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The Christadelphian | January 2010

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Should Christadelphians be separate?
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Lord of heaven and earth” | Jeff Sewell
  • The Enrolment | John V. Collyer
  • A question of conscience In the world of work | Andrew Bramhill
  • The power of God’s word | Dudley Fifield
  • Rain | Liz Robinson
  • Ezekiel – prophet to the exiles 1 – Setting the scene | Andrew E. Walker
  • The chronology of Ezekiel’s prophecy | Andrew E. Walker
  • The Letter to the Philippians 13 – “Think on these things” (Philippians 4:8,9) | Mark Allfree
  • The witness of a long life | Ravi Nath
  • Signs of the times The march of Rome
  • Israel and their land West Bank settlers
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Ezekiel – prophet to the exiles

1 – Setting the scene

IF, instead of our beloved English Old Testament, we had a copy of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus used, we would immediately see a number of differences:

  • It would be set out in three sections: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (cf. Luke 24:44).
  • It would contain all the material that we have but would be divided into twenty-two books not thirty-nine, so corresponding with the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet and emphasising that this was the word of God from beginning to end, from | aleph to | tau.
  • It would be set out in a different order and we would be surprised to see that the last book was 2 Chronicles, and therefore chapter 36 and not Malachi 4 was the very last chapter of all.

The last chapter of the Old Testament

Digression – Joel 2

2 CHRONICLES 36 speaks of God’s compassionate outpouring of His prophetic word as the end of the Kingdom of Judah approached. Yet it would be wrong to think of Him “rising up early and sending” the prophets at this time only – for He had worked in this way for hundreds of years beforehand. There is internal evidence that the prophecy of Joel was the earliest of the prophetic books to be written and therefore we should see the initial fulfilment of Joel 2:28-32 in the work of the great prophets at this time in Israel’s history. The chronicler tells of God “rising up early” to send his servants the prophets. Joel puts it like this: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” The chronicler speaks of “the wrath of the Lord arising against his people”, whilst Joel says that it is “the great and terrible day of the Lord”. This perhaps explains why Peter used Joel on the Day of Pentecost. The Lord had already foretold the judgement to come in AD 70; now the Holy Spirit is given for an outpouring of prophetic words, as in Old Testament times, foretelling judgement to come in “the great and notable day of the Lord” of AD 70.

What a depressing end to the Jewish scriptures! It is a chapter that tells us in detail of the evil and depravity of the three sons and one grandson of Josiah that followed him on the throne of Judah. It tells us of God’s intense efforts to warn them of His judgements to come if they did not repent, and of their rejection of His words. The chronicler emphasises the depth of the problem by summarising the reigns of these four:

  1. Jehoahaz – the second son of Josiah, the people’s choice to succeed him as he took an anti-Egypt stance. He lasted just three months before Pharaoh Necho deposed him and he disappeared into captivity in Egypt.
  2. Jehoiakim – the oldest son of Josiah, put on the throne by Pharaoh. Three years into his reign, Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem for the first time in 605 BC. He was the seventeen-year-old crown prince of Babylon in charge of his father’s army. Jehoiakim was put in chains by Nebuchadnezzar to be taken captive into Babylon. Before this could happen news reached him that his father had died and he needed to return urgently to Babylon to secure the throne, taking hostages (including Daniel) with him. Jehoiakim was left on the throne of Judah as his vassal and he reigned another eight years.
  3. Jehoiachin his son succeeded him and lasted but three months before Nebuchadnezzar returned to complete what he had intended eight years previously. Jehoiachin had the good sense to humble himself and surrender to the Babylonian king (2 Kings 24:12) who treated him well and took him back to Babylon, a lesson completely lost on his successor, Zedekiah. The temple was sacked and more captives, including Ezekiel, were taken to Babylon.
  4. Zedekiah, Josiah’s youngest son and Jehoiachin’s uncle, was put on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and lasted eleven years. He was a weak king, without authority in the sight of the Jews. Ezekiel could never bring himself to call him ‘king’ but merely ‘prince’. To many of the Jews, Jehoiachin remained their legitimate king, even though he was in captivity in Babylon.

These four reigned for only twenty-two years between them, yet at the end of this period all of Josiah’s reforms had been undone and the spiritual state of Judah is described in these words:

“Moreover all the leaders of the priests and the people transgressed more and more, according to all the abominations of the nations, and defiled the house of the LORD which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.” (2 Chronicles 36:14)

How did God react to this decline?

“And the LORD God of their fathers sent warnings to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending them, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.” (verse 15)

What a marvellous picture this is! The concern of the Lord for His people is so strong that He is portrayed as rising early, and the use of this word in the Old Testament is nearly always of those who get up early because there is work to do, a burden to shoulder. As the end of the kingdom of Judah approaches we see an increasing intensity in the work of the prophets – God is working ever harder! Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel all pour out the words of the Lord, seeking to turn Israel back to their God.

Yet the chronicler tells us of their response:

“But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy.” (verse 16)

There is one verse in Ezekiel that takes us right into the heart of God at this time; that tells us, in a way that we can scarcely understand, how He felt about this:

“… because I was crushed by their adulterous heart which has departed from me, and by their eyes which play the harlot after their idols; they will loathe themselves for the evils which they committed in all their abominations.” (Ezekiel 6:9)

The great God of heaven and earth, the One in whose hands are all things, tells us that He is broken – crushed, devastated – by the sinfulness of His people. It is not their sins which cause this; it is their sinfulness, their hearts which are hardened, their necks which are stiffened (2 Chronicles 36:13) so that in spite of God’s great prophetic work, there is no remedy for His people and His anger will be poured out on them as He “brings against them the king of the Chaldeans”. This description of Almighty God as being broken would be blasphemous if they were the words of a man. Yet the Lord himself lets us into His innermost feelings to share with us how He feels. It is not that He feels ‘broken-hearted’, it is far stronger than this, He is broken, His great outpouring of His compassion through the prophets has been rejected. He is desolated by this; the import of His words is that there is no remedy at this time to the problem of sinful nature and so His righteousness demands that His people are punished as He threatened.

Yet how great is His mercy for at the very time that Jerusalem is being sacked, the temple burned and Zedekiah led away a blinded and humbled man, Jeremiah stood and told the city of the new covenant that God would make with them, of a time when His laws would be written not on tablets of stone, but on their hearts – new-hearted people (Jeremiah 31:31-34)!

The answer through Christ

It is Mark in his Gospel who spells out that God’s remedy for the apparently insoluble problem of 2 Chronicles 36 is to be found in Christ. Through him our sins are forgiven, by him our natures will be changed at his return so that “we shall be like him”.

Twice Mark quotes from that chapter, linking what we have read there with the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The ultimate solution to the problem of a sinful world will only be seen in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ who follows the pattern set by his Father, for “the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father do”.

“And the LORD God of their fathers sent warnings to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending them, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.” (2 Chronicles 36:15)

“Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, he went out and departed to a solitary place; and there he prayed … Now a leper came to him, imploring him, kneeling down to him and saying to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” (see Mark 1:35-41)

“But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy.” (2 Chronicles 36:16)

“Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated. And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.” (see Mark 12:1-5)

Ezekiel’s world

The world into which Ezekiel was born and lived therefore was one in which God’s people increasingly turned away from Him.

When he was born, Jeremiah had been prophesying for five years, Daniel was born perhaps two to three years later. They would be together in Jerusalem for about the next seventeen years.

We now need to turn to Ezekiel 1 and look at the opening words of his prophecy:

“Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month, which was in the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, the word of the LORD came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was upon him there.”

Immediately we see two features of his prophecy that are, with one exception, unique. First, the words, “now it came to pass” are only found as an opening phrase in two prophecies – those of Jonah and Ezekiel. They tell us that what follows is linked to prior events and prior words from God. In Ezekiel’s case, the link is back to the prophecy of Jeremiah and we shall explore this further in future articles. But there is more to it than this. The Hebrew word used is a variant of the verb ‘to be’; essentially the phrase means, ‘now it came into being’. We recognise the importance of this verb in our Bibles. It is the one used in Exodus 3 when the name of the Lord is revealed to Moses, for He said, “I will be that I will be”. What a weight and power this adds to Ezekiel’s words! Not only are they linked to the great prophecy through Jeremiah; the future they foretell is backed by the very existence of the Lord God and the revelation of Himself in His word.

Secondly, only the prophecy of Ezekiel and the two short chapters of Haggai have full and comprehensive chronological frameworks. With this detail God is telling us that this prophecy is inextricably linked to the events taking place in Ezekiel’s lifetime and we need to be aware of them from the other scriptures concerned.

We are told he was a priest and that his visions started in the thirtieth year. It is suggested that this was the thirtieth year of his life which was the fifth year of his and king Jehoiachin’s captivity. If so it gives us the following chronological framework to consider:

  • He went into captivity aged twenty-five, the year the Levites (and trainee priests) began work in the temple at Jerusalem.
  • His prophetic work began when he was thirty, the age at which he would have started work as a priest after a five-year apprenticeship as a Levite (Numbers 4:2,3; 8:24). However he is in captivity and this can never be the case.
  • His vision of the millennial temple yet to come is given in the twenty-fifth year of his captivity when he was fifty years old. This was the retirement age for priests except for the high priest. So Ezekiel would then know that he would never officiate in Solomon’s restored temple in Jerusalem, even if he returned from captivity.

There is one further piece of evidence for this interpretation of the thirtieth year. If it is correct then Ezekiel was born in 622 BC, the year of Josiah’s repair of the temple and we read of this in 2 Kings 22:

“Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may count the money which has been brought into the house of the LORD, which the doorkeepers have gathered from the people. And let them deliver it into the hand of those doing the work, who are the overseers in the house of the LORD; let them give it to those who are in the house of the LORD doing the work, to repair the damages of the house – to carpenters and builders and masons – and to buy timber and hewn stone to repair the house.” (verses 4-6)

The word “repair” in these verses is the Hebrew chazaq. It is the word used in the name Ezekiel which means, ‘strengthened by God’ – chazaq El. He was, as we shall see, a reluctant prophet, one who needed strength from God to take on an extremely difficult role that would bring him personal anguish and great sadness, yet the Lord was always there to strengthen and guide him. There is a lovely picture of this and a play on his name in chapter 3:

“So the Spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the LORD was strong (chazaq) upon me.” (verse 14)

Captivity at Chebar

So we have seen a picture of the restoration of the temple by Josiah, the joy of a priest called Buzi who would now play a part in restored temple worship. To him a son is born, one who is named after the work being done in the knowledge that, in the fulness of time, he too as a priest would serve in the temple. But he never did! We can imagine the distress of the young man Ezekiel, brought up with this desire to serve yet growing up in an increasingly apostate Jerusalem, finally wrenched away from his home and now living in captivity at Chebar. It means ‘far away’ and perhaps we should see a dual application of this. He is indeed far away from Jerusalem and the temple, but also those with him are far away from God. How would the Lord deal with this? How would He turn the hearts of His people back to Him? These are the questions which must have been in Ezekiel’s mind and which would be answered through him in the years to come – the one raised up by God to be the prophet to the exiles.

andrew E. walker

 

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