Ezekiel lived at the close of an age. A little more than a century earlier, around 721 B.C., the Kingdom of Israel had come to its end at the hands of the Assyrians. Its inhabitants had been carried into captivity and scattered among various countries. And then, in Ezekiel's time, Babylonians, who had helped overthrow the Assyrians, had conquered Jerusalem.
In 593 B.C., while Lehi and his family were facing their trials in the Arabian wilderness and Jeremiah was contending with hostile forces in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was languishing in Babylonia. (He was one of the Jewish captives carried there earlier as surety that the Jews in their homeland would not rebel.) This was the year that Ezekiel was called by the Lord to give hope to captive souls.
The Kingdom of Judah wasn't dead yet; it still had its own king, and many of its people still lived in their own land. But, chafing under Babylonian bonds and rejecting prophetic advice, they refused to pay their tribute. Within a few years, the temple, city walls, and homes of Jerusalem were burned and leveled. More citizens were carried away to Babylon, and those who remained soon fled to Egypt for security.
The Kingdom of Judah was no more. The promised land, north and south, was depopulated of Israelites, bringing to an end an extremely important era in Israelite history. This didn't happen because God was unable to protect the Israelites. He could have fought their battles and saved them from being oppressed, but instead, he chose to let them fall and suffer the consequences of their wickedness. (See Ezek. 8; Jer. 16:10-13; 1 Ne. 1:4, 13.)
Ezekiel's Message of Hope
As the fall of Jerusalem marked an important transition in the life of the Israelites, it also marked an important transition in Ezekiel's prophecies. No longer did he call Jews to repentance to avoid being overthrown. He addressed instead the questions that must have been on their minds now that their nation was no more. What future did they have now that they had offended God so grievously that he had allowed them to be driven from their land? Was he still their God? Were they still his chosen people? And even if he were willing, could he gather people so widely dispersed as the Israelites were in Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, and elsewhere throughout the world?
News of the fall of Jerusalem (Ezek. 33:21) is the point at which one may see a transition taking place in Ezekiel's prophecies. As this news sank into the exiles' minds, making the prophesied dispersion a reality, Ezekiel was called to cast a beam of light on a future known only to God. His messages were messages of hope.
God would never abandon his people or his land, Ezekiel said. In days of old, Moses had foretold their dispersion and their subsequent gathering. (See Deut. 30:1-5.) But in their current situation, the words of Ezekiel offered a strong reaffirmation that the Lord would eventually fulfill His promises in regard to their gathering.
Ezekiel likened the exiled Israelites' situation to that of scattered sheep. The scattering had taken place because their shepherds had been careless and had exploited the sheep. (See Ezek. 34:1-10.) But God himself would replace those careless shepherds with his constant care. He, as any good shepherd, would seek out the sheep, bind up their bruises, and bring them home again.
This metaphor of God as a compassionate shepherd provides background for understanding the many references Jesus made to Israel as lost sheep and to himself as the Good Shepherd. (See Matt. 18:12-14; John 10:11-18.) Christ is the shepherd both to the wandering individual and to His scattered people, and the message of hope in Ezekiel's words applies both to the one lost sheep and to the straying flock.
A kind of national repentance might have saved the Kingdom of Judah, and that is what Ezekiel preached. But collective repentance is made up of many individual acts, and so Ezekiel's words hold out a message of hope to the repentant individual in all times and in all places. If the wicked person will "turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right; ...
"He shall surely live, he shall not die.
"None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him." (Ezek. 33:14-16.)
God does not look back at what we were in the past when we improve our lives. He does not mention former misconduct we have repented of. That is, a dishonest person who repents and does honestly is regarded by the Lord as being honest because he is doing "that which is lawful and right."
How reassuring for those of us who struggle to overcome the weaknesses of mortality to know that when we improve our lives through repentance and faith in the Savior's Atonement, the Lord does not mention to us that we were anything less than what we have become. And, of course, if he doesn't, neither should we--either to ourselves or to our neighbors.
The Wages of Sin
Since sinners, through repentance, can become saints, the converse is also true. Saints who walk through life doing good, but think they are good enough not to go astray, may die as sinners. And "the wages of sin is death." (Rom. 6:23.) This means that whoever embarks on a virtuous life, but "turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die." (Ezek. 18:26.) Like the past deeds of the repentant sinner, his past virtuous deeds shall not be mentioned to him. (See Ezek. 33:13.) No one can stockpile enough righteous deeds to entitle him to deviate or walk an evil path. The example of the highly favored King David comes to mind.
Ezekiel teaches that spiritual life after sin is possible only for those who repent of their foolishness. God's promises, based on knowing the truth--in other words, knowing things as they really are--are the basis of rebuilding shattered lives. Those who repent demonstrate that they are greater than their sins. Their actions show their convictions, along with their hope, that they can return to the Lord, from whom they have become estranged.
The words of modern prophets bear out this hope. Joseph Smith explains that God is close when we are willing to turn fully to him. "There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed unpardonable sin." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 191.)
Similarly, Ezekiel taught that in the day of judgment, sin need not be weighed in the balance against us if we have repented of it.
The Day of Restoration
But what of a people who have strayed?
The Lord promised them: "I, even I, will both search my sheep, ...
"and] deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.
"And I will ... gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land." (Ezek. 34:11-13.)
One mustn't read this prophecy as an indication that God loves one people more than another, or that he raises one people at the expense of another. We are all his children, and he is just. His purpose is to bless the earth. To those who listen to him, he gives his priesthood power and revelations so that they, in turn, may bless the nations. To this end, he gathers people.
It may try our patience to wait long enough through history to see how the gathering actually blesses all people, but that is part of faith. God loves all his children and brings all his works to fruition. When he is through, we will see how he blesses all the nations of the earth.
In that day, said Ezekiel, when the Lord's purposes are to be accomplished, Israel will be converted to God by divine power. He will replace their stony heart with a heart of flesh. Said he: "A new heart also will I give you, ...
"And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
"And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God." (Ezek. 36:26-28, italics added.)
The final sentence--"ye shall be my people, and I will be your God"--expresses the ideal relationship, that of oneness between God and his people as was known in Enoch's day when "the Lord came and dwelt with his people, and they dwelt in righteousness. ...
"And the Lord blessed the land, and they were blessed upon the mountains, and upon the high places, and did flourish.
"And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.
"And Enoch ... built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even Zion." (Moses 7:16-19.)
The Valley of Dry Bones
In chapter 37 of Ezekiel, [Ezek. 37] other details of the Lord's latter-day gathering are explained. Using the reality of the resurrection, the Lord shows Israel, whose members are scattered like the bones of a dismembered body, that he will reconstitute them into a living entity, just as he will reconstitute bones of dismembered bodies into living bodies. Thus, in this chapter, resurrection is both a metaphor and a reality.
This reality includes bringing resurrected Israelites into their land--even those who die in places far removed from the promised land. They, like Abraham, will be resurrected and gathered to their land, for the gathering is not only spatial--from the nations of the earth--but also temporal--from various periods of time. Abraham asked: "Lord God, how wilt thou give me this land for an everlasting inheritance?" And the Lord answered, "Though thou wast dead, yet am I not able to give it thee?" Then the Lord showed Abraham the day of the Son of Man, how Christ would die and live again, and how Abraham would also live again. And the scriptures record of Abraham that "his soul found rest." (JST, Gen. 15:9-12; italics added.)
To Ezekiel's Israelites, whose two nations were dead, their people scattered abroad--to these people who seemed to have no hope of inheriting the land, the Lord extended the assurance he had given to Abraham: "I will open your graves ... and bring you into the land of Israel." (Ezek. 37:12.)
The Book of Mormon and the Gathering
Ezekiel understood very well that the key to the gathering of Israel would be the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, as Jesus explained to the Nephites. (3 Ne. 21:1-3, 7-8.) Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon were in the process of being prepared by God during Ezekiel's ministry as major instruments to gather his people back to himself. Both records have one message--to convince "Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself to all nations." (Book of Mormon title page.) This step is essential if people are to be gathered back to God. Hand in hand, these two records make this fact clear.
So when Ezekiel talked of gathering, he united two "sticks"--one symbolizing the record of Judah (the Bible) and the other symbolizing the record of Joseph (the Book of Mormon). For his models, he probably used two wax writing tablets, of the kind known to the Babylonians. (See Ensign, Feb. 1987, p. 4.) When he joined these "sticks," they became one record--one in his hand, even as the Bible and Book of Mormon would become one in the hand of the Lord to carry out his work. (See Ezek. 37:15-17.) Publication of the Book of Mormon made it possible for the two books to be united in testimony--and for the gathering work to begin.
A Gathering in the Heart
Ezekiel understood that the most important part of this work would be the gathering of Israel back to God himself. In no other way could the Lord become their God and they his people. His children must be gathered spiritually, or there would be no point in their being gathered physically.
The major evidence that this dramatic gathering and conversion have occurred will be the presence of God among his people. He will dwell in their midst: "My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God and they shall be my people.
"And the heathen [Gentiles] shall know that I the Lord do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore." (Ezek. 37:27-28.)
This will happen after the Lord has defeated the forces of Gog allied against Israel. "And I will set my glory among the heathen, and all the heathen shall see my judgment that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid upon them." (Ezek. 39:21.) His great victory will bring home to Israel the awesome reality that he who brought Moses up out of the land of Egypt would also bring the children of Israel into their land in the latter days, helping them surmount every problem they would encounter. "So the house of Israel shall know that I am the Lord their God from that day and forward." (Ezek. 39:22.)
Ezekiel was shown in glorious vision how Jerusalem will become the Lord's city when Jehovah resides in the midst of the people there. Even its name will indicate his favor: "And the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there." (Ezek. 48:35.) Waters flowing from beneath the temple will go on to heal the Dead Sea, and trees growing along this river will provide medicine for the healing of illness. (Ezek. 47:1-12.)
In that day, the land will be divided among the tribes of Israel, as specified in chapters 47 and 48 of Ezekiel. [Ezek. 47-48] The allocation of space to Joseph in these verses might be seen as reflecting a principle, since additional information in the Book of Mormon, unavailable to Ezekiel, promises that a "remnant of the seed of Joseph" shall also have an inheritance in the Western Hemisphere. (See Ether 13:6-10.)
Ezekiel served magnificently, whether addressing the individual or the national need for hope. His description of the gathering of Israel shows how well God plans his work in order to bless the nations of the earth. But this ancient prophet also strengthens our faith by teaching us that God can work in our individual lives.