Ezekiel blog: Sword song

My continuing exploration of Ezekiel as I blog my way though a new framework for understanding his writings.

I know I said I was done with Chapter 20, but that wasn’t entirely true. There are a couple of things that lead us into Ezekiel chapter 21.

The first, is this section:
Ezekiel 20:34-35New International Version (NIV)

34 I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. 35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you.

Modern English editors have put the chapter divisions and chapter descriptors in modern Bible’s, but the writing wasn’t always divided this way. However, in it’s current format, the section above is a bit of foreshadowing of the next whole chapter, while at the same time continues to tie into the original Exodus-Judges retelling that Ezekiel is working through.

The key term from verses 34 and 35 is “nations”, and specifically “wilderness of nations”. Ezekiel has been exploring the national origins story with the captive people of Israel – now living in Babylon. Part of that story is of them wandering in the wilderness extremely vulnerable to any and all of the surrounding nations….literally a wilderness of nations. God is saying to them now that He recognizes that they are pretty much in the same situation. And when they did wander, as described in the Pentateuch, God was able to speak to His people “face to face” as it were by way of the Ark of the Covenant. Which brings us fully back to the central theme of Ezekiel’s message: Returning to the faithfulness to the covenant with God. ****

On on the banks of the Jordan river, the people looked across and knew that a number of nations awaited them, already in possession of the promised land. In both Deuteronomy 7 and Judges**** there is sort of a role call of nations.

At the end of chapter 20, we see the beginning of that attention to the nations at large when Ezekiel is called to prophecy against the forests of the South. Forests have always been interpreted as referring to large groups of people. Starting from the South simply points out that often the leaders of Israel had dubious relationships with Egypt and other southern countries. But God had commanded that the people go quietly into Babylon and not look to Egypt for salvation.

Instead, Chapter 21 starts with a Bank! All the waiting and warning is over, armies are on the mover, and events are beginning to unfold. Ezekiel is told to prophecy against the sanctuary. Now, just a few paragraphs ago, back in chapter 20 God was saying that He would gather His people to worship at his sacred mountain and there he would accept their offerings. Apparently, His sacred mountain, and the sanctuary in Jerusalem are two different things. And the sanctuary was definitely part of the temple, which means that in one sense, Ezekiel was being asked to speak against the church. Given previous exhaustive descriptions, we can conclude that the church had descended into a fallen state of disgrace.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Ezekiel says that the Lord’s judgement will sweep from South to North, which is an expression of completeness where everyone will be affected. I guess sometimes God likes to do things in a big way.

Then Ezekiel gives us a sword song, a blunt piece of poetry about the sword that God will use to enact his justice. Historically, sword songs were used as part of preparatory ritual combat preluding to actual war. Sort of like charging up in the locker room. But that is really not the importance here.

The significance of this sword poem is two-fold. Primarily it is a device that is sort of like that scene in Lord of the Rings where the signal goes up from Mordor announcing that the enemy army is moving out to war in full force.  Something as significant as an imperial army bringing the actual ruin of Jerusalem and the formerly holy Temple of Jerusalem, and that such an act is aligned with God’s will, deserves some fanfare. Much more effective than saying something like: And then God destroyed the city,…just like we’ve been saying. ‘nough said.

The second significance of this poem is that it reminds us of the Song of Deborah, back in the book of Judges. It is yet another parallel in this method of understanding Ezekiel’s imagery. In both cases, the will of God was being expressed in times of war and the poem/song was being used to bring the people back to a state of remembrance.

As always, I try to find little bits an pieces that I can grab ahold of at a personal level. The one phrase that keeps coming back to me is something that was stated in verse 34. There is a sentiment there, even though the overall picture is grim.  “I will gather you from where you have been scattered” (paraphrased).  Specifically, this is referring to the political reality of those people in that time. But part of me also responds to the condition of being scattered where-ever.  To have that hope that it is possible to be gathered back together, even if it is to be judged according to my own actions, it means that all is not lost – all the pieces of me are not lost and can be gathered together again.  At the end of all the chaos, there is a point to come to the truth of matters with God. Is that not, in the smallest, most private sense,….prophecy?



Ezekiel blog: Getting right down to it

So, we’re almost done with chapter 20 of Ezekiel. I know this has been a bit exhaustive and taken several blog posts to work through it all.  However, there are just a few more things to dig out of this chapter, things that really make you think about the implications of what Ezekiel is saying. For me, I know that I’ve spent a ton of time going over and over through this chapter to make sure of what I’m seeing.

The essence of this exchange between Ezekiel, God, and the Elders of Israel is  to teach them (the leadership) about their own history during the period of the first and second generations of Israelites wandering in the desert – ultimately to dissuade them from repeating their earliest of mistakes.  In the last blog I showed how the Exodus story had been retold in several different ways via the book of Exodus, the book of Judges, and in Ezekiel.  Following through with this narration, we get a glimpse into what those people were doing with their time while wandering around waiting to go to the promised land. It is this very framework of the Exodus story and the history of Judges that allows us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Ezekiel – for that is the framework that Ezekiel, a priest of the temple, would have had as his primary understanding.

(This is where I stop and wonder: Is God trying to get me to remember my history? But I think about it all the time. What am I missing?) However, moving on.

Through Ezekiel, God accuses the people of a listless attachment to the precepts of their new faith. Ezekiel describes the people as  worshipping at every shrine they came across, making offerings to whatever idol or god they noticed, and literally chasing after “…every hill and tree” in order to pray.  The narrative continues that God gave the first generation to exit Egypt a set of laws in order to manage their community. These were quickly forgotten left by the wayside.

Now here is where it gets really interesting.  Buckle up first before proceeding.

Ezekiel’s writing then describes God as being very frustrated by the lack of determination of His people to hold fast to their faith and considers just wiping them out to be done with it all. But God restrains Himself in the hopes that the next generation turns things around and does better.  Not.   Notice that this is strikingly familiar with the earlier chapter 18 describing the sins of one generation not being passed on to the second generation, etc.

But, as it turns out, this second generation has just as many problems with diligence and fidelity to their new faith as their parents. God is again frustrated.  Ezekiel tells us that God essentially throws up his hands in despair and tells the people to Go ahead, go worship your idols, go worship the idols of the land. Maybe then you will get it all out of your system and come back to me.

Sadly, it seems the people still were not satiated with their lust for identity of faith. Ezekiel states that God is regretful for the situation – that He can not entice the second generation of exiles from Egypt to stay with him. But it also seems that they keep coming back to Moses for divine oracles and such when they have problems.

To this, God says (verse 25): “So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live”.  Lets read that again. God gave them laws and statutes that were not good.  Now which laws would that be?  Hmmmmm second generation Israelites wandering in the desert. That sounds a lot like Leviticus, don’t you think?  Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.

To be sure, every single commentary on Ezekiel either blows by this, or begins back peddling on the absolute nature of scripture – God’s law could not possibly be bad, so it must be referring to something else, some mysterious text of which we cannot read.

I think that is apologetic nonsense. It’s a rather strong opinion, I know. From my perspective, I have to be honest about what I read, what I have read, and what I discover for myself within the sacred texts of scripture.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard people pound their Bible and refer to the absolute nature of God’s law. God said it, it must be true.  (Don’t get me started about the blasphemy people commit every time they call the Bible the ‘Word of God’. Just go read Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John.)

Annnnnnnyway. I began to realize that the very same people who chirp about absolute laws as contained in Biblical scripture had very little actual insight into the deeper meanings contained in scripture, nor did they seem to be aware of other elements of scripture that served to bring out the spiritual focus of scriptural themes. In short, these people seem to think that faith and superstition are the same thing. Superstition is where you are required to perform some set of actions without knowledge or understanding of the deeper meaning from a consistent framework with the added sauce of being motivated primarily by some degree of fear. Pathetic.

So, God’s law. As dictated by who?   Here, right here in Ezekiel’s writing, one of the four major prophets of the Bible, a source beyond reproach (as I mentioned in previous blog posts), we find the phrase ” This is what the sovereign Lord says,…” And we are given a different account of Exodus. And then we are told that in a state of exasperation, God says that he gave laws that were not good. Period.

So how do you know that what you read in Leviticus is the good law instead of the bad law that God Himself tells us that He gave to his people in the wilderness? Leviticus would have been that law.  Don’t believe me, go read it again for yourself. Most of Chapter 20 is in FIRST PERSON from God’s point of view.

So why is this important to me?  This is my blog after all?  Why does it matter so much?

For me, this is Ezekiel’s way of helping us understand that laws and guidance were defined for specific people under specific circumstances.   Anyone who calls themselves a disciple of Christ must be willing to examine everything and reach for the deeper meaning, to struggle to understand what this means in our lives today – what is the message. I guarantee you that it’s more than a pat little rule you can print on a fortune cookie.  Prophecy is about revealing the truth of a situation so that God’s glory can shine through with enlightenment. For, without enlightenment and understanding, there can be no praise.

For this situation, back in the wilderness, God wanted these people to get it out of their system, hoping that they would come to the realization that they need the living presence of God much more than they need rote verse and inflexible lines of law.  This was the very fight that Jesus took on with the Pharisees in Jerusalem, calling them hypocrites and vipers for knowing the line and letter of the law, but not knowing the Spirit at all, let alone the spirit of the law.

We see this all around us today; people pointing their fingers at specific sub-sections of text from biblical scripture and using it as a weapon to separate people from each other and from God. This is not of the Spirit, nor is it in accordance with the true message of the Prophets and of Jesus Himself.

As for poor Ezekiel, ignored and unread by today’s sound-byte chasers, ….he was being a true prophet.  He reveals to the Elders of Israel that God knows what they are really trying  to do, and that  they are trying to manipulate Ezekiel into validating their desire to regress back to an earlier way of life. So, at the very end of the chapter, Ezekiel tells them flat out:

You really just want to worship wood and stone – to follow the crowd.  But what you have in mind will never happen.

 For me, for us, for all of us here today in the 21st century:  Don’t follow the crowd. Be your own disciple. Look for the truth of the situation, look for God’s enlightenment, so that we can all be filled with praise.

And so I close Ezekiel chapter 20.