In the previous study we completed the examination of the first prophetic task of Ezekiel the prophet. It was a very negative message about judgement, yet we were not to take from this the idea of a god who is quick to be angry at the sins of men and women. He had been patient for 390 years, and so the judgement was very much a last resort.
It is important to see these kinds of details, because it is important for us when learning about the nature of god.
In this study we begin to look at the second prophetic task, which happened quite soon after the total of 430 days that Ezekiel had to lie down and lay siege to the model of the city of Jerusalem.
In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain.
If you look at the timing of the first visions and then the first prophetic task, then add 390 days lying on one side, and then a further 40 days of lying on his other side, we can see here that the events we are reading happened quickly after the end of Ezekiel’s first task.
I would imagine that he would be quite glad that it was over, and that he could do as he pleased for a while, and eat whatever he wanted that was kosher. But one thing was for sure: he had caught the attention of the authorities and religious leaders.
Imagine how it would be in the modern age. I am not sure that anyone would actually be allowed to behave like this for a year and a half, lying down in front of a sandcastle that represented the capital city of the people and prophesying against it. Then maybe preparing food at certain times before continuing – and the way he had to prepare it! Using a fire of dung…
I can just imagine the scene locally. On the village green, a strange man building a sandcastle that represents London. There’s the snake-path of the Thames through the middle; that bit is clearly the Houses of Parliament. There’s the London Eye, and that bit must be the millennium dome. Next to this is a man poorly dressed, with a fire nearby, lying down and talking at the sandcastle. Is that a metal tray between him and the sandcastle? And what is that stench? There is a fire near the man, and it is clearly burning piles of what seems to be cattle dung. There is a whole heap nearby to keep the fire fuelled – and it seems that a local farmer is delivering some more in a trailer behind the tractor that’s just arriving.
Just a moment, the man is doing something… Now he’s taking a loaf of what looks like bread from the middle of this stinking and smelly fire, and he is breaking it up and eating it!
Can you imagine this? Do you think he would be allowed to do this for a year and a half? I think the police would certainly want to speak to this man, and he may be arrested. The local authorities would consider the distress such a scene would cause to the local population, and make sure that the man was removed. Perhaps they would think it caring if they had him removed to the nearest secure mental health facility, and make sure that he is not released until his delusions are a thing of the (distant) past.
OK, I am English and can certainly imagine what would happen here, and I think you can imagine the situation in other countries if a man was doing exactly as Ezekiel was doing for his first prophetic task.
But that aside, it happened and, in his day, it seems that Ezekiel was left alone to do this and not removed by the authorities. But I think it can be clear that his friends and neighbours will have come to him and asked what was going on. You can imagine the scene…
“Hey, Zeke! What are you doing?”
“I’m prophesying against Jerusalem.”
“Oh, so that’s Jerusalem? Hey, Zeke, aren’t you a bit old for sandcastles? Shouldn’t you be playing with, er…, well, with adult toys? Or shouldn’t you be working?”
“I am working. For the Lord.”
“Oh, I see… Well I hope the pay’s good, Zeke.”
Imagine that you were his friend or his neighbour. What would you have said? But there were more than just the neighbours who saw what he was doing. He was a spiritual man, and normally a regular at church (OK, the synagogue, or whatever substituted for it in the exile conditions). But now he had not attended in a while. Where was he? Does he need help? Is he sick? Let’s send an elder to visit him. I can imagine how that went…
Our text has Ezekiel at home, after these things, and the elders were visiting him. Not one, a whole bunch of them! Actually, I doubt that this was the first time. I can imagine they probably visited him in groups while he was performing his first task for a year and a half. At one point, they probably resigned themselves to the fact that, whether or not they could be persuaded that this was of God, Ezekiel was going to continue to do it anyway until he had fulfilled the task.
I don’t know about you, but this is how I would think from Ezekiel’s point of view. If one elder from the church came knocking at my door to visit me, then great! This is part of the pastoral work of the church, making sure that everyone is treated as part of the family, and getting to know about needs and difficulties. Maybe something needs to be included in the list for the prayer rota and prayer meetings. Maybe there will be something to share with the whole congregation soon, or even the next Sunday.
But if there is a whole group of elders, or maybe all of them… Different thoughts! What’s wrong? What have I done? Am I in trouble? I am not sure that I am going to like this…
I don’t want to speak too much about this here and now, but of course it needs also to be said that, just because people are in the leadership team of a church, does not mean that they are always right, or that they have a clearer connection with God, or any of those things. If Ezekiel was in their church, they would more than likely think of his actions bringing the congregation into disrepute. They would very much care about ‘image’ – and this can distract from hearing what God is saying.
And so a word to leaders here, and to those in ministry. Do you check your motives? Do you worry about how the world perceives you and the church members more than whether you and those members are truly hearing from God?
Ezekiel was hearing God and taking action on it, no matter what the people around him would think. But what he did was not ‘respectable’ or ‘decent’ or ‘civilised.’ Quite the opposite in the opinion of some… And can you imagine if he came to a faith meal during that time… “Hey guys, it is good to be vertical for a little while. Guess what I brought to share at the meal? Yay! Seedy bread baked on cow dung! Delicious!”
Would you volunteer to have a taste of this delight?
Frankly, I am not at all surprised that the elders came to visit. They probably wanted to be reassured that Ezekiel had returned to his senses and that there would be no more of this embarrassing nonsense.
But right then, in the middle of this meeting… Well, what do you think happened? We are told how it was from Ezekiel’s point of view, but I wonder what these elders saw and what they thought…
Let’s get one thing straight though: Ezekiel was not bodily taken from them. He did not actually get taken to Jerusalem. His words are very clear about this: “the spirit lifted me up and in visions”. In fact he may have been taken to Jerusalem, but he left his body behind – these were visions in spirit. He saw the figure of a man, the same as he had seen before, and he felt like the man lifted him into the air by his hair. Yet clearly he says that this was visions in spirit. So the figure he saw grabbed him by his spiritual hair and pulled him right out of his own body, and into the realm of spirit. There he was shown the things we will read about next.
But what would this have looked like to the visiting elders? The reaction is not recorded in scripture, but I can’t help wondering. They had just seen Ezekiel come back to normal, they were “checking on him” and then suddenly…what? What did they see?
I doubt they saw what Ezekiel saw, and so the fiery figure that approached Ezekiel was probably invisible to the elders. So what did they see?
Probably there was a conversation, maybe quite an uneasy conversation – because would religious and community leaders be happy with the way Ezekiel had been behaving for a year and a half? And then, in the middle of this, suddenly Ezekiel’s gaze became fixed on something that the other’s could not see. “What’s the matter? What are you looking at Zeke?” You can imagine the questions…
But then the next thing, Ezekiel’s spirit is taken out of his body, and so he must have collapsed unconscious. Maybe one of the elders even caught him so that he would not hurt himself, or hit his head on the floor.
I would imagine that they did much the same as we would do today. They probably laid Ezekiel on his bed, and left someone to take care for him, sent another to fetch water, and another would have rushed to the physician. Today, we would make sure that the person was lying comfortable, nothing tight around the neck, maybe even place him in the ‘recovery position’ if there was someone present who knew first aid. Someone would have their phone out to call an ambulance or paramedic. There would be concern about poor Ezekiel’s health.
But what would they be thinking beyond this? Would they see God at work, or would they only think of Ezekiel’s health? That maybe a year and a half of lying around affected his health, and especially because he was also eating defiled seedy bread. He was thin, skin and bone, and maybe being upright was making him dizzy. Maybe this is too much a strain on his heart? And is he also insane, because he doesn’t seem to be looking after himself very well. And besides, that stuff he was doing the previous year and a half was pretty weird…
So, what would you think if you knew Ezekiel, and if you were one of the elders? And what would you think if a member of your congregation was Ezekiel?
I think there are many challenges here – about hearing God, about doing the right thing no matter what others may think or say. About being the same way as a congregation, or as leaders of the congregation. How would it even be if you chose to speak like Jesus when one of your members falls on hard times, had been thrown into the street, and wonders where the next meal will come from? I mean, Jesus more than once told the wealthy that they ‘lacked’ because they should sell their things and care for the poor and needy.
So maybe the pastor could come to you, the wealthy one in the church, and say that you should take in this homeless man. That you should feed him, like part of the family. And, like part of the family, should make sure that he has sufficient and decent quality clothing, and so on… Or, if really wealthy, ask to contribute towards the purchase or rental of a new home for this part of god’s family… I reckon most wealthy would walk away from a church whose pastor said or suggested such things – which means, of course, that they would have walked away from Jesus when he said such things.
How do you think? You want to please people or to please god? It is not always possible to do both!