I have been looking at the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. For all its strange language and imagery, its message is strikingly pertinent. Ezekiel was a priest forced into exile with many of Israel’s élite shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the early 6th century BC. His message is aimed at the people back in Jerusalem, and especially their leaders. Its predominant theme is the disaster they face because they have abandoned God’s way. The book starts with the precise day when the prophet’s visions began, and other dates are given when new visions occurred. They seem to emphasize the passage of time, each day that passes bringing Jerusalem closer to judgement day.
Ezekiel is fierce in his condemnation of false prophets. They are liars, he says, falsely claiming that all is well in Jerusalem. The truth is that the city is profoundly and institutionally corrupt. Its pride in its past and its presumption of God’s protection are dangerous mistakes. In reality it has betrayed its God, despising his guidance and prostituting itself before the nations around it, committing worse sins than they have. Ezekiel has a burning sense of obligation to speak out and expose the injustices and corruption he sees for what they are.
The book’s message, however, is not only negative. Ezekiel describes what a good society should be like, where people respect each other and each other’s property, where oppression and injustice are absent and where the poor are provided for. He is also hopeful for Israel’s long-term future. His most famous image of hope is in chapter 37, where a valley full of dead bones is transformed into a “vast multitude” of living people.
Naturally, the context of the book is entirely different from our own, perhaps most noticeably in his overwhelming sense of the glory of God. His language and imagery retain much of their original power, but they are sometimes incomprehensible to us. The themes, however, are relevant for the times we are living through.
For a start, the political dislocation caused by Trump, Brexit, climate change, the rise of nationalistic and religious extremism, etc. draws us into significant parallels with the situation confronting Ezekiel. The global nature of today’s crises is on a very different scale, but the threat to Israel’s survival and the apparent failure of trusted ideologies led to similar anxieties and confusion as our own. Like today, simplistic promises and false hopes were given by those in leadership. In the face of severe external threats the fabric of society began to crumble. Violence increased; unscrupulous profit seekers sought opportunities to take advantage of the situation; the fate of the poor deteriorated.
Ezekiel’s response was similar to some of the prophets who had come before him. He was passionate in his condemnation of those who had led the people astray, and were doing so still. Having abandoned the worship and ways of the Lord, the Israelites were now facing the consequences. But forgiveness and a future restoration would occur. The closing chapters of the book describe a detailed, and highly symbolic vision of a new temple in Jerusalem, where true worship would be offered.
Facing up to past and present wrongs which are inevitably leading to disastrous consequences, and at the same time being hopeful about the future is not easy, but they are both necessary, especially in times of crisis. The threats facing Western societies today – for many of which we are responsible – seem overwhelming, and can easily lead to despair. They must be honestly acknowledged. Repentance and a serious commitment to change are necessary, but without hope, they will never happen.
Hope in the book of Ezekiel, that priest and prophet of Israel, is centred around the restoration of true worship in Jerusalem. That may not seem particularly relevant to us, but our vision for the future, like his, involves a society and a world where security is restored and people can live in freedom and peace. Unless we have such a hope to inform and direct us, darkness is bound to overwhelm us in the end.
Peter Shepherd (October 2019)