one say, I am in the covenant so I am okay. If you have any desire of reaching the promised rest of the Lord then you must repent and turn to Christ in faith.
The physical restoration of purified Israel symbolizes the spiritual union of believers to Christ by the bond of the covenant. Christ is the mediator of this covenant. He is the surety and God’s covenantal pledge of love to us. Believers are brought into the bond of the covenant by Christ Himself. When God contended with unbelieving Israel in the wilderness He contended with the wicked face to face. Their dead bodies were scattered in the wilderness as a result of this striving (Numbers 14, Hebrews 3:17). But He contends with the elect through Christ. He charges Christ with all our sins. It was His body that was scattered in the wilderness for us. It is one’s relation to Christ that determines his essential relation to the covenant.
The redeemed church is in the bond of the covenant. They will be gathered, separated from the profane and made holy. They will be brought to the land of Israel, into that rest of the Lord. We have fellowship with God and rest with Him now as we look to that eternal rest that is to come. God says that Israel will serve Him on His holy mountain. The elect are chosen to glorify God. And finally, they will be penitent. The fruit of being accepted by God in all His majesty is to loathe the sins from which you have been rescued. To sum this all up, when the elect are brought into the bond of the covenant, that promise of God where He says, “I will be a God unto you, and you will be my people” will be truly realized in the fullest sense. Tell your children that if they abide in Christ the result of the covenant for them is a perfect, blessed, eternal relationship with God.
The great problem of Israel’s covenant disobedience was that they were profaning and polluting God’s great name among the nations. God had placed His name on His people in order that He might be exalted in them. But they did not exalt the Lord by their conduct. In fact, Ezekiel says that Israel was more wicked in her exile than the nations around her. Israel had taken God’s name upon her and had dragged it through the mud.
God could not tolerate this. If you read through the first half of Ezekiel 20, you will find God was on the brink of wiping out His people. But He stopped because He needed to preserve the sanctity of His name. He could not destroy them before the watching eyes of the world. He had made a promise that they were His people. Instead, God says that He will bring the covenant promises and curses to bear upon His people in order that He might be “shown holy among the nations… for His own name’s sake.”
The Lord’s name will be sanctified by all of us. We and our children are in the covenant. God promises to rule over us and be gracious to us. if we resist God’s gracious rule of love, then we will be forced to submit to the rule of His “mighty hand and outstretched arm and outstretched wrath.” When we pass under the rod of God’s omniscient wisdom, everything will be laid bare and our true relation to the covenant will be revealed. A few drops of water sprinkled on the forehead will not be the deciding factor.
All of us are tempted in our hearts to want to be like the world. We are all a little embarrassed to stick out from the world. That is why we must train ourselves and our children from to think covenantally.
Teach your children from before they can understand, that they are not like the world. Teach them that they “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people”( I Peter 2:9). Teach them that they cannot “be like the nations, like the people of the world.” God will not allow it. God’s covenant cannot be broken. He will bring His people into the bond of the covenant.
Mr. Bill Boekestein is a student at Heritage Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a member of the Dutton United Reformed Church in Dutton, Michigan.