The fire of sin is intense,
but it is put out by a small amount of tears,
for the tear puts out a furnace of faults,
and cleans our wounds of sin.
— John Chrysostom
As we move into chapter 21, there are four oracles about Yahweh’s sword. Some of most brutal judgment language in all of Ezekiel is found here. Textually, 20:45-49 belongs with chapter 21, and the Hebrew Bible places it there. Unfortunately, the Greek translation (LXX) tags these five verses to the end of chapter 20, and that’s what our English Bibles follow.
These five verses are a riddle—half of the first sword oracle that will be explained in the beginning of chapter 21. I am only taking half of this first oracle, because we need to pause when the heart of Ezekiel is revealed in verse 49: “Ah Lord GOD! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of allegories’” (NRSV)?
. . .
These verses begin much the same as other judgment oracles. God used allegorical language to describe how he will judge Jerusalem. God said that he will start a forest fire in the forests of the Negeb that will burn up all the wood—both green and dry. Everyone will know and understand that Yahweh, Israel’s God, started the fire.
There are a few difficulties here:
- There are no forests in the Negeb. So far as we can tell through archaeology, there were no forests there in Ezekiel’s time, either. Commentators have smoothed out this concern by mentioning that the Hebrew word could refer to scrub-brush.
- Why mention green and dry trees? Everyone knows that dry trees burn—and that people who are spiritually dead are referred to as being dry. Why burn green trees? This makes God’s judgment sound capricious and indiscriminate.
. . .
The exiles Ezekiel was prophesying to would have known these difficulties. After hearing warning after warning about judgment, they may have become desensitized to Ezekiel’s messages. After taking some ribbing for his latest prophecy, Ezekiel vents his frustration: “Yahweh, they think I’m making this stuff up!”
. . .
Ezekiel’s frustration is a universal feeling. Sure, we may not have been asked by God to tell our own people he was about to slaughter them for their sin—but we have been asked to speak. If we live a normal Christian life (normal by biblical, definitely not cultural standards!), the people around us will naturally be confronted with the good news that Jesus wants to rescue them.
The problem is, people are not big fans of being rescued—especially when they don’t even realize they’re in trouble. People like to fight their way out of problems by their own power. When it comes to spiritual liberation, however, submitting to the rescuer is the only option.
Many of us have felt Ezekiel’s frustration: “God, my friends think I’m making this stuff up! They think you’re an imaginary crutch to get me through a tough world! They just do not believe me.”
The solution for us is the same as it was for Ezekiel. He was never held accountable for the results—he was responsible to do what Yahweh asked him to do. The same can be said of us. Our Rescuer “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2, NRSV).
Can we do anything less?
. . .
Lord, give me courage to live faithfully for you when others cannot understand. In Jesus’ name, Amen.