Written by Pastor Ed
Ezekiel – Prophet among the Exiles
May 3, 2015
Ezekiel 7: 1-9
The prophets faced a theological dilemma. On the one hand they had to counteract the widespread belief that if you had god on your side, you couldn’t be defeated. As I have noted before, this was a widespread belief, and in some ways still is. Every nation believes that God is on their side, which will give them an advantage. The people of Israel and Judah were having a hard time believing that destruction could come to Jerusalem, the place where God dwelt. Yet that was the message the prophets were called to deliver.
On the other hand, if you believe that God is in control of all of history and directs what happens, how then do you explain the defeat of God’s own called people? It too must be at the hands of God. It’s a question that theologians have wrestled with for centuries.
But for the prophets of the 6th century B.C. it was not a theoretical question that they could spend a lot of time debating. For them there seemed only one answer, and that was that the people were suffering defeat as a consequence of their own actions in pursuing other gods and forming alliances with other nations instead of relying on Yahweh alone. We’ll encounter that question throughout the prophets.
Our scene this morning shifts from Jerusalem, where we have heard Isaiah and Jeremiah, to Babylon, for Ezekiel was among those who had been carried off to Babylon in the first wave of exiles, those to whom Jeremiah sent his letter. These exiles were located in what we today would call a refugee camp along one of the canals, called the river Chebar. In these camps, the Israelites were allowed to carry on their own affairs and continue their own worship practices; in some ways they didn’t have it all that bad, but they were exiles, far from home and longing to return.
Their cries and anger are clear in Psalm 137 which we hear read. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” God, who dwells in the temple in Jerusalem, is far off and seemingly uncaring about what is happening to God’s chosen people.
Among these exiles walked the priest Ezekiel. He was probably around 30 years old when he went into exile in Babylon, which meant he had grown up under the attempts at reform of King Josiah. Undoubtedly he was carrying out his priestly duties as best he could among the exiles, trying to keep their spirits up.
So what can we say about his message and the book that bears his name?
Ezekiel is my favourite book of the Old Testament, perhaps in part because of a course I took in seminary on Ezekiel taught by Millard Lind, one of my favourite professors who died just over a week ago. I owe much of this morning’s sermon to him. Perhaps also because Ezekiel and his prophetic mission are just a bit, well no more than just a bit, weird. One commentator titled their commentary of Ezekiel, “All Things Weird and Wonderful.” I’ve sometime referred to Ezekiel as the “multi-media” prophet.
The book itself is interesting in that it is laid out in chronological order, with various dates being given, which to some suggests that it was actually a written document from the start, rather than oral as many Old Testament books were. But you may have noticed, if you read it, that there are a lot of footnotes and many times those say, the meaning is unclear. The text itself is a bit of a mess. One of the projects I did for the class on Ezekiel was to read sections of the text from the Greek translation, the Septuagint, and compare that to the Hebrew text. And in some places they are quite different.
Ezekiel’s prophetic mission was, as I said , multi-media. Sometimes he was silent for long periods of time, and other times he used allegories and poetry to get his message across. Perhaps best know ar Ezekiel’s visions, some of which we know well. And those have been used in numerous ways over the years. Erich Von Daniken made a name for himself arguing that Ezekiel’s vision recorded in Chapter 1 was really an alien spaceship and proof of aliens visiting earth centuries ago.
The Food for Life baking company marketed bread which they said was based on the recipe Ezekiel used during one of his demonstration and called it Ezekiel 4:9 bread. It was said to be the perfect recipe, especially since the recipe came directly from God. Of course, Ezekiel’s didn’t include cinnamon or raisins, and some argued that Food for Life’s wasn’t really authentic anyway because it wasn’t baked the way God prescribed Ezekiel to bake it!
Ezekiel in many ways was an innovator. In fact some claim him as the first real Jew, as opposed to the former tribal designations or Children of Israel. He had to develop both a theology and practice for a people in exile and clearly that shaped who Ezekiel was and how his message was delivered. despite his unorthodox ways ,Ezekiel seems to have been held in high esteem among his fellow exiles, for leaders paid attention and called on him to see what the word of the Lord might be.
What was that message? Well, in some ways it reflected the messages of Jeremiah and Isaiah before him and can be divided into two sections. Before the fall of Jerusalem in 587, the message was one of judgement and destruction. Jerusalem was going to fall. Because Israel had abandoned their first love, Yahweh the God who had delivered them from Egypt and formed them as a people, therefore God was allowing them to be defeated.
Ezekiel proclaimed that message in vivid terms. He made a scale model of Jerusalem of a brick and played war against it. Then to portray how the people of Jerusalem will have to live during the siege, he laid first on one side for about a year and then of the other for a similar length of time, eating only bread baked according to God’s instruction, although he did get God to modify the instructions for baking somewhat. You can look it up in Chapter 4.
He sliced off part of his beard and hair and demonstrated how some would perish in the fire, some would die by the sword, and some would be scattered in the breeze to the far corners of the earth. He packed a bag and dug a hole in the side of his house and crawled out in the middle of the night to show how people would try to escape. He even suffered the death of his wife, but was told not to mourn as a sign of how people would respond to the destruction of their beloved city.
And then, when news of the fall of Jerusalem reached them, Ezekiel’s message changed to that of hope and restoration, culminating in a vision of a new Jerusalem and a new temple, signifying a complete restoration of the people of God. And just as Ezekiel earlier had had a vision of God glory leaving the temple, so he had another vision of God’s glory returning to live with God’s people forever.
While there are many themes that one could pick up from Ezekiel, let me focus on three.
First of all, Ezekiel, like many of the prophets, could only carry out their mission because they had received a call that underscored everything they had to say. Ezekiel’s call came in the form of a vision recorded in the first chapter, the vision that has inspired UFO lovers everywhere, as well as the song, “Ezekiel Saw the wheel.” It is the vision of God, or as he puts it, the likeness of the image of God, riding on a storm coming from the north to where the exiles were. Along with the storm are images of four headed seraphim, wings and wheels which meant the vision could move in any direction. It must have been an awe inspiring and fearsome sight. And to top it all off, literally,
26 And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire;[e] and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. 27 Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. 28 Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
Now you can spend all the time you want on what Ezekiel actually saw, but the message I believe is very clear and Ezekiel got the message. While the exiles thought that God could only be worshipped back in Jerusalem, in the temple where God lived, the truth was that God was not confined to Jerusalem, or even to Israel. God rode on wings and wheels and could go anywhere, even to the exiles in a foreign land!
I have a whole sermon that, if I’m called on in an emergency to preach I can pull out or preach off the cuff, entitled,” God has Wheels.” This was a new and, for the people, an amazing revelation. It meant they could sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. It was the basis for developing the synagogue rather than needing to go to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. And for Ezekiel, it was an affirmation that God was indeed with him there in Babylon.
Now granted, it took a while for the people to accept that message, but when they learned that the temple had been destroyed, as Ezekiel and Jeremiah said it would, it provided a basis to keep hope alive. And it was Ezekiel’s confirmation that God was indeed, God. “You shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
A second theme that is somewhat new in Ezekiel and moves in the direction of the New Testament has to do with the consequences of sin and individual responsibility. As I noted, a common theme among the prophets was that the destruction that was happening was the result of Israel’s sin as a whole people. In fact there was a popular saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” That is, punishment for sin carried on from generation to generation. But Ezekiel says you that saying no longer holds true.
And he goes through three generations (Chapter 18) showing how if a father is faithful he will be considered righteous, but if his son is violent, worships idols and so forth, he will be held accountable. But if he has a son who sees what his father did and turns back to God and acts as his grandfather did, then he too will be counted as righteous. No longer would entire families, generations, or the entire nation suffer for the sins of one person, something modern day Israel seems to have forgotten.
As the same time, Ezekiel holds out a high standard for prophets and leaders. If prophets are given a message, yet don’t warn the people, then they will be held accountable. Likewise Ezekiel rails against shepherds who neglect the flock and only look out for themselves, feeding off the very sheep they are supposed to be looking after, (Ez. 34) a passage we often use in talking to pastors about their responsibility to not take advantage of vulnerable people in their congregations.
Above all, God’s message to the people in exile was that even though Jerusalem was being destroyed and people scattered, God had not abandoned them. Instead of the corrupt leaders they had, God himself will become the shepherd. Again and again Ezekiel repeats the refrain, “Then you shall know that I am God.” And nowhere is that emphasized more than in Ezekiel’s most famous vision. While the people had a hard time accepting Ezekiel’s message that God was still with them, and at times even Ezekiel wavered. his vision recorded in chapter 37 was a clear message that hope is never gone.
In Ezekiel’s words…
37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:[c] Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,[d] and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
Ezekiel’s message prefigures much of the New Testament and remains relevant even today. Too often we too confine God to certain times or places and forget that God is able to meet us wherever we are. We too sometimes feel abandoned by God and act as though all hope is gone, like dry bones. But even in those times when we feel defeated or alone, we know that God is still active breathing new life and hope into the world and working out God’s purposes in the world.