For several years the people of Judah had been in exile. Though God had sent them many prophets to warn them to repent and to turn away from their idols and keep his covenant, they refused. The truth is they had repeatedly failed to be faithful to the Lord though he had shown them great kindness is making them his people when he rescued them out of Egypt all those centuries before. The problem was their heart. In Ezekiel 20 God recounts the problem going back to the very beginning of Israel (and Judah) as a nation.
“On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.” Ezekiel 20:6–8 ESV
Though God had shown them great kindness and poured out on them his incredible blessings, their hearts longed for their idols. In chapter 14 God said the elders of Israel “have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:1–2). This was the problem from the beginning: their hearts were corrupt.
The prophet Ezekiel had been taken into exile along with many others from Jerusalem and Judah. From Babylon Ezekiel was transported to Jerusalem by the Spirit and was taken to an entrance of the temple (which had not been destroyed yet). He saw 25 men in Jerusalem who were making false claims about the city—and about God himself. He recognized two of these men: Jaazaniah and Pelatiah the son of Benaiah. God warned them that he would bring further judgment on them. Ezekiel began to prophesy and declare this word from the Lord.
And it came to pass, while I was prophesying, that Pelatiah the son of Benaiah died. Then I fell down on my face and cried out with a loud voice and said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?” Ezekiel 11:13 ESV
It’s not hard to imagine the shock Ezekiel experienced when, while he was prophesying God’s judgment, God’s judgment fell swiftly and immediately on Pelatiah! He cried out to ask God if this meant the complete and total destruction of the people. God responded by telling Ezekiel that even though many of the people had been exiled to other nations, God was with them where they were. Then he promised a new exodus:
“Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Ezekiel 11:17–20 ESV
What will make this new exodus any more successful (in terms of their faithfulness) than the last one? God says he will give the people “one heart”—single-minded devotion to God. Israel’s problem all along had been their dual-mindedness. They longed for the food of Egypt while also half-heartedly worshiping the God of Israel. In this promise of the new covenant God says he will give them a new heart, one that is whole and undivided. This is no mere repair of the heart; he will remove the heart of stone and will give them a heart of flesh.
In the Ancient Near East the Egyptians practiced mummification. Part of this process was the removal of organs, including the heart. They understood the heart to be the organ that controlled the arms and legs—the entire body. Of course we know the heart pumps blood, but God speaks to us in language we understand. We actually use similar language today as we are told to “follow your heart”. Those who say this do not mean the heart controls the arms and legs (the brain does that) yet they also know that the “heart” is the seat of one’s desires. We act according to our strongest desires.
When God promises to give his people “one heart” by removing their “heart of stone” and replacing it with a “heart of flesh” he means that their will and their desires will be completely and utterly transformed. His people will love him and will seek to honor him. No more will they take idols “into their hearts” for their hearts will be filled with love for God.
Let’s live in this new reality. None of us could love God or desire to follow him apart from the miraculous work he promised to do. Our hearts are no longer dead or made of stone but are alive and beating for God. Let’s live as exiles, knowing that God is with us wherever we are. Let’s live as those who have one heart, hearts that are devoted to God.”