Think about the last time you encountered the presence of God. When was it? How did it happen? In a worship service singing a song? In Bible study? In nature? Maybe at a youth retreat around a campfire?
Now think about how long has it been since you encountered the presence of God? Maybe a long time? Maybe never? Do we need to experience the presence of God in our lives? Should we have an expectation that we will experience it? Has God promised us that we will have such an experience? Is something wrong if we don’t experience the presence of God on a regular basis?
Last week we met a man named Ezekiel. This week we will study Ezekiel 1, which describes his shocking encounter with the presence of God.
In verse 1 we read that it was the 30th year, 4th month and 5th day, but of what? We’re about to find out. More on that in a post later this week.
Ezekiel also says that he was among the exiles. What exiles? In 2 Kings 24:14, we read that this exile happened during the rule Judean King Jehoiachin, when the powerful nation of Babylon defeated the city of Jerusalem and took 10,000 people from the city, including Ezekiel. Think about the exile for a moment. Last week I gave a brief overview of the history of the nation of Israel, from the perspective of their covenant relationship with God. That covenant was a relational agreement between God and Israel, such that his powerful presence would be with them. His presence guided them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Then his presence resided in the temple. The physical presence of God was their foundation for hundreds of years.
In 2 Kings 24:14, we met another powerful presence, the Babylonian military, and that military conquered Jerusalem and exiled the people. The unthinkable had happened. It seemed like the presence of Babylon had defeated the presence of God. That was unfathomable. What do you do when what you believe is impossible all of a sudden happens? It shakes your worldview foundations. You start to question, “Is everything I believed actually wrong, a lie? What is true?”
Many of us feel those doubts when we go through difficult times. For Israel, it was an exile in which the presence of God didn’t seem to matter. Of course, they should have been aware that they were the ones that broke covenant with God, and God was doing exactly what he said he would do if they broke the covenant, which was to allow them to face the consequences of their sin. But you and I well know that we can struggle to have the humility, the teachability and self-awareness to say, “Yeah, my bad, God, I deserve this punishment.”
Rather than look at our own sins, what we often do is turn our fear around on God, and make it out to be his fault.
When people die of natural causes, I’ve heard people say, “God…why??? Why did you do this?” I imagine God thinking to himself, “I didn’t do anything…they were in their 90s and had been struggling with poor health for years.” But we don’t want to hear that, so we start blaming God, or we have a crisis of faith, wondering if God was ever real, or if all we believed was always false. This happens not only when we have a health crisis, but it can happen when we go through anything difficult like a job loss or a broken relationship. In those moments of pain, God seems distant. When God’s presence seems distant, we can question him. That was surely happening in the hearts and minds of those exiles.
Who were these exiles, and why was Ezekiel among them? One scholar says that “Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians, only deported the most prominent citizens of Judah: professionals, priests, craftsmen, and the wealthy. The lower-class peasants were allowed to stay.” (Jewish Virtual Library) So Ezekiel must have been part of one of those upper-class families. We’ll learn more about this in a coming post this week. For now, think about how people were forcibly separated from their families, friends and homes. Do you think the Babylonian soldiers were nice about it?
Then imagine how the journey of the exile took place. They didn’t board airplanes. They were forced to walk to a distant land. Get this: the journey from Jerusalem to Babylon some estimate took four months to cover 900 miles on foot. So just the process of the exile was difficult. Think about how that might impact your relationship with the Lord. Four months, walking 900 miles, and God’s presence was nowhere to be found. So on top of the fall of Jerusalem, add the emotional and spiritual pain when you are ripped away from all that was familiar to you, then the physical exhaustion of an arduous exile, all the while wondering what in the world you were in for.
Once they arrived in Babylon, what life was like for them? Another scholar tells us that “Although the Jews suffered greatly and faced powerful cultural pressures in a foreign land, they maintained their national spirit and religious identity. Elders supervised the Jewish communities, and…prophets…kept alive the hope of one day returning home. This was possibly also the period when synagogues were first established, for the Jews observed the Sabbath and religious holidays, practiced circumcision, and substituted prayers for former ritual sacrifices in the Temple.” (Britannica)
So hope was not lost. But God’s presence was 900 miles away in the temple in Jerusalem. The exiles longed for return, for God to show up. But he didn’t.
Do you know the feeling?
If so, we’ll see, as we continue studying Ezekiel 1, that there is hope. Check back in tomorrow!
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