After a month away from our studies in Ezekiel, just a word to recap our progress so far. We are most of the way through the first of three major sections of the book (chapters 1-24), this first section dealing with judgment of Judah and Jerusalem for their betrayal of God’s covenant, for their unbelief, and for the life of sin that sprung from that unbelief. These are oracles or prophesies of Israel and Jerusalem’s destruction delivered in the few years preceding the final Babylonian invasion of Judah, the conquest of what remained of the nation, the siege of Jerusalem, and finally the burning and razing of the city in 586 B.C. Most recently we considered the famous chapter 18, one of the few well-known texts in Ezekiel, which is sandwiched between oracles that pronounce as inevitable the judgment of Israel. She has a hard heart toward God and has long since passed the point of no return. She has no intention of turning and God will not turn her. Her sins are so great and have so long been perpetuated; she has so steadfastly ignored God’s grace to her, that a holy God must now take his vengeance. Lest, however, those prophecies of doom and coming judgment be taken to mean that there is no hope for the individual Israelite man or woman who finds it in his or her heart to repent and return to Yahweh in living faith, we have this magnificent declaration of individual freedom and human responsibility and this reminder that the Lord desires from his heart of love the repentance of everyone and stands ready to forgive and to receive anyone who turns from sin to trust in him.
Now we turn to chapter 19. What we have in this chapter is a lament, in Hebrew a qînâ. We have several of them in the Old Testament, dirges composed and sung at the death of an individual or over the destruction of a nation. In 2 Chronicles 35:25, for example, we read of a lament written by Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s contemporary.
“Jeremiah composed a qînâ for Josiah and to this day all the men and women singers commemorate Josiah in the laments. These became a tradition in Israel and are written in the Laments.”
You remember the famous lament that David composed after the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:19-27). Five laments make up the book of Lamentations written after the destruction of Jerusalem. “The general tone of Ezekiel’s ministry is reflected in the fact that ten of the eighteen occurrences of the word qînâ are found in [Ezekiel].” [Block, i, 592]
There are several general features of Hebrew laments, one of which is the “once…now” pattern, according to which the glories of the past are compared to the misery, indignity, and shame of the present. For example, in Lamentations 1:1, we read:
How lonely sits the city,
that was full of people!
She who was great among the nations
has become like a widow!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave.
We will find this pattern of comparing past glories with present miseries in the lament of Ezekiel 19: the lion that once roared (v. 7) is now silent (v.9); the well-watered vine (v.10) is now withered (vv. 13-14).
Ezekiel is commanded to compose a lament and that is what he does as the final sentence of the chapter indicates. It may be that Ezekiel uses “princes of Israel” because he doesn’t want to dignify Judah’s last rulers with the title “king.” You have Zedekiah, then the king of Judah, also referred to as a prince in 12:7. Again, notice as so often in Ezekiel, the use of “Israel” for Judah, the southern kingdom. The people of the southern kingdom are the heirs of the thing itself – the covenant people – and the title, Israel. The plural, “princes” indicates that Ezekiel has in view not one man, e.g. Zedekiah, perhaps not even two, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, the two rulers dealt with in chapter 17, but the series of rulers that led Judah to its final catastrophe.
The likening of Israel and particularly Judah to a lion stems from the important prophecy, given by Jacob in the blessing of his twelve sons in Genesis 48:8-9, part of one of the earliest messianic prophecies in the Bible.
“Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of
your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?”
Not only the general idea here but a variety of different terms for lions and lionesses are taken from the Genesis passage. The lion is a symbol of rule and Judah is the tribe that will rule over the other tribes of Israel. So we are talking about the kings or rulers of Judah.
Jehoahaz was the only one of Judah’s last kings to be taken to Egypt (2 Kings 23:34). He had reigned in Jerusalem for only three months when Pharaoh Necho, on a campaign to reassert Egypt’s authority in the region, took him off to Egypt in chains.
There is a debate as to whether this second king is Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, or Zedekiah. A good argument can be made for each one. If the reference is to Zedekiah, who was king at the time Ezekiel composed and sung this lament, it is a further indication that this is another prediction of Zedekiah’s downfall and exile, such as we have already had in chapters 12 and 17. [Stuart, 168; cf. the arguments for each in Block, 604-607] A strong argument in favor of Jehoiachin, the king who was exiled to Babylon at the same time Ezekiel was, is that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel seem to consider him the last legitimate king of Israel. As the lament seems to indicate, a song sung after the event, the tragedy has already occurred and the king is already in Babylon and no longer ruling his people. That would be Jehoiachin at this time and with his exile the royal line had come to an end.
The shift in imagery from lion to vine confirms the importance of Jacob’s prophecy concerning his son Judah in Genesis 49 to this lament written by Ezekiel. There too we have Judah’s future portrayed in terms both of the power of a lion and the fruitfulness of the vine (49:10-11). Again, in these verses also some specific terms are taken from the Genesis 49 passage.
v.14 Whether as a prediction of things to come or as an account of the end of the legitimate Davidic dynasty in Israel, Israel’s royal dynasty is doomed and the nation, of course, with it.
Now, very clearly, what we have in Ezekiel 19 is the reiteration of themes that have been expounded more than once in the prophecy so far. The promises of God to their ancestors – as indicated in the prophecy of Genesis 49 – are no guarantee of divine blessing and help for any particular generation of their descendants. The people of Israel, as we have seen, were trusting to their special status as the people of God without regard to the fact that they had betrayed Yahweh’s covenant and called down its curses upon their heads. More than fifteen hundred years before Ezekiel’s day, Yahweh had inspired another prophet, Jacob, to bestow on Judah the privilege of royalty in Israel. More than 400 years before Ezekiel’s day the Lord had made a covenant with the house of David, a house of the tribe of Judah. There were twenty-two kings from that line from David to Zedekiah. But the kings of the house of Judah and David had become arrogant and ruled Judah without regard to their obligations to God or the people of Israel. For leaders like this, Yahweh’s promises to the tribe of Judah and the house of David count for nothing. [Block, I, 595] As the lament ends we hear that there was no strong branch left fit for a ruler’s scepter. The royal house was useless to the people of God!
Further, as we have been reminded so powerfully in the preceding chapter, the fact that Israel has a king of Judah’s line and David’s dynasty is no substitute for personal commitment to Yahweh and living faith in him. The people seemed to think that so long as a Davidic king sat on the throne in Jerusalem they should be able to count on the Lord’s protection. No matter what had already happened – the fall of Israel, the northern kingdom, the two previous incursions by Babylon into Judah, and the exile of many prominent Jews and King Jehoiachin himself – the idea that Judah would fall to the Babylonians once again and the nation as a whole virtually cease to exist, no matter Ezekiel’s repeated warnings to that effect, seemed impossible to the people. Such is the sentimentalism of the human mind and heart: the tenacity with which we believe to be true what we want to be true! Such could not happen to the royal house of David or to the people of the king of Israel. But the promises God made came with conditions, both for the king and for the people. They could be forfeit and, in fact, had been.
It is important to remember that this lament was for the people, not just the kings! It may have been about the kings, but it would be sung by and for the people as we read at the end of the chapter! After all, it wasn’t just the kings themselves who suffered for their own perfidy and stupidity; the consequences of their failure fell hard upon the people. In a previous study we have already dealt with the fact that, according to the Bible, the most consequential unbelief is always that of the leadership of the church. It was the kings, the prophets, and the priests who were the first cause of Israel’s spiritual collapse and the ruin that came upon her as punishment for her betrayal of God’s covenant.
But it is hardly the case that the people are, for that reason, excused from blame. As Jeremiah bluntly reminded them, if tempted to blame their troubles on their leaders:
“The prophets prophesy lies, and the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way.” [5:31]
The prophets condemn the people repeatedly for their love of sin and never excuse them because their leaders have led them into and encouraged that love. As true as it is that the moral and spiritual convictions and example of a people’s leaders are vastly influential in shaping the convictions and behavior of the people as a whole, it is also true that people usually get the leadership they want or deserve and rather easily adapt to the moral position of the people above them.
I had a conversation with some politically savvy people over my vacation about the various candidates the American electorate will be considering for our next president. I was frankly unaware of just how dismal that collection of men and women actually is, morally and spiritually speaking. Virtually without exception we are stuck with people whose conduct in the personal sphere in one way or another had been reprehensible and/or whose personal views and convictions include positions that are either reprehensible or genuinely nutty. Most folks, of course, don’t appreciate having this solidarity between leadership and people pointed out. They don’t like to be told that they get the leaders they deserve and the leaders they really want. They like to think they are morally superior to the bums in Olympia or Washington. But they are also very likely to choose leaders whose moral and spiritual outlook mirrors their own. It is a fact of American politics that the electorate professes itself to be perpetually disappointed by the leaders they themselves have selected. But it doesn’t lead to their electing different kinds of people.
And, in a similar way, in Judah in the early 6th century B.C. the people consistently chose to believe those prophets who stroked them and to resent the prophets who accused them of betraying God’s covenant, a betrayal so obvious that he who ran could read! The irony here is that Judah may have had a succession of horridly incompetent and spiritually corrupt kings at the end of her history, but the Lord always provided her some faithful leadership. She always had a choice. If Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were worse than worthless, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were certainly not!
Our summer place is some 14 miles from Cripple Creek, Colorado. Cripple Creek is one of three towns in the state in which casino gambling is permitted and it is, without question, a gambling town. The casinos provide almost all the town’s income and employment. Interestingly, and providentially, there are a number of Christians in the town government now. We had the pastor and his family and another couple from church out to dinner one evening, as we do every year. The pastor is one of five members of the town council and the deputy mayor. The other man is the chief of police and his wife the events coordinator for the town. In towns as small as Cripple Creek leadership is often concentrated. Delightful, committed Christians all. The city manager also attends the church as does one of the county commissioners. This is a congregation of some 25 or 30 people year round, so you can appreciate there is a concentration of political power in the Cripple Creek Baptist Church.
I always get caught up on Cripple Creek politics when we get together for dinner. And it is a situation much as you would imagine it. The Christians are trying to move the town in positive, responsible ways, and face opposition at every turn. They are, as they must be, accepting of the fact that the town is presently supported by the gaming industry, but they are doing their best to keep Cripple Creek from being defined by an industry that is universally hard on human beings and tends to attract employees who take from but rarely contribute substantially to the community. The Christians in leadership are light and leaven: time alone will determine the extent of their influence. So it is not always the case, certainly, that a group of people gets the leadership they deserve or even want. But it is usually the case that they do. And the leadership’s failure will be their sorrow. They will ordinarily have cause to sing a lament because they will suffer for the failure of their kings. And even in the few cases where the leadership is better than the people, the people will suffer for the failure of their leaders to turn them. The people must bear their own load; they cannot blame their leaders anymore than children can blame their parents, as we read in chapter 18.
We had dinner also with a man who directs a very interesting ministry preparing bright Christian college graduates for cultural engagement as advocates of the convictions and principles of historic Christianity. He is presently also deeply involved in the political wrangling in an Episcopalian diocese that has resulted from the church he attends leaving the ECUSA for one of the groupings of conservative American Episcopalians in subjection to Anglican bishops in Africa. At one point in the conversation he characterized the bishop who is trying to punish the church and its pastor for their desertion of the diocese as “a snake.” Alas, how common is it to find in the church leadership that is, at every turn, the antithesis of what Christian leadership ought to be. That snakes have often risen to high position in the Christian church needs no demonstration, just as we do not need to have proved again that snakes abounded in the leadership of Judah before 586 B.C.
What we have in the interesting juxtaposition of Ezekiel chapters 18 and 19 is one pole of another of those dialectics that we find everywhere in the teaching of Holy Scripture. Here we are warned about false leadership and reminded that we are not excused because our sins are encouraged or ignored or minimized by the leaders of our church. Judah was going to hell and to a significant degree the Bible lays the fault for that at the feet of her kings, priests, and prophets. But that fact did not excuse the ordinary Israelite from his or her responsibility to be faithful to the covenant the leadership had betrayed. Chapter 18 poignantly reminds the Jews that they are not hostage to the unbelief of those above them, whether in their family or their country and that an individual’s repentance – even against the winds and tides of the nation’s unbelief – will obtain Yahweh’s forgiveness and eternal life. The truth was being proclaimed and heard, the Lord had not left his people without the truth: it is up to every individual to give answer in faith and obedience. Chapter 18, in effect, calls upon individual Israelites to repudiate the leadership of their church and nation. Chapter 19 reminds them why: that leadership is under divine judgment and is taking the country and the people down with them.
The Bible gives us striking illustrations of a man standing up for the Lord and his covenant in defiance of the leadership of the church of his day. Think of Obadiah, an important official in the court of King Ahab, that wretched excuse for a king of Israel and descendant of David. Obadiah, we read in 1 Kings 18:3 was a man who “feared the Lord greatly.” The NIV’s paraphrase “a devout believer in the Lord” hardly does justice to the description of this good man. He feared the Lord greatly and so acted upon his reverence by hiding from the wrath of his own master one hundred of the Lord’s prophets and supplying them with food and drink. A man who took such a step in Ahab’s day was a man who was perfectly willing to risk his own life for the sake of his faith in the Lord. He was Ahab’s employee; he was the furthest thing from Ahab’s lackey. He was the Lord’s man even in that wicked administration. Just as no person need be a slave to his faithless ancestry, so no one need let the influence of even powerful men misshape his or her spiritual life.
Another great illustration of this principle is furnished by the apostles who refused to be silenced when so ordered by the Sanhedrin in those heady days after Pentecost. “We must obey God rather than men,” they said to men who had the authority to imprison them and could probably have executed them without taking any great risk of Roman wrath. And following them has come a great company of godly men and women who have paid a great price to resist the proud and to remain faithful to God and his Word in defiance of the leadership of their church, snakes as those leaders often were.
It is absolutely true that the Bible tells us to obey our leaders and submit to them as men who must give an account. There is nothing in Holy Scripture to suggest that God approves of the exaggerated, overweening individualism of American society, which has given Christian believers the absurd notion that each is his or her own theologian, each his or her own elder or pastor. There is authority in the church by God’s own ordinance, authority in its preaching and ruling. After all, the very people who were to lament the failure of their kings were obliged before God to attend to the preaching of Ezekiel his prophet! Faithful leaders are God’s own voice and hand in the life of God’s people. And what is the proof of a faithful ministry and leadership but, as Ezekiel has reminded them time and time again, fidelity to the Word and the covenant of God.
In this characteristically biblical dialectic we learn that the Christian stands before the Lord God very much as a member of a community of faith but, at the same time, stands before the Lord as an individual. Not one or the other, but both at the same time.
But, when leadership is unfaithful, its authority disappears and, in fact, the individual church member is now duty bound to repudiate it, lest he and his children suffer wrath. That is the stern and uncompromising teaching of chapters 18 and 19 taken together. It is what we might call “the lemming effect,” the remarkable capacity for Christian people to follow their leaders off the cliff that makes it very important for us all to hear and to take to heart this stern warning. You are not excused because you were encouraged in your unbelief and sin by those who were responsible for your soul. A wise and faithful leader knows that and is conscious of the fact in his work. A wise Christian knows that too!
In the Bible judges and kings and prophets and priests are heard to say to the people that they have been faithful to the Lord among them and that they cannot be blamed if the people do not heed and take to heart the Word of the Lord. Samuel said it; David said it; Paul said it. “I am innocent of the blood of all men,” he told the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:26, for I have taught the truth at whatever cost to myself. God’s people should cut off their right arms to have such leaders.
In the almost unbearably solemn preaching of Robert Murray McCheyne we have the same thing. He would tell his congregation that in this sermon or that that he had discharged his obligation to tell them the truth and to summon them to embrace it. “I am innocent of your blood,” he would tell them, because I have preached and explained the gospel to you and urged and pleaded with you to believe it. If you do not do so, it is not my fault. That is what a godly leader says and does. Most of Judah’s leaders neither would nor could have said such things. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to say such things because they didn’t believe in the holy God themselves.
But just as a godly leader is concerned to discharge his responsibility and to fulfill his accountability to God for God’s people, so the people themselves are responsible before the Lord for the truth that has been preached to them. And no opposition, even from the powerful and influential; no contrary example; no encouragement in the other direction; no consideration of the substantial sacrifices that one must make to swim against the stream and to resist the leadership of one’s own church will suffice as an excuse for disloyalty to the Lord and to his covenant. Bad leaders can be a curse to the church; they are never an excuse!
Sing the lament; sing it for yourselves and your children that the church has so often been so miserably led. But in singing the lament learn the lesson. If the leadership is bad, then it should have no influence with you!