Then the Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a loud rumbling sound as the glory of the Lord rose from the place where it was standing. It was the sound of the wings of the living creatures brushing against each other and the sound of the wheels beside them, a loud rumbling sound. The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the Lord on me. I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the river Kebar. And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days – deeply distressed.
Over several studies we have been looking at the way Ezekiel received his commission to be a prophet from God. In the previous study we looked at the scroll that he was given to eat. The Lord then goes on to say that Ezekiel is not being sent to a strange people that speak a foreign language, but that if they do not listen to him as the prophet, it is because they to do listen to God. And God promised to make Ezekiel as unyielding as they are.
Here in this passage we reach the conclusion of the first vision of God to Ezekiel. The four creatures, the vault and the throne all rose and disappeared in much the same way as they had appeared. I don’t think it makes much difference whether you are a bronze age person like Ezekiel with limited understanding of science and the world, or whether you are a modern educated person – this whole vision and the imagery associated with it was very unusual. The creatures, the man who seemed to be made of fire, and all the power and brightness that was displayed. These things would be disturbing to just about anyone. But through it, Ezekiel received his commission and also was encouraged not to fear.
One thing was for sure, he could no longer continue in the belief that was common among his people, that God had abandoned them to their fate because of his anger and judgement against them. But also, he had to face the fact that the Israelites were in this situation because the people had chosen not to listen to God and His prophets, but instead chose false gods and performed dark and evil practises for them. That even now, they did not think about the true god, only that the false gods that they had worshipped were not strong enough to help them against the strong and powerful Babylonians.
One must remember that this was a time in history when each people and nation had their own gods and beliefs. It was understood that wars decided not only which people were the better fighters, but also which god was stronger than the other. So it was common for the idols of the defeated gods to be placed in a lower position beneath the idol of the victorious god.
We read of this in the books of Samuel, where the Philistines had defeated the Israelites and so taken the Ark of the Covenant away to their city, and placed it in an inferior position beneath the idol of their fish-man god. They were shocked, the next morning, to find that the idol of their god was nose-down on the ground before the Ark. So they restored their god to the upright position, but the next day it was again nose down before the Ark. At the same time, their city began to be plagued with haemorrhoids.
In a similar arrangement, there is a place in the city of Rome called The Pantheon. In the present day it is a Roman Catholic basilica. But it’s name means ‘all the gods’ and in the centre of this circular building was originally a giant statue of the god of Rome: Mars. In the alcoves around the large room were placed the idols of the nations that were defeated and controlled by the Romans, all in a very much inferior position to Mars. In this way showing that the god of the Romans was greater than the god of all these nations and more worthy of devotion and praise.
And this was the situation facing the Israelites who had been worshipping Baal and other gods. Their gods were now considered defeated gods and inferior to the gods of Babylon. It was evidence that the gods of Babylon were stronger and more worthy of worship and praise.
So, from this, it becomes increasingly understandable that many Israelites – who we understand did not know the true god because they and their nation had rebelled and did not want to listen to the prophets because they did not want to listen to god – now considered ‘turning native’ in Babylon. By this I mean the abandoning of Baal worship, and any other false gods that had been revered in Israel, because those gods had been revealed to be inferior. The Gods of the Babylonians were superior, more deserving of worship and praise, and so that is what many of the Israelites began to do.
Of course, we know from teaching elsewhere in scripture that there is always a remnant who are true to the Lord. It was not only Ezekiel. We know of the story of Daniel and his friends. There were others also. Knowing the true god, they also knew that he was not the one who had been defeated, but that the events that had happened to Israel were the judgement that he had promised long ago if the people did not live according to the covenant between themselves and the Lord.
We know from the traditions, and from the strong hints in the words of Jesus, that these who kept themselves true to the one and only God had a hard time during all those years of rebellion of Israel. Many had been mocked, tortured, stoned, put to death. They did not have the same opportunities for trade and earning money, and so were often living in poverty and difficulties. We also know, from what we can read in Daniel and other places, that it did not become more comfortable for them in Babylon – because those who stayed true to the Lord refused to bow down to the conquering gods, or the new god instituted by Nebuchadnezzar. They could be delivered to the lions, or put to the fire, or other threats.
So, after the glory of the Lord departed from Ezekiel, he was returned to his people. It is interesting how that is written, and is slightly ambiguous. Some writers suggest that Ezekiel experienced something similar to Philip in Acts chapter 8, where he was miraculously transported from one location to another. Possibly this was true, and that Ezekiel was instantly transported to Tel Aviv. But, as I said, the writing is slightly ambiguous. It can be that he was lifted by the Spirit in the same way as he was lifted from lying prone on his face when he first was spoken to by God. And then, from there, he walked in his own strength.
In whichever way he travelled, we are told that he was in bitterness and anger, deeply distressed in Spirit.
As I shared in a previous study, there was a oneness of heart between God and Ezekiel about the whole situation. Ezekiel could feel how the Father heart of God had been broken by the rebellion of his Children, the people of Israel. How he had given them very many chances to turn and to find their way back to Him, but they refused. The whole situation could have been avoided and both he and his people could be living in their own land in peace and prosperity.
And having been fed and filled by God, and having the close communion with Him, I believe that it was some of the righteous anger of God that was in his own heart. And he felt the great distress that God felt at the betrayal and rebellion of his chosen people. If he, as tradition has suggested, was the son of Jeremiah, then he would certainly have had bitterness and anger at the death of his father who had, for many years, tried to bring the message of the true god to his people. Yet even when the destruction and death came that he had prophesied, he was not respected, but put to death as though he himself was in some way responsible for this.
And now Ezekiel was being sent as a prophet to the people who had killed the prophets. This on its own can be troubling and distressing. Sometimes it is tempting to think of the heroes in the bible as somehow different from you and me, somehow special. But really they were not. They were just ordinary human beings chosen by God.
So now, imagine that you had a vision and visitation from God something like this one for Ezekiel. And imagine that you were going to be sent as a prophet into the land of Syria, and to declare the words of the Lord to the people of ISIL, whether they will listen to you or not. And you know how they have been killing and beheading captives for the ‘crime’ of being Christians. In some ways, this is not too dissimilar from what Ezekiel was facing – because many of those who stayed true to the Lord, and not only the prophets, had suffered terrible things or been put to death. So how happy would you really be to receive such a calling? I think you could be similar to Ezekiel, and to sit in distress for a whole week!
And yet, many of us have such a calling to give a much simpler message to the church among our own people. But it is very few who actually speak up. Is this because they fear being tortured or put to death? No. Do they fear a hard life, lack of opportunities in future, the possibility of poverty in future? No. So why not speak up? Well, it seems to be something really scary (I am being cynical of course – and angry at myself). So what is it? A feeling that they will ‘look silly.’
This of course speaks both about themselves and the church they are in, and about the ‘Christian society’ (really?) that they were raised in. It shows that there was a lack of the kind of love that encourages steps in growth without criticism at any mistakes or failure. In fact, encouragement itself is probably lacking or in short supply. It shows about the person that they are more interested in the personal image that they display to the world, than about the image of the risen saviour that is shown through their lives.
As for me, I have been called to challenge the complete lack of Christlike love, as explained by Jesus and expounded on by Paul, and as demonstrated by the early church in the book of Acts. Love is lacking. I have also been called to challenge literalism and legalism, both of which are curses on the church in these days. Legalism is itself called a curse in the scriptures, where we are told that those who are under the law are also under a curse. It is explained in another place that, as soon as you try to live the Christian life in this way, you become responsible for fulfilling every one of the tiniest aspects of the law. But instead, such Christians feel that they now have the authority to criticise others, or be completely bigoted and hateful to others, who they see as living in contradiction to the law. This, of course, is hypocrisy – because there is not one on earth in all of history, except for Christ himself, who has lived the law perfectly.
So, to return to our text, we have not got a god who has been defeated by the gods of any other nation or people. If you are in defeat, it is because you have not listened to god – maybe not even wanted to listen.
People in our lands these days, mostly, do not want to obey or follow our Lord. Even the majority that enter churches week after week. And a true prophet sent to the church today can find life is very difficult for them. Yet I pray, Lord send them. And prepare my heart.