THE PROPHET A WATCHMAN
ONE day in January of the year 586 the tidings circulated through the Jewish colony at Tel-abib that "the city was smitten." The rapidity with which in the East intelligence is transmitted through secret channels has often excited the surprise of European observers. In this case there is no extraordinary rapidity to note, for the fate of Jerusalem had been decided nearly six months before it was known in Babylon. But it is remarkable that the first intimation of the issue of the siege was brought to the exiles by one of their own countrymen, who had escaped at the capture of the city. It is probable that the messenger did not set out at once, but waited until he could bring some information as to how matters were settling down after the war. Or he may have been a captive who had trudged the weary road to Babylon in chains under the escort of Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, [Jeremiah 39:9] and afterwards succeeded in making his escape to the older settlement where Ezekiel lived. All we know is that his message was not delivered with the despatch which would have been possible if his journey had been unimpeded, and that in the meantime the official intelligence which must have already reached Babylon had not transpired among the exiles who were waiting so anxiously for tidings of the fate of Jerusalem.
The immediate effect of the announcement on the mind of the exiles is not recorded. It was doubtless received with all the signs of public mourning which Ezekiel had anticipated and foretold. [Ezekiel 24:21-24] They would require some time to adjust themselves to a situation for which, in spite of all the warnings that had been sent them, they were utterly unprepared; and it must have been uncertain at first what direction their thoughts would take. Would they carry out their half-formed intention of abandoning their national faith and assimilating themselves to the surrounding heathenism? Would they sink into the lethargy of despair, and pine away under a confused consciousness of guilt? Or would they repent of their unbelief, and turn to embrace the hope which God’s mercy held out to them in the teaching of the prophet whom they had despised? All this was for the moment uncertain; but one thing was certain-they could no more return to the attitude of complacent indifference and incredulity in which they had hitherto resisted the word of Jehovah. The day on which the tidings of the city’s destruction fell like a thunderbolt in the community of Tel-abib was the turning-point of Ezekiel’s ministry. In the arrival of the "fugitive" he recognises the sign which was to break the spell of silence which had lain so long upon him, and set him free for the ministry of consolation and upbuilding which was henceforth to be his chief vocation. A presentiment of what was coming had visited him the evening before his interview with the messenger, and from that time "his mouth was opened, and he was no more dumb" (Ezekiel 33:22). Hitherto he had preached to deaf ears, and the echo of his ineffectual appeals had come back in a deadening sense of failure which had paralysed his activity. But now in one moment the veil of prejudice and vain self-confidence is torn from the heart of his hearers, and gradually but surely the whole burden of his message must disclose itself to their intelligence. The time has come to work for the formation of a new Israel, and a new spirit of hopefulness stimulates the prophet to throw himself eagerly into the career which is thus opened up before him.
It may be well at this point to try to realise the state of mind which emerged amongst Ezekiel’s hearers after the first shock of consternation had passed away. The seven chapters (33-39) with which we are to be occupied in this section all belong to the second period of the prophet’s work, and in all probability to the earlier part of that period. It is obvious, however, that they were not written under the first impulse of the tidings of the fall of Jerusalem. They contain allusions to certain changes which must have occupied some time; and simultaneously a change took place in the temper of the people resulting ultimately in a definite spiritual situation to which the prophet had to address himself. It is this situation which we have to try to understand. It supplies the external conditions of Ezekiel’s ministry, and unless we can in some measure interpret it we shall lose the full meaning of his teaching in this important period of his ministry.
At the outset we may glance at the state of those who were left in the land of Israel, who in a sense formed part of Ezekiel’s audience. The very first oracle uttered by him after he had received his emancipation was a threat of judgment against these survivors of the nation’s calamity (Ezekiel 33:23-29). The fact that this is recorded in connection with the interview with the "fugitive" may mean that the information on which it is based was obtained from that somewhat shadowy personage. Whether in this way or through some later channel, Ezekiel had apparently some knowledge of the disastrous feuds which had followed the destruction of Jerusalem. These events are minutely described in the end of the book of Jeremiah (chapters 40-44). With a clemency which in the circumstances is surprising the king of Babylon had allowed a small remnant of the people to settle in the land, and had appointed over them a native governor, Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, who fixed his residence at Mizpah. The prophet Jeremiah elected to throw in his lot with this remnant, and for a time it seemed as if through peaceful submission to the Chaldaean supremacy all might go well with the survivors. The chiefs who had conducted the guerilla warfare in the open against the Babylonian army came in and placed themselves under the protection of Gedaliah, and there was every prospect that by refraining from projects of rebellion they might be left to enjoy the fruits of the land without disturbance. But this was not to be. Certain turbulent spirits under Ishmael, a member of the royal family, entered into a conspiracy with the king of Ammon to destroy this last refuge of peace-loving Israelites. Gedaliah was treacherously murdered; and although the murder was partially avenged, Ishmael succeeded in making his escape to the Ammonites, while the remains of the party of order, dreading the vengeance of Nebuchadnezzar, took their departure for Egypt and carried Jeremiah forcibly with them. What happened after this we do not know; but it is not improbable that Ishmael and his followers may have held possession of the land by force for some years. We read of a fresh deportation of Judaean captives to Babylon five years after the capture of Jerusalem; [Jeremiah 52:30] and this may have been the result of an expedition to suppress the depredations of the robber band that Ishmael had gathered round him. How much of this story had reached the ears of Ezekiel we do not know; but there is one allusion in his oracle which makes it probable that he had at least heard of the assassination of Gedaliah. Those he addresses are men who "stand upon their sword"-that is to say, they hold that might is right, and glory in deeds of blood and violence that gratify their passionate desire for revenge. Such language could hardly be used of any section of the remaining, population of Judaea except the lawless banditti that enrolled themselves under the banner of Ishmael, the son of Nethaniah.
What Ezekiel is mainly concerned with, however, is the moral and religious condition of those to whom he speaks. Strange to say, they were animated by a species of religious fanaticism, which led them to regard themselves as the legitimate heirs to whom the reversion of the land of Israel belonged. "Abraham was one," so reasoned these desperadoes, "and yet he inherited the land: but we are many; to us the land is given for a possession" (Ezekiel 33:24). Their meaning is that the smallness of their number is no argument against the validity of their claim to the heritage of the land. They are still many in comparison with the solitary patriarch to whom it was first promised; and if he was multiplied so as to take possession of it, why should they hesitate to claim the mastery of it? This thought of the wonderful multiplication of Abraham’s seed after he had received the promise seems to have laid fast hold of the men of that generation. It is applied by the great teacher who stands next to Ezekiel in the prophetic succession to comfort the little flock who followed after righteousness and could hardly believe that it was God’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. "Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him." [Isaiah 51:2] The words of the infatuated men who exulted in the havoc they were making on the mountains of Judaea may sound to us like a blasphemous travesty of this argument; but they were no doubt seriously meant. They afford one more instance of the boundless capacity of the Jewish race for religious self-delusion, and their no less remarkable insensibility to that in which the essence of religion lay. The men who uttered this proud boast were the precursors of those who in the days of the Baptist thought to say within themselves, "We have Abraham to our father," not understanding that God was able "of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." [Matthew 3:9] All the while they were perpetuating the evils for which the judgment of God had descended on the city and the Hebrew state. Idolatry, ceremonial impurity, bloodshed, and adultery were rife amongst them (Ezekiel 33:25-26); and no misgiving seems to have entered their minds that because of these things the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience. And therefore the prophet repudiates their pretensions with indignation. "Shall ye possess the land?" Their conduct simply showed that judgment had not had its perfect work, and that Jehovah’s purpose would not be accomplished until "the land was laid waste and desolate, and the pomp of her strength should cease, and the mountains of Israel be desolate, so that none passed through" (Ezekiel 33:28). We have seen that in all likelihood this prediction was fulfilled by a punitive expedition from Babylonia in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadnezzar.
But we knew before that Ezekiel expected no good thing to come of the survivors of the judgment in Judaea. His hope was in those who had passed through the fires of banishment, the men amongst whom his own work lay, and amongst whom he looked for the first signs of the outpouring of the divine Spirit. We must now return to the inner circle of Ezekiel’s immediate hearers, and consider the change which the calamity had produced on them. The chapter now before us yields two glimpses into the inner life of the people which help us to realise the kind of men with whom the prophet had to do.
In the first place it is interesting to learn that in his more frequent public appearances the prophet rapidly acquired a considerable reputation as a popular preacher (Ezekiel 33:30-33). It is true that the interest which he excited was not of the most wholesome kind. It became a favourite amusement of the people hanging about the walls and doors to come and listen to the fervid oratory of their one remaining prophet as he declared to them "the word that came forth from Jehovah." It is to be feared that the substance of his message counted for little in their appreciative and critical listening. He was to them "as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument": "they heard his words, but did them not." It was pleasant to subject oneself now and then to the influence of this powerful and heart-searching preacher; but somehow the heart was never searched, the conscience was never stirred, and the hearing never ripened into serious conviction and settled purpose of amendment. Tile people were thoroughly respectful in their demeanour and apparently devout, coming in crowds and sitting before him as God’s people should. But they were preoccupied: "their heart went after their gain" (Ezekiel 33:31) or their advantage. Self-interest prevented them from receiving the word of God in honest and good hearts; and no change was visible in their conduct. Hence the prophet is not disposed to regard the evidences of his newly acquired popularity with much satisfaction. It presents itself to his mind as a danger against which he has to be on his guard. He has been tried by opposition and apparent failure; now he is exposed to the more insidious temptation of a flattering reception and superficial success. It is a tribute to his power, and an opportunity such as he had never before enjoyed. Whatever may have been the case heretofore, he is now sure of an audience, and his position has suddenly become one of great influence in the community. But the same resolute confidence in the truth of his message which sustained Ezekiel amidst the discouragements of his earlier career saves him now from the fatal attractions of popularity to which many men in similar circumstances have yielded. He is not deceived by the favourable disposition of the people towards himself, nor is he tempted to cultivate his oratorical gifts with a view to sustaining their admiration. His one concern is to utter the word that shall come to pass, and so to declare the counsel of God that men shall be compelled in the end to acknowledge that he has been "a prophet among them" (Ezekiel 33:33). We may be thankful to the prophet for this little glimpse from a vanished past-one of those touches of nature that make the whole world kin. But we ought not to miss its obvious moral. Ezekiel is the prototype of all popular preachers, and he knew their peculiar trials. He was perhaps the first man who ministered regularly to an attached congregation, who came to hear him because they liked it and because they had nothing better to do. If he passed unscathed through the dangers of the position, it was through his overpowering sense of the reality of divine things and the importance of men’s spiritual destiny; and also we may add through his fidelity in a department of ministerial duty which popular preachers are sometimes apt to neglect-the duty of close personal dealing with individual men about their sins and their state before God. To this subject we shall revert by-and-by.
This passage reveals to us the people in their lighter moods, when they are able to cast off the awful burden of life and destiny and take advantage of such sources of enjoyment as their circumstances afforded. Mental dejection in a community, from whatever cause it originates, is rarely continuous. The natural elasticity of the mind asserts itself in the most depressing circumstances; and the tension of almost unendurable sorrow is relieved by outbursts of unnatural gaiety. Hence we need not be surprised to find that beneath the surface levity of these exiles there lurked the feeling of despair expressed in the words of Ezekiel 33:10 and more fully in those Ezekiel 37:11 : "Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away in them: how should we then live? Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off." These accents of despondency reflect the new mood into which the more serious-minded portion of the community had been plunged by the calamities that had befallen them. The bitterness of unavailing remorse, the consciousness of national death, had laid fast hold of their spirits and deprived them of the power of hope. In sober truth the nation was dead beyond apparent hope of revival; and to an Israelite, whose spiritual interests were all identified with those of his nation, religion had no power of consolation apart from a national future. The people therefore abandoned themselves to despair, and hardened themselves against the appeals which the prophet addressed to them in the name of Jehovah. They looked on themselves as the victims of an inexorable fate, and were disposed perhaps to resent the call to repentance as a trifling with the misery of the unfortunate.
And yet, although this state of mind was as far removed as possible from the godly sorrow that worketh repentance, it was a step towards the accomplishment of the promise of redemption. For the present, indeed, it rendered the people more impenetrable than ever to the word of God. But it meant that they had accepted in principle the prophetic interpretation of their history. It was no longer possible to deny that Jehovah the God of Israel had revealed His secret to His servants the prophets. He was not such a Being as the popular imagination had figured. Israel had not known Him; only the prophets had spoken of Him the thing that was right. Thus for the first time a general conviction of sin, a sense of being in the wrong, was produced in Israel. That this conviction should at first lead to the verge of despair was perhaps inevitable. The people were not familiar with the idea of the divine righteousness, and could not at once perceive that anger against sin was consistent in God with pity for the sinner and mercy towards the contrite. The chief task that now lay before the prophet was to transform their attitude of sullen impenitence into one of submission and hope by teaching them the efficacy of repentance. They have learned the meaning of judgment; they have now to learn the possibility and the conditions of forgiveness. And this can only be taught to them through a revelation of the free and infinite grace of God. who has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). Only thus can the hard and stony heart be taken away from their flesh and a heart of flesh given to them.
We can now understand the significance of the striking passage which stands as the introduction to this whole section of the book. [Ezekiel 33:1-20] At this juncture of his ministry Ezekiel’s thoughts went back on an aspect of his prophetic vocation which had hitherto been in abeyance. From the first he had been conscious of a certain responsibility for the fate of each individual within reach of his words. [Ezekiel 3:16-21] This truth had been one of the keynotes of his ministry; but the practical developments which it suggested had been hindered by the solidarity of the opposition which he had encountered. As long as Jerusalem stood the exiles had been swayed by one common current of feeling-their thoughts were wholly occupied by the expectation of an issue that would annul the gloomy predictions of Ezekiel; and no man dared to break away from the general sentiment and range himself on the side of God’s prophet. In these circumstances anything of the nature of pastoral activity was obviously out of the question. But now that this great obstacle to faith was removed there was a prospect that the solidity of popular opinion would be broken up, so that the word of God might find an entrance here and there into susceptible hearts. The time was come to call for personal decisions, to appeal to each man to embrace for himself the offer of pardon and salvation. Its watchword might have been found in words uttered in another great crisis of religious destiny: "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force." Out of such "violent men," who act for themselves and have the courage of their convictions, the new people of God must be formed; and the mission of the prophet is to gather round him all those who are warned by his words to "flee from the wrath to come."
Let us look a little more closely at the teaching of these verses. We find that Ezekiel restates in the most emphatic manner the theological principles which underlie this new development of his prophetic duties (Ezekiel 33:10-20).
These principles have been considered already in the exposition of chapter 18; and it is not necessary to do more than refer to them here. They are such as these: the exact and absolute righteousness of God in His dealings with individuals; His unwillingness that any should perish, and His desire that all should be saved and live; the necessity of personal repentance; the freedom and independence of the individual soul through its immediate relation to God. On this closely connected body of evangelical doctrine Ezekiel bases the appeal which he now makes to his hearers. What we are specially concerned with here, however, is the direction which they imparted to his activity. We may study in the light of Ezekiel’s example the manner in which these fundamental truths of personal religion are to be made effective in the ministry of the gospel for the building up of the Church of Christ.
The general conception is clearly set forth in the figure of the watchman, with which the chapter opens (Ezekiel 33:1-9). The duties of the watchman are simple, but responsible. He is set apart in a time of public danger to warn the city of the approach of an enemy. The citizens trust him and go about their ordinary occupations in security so long as the trumpet is not sounded. Should he sleep at his post or neglect to give the signal, men are caught unprepared and lives are lost through his fault. Their blood is required at the watchman’s hand. If, on the other hand, he gives the alarm as soon as he sees the sword coming, and any man disregards the warning and is cut down in his iniquity, his blood is upon his own head. Nothing could be clearer than this. Office always involves responsibility, and no responsibility could be greater than that of a watchman in time of invasion. Those who suffer are in either case the citizens whom the sword cuts off; but it makes all the difference in the world whether the blame of their death rests on themselves for their foolhardiness or on the watchman for his unfaithfulness. Such, then, as Ezekiel goes on to explain, is his own position as a prophet. The prophet is one who sees further into the spiritual issues of things than other men, and discovers the coming calamity which is to them invisible. We must notice that a background of danger is presupposed. In what form it was to come is not indicated; but Ezekiel knows that judgment follows hard at the heels of sin, and seeing sin in his fellow-men he knows that their state is one of spiritual peril. The prophet’s course therefore is clear. His business is to announce as in trumpet tones the doom that hangs over every man who persists in his wickedness, to re-echo the divine sentence which he alone may have heard, "O wicked man, thou shalt surely die." And again the main question is one of responsibility. The watchman cannot ensure the safety of every citizen, because any man may refuse to take the warning he gives. No more can the prophet ensure the salvation of all his hearers, for each one is free to accept or despise the message. But whether men hear or whether they forbear, it is of the utmost moment for himself that that warning be faithfully proclaimed and that he should thus "deliver his soul." Ezekiel seems to feel’ that it is only by frankly accepting the responsibility which thus devolves on himself that he can hope to impress on his hearers the responsibility that rests on them for the use they make of his message.
These thoughts appear to have occupied the mind of Ezekiel on the eve of his emancipation, and must have influenced his subsequent action to an extent which we can but vaguely estimate. It is generally considered that this description of the prophet’s functions covers a whole department of work of which no express account is given. Ezekiel writers no "Pastor’s Sketches," and records no instances of individual conversion through his ministry. The unwritten history of the Babylonian captivity must have been rich in such instances of spiritual experience, and nothing could have been more instructive to us than the study of a few typical cases had it been possible. One of the most interesting features of the early history of Mohammedanism is found in the narratives of personal adhesion to the new religion; and the formation of the new Israel in the age of the Exile is a process of infinitely greater importance for humanity at large than the genesis of Islam. But neither in this book nor elsewhere are we permitted to follow that process in its details. Ezekiel may have witnessed the beginnings of it, but he was not called upon to be its historian. Still, the inference is probably correct that a conception of the prophet’s office which holds him accountable to God for the fate of individuals led to something more than mere general exhortations to repentance. The preacher must have taken a personal interest in his hearers; he must have watched for the first signs of a response to his message, and been ready to advise and encourage those who turned to him for guidance in their perplexities. And since the sphere of his influence and responsibility included the whole Hebrew community in which he lived, he must have been eager to seize every opportunity to warn individual sinners of the error of their ways, lest their blood should be required at his hand. To this extent we may say that Ezekiel held a position amongst the exiles somewhat analogous to that of a spiritual director in the Catholic Church or the pastor of a Protestant congregation. But the analogy must not be pressed too far. The nurture of the spiritual life of individuals could not have presented itself to him as the chief end of his ministrations. His business was first to lay down the conditions of entrance into the new kingdom of God, and then out of the ruins of the old Israel to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Perhaps the nearest parallel to this department of his work which history affords is the mission of the Baptist. The keynote of Ezekiel’s preaching was the same as that of John: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Both prophets were alike animated by a sense of crisis and urgency, based on the conviction that the impending Messianic age would be ushered in by a searching judgment in which the chaff would be separated from the wheat. Both laboured for the same end-the formation of a new circle of religious fellowship, in anticipation of the advent of the Messianic kingdom. And as John, by an inevitable spiritual selection, gathered round him a band of disciples, amongst whom our Lord found some of His most devoted followers, so we may believe that Ezekiel, by a similar process, became the acknowledged leader of those whom he taught to wait for the hope of Israel’s restoration.
There is nothing in Ezekiel’s ministry that appeals more directly to the Christian conscience than the serious and profound sense of pastoral responsibility to which this passage bears witness. It is a feeling which would seem to be inseparable from the right discharge of the ministerial office. In this, as in many other respects, Ezekiel’s experience is repeated, on a higher level, in that of the apostle of the Gentiles, who could take his hearers to record that he was "pure from the blood of all men," inasmuch as he had "taught them publicly and from house to house," and "ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears". [Acts 20:17-35] That does not mean, of course, that a preacher is to occupy himself with nothing else than the personal salvation of his hearers. St. Paul would have been the last to agree to such a limitation of the range of his teaching. But it does mean that the salvation of men and women is the supreme end which the minister of Christ is to set before him, and that to which all other instruction is subordinated. And unless a man realises that the truth he utters is of tremendous importance on the destiny of those to whom he speaks, he can hardly hope to approve himself as an ambassador for Christ. There are doubtless temptations, not in themselves ignoble, to use the pulpit for other purposes than this. The desire for public influence may be one of them, or the desire to utter one’s mind on burning questions of the day. To say that these are temptations is not to say that matters of public interest are to be rigorously excluded from treatment in the pulpit. There are many questions of this kind on which the will of God is as clear and imperative as it can possibly be on any point of private conduct; and even in matters as to which there is legitimate difference of opinion amongst Christian men there are underlying principles of righteousness which may need to be fearlessly enunciated at the risk of obloquy and misunderstanding. Nevertheless it remains true that the great end of the gospel ministry is to reconcile men to God and to cultivate in individual lives the fruits of the Spirit, so as at the last to present every man perfect in Christ. And the preacher who may be most safely entrusted with the handling of all other questions is he who is most intent on the formation of Christian character and most deeply conscious of his responsibility for the effect of his teaching on the eternal destiny of those to whom he ministers. What is called preaching to the age may certainly become a very poor and empty thing if it is forgotten that the age is made up of individuals each of whom has a soul to save or lose. What shall it profit a man if the preacher teaches him how to win the whole world and lose his own life? It is fashionable to hold up the prophets of Israel as models of all that a Christian minister ought to be. If that is true, prophecy must at least be allowed to speak its whole lesson; and amongst other elements Ezekiel’s consciousness of responsibility for the individual life must receive due recognition.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 33". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany