A new phase of Ezekiel’s ministry opens in chapter 33. Hitherto, the practical developments that his ministry suggested to the people had been hindered by the solidarity of the opposition which he had encountered. Now a change has come. The fulfilment of his predictions begins to unfold the meaning of his prophetic burden in the minds of the people. His responsibility as the watchman of God, nevertheless, still remains; hence its reaffirmation, “O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me”, 33. 7. Difficulties still confront him, of a different nature it is true, but they must be overcome by the same quality of character previously manifested.
The figure of a watchman is suggestive. To fulfil the responsibility of this post it is imperative to have a good vision, a good trumpet, and a good conscience. The application to the prophet of God is clear. He who sees far into the spiritual nature and issues of affairs is alone competent to give warning. The warning note is to be no “uncertain sound” that will mislead. Upon his soul rests a burden of responsibility which prevents his sleeping at his post, or neglecting to give the appropriate signal to save those for whom he watches. Such men were not always accepted by the people. It is questionable if any were at the time of their ministry. “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?” was the searching question of Stephen to the Sanhedrin, Acts 7. 52. The trials of Ezekiel are illustrative of the trials of every true prophet of old, and of the “good minister of Jesus Christ” of our day. Different groups of people come before us in this chapter. Some are away in Jerusalem, left there after its downfall; others are in the colony at Chebar. The different reactions of these groups to the crisis in their national history are found, in principle, with us today. Let us give attention to the recorded “sayings” of these people, and the prophet’s illuminating answers.
1. The Saying of Despondency. "Therefore, O thou son of man, speak unto the house of Israel; Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?”, Ezek. 33. 10. The predictions of gloom made by the prophet have come to pass. The impossible, as the people thought the announcement of national judgment to be, has really happened. No longer could they question or refute the claims of Ezekiel. Events have vindicated his calling by Jehovah, and his messages to be “the word of the Lord”. Now in this mood of deep despondency they say, in effect, “There is but one thing for us, to wait for the inevitable penalty stored up for us. Nothing that we can do will revoke the consequences of the past evil”. Another has well written, “The bitterness of unavailing remorse, the consciousness of national death, had laid fast hold of their spirits and deprived them of the power of hope. In sober truth the nation was dead beyond the hope of revival … The people therefore abandoned themselves to despair, and hardened themselves against the appeals which the prophet addressed to them in the name of Jehovah. They looked on themselves as victims of an inexorable fate, and were disposed perhaps to resent the call to repentance as a trifling with the misery of the unfortunate”. Sullen impenitence is not submission. This mood is not godly sorrow that worketh repentance. The mood of the old patriarch when he said, “all these things are against me”, Gen. 42. 36, soon paralyses the heart. One of the tactics of Satan is to cause dejection of spirit through a perversion of truth, and so crush the exercise of faith in God.
The prophet is bidden to answer this mood and the reasoning of the people. “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the lawless; but that the lawless turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”, Ezek. 33. 11 newberry. The first part of the answer means that the salvation of men from the predicted judgment of Israel was a pleasure to God. It is a repetition of chapter 18, intended to hearten the living captives. Their survival was a token of the unalterable purpose of God to preserve Israel. The second part denotes that obedience to the standards of righteousness laid down in the law brings divine favour. The true rectitude of heart shown in obedience is the state of loyalty which is alone acceptable with God. Believers of the present day should perceive how far-reaching in principle is this twofold answer. Our corporate witness at the close of an age of much departure, despite its weakness, is an expression of God’s truth and grace. The power of that witness depends entirely on loyalty of heart to the commandments of the Lord. This is not formalism, though it may be labelled so. Ezekiel’s reasoning will not give much support to men who think otherwise.
2. The Saying of Complaint Against God’s Moral
Government. "Yet the children of thy people say, The way of the Lord is not equal”, v. 17. Evasion of the lesson of the national calamity is the motive of the complaint. Disappointed because nothing has intervened to prevent the fulfilment of the prophet’s messages, the people now attempt to offset his ministry on seeming Scriptural ground. The second commandment “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”, Exod. 20. 5, does not support the traditional view that these men take of the punishment of evil. In effect, they are reasoning that the predicament in which they now find themselves is due to “the iniquity of the fathers”. True it is that the issues of sin and departure from God are carried beyond the day of both nations and individuals who are guilty. But this fact does not justify the attempt that these people make to evade personal guilt before the Lord.
To counteract this reasoning Ezekiel, as the watchman of God, stated plainly that the individual who repents of his evil ways would meet with the favour of Jehovah. God’s national judgments for national sins do not for one moment interfere with the principle that each individual is answerable for his own conduct, and should be righteously dealt with. The sharp edge of this truth is blunted by the complaint cited above. That complaint wounds the honour of God. The inference is that, because some escape the invader’s sword, the Lord is a respecter of persons. The dealings of God in His choices of men, His providential overruling, His punishments, and even His rewards to the faithful, have all been questioned. God is no respecter of persons. He is the Lord who weighs the hearts and actions of men. “How unsearchable are his judgments"! The believer turns away from the low reasonings of men, and endeavours to hold the faith without respect of persons as he is enjoined.
3. The Saying of Religious Fanaticism. "Son of man, they that inhabit those wastes of the land of Israel speak, saying, Abraham was one, and he inherited the land: but we are many; the land is given us for inheritance”, Ezek. 33. 24. The saying is that of a small group of turbulent men who stand upon their sword, v. 26. Probably, this means that they resorted to guerilla tactics to live and avenge themselves of the enemy. Their conduct was inspired by a religious infatuation which distorted the meaning of both the origin and title-deeds of the children of Israel. They infer that God could re-people the land through them, despite the smallness of their numbers, and so repeat the miracle that He performed with Abraham and his barren consort, see Isa. 51. 2. They reason that they have the right to the land, and mean to keep it! Were they not left in the land for this purpose? Very different from former arguments is this; see, e.g., Jer. 7.4. For us, it is a reminder how quickly men “shift” their arguments to suit their circumstances. At the time when claim was made to these “rights”, these men were guilty of the breach of ceremonial, civil and moral laws; see w. 25-26. To them the words of our Lord may be applied, “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham’, John 8. 39. Abraham’s blessing came as a reward of his faith. Had they forgotten that? It is not surprising to read of their removal from the land, see Ezek. 33. 27-29.
No form of enthusiasm will avail us, if we bypass the obedience required by God. It is not becoming to talk of the illustrious past, and “glory” in an association with a movement which has been blessed, when at the same time the standards of holy living involved are avoided. The spirit of the past must be ours to know its blessing. God requires truth in the inward parts. Otherwise we become party bigots.
4. The Saying of Curiosity. "The people … speak one to another … saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the Lord”, v. 30.
As one who is the main topic of conversation, see v. 30 R.v., the prophet was confronted with a new danger. Persecution brings its sorrows, but popularity has its subtle ensnarement. Popularity, however, does not distract the faithful prophet. Obedience to, and confidence in his God reinforced his spirit as aforetime. He became to the people a popular preacher just as John the Baptist was considered to be by the Pharisees, see John 5. 35; a pastime curiosity, as Paul was taken to be by Agrippa, see Acts 25. 22. Ezekiel’s hearers had no serious conviction, for they heard his words and did them not, Ezek. 33. 31. There was no spiritual restoration in their hearts, for all they saw in events was the possibility of greater scope in commerce, “their heart goeth after their covetousness”, v. 31. The national changes taking place would increase their trading prospects. No searchings of heart did they know. To them the prophet was a “lovely song”, v. 32. Novelty and entertainment were what they sought, rather than adjustment of life to the will of Jehovah. A true prophet was among them and they knew it not. It was a day of opportunity, lost! These conditions cause us to reflect upon our own ways, and challenge our own hearts. Are our responses to the teaching of the sacred Word spiritual?
Surveying again these “sayings”, we see, in principle, what is required of us, deeds and not despondency; consistency and not complaint; faithfulness and not fanaticism; compliance and not curiosity.
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