Jesus College Chapel
A series of sermons on Ezekiel (with one on Jonah)
by the Rev’d Dr Timothy Jenkins, Dean
I wish to look at the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, not to study it exhaustively, but to learn to discern some of its main ideas. This will involve our concentrating upon a few key passages; I will leave out a good deal, including – notably – the call and the visions. What I want to do at the outset is simply introduce the framework.
Ezekiel poses very clearly the problems one encounters in reading the prophets. Most of the other books of the Bible have a clear enough structure, usually around a narrative. Other parts do not have an obvious story, it is true – such as the Wisdom literature – but you find out they usually engage with other parts of Scripture, often interpreting passages such as the beginning of Genesis. But Ezekiel does neither very strongly. There are historical markers, including the brief passage we heard, and there are references to Scripture. But the book consists of a series of prophecies, without an overall narrative frame, and most of the marginal cross-references are either to other prophets (which pose similar problems), or point to later books where Ezekiel is taken up by other minds, particularly the Books of Daniel (very late) and Revelation (in the New Testament). So we need to evolve a somewhat different approach.
Moreover, the more one reads the different prophetic books of the Bible, the clearer it becomes that they do not constitute a series, between themselves. They can be historically ordered (and when we read them in Morning Prayer, we try to put them in that order), but they do not constitute a sequence or chronicle, whereby one learns about the next chapter in the history of the Jews.
Rather, each book is an extraordinary act of imagination, a unique interpretation by faith of God’s purposes and work, so that, very often, faith continues under new circumstances and is not extinguished. We have these books because they offer new understandings or interpretations of the world that have turned out to be right. When they take up former scriptures, they do so in new ways. And because of the truth they contain, they are taken up and used again, so that we have them and, indeed, the earlier scriptures that they thereby justify.
The Bible is not then an unproblematic sequence – the adventures of the Jews, from wandering Aramean to the coming of the Messiah – but a collection of creative acts that both interpret and make the world anew. We are confronted with the evidence of contingencies that threaten faith, and faithful responses to those threats. The task of exposition is in part to realize how real were the threats, and how remarkable the responses, so as to inspire faith to respond in our time to our context, and so to carry on the unbroken but fragile thread of Scripture.
The name by which each prophetic book is known is then the name of a unique mind and imagination. What I wish to convey is, that were it not for the person we know as the Prophet Ezekiel, we might not have a Bible, and we might not have a faith – or, if we did have them, they would be very different. Individuals make an enormous difference, sometimes, under particular circumstances. And so part of reading the Bible is to explore their genius, and to draw analogies with our own situation and the demands it makes on our faith, to interpret the scriptures anew and yet in continuity with their achievements.
In order to get in touch with this genius (even a little), we shall have to reconstitute the context. The Prophet Ezekiel produced his message for the people of God during the exile in Babylon. We shall therefore have to sketch in a little of that history.
You may recall (or you may never have known) that, after Solomon (son of David), the Kingdom of Israel fell into two parts, Israel (or Samaria) in the north, and Judah in the south. Both parts had subsequently been threatened by the Assyrians, but had met with very different fates. The Northern Kingdom had been conquered, falling in 722 BC, its elites taken off into exile north of Damascus, and its people dispersed. And the kingdom of Israel, the northern part, had disappeared; there had been no restoration, and the dispersed peoples were assimilated. In contrast, although the southern kingdom of Judah had also been subjected to Assyrian rule, it had been left intact, being neither dispersed nor destroyed.
The prophets of the time – among them, Isaiah (of the first eleven chapters), Micah, Hosea and Amos – had seen the fate of Israel as an act of divine judgement, and as a warning to Judah. However, within this broad approach, there were two schools of interpretation. Some found reassurance in the fact that Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, had not fallen, and the people of Judah had not been exiled. They claimed that the first Isaiah had preached the inviolability of Jerusalem, and they interpreted the failure of the Assyrian Sennacherib’s assault on the city as evidence that God would defend his sanctuary and his people come what may.
The other school was a good deal more sinister, and suggested that judgement was deferred, not rescinded – and that Judah’s impiety would yet have disastrous consequences. The Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Kings (edited by the same school) both pointed to this kind of understanding. These books, of course, provide much of the evidence for the situation that I have just outlined.
The Assyrians declined, to be replaced by the Babylonians or Chaldeans as the major menace in the region. Faced with this new threat, the same options of interpretation remained open. There were prophets who invoked the traditions of God’s care for his people and his temple, and there was another party who foretold the downfall of Jerusalem; Jeremiah is the one we know best. We have Jeremiah’s words because they came true; and we know of the opposing voices because of his remarks on false prophets – but of course at the time, he was seen as more or less aiding the enemy by demoralizing the people. Only subsequently did his words become ‘scripture’ – and perhaps we skate rather easily over the complex issues of responding to God in what are politically responsible actions: the business of speaking the truth (as one sees it) and of the shorter and longer-term consequences of doing so. Godly discernment is a complex and difficult business.
Jerusalem fell in 597 BC and the elite went into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah saw this exile as the beginning of the final disaster, long predicted by him and by others. But many still looked for signs of hope. For the Babylonians acted with considerable restraint. They appointed a native – Jewish – king to rule in Jerusalem, and treated the deposed king in exile, Jehoiachin, with honour. The exiled community had a degree of freedom, and could sustain some sort of common life. One might reasonably look forward to a short exile and then to restoration.
Yet true prophets are, by their nature, given to rejecting false consolations, and pointing to the only real grounds of hope: pointing, indeed, to God and his radical nature. Ezekiel belonged to the same brand as Jeremiah. He began to prophesy during the exile, in 593 – we have precise dating in the book – and in his account, if the Babylonians’ treatment of the Jews lacked finality, that was because they had not completed their work. So much of the material in the first half of the book, as we have it, is devoted to anticipating the final judgement.
What is more, he was proved right, for in 586 (note that we count backwards), there was a revolt in Judah, to which the Babylonian response was to raze the Temple, destroy Jerusalem and pull down its walls, lay waste to the land and deport what elite that remained, leaving a decimated, leaderless population, essentially without any identity: they had no king, no temple, no capital, nothing.
That is, of course, why we have Ezekiel’s words, for they came true. But they came true because he had succeeded in holding on to a vision of what God might be doing, rather than comforting himself with a set of human fantasies. If his vision is bleak it is also realistic – and its realism comes from concentrating upon God and upon God’s character. He is not simply a pessimist. After all, if human desires for comfort under extreme conditions are almost bound to be deceptive, so too can bleak or shocking views be, if they are simply based in human desires. It is quite easy to try to distinguish oneself by being pessimistic – you get your misery in first – and you might well be guilty, as Jeremiah was accused, of siding with the powerful enemy, of collaborating.
The insights of either kind – of reassurance or judgement – are only of value if they come from a perception of God and his nature. And in practice, the fact that such words come from God can only be confirmed retrospectively. So prophecy – to repeat – is a complicated business, in practice; it involves repeated reinterpretation. And this explains something of the structure of the books of the prophets – they contain interpolations (additions), and re-orderings, and editings, all of which are ways of making sense in the light of what has happened. Revelation, the prophet’s word, is mediated through human understandings.
But the reinterpretations have this advantage: they establish that the prophet, Ezekiel in this case, really was onto the mind of God. And because he was onto the mind of God, he is also onto the reason why there is something to hope for, beyond the false human hopes, very reasonably vested in buildings and cities, politics and religion. Humans do their best, and it will let them down; beyond their best and that failure, there is still hope, because God is God, and he is as he is. And it is to this truth that Ezekiel points us.
The Book of Ezekiel therefore has two foci, appropriate to the extraordinary and awful time in which it was written, or at least pronounced. It focuses on the one hand upon the inevitability of judgement; the fact that it cannot be called back, and the fact that it is total. That is, it talks about the relation of the people of God to their calling, and their failing to live up to that calling.
On the other hand, it focuses upon the conviction that judgement, however total, would be survived, and that God meant it to be survived. In that, once again, Ezekiel was right – it turned out – and so we have his words. And indeed, part of the reason he was right is that his words helped persuade the remnant of God’s people to go on being God’s people, so that they survived the exile, and returned, with some kind of identity intact. It was a redefined identity, to be sure: but then that is how things work. They were not dispersed, never to arise as a people again, but re-forged by Ezekiel’s wisdom.
In this first account, this is as far as I want to go. The book in broad terms offers us two things: it is a meditation upon the nature of faith in extreme circumstances, and it is evidence of participation in God under those circumstances. Faith, we might say, is put into you, so you share in the people of God. And your fantasies and desires are in some sense purified by the collective reasoning of these unsatisfactory people. And in this process, possibilities are changed, so that you, both singly and together, become evidence in the world for God and the nature of his character and action.
That then is what we shall try to explore in this book: Ezekiel’s unique testimony to the character of God and how he works in us
2. Ezekiel 20:1-13a.
The Book of Ezekiel bears witness to the constant character and purposes of God, experienced in the most extreme conditions. Ezekiel wrote during the early years of the exile, when the people of Judah had lost more or less everything that defined them. And much of his task was to show them in what their continuity consisted and consists.
Ezekiel points to three things: the Jews are defined, first, by their relation to a place, even though it is a place they have lost. Then, they are defined by a history, even though, throughout, it is a history of failure. And they are defined by God’s grace that will not let them go, however much they have turned away from him, and deserve to be abandoned.
Of course, the place – the Promised Land – and the history, and God’s grace, all go together. One of the ways of getting onto how Ezekiel is reshaping Israel’s self-understanding is to see how he reshapes its history. That is what is happening in chapter 20, of which we heard part of the beginning; we will turn to part of the conclusion in due course.
It is an extraordinary chapter. It begins on a precise day in Babylon, when a group of elders come to consult the prophet – or come to consult the Lord through the prophet. Their question (it emerges in verse 32) is, should we be best advised to abandon our God, and worship the gods of the people we find ourselves among? ‘Let us be like the nations’ – this is the thought in the elders’ minds – ‘like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone’.
Lest one feel critical, let us note this is a perfectly sensible question. Their God had not saved them, the Babylonians had conquered the land, and the leadership had been taken off into exile. There was no state, no organized religion, not a lot left. Why not then worship the gods of a successful people? This is not unlike the sort of question we often pose ourselves today: it is by no means clear that our God reigns; why should we not turn to the surrounding small gods, who seem to deliver so much (if so trivial)?
The answer the Lord gives through Ezekiel is to retell the history of Israel, and to retell it in a quite radical form. If you look at Hosea (2:14-15) or Jeremiah (2:2), there is the suggestion that at least at the beginning of the relationship between Israel and the Lord, everything went well. In Jeremiah, the Lord says ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…’ But Ezekiel denies that there ever was a honeymoon period.
He suggests that in Egypt itself, before Israel was Israel, before the Wilderness and the Promised Land, the people worshipped the idols of the land. The Lord was moved even then to anger against them, but desisted from action, for two reasons: for the sake of his name, and as a sign to the nations. This indicates clearly that Israel had never been true to the Lord, and had never been elected solely for its own sake, but has always been both chosen and judged simultaneously as God’s people and as a sign to all people. There is no pure origin, no golden age.
The Lord subsequently led Israel out of Egypt, into the Wilderness, and gave them his statutes and ordinances, so that they might know how to live, including the Sabbath, as a sign of their election, ‘that they might know that I the Lord sanctify them’ (v.12).
I tend to think of this country as having taken on from the seventeenth century the persona of an Old Testament people: this includes both our curious sense of election and many of our social forms. We in some ways believe ourselves to be a Chosen People. But if that is so, our present decay only matches that of Israel in the Wilderness, for we learn that Israel rebelled, and did not walk in the statutes they had been given; they rejected the ordinances by whose observance man shall live, and greatly profaned the Sabbath (v.13).
This pattern, of Israel’s unworthiness, and the Lord’s hesitation but, nevertheless, persistence with his purposes, is repeated in the passage which follows our reading. He contemplates making an end to Israel in the Wilderness, as he had in Egypt, but decides to bring them into the Promised Land – a land flowing with milk and honey – for the sake of his name, in the sight of the nations. Once again, he rebukes their idolatry, and sets before them his statutes and ordinances and signs; one again, they rebel – and the cycle is repeated once more.
There are parallel stories told elsewhere in Ezekiel that make the same points about the unworthiness of Israel, her repeated lack of response, and failure of gratitude. In chapter 16, there is the story of a foundling, brought up, made beautiful, but unfaithful. And in chapter 23, the story of two wives, Oholah and Oholibah, representing Judah and Samaria, repeats the motif of Israel as a bride who strays. Faithfulness is a central motif of the prophetic investigation of the character of God and the nature of our response. It is always worth bearing in mind the centrality of fidelity in lives that share in God’s life.
It must be said that Ezekiel’s interpretation of Israel’s history was widely accepted. The Deuteronomic historians who drew up the historical books and edited the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), in the exile period, have accepted this account of decline from the start, of failure and ingratitude. It is of course from these sources that we can fill in the context of Ezekiel’s pronouncements.
But they are not as extreme as Ezekiel. He, after all, was speaking in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Judah, in the full experience of loss. What is more, he anticipated that worse was to follow, and his anticipation was fulfilled. For, a few years later, there was a rebellion against the Babylonians, and they razed Jerusalem. Not simply conquest and exile, but destruction of the land, the capital and the Temple.
So, the Lord’s reply to the elders of Israel, when they come to enquire as to whether it might not be better to worship local, successful gods is: well, this is the sort of thing you’ve been doing from the start. To which we might add, as a gloss, consider your misfortune in the light of what you deserve, and learn to understand the nature of God’s sovereignty, how he works, and how inescapable this working is. Ezekiel’s pronouncements contain a theology: an exploration of experience of God, and what we may say about God on the basis of that exploration.
It is in this light that we must consider a very difficult verse which we find when we come to the repetition of the pattern, in his account of the Promised Land. For there the Lord says, when the Israelites have not executed his ordinances but have once more rejected his statutes and profaned the Sabbath and set their eyes on their fathers’ idols, this time he ‘gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life’ (v. 25). And the text continues: ‘I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it so that they might know that I am the Lord’ (v. 26). The suggestion of the prophet is that the Lord hardened the Israelites’ hearts, rewarding them with their folly that drove them to further excesses and guaranteeing their fall.
This is in the context of the visit of the elders, with their foolish – though seemingly reasonable – request. We might note that, however harsh it seems to us – and we are quite muddled about how we conceive God – Ezekiel is clear that God remains God throughout this history, however we comprehend him or fail to do so. He is not reliant upon his people’s response to determine his way in history. This is a radically God-centred view of history.
In this way, Ezekiel deals quite easily with the history of the Promised Land, when Israel adopted the abominable practices of the indigenous tribes, and simply rebukes the questioners; he will not reply to them. ‘And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, says the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you’ (v. 31).
But if he rebuffs the inquirers, this is because he cannot be put off; his character cannot be denied, nor his purposes – and therefore, hope remains for his chosen people, despite their extraordinary lack of response, worth or gratitude. And that aspect will concern us next.
3. Ezekiel 20: 31b-44.
This passage, from the end of chapter 20 of the Prophet Ezekiel, starts in a quite brutal tone, but it is concerned with the nature of hope – and how one finds real hope, rather than a delusory hope.
The elders of Israel, in exile, had sought out the prophet for advice: would it be best to abandon worshipping the God of Israel, and take to following the small gods of the country where they find themselves? This is on the face of it a reasonable question, since Israel had been defeated, and Babylon, where they had been taken, was an astonishing city, ruled apparently by powers and pleasures that seemed to bear no reference to the God of Israel. It was as if they had moved off his territory.
The answer Ezekiel gives, as the word of the Lord, is that the Lord will not be enquired of by the likes of you (31b). He derides the temerity of the elders, for if on the face of it their question is reasonable, it in fact exhibits no insight into how things work. This folly parallels much contemporary leadership and opinion, which also pursues small gods and their trivial rewards, and has no insight into the underlying order – and we should always be interested in analogies between the logic exhibited in Scripture and that in our own situation.
But in fact, in the course of not receiving their request, Ezekiel gives a pretty full explanation: he does offer insight into the situation in which the exiles find themselves. He makes it intelligible. He does so by looking, on the one hand at the history of Israel, and on the other at the character of God which is revealed in that history.
Israel’s history he tells in a very dark light. The people of Israel have never been faithful to their God. There has been no golden age, from which they have fallen. They followed foreign idols in Egypt, they did not obey the statutes and ordinances they were given in the Wilderness, and they followed the gods of the indigenous tribes in the Promised Land and took over their practices – which included sacrificing their first-born. The election of Israel has always been responded to in, at best, a mixed fashion: Israel has been graceless, ungrateful and unfaithful. And in that sense, the request of the elders is simply par for the course.
At the same time, we get some clear indications about the character of God. He chose Israel, in Egypt, and has remained faithful to her. He repeatedly contemplated pouring out his wrath against the rebellion of the Israelites – whether in Egypt, in the Wilderness or in the Promised Land. But he kept his faith, so that Israel would be a sign to the nations; and since Israel is not going to be an example of splendid godly righteousness, we realize that Israel is in fact a sign of God’s faithfulness, to all nations.
The nature of that faithfulness is further explored, in that God provides ways for Israel to respond, and take part in the character that he displays. In this way, the history of Israel is – to speak precisely – an exploration of the character of God. In the Wilderness, the Israelites are given God’s statutes, and shown his ordinances, ‘by whose observance man shall live’ (v. 11). Moreover, they are given the Sabbath, as a sign by which the Israelites ‘might know that I the Lord sanctify them’ (v. 12). As everywhere else in the Old Testament, it appears that God’s character demands response, and the nature of the response is a participation in God’s character, so that people manifest God’s character to one another. God, indeed, becomes incarnate on earth in his people. This is a quite Trinitarian way of thought: the Hebrew Scriptures bear marks of the Trinity.
Further, once the Israelites enter the Promised Land, God continues to provide means for Israel to respond – but in unexpected (and unwelcome) ways. Even when in the Wilderness, he had sworn to scatter Israel among the nations (v. 23) because of their lack of response to his statutes and continued idolatry. And once in the Promised Land, he hardened their hearts, and gave them ‘statutes that were not good, and ordinances by which they could not have life (v. 25), which led to the horrifying sacrifices of the first-born.
There is a clear logic to this: while there is a call to respond to the character of God and to take part in it – which Israel cannot escape, for it is a sign to all the nations – the other side of this is the inescapable consequences of failing to respond. It is important to grasp the logic. This is not a world of humans, who were free, and going about their business, and a god (written with a small ‘g’) turned up and picked out a group of them, and their lives were never the same again. That is an idolatrous account, oddly enough: it is idolatrous to imagine that humans are primary, and God secondary. Ezekiel’s logic, which gives you a clear clue as to how the world works, is that God made the world and all that is in it, and his purposes run through it and construct it, and these purposes include the choosing of Israel as God’s people, both for their sake and for the sake of the rest of the nations.
The key to understanding history is then to focus radically upon the character of God – and the characteristic of God that emerges from Israel’s history is first of all faithfulness. That is a name for God. It is from this faithfulness that all the possibilities of Israel’s history follow, and that leads, when you tell that history, with its steady refusal of faith or gratitude or loyalty, to the exile. God is to be found in every part of that history, encountered either as righteousness or as loving-kindness (to use two other important names for God).
An aside: ‘history’ is our word, not a Jewish idea. It is hard not to introduce it, however; they might talk about their common life as a nation and the life of the nations (in the plural): I will call it history.
But the central word for Ezekiel is faithfulness. It is in God’s faithfulness that hope lies. History bears witness to what might politely be called our mixed ability to respond – but also, through its crises quite as much as its good periods, to the fact that God will not be put off.
If that is so, and our calling is to respond to God’s character by participation in it, the response to the heightened crisis of the exile is itself faithfulness. That is, what you do in history is share in God through faith, and in this way history changes. The crisis of the exile makes clear the truth that is always present, that God’s way in the world works through the faithfulness of his followers. It is not denied if they are faithless, but faithfulness produces its own confirmatory evidence. That is how you join in the mainspring of history.
This account then gives a clue as to how we might consider the purpose of the faithfulness of Christian congregations: their role in fulfilling the purposes of creation and the coming-to-something (rather than nothing) of history. Faithfulness is how history is made for good ends, even though God’s purposes are not frustrated by faithlessness. This was Ezekiel’s message to the elders; it has had its effects, so we are here now. Ezekiel’s faith is father to our faith – though, we might add, had the elders failed to respond to Ezekiel’s message, and so his inspiration lost, God may well have found other ways to proceed.
So Ezekiel’s message is, hold onto God by faith; that is both participation in God’s character and, we might say, imitation of it: a manifesting of it. You might notice this is a claim about the nature of the world and how to take part in it, and it suggests that the prophet is a model of faith, a sign and a demonstration of God’s way in the world. In this way, we may understand Christ as the last of the prophets.
The conclusion is, hope is real, and hope is made real through faith, for faithfulness embodies God’s dealings with us: this is how God meets gracelessness, ingratitude and faithlessness – and this is how we meet and show forth God in a generally graceless, ungrateful and faithless world.
Ezekiel therefore concludes his account of the faithless history of Israel with two successive outcomes, lit by hope, not despair. God – in reply to the query of the elders – will not let Israel go – and so Israel’s hope lies in the encounter with God, first as judgement or righteousness, and second as salvation or loving-kindness.
That is what we hear of in the first set of verses read to us: the Israelites will be gathered, but judged face-to-face – and the rebels will not be restored to Israel. ‘Go serve every one of you his idols now and hereafter, if you will not listen to me’ (v. 39). That is the first stage.
Then we hear of restoration: ‘On my holy mountain…all the house of Israel…shall serve me in the land; there I will accept them…when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will make manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations’ (vv. 40-1).
Ezekiel makes absolutely clear that salvation depends upon grace, not upon effort – just like St. Paul – and that it is possible not to share in grace, to refuse it, by the fantasy of imagining that man comes before God. So he concludes with as fine an account of sin and grace as you could find in the New Testament; ‘There (in the land of Israel) you shall remember your ways and all the doings with which you have polluted yourselves…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’ (vv. 43-4).
So Ezekiel gives a complete account of the nature of history and its mainspring, an insight into how the world works, and how we share in its workings, for good or bad. I do not think myself there is a trace of fantasy in it, or self-delusion. He may of course be wrong, but that you can only find out through experience. The key, Ezekiel says, is to keep your eye on God, and the clue to God is his faithfulness, and it is through faith that we participate for good in our world. That is how you reply to the exile, and that is how you come home.
4. Ezekiel 18: 1-18.
Ezekiel redefines the history of Israel in a remarkable manner, for he suggests that God’s chosen people have never been faithful to their calling, that they have always been ungrateful, unresponsive and faithless. And this is part of a radical view of history, which essentially centres around God and his character, so that people are called to participate in God, and to show his character and purposes to one another. But if they refuse, they encounter God in the eventual rout and disorder that follows. In this sense, God is met with as judgement.
From this we can see that God is Lord of human history, but that his lordship is not of a human kind. For he is not a king who rules, and has his favourites and his foes, who respectively enjoy his favour and experience his wrath. Rather, he is a king who is at the service of the world, in that he is faithful, and his character is loving-kindness, and because of this character people can respond or refuse to respond. Because he is God, and therefore more real than real, refusal has obscure effects, just as does response. And the job of the prophet is to point up these obscure effects: to interpret history in the light of God, and to demonstrate that Israel’s history is a living-out of God’s character. That is indeed what election means: Israel makes clear God’s character and ways in the world – both to the chosen people and to the nations more broadly.
This is all very well, but it poses the question for Ezekiel’s hearers of, what do I do? If how we have got here is the result of repeated faithlessness on the part of Israel, even if we know we can rely upon the faithfulness of God – for that is the mainspring of history – how do I participate for good, rather than for ill?
The first thing to say is that ‘I’ for Ezekiel does not mean the individual person, although the reading contains three episodes concerning a man in each of three generations. For ‘the man’ in this account stands for the generation. Ezekiel is concerned with the exiled community in Babylon, and its response.
The second thing to say is that the figure of the prophet looks curiously like an individual, inspired by God, speaking the truth of history, whether he is calling for repentance by few or by many. But again, in him Israel is represented: the prophet stands for Israel, for God’s chosen one, even for God’s beloved son.
So whom is Ezekiel speaking to? Who is to respond, and how? It is worth pointing out once more that this is not a situation totally dissimilar to our own. We feel caught up in history and its unsatisfactoriness, prisoners of the past and of the sheer scale of events, unable to make a difference. What sort of sized unit do we belong to? At what level is meaning made? As individuals, largely, we do not count. As part of a community, the Church for example, we might.
At one level, the exiles are simply a remnant, in the sense of presenting a sign of the judgement that has fallen. There is a particularly depressing set of utterances gathered in chapter 14, concerning individual righteousness – embodied in the figures of Noah, Daniel and Job – and its incapacity to save an unrighteous people from the judgements of sword, famine, evil beasts and pestilence. The evil that has fallen upon Jerusalem is symbolized by those that remain: that is their significance – just as other prophets refer to the remains of a defeated army, or the scraps of an animal that has been seized and killed by a lion.
But at another level, through the faithfulness of God, always present in history no matter what (because that is what drives history), there is the possibility of response, of repentance and new life. That is what we heard when we were told that certain proverbs – concerning ‘the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth shall be set on edge’ (18:2) – shall be set aside, and heard no more. And Ezekiel goes very carefully through the moves of explaining that one generation’s behaviour does not determine the condition – and salvation – of the next. A righteous man who obeys God’s statutes and ordinances shall live. It might be helpful to note the list of what is lawful and right: a man who does not worship idols, who does not commit adultery, who does not oppress anyone, who acts charitably, who avoids impurity and withholds his hand from iniquity, and who acts justly.
However, a man who disobeys these duties will perish, even if he is the son of a righteous man. What is more, his blood will be on his own head. These are the things to avoid: violence, impiety, idolatry, adultery, oppression of the poor and defenceless, failure of charity, impurity, iniquity and injustice. These are very close in form to the Ten Commandments – and, practically speaking, they provide as vital a checklist now as they ever have been. We avert our eyes from these demands at our peril.
Ezekiel concludes by saying, further, that the son – even the son of such a wicked man as we have just described – if he does not do likewise, will live. Now we are, I repeat, concerned with generations or, to put it another way, with collective solidarities. We exist in units bigger than ourselves. But nevertheless, we have the possibility and the responsibility to respond well: we are not bound by the situation we are born into and the solidarities (and guilt) we inherit. This is because all souls belong to God: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb (concerning sour grapes) shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine…’ (18: 3-4).
So matching the radical view of history that he presents – that it all takes place through human responses to God’s character – Ezekiel also presents a radical view of the soul’s potential, cast in terms of a similar response. He has simultaneously intensified our understanding of history and of human response in history – so that instead of being wiped out by a kind of determinism, human action becomes crucially important.
His view of history and his view of the person or the soul are only possible because he places God prior to and at the centre of each. And in doing so he recasts the potential of the remnant, through the possibility of repentance. In this fashion, the idea of the remnant is transformed into a sign of hope in history, a sign of hope for all the nations, and a testimony to the character of God.
And let me remind you that the evidence that this view is right, and that Ezekiel’s understanding is not a fantasy, is that the remnant, in exile in Babylon, survived its exile and returned home, and the prophet’s words, having begun their work, were kept and preserved, so that they can go on doing their work now. In a sentence, history is an experiment in Providence. Through our life and our faith, which is made possible and born witness to in these Scriptures, we explore simultaneously the nature of history and the character of God.
5. Ezekiel 18: 21-32.
‘If a wicked man turns away from all his sins…and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die’ (18:21).
One of the most remarkable things we owe to Ezekiel is the way that he makes central to human being the possibility of change – of turning about, of repentance. Since we at present regard human autonomy as a crucial part of who we are, it is worth contemplating where the idea comes from, and how it is refined.
At first glance, Ezekiel is an improbable advocate of human change or decision, for his fundamental move is to place God, not man, at the centre of history. God is, or his purposes and character are, the key to history and how it works, and the peoples and nations participate in them, either going with them or going against them, and knowing blessing or judgement accordingly.
Let me point out, this is not an easy account of history to evaluate. First, and as I have discussed, history is not a word Ezekiel would have recognized, except in the sense of narrative, or story.
And second, it appears nearly all the evidence is negative, in the sense that the motor of history appears in large part to be the faithlessness of the people of God, so the evidence has to be construed by the eye of faith.
Third, by the very nature of faith, the evidence that emerges is not immediate, but must be considered over time: there is this very curious notion that God is not to be mocked. Although it seems that he can be ignored with impunity in the short term, in the long run, judgement follows, by the very nature of things. That gives a clue to what a prophet is: someone who reads the nature of things – and so his word, over time, comes true. His word is fulfilled, and thereby shown to be of God.
So fourth, faith – and prophecy born of faith – is both the way to be on to the nature of history or the narrative of how things go, and the way to take part in that narrative, for it is the key to its logic. Faithfulness is what God shows to us: hence the shape of history. Faithfulness is how – because of the shape of history – we grasp that character and understand that history. And faithfulness is how we join into history and help make it: how we participate in God’s faithfulness to humankind, made clear to all in the history of the chosen people. (Clear, I mean, to the eyes of faith).
And fifth, as I have mentioned before, the empirical evidence of the truth or rightness of the account or perspective the prophet has given us lies in large part in its survival and its transmission to us. All the obvious evidence at the time seemed to state that the Babylonians had it right, and that the Jews were deceived. Yet, the evidence of history is, that the Jews’ faith was onto the truth of the matter, and that the Babylonians, despite all appearances to the contrary, were bit-part players.
Now, this understanding gives new purpose to humankind, for in it there is a calling to respond, to participate and to make a difference. Indeed, a call to make and change history. Hence the extraordinary passage we have heard upon repentance. We might note in passing where the idiom of repentance comes from. Within the sphere of the courts, if you have committed a crime, it does not matter whether or not you are sorry; there has to be restitution, a penalty. But within the sphere of the family or the community, repentance ideally leads to forgiveness and a new start. Consider family quarrels, or unkindness, even theft, or adultery, or violence: a central consideration is always whether things can be put back together again. It is a real question whether punishment, in the sense of paying for the offence, is not worse in its effects than the more difficult business of repentance being met by forgiveness, and an attempt at reintegration.
I put the matter in this context because repentance raises two questions, both of them concerning the scale at which it takes place. First, repentance cannot be an individual matter – not even in today’s world. It involves a set of people. Remorse may be an individual matter, but that is a different, and sadder, story.
Moreover, the other side of repentance is sin, and in Ezekiel that is social, or collective, too – and in this, he does not differ from the other prophets. He terms sin as idolatry – which you can see, is any sort of behaviour that goes against the character of God and leads to the experience of judgement: essentially, any sort of desire for (or worship of, or giving worth to) things that cannot deliver: desires that are bound to be frustrated: in a word, false gods – or what I call small gods.
The list of such activities presents a summary of sharp behaviour now as then: adultery, oppression, the exploitation of debt, violence, robbery, lending at interest, participation in iniquity and injustice, neglecting the poor and hungry. These are, I repeat, social offences: they involve others. Not everyone, but specific others – and they involve specific sins: lust, greed, avarice, cruelty, indolence, lying and so forth. These are the small gods that rule many parts of our society and ourselves, then as now.
Ezekiel uses language of impurity, and profanation, and abomination, to describe these activities: that is to say, priestly language. In this, he differs from the other prophets, several of whom seem quite distrustful of the priestly cult and of the Temple. But, let me remind you, he is speaking during the exile, and his task is to create some form of continuing identity – a temple in the collective spirit or mind that will serve to draw the faithful on, and serve them as some sort of basis and symbol.
The second thing to ask about scale, and the business of repentance, is – given that sin is social in the way I describe it, for it involves third parties – how many does it take to make a difference? How many does repentance involve?
I think the answer to this relates to our common sense understanding: repentance involves one, and several, and many (and, possibly, all). It is quite clear, just from the voice of the prophet, that faith and turning to God is inward: it is singular – and yet at the same time, it means being opened to the outside world, to that whole history which is organized around God. The prophet is a figure standing for Israel, which is God’s sign to the world – and so are you, or I, when God works in us in stirring up faith.
At the same time, repentance joins us in to a community of faith, that imperfect, small, awkward body, within which reconciliation is more important than punishment, and which by that is exemplary: once again, modelled upon Israel, that appalling but elect community, chosen to show God’s character to the world, both in blessing and judgement.
Further, beyond simply being exemplary, the community of faith, by its faith and repentance, becomes active in the world, and makes a difference. It exemplifies and points to and incites the world in terms of the calling to abandon idolatry and to participate in God’s character: to renounce living by small (and generally nasty) gods, and to turn to the living God.
And, of course, beyond these specific interventions, because of the nature of God, the community of faith points to the nature of God’s blessing for the whole of Creation, for all that has ever been, is, and ever will be (world without end).
In sum, what Ezekiel is doing in this account is beginning to define a mode of human activity in history, and a way of speaking of it. He is defining how humans may become fully human, so giving in words the essence of the human – and he does so by speaking of repentance, of choosing life rather than death. ‘I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live’ (18: 32).
6. Ezekiel 37: 1-14. The Valley of Bones.
This passage contains the extraordinary prophecy of Ezekiel concerning the valley of the dry bones. I want to explore something of how this passage expresses themes we have been exploring, and how too it opens up ideas that we still occupy.
In this vision, the dead of a nation, the nation of Israel, are brought together from the dust. Their bones and sinews are knit together, and covered in flesh, and life is breathed into their bodies. They will, Ezekiel says, be raised from their graves, and lit by the Spirit of the Lord, and brought home. Now, two sorts of thing are being claimed here.
The first is a threefold claim, that the life in the moral community comes from God, that the purpose of the moral community is to share in God’s purposes, and that its hope lies in coming to God’s kingdom. That is a statement made in exile as to the calling of the nation; this is not triumphalism, but a prophecy made against all the odds. Despite all appearances, Ezekiel says, Israel’s life comes from God, shares in God, and will end in God.
We are pretty familiar with this: this claim takes up the ideas we have been exploring in terms of the primacy of God, stating how his character and purposes are the key to the nature of human history, and that there is the possibility of human participation within the purposes of God, despite all the appearances of history, through faith and repentance.
Notice too how these notions of repentance and participation are developed in this passage. For the second claim, lying within the sphere of the first, concerns the dead. It is a startling development, for it claims that the possibility of the restoration of the dead lies to a degree in the hands of the faithful moral community. The redemption of the dead is a part of the vocation of that community, and constitutes part of its responsibility. Or to be more accurate and more hopeful, the restoration of the dead is part of God’s promise, which he fulfils through the vocation of the faithful community.
This is then an extraordinarily complete statement about the continuities that shape us, one that the Christian Church takes up. Just as Israel does not worship itself, or its ancestors (‘shall these dry bones live?’ is a proper condemnation of the potential of ancestor worship), but as a community lives only from God, through God, and to God, so our community lives only from, through and to God, in Christ. It is the Christian claim, indeed, that moral communities only exist, and have a memory, and have a future, through Christ, and that is what people take part in and contribute to. Without Christ, acts of gathering and remembering, and dedicating ourselves anew, would be futile and, indeed, idolatrous and, most likely, would not take place, for nobody would see the point.
This passage from Ezekiel is read most often on Remembrance Sunday, but – significantly – it also provides a rationale for the Eucharist, for the act of remembering Christ until he comes again. We might reflect upon our present gathering – at a Eucharist – to remember in the light of Ezekiel’s teaching. I want to make two points.
The first thing to say is that such an act of remembering is collective. We gather in order to do it: it is in fact quite separate from personal memories and individual engagements with the person of Jesus, and quite distinct from them – though clearly such an occasion may also serve as a vehicle for such personal memories. It is rather the gathering of what I have called a ‘moral community’: a group whose lives and meaning are bound up together, who have an identity which exists over time.
We might note that, from time to time, there is much talk about morality, in the abstract, and how to instil it. It would be much more fruitful, in my view, to talk of moral communities, and to ask how to make them flourish. For people actually live in quite subtly ordered groups, with their own ways of life and identities, and they meet on occasions effectively to remind themselves of who they are, and thus to prolong – or reiterate – themselves as such. This is in part what we are engaged in: a meeting together to reflect upon who we are, how we have become who we are, what the cost has been, to whom we owe our identity, and so forth. And in part, we reflect upon our future as well; what we might become.
It is worth adding that such gatherings also serve as apprenticeships: only by attending such things do you learn, and join in, and become transformed into a different kind of member. And because these gatherings involve learning and making sense they are not static repetitions of the same, whereby we recapture a past. Instead, they can consist in quite radical reappraisals and re-orderings, while at the same time being a continuation of the identity; they are strongly constructive, a re-membering.
So the second thing to say is that moral communities ‘are’ memories. They contain process of retaining and also of forgetting, and these are active processes, not passive. One major way such communities exist is through reflecting upon how they came into being and came to be continued. That is why we remember the past through our reading of Scripture and reflection, and through our commemoration of the saints, for they are part of who we are. Or to approach it from another angle, without their sacrifice we would be very different and, we earnestly believe, most certainly a great deal for the worse. That is in part what we are doing in considering the imagination and contribution of Ezekiel: we are reconstituting ourselves as a community through our renewed acquaintance with him
The question then becomes, why are we better off? Or, what sort of community are we, and what sort of memory do we participate in? What is the basis of our identity? After all, there are various candidates. We could simply be involved in a form of ancestor worship, even in remembering Ezekiel, or in worshipping ourselves, in the form of a congenial group of friends. And we are not doing either of these things. Rather, we are engaged in Christian worship: an act of commemoration within the moral community and continuities of the Church, as followers of Christ, though shaped by the Old Testament writers.
At the heart of this service lies the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, anticipated in the Scriptures and confirming those Scriptures in their happening, the life and death of Christ serving both as the key to human history and as the means for our participation, through faith and repentance. This is Ezekiel put to work, in the continuing activity of the God he served, and in the on-going life of the faithful, to which he contributed. We are dealing, that is to say, with real people, real desires, real knowledge, and real memories. We are concerned with specific histories and specific communities, and because of that – just as with Israel – with flaws, and personalities, and mistakes, indeed, with conflict and violent death. In Christ, however, we find the transformation of these human realities, not their being by-passed or subsumed or in any way trumped, but their being taken up and changed.
That is also the work of today’s service of Holy Communion. We gather to remember specific people and specific lives, who form part of the Communion of Saints, and to celebrate our moral community and what it owes to these specific persons and lives. But above all, we gather to glimpse how they, and we, are gathered up and share in the love of God made clear in
Jesus Christ. And these glimpses not only refer to a horizon beyond time, when all will be restored, but also create a demand within time for peace and the restoration of peace. The desire for restoration, that the dead are not lost but will be found in Christ, also leads to the demand that the past not be repeated, with all its violence and loss. We learn from the Exile; we are not condemned to repeat it.
There is therefore an extremely evangelistic edge to the service of Communion, one whereby the memory of the dead and the part we have to play in their redemption through our remembering demands that the Gospel of peace and transformation be preached and pushed forward. The seriousness of our vocation of remembering the dead demands that memory is transformed into hope, not pious but real hope. So Ezekiel’s extraordinary vision articulates for us the image of the Kingdom of God restored on earth, where we return to the Garden, where enemies are reconciled, all dangers set aside, and oppressor and oppressed may rest, together, in peace. The imperfection of the world is translated into evangelical demand: the imperative of the Good News, the Gospel.
And this is not a story that we tell to comfort ourselves in the dark, but it is the hope that we have in the promises of the living God, and so the demand for peace in our world is utterly central to the act of remembering Christ. Remembering the dead, the hope of restoration, and the longing for peace are three facets of the single life of Christ in us, that make us a community and that lead us on.
7. Ezekiel 36: 22-32.
What do we learn from Ezekiel? What ideas or understanding do we owe him?
In the downfall of Jerusalem, and the loss of the Promised Land, and the destruction of the Temple, and the Exile in Babylon, the people of Israel were posed in an acute form the question of who they were – their identity – and what part their God was playing in the disasters that had overcome them.
A hundred years earlier, the Assyrians had descended upon the Northern Kingdom and destroyed it, but had spared Jerusalem, in seemingly miraculous circumstances. In that period, a number of prophets had emerged, Hosea and Amos in the north, Isaiah and Micah in the south, who had interpreted the Assyrians’ aggression as God’s active judgement. There had also been countervailing claims of God’s promise to preserve Jerusalem: a hope against hope.
Once the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, these earlier prophets’ understandings were reinvoked and set to work again, by Jeremiah in Jerusalem – where his God-centred vision was, naturally, deeply resented – and by Ezekiel among the exiles.
The message of each of the prophets is at one level very simple: it concerns putting God, and his character and purposes, at the centre of things – rather than human desires. They said, look at the character of God as revealed in our history: pay attention to his having to do with us, and draw the conclusions.
So they convey a double message, or a single message with two edges. Those two edges are judgement and hope. All the evidence is that the people of God have not been faithful to their calling, but have ignored their God, and moreover, pursued other gods – who are not proper gods but idols, destined to disappoint. So the reality of God is bound to be met with in those disappointments – as the false gods and idols provide neither peace, nor flourishing, nor security – and these disappointments need to be understood as judgement. I say disappointments, but that is scarcely an adequate word. For Jeremiah and Ezekiel ask: why have the people of Israel lost everything – their king, their land, their capital, their temple – everything, in short, which makes them who they are? Why are they exiles in a foreign land? And the answer comes: look at your history, and the story it tells: faithfulness on God’s part, faithlessness on the part of his chosen people.
But if the judgement the faithless chosen people have encountered is due and deserved, this judgement contains within it the second element, of hope, because of God’s faithfulness. Once the disaster has been understood in terms of judgement, the disaster cannot be the end, or the last word. And the Book of Ezekiel is organized very clearly along these lines: twenty-four chapters bringing home Israel’s involvement in their own downfall – as a function of their faithlessness, and then a series of chapters outlining the hope that this understanding contains. And this is what we heard in this passage.
Ezekiel has already introduced two important ideas. The first is that Israel’s election, its being a chosen people, is as much a sign to the nations as it is for Israel’s benefit – which is just as well, seeing how little positive use they made of it. God is God for all the nations, they are all within his sway and interest, and election means being part of this pattern: the Jews have a particular role in the whole, in the meaning of everything, but they are not the whole. So their understanding of history is decentred; they have to understand their election as an element in a wider pattern.
The second idea is the importance of repentance, of taking responsibility and changing, of turning from wickedness and living. Repentance is, as it were, the hinge between judgement and hope and, as we discussed in an earlier section, it implicates the person in a number of scales of significance – inward, and corporate, and collective, and universal. Rather than simply being a sign to the nations by suffering God’s judgement, it is possible to take part positively in God’s being in the world and his being for the world: it is possible to share in and manifest his faithfulness and loving-kindness.
But there is a tension between these two ideas, between the notion of Israel as a sign – essentially, a negative sign, a sign of judgement – and the idea of repentance. How is repentance possible, given the scale upon which things happen, and the fact that history largely bears witness to God through its denial of him: through idolatry and disappointment?
This is where Ezekiel’s third important idea comes in, which we have in this passage. Entirely consistently, he says – a repentant heart depends upon God. He takes up an idea that Jeremiah has sketched: Jeremiah (31: 33) says the Lord shall write his law upon his people’s hearts, so that his people shall know him. Ezekiel says: ‘A new heart I shall give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my ordinances’ (36: 26-7).
This is an extraordinarily important point: that faithfulness and repentance are signs of the work of God in persons. This emerges in Augustine’s claim that the heart is restless until it finds its rest in God, and that this restlessness is itself already a sign of God at work, preparing and wooing the person. It is a key to making sense of the life of faith.
So Ezekiel puts God at the centre of history, and so makes faith and repentance, both forms of human activity, the way that people participate in God’s character and make history. And he does not leave any gap, whereby human will and effort enter, which leads only to disappointment, confusion and despair – but puts God’s activity in the deepest interior of the human heart, so that faith and repentance are evidence of God’s work in the fine detail of the here and now. The substance that gives reality to hope is God’s work in the human heart. The key to history in all its complexity is to be found deep within you.
Jonah – chapter 3.
The third chapter of the Book of Jonah; let us study some Scripture together, as the Word of God.
The one thing everybody knows about Jonah is that he lived in a whale. Or, to be more precise, he descended into the waters of chaos, ‘into the heart of the seas…(and) the waters closed over (him)…(and he) went down to…the Pit’. It was there that a great fish, appointed by the Lord, swallowed him up and then duly, after three days, spat him out, onto dry land.
The waters of chaos are meant to remind us of the very beginning of the Bible. If you remember, in the beginning…the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep’ (Gen. 1:1-2). We start from these waters, and the story of creation out of chaos is put at the beginning for a very specific reason, which is this. The account in Genesis was put together at a particular moment, during the Exile, though using much earlier materials. That is to say, the chaos is not a myth, or an imaginary condition, or the answer to a clever Greek question: what was there before there was anything?
Not so, but quite otherwise: the chaos is real, for the Promised Land has been conquered and destroyed, God’s temple has been razed, the population has been decimated, and the surviving ruling class – the people who could bring any sort of order back into things – have been carried off to Babylon, to adorn a conqueror’s court. The chaos is not a story; it is unimaginably real and painful. The chaos consists in the destruction of everything the Israelites knew: their family and friends killed, order and stability gone, their country destroyed and – it seems – their God defeated and denied: in sum, total annihilation: a descent into the Pit.
And the response to this real, not mythical, chaos in Genesis is an extraordinary act of faith. The chapter states that underlying the chaos there is order, and that it is God’s order, and that it is good – that is, the order concerns humans: it is for us. You will recall how God’s order in that first chapter is described in a narrowing focus. The order is found in the separation of light and dark, and of heaven and earth, and of the land and the sea, and of animals and plants, and of the day and the night, and of the kinds of creatures, each in their sphere, and finally in man and woman, who have a special calling and place in this ordered creation. And all this order is blessed; blessed for the purposes of salvation.
That is why this account is at the beginning of the Bible: it is not a statement of a scientific kind, to be eaten away at by subsequent theories, but it is a fundamental statement of faith, arising out of the extreme experience of the Exile, or the Pit. It states that beneath any chaos, there is a God-given order to things, that everything participates in that order, without exception – and that that order is for good, it is a blessing, and it is therefore concerned with our salvation.
Saint Paul says something very similar when he states in his letter to the Romans that there is nothing in all creation – and he gives a list: not in life nor in death, neither heavenly nor earthly powers, not things now nor things future, neither height nor depth – there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-9). These are what we might call basic claims about the nature of the world; both in Paul and at the beginning of the Bible, we have a statement which tells you who God is, and who we are, and what is the nature of our hope.
So when Jonah goes down into the waters of chaos, we know where we are. And all the clues are there, in chapter one when, as you know, Jonah fled from his calling to prophesy doom to Nineveh, and rather foolishly took to the sea, which turned chaotic and stormy. He fled from the presence of the Lord, we are told, and found chaos. What else would you expect? Jonah in fact knows that you cannot get beyond the God of Israel, for when questioned by the sailors, he says: ‘I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’ (1:9).
The sailors, who are decent pagan fellows, and worship lesser gods, idols indeed – though you should notice that does not stop them being able to cast lots effectively – these sailors are terrified. They consult Jonah as what best to do – he is, after all, a prophet – and he tells them that they will have to throw him into the sea. They do not take this advice, but do their best to reach the safety of dry land. Only when it is clear that they have failed, and they are going to perish, do they do as he has told them: they pray to Jonah’s God not to hold them guilty, and throw him into the sea. Jonah clearly is a prophet, for immediately the Lord, who is to be found in chaos as well as in order, quietens the storm. The sailors survive, and so does the prophet, for the Lord also appoints a great fish – the first named created creature in the first chapter of Genesis – to swallow up the miserable Jonah.
Now, we might ask, what is the nature of Jonah’s problem? Why did he feel that he had to flee the presence of the Lord when asked to cry against the wickedness of the great city, Nineveh? He is clearly a prophet; we have seen him at work, on the boat. The name he is given, Jonah the son of Amittai, is that of a prophet mentioned in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 14:25), back in the reign of Jeroboam. In those days, the task of the prophets was relatively simple, if thankless. They spoke the word of the Lord. If their word turned out not to hold true, they were false prophets, and we have forgotten their names. If their word held true, however, they were true prophets, and their words, and names, were remembered. And as you know, in the Old Testament we have recorded the oracles of prophets, prophecies against Israel and Judah, denouncing their faithlessness and pointing to their consequent descent into chaos – where, of course, God is also to be found, but seen under his aspect of judgement rather than loving kindness.
Once in exile, however, the prophets were faced with a different task. The job is still to speak the word of the Lord, but how do you make sense of the demands of God under these new conditions – a God, after all, who is ultimately our blessing and our hope? What is God’s blessing, and how do we respond to it, when the Promised Land is gone, together with everything else that is good?
There were three great prophets in the Exile: Isaiah (or those sayings found in the middle part of the Book of Isaiah), Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They sought to answer the question posed by the rising waters of chaos. Indeed, the Book of Ezekiel begins with the elders of Israel coming to consult him, and asking, shall we abandon worshipping our God? It is a very shocking question, but apparently reasonable, on the face of it.
The answer these prophets gave was twofold. First, they expanded the understanding of God: our God is the God of creation, so of chaos as well as of order, and of history as well, as part of creation, and so the pagans as well as the Israelites are concerned in his salvation. Faith under these circumstances demands a grasp of the sheer scope of God’s work – the height and depth and extent of his salvation. This is an enormous expansion in the human grasp of the greatness of God, an extraordinary act of imagination and faith.
And second, these prophets also went inward, matching this expansion with depth. This God, they said, need not be worshipped only in a specific land and in a specific place; he is a God that can be found anywhere, and followed, through faith and repentance. He is worshipped not in the performance of sacrifices in the Temple, but in the inwardness of the purity of the human heart. No one had ever said this before.
These are both extraordinary changes, developing our understanding of God and deepening the nature of our response, exploring indeed the nature of salvation. They were such profound insights that the Jews’ faith, instead of withering in a foreign land, continued and prospered, and order was produced out of chaos, in conformity to the testimony of the first chapter of the Bible. The word of these prophets came true; their faith bore fruit, and because of that, was remembered. One part of the fruit of these understandings is our presence here today; we would not be here without them. We bear witness to the truth of the word of those great prophets – and that gives a clue to the nature of the continuities that underlie and order the chaos of the world.
Which brings us back to the subject of Jonah. Jonah is not of course in the same league: he is a minor prophet. But his story is a meditation upon some of the problems that need to be thought through once you have grasped this simultaneous expansion and deepening of faith. For, if the God of Israel is truly the God of creation and history, what is the place of foreigners – of pagans – in his blessing and salvation? And, more particularly, if faith is a matter of the heart, can pagans repent too?
This brings us to the nub of Jonah’s dilemma. As an old-fashioned prophet, one pronounced oracles, not only against Israel and Judah in their faithlessness, but also against foreign nations. The oracles were remembered if they were fulfilled, and we have plenty of them recorded in the Old Testament. But now, as Jonah sees (at the beginning of chapter four), the hearers can repent, and the prophet will be shown up; despite the truth of his words, they will be falsified, as it were, by the change of heart in his hearers.
So the core of the book is this remarkable claim: that the word of the Lord can be heard by all. Those who hear will not necessarily become worshippers of God; they may remain pagans, but they are capable of hearing God and responding to him. Now this corresponds to a matter near to our hearts. We are frequently unclear as to how to relate to a world that seems largely pagan; at best, indifferent to the God who created it and at worst, a world that threatens chaos. We may feel like exiles in such a world, and we may indeed be tempted to abandon our faith, like the elders who addressed Ezekiel. Even when we remain faithful, we prefer to speak to those of our own community, and if called to speak out of our faith to the wider world, we may well feel a temptation to head for the nearest port and flee.
Jonah was given another chance. The fish spat him out, and the word of the Lord came to him for a second time. So he went, doubtless with a heavy heart, to Nineveh, an enormous city – a megalopolis, that took three days’ journey to cross – and he proclaimed its doom. And we get some very clear answers to our questions concerning non-believers and change of heart. These pagans, with their vile practices, hear him and repent. They fast, and put on sackcloth, from the rich to the poor. Moreover, the king hears the message, and he likewise repents, decreeing that every man and even every beast should cry out to God, and turn from evil and violence, in the hope that God might see their repentance and spare them. And seeing their repentance, their turning from their evil ways, God too repents – for he is a God of blessing, ‘a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love’ (4:2) for his creation.
This is a God who is to be found in chaos and in order, who speaks to the human heart, and who is for us and for our salvation. Because he is these things, even pagans can hear and respond; they too can find his blessing and live in it, and so bring order out of chaos, life out of sin, violence and death.
What does this mean for us? We live in a megalopolis, which we know to be sometimes violent and vicious, and which at best seems broadly indifferent to the claims of the God of blessing. The message of Jonah is however that we should have confidence to live our faith and speak out of it in such a place, for the followers of idols also recognize the call to repentance. When such a message is spoken, it is heard. This is because God created all things, and he is as he is, and all are made capable of responding.
Having this confidence, engaging with the city, bringing our faith to it and simultaneously finding faith in it, in practice means going both outwards and inwards. We have to understand and grasp more fully the extent of God’s scope and reach – that he is truly God of all creation and history. And at the same time, we have to explore the depths of the heart and its capacities, with its possibility of repentance, both our own and others’.
Jonah’s calling is not then very distant from our own vocation. We are confronted with his difficulties: God is out there, and is not contained simply within his people. Everybody potentially has a share in God’s future. And even if they do not recognize the claims of belief, they do recognize the claims of life, and the call to repent of evil. This is a difficult vocation, and a difficult world to operate in. Many of us, rather than realize the potential of such a vocation in such a place, would prefer to go down to Joppa and take a boat – though do not underestimate the cost of such an action.
But be encouraged, for we can also take on Jonah’s words, and say on our own behalf: we worship ‘the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. And again, ‘when my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord’. And again, ‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord’ – to whom, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, power and might, now and forever, Amen.