Remember we considered this same text last Lord’s Day evening for what it revealed of Ezekiel’s state of mind regarding his call. We said that this call narrative – in a similar way to those of Moses, Gideon, and especially Jeremiah – suggests rather clearly that he was a reluctant, unwilling prophet, at least at the beginning, and that there were some lessons for us to be drawn from that. We are reading the same text again this evening but with a different interest. Having made explanatory comments on 2:1-3:11 last time, I will simply read that part of our text and comment only on the later verses.
It will become clear in the next several verses that the Spirit, as it were, is bringing Ezekiel back to reality from his vision of the glory of God. The “glory of the Lord” apparently refers to the entire vision that Ezekiel saw, described in chapter 1. Compare the use of the same phrase in 1:28. The section within the dashes in the NIV – “May the glory of the Lord be praised in his dwelling place” – is being treated as a spontaneous doxology, called forth by the impression of the great sound that the prophet heard as the angels, the chariot, and the throne of God began to move. Apparently the chariot had been stationary since 1:15 although Ezekiel heard the cherubim move and describes the great sound that made in 1:24. Another possibility, however, and perhaps more likely is that the dashes should be removed and the phrase translated instead: “and the glory of the Lord rose from the place where it was…” [Block, Allen]
- v. 15
Apparently Tel Abib was where he lived – in a settlement of exiles, perhaps put there to repopulate and invigorate a former city that had been destroyed in previous wars (hence the “Tel”) – and he has been brought home by the Spirit. And, as we saw last time, he was angry. He has been forced to take a difficult assignment and his life has been transformed from what was before apparently at least a measure of tranquility to the prospect of living with the hostility and rejection and hatred of his people. His personal future has suddenly become dark and forbidding. He can’t escape the assignment because the Lord’s hand was upon him, but Ezekiel apparently has still some of the Jews’ hardness of heart and is deeply unhappy about what has just occurred. [Stuart, Block vs. Allen, i, 45] He was drafted, he didn’t volunteer! For a week he sits, resisting his call, angry about it, but under the relentless pressure of God’s hand. His stubbornness explains what comes next. [Block, i, 141]
This image of the watchman reappears in Ezek. 33:1-6 and you get a better sense there of what the watchman did in the ANE. He was stationed on a tower to look for the movement of the enemy. In historical context, this identification of Ezekiel as a watchman made obvious sense because, especially in his early ministry, he would be warning Israel of approaching doom in the form of the Babylonians, a warning they would not take seriously.
Ezekiel’s responsibility and accountability is now illustrated in four hypothetical situations: 1) the delivery or non-delivery of the sentence of judgment to a condemned sinner (delivered in the standard capital punishment wording of the Mosaic law); 2) the delivery of such a sentence which is then ignored by the sinner; 3) a formerly faithful member of the covenant community who has turned to sin and rebellion and the prophet’s failure to warn him; and, 4) finally, the case of a backslider who, under the threat of the prophet’s warnings turns from his rebellion and becomes faithful once again. This emphasis on individual responsibility, by the way, will be a special emphasis of the book of Ezekiel as we shall see.
This passage links Ezekiel’s message with the rest of the Bible. The wages of sin is death. The gospel is an odor of life to those who are being saved and an odor of death to the defiant. Sometimes, for example, Paul’s work as an evangelist was to ring the funeral bell of eternal loss. But the results were not his business nor were they under his control. It is required of a steward that he be found faithful; that is all. The results are up to God.
Apparently Ezekiel went himself to the plain and was not carried there by the Spirit as before in his vision.
A repetition of the sequence described in 2:1-3: the Spirit lifts him up and the glory of the Lord speaks to him. But what the Lord says to Ezekiel has caused no end of trouble for those reading and trying to interpret the text.
You may be interested to know that no figure in the Bible has been of such interest to psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts as Ezekiel. They have suggested that he suffered from schizophrenia, hallucinations, paranoia, and epilepsy. Here is a man, so it is said, who has been carried to a hostile land against his will, suffers from culture shock, has not adjusted to the hot humid lowland of the river valley, has lost his professional standing, later suffers the death of his wife, and is alienated from his own countrymen as a result of his message. These stressors produced an extreme psychological reaction. Then his psychosis is appealed to as an explanation for certain features of his prophecy: his muteness, his lying bound and naked, digging holes in the walls of houses, his paralysis in the face of his wife’s death, his wild imagination, even his pornographic imagery. One writer explains it all as a hatred of women and a deeply buried animosity toward males figures as a result of childhood abuse. [Longman, Intro to OT, 319; Block, i, 10-11, 154-156]
We are, of course, not tempted by these interpretations. They ignore what the text actually says, they are predicated on the assumption that the Lord did not have his hand on the prophet as the Scripture says and that Ezekiel did not do what he did in obedience to divine commands, and they ignore the cultural context of so much of Ezekiel’s writing. But that still leaves us wondering how we are to understand Ezekiel’s confinement and his speechlessness.
Without going into great detail as to the various possibilities – because so much depends upon technical points – let me just say that it seems likely to me that what we have here is what we will have much more of in the book, viz. the prophet as himself a sign. As one scholar puts it, Ezekiel became “a prophetic symbol of his people even in his bodily life…” [Eichrodt, 33] A modern phrase that comes to mind is Marshall McLuhan’s the medium is the message! Today he might use PowerPoint or have a set of color charts; in that day Ezekiel was told to act out the message. We see that in the similarity between his being bound in 3:25 and a similar binding in 4:8 where he physically represents Israel’s hopelessness in the prospect of the Lord’s judgment. In this case, here in chapter 3, the symbolic action is perhaps especially for himself and perhaps especially because he was stubbornly unhappy about having the assignment the Lord gave him.
Ezekiel has already been told repeatedly and emphatically that he was being given a message to deliver to Israel, as here in v. 27, and in the following chapters he will be given more to say and will say it. So, obviously he is not being muted entirely. He will be told by the Lord to do things (as in 4:1) and to go out and about, so he isn’t being bound entirely. But he is being bound and is being muted in one important respect, one that apparently relates to the fact that he was unwilling and chafing under the assignment that the Lord gave him. He will not be allowed to plead for Israel, to argue the case for her escaping God’s judgment. He will not be allowed to soften his message or to shape it in such a way that he will be less unpopular with the Jews. He is to speak what the Lord tells him to say, that and nothing else! Ezekiel is the mouthpiece of Yahweh. He won’t speak except when the Lord speaks through him. Like Jeremiah before him, Ezekiel is not allowed to come to Israel’s aid; the point of no return has long since been reached and the people’s judgment is fixed. If you remember, Jeremiah was commanded not even to pray for Israel, and that may be at least part of the meaning here. [Allen, i, 62] So Ezekiel’s binding and muteness are a demonstration of the withdrawal of Yahweh’s favor from his people. Of course, this binding and muteness will last only until the destruction of Jerusalem, seven years later.
The final statement in the narrative of Ezekiel’s call – “whoever will listen let him listen, and whoever will refuse let him refuse; for they are a rebellious house” – echoes previous statements in 2:3-5, 2:7-8 and 3:11. In context the statement seems to mean, once again, that Israel’s spiritual condition is fixed. She is no longer susceptible to appeal and God is no longer willing to turn her. This is the explicit theme of these two chapters. They begin with it and end with it. It jars us to hear Jeremiah, in 44:25 telling the Jews to “go ahead then, keep your vows to the Queen of heaven, burn your incense to her and pour out your drink offerings before her,” but that is his way of saying, “You will not change, things have gone too far. You will not repent and you have exhausted God’s patience and he will not turn you.” This is the impression of the text we have read this evening as well. In several ways the prophet was told that, as we read in 3:7, “the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate.” [3:7] Again Israel is characterized as rebellious and hardened in their rebellion. This is the people to whom Ezekiel is to speak.
A similar statement is found, interestingly, at the very end of the Bible in Rev. 22:11:
“Then he told me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.”
Again, John seems to be envisioning a time at the end of the age when the die has been cast; the Master has shut the door to his banquet hall. Nothing will alter the spiritual condition of men because the time for repentance is past. It remains only for men to reap the consequences of the lives they have lived and the choices they have made. Change is impossible because the character has been fixed by a lifetime of habitual action. “God will not be mocked; whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”
Ezekiel has been told – this is the heavy burden of his assignment – to proclaim judgment and doom against Israel and not to offer hope of pardon or deliverance. Only judgment; only doom! That seems harsh to us. Does not the gospel promise life to anyone who turns? Did not the thief on the cross find forgiveness and entrance into heaven at the very end of his life, indeed as he was actually expiring on a cross next to Jesus? Can it ever be too late for God’s grace, for repentance, and for salvation?
Well, yes. Alas it can be too late and it often, very often is too late. From the human point of view, unbelief and a spirit of rebellion can fix themselves so firmly in the soul of a man or a woman that he will not turn no matter what God says or does. As you know, with tobacco or alcohol or other vices a point can be reached when the damage done to the lungs or the liver cannot be undone. Though the person may live for some time yet, he is, she is already dying. The point of no return has been passed and the damage cannot be reversed and the disease cannot be cured. Well so in the spiritual realm. Persistent refusal to believe what God says and to obey his commandments finally so hardens the heart and poisons the mind to the truth as to render a person impervious to change. People become as John Owen famously put it, sermon proof and sickness proof.
Well the Israelites, in just this way, had become sermon proof and sickness proof. They had long had faithful prophets warning them of God’s wrath if they did not repent; they had seen with their own eyes the devastation of the northern kingdom just as the Lord’s prophets had predicted; and they had watched the dark clouds gather on the horizon as Babylon made her way westward; but nothing could make the Jews of Ezekiel’s day believe that God was angry with her every day, that she had betrayed his covenant and now must bear its curses. In fact, so hardened, so deafened had they become that even after the defeat of Judah at Babylon’s hands and two large deportations of her citizens to Babylon they didn’t get it. They were complaining about God’s unfaithfulness, if you can believe it, not acknowledging their own fault and God’s perfect justice.
But the same point of no return can be reached from the divine point of view. By their many refusals to heed God’s warnings through his prophets, by their indifference to his repeated offers of mercy, and by their unwillingness to reckon with the many proto-judgments and anticipations of judgment that God sent them as warnings, they exhausted his patience. Now the Lord had departed from them and was unwilling to hear their prayers as the hammer dropped. When it became obvious that they were doomed and could not withstand the Babylonians, they did cry out to the Lord in a panic, but it was too late; he would not hear them.
And this principle of the point of no return is so often illustrated in the Bible that we are obliged to take it seriously.
- Israel refused to trust and obey Yahweh one too many times as Kadesh Barnea – when she refused to enter the Promised Land for fear of the people who lived there – and God washed his hands of that generation of his people. Even when, recognizing their error, they attempted to do the next day what they should have done the day before, God was not with them and they were soundly thrashed by a Canaanite army. And from that point on God held that generation at arm’s length, and Israel would not enter the Promised Land until all who were adults at the time of Israel’s rebellion at Kadesh Barnea had died.
- King Saul disobeyed the Lord and demonstrated his lack of faith once too often when he took it upon himself to offer the sacrifices which only Samuel should have offered and, after that time, no matter that he pled for another chance, the Lord would not hear and withdrew his presence from him.
- The Jews in Jesus’ day were so habituated in their unbelief, in their rebellion against the gospel of salvation from sin through the Messiah, that even though great miracles were performed before their eyes, even though more than one man rose from the dead, they would not believe.
- And so it has been ever since. The Apostle John, in the Revelation, tells of plagues being visited upon the earth and says that “the rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of their sins…” [9:20-21] That very thing happened in so-called Christian Europe in the mid-14th century, when perhaps as many as one-third of the population was lost to the black death – and in some communities more than half or even virtually all – in just a few years. [Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 97-105] Did that irreligious, superstitious people repent and turn to God when his hand was laid so heavily upon them and it seemed as if the world were coming to a terrible end? No! They became more wicked than they had been before and indulged in every kind of coarse and impure revelry, practicing with abandon the ancient adage: “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!” They had become by the long practice of unbelief and indifference to the Word of God – which most of them knew to some degree – sermon proof and sickness proof.
But you may well ask: does not the Scripture say that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Does not the Lord even here, in 3:21, anticipate some rebels repenting and returning to a life of faithfulness? Can we ever say that it is too late to be saved, even at the very last moment of someone’s life? Well, no and yes!
It is always a theoretical possibility that one might believe and repent on one’s deathbed, but, in fact, this almost never happens. It is very rare for older people to be won to faith and Christ under any circumstances, much less in the pain and confusion and self-preoccupation of one’s deathbed. Augustine said that there is one case of death-bed repentance recorded in Scripture – the thief on the cross – so that no one may despair; but only one, so that no one may presume. And it is worth pointing out that we do not know the spiritual background of that thief: whether he was a man who all his life had known the Word of God and had often been summoned to believe in the Lord and submit his life to him. Perhaps, but I suspect it is more likely that he was an irreligious man who knew very little of God and of God’s salvation until he saw it in Jesus and heard it in his words as he hung from the cross. Fact is, most people who have made a habit of ignoring God and his Word do not find either at the end of their lives.
The puritan Thomas Brooks put it this way: “Though true repentance be never too late; late repentance is seldom true.” The fact is, however possible in theory it may be for practiced unbelievers – and especially for people long associated with the people of God and the Word of God – to repent late in their lives, repentance is God’s gift and, ordinarily, he does not give it to those who have spent their lives spurning his offers of mercy and ignoring his warnings. The prophets make this point often enough. Hosea said to Israel (5:4-6) and Micah to Israel and Judah (1:9) beforehand what Jeremiah and Ezekiel would later say to Judah. Who can help Israel when the judgment has begun to fall? Only the Lord God could help his people; but, said the prophets, there is the miserable fact: he will not. Time was when he would. Time was when he would but they would not. But now they would, but he will not. As it used to be said, “God has last knocks.” As the prophets put it, “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” Which is to say, if you wait until you want the Lord to save you, he may no longer be willing!
Now this fact of the spiritual life – for fact it is – is one of the few most consequential facts in all the world. Sinful habits, once made, are hard to break and once established will render a person or an entire people, impervious not only to the Word of God, but to even the most glaring facts, like the drunk who cannot be made to believe he has a drinking problem or the lazy and indifferent student who cannot be made to see that he is squandering his future. The Jews, the inheritors of the once great empire of David and Solomon, were now reduced to insignificance, a small population on the edge of a great enemy empire, its elite already transported into exile, her life as an independent nation threatened with extinction, and all of this as Yahweh’s prophets had repeatedly said, first in warning and then in explanation, because of Israel’s betrayal of the covenant Yahweh had made with her. What part of that did Israel not understand? Why was she so impervious to the lessons that one would have thought were so obvious that one who runs might read?
Because she had so long hardened her heart against the Word of God, she had rejected so many of the Lord’s appeals to her, she was beyond reach. Her heart had atrophied; she had lost her spiritual mind. Precisely when she had crossed the line that represented the point of no return who can say.
There is a time, we know not when,
A point, we know not where,
That marks the destiny of men,
To glory or despair.
There is a line by us unseen,
That crosses every path;
The hidden boundary between
God’s patience and his wrath.
But the fact is the settled rebellion, the defiant unbelief, the inability of Israel to interpret her situation correctly – the spiritual condition that Ezekiel would have to face – was the fruit of seeds that had been planted long before. Today’s defiance began in yesterday’s indifference to God’s Word, toying with the temptations of the world, and growing comfortable with something less than a whole-hearted commitment to the Lord.
I told you that was reading recently a new study of the life and ministry of the celebrated Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne. The final chapter of this fine study is entitled “What’s Gone Wrong?” St. Peter’s was bursting at the seams when McCheyne died, people were coming to Christ in numbers and that was true all over Scotland. Overseas missions were being supported enthusiastically and evangelical, Bible-believing Presbyterians ran Scotland’s cities. The Dundee church continued to thrive and grow to the extent that it began some years later a mission church in a nearby part of the town. It was opened as McCheyne Memorial Church and the sermon at the dedication was preached by none other than Charles Spurgeon, the most famous preacher in the English speaking world of that day. But that church is now closed and has been sold to a Muslim businessman. The same fate almost befell St. Peter’s itself. And in Scotland today, the church is but the palest shadow of the church that McCheyne knew. “What’s Gone Wrong?” Converts are few and far between, the church is virtually without influence in the culture, and church buildings are being closed to adjust to a rapidly declining membership. Scotland’s church, like Judah’s, has gone from David to Jehoiachin, from glory to ignominy. Hardly anyone in Scotland would care to know how far she has fallen. Most would think it a great step forward, not backward. How did this happen and why?
Well we are taught many times in the Bible that such a condition in the church and among God’s people does not form overnight; that it is the accumulated weight of repeated acts and the deepened ruts of mind and heart that have been formed by long years of habitual action or inaction. It was certainly so in Scotland. McCheyne died in 1839 and the Church of Scotland did not begin to suffer its precipitous decline in membership until well after the Second World War. It was as if a solution, slowly changing its chemical composition, suddenly crystallized or as if the momentum of the past was finally spent and the church swiftly rolled to a halt on the steep hill of modern life. In particular, such collapses are the result of generational decline, as a weakened faith in one generation finds itself unable to engender even that weakened faith in the following generation and each passing generation imparts still less to the generation rising behind. A faithful, devout, determined, active and confident faith becomes a polite, somewhat indifferent, though still pious faith, which in turn becomes a faith mixed with doubt, a faith attracted to the thinking and living of the world, a faith that no longer respects the antithesis between sin and righteousness, faith and unbelief, salvation and judgment, which, in turn finally becomes a religious mind actively hostile to that biblical antithesis and little different from the world in its beliefs and its ethics. All of this would be less consequential except for the fact that it amounts to rebellion against God, slighting his salvation, and rejecting his covenant. All have forgotten that they must answer to Him! And so churches that take that road from faith to unbelief – and there have been many of them through the ages – do not prosper and do not enjoy the Lord’s favor and, more often than not, find Ichabod written large over their congregations and their people. They become nurseries of the damned rather than shelters for pilgrims en route to the City of God.
What makes the study of Ezekiel so important for us here in the early years of the 21st century is precisely that the spiritual world it describes, the principles of life and death that it teaches and illustrates, are the same today as then. The possibility of individuals taking steps today that will ensure their damnation later, the possibility of our generation of the church taking steps in our time that will lead to a situation in which future generations will be utterly deaf to the Word of God and hardened against God’s mercy, I say, these possibilities are very real.
And what is the application of that except a seriousness on our part about sin and temptation; a refusal to think insignificant any deviations from God’s will, however small they may seem in a world like ours; and vigilance against the inroads of unbelief and error. Ezekiel teaches us to take to heart the lesson that sin perpetuated in a person’s life, however otherwise religious he may appear, will finally bear apostasy and atheism in full flower. John Owen reminds us: “Sin always aims at the utmost…every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could…every thought of unbelief would be atheism.” Fact is, the real believers who took those first steps away from the covenant of the Lord never imagined the eventual outcome: descendants so spiritual dead that they couldn’t, spiritually speaking, add two to two and get four.
And, at the last, I say, surely this fact of the spiritual life of man ought to make any one of you – man or woman, boy or girl – who has not yet responded to the Lord Christ in faith not to delay any longer. He has said “Come to me,” but you have not. He has offered his mercy, but you have not received it. Perhaps you have thought that you can always do that later. But remember, to be summoned and not to come is much worse than never to be summoned in the first place. Refusing to heed the Lord becomes a habit and habits are hard and finally impossible to break.
Consider this solemn fact, set before us so relentlessly in Ezekiel and here at the very beginning of the book: there are multitudes now living on this earth – especially multitudes who belong in some way to the church of God—with whom the Lord is already finished striving and whom he will never again by his Spirit summon to faith and salvation. By their studied and persistent indifference to God they have passed the point of no return. They are already dead; they just don’t yet realize it. They lost their souls and their hope of heaven not because they had no opportunity to be saved, but because they ignored or refused the Lord when he spoke and finally he left them never to return.
The lesson of Ezekiel 2 and 3 is the same as that repeated in the New Testament:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”