God's Faithful Preacher
15 Aug 2009, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
GOD'S FAITHFUL PREACHER
The 'Day of Judgment' had arrived.
First, it was to be the northern kingdom of Israel who had been taken captive by the King of Assyria in 722 BC. This was at a time when the Assyrian nation had reached its peak of power dominating the ancient world from 880-612 BC. The Assyrians were a merciless and savage people and their army was ruthless and effective (Lockyer, 1986: 114). They were well known for their cruelty and this was seen in the burning of their conquered cities along with the burning of women and children. They also impaled their victims on stakes and mutilated their bodies by cutting off their heads, hands, arms and legs.
The Assyrians carried away thousands of Israelites and resettled them in various parts of their empire. This was to be a blow from which the Israelites as a nation never recovered (Ibid: 113).
One hundred and twenty years after the defeat of northern Israel God brought judgment on the southern kingdom of Judah when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched into the city of Jerusalem (Mears, 1983: 243). Ten thousand of the chief men of the kingdom and some of the royal seed were taken at this time. It had taken Nebuchadnezzar almost twenty years to completely destroy Jerusalem and he could have done it sooner. However, it was believed that he wanted the benefits of the tribute money that he could extort from the nation's treasury during this period. He was finally forced to destroy Jerusalem because of the persistent efforts of the city to ally herself with the great power of Egypt to the south (Ibid). This was not going to be tolerated.
The Babylonians took captives from Jerusalem in three stages. The first captives were taken around 605 BC, and included among this select group was an intelligent and exceptionally able young man of noble blood by the name of Daniel (Lockyer, 1986: 368; Alexander, 1999: 473).
A second attack against the city occurred in 597 BC when many additional captives were taken including King Jehoiachin along with many of Judah's statesmen, their soldiers and craftsmen (Alexander, 1999: 461). The third and final onslaught was carried out in the extensive campaign of 587-586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar finally destroyed Jerusalem and took most of the remaining exiles into captivity (Lockyer, 1986: 368). It was to be a tragic hour for Jerusalem when her walls were laid flat, her houses burned, the temple destroyed and her people dragged away as captives (Mears, 1983: 243).
However, it was to be in the second campaign that a young man, who had been in training for the priesthood and looking forward to serving God in the temple, was taken into exile along with those who formed the upper nobility of the nation. This was eleven years before the final destruction of Jerusalem and about eight years after Daniel and his friends had been brought as captives to Babylon (Neufeld, 1960: 336).
The young man was about twenty-five years of age and by the time he arrived in Babylon he found that Daniel, still only a young man, had already attained a high position in the courts of Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid: 242).
At the same time, back in the city of Jerusalem, an older man by the name of Jeremiah continued to prophesy anguished warnings of God's judgments to the remnants of his people. His work finished with the final destruction of the city in 587 BC.
While Jeremiah was working with the Jews in Jerusalem, the ten thousand exiles from the second campaign were to live in a refugee camp in Babylon. It was here that God was now to call this 25 year-old priest in training into His service as a prophet.
His name was Ezekiel, which in the Hebrew meant 'God will strengthen' and it is probable that this young man had been a pupil of the prophet Jeremiah because much of his ministry to follow was to reflect the same theme of judgment.
We are told that Ezekiel's Babylonian home was to be found by the Chebar River. This was a ship canal that branched off the Euphrates just near Nebuchadnezzar's city of Babylon - a city that was described as the most beautiful in the world at that time. We are told that it was filled with palaces, gardens, temples and bridges, making it one of the most outstanding showplaces of the Middle East (Ibid: 243).
Chebar was one of the many canals that were dug by the Babylonian monarchs throughout this period using the Hebrew captives as part of their labour force. Ezekiel may have been part of this group.
Tradition tells us that the little village of Kifil was the refugee settlement where the prophet lived, died and was buried. A colony of captive Jews lived nearby at Tel-abib and Ezekiel would most likely have worked and lived with these people. They were located about 50 miles or 83 kms from Babylon itself which meant that it was quite possible that Ezekiel may have maintained regular contact with Daniel in his palace quarters at that time (Ibid).
You could imagine what this little group would have been like. They would have presented a pitiable picture with their national life gone, no temple and little opportunity for commercial business (Ibid).
It was to an audience such as this that Ezekiel, the son of Buz, was to devote the best years of his life (Ezek 1: 3). While God had set Jeremiah to be a tower of strength in the land of Judah, Ezekiel was to be a tower of strength among his own captive people by the river Chebar.
We need to recognise that it is sometimes easier to go to other places and cultures as a missionary than to speak to the members of your own family or your own friends and maybe God was speaking to us as He spoke to Ezekiel in Ezek 3: 5-9,11 (NIV). This is what He says:
'You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel - not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house…Go now to your countrymen in exile and speak to them, "This is what the Sovereign Lord says, whether they listen or fail to listen".
God sent Ezekiel to his own people and while it was difficult to speak to their false prophets, elders, shepherds and princes; he did it because God commanded it. False prophets, who claimed God's authority for their false messages of hope, continually undermined his work by telling the people what they wanted to hear. They were like plaster concealing the crumbling structure of the nation underneath, but unable to stop it from falling (Ezek 13; Alexander, 1999: 464).
God told Ezekiel to be a watchman. He was told not to fear the people, but to give them warning and if he did not do it, God would require their blood at his hands (Ezek 3: 16-21).
In order to carry out these instructions, God in Ezekiel 4 was to ask some very weird and extra-ordinary things of this young prophet. In acting out the siege of Jerusalem he was asked to shut himself up in his house (3: 24), he was to lie on his side bearing the sins of the people for many days (4: 4-8), he ate his food by weight (4: 10), he sacrificed personal appearance by shaving his head (5: 1) and even moved personal and domestic goods out of his house to show the removal of Israel into captivity (12: 2-7). God used these methods involving symbolic behaviour, parables and object lessons to enable Ezekiel to get the message across to a people who, already in their captivity, were seen to be hardening their hearts. In order to be God's sign to the people, Ezekiel was to undergo the loss of all personal interests and he stood ready to do whatever was required of him so that he could demonstrate God's plan for His people.
The prophet Ezekiel had already lost his home, his freedom and his vocation all within a relatively short period of time. However, as a devoted follower of God, he was able to face up to these bitter experiences without bitterness and cynicism. However, it was to be the death of his wife that was seen to be one of the saddest experiences he was yet to endure.
This woman that he described in Ezek 24: 16 as 'the desire of his eyes' would die on the very day the armies of Babylon laid siege against the holy city of Jerusalem. Ezekiel 24: 1-2 tells us that this was also the same day God revealed this difficult information to him. The prophet's sadness about the death of his wife was to match the grief that God had about the sin of Jerusalem. Ezekiel, in chapter 24: 15-22, was then commanded not to grieve her death, but to steel himself for this tragedy even as God had prepared himself for the death of His beloved city (Lockyer 1986: 366).
It is believed that no other event in the lives of the Old Testament prophets has been seen as touching and as powerful in conveying the Lord's grief over the fate and sufferings of his rebellious people. While believers throughout the ages have been called upon to suffer many indignities, it is in the suffering of Ezekiel throughout this tragedy that we learn something of the suffering of God himself (Ibid: 366, 367).
When God first called Ezekiel to serve as a prophet, the call was accompanied by a vision and this was to be followed by a succession of others that took place throughout his time in captivity.
However, it was to be the first vision described in Ezek 1: 1-28 that was to colour his entire ministry. He says in Ezek 1: 1 that 'As I was among the captives…the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.' He was to see God in all his awesome majesty, above and beyond our human world, all-seeing and all-knowing. It was to be a vision of fire and glory and against this backdrop of dazzling brilliance he was to see his people's sins in all their blackness and the inevitability of judgment. What a contrast between the human and the divine (Alexander, 1999: 461).
Ezekiel describes what looks like an approaching storm coming across the Babylonian plains and then he makes out the forms of four cherubim, standing wing-tip to wing-tip, forming a hollow square. At the centre of it all a fire is glowing and above, under the blue vault of the heavens, he sees the Lord of glory in human form seated on a throne encircled by a dazzling rainbow (Ibid: 462).
I want you to imagine what this would have been like.
Ezekiel continues his description by saying that beside each four-faced cherub is a terrifying whirling wheel, moving like a castor and full of eyes. The almighty, the God of Israel is now seen to be present in all of his power in this far-flung part of Babylon. When Ezekiel saw it he fell facedown for who could see it and live (Ibid).
Ezekiel now accepts his God-given task to become a messenger and a watchman to his captive and rebellious people.
In 592 BC, before the siege of Jerusalem, Ezekiel is given a second extended vision where he is transported to Jerusalem and set down beside the temple. Whether the description in Ezek 8-11: 25 is actual or symbolic, the meaning becomes very plain. There has been a total departure from the true religion of Israel (Ibid: 464).
He sees an image of the Canaanite goddess Asherah, often referred to as the image of jealousy, that has been set up in the temple. He sees the nation's leaders secretly practicing animal worship. He sees the women mourning the Sumerian god Tammuz - a god who was supposed to die with the old year and rise again with the spring and he sees men turning their backs on God to worship the sun (Ibid).
This view is then followed again by a view of the cherubim, the whirling wheels and the glory of God as previously described in chapter one.
Again, this second vision tells of the depths of the people's 'abominations' in defiling the sanctuary and contrasts it with the overwhelming glory of God. It also shows why God's presence would be eventually withdrawn, leaving the temple as an empty shell and Jerusalem in ruins without a heart and soul (Ibid). With this impending judgment, the future would now seem to rest with those who were to be found in exile. God promises them in Ezek 11: 17 that He would gather them from the nations and countries where they had been scattered and give back to them the land of Israel again.
A third vision is given to Ezekiel in Ezek 15 showing the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem because of the unfaithfulness of the people. The vision of the burning and useless vine that bears no fruit becomes a symbol of Judah. The abominations in Jerusalem have become so great as to warrant the most severe punishment.
Along with these visions we find many parables and signs that were designed to drive home these messages to the people.
The first parable to follow was that of the unfaithful wife in Ezek 16. We need to remember that Israel was Jehovah's 'bride' who had forsaken God to go whoring after other gods. This parable was to make clear that it was to be the love of idols rather than the love of God that would cause Israel to fall.
The parable of the two eagles in Ezek 17 shows how the king of Babylon, the first eagle, took King Jehoiachin captive. The 'seed' Nebuchadnezzar planted in the parable was Zedekiah who he used to replace Jehoiachin, hoping that this new ruler would remain faithful to him. However, Zedekiah treacherously turns to the second eagle representing Hophra of Egypt to seek an alliance with him. This was to see the Babylonians return to bring about the final destruction of Jerusalem. All this was to take place within three to four years of this prediction being made.
However, the parable continues to tell us that God would take a 'cutting' from the line of Israel's kings represented by the cedar, and that this 'tender twig', representing the Messiah, the future king of David's line, would then take root.
The next parable in Ezek 23 is of two sisters who represent Israel and Judah's deterioration into idolatry. The first sister by the name of Oholah represents Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. The second sister Oholibah represents Jerusalem. Both have behaved as common whores. Their appetites for their lovers representing their pagan gods is insatiable and their behaviour utterly disgusting. They have run, in turn, after Egypt and Assyria, and now Judah, trying to outdo her sister, runs after Babylon. We are shown that they both will share the same fate at the hands of their latest lover.
The parable of the boiling cauldron or cooking pot in Ezek 24 symbolizes the extent of the holocaust in Jerusalem at the hands of the invading Babylonians.
The fuel, hot fire, boiled flesh and burnt bones spoken about in this parable were to show the intensity of the siege (Mears, 1983: 249).
It is at this time we read of the death of Ezekiel's wife just as the siege begins. People will be absolutely distraught over the fate of their beloved city, but they will go about dry-eyed just like the prophet has been instructed to do in his grief over the woman who was 'the desire of his eyes'.
Now, with all of his gloomy predictions completed, Ezekiel immediately begins to prophecy about the future restoration of his people. However, before Israel can be restored to her lands, her enemies must be put out of the way. God's judgements will now be felt on those foreign powers, both near and far, who have been the enemies of His people and took pleasure in their downfall.
While the judgements against Ammon, Moab and Edom were to see these ancient enemies of Israel eventually overrun by Nabataean tribesmen, the Philistines were to disappear from history a century before the birth of Christ (Alexander, 1999: 468).
Ezekiel now turns to the great powers of Tyre and Sidon to the north and then to Egypt in the south.
Tyre was not to laugh long over the fate of Jerusalem. Within a few months Nebuchadnezzar's army was at her gates and for the next thirteen years was to find herself under siege. Her fall was to create not only pity and mourning for her loss, but also terror into the hearts of the world as the news of her destruction became more widely known. Ezekiel 26-28 describes this city as a tempting prey for the armies of Babylon. It lay at the foot of the Lebanese Mountains and possessed one of the finest natural harbours in the eastern Mediterranean (Ibid). The main city was built on an offshore island, and as a centre for trade and commerce, it had become very wealthy. The extent of her commerce was well known with her glassware and purple dye famous all around the world. Ezekiel describes the brilliance of Tyre as a great trading vessel laden with the choicest of cargoes, and commanding human skills and resources from far and wide (Ibid).
Next to fall was Sidon who was also charged in Ezek 28: 24 as having contempt for God's people. This famous Old Testament seaport, approximately twenty miles to the north of Tyre in Lebanon was also to feel the fury of Nebuchadnezzar's armies.
Next comes Egypt and as Ezek 29-32 describes its collapse he shows how the Babylonian armies deal a crushing blow leaving this powerful nation absolutely devastated.
Israel could now look to the future.
The Sovereign Lord says in Ezek 36: 24-28: 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.'
This prophecy was to be graphically displayed in one of the final visions that Ezekiel was to receive from God. The vision described in Ezek 37 was to be of a valley full of dry bones and the Lord asks '…Son of man can these bones live?' Ezekiel makes clear that only the God of heaven and earth would know.
He was then told to prophecy to these bones and using the Lord's words he said, 'I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord…and they came to life and stood on their feet-a vast army.'
We need to remember that it is only the spirit of God that gives life. Israel will be remade and live again under one king. Their return will vindicate His honour and restore His power in the eyes of the nations around them.
Ezek 36: 26 says: 'I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.' This tells us that the total transformation of a 'new heart' is realized only 'in Christ'
This was to be the central burden of Ezekiel's teaching. It held that the promises of restoration were to be conditional upon the spiritual and moral renovation of the people.
We also need to recognise in all this that Ezekiel was making clear that every person is responsible for his own sin as he stands before God.
In Ezekiel's time the Jewish people had such a strong sense of group identity that they tended to downplay their own individual need to follow God and His will. Some even held that future generations were to be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors (Lockyer1986: 368).
However, Ezekiel declared in Ezek 18: 20 (NIV): 'The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.'
This shows the need for every person to make his own decision to follow the Lord. No person can ever depend on the faith of any ancestors or anyone else to gain entrance into the kingdom of God (Ibid).
Finally, Ezekiel paints a glorious picture of the future where God rules triumphantly among His people. This universal rule would be through the Messiah, a descendant of David, and would be fulfilled when Jesus was born in Bethlehem more than 500 years later. We then see the followers of Jesus who formed the Christian church becoming his new agents, fulfilling many of the promises of what might have been in Israel.
Faithful in reproof, yet ever upholding the divine promises that are as certain as God Himself, Ezekiel, God's faithful preacher, unselfishly laboured to keep the flame of the true faith alive. His experience and messages continue to provide counsel and to reassure God's people today.
Alexander, P. & D. (1999) The New Lion Handbook to the Bible. Oxford, England: Lion Publishing plc.
Lockyer, Sr., H. (1986) Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers
Mears, H. C. (1983) What the Bible is all About. Ventura, Ca., USA: Regal Books
Neufeld, D. F. (1960) Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary. Washington DC: Review & Herald Publishing Association
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