40. Ezekiel (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 40.  Ezekiel (1)

Ezek 1:28, 2:1,2    This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking. He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

When we arrive at Ezekiel we are confronted by what is arguably the strangest chapter in the Bible. I have covered this chapter in detail in a previous series we started on Ezekiel and so we will only cover it in a general sweep here. Chapter 1 introduces us to Ezekiel, a priest (1:3), one of the exiles taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (1:1,2), who starts seeing visions about 593BC.

I cannot always help comparing what follows to the incredible clouds that accompany the coming of the aliens in the film Independence Day. It is a dramatic storm appearance with bright light at its centre (1:4) and he then sees what turn out to be four angelic beings (1:5-14) later to be identified as cherubim (10:1,2). With them come the famous “wheels within wheels” (1:15-21) later to be referred to as “the whirling wheels” (10:13). Previously I have summarised this as follows: the wheels were in total harmony with the four creatures. Wheels of course speak of transport and movement and if the presence of wings was not enough, the presence of these big wheels emphasises even more that the angelic presence  is all about coming and going from heaven to earth and back again, conveying the will of God.

Following this we are told that above these four living creatures was ‘an expanse’ (1:22), above which was a throne (1:26) on which was seated a human figure, but much more than a mere human figure (1:26,27) surrounded by multi-coloured brilliance (1:28a). It is at that comes the first part of our three starting verses: “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.” (1:28b)

In other words the whole of chapter 1 comes as a preamble to the actual calling of Ezekiel. Whereas in Isaiah the heavenly vision was limited to four verses, here the vision fills an entire chapter and Ezekiel identifies what he sees as “the glory of the Lord” and so incredible, so powerful is this weird picture that we find, “When I saw it, I fell facedown.” (1:28:c) It may be that this was from awe but in what follows the implication was that all his energy drained away and he collapsed.

Now we come to his first encounter with the Lord: “and I heard the voice of one speaking.” (1:28d) As we go into chapter 2 we find first of all an instruction, “Son of man, stand up on your feet,” and then a reason, “and I will speak to you.” It would appear that the Lord did not want him to be a quivering wreck on the floor but as His representative who would receive from Him face to face.  To help him do that (and this is why I suggested all his energy had left him), “As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet.”  It is the power of the Spirit that raised him up.

Then the Lord speaks to him and gives him his ministry instructions: “He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.” (2:3,4)  This is remarkably like the warning given to Jeremiah but this should not surprise it, because they were to go to the same people!

Having observed all this, we might now ask, why do you think the Lord gave Ezekiel this vision whereas He gave Isaiah a much briefer insight into heaven, and Jeremiah no such insight? Well, let’s consider again Ezekiel’s position. Whereas Jeremiah’s ministry was carried out in the security of Jerusalem, despite the opposition we received there, it was relatively secure. Ezekiel, however, has been carried away by Nebuchadnezzar’s army to Babylon with all the accompanying trauma. Ezekiel came from a priestly family and when he had been carried away in that first ‘deportation batch’ with Jehoiachin in 593BC (1:2) he had no idea whether he had any future left. Five years passed (1:2) and it appears he was now age thirty (1:1). Now thirty was the age that a young man of a priestly family would take up his duties and so at the time when this vision comes, he is living in a foreign land, living with the disappointment that if he had still been back in Jerusalem he would just be starting his priestly ministry in the Temple in Jerusalem, but there is no hope of that now.

Imagine you are the son or daughter of a very wealthy businessman who, throughout your younger years, has been promising that when you are thirty he will hand the CEO  role over to you, but then when you are twenty five you are kidnapped and deported, sold as a slave on the opposite side of the world in a country where you have no resources and are utterly reliant upon your captors. How would you be feeling? Helpless and hopeless. There is nothing you can do to change your situation and to all outward appearances you have no future. If there is to be a change, it has to be pretty dramatic. This is Ezekiel – and it is dramatic!

Ezekiel is going to become God’s mouthpiece to the Israelite exiles and, even more, his words are obviously going to get back to Jerusalem to back up all that Jeremiah is saying back there. Why? “And whether they listen or fail to listen–for they are a rebellious house–they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (2:5)  There is the same thing we said about Jeremiah’s ministry. It’s not about whether he manages to turn the hearts of the people (for he won’t), it’s about being God’s witness against this people so that all of history will see and know. Hence his instruction, “You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.” (2:7) These words will be written down and they will be a testimony against Israel and the next generation will read them and know the truth and repent so that in forty years after the fall of Jerusalem they will be ready to come back, a purged people.

So Ezekiel receives this incredible vision (and there is more of it in chapter ten) which refocuses all of his thinking and overrides all of any potential fear or anxieties he might have as an exile, and he will be focused on his one goal – to speak God’s words to God’s people. The glory of the Lord – which represents the very presence of God will become a key feature in this book as it goes on. Like no other prophet he is aware of the movement of God in His dealings with the holy city.

For 99.99% of us, we are unlikely to have such a vision because we will not have such a calling, but God will speak to us and the question has to be, will we obey what we hear? It seems that God uses two major things to turn human thinking: either a dramatic vision, such as that in chapter 1 (which is rare) or catastrophe or upheaval, which is far more common. We get such things depending on God’s calling or our stubbornness, but whatever form comes, it will always be the loving God bringing what He knows is best for us, best to bring us into a good place with Him.

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1. A Man in Crisis

Meditations from Ezekiel: 1.  A Man in Crisis

Ezek 1:1  In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

Aim: We have entitled this new series, ‘Meditations FROM Ezekiel’ because we are not intending to cover the book verse by verse but simply dip into it to see what the Lord draws our attention to. It is a mysterious book and yet a book well and truly anchored in history as we will see in these first few verses.

Ezekiel, the man: You will see in your Bible a footnote suggesting an alternative for the first sentence: In the (my) thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day.” In the second verse Ezekiel is referred to as a priest and Num 4:3 suggests that priests and other workers would have to be aged thirty before they started work and so this first sentence probably refers to Ezekiel’s age. The book opens when he is 4 months and 5 days into his 30th year.

Ezekiel in exile: Next we get our first hint of the time frame of this book: “while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River.” We’ll see more of this verse 2. Ezekiel had been carried off by the Babylonians and is now one of the exiles. The Kebar River was a canal off the great River Euphrates, near the city of Nippur, south of Babylon, and possibly a place of prayer for the exiles. In Psa 137 we find one of the psalmists of that time writing, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” (Psa 137:1)

A Crisis Time: Before we go any further, we might observe that Ezekiel is in a place and time of crisis in his life. He is a priest and priests are supposed to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, but he has been carried away in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s attacks. The practice was to take prisoners and dump them in a foreign land where they may or may nor act as slaves. Whatever they were, they were being changed from being Israelites, yet we observe through history, we might say, ‘Once a Jew always a Jew.” God’s chosen people may have been going through a chastising but they would one day, within the next half century, come back to Israel and some half a millennia later, when they were cast out for two thousand years, it was still not the end of them. They are still there. Such are the plans of God!

Heavenly visions: It was in this place of apparent hopelessness that we then read, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” We may be in a place of apparent catastrophe but that doesn’t mean that the Lord cannot speak, that He cannot reach through into the midst of our circumstances to declare His will. There are various instances in Scripture where the Lord speaks into a crisis situation.

It was in a similar situation that Isaiah records, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (Isa 6:1). Uzziah had been a great and prominent king and so his death would have left a massive hole in the psyche of the nation, no doubt like that which will occur when Elizabeth the second, who has reigned for so long at the heart of British life, eventually dies. It was into that void that the Lord spoke and revealed Himself to Isaiah.

Back, earlier in their history, young Joshua must have been feeling devastated at the death of his elderly mentor, Moses, and again it was into that void that the Lord spoke: “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them–to the Israelites….. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Josh 1:1,2,6).

It must have been into a similar void that the elderly priest, Zechariah, found himself the recipient of a word from heaven after over four hundred years of silence. We may take the example of Zechariah to note something that is shortly going to confront us: “the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Lk 1:13-15) Apart from the fact that it was an angel (and God’s ways of communicating are sometimes nerve-racking if not downright confusing – consider Moses’ burning and talking bush!!!) everything about this message flew in the face of all he knew – he was old with an old, barren wife, and God has not been on the scene for over four hundred years, and this angel talks about them having a son as if they were young people. No wonder he struggled to receive that word.

We need God’s help: Now I say this because the book of Ezekiel is, I believe, one of the more stranger books of the Old Testament and later on especially, there are many pages which leave you wondering why they are there. The Bible, the word of God, the word from heaven, is not always easy to comprehend at first sight and so we may well need to pray even more than we usually do, to really get to grips with this book. But that should not leave us surprised because life is often like that. Bluntly we need to hear from God and indeed we need to hear from God to understand what God has already said!

The Challenge of Chastening & Suffering: There are, I suggest various challenges that confront us straight away as we ponder on this book, and they will only be clear as we meditate on what we find here. First, there is this whole area of suffering and, more particular, suffering as a child of God. Ezekiel is a thwarted priest. Verse 3 tells us he was a priest and our first verse suggests he had now just arrived at the age to enter into the role of a priest – but had been carried away into captivity miles away from Jerusalem. How unfair! Well, actually, no, this is all part of God’s chastising of the people of God in Israel and it comes with decades of warnings from Jeremiah back there in Jerusalem and it is about the be added to by Ezekiel in the land of the oppressors. Ezekiel thinks he is going to become a priest but God has plans for him to be a prophet, a very, very significant prophet! Very often when the circumstances come crashing round our ears, it is not the end of the world but simply the beginning of something much greater that God has on His heart for us.

The challenge of strangeness: The second thing is the complexity and strangeness of what we are going to find in this book. There are going to be strange things but there will also be glorious things and we will, almost certainly, need the grace of God to understand them. But think back to the first days when you came to Christ, the strangeness of it all. I remember going out and buying my first Bible, a little King James version which struck me as being very strange, yet something had happened that propelled me along and I persevered with it, moved on to an RSV and later to an NIV and today even often use an ESV, not to mention one or two of the paraphrase versions. It is worth the effort. There is going to come an awesome sense of holiness in this book that is rarely found in the historical books of the Old Testament and if we let the Lord touch us with it, we may never be the same again. Are you ready? Then let’s do it!

24. To Jeremiah (2)

“God turned up” Meditations: 24 :  To Jeremiah (2)

Jer 32:6-8   Jeremiah said, “The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say, `Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it.’ “Then, just as the LORD had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, `Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin.

In all these studies on God turning up, as we’ve noted before, the Lord turns up in a variety of ways, but as the Bible develops it seems the most common way is that He comes and simply speaks directly to one of His servants, especially to the prophets who by their very nature had an ear open to God. In the previous meditation we saw the Lord coming to Jeremiah to call him to his ministry. Now there could be a dozen times where we could see the Lord turning up and giving Jeremiah a message, but this one seems a particularly significant example of God’s word coming.

To catch the significance of this episode we need to note what went immediately before it: This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah.” (Jer 32:1,2) So here is Jerusalem under siege, with all the surrounding country taken by Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah gets a warning from the Lord that his cousin would come and offer to sell him some of the family land outside the city. Now don’t be under any illusion that Jeremiah thought the present siege was going to turn out all right, because he had just prophesied to king Zedekiah, “This is what the LORD says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will capture it. Zedekiah king of Judah will not escape out of the hands of the Babylonians but will certainly be handed over to the king of Babylon.” (v.3,4)

So Jeremiah knows that the future is that Jerusalem will be taken and the land devastated by Nebuchadnezzar. What is interesting is that Jeremiah doesn’t say that the Lord told him to buy the land, merely that He had warned Jeremiah. Jeremiah obviously took it that the Lord was inviting him to buy the family land – in the face of impending doom. This is to be an act of faith in respect of the Lord’s plans for Israel obviously!

Jeremiah steps out in accordance with the warning from the Lord and when his cousin comes he does buy the land and goes through all the legal formalities so that there will be no question in anyone’s mind about the authenticity of this sale for he said, “I knew that this was the word of the LORD.” (v.8) .

Indeed at the end of the formalities we read, “I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard. “In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: `This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” (v.12-15)  That was quite an amazing prophecy there at the end. So often Jeremiah was accused of negative speaking, but this is very positive. It says the Lord has plans for the future of Israel after Nebuchadnezzar.

Note what follows: “After I had given the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah, I prayed to the LORD:” (v.16) What follows is a wonderful prayer declaring God’s greatness in all His deeds. Following this comes a further word from the Lord which includes, “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (v.37,38) and then a reiteration that fields and land will again be sold in the land. There is a remarkable clarity in this prophecy: yes, Israel will be taken into exile, but the Lord will eventually bring them back to this land and restore them.

What we have seen is Jeremiah being invited to step out in trust in the Lord and buy land which appeared worthless at present, as a sign that there was yet a future for Israel there. Jeremiah would not see it, but it would come. Once he acted in faith, the Lord confirmed His word to Jeremiah, a remarkable promise about the future. A simple lesson here?  Sometimes we need to step out in faith on fairly minor revelation before the bigger revelation is given. Faith as big as a mustard seed releases greater things. Let’s not despise the small acts of faith for they can lead to much bigger things. Has the Lord invited you to step out in a small way? Go for it, for it may open the way to something much greater. 

Walk to Restoration

WALKING WITH GOD. No.41

Ezra 1:5 Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites–everyone whose heart God had moved–prepared to go up and build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.

We now move from what you might have considered a very negative aspect of walking to a much more positive one. We have now moved on hundreds of years. Nearly seventy years have passed since the Temple was destroyed and Judah and Benjamin had gone into exile. Humanly speaking, it had been the end of the nation of Israel. They now only existed as a people being amalgamated into the life of Babylon. There was however an echo of hope from the past: “This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer 25:11) That prophecy still hung in the air, brought years before by Jeremiah before he was carried off to Egypt.

Indeed there had been, centuries before, an even more amazing prophecy through Isaiah, (I am the Lord) who says of Cyrus, `He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.(Isa 44:28) That had come long before the exile, leaving the listeners wondering what that was all about. Now, the Jews find themselves in Babylon under the reign of a king called Cyrus. Dare they hope? The hope is fulfilled: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing” (Ezra 1:1). Before they knew what was happening Cyrus made this proclamation: “Anyone of his people among you–may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD , the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.(v.3)

Now to catch the full significance of this, we have to think about the significance of the Temple in the life of Israel. THE thing that marked Israel out from every other nation in the world, was the fact that God had made His dwelling in their midst. From Sinai onwards He had commanded them to build a Tabernacle: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.” (Ex 25:8,9). Established in the land, it was Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Lord filled with His glory on completion (1 Kings 8:10,11). The Temple was thus the central point of focus for the Israelites, the place of encounter with God. When it had been utterly destroyed it was as if the Lord had cut off any means of communication with them (though of course He continued to speak through prophets such as Daniel).

When Cyrus made this proclamation to the Jews, it must have appeared beyond their wildest dreams. It wasn’t merely going back to Israel, it was going back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, to re-establish the place of encounter with God. The Exile had been a terrible act of discipline, needed to shake Israel free from their godlessness and unrighteousness, but discipline only lasts for a while. God’s intent is not to pursue pain in His children, but to restore their hearts to Him and to restore the relationship with them. As the Jews prepared to return to Jerusalem this was a major walk of restoration. Their hearts were being restored to the Lord, the place of encounter was being restored and their relationship with the Lord was being restored.

Now how does this apply to us today? Well it happens in small ways and big ways. In small ways it probably happens fairly regularly for some. Every time we sin, we offend God and grieve His Holy Spirit and there is a break in our fellowship with Him. Yet He encourages our speedy return: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). Confession is the way back. Indeed Jesus has been praying for that to happen: “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense” (1 Jn 2:1). That happens on in the short term, but sometimes there are times when our relationship with the Lord drifts and, in all reality, it is not very real. Then something seems to stir within us. (it is His Holy Spirit) convicting us, nudging us to return. The Lord’s desire is NOT that we have a half-hearted relationship with Him where we simply nod at Him on Sundays. No, He wants a daily, living, vibrant relationship with us. For some of us, we need to make the walk of restoration. It’s time to come home, to come to the place of encounter with God, to pick up a regular and real relationship. Perhaps this page is the equivalent of Cyrus’s proclamation for you. Come home; come back to the place of close encounter of the God kind.