Today, we’re in an economic meltdown. People are suffering in these hard times. It appears now that when people act in their own self-interest—save, pay down debt, do the kinds of things that we all should have been doing in the first place—it makes the general economic climate even worse. Unfortunately, the scope of the trouble is so large and complex that looking for someone to blame is a lot easier than deciding what to do about it. So goes the coming election cycle.
Where is God in all this? Can we cry out to him for help, or is this mess somehow his judgment? Or perhaps some of both? The Bible has answers to those questions, and not necessarily in the places we think to look first. The message of Ezekiel to his fellow exiles in Babylon also speaks to our hard times, whether it is immediately obvious or not.
A prophet among the exiles
Ezekiel was born to a priestly family, and after intensive training, fully expected to become a priest when he turned 30. Instead, he was among the first wave of Babylonian exiles. The whole society believed God’s presence was located in the temple in Jerusalem. Being exiled from Jerusalem meant being exiled from God. It must have also meant that he was punishing those driven from his presence for their sin. The priests as a whole were the worst offenders, but exile must have been a particularly devastating blow for anyone who truly wanted to live a godly life.
But when Ezekiel turned 30, the year he would have begun to serve as a priest in the temple, God appeared to him in all his glory—in Babylon. He could not serve as a priest in Jerusalem, but he could and did serve as a prophet in Babylon and was recognized as such by his fellow Jews in exile.
In a vision, God transported Ezekiel back to Jerusalem and showed him the abominations that were taking place within the temple itself. As the vision continued, Ezekiel saw a man sent out to put a mark on the foreheads of all the people in Jerusalem who wept and lamented over the abominations. God ordered everyone else slaughtered without pity. Then Ezekiel watched as the glory of the Lord departed from the temple. The Spirit lifted Ezekiel to the east gate and told him to prophesy to a group of leaders, and as he did so, one of them dropped dead. Ezekiel fell on his face and asked God if he intended to destroy the entire remnant of Israel. Our lesson begins with the next verse.
The people of Jerusalem claimed that the exiles had gone far from the Lord. That had multiple meanings. Although the priests and prophets knew that God is everywhere, they believed that God’s special presence was in the temple. The common people probably didn’t make that distinction. God was in the temple, and the farther one was from Jerusalem, the farther from God. If the exiles were driven from the presence of God, then they must be sinners. The people of Jerusalem regarded themselves as somehow morally superior. They also believed that if God lived in Jerusalem, nothing bad could happen to the city.
The exiles themselves may have agreed with most of that assessment. Did their God consider them outcasts? God’s words must have comforted Ezekiel and his readers, for he said that he himself had been the one who scattered them, but while they were in Babylon, he was a sanctuary for them. In other words, they had been forcibly removed from their homeland, but they had not been removed from God’s concern.
God also promised that Jews who had been scattered to Babylon and other foreign lands would eventually return to Israel and it would be their possession. They were, by the way, only the first wave of exiles. Soon, the Babylonian army would force nearly everyone remaining in Jerusalem to leave.
The promise of God was therefore to the whole nation. God had scattered them. God would return them. But they would not return in the same condition in which they had been driven out. They left Jerusalem as idolaters who were guilty of the worst abominations. They would return as the people who would cleanse the land of all the detestable things.
God promised nothing less than a heart transplant. He would remove the old, hardened, sin-sick heart and replace it with a new one. Not only that, he would give them a new spirit. With their new heart and spirit, they would obey God’s will. That doesn’t mean that they would become puppets incapable of making choices. The passage ends with a warning to anyone who would return both to Israel and to their old sinful ways.
The prophetic word for today
The last 26 centuries or so amply demonstrate that that choice is always available. The new heart, or as Jeremiah was promising at about the same time, a new covenant, would give people the freedom to choose to obey. We know from the New Testament that the new covenant, the new heart, and the new spirit came only with Jesus. The law contained God’s imperatives, but only with the new covenant would anyone have the power to keep it.
I draw three major applications from this passage
- Appearances are deceiving. Some who is suffering greatly may well be more blessed by God than others for whom everything seems to be going their way.
- God is not limited by our ideas of where he is and how he operates.
- God’s judgment is not the same thing as rejection.
I’d like to camp on that last point for a while. There’s no shortage of bad news in our mass media. We all know that the national economy is getting pretty soundly thumped. Some of us are getting pretty soundly thumped in our personal life, too. I’m going through a really serious thumping right now. Maybe some of you are, too. Maybe some of you are not going through it at the moment, but you have been thumped at some time in the past. And we all know that whatever is happening now, we’re likely to get thumped some time in the future.
The bad news of the Bible is that we deserve it. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is not merely failing to be good enough. It is an out and out rebellion against the divine majesty. God takes that very seriously. He told Moses that he is gracious, merciful, and slow to anger, but in the same breath he said he would not let the guilty go unpunished. That’s why we all get thumped from time to time. God himself thumps us.
The good news is that we don’t get what we really deserve. God is not in the business of punishing sin. Oh, he punishes sin all right, but that’s not what he is about. His ultimate intention is not punishment, but restoration. He wants to have fellowship with us, but he wants us to be perfect. All that thumping is part of the process of causing us to become perfect.
The Bible is full of denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. We often think of the prophets delivering them with their teeth and fists clenched in indignation, but in fact they were more likely to speak with tears of sorrow streaming down their faces. We especially see it in Jeremiah and in Jesus.
Today, we come to the church hoping to hear the prophetic word. It seems to be rare in our day. The true prophetic word never omits denunciations of sin and stern warnings about the consequences of continuing in it. But it never stops there, either. The true prophetic word always holds out the promise of restoration and reconciliation. It always presents the love of God while not neglecting the wrath of God.
Our passage in Ezekiel comes at an awkward time in the life of the nation of Israel. The exiles needed hope, and eventually Ezekiel would promise hope, but God could not give him the full message of hope until after Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians. So what did he do? In the midst of several chapters of denunciations of the sin of Jerusalem, God tucked in one little ray of hope.
Is our situation today the judgment of God on sin? I’m sure it is, but as I say, God does not judge sin and stop there. His goal is not punishment, but redemption. Whatever thumping we take as a nation, as a church, as a congregation, or as individuals, God means to bring us good out of it.