A New David? - Reflections on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, November 20, 2023
A New David?
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
In 1925, Pope Pius XI decreed that the church must celebrate on a designated Sunday the reign of Christ. That Sunday eventually was determined to be the last Sunday in the Christian year, just before the beginning of Advent. I of course know that those of us who are not Roman Catholics care little for the pronouncements of popes, especially from one who is frankly known for very little during his papacy. He did occupy the chair of Peter for 17 years, dying in 1939. He was the first Pope to use mass communication, particularly radio, to speak widely to the vast Roman Catholic world, but that may be the most memorable thing about him, save this decree about Christ the King, or now Reign of Christ, to use more inclusive language. The Pope apparently made this designation as a way to combat the ever-increasing secularism of the society he observed, from a Communist Russia to a dangerously right-wing movement in his own country, Italy, followed all too soon by the rightward drift in Germany and all the horrors there to ensue.
Of course, the church, and not only the Roman church, has throughout its history sought to counteract the concerted and varied efforts of widely-based secularization that has threatened the institution with a decreasing value in society, if not outright defeat and ultimate demise. That struggle every preacher knows, as the USA presents vast numbers of “nones,” those uninterested in organized religion, and part-time Christians who give lip service to some sort of faith, but spend little if any time actually putting that so-called faith into practice. Pope Pius XI notwithstanding, the church’s attempts to portray and implement anything like the reign of Christ among the lives of its followers have too often met with minimal success. One of the frustrating tasks of preachers is to keep at this job in the face of precious little evidence of results. Yet, we keep at it.
I imagine that the prophet, Ezekiel, that strange visionary figure from the early 6th century BCE, had the same problem, compounded by the unalterable facts of the history of Israel. It has long been surmised that Ezekiel was among those early exiles from Israel, taken in the first deportation from Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in and around 597 BCE. He apparently went to Babylon as a captive, and as far as we know stayed there for the remainder of his life. Much of the prophet’s history must necessarily be guesswork since his prophetic words and actions hardly lend themselves to easy historical reconstruction. It perhaps may be concluded that Ezekiel witnessed, firsthand, the beginning of the end for Israel, and was possibly still alive when the larger wave of exiles appeared in the great city 10 years later, a wave that included the last king of the nation, Zedekiah, blinded by the cruel Nebuchadnezzar, whose puppet the king originally was. Israel’s future during this bleak period was not only dim but hopeless if reality is any guide.
Yet, prophets, as hard and clear-sighted as they can be, are also agents of hope. While many Israelite exiles no doubt took one look at the wonders and opportunities of the world’s greatest city, Babylon, with its vast sacred tower of 20 stories or more, its wonderful hanging gardens of the king’s palace, its huge population, numbering some 200,000 (Jerusalem may at the time have had 10,000 at most), including people from every corner of the known world, gibbering away in many languages, buying and selling unknown and beautiful items from everywhere, and blended right into this glorious cacophony and never looked back, becoming fully Babylonian in no time flat. But not all did. Surely, Ezekiel, and a few others, remembered and proclaimed the ancient power of YHWH, a YHWH who had not finally forgotten or forsaken them after all, despite all the obvious realities around them.
Using the imagery of Israel as sheep, and reminding them that only God is finally the shepherd, the prophet promises that the great shepherd will once again call all the sheep together, will give them rich Israelite mountain pastures (Ez.34:14), making them “lie down,” using a clear echo from Psalm 23. Yet, all is hardly pleasant in the portrait displayed by Ezekiel. YHWH will “judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats” (Ez.34:17). Some sheep have fouled both pastures and water sources, and must therefore by judged by YHWH (Ez.34:18-19). As a result of this fouling of the environment, and because “you have pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns and have scattered them far and wide” (Ez.34:21), it has become necessary that YHWH “save the flock” so that “they shall no longer be ravaged” (Ez.34:22).
All of this portrait is, obviously, a lengthy metaphor of the exile, its causes, and its solutions. Due to the evil actions of Israel against its “weak animals,” that is its poor and marginalized members, the exile has occurred and will need the actions of YHWH to get them back to the pastures of Israel. And the final solution to exile, according to Ezekiel, is the appearance of a new David. “I will establish over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them. And I, YHWH, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them” (Ez.34:23-24). What more precisely does the prophet mean, or perhaps better said, who does he mean?
King David has been dead for nearly 300 years, but his legend has obviously grown and been magnified into one of greatness and power. In the later books of Chronicles, written perhaps 200 years after Ezekiel, the figure of David has devolved into one of a brilliant musician, leader of choirs, master of the harp, who could do no wrong. Clearly, the story that the books of Samuel tell us is far different from that, but in the time of Ezekiel, the myth of the perfect David was alive and well. Ezekiel thus promised a new David. I doubt he had any particular person in mind, but he longed for a true servant of YHWH, one who could shepherd the fractious sheep back to the pastures of Israel.
Little wonder that this passage finds its way into the Reign of Christ Sunday. Jesus numerous times in his story is called the son of David, that idealized David that Ezekiel knew, the one who could arise and save the needy people. We modern Christians as well have often been on the lookout for a new David, someone whom we could trust to lead and guide us, we recalcitrant sheep, always running off on our own, butting the weak among us with our luxurious horns, fouling the grass and water with our noxious feet, refusing to listen to the God who gave us life. Oh yes, we still need a new David, yet it may be that David may best be sought within ourselves. We are those who need repentance and forgiveness; we are those who need a rebirth of our lives in order that the weak among us may find in us Davids worthy of the name.