Gleanings from the Bible: Ezekiel

Ezekiel is an unusual book. A mixture, which includes a call that reads like an extract from a science fiction novel, the usual prophecies declaring judgement and the future restoration of Jerusalem, an inspiring vision of the dry bones becoming a living army and then a long, detailed description of a Temple yet to be built.

The vision of God, at the beginning, is out of this world but appears to be full of the sort of vivid symbolism one finds in Revelation. Ezekiel’s call is to prophesy lament and mourning and woe (2:9), to point out that Israel/Judah had not kept God’s laws but rather conformed to the standards of the nations around them (11:12) and to foretell a time when the scattered people of Jerusalem would return and receive a new spirit within them – a heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone (11:19 & 36:26).

It strikes me that that is what should happen when the Christian receives the Spirit of God. A revolution, a transformation from the inside out. I once heard someone put it this way: Our lives are like a bowling ball with a bias that tends to take us in our own direction, governed by our own will. When God’s Spirit indwells us it is if the bowling bowl was turned over so that the bias takes us the opposite way, towards God and his will for our lives. The heart of flesh has a new sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit.

RENEWAL

The renewal image is expanded with the shoot taken from the top of the cedar (the Davidic line (17:1-3) and planted so that birds find shelter in its branches (an image of the Kingdom of God picked up by Jesus in Matthew 4:32). It is further expanded by the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in chapter 37. When hope is completely lost, God breathes new life into the situation. It is interesting that he enlists Ezekiel’s cooperation in the revival. “Prophesy to these bones and say to them…”

RESPONSIBILITY

God’s spokespeople are saddled with great responsibility then. Ezekiel is also enlisted as a watchman in chapters 3 and 33. If he does not speak out he is accountable for the fate of those who might have heard the warning. It instantly reminds me of Romans 10:14-15, “How then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” Christians have a calling by virtue of the Great Commission (Matthew 28). We should be capable of giving a reason for the hope that lies within us (1 Peter 3:15).

JUDGEMENT

Ezekiel’s message of judgement went beyond the People of God. Chapters are given over to the destruction of Tyre for example. But it seems probable to me that the message would not have been presented directly to the inhabitants of those nation’s and may rather have been for the benefit of the Jews with Ezekiel in Exile in Babylon. And I might add, to bolster the faith of the Exiles in God’s overarching control of history, rather than to satisfy their emotions of vengeance or triumphalism. We must remember that chapter 18 tells us that God responds to those who repent and takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

GOG

It has been suggested, with some good reason, that chapters 38 and 39 are a separate unit. Certainly we seem to be projected beyond the immediate return of the Exiles to Jerusalem, and the style of writing has changed to distinctly apocalyptic (similar to Revelation, where Gog is also mentioned in a great battle after the millennial period of peace).

Gog (not readily identified) appears to be an enemy leader from Israel’s north who gathers other nations to fight Israel in a huge battle which ends (as in Revelation) with a comprehensive defeat of those forces of evil.

If taken literally then this would appear to take place somewhere near the end of time prior to the Judgement Day. If understood spiritually this could refer to the death and resurrection of Christ and the victory over sin and death (which is the way some people interpret the Battle of Armageddon mentioned in Revelation). Or once again it could refer to some spiritual end-time battle.

I am conscious that, when Israel was reconstituted as a nation after the Second World War, many saw a fulfilment of these chapters in the huge return of Jews to the land, and are therefore expecting a rising of nations for a final battle against Israel. It could be, but     since the apocalyptic style carries a great deal of symbolic imagery we have to approach interpretation with care and with the recognition that a good deal of speculation abounds on the subject.

Best then to at least see that the overall thrust of these chapters is to affirm that God has control of the nations, both to raise up and destroy, and that the victory belongs to him. Whatever else is happening around God’s people, they are with God and can stay calm in the knowledge that they are on the winning side. The overthrow of evil will come to fruition. That is the message here and it is the message of Revelation.

THE TEMPLE

Chapter 40 of Ezekiel seems to pick up from the end chapter 37 and deals with the restoration of the Temple and the re-division of the Promised land amongst the tribes of Israel.

Since we have chapters of detailed dimensions of a Temple that has not been built, what should we make of it? Three broad possibilities occur to me.

  1. I grew up with the idea that one day an earthquake would demolish the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and Israel would build a fourth temple on the site, after the design given to Ezekiel.
  2. God gave instructions to Ezekiel which were not carried out, as historically so many instructions weren’t. It’s another case of people not really listening to the prophets. What they finished up with were inferior buildings.
  3. Ezekiel’s Temple represents an ideal couched in concrete pictorial terms. Rather like the end-times pictures we have of the Kingdom of God in writings such as Isaiah and again in the symbolic language of the final chapters of Revelation.

The first two theories are not impossible but I think I favour the third. I can’t imagine why God would mandate a sacrificial system in our future, given that Jesus Christ is portrayed as the once-for-all sacrifice that is effective for dealing with the problem of human sin in a way that animal sacrifice could never be.

The way the Land is divided in chapter 48 is in strips one above the other, quite differently from the original division of the Land under Joshua. Here again may be the portrayal of a future ideal where the divisions are set out neatly with a comparatively huge central area set apart, where the sanctuary is just on the north side of Jerusalem.

In the final chapters of Revelation we also see the imagery of the New Jerusalem, which contains no Temple. This New Jerusalem is obviously a symbol of the People of God and there is no Temple because God and Jesus Christ are the Temple – God dwells amongst his people.

Whatever else Ezekiel’s Temple may indicate, that is where the People of God are heading. God amongst his people is the reassuring reality.

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Gleanings from the Bible: Lamentations

Over my lifetime I have lived in sixteen houses for various periods, ranging from several months to eighteen years. I also hold both UK and Australian passports. Throughout my life I have always had a sense of impermanence, of temporary ownership. Even living now in our own retirement house I am only too aware that again, at some time, we will probably move on. So I personally find it somewhat difficult to put myself in the shoes of those for whom land and place are of paramount significance. For me, my attachment to places has had more to do with the people that I have known and returning to that place after they have gone is like visiting an empty shell, populated only by memories.

Trying to identify with Lamentations is made more difficult by the knowledge that their exile was not the end for Judah. There would be a return to the Land, even if it was only  their children and grandchildren who would make it. Furthermore there is also the assurance, through the prophet Jeremiah, that God is still with them as they seek him in the foreign land. There is ample evidence in the Old Testament that Yahweh is the God in and over all the nations, not just Israel and Judah.

If Jeremiah (as tradition has it) did write Lamentations then, knowing all this, it is remarkable that he has captured the passion and grief of the exiles in such a meticulously constructed poem…

Zion stretches out her hands
but there is no one to comfort her.

Your wound is as deep as the sea.
Who can heal you?

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals
All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.

Then again, Jeremiah may have had more reason to grieve than most. His ministry, his warnings had been rejected. He knew that the Exile could have been avoided, but even down to the very end, when all his other predictions had come to pass, his people had ignored him and tried to flee to Egypt. Now he could only hopelessly stand by as life fell apart for them.

And yet… in the middle of all this loss and emptiness, Jeremiah again holds out the message of hope…

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion:
I will wait for him.”

At the lowest moments in life, when we have failed and brought shame and disaster on ourselves, when the future looks impossibly bleak and when we have lost all that we hold dear. For the refugee, the bereaved, the destitute, the betrayed, the lonely and the outcast, the LORD, Yahweh, is the ever-present, constant anchor in a turbulent world. Say to yourself, “Yahweh is my portion; I will wait for him. His compassions never fail.” And believe it!

Gleanings from the Bible: Jeremiah

Jeremiah is an example of the truth that you can be whatever God wants you to be. Although another reluctant starter, God assures him…

“Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I
command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you.” (1:7).

Like Moses, it was as if he had little choice. God touched his lips and he was ready to go.

We sometimes forget, as Christians, that we already have a call, encapsulated in the Great Commission, “Go and make disciples of all nations…  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20). To receive Christ as Saviour is to receive the anointing of his Spirit, who gives us the words we need. We cannot opt out any more than Jeremiah could!

 …his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in,
indeed, I cannot. (20:9)

Just as Isaiah prophesied judgement, so did Jeremiah, though you get the impression that the latter suffered more for it, even expressing the wish that he’d never been born! (chapter 15). Although God held out the assurance that, if Judah would change her ways and actions, deal justly and not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, shed innocent blood or sacrifice to Baal, they could continue to live in the land, the rulers and people resolutely ignored the message, right up until they went into captivity to Babylon!

When we look at the world today we realise that human nature has not changed and this message is still just as relevant. We may no longer sacrifice to Baal, but instead offer the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people on the altars of materialism, power, fame and fortune. Recently in Australia we sought to help balance our budget by significantly decreasing overseas aid.

As with Isaiah, there is still a strong note of hope. Seventy years was allotted for the Captivity and as always the aim of the judgement was repentance and restoration…

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I  will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. (29:11-14)

Jeremiah put his money where his mouth was and, with disaster looming on Judah, he bought a field in obedience to God and in anticipation of the return.

Until the return (and let’s face it, not many of those who heard Jeremiah speak would see out the Exile) Jeremiah exhorted the people to seek the peace and prosperity of the countries where they would be carried off.

Even today that’s good advice, not only to refugees but also to Christian people who can be so busy criticising governments and their leaders that they forget to pray positively for them. If we want to see change, we must pray as the beginning of our action!

Beyond the return God promises that, a righteous Branch, a King who will rule wisely, would be raised up, to be known as The LORD Our Righteous Saviour (23:5-6).

Also there would be a new covenant where…

I will put my law in their minds
and write it in their hearts. (31:33)

The implication is a transformation whereby people are motivated to live in obedience to God and act in the spirit of the law rather than simply living to the letter and minimum that the law demands. It reminds us that we can achieve little of lasting worth without the Spirit of God within our minds and heart.

It remind me of a prayer from the Anglican Prayer Book…

Almighty God,
who alone can bring order to our unruly wills and affections:
give us grace to love what you command
and desire what you promise,
that, in all the changes and chances of this uncertain world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joy is to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.