(37) I have made you a watchman – Ezekiel 3:17

The destiny of the people of Israel had been tied up with their land right from the beginning. God promised the land to Abraham’s descendants and this promise was passed on to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob who became Israel. Moses led the people to the promised land, they settled it under Joshua’s leadership, and they then lived in it for eight hundred years. Now, following the traumatic invasion of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, they had been removed from the land of their forefathers and from the place where they worshiped their God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel, who was taken into exile along with King Jehoiachin, was a priest and so would have felt the separation from the temple most keenly. His book, like Isaiah’s, is in two halves: the first part (to chapter 24) was written before the fall of Jerusalem and prophesies its inevitability, while the second half was written after the destruction of the city and gives words of hope for the future.

Ezekiel’s prophetic life starts with a dramatic, awesome vision of God, seated on a moving throne and surrounded by angelic beings. The impact of the vision on Ezekiel is so great that he is completely overwhelmed and is also struck dumb, a challenging condition for a man charged with warning the people of their coming fate.

Despite his affliction, the Lord tells him that he is “a watchman for the people of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:17). A city would place a watchman on the walls to warn of approaching enemies. If the watchman blew the trumpet and the people ignored him and did not get ready to repel the invaders then it was their responsibility: the watchman has fulfilled his responsibility. But if he failed to sound the alarm then whatever happened to the people was his responsibility. In the same way God tells Ezekiel that if he doesn’t warn the wicked to turn from their sins then “I will hold you accountable for their blood” (Ezekiel 3:28).

As he has lost his voice, Ezekiel has to find other ways to communicate God’s word to his fellow Israelites. His first message is to let the people know that they will not be returning to Jerusalem. To do this God tells him to make a clay model of the city and to act out the siege that it will face when the Babylonians come against it. This involves him lying on his side by the model every day for 15 months. At the end of this period he indicates what will happen at the end of the siege by shaving his head and burning a third of the hair in the city, striking a third with a sword and scattering the remaining third in the wind (see Ezekiel 5:1-2), this last group symbolising those going into exile who were the most fortunate group although they may not appreciate it.

After giving many prophecies against Judah over the coming years, one day the Lord reveals to him that the Babylonian army has laid siege to the Jerusalem. This signals the beginning of the end of hope for the exiles and Ezekiel is asked to show them how to act in the most poignant of ways. The Lord tells him that his wife – “the delight of your eyes” (Ezekiel 24:16) – will die suddenly but he is not to mourn for her. In a society where public mourning was part of their culture, Ezekiel is told to refrain from the customary signs of grief and to keep his pain inside, a hard message for a man in his early thirties.

So Ezekiel records that “I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded” (Ezekiel 24:18) meaning that he carried on his daily business without showing any sign of mourning. When the people asked for an explanation he tells them that they are not to mourn the loss of Jerusalem and the temple – the delight of their eyes – but are to carry on with their life in exile. Ezekiel’s life as a watchman is painful as he, like Jeremiah who remained in the besieged city, speaks to a people unwilling to hear God’s message.

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