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: Time for a gardening story

Looking back over the flow of the Book of Ezekiel so far, there has been motion away from the presumed home base of Jerusalem for the children of Israel.  My framework of approach has been to see these observations by Ezekiel through the eyes of one who was trained specifically in the ways and traditions of Moses.  And then we come to Ezekiel chapter 17, where apparently it is now story time:  Two Eagles and a vine.

The reality is that we’re at the end of a 2 year time period in which Ezekiel has been experiencing these visions. With this being the case, we are treated to sort of a summary of conclusions and reiterations of cause and effect.

Getting back to Chapter 17 and our parable, as in the case of every parable, there is always the action, and then the observations about that action; the morale of the story.  Since Ezekiel is a true prophet, there are several points that can be inferred from this story.  As usual, he is speaking at several levels at once.

Chapter 17 is actually broken into 4 distinct sections.
Vs 1-8   The actual Parable complete with study/discussion questions in verses 9 & 10.  Isn’t  that nice?
Vs 12-15 The Explanation, again complete with study/discussion questions
Vs 16-21 Prophecy of what God’s actions will be and what the results from poor choices will yield
Vs. 22-24 Prophecy of the restoration of the purity of Faith

Rather than retell the parable and summarize – which is what all the commentaries seem to do, I thought I’d remark on some interesting connections and conclusions that Ezekiel seems to be spoonfeeding us. As I mentioned earlier, Ezekiel seems to be speaking at several levels. So, in bullet point fashion, here is what I see that Ezekiel is most concerned about:

1. The point that jumps right off the page first is clearly about “Commitment” or the act of breaking a covenant. Covenant is a topic that starts in Genesis and is prominent throughout all the books of Moses, what is also referred to as the Torah. In short, breaking one is not cool. If you are going to break a simple covenant with one person, how will God know that you intend to keep the covenant you make with him in sacred space.

2. Transplanting is a well-known method, even then, for preserving the good core of a plant, while removing it from a bad or unproductive environment. This parable is a way of portraying God as a caring gardener trying to preserve the precious nature of Israel’s faith but clear out all the negative factors. In other words, this entire book of Ezekiel is not just about retribution, judgement and punishment. This is the answer to the question: Why??

3. Babylon – the city of Merchants – is portrayed as a lesser of two evils when compared to Egypt at the time. God’s message to Ezekiel was that, at least during captivity, they would be allowed to return to basics of their faith and renew what was started when Moses led them forth from Egypt. This would not always be so, of course, but God would provide a way forward when faith would eventually be penalized.

4. Ding, Ding, Ding –Spoiler Alert– This very section of Ezekiel must have been what Jesus was referring to when he made the speech about “A house divided” wherein either you serve one master, or you serve the other master. Yet another link between the ministry of Jesus, his very teachings, and the message of the prophets of the Old Testament.

5. A glimmer of hope at the very end – or perhaps a foretelling of the Messiah. After all, a tree grows up, not down. Therefore, a lineage of Kings would be represented as growing up through the generations. The very tippy-tip-top of the tree would be the tenderest, most vulnerable, most recent version of the lineage of kings.

From the perspective of the people of Jerusalem, they were being taken away from everything that was good, everything that they knew. From God’s perspective, He was taking them away from a toxic environment and transplanting them to some clear soil for temporary holding in order to let the plant heal.

Are you being transplanted? Was I? When I thought things were really good, was it really a toxic situation in disguise? Was it not health for my growth, and just maybe God new better? Did I resist, did I fight?

 

Ezekiel blog: Little gems

Ezekiel chapter 16 – final stretch

My wife is a big fan of watching the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”.  Over the years of watching that production with her, I’ve also developed an appreciation for period pieces like that story.  One of the things that made watching that mini-series so fascinating was observing how every time we followed the story, my wife would recognize some new gem of insight about the motivation of the characters, or extract some new connection between events.  She would express such excitement about these discoveries and insist that I get it too.   Yes, guys, real men can watch chick-flicks.

What does this have to do with the end of Ezekiel though?   In many ways, verses 35-63 are like reading a very complicated story over and over again.  The same context is repeated eg.  Israel had a bad history, current practices were terrible, and God enacts judgment followed swiftly by punishment.  Ezekiel takes us through this as if he’s trying to be sure that we get the circumstances. No disrespect intended, but he seems to have been very anal that way.

But along the way, we are treated to little bits of gained insight that Ezekiel has prized from the narrative.  Here are some of them that stand out to me:

1. It is because Israel did not remember her humble origins that God brings it all down on her head.  So: remember where you come from.

2. “Hey, you wanted all these lovers and all this attention?  Then I’m not going to step in and stop it when things get totally out of control.  Maybe an overdose will scare you enough.  ”  Yikes, hope I don’t need an intervention like this in my life.

3. God really doesn’t like proverb quoters.   I’m not talking about the book of Proverbs, but those annoying little platitudes that really don’t express any kind of real theology or faith, but are used as pseudo-religious bandaids of the moment.  Proverb-quoters….you know who you are.  Pay attention to this chapter for real.

4. Crimes of Sodom:   Arrogant, over-fed, and unconcerned.  Haughty and unresponsive to the poor and needy.   We all know what happened there.  Uh-huh, ‘nough said.

5. Ok, I know I said ‘nough said, but Sodom only measured up to HALF of how bad Israel was being at this point. That’s HALF as bad, and they got blown off the map.  What were you saying about God’s patience?

6. “Israel ! You broke our covenant! ”   God takes covenants very seriously.  It’s a big deal….and something God will work very hard to create, protect, rebuild, and recreate when necessary.

7. More on covenants, this is the one thing that God believes can actually be healed with Israel.  It’s the one thing in the entire chapter that is discussed in future tense.  God says He “will remember” and He “will establish”.   The object here?!  If he can find hope in such a disaster of a situation, then he can find hope for each one of us.

8. My anger will END. I will turn away my anger and be jealous no longer. When I make atonement for all that you have done…. etc. etc.

Can you imagine what a boost this must have been to Ezekiel who is still sitting out there in the desert wondering what is to become of his people who have been chased from their ancestral home and away from their spiritual center place? To hear that there will be a time when the covenant will be renewed and a time when anger will be turned away. At last some good news and something to hope for.

I’ve heard again and again how the Old Testament seems to be focused on an “Angry” and “Vengeful” God. In this chapter, I see quite the opposite. This story is about a long suffering and patient beyond patient God. He wants to bring His anger to an END. And can anyone doubt what He has in mind for the phrase “atonement for all that you have done”? There is a group within the Christian community who dismiss and ignore the Old Testament because it appears to have little to do with the New Testament message. From my perspective, I find a rich connection between the two collections of written scripture….as did the original believers in the message of Hope.

And now, I am done with Chapter 16. Thanks for hanging in there with me if you are reading along.

 

 

Ezekiel Blog 7: an Onerous task, lying about

Hi, thanks for coming back to my expeditions into the experiences of Ezekiel.  At present I am working through the 4 signs of the prophet found in Ezekiel chapter 5.

Firstly Ezekiel was commanded to draw a picture of Jerusalem and simulate siege against it. Now we are presented with a most puzzling condition to observe; that of a prophet of God being told to go to bed.  This is enough to catch anyone off guard, but if you look closely at this, there is something compelling about this directive to our guy Ezekiel.

I keep trying to consider what Ezekiel must have been thinking or feeling, and I admit this must have been very perplexing to him. How does this relate to Moses?  To us, in modern times and familiar with Christian perspectives, the concept of “bearing the sins” of Israel relates very strongly to the actions of Jesus.   And yet, Moses too complained about the heavy burden of leading his people which weighed on him.

More importantly, Moses and Ezekiel had a similar task at that moment.  In both cases, their people wanted desperately to return to the lace that they knew, the place where everything was familiar – to go back to just the way it was.  And here is God saying no, we’re going to take over a year to sit here and consider what I’m about to do to Jerusalem and why.  Here is my warning and at the same time, here is my mercy.

It is at this point that Ezekiel must have connected the dots so to speak. The directive is to meditate on Jerusalem, meditate and think on the disasters about to come upon the remaining inhabitants.  He thinking about the plagues about to come, and that he was the one bringing tidings of this kind – just like Moses.  Heavy burden indeed.

But that is not all. God wanted him to take on physical attributes of this pause before the real storm. Ezekiel was to lie in his bead on only one side for “X” number of days to represent the same number of years for one house of Israel, and then “Y” number of days to represent the same number of years of the other house of Israel; in the later case, it was 40 days to represent Judah.

He is to prophecy with outstretched arm, while lying in bed,  over the image of Jerusalem and relate over and over again that things about to befall that city. How mentally, emotionally, and spiritually grueling it must have been.  Further, to look at the image of the besieged city as you go to sleep, and to have that as the first thing you see every single day for over a year.

Here in again we gain a glimpse at the way God chooses to interact with his people. Ezekiel’s behavior must have been perplexing to his neighbors and to the Elders of Israel in exile as they came to visit him. To his family, it must have been distressing to see how this weighed on Ezekiel.  But through all that, it must have been fiercely visible how dedicated was Ezekiel’s contemplation of Jerusalem.  He was unswerving every day of that sign, his face was set towards Jerusalem and could not be turned.  This is the same way that Jesus was described on his final journey to Jerusalem.  One can almost picture God’s eyes, longing for the committed faith of his people as he gazes over the city of Jerusalem, much as Jesus’ eyes when he wept for the holy city.

No, the modern reader can not pronounce God to be an immediately vengeful God full of anger and destruction in the old testament. He did not just randomly fling disaster and judgment and plague in some capricious manner as depicted in the mythology of other nations.  As we will read further on, this is not mindless obedience God is seeking. Even in the next verses we see an interaction with Ezekiel that is focused on purpose and faith. God was looking for open acceptance of the principles of faith and justice, and an adherence to the call to come worship in prayer, in humility, in generosity and the spirit of compassion, all of which Israel had left at the door as they came running to bow before their newly adopted practices of idol worship.

Is it any wonder that God called one man, once again, to come out into the middle of a desert, to teach him about faith, faith that is not bound to this place or that place, this rock or that rock, etc. Just faith, just truth,  just prayer, just trust.