Living in the city of “God-is-There”
Ezekiel 48: The name of the city will be Yahweh-Shammah: “God-is-There.”
In his vision Ezekiel continues measuring the Temple and the land surrounding it. He sees a stream flowing out of the Temple that increases in size, giving life to all it touches. The prophet measures out divisions in the land and finds that there’s a place for all the people of Israel; no one is excluded. Ezekiel sees that there are gates named after each tribe, providing abundant entrance to all who will come. He then concludes that the Holy City will be christened with a new name: “Yahweh-Shammah.” In that, he understands that people far and near will conclude the same thing, that heaven has come to earth and that God is now with us. After journeying through Ezekiel for some time now and hearing his pain-filled sermons I find this passage to be a welcoming place to land: a flowing river, green trees, and the Holy City with space for all who will come to the Presence of God. That’s God’s intent for Israel and it’s his intent for all Creation. If you think about it, the book of Revelation follows the same pattern: war, suffering, hard times giving way to eternity as the Lord intended it in the first place. For Ezekiel a vision of God’s intentions is all about the restoration of Israel and the Temple. The Revelator paints a broader picture, but that River is still there and his rebuilt Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. For both, the end result is “Yahweh-Shammah.” I join both of these godly men in looking forward to that day.
Take Away: Ultimately, the Lord will redeem his people and will dwell among them.
Ezekiel 43: Draw a picture…
As a casual reader, one of the bewildering portions of Ezekiel has been, to me, all the measuring that takes place in the final chapters of the book. In his vision Ezekiel crawls all over the Temple measuring every nook and cranny, carefully taking note of every inch. If I thought about it at all I thought maybe these were the plans for the promised rebuilding of the Temple. However, I don’t think that’s the actual intent. The Lord tells Ezekiel, “Draw a picture so they can see the design and meaning and live by its design and intent.” Concerning the Temple the prophet is told, “Everything around it becomes holy ground.” God had called the people of Israel to be his own, holy nation. All the laws, rituals, and even the construction of the Temple had the purpose of helping to bring that to pass. In this case Ezekiel is to rediscover the power of the architecture of that place of worship. Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple is to remind his people of how far they’ve fallen from the holiness to which they were called. It’s also intended to give them hope and call them back to God. Ezekiel’s going to go right on with his vision, talking about the rituals and the work of the priests and the feasts, all with that same intent. However, I’m still thinking about the purpose of sacred space. The Temple wasn’t just built to be a functional place of worship. It was to call people to holiness — a place set apart for the worship of a God set apart by a people set apart. The layout and the furnishings weren’t just for practical use. Just looking at the building was to create longing for holiness. I don’t know that I’m deep enough to fully grasp this, but I’m reminded today that as I read of Ezekiel with his tape measure that there’s more going on than just the drawing of blueprints.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for those gifted in the design of buildings set apart for the purpose of worship.
Gog and Magog
Ezekiel 39: I’ll use them to demonstrate my holiness with all the nations watching.
The prophet has encouraging words for the broken people of God. The Lord will breathe life back into their dry bones and the nation will be brought back from the destruction that has come. It’s at this point that Ezekiel turns his attention to the “distant future” and the mysterious “Gog and Magog.” From what I can tell, the more down to earth commentators think that Ezekiel’s original audience knew just who he was talking about and that this prophecy is much like those given against Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, and other nations in the region. Taken at face value, then, Ezekiel is prophesying that in a more distant future, after the restoration of Israel, another regional power will come against God’s people. When that happens, the Lord will move to defend them and will destroy the invaders. However, there are two things that get the attention of many. First, this nation from “the north” isn’t clearly identified in history. Second, “Magog” is mentioned in a similarly vague way in Genesis and then Gog and Magog make a major appearance in the book of Revelation as part of the wind up of history. If we conclude that the “distant future” Ezekiel’s talking about is still in our future we find ourselves swimming in the deeper waters of prophecy. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not ready to go there. I think it’s more likely that Ezekiel is talking about a nation well known to him and his listeners and that the distant future isn’t “book of Revelation distant.” I think that when John writes Revelation he’s reminded of Ezekiel’s words: an attack on God’s people by a coalition of enemy forces. He uses that reference to describe the scene of the final battle. To me, the key to the whole passage is God’s promise to defend his people and to “demonstrate his holiness” to the world. That concept plugs into both the Ezekiel and the Revelation prophecies. It also plugs into my life: when everything seems to be against me the Lord knows how to rescue me as one of his people. Rather than getting all mystic about this passage, I’d rather find here yet another promise of God’s faithfulness even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Take Away: Even when it seems everything is falling apart God is still God and God is always faithful to those who trust in him.
Them bones, them bones, them dry bones
Ezekiel 37: Dry bones, listen to the message of God.
Ezekiel speaks to people who think they’ve gone too far and have said “no” to God and just plain messed up once too often. They think they’re like dinosaur bones some archeologist might dig up in the desert someday: interesting, but dry and lifeless. The truth is that they’re right. They’ve been written off because of their rejection of God. To picture themselves as “dry bones” is not an overreaction. Rather, it’s a valid realization. Their only hope is the only hope they’ve ever had: they must turn back to God. In his vision Ezekiel is asked, “Can these bones live?” His answer is right on: “Lord, you know.” The restoration of Israel is up to the Lord. They’re on the verge of being written off of the pages of history. The only possibility of their not becoming dry fossils is to respond to the mercy of God and depend on him to breathe life back into them. All of that is true of my life too. It’s only when I accept two facts that I have hope. Fact one: my sins have made me spiritually into a pile of dry bones. Fact two: my only hope is in God’s mercy and forgiveness. The only route out of this mess is for me to accept the title, “dry bones” and then listen to God’s message. That alone can change my dry bones situation.
Take Away: Our only hope is in the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord.
The kind of stuff God does
Ezekiel 36: I, God, rebuild ruins and replant empty waste places.
In this “new heart” passage Ezekiel envisions God’s people repenting of their rebellion and mourning over the results of it. He sees them walking through a devastated Jerusalem and confessing it was their sins that brought it all to pass. In the face of such repentance, Ezekiel has an encouraging word: God specializes in taking messed up things and restoring them to “better than new” condition. Once the Lord’s given a chance, he’ll turn these weed patches into a “Garden of Eden.” No doubt, these are encouraging words to the people of Ezekiel’s day. They’re uplifting words for us too. In a more literal sense, we look forward to a “new heaven and a new earth” that has been promised by God. What sin has destroyed the Lord will redeem — and that redeemed world will be vastly superior to what we see now. In a spiritual sense, this passage describes what the Lord accomplishes in the human heart. Sin destroys lives, making a wreck out of what was once wonderfully promising. When I cooperate with God, opening my life up to him he goes to work. In my life he “rebuilds ruins and replants empty waste places.” He’s God, and he does stuff like that. As Ezekiel puts it, “I, God, said so, and I’ll do it.”
Take Away: The Lord specializes in taking messed up things and restoring them to “better than new” condition.
God’s in the heart transforming business
Ezekiel 36: I’ll…replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed.
I’ve always felt that this is the mountain top of the book of Ezekiel. Things are going to change in a glorious day to come. Through the centuries the Lord has sent gifted leaders to Israel. He’s given them the Law upon which to build their civilization and a beautiful Temple in which to worship. He’s given them a land of their own and has been with them through their many ups and downs. Still, failure has dominated them. They’ve tossed all their advantages aside and have paid a terrible price for doing so. Ezekiel says that things are going to change. The change won’t come because some new national leader leads them back to God. It won’t come by God’s restating his laws to them, and it won’t come simply because they try harder to please the Lord. The change will be at the core of their lives. The Lord says he’s going to give them a new heart. Under this new arraignment self-centered living will give way to God-centered living. Their very affections will be transformed. The result will be a people fully connected to God. I love this portion of scripture because I believe the message is not only for these ancient Israelites, but for God’s people today. For every Christian who battles inner battles, who struggles with living wholly for God, this is a wonderful word of hope. The Lord’s not only in the sin forgiving business — he’s in the heart transforming business as well. We find hope for a deeper, heart changing work of God in this passage. Throughout the years Christians have read this message and come away with a prayer on their lips: “Lord, do that for me – do it in me – today.”
Take Away: The Lord not only forgives sins: he transforms lives as well.
God loves even broken people
Ezekiel 34: From now on, I myself am the shepherd.
Sometimes people wander away from the faith as innocent victims rather than guilty rebels. In this passage Ezekiel expresses the Lord’s condemnation of the religious leaders who have utterly failed to minister to the people of God. These leaders, Ezekiel says, are like predatory shepherds who care only for themselves and use the sheep to their own ends. Here in America we know all about predatory clergy as disgusting stories of immoral and predatory behavior have rocked the Church. Sometimes it’s clear that the secular media loves to pick on Christianity, but in this case the actions and the cover up needs to be exposed to light. How many people have grown up with a distrust of God and the Church because of the failure of these awful shepherds? Ezekiel describes the flock as “scattered,” “exposed” and “vulnerable.” He tells us that the Lord will judge these predatory shepherds and then, he’ll turn his attention to the broken ones. He, personally, will be their shepherd. “I will bring them back” he promises. I fear that sometimes we “church people” are too hard on those who are living self-destructive lives. Each one has a story that, yes, may include personal failure (the Lord says he’s “stepping in and judging between one sheep and another”). However, some folks have had plenty of help in messing up their lives. Much of the blame may go to some authority figure like a parent, teacher, and, sadly, even a pastor who failed them either intentionally or by neglect.
Take Away: Sadly, some folks have had plenty of help in messing up their lives and stand in need of a second chance more than condemnation.
Preachers and listeners
Ezekiel 33: They love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.
They’ve gotten used to Ezekiel. For years he’s preached his sermons and acted out various illustrations for them. His words are seldom encouraging, in fact, they’re down right condemning. Beyond that all his approaches to basically the same sermon have become to them like well-worn clothes: nothing to get excited about, but comfortable. These days, it isn’t unusual for folks to show up at Ezekiel’s house on a summer evening just to see what Ezekiel has up his sleeve today. They aren’t interested in responding to his message but they do find his rants somewhat entertaining. As a Sunday preacher I have to say that this passage is chilling to me. The folks at my church have also heard my sermons for a long time now. Sometimes I fear that they’re so used to me that, as it was in Ezekiel’s day, “they love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.” It’s interesting how small things become big things as I think about stuff like this. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I suggested folks take a particular course of action. Yesterday I was handed something someone had done as a direct result of that sermon. I can’t tell you how encouraging that is to me. It’s also humbling. I’m flattered that anyone would come to my church and listen to me preach my sermons week after week. I’m encouraged that some folks actually take what I say to heart and literally respond by doing something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m humbled that I have the opportunity to touch lives each week in this way, realizing that in myself I have nothing to offer. If anything “comes out of it” it will take cooperation with God by both preacher and listeners.
Take Away: Preaching must be much more than entertaining.
Good news for people who need a Second Chance
Ezekiel 33: None of his sins will be kept on the books.
Since Ezekiel’s mission throughout most of his ministry is to warn people of pending destruction, and since he is about as rough and tumble a guy as you’ll ever meet, his messages are generally not especially uplifting. He’s like a doctor with a poor bedside manner: he isn’t especially interested in dressing things up but for the good of his patient he tells it like it is. Still, as I journey through the book of Ezekiel, I find plenty of sunshine along with his gruffness. At one point he tells people that they can’t rely on past goodness to cover current sin. If even the most pious person turns from God’s ways to sin he or she will be judged not for their past, but their current life. However, there’s good news in flip side of that situation. If a person who’s living a sinful life hears Ezekiel’s hard message and decides to pay attention and straighten up there’s a real possibility of life. God will gladly give that individual a second chance. Now that’s a message for any day. The Lord loves it when sinners turn to him. He doesn’t hold our past against us and is more than willing to forgive sins and transform lives. That’s good news for every one of us who has made bad choices and wishes life had a rewind button. We can’t go back but by God’s grace we can go forward. If a person turns to God, Ezekiel tells us, “He’ll live.”
Take Away: We can’t go back but by the grace of the Lord we can go forward.
What pleases God?
Ezekiel 33: I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked.
I love this insight into the heart of the Lord. We Christians are sometimes guilty of making the Lord out to be angry and vengeful. Here I am, reading a book of the Bible that’s full of words of condemnation and judgment and finding as compassionate a word as I could ever find. God hates sin but he loves the sinner. For the Lord to blink at sin — to call it something less than what it is — would be for him to deny his own nature. Rather than do that, he does everything he can to call us from our sin and to remake us into a clean people. If God’s remedy for sin was to wipe out the sinners, well, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Ezekiel’s ministry is to call sinners to repentance. Today, through Jesus Christ, that same call is heard. The thing that brings pleasure to God is not punishing sinners. Instead, it’s rescuing us from death to life. With God on our side like that, we have every reason to trust him and surrender to him.
Take Away: The Lord hates sin but he loves the sinner.