The Watchman Sees the Wrath
Scripture: Ezekiel 3:16– 5:17
11 Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will withdraw. My eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. 12 A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in your midst; a third part shall fall by the sword all around you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.
13 “Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. And they shall know that I am the LORD—that I have spoken in my jealousy—when I spend my fury upon them. 14 Moreover, I will make you a desolation and an object of reproach among the nations all around you and in the sight of all who pass by. 15 You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations all around you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious rebukes—I am the LORD; I have spoken— 16 when I send against you the deadly arrows of famine, arrows for destruction, which I will send to destroy you, and when I bring more and more famine upon you and break your supply of bread. 17 I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will rob you of your children. Pestilence and blood shall pass through you, and I will bring the sword upon you. I am the LORD; I have spoken.”
The Christian faith is not a private religion. The world is fine with us Christians having our private religion, and we have for too long told them that this is primarily what our faith is. But we have been wrong. The Christian faith is a very public story. It is, in fact, the story of human history. It tells us the true story of the world.
The Old Testament tells us the story of Israel, the story of God’s chosen people. And it is the story of the world. In the beginning, the Bible begins, God made all things. He made all things good. But when humanity rebelled and plunged the world into ruin, God went to work. God made a decision to bring rescue to the world through a people he chose for himself. The prophets of Israel said that Israel was chosen to be a light to the nations, by which they meant that God’s whole point in choosing Israel was that through them rescue would come to the world. The story of Israel is the story of hope for the world.
So, it is a very public story, though of course there is a private element to it. We must come to understand our place in the story, just like Ezekiel had to learn in his own day. I think that is what is happening as we move from chapter 3 to chapter 4. Ezekiel is learning to find his place in the story of redemption, and we find in these next two chapters the initiation he experienced, the lessons he learned, and the judgment he accepted as he did so.
The Initiation He Experienced
We begin with the suggestion that what we are reading here needs to be read as Ezekiel’s initiation into the prophetic vocation. Before he can go announce the message God will give him, he needs to be immersed in it himself.
Go Home and Shut Up
Let’s go back for a moment to the previous section at the end of chapter 3. In verse 17, God told Ezekiel that his job would be to serve as something like a sentinel in the army, like a watchman. The emphasis here is on Ezekiel’s responsibility and culpability. He must do his job regardless of how the people respond.
And the job of a sentinel is mainly to warn of any danger he sees coming. Ezekiel is told that the danger he may well see coming is the danger of God’s judgment against wickedness (vv. 18-19) and injustice (vv. 20-21). Wickedness refers to criminal acts. God hates all criminal activity and will judge it accordingly. And God’s concern about injustice shows that God expects his world to be run with fairness and equity. The two words, then, cover sin from both angles. We must do no wrong and we must always do what is right.
Just as we’re coming to grips with that, we then read in verses 22-27 that the same God who called Ezekiel to go keep watch for Israel now tells him to “Go, shut yourself within your house.” He is bound up to keep him from going to the people, and he is tongue-tied so he cannot warn them (vv. 25-26). So, God has told him his job is essentially the work of a watchman, but then God tells him to go home and shut up. What’s going on here?
Slow to Speak
We learn from Ezekiel 3:27 that this is a temporary situation. God will speak and, when he does, he will open Ezekiel’s mouth, and he had better speak. But until then, Ezekiel needs to keep his mouth shut; he must speak when God speaks, but he must also speak only when God tells him to by giving him the message to speak.
What an important lesson to learn! Some of us need to be reminded to open our mouths and speak what God has revealed. Others of us need to learn to keep our mouths shut a bit more often lest our own opinions be confused for what God has said. Ezekiel needs to learn this lesson, too. He is not yet ready to begin his work as a prophet or as a watchman of Israel. His training is not yet complete. He will certainly need to speak God’s message, but before he can do effectively, he also needs to learn the discipline of being slow to speak so he does not mislead the people he has been sent to serve.
Remember the story of the boy who cried, “Wolf”? Is it possible that we Christians have failed to be the prophets of God we are meant to be not only because we’ve been silent on matters on which we should have spoken but also because we’ve opened our mouths too quickly and said, “Thus says the Lord,” when God really said nothing?
The State of Liminality
Learning this wisdom takes time, just like it takes time to transition from being a child to being an adult. The move from adolescence to adulthood is, in virtually every human community, marked with symbolic milestones. Rites of passage, we sometimes call it. There is this period in which a person is not easily defined as either a child or an adult. We understand the significance of this period in a person’s life, and we use rituals to help the person make the transition. Anthropologists call it a state of liminality, “a process of separation and transition from a previous identity or role to a new one.”
Ezekiel is going through this transition in these chapters, forced to abandon his old state as a priest and take on a new identity as a prophet. God is going to make sure that Ezekiel is ready for this task by teaching him to speak God’s truth, his whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
And by the way, to be a Christian we must go through the transition as well. We must eliminate this idea that being a Christian means merely believing something or affirming a set of propositions. No! We must learn to be a Christian since the whole point of being one is to take up our place in God’s world as his image bearers. This will take some serious effort on our part. In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argued:
God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself.
The Lessons He Learned
Let’s look now at what specific education Ezekiel is getting as he is initiated into the prophetic office. What are the lessons he had to learn? In chapters 4 and 5, we see Ezekiel going through various sign-acts which are the rites of passage that move him, fully immersed, into his prophetic vocation. Yes, he does some strange things here, but, looked at from the outside, every rite of passage is a bit bizarre. We just had a wedding in our church this week, and we are all familiar with that rite of passage, but if you were an alien from out of space you might be confused by why we get dressed up and walk down an aisle and stand at the front and say certain things and put rings on our fingers. So, yes, the following things look a bit bizarre, but let’s see if we can understand what these things meant.
A Map of Jerusalem
In 4:1-3, Ezekiel is told to engrave the city of Jerusalem on a brick, a practice which was common, as archaeology has confirmed. The reason for Ezekiel’s portrayal of the city is so that he can “play army” with it, enacting the ancient warfare strategy of a siege. In verse 3, Ezekiel is instructed to represent an iron wall between himself and the city, and then to set his face toward it, letting “it be in a state of siege.” The purpose of this is stated explicitly: “This is a sign for the house of Israel.”
A sign of what? A sign of the coming Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 587BC. But the lesson Ezekiel was to learn here was not just that God can predict the future. The lesson was that when this all took place, it would not be because the Babylonians were more powerful than the people of Israel. It would all happen because God would be Israel’s aggressor in the armies of Babylon. Yep, God would be on the side of the Babylonians against his own people! That is what is meant by the iron barrier. Something had come between Israel and her God. His face set against the city means he is an active agent of the city’s destruction.
As a private event, the impact on Ezekiel is that he is to take the posture that God’s word was a word of destruction of the great city. To be on God’s side is to now be against God’s city, a risky theological position to be sure. Imagine someone saying today, “God is against America, there is no hope, the country needs to go down—such a position would sound like treason, and plenty of American Christians would denounce it as such. I’m not suggesting this is the prophetic view to hold; I’m saying this is how it sounded to Ezekiel’s audience.
Bearing the Iniquity
But there’s more. Next, Ezekiel is told to lie on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for 40 days. God explains that these numbers represent the number of years of Israel’s punishment, a total of 430 years, since Ezekiel makes no distinction between Israel and Judah.
Now everyone wants to know what date the 430 years stands in reference to, and understandably so. I think the key to the calculation is to understand that the word punishment in verse 4, used over 200 times in the OT, usually means “iniquity or guilt,” in other words, looking back to the wrong done rather than forward to the punishment to be served for the wrong that was done. Ezekiel is here called to, first, represent the years of Israel’s wrongdoing, and if we add 390 years to the time of his prophecy, we land right around the time that Israel’s monarchy began, or when Solomon’s temple was built and the glory of God settled in the temple. Ezekiel is then told to flip over, the 40 years referring to the punishment, a new 40-year wilderness-like exile.
And the point that is being impressed upon Ezekiel is that there is nothing he can do to stop the judgment; he can only warn his audience that it is coming. God’s determination to destroy his city is just and there is no way out of it. The wrath of God against his own cannot be averted. It will have to come down, and Ezekiel can only fulfill his prophetic task if he feels that weight in himself. He will have to “bear the punishment” of the people. He will have to undergo the fate of Israel along with the nation.
The rest of chapter 4 consists of the sign-act of the meager rations available during a siege. Supplies to a city are cut off and famine is the result. It is an awful experience, the likes of which virtually none of us in the West can even imagine.
Ezekiel’s initiation requires him not only to imagine it but to embody it. Again, he must experience it himself; he must feel it. He must bear the iniquity of Israel’s sinful rebellion by eating, during his portrayal of the siege, just barely eight ounces of bread and roughly two-thirds of a quart of water per day. Verses 16-18 explain God’s intent, that Israel is going “to rot away” because of their “punishment” (iniquity). Starvation would most certainly occur—it would be a near miracle for anyone to survive on that little amount of food and drink. God’s wrath will be so severe that we are beginning to wonder if anyone would survive of his chosen people.
But it is verses 12-15 that really catch our attention, as Ezekiel is told that the little food he will eat has to be cooked with the fuel of human excrement. When Ezekiel protests, God allows him to use cow patties instead. The point here is Ezekiel’s concern for ritual purity—he protests that he has never defiled himself—and God’s intention to say that this impurity and defilement is exactly what Israel will experience in their exile.
God wants Ezekiel to learn that not only will Jerusalem fall, not only will mercy end, but Israel will lose its own identity as God’s chosen people, set apart from the rest of the nations. In Israel’s sacrificial system, ritual purity required the priest to keep himself from impurity and death so that he could deliver the rest of the people from that very impurity and death. Ezekiel’s protest is here granted, though God nowhere suggests that the future here predicted is going to change. Ezekiel is learning that the coming judgment of God is going to not only threaten Israel’s very existence, but also her very identity as a royal priesthood, set apart from the world in order to offer deliverance to the world. The future for Israel, and thus, for the world, looks grim.
Dividing the Hair
One last sign-act that Ezekiel performed as part of his initiation is found in the first four verses of chapter 5. Here he is instructed to cut off the hair of his head and beard, weigh it, and divide it into thirds. He then symbolizes the fate of Israel with what he does with the hair: a third burns in the fires of the siege, a third are killed as they try to escape the city, a third are exiled and scattered to the nations with many perishing in those lands. “A small number” seem to survive all of this, though that small number is winnowed down even more. Ezekiel is forced to see that in the coming judgment of God, only a remnant will survive, a very small remnant indeed.
So these are the lessons Ezekiel had to learn. As a watchman for Israel, his task would be to announce the wrath of God that he sees coming, a wrath that cannot be averted, a wrath that leaves little hope for Israel. No wonder God told Ezekiel that “the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you” (Ezek 2:7). A message of judgment and inescapable wrath is one that leaves you with nothing left to lose so you might as well fight against it anyway. Right?
The Judgment He Accepted
Let’s look at the opposite approach for a moment. What if we were to accept the judgment and not resist? This is what Ezekiel had to do; this is what his initiation was all about. Strange as it may seem, accepting the judgment of God—the utter destruction of God’s judgment—is precisely where hope is found.
The Hope of the Nations
The meaning of all the initiation rites that Ezekiel went through is stated plainly here in Ezekiel 5:5. “Thus says the Lord God: This is Jerusalem.” God put Israel at “the center of the nations,” which has nothing to do with geography but with theology. It was Jerusalem that God chose to “make his name dwell there” (Deut 12:11). This would be the place where, in essence, heaven and earth would meet, and God would rule the world through his chosen people.
But Jerusalem herself had “rebelled against my rules by doing wickedness more than the nations,” verse 6 says. “For they have rejected my rules and have not walked in my statutes.” Now just think of it. If God’s own chosen people—the ones he chose to govern his world with love and justice—if they themselves are rebels, if they begin to follow their own heart and go their own way, then what should God do? Let me ask it a different way. What must God do if indeed he loves the world he made?
The answer is, he must be true to his covenant. If the people chosen to be a light to the nations have only led the nations into further darkness, then God must act. God must judge. His judgment, in fact, is the only hope that is left for the world.
The Hope of a Remnant
So far in Ezekiel the hope we see is a flickering candle, but it is there. Ezekiel’s vocation as a prophet and a watchman leaves us at least some chance that someone will hear. The vision of the glory of God, on the move and alive and well, gives us hope that maybe, just maybe, the God who made the world out of nothing can do some new thing with the chaos left after his righteous wrath is poured out. And the very fact that what is about to happen to Israel is not the wrath of the Babylonians but the wrath of God himself is, strangely, very good news. On the one hand, it means that the coming destruction of Jerusalem is far greater than the victory of an enemy army. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” Hebrews 10:31 says. But on the other hand, David said, “Let me fall into the hand of the Lord” rather than the hands of men because the Lord’s “mercy is very great” (1 Chron 21:13).
The 40 years of Israel’s punishment in the wilderness would be exhaustive, taking out an entire generation who had rebelled against his commands. But, after the wilderness wanderings there was a new Exodus, with Joshua leading the people across the Jordan much like Moses had led them across the Red Sea (Josh 4).
What if we were to accept the judgment of God rather than resisting it? What might God do next?
The New Jerusalem
This is why we need to learn to read the Old Testament the way the first Christians read it, so that we can pick up on their excitement they left us in the New Testament. In the wake of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, they began to see that Jesus did what Ezekiel did. Jesus also decreed judgment against Jerusalem, symbolized those judgments in his own sign-acts, and then underwent in himself the very fate he had pronounced against the holy city and its temple. So what? Well, here’s the point. Having taken on in himself the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath, his resurrection from the dead could only mean one thing: God had indeed spared a remnant: Jesus is alive! And, consequently, a new creation had begun.
Only this time, it would be a new creation that could never again come under God’s annihilating judgment. The Apostle John would see “a new heaven and a new earth” and “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:1-2). And then, this good news:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3).
Let it sink in. When we understand what Jesus accomplished in light of the Old Testament story, then we come to see that what Jesus accomplished was the fulfillment of God’s great promise to Israel for the sake of the world. In Jesus the new creation has begun. The kingdom of God has come.
Want in on it? Then you must trust in Jesus and be initiated into him. That’s what the rite of baptism is all about where we are stripped of our old identity and idolatrous ways in order to emerge with a new identity and, by the promise of his Holy Spirit given to all who are his, enabled to live in new ways.
Want in on it? Then you must come to Jesus and you must take up his cross. You must come and die in order to live in his new life. Those who learn his ways and live them by his Spirit offer to the world the hope of the very one they are called to emulate.
 Odell, Ezekiel, 59.
 Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 1–19, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 28, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 69. See Jer 37-38 for the historical experience of famine during a siege.