Ezekiel the Watchman: Terror, and Hope
The ministry of the prophet Ezekiel overlapped that of Jeremiah, and his Book is the last major prophetic work in the Old Testament—unequaled until St. John’s Book of Revelation. It begins with apocalyptic visions and offers throughout a dramatic denunciation of the Israelites for all their sins. It was Ezekiel’s mission to urge the Jewish exiles in Babylon to turn back to the LORD—or to face the consequences. But the manner in which God will restore His people, according to Ezekiel, will open a new chapter in the history of salvation.
The context is that time is running out. God means to put an end to such proverbs as “The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing” and to such retorts as “The vision that he sees is for many days hence, and he prophesies of times far off” (Ez 12:22 and 27). To the contrary, the LORD has established Ezekiel as a “watchman’:
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life. [Ez 3:17-19ff]
This lesson is central to the book (it is repeated in chapter 33), and the LORD makes it clear that each one will be judged for his own iniquity, whether that evil consists of sinful acts or, as was so commonly the case with religious leaders, the failure to correct sin in others. Yet, as God laments: “Your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just’; when it is their own way that is not just” (33:17).
In fact, this attitude is constantly fostered in the people by their religious leaders, not to mention our own. Indeed, if we read Scripture only as ancient history, we will miss the greater part of its point, for we too sin and need correction, and we too have shepherds that encourage sin instead of offering correction:
Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, prophesy and say to those who prophesy out of their own minds: …Your prophets have been like foxes among the ruins, O Israel… They have spoken falsehood and divined a lie; they say, ‘Says the LORD,’ when the LORD has not sent them…. [from 13:1-7]
Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Because you have uttered delusions and seen lies, therefore behold, I am against you, says the Lord God. My hand will be against the prophets who see delusive visions and who give lying divinations… Because, yes, because they have misled my people, saying ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets daub it with whitewash; say to those who daub it with whitewash that it shall fall! [from 13:8-16]
Toward the New Covenant
When we place all this in a contemporary context, it becomes even more terrifying, because as Ezekiel prophesies later in the book, we belong to that generation that has received so much more than the Israelites from God. Consider this sequence:
- In Chapter 14, God describes the sinner who, “taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of iniquity before his face,…yet comes to a prophet to inquire for himself of me; and I will set my face against that man” (14:7-8).
- The Lord also says that things have gotten so bad that “even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in [the land], they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness”, saving no others (14:14). If we recall Abraham bargaining with God for the life of an entire city, we begin to see how much more serious this is.
- Then see how applicable are Israel’s sins to those of our own time: “But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown…. And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to [other gods] to be devoured” (16:15-22). Millions, even many in the Church who should know better, sacrifice their children, both literally and figuratively, to the false gods which dominate our culture.
- Next God denounces the shepherds of Israel and prophesies a different sort of restoration: “Ho, shepherds of Israel...! The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, and the lost you have not sought…. Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.” (Read the famous chapter 34.)
- Finally Ezekiel prophesies that after pouring out His wrath, God will cleanse His people: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (36:26).
Why should this be more terrifying?
These promises for the future are, of course, partly about the end times—and as such they are signs of great consolation and hope. But they are clearly also about the coming of the Messiah, the Good Shepherd who is God Himself. In this sense, the passages of judgment are far more terrifying for us. For if Christ has come, and sent the Holy Spirit, and established the new Israel of the Church to exercise His own authority, then what must we fear if, even in our own day, the very betrayals which led God to establish the New Covenant are being repeated now in its name?
In some ways, then, our last state is worse than our first. From one very real vantage point, it is as if God has expelled one demon but, instead of cleansing our souls to receive Him, we have invited seven more demons to take up residence (Mt 12:43-45). We also know this: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Lk 12:48). Everyone in the Church has been given very much indeed, and yet, as the saying goes, here we are.
Fortunately, we know that this is not the end of the story, either for the Jews or for ourselves. Again and again in the Book of Ezekiel, the Lord emphasizes that He forgives and heals not because His people deserve it but for the sake of His great name (e.g., 36:22-23). Moreover, the Book closes (in chapters 40 through 48) with a vision of a new temple, out of which water flows to give life to all. This water creates a new city and, as the very last verse of Ezekiel states: “The name of the city henceforth shall be, ‘The LORD is there.’”
How can we grasp this? There is only one solution, and that is to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, as St. Paul warned the Philippians (2:12). But we can also take to heart the lesson of Ezekiel’s chapter 37, which describes the valley of the dry bones, teaching us that much may be gained even through death itself. God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” But Ezekiel can only answer, “O Lord GOD, you know.” And so God replies:
“Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones. Behold…you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD…. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live;… then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done it, says the LORD.” [37:5-14]
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Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Jan. 09, 2019 6:11 PM ET USA
cuftoo: Thanks for your kindness. The article is on our Facebook page.
Posted by: cuftoo -
Jan. 08, 2019 7:40 PM ET USA
This is a wonderful article. Can this be posted to FB? It's very important to a fb kind of argument and it's very relevant. Thank you