When a man finally has to bear his own cross,
this cross can become meaningful and redemptive
only if it is seen as the sword God uses
to cut us loose from the tyranny of false gods.
—Robert L. Short (The Parables of the Peanuts)
I’ll admit it. That whole section about forest fires at the end of chapter 20 sounded a little opaque. Since when does the Negeb enter into the equation, anyway? What kind of God wields fire as a weapon? How do you burn green wood? Truthfully, I think I would have aligned myself with the exiles who secretly thought Ezekiel had gone a little nuts.
To clarify the situation, God spoke more plainly of what he has in store for Israel in the beginning of chapter 21. In fact, if you were to write out 20:40-49 alongside 21:1-7, you would see that they line up beautifully. I’ll give you one example (trans. Daniel I. Bloc, Ezekiel Vol. 1 667):
- “set your face toward Teman; speak out against Darom, and prophesy against the brushland, Negeb” (20:46).
- “set your face toward Jerusalem, speak out against her sanctuary, and prophesy against the land of Israel” (21:2).
If you look carefully, you will see that the three verbs in each verse are the same. In a riddle, Ezekiel referred to Jerusalem as Teman, the sanctuary as Darom, and Israel as Negeb.
There are many more similarities between these two passages. It quickly becomes clear that the beginning of chapter 21 was intended to interpret the confusing riddle of chapter 20.
. . .
In chapter 21, fire is replaced with a sword. This clarifies God’s actions. A fire can be indiscriminate—the careless cigarette but from a wilderness camper can start a forest fire. Fire quickly takes on a life of its own. This is not true with a sword: Yahweh is in complete and constant control of his judgment.
These repeated messages of judgment can weary us because we’re not involved. Just pause for a minute, though, and consider what it would have been like in their situation: no home; friends and family murdered; forsaken by God. These words of judgment would have cut through to their hearts.
. . .
Again, we see a familiar pattern. For whatever reason, the exiles were not listening to Ezekiel. This is clear by the start of verse 6, where God tells him to moan: get their attention!
I love the way Ezekiel obeyed God at the expense of whatever pride he had left. He immediately started moaning and groaning loudly just to get the attention of the people around him. Sometimes I wonder how strongly I would cling to my self-respect if God asked me to do something that crazy. If people stop listening to what I was saying and God asked me to stand on my head and spit nickels at a busy intersection, would I obey?
I know what the answer should be. Jesus was willing to die disgracefully—is that not motivation enough?
. . .
When the people asked Ezekiel why he was moaning and groaning, he told them it was because of the news he had heard from God. When God’s judgment takes place:
- Every heart will melt
- and all hands will be feeble,
- every spirit will faint
- and all knees will be turned to water” (v. 7, NRSV)
That last point is a euphemism. It is better to read: every knee will get wet. Essentially: they will be so unbelievably frightened, they will wet themselves!
Ezekiel, in his typical style, was doing everything he possibly could to shock his people out of their lackadaisical attitudes. God’s judgment was real and present: obey him!
. . .
Lord God, give me the boldness to do whatever you ask of me—without though of reputation or social status. In Jesus’ name, Amen.