Ungodliness is the greatest and the central sin.
It is the cause of all our other troubles.
— D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (The Plight of Man and the Power of God)
Remember everything Ezekiel has experienced, then put yourself in his shoes: how would you respond? Would you be angry at God for allowing your friends and family to be slaughtered? Would you be relieved that God was finally speaking to you again? I think I would feel quite like Ezekiel: bitter. He was guided by God to a specific refugee camp at Tel-Abib. The word guided is probably too peaceful. Ezekiel was “lifted” by the Spirit with “the hand of the LORD being strong” upon him (v. 14, NRSV).
Ezekiel traveled alongside God with “bitterness in the heat” of his spirit (v. 14, NRSV). When he arrived at his destination, he sat among the refugees stunned for seven days. Once again, how would you respond?
. . .
Ezekiel was not exactly acting like a priest or a prophet while he sat, stunned, by the river. Once again, God took the initiative. This time God called Ezekiel a sentinel over the house of Israel. (Other translations often use the term “watchman”.)
A sentinel’s role was to stand guard in a watchtower on the perimeter of the property being guarded. When enemies attacked, the sentinel was the first person to see them and report the danger to the city officials. Traditionally, those in the priesthood were not called on for military duty. Why, then, does God make this pronouncement? Is Ezekiel really supposed to go from priest, to refugee, to prophet, to sentinel?
Here is the terrifying news that is often lost on modern ears. Sentinels watch for enemies. Ezekiel watched for God. For this season, the Israelites have made God their enemy! Of course, God’s long-term goal is reconciliation. Glimmers of hope for the future are sparsely sprinkled through Ezekiel’s messages. But at that time, God was their enemy.
It’s a tribute to God’s mercy that even as an enemy, he choose to let Ezekiel know his plan. Could you imagine the general of an invading enemy army crossing sides to let his opponents know what his plans were? I see a few reasons why God did this:
- God has nothing to fear. No possible harm can come to his plans by alerting Israel of his intentions.
- This information makes the people culpable. God wants to ensure that the people know precisely why they are being attacked.
- Some may turn to God. God’s character was the same in Ezekiel’s time as it was revealed hundreds of years later:
- God is in the right; Israel is in the wrong. We are so used to viewing the Israelites as the heroes of our Sunday School stories, that it’s difficult to see them as the “bad guys”. Yet, here we are: the righteous Creator of all is about to judge his rebellious little critters.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:9, NRSV)
. . .
After calling Ezekiel a sentinel, God explained the job description. Here’s the simplified version of God’s instructions:
- If I tell you the wicked will die, then they will die:
- If you give no warning or try to excuse them, their blood is on your hands
- If you warn them, you are absolved of responsibility
- If I lay a trap for the righteous who have sinned:
- And you give no warning then they will die, and you will be held responsible
- And you warn them and they stop sinning, then they will live and you will not be held responsible
The message is clear: this is God’s time for judgment. If Ezekiel obeyed God (and overcame the fear of his own people) then he would not be held responsible for their blood; moreover, some may even repent and be saved.
. . .
What brought all of this on Israel? Ungodliness. As horrible as this judgment sounds to our (post-) modern ears, God is just and the Israelites had received far more mercy than they deserved. What should this say to us who have received far more mercy than we deserve? Make it your life-goal to become godly. God makes a terrible enemy! Be like Ezekiel. Never be so afraid of people that you refuse to warn them about their sin.
. . .
Lord, make me your sentinel over my neighborhood. Share your plans with me, and I will do my all to see them fulfilled on earth as they already are in heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.