Does God care about the downtrodden, the poor, the hungry, the slave? Does he care about people who are going through pain? We can wonder about this when we are the downtrodden ones, when we are poor, hungry and enslaved. As we continue studying Ezekiel 34, we learn about God’s heart.
Ezekiel’s prophecy in chapter 34 is about how Israel’s shepherds mistreated and neglected their sheep. We learned in the previous post, the God wasn’t talking about shepherds and sheep. He was using shepherds and sheep to talk about Israel’s kings and people. Through the prophecy God declares that he has some rehab work to do because there were so many bad kings, and the people looked to human kings, as well as foreign kings, to save and protect them, rather than to God. We read about this remedial work in Ezekiel 34, verses 16-22.
God starts by noting that he will reach out to rescue and care for the lost, the injured and the weak sheep. We expect the owner of the flock to do just that. What he does next, though, can sound controversial. He says that the strong and sleek he will destroy.
Woah. What does God have against the strong and sleek?
It can seem that God is biased in favor of the poor and hurting, the marginalized, those who have faced injustice. Here we see God’s heart for justice, as he goes on to describe how the strong have committed injustice against the weak. The strong have allowed the weak to live in a world where they are floundering rather than flourishing.
In verses 17-19, we learn that the weak have been beaten down at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. The strong are like sheep who not only have their fill of the lush grass, but they also stomp on the uneaten grass, thus leaving none for any other sheep. The strong are like sheep who not only have their thirst quenched by clean water, but they also muddy the water, making it non-potable for the rest.
Note that God is speaking in general terms. He is not saying that these principles of injustice are at work in every single case. Sometimes the poor are poor because they made bad decisions. Sometimes the poor are poor because they spend their money unwisely, or they are lazy or gluttons. But often, far more often, the gap between the rich and poor is widened because the rich have the access and power to control the wealth gap, and they want to keep it that way. This is precisely what happened in ancient Israel. The wealthy powerful kings made sure that they stayed rich and powerful at the expense of the people.
At this point, God finally stepped in, saying, “Enough!” He allowed Assyria to defeat Israel to the north, and he allowed Babylon to destroy Jerusalem and Judah to the south. When God gave Ezekiel this prophecy, there was no more Israelite monarchy. Not in the north and not in the south. It was over.
Notice how God illustrates his intervention by describing that he will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. The fat ones are the wicked kings of Israel who abused and drove away the lean skinny sheep, who represent the powerless starving people. Now God says that he will shepherd a new flock, a flock made up of the skinny sheep. God will be the shepherd of the skinny sheep. God’s heart, in other words, beats for the downcast, the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the refugee. This is a theological principle we see over and over and over in Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. God calls us to follow his heart, meaning that we should have a passionate concern for the marginalized as well.
In the previous post, we learned that in Ezekiel 34, God gave Ezekiel a prophetic word condemning the shepherds of Israel, because they selfishly cared for themselves while allowing the sheep to be hurt and preyed upon. But God wasn’t talking about shepherd and sheep. He was using them as a metaphor to depict what the kings of Israel and Judah allowed to happen under their watch for many centuries.
A summary of the history of the nations of Israel and Judah before Ezekiel’s era is a very, very sad story. Every human king of Israel had a rebellious streak, just as we all do. But it was after the reign of the great king Solomon, who himself had numerous issues, that the nation split in two. Ten tribes to the north formed the new nation of Israel, and two tribes to the south formed the new nation of Judah. The kings in the north were basically one bad king after the other. When I say “bad,” what I mean is that those kings in Israel chose not to follow the way of God. They themselves did evil, often motivated by greed and power, and they allowed evil to be done among the people. They led the people to worship foreign gods and idols, sometimes including child sacrifice, and they committed acts of treachery, slavery and injustice. In the end God allowed the foreign superpower Assyria to invade and conquer the northern kingdom of Israel.
In the southern Kingdom of Judah things were better. It was, however, a bit of a roller coaster ride, with bad kings following good ones, and so on. Some were quite wicked like the kings in the north, and some were exceedingly good, like King Josiah or Hezekiah, who made significant reforms to bring the kingdom back to God. But eventually, Judah had a streak of bad kings, which led to Babylon defeating Judah’s capital city, Jerusalem, and exiling 10,000 Jews back to Babylon, including Ezekiel.
During these centuries, whenever there was a bad king and the people would rebel, God would send prophets, pleading with the people and the kings to return to following God’s ways. Sometimes the kings and the people heeded the prophet’s words. Often the kings and people did not. They were too tempted and pressured by the powerful nations around them.
Even after that first wave of exiles was deported to Babylon, including Ezekiel, the people could think, “At least the temple is still intact.” As they sought to answer the question of whether God was keeping his promises, which we talked about in the previous post here, rather than consider their role in breaking the covenant, they looked at the temple standing strong as evidence that things were fine, they could keep doing what they were doing, which was behave terribly.
But that didn’t last long. Babylon eventually decimated Jerusalem, burned the temple and sent the people away. Exiled in Babylon, you can imagine people wondering, “Now, what about the promises of God?” God answers that question in Ezekiel 34, verses 11-15, by answering another question, “Who is the true king of Israel?”
There were plenty of human kings over Israel, but largely that human monarchy had been a disaster. Israel needed to see that God was the true king. In God’s covenant with Israel for centuries past, he said that if the people and kings of Israel would worship, serve and love God as their true king, and if their earthly kings would lead the people in proclaiming and obeying God as the true king, then God would bless them.
But the kings and people did not follow God, so now he proclaims that he is the true king, and he will shepherd his people. This is a theme that pops up in many places in the Bible, perhaps most famously by David in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” In that psalm, while David was the human king, it is the Lord who was his shepherd. David, though he is king, has the right perspective on God.
Now in Ezekiel 34, God is attempting to restore that correct understanding of himself as the Shepherd King of the people. He has some rehab work to do because there were so many bad kings, and the people looked to human kings, as well as foreign kings, to save and protect them, rather than to God. We’ll learn about this remedial work in the next post.
In the previous five-part series on the blog, we learned that God had made very clear promises to his people Israel. In Ezekiel chapter 33 we learned that Babylon invaded and destroyed Jerusalem. As the people of Israel looked around the smoking rubble of their city, they wondered if those promises were empty. You and I know that feeling.
How often do we look around at our world and wonder about the promises of God? Are things going on in the world today that make you wonder, “God, where are you?” Your wonderings might stem from international events, like North Korea reportedly launching a hypersonic missile, or from Russia threatening to invade Ukraine, such as what the news is telling us as I write in the first week of 2022. Or our unsettledness might be due to national events, like the political and racial tension shaking our nation for years. Many times, our doubt about God’s promises flows from personal events. A health concern, a job loss, a relationship struggle, leaving us wondering, does God care? Is he real? We can doubt. Though we might feel guilty about the doubt, if we start talking to people about it, what we find is that it is quite natural to feel doubt, to wonder if God will keep his promises. When we talk about it with others, we realize that many other people doubt too. Doubt is a common human experience.
In Ezekiel chapter 33, God tells Ezekiel that the people 900 miles away in Israel were saying that since God gave possession of the land to one man, their forefather Abraham, then of course he would give them, a nation of millions, repossession of the land.
When they speculate about how God should act, the people are doing theology. They are wondering, will God keep his promises? God’s clear answer in chapter 33 was, “You’ve got to be kidding me, people. This situation you’re in has nothing to do with me keeping my promises. Instead you’ve gotten yourselves into this situation because of your persistent choice to rebel against me.” God is right, of course. The people absolutely did behave poorly, and they were now facing the consequences of their behavior, as God allowed the city of Jerusalem to be destroyed.
What next? Have the people forfeited the promises of God? Is there any hope? What should they do? By the end of chapter 33, God has not answered that question. But in chapter 34, God gives Ezekiel a prophetic word that will.
In verse 1, we read that this is another prophecy God is giving Ezekiel to speak to the 10,000 Jews who he lived with in exile in Babylon. Then in verse 2, God asks Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Who are the shepherds of Israel? Is God talking about the many people who had the actual job of shepherding sheep?
We hear about shepherds every Christmas. The shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem were shocked by a surprise visit from angels declaring that the Messiah, the savior of Israel, had been born just a short walk away from them in the town. Those shepherds were literally sheep herders.
I live in a community where there are flocks of sheep in many of the farms around us. When my dog and I are out running on one local road, Stumptown Road, we regularly pass a flock of sheep that are contained by fencing. If we’re on that side of the road, and sheep are close to the fence, my dog will lunge at them. The sheep jump back in fright. But the threat is not real, as my dog is on a leash, and the sheep are safe behind the fence. In Lancaster, we have many flocks of sheep, but we have neither a profession of sheep-herding nor a class of workers that herd sheep. Instead farmers own flocks of sheep, and they keep them fenced in. Ours is a very different practice of shepherding than that in Jesus’ and Ezekiel’s day. It is also very different from shepherding in many parts of the world still today.
When my family lived in Kingston, Jamaica, a man would walk his cattle through the streets of the city looking for places for them to graze. It could have just as easily been a herd of sheep. Imagine, a herd of animals in the middle of the city! Our neighborhood was located up the side of a fairly steep hill, so the man would herd the cattle up our road, into our lawn where they could eat and do their other business. Then he say to us, “Beg you a couple limes?” and when we nodded, he would grab some from our lime tree, and once the cattle were finished, he would keep them moving on up the road to find another yard.
In Ezekiel’s day sheep herding was like that. It was far more nomadic than the fenced in sheep I run by on Stumptown Road. In ancient times, as in many places around the world still today, the flocks of sheep wander across vast stretches of land in search for grass to eat, water to drink. Shepherds would sometimes follow them, sometimes guide and direct them, and also protect them from theft, from predators, and from natural pitfalls. Shepherds would bind up wounds, train the sheep how to move and not wander off. If and when a sheep walked away from the flock, it was in exponentially increased danger. So a shepherd was to pay close attention, count the sheep, and know the sheep. The sheep were the source of the shepherd’s livelihood.
In Ezekiel 34, verses 2-10, God says the shepherds of Israel have done a horrible job. They have not cared for the sheep, while at the same time they have cared for themselves. I find it fascinating that God calls the sheep, “his sheep.” He had given the shepherds of Israel the task of stewardship of his sheep, and he is incensed at how selfishly the shepherds acted, leaving the sheep in a position that was the opposite of flourishing. God says that his herd of sheep are now on the verge of being eradicated. The sheep have been scattered over the whole earth, preyed upon by wild animals.
But God is not talking about shepherds and sheep.
Check back in the next post where we’ll learn who he is actually referring to.
When you think of heaven, what images come to mind? Maybe a long line of people waiting to get in? Or do you think of pearly gates connecting jewel-encrusted walls, a castle, golden streets, and angels? Maybe bright light filling the sky over green rolling hills? Sometimes we think of mansions. Maybe meetings with Jesus where we ask him all sorts of questions we wondered about. Maybe we hope that we get to be with loved ones who passed on.
I’ve read accounts of people who claim to die, go to heaven, and then come back to life on earth. They describe heaven somewhat like I described above. But it is impossible to know if what they say is true. The Bible itself is often vague about heaven. When it is precise in its description of heaven, those images come mostly in apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation, and what we read in apocalyptic literature is almost certainly symbolic.
Some theologians and Bible scholars interpret the Scriptures as teaching heaven on earth. The New Jerusalem. The new heavens and the new earth. Maybe heaven is not pie in the sky in the great by and by. Maybe it is the Kingdom of God come to earth.
Jesus seemed to have a different view of heaven than the view we Christians often use. He said things like, “The kingdom is near, it is among you.” What did he mean?
Or perhaps you’ve heard this phrase: “That person is so heavenly-minded, they are of no earthly good.” What does that mean? Can a Christian be too focused on heaven?
I’m purposefully asking questions that don’t have easy answers because I want to get you thinking. We can long for heaven because life on earth is often exceedingly frustrating, confusing, difficult and painful. When we are having those kinds of thoughts and feelings, we can start to think about heaven. When life is painful, we think, “Get me out of here.” But what if God has other plans? What if heaven isn’t what we think it is? What if heaven isn’t what we want? There are so many questions, very few answers, when it comes to heaven.
As we continue our study of Ezekiel into chapter 34, the people of Israel have just watched as Babylon decimated their nation, their holy city of Jerusalem, and their precious iconic temple. Likely thousands of people died, and many more were deported in a second wave of exiles to Babylon. The people start to ask questions of God, and God has a new vision for them. It is a vision of a most incredible place of flourishing. Is it a vision of heaven? On the blog next week, we’ll find out.
I recently attended a worship service at a church where the pastor regularly walked up on stage while the praise band was leading songs, and he pumped his fist, hyped up the crowd, and patted the shoulders of the various band members. How do you feel about that? Maybe I’m in the minority viewpoint on this, but I struggled with it. The pastor’s actions seemed to turn what was already a heavily produced worship service into one that was nearly completely intended to entertain. What we learn in the final post in this week’s five-post series on Ezekiel 33:21-33 is that entertainment based worship has been around a long time.
God says in verse 32, “Ezekiel you’re just entertainment for them.” God says Ezekiel is like a great singers of love songs. He is no different than Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Harry Stiles or Ariana Grande. The people like to hear him talk, but they do not do what he says to do.
God’s words to Ezekiel in Ezekiel chapter 33, verses 30-33 remind me of church worship services. If you hear the word of God during worship services, Sunday school classes, small groups or other Bible studies, but you do not do what those words teach you to do, than your teacher ought to just sing love songs and try to entertain you. It’s no different. Preaching, God says, has as much value as love songs, if the people do not do what it says. You might as well just stop reading this post and watch videos of your favorite love song singers.
As we conclude our study of Ezekiel 33:21-33, it is important to ask, “Who is responsible in this scenario? Who is responsible for the reality that the people heard the word of God, but did nothing about it?”
It is God? Maybe he should have spoken directly to the people. Maybe he should not have relied on prophets. Maybe he should have been more miraculous and supernatural in his approach. Nope. God always kept his end of the bargain, and in fact, he constantly, time after time after time, tried to pull the people back from their rebellion. God went over and above the call of duty to reach out to his people who he loves. God is not responsible.
Is it Ezekiel? Maybe he didn’t communicate well. Maybe he wasn’t engaging enough. Maybe he didn’t prepare for his sermons enough. Maybe he didn’t tell good stories, or enough stories. Nope. This isn’t Ezekiel’s fault. He faithfully communicated God’s word. He did the crazy skits, some of which were extremely dramatic and even very difficult. Ezekiel is not responsible.
So it is not the originator the message who is responsible. That is God.
And it is not the messenger who is responsible. That is Ezekiel.
It is clearly those who are receiving the message who are responsible. The people are responsible to hear the message, and then do something about it. The people are to hear the message and then do what God says to do, without delay, without excuses, and with joy and with gusto and with gratefulness to God.
Thus God concludes that when all the prophecy comes true, the people left in Israel will die, and everyone will know that Ezekiel is not just an entertaining love song singer, but he is a prophet of God. They should have listened to and did what Ezekiel said.
That got me thinking. Why do we choose to just be hearers of the word, but not doers of it?
Sometimes it is because Jesus calls us to do very difficult things that would require sacrifice. We don’t want to sacrifice. Think about it. Jesus said that if people want to be his disciples, they will die to themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him. In other words, Christians should be known for their pattern of sacrificial life. And that can not only sound distasteful, but it can be difficult. The result is that we avoid living the kind of life Jesus calls us to, where information leads to formation.
What can we do to counteract this? How can we allow biblical information to lead to Christian formation?
Start off the new year with some resolutions. Resolutions are good. But follow-through is better. The resolution is the information, and the follow-through is the formation. Formation is rarely a task that we accomplish alone. So I encourage you to think of formation differently. Think of formation as something you will do with others. Sunday school teachers, how can you lead your class in such a way that your students actually do something? Students, what will you do to approach your Sunday school as more than information, but as information that will guide you to formation? Same goes for Sunday worship services. What can you do to move beyond the entertainment mentality that is so easy to have? These worship services are not to be entertainment. They invite your participation, so that you receive information that leads to action. But do not approach your participation as something you do alone. Talk it up in your Sunday school class or small group, get an accountability partner to discuss it throughout the week, and check in on one another. Encourage one another to move from information to formation.
We Christians have a significant focus on information. Worship services are heavy on information. This sermon is all information. We are studying the words of a biblical text. Then we might attend classes or small groups in which we receive yet more information. The information is usually very good. It is designed to help us know God’s word, his heart, and his ways. In fact, the information is vital to formation. If we did not have the information, we would not know what God wants from us. Even Jesus communicated information. But if information is the focus of religion, then I say that religion is worthless. How so?
As we continue our study of Ezekiel chapter 33, God explains how information-focused religion is worthless. Starting in verse 23, God gave Ezekiel a new prophecy. Now God gives Ezekiel some secret intel: the people in Ezekiel’s village seem to be talking behind Ezekiel’s back. What are they saying? Read Ezekiel chapter 33, verses 30-33 to find out.
It sounds like verse 30 starts out fairly positive. The people say, “Come hear the message from God.” That’s good, right? People who want to hear God’s word? That’s important! This positive note continues into verse 31, as the people visit Ezekiel to hear the word of the Lord, and God even says, “as they usually do.” So they must have had some kind of habit, a regular sitting before Ezekiel to hear from God. But just that quickly, God gets to the main point, and the positive tone is done.
Midway through verse 31, God says the people do not put the words into practice!!! So the people talk a good game about hearing God’s message. Further, the people go to Ezekiel’s house and hear God’s words, but then they do not do what God’s words tell them to do. That is the epitome of worthless religion: learning information, but not allowing that information to lead to formation. Let me say that again. Worthless religion is focus on learning information that does not lead to formation.
There is a problem, God says through Ezekiel, when our information does not lead to formation. Formation is when we actually follow through and do what the information says to do, in our regular daily lives, hour by hour, minute by minute. Formation is when we become the people that God wants us to be in what is called the “Other 167.” Do you know what the other 167 is? It is every other hour in the week, after the one hour Christians spend in weekly worship. During weekly worship, whether in a church service, class or small group, we learn information for about one hour, and that information should shape and influence the other 167 hours of the week. And how so? What formation are we talking about?
Formation, as Paul would later write, is to be formed in the image of Jesus. When we learn the information about who Jesus was, what he taught, and how he lived, then we take that information and we allow it to shape our lives. That means we make decisions, choices, and changes so that our lives resemble Jesus’ life. That is what a disciple is. A disciple is a learner from their master, who then does what their master does. It is very similar to an apprentice. An apprentice is getting information about how to do a job, and little by little the master gives the apprentice the responsibility to do the job. Over time, the apprentice learns how to do everything for that job, and the apprentice can take over for the master.
But while the people in Ezekiel’s village were soaking up the information, and they looked spiritual doing so, they didn’t do anything with the information. They were like apprentices who never actually do any work. Look at the second half of verse 31. The people talk a good game, expressing devotion to God, but their life choices show a very different story. They did not allow God’s information to lead to their formation. They did not allow God’s words to penetrate their hearts and minds to the point that they actually did what God said. God has evidence. He points out their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.
How do you ingest information from God? Do you attend worship services, do Bible studies, or listen to podcasts? What do you do with that information? Check back to the final post in this five-post series for some practical ideas.
Can you ever sin too much? Can you ever rebel against God too far? As we continue our study of Ezekiel 33, we learned in the previous post that God opened Ezekiel’s mouth, after seven years of silence, and now Ezekiel can speak freely.
In verse 23, just as soon as Ezekiel can say whatever he wants, God says he has another prophetic word for Ezekiel to share with the people. In verse 24, God tells Ezekiel about a situation happening back in Israel. Babylon has destroyed Jerusalem, the city is in ruins, and the people there seem to be struggling not just with their physical reality, which was grim, but also their theological reality. Physically, life would have been terrible, as the city and the land were decimated. It reminds me of a tragedy that occurred recently when tornadoes swept through the American Midwest. One day a town was lively, and the next day the town was leveled. The people there will be struggling with life and rebuilding for years to come. That is their physical reality. There is also a theological reality, and that is the deeper question of God’s relationship with them.
When disaster occurs, we question God. It is normal to do so. Death, health, finances, relationships, politics. When something goes wrong in those areas, we question God. We wonder what his role is in our pain. Did he cause it? Did he allow it? Could he have prevented it? Is the pain just the normal pain of a broken and fallen world? Or is God punishing me? If God is so loving and powerful, then why he is allowing me to go through this? All kinds of theology comes out, when we are in pain. Sometimes it is correct theology, sometimes it is incorrect.
It seems the people of Israel are doing some theology as well. Let’s see if it is good theology or bad theology. In verse 24, the people remember that God gave their ancestor Abraham possession of the land, and Abraham was just one person. Now they are a nation of millions, so they reason, shouldn’t they also have possession of the land? In other words, if God did it for one, surely he would do it for millions.
Or would he? The people could look around their precious city and promised land, and not only was it destroyed, they also were not in control. Mighty, powerful Babylon was in control. You can see the question forming in the hearts and minds of the people: “Is our God really who he says he is? If Babylon destroyed the city and the land, maybe God isn’t keeping his promises. Maybe our God isn’t so powerful or loving after all.”
We have to remember, at this point, that Ezekiel is not physically located in Jerusalem or Israel. In fact, he isn’t prophesying to any people in Israel. He is prophesying to the 10,000 Jews in Babylon. So it seems best to see the Jews in Babylon as also asking these questions of God. They hear the news of the destruction of Jerusalem, their hometown, and they, too, could be doubting God, wondering if God is really the one true, powerful God.
So God says, “Time out. Hold up, people. There’s more to this story, more that you are conveniently skipping. Let’s tell the whole truth.” In verses 25 and 26, God tells the rest of the story. He reveals that the people of Israel were the culpable ones in the scenario, not God. The people of Israel, by their actions, had broken the covenant between themselves and God. That covenant goes way, way back, and basically the terms of the covenant were this: if the people followed the way of God, he would bless them and they would flourish in the land. But if they did not follow the way of God, he would allow them to be cursed by foreign enemies, and the people of Israel would lose the land. Those terms were clear, and they were known by all. This should not have been a surprise ending. Not to mention the fact that God had sent his prophets over and over and over again to remind the people of the covenant, calling them to repent and return to the Lord.
In verses 25-26, God says the people did not keep up their end of the bargain, and they lost their right to possess the land. To prove his point, he gives a few examples of what the people did to rebel against him.
First, they participated in worship practices of foreign gods, including eating meat with blood still in it. God is saying, “You haven’t worshiped me alone.” Second, he says they relied on the sword, which is God’s way of saying, “You didn’t rely on me.” They didn’t practice dependence on God. They tried to take matters into their own hands. Third, they did detestable things, which sounds vague, but it is a word that refers to really awful sin. In some cases it refers to adultery or idolatry, both of which he mentions here. That’s what he says next when he refers to them defiling a neighbor’s wife, which is a very aggressive action. It speaks to people preying on one another.
To sum it up, in verses 25-26 God responds to the people’s theological argument saying, “You can’t be serious. You think you still have a claim to the land? Take a look in the mirror. You’re lives are a shambles of terrible behavior. You’ve forfeited the land. Don’t blame me for what has happened to you. I kept my end of the deal. It was you who rebelled.”
Next God concludes his message to the people in verses 27-29 saying, “Get ready people. You think your life is bad now? It’s only going to get worse. No matter where you are in Israel, you will die. It’s over. The destruction of Jerusalem was just the beginning. Now the whole land of Israel will become a wasteland. Why? Because of your horrible choices. When the destruction happens, then you will know that I am the Lord.”
God wants them to stop thinking that his promises to Abraham, Moses and David were still viable. The people of Israel should no longer believe that they can rest on the covenant God made with those famous ancestors. For years the people broke the terms of the covenant, and they should not believe that God was going to come to their rescue. And why? Not because God was being a jerk. It was all because they had chose to forsake him, to rebel against him, and they did so by their terrible behavior.
I am not suggesting that all pain in this world is due to human fault, and the deist version of God is correct. Deism depicts God as setting the universe in motion, then watching what happens from a distance. Like a bowler who launches the ball down the alley. The moment the balls flies free from their fingertips, that bowler has no further influence over the path the ball takes and how it lands. Clearly, Ezekiel prophecies and visions of Yahweh God are that of a very interactive and involved God. In fact, that is the premise of the book, that God is pleading with his people, through the prophet Ezekiel, urging them to return to him. God’s point in this particular prophecy is that the people of Israel had finally crossed the line, and they should not expect God to come to their rescue. Babylon’s destruction and control of the land was real and would not be overturned for decades.
Therefore, this passage is one of warning, a cautionary tale for those of us who hold to a theology of grace. We are correct to trust in the gracious forgiving love of God. But we should not abuse that grace. God will still allow us to face natural consequences if we rebel against his way, and those consequences have the possibility of being exceedingly painful. Remember, though, that God is still here in Ezekiel chapter 34, telling Ezekiel to reach out to the people, calling them to return to him. He is always willing to accept the penitent and the repentant.
Recently I was officiating a funeral here in our church sanctuary, and a woman arrived very late, long after the funeral service began, walked in and took a seat in the back. During my sermon, she raised her hand. The way she raised her hand was was like a student would raise their hand in a class, hoping the teacher will call on them to answer a question. Because I was preaching, that seemed odd, as sermons are almost always monologues, and especially so at a funeral. So even though it didn’t quite look like, I wondered if maybe she was worshiping with hands raised. I decided not to call on her to find out. After about 2-3 minutes of her holding her hand in place, she interrupted me and said that God told her to come here and tell us that Jesus is coming again. It was wild. I was uncertain about what I should do, not knowing how long she would talk, or how bizarre her message might become. Thankfully, she kept it short and not off-the-wall. Except for the interrupting part. I was really close to interrupting her, though! As you can imagine, she was the talk of the funeral meal!
I wonder if that’s how people felt about the prophet Ezekiel. After Ezekiel’s wife died, which we studied in this blog post, he must have been so lonely. That is assuming she believed him and supported him, even when she was alive. She, too, could have started to question whether this thing her husband had become was really of the Lord. It did not seem like Ezekiel’s prophecies were of the Lord, because they never came to pass. For Ezekiel, the prophetic life could not have been easy.
As we continue our study of Ezekiel 33, in the second half of verse 21, we read that a man from Jerusalem arrives to Ezekiel there in in his village in Babylon, and the man says, “The city has fallen!” Remember that it is a 900 mile journey from Jerusalem to Babylon, so it probably took the man a long time, months, to get there. But finally, this news of Jerusalem’s destruction is confirmation that Ezekiel’s prophecies were all true.
For seven years, through skits, through the Prophetic Stare, visions, and prophecies, God communicated through Ezekiel that Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. That means Ezekiel had not only seven years of being mostly silent, he also had to endure seven years of prophesying, “I’m telling you people that end of Jerusalem is coming.” Throughout those seven years of hearing Ezekiel’s prophecies of doom and gloom, the people get no confirmation of this news. Imagine how that would feel for Ezekiel. The people could easily have started to doubt him, considering him a lunatic, a fraud. I wonder how many of them believed him in year seven? Were there any of the 10,000 other Jews that still listened to him by that time? Not only was his prophetic method bizarre, but also his prophecies had yet to come true. At what point are you justified in deeming him a quack? Year two? Year three? Certainly by year three, right?
That is quite similar to the woman who interrupted my funeral sermon. She didn’t say anything that was offensive or unbiblical. I have to admit, though, that what she did was bold, and she demonstrated courage and commitment to what she believed God wanted her to do. Consider how difficult that was for her! I don’t know if she was a prophet from the Lord, but she certainly behaved in a prophetic way. That could not have been easy. If she shows up again, and again, and again, then what will do? Do we just let her interrupt worship whenever she wants? I don’t know, but I suspect I would ask her to discontinue, that perhaps we could set up a separate meeting. I also suspect we would tire of her interruptions and either ignore her, or call the authorities to remove her.
I suspect that’s what it might have been like for the people in Ezekiel’s village. Imagine you were living in Ezekiel’s village watching and listening to him. Would you think he is a prophet of the Lord? Yes, he says things that sound compatible with biblical theology, things like turning to the Lord, and of course his famous phrase, “Then you will know that I am the Lord.” But why does Ezekiel have to be so weird, and so silent? My guess is that many of his fellow Jews, his neighbors there in Babylon, would have begun to ignore him. Definitely by year two or three. Especially when his prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem is not coming pass. Not in year four, not in year five. Year six, still nothing.
Now they are in year seven of Ezekiel’s ministry. And everything changes in an instant when the fugitive from Jerusalem arrives and gives them an update. Jerusalem has fallen, confirming Ezekiel’s seven years of prophecies. It is all true. What’s more, look at verse 22. God opens Ezekiel’s mouth, just as he promised, and Ezekiel is free to speak! Can you imagine the rush of adrenaline and joy, when those first words come out of Ezekiel’s mouth! What would you say if you hadn’t been able to talk for 7+ years?
Instead of telling us that he walked around the village saying whatever he wanted to say, we read that God has another prophetic word for Ezekiel to share. Check back in to the next post, and we’ll learn what God says.
Do you know how many of these videos and memes are online? I spent too much time this week trying to find one to show you. There are so many videos and pictures of times that people had a job and didn’t do it right. Here’s a fun one.
It’s the human condition, isn’t it? We tend to shake our heads and get upset when people screw up, as if we never do.
The other day I was installing a ceiling fan in our living room, and I thought I had made all the proper connections. I hit the light switch, and to my great satisfaction, it worked. The fan light turned on. Then I hit the fan switch, and it turned the light off. No movement of the fan blades. After getting over my frustration and sense of failure, I called an electrician who helped me out real fast.
What I’m talking about is the common human experience of the vast difference between information and formation. In other words, it is very easy to get information, it’s a whole different ballgame to act on that information. In the “You Had One Job” videos and memes, we display people who were instructed to do one thing, but didn’t do it. The same goes for us as followers of Jesus. We can lots of information about what to disciples of Jesus do, but we don’t always follow through and do what that information says we should do. Our information about disciples of Jesus does not always lead to our formation as disciples. As we continue our study of Ezekiel, we’ve come to a major transition in the narrative, and what we will discover has everything to do with the difference between information and formation. Turn to Ezekiel 33, verse 21, and in this week’s five-part blog series, we’ll find out.
In verse 21 we read that this part of Ezekiel’s story occurs in the 12th year, 10th month and 5th day of exile. What does that matter? In Ezekiel chapter one we read that God first appeared to Ezekiel in the 5th year and 5th month of the exile. Do the math. How much time has passed?
Between chapter 1 and chapter 33, more than seven years have passed since Ezekiel started his prophetic ministry. Consider that it has been seven years since God stuck Ezekiel’s tongue to the roof of his mouth, making Ezekiel a Silent Prophet. Seven plus years of only speaking words that God gave him. Seven plus years of not talking freely. That’s why last week we had Silent Sunday. It is hard to imagine what Ezekiel’s life must have been like. Some of us appreciate silence more than others. Some of us can be quiet more than others. But seven years?
In college I had a friend who said that Lord told him to take a vow of silence. In class, he would still raise his hand to speak, and then he would start doing hand motions and pointing to his mouth to indicate he couldn’t speak. He made quite a show of it, which is pretty much the opposite of what God desires. When we are fasting, and a vow of silence is a form of fasting, Jesus taught us that we are not to draw attention to yourself. Then back in the dorm when no one was looking, he would talk. It was a sham.
Well, Ezekiel didn’t take a vow of silence. He had no choice. God shut Ezekiel’s mouth. I wonder how Ezekiel felt about that. In the 32 chapters we’ve studied so far, Ezekiel has barely mentioned the fact that he was silent. But imagine how it would feel to literally not be able to talk. When we lose our voice even for a short period of time, most of us get frustrated. We learn to make hand signals. We write messages on paper, or text them. My guess is that Ezekiel learned to communicate with hand signals as well. But after a while it would get really old, wouldn’t it? How long did it take Ezekiel to start thinking and praying, “Lord, please let me talk!”? Did Ezekiel eventually get sick of this strange and difficult prophetic life God imposed on him?
Last week when we talked about this in our sermon discussion group at Faith Church, I asked people how they felt about the silent sermon. Was it difficult? Awkward? One person made the comment that it was helpful to know there was an end point. A sermon lasts about 30-35 minutes. Most people can be silent for half an hour. That person is right. It is much, much easier to handle something difficult, or try something new, when you know the end is coming soon. But Ezekiel didn’t know when his silence was going to be over. At the beginning of chapter 33, he is 7 years into his mostly silent life! How long would you make it before you started mutinying against God? A week? A day?
If in fact all the prophecies of Ezekiel are the ones recorded in the book of Ezekiel, then Ezekiel’s prophecies during those 7+ were few and far between. That meant Ezekiel might have endured long stretches of hearing nothing from God. No doubt, when he did hear from God, sometimes it was amazingly cool. That vision where God transports him to Jerusalem, for example, was astounding. But I don’t know how long that memory would sustain me. Even if once per month God gave me an amazing vision, I think I could easily be very sick of not being able to speak. Frankly, I could become frustrated, if not downright angry with God, for imposing this silent life on me. Worse yet, Ezekiel would have had very little satisfaction that his prophecies were making much of a difference, if any at all.
But there is more to the story. God did give Ezekiel an end date. Back in chapter 24, when we learned that Ezekiel had a wife and that she died, God told Ezekiel that on the day God allows Babylon to destroy Jerusalem, a fugitive to escape the destruction and travel to Babylon. Ezekiel would then speak with the fugitive and Ezekiel’s mouth would be opened, and he would be able to talk freely. Further, God says in chapter 24, that Ezekiel would be a sign to the people, and they would know that he is the Lord.
So Ezekiel did have an end date for his silence. Kind of. Not a specific date. But at least he had God’s promise that his silence would have an end. And as we’ll see in the next post, that end is finally here for Ezekiel.
Over the years around New Year’s Day, I’ve written about the kinds of resolutions Jesus would want us to make for the coming year. Think about that. Based on what you know of Jesus’ teachings and lifestyle, what do you think his resolutions for you are for 2022? Write them down on a list. Maybe the top 5.
Here’s the thing, though. New Year’s Day is just a day. As the band U2 once sang, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.” For many of us, and I would venture to guess for most of us, U2 is describing our reality. This year New Year’s Day is a Saturday, so it is not only just another day, it is a weekend day, and some of us can’t even look forward to it as an extra day off work.
What I’m getting at is that we don’t need to wait for New Year’s Day to make resolutions. Instead we should be asking Jesus what he wants us to do every day. I very much believe that having a new year marker is a good thing. Most years we need a point, a line in the sand, where we can say that now is the time for a fresh start. We definitely needed 2020 to end, and I think most people are saying the same about 2021. Here’s hoping and praying that 2022 is better than the past two years. Yet, we do not need to wait until January 1st each year to start making the changes that Jesus wants us to make. We can and should be evaluating our lives on a much more frequent basis.
But evaluation and resolutions, even if they come from Jesus himself, only go so far, right? You and I can get a fair and balanced evaluation of our lives, and then we can make realistic, practical resolutions to do something about the evaluation, hopefully enhancing our strengths and working to improve our weaknesses, but in the end we might do very little to change. Year after year goes by, and we have to admit that our situation remains basically the same. Have you experienced that in your life? Have you ever hoped and dreamed about new goals, and then you created a plan to achieve them, even a very doable plan, but you didn’t do it? Or maybe you made a start, but you didn’t complete it? It could be a simple as reading a book or as large as going back to school to complete a degree. Why do we not follow through?
There are many reasons, of course. Distractions, waning motivations, lack of time or money or energy. Maybe we get sick, maybe a relationship breaks apart, maybe work picks up, maybe we have a child or grandchild and they rightly need our attention. Sometimes we just procrastinate. Sometimes we get tempted by lesser things. I started working on my doctoral dissertation in the fall of 2020, and I was excited to graduate in May 2021. But that fall, I taught an online class that turned out to be far more involved than I expected. Work on my dissertation ground to a near standstill. In the past year, I have picked at it, here a little, there a little. I have made forward progress, but I didn’t make the May 2021 deadline. Now with four months until the new May 2022 deadline, will I make it? Will I make the changes necessary to accomplish the goal? Last year when the seminary sent a “sign up for graduation” email, I didn’t respond. I knew I wasn’t going to make the May 2021 deadline. A few weeks ago this year’s version of the email downloaded to my inbox, and there I let it sit for a week. Stewing. If I didn’t answer it, I wouldn’t have to feel the pressure of the deadline. But I also hate having this burden named “dissertation” on my shoulders all the time. I want to be free. I want to accomplish the goal. So I responded, “Sign me up.” Now the clock is ticking. What will I do to make it to the finish line?
There are so many reasons that might have caused us not to do what Jesus wants us to do in the past. But that is in now in the past. Today, whether it is New Year’s Day or any other day, is the day to start fresh. What reasons do you have that have held you back? What will you do about it this year? Next week in our study of Ezekiel, we come to a major transition in the narrative, and I think you’ll find it is a perfect fit for New Year’s, and for learning how to make progress in following Jesus. Read Ezekiel 33:21-33, and then check back in to the blog on Monday for part one of the five-part series.