Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel’s success as a prophet does not depend on the audience reaction

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July 4, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Ezekiel 2:1-5

Ezekiel seldom appears in lectionary readings and sermons. This prophetic voice sometimes seems to come from an extremist individual whose visions are difficult to understand in our modern context. The oracles are deemed severe, very often they are complex, and on occasion one can sense deep pain in the prophet. For that reason, we may hesitate to bring this voice before congregations. It is difficult for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible to understand the circumstances that make Ezekiel a prophet worthy to be heard and heeded.

In Ezekiel 2:1-5, one can sense the prophet’s exhaustion by the suggestion that after the divine commandment “stand up on your feet,” Ezekiel is not able by his own volition to do it and a spirit enters him to set him on his feet. The prophet is called a “son of man.” This phrase emphasizes Ezekiel’s humanity. This is the first of the ninety-three times this line appears in the book. It might work to distinguish Ezekiel from the divine being that appears several times in the book. The repetition could as well emphasize Ezekiel’s weakness as he faces this prophetic call and the need for a spirit (ruach) to enter and accomplish what he is not able to do by himself.

Our text describes Ezekiel’s commission. He is sent to Israel with a message so that Israel would know something about YHWH. This is the essential element of Ezekiel’s call. Our text describes Ezekiel’s divine authorization to speak on behalf of YHWH. The message is addressed to Israel, a house of rebels for generations, perpetuating the sins of their ancestors. God brings charges against the people who are described literally as “hard of face and tough of heart.” (verse 4).

Ezekiel must proclaim to them: “Thus says the Lord.” In prophetic literature, this phrase is known as the messenger formula introducing an oracle, usually of destruction and divine punishment. The lack of an oracle after the phrase may suggest that all that comes after in the book should be considered the very word of YHWH. For this reason, whether they heed this word or not, the people will know the message has nothing to do with Ezekiel’s humanity and weakness. The weakness of Ezekiel’s humanity embodies a cosmic message from the Lord to a community who have been rebellious for generations. Ezekiel’s success as a prophet does not depend on the audience reaction. It is entirely dependent on Ezekiel’s obedience to the Lord’s commission to speak to Israel.

If Ezekiel’s message in the entire prophetic book strikes us as odd, we should recognize that his message matched the complex and painful time of Babylonian invasion. The numbing experience of national catastrophe, slaughter of a community, suffering, and mass dislocation helps us understand not only the crisis that the prophet experiences but also the need to interpret it. This text underlines a theology that clarifies God’s role in the devastation of the city, the destruction of the temple, and the extinction of the monarchy. As a result of Ezekiel’s commissioning, Israel will know of God’s continuous involvement in Israel’s life. Even when there seems to be little hope for the Israelites in exile, a prophet is still raised up by a spirit and sent to speak to a stubborn people.

Therefore, Ezekiel’s commissioning entails two theological purposes. One is an exhortation to the people. It asserts that God is still the God of Israel, even when the Israelites are in the diaspora. Second, God has given them warning in due time, regarding the impending Babylonian invasion. It was not lack of consideration on God’s part but their own recklessness that caused their destruction. The commissioning highlights divine concern for the people, despite their generational disobedience and obstinacy. Yet, it also implies Yahweh’s concern with reputation. From the outset, the book of Ezekiel states that God’s punishment fits Israelites’ crimes because the divine is concerned with God’s holy name, “which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came” (Ezekiel 36:21).

The book of Ezekiel does not give us information about the prophet prior to his encounter with the divine and his commissioning, but what Ezekiel experienced transformed him and sent him to a task that on paper looks impossible and from which there was no release. It was a life-transforming event and Ezekiel had no way to excuse himself. The very idea of this commissioning sounds like entrapping and deceiving in modern contexts. Such unqualified demands implicit in the statement “thus says the lord” with no actual message from God, is more likely to send us running away from the divine, a la Jonah, than bending on our knees.

The fact is that we do not know many details about how Ezekiel experienced his commissioning. Yet, his book speaks about Ezekiel’s capacity to be awestruck and obey his vision of divine intervention in the world. Contrary to Jonah, Ezekiel was not sent to a foreign people. He spoke to his own people even when they did not listen.