And he said to me, “Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. Go now to your people in exile and speak to them. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen.” Then the Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me a loud rumbling sound as the glory of the Lord rose from the place where it was standing. It was the sound of the wings of the living creatures brushing against each other and the sound of the wheels beside them, a loud rumbling sound. The Spirit then lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness and in the anger of my spirit, with the strong hand of the Lord on me. I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Aviv near the Kebar River. And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days—deeply distressed. At the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself. “Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before them, they will die. Since you did not warn them, they will die for their sin. The righteous things that person did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the righteous person not to sin and they do not sin, they will surely live because they took warning, and you will have saved yourself.” The hand of the Lord was on me there, and he said to me, “Get up and go out to the plain, and there I will speak to you.” So I got up and went out to the plain. And the glory of the Lord was standing there, like the glory I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown. – Ezekiel 3:10-23
The emotional detail in this passage is really interesting. There are also some odd and confusing details in Ezekiel’s vision. Ezekiel has been transported by the strange vehicles described previously, which were in some way a manifestation of God’s spirit. Ezekiel is not really going with a joyful heart. He is going with “bitterness and anger”. I get the sense he is saying to God “why me”.
God is sending Ezekiel to a settlement in Babylon along the Kebar (Chebar) River called “Tel Aviv”, which apparently means mound (Tel) of the Spring (Aviv). As I investigated this name a little further I learned that the term Tel can also have a deeper meaning. It was used to describe archaeological “mounds” where many layers of settlement have coexisted and co-mingled. A built-up mound of the remains of a culture or people – the palimpsest of a prior population.
I think it is interesting that the exiles are in a settlement which loosely translates “a pile of remains of the spring”. This is in fact what this people is at the moment they are disconnected from God, the spring of living water, in a foreign land. They have all their traditions and rituals piled around them, but many have lost their meaning. Perhaps this is why Ezekiel finds such a dejected and depressed people and why he is “deeply distressed” to spend a week with them talking about God. They are not a receptive audience.
God warned Ezekiel of the reception he would receive, but did not let him off his responsibility to warn them about their “evil ways”. He was to do this “whether they listen or fail to listen”. God is calling on Ezekiel to tell the exiles they are sinning against God – never an easy conversation. God makes a deal with Ezekiel, if he faithfully shares the message God is sending him to deliver all will be well with Ezekiel — regardless of how this message is received.
In many ways this is a hard teaching as it seems to be calling on Ezekiel to do something that American culture is very averse to doing – naming and calling out the sin in someone else’s life. Of course Ezekiel was specifically called to do this in a rather dramatic way, so perhaps that lets us off heading out to the streets with signs and tracts to confront “sinners”.
So what is the take away message here? I certainly do not think it is as simple as go tell people lost in sin that they will burn in hell. Ezekiel went to live with the people in Tel Aviv for seven days while he was sharing his message of judgement. Maybe if we are to hope to share a hard message with people it requires us to become, at least for a season, a part of their community so we can earn the right to have hard conversations about how a person is living their life. My sense is that Ezekiel will be called up on to do this again in the future so perhaps we will learn more about this complex process.
Prayer: God You sometimes call us to share hard messages with others. Help us to invest the time getting to know those who you have called on us to share so that Your message can be heard.