The late singer Keith Green once gave a talk about prophets, saying that he met people who considered him a prophet and people who wanted to be prophets too. Green’s response was, “You might not realize what you’re hoping for.” Prophetic ministry can actually be very difficult. This week (starting here) we’re meeting Ezekiel the prophet, and his prophetic ministry is an example of what Green is referring to.
The messages Ezekiel receives are very unique to say the least, and therefore his prophetic ministry is too. For starters, he prophesies as an exile, from the place of exile. Most of the other biblical prophets ministered in Israel. Ezekiel also has some bizarre prophetic methodology. Normally when we think of a prophet, we think of a guy getting a message from God and declaring that message to a person or a group of people in the form of a speech or a written letter. While Ezekiel had some of that, and eventually his prophecies were recorded in written form in the book we read, he also had some other very unique prophetic methods. First, he used sign acts, what we might call street theater. He would literally act out some of his prophecies in the public square, right outside where all could see him. One prophetic sign act involved Ezekiel, tied up, laying on his left side for 390 days, then again on his right side for 40 days, all the while eating food cooked by using human excrement as fuel. Some of the theater is so weird, it has been labeled as psychotic or schizophrenic. It wasn’t. It had a purpose, and it was from God, calling the people back into covenant relationship.
But there’s more. Ezekiel communicates through allegories or parables. A vine. An eagle. A lioness. And even fantasy characters, that remind us of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. Ezekiel would also have prophetic visions that almost seem like God was transporting Ezekiel physically from Babylon to Jerusalem. I wondered what this might have been like. It made me think of a drone pilot. Some of you maybe have drones that have cameras, allowing you to pilot them from far off. Those drones can travel miles away, so that you can’t see them, and you have to rely on the camera to pilot them. A couple years ago, my wife’s uncle was in town for her sister’s wedding, and he brought a pretty fancy drone with him. One day he was flying it in Amish country, and decided to follow a buggy. The video feed from the drone camera to the iPad, which he used to control the drone, was not nearly as high quality as the recording. So when he played back the recording, he was shocked to realize that he had flown the drone right through high tension electric wires. A near miss! I don’t know precisely what Ezekiel’s prophetic transport visions were, but you will see that they are quite unique. Perhaps most famous of all is the vision of the valley of dry bones.
Ezekiel’s methodology also includes something called the Prophetic Stare. Nine times in the book we read God telling Ezekiel to “set his face against” something. The mountains, false women prophets, the south, the city of Jerusalem, some foreign countries. Scholars tell us that we should not understand this as God telling Ezekiel to travel to those places. Remember the story of Jonah and Ninevah? He was commanded to travel with his message, but not Ezekiel. Instead, Ezekiel’s prophetic stare included a message, say, about Pharaoh, King of Egypt, that was intended for the hearing of the Israelites in exile, and likely never made it to Pharaoh.
This bizarre methodology did not result in people clamoring to Ezekiel to hear more. In fact, we will read God say to Ezekiel that he, Ezekiel, will go through all of this, and the people will not listen. Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry would not only be difficult, it would also be ineffective. That’s what Keith Green was getting at. Please hear me: prophetic ministry is vital, and that goes for today. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes that God calls some in the church to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds/pastors and teachers. We need prophetic ministry. But don’t expect it to be glamorous.