A Prophet Among Them

September 25, 2022 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Ezekiel: Tough Love

Scripture: Ezekiel 2:1– 3:15

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” 2 And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. 4 The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’ 5 And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. 7 And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.

This passage is about Ezekiel’s commissioning to serve as one of Israel’s great prophets. What this has to do with us is not that hard to see, for we have received a similar commission. We are called to be God’s prophets, too.

In case you think that is a bit of a stretch, consider that Moses longed for the day when God would put his Spirit in his people and make all of them his prophets (Num 11:29) and that the apostles said this is precisely what God did at Pentecost, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:17). Paul urges all Christians to “pursue love and to earnestly desire” manifestations of the Spirit, especially so that we might prophesy (1 Cor 14:1). Whatever you may think of the charismatic, it is clear that, in some sense, we are all to function as prophets of God, just like Ezekiel.

So, what does it mean to be a prophet today, and how do we fulfill that responsibility? Let’s consider this question as we study Ezekiel’s prophetic role, commission, and protection.

The Prophet’s Role

First, what is the role of a prophet? The inaugural vision in chapter 1, where Ezekiel tells of his close encounter with God, left him flat on his face (1:28). What happens next is a voice speaks to him, and gives him a commission. Ezekiel is to go to his people and say, “Thus says the Lord GOD” (Ezek 2:4). The priest has been turned into a prophet. What purpose does a prophet serve?

Speaking for God

A prophet is simply a person who speaks for God. That is prophet’s role. But there are true and false prophets. A true prophet is one who speaks rightly for God, who speaks the words that God has given him or her to speak.[1] Now, that seems obvious, but this is a critical point, because lots of people claim to speak on God’s behalf. In fact, you most likely have made that claim, as has virtually everyone else in the world. You see, God’s concern is for the world he has made, and you can’t help but share in that concern. So the different claims about how the world should be—the claim that this or that is right, that something ought to be obligatory and binding—claims like this are not just differences of opinion. They are prophetic claims. Every president or prime minister acts like a prophet. Every employer speaks like a prophet, as do their employees who think they know better how things should go around the office. Every teacher and parent speaks like a prophet, as does every preacher and every politician.

In Ezekiel 13, God condemns “those who prophesy from their own hearts,” those who “follow their own spirit,” those who have had a “false vision and uttered a lying divination” by saying, “Declares the LORD” when God did not actually say anything (Ezek 13:1-7). False prophets, beware! But also notice, Christian that you can’t opt out of the prophetic role we’ve all been given. We’ve been entrusted with God’s word, and we are false prophets if we don’t speak it just as much as if we speak it wrongly.

The Prophetic Goal

The task of a prophet is a tough task, but it is an essential one. God intends to speak through his prophets. In accordance with his plan all throughout the Bible, God intends to work through his people to achieve his purpose. Consider some of the purposes God wanted to achieve by sending Ezekiel as a prophet.

Prosecuting Crime

In verse 3, God says he is sending Ezekiel “to the people of Israel,” whom he also calls “nations of rebels.” It’s a loaded accusation. The word nation is “goyim,” the word usually reserved for the Gentiles, the pagans. When it is used in reference to Israel, it indicates that they have become indistinguishable from the rest of the nations.[2] And Ezekiel’s goal as a prophet is to prosecute the people of Israel for becoming like the nations around them. They are, like the rest of the goyim, rebels. They have rebelled against God, he accuses here in verse 3 as well as in verses 7-8 and in 3:9. This word, rebellion, is not primarily a religious term. It’s the word used for a political revolt, like when Jehoiakim rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:1).[3] Israel’s rebellion against their God is not like they’ve been caught speeding and deserve a ticket. It’s more like they’ve been caught committing treason against God and his kingdom.

Urging Repentance

And that’s why Israel’s consequences are geopolitical: the people are removed from their homeland and go into exile, the monarchy collapses. Soon enough the capital city will be destroyed, and the temple burned down. And this has global ramifications because, as one commentator puts it, “The chosen nation has become, appropriate to their own action, unchosen.”[4] The whole point of God choosing Israel was to bring the light of his love and justice into the world. Failing to do that, God has sent his prophet not only to prosecute them for their crimes but also to represent hope should the chosen people repent of those crimes. Verse 5 indicates this hope, however slight it may be, when God says, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.”

True worship of the true God will produce a people who walk in his ways and act justly in his world. Should Israel “hear” the prophet, they would not only repent of their idolatrous worship but also of their unjust ways. Israel’s crime was not just religious, an act of doctrinal defiance in their worship of Baal or some other pagan deity. Because of their idolatrous worship (Ezek 6), Israel had also begun to demonstrate unjust ways (Ezek 7), just like the nations around them, colluding with evil and bringing more injustice and inequity into the world. The chosen people could not separate worship from practice; the two are inseparably joined together. This is something that the secular world tries to deny, as if right behavior can come from the human heart without the heart being transformed. But this is also something that many of us religious folk get wrong as well. We think that if we just have our doctrine right then practice won’t matter all that much. But the prophets won’t let us get away with it.

Representing Love

Now, in Ezekiel’s case, God made it plain how the people would respond to his call for repentance. Look at Ezekiel 3:7. “The house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me.” But Ezekiel’s work will not be in vain, for God said in Ezekiel 2:5 that even if the people refuse to repent, "they will know that a prophet has been among them."

Now, this is worth our reflection. We can see the value of people knowing a prophet, a true prophet, has been among them if they listen to him and change their idolatrous worship and unjust ways. But what is the value if they don’t? What good is it for people to say, “I know you are speaking on behalf of God, I even know what you are saying is true, but don’t think for a moment I’m going to do what you say”? Why does God care about his prophets being recognized if they aren’t heeded? It’s not so that, when the judgment comes, God can gloat by saying, “See, I told you so.” It’s so that, even though judgment comes, God can say, “See, I have loved you so. You abandoned me, but not once did I abandon you. You have been unfaithful, but I have not been. And I’m still here.”

The only time the word prophet occurs in the psalms (other than in the inscription to Psalm 51) is in Psalm 74 where the psalmist laments the fall of Jerusalem like this, “We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet, and there is none among us who knows how long.” Ezekiel’s presence as a prophet to the exiles would prove to the people who deserved every bit of what they were experiencing that God had not moved. He was still the same faithful lover of his own that he had always been. In the same way, our prophetic role as Christians is to speak on behalf of God in such a way that we both convict the world for their sin but also represent to the world that God loves the world and that this God of love is still here.

The Prophet’s Commission

Christian, if you and I are going to represent God to the world, we must always remember we’ve been sent to represent God’s love, his faithful, steadfast love, to the world.  How can we carry out this role? Let’s consider next the prophet’s commission, beginning in Ezekiel 2:8.

Consumed with the Message

Here we find that Ezekiel is told to eat a scroll before he is commissioned to go and speak to the house of Israel. This is one of those bizarre moments in Ezekiel; it’s hard to tell what is happening. If Ezekiel’s encounter was objective, like Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush, does he literally eat a scroll?

Whatever happened, it is clear this moment had a profound effect on Ezekiel. It seems to be the experience that catapulted him into his prophetic task.[5] And the meaning of this moment is, I think, equally clear. Ezekiel’s commissioning begins with his receiving the message he is sent to proclaim. It is this message that will control and consume him, as God designed for it to do. “Son of man,” he says in 3:3, “feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Ezekiel is to be consumed and controlled by the message God gave him, just like the prophet Jeremiah who wrote of eating God’s words and finding them to be “a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16).

The Bitter-Sweet Message

Ezekiel describes the experience of receiving God’s message similarly. In 3:3 he says, “Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.” The message of God that his prophets are called to proclaim, his very words, are, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 19, “perfect” and “sure” (v. 7), “right” and “pure” (v. 8), “clean” and “true” (v. 9). “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings from the honeycomb” (v. 10).

But wait just a moment! While we’ll have to wait to find out exactly what this message is that Ezekiel is called to proclaim to Israel, we get some idea when he tells us that on this scroll “were written . . . words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” It’s as if someone, having read what is written on the scroll has scribbled into the margins, “Oh, no!” or “Please, God!” or “My, oh my!” Ingesting these words is likely to give you a bellyache. Later, in Ezekiel 3:14, Ezekiel says he did experience indigestion as he went to the exiles “in bitterness in the heat of my spirit.”

So, what was this experience like, Ezekiel? Tell us, what is the experience of the prophetic commissioning? Was it positive or negative? Bitter or sweet? He would tell us, “It was both.” Perhaps he would say it was like being recruited and sworn in to the Marine Corps. Clearly this is a high calling, a great honor, a sacred duty. But don’t think for a moment this is going to be easy. It’s going to hurt. Ezekiel might even die. This is not for wimps.

And there’s no softening the blow here either. If he’s going to be a prophet, he can’t be rebellious like Israel has been. That’s the first thing God says, in verse 8. So God gives him this first test. Ezekiel must eat the message he’s being send to Israel to proclaim. He has to go all in with the bitter-sweet words of God. From there, there’s no going back.

The Polarizing Message

In Revelation 10, John receives the same prophetic commission as Ezekiel. There’s no doubt about this; the similarities are so obvious:

Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter (Rev 10:8-10).

Revelation 10 is not just John having the same experience as Ezekiel. The context of that chapter is the church’s calling, the Christian commission.[6] This is to be our experience as well. Our calling is to “Go into all the world and make disciples” (Matt 28:18). It’s a prophetic calling, to be sure. Not only are we to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19), but we also are to teach disciples “to observe all that” Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:20). To be a Christian is to be a prophet of God, proclaiming a bitter-sweet message and embodying that message ourselves.

We can’t make the prophetic commissioning any easier than it was for Ezekiel. It is a sacred calling, sweet because of the enormous privilege it is to speak for God. And it is a message of salvation; yes, it is good news, a message which all God’s prophets will find over and over again to be sweet in the mouth even though we must wait for the day when we are raised from the dead into the immortal life of Jesus and inherit the world as our reward.

Until then, God’s people must walk the path with a pit in our stomachs. We carry a message of salvation, but this message, if rejected or ignored, also means judgment. We who bring this message cannot stand aloof from it. The eating of the scroll means fully identifying with its message.[7] It means to “internalize the prophecy and put it to work in one’s life.”[8]

In other words, we might say that the prophets of God are what they eat. Ezekiel, having eaten the scroll, has sealed his fate in the same way that Jesus, the Great Prophet, the very Word of God himself, sealed his fate when he submitted to the Father’s will in the incarnation.

And what was true of Ezekiel and John the Revelator and of Jesus himself, is what is true of us who would follow Jesus. This is our test. Following Jesus sounds nice, indeed it is! But to follow Christ means picking up your cross. You very well may die.

Again, wimps need not apply!

The Prophet’s Protection

To be a prophet of God is a dangerous calling, and we’ve been seeing that to be a Christian is to be commissioned as one of God’s prophets. But God is a good shepherd, and he does not send us out without divine protection. God gave Ezekiel the protection he needed for his calling so we can be sure he has done the same for us.

Divine Protection

Divine protection does not mean we experience no pain in carrying out our commission as his disciples, as his prophets, but it does mean that God promises us a greater strength which is sure to prevail. Look back at Ezekiel 2:6. “And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words.” The ESV says, “though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions.” But a better translation here is probably “do not be afraid of them . . . because briers and thorns are with you.”[9] Commentaries point out that this part of the verse should not be read as symbols of threats to the prophet but of symbols of his protection.[10] The people that Ezekiel is being sent to are tough, but they are no match for God and his purposes. And God is promising that Ezekiel will be surrounded by divine protection, so he does not need to be afraid.

To be clear, what Ezekiel need not fear is failure, that the people in their stubborn resistance will thwart God’s purpose. God’s protection for his prophets is certainly not that there will be no pain but rather that there will be no failure of achieving God’s goal. In Paul’s description of the Christian putting on the whole armor of God (Eph 6), we can’t possibly draw the conclusion that our battle against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” is going to be painless. You don’t need a breastplate and a shield and a helmet when you go into a situation where the greatest threat is that you might get a splinter. You need these things when the greatest threat is a blow that could take you out! But the Christian is promised the divine protection of resurrection, an armor that is stronger than death itself. Even if we die, yet shall we live!” (Jn 11:25).

Divine Strength

In chapter 3, God again tells Ezekiel not to fear. He tells the new prophet that the people are not going to listen to his message, “because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” Ezekiel’s message is not going to get through their thick skulls and their rocky hearts. But, look at what God says next, in verses 8-9:

Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.

The only thing that can prevail over the hardened hearts of sinful humanity is the steely strength of God himself, and it is this strength that God promises to Ezekiel. The prophet does not possess that power himself, but when he faces the resistance of Israel he can bank on divine strength. Indeed, he had better bank on it, just as Paul urges the Christian to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph 6:10). Indeed, Christian, if you do not draw on this strength you don’t have a chance against the powers of darkness that are unleashed in the world in one last act of resistance against the prevailing power of the kingdom of God.

Divine Presence

How can we avail ourselves of this divine power? What does that even mean? We’ve already seen that it doesn’t mean we don’t suffer any pain, any sorrow, any grief. We had best get our expectations in proper order here. At the same time, way too many Christians in the throws of pain and sorrow and grief find themselves on the brink of losing their faith altogether concluding that God has failed them after all. So, what can we do?

The scene ends in verses 12-15 as the Spirit of God lifts the prophet up and he hears a voice which sounds something like an earthquake as it rumbles out the words, “Blessed be the glory of the LORD from its place!” (v. 12). Ezekiel seems to be describing for us the overwhelming experience of the divine throne room. He has come to realize—to his great surprise—that not only is God still reigning and ruling though Israel is in exile, but God is on the move. The wheels of the divine throne-chariot are turning (v. 13).

This is what will sustain the prophet, and this is what will sustain us as Christian disciples. Only when we can see that the meaning of the cross of Christ, and the resurrection of Jesus, and especially his ascension is that his kingdom has come at long last—only then will we be able to endure the conflicts and the pain that are sure to come.

Day by day, then, let us come into the presence of Jesus, the divine King. Let us come into his throne room through Spirit-empowered prayer, drawing strength from his divine presence, so that we may then be sent out as his true prophets, bearing witness to the reality of the kingdom of God.

_____

[1] C. von Orelli, “Prophecy, Prophets,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1979), 2459.

[2] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 118.

[3] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, ed. Johann Jakob Stamm, trans. M. E. J. Richardson, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994), 632.

[4] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry C. Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 68.

[5] Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, 125–26.

[6] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Baker Academic, 2002), 403–4.

[7] G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough, “Revelation,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 1117.

[8] Osborne, Revelation, 403.

[9] See Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. Mark K. McElroy (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 40-41. Also cf. Young’s Literal Translation: “for briers and thorns are with thee.”

[10] Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, 121.

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