Lesson 43: The Shepherds of Israel
This 1952 lesson from a text used by the seminaries (Roy A. Welker, Spiritual Values of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: LDS Department of Education, 1952) meshes nicely with the message contained in this year’s lesson manual. The two lessons, however, are written from very different points of view: The 1952 book focuses on Ezekiel’s day and looks forward somewhat to our day, while the current manual stresses behaviors applicable to the church today, drawing lessons from the time of Ezekiel.
A Message to a Discouraged People: Ezekiel
The prophet Ezekiel was a striking character. The richness of his life and work is well known to us through his writings. It is probable that he was born during or just before the early years of the reign of the good king Josiah. If so, he would have been a young man when Josiah died, acquainted with the troublous times of Jerusalem and Judah. He also, in all probability, would have known Jeremiah and listened to his prophecies and been tutored and influenced by him. He, in turn, even in his young manhood, may have had considerable influence with the people of Judah, for one possessed of such energy, purpose and a sense of responsibility could hardly have been idle or silent at any time in his career. His greatest influence, however, was to be exerted at a later time and in another country. The early part of his life in Judah was, no doubt, in large measure one of training for the greater mission he was to fulfill.
His character. Unlike Jeremiah, who was shy, reticent, and retiring, Ezekiel was bold, and at times even severe. He was relentless in his fight against sin, even as the milder Jeremiah was. He was zealous for righteousness and moved by convictions too firm to be shaken. He was a man of keen vision, dramatic and intensely spiritual. His faith in God knew no wavering. God’s will with him, as with Jeremiah, was supreme. If His will required sacrifice, that sacrifice was to be made regardless of the cost: personal matters must never interfere with the performance of his hardest tasks. Someone has intimated that “we never meet with him as an ordinary man; he always acts and feels as a prophet.” In other words, he never seems to have lost his keen sense of responsibility and the obligation he felt to carry out God’s purposes. Like Jeremiah he was sensitive to the sins of his people yet not depressed by them in like degree and manner. He seems to have carried his burdens more lightly though conscious too of the gravity of the nation’s corruption that created them. Such a character, fired by the spirit of God, was bound to accomplish much.
His inheritance. the captivity of Judah by Babylon, predicted by Jeremiah, occurred first in 597 B.C. Ezekiel, with about ten thousand of Judah’s best inhabitants, was carried away to take up his abode in a strange, pagan land. Jeremiah was left behind. Ezekiel, therefore, could not lean upon him for support and counsel as he had probably done in Jerusalem. We can imagine him dazed by the rapid course events had taken and the severe shock they must have produced. The shock, too, of that long tiring trek to Babylon and the adjustment necessary to the strange environment of a foreign country would prolong the period of both his physical and spiritual recuperation. But such circumstances could not entirely suppress his courageous and restless soul, nor long child his ardor for the work of the Lord. Time would surely heal his wounds, clarify his vision and his meditations and fit him for the inspiration God would pour out upon him. Upon him now must also rest the responsibility to guide God’s chosen people – the responsibility that Jeremiah carried in the homeland.
His call. Anyone who reads carefully will be impressed with the soul struggles of all great men. Think now for a moment upon Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, Joseph Smith, to name but a few. E’er God called them to fulfill their life mission, He provided a period of strenuous preparation and testing. This was characteristically so in the case of Ezekiel. For five years in that pagan land of Babylonia, the land of Judah’s captivity, on the banks of the Chedar, he meditated, studied and prayed. He was deeply concerned over the welfare of his people left in Judah as he was those now in captivity. He noted the constant unfolding political and military power of Babylon, and its threatening engulfment of Judah’s remnant. Could it be possible that Jeremiah informed him of the responses of the home folk to the spiritual influences exerted by himself on behalf of the Lord and to those of an evil character and source as well? At any rate, Ezekiel was disturbed. Ripened at last by his five years of struggle and anxiety, the Lord called him to his thankless tasks. here is the prophet’s own account of it as the Lord spoke to him:
Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children, and stiff-hearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God. And they, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house;) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briars and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear; for they are most rebellious. [Ezekiel 2:37.]
The prophet lingered upon the words the Lord uttered, repeating some of them over again, so deep was their impression upon him. And no wonder, for as we ponder them, we note the hardships, the obstacles, the difficulties, the rebellious attitude an scornful look of a hardened people which they depict and which must be courageously met. To appreciate Ezekiel’s position, we need but ask ourselves, how would we have met such a situation? Let us not think that Ezekiel, though a prophet, had other impulses and feelings than those like our own. With such a thought in mind, our hearts can go out with understanding and sympathy to him as he faced his grave responsibilities. Left to himself and his own powers, he could never have finished the work assigned him. But he was not left to himself, for the Lord at length made specific the nature of his call and at the same time revealed the confidence he had in His chosen mouthpiece. He said:
Son of man, I have made thee a watchman upon the house of Israel: therefore hear the word of my mouth and give them warning from me. [Ezekiel 3:17.]
Ezekiel did both. He listened and then warned Judah. What prophet could have done otherwise with such a charge placed upon him by God Himself and immersed as he was in such a spirit of divine trust and support? Though the obstacles may have seemed insurmountable at first, as many of our own do at times, and though the inner struggles of the soul may have been enough to discourage the bravest of men, yet now, with the assurance of God’s help, Ezekiel could faithfully and confidently meet his tasks. it is comforting to know that after his call he did not falter in discharging his responsibilities. He became as vigorous in his denunciations of wrong, of sin and abuse of righteousness as the prophet Obadiah who castigated Edom for her pride, and foretold her utter destruction. But in his denunciations and in his discouraging work, he was mindful that he was the watchman and shepherd of his flock both in the captivity and in Judah. His imagination, already referred to, is vivid enough, but rather unpoetical. His expressions scarcely ever rise to lyric qualities found so frequently in Isaiah, Jeremiah and some of the other prophets. he lacks the poetic instinct they possessed and like Browning in modern times, is obscure in many of his utterances. The fine spontaneity found in other prophets is much less in evidence in Ezekiel. On the other hand his book gives evidence of more careful study and reflection than the other prophets and as Dr. S.R. Driver remarks: “the volume of his prophecies is methodically arranged, evidently by his own hand.” We can think of Ezekiel, therefore, as a scholarly man by nature at the same time that he was a great prophet. We cannot think of him as a great poet.
His message. Even though it is claimed by some that Ezekiel is difficult to understand, nevertheless many features of his message stand out clear and distinct. Let us consider them.
1. Like all the great prophets, Ezekiel taught that God was very real; that he was approachable; that He was concerned for the welfare of His people; that Judah and Israel were his chosen people; that He loved righteousness and hated evil. He particularly emphasized, as Isaiah before him had done, the holiness of God and that God desired Israel and Judah to be holy too. Occupied with a deep anxiety of his people to serve God aright, he did not take the time to picture God’s universality as vividly as Jeremiah or Isaiah. For this reason he is sometimes accused of representing the Lord as a tribal or national god only. Such a conclusion is not justified for the burden of his teaching concerning God is that He is God of all peoples.
2. Ezekiel was also one of the prophets to exercise his powers in a fight against idolatry. When certain elders of Israel came to him for a discussion, he exclaimed:
And the word of the Lord came unto me saying, Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face: should I be enquired of at all by them? Therefore speak unto them, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord god: Every man of the house of Israel that setteth up his idols in his heart, and putteth the stumblingblock of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him that cometh according to the multitude of his idols: that I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their ideals.
Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God; Repent and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. [Ezekiel 14:2-6/]
These were hard words to utter even to receptive ears. But to those stopped by iniquity and pride they were doubly hard. Would you and I have the courage to speak them? Religious complacency and spiritual darkness born of bigotry and prejudice have been the means of destroying the life of many a worthy soul. We need but to cite such cases as Stephen of the New Testament, Joan of Arc, Latimer and Ridley of England to prove the point. it was dangerous for Ezekiel to speak such maledictions as he did against his wayward and idolatrous countrymen. Yet it had to be done. Only through them, humbled and schooled by suffering and repentance, could the word of God at last become the message of salvation to the world. Ezekiel realized this and steeled himself for any hardship and any crisis. how nobly he won as all heroes of truth win though their lives may not be spared to observe the results of their own work!
3. As Ezekiel fought against idolatry, he fought against other sins, yet holding out the hope of forgiveness upon condition of repentance. Note:
Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.
Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make ye a new heart and a new spirit; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? for I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: Wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye. [Ezekiel 18: 30-32. See also chapter 14.]
These expressions reveal the high character of the teachings of Ezekiel and belie the charge that he taught as the Pharisees did. The contrary even may be claimed that in many respects his message to mankind held resemblances to that of the master’s.
4. Running all through his message is the evident responsibility Ezekiel felt toward his people. He gives us the impression that an important part of his work is “to keep alive among the Jews a sense of their religious unity and political existence.” Sorely did they need a vital sense of both. It is difficult to see what might have become of them had it not been for this leadership and earnest pleadings. Realizing the needs of those in captivity, because directly associated with them, Ezekiel was in a key position to assume the responsibility imposed upon him. no other could have discharged that responsibility better.
Ezekiel realized well that both Judah and Israel must forever remain God’s chosen people. They might be reduced to a remnant because of their sins, but the time would come when they would merit God’s favors again and help fulfill His righteous purposes. He seems to have kept this fact ever in the minds of his people.
5. In keeping with this constant reminder that Judah and Israel were God’s chosen people, the prophet not only predicted their dispersion and partial destruction, in terms as vivid as any of Jeremiah’s, but he pictured a glory to return to them when their wickedness would be spent and God would restore them again to His fold. this promised restoration forms an important part of his message [Respecting this restoration see chapter 20:2744; chapter 36; chapter 39:5-29.] as it does of other prophets. Upon the hope and promise of such a restoration, Ezekiel did not rest his oars. He was ever diligent preparing god’s people for the predicted happy event. the very circumstance in which the captives found themselves offered opportunities for the development of vital principles. One of these was individual responsibility.
6. Ezekiel laid great stress upon individual responsibility, perhaps even greater than Jeremiah did. At an earlier time the group in society was held responsible in large measure for the acts of the individual members, as was shown in the previous chapter. This was especially illustrated in the case of the sin of Aachan, just before the Israelites entered the Promised Land following their wanderings from Egypt. Now, however, Ezekiel saw a better way for his people. He realized the importance of everyone becoming a real entity. This idea he could teach best by becoming a responsible individual co-operating with his fellows and with God. The principle was made vital by Jesus in His advent among men.
It will be recalled how popular the parable of the sour grapes had become to illustrate the responsibility one person held toward another. It will also be recalled how Jeremiah pointed Judah’s attention to the fallacious use of the parable. Ezekiel did the same. He said in thunderous words:
The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sinneth, it shall die. [Ezekiel 18:1-4. The whole of chapter 18 should be read to appreciate how vigorous Ezekiel was in advocating the principle of personal responsibility.]
The advocacy of this important principle laid firm ground for Ezekiel to stand upon his vigorous call for everyone to a repentance of his own sins. No one could repent for the sins of another, neither could one pay for another’s sins. This, too, was the doctrine of Jesus, at a later date, so beautifully dwelt upon. Charles Foster Kent, commenting upon it, says:
In the clearest terms he (Ezekiel) enunciates the great principle that each man is responsible, in the sight of God, simply for his own acts whether good or bad, and that present, not past, attitudes and deeds determine the issues of life. Ezekiel’s ultimate message, therefore, in the hour of the nation’s overthrow, was a call to individual repentance and the assurance that Jehovah was not only just in his treatment of each individual, but also eager to forgive everyone that truly turned to him for pardon and protection. [Chas. Foster Kent, The Kings and Prophets of Israel and Judah, p. 279.]
Adhering to this principle of individual responsibility is that of personal moral guilt. Ezekiel made it clear that it was not transferable. Everyone must bear the consequences for his own evil acts and merit the blessings that come from his righteous ones. He says:
The word of the Lord came to me again, saying, Son of man, when the land sinneth against me by trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and will bear the staff of the bread thereof, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off man and beast from it. Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord, God. [Ezekiel 14:12-14.]
In various other words the Lord, through Ezekiel, lingers upon this thought to emphasize, and thus make impressive, the important teaching that “there is no indiscriminate punishment, no suffering for the sins of others, no hereditary guilt.” Everyone will be held accountable for his own acts. it is a doctrine everyone must learn sooner or later, for it is inseparably related to another fundamental doctrine, the free agency of man.
7. There has been much debate as to whether Ezekiel was aware of the doctrine of the resurrection, but his vision of the dry bones is a concrete illustration of his comprehensive insight into the eternal worth of the soul of man. Indeed, not only this vision, but the whole life of Ezekiel seems to be anticipating a process of growth for mankind that affirms a conviction of the resurrection. Like Isaiah he saw clearly the value of the individual and of God’s eternal concern for him. Isaiah held a definite view of the resurrection, as Ezekiel surely did also. Could we converse with them today, we would no doubt hear them declare to us: “Of course we believed and taught the resurrection.”
8. Divine prophecy often has more meaning in it than meets the eye of the finite mind. this fact is evidenced by the various interpretations it so often arouses. Jesus, upon occasion, had to explain some of His utterances which His disciples, for lack of understanding and comprehension, could not interpret. Time, which man tries to utilize for his own advantage and apply to his immediate concerns, is not always of such considerable moment to the prophet. His prophecy may require a brief or a remote period for its fulfillment – it may be partially fulfilled in one and completed in another era of time. When uttered under the inspiration of the Spirit of God it will find its true fulfillment no matter what the wisdom of man may indicate.
In the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel are two great prophecies, both foretelling important future events. The one depicting the resurrection of man as typified in the coming together and reviving of the dry bones is known for its power and glory wherever its record is read. The other, concerning the two sticks 9books), refers to a time, long after Ezekiel lived, when the record of the Jews and a “slumbering record” of Joseph, should finally be brought together in mutual helpfulness for the consummation of God’s work. These prophecies, of themselves, make the book of Ezekiel an important one even though surrounded by other matters of great consequences. [At this point it is urged that the reader peruse studiously all the chapter 37 of Ezekiel.]
Ezekiel among the prophets. It has been stated with justification that many of the characteristics of Israel’s great prophets meet in Ezekiel. He has been called a pastor, a priest and a prophet – and truly he was all of them. When the Lord called him to his work saying, “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman to the house of Israel,” Ezekiel at once saw the worth of every soul and his own responsibility in trying to help each one. In such a sense he became a pastor to his flock, Israel. In his attempts to provide the means by which his people would be led to worship God truly, he became one of the most important priests of all Israel. When so valiantly he proclaimed the word of the Lord to His chosen people and interpreted it for them; and when he predicted the conditions that were to befall them, together with the consequences that were to result therefrom, he became a prophet of the first magnitude. These are the matters that make Ezekiel quite unique among his fellow prophets. Few of them assayed a task so manifold and so difficult. Few have been pronounced so difficult to understand and few have been as severely criticized. Nevertheless his importance does not wane and his message remains pertinent and valuable from age to age. If he was less attractive than Jeremiah, as one writer says, his immediate influence was greater. Though his writings are less impressive than others of the literary prophets, they nonetheless express great truths. Some of his predictions will grow in importance as the events they foretell occur to fulfill them. All in all he was one of God’s noblemen destined to impress humankind in its march through history.
Questions and Problems
1. Compare the call of Ezekiel with that of Jeremiah. What is there common to the two?
2. Compare the character of Ezekiel with that of great religious leaders of today. Did he have similar problems to theirs? Discuss.
3. If Ezekiel lived today, how would he and his message be received?
4. What is there about Ezekiel that makes him stand out so boldly in history?