Ezekiel 4 & 5 – God’s Performance Art

The Bible can be so bizarre, or should I say the stories it tells can be. In chapter 4 the Lord directs Ezekiel to symbolize the siege of Jerusalem. Basically what the Lord has Ezekiel do is prophetic performance art, and it paints a very ugly picture. As we know from Jeremiah and Lamentations, the things that happen to the city under the siege are horrifying. Why might we be told this again, and again? The Lord is clearly warning Judah (and Israel before her) that if they don’t repent of their sins, this horrifying stuff is going to happen to them. I’m wondering what the purpose of him doing this is among the exiles who have already been taken out of the city. By being exiled they have been spared the gruesome suffering to come on the countrymen, but the Lord is communicating his warnings for a reason.

Given what we know from human nature, from Scripture, and from what Jesus tells us about how to interpret Scripture (i.e., the OT), I think the reason is to show us that no matter what the Lord does externally (Temple, sufferings, miracles, warnings), his people just can’t help it! Rebellion comes naturally to the human heart! Only something very radical and supernatural can change that. We’ll get a picture of what that is later in Ezekiel when dry bones come back to life, and stone hearts are turned to flesh. Salvation is wholly and completely supernatural, and thus not of us in any way.

But back to performance art. The Lord has Ezekiel lay on the ground on his left side for 390 days, and on his right for an additional forty. Then he’s tied up in ropes so he can’t turn from one side to the other until the siege is finished. He’s told to cook his food over human excrement (yes, you read that right), which he refuses to do because that would make him unclean (he’s a priest, remember, and a faithful one), so the Lord lets him do it over cow manure. All to show the people how they will, “waste away because of their sin.” This sin thing is serious business.

Then he’s told to cut off his hair and beard and scatter it around to communicate different messages of warning, which he does. Then the Lord says he will inflict such punishment:

Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again. 10 Therefore in your midst parents will eat their children, and children will eat their parents. I will inflict punishment on you and will scatter all your survivors to the winds.

Can cannibalism, which we also read about in Lamentations, really be part of God’s punishment for sin? Remember what the Lord did through Jeremiah over and over again? Warned Judah and it’s leaders that Babylon was coming and would destroy them. And what did they do? They called Jeremiah a liar and tried to kill him, and finally when that didn’t work imprisoned him. They didn’t listen! So whose fault is God’s punishment? Theirs! The siege and all of it’s horrors could have been avoided, but their rebellious, sinful, idolatrous hearts thought they knew better. Yet even in the midst of all this prophecy of destruction there is the hope of mercy:

13 “Then my anger will cease and my wrath against them will subside, and I will be avenged. And when I have spent my wrath on them, they will know that I the Lord have spoken in my zeal.

Avenge seems a strange word for God’s motivation to pour out his anger and wrath, but one of its synonyms I think gets at the idea the Lord may be communicating: vindicate. Or prove one’s innocence. God’s judgments are always proved right because they are his. He says something will happen, and it does. He says sin must be punished, and it is. Think about this, though. If God’s wrath against Judah being spent looks this horrific, just imagine (we can’t) the wrath of Almighty God being poured out on Jesus for the sins of the world! “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Wow.

Ezekiel 1-3 – Ezekiel’s Call and the Lord’s Sweet Words

Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah, but his calling and ministry were quite different. While Jeremiah was basically called from the womb and spent most of his life in Jerusalem, Ezekiel, a priest, was called as an adult (maybe 30 years old) while in exile in Babylon. He was among the first taken away with the other nobles and warriors (597 BC), while Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem until the fall of the city. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry was to the people left behind, while Ezekiel’s was to the exiles.

Finally, Ezekiel’s prophecy as a priest is focused is more on the Temple and the ceremonial than the moral. As I learned, this had implications for the nature of post-exilic Judaism, which would be the Judaism that Jesus would confront during his ministry, and that would lead to his execution. The Sovereign Lord of history is directing everything to lead to the event that will redeem his people, “The Lord our Righteousness,” as Jeremiah said (twice). The point is that an earlier form of Judaism as practiced may not have seen Jesus as the threat he came to be.

Chapter one starts with Ezekiel’s vision, and what a vision it is! It reminds one of John’s Revelation visions. Then in chapter two the Lord speaks:

He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

It’s almost like the Lord is saying, man up! I’m here to speak with you. And notice the Spirit is what allows him to get to his feet. He couldn’t do it on his own. The phrase “Son of man,” is used often in Ezekiel, and was a favorite moniker of Jesus for himself. The Hebrew is Ben adam, of son of adam, or son of the earth. From my NIV Bible, it says in Genesis 2 of the word used as, “And the Lord God formed man (adam) from the dust of the ground.” The Hebrew adam may be derived from the Hebrew word for ground (adamah). Son of man gets its Messianic meaning in Daniel, but here it’s basically the Lord addressing Ezekiel as a human being. Maybe he wants us to be clear here who calls the shots.

Ezekiel is told he is to speak the Lord’s words to a rebellious people, like every other prophet, and he is not to fear them. He is given a scroll, and chapter 3 starts out with him being told to eat it. When he eats “it tasted as sweet as honey” in his mouth. Even though the Lord’s commission to him will be difficult, Ezekiel delights in the Lord’s words if they were pure sweetness. I imagine that as a priest having ministered before the Lord for some time that he knows the presence of the Lord, and his words, are precious. And here is the Lord himself(!) speaking directly to him, and giving him a scroll with his words on it to eat. In modern parlance, he is blown away. As he’s lifted up from wherever he is, he exclaims:

May the glory of the Lord be praised in his dwelling place!

Back among the exiles “at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River,” it takes him seven days to recover because he is completely overwhelmed. The rest of the chapter is the Lord warning Ezekiel in another vision right there by the river to speak to this rebellious people. You would think after what Ezekiel has seen he wouldn’t need to be warned, but obviously this job is not going to be easy so he obviously needed it. Prophet was the toughest Job in ancient Israel.

Lamentations – God’s Horrible Judgment Points to His Amazing Grace

This short book paints a horrifying picture of Judah’s last days and Israel’s destruction. It seems like it was written after Jeremiah finished the book that bears his name (most believe the author is Jeremiah although it doesn’t say so.) He starts with this lament in chapter 1:

How deserted lies the city,
    once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
    who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
    has now become a slave.

Throughout the book of Jeremiah, the Lord warned Judah to repent and turn from their sins, but they wouldn’t. Over and over Jeremiah says Babylon is coming, but the leaders call him a liar and try to kill him. When that doesn’t work they put him in prison. In fact when the Babylonians enter the city they are the ones who free him.

Why is there such a negativity in the Bible? We know that the whole OT is about Jesus (i.e., our redemption in Christ), so what do the book of Jeremiah and Lamentations tell us about Jesus? A consistent theme running in Jeremiah, and reiterated in this book is judgement and hope. We know why such horrible things happened to Judah (and Israel before her):

Jerusalem has sinned greatly
    and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
    for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans
    and turns away.

Because of her sin the Lord is angry. This is a God many people can’t accept (from chapter 2):

How the Lord has covered Daughter Zion
    with the cloud of his anger!
He has hurled down the splendor of Israel
    from heaven to earth;
he has not remembered his footstool
    in the day of his anger.

or:

In fierce anger he has cut off
    every horn of Israel.

or:

he has poured out his wrath like fire
    on the tent of Daughter Zion.

or:

in his fierce anger he has spurned
    both king and priest.

or:

He stretched out a measuring line
    and did not withhold his hand from destroying.

The Lord’s punishment of sin is not some passive getting out of the way so people can destroy themselves. It is active punishment. The Lord wants us to know that sin is very serious business. Not only is the wages of sin death, it is all the misery and suffering that precede death. Why is this?

Sin is a violation of God’s being, and he must hate and judge and punish it. What Christ did in effect was to save us from God himself! Wrath and anger is his natural response to sin. What he poured out on Israel and Judah, the destruction of his holy city, he had to pour out on Christ that we might be saved from that wrath.

As Fallen creatures we are steeped in sin, our being is contrary to his being. It’s all about ontology. When Christ had paid the penalty, the curtain separating us from God, from the holiness of the Creator, was torn in two. Now our judge, jury, and executioner has become our Father. As I’ve called it, a radical, relational, reversal. And it’s all on God’s side. He is no longer against us because of our sin.

We get a hint that judgment and punishment will not be the end of the story in chapter 3. He starts the chapter complaining about all the things God in his wrath has done to him. But as he’s recalling all his suffering he says:

21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.

Ultimately like Job he will trust the Lord, even when that’s very hard to do. He, and we, stand with Moses who says of the Lord:

He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
    and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
    upright and just is he.

Our assessment of life will always center on us, and what circumstances do to us, but God always has bigger things in mind which are both temporal (thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven) and eternal. We have something, though, Jeremiah couldn’t have foreseen, the death and resurrection of Christ. The whole of history, redemptive and otherwise, turns on those events. We know God’s compassions through Christ’s sufferings, and we claim that mercy and grace every morning.

Lastly, one of the clearest expressions of God’s providence in the Bible is in this chapter:

37 Who can speak and have it happen
    if the Lord has not decreed it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that both calamities and good things come?

No Deist God here. Skeptics, if they allow a God of providence might exist, see his actions in history as whimsical and arbitrary, but they are anything but. We who belong to the Lord are with Paul on this:

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and[i] knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!

 __________________________

P.S. A little Bible trivia question: Is there cannibalism depicted in the Bible? Yep, right here in chapter 4:

10 With their own hands compassionate women
    have cooked their own children,
who became their food
    when my people were destroyed.

Like I said above, horrifying.

 

Jeremiah 51 & 52 – The Ultimate Destruction of Babylon – God’s Promises are Certain

These chapters bring us to the end of Jeremiah’s story, and confirm what we already know: It’s not going to go well with Babylon. Even though the Lord used them to meet out judgment on Judah, Babylon will pay for their own sins. Chapter 51 describes the destruction in detail, and Babylon will be no more. The picture above indicates that the Lord wasn’t kidding. This is all that remains of the great Babylon. But when Jeremiah was alive Babylon was still a great empire.

The words of this chapter were written on a scroll and given to a man who was hauled off to Babylon with King Zedekiah. Jeremiah instructed the man that when he got to Babylon he was to read all these words aloud to the people exiled there. Then he is to finish with this:

62 Then say, ‘Lord, you have said you will destroy this place, so that neither people nor animals will live in it; it will be desolate forever.’

I’m sure he people found this hard to believe. By that time the Babylonian empire had been around for over a thousand years, and probably much longer. Sure, Lord, they must have thought, Babylon is just going to disappear. Yes it is. But that would take a least 70 years.

Chapter 52 describes the fall of Jerusalem in detail, and why it happened:

It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence.

It tells again of the sad story of young king Zedekiah (he would have only been 32), how we was blinded and hauled away to rot in a Babylonian prison until his death. The perfect ending for the futility of the kings of Israel to rule in the name of the Lord. One day a king will come that will rule successfully, just not one they expect.

We also see in this chapter one of the possible reasons the Lord wanted to wipe out Babylon forever:

17 The Babylonians broke up the bronze pillars, the movable stands and the bronze Sea that were at the temple of the Lord and they carried all the bronze to Babylon.

And the following verses describe how they took everything, which would include the holy of holies. Obviously the Lord didn’t look kindly on the desecration of his dwelling place with his people.

We also are told of the number of people who were taken into captivity, a surprisingly small number, only 4,600. But these were the people left from those taken to Babylon earlier. Out of this small remnant will come Israel’s true king one day, and God’s people will be like the Lord promised, the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky.

The book ends with a hint that God will indeed bless his people again some day. The king of Judah, Jehoiachin, was released from prison after 37 years by a new Babylonian king, given a place of honor and dined daily at the king’s table. (I was confused about who this king was related to Zedekiah. This article clears it up. Jehoiachin was taken as a young king—either 8 or 18, with the initial captives, the higher elements of society, to Babylon. The poor and lower classes were left behind, and Zedekiah became their king. When he’s finally taken, it’s over.) Even in what appears a hopeless situation for his people, the Lord is giving them hope.

Jeremiah 34-50 – In Whom or What Will We Put Our Trust

These chapters cover a narrative of destruction. Chapter 34 starts with Jeremiah telling Zedekiah that Babylon is coming. For some reason, maybe the Jubilee, Zedekiah makes a covenant with the people to free all the slaves. But for some other reason, we’re not told, he and the people who made the covenant change their minds and take back their slaves. Not a good move. It almost seems like a last straw. Proclaiming liberty to the captives is God’s MO, and his people do the right thing then almost immediately remind us that they are hopeless. Then the Lord declares their destruction, again.

In the next several chapters we see again the leaders of Judah refusing to listen to the Lord, and in a brazen way. They refuse to pay attention to anything Jeremiah has to say. Over and over, in these and previous chapters, they are told the Babylonians are coming to destroy the city. This is obviously getting obvious. The city is under siege. But what do the leaders do? They throw Jeremiah in a cistern—tough job being God’s prophet in ancient Israel. He is rescued and King Zedekiah asks him what the Lord’s message is for him and the city. Well, king, it hasn’t changed: surrender to the Babylonians and all will go well. Of course he doesn’t. Chapter 39 tells of the fall of Jerusalem, and here is what happens because the king and the leaders would not listen to Jeremiah:

There at Riblah the king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes and also killed all the nobles of Judah.Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles to take him to Babylon.

If only he had listened to the Lord . . . . Jeremiah, by contrast did:

17 But I will rescue you on that day, declares the Lord; you will not be given into the hands of those you fear. 18 I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in me, declares the Lord.’”

Because you trust in me . . . . And think about what Jeremiah had to go through, the constant threats and danger from those who hated everything he had to say to them. Yet he still trusted in the Lord. Maybe he knew the story of Job, and Job’s declaration that, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” This is the theme of all these chapters, either trust the Lord and live, or trust in anything else and suffer the consequences.

As the Babylonians destroy the city and begin to haul the population off to Babylon, they find Jeremiah in chains and release him. He ends up staying in Jerusalem. The story of the remnant, those few left who were not hauled off to Babylon takes over in chapter 40, and trust becomes the issues again. They are all still afraid of the Babylonians, and they ask Jeremiah to inquire of the Lord for them. He tells them the Lord says to stay in the land and trust him, and all will be well. But of course, they don’t, and are determined to flee to Egypt, whom they obviously trust more than the Lord to keep them safe. Bad decision.

The Lord then prophecies bad news for all the nations around Israel, including Egypt, and finally Babylon in chapter 50. Here is the theme for all the peoples, but addressed specifically to Moab:

Since you trust in your deeds and riches,
    you too will be taken captive,

Since Moab was often a thorn in Israel’s side, it’s interesting that the Lord would judge them for trusting in their deeds and riches. But the Lord expects everyone to trust in him alone, for whatever else we might trust in to bring us safety, or happiness, or fulfillment, or purpose is idolatry. We were created to be in communion with him alone as our ultimate meaning.

Finally, even though he pronounces judgment on these peoples, for each of them he ends by saying he will restore their fortunes. Only of Babylon is that not true, and there is nothing left of that civilization to this day. Even in judgement the Lord leaves hope of his mercy.

Jeremiah 33 – God’s Covenant Promise: Israel’s Restoration and Ours

This chapter continues the themes of the previous one, but give us a more concrete definition of the Lord’s salvation. It starts with Jeremiah still confined in the courtyard of the king, and again the word of the Lord coming to him, again with the Lord affirming his authority based on his being the Creator:

“This is what the Lord says, he who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it—the Lord is his name:

I’m still amazed, although I shouldn’t be, that this is a constant theme throughout the OT. No wonder that Satan would use something like evolution to undermine exactly this. Creator? What Creator? But exactly because the Lord  is the Creator, he has the authority and the power to do absolutely anything he wants. And whatever he does is right because he sets the rules. His being is the plumb line against which all things are measured. Then he tells Jeremiah something that I memorized back in the day no doubt thinking it applied to me:

‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’

I would know this isn’t addressed to me if I’d only read the context. The “great and unsearchable” things are the Lord’s judgment, including his “wrath and anger” against his people, and their ultimate salvation which starts early in this chapter with verse six when he says, “Nevertheless.” So in spite of all the wickedness they’ve committed, and how wicked they are, he is going to save them. And he spends the rest of the chapter, the next 20 verses, proclaiming his salvation.

There are plenty of promises of him restoring the land and their prosperity, but this salvation is something much bigger:

15 “‘In those days and at that time
    I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
    he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
    and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteousness.’

In the fifth century BC, the people reading or hearing this message could not have grasped exactly what was meant by the Lord himself becoming our righteousness. Now we know. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Paul, a Pharisee in his previous life, very well knew his Jeremiah. He was declaring that Jesus is, “Yahweh our righteousness.” There was no doubt in Paul’s mind that Jesus was divine, was God in human flesh. His entire theology depended on it.

The final nine versus are the Lord declaring his determination that this salvation is something his people can depend on. Given what we now know about what Jesus on the cross, these verses almost don’t make sense:

‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel, 18 nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’”

The writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus doesn’t continually need to offer sacrifices because his sacrifice was once for all, but this seems to say they will continue. I think you have to read this in light of Hebrews, not the other way round. The efficacious nature of Christ’s sacrifice is as if what the sacrifice accomplishes never ends. And it doesn’t!

In the final verses the Lord compares the reliability of his covenant promise to day and night, and “the fixed laws of heaven and earth.” He does this twice just so they, and we, get the message. Our salvation doesn’t depend on us, any more than Israel’s salvation (from exile and captivity) depended on them. Our salvation, this righteousness that becomes ours, is rooted in the covenant promises of Almighty God. That is our ultimate security and our only hope.

Jeremiah 32 – God’s Promise to Never Stop Doing Good to His People

We see Jeremiah imprisoned by King Zedekiah to start this chapter. The king can’t believe that Jeremiah would prophesy that Jerusalem will fall and he’ll be captured and dragged away to Babylon, even though at that very moment the city is under siege! Like many of those who refuse to accept God’s word, he’s oblivious to the obvious.

Then the Lord tells Jeremiah to buy a field as an object lesson for what he will do with Israel in his mercy: they will again buy fields and vineyards in the land. Then Jeremiah begins a great prayer with these words:

17 “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.

This is a constant theme throughout the OT, asserted and affirmed more than any other, that God as Creator is the ultimate justification for his purposes. And these purposes are always affirmed in the context of the redemption of his people. The Bible, after all, is redemptive history, the history of the redemption of his people.

The Lord then affirms Jeremiah’s affirmation with his own rhetorical question:

27 “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?

Uh, no! Yet how often do we treat stupid little frustrations in life or situations that don’t exactly line up with our expectations as if God is a bystander. Or worse, we blame him for malevolent intentions. As the chapter goes on we’ll see that he won’t let us get away with either, if we’re willing to believe what he says.

After he declares his power, he yet again recites the litany of Israel’s sins. You’d think they, and we, would have gotten the point by now, but I think the point isn’t to rub their noses in it. Rather, it’s purpose is to contrast the sins with the mercy and grace he will show to such sinners, both ancient and modern. In v. 36 he in effect says, you all are saying look at this calamity the Lord has brought upon you, but you are focusing on the wrong thing:

37 I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. 38 They will be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. 40 I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.

Yet again the Lord points to the material-temporal while pointing to something much bigger in the spiritual-eternal. Yes he will bring Judah and Israel back to the land where they will be able to buy fields and vineyards, but what he’s really after is the heart of his people. The physical-material circumstances of his people, while important, are always secondary.

God’s people are those whose hearts he has transformed so that they will alone reverence him—singleness of heart and action is a far cry from the rebellion Israel and Judah have been guilty of for centuries. What changed? God! His “furious anger and great wrath” have been satisfied in Christ! As “Our Father who art in heaven,” he will “never stop doing good to” us, and he “will rejoice in doing” us good. He will “assuredly plant” us in the eternal land, and do it with all his being.

We can trust God’s good intentions toward us because his change of heart is not arbitrary, as it is with the God of Islam. His good intentions, i.e. his love, is based on something he has done, and demonstrated, something objectively we can point to and say, “See, look how our God loves us!” Paul tells us what that is:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God himself gave himself in the person of Christ for us! No wonder he will never stop and rejoices in doing us good. The everlasting covenant he makes with us he first made with himself in the councils of his Triune being. That is why when he forgives our sin he is faithful and just. His forgiveness is not dependent on the depth of our remorse or the sincerity of our repentance (as if we could gauge such things), but on his character! This we can live, albeit imperfectly, in the words of Isaiah:

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.

Amen!