Of the sixteen writing prophets found in the Old Testament (from Isaiah to Malachi), Ezekiel is one that I haven’t often read. However, I happened to turn to Ezekiel the other night as I was reading in the book of Psalms and read the following verses from Ezekiel 3:4-9:
“He [God] then said to me [Ezekiel]: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and strange language, but to the people of Israel—not to many peoples of obscure speech and strange language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the people of Israel are not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for all the Israelites are hardened and 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 people.”
What really surprised me as I read those five verses was what God told Ezekiel regarding himself (see vv. 8-9): “But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint.” God made Ezekiel just as unyielding and hardened with his passion and message that God gave him to give to the Israelites as the Israelites were in their rebellion towards God and wanting life on their own terms (see Ezekiel 2:1-8). We don’t often think of God as purposely making someone “unyielding and hardened” and yet that is exactly what Ezekiel needed to be when delivering God’s message to the Israelites. He needed to be very tough and unbending.
In the “Introduction to the Prophets” by Eugene Peterson in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002)–see insert below for full text of the introduction–he writes the following:
“The prophets purge our imaginations of this world’s assumptions on how life is lived and what counts in life. Over and over again. God the Holy Spirit uses these prophets to separate his people from the cultures in which they live, putting them back on the path of simple faith and obedience and worship in defiance of all that the world admires and rewards. Prophets train us in discerning the difference between the ways of the world and the ways of the gospel, keeping us present to the Presence of God.
“We don’t read very many pages into the prophets before realizing that there was nothing easygoing about them. Prophets were not popular figures. They never achieved celebrity status. They were decidedly uncongenial to the temperaments and dispositions of the people with whom they lived. And the centuries have not mellowed them. It’s understandable that we should have a difficult time coming to terms with them. They aren’t particularly sensitive to our feelings. They have very modest, as we would say, ‘relationships skills.’ We like leaders, especially religious leaders, who understand our problems (‘come alongside us’ is our idiom for it), leaders with a touch of glamour, leaders who look good on posters and television.”
Sound familiar? Here are a few more quotes from the introduction:
“The God of which the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, we have to fit into him.”
“The prophets are not ‘reasonable,’ accommodating themselves to what makes sense to us.”
“[The prophets] words and visions penetrate the illusions with which we cocoon ourselves from reality. We humans have an enormous capacity for denial and for self-deceit. We incapacitate ourselves from dealing with the consequences of sin, for facing judgment, for embracing truth.”
“[The prophets] don’t explain God. They shake us out of old conventional habits of small-mindedness, of trivializing god-gossip, and set us on our feet in wonder and obedience and worship. If we insist on understanding them before we live into them, we will never get it.”
The last section of the introduction states the following:
“One of the bad habits that we pick up early in our lives is separating things and people into secular and sacred. We assume that the secular is what we are more or less in charge of: our jobs, our time, our entertainment, our government, our social relations. The sacred is what God has charge of: worship and the Bible, heaven and hell, church and prayers. We then contrive to set aside a sacred place for God, designed, we say, to honor God but really intended to keep God in his place, leaving us free to have the final say about everything else that goes on.
“Prophets will have none of this. They contend that everything, absolutely everything, takes place on sacred ground. God has something to say about every aspect of our lives: the way we feel and act in the so-called privacy of our hearts and homes, the way we make our money and the way we spend it, the politics we embrace, the wars we fight, the catastrophes we endure, the people we hurt and the people we help. Nothing is hidden from the scrutiny of God, nothing is exempt from the rule of God, nothing escapes the purposes of God. Holy, holy, holy.
“Prophets make it impossible to evade God or make detours around God. Prophets insist on receiving God in every nook and cranny of life. For a prophet, God is more real than the next-door neighbor.”
What I have noticed over the past several decades is how we as Christians in America practice an insipid, timid, self-serving, politically correct form of Christianity that is rarely appealing to outsiders except on a surface level of “what we can get” from God that mainly focuses on the “pleasant” verses or themes in Scripture and ignores the really hard stuff (like what the OT prophets had to say to their own rebellious generation). We like to say the Old Testament has little value to our lives today, unless we can find a really good verse to hang onto when life gets rough. And, we like to preface all of that Old Testament “stuff” with the fact that it all happened before Jesus Christ came to earth. Well, Jesus Christ has always existed even in the Old Testament (see John 1). In fact, he is our Great High Priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5:6, Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 7-8). The book of Hebrews in the New Testament clearly warns Christians again and again against hardening our hearts in unbelief and against falling away (a significant problem in all generations). And even the Apostle Paul stated that Israel’s history from the Old Testament has very clear warnings for us as Christians today (see I Corinthians 10, for example) by admonishing us not to become idolaters (placing anything—money, jobs, materialism, status, etc.–or anyone before God) and not to commit sexual immorality. The consequences from doing so are severe and bring down the judgment of God.
What I love (and hate) about reading the Old Testament prophets is that they can be terrifying in their descriptions of God’s judgment against those who ignore Him over and over again (and it happened time and time again in Israel’s history) and yet it is comforting to those of us who will pay attention and give heed, even in the midst of great tragedy. We have been lead to believe, at least here in America, that this life we live is our own and we can do with it whatever we want. Our goal often seems to be to get as much money as possible so we can buy all the pleasures and things we want and to make us as comfortable as possible (oh yes, and have a great retirement, too). It’s all about acquiring “the good life” which is about as opposite of the clear teachings of Scripture as one can get. Nothing in the Bible tells us to put self before God. Nothing.
Many times we use Christianity to fulfill our own purposes whether materially, politically, socially, in business or in pleasure, and in relationships. No wonder we don’t want to hear (or we pretend it doesn’t apply to us) what the Old Testament prophets had to say to their own generation who lived life on their own terms by ignoring God (who is, by the way, the Creator of the entire Universe).
Now, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I’m not fond of what the Old Testament prophets had to say either but it is written for us to learn from and heed in our own lives. This life is not about “us” and what we want and how we go about getting it. It’s not even about our comfort or our own security, folks. It’s not about portfolios and retirement accounts and “living the good life.” It’s about God. It’s about Jesus Christ. It’s about all the stuff we are never (or rarely ever) taught anymore in our churches because the focus has been taken off of God and put on ourselves and what we think God should be doing for us. We don’t even take sin seriously anymore. In fact, many times we flaunt it. For example, how often do we try to “keep up with the Joneses.” How often do we strive for that promotion with a bigger paycheck; seek accolades at work; go searching for the perfect spouse; in pursuit of an ever bigger house with more bathrooms then we need and with a manicured lawn? And how about a BMW in the driveway? How often do we justify divorce because we’ve gotten bored with our current spouse and found someone else (for however long that next relationship will last)? Or justify an affair? Or ignore our children as they grow up and then follow in our footsteps (or maybe not)? Or screw over coworkers to get what we want? That list is endless and it’s all about self, not God.
And the church is often a willing accomplice because so many of the sermons focus on us and not on what God wants from us. We twist Scripture conveniently to fit our lifestyles, and if it doesn’t fit, we just ignore it. After all, who cares about what the Old Testament prophets had to say to their own generation “back then.” We’re cool, hip, and we just don’t need that stuff in our lives. God loves us just the way we are—greedy and selfish–right?
Wrong . . . .
Just as Eugene Peterson stated in his introduction, “One of the bad habits we pick up early in our lives is separating things and people into secular and sacred. We assume that the secular is what we are more or less in charge of: our jobs, our time, our entertainment, our government, our social relations . . . . leaving us free to have the final say about everything else that goes on.” And the “prophets would have none of this.”
As he stated, “God [DOES] have something to say about every aspect of our lives: the way we feel and act in the so-called privacy of our hearts and homes, the way we make our money and the way we spend it, the politics we embrace, the wars we fight, the catastrophes we endure, the people we hurt and the people we help. Nothing is hidden from the scrutiny of God, nothing is exempt from the rule of God, nothing escapes the purposes of God.” Try as we may, we cannot evade or detour around God.
We need to honestly examine our own lives. All of the shady areas and deceitful dealings we think we can hide from others and God are always in clear view of God. He misses NOTHING. Our true heart attitudes are always on open display to Him. And eventually judgment is what happens to a nation and a people who clearly ignore God. The Old Testament prophets provide a clarion call to all of us to get back to God–now–before it is too late. And remember . . .
“Nothing is hidden from the scrutiny of God . . .
“Nothing is exempt from the rule of God . . .
“Nothing escapes the purposes of God . . .
“Holy, holy, holy” . . . .
YouTube Video: “Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty” [Agnus Dei]: