Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-11
In bizarre (Ezekiel 1), devastating (Ezekiel 15), and even graphic (Ezekiel 16 and 23) terms, the prophet has spoken words of judgment against Judah.
The astonishing rhetoric and poetics have intended to startle the people to attention. The warnings to Judah dominate chapters 1-24. The closing line of chapter 24, before the beginning of the oracles against the nations in 25, reveals the divine intention for all of the stark warnings and denunciations: “they shall know that I am the LORD.” Ezekiel does not present a deity on an ego trip, but a God who wants a faithful people who form a good relationship between themselves and God (Ezekiel 11:20). All of the harsh language and shocking metaphors constitute God’s strategy to awaken the people to their estrangement from God and their own true identity.
Chapter 33 begins a transition in the book of Ezekiel. Verse 21 reports the fall of Jerusalem. This event exposed the false confidence and complacency of the people (Ezekiel 33:24). In the midst of this utter defeat, the words of Ezekiel turn from primarily judgment to restoration. Although Ezekiel had reported God’s word of restoration before chapter 33 (Ezekiel 11:19, 18:31), the predominant theme becomes healing and hope after this chapter. Although Ezekiel does not present as tender a God as Hosea (see Hosea 11), God will reform the community (Ezekiel 37), and work within the people, as a community and individually to enable them to form a relationship with God.
This transition passage contains both threat and compassion. The passage employs the metaphor of a sentinel or lookout. Chapter 33 opens with a kind of extended rhetorical question. If a sentinel warns a people about an invasion, and they do nothing, whose fault is it? God had appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel in 3:16-21. The passage works in two ways. The Babylonians had indeed invaded Jerusalem and overrun it. The metaphor of an invading army also evokes God’s judgment. The people cannot say that no one warned them.
A recurring insight of theology is that although one uses metaphors to enable understanding of God, God consistently redefines the metaphor. Theology happens when a metaphor illumines God, yet God pushes the metaphor in new ways. Ezekiel employs the metaphor of an invading army coming as judgment for the people’s sins. A sentinel warns a town or city of the approach of an invading army. In Ezekiel’s metaphor the invading army provides the sentinel! Appointing Ezekiel as the sentinel communicates God’s care for the people. God does not desire the destruction of the people, as an invading army would. An invading army wants to subjugate the conquered people and appropriate their resources. God comes in ways that seem similar to an invading army and brings punishment, but only as a prelude to restoration and renewal. God punishes and even devastates only to prepare the people for the work God will do among and within them. God, the invading army, even sends the sentinel who frantically sounds the trumpet as a warning that the invading army is charging at this very moment.
A preacher might make a couple of homiletical moves from this passage for a sermon. The preacher can make a straightforward analogy between the people of Israel and the church. In this move, scripture or the prophet becomes the “sentinel” to admonish the church for the ways it has fallen short of becoming the community of faith God calls it to be. By ignoring the sentinel, the church has become ineffective, divided, conflicted, and complacent. The advantage of this move is that the church joins the people of Israel as the community of faith. (I’m revealing my theology here. The church does not replace Judaism as God’s people, but joins them.) Because of the way that Ezekiel undergirds God’s judgment with God’s persistent commitment to the people and the promise of restoration, such a move cannot condescend as a scold. Such a sermon would need genuine insight into what the church can become and why it has not. In what ways has the church become self-righteous, too supportive of the status quo, uncaring? How does the church “go through the motions” without genuine engagement with those who need help? How might God judge the church as a means of enabling its eventual growth? How does God’s judgment clear away the clutter so that God can work anew?
A careful reading of this pericope puts the focus specifically on Ezekiel’s role as the sentinel. This passage would work well for a sermon to the teachers and leaders within a congregation. How do they function as “sentinels” for the rest of the church? If the preacher honors the conversation between God and the prophet in 33:7-11, then a sermon from this passage might interpret the church’s role as the sentinel to the world. The church itself can play the role of sentinel. Again avoiding the temptation to scold, such a sermon might interpret the call of the church to speak out about injustice, inequality, greed, exploitation, environmental degradation, or other manifestations of sin. The sentinel has an important responsibility. All of the ways that Ezekiel spoke out (2:5), but also lived in solidarity with the people (3:15) inform the role of the church in speaking to the world.
The passage communicates a sense of urgency about Ezekiel’s role as sentinel. God gives Ezekiel responsibility to speak a word the community needs to hear. The word spoken by the sentinel must communicate God’s frustration at sin, but also God’s passion for life and for healing within the community. God does not desire death, but life. Even judgment becomes part of God’s life-giving mission. The God who invades also sends a sentinel to warn. The God who invades also leads the cleanup and restoration. The sentinel must sound the trumpet, but play the right notes.