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 (Manna 23: The Household of God)
"I Am the Lord" in Ezekiel
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On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michelangelo (1475-1564) captured the characteristic moods of two great prophets of Israel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in the exilic age of the Israelite religion. A man cast in brass and tears, Jeremiah sits brooding with hand on chin, his shoulders slumped forward. Pensively he ponders over a mystery which is beyond human understanding: why has God rejected Israel, His own people, and why do the wicked always prevail while the righteous suffer?

Ezekiel sits, dynamic and resourceful, a man with a message. In his left hand he holds a scroll, onto which the LORD has commanded him to write down the visions and the prophetic oracles about the destiny of Israel and the nations. His right hand is extended to emphasize his words; his eyes wide and staring, his chin determined. He is a man who pronounces the divine judgment, but he also embodies a message of hope and encouragement, whose aim is to inspire deeper knowledge about God and stimulate people to action.

God had laid hands on both Jeremiah and Ezekiel and used them in crises of history to fulfil His purposes. Together these two prophets spanned with their lives the most critical years in their country's history. The fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. was a clarion call for the entire re-thinking of the Hebrew religion. This crisis was unparalleled in all Israel's history. At no time in the four hundred years of the monarchy, with the exception of the campaign of Shishak (ca. 935 B.C.), had the sacred city of Jerusalem been captured, much less destroyed, nor had the theocracy been interrupted. Now the sombre announcements of the prophets about punishment and deliverance had come to pass. It took Jeremiah and Ezekiel to show her that she, in fact, still had everything that mattered - her God and her destiny. Jeremiah in the homeland and Ezekiel in exile take a surprisingly unanimous view about the past and the future of their people, and reveal a similar epic magnitude in visionary report and oracles. It was they who, in the moment of defeat, turned despair into hope by demonstrating the purpose of God in all that had happened. To these prophets and their messages Israel owed her resurrection, the rebuilding of her religious life and the recovery of her spiritual heritage.

But Ezekiel stresses certain lines of thinking more forcibly than Jeremiah. Among these more stringent ideas are Yahweh's assertion of Himself and the majesty of His Name in history and the importance of individual repentance as the turning point of destiny. The following is an examination of how the name of the LORD functions as one of the prominent theological aspects in Ezekiel.

The purpose of God's dealing with Israel and the nations dominates Ezekiel's whole message, and finds its proper expression in the statement, "they shall know that I am the LORD". The content of this knowledge is a recognition formula which points back to the primeval history and patriarchal narrative. The knowledge of “I am the LORD” envisaged is an inward realisation of God's will to reveal Himself and affirms the incompatibility of His nature. In Exodus 3:14 "I am that I am" is mentioned. The LORD is the first cause. He is the self-existent Being and the dynamic Becoming. The LORD reveals His name so that people can call Him by it, but He remains free and can be understood only by the freedom with which He introduces Himself. The knowledge also lies behind God's revelation of His name in Exodus 6:2, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God the Almighty (El Shaddai)”. The formulaic phrase of self-introduction maintains the majesty of Him who issues the law, who encounters people as their LORD. “I am the LORD your God” recurs in the laws of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 18ff.

In Hosea 13:4 we hear the words "I, Yahweh, am your God since the land of Egypt . You do not know any God except for Me, or any Saviour except for Me". This statement corresponds in content with the beginning of the Decalogue (Ex 20:2-3): “I am Yahweh thy God, who had brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shall have no other gods before Me”. This divine declaration states two things:

Where the LORD represents Himself in the faith of the Old Testament, He does so as the God of Israel, who will not tolerate any other gods.

This "God of Israel" is a relationship that has existed from the beginning of time. The LORD is the God of Israel by reason of certain historical events. The exodus story, which the faith of the Old Testament reflects as a credal statement in Deuteronomy 26:1-11, begins with the great deliverance from the house of servitude. Then comes the theme of "guidance in the desert" which is intimately associated with "exodus" and divine providence. "The LORD your God" is an element of the faith which keeps alive the knowledge of the God who remains with Israel on its journey.

The LORD and His self-motivated action is in substance the great central theme of the prophetic preaching in Ezekiel. The phrase "You (they) may know that I am the LORD", which occurs more than 70 times in Ezekiel, denotes a dynamic process of divine action in history. It points to the kabod (glory or honour) of the name of the LORD, which is in turn connected with the absolute holiness and sovereignty of the LORD. Where the statements Yahweh (the LORD) are made, the definite verb dominates:

I, the LORD have spoken (in My zeal)
(5:13; 6:10; 17:21; 37:14)

I, the LORD have brought down the high tree

I, the LORD have kindled it

I, the LORD have drawn My sword from its sheath

I, the LORD have built what was torn down, and planted what has been uprooted

I, the LORD have poured My anger upon you

The LORD's will is to be known not merely in His being and holiness. Israel and the nations must know this Almighty God in His action.

In Ezekiel, the declaration "I am the LORD" is the absolute ground of all historical and visionary events and thus the only source of authority and hope. The name Yahweh is the driving principle and majestic power which guides the events of Israel and the nations in general, and the prophet Ezekiel himself in particular.

First, the word of God came to the prophet with the introductory formula "Thus says the LORD". The prophet was told to

prophesy ... say (6:2f; 13:2; 34:2; 36:1),
speak ... say (14:4; 20:3; 33:2),
pronounce a riddle ... speak an allegory ... say (17:2f),
preach ... prophesy (20:46; 21:2),
set your face against prophesy (25:2f; 29:2f; 35:2f; 38:2f),
raise a lamentation say (27:2f; 28:12; 32:2).

The concluding words in Ezekiel 3:11 and 3:27 convey the solemn divine warning: “Thus says the LORD he who has ears let him hear, and he who stops let him stop; for they are a rebellious house". The prophet could speak only when God opened his mouth from the seven-year dumbness. He could then say, "Thus says the LORD God ..." (cf 3:4), reiterating what the LORD had already prescribed - speak to the rebellious house of Israel.

Second, God revealed His will to Ezekiel through visions, corresponding to the-prophet's life and thoughts. They are:

In the inaugural vision (Ezek 1:1-3:15), with the appearance of the glorious throne in the unclean land of Babylon, there is a shattering realisation of God as Lord of the universe, the controller of human destiny who is all-powerful, all-knowing and omnipresent. Ezekiel is commissioned to be a prophet.

Vision of the abominations (Ezek 8-11), which epitomizes the message of doom prophecy before 587 B.C. The Temple vision depicts the throne vision, cultic abominations, the command to slaughter the wicked and destroy the idolatrous city, and the departure of the divine glory from the Temple.

Vision of the revived dry bones (Ezek 37), which speaks about the post-exilic restoration. The people of Israel have been wasting away in their own sins, which prevent them from living (33:10). The people of God have complained that Yahweh is unjust, and that they are crushed by their sins. Their despairing cry, "How then can we live?" (33:17) expresses Israel's misgivings about theodicy (i.e., justice of God) and Yahweh's inscrutable ways. But by divine grace the dry bones are able to come to life. It is through the divine words and His Spirit that the people of Israel can come out of the grave of bondage and establish a restored community of faith.

Vision of the New Temple and new community (Ezek 40-48). The prophet is shown the measurements of various parts of the temple chambers and descriptions of altar, gates and holy district with strict priestly prescriptions; vision of the river flowing from the Temple and flourishing Dead Sea and the vision of the redistributed land and the Holy City. This vision describes a splendid theocratic government of the future.

All the ecstatic visions are introduced by "the hand of the LORD upon me".

In the "visions of God", time and space are obliterated, and scenes change rapidly and illogically. Ezekiel, though physically in Babylon, is suddenly in Jerusalem, or on a very high mountain (40:2), or in the valley (37:1). More significantly, in the visions, dialogue is carried on between God and the prophet. Sometimes there are also vivid directions, visual (as in Ezekiel 1 or 40) or auditory, to communicate what he is seeing (40:4).

Third, the divine judgment of the LORD upon the abomination of Israel is disclosed in Ezekiel through symbolic actions. As indicated in Ezekiel 36:20-24, Israel had profaned the holy name of the LORD.

She must encounter defeat and exile. Ezekiel's mission began with a series of spectacular illustrations of the message of God. Just as Isaiah walked in Jerusalem "naked and barefoot" for three years as warning to its inhabitants not to rely on Egypt and Ethiopia (Is 20), or as Jeremiah buried a linen waist cloth and later discovered it "spoilt" to symbolise the eventual degeneration of the pride of Jerusalem (Jer 13:1-13), Ezekiel (Ezek 4) was moved to draw a map of Jerusalem upon a mud brick and construct toy battering-ram s and other siege implements. He tied himself up and lay down first on one side and then on the other, for periods which indicate the length of captivity in exile of Israel and Judah.

In a further piece of acted parable (Ezek 5), the prophet shaved his head and beard - the sign of mourning, divided the hair into three lots, and by his treatment of it, vividly illustrated the future of the people of Judah - plague, famine, massacre and exile.

The symbolic action of "packing up for exile" in 12:1-6 represents the deportation of the populace of Jerusalem. The two roads in 21:19-22 represent the advance of Nebuchadnezzar against Palestine and the decision of the king to attack Jerusalem. In 24:15ff the sudden death of the prophet's wife at the command of the LORD becomes a symbolic representation of the fall of Jerusalem and the inability of the people to mourn in extreme grief and anguish.

Now in Ezekiel's view of the restoration, Israel is restored not for its own sake, but so that it may be a witness to the saving power of the LORD. It is here that the history of the glory of God undergoes a peculiar development:

“And there you shall remember your ways and all the doings with which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I deal with you for My name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt doings. O house of Israel,” says the LORD God.
(Ezek 20:43-44)

The restoration is done because of Yahweh's holiness, which means His zeal for His name, and this in turn means that He must safeguard the recognition of his divinity.

But when they came to the nations, wherever they went, they profaned my holy name, in that men said of them, 'These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of His land'. But I had concern for My holy name which the house of Israel caused to be profaned among the nations to which they went.

Therefore, say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the LORD God' It is not for your sake O house of Israel, that I am about to act but for the sake of My holy name which you have profaned among the nations to which you went.

And I will vindicate the holiness of My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations will know that I am the LORD,” says the LORD God, “when through you I will vindicate my holiness before their eyes. For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.”
(Ezek 36:20-24)

The vision of the dry bones (37:1-14) and of the two sticks are assurances that the LORD will restore Israel and make the two parts of the nation one entity (37:15-28). The metaphor of sheep and shepherd (Ezek 34) tells how the LORD Himself will be the Shepherd caring for the weak and checking the aggressive. He will raise a Son of David as a good Shepherd to feed His sheep and protect them. It was through such visions and aspirations of the new community that Israel was encouraged after the exile reshape her much more prosaic social order to maintain the glory of His name. The LORD would take away the people's hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. So with a new heart and a new spirit, a penitent and dedicated people would, by the power of God, be fit to begin afresh the task to which the God of old had called them (Ezek 36).

Chapters 40-48 contain the sequel to Ezekiel's vision of a reunited Israel restored to her ancient home: a transformed community, committed to the service of God in deeper loyalty and fuller obedience. The reconstruction of the ruined Temple at Jerusalem serves as the focus of the life and worship of the returned exiles. With the return of His glory, the LORD takes possession of His house in glory (43:1-5). Yahweh is envisioned as a manifest divine presence in the glory-suffused world . So organized, the redistributed land and the rearranged twelve tribes will be fit for the position they occupy. Purity, holiness and justice (45:9-12) are the essential marks of the people. They take up the task of witnessing for God in the world.

These memorable thoughts significantly conclude the book. The prophet sees the Temple as the source of the well-being of both land and people in his image of the great river, reminiscent of the garden in Genesis 2 and the holy city in Revelation 22; which has its origin in the sacred place and flows from there through the land, a veritable God-given water of life and healing. Then when the fruitful acres, once again flowing with milk and honey, have been divided among the restored twelve tribes, the city of God will stand in the centre of the promised land, and its name will be even more identified with the glorious name of the LORD, for it is written: ''Yahweh Shammah", which means that "the LORD is there" (47:13-48:35).This is a realization of a much-cherished divine promise: God will set His dwelling in the midst of people (37:24-28) and the LORD exercises His absolute sovereignty in history and the religion in the ideal Temple.

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