The Ministry of Symbolism
Ezekiel 4, Ezekiel 5
In the fourth chapter there begins a series of symbols utterly impossible of modern interpretation. The prophet is commanded to take a tile, and portray upon it the city of Jerusalem, and to conduct certain military operations against that city; then he is commanded to take an iron pan, and set it for a wall of iron between himself and the city; having done so he is to lay siege against Jerusalem. Afterwards he is commanded to lie upon his left side, and lay the iniquity of the house of Israel upon it: this symbolic act is to be followed by lying upon his right side, in signification of burning the iniquity of the house of Judah forty years. He is afterwards commanded to take wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches, and put them into one vessel, and to make bread thereof, according to the number of days he was to lie upon his side; certain instructions are then given regarding the wheat, and the way in which he is to eat it; and water, and the way in which he is to drink it: and so the instruction proceeds from stage to stage, full of what to us, and probably was to Ezekiel himself, dark image and troubled symbol. This ministry of symbolism has still a place in all progressive civilisation. Every age, of course, necessitates its own emblems and types, its own apocalypse of wonders and signs, but the meaning of the whole is that God has yet something to be revealed which cannot at the moment be expressed in plain language. If we could see into the inner meaning of many of the controversies in which we are engaged, we should see there many a divinely drawn symbol, curious outlines of thought, parables not yet ripe enough for words. The whole year, from spring to winter, is a long parable, a curious symbol, a marvellous revelation of divine purpose: he that hath eyes to see, let him see; he that hath ears to hear, let him hear. The difficulty of the prophet begins precisely at this point, forasmuch as he has the genius that can read interior thought, and can forecast purpose before it has taken the shape of words: hence he is a madman, a fanatic, a loose-minded person, or at best he is credited with being an eccentric genius, who is always seeing something that nobody else can see, and always talking in a style which to commonplace observers is inflated, bombastic, or intensely conceited and affected. Prophets always go up and down the ages as madmen. It must have been an awful thing to have been a prophet of the Lord, to have secrets entrusted to the heart which were to be put into human language, to have symbolism set before the eye which was to be translated into the common language of the day.
How manifold is human life! How innumerable are the workers who are toiling at the evolution of the divine purpose in things! One man can understand nothing but what he calls bare facts and hard realities; he has only a hand to handle, he has not the interior touch that can feel things ere yet they have taken shape. Another is always on the outlook for what pleases the eye; he delights in form and colour and symmetry, and glows almost with thankfulness as he beholds the shapeliness of things, and traces in them a subtle geometry. Another man gets behind all this, and hears voices, and sees sights excluded from the natural senses; he looks upon symbolism, upon the ministry of suggestion and dream and vision; he sees best in the darkness; the night is his day; in the great cloud he sees the ever-working God, and in the infinite stillness of religions solitude he hears, rather in echoes than in words, what he is called upon to tell the age in which he lives. Here again his difficulty increases, for although he can see with perfect plainness men, and can understand quite intelligibly all the mysteries which pass before his imagination and before his spiritual eyes, yet he has to find words that will fit the new and exciting occasion; and there are no fit words, so sometimes he is driven to make a language of his own, and hence we come upon strangeness of expression, eccentricity of thought, weirdness in quest and sympathy,—a most marvellous and tumultuous life; a great struggle after rhythm and rest and fullest disclosure of inner realities, often ending in bitter disappointment, so that the prophet"s eloquence dissolves in tears, and the man who thought he had a glorious message to deliver is broken down in humiliation when he hears the poor thunder of his own inadequate articulation. He has his "tile" and his iron pan; he lays upon his left side, and upon his right side; he takes unto him wheat and barley, beans and lentils; he weighs out his bread, and measures out his water, and bakes "barley cakes" by a curious manufacture; and yet when it is all over he cannot tell to others in delicate enough language, or with sufficiency of illustration, what he knows to be a divine and eternal word.
In the fifth chapter Ezekiel is commanded to take a sharp knife, a barber"s razor, and to cause it to pass upon his head and upon his beard; then he is to take balances to weigh and divide the hair; he has to burn with fire a third part in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are fulfilled; then he is to take another third part, and smite it about with a knife, and the final third part he is to scatter in the wind; and so the new commission rolls on like a series of wind-driven clouds, now full of terror, now lighted up with beauty, now significant of great change and judgment and progress. The Lord is determined that the small remnant of his people left after the great Captivity should be regarded with favour, yet even some of these were to perish—to be cast into the midst of the fire. The result of the whole was the utter cleansing of Judaea, the utter banishment of the chosen people. Here the prophet is allowed to rest awhile. He has seen strange things, and heard strange voices, and now for a little time he is permitted to descend to commonplace thought and utterance. He will hardly know himself, coming out of this wonder and perilous excitement. This is the action of God in training his ministers and prophets. He takes them to great heights, shows them scenes of transfiguration, delights their vision, excites their wonder to the point of rapture, thrills them with a consciousness of the larger possibilities of life, and then almost suddenly he brings them down the hill to talk their mother tongue, and do the ordinary business of men.
How much our prophets endure on our account! There is a sense in which the prophet is the priest of his age, for on account of that age he suffers much: he is the instrument chosen of God through whom to express divine thoughts and commands; he is both the divinely chosen instrument and the servant who is to carry out his own messages in practical life. Who can tell all he knows? Who has language that will go with him through all the winding mazes of his highest thought? This is true of our common intellectual life, apart from special excitements and inspirations. We suppose ourselves to be writing our whole mind, yet, as we have often said, the only thing that is most certain Isaiah, that we have not yet begun to express our deepest thoughts. When the spirit of the Lord seizes us, and causes cur whole nature to enter into a state enthusiastic, rapturous, and almost bodiless, we cannot come back and tell the experience through which we have passed. We blunder, we hesitate, we correct ourselves, we go in quest of larger and truer words, and cannot find them, and then we seek to eke out our meaning by invented phrases, and sometimes by perverted and tortured language. There is no room on the earth for the stars. The poor little earth is only large enough to hold a few flowers, and even these flowers overflow with poetic meaning, and prophetic symbol, and instructive suggestion. The stars we must keep high up in heaven, and can only see a little twinkling and gleaming of them now and then. They are so distant we cannot measure their fulness, and yet we are assured of their majesty and splendour. So it is with our thinking: we have a few flower-words that we can make use of, a few things that we can say in tolerably plain language; yet how few they are! On the other hand, we have star-thoughts, great planetary contemplations, marvellous impressions regarding the vastness of things, and the immanence of God in his universe: here our eloquence breaks down, and we betake ourselves to the higher eloquence of hesitation, self-correction, and agony of endeavour, not always ending fruitlessly, but often the more fruitful in that it apparently fails in its great purpose. There are failures that are grand. Some defeats are assurances of future victories.
At the fifth verse of the fifth chapter there is quite a change of communication. Instead of high prophetic language we have comparative simplicity and directness, until another vision begins with the eighth chapter. The Lord brings a great moral charge against Jerusalem; he says:—
"I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her. And she hath changed my judgments into wickedness more than the nations, and my statutes more than the countries that are round about her: for they have refused my judgments and my statutes, they have not walked in them" ( Ezekiel 5:5-6).
"Set in the midst of the nations": Egypt and Ethiopia on the south; the Hittites, the Syrians, and Assyrians, from time to time, on the north; on the coast, southern and northern, were the Philistines and the Phoenicians; whilst on the deserts of the east, and in the near south, were the Ishmaelites going to and fro, and keeping up intercourse with all the nations. It is thought that Solomon himself established commercial relations with the nations of India. So situated, what opportunities Israel had of presenting the aspect of a people well instructed in the divine law, and sweetly obedient to the divine will and purpose; how without so much as uttering one word of mere exhortation she might have preached with the eloquence of unimpeachable consistency and generous beneficence: Jerusalem was called upon to be the great expositor of monotheism in the ancient world. Yet how wondrously was Jerusalem separated by natural barriers from all other lands or nations—by deserts, by the sea on the west, by the northern mountains; how in this geographical solitude Israel might have cultivated to perfection the worship of the one true God! When the Israelites failed in this high purpose they seemed to dry up the sea, and create a high-road through the desert, and break down the mountains, that they might not only allow, but almost invite, the surrounding nations to come in and reduce them to subjection, making a prey of the very treasure of God"s heart. While the judges judged Israel, Israel was continually falling under the power of some of the petty tribes on the confines of the Holy Land, When the empire of Solomon was broken up, in consequence of the sins of the people, the Israelites had no defence against the powerful nations that assailed them: Judaea and Chaldaea made sport of the Israelites. How is the fine gold become dim! how is the giant of God reduced to the feebleness of childhood! how are the mighty fallen! All this apostasy was moral; not because the surrounding nations had better arms, or better military training, did Israel fail in the war, but because Israel had wickedly resisted divine judgment. Immortality is always weakness. When conscience ceases to take part in the battle of life, the battle has already ended in ruin.
What is true of the Israelites is true of all other peoples; and what is true of peoples in their collective capacity is true of the individual man: he goes up or down according to his moral temperament, his moral discipline, his moral purpose in life. How tremendous is the judgment of God as revealed in such words as these:—
"Wherefore, as I live, saith the Lord God; Surely, because thou hast defiled my sanctuary with all thy detestable things, and with all thine abominations, therefore will I also diminish thee; neither shall mine eye spare, neither will I have any pity. A third part of thee shall die with the pestilence, and with famine shall they be consumed in the midst of thee: and a third part shall fall by the sword round about thee; and I will scatter a third part into all the winds, and I will draw out a sword after them" ( Ezekiel 5:11-12).
And so the judgment passes on from thunder to thunder, and the last grand note of that judgment-thunder Isaiah, "I the Lord have spoken it." It was impossible for Ezekiel to invent all these moral judgments. We feel that they must have come up from eternity, because they express what never entered into the heart of man to conceive concerning the proper desert and issue of sin. Hell itself is a revelation. Make of that part of the invisible state what we may, it surely never entered into the heart of man to invent it. We may have perverted the idea; by our foolish exaggerations we may have distorted the divine revelation; but the great central fact of judgment, of burning indignation, of unquenchable anger against sin, we must always recognise as one of the unchangeable realities of true religion. It is clear that all judgment was not future in the Old Testament. There was an immediate degradation, and an immediate infliction of tremendous penalty. "I will make thee waste, and a reproach among the nations that are round about thee, in the sight of all that pass by"; "I shall send upon them the evil arrows of famine"; "I will increase the famine upon you, and will break your staff of bread"; "So will I send upon you famine and evil beasts, and they shall bereave thee; and pestilence and blood shall pass through thee; and I will bring the sword upon thee." These were immediate visitations. In the New Testament we are supposed to come upon a prediction rather than a realised judgment. What we have to suffer for our sins is supposed to be in the future, whilst here we may enjoy ourselves in the very act of drinking goblets of iniquity, and sitting down to partake of the festivities of darkness. All this is an error on our part. Under the New Testament dispensation, as under the Old, judgment is immediate, penalty is now impending, our very next step may be into a burning pit They allegorise who postpone judgment, not they who immediately feel it and respond to it penitentially. Every serpent that bites the hedge-breaker is but a hint of the still greater punishment that awaits us when all life is looked at by a judicial eye and pronounced upon by a judicial voice. Blessed are they who take counsel of immediate dispensations and providences, and who have the spiritual eye that in all these can see symbols of something infinitely more appalling. The Lord does not fail to set forth the great truth that the bread and the water are his, and that in his hands are all the issues of the immediate time. It is not man that makes the sword; it is the Lord that fashions it: it is not a mere failure in the arrangement of accidents that ends in physical disaster; it is a plan of the Most High by which he brings us to religious considerateness, to penitence, to self-renunciation, and to that high state of being which is best expressed by the word Faith.
Almighty God, we bless thee for thy house. The tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. Where there is no tabernacle thou art thyself the more accessible; thou art as a sanctuary in the wilderness, thou art a pavilion from the heat and from the storm. We thank thee that neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem alone shall men worship the Father; thou thyself art everywhere present to be adored and spoken to, and to receive our thanksgivings because of the multitudinousness of the blessings of thy right hand. May we find thee in the wilderness, and find thee in the city; at midnight do thou speak unto us in whispers, at midday do thou come to us with all the glory of light: wherever we are, whatever our estate or condition, let it please thy condescending love to visit us, and minister unto us, and comfort us with exceeding succour. Thou hast been with us all our lifetime; thou hast left no empty day upon all the record; specially hast thou been with us in the day of trouble; thou didst ask us; to come to thee on that dark day and tell thee all about the calamity and the sorrow of our life. Thou didst heal us and comfort us, and in renewed strength thou didst send us back to the vineyard and to the battlefield. We bless thee for thy Son Jesus, who told us all about thee and taught us to call thee Father. From the cradle to the Cross he was always the Christ, the Anointed One, the Bright One, the Centre of Light, the Fountain of Blessing, the Alpha and Omega, beyond whom there is no space, beyond whose duration there is no time. We thank thee for the cradle, for the Cross, for the crown of Christ. In Christ our souls begin their everlasting heaven. The Lord hear us when we cry for pardon, listen to us when we sue for help and added joy, and multiply his blessing upon us in the time of broken-heartedness. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 5". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany