We have come tonight to the last chapter of the first of the three major sections of the book of Ezekiel. These first 24 chapters, as you now know all too well, are prophecies of the judgment about to befall Jerusalem: descriptions of it and justifications of it.
The date is January 5, 587 B.C. Jerusalem fell August 14, 586 B.C. So Ezekiel receives this message more than a year and a half before the destruction of Jerusalem.
In 11:3 we encountered what was apparently an adage, a saying by which the Jews left in Jerusalem comforted themselves after the exile of 598 B.C. Jerusalem was the pot and they were the choice meat kept in the pot, as opposed to the by-products sent off to exile in Babylon. In Ezekiel’s “parable” the Jews left in Jerusalem may be the meat, but Jerusalem is the pot in which that meat will be burned to a scummy residue. In Ezekiel’s hands the adage becomes a metaphor not of preservation and blessing but of destruction.
The Jews in Jerusalem, we have already seen, thought they were special, even extraordinary, as the “meat in the pot” adage suggested. After all, Jerusalem was the only city in all of Palestine that had successfully withstood the attack of the Assyrians 113 years earlier (2 Kings 18-19). Jerusalem was Yahweh’s chosen city where God had promised to keep a descendant of David ruling forever. Encouraged by the preaching of the false prophets and by their own superficial views of God’s love and covenant promises, ignoring their own sin and betrayal of the Lord’s covenant, believing themselves essential to Yahweh’s plans, they imagined that they were safe from the Babylonians. [Stuart, 238-239]
Ezekiel’s earlier actions suggest that he actually acted out all of this in front of an audience: filling a cooking pot with water, putting choice pieces of meat in it, setting fire beneath it, etc.
The fire is to be built up to a heat and kept at a high temperature until the meat has been burned away and only the bones are left.
The pot is encrusted because the heat has been applied so long and at such high temperature that only a scummy residue remains. “Empty it piece by piece” seems to suggest the depopulation of the city.
This last oracle is summing up material in previous ones. This is not the first time we have heard that Jerusalem is a city of bloodshed.
The casting of lots presumed the Lord’s active involvement in his people’s lives. “When Ezekiel declares that no lot has fallen on this piece of meat, he is repudiating the people’s claim to special status before Yahweh.” [Block, i, 778] He is no longer accommodating himself to his people’s seeking his will.
The blood remains visible as a perpetual witness to Jerusalem’s crimes.
Like a modern self-cleaning oven, great heat is used to char the remnants on the sides and bottom of the pot until they can be brushed away.
As often before in these oracles, the Lord abandons the metaphor and, in conclusion, speaks literally.
The suggestion seems to be that Ezekiel’s wife had not been ill and died suddenly and unexpectedly though perhaps that is not certain. In any case the Lord does not scruple to say that he would take her away. Her death would be Yahweh’s doing. And that despite the fact that Ezekiel loved his wife very much, which is the implication of “the delight of your eyes.”
Five typical acts of mourning are mentioned: sighing, removing one’s turban (Ezekiel as a priest would have worn a turban), going barefoot, covering one’s mouth, and eating special food, no doubt food less tasty. These are not appointed for mourning in the Word of God; they were simply the customs of Israelite culture.
The prophet is permitted his grief, but not the outward demonstration of it.
The suggestion appears to be that Ezekiel told his hearers that his wife would die in the morning and then she died that same evening. On the other hand, the wording may only suggest that he preached that morning as always, as if nothing were amiss, even though he knew his wife would die. One can’t help wonder what conversations passed between husband and wife once Ezekiel had been told of her soon-coming death. We wonder too if Ezekiel didn’t plead with the Lord for the life of his wife as David had pled for his son after being told that he would die.
Ezekiel’s failure to mourn the death of his wife in the accepted fashion was very surprising, even disturbing, and prompted questions from the people who observed him. It was almost insulting behavior, showing, so it would have seemed, disrespect to the dead, all the more to a wife, still more to a wife he obviously loved. Their question provided him the opportunity to say what God wanted them to hear and to say it in a context that was bound to arrest their attention.
As Ezekiel’s wife was the “delight of his eyes” in v. 16, so Jerusalem is the delight of Israel’s eyes. It is also the delight of Yahweh’s eyes which makes all of this intensely personal to him, as we have frequently noticed in the oracles we have read up to this point. Remember, as we have been told a number of times, the popular theology of the people at this time held that so long as the temple stood, the nation was safe.
The question is this: why would Israel not mourn Jerusalem’s destruction. Is it because the catastrophe will be so overwhelming that formal acts of mourning will not be observed or it is rather that one doesn’t go through the rituals of mourning when the deceased has been executed for his crimes? [Stuart] Ezekiel had an absolute right to mourn his wife’s death; Jerusalem had no right to mourn her own: it was just punishment for her horrific crimes against God and man.
That is, the period of Ezekiel’s imposed silence – as we read in 3:26 he was required only to speak what God spoke to him and, apparently, not engage in ordinary conversation with the congregation or with his neighbors – has now concluded. Now that Jerusalem has fallen, God’s judgment has been executed, his prophet is free to speak again and to resume a normal life. That too is an enacted prophecy, demonstrating that the prophet’s six year ministry of preaching the doom of Jerusalem is finished and a new chapter of his ministry is about to commence. “Excessive silence on the part of an individual can signal many things, [for example] lack of joy or hope. That was part of its intent in 3:26. Now that joy and hope can return, Ezekiel can speak freely once again.” [Stuart, 244]
So far in this book we have learned very little about Ezekiel himself, less even than we learn of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Ezekiel the man has not been revealed to us. Ezekiel is the mouthpiece of God. Of the man himself, his life, his personality, we have been shown very little. We gathered that he was somewhat reluctant when called to be the Lord’s prophet, but he has been faithful ever since, delivering the messages the Lord has given him for Israel. Otherwise we have learned very little about his life. It is here, in chapter 24, that we first learn that he was married. We know that he was thirty years of age at the time of his call, but we don’t know how long he had been married. Nor do we know whether he had children who would also have been devastated by the sudden death of this good woman. The man himself generally has lain hidden behind his public utterance as the prophet of God, but a small window on this life is here opened: he loved his wife deeply and suffered a catastrophic loss with her sudden death.
His life had been hard enough, given has he had been a message to preach that was bound to make him increasingly unpopular with his congregation. But as compensation, he had his home and his marriage and a woman he loved deeply, who was the Scripture says, “the delight of his eyes.” Imagine this man in the days that followed. In Francis Thompson’s verse:
When a grown woman dies,
You know we think unceasingly
What things she said, how sweet, how wise,
And these do make our misery.
[Cited in The Letters of…Denny to…Robertson Nicoll, xxvi]
The most exquisite sorrow life knows is the loss of what is purest and most perfect in human life, viz. true love, whether that of a wife or husband or a child or a fast friend. Church history furnishes us with many, many examples of the deep sorrow of love lost in death. Not long after arriving in the New Hebrides, John Paton, the justly famous missionary to the cannibals of the South Seas, suffered the death of his young wife and infant son. We gather something of the blow this was to this great man by the few words he penned after her death.
“Let those who have ever passed through any similar darkness of midnight feel for me; as for all others it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows.”
I am reminded of Wordsworth’s line, the more full of pathos because of its brevity:
“But she is in her grave, and, oh, the difference to me.”
Or consider this from the life of the Scottish theologian James Denny, whose great books on the cross of Christ were reprinted in the middle of the 20th century by InterVarsity Press. Denny’s beloved wife had been dead for several years when a friend met the old man on a Glasgow street. He had his hat in his hands and tears were streaming down his cheeks. He explained simply that it was on this very spot years before that his wife had felt the first pangs of the illness from which she would die. [The Letters of…Denny to…Robertson Nicoll, xliii]
I will remember to my dying day my afternoon with Prof. van der Linde in Utrecht who also wept in front of me, a complete stranger, while holding a picture of his late wife and speaking to me about her. “I never go to bed at night, he said, without thanking God for her,” and she had been dead for eight years when I showed up on the great man’s doorstep.
Here the Lord trades on sorrow of just this kind, the heartbreak of love lost, of the desolation of the soul when its other half has been torn away. Jeremiah, as part of his prophetic message to the same generation of Jews, was forbidden by the Lord to marry. His bachelorhood was a sign that normal life was not to continue, the days of marrying and giving in marriage were about to come to a shuddering stop because of God’s wrath against his people. Hosea, several generations earlier, was required to marry an unfaithful woman, with all the sorrow and humiliation that would cause him, as another sort of sign to Israel of her betrayal of God’s covenant. But Ezekiel did marry, a woman he loved deeply, and his ministry required that he lose her and suddenly.
Now what are we to conclude from this – knowing the Lord’s compassion as we do, his fellow feeling with us, sometimes expressed in the previous chapters – except this: that there are greater, higher interests than those of our lives in this world, our personal happiness and fulfillment in life. The judgment of the nation, the rupture of the covenant, the destruction of Jerusalem, the razing of the temple of the Lord, the death of thousands and the exile of thousands more, the purification of the people of God; all of these are of much greater consequence and moment. As Jesus once said in respect to a similar comparison, “Let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22), a powerful, arresting, striking way of saying that there are more important things than even the solemnities of mourning a loved one. A wife can be taken from a loving husband as a sign only if that which her death signifies is something so consequential, so important, so needing to be understood that even a great love lost is a price worth paying to make people take heed.
The people in Jerusalem were going on with their lives as if their own personal peace and affluence were all that mattered and as if they could count on both continuing irrespective of their sins against the grace and holiness of God. All that Yahweh had done to disabuse them of this foolishness – remember, the northern kingdom had been destroyed for doing nothing more nor less than Judah was now doing; Babylon had already come twice and Judah’s king and many of her most prominent people were already in exile – this almost unbelievable willingness to avoid the obvious persisted no matter the preaching of the Lord’s prophets. One last sign was given to the people, Ezekiel’s refusal to mourn the death of his beloved wife. It was an arresting anticipation of what was to befall Jerusalem, the loss of the apple of the people’s eye, and of a punishment so catastrophic that conventional rites of mourning will be forgotten. The people will be too devastated to mourn in that way and the number of deaths will be too great in any case. You don’t find ordinary funeral rites observed after destructions such as Dresden or Hiroshima—there aren’t enough left to conduct them. No solemn gatherings around cemetery plots there; heavy machinery digging out mass graves and details of men throwing the rotting corpses into the pits. They will be overwhelmed. They must realize this! And Ezekiel’s pain is the Lord’s last-ditch effort to make them realize it.
Pain, you know, is a signal to beware, to take action, to realize the presence of danger. Lepers cannot feel pain and the consequence of their inability to feel pain is that they burn themselves without realizing it, stub and batter their fingers and toes. But Judah had taken no warning from her pain and so Ezekiel suffered for her. His heartbreak was an act of substitution, suffering for Israel’s benefit. His pain was for the sake of her taking warning. That it had no such happy effect is tragic; that the Lord required his prophet to endure it for the people’s sake is the measure of his love and of the greatness of the consequence, now much was at stake.
If we have any understanding whatsoever of the wrath of God, of hell itself, and if we have an ounce of sense, we will not object, we will never object to the hardest things, the most painful things that must be suffered to make us take warning and we will consider the noblest sacrifice the pain and sorrow of others suffered for the sake of giving that warning to others.
O Lord, if thus so obstinate I,
Choose thou, before my spirit die,
A piercing pain, a killing sin,
And to my proud heart run them in.
Well that makes perfect sense if God is really the avenger of our sin and if his wrath is as terrible as the Bible everywhere warns us it is. And then it makes sense that God’s servants should be willing to suffer themselves for the same reason, to bring the eternal issues of life home to complacent hearts.
Now we are not all called upon to suffer as Ezekiel did for the purpose for which he suffered. It was no small suffering required to be God’s prophet and to be required not only to bring an unwelcome message but to become oneself a sign of that message. But we are all called to embody the message of eternal salvation and damnation in our lives. The message of the gospel is most powerfully conveyed to unbelievers when it is incarnated in the life of Christians.
Let me use as an illustration an account of particular suffering and loss in the life of Thomas Boston. Some of you will have heard this before but many of you not. I think it beautifully and powerfully helps us not only to appreciate what God required of Ezekiel but demonstrates how we may do for others what Ezekiel did in his sorrow and loss by drawing their attention to the unique way he responded to the afflictions of life.
Thomas Boston, the Scot theologian and pastor of the early years of the 18th century, was a man apart as Ezekiel was. He too was a faithful man and a great preacher but for a long time was resented more than appreciated for his message.
His wife was not a woman of robust health and every childbirth was, for her, not only an ordeal but a threat to her life. In April 1707 Boston records in his diary that he had prayed earnestly for his wife’s safety as she was near to delivering a child. He says that while in prayer he was given an impression that the child would be a boy and at that moment he promised the Lord that if it were a boy and were delivered alive, he would name him Ebenezer, after the memorial to God’s faithfulness that Samuel had set up in Israel, as we read in I Samuel 7. He writes that on the 23rd of that month of April his wife safely delivered and his heart leaped for joy hearing that it was a boy and so Ebenezer. But in the entry for September of that same year we read: “It pleased the Lord, for my further trial, to remove by death, on the 8th September, my son Ebenezer.” He goes on: “I had never more confidence with God in any such case than in that child’s being the Lord’s. I had indeed more than ordinary, in giving him away to the Lord, to be saved by the blood of Christ. But his death was exceeding afflicting to me, and a matter of sharp exercise. To bury his name, was indeed harder than to bury his body…but I saw a necessity of allowing a latitude to [God’s] sovereignty.”
A year later, in August of 1708, Mrs. Boston delivered another son whom, Boston says, “after no small struggle with myself, I named Ebenezer.” But in October of that same year this son too fell ill with the measles. Boston records how he went out to the barn and there prayed for his son. He writes: “I renewed my covenant with God, and did solemnly and explicitly covenant for Ebenezer, and in his name accept of the covenant, and of Christ offered in the gospel; and gave him away to the Lord, before angels, and the stones of that house as witnesses. I cried also for his life, that Ebenezer might live before him, if it were his will. But, when after that exercise, I came into the house, I found, that instead of being better, he was worse [and in a few hours he was dead].
After the funeral of this his second Ebenezer, Boston wrote: “I see most plainly that…I must stoop, and be content to follow the Lord in an untrodden path…” “I saw a necessity of allowing a latitude to [God’s] sovereignty.” Here is the point: Who but the living God and what but his gospel of eternal life could make a man who had suffered so cruelly nevertheless give glory to the one who had ordered such bitterness for a faithful son? Who but the living God could afflict one of his children so terribly and have that son in response worship his Father in heaven? Can you think of a more beautiful, a more convincing demonstration of the reality of God’s presence in the life of human beings than that it endures such shocks? The unseen is too real; it is even too wonderful to be overwhelmed by the heaviest of heartbreaks in this world. It was so in Ezekiel’s case; it was so in Boston’s, and it is to be so in your life and mine.
Now, Boston did not lose his sons and eventually his wife in order to become a sign to his congregation or to his generation. His sorrow did not have the same reason as Ezekiel’s. But his response to those terrible losses was very much Ezekiel’s: faithful and obedient. He gave glory to God in the midst of the sharpest trials of his life. And in that faithful response he, as Ezekiel long before, demonstrated in a most powerful and persuasive way the reality of the unseen world, of salvation – for how can one give glory to God in the death of one’s beloved children unless he has hope of another world and of their place in heaven – demonstrated the love and wisdom of God, and of the power of faith in Christ. The deepest feelings that most human beings have are those they have for those they love (spouse, children, parents, and so on). Here, more than anywhere else in human life and more powerfully, human beings experience the twinship of love and death. But a marriage can die without the death of one of the spouses and there are other heartbreaks in life that are, in one way or another, like a death, even the death of a loved one. There are many afflictions to which we ought to respond in ways that reveal that we are the servants of the living God, the followers of Jesus Christ, and pilgrims in this world.
Ezekiel’s response to sorrow, in obedience to God’s commandment, and ours in faithfulness to the gospel and to the Word of God, are signs and some of the most important signs of truth and reality that unbelievers will ever see. We should not respond to suffering as others do, to disappointment, to loss, to pain, and especially to death. Knowing what we know of God and his Word, of the gospel and the soon-coming future, knowing what we know of the sovereignty of God and the goodness of all his ways, it ought to be as obvious to those who observe our lives as it was to Ezekiel’s contemporaries that he did not think about life and the world in the same way that they did. Nothing reveals the power of the truth of God and his grace as the response, the very different response to heartbreak, of those who know that truth and have embraced it for themselves.