Prophets Part II – Messages of Hope in Exile
Ezekiel and Daniel are two of the most bizarre books in the Old Testament, with their very weird and wonderful images, strange terrifying visions, some of which are the stuff of science fiction and fantasy horror. God speaks to his people through many genres and in many ways.
Ezekiel was born in about 622 BC.
He grew up in the days when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, and he was one of those taken into exile. And it’s there, in Babylon, sat by a river, that he receives his visions.
The book is built around four visions, in which Ezekiel says the Lord’s hand took hold of him and carried him somewhere else.
Vision 1 – Chapters 1–3
- A flying chariot emerges from a lightning storm.
- Ezekiel sees four cherubim (not plump little babies but huge monstrous winged creatures), he sees something like a portable throne, on wheels all covered with eyes. On the throne sits a gleaming, fiery, human-like form, called the glory of the Lord.
- Ezekiel is given a scroll, which he eats, then delivers the message to his people – that their own corruption was the cause of Jerusalem’s downfall.
Ezekiel’s descriptions of God smash through any tendency to domesticate God, to use him like a commodity or a heavenly fruit machine, to be manipulated by saying the right words or talking nice to get the the outcome we want.
“No!”, says Ezekiel. God is to be honoured, worshipped and respected for his own beautiful sake.
Is that what we come here to do on a Sunday morning?
Vision 2 – Chapters 8–11
- Ezekiel is transported back to Jerusalem where he sees some really dodgy things happening in the temple. So the glory of the Lord rises out of the temple and departs from Jerusalem, leaving them to it.
Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel confronts his people with the bad news of Jerusalem’s destruction, and its causes.
It’s a grim portrayal of what should have been a holy city, utterly defiled, and Ezekiel compares Jerusalem and Samaria at one point to a prostitute offering herself to anyone who will have her (chapter 23).
Vision 3 – Chapter 37
- Ezekiel’s visions now become messages of hope for the exiles.
- He’s transported to a valley piled high with dry human bones. God tells him to prophesy to these bones, and piece by piece they form skeletons, then flesh, becoming corpses.
- Then the Spirit of God breathes into them and they’re alive! (Just like the creation of Adam in the garden of Eden).
- Ezekiel hears these wonderful words (37:11) ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12 ..say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel…14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…’
- This vision shows the creative power of the Holy Spirit, power to renew and bring anything to life. That’s why it’s good to constantly pray for God to send his Holy Spirit into our hearts, our relationships, our minds, our churches, and the work we do.
- With Ezekiel’s vision in mind, we can see why the disciples were so excited when they heard Jesus say he would send his Spirit to empower us.
- And this vision is also one of the more explicit portrayals of the resurrection from the dead, that all God’s people look forward to one day, of which Jesus was the firstfruits on Easter morning.
Vision 4 – Chapters 40–48
- Ezekiel is transported to a high place from which he sees a brand new temple.
- He was a priest, so he knew what the temple stood for and what it should look like, and here he sees a super-temple, with all its measurements perfect and precise.
- It’s 8 chapters of architectural detail, which may seem tedious, but it shows how the beauty of a perfectly ordered building can display the holiness and perfection of God, and his power to bring harmony and order to the chaos of this world.
- Sometimes are lives feel very chaotic, whether it’s our emotions, our working days, difficulties in our family or finances. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed by chaos in the world around us. Ezekiel shows us a God who can bring order and peace to those things if we allow him.
- This new temple in Ezekiel’s vision becomes the centre-piece of a new holy land, with a spring of water that bubbles up from under the altar and flows out to the nations and brings life and healing. St John would see the same thing right at the end of the Bible, in Revelation chapter 22.
- This new temple is finally worthy of God’s presence, and the glory of the Lord returns and settles in it.
- As we’ll see in the New Testament, one of the key metaphors for the Church is the temple – Jesus is building his people into a perfect structure in which God resides and through which he blesses the world.
Daniel tells the story of another exile: a young man and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The four of them were so talented that they were called to serve King Nebuchadnezzer in his palace.
The first half of Daniel (chapters 1–6) narrates six of their experiences, which mostly consist of Daniel interpreting the imagery in Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, whether it’s a huge statue (chapter 2) representing the kingdoms of the world, or a giant tree (chapter 4) representing Nebuchadnezzar himself, all these things are humbled in some way by the Kingdom of God which will radically overcome and outlast them all.
Daniel (chapter 5) rebukes Belshazzar, the last king of Babylon, for his arrogance, just as mysterious writing appears on the wall indicating that Babylon is about to fall to Darius and the Persians. “The writing’s on the wall”!
Daniel’s message is that the powers of the world are accountable for their actions.
One of the main themes in these stories is how Daniel and his friends are persecuted for holding to their religious and ethnic identity.
They’re put on trial time and time again–into a fiery furnace (chapter 3) or into the lion’s den (chapter 6)––but come through it each time, bravely and calmly trusting God.
In our culture we’re bombarded with pressure to compromise our faith, to “get real” to be ashamed or embarrassed about it. But Daniel shows how God honours his people’s brave commitment to him, as he will honour yours, when you bravely stand for him in our world today.
The second half of Daniel (chapters 7–12) is far more difficult material, mostly because of the style in which it’s written, called ‘apocalyptic’. In apocalyptic writings, world events and leaders are depicted in cartoon form like giant animals or grotesque beasts, and it’s full of code and symbolism. It was a technique the Jews used in times of intense persecution.
Daniel sees four visions (in which he meets the angels Gabriel and Michael) which probably describe Alexander the Great and the rise of Macedonia, followed by the persecution the Jews experienced under one of his successors: Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the Seleucids.
In 164 BC, he made life miserable for the Jews in Jerusalem – trying to wipe out their identity and defiling their temple with pig sacrifices.
Daniel’s visions gave hope that these events would soon end, and a key vision is in chapter 7 when he sees one like a ‘Son of Man’ ascending to God’s throne in the clouds, and receiving the everlasting Kingdom.
At his trial, Jesus told Caiphas that they would see him coming on the clouds, this is what he was referring to, and that’s why they screamed, “blasphemy!” and sentenced him to death.
He would be that King whose kingdom outlives all the others.
He would be that King against whose standards all other kingdoms of the earth would be judged.
He would be that King who loves his people so much that he gives his life for them, and offers himself to us in bread and wine today.
Sermon by Rev James Pettit on Sunday 9th August 2015