Somebody had to tell the truth – even though nobody wanted to hear it! Everybody wants good news: healing, a restored marriage, a perfect grandchild, financial freedom, no more war, relief from everything! Wouldn't it be wonderful to be the good news messenger?
Ezekiel shows up. No Mr. Prosperity Preacher. Not the purveyor of a miracle elixir that can cure every sickness. This most eccentric prophet of all prophets appears in the world of Babylonian darkness to tell God's people that beyond their well-earned suffering there is God's hope. But getting there is a problem for all. That's where God comes in, literally!
“Ezekiel the priest, son of Buzi,” was in the midst of Israel's suffering “in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and there the hand of the Lord came upon him” (Ez. 1:3). This most bizarre of Israel's prophets spoke for God out of his own heartache and questions. Consider that the people of Israel saw themselves as favored by God, assured of blessings, inheritors of the great days of David and Solomon, now forced to serve a pagan king in a foreign land. Could pagan gods be greater than Jehovah? Was the God of Abraham powerless? This is not the life they were promised by Moses! They wanted their life back, but that would require more than an appearance of an angel army and a magical return to the past. God would show them the way back through Ezekiel as he taught them a new understanding of God and called them to take responsibility for their failure to love God with all their heart and live daily as God's people. This prophet of the exile would introduce the idea that God's people must be a “priesthood of believers” because God's Spirit was not locked up in the Jerusalem Temple but must be present in every person's heart. From Genesis to Revelation, God is always seeking a relationship with people, not promoting another religious system. Ezekiel is all about grace.
How would you like to begin a new job with the knowledge you will not enjoy success? Ezekiel has a magnificent vision of God telling him he will speak to “the Israelites, a traitorous and rebellious people” who come from a long line of “hard-headed and hard-hearted descendants” (2:3-4). But “they will know that a prophet has been among them” (2:5). In our society, the idea of hard work without success does not win recruits. But faith in God must get beyond desired results to a fuller understanding of life and its discoveries of meaning, finding God even in the most unlikely places. Israel is in a stage of adolescent immaturity, where a person wants what he wants without responsibility.
There is an almost hidden blessing included for Ezekiel: “they will know a prophet has been among them” (3:5). One of the hardest spiritual lessons any of us can learn is that we serve God beyond the limits of success. In all my years as a pastor, the words that encouraged me most were, “At the darkest moments I remembered what you said in that sermon last year and realized God was still with me.” We learn from Israel's experiences that God does not abandon us, but it sometimes takes us awhile to open our heart to him.
Ezekiel also warns us about obstacles in our spiritual life. God says to Ezekiel (and to us): “As for you, human one, don't be afraid of them or their words. Don't be afraid: you possess thistles and thorns that subdue scorpions. Don't be afraid of their words or shrink from their presence, because they are a household of rebels” (3:6). This saying may seem odd to us, but it is probably drawn from a quaint story or proverb of that day, teaching that life has its balances of good and bad that eventually come to the right conclusion. Ezekiel would declare things offensive to both Israel and Babylon, but God would be with him and bring good out of his ministry.
God addresses Ezekiel as “human one” (2:1) over ninety times in this book. Literally it is translated “son of man,” probably contrasting Ezekiel's mortality with God's deity. Jesus used this same title for himself when he spoke of how he would be rejected by the religious leaders of Israel, killed and resurrected on the third day (Luke 9:22). From our New Testament perspective we identify the similarities between Ezekiel’s and Jesus’ ministry. Both require seeing beyond immediate results, rejection by the people, understanding that religious rituals and traditions cannot create new life and our need for repentance and a return to God. As with Jesus the truth is clear in Ezekiel: “You'll speak my words to them whether they listen or whether they refuse” (2:7).
Ezekiel is told to open his mouth and eat what God gives him (2:9). He sees a hand reaching out to him holding a scroll: “It was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentations, and doom” (2:10). Scrolls were normally written only on one side, so this double-sided” scroll indicates the unique content of its message. We may wonder why God is ordering Ezekiel to take into his life such mournful songs? Both Lamentations and Psalms contain such songs in abundance. We might say this is a bitter pill to swallow, but we know that true repentance involves sorrow for your failures as you seek God's forgiveness.
In Ezekiel 3:1-3 God repeats his command to eat this scroll and the prophet states that “in my mouth it became sweet as honey.” The prophet is explaining that, along with his rebellious people, he has faced their spiritual failures and has eaten (taken in, digested) God's promise. He has found spiritual nourishment and restoration. Psalm 119:103 declares, “Your word is so pleasing to my taste buds – it's sweeter than honey in my mouth.” A similar idea is found in Revelation 10:9. Ezekiel faced a people consumed by despair with a vision of hope, not for his generation but for the next, and a heavy burden to tell the truth, knowing people did not want the truth. The prophet saw the truth and answered God's calling. Anything else was a surrender to the darkness.
Life always presents options. God offers love, forgiveness, grace, and hope. Like Ezekiel we can choose God and the ultimate fulfillment of life instead of surrendering to circumstances. Ezekiel inspires us to see more than the immediate obstacles and move beyond singing the sad songs to songs of joy.
In an age when our society rejects orders from God or anyone else, God offers us an ultimate perspective, a better way to live. A young woman angrily told me, “It's none of God's business how I live!” The response is simple: “Because God loves you, he makes it his business to offer you a way of blessing and hope.” Ezekiel confronted a generation that had practiced living without God. He understood they would not change in his lifetime, but what about their children and grandchildren? We serve God, not just for this moment, but for the generations who follow us as well. God helps us see beyond our darkness to a new day.
Thank God we are still hearing the words of Ezekiel calling us back to God, as he models faithfulness against impossible odds, as he looks forward to the bitterness and judgment becoming the joy of a new beginning. The same “wind” of God's Spirit that lifted up Ezekiel will lift us up today.
Retired after 46 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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