Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Heart Behind the Sword

Christians struggle to explain Cain’s wife. Christians struggle to explain Lot’s wife.

Meh. Those two are a comparative walk in the park. You want tough? Try explaining Ezekiel’s wife. No bonus points for falling back on “Well, God is sovereign and there are things about life we can’t really understand.”

Yeah, and the sun is hot and water is wet.

Platitudes and Grief

These things are absolutely true, but platitudes are cold comfort when you’re legitimately overwhelmed with sorrow. Truthfully, not much helps except time and faith in our Father’s care.

Here is what God said to Ezekiel, his prophet and faithful servant, in a day when the majority of Ezekiel’s nation had turned away from God and was under his judgment:
“Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.”
The next evening, Ezekiel’s wife — the delight of his eyes — died. What do you say to that?

Well, It Was a Pretty Powerful Illustration

I suppose you could argue God needed an illustration for his prophet to show the rebellious house of Israel. God had purposed to take away from Israel the delight of the nation, Solomon’s extravagant, beautiful temple, in which every Jewish man and woman took tremendous pride. It was more than a religious landmark: it was the glory of Judah, a wonder in the world of its day and a symbol and source of patriotic zeal. The very identity of Ezekiel’s countrymen was tied up in that sanctuary. With the temple destroyed, the expression of God’s righteous judgment on Israel as a whole was complete, though the consequences rippled through the experience of the exiled nation for decades thereafter.

God’s message to Israel: You’re going to lose absolutely everything you hold dear; every single good thing I have ever given you. Your loss will be so unexpected and so total that, like Ezekiel here, you will have no tears left. For anyone.

So Ezekiel did not mourn or weep in public, as God had instructed him, and his fellow Jews, all too familiar with the show-and-tell aspect of his prophetic ministry, asked him, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” Which Ezekiel did, and God got his illustration.

And a powerful illustration it was. There’s not much more compelling than a family tragedy except maybe a lost love story. This was both. But if an illustration was all God needed, surely something else would have done the job.

Maybe there’s more to it.

Next to Nothing

About Ezekiel’s wife we know next to nothing other than that the prophet loved her deeply. It seems highly unlikely the Lord used the term “delight of your eyes” ironically.

It’s possible the woman had been sick. Unlike Jeremiah, there’s very little in the book of Ezekiel to tell us of the prophet’s feelings and circumstances. Perhaps, like Jerusalem itself, Ezekiel’s wife had been ailing for a long time. It’s not impossible she was at death’s door for other reasons and the Lord granted her relief. Or perhaps she was in perfect health and was taken from her husband with the speed and finality of a brain aneurysm or a massive heart attack. All we know for sure is that the Lord took her away “at a stroke”. Her death was sudden when it happened. How she felt about her own demise we will never know in this life, assuming she knew anything at all.

I mean, would you have told her?

A Greater Suffering

I’m not sure there’s an answer to this that we can all understand, but if there is one to be found, I wonder if it is not in this aspiration of the apostle Paul:
“… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
There’s a weird and wonderful statement. Who wants to share sufferings? Who even wants to dip his toe into the deepest pool of physical and spiritual torment ever experienced in the history of the planet?
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”
That verse from Lamentations is national in character, but surely the original interpretation is eclipsed in the cross of Christ; the sorrow of a suffering nation all but invisible in the looming shadow of the One who bore the sin of the world.

Feeling What God is Feeling

Yet it was these very sufferings into which Paul was keen to enter, and it is likely that in some measure he did, though the book of Acts does not tell us. Further, this spirit of willing self-abnegation for the sake of spiritual insight into the Son of God was not unique to Paul, but characteristic of the Old Testament faithful generally, some of whom were tortured, “refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.” Who is to say that in his years of faithful service and visionary experiences of God, Ezekiel did not himself live with the same inchoate longing?

For what? To know God as he has revealed himself. To become like him. To experience the things he experienced, and share the things he shared.

What we can say for sure is that Ezekiel, who had at times sought modification to God’s edicts, had come to the point in his experience with God where he seems to have accepted this awful pronouncement without a word of protest.

The Heart Behind the Sword

In the act of prophesying, the people hear only a man’s voice. They cannot always be sure it is the voice of God himself. And how does a prophet truly speak authentically unless he too can feel in some limited measure what God is feeling?

Given that most of us relate to these stories only as words on paper, it is unlikely we really understand the deep regret with which God judges sin. I think sometimes we see in our Old Testaments a bit of a caricature: a vengeful monarch smiting and celebrating, and outsourcing the carnage to his angels. That’s not what’s there, but it’s how God is portrayed by unbelievers, and sometimes we fall for it too.

Yet the chapter-long eulogy God gave Ezekiel for the princes of his fallen people has nothing of this gleeful tone in it, nor do Jeremiah’s Lamentations. God himself asks Ezekiel:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
The answer is surely a thousand times no.

A Love Song Ends Badly

Isaiah, speaking a hundred years earlier of this same destruction of Jerusalem, portrays God as singing a love song for Israel, his vineyard, which he is compelled to destroy because “he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry.”

Never has God visited suffering on man, especially his own beloved servants, unless he himself has experienced that suffering far more acutely and on a vastly greater scale. And in the life and death of his beloved Son, we see the lengths to which God was willing to go to deal with the question of sin once and for all.

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