I am person who dreams almost every night during sleep. How about you? Over the years I’ve had some freakish nightmares. Sometimes they are recurring, going night after night. Others will be one-off dreams that never recur. I also have settings like the home we lived in years ago, or my church’s building, or the school I and my kids attended during our elementary years. Many I’m sure I don’t remember. I can often wake from those dreams mystified as to why my brain works like it does at night. Nightmares can shake you, can’t they?
We’ve been studying the life of the prophet Ezekiel, and this week we are reading about his incredible virtual reality vision which began in chapter 8. God has, in the vision, transported Ezekiel to the temple in Jerusalem. In Ezekiel chapter 9, God takes action, and the vision which had already been disconcerting now becomes a nightmare. Read the whole chapter, because it is one complete episode in this story of Ezekiel’s vision that covers chapters 8-11.
After giving Ezekiel an unsettling tour of the temple in Jerusalem, noting room after room how his people were practicing idol worship, God’s unleashes judgement. First he beckons the guards who will carry out his judgment, and he summons a man with a writing kit. These people come to the temple, and God himself begins to move. In the temple, God’s presence resided above the gold cherubim which were on the lid of the Ark of Covenant stored in the room of the Temple called the Holy of Holies. God’s glory now moves to the threshold of the temple, where he talks to the guards and the man with the writing kit.
I am so thankful that this story includes a hint of hope. Did you notice the hope? I’m talking about the mark. The man with the writing kit was to walk around the city and put a mark on the foreheads of some people, and those people who had the mark would be spared. What people? Was it just random? No. Look at verse 4. The people who got the mark were people who grieve and lament about the evil that had been happening in the city.
That word “lament” jumped out at me. I thought, “I’m going to get to talk about lament in this sermon!” which is a biblical, important way to express oneself to God. But I discovered that the Hebrew word here is better translated, “groan.” When we lament, we speak words. Groaning does not use words. God is describing something very emotional here. While some people in the city are indulging in the idolatry and wickedness, there are other people who are not. Those other people look at the evil around them, evil that their fellow Jews are committing, and in response, they sigh and moan or groan. They are sick about the evil.
Have you ever been in that spot? It is a deep emotion, a deep sadness, to the point where there are no words, and you just sign and moan. I started this week’s five-part series talking about how God just might have a heart for the Eeyores among us. Now we see why. The Eeyores, the people who moaned and sighed, got the mark, showing that they were the faithful ones. They did not agree with the idolatry and wickedness happening in the temple. This was more than just a disagreement that was an opinion. They groaned. They had grief over it. Their hearts were sick as they saw their own family, friends and neighbors turn away from God.
Do you see the hope embedded in this story of judgement? If you got the mark, you were saved from the judgement that was at hand.
Next God instructs the guards to slaughter the people in the city without pity or compassion. Verses 5-6 are rough. We don’t like to think of God that way. But remember the mark. God is not just blindly massacring everyone. He saves the faithful, the people who are truly following him.
The judgement begins with the elders in Jerusalem. We’ve been hearing a lot about elders, haven’t we? I wonder if the elders back in Babylon sitting there in Ezekiel’s house had any sense of the focus on elders in the vision? (As we’ll see next week when we study chapter 11, when the vision is completed, Ezekiel will tell them what he saw.) For the reader of chapter 9 there is a clear literary connection that Ezekiel is trying to make between the elders sitting in his home in Babylon and the elders in the vision in Jerusalem. That connection shows us an important principle: elders are responsible for leading and guiding and setting the tone. The same principle is found in the New Testament description of elders. That’s why our goal when we select people to be on Faith Church’s Leadership Team is to have people who have clearly shown that they love the Lord and are committed to his Kingdom. Not perfect. No one is perfect. But our goal is to have people who have demonstrated that they are mature in their faith, and serious about it. It is not an eldership of age. It is an eldership of maturity. In Ezekiel’s vision, the elders in Jerusalem were very immature, leading the nation to idol worship and apostasy. Now God says it is time to allow those elders to face what they have done.
After dealing with the elders, the guards start carrying out justice throughout the rest of the city. For Ezekiel watching this vision, it must have been like a nightmare. Maybe you know the feeling. You’re dreaming, and in your dream you are at the mercy of whatever your mind concocts. Sometimes it is simply awful, and you wake up shaking, sweaty, heart-pounding, thanking God it was just a dream.
Ezekiel tells us how he responds to this nightmarish vision. He falls facedown, crying out to God in disbelief. God responds saying, “The people have crossed the line too many times, and now I am going to let them fend for themselves.” In verse 10 when he says that he will bring down on their own heads what they have done, it is a way of saying he is going to allow them to face the consequences of their wickedness. It will mean their destruction. He is going to allow the natural consequences of their wickedness to catch up to them.
Was this purge actually happening in real life? It is hard to know, but I would say doubtful. This is a vision. God shows Ezekiel the idolatry and wickedness, but that doesn’t mean that the killings happened in real time. Instead, it seems best to understand this vision as a prophecy of what will happen to the city, but by the hands of an enemy foreign army. Remember that it is a vision given to Ezekiel for the 10,000 Jews living in Babylon. In other words, the vision is God’s way of saying, “My people in Babylon, don’t be like your idolatry-practicing countrymen in Jerusalem. Be like the ones who sigh and moan.”
In the next post we’ll see what happens in Ezekiel chapter 10 as the vision continues. For now, consider this: are you like Eeyore, sighing and moaning at the way people in your life have turned away from God? Or have you become numb to it? What might it look like for you to have a renewed heart of love for God, so that you can express his love to the people in your life who might not be following him?