I want to preach twice the text that we are to read this evening, Ezekiel chapters 2 and 3. Given that we will return to the same text next Lord’s Day evening, God willing, tonight I will make explanatory comments only on the first half of the text. We’ll leave the comments on the second half of the reading for next Lord’s Day. Remember, we are in the midst of the account of Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet of the Lord. He had trained as a priest, but his exile to Babylon interrupted those plans, at least his plans to serve at the temple. Priests were preachers too and superintendents of local houses of worship and he may well have done that in Babylon, but now comes God’s call to something else. He has first been given a vision of the overwhelming glory of Yahweh. Now, out of that vision a voice speaks.
The Lord addresses Ezekiel as “son of man,” a title he will employ 93 times in the book. He never addresses Ezekiel by his name. In context, the phrase emphasizes Ezekiel’s humanity over against the Lord’s divine glory. After the great vision of chapter 1, the Lord’s address lays stress on the distance that separates the divine figure that Ezekiel has seen and himself, a mere human being. [Block, i, 30-31] “Son of…” can designate a genus or kind or species in Hebrew. Jonah’s gourd was a “son of a night” because it lasted for so short a time; a man who deserves death is a “son of death” in 1 Sam. 10:31; a peaceful man is a “son of peace” in Luke 10:6, and so on. Here Ezekiel is a “son of man.” He’s just a human being, in other words.
You’ll notice that the NIV editors have capitalized “Spirit,” after leaving the word in lower case in its uses in chapter 1. It is certainly right for us to think of the Holy Spirit, even if an OT reader would not yet understand the reference in terms of the triple personality of the one, living and true God.
A word here on the terminology Ezekiel uses to refer to the people of God. The people of God were named after their eponymous ancestor, Jacob, to whom was given the name Israel after his encounter with the Lord at the Jabbok in Gen. 32 (v.28). Already in Genesis the name Israel appears as a name for the people of God. Ever afterward the name of the people and the nation was Israel. After the division of the kingdom following the death of Solomon, Israel remained the name of the people and nation composed of the ten northern tribes and Judah became the name of the southern kingdom, formed of the two southernmost tribes, Judah and Benjamin. But, especially after the destruction of the northern kingdom in 721 B.C. and the deportation of its population by the Assyrians, biblical writers often returned to using Israel as a designation for the population of the southern kingdom. The theological reason for this was that the southern kingdom, the kingdom of Judah, was the only part of the original Israel that remained and in its life it continued the life of the people of Yahweh, Israel, in the world. Strictly, the term “Jew,” – the term by which the citizens of that southern remnant came to be known and by which they are known today – means a citizen of the kingdom of Judah, a Judahite, if you will. The first use of “Jew” in the Bible is found in 2 Kings 16:6 (where the NIV translates “men of Judah,” though the term is actually the single word “Jews”). So “Jew” as a designation for citizens of the southern kingdom precedes the exile to Babylon, but it only became the common designation for the citizens of the remnant of Israel after the exile. Ezekiel does not use the term “Jews,” though he often refers to the “house of Judah,” the “elders of Judah,” and the “men of Judah.” He sometimes refers to his people as “Israel and Judah,” another way of emphasizing the historical fact that Judah is the continuation of Israel but that much of the people of God had disappeared under God’s hand of judgment. This flexibility of language prepares the way for the use of these ethnic and national terms in the New Testament for the membership of the church, Jew and Gentile alike.
In v. 3 Israel is a rebellious nation: subjects revolting against their King. In v. 5 Israel is a rebellious house: children rebelling against their Father. They will know that a prophet has been among them because Ezekiel’s stark promises of divine wrath will come to pass. That was the problem with false prophecy: it was invariably rosy and always was overtaken by events.
The word the NIV translates “though” ordinarily means “because.” So Ezekiel shouldn’t be afraid because of the briers and thorns not though there are briers and thorns. The idea is probably that the Lord will protect Ezekiel with a wall of briers and thorns. In Jeremiah’s call narrative the Lord promises to protect his prophet after giving him a message that he knows will make the people despise and oppose him. Later (Jer. 15:19-21) the Lord promises to give Jeremiah the strength of a fortified or walled city so that his countrymen will not be able to defeat him. [Block vs. Allen, Stuart]
Jeremiah was told a similar thing, you remember. You will preach but no one will listen; they will hate you and your message will be dismissed as offensive defeatism. Remember the Lord sending Ananias to Saul in Damascus to tell him “How much he will suffer for my name”! Being the Lord’s prophet was nobody’s idea of a picnic! A.W. Pink defined a prophet as “God’s man for an evil day.” Don’t make Ezekiel into a stone. This was an awful assignment. No one likes to be the object of hatred and dismissed as a fool, even if he knows he is right. And no patriot wants to prophesy the doom of the nation he loves.
Ezekiel is warned not to allow himself to be infected with the Israelite disease of insubordination before God. [Block, i, 123]
“Eat what I give you…” suggests that the Lord would hand him some kind of food; instead he gets a scroll, perhaps of leather (Allen), perhaps papyrus (Block); in either case something no one would be expected to eat. In fact the prospect, given the fact that it is an entire scroll, is grotesque. [Eichrodt, 62]
“Lament, mourning, and woe” sum up the message Ezekiel is being commissioned to bring to Israel in Yahweh’s name.
Remember in Jeremiah’s call, in Jer. 1:9, the Lord touched his lips and is said to have put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. Here in another symbolic act, the Lord feeds Ezekiel a scroll that contains the message he is to preach. Remember, in Jeremiah’s recommissioning in chapter 15 of Jeremiah, he uses the metaphor of eating the words of the Lord. Ezekiel, in his vision, actually consumes the scroll on which they were written.
Since the message cannot be what makes the eating sweet, the sweetness must come from the prophet’s encounter with the Word of the Lord itself. Opening one’s life to God’s Word and God’s will prove the highest privilege and the greatest conceivable satisfaction. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer we are to “mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Word of God. [Allen, i, 41]
The point of these verses seems to be that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Had Ezekiel been sent to some other people, they may well have listened to him, as the Assyrians listened to Jonah. But familiarity breeds contempt. Ezekiel is just one among many exiled priests. Why should the people pay special attention to him? “Even the most eloquent evangelist knows how much more difficult it is to call a family member or a close friend to faith…than to call a total stranger.” [Stuart, 42] And no people’s hearts are so hard as church members who have long ignored and made a habit of resisting the Word of God. It will be, remember, the church, the people of God, that will crucify the Lord of Glory! Remember the Lord making a similar point, saying that if the miracles that he had done in the towns of Galilee had been done in Tyre and Sidon those pagan cities would have repented long ago in dust and ashes.
But Ezekiel is reminded that their rejection of him will not be personal; it will be part and parcel of their rejection of Yahweh himself. The soldier in his foxhole doesn’t wring his hands or stand up and shout at the enemy soldiers firing at him, “What did I do to you?” or “Was it something I said?” He understands that the opposition to him has a deeper and a larger cause and that he is a target only because he is serving the cause of his king or his government or his nation.
Remember, the name Ezekiel means “God strengthens.” The Hebrew idiom is like our own. We speak of “facing” difficult situations; so it is Ezekiel’s face that is hardened. The Lord is promising that he will enable his prophet to cope with the people’s rejection.
For the first time we learn that the audience for Ezekiel’s preaching will be the community of exiles.
So we have so far learned that the prophet has been given a sight of the God who he is to serve, has been raised up by the Spirit before the Almighty, has been given a clear commission to speak the Lord’s words and no other, has been encouraged by finding the taste of that message, once it was down, sweet and agreeable, has been assured that the Lord will help him fulfill his calling, and has been reminded that his task is faithfulness to his calling, nothing more. The outcome God will determine; only let the prophet be faithful to speak the Lord’s Word.
Read on to 3:27
When Moses received his call from the Lord he resisted it. He didn’t want to fulfill the assignment the Lord was giving him and he filled his mouth with arguments. His insistence upon his inadequacy for the task the Lord was giving him finally exhausted the Lord’s patience. Gideon did a similar thing, as you remember. So did Jeremiah in a call narrative much shorter but very like the one we have read in Ezekiel 2-3. Isaiah, on the other hand, at least so far as the narrative of his call is concerned, showed no resistance, nor, for that matter, did the Apostle Paul. Our question tonight is whether the text suggests Ezekiel was resistant to this call to be the Lord’s prophet or whether he readily accepted it. Some commentators assume the latter, though they rarely argue one way or another. They assume that Ezekiel was a willing prophet largely because we are not shown him resisting and we hear no objections from his mouth.
But I have been persuaded by the arguments of others that the text suggests the contrary. Ezekiel was not a willing prophet, at least at the beginning. He had to be convinced, as it were, against his will. This may prove to be a more interesting and important point than you might at first think. Here are the arguments for taking the text as it is written to depict Ezekiel as a reluctant prophet.
- The extraordinary length and detail of the call narrative, which exceeds that of the narrative of the call of Moses – a most reluctant prophet – by almost 50%, suggests that the Lord had some persuading to do. Why does God go on and on except that Ezekiel wasn’t buying it?
- The prelude to the call is a vision so much more overwhelming in its power and scope than anything that accompanied the call of any other prophet or biblical leader. Does this suggest that Ezekiel needed very strong persuasion?
- Why does the Holy Spirit have to set him on his feet as a prelude to hearing the Word of the Lord in 2:1-2? He had been commanded to stand by Yahweh himself, but then the Spirit comes and lifts him up.
- Why does the Lord command him directly not to rebel like the rest of the Jews in 2:8? There is nothing like this in the call of Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah.
- Why is Ezekiel commanded three times to eat the scroll (2:8-3:3)? Indeed, the Lord feeds the scroll to Ezekiel himself as if Ezekiel was not a willing eater.
- Why does the Lord give two commissioning speeches to Ezekiel – 2:3-7 and 3:4-11 – with a great deal of repetition of the first in the second? Does it not appear that the first summons hadn’t had sufficient effect?
- Why is the first expression of response on the prophet’s part bitterness and anger in 3:14? Is that why the strong hand of the Lord had to be upon him?
- When he returns from his encounter with the Lord to sit among his people, why does he sit there for a week in a state of shock and spiritual desolation? (3:15)
- And when the Lord himself breaks the silence, why does he do so with such a strong and uncompromising warning to Ezekiel not to fail to deliver the Lord’s warnings or else? Does it not seem that the Lord is forestalling a half-hearted or even actively resistant response on Ezekiel’s response?
- And, finally, why does it appear that the Lord is further forestalling any effort on Ezekiel’s part to plead for or defend Israel (3:24-27)? [The above from Block, i, 11-12]
We have learned over the years of our study of the Old Testament that there is much in the Bible – especially a great deal related to the experiences of the life of faith – that is communicated indirectly and subtly. The reader of the Bible is expected to listen very carefully and with his imagination fully awake to the personal dimension. I am persuaded, as I have read the text over several times, that the accumulated impression of this material is that Ezekiel did not want to do what the Lord was calling him to do and had to be cajoled and persuaded, if not compelled, to undertake the assignment.
And, as I said, I think there is some very practical importance to our acknowledgement of that fact. The fact is the spiritual condition of the Israelite community in Babylon was at a very low ebb. There were believers in that community, but they were a small minority and their faith and life was depressed, discouraged, and timid. There may not have been among them a single man of spiritually heroic mold. And it does not appear that Ezekiel was chosen because he was such a man. Quite the contrary, the Lord chose a weak man and had to buck him up.
We tend to idolize and idealize the great figures of both biblical history and church history and instinctively imagine that they were people who lived on a different and much higher spiritual plane. We think they were far above us and that their lives, while providing lessons and inspiration for us, will always remain remote from our own. But, as James reminds us, even Elijah – the hero of Mt. Carmel – was a man just like us. And so were Moses and Jeremiah. And so was Ezekiel. What these men accomplished, the Bible is at pains to remind us, was the Lord’s doing, not theirs!
In my reading of late, I have been reminded of our tendency to make more of our heroes than we should.
- I read an article recently about an unfinished manuscript of C.S. Lewis, the mere beginnings of what was to be a science fiction novel entitled The Dark Tower. Some of you may be aware that the announcement years ago of the existence of this unfinished manuscript by Walter Hooper, Lewis’ onetime secretary and later literary executor, actually resulted in the claim of some Lewis scholars, led by Kathryn Lindskoog, that Hooper, or someone else with his knowledge, had foisted a forgery upon the public for the sake of professional and financial gain. People chose sides and the literary dispute turned quite nasty. Now it happens, however, that a man entirely a stranger to this controversy has settled it. Writing an essay for the Yale Review on the subject of Lewis as a doctoral supervisor, Alistair Fowler, Prof. of English Literature at Edinburgh, recollected Lewis showing him some unfinished and abandoned pieces of his own writing. He did this really to encourage his young doctoral student who was struggling with writer’s block. Among the pieces shown to him, Fowler remembers, was The Dark Tower. According to Fowler, Lewis told him that he often struggled to write and sometimes produced material that didn’t go anywhere and wasn’t any good. We have a hard time believing that about C.S. Lewis. His written work seems so effortless. We can’t imagine him writing a sentence that wasn’t clear and interesting and beautiful to read. That, after all, was the primary argument against the authenticity of The Dark Tower. It wasn’t good enough to be the work of Lewis. As one contributor to the controversy wrote, “If Lindskoog is wrong – she who accused Hooper of forging The Dark Tower – “[then] Lewis wrote some pieces that were stillborn at best or just plain bad at worst.” We have a hard time believing that Lewis could write something bad. But he did. He probably had to work a lot harder to write his magnificently good books than we imagine he did! But, you get the point; some people have had a hard time believing that there was ever anything bad or even mediocre about C.S. Lewis. [H.L. Poe, “Shedding Light on The Dark Tower,” CT (Feb. 2007) 44-45]
- Take another example. I’m reading a new work on Robert Murray McCheyne, the 19th century Scottish pastor and revival preacher, by David Robertson, a scholar who is doing research on McCheyne for his PhD studies and, interestingly, is presently the pastor of McCheyne’s former congregation in Dundee. Andrew Bonar’s Memoir of Robert Murray McCheyne, as you know is a classic of Reformed spirituality. A great many young Christians through the years have been inspired to higher things in their life of faith by reading that book. But it is an observation of mature and practiced Christians that Bonar’s account of McCheyne’s life is so lacking a realistic balance that people can come away from it thinking that McCheyne was something of a cross between a man and an angel. He lived, the reader is tempted to think, on an impossibly high spiritual plane, the inhabitant of another spiritual world than that in which we live. Robertson himself, in the preface of his book, acknowledges the inconvenience it is for him, as the pastor of St. Peter’s, Dundee, to be interrupted hundreds of times a year by visitors come to worship the saintly pastor’s memory. There are, after all, things about McCheyne that make him a more human figure. For example, he apparently twice proposed to young women who turned him down! But I was arrested by Robertson’s assessment of McCheyne’s academic abilities. Andrew Bonar gives the impression that McCheyne’s academic abilities were of a high order. The truth appears to be that while he worked hard and had a good mind, he was by no means ranked among the most able students. The remark that caught my attention was that of McCheyne’s father, Adam McCheyne, who offered the assessment, after his son’s early death, that his academic proficiency was “above mediocrity.” It sounds like something a father would say! [Robertson, Awakening, 13] But, again, notice the tendency to inflate the powers and the virtues of our heroes. We think of McCheyne as almost other-worldly, when in many ways, saintly Christian that he was, he was quite ordinary. Robertson is also more realistic about McCheyne’s spiritual struggles.
- I told you that I was reading a recent history of African exploration and, in particular, an account of the expeditions of David Livingstone, the missionary, and Henry Stanley, the journalist. This is the Stanley of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” fame. Livingstone was a great man and a great Christian. Of that there is no doubt. He lived in many ways a heroic life. But he was very definitely a man of his Victorian age. None of you, I guarantee you, would have wanted him for a husband or for a father. He neglected his family in profound ways and not only for the gospel’s sake, but for the sake of his formidable explorations that, while remarkable and undoubtedly feats of great daring, amounted to years of wandering around Africa while his wife was driven to drink and his children were cared for by others. He was concerned about their financial provision but that too was left in large part to others. One son was so estranged that he changed his last name!
What all of this illustrates is that all our heroes in the Christian faith were men and women with feet of clay, in other words, they really were just like us. At least the raw material the Lord had to work with was just like what he has in us. They held the treasures of faith and salvation in earthen vessels, clay pots. But we tend to forget that, over and again, and to imagine that a man like Ezekiel was a very different person than we ourselves. The fact that we are not given to see much of his personal life or talk to his friends – and hear them talk about his stormy temper, or his testiness with his wife, or his chronic problem paying his bills on time – makes it even easier to believe that he was some extraordinary specimen of a man of faith. But we have no reason to believe that and if, as seems likely, the text itself suggests that he wasn’t overjoyed to be given the role of God’s prophet and would have been happier to be left alone, we have a good reason to think that Ezekiel was, in fact, a man with flaws, a man of his time, a man whose faith and life had taken their shape in some important ways from the spiritual doldrums that characterized the church of his day.
We began our reading this evening by noting the characteristic address “son of man.” We said that the burden of that phrase is the emphasis it places on Ezekiel’s mere humanity in contrast to the greatness of the Lord that had been revealed to him in the vision of chapter 1. Yahweh is impossibly great, glorious, terrible in majesty and holiness. Ezekiel is a little man, a creature, a pipsqueak.
But, he is going to be the Lord’s man, the Lord’s mouth-piece, the Lord’s instrument to accomplish his will among his people and they will, in time, know that a prophet of the Lord was among them! Not because Ezekiel was so impressive a figure. In fact, the people aren’t apparently going to have difficulty belittling him, marginalizing him, dismissing him, and making fun of him. He’s not going to seem so great, so intimidating to them. Until his words – God’s words in his mouth – are proved true, no one is going to take him very seriously. Ezekiel on his own would accomplish nothing. Ezekiel with God’s words in his mouth, would change the world and the people of God.
But, you see, that is just as true for any of us. Jesus said, you remember, that if you have faith the grain of a mustard seed, you will move mountains. I hear you say, many of you, about this or that, or, if I don’t hear you actually say it, I hear you think it, “I can’t do that… Someone else might be able to, but I can’t.” True enough perhaps; you can’t; but the Lord can and will do it through you. And the proof of what he can do is that he so often makes his children do what they neither thought to do or wanted to do. His strong hand was upon them as surely as it was upon Ezekiel at Tel Abib.
If there is a personal application for us all in this narrative of the call of an unwilling prophet – for obviously we are not all to be the Lord’s prophets in the sense in which Ezekiel was – that application is that weak, frail, and very ordinary people, even people who really don’t want to do God’s will and don’t feel capable of doing the his will, can do, will do, and are to do what the Lord calls them to do. He will tell us what he wants us to do – he has told us in his Word! – his Spirit will stand us upon our feet; he will repeat his instructions over and again until we hear them; he will stuff them down our throats if that is what it takes; and he will encourage us to believe that we can do his will, that he will see us through.
I know the particular divine calling that some of you are facing at this particular moment in your lives, the difficult things, the thankless tasks that the Lord has assigned you. I’m sure most everyone else can easily think of what those tasks are in his or her own case. You resist, you shift, you express your disinterest in various ways. You don’t want to do it. But the Lord does not cease and desist. He summons you again to the same obedience and promises you his help.
Ezekiel was a man just like us. He didn’t want to do what the Lord commanded him to do. But he did and he changed the world forever. It is ours to be like him in his weakness and his unwillingness; it is also to be ours to be like him in his obedience and his fruitfulness. The Lord will help us. Take his words and eat them and find them sweet as honey.