Human-headed winged bull, 883–859 B.C.
(Image provided courtesy of www.metmuseum.org)
When we think of the history of Israel, we are probably acutely aware of how Israel failed to keep the covenant they made with God at Sinai: a promise to honor and obey the LORD. In return, God would deliver them to the promised land and they would remain there under His protection. Even though a remnant of faithful always remained, the preponderance of the nation rejected their covenant with God and turned away from Him to follow the secular and pagan world culture. Following the reign of Solomon, the nation split, with the remnant remaining in the southern kingdom of Judea while the northern kingdom of Israel failed to honor God. In 722 B. C. Assyria invaded and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. As its people were assimilated into Syrian culture, and the region of Israel was populated with a mixed culture, the people of Israel were never heard from again.
The southern kingdom of Judah also turned away from God, but its faithful remnant remained. Occasionally the king of Judah would come from that remnant and attempt to bring the nation back to faith in God. However, following the reign of Josiah (640-609 B.C.), those members of the faithful had been so reduced in numbers and influence they would never regain the throne. The remnant suffered persecution, particularly under the reign of Manasseh, and by 579 B.C. God's hand of protection over the southern kingdom was about to be removed. Jehoiachin had been king of Judah only three months when Nebuchadnezzar attacked the city, left Jehoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah as a puppet king. Nebuchadnezzar took ten thousand of the city's more prominent citizens captive, including Jehoiachin and Ezekiel. Nebuchadnezzar had also taken with him a portion of the remnant of the faithful. Consequently, Ezekiel's prophesy served the remnant that were taken to Babylon while Jeremiah continued to prophesy in Jerusalem during the waning years of the kingdom of Judah.
Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, 3The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
The date that places the call of Ezekiel is that related to king Jehoiachin's captivity (593 B. C.) as recorded in verse 2. Scholars have debated over the significance of the dating in verse 1. Since this date is not tied to historical events, yet its placement of the date is so clear, it is generally agreed that this date is a reference to Ezekiel's age. If this is true, Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, was young when God called him. Though Jewish culture venerated prophets who were aged, God's call upon those who would serve Him seems to hold to no such restriction. We tend to presuppose what a person who is called by God should look like. We may tend to question the veracity of the call of those who are young, or those who have not attended the "right" seminary, or who have not attended a seminary at all.
At the time of this testimony, Ezekiel is in Babylon among the captives, in a community of Jews that was set up near the river of Chebar. We might note that "Chaldee" and "Chaldeans" is a reference to the land and people that surround and include Babylon. As one who had faith in the Lord, the circumstance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the taking of its people must have been difficult for Ezekiel to understand. One would not have to speculate much to assume that Ezekiel, five years into the exile, had spent much time in prayer, asking God for some answers to the questions raised by these events. God was responsive to Ezekiel's faithfulness as He gave Ezekiel a series of visions that would both encourage him and set him apart as God's prophet to the exiled. Unlike Jeremiah, who was called by God to be a prophet to the nations, Ezekiel's call would be to serve as a prophet to the exiled Jews.
What happens when someone who loves the Lord is given an opportunity to see God at work in a clear and dramatic way? Ezekiel was given visions in which he would hear the voice of God. Though prophetic visions may not be a common vehicle for theophany in modern Christianity, people are still granted opportunities to witness and experience God's presence. We see how the witness to miracles during the ministry of Jesus and the apostles strengthened the faith of those who loved the Lord. We think of faith as a certain hope that is based upon unseen promise. However, when we are given a glimpse of God, it would seem that some of that need for blind faith is replaced by sight. One's faith is strengthened. In my own experience, those times when I saw God at work in my own life were those times that followed periods of searching for His will and purpose. Coming out of those experiences left me with a stronger faith and a bolder testimony to the truth of God's promises. It also left me with a greater desire to serve Him.
Certainly, the circumstances facing Ezekiel were far more dramatic than much that we have experienced. The capture of Jerusalem was the seminal event of Ezekiel's generation, much in the perspective of the shock and emotion that was experienced by Americans on 9-11-2001. However, America was only injured: Jerusalem was captured. While Ezekiel searched for answers, God was graceful to him. God showed Ezekiel His purposes, plans, and reasons in a series of visions that are the bulk of this book.
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. ... 26And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. ... 28As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
Ezekiel immediately begins to describe the content of his first vision. As we approach the visionary literature we might consider for a moment its particular style. Referred to as apocalyptic literature, like Hebrew poetry, this literary form has a particular style and application. Apocalyptic literature developed as a Hebrew literary style around the time of Ezekiel and Daniel, and continued until about 400 A.D. The dominant characteristic of this style is the use of imagery to describe a concept. Some of the key words we see in verse 4 are "whirlwind", "north", "cloud", "fire", "brightness" and "amber." While reading this verse, we ask ourselves, "what do these terms mean to the ancient Hebrew? What do these images represent?" The Hebrew language itself is very steeped in imagery, with each letter representing specific concepts. This is a very different way to look at language than we typically use today.
Verse 4. The formula, "coming out of the north" is often used to represent something coming from a position of power, like a mighty nation. The one coming from the North is coming to conquer. We see the object that is coming to conquer as a whirlwind of cloud and fire. This is a common image that represents the presence of God, as illustrated in the pillar of fire that continued to reside over the temple in Jerusalem, the same pillar of fire that led the ancient Israelites through the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt. When Ezekiel looked up, he saw the presence of God, Himself, coming in power to conquer.
Verse 26. The firmament encompassed what ancients believed to be all of creation. Above this is a throne, representing authority. As Ezekiel looked up, he saw the presence of God, the God who has authority over all creation. Furthermore, the One who stood in authority on that throne was a man. When we look at the similar vision of John in his revelation, we come to know that the One on the throne is the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Verse 28. The bow in the cloud is a formula that represents God's promise. God's presence (brightness) was a fulfillment of His promise in that, even while Jerusalem is overrun, and the remnant is in exile, God is still there, and is still the One in authority. Ezekiel recognized that he was witnessing the presence of the LORD in this vision, and in humility he fell prostrate upon his face. It was then that he heard the voice of the Lord.
This same form of image interpretation can be used for all apocalyptic literature, and when so applied, its meaning seems to just jump out of the words. Dramatic images are replaced by far more dramatic truths about God, His will, and His purposes when we take the time and effort to search the literary style. It is tempting to get caught up in the literal imagery of apocalyptic literature. We see much of this when the Revelation of John is presented literally, and its underlying truths are ignored. However, we can see from these examples in Ezekiel's vision that the imagery of apocalyptic literature is used solely to represent ideas, concepts, and truths. It can be difficult to get through the imagery to find the underlying concept, but the effort brings a reward of understanding that is not found in the imagery itself.
And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee. 2And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me.
Falling prostrate in humility to the authority of another is a common cultural, and reasonable, response. To fall prostrate before an enemy exposes one to their mercy. What greater example of humility will we ever experience than that of coming before God, Himself? People fell before Jesus when they recognized Him for who He is. They also responded the same way when they recognized the authority of the apostles. In each case, whether it was Jesus or the apostles, those who fell prostrate were asked to rise. The fact that we can stand before God is important. To stand before Him is to see Him, as He also sees us. Though we are not on an equal with God, He places us along side of Himself because of His love for us.
Another gift of God's grace is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. One turns to God in faith only through the power of the Holy Spirit, and upon that decision, the Holy Spirit will never leave the believer, serving as a comforter and guide, and as a seal of the promise of salvation. Ezekiel describes the moment when the Holy Spirit came to dwell, to tabernacle, in his heart. The secular Jew thought that God only tabernacled in the temple. However, those who love the Lord are the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit. God's presence with Ezekiel, even in this foreign country, is assured.
And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day.
God called Ezekiel to serve as a prophet to the children of Israel, now reduced to those who remained with the tribe of Judah, and to those who had been exiled to Babylon. A population of Jews would remain in Jerusalem for ten more years until in 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar would finally and completely destroy the nation, taking more of its people captive. The Jews who would remain in Judah would leave for Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. This group could represent those who, during the exodus, desired to return to Egypt, for in both instances, God stated that they would be consumed if they returned. It would be the remnant in Babylon that God would continue to protect. It was to this remnant that God sent Ezekiel.
For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD. 5And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them.
Though the remnant of the faithful have been removed from Jerusalem and protected from its destruction, not all who were taken captive are members of that remnant. One might equate the Jewish community in Babylon to a large and worldly church that has a core group of faithful who do all of the works of faith, a larger group of acquaintances who attend, but contribute little, and a yet larger group who are out of fellowship, contributing nothing. At the time of Ezekiel's call, there may be about ten thousand Jews in captivity, with the remnant making up only a handful. Guiding this group of worldly and apostate Jews will be no easy task.
Ezekiel is to go the the people and say, "Thus saith the Lord GOD." This is a translation of the prophetic formula. The one who states this phrase is declaring his own status as a prophet as it is God's own words he purports to bring. Presumably, Ezekiel is only thirty years old, and convincing the Jews of his status as a prophet will be a challenge. However, it is not the declaration that proves the prophesy, but the message. Through the ages the prophets have been subject to persecution at the hands of those who would reject God's message that they brought.
It is humbling to think that God would use man to propagate His message to the world. As a weak vessel, we are dependent upon His power, given through the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even when so empowered, those who would reject the message remain in sin, and the faithful are subject to the consequences of that sin. God tells Ezekiel that some will hear and respond to the prophesy, and others will reject him. However, he can be assured that his status as a prophet will be known.
And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. 7And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious.
Many Christians will confess that they do not live out their faith to the fullest, hiding their "light under a bushel" (Matt. 5:14 ff), and most cite that they do so because of fears. As a "son of man" we lack any intrinsic power to accomplish anything of consequence for the Lord. This is why we depend so upon the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God-sized tasks. Yet, as a "son of man" we have no need to fear because God is with us. We do not need to be afraid of the people that God has called us to love. Nor, do we need to fear their words. Satan is the author of fear, and when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and responsive to His power, Satan is powerless to frighten us. We succumb to fear only when we allow Satan in.
When we choose to serve the Lord, the pathway will be full of briers and thorns. Briers and thorns are a way of life. This is a sin-sick and pagan world, and the consequences of man's sin touches us on every side. We are immersed in a godless culture. Consequently, we need God's power when we brush up against and work our way through that which would resist God's word. Still, God will be with us and empower us.
I have only met one scorpion. While visiting with relatives in Florida, I had been running on a nearby track when I laid down to rest on some bleachers. Hearing a noise, I opened my eyes to see a large scorpion only inches from my face. Its tail was up, and it was ready to strike. Suddenly my world of priorities changed. I have never been stung by a scorpion, and this was no time for experimentation.
Ezekiel's image is not referring to the venomous spider, but rather to people who exercise the same stinging venom in their words. God assures Ezekiel that he does not need to fear their words, for they will fall powerless against the hand of protection that the Holy Spirit provides. When we are engaged in God's work, we will find ourselves open to the criticism of others, yet it is not us who they criticize, but God. The sting of those words can be quenched when we realize that it is because of our obedience to Him that we hear them. Likewise, we do not need to be dismayed by their "looks". The word for "looks" carries with it the connotation of a threat. Just as the scorpion is poised to strike, and appears in a threatening pose, people also try to intimidate using threats and posture.
God comforts Ezekiel, telling him that there is no need to fear the "rebellious house." God promises to protect him and empower him as he is called to be a voice of truth to the people. God's call upon Christians is the same today, and so is His promise. Our testimony of God's love is to be shared with all: to some who will hear, and some who will reject. If we can boldly stand before God, we can boldly stand before any man as God has promised His guidance and protection.
But thou, son of man, hear what I say unto thee; Be not thou rebellious like that rebellious house: open thy mouth, and eat that I give thee.
One of the greatest challenges facing the church today is its propensity to be accepted by, and become part of, this pagan world culture. The church stands as a great compromise. Many of its members are indistinguishable from the world. God has set apart His children for a purpose, and that purpose cannot be fully realized if the children keep running back to the world when the doors of the church building close. Obedience to God is not a multiple-choice test. We are to obey God, following all that He commands. To do this may be a challenge, and to do so is particularly difficult if one ignores the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome those challenges. To ignore God's call is to be rebellious. Consequently, God's command to Ezekiel and to us is clear. Do not compromise the truth by sharing in the rebellion of the lost world, conforming to it rather than to God's plan. Follow God's call, accepting what God has given, without compromise.
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel. 2So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll. 3And he said unto me, Son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.
These verses make repeated reference to the "roll" that Ezekiel is to eat. In our modern English, we would not be alarmed to see someone eating a roll, assuming that a roll is a bread or pastry. However, the "roll" that Ezekiel refers to is a roll of parchment: a scroll. We would certainly be alarmed to see someone eating a scroll of words. A modern parallel would be to eat the pages of a Bible. The message to Ezekiel is clear: God is going to give His Words to Ezekiel, with those words Ezekiel will be filled, and he will find God's words to be sweet.
We might note that in these chapters God has called Ezekiel to serve Him as His voice to the people, and is preparing him for that task. It is important that Ezekiel, and us as well, approach that task with a knowledge of the truth of God's word rather than our own. Many who profess to preach, bring to the ears of their hearers a litany of their own ideas, philosophies, and opinions with little knowledge of, or concern for, the real truth of God's word. Just as the church may compromise its identity to better fit in with the secular world, it can also compromise the word it preaches. Rather than taking a chance of offending those who hear, the church tends to water down the message and replace it with feel-good messages that do little other than assure the security of the preacher among his/her satisfied congregation.
God called Ezekiel, as he calls all today, to be filled with His word, and His word alone. When we seek the truth of God's word, we will always find it like "honey for sweetness," simply because it is always true. God's word is infallible, and has no mixture of error or discrepancy. When we preach God's word accurately, we do so empowered by the Holy Spirit, and are not dependent upon our own wisdom or skill with words to convince others of our own message: it is God's message that we present. We can only know that message when we are familiar with His word. It must be "eaten" in its entirety. The source for our preaching is God's word. The source of our truth is God's word. All authority in spiritual matters resides in God's word, and God's word alone. God has commanded us to "feed on" His word as we prepare to share it with others.
And he said unto me, Son of man, go, get thee unto the house of Israel, and speak with my words unto them. 5For thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech and of an hard language, but to the house of Israel; 6Not to many people of a strange speech and of an hard language, whose words thou canst not understand. Surely, had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee.
We can see that Ezekiel's call is more as a pastor than as an evangelist. God's purpose, through Ezekiel, is to preserve the remnant of Israel and prepare them for the return to Jerusalem that would take place about 65 years after Ezekiel's call. Ezekiel is not sent to speak words of comfort and support, or words that will tickle the ears of the listeners. It is "my words" that God commands. Ezekiel is not to give in to the pressure to make the message acceptable to the hearers. When we do this we reduce the power of God's word to the power of our own, and cheapen the gospel message in the effort.
Furthermore, Ezekiel is to focus on the Jews. While immersed in a strange land with its strange culture and unfamiliar language, Ezekiel might be tempted to turn from those in Israel who reject God's word and turn to the pagans who may readily accept it. Human logic would also defend taking the gospel to the pagans, but in this event this is not God's purpose for Ezekiel. Likewise we may try to take God's call further than He has designed. Modern pastors are often expected to work far outside the boundaries of their calling, and the result is a ministry that is weakened at its focal point, and runs the danger of burnout. The call of a pastor is to shepherd a flock; to be a facilitator of their spiritual growth. The pastor's call includes preparing the people to the work of evangelism so that as they spread through the community, God's love is shared.
Taking the gospel message to the lost is a huge temptation. Christians who think they are righteous and already know it all are the most unteachable and difficult to impact. Hours of preparation and prayer seem to fall pointless on this group. However, that same preparation and prayer can have an exciting and dynamic impact on those who are lost, but are seeking God. Ezekiel is to maintain the focus of his calling and not be tempted to stray from it. God has an important purpose for His people, and Ezekiel's obedience as a prophet will play a large part in their future.
But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted. 8Behold, I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads. 9As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house.
Though a remnant of faithful always remains, most of the house of Israel will still continue to reject God's word. Ezekiel is reminded that he stands from an position of strength when he stands upon God's word and presents it without compromise. Though the position of those who reject his message seems strong, it is no stronger than the strongest of man's opinions. As long as Ezekiel stands upon the truth of God's word, his is the position of true strength, against which no secular opinion can stand. The idea of an "adamant harder than flint" refers to the diamond as it is used to shape another material. When a diamond wheel is used to cut a softer material, the softer material has no choice but to yield to the stronger. The diamond shapes the object, rather than the other way around. Because of this, God's word is to be preached boldly, without fear, and without compromise.
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears.
Earlier, God referred to Ezekiel's receipt of God's word like the eating of the scroll until he is filled. It is not sufficient to simply take in God's word. One can memorize all of scripture, yet it is powerless if it has not been received. God commands Ezekiel, and us, to take God's word into our hearts and have it always acceptable to our ears. That is, God's word it truth, whether we agree or not. Consequently, even when we do not agree or understand we are to listen to it and take it into our hearts, for it is this word we preach, and not our own.
And go, get thee to them of the captivity, unto the children of thy people, and speak unto them, and tell them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear. .
God repeats His call to Ezekiel to take His word to the Jews of the Babylonian captivity, sharing it without compromise to both those who will listen and those who will not.
We seen in the call of Ezekiel a pattern that is implied in the call of all Christians. God has called us to learn of His word and to share it with others without compromise. God's message is contrary to the message of this world, so conflicts will arise. We can expect that some will hear and respond to messages of God's love, yet others will not. Sometimes our message will step on toes as it exposes the sin of those who hear. Sometimes we will come under attacks that can be physical, verbal, or emotional, yet God will always be there to absorb the pain of the attacks. Likewise, we are to remain true to the calling to which we are called, maintaining the focus, and avoiding become distracted by peripheral issues that would turn us from our called purpose or engender additional strife and exhaustion.
Serving God is not easy, but God has provided all of resources we need to do it, as long as we take His word, trust Him, and step out in faith.