Ezekiel 11:17-21 – Commentary

17 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. 18 When they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. 19 I will give them onec heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 21 But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations,d I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.

c Another reading is a new

d Cn: Heb And to the heart of their detestable things and their abominations their heart goes

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Eze 11:17–21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


11:17–21 In a message anticipating those of chaps. 34–36, especially 36:24–28, the Lord promised through Ezekiel a physical return to the land of those Jews scattered in the exile and dispersion (v. 17). However, the promise involved more than a mere physical presence in the land. There would also be sweeping spiritual reforms and a general spiritual revival. The returnees would remove all the “vile images” and “detestable idols,” both phrases translating Hebrew words meaning “something abominable/detestable” (v. 18; cf. 5:11 and 7:20, where the same terms are used).62 Such deep and widespread revival would be driven by Yahweh’s gift of a new heart and a new spirit. The heart was considered the center of human reason and volition, what leads someone to reject one path and choose another (cf. Exod 14:5; 1 Sam 14:7; 27:1; 2 Sam 7:3).63 The new heart would be “undivided” (lit. “one heart,” v. 19; cf. 36:26; Jer 32:39). Israel had attempted to follow both the Lord and idols (cf. 1 Kgs 11:4; 15:3, 14; 2 Kgs 20:3), an ill-considered, aimless course that leads nowhere but to destruction (cf. Hos 4:11, where “understanding” is lit. “heart,” and Hos 7:11, where “senseless” is “without heart”).64 Henceforth they would follow only the Lord in singlehearted devotion, loving and serving him with all their heart, obeying him completely and unconditionally (Deut 6:4–5; 10:12; 1 Kgs 8:61; Ps 86:11; Jer 3:10; Joel 2:12).65

The “new spirit” the Lord promises also seems to refer to a renovation of Israel’s mental processes, which had become perverse (“mind” in v. 5 translates rûaḥ). The parallel with “heart” would support this interpretation, as would the parallel in Ps 51:10 [Heb. 12] between a “pure heart” and a “steadfast spirit.”66 D. Block notes, however, that in 36:26–27 the new spirit is associated with God’s Spirit, which he promises to put in Israel; thus there may be an intentional ambiguity in the use of the term.67

The change from a “heart of stone” to a “heart of flesh” (v. 19) is also promised in 36:26. A hard heart is stubborn and unresponsive to God (Exod 4:21, etc.). In 2 Chr 34:27 the Lord blessed King Josiah because unlike his predecessors, his “heart was ‘soft’ [“responsive”] and [he] humbled [himself] before God.” After his encounter with David, Nabal’s heart is said to have “failed him, and he became like a stone.” Ten days later he died (1 Sam 25:37–38). He seems to have been stricken with paralysis, perhaps due to a stroke. H. W. Wolff applies the sense to Ezek 11:19–20; 36:26–27: “The heart of stone is the dead heart … which is unreceptive and makes all the limbs incapable of action. The heart of flesh is the living heart, full of insight, which is at the same time ready for new action. The new rūaḥ brings to the perception and will of the heart the new vital power to hold on steadfastly in willing obedience.”68

Ezekiel saw a new day when God’s covenant people would again be in the land, devoted only to the Lord and enjoying fellowship with him (v. 20; cf. 14:11 and note there). After the exile when many Jews returned to a restored province of Judah in fulfillment of prophecy (Ezra 1:1), they were careful to avoid idolatry (Ezra 4:1–3; 6:19–21; Neh 8–10). Nevertheless, their obedience was not complete (Ezra 9:1–2, 10–15; 10:15, 44; Neh 5:1–9; 13:7–29), nor was their experience of promised blessings (Ezra 9:8–9; Neh 9:32–37).69 Thus the radical spiritual transformation of the people and the associated physical blessings promised in this and other prophecies of the new covenant (Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 34:20–31; 36:24–38; 37:15–28) await fulfillment in a future messianic age.70 Such promises, however, would be only for those who would receive the new heart and spirit by faith (18:31). Those who refused would be judged and eliminated (11:21). The remnant would be made up of those who repented and returned to the standard of the single heart (cf. 34:17–22). Single-hearted devotion is what God expects from us. Whenever we fail to give him our single-hearted commitment, we invite the chastening of God.71

62 The first word is שִׁקּוּץ, which is always associated with idolatry (e.g., Jer 16:18; Dan 9:27; 12:11; Hos 9:10; 2 Chr 15:8). The related verb שׁקץ (“detest, contaminate”) is used in Lev 11:11, 13, 43; 20:25 of unclean animals and those who eat them. See TWOT, 955. The second word is תּוֹעֵבֱה (rendered “abomination” in KJV), related to the verb תעב (“loathe/exclude”; hiphil, “commit abominations”). Some of the practices labeled “abominations” are homosexuality, idolatry, human sacrifice, eating or sacrificing unclean animals, occult worship, dishonesty, and prostitution (see Lev 18:22–30; 20:13; Deut 7:25; 12:31; 14:3–8; 17:1; 18:9–14; 25:13–16; 1 Kgs 14:24; Prov 6:16–19). It is often used as here as a synonym for “idol” (e.g., Deut 7:26; Isa 44:19; 2 Kgs 23:13).

63 H. W. Wolff says that “the Israelite finds it difficult to distinguish linguistically between ‘perceiving’ and ‘choosing,’ between ‘hearing’ and ‘obeying’ ” (Anthropology of the Old Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974], 51).

64 Ibid., 46–55.

65 Perhaps this promise of singlehearted devotion suggests the ultimate integration of will and conscience so that such struggles as Paul described in Rom 7:7–25 will be a thing of the past (cf. 1 Sam 24:6; Ps 51:10). It could be argued as well that Israel’s heart had been divided in that they pretended to serve Yahweh while really following idols. Block (“Prophet of the Spirit,” 46) notes that Ps 12:3 [Eng., 2] describes flattery as speaking בְּלֵב וָלֵב (“with heart and heart”). See also 1 Chr 12:34 [Eng., 33].

66 M. Tate (Psalms 51–100, WBC [Dallas: Word, 1990], 22) says, “The spirit of a person has much the same meaning as heart, and indeed seems to be a synonym in v. 12.” Note also Van Groningen (Messianic Revelation, 750): “The spirit in this context refers to a person’s spiriual life, mindset, desires, and impulses.”

67 Block, “Prophet of the Spirit,” 45–46.

68 Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, 29, 40–41, 54. Van Groningen (Messianic Revelation, 750) explains, “Persons with a heart of stone are spiritually dead, following their own lusts and passions.”

69 See J. G. McConville, “Ezra-Nehemiah and the Fulfillment of Prophecy,” VT 36 (1986): 205–24.

70 G. Van Groningen, Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 751. The question of whether 11:14–21 is a messianic prophecy is considered by Van Gronigen, who concluded that it is not messianic in the narrow sense of identifying a royal person. Nevertheless, it does present some of the plans and purposes that will ultimately be achieved in the messianic age to come.

71 This single-minded devotion to God was the seedbed of the NT standard of one heart (mind) totally dedicated to God (Matt 4:10; 6:24–34; Eph 6:5; Col 3:22).

Cooper, L. E. (1994). Ezekiel (Vol. 17, pp. 142–144). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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