Ezekiel 20 (which I’m about to go into here) and Ezekiel 21 are about countering the agenda of the established leadership of the Jews in captivity. Most people (commentaries) focus on the term judgment and think this is more about condemnation, hellfire, etc. That’s not really what is going on here. Let me explain.
In the very beginning of chapter 20, we are told that the ‘certain’ elders of Israel came before Ezekiel for the purpose of inquiring of the Lord. Well, what does that mean? It was a common practice of the other religions around that area of the world to have a special place of Oracles. It was even adapted by the Jews while wandering in the desert. In that case, questions of legal or spiritual nature were brought to Moses and posed before the Ark of the Covenant. Since they don’t have the Ark any more, it is presumably still in Jerusalem at what’s left of the Temple, the Elders are attempting to operate under some new rules; or rather go back to some very old ways of doing things. To understand this further, we have to go back to a very old book in the Old Testament, we have to go back to the book of Judges.
Here is what Harpers Bible Dictionary (p.515) has to say about the general theme of the book of Judges,
“…[Judges] articulates the evaluation of the period that pervades the book:
* Cycles of Idolatry
* Divine Punishments
* The appeal for Divine aid
* Emergence of a savior figure
* Period of rest when people were ruled or judged by the heroic savior”
Well the first two bullet points definitely sound familiar in the context of Ezekiel and the impending destruction of Jerusalem.
Judges speaks of a time in Israel’s history when it was a wild frontier and a spritual homebase had not been established. The country’s boundaries were still in great dispute with other nations in the area, and the people were in great duress. Great leaders, often with prophetic vision, arose to lead the armies of Israel to victory over their enemies and over their captors. These leaders/prophets/warriors, were called Judges.
You can see where this is going right? The elders think that because their nation is once again displaced, that they need to revert back to that ancient system – that or totally convert to the local religious practices due to peer pressuer. (That is addressed later.) And for that, they will need some sort of a savior figure.
So, here is Ezekiel, full of heavenly vision, courageously speaking the judgements of God, and charismatically gathering the view of the general population. All that is left is the warrior element, the inspired general who will lead them in battle against Babylon and take back their precious Jerusalem.
Of course, God sees through that right away. We are given a HUGE clue early in the chapter when God asks Ezekiel (emphasis on “asks”) if he will judge Israel. Now, most commentaries immediately leap into action at this point trying to show how this is about to unfold as a courtroom drama with God characterized as some sort of heavenly prosecuting attorney. I think this is way off and missing the point entirely. God wants Ezekiel to fulfill the role of Judge as a means of doing a role-reversal against these specific leaders of Israel.
Why should we care about that? In order to understand, we have to look at the outstanding processes of events in Judges. The Judges do such things as
1. retell the story of Israel as a nation
2. Plead for deliverance
3. Bring prophetic vision
4. Lead the armies in a Divine campaign against the enemy
5. Deliver the people from overwhelming odds.
6. Tell their story in poetic form
You will see how item 1, item 3, and item 4 play a big part in this role reversal.
In any case, Ezekiel has shifted the framework from purely Exodus to a greater context of the National origin story. Other parallels will begin to appear in the next couple of chapters as well. Regardless, the point is that we see again how TRUE prophecy moves beyond simple foretelling. Here we are allowed to see the how God sees through the facades presented to him by presumed religious leaders, or anybody for that matter, and reads the motives of the heart. Ezekiel is to speak to to that, to the truth of the situation. And we will see how his other duties continue to expand.
I had to read this section a couple of dozen times for it to finally start resonating with me. It’s a feeling I’ve felt personally many times. A person, carrying vision, or a message, or a will to serve, is confronted by external expectations of behavior and role fulfillment. Pastors get this all the time, well, at least the ones who are starting small ministries. Ordained members of priesthood orders definitely get this all the time. But even worse, the general membership, those who step out and want to try making a difference, suddenly get all kinds of peer pressure, or under-cutting by others , often falling victim to local politics, and eventually giving up. I just saw a new article about a trend of pastors quitting. It’s hard to live up to. And here we see the same thing addressed in prophetic scripture as a primary failing that must be addressed. Must be a pretty big deal if a major prophet of God focuses some attention on it. It’s worth thinking about – just how much ministry gets stifled. Have you corrected a pastor or minister because you thought that person was interacting with the wrong kind of people? Have I put an unfair expectation on a volunteer minister? What have we done to those who carry a burden for the Lord?
Well, that gets us through the first couple of verse of Chapter 20. Next, things really get turned upside down from a scriptural point of view as Ezekiel chapter 20 begins to unfold.