After receiving his commission as Prophet to the Israelites, it was explained to Ezekiel what it means to be a watchman to his people. These first encounters with the Lord appear to be like training or an orientation exercise. As we have seen, part of that included learning about the Lord’s attitude to his people – that he had not abandoned them and that he still wishes to care for his people and to bless them. Also, as we have already seen, Ezekiel needed to learn that the Lord does not want us grovelling with our faces in the dirt. He does not want us in fear, in the wrong sense, but to be able to speak with him face to face. Relationship and fellowship is what the Lord is interested in. But there is some more to the text we read in the previous study, so let’s look again at the text: Ezekiel 3:22-27
The hand of the Lord was on me there, and he said to me, ‘Get up and go out to the plain, and there I will speak to you.’ So I got up and went out to the plain. And the glory of the Lord was standing there, like the glory I had seen by the River Kebar, and I fell face down.
Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: ‘Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie you with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them, for they are a rebellious people. But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says.” Whoever will listen let them listen, and whoever will refuse let them refuse; for they are a rebellious people.’
I wonder how many times already, only up to the end of the 3rd chapter, we have read the words ‘they are a rebellious people’? Ezekiel’s style of writing does include a lot of repetition, but this is something above and extra. So therefore I understand it that God was making a point to Ezekiel and, from that, Ezekiel is also making a point to the reader. What do I mean?
Well, let’s begin with the obvious: this phrase is a judgement of the Israelites. I have already, in an earlier study, discussed the different ways that different Christians relate to God, and the ways that they behave to others as a result of the way that they relate to God. I would say that the ‘easy’ or ‘lazy’ interpretation and thinking to come from this often repeated phrase is to think of our God as a God of justice and judgement. And then, although it is completely contrary to the gospel, such thinking and relating to a God in this way inevitably leads to an emphasis on sin and curses. And how do you know what is sin without a reference to law? And so this kind of view of God also seems, inevitably, to lead to an emphasis on the law and what can be defined as ‘righteous’ living and ‘unrighteous’ living. From there, it is a very tiny step over into the sin of legalism, which has no hope of salvation or entry into the Kingdom at the end of it. So from grace, it becomes easy to descend into a ‘salvation by works’ which, of course, is contrary to the gospel and is no salvation at all.
But, despite the often repeated phrase that the Israelites are a rebellious people, I honestly do not believe that the emphasis here is on judgement. Rather the emphasis is on redemption. Does that surprise you? It surprised me when this insight first hit me! But the more that I looked at this early relationship between Ezekiel and God, and the more I realised what was going on at the time, considering the situation that the Israelites were in and why they were in that situation, then also the more I realised that redemption was at the heart of the calling of Ezekiel and the ministry he was being called to.
Why? Well listen to those who preach a God of anger and fiery judgement. Those who speak so much about sin and condemnation and the punishment of hell (a pagan concept alien to the true faith, but that is another study for another time. Yes there is judgement – but it will not be a pagan one). In those churches there is the concept that sin separates between men and God. I used to believe this myself. But as my knowledge of the scriptures grew and my relationship with the Lord also, the more I saw that the Lord did not create with the purpose of judgement and destruction. The Lord desires fellowship, and is deeply saddened at anything that comes between Him and the works of his creation. His purposes in history and today are to redeem all to himself. He does not deviate from this. His anger does not separate him from his people or you and me today.
Yes, one can argue that the oft-repeated ‘they are a rebellious people’ is an indication of the anger that exists. But if that was all there was to it, then why was he appointing a prophet to this people, if not for the fact that he was still talking to them and wanting them to hear his voice? Why make this prophet also a watchman, and so to deliver people from sin and judgement, if not for the fact that he was still interested in his people and wants the best for them?
The sin of Israel for sure had brought judgement on the nation, and they were in a poor situation now because of this. But judgement did not mean the end of the Lord’s care for them. He was not separating himself from his people because of their sin. If that was the case, it would be for the Israelites themselves to find a way back to him, to respond to the remnant of the true faith who still cared… But that is not what we find here. We find an interventionist God who has not finished speaking with his people. He has not withdrawn his desire to bless and to prosper his people.
When I look at my own life, I wonder how often it could be said of me that ‘I am a rebellious person.’ But I know that the Lord has not finished with me yet! I have not been left ‘out in the cold,’ but rather there is plenty of evidence of the way the Lord cares for me every day. I may have forgotten about the Lord from time to time, but he never once forgot about me. And I have known for myself the truth of the parable of the Good Shepherd, who will leave the 99 to find the one who has gone astray.
He is not a God who said, ‘That sheep has gone its own way instead of following me. Therefore whatever happens now is his own choice and it serves him right.’ No! That is not our God!! He rather was patient and placed many opportunities before me to guide me back to him. He did not let me go, but cared for me. This also proves his Fatherly love to me.
I had a fright once when my oldest son was very young. He would occasionally dash away from me, oblivious to the world and in his own thoughts. He did this once when next to me by a busy road – and began to dash to the road without a thought and without responding to my shout of ‘Stop!’ If I was a Father of a kind the way some people portray God, then I would have stood there and said to myself: it is his choice because he ran away from me, and so he deserves all he will get. But I could not do that. I am his father and I love him. So I chased after him and caught him by his coat before he could get out into the road and be hit by a car. It was scary, but I would not let my boy get hurt.
In the same way, we run off from the Lord sometimes, caught in our own thoughts and oblivious to what is really going on. The Lord does not want to see us destroyed by our own thoughtlessness and stupidity. He realises we are as little children, and he is the best Father that there is! He certainly does all that he can to rescue us.
And this is what is happening here at the beginning of the book of Ezekiel the prophet. Yes, you can imagine the annoyance in his spirit that the Israelites are a rebellious people. But they are like my son who ran out towards the dangerous traffic – and so the Lord was going to do all he could to rescue them and bring them back into the safety of his arms of love.
This is even why he spoke of shutting Ezekiel up and preventing him from rebuking his people. The old covenant is, for many reasons, known as the covenant of the law. So the fact of legalism and the judgementalism that comes with it was the common error among the Israelites then, during Jesus’ life, and today – and not only the Israelites, but many in the church too. It is not for us to judge others. Not then, not in Jesus’ life, and not now. Jesus was very specific about this. Please refer back to my studies on the Sermon on the Mount to learn more about this. But legalism pretty much inevitably leads to judging others, to wanting to be better than others, and to some degree to self-righteousness.
The fact here is that no man is to be a judge of men. That is the job of God in the person of Jesus Christ. The job of Ezekiel here was not to be a judge of his people, but to be the one who carries the words of God to his people in order that they may turn from their evil and renew their relationship with the Lord. So Ezekiel was not allowed to rebuke, only to bring the words of the Lord to his people. There is a big difference.
And yes, I would also relate this to those rebellious and sinful souls who cannot resist the urge to ‘tell the truth in love.’ This is just yet another passage of scripture to show how wrong they are. As I have often said before, they very rarely tell the truth and certainly not in love. But it is not for man (or woman) to rebuke man (or woman). Yes, we are all surrounded by a rebellious people – but should not forget the fact that we are one of them! So our mouths should be shut and our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths rather than to speak rebuke to others.
Praise the Lord that, despite the rebellion of his people, he is a god of restoration and blessing and love!