It has been some weeks since we broke off our studies in Ezekiel, so let me briefly summarize our progress so far. We are in the middle of the long opening section of Ezekiel, the first of three distinct sections, this one comprising the first twenty-four chapters. After three chapters devoted to the prophet’s call, we began in chapter 4 the first of a number of oracles of judgment to befall Jerusalem and Judah, what was left of the nation of Israel, still unrepentant, still persisting in the sins that had led to her reduction to a petty client state of far more powerful empires. No matter that Ezekiel’s audience were already themselves exiles, no matter that they had already suffered punishment for their sins. They did not make the connection between their infidelity and their exile and still imagined that Jerusalem would be secure. They heard Ezekiel’s oracles of impending judgment but, as time passed and nothing happened, they grew increasingly unconcerned, even optimistic at the future of the nation and its people, themselves included. As one scholar gives the gist of what they said to Ezekiel and Jeremiah: “Here is the way it is with you fellows: you talk tough, but nothing ever happens.” [Polk in Allen, 198]
Reading one oracle or prophecy of judgment after another in this opening section of Ezekiel we have been taking the opportunity to construct a biblical doctrine of divine judgment. When the same topic is considered over and over again, different features surface here and there and a great deal of detail is added to the general conception. We have so far said that 1) the judgment of the wicked is made necessary by God’s character; 2) that it is so because the divine wrath is nothing other than the exercise of his holy justice; 3) that God is patient and so his judgment is characteristically slow in coming; 4) that in his judgment he makes a careful discrimination between the wicked and the righteous and promises to spare the righteous; 5) judgment begins with the people of God and, contrary to a well nigh universal expectation among people who ought to know better, that judgment is never stayed by considerations of merely outward association, as if being an Israelite or living in Jerusalem near the temple, or, even participating in some way in the religious life of Israel were talismans to ward off the wrath of God. This last point looms so large in the preaching of the prophets and of the Lord Jesus himself that we must consider it one of the principle emphases of the Bible; and 6) bad news is always the hardest to believe and judgment is, therefore, the doctrine concerning which men – whether in the church or out of it – are most practically and theoretically skeptical. That is what we have said so far about the judgment of the Lord. Now to chapter 13.
- Ezekiel was hardly the only prophet preaching to the Israelites in those days, whether in Babylon or in Judea. Among the faithful prophets of this period were Daniel, Habakkuk, Obadiah, and Jeremiah. However, the false prophets were legion. They got their message from the spirit of the day or out of their own heads. What they did not preach was the “word of the Lord.” The true prophets of the Lord knew that they had received a message from the Lord and were only repeating what they had been told. The false prophets had no such message so they had to make one up. They were fakers. Perhaps the false prophets thought that the true prophets were doing the same thing they were because, never having received a word from God they didn’t know what it was like to receive one. [Stuart, 120] They were always prefacing their messages with “Here the Word of the Lord” but had never heard it themselves!
Here Yahweh charges Ezekiel to confront his professional competition head-on; never an easy thing to do!
- “jackals among the ruins” is a picture of destruction. A city inhabited by jackals is a city that has been destroyed, whose population has been killed or dispersed.
- The false prophets were prophesying peace and safety and, as a consequence, no one was taking pains to repent and to allay the coming judgment of the Lord. Instead of helping to rebuild Israel, the false prophets were capitalizing on its spiritual ruin.
- Divination was a widespread practice in the ANE. It was supposedly a science by which the practitioner – by the study of animal livers or, later, the stars – presumed to learn what the gods intended in the future. It was a practice forbidden in Israel precisely because in Israel the knowledge of the future was not necessary. What was required was godly character and faithfulness to God’s covenant. The secret things belonged to the Lord; they didn’t need to be known and could not be discovered in any case.
- The three things of which these charlatans will be deprived are precisely the three things that defined an Israelite’s identity: they will lose their membership in the assembly, their names will be struck from the census register (i.e. their names will disappear from the lineage of the nation), and they will lose their right to the land (they will not participate in the return of the exiles to Judah and Jerusalem). This is permanent excommunication.
- It was characteristic of Israel and Judah’s false prophets that they proclaimed peace. Israel’s sins were no sins to them and so they anticipated no judgment. And since their own pay depended upon contributions and people were unlikely to pay for gloom and doom they gave folk rosy promises about the future. The phonies make their money by telling people what they want to hear. The Word of God tells them what the truth is, however bleak that truth may be. Such false preaching encouraged a lazy complacency. But pretending that all is well when the nation is on the brink of catastrophe will not change the reality one whit. [Block, i, 406]
- When workers build a flimsy wall, they can make it look solid simply by coating it with plaster and paint. But the underlying instability remains. Instead of exposing the weakness in the wall, as it were, the false prophets simply apply the whitewash. But an attractive exterior is no substitute for a solid structure.
- Jesus will talk later about whitewashed tombs and Paul will call the high priest a “whitewashed wall.” In both cases the idea is of patching up the appearance of something with something phony and insubstantial. The whitewash makes the walls look good for the moment, but they won’t stand up to the rough weather coming and what good is whitewash when the walls fall down.
- There were female prophets (prophetesses) in Israel and, predictably, there were false ones as well as true. This is one of the very few judgments against women found in the Old Testament prophets.
- Ezekiel concentrates on their practices of magic and divination, by which they purport to know the future. “It is impossible to arrive at a clear understanding of the women’s methods because of the obscurity of the expressions used.” [Block, i, 413] The situation seems to be that some of the exiles had bought into Babylonian magical ideas. Magic is a term that broadly refers to all efforts to influence events by manipulating unseen powers. It is utterly foreign to the teaching of the Bible that lays all the stress on a person’s character and his or her fidelity to the Lord. Still today most fortune-tellers are women and they often as then dress in elaborate costumes associated with the occult arts. “They tend to give their advice in darkened rooms, where the attitude of the inquirer is influenced in an eerie way, and this corresponds to the veil put over the inquirer in Ezekiel’s description.” [Stuart, 124]
- They have profaned Yahweh by reducing him to the level of Babylon’s petty deities who can be influenced or manipulated by incantations and witchcraft. Whether anyone has died as a result of these women’s evil work is unclear. Perhaps it is more likely that they are spiritually killing the people by undermining their faith in Yahweh.
What is perfectly clear from our text is that the most consequential opposition to the proclamation of divine judgment will always be found in the church. The male prophets who, professionally speaking, looked and spoke like Ezekiel were proclaiming peace and decrying Ezekiel’s gloomy messages of catastrophe to come. The female diviners and sorcerers were distracting the people with their magic arts and convinced them that their fortunes had nothing to do with their faithfulness to Yahweh’s covenant but rather had to do with the power of their magic arts. In both cases the hard truth that Yahweh had given Ezekiel to proclaim, the message of coming judgment was undermined and replaced. And so it has always been. Paul says in 2 Tim. 4:3:
“…the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
As one cynical churchman once put it: “The way to be successful is to give the public exactly what it wants and about ten per cent more of it than it expects.” [Dean W.R. Inge in J.S. Stewart, Heralds of God, 29-30] Or as Chesterton more wittily described the same reality: There will always be some…who rather than be confronted with the living Christ would actually prefer “one solid and polished cataract of platitudes flowing for ever and ever.” [Ibid, 31] Well that is what Israel got: comforting platitudes for the urbane and ridiculous tomfoolery for the rest. Anything but the hard, biting truth of God. She comforted herself by giving ear to prophets who would gladly tell her what she wanted to hear.
Here, then, is the next piece of our doctrine of divine judgment as Ezekiel is putting it together for us in these chapters: the most significant and consequential unbelief in that judgment is always found in the church, among her clergy, and is most insidious there. Perhaps some of you saw the article in the Seattle Times the other day.
Shortly after noon on Fridays, the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding ties on a black headscarf, preparing to pray with her Muslim group on First Hill. On Sunday mornings, Redding puts on the white collar of an Episcopal priest. She does both, she says, because she’s Christian and Muslim.
Redding, who until recently was director of faith formation at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, has been a priest for more than 20 years. Now she’s ready to tell people that, for the past 15 months, she’s also been a Muslim – drawn to the faith after an introduction to Islamic prayers left her profoundly moved. Her announcement has provoked surprise and bewilderment in many, raising an obvious question: How can someone be both a Christian and a Muslim? But it has drawn other reactions too. Friends generally say they support her, while religious scholars are mixed: Some say that, depending on how one interprets the tenets of the two faiths, it is, indeed, possible to be both. Others consider the two faiths mutually exclusive.
“There are tenets of the faiths that are very, very different,” said Kurt Fredrickson, director of the doctor of ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “The most basic would be: What do you do with Jesus? Christianity has historically regarded Jesus as the son of God and God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine. Muslims, though they regard Jesus as a great prophet, do not see him as divine and do not consider him the son of God. “I don’t think it’s possible” to be both, Fredrickson said, just like “you can’t be a Republican and a Democrat.”
Redding, who will begin teaching the New Testament as a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University this fall, has a different analogy: “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both.” Redding doesn’t feel she has to resolve all the contradictions. People within one religion can’t even agree on all the details, she said. “So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam? She says she felt an inexplicable call to become Muslim, and to surrender to God – the meaning of the word “Islam.”
“It wasn’t about intellect,” she said. “All I know is the calling of my heart to Islam was very much something about my identity and who I am supposed to be. Redding’s situation is highly unusual. Officials at the national Episcopal Church headquarters said they are not aware of any other instance in which a priest has also been a believer in another faith. They said it’s up to the local bishop to decide if a priest could continue in that role. Redding’s bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting. Her announcement, made through a story in her diocese’s newspaper, hasn’t caused much controversy yet. Redding believes telling her story can help ease religious tensions, and she hopes it can be a step toward her dream of creating an institute to study Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “I think this thing that’s happened to me can be a sign of hope,” she said.
As much as she loves her church, she has always challenged it. She calls Christianity the “world religion of privilege.” She has never believed in original sin. And for years she struggled with the nature of Jesus’ divinity. [Seattle Times, June 18, 2007]
There is something eerily relevant about that news story given our text tonight. You will note the striking similarities between this woman’s message and that of the false prophets of Ezekiel’s day. It rests not on a Word from God – certainly it flies in the face of the teaching of Holy Scripture – but on this woman’s private opinion. She felt, she said, “an inexplicable call to be a Muslim” as an Episcopalian priest. Her message is comforting, pleasing, encouraging: Muslims and Christians are one and there is no need for them to be fighting one another. It takes the bite right out of the Christian gospel (one would say also right out of Islam!). It further reminds us that people – even people who would claim in some fashion to be believers, Christian believers – are more susceptible to utter falsifications of the faith in times of crisis, as in Ezekiel’s day when the Israelites were in exile. Would this woman have become a Muslim, would the idea ever have occurred to her, had there not been the death-dealing conflict underway between the West and radical jihadists?
Well, you say, perhaps we expect nothing less from a woman Episcopal priest and her bishop. But what of this from a prominent evangelical seminary president?
“Billy Graham says, effectively, and I’m paraphrasing: “That’s where I got to the point where I just said, ‘I’m not going to get involved. I’m going to preach Christ—because that’s what the Scriptures are all about.” The other thing he says—and I heard that he wrote Newsweek afterward, backing off on this a little bit, but he has said this before—is this. They asked him, “What about your son, who says that Islam is an evil religion?’ And Billy essentially replied: “Well, he’s young, and I’m old. I have a lot of good Muslim friends, I have a lot of good Jewish friends, I’ve met a lot of wonderful Hindu people, and it’s not up to me to decide who’s saved. I’m going to leave that up to the Lord. But here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
I spoke at Chautauqua this summer, as part of a week of lectures in the Abrahamic religions. There were two days of Jewish lectures, a couple of Muslim lectures, and then I was the last speaker. The president of Notre Dame spoke in the morning, and I was last in the afternoon. There was a lot of evangelical bashing that went on. I was told that the crowd was largely liberal mainline Protestants, with a smattering of people who just had an intellectual interest in religion, but weren’t believers. And there were a lot of Jews, and quite a few Muslims. So I spoke to this audience of mainly liberal Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.
I explained evangelicalism to them, as I understood it, and tried to say, “You shouldn’t equate evangelicalism, as a movement that cares about the gospel, with the religious right.” I did all that, and then concluded by saying, “You know I live with a number of tensions, and I want to describe one in my life,” and this was my ending with them. I told them about the National Prayer Breakfast this year, where Bono spoke in the morning—he was wonderful. Then at the leadership luncheon, in Washington, the speaker was King Abdullah of Jordan. And he was great! He called Christians, Jews, and Muslims of good will to work together against extremism of all sorts. He condemned terrorism and expressed sympathy with the people of Israel who had experienced terrorist acts—horrible things. It was a very reconciling approach, and very intelligent. He quoted passages from the Koran that spoke about the need to be peacemakers, to be good neighbors, to love other people, to show mercy toward others that you disagree with. Then, after the luncheon, about 20 of us were invited to spend an hour and a half behind closed doors with His Majesty. Rick Warren was there, and a number of others, but also quite a few Muslims and Jews. It was mainly evangelicals, Muslims, and Jews. And King Abdullah was even better in private. People asked him questions, he made his case, and he was so sharp! So bold, so courageous; really great.
At the end his bodyguards came in, ready to whisk him away, along with an older rabbi from New York City. But the rabbi said, “Your Majesty, you’ve got to stay one more minute. I’ve got to say something before you go. So tell your people to get their hands off you; I’ve got to say something.” Then he said to King Abdullah: “I’m so impressed with you. We need you.” He said, “I worry about your life. I worry about your safety. I worry about the safety of your family. Take care of yourself. Surround yourself with people who will protect you. We need you.” And this rabbi said, “Before you go: This is presumptuous, I know, but all of us sitting around this table are the children of Abraham. And I’m going to do something on behalf of all of the children of Abraham. I want to give you a blessing. I promise you I’m going to pray for you, but right now; I want to give you a blessing.” And then, the rabbi gave King Abdullah the Aaronic blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” I cried. It was a wonderful moment.
I described this to the Chautauqua crowd, and I said, “You know, I’ve got to say this, as an evangelical Christian. I believe everything I’ve said prior to this in my talk today, in the God whom I worship as an evangelical. And I believe with all my heart that that God looked down there and saw that rabbi blessing that Muslim king, and God said, ‘That’s the way I want it to be. This is the kind of thing that I want to happen in the world.” You know, there’s that great passage in Genesis 17, where Abram goes before the Lord, and the Lord says, “I’m going to establish my covenant with you. I’m going to change your name, and I’m going to give you a son. You don’t have him yet, but you’re going to have a son. I’m going to make my covenant with him, and through him all the nations of the earth will be blessed:’ Abram says, “But I already have a son, Ishmael. What about him?” Then there’s an amazing passage, where the Lord God Says: “Nope. I’m going to make my covenant with Isaac. But I heard you about Ishmael, and him, too, will I bless.”
There is a sense of mystery there: that as a son of Isaac gave a blessing to a son of Ishmael, something profound was happening. I don’t understand it all. And I said this at Chautauqua: I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it all in my theology, but I’m willing to live with that mystery. And I said to them, “I’ve got to tell you another thing about myself. Every NFL game, behind the goal posts, somebody gets a seat and holds up a John 3:16 sign. That’s me. Behind all the goal posts at the championship games, behind the backboard, there’s somebody with a John 3:16 sign. That’s always going to be me. I’ll live with the mystery. I’ll acknowledge that, but at the same time, I’ve got to hold up the sign that says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’ I’ve got to tell you that.”
Well, they applauded, and that was the end. Then a wonderful thing happened. A Jewish woman stood up, and she said, “You’ve destroyed my image of evangelicals, and I want to thank you.” She said, “I want to tell you something. I’m going to pray for you.” She said, “I worry about your safety.” [Richard Mouw, “Over Someone’s Objections: Fuller’s Unique Position in the World of Theological Education,” Theology, News and Notes (Spring 2007) 34-35]
I hardly know what that means, frankly. I doubt he knows what he means. Is he saying that Muslims and Jews or, at least, some Muslims and Jews don’t need to believe in Jesus to be saved? The apostles confronted a world that was as religiously diverse as our world is today but they proclaimed boldly and unashamedly that Christ alone is the truth and that no one comes to the Father but through him. They gave their lives for the offense of that message. This man doesn’t tell us what he means, as if some how the Bible hasn’t spoken sufficiently clearly or as if it didn’t address these difficult questions that we, for the first time, must face with such flinty honesty. He comes out and says very little, but what he says sounds comforting and very familiar. What do you know. Once again the change is always in the same direction: there is never more judgment, never more doom, never more fear of God. Never more demand and more summons, but less. We are consoled. We are comforted. There is peace, we are told. More peace than we were led to believe by our old fogey Christian parents and ministers. There is less reason to worry; less necessity to mend our ways. Surprise, surprise! The old hard-edged Christian faith can be made much more smooth and acceptable. The message of judgment can recede into the background. We are still evangelicals; we are still Bible-believers; we won’t say that we don’t believe in divine judgment, but there is no need to talk about an avenging Yahweh, certainly not to talk publicly about him. What good does that do in a culture such as ours and in a world torn by conflict as our world is? And surprise again: both the church and the world love this rosy message. They take no offense. The world likes us again. It has taken notice of how we have “grown” and how much more loving and positive we are. If only all Christians could be so wide-spirited, so open-minded, so willing not to put up obstacles in the way of friendly, mutually accepting concourse with other religious believers. I guarantee you, if he had simply made it clear that he believed that there was no other name under heaven by which men may be saved and that no one comes to the father except through Jesus, no ladies would have gushed over his presentation!
But as the Lord said to Ezekiel and to Israel through him in vv. 13-16, in the words that Herman Melville put in Father Mapple’s mouth in his sermon in Moby Dick, “Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale.” [Penguin edition, 1972, 142]
Now, it is true that sometimes the doctrine of divine judgment has been overdone or misused. But the church has very little to fear from the unkempt fellow who walks down city streets in a sandwich board declaring that “The End is Near” or from the unloving fools who show up at gay pride events with signs proclaiming that “Fags will burn in Hell.” But the church has lost her very life, has seen it seep from her until there was none left, and that times without number, from the influence of highly educated and urbane clergymen who advocated one of those synthetic religions in which Christianity was adjusted to the times and, inevitably, lost its hard edges, its scandalous and unwelcome doctrines, and became popular for all the predictable reasons.
Why do people go to phonies and pay them for their advice? Why are there always such teachers in the church and why are they so regularly popular and influential? Why is fortune telling big business in the United States today, sophisticated as our culture imagines itself to be? And why is everyone ready to compliment the suave preacher of peace? The answer is a combination of fear and hope. [Stuart, 124] People don’t want to have to face the prospect of divine judgment and so they are grateful for people who tell them they don’t have to. But only God knows the future and only his Word is a sure guide to the principles by which he will judge the life of every human being. And he proclaims the reality of his judgment and has proved that reality too many times for it to be doubted now. One must be prepared at any cost to believe the lie to deny that Yahweh will judge the wicked and will require an accounting of his people who refuse to heed his Word. Remember, Ezekiel was proved right in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed. And the people of God felt the lash of God’s wrath. The false prophets were charlatans and fakes. Their message was too good to be true. So is the message of many today.