I’m about as likely to read the Book of Ezekiel as the Book of Revelation, and for some of the same reasons. Both are strange, apocalyptic texts full of baffling, sometimes terrifying imagery. Both require much greater understanding of their original context than I possess. Both have hard words to speak to listeners who are less faithful than they imagine themselves to be.
But both speak words of hope, as well. Written by men in exile who have (literally) digested the word of God, Ezekiel’s prophecy and John’s Revelation both harangue God’s people and reassure them.
In Ezekiel’s case, both rhetorical strategies struggled to reach his audience. As today’s commentator, Canadian pastor Edwin Searcy, explains, the exiles to whom Ezekiel spoke “could not see the truth about God’s righteous anger. But once the people opened their eyes to the roots of their trouble, Ezekiel was faced with a community whose despair made it deaf to hope…” In the last third of the book, Ezekiel promises that God will bring about renewal as impossible as a valley full of dry bones being breathed back to life. In the chapter that precedes that famous passage, today’s lectionary reading (36:8-15) has God telling the “mountains of Israel… shoot our your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they shall soon come home” (36:8). God will give the people of Israel a “new heart” (v 26), but Searcy points out that “This impossible word of hope was as unbelievable to the exilic community as was the word of judgment that broke through their determined denial.”
In the midst of a pandemic that, in worst case scenarios, has the potential to kill millions, that’s probably a good word for those of us who find ourselves on the edge between cautious prudence and crippling fear. We might find it easier to be convicted by God’s word than to be heartened by it.
But I also think this is a good moment for American Christians, especially, to rethink one of their traditional errors in reading passages like Ezekiel 36: to assume that God speaks to the contemporary people of the United States in the same way he spoke to the historical people of Israel, as if we too had a special, covenantal relationship with God.
If this devotional series confirms anything for me, it’s that God is truly with me. But not just with me, and not just with Americans. “See now,” God says through Ezekiel, “I am for you” — that’s not a particular promise made to my imagined community of people. (In the plainest reading of the text, it’s not spoken to humans at all, but to “mountains of Israel” — perhaps not just poetically?)
Especially at a time when Christian nationalism is being emboldened by a manipulative politician who weaponizes economic and racial resentments, Americans risk misunderstanding God’s promises to Israel. Heard heedlessly, “no longer will I let you hear the insults of the nations, no longer shall you bear the disgrace of the peoples” (v 15) can sound like lines shouted at a rally full of angry people in MAGA hats.
But that verse concludes by underscoring that God’s covenant people is in exile less because of their enemies’ intrigues than because of their own failings: “no longer shall you cause your nation to stumble, says the Lord God.” And if Ezekiel earlier describes God’s “hot jealousy against the rest of the nations” (v 5), then perhaps we should consider the ways that America, like Edom, has “with wholehearted joy and utter contempt” plundered the land that God has blessed. If we insist on hearing this historical text as a modern-day prophecy, then let it remind us as a people of our history of “plunder.”
In the end, the word I heard over and over again this morning is one of hope: that God, in his unmerited graciousness, means better times for all his people. If an exiled people’s “towns shall be rebuilt” and its human and animal populations could “increase and be fruitful” in the 6th century BC, let us all hope for reconstruction and revival in our present-day seasons of spiritual and physical scarcity and decline.