Ezekiel lived at a time when the nation had been exiled to Babylon. When God first called him to be a prophet, not all the people had been exiled, only those who were leaders or educated or skilled. Ezekiel was one of those in that first group. The people in that group took comfort from the fact that there were still Israelites in Jerusalem, and they held on to the hope that God had not abandoned his people, and that one day Jerusalem would be delivered and would become free and important. God called Ezekiel to tell them not to believe that message, whatever other so-called prophets might say: the people living in Jerusalem were worse than those who had been exiled, and they too would receive the reward their evil deeds deserved. Ezekiel had to warn the other exiles that Jerusalem would be besieged and captured, and that its inhabitants would join them in exile.
All came to pass as Ezekiel had predicted. In the middle of chapter 33 we read that someone who had escaped Jerusalem at the time it fell came and told Ezekiel. For several years Ezekiel had been unable to speak to anyone unless God put a message in his mouth; but on the evening before he heard the news of the fall of Jerusalem God enabled him to speak normally. Thereafter his message to the exiles became mainly one of hope.
These verses anticipate this change of events – they are part of the last message from God before the fall of Jerusalem. They are addressed to Ezekiel personally, and they repeat almost word for word a message which Ezekiel was given when he first became a prophet (see Ezekiel 3:17-19). Circumstances may be about to change, but Ezekiel’s role as a prophet would continue. He had to pass on God’s message exactly, even if it was not a nice one.
The passage teaches us an important lesson about prophecy, and about God and life.
Prophecy is not so much ‘fore-telling’ as ‘forth-telling’ – it is passing on a message from God. In many books of the Bible there are really dire warnings from God, prophecies about disasters that would come because the people were ignoring God’s commands. At first blush, they look as if God is foretelling a terrible future – ‘You shall surely die.’ But it is not a prediction, it is a warning – ‘If you don’t change course you will end up in this terrible mess.’ The warning is given not because God wanted the disaster to happen, but for the exact opposite – he wanted the people to live in peace and happiness! But life with God is impossible unless we live with him as he is, not as we pretend him to be. He is God, the sovereign Lord, who has ultimate authority over everything he has created including us. If we think we can ignore him and do whatever we want, we are living in cloud cuckoo land. So the prophet’s message to the people is to take God seriously, and to mend their ways. In particular, they are to cease despairing of life (because of the bad news of the day) and they are to trust God who holds life and death in his hands, the God who wants them above all to live.
Notice the place of human responsibility. God is appealing to his people to turn towards him in repentance, and thereby to find life. He will not attempt to force people to do so – he does not want human beings to be robots, without free will. Life is there for us to choose; but if we choose to go our own way, God will not give us life anyway. Yet how such rebelliousness grieves him – ‘Why will you die?’ Notice also Ezekiel’s responsibility: he too has to choose life by being obedient to God and passing on the warnings he’s been given. If we have the means to save life, but choose not to use them, we are guilty of causing death.
The call to repent is actually a call to live. Jesus began his ministry with the call to repent because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The life God offers is life in all its fulness.
1) How would you feel in Ezekiel’s shoes?
2) What is there in our lives that we need to change?