The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, eat that thou findest; eat this roll, and go speak unto the house of Israel.Ezekiel's Commission
Ezekiel 2, Ezekiel 3
From beginning to end the Book of Ezekiel may be regarded as a series of divine visions, or one vision presented in many varying aspects. The second and third chapters, which give an account of Ezekiel's call to his office, ought to be read through as one chapter. We are to understand that although Ezekiel changed from place to place, yet the vision was substantially the same. The prophet is constantly receiving fresh instructions, but the variety of the instruction does not interfere with the continuity and integrity of the divine vision. We must not seek for literal interpretations of many of the mysterious words in this prophecy; our business must rather be to discover the line of spirituality as between God and man, the line along which God comes into the human soul with new instructions, new inspirations, that he may impart new confidence and succour to the hearts of his children. Each man will have his own vision. God is continually speaking to the hearing ear, and continually showing himself to the discerning eye. Inspiration is as distinct and vital in the case of the poorest living prophet of the Lord as in the case of the glowing Ezekiel. Each of us should seek for his own vision, for his own part and lot in the divine inheritance, for his own particular truth; but no one man should imagine that he has been entrusted with the whole vision of God. Men see nature differently, and men interpret the events of the day differently, and each man has an interpretation of his own consciousness, with which no other man can wisely interfere: there should be direct personal communication between the soul and its eternal Lord, and every man should expect to receive his own message or charge from heaven, and should hold himself accountable for the right use of what he has seen and heard, rather than for the right use of what other people have supposed themselves to have received from heaven. The prophets are not to judge one another simply because of contrasts in the visions which they have beheld. To his own master each prophet stands or falls. Visions upon which Ezekiel looked with comparative composure would dazzle the eyes of other men and utterly overflow the capacities of minor souls. Yet how small soever may be the capacity of any prophet, he is responsible alone for the use he makes of it, and according to his degree his enjoyment will be equal to the rapture of the most fervid and glowing souls that ever have been called to receive the baptism of the divine glory.
In the second chapter Ezekiel is in vision recovered from his prostration and made to stand upon his feet. He is addressed by the peculiar title of "Son of man" (Ezekiel 2:1). Who is the wondrous "he" who spoke unto Ezekiel? We are not told as a substantive who is referred to, yet we feel that the reading of the vision permits no other supposition than that it was the most high God whose glories had filled the firmament, and whose majesty had thrown down the prophet upon his face in lowliest humility and adoration. The title "Son of man" we often meet with in the Scriptures, and generally it means nothing more than "Man." The title is never applied in an address to a prophet except in the instances of Ezekiel and Daniel, each of whom was addressed as "Son of man." In the case of Daniel, however, the title was assigned only once (Daniel 8:17), but in the case of Ezekiel careful enumerators have counted its use in ninety instances. "Son of man" has been used of Adam himself in one version of the Scriptures. A singular dignity would be given to the title if it were abbreviated to the one word "Man"; we should then read: "Man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee." The tone of such a command is at once compassionate and inspiring: it is compassionate in that it recognises the frailty of the instrument. He is but a man, a creature of the dust, a child of a day whose breath is in his nostrils; he is not mistaken for an angel, or a cherub, or some mighty being unnamed in human speech; but he is recognised as a man, a creature, a brother of the human race, one of a great multitude whose origin is in the dust. On the other hand, it is inspiring in that it recognises the capacity of the prophet to receive a divine communication, to be filled with it, and to accept it as an inspiration that was to end in practical service on behalf of humanity. The prophet does not speak of himself as recovering his own energy, or overcoming his own fear, or as in any sense the originator of new strength and capability; on the contrary, he distinctly recognises the work of God within his soul, and attributes to divine energy his own returning strength. Thus we read in the second verse: "And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me." By "the spirit" we are to understand the spirit of God. This was not a man reviving himself, it was a man invigorated and encouraged by divine energy.
The Lord first overthrows a man, and then recalls him to renewed dignity and hope. The two instances which are given even in this early portion of the prophecy are strikingly confirmatory of this view. When Ezekiel first saw the vision he fell upon his face, he was overwhelmed, he could not bear the dazzling glory, the mighty sound of the oncoming hosts thrilled him and paralysed him, and he was for the moment overthrown and undone. But having passed through this experience of humiliation, he was recovered by the very spirit that had for the moment destroyed him. So truly are we in the hands of God! Sometimes we feel that exaltation in very deed comes from on high, and is a divine blessing, a very seal and double assurance of adoption. But it is not so easy to realise that prostration is also an aspect of the divine ministry, and is absolutely essential as the forerunner of the highest excitement and rapture of soul. Whom God throws down into great humiliation he intends to revive and clothe with supreme power. By poverty we may be prepared for wealth; by solitude we may be qualified for the excitement of society; by great pain we may be quickened into great sympathy with all who suffer. Let us not repiningly say that God has overwhelmed us, and laid his hand heavily upon us, and filled us with excessive contempt; even if this were true, it can, by the very necessity of the case, only be true temporarily: we should rather look upon it as intermediate, or as initial, or as in some way preparatory to broader revelation, to higher light, to promotion to larger office and function in the ministry of the universe. No man should rise from his humiliations except by the spirit of God. It is possible for us to do much under the impulse of merely animal spirits; we may be so physically vigorous as to trace our animation to physical causes: he is not truly brought out of prison who is not delivered by the angel of the Lord; he may be released in a dream, he may enjoy freedom in some shadowy state of mind, but real and permanent liberty is the exclusive gift of God. We may pray God to keep us in the house of affliction, which is the house of bondage, until he has wrought in us all his purpose of wisdom and love; this being accomplished he will lead us forth into the garden of delight, or send us in his own name and strength to work out some purpose worthy of our spiritual origin and our immortality.
Now the prophet is given to understand what his exact vocation is to be:—
"And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiff-hearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God" (Ezekiel 2:3-4).
This is the beginning of the distinct commission of the prophet. When does the Lord grant vision only? Is not every vision a preparation for a duty? Is not every period of rapture to be considered as. introductory to a period of service or suffering? We are not called to mere contemplation or rhapsody, or selfish spiritual delight; when we walk by that way of pleasure, or live in that dream of glory, it is that we may at the end be strengthened for ministry, more highly and completely qualified for the rough and arduous work of endeavouring to bring other men to see their sinfulness, and to cry out in the language of penitence.
The two tribes which formed the kingdom of Judah, together with such remnants of the others as had been induced by Hezekiah to cast in their lot with them, are constantly spoken of as "Israel." Ten tribes had been lost, but the continuity of the whole nation was looked upon as sustained in that small remnant. It may be that one man shall be looked upon as constituting the whole household of his father, so that he should not be a mere individual, but a family, a clan, a tribe, and whilst he lives all the members of the household to which he belonged may be considered to be living too. Far, indeed, they may have gone astray, yea, they may have utterly cut themselves off from the literal covenant of mercy, but the survivor in whose heart there is one spark of divine love is to consider himself as in a federal capacity, and is to go out after that which is lost until he find it.
A very significant expression is "a rebellious nation." Literally, that phrase might be read "rebellious nations," because the word so translated is only applied to the heathen, and therefore the children of Israel, God's chosen ones, the very anointed sons of Heaven, are now regarded as belonging to the rebellious heathen: every spiritual association has been cut, every filament uniting Israel with God has been sundered, and they who were once unique in their relation to Heaven have become, as it were, commingled with the pagans and heathen of other nations. The epithet means less to us than it would mean to an Israelite. Yet, though this alienation had been completed by Israel, God could not surrender his shepherdly relation to the wandering people; in his heart there was a yearning love towards them. God could not forget the past. When God forgets a soul, and turns away from it in disdain, who can imagine what has transpired on the part of that soul to create and justify the divine contempt? The children of Israel are called "impudent children"; in the margin the phrase is "hard of face." They could hear reproof, and reject it; they could stand up in the presence of accusation without feeling one pang of shame or remorse; they had become habituated to evil, and the practice thereof had become easy to them; all spiritual sensitiveness was lost, all holy feeling had been destroyed; to such condition may men bring themselves by oft-repeated wickedness. Little by little moral sensitiveness is blunted; little by little the nature that was meant to live in God averts itself from the light of heaven; little by little we go down into decay, and noisomeness, and death. Surely men are not hard of face against God all at once? There are times when they have felt keenly that they have done the things that they ought not to have done, and have left undone the things they ought to have done; but custom destroys sensitiveness, familiarity with wickedness hardens the soul and the face against God.
The prophet is given to understand that his message may not at first be received by the people to whom it is delivered; the Lord says, "And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear" (Ezekiel 2:5). This expression is used in subsequent verses, so that the prophet was duly prepared for the possible rejection of his word. Ezekiel might have supposed that he had but to deliver the message, and the house of Israel would directly and joyfully respond to his appeal. On the contrary, he is here assured that rejection may be as confidently looked for as acceptance, but whether acceptance or rejection should follow the exercise of his ministry, he was not to be deterred from the discharge of his duty. It is hard indeed to throw away compassion and solicitude upon the wind, or upon the sea, or upon the wilderness. A prophet, how highly qualified soever for his work, might soon become weary of thus abortively endeavouring to do good where the doing of good was an impossibility. Men who are called to the prophetic office are not called to reap their reward from the field in which they exercised their function: they are called upon to sustain themselves by the inspiration of Heaven. If they are delivering a mere speculation of their own, they will soon become weary of repeating the pointless words; if preachers have to live upon their own inventiveness, they will soon fall into self-neglect or into official carelessness; but when they have simply to repeat their message, to translate into the words of time the truths of eternity, where they may at all moments turn aside to refresh themselves at the very fountains of heaven, they will grow stronger and stronger, and in proportion to the stubbornness and ingratitude of the age to which they minister they will strengthen themselves in the living God. Only the Word of God can live through the thick and tremendous dangers which beset a public career. Men who are charged with divine messages, and who look rather at themselves than at the Author of their gospels, will soon succumb to the lures and blandishments of society, for the flesh is weak and the temptation is strong, and men are naturally lovers of ease rather than devotees of labour.
Not only is the prophet warned that the people may not hear him, but he is also warned that they may actually put him in danger and make his life a burden to him. In the vision therefore the prophet hears a voice which says, "Son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words": they will be angry, petulant, vindictive; they will resent the supposed interference of a holy prophet; they will dislike to be disturbed at their feasts of iniquity and their revels in the house of darkness; but let divine hope exceed human fear, and live thou, O son of man, in the sanctuary of divine truth, and arm thyself with all the panoply of divine grace. If the people be as briers and thorns, and if thou hast to dwell amongst scorpions, still make thine heart strong in the Lord: "Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house"—that is, a house of rebellion, an expression which is used in the prophecies of Ezekiel eleven times. The people were originally the house of Israel, but now they have become the house of rebellion; they have gone from extremity to extremity; lifted up to heaven at one period of their history, they have been plunged down into the pit of death at another. We are not to suppose that a faithful ministry is an easy task. No man can continually rebuke his age, and yet be living a luxurious life, unless indeed he be the victim of hypocrisy, or the tool of some vicious hallucination. The prophets of the Lord have always been opposed to the age in which they lived. Whenever the ministry has fallen into accord with the age, it is not the age that has gone up, it is the ministry that has gone down. A reproachful, corrective, stimulating voice should always be characteristic of a spiritual ministry. No evil shall be able to live in its presence, and no custom, how fashionable or popular soever, should be able to lift up its head without condemnation in the presence of a man who is filled with the burden or doctrine of the Lord. We should have persecution revived were we to revive the highest type of godliness. Sin has not altered, but righteousness may have modified its terms; the earth remains as it was from the beginning, but they who represent the kingdom of heaven may have committed themselves to an unworthy and degrading compromise. Evermore shall the wicked hate the godly, unless the godly take down their banners and are contented to live in dumbness and in traitorous suppression of the truth. Again and again is the prophet encouraged in his work. God would seem to be almost afraid that the prophet would be swallowed up of fear. "The fear of man bringeth a snare." It is hard to be always on the reproving side; and the hardness is increased by the fact that oftentimes the prophet can only refer to a vision as the ground and authority on which he stands and by which he works. It was a spiritual vision, a spiritual impression, a spiritual assurance; and to oppose spirit to matter has always been a task of the greatest severity.
The prophet is not to go at his own charges, or to deliver messages of his own invention—"But thou, son of man, hear what I say unto thee." Even the prophet must be doubly qualified. It is not enough to be a prophet as if by birth; men must be made prophets by divine communion, by enlarged experience, by spiritual education. The most high God in this vision actually addresses the prophet as if he himself might fall into the rebellion of the people whose heathenism he was to reprove. "Be not thou rebellious like that rebellious house." Even prophets may be dragged down to the level of their age. What is one amongst many? What is a single persecuted life against the uncounted millions whose eyes stand out with fatness and who have all that heart can wish? A curious process now takes place in this course of divine preparation. Not only has the prophet seen something, heard something; now he has to perform another function—"Open thy mouth, and eat that I give thee." All this is, of course, figurative. "And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein; and he spread it before me; and it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe." In the third chapter the prophet is still represented as eating the roll, that he might be prepared to go forth and speak unto the house of Israel. The prophet was to fill himself with a book. His experience of it is thus stated: "Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness." Who has not felt in his first call to high office and dignity a sense of pleasure, a sense of having partaken of that most exquisite luxury? The message is known to be so true, so wise, so good, that we feel we have only to deliver it in order to be acknowledged as the heralds and ambassadors of Heaven. This was the experience of John the Divine on the occasion of his eating the little book referred to in Revelation (Revelation 10:10). Inward experience is not often confirmed by outward fact and reality in the case of a maledictory ministry. The prophet is assured that he is not being sent to a people of a strange speech and of a hard language, but to the house of Israel: he is not going to speak to a people of a strange speech and of a hard language, whose words he could not understand. This was at once an encouragement and a discouragement: it was an encouragement in that he had the support of relationship, association, and a common history; and it was a discouragement in that the Most High assured him, "Surely, had I sent thee to them,"—that is, to people of a strange speech and of a hard language,—"they would have hearkened unto thee."
The prophet is assured that he would have received better treatment from the actual heathen than from the perverted Israelites. Jesus Christ said the same thing in relation to the miracles and the teaching of his own ministry: "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day." We are not to suppose that any unusual experience has befallen us because the divine word which we declare is thrown back upon us, and is branded with contempt.
The prophet was further assured in most expressive terms that his ministry would fail of effect:—
"But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted" (Ezekiel 3:7).
When men reject truth they do not reject the human speaker, but the divine Author. It was not Ezekiel who was driven away, it was the Most High himself who was profaned. People can only act according to their nature and their quality; having debased themselves into impudence and hard-heartedness, they could only be faithful to their depraved condition and prove the reality of their depravity by their ingratitude, their want of sensitiveness to moral appeal, and their want of shame under divine accusation. How does God meet the hardness of the human heart? We find the answer in Ezekiel 3:9—"As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house." The adamant is the diamond, as the word is translated in Jeremiah 17:1. The Lord says that the people to whom Ezekiel was sent were as flint, but he tells Ezekiel that he shall be to them as a diamond, and the diamond is able to cut the hardest flint. So the words of Ezekiel being the words of God were able to cut through all their resistance, and make themselves felt in the moral nature that was to all appearance destroyed.
In all this, however, Ezekiel is never allowed to speak one word of his own:—
"Moreover he said unto me, Son of man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears. And go, get thee to them of the captivity, unto the children of thy people, and speak unto them, and tell them, Thus saith the Lord God; whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear" (Ezekiel 3:10-11).
The spirit took the prophet up, and he heard behind him "a voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place." He "heard also the noise of the wings of the living creatures that touched one another, and the noise of the wheels over against them, and a noise of a great rushing." The spirit then lifted him up, and took him away, and he went upon his errand in bitterness, in the heat of his spirit; but the hand of the Lord was strong upon him. No longer is the word sweet to his taste; the roll that was given to him was as honey in his mouth, but now that the task is to be practically undertaken, literally and resolutely performed, Ezekiel begins to realise how heavy is the trial which has been assigned him. "But the hand of the Lord was strong upon me,"—an expression which means compulsion, or which means an assurance of sustentation, comfort, and ultimate success. No faithful man can rid himself of the: burden of the Lord except by faithfully declaring it, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. The prophet now leaves the place where he had been, and is brought "to them of the captivity at Telabib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar." The word "Telabib" means mound of ears of grain, and was probably a place of known fruitfulness, a place of harvest and abundance There the prophet sat where the people sat, and he was astonished among them seven days. He could not break the awful silence. He had a message to deliver, but could not speak it; a preparation of silence in the presence of the people to whom the message was delivered was not the least severe part of Ezekiel's discipline, Moses had his forty years of exile, Elijah had his forty days in Mount Horeb, St. Paul had to undergo a journey to Arabia, and our Lord himself was driven into the wilderness after his baptism.
These are conditions of life hardly to be explained in words. We know their power, we have entered into their innermost meaning, and yet we can hardly tell through what we have passed. Our solitude is either wasted or turned into the greatest profitableness. A man is not necessarily preparing because he is silent, but when a man is silent he may, if faithful to his divine call, be more strenuously preparing for his work than if he were engaged in tumult and found delight in the midst of the most exciting scenes. Solitude has its dangers; retirement is in itself a very subtle temptation; the soul says: Why not remain here? Why go out to the battle when peace can be enjoyed? Why encounter the fray when one might linger on the sunny side of the mountain, and all day long inhale the fragrance of flowers, and listen to the song of birds? Ezekiel went forth from Telabib into the plain, that there he might have further talk with the Most High God. Again he fell on his face, and again the spirit set him upon his feet, and talked with him as a man might talk with his friend. Not yet was the preparation complete. Ezekiel was commanded in these words, "Go, shut thyself within thine house." There he might either pray in secret, or begin his mission in a small degree, speaking to one and another, but not yet publicly declaring himself as the prophet and the reformer of Israel. Thus we begin by being overthrown and filled with a sense of humiliation; then we are invigorated by the Spirit of God; then we are driven away that we may see somewhat of the field wherein we are to work; then we have imposed upon us a discipline of silence; then we go forth into the plain to hear, as it were, the whispers, the last trembling cadences, of the divine instruction and exhortation; then we begin within the small limits of our house to speak the word with which we have been entrusted: all the while God will be with us, to watch us, chasten us, help us; and inasmuch as we are identified with him we have the assurance that, troublous as our ministry may be, it will end in victory and in immortal joy.
Almighty God, make the place of thy feet glorious, we humbly pray thee. The house is thine, and the book, and the day, and all souls are thine. Let this be a time of revelation, of entrancing and ennobling vision; may the dullest eye be opened to see lights shining afar; may the heaviest ear catch sounds from heaven; may the whole people be richly blessed from above. We thank thee for all hints of the wider life, the greater space, the freer liberty. We bless thee for a day which means heaven begun, toil ended, the battle concluded, tears dried for ever, and service without weariness constituting the delight of eternity. Once we were blind, and did not see these things: then we had heard no voice beyond the grave; but now we see, we hear, and our hearts are alive with joy. This gladness no man gave us, and no man can take away: this is the music of the Lord's voice; this is the gift of God; this is the purchase of the Cross; this is the meaning of Gethsemane. We worship at the Cross of Christ: there is no other altar where prayer may be made with effect We behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world; we see him in his agony: we will wait, thy grace helping us, until we see him in his triumph. Jesus died, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our iniquities; he is our Saviour: he shall be our Lord and King, and we will know no crown but his, and will for ever worship at his throne. This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. Fix our vision upon the Son of God; draw out our love towards Jesus Christ; then shall every motive be pure, every impulse shall be upward, and every energy shall be a sacrifice unto God. Come to us as we need—to the old man and the young, to the little child, the weary and the ill-at-ease, the broken-hearted, the blind through crying bitter tears, the secret sufferer who dare not tell his complaint, the broken spirit that may not even sigh its distress;—come to us as we need. Let our necessity be our plea; let our weakness be our attraction for the Father: then shall we be young, and strong, and glad; there shall be a new tone in our voice, our whole life shall be music, our whole action shall be pleasant unto God. We have sinned; we have done the things we ought not to have done; we have been selfish, unkind, cruel, ungrateful; we have forgotten the lives to which we owe our own; we have turned aside from those who had claims upon us; we have filled our ears with the world's din and noise that we might not hear the cry of pain or the prayer of poverty; we have uttered thy name and broken thy law; we have entered thy house, but have not been in thy spirit:—God be merciful unto us sinners! The blood of Jesus Christ, thy Son, cleanseth from all sin. To that blood we come, night and day, in youth and age; it is the answer to human sin, the reply to dishonoured law. We pray for one another. God bless us every one. Send none uncheered away, or uninstructed, or unblessed, but let every one fed that the Father's house is as wide as the Father's universe; and as for his love, it has no height, no depth, no measure to be named in human speech—infinite, infinite as God. Now give us the hearing ear, the eye that sees; give us the judgment that waits upon God, the reason that will not speak until its message has been learned; and then send us to our homes, carrying the fragrance of thine house with us: and all the week shall be glad; its work will come quite easily to our hands; we shall do it as if not doing it, for our citizenship shall be in heaven. Amen.