In Ezekiel 37:15-28, we learn that God has asked Ezekiel, the Saturday Night Live prophet, to do one final skit. Start by reading verses 15-17, where God describes the skit.
Here’s a summary of the skit. Ezekiel is to take two sticks. On one stick he writes the word “Judah,” which is name of the Israelite’s Southern Kingdom where Jerusalem was the capital city. Then on the other stick Ezekiel writes the name, “Ephraim,” which refers to Israelite’s Northern Kingdom. By mentioning the two Israelite Kingdoms, God is bringing up a major sore spot in the history of his people Israel: a civil war that broke the country in two, many centuries before the time of Ezekiel.
Ten tribes to the north broke away to become the nation of Israel. The two remaining tribes in the south became the nation of Judah, retaining the city of Jerusalem. Those are the two nations that God tells Ezekiel to write on the sticks.
Imagine being a nation that has a dark spot in its history. We Americans know a little something about that, don’t we? Genocide of indigenous peoples. Slavery of millions of other people. Civil War. Now imagine that our Civil War turned out differently. What if for the last 150 years there has been a United States of America to the north and a Confederate States of America to the south? If that alternate history had happened, we Americans would be able to understand a bit about the cultural and social situation of the Jews in Ezekiel’s day.
Ezekiel’s skit concludes as he joins the two sticks together. It’s a pretty simple stick. When I preached the sermon live in Faith Church’s worship service, I had previously walked outside, found a tree branch, and broke in half. Then during the sermon, I took the two parts of the branch and placed them together. Why does God ask Ezekiel to perform such a basic skit? I sometimes wonder if Ezekiel ever questioned God, even if just in his mind, “Lord, really? What is the deal with all the simple skits?”
There in Ezekiel’s village in Babylon, Ezekiel performs the skit. Look at verses 18-22 to find out what happens next.
God says that the people watching Ezekiel join the sticks together will ask him, “Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?” When I read that the people ask, “What does this skit mean?”, I thought, “Did they really not know?” The meaning of the skit seems obvious, doesn’t it? God will gather up the people from the nations where they have been exiled, and he will bring them back to the land and form them into a new unified nation. You can see it right there as Ezekiel joins the sticks. What’s so difficult about understanding the skit? What’s wrong with these people?
To give the people there in Ezekiel’s village the benefit of the doubt, think about it this way. Imagine that someone comes up to you holding two sticks, and on one stick they write “USA” and then on the other stick they write “United Kingdom.” With a flourish they join the two sticks together, and they ask you “What is the meaning of this skit?” I suspect you probably would not think that the skit was trying to illustrate that two nations were going to become one. We Americans, if someone performed that skit to us, would likely think it meant something about our shared history and ongoing close relationship with the UK. We would almost certainly not think that the skit meant we were going to dissolve our nation and merge with them. It has been a long, long time since we were part of Great Britain. 245 years ago, to be exact. What’s done is done. There’s no going back.
If you can understand that, then you can understand how the people in Ezekiel’s village might not understand the stick illustration. It had been even longer since they had been one nation, about 350 years. The people in Ezekiel’s village likely didn’t see reunification as realistic or necessary.
That is why God asks Ezekiel to explain the skit in detail. The explanation is that God will return the people of Israel from all the foreign nations where they have been exiled, entering them once again into the Promised Land. But instead of two separate nations, they will be a unified nation and people.
What do we learn about God’s heart through the skit? God desires unity.
Check back to the next post as we discuss what it can mean that God desires unity.