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The Pulpit Commentaries The Pulpit Commentaries
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezekiel 33". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tpc/ ezekiel-33.html. 1897.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezekiel 33". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
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If we may think of Ezekiel as compiling and arranging his own prophecies, we may think of him as returning, with something like a sense of relief, to his own special work as the watchman of the house of Israel. For upwards of two years the messages which it had been given him to write (how far they were in any sense published we have no means of knowing) in Ezekiel 25-32; had dealt exclusively with foreign nations. Now his own people are again the object of his care. He resumes his pastoral office at once for warning and consolation. From this point onwards, with the exception of the strange Meshech-Tubal episode in Ezekiel 38:1-23; Ezekiel 39:1-29; all is leading onwards to the final vision of the rebuilt temple, and the redistributed land of Israel, and through them to the times of the Messianic restoration. No date is given here for the word of the Lord which now came to him, but it may, perhaps be inferred, from Ezekiel 39:21, Ezekiel 39:22, that it was immediately before the arrival of the messenger who brought the tidings that Jerusalem was taken. In the ecstatic state indicated by "the hand of the Lord" he knew that some great change was coming, that he had a new message to deliver, a new part to play.
Speak to the children of thy people. (On the force of the possessive pronoun, see note on Ezekiel 3:1.) The formula is carried on throughout the chapter (Ezekiel 33:12, Ezekiel 33:17, Ezekiel 33:30). Set him for their watchman. Ezekiel falls back upon the thought of Ezekiel 3:17, but the image is expanded with characteristic fullness. The function of the watchman, in which he sees a parable of his own office, is to stand upon his tower (2 Samuel 18:24, 2 Samuel 18:25; 2 Kings 9:17; Habakkuk 2:1), to keep his eye on the distant horizon, and as soon as the clouds of dust or the gleam of armor gives notice of the approach of the enemy, to sound the trumpet of alarm (Amos 3:6; Hosea 8:1; Jeremiah 4:5; Jeremiah 6:1), that men may not be taken unawares. If he discharge that duty faithfully, then, as in Ezekiel 3:17-21, the blood of those that perish through their own negligence shall rest on their own head.
But if the watchman: etc. The words imply what we might almost call the agony of self-accusation. The prophet asks himself whether he has acted on the warning which was borne in on his mind at the very beginning of his mission. Has he sounded the trumpet? Has he warned the people of the destruction that is coming on them? The outward imagery vanishes in Ezekiel 33:7. It is of no Chaldean invader that the prophet had to give personal and direct warning, but of each man's own special sin which was Bringing ruin on himself and on his country.
Thus ye speak, saying, etc. At the earlier stage the prophet had to contend with scorn, incredulity, derision (Ezekiel 12:22). They trusted in the promises of the false prophets (Ezekiel 13:6). They laid to their soul the flattering unction that they were suffering, not for their own sins, but for the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18:2). Now they stand face to face with the fulfillment of the prophet's words. They cherish no hopes, and they make no excuses. They have fallen into the abyss of despair. Admitting their own sin and the righteousness of their punishment, does not the very admission exclude hope? Who can bring life to those that are thus dead in trespasses and sins? The parallelism with Leviticus 26:39-42 is so striking that it can scarcely be accidental
Say unto them, etc. To meet that despair the prophet has to fall back on the truth which he had proclaimed once before (Ezekiel 18:32). He must appear as uttering a message of pardon resting on the unchanging character of the great Absolver. Now, as ever, it is true that he willeth not the death of the wicked, that all punishment (in this world, at least) is meant to lead to repentance, and that for those who repent there is the hope of restoration and of life. No righteousness in the past avails against the transgression of the present (Ezekiel 33:12); but then also no wickedness of the past prevails to shut out the penitent's claim to pardon. As a man is at any given moment, when the judgment comes on him, so is he dealt with. In some sense, as in Ezekiel 33:13, the righteousness of the post may become a stumbling-block. The man may trust in it, and be off his guard, ceasing to watch and pray, and so the temptation may prevail.
If the wicked restore the pledge. In Ezekiel 18:7, Ezekiel 18:12, Ezekiel 18:16, this and its opposite had been grouped with other forms of good and evil. Here it stands out in solitary preeminence. The reason may possibly be found in the fact that a time of exile and suffering was likely to make the sin, which the penitent thus showed that he had renounced, a specially common one. The starving man pledged his garment or his tools for the loan of money or of food at a price far below its value. There was a real self-sacrifice, a proof of the power of the faith that worketh by love, when the creditor restored it. The primary duty, when a man turned from evil, was, as far as in him lay, to overcome his besetting sin and make restitution for the past. Compare the words of the Baptist (Luke 3:12-14), and those of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8). The statutes of life. The words are used as in Ezekiel 20:11 and Le Ezekiel 18:5, on the assumption that, if a man kept the statutes, he should (in the highest sense of the word) live in them. It was reserved for the fuller illumination of St. Paul, taught by a representative experience to proclaim the higher truth that the Law, ordained for life, was yet the minister of condemnation and death unless there was something higher than itself to complete the work which it could only begin (Romans 7:10; Romans 8:3; comp. also Hebrews 7:19).
The way of the Lord is not equal. The prophet now proclaims what he had been taught, perhaps then, without proclaiming it, in Ezekiel 18:25-30. Men are dealt with by the Divine Judge, not as their fathers have Been before them, not even as they themselves have been in times past, but exactly as they are. Where could there be a more perfect rule of equity? The question how far Ezekiel thinks of the judgment itself as final, whether there is the possibility of repentance and pardon after it has fallen, and during its continuance, is not directly answered. He is speaking, we must remember, of a judgment on this side the grave, and therefore what we call the problems of eschatology were not before him. But the language of the document which lies at the basis of his theology (Leviticus 26:41) asserts that if men repented and, "accepted" their earthly punishment, then Jehovah would remember his covenant, and would not destroy them utterly. And his own language as to Sodom and Samaria (Ezekiel 16:53) indicates a leaning to the wider hope. If the problems of the unseen world had been brought before him, we may believe that he would have dealt with them as with those with which he actually came in contact, and that there also his words would have been, "O house of Israel, O sons of men, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?"
In the twelfth year, etc. The capture of Jerusalem took place in the fourth month of the eleventh year (Jeremiah 39:2; Jeremiah 52:6) from the captivity of Jehoiachin and the beginning of Zedekiah's reign. Are we to assume some error of transcription? or is it within the limits of probability that eighteen months would pass without any direct communication from Jerusalem of what had passed there? There is, I conceive, nothing improbable in what is stated. The exiles of Tel-Ahib were not on the high-roads of commerce or of war. All previous communications were cut off by the presence of the Chaldean armies. In the words, one that had escaped, the prophet clearly referred to the intimation given him at the time of his wife's death (Ezekiel 24:26). When the fugitive entered he saw that the hour had at last come. One would give much to know who the fugitive was, but we can only conjecture. Had Baruch been sent by Jeremiah to bear the tidings to his brother prophet? Such a mission would have been a fulfillment of Jeremiah 45:5. A later tradition ascribes to Baruch a prominent part as a teacher among the exiles of Babylon (Bar. 1:2) shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Now the hand of the Lord. When the messenger arrived he found the prophet in a state of ecstasy. This was in the evening. In that prophetic ecstasy his mouth was opened, and the long silence broken, and though he had not heard the message with his outward ears, he had taken, as it were, that message as his text. It was not till his discourse was ended, and the morning came, that he himself heard the terrible tidings from the lips of the messenger. Then a change came over him. He was no more dumb. The long silence was broken. Had the silence lasted, we ask, from Ezekiel 3:26 onward? Had the whole intervening period been one of simply symbolic action, and of written but unspoken prophecies? The words at first suggest that conclusion; but it is traveled by the facts; by the commands of Ezekiel 12:10, Ezekiel 12:23; by the order to "prophesy" in Ezekiel 13:2; by the message to speak unto the elders in Ezekiel 14:4; by the question, "Doth he not speak parables?" of Ezekiel 20:49. I infer, therefore, that, though the silence had been dominant, it had not been unbroken. To some, at least, a message had been spoken. Others may have been allowed to read the written prophecies. The death of the prophet's wife tended, probably, to the continuance of the silence, and it seems a legitimate inference from Ezekiel 24:27 that it had continued from that date onward.
They that inhabit thou wastes of the land. The utterance that follows was probably the direct result of what Ezekiel heard from the messenger. He it was who reported the boastful claims of those who had been left in the land by the Chaldean armies—the "bad figs" of Jeremiah's parable, the least worthy representatives of the seed of Abraham. the assassins of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:1, Jeremiah 41:2), who in these "waste places," the dens and eaves in which they found a refuge, led the lives of outlaws and bandits. The very words of their boast are reproduced: "Abraham, when he was yet but one, received the premise of inheritance. We are comparatively many, and are left as the true seed of Abraham (comp. Matthew 3:9). The land is ours, and we will take possession of the estates of the exiles."
Ye eat with the blood. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that the first offence which he names with horror should be a sin against a positive commandment. He felt, as it were, a sense of loathing at what seemed to him a descent into the worst form of pollution, forbidden, not to the Jews only (Le Ezekiel 17:10; Eze 19:1-14 :26; Deuteronomy 12:16), but to mankind (Genesis 9:4); compare the scene in 1 Samuel 14:32. The same feeling shows itself in Zechariah 9:7 and Acts 15:20, Acts 15:29. The prohibition of blood took its place, in later Judaism, as among the precepts of Noah, which were binding even on the proselytes of the gate, upon whom, as distinct from the proselytes of righteousness, the rite of circumcision was not enforced; and as such were accepted by the council at Jerusalem, as binding also among Christian converts. Not for such as these was the inheritance of Israel, and the prophet asks indignantly, after naming yet more hateful offenses, Shall ye possess the land?
Ye stand upon your sword. The words point to the open assertion of the law that might is right. Men relied on the sword, and on that only, for their support. Assassinations, as in Jeremiah 41:1-18; were, so to speak, as the order of the day. Ye work abomination. The noun, Ezekiel's ever-recurring word, indicates both the act of idolatry and the foul orgiastic rites that accompanied it. The verb, curiously enough, has the feminine suffix. Was it used intentionally, either as pointing to the prominence of women in those rites (Jeremiah 44:15), or to the degrading vices which involved the loss of true manhood (2 Kings 23:7)? So some have thought; but I agree with Keil, Smend, and others, in seeing only an error of transcription. Once more, after heaping up his accusations, Ezekiel asks the question, "Shall ye possess the land?" "Are you the seed of Abraham?"
They that are in the wastes. The words paint, with a terrible vividness, what was passing in Ezekiel's fatherland. Did the fugitives of Judah seek the open country? they were exposed to the sword of the Chaldeans or of marauding outlaws. Did they seek safety in fortresses or caves? they were exposed, crowded together as they were under the worst possible conditions, to the ravages of pestilence.
The children of thy people. The words, like those of Ezekiel 14:1 and Ezekiel 20:1, Ezekiel 20:49, throw light on the prophet's relations to his people. Now that the long silence was broken, and the prophet spoke with greater freedom than he had ever done before, he acquired a fresh notoriety. The character of his last utterance, vindicating, as it might seem, the claim of the exiles to "possess the land," as against that of the remnant "in the wastes," may even have made him popular. The Authorized Version against is misleading; read, with the margin and the Revised Version, about. There was for the time no open hostility. They talked much, in places of private or public resort, of the prophet's new action. Each invited his neighbor to go and hear the prophet as he spake to them his message from Jehovah. And they came as the people cometh, in crowds, even as my people, the people of Jehovah, with reverent gestures and listening eagerly. Never before, we may well believe, had the prophet had so large or so promising a congregation. But he was taught to look below the surface and to read their thoughts, and there he read, as preachers of all ages have too often read after him, that they were hearers, and not doers (Matthew 7:24-27; James 1:23-25). In words they showed much love (the LXX. gives "falsehood"), spoke pleasant things, but the root-evil, the besetting sin, was still there. Their heart went after their covetousness (camp. Matthew 13:22; 2 Timothy 4:10).
A very lovely song; literally, a song of love, an erotic idyll, the word being the same as in Ezekiel 33:31. Yet this was the meaning of the large gathering. They came to hear the prophet, as they would to hear a hired singer at a banquet, like those of Amos 6:5. The prophet's words passed over them and left no lasting impression. All that they sought was the momentary tickling of the sense. The words receive a special significance from Psalms 137:3. The Jewish exiles were famous among their conquerors for the minstrel's art. The nobler singers refused to "sing the songs of Zion in a strange land;" others, it may be, were not so scrupulous. Had the prophet seen his people gather to listen to such a singer? Were they better occupied when they were listening to his message from Jehovah.
When this cometh to pass. The words can scarcely refer to the immediately preceding predictions in Ezekiel 33:27, Ezekiel 33:28, which were primarily addressed to "the people in the waste places," the remnant left in Judah, and we have to go back to the wider, more general teaching of Ezekiel 33:10-20. That was the prophet's message of judgment, his call to repentance. When the judgment should come, as it surely would, then they would know, in the bitterness of self-condemnation, that they had been listening, not to a hireling singer, but to a prophet of Jehovah.
Ezekiel here returns to an idea which he has expressed earlier (Ezekiel 3:17). He stands as a watchman for his people. Every Christian preacher and teacher is in a similar position. The same may be said of every Christian man and woman who knows the peril of sin and has an opportunity of warning the ignorant and. careless.
I. THE DUTIES OF THE WATCHMAN.
1. To watch. In order to serve his people he must first of all see for himself. We can only teach men what we have first learnt. The prophet must be a seer, the apostle a disciple, the missionary a Christian. To watch means
(1) to be awake while others sleep;
(2) to fix attention while others are listless;
(3) to look abroad while others are satisfied with what they can see at home.
The Christian watchman must be spiritually alert; he must not be satisfied with his own notions; he must sweep the horizon of truth; he must consider the distant and the future, but chiefly that which is approaching and of practical moment. He must look especially in two directions:
(1) into the revealed truths of Christianity, to see indications of the principles of life and death;
(2) into the actual world, to note its condition. Knowledge of men must go with knowledge of Scripture. The Christian teacher must not be a mere bookworm or cloistered student; he must know the world—men and affairs.
2. To warn. Having seen danger, the watchman must at once inform the city of the fact. He must wake the slumbering guard, blow the trumpet, or run to the belfry and sound the alarm. The Christian teacher is to warn as well as to comfort and exhort (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
II. THE LIMIT OF HIS RESPONSIBILITY. The watchman has but to watch and warn. When he has been quick to detect approaching danger, perhaps at first but as a faint cloud of dust on the horizon, and vigorous in blowing his trumpet to rouse the city, his part is done. He cannot meet the foe in the plain and prevent them from approaching the city. He cannot man the walls and guard the citadel. He can but blow his trumpet. Further, if the people will not heed or believe him, he cannot compel them to prepare for the conflict. If they still prefer their couches to their swords, the watchman cannot force them to arm. He is not the commander of the city. The greatest Christian teacher is but a watchman. No servant of Christ can compel men to turn from their carelessness and face the stern facts of life. If they will not hearken to faithful expostulation, the preacher can do no more for them. They are free, and they must choose fur themselves.
1. This is a warning to the careless. They may refuse to attend. They can fall asleep again, vexed at the rousing trumpet-blast. But if they do this it is at their peril.
(1) The danger is not the less because it is neglected.
(2) The folly and sin of negligence aggravate the faults of those who give no heed to warning. Now they are without excuse. They can blame no one but themselves.
2. This is a consolation for the faithful watchman. If he is a true man, he must grieve over his negligent hearers. Still, his Master will recognize his fidelity.
III. THE GUILT OF HIS NEGLIGENCE.
1. It is failure in a trust. The citizens sleep in time of peril, and no one expects them to be on guard. But the watchman's special duty is to be awake and give warning. He who is entrusted with responsibility is expected to be true to his charge.
2. It is sin against light. The watchman sees the danger which the sleeping citizens do not perceive. His knowledge adds to his responsibility. His sin is but negative, he gives no false news, he does not play the traitor by opening the gates to the enemy. Yet he is unfaithful.
3. It is negligence that hurts others. It risks a whole city. We risk the welfare of all whom we might help to save, if we fail to warn them. Fear of disturbing their peace is no excuse. The watchman must have courage to sound the alarm. There are times when the harp must be exchanged for the trumpet. The preacher must have courage to say unpleasant things.
A question of despair.
I. THE CAUSE OF THE DESPAIR. The prophet has just been told that his responsibility is limited to his warning the people faithfully. If the watchman blows the trumpet lustily he can do no more. The blood of the careless people will then be on their own heads. But this truth, which gives consolation to the prophet, is alarming to the people. It is meant to be so. Yet the alarm may be taken in a wrong way. Instead of rousing themselves to meet and overcome the danger, the people may sink down paralyzed in the blankness of despair. The explanation of this despair is suggested by the language of the people.
1. A consciousness of guilt. The people perceive that their transgressions and their sins are upon them. The pilgrim feels the weight of his burden. The sudden awakening of an evil conscience plunges its possesser into midnight darkness. The new thing is not to know that wickedness was done; that knowledge was always possessed, though hitherto not much considered. It is to know that the sins still rest upon their doer, i.e. it is the feeling of present guilt for past deeds of wickedness.
2. An experience of the consequences of sin. "And we pine away in them." The death-penalty of sin does not come like a flash of lightning. Sin is a slow poison. It kills by a sort of spiritual consumption. With an awakening conscience the man perceives himself to be in a spiritual decline. No perception can be more provocative of despair.
II. THE QUESTION IT AROUSES. "How should we then live?" The despair is not yet absolute, or it would not suggest such a question as this. The most awful despair does not live in Doubting Castle. It is immured in a black dungeon of certain negation. Possibly the question suggested does not expect any answer. It sees no reply, and does not believe that any can be given. The decline is so steadfast, and the disease of sin that causes it so deep-rooted, that the despairing soul cannot look for deliverance, and the question is a sort of expostulation offered to the prophet when he would take a more hopeful view. Still it is a question, and therefore it leaves room for an answer. It is much that men should be brought to ask such a question. Too many do not perceive their danger, though they live in sin unrepented and unrestrained. The question implies certain thoughts.
1. Sinners are in imminent peril of death. To those who are truly awakened the prospect must be alarming. But the danger is not the less for those who do not yet perceive it.
2. Men cannot save their own souls. These endangered people must look elsewhere for safety. Unless salvation comes from above, it cannot be had.
3. Men need light on the way of salvation. It is not visible to the eye of sense; it cannot be discovered by thinking. The world needs a gospel. The heathen pine away, not knowing the Divine source of life.
4. Christ answers the Question of despair with a gospel of hope. The answer is suggested in the next verse (Ezekiel 33:11). It is completed in the gospel of Christ.
God's desire for the world's salvation.
This is a Divine oath. God swears by his own life (see Hebrews 6:13). This shows how certain are the words spoken, how earnestly God desires men to accept them, and how difficult it is for men to believe them.
I. MEN HAVE FOUND IT DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE THAT GOD HAS NO PLEASURE IN THE DEATH OF THE WICKED. Doctrines of reprobation were once popular. People thought that God destined the greater part of mankind to eternal misery before they were born, in order to magnify his own glory. The heathen have had ideas of gods who delighted in blood. Christians have thought that there is a certain Divine satisfaction in taking vengeance on the sinner. Consider the causes of these views.
1. Divine warnings. God warns sternly. Hence he is thought to will harshly. It is supposed that he desires to do what he threatens.
2. The analogy of human passions. With man "revenge is sweet." Therefore it is thought to be so with God. Men act too much in order to please themselves. Therefore they imagine that God does the same.
3. The experience of Divine judgments. They are at times so sweeping and wholesale, and escape from them seems to be so hopeless, that their victims are tempted to regard them as the outcome of God's own desires.
II. IT IS A FACT THAT GOD HAS NO PLEASURE IN THE DEATH OF THE WICKED.
1. This is positively affirmed. Here it is stated on oath. No truth of revelation is more clear or positive than this.
2. It is true to the character of God. God is love, and love can have no pleasure in suffering and death. God is our Father, and a true father can have no pleasure in the death of his children.
3. It is confirmed by the action of God, who has sent his Son to save the world. While death is the wages of sin, the gift of God is the opposite-eternal life. The New Testament is a grand contradiction to theological pessimism.
III. THE DEATH OF THE WICKED IS DUE TO THEIR OWN WILLS. "Why will ye die?" He wills to die who wills the means of death. The man who takes poison takes his life. When the process is revealed this is done openly. When it is not seen it is still done. The sinner then wills his own death, though unwittingly, by deliberately choosing the course that will certainly issue in it. Now, this is a matter of a man's own volition. So absolute is the territory of will that the wicked may yet die in their sins, although God not only does not desire their death, but earnestly desires their salvation. The awful freedom of man's will—this is the rook on which universalism breaks.
IV. GOD ENTREATS MEN TO TURN AND LIVE.
1. It is possible for all to live. As the sinner chooses his own death, so the means of life-deliverance are within his reach. He cannot save himself, but he may choose whether he will be saved.
2. The condition of life is conversion. "Turn ye from your evil ways." This is true repentance. It means more than regretful tears. It takes place in the will, not merely in the emotions. A tearless change is true conversion, while weeping without change is worthless sentiment. Yet this does not require perfect conquest of evil and a full recovery from it before God will have mercy. We are to turn round. The progress up the hill to light and life has yet to be made. Repentance sets cur faces in the right direction.
3. God urges and entreats sinners to turn and live. This shows
(1) their great danger;
(2) God's wonderful compassion and love; and yet
(3) the difficulty of inducing men to repent.
Thus God still pleads in infinite pity with his lost children. Happy are they who hear his gracious call and respond to it!
Past and present.
I. THE PRESENT WILL NOT BE JUDGED BY THE PAST. This is one principle underlying the various very clear statements of the passage. It is a principle that is needed in order to balance the influence of other principles that appear to work in an opposite direction. Indeed, at first sight it seems to be contradictory to some well-known laws. Is it not repeatedly asserted that a man will be judged by his past life? The sins of the past may be forgotten, but they stand recorded in the book of judgment and the guilt of them remains on the sinner. How, then, is it possible for the present and future to be free from the past?
1. The past lives by its effects in the present. If, however, by effort of will, aided by Divine grace, we neutralize the bad past, then that past is slain.
2. Forgiveness removes the guilt of the past.
3. Past innocence has no power in it to prevent present sin. It is a help in that direction, for it works through the force of habit. But habit may be resisted and broken.
II. PAST RIGHTEOUSNESS WILL NOT EXCUSE PRIEST SIN. We are judged chiefly, at all events, by what we are, rather than by what we were. Moreover, there is no possibility of our having acquired an extra stock of merit in the past which we can set off against our present failing. We never have a balance on the credit side of our account with Heaven. At our best we are but "unprofitable servants' (Luke 17:10). An employer cares little for old testimonials. He must see a certificate of character up to date. If a man has borne an excellent reputation for years, and at last breaks down and disgraces himself, he is said to have "lost his character." His good name in the past now counts for nothing. It is utterly gone. Now, the practical warning that issues from these considerations is that we must take good heed to our present life. It is of no use to hark back to the day of conversion for assurance. We may long have left the good beginnings of that day. There is no security in past service, position in the Church, etc. We need to be on our guard against falling, even to the last. It is possible to turn aside at the eleventh hour. The ship may be wrecked in sight of the haven; then her passengers will not be saved by their memory of their long prosperous voyage.
III. PAST SIN WILL NOT PREVENT PRESENT SALVATION. Happily, the principle works both ways. If we must first take it as a warning against trusting in a good past, we may also consider it as a reason for not despairing on account of a bad past.
1. The bad past may be forsaken. The grace of Christ will help us to break loose from the tyranny of habit.
2. The bad past may be forgiven. The Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world removes the stains of guilt from penitent souls. Then God will no more accuse them of the past. Pardon covers the past with oblivion.
3. The new present is what God observes. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Then God only looks at the new life and judges of that. Therefore we supremely need grace for the present moment. We live in the present. Religion is for the present.
Charging God with injustice.
I. IT IS NATURAL FOR MEN TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE JUSTICE OF GOD'S ACTIONS. The moral character of Providence is of immense importance. If God acted from caprice, there would be no ground on which we could rely in approaching him, and our whole lives would lie at the mercy of chance. If he were unjust, the most fearful confusion would result. Our security lies in the justice of God, in our knowledge that he will only do what is fair and equable and right. Though we depend on the mercy of God, we cannot refrain from appealing repeatedly to his justice. We are much concerned to know that he is perfectly just.
II. THERE ARE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH GOD APPEARS TO BE UNJUST. It certainly cannot be said that nature and providence are clear revelations of Divine justice, so legibly written that he who runs may read. The world abounds with inequalities. There are the greatest differences in the lots of innocent children. Good men fall into adversity; bad men prosper. The special ground of difficulty with the readers of Ezekiel was that men of time-honored character were punished, while notorious sinners were pardoned. This was apparently a matter of much distress and doubt, leading to accusations against God for not acting equally, i.e. fairly.
III. IT IS FOOLISH TO FORM HASTY OPINIONS CONCERNING GOD'S JUSTICE.
1. We do not know all the facts. We see a certain superficial condition; what lies deeper is hidden. Possibly Ezekiel's contemporaries did not know of the fall of the men of good repute, or of the amendment of their notoriously wicked acquaintances.
2. We do not know all the principles on which God acts. They may be ultimately based on justice, and yet they may be complicated with various considerations. God is not only rewarding and punishing.
3. We do not know the true character of events. What we name evil may really be good. At all events, there may be mercies in disguise.
IV. MEN ARE SLOW TO RECOGNIZE GOD'S PERCEPTION OF CHARACTER. Most people are reluctant to admit that characters are susceptible of change. They label their acquaintances with certain moral titles, and they refuse to allow that those titles are altered. At all events, this is especially true in regard to changes for the worse in themselves and in regard to alterations for the better in others. A man takes it for granted that he will always be estimated according to his old good character. On the other hand, the world is slow to believe in repentance and amendment. It regards the pardon of the sinner as unreasonable, because it will not see that when he repents he is no longer a sinner.
V. IT IS COMMON TO LAY THE CHARGE OF MAN'S INJUSTICE TO GOD'S ACCOUNT. "But as for them, their way is not equal." Straight lines look crooked when regarded through a crooked glass. To the unjust man justice seems to be unjust. Sin gives an evil color to holiness. The righteousness of God is obscured by man's unrighteousness,
VI. IT WOULD BE WELL FOR MEN TO CONSIDER THEIR OWN WAYS INSTEAD OF JUICING GOD'S WAYS. The trouble that is wasted in difficult theological speculations had better be spent in searching self-examination. While we are looking for a mote in God's eye, we Jail to see the beam in our own eye—the beam that caused us to fancy there was any mote in God's eye at all! Theology is too often an excuse for the neglect of religion, but difficulties in providence do not destroy the guilt of sin.
The right of the many.
The idea seems to be—though Abraham was but one man, yet he was promised Canaan; much more, then, must his descendants have a right to the land, since they now form a numerous nation. This plea is urged against the threat that the Jews shall be expelled from their land. It is not difficult to discover its hollowness. But it is propped up by common fallacies against which we need to be on our guard.
I. THE PLEA. It stands on two grounds.
1. That children have a right to their father's property. This is recognized in law and equity. If a man dies intestate, his family inherits his goods as a matter of course. The same is looked for in regard to the special privileges of Divine grace.
2. That numbers multiply rights. If Abraham had a right to the land, much more must a whole nation of his descendants hold that right. This democratic age glories in the rights of numbers. No doubt the people have rights as against privileged monopolists. Thus it may well be urged in an over-populous country, that the people have certain rights in the land, that there must be some limit at least to landlord monopoly. The same democratic feeling passes over to religion. Christ preached to the people, and "the common people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). Hence the idea that privilege in religion is transferred from the monopolist to the multitude, from priest to people, from Israel to the world.
II. THE FALLACY.
1. The descendants of Abraham may not be his true children. It was a mistake to make much of descent from the great ancestor. That only condemned the more heavily the sins of his unworthy descendants. John the Baptist rebuked this mistake when he told the proud Jews that God was able to raise up children to Abraham from the very stones of the wilderness (Matthew 3:9). St. Paul pointed out that not all who were of the stock of Israel could be accounted the true Israel of God (Romans 9:6). They are Abraham's children who inherit Abraham's faith.
2. Where no right exists, the number of claimants will not create it. The right to Canaan was only conferred by God's grace, and only held on condition of faithfulness. It could be and it was withdrawn when that condition was broken. The number who claimed the right could not affect the question as to the desert of the people to retain it. No one merits the kingdom of heaven. If millions claim the privileges of the kingdom, the millions have no right to it. The number of sinners creates no fight to have the pardon of sin. If the whole world deserves destruction, the whole world may be destroyed. Its numbers will not save it. If we appeal to God's grace, that applies to a single individual. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his notice. He has infinite love for the most obscure of his subjects. Therefore the multiplication of the number of the guilty will not arouse his pity in a new and special manner.
3. Each individual must seek individual grace. We cannot be made citizens of the kingdom of heaven en masse. We must go single file through the strait gate.
4. There is room in the grace of God for the greatest number. The multitude of applicants can never be too great for infinite bounty. The many can claim no rights. But the gospel is for them, not for the few. Christ came to give his life a ransom "for many" (Matthew 20:28).
Ezekiel illustrates the characteristics of popular preaching in his own person and example. He is also brought to see how vain and delusive the attractiveness of it may be.
I. THE SECRET OF POPULAR PREACHING.
1. A good voice. Ezekiel's preaching was "as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice." The first physical condition of preaching is to be able to make one's self heard. The story of Demosthenes declaiming with pebbles in his mouth by the seashore shows how the Greeks valued good articulation in oratory.
2. A graceful manner. Ezekiel was compared to a skilled player of music. The human voice is a delicate instrument. The manner in which it is used considerably affects the attractiveness of the speaker. An audience likes to hear pleasant speaking.
3. Rhythmic utterance. The special charm of Ezekiel's speech was compared to song and music. There is a rhythm of thought as well as of words. People do not enjoy rude shocks to their prejudices.
4. Imaginativeness. We have the substance of Ezekiel's preaching, and even in the reduced form of an abstract and a translation it teems with imagery. People enjoy good illustrations. The concrete is more interesting than the abstract.
5. Fervor. The popular description of Ezekiel's preaching would do injustice to the prophet if we were not able to supplement it with is recorded utterances. Ezekiel was not an empty, mellifluous rhetorician. He put his heart into his words. Though less pathetic than Hosea and Jeremiah, and though falling short of the rapture of Isaiah, he was a preacher of power and earnestness. Pleasant words cloy if forcible words do not accompany them. Demosthenes the orator of force was greater than Cicero the orator of grace.
6. Truth. Ezekiel spoke true words—words that were true to fact and life, true to the heart of man, and true to the thought of God. There is a spell in truth. To speak truth feebly may arrest attention when to clothe error with all the charms of rhetoric fails.
7. Inspiration. Ezekiel was a prophet. He spoke under Divine influence. This was the greatest cause of his power. The preacher needs to be a prophet. He must drink of the Divine well if he would give forth words of power.
II. THE FAILURE OF POPULAR PREACHING.
1. Popularity is no proof of success. In his early preaching Ezekiel was neglected (Ezekiel 3:7). But there came a turn in the tide, and then his name was in everybody's mouth, and people thronged to hear him. Yet this was not success. There is no proof that a good work is being accomplished, in the fact that crowds hang upon the utterances of a famous speaker. It may be that he is prostituting his gifts, and catering only for applause, to the neglect of truth and right, like Jeremiah's pleasant-speaking rivals (Jeremiah 23:16, Jeremiah 23:17). But even if he speaks like Ezekiel, like Ezekiel he may be to the people but a pleasant voice.
2. To be interested in preaching is no proof of truly benefiting by it.
(1) There may be a social interest, in following the crowds who run after a fashionable orator.
(2) There may be an emotional interest, when the pulpit is taken as the Sunday substitute for the stage, and people relieve the ennui of commonplace existence by indulging in the emotions stirred by eloquence.
(3) There may be an intellectual interest, when theological questions are in vogue, as in Puritan times, when men discussed predestination at the alehouse. Milton represents Satan and his crew debating deep theological problems in hell. Their interest in theology did not save them. We may be interested in the substance of preaching, and anxious to learn truth, and yet still fall to receive the designed good of the message.
3. Preaching fails if it does not lead to practice. Ezekiel's hearers flatter hum with lip-thanks, and make verbal acknowledgments, of what he says; but they go no further.
(1) The heart is not touched. Their heart goeth after their covetousness."
(2) The conduct is not affected. "They hear thy words, but they do them not."
Ezekiel agrees with St. James, that hearing without doing is vain (James 1:22). So Christ teaches in his parable of the house on the sand and the house on the rock (Matthew 7:24-27).
The recognition of a prophet.
I. A PROPHET IS NOT ALWAYS RECOGNIZED. Ezekiel was among his people as a prophet, yet they did not admit his claim. This is the more remarkable because they recognized the charm of his preaching, which had become exceedingly popular. His higher ministry was still ignored. While the common people heard Christ gladly, and confessed that "never man spake like this Man," his greatest message was ignored, and his chief claim set aside by the multitude. God sometimes sends a prophet to these later times. His gifts and powers are recognized, but the world is slow to perceive that he brings a message from God.
1. The deeper truth does not show itself in outward effects on the senses.
2. Men are too often out of all sympathy with spiritual truth.
3. A prophet's words may refer to the future.
II. A PROPHET WILL BE RECOGNIZED WHEN THE TRUTH OF HIS WORDS IS CONFIRMED BY EVENTS.
1. A prophet's words are true. The mere utterance of lofty thoughts is of little value if those thoughts are not true. The authority of a prophet resides in the truth of his message.
2. A true prophet's words concern facts of life. They have not only to deal with unseen verities; they also concern the application of those verities to everyday experience. There they may be seen and tested. Religion bears upon life. Its truth is illustrated by its working in the world. If our faith will work, we have a good reason for believing that it is grounded in truth.
3. A prophet's words will be tested by events. The false prophet will be surely exposed. If people had not very short memories they would observe how a succession of modern prophets have fixed near dates for the accomplishment of predictions in Daniel and the Revelation; the wave of time has wiped out these fatal dates, and yet the world exists! On first thought we should think it a privilege to have been contemporaries with the prophets-to have heard Isaiah preach, and Ezekiel, and Hosea; to have listened to Peter and John and Paul; above all, to have been in the throng that gathered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus was on earth. Yet our present privileges are really greater than any could have been under those circumstances, because we have the grand confirmation of history.
III. A PROPHET SHOULD BE RECOGNIZED BY HIS HEARERS.
1. Not to recognize him reveals spiritual callousness. The true prophet is not only discerned by visible signs. We are required to "try the spirits" (1 John 4:1). Thus it is possible to know whether a man comes to us from God. At all events, we may judge by the present moral and spiritual results of teaching. Without waiting for historical events, "by their fruits ye shall know them" in their influence on present-day life. It is to the disgrace of the Church that some of her best teachers have been tabooed as heretics or neglected with chilling indifference.
2. Not to recognize him means to miss a golden opportunity. For a prophet to have been among us, and yet not to have been recognized, means a sad loss. He may have been popular as a preacher, yet we have grieved his heart if we have not acknowledged his Divine mission. When it is too late this is seen. No sooner is the persecuted or neglected prophet departed than a chorus of praises springs up around his grave. It would have been better to have hearkened to his living words. Men build the tombs of dead prophets, and stone their living successors.
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
The commission of the watchman.
In the position occupied by Ezekiel there was much that was special and peculiar; his commission and his duty accordingly differed in many respects from those of other prophets, and in a degree still more marked from those of ordinary ministers of religion. Still, the points in which his ministry accorded with that of other heralds of Divine righteousness and mercy were both more numerous and more important than those which were special to himself. The consideration of Ezekiel's calling must therefore not only help us to realize what was his work, but help us to apprehend and feel how solemn and sacred is the responsibility attaching to the office of every true religious teacher and preacher.
I. HIS DIVINE APPOINTMENT. Upon this the mind of the prophet was clear. He had heard his God, the God of his fathers, addressing his inmost nature: "I have set thee a watchman." He did not assume the office and the work at the instigation of his own heart. It was not through vanity or ambition that he took upon him to speak authoritatively to his countrymen. He was not invited or summoned by the house of Israel to be their counselor. The voice that called him was Divine; it was a voice which he had no moral option but to obey.
II. HIS SPECIAL CHARGE. Ezekiel did indeed receive messages for others than his countrymen; he communicated the mind and will of God to Edom and to Moab, to Tyre and to Egypt. But it was the house of Israel to whom he was sent, who were placed, in a measure, under his care. They were his own people and kindred, sharing his inherited advantages and privileges. And he seems to have felt towards them very much, as centuries afterwards, Paul felt towards his kindred according to the flesh. He had a burning zeal and solicitude for their welfare. He counted it an honorable and sacred, although a very painful, office to watch for their souls.
III. HIS PERSONAL QUALIFICATIONS. It is not fanciful to lay great stress upon the appellation by which he is constantly addressed by the Lord himself: "Son of man." In order to mediate between God and man, a prophet needs not only a nature reverent and receptive towards God, but a nature sympathetic towards man. A true man, understanding human strength and weakness, entering into the trials and temptations of human life, appreciating human motives, hopes, fears, and aims, the minister of religion is qualified to deal with the souls of his fellow-creatures. No one can read the book of his prophecies without feeling that Ezekiel was just such a man.
IV. HIS RECEPTIVE ATTITUDE. Ezekiel's first business was to place himself in communication with the Being in whom is all truth, in whom is all authority. "Hear the word at my mouth!" was God's command. A mind confident in its own wisdom, self-sufficient and arrogant, could not fulfill the prophetic office aright. The prophet speaks for God; but he must first be with God. He must see the vision he is to relate, and hear the message he is to repeat. There is ever danger lest religious teachers should teach upon their own account; but reverence and modesty should lead them to regard themselves as vehicles of truth and warning, promise and encouragement, to their fellow-men.
V. HIS ACTIVE DUTY. "Warn them from me!" was the Divine command; which implies that the house of Israel was in danger, and needed stirring and authoritative admonition. And this was indeed the ease, as is apparent from the facts of their history. It is an unthankful office to discharge, and Ezekiel met, as every faithful Teacher must do, with hostility and unbelief, with resentment and ingratitude. But the duty was plain, and the prophet fulfilled it, whether men gave heed or forbore. And his ministry was not wholly in vain.—T.
Ezekiel 33:8, Ezekiel 33:9
The responsibility of the watchman.
It was well that the prophet should be given clearly to understand what was expected and required of him, not by men to whom he was sent, but by God who sent him. Plainer language could not have been used than this, in which Ezekiel is not only told the nature of his message to the house of Israel, but is informed of the responsibility attaching to the manner in which the commission was fulfilled.
I. THE DUTY. The special duty of the watchman or guardian, as here explained, concerns the treatment of the wicked. More particularly it is for him
(1) to warn the wicked;
(2) to assure the inattentive and impenitent that the punishment of death awaits him;
(3) to admonish him to repent.
II. THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE. Enthusiasm sometimes loses sight of this. Many a young minister of religion commences his work with the conviction that God's message has only to be delivered in order to its acceptance; that the moral Law is so beautiful that it has but to be exhibited in order to be revered and honored; that the gospel is so precious and glorious that no one who hears it can fail to embrace it. Experience dispels many of our illusions; and it is soon found that there are men capable of listening to the threats of the Law and to the promises of the gospel with utter indifference and unconcern. Ezekiel was reminded that some of the wicked might not turn, might die in their iniquity. Doubtless he found that this was actually the case. It is no discredit either to the message or to the messenger that men do not accept the Word and act upon it. Our Lord Jesus had occasion to marvel at the unbelief of those to whom he ministered; and when St. Paul preached, "some believed, and some believed not."
III. THE UNFAITHFUL WATCHCASE. This is the appointed guardian who "does not speak to warn the wicked of his way." This unfaithfulness may be accounted for by indolence, or by undue fear, or by a desire to conciliate and please his hearers. But all such motives should be consumed by a burning desire on the part of the spiritual guardian to commend himself to his Master. The watchman is assured that if, through his unfaithfulness, the wicked dies unwarned and impenitent in his iniquity, the blood of the perishing shall be required at the watchman's hand.
IV. THE FAITHFUL WATCHMAN. Faithfulness does not involve uniform or even usual success. The earnestly and frequently warned may nevertheless die in his iniquity, The fervent prophet, the zealous preacher, the diligent pastor, may have the inexpressible sorrow of seeing little fruit of their labor. It may be necessary that the testimony should be borne, even though rejected and despised. But the servant of the Lord is assured, for his encouragement, that, if he does his duty, he delivers his soul His workmanship may perish in the flames; yet he himself may be saved, though through the fire.—T.
Ezekiel 33:12, Ezekiel 33:13
The vanity of transitory goodness.
The ministers of religion are often pained and sometimes discouraged by instances, such as are here referred to, of that goodness which is "as the morning cloud and the early dew, which soon goeth away."
I. THERE IS A GOODNESS WHICH IS SPECIOUS, BUT SUPERFICIAL. Like the seed growing upon rocky soil, it springs up rapidly, and its show is fair; but the reality has no correspondence to the appearance. Impressible, easily influenced, and fickle natures are the soil upon which this growth is observed.
II. IN TIME OF TRIAL THE BASELESSNESS OF THIS GOODNESS IS MADE APPARENT. The man trusts to his own righteousness, commits iniquity, and transgresses the Divine Law. Temptation assails, persecution terrifies, ridicule overcomes, evil example persuades; and then the weak character yields, unable to endure the probation. Such cases are frequent in the experience of all who work for God and have to deal with a variety of human character and disposition.
III. GOODNESS WHICH DOES NOT ENDURE PROBATION IS NOT REMEMBERED, AND AVAILS NOTHING IN GOD'S SIGHT. The character of a man is regarded as a whole, and is not judged by any partial aspects or manifestations. Because a man has had good feelings or has performed good acts, it does not follow that he is a good man. It is life, and not any one day of life, which is the true period of probation. A virtue that cannot endure temptation is no true virtue. "He that endureth to the end shall be saved."
APPLICATION. The minister of religion must not be misled by the mere appearance of piety. He must wait and look for the proof of that deep-seated principle, which alone can govern the conduct and transfigure the life. At the same time, he must make use of every means to fortify men against inevitable temptation, and especially must he admonish the young and inexperienced to watch and to pray, and to take unto them the whole armor of God.—T.
Ezekiel 33:14, Ezekiel 33:15
The efficacy of repentance.
If, on the one hand, the prophet was warned that some seemingly righteous, superficially good, would fail, he was encouraged, on the other hand, by the assurance that some wicked persons would, as the result of his admonitions, repent and convert, and would be brought to true and Divine life.
I. THE SEAT OF REPENTANCE. This must be the spiritual nature. The promptings to a better life come from within, from better feelings and better convictions and purposes. Repentance is a change of mind, of heart.
II. THE MANIFESTATIONS OF REPENTANCE. These will vary with the previous life, with the special circumstances, the opportunities and position of the convert. In Ezekiel 33:15 these practical proofs of repentance are mentioned, and these acts may be taken as examples of the modes in which true repentance will undoubtedly display itself.
III. THE REWARD OF REPENTANCE.
1. The evil deeds of the former life shall not be remembered or imputed.
2. The sentence of death shall be cancelled.
3. The penitent and reformed shall live, i.e. in the life of God himself.—T.
Ezekiel was well aware that his message would not meet with universal acceptance. But he was also aware that it would meet, not only with indifference and unbelief, but also with hostility and rejection. The very principles of the Divine government would be questioned. Forewarned is forearmed. And the prophet was himself convinced of the Divine justice. For were he not so convinced, the heart would have been taken out of his work, and his personal and ministerial life would have been blighted and weakened.
I. THE DIVINE EQUITY CHALLENGED. There were those who, when they listened to the intentions of the Supreme Ruler, as declared by his minister, criticized the principles of God's administration, affirming, "The way of the Lord is not equal."
1. There is a presumption against this criticism, arising from human ignorance and the limitation of human faculties.
2. And there is a presumption against it, arising from all that we certainly know of the character of the supreme Eternal Judge.
3. Another objection in many cases arises from the character of those who censure the ways of God: they have much to fear from judgment by a righteous and impartial tribunal.
II. THE DIVINE EQUITY VINDICATED. It is very remarkable that the method of vindication is not by a labored argument, but by a direct statement of fact and a direct appeal to men's reason and conscience. "O house of Israel, I will judge every one of you after his ways." That is to say:
1. God's judgment and the consequent retribution are facts which no objection or skepticism can destroy.
2. The principles of God's judicial action are such as it is hard for any reasonable man to blame or dispute. Every man is to be judged individually, and every man is to be judged upon his own conduct and his own character. These considerations have only to be amplified and to be pondered, and they afford a convincing and satisfactory reply to the objections of the captions and critical.—T.
Ezekiel had relatedly and most plainly foretold the capture of Jerusalem. He waited in sad suspense for the fulfillment of his inspired prediction. At last it came; and one who had escaped from Jerusalem, and who had fled eastward, brought the tidings to the children of the Captivity.
I. THESE TIDINGS AFFECTED EZEKIEL AS A MAN, AROUSING HIS SYMPATHY.
II. THESE TIDINGS AFFECTED HIM AS A PATRIOT, AFFLICTING HIM WITH HUMILIATION. Jerusalem was the metropolis of his country, of his race,—it was the scene of events famous in national story. It had been won by the prowess of David; it had been adorned by the opulence and splendor of Solomon; it had been the emporium of commerce, and the home of the learned and the great. It had been the chosen seat of the sanctuary of Jehovah. How could a true-hearted Hebrew like Ezekiel hear of the capture and fall of the city of David, without feeling his heart sore and anguished because of his country's bitter humiliation?
III. THESE TIDINGS AFFECTED HIM, AS A DEVOUT ISRAELITE, WITH SINCERE DISTRESS. Ezekiel looked upon this event as a chastisement from God inflicted because of the unfaithfulness of the people, and their neglect to use their privileges and opportunities as they should have done. When the blow fell, his fears were realized and his sorrow was stirred within him, because of this consequence of Judah's sins, and because of the evidence afforded of the displeasure of the righteous God.
IV. THESE TIDINGS AFFECTED HIM AS A PROPHET WHO RECOGNIZED HEREIN THE FULFILMENT OF THE INSPIRED PREDICTION. What befell Jerusalem was what Ezekiel had, in the name of the Lord, repeatedly and plainly foretold. He could not but be confirmed in the veracity of his God and in the authenticity of his own commission, when the word which he had spoken was fulfilled, and when the disaster of which he had faithfully warned his fellow-countrymen fell upon them in all its destructiveness and desolation.—T.
The powerlessness of privilege to save.
At length the prophet's lips are opened; and he who for so long has been dumb, so far as ministration to his own people was concerned, is set free to testify to the sons of Abraham. While silenced as regards Israel, Ezekiel has prophesied concerning the heathen nations. Now he again addresses his countrymen, and it is interesting to observe to what purpose he uses his recovered liberty of speech. Always candid, fearless, and faithful, the prophet assures his countrymen that a position of privilege, regarded by itself, is no guarantee of salvation and blessing, that privileges neglected and abused only entail the severer condemnation.
I. ISRAEL'S PRIVELEGES. These were many, but Ezekiel makes especial reference to two.
1. The descent of the nation from Abraham, the father of the faithful and the friend of God.
2. The promise of inheriting the land. This Jehovah had given to the progenitors of the nation, and he had fulfilled his gracious assurance. No people were so highly favored; they possessed the memory of their glorious ancestors; the laws and promises given by Moses, their great leader, deliverer, and legislator; the institutions of priesthood, sacrifice, and worship, by which God revealed himself to his people and secured to them his mercy and favor; and all the associations and advantages connected with the occupation of the land of promise.
II. ISRAEL'S UNFAITHFULNESS. The people had Abraham to their father, but they did not the works of Abraham, and they had not Abraham's faith. The people did possess the land, but they did not use their national privileges as they might have done, they did not make the land a land of righteousness and true piety. The prophet, in this passage, refers to faults and sins of two orders, with which the people are especially upbraided.
(1) Idolatrous apostacy; and
(2) moral delinquency,—both of which are charged upon the people with that outspoken plainness by which Ezekiel's writings are so strikingly and honorably marked.
III. ISRAEL'S PUNISHMENT. There is a certain monotony about these threats and denunciations. Because of the abominations which these highly favored people have committed, it is foretold:
1. That multitudes shall be slain by the sword of the enemy, by the wild beasts that shall multiply because of the desolation of the land, and by the pestilence.
2. That the country, in consequence of the calamities befalling its inhabitants, shall be wasted. The pride and pomp of her power shall cease, and her mountains shall be desolate, that done shall pass through.
IV. ISRAEL'S WITNESS TO GOD. This is an unintentional and unconscious witness, but nonetheless a valuable and effective testimony for all who receive it. Those who see and hear of the fulfillment of the Divine warnings and predictions cannot but have their faith confirmed in the truth and power of the Most High, and in the righteousness of his dealings with the sons of men. He is shown to be a Judge, from whose observation and cognizance no misdemeanor can be screened, and from whose righteous sentence no criminal can escape.—T.
The prophet's reception.
Oftentimes have faithful ministers of religion to share the experience and the distress of Ezekiel, who was listened to with a measure of curiosity, interest, and satisfaction, but whose counsels were unheeded and whose requirements were unfulfilled. The Lord, who commissioned his servant the prophet, assured him that, notwithstanding his authoritative commission, he should meet, from many who heard his voice, with incredulity and practical rejection. Some, who were gratified with his discourse, his poetical illustrations, his sublime flights of imagination, his grand and rhetorical invective, should nevertheless refuse or neglect to put his precepts and admonitions into practice. There is something very picturesque in the account here given of the prophet's reception. Some of its points are these—
I. GENERAL INTEREST. The people talk of him, even if they talk against him; they say one to another, "Come, let us hear the word." Ezekiel had not, therefore, to complain of neglect.
II. OUTWARD AND VERBAL RESPECT. His prophetic vocation is acknowledged. The people come to him and sit before him and listen to his discourse. There is every outward demonstration of honor.
III. ENJOYMENT OF HIS LANGUAGE. "Thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument." The melody of the prophet's speech, the grace of his diction, the grandeur of his style, excite and please the imagination of all who are capable of literary appreciation.
IV. PROFESSIONS OF LOVE. There is something beyond mere admiration. "With their mouth they show much love." A witness within assures the people that the prophet is a man who feels for them and desires their welfare. Love awakens love, and in a superficial way they feel a certain attachment to the prophet personally; they know him to be their true friend.
V. CONSCIOUSNESS OF INCONSISTENCY BETWEEN THE PROPHETIC DOCTRINE AND THEIR OWN LIFE. This arises from their disobedience to the prophetic counsel and requirements. They hear the words of the Lord, but they will not do them; their heart goeth forth into covetousness. A schism is thus created between their innermost convictions—the voice of reason and of conscience on the one hand, and their habitual practice on the other. The Word fails to produce a moral reformation. In such cases the prophet prophesies in vain.
VI. MATTER IS THUS LAID UP FOR FUTURE REPENTANCE. When we see what is best and do it not, we may be assured that our choice is one which we shall surely come to regret. The Hebrews of Ezekiel's time knew that he was a just and faithful man, to whom they listened with interest and pleasure. They were assured that the time-should come when they should know that there had been a prophet among them, and that in neglecting his ministrations they had forfeited blessings then placed within their reach, and had wronged their own souls. Privileges neglected and abused can never be recalled, but their memory will be bitter when they rise up in judgment against the unfaithful.—T.
HOMILIES BY J.D. DAVIES
The watchman's office.
All the resources of God's ingenuity are employed to find argument and appeal for man's slumbering conscience. The incidents of ordinary life are carved into channels for the conveyance of Divine messages. No man shall say that the message was above his comprehension. For even a child can understand if it is willing. Lessons concerning the heavenly life meet the eye of the observer all the day long. As prudent men act to conserve their bodily life, so God acts in our spiritual concernments.
I. A HOSTILE INVASION SUPPOSED. In the earlier days of human history raids from neighboring tribes were frequent. International rights and usages were things unknown. Such an act as a public declaration of war was never considered a public duty. The more secretly and suddenly a hostile army could make its attack, the more to its credit. Hence a border population was kept in continual suspense. It had to bear the brunt of a thousand alarms and a thousand perils. Such invasions were often the act of God. Even idolatrous and wicked men are sometimes God's instruments, God's hand. As often as the invaders marched on territory to vindicate a right or to punish an offence, they marched at God's command. If the motive for war was mere desire for plunder, or greed of laud, or sheer military ambition, God was not in it. For God cannot sanction any form of iniquity, whether it be public or private. But war is often the scourge which God uses to vindicate his claims or to punish men; and though in outward appearance the invasion may seem only a piece of human real ice, it is, in truth, an act of God's retribution. As God has his methods for chastising individual men, so has he his methods for chastising nations. His forms of penalty are myriad fold.
II. A SENTINEL APPOINTED. In such a time of peril as that of invasion the people knit themselves together for mutual defense. It was wise economy to choose one who should be drafted off from other occupation to fill the watchman's post. One was selected for the office specially suitable. All were not equally apt for this work. Such a man was chosen as had long resided on the border territory, one who knew the distant signs and prognostications of war, one who knew the contour of the country, and could occupy the best points of observation. An expert with eagle eye and cool nerve was selected. This was practical wisdom. By such a precaution war was sometimes averted. If the foe lost the advantage of secrecy, his plans were foiled. Or a resisting force could be gathered. Or possibly the removal of their cattle, or their own flight for a time, would avert the catastrophe. The season or other natural circumstance would come to their aid, and the deadly clash of arms be avoided. Immense gain might be attained by well posting a sentinel.
III. IT WAS A POST INVOLVING TREMENDOUS RESPONSIBILITY, The interests and fortunes and lives of the entire nation were placed in the keeping of one man. He was responsible to ten thousand persons of every rank and station. The safety of the empire hung on him. It was a distinctive honor to be selected for the post, a proof that he possessed remarkable qualities of soul; and this responsible occupation did the man good—it tended to develop all that was gracious and excellent in him. Responsible service is an ennobling and a joyous thing. It nourishes large and generous sympathy.
IV. FAITHFULNESS DEMANDED. The characteristic quality of a watchman is faithfulness. He might be deficient in many bodily and mental qualities, and yet be a good sentinel; but fidelity to duty—fidelity to the momentous trust—there must be, or he had better not be a watchman. Better, far better, appoint no watchman than have a man who is unfaithful. The blood of tea thousand innocent man justice might require at his unfaithful hands. Equally true is this of God's watchman, the prophet. The first and most central requisite is faithfulness. He may be deficient in bodily stature and strength, he may be deficient in learning and culture, he may be deficient in high birth and in social standing, but he must be gifted with trustworthiness. This is an essential. If he be unfaithful, he is of all men most unsuitable. If he accepts the office, and neglects its high duties, his guilt is immeasurable. Better for his own sake, better for others' sake, that he had never been God's messenger to men, than to lack fidelity in his tremendous trust. An unfaithful preacher must be held up to the world's execration.
V. POSSIBLE FAILURE. Yet even faithfulness will not ensure success. The people may not credit his warnings. They may deride his anxieties. They may persuade themselves that the peril is not so near as he avers. It is a matter that can wait. They may put down to official propriety, or to sensitive regard for his own credit, what ought to have been put down to wise solicitude and to approaching disaster. In a thousand cases men persist in deceiving themselves as to the nearness of the peril. Tea thousand men have fallen over the precipice of ruin through self-infatuation, and ten thousand more will follow. They will not learn practical wisdom from the folly and the ruin of others. And it becomes every one of us to lay the lesson upon our own hearts: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Oh for a prophet's vision to interpret the signs of the times!—D.
Men's misconception of God's government.
Men are naturally prone to merge themselves in the nation. This was, perhaps, a stronger habit among the Jews than among us. They could not understand how that, while God punished the nation, he could protect the individual. Israel may be depressed in fortune, while yet Daniel and his companions are elevated. Sodom may be destroyed, but Lot shall be preserved.
I. SUFFERING OFTEN BLINDS MEN'S EYES TO GOD'S EQUITABLENESS. It is natural to suppose that luxurious prosperity is due to our merits; and, if adversity visits us, we judge ourselves to be hardly dealt with. Scarcely one man in a thousand realizes the fact that he deserves nothing, and that the common benefits of air and food are the unpurchased gifts of God. As soon as the suspension of Divine favors is felt we are disposed to complain. We cannot conceive that we have deserved such hardship. We see others, no more replete with virtue than ourselves, enveloped in silk and purple, riding abroad in gilded chariots. Does God really rule over the interests and fortunes of men? We have abandoned some evil courses: is not God going to reward us for this? Still, we can only think of our losses and our afflictions; we cannot see the higher benefits God is bringing to us. Through our blinding tears we can only see oppression and injustice. Through selfish tears we see only what we have lost, not what we have gained. We would rather discover injustice in God than iniquity within ourselves. Truly has it been said, "There's none so blind as those who will not see."
II. NATIONAL CALAMITY IS A SYMBOL OF PERSONAL PERDITION. The overthrow of a nation is something visible, impressive, startling. Yet it is not the worse thing that can happen to a man. He may have to transfer his political allegiance to another. He may have to live under a different set of laws and institutions. He may have to quit scenes in nature, with which he has been long familiar, for other scenes in a distant land. This loss, dishonor, banishment, are intended to remind him that there is a worse exile—an exile from his spirit's home, an exile from the kingdom of God, of which Canaan was but a symbol. To be compelled to dwell among idolaters was a gracious chastisement, to make his spirit recoil from the fear of dwelling forever among the foes of God. And if the Hebrew exile took to heart the lesson, that banishment to Babylon might become to him salvation.
III. NATIONAL CALAMITY IS CONSONANT WITH PERSONAL WELL-BEING. The typical Jew was murmuring in Babylon that this destruction of the nation was incompatible with God's promise of life—a promise founded on personal repentance. "If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?" Their idea of life was free life in Judea. God's idea of life was their return to allegiance and piety. "In his favor," and in this alone, they could find life. Consequently, a penitent Jew could have found the highest life, even while an exile in Babylon. If he personally felt and confessed his sin, if he reposed his soul on God's great mercy, if he bowed his spirit to God's will, and walked humbly with his God, this was life of the noblest kind. And, like a saint of later date, he could "rejoice even in tribulation." Better to dwell on Chebar's banks in the society of Jehovah than to dwell in the palaces of Jerusalem without God as a Friend. If God be my God, exile has no terror for me. Where God is, there is my heaven.
IV. RIGHTEOUSNESS MUST BE PERSONAL, NOT HEREDITARY NOR TRADITIONAL. The foolish and hurtful idea dwelt in the minds of the Jews that God's former favor to them as a nation was a guarantee for all future security. It was a species of anti-nomianism. Their maxim was, "Once righteous, always righteous, notwithstanding our deeds.;' They imagined that they could not fall from their exalted position. It is marvelous how deep-rooted in some minds this prejudice respecting traditional piety becomes. But the fervid piety of former days will avail us nothing if faith and love are now dead. It is only a living faith, a present submission, that God accepts. And if our former faith and love have evaporated, there is clear evidence that it was only a pretence, and not the reality. To be accepted of God, and to be accounted worthy of heaven, I personally must be righteous. The righteousness of the nation is nothing else than the righteousness of the component parts. And unless I individually am righteous in God's esteem, I shall be rejected and condemned in the great assize.
V. PERSONAL RIGHTEOUSNESS HAS ITS BOOT IN SINCERE REPENTANCE. Repentance is the birth of right and honest feeling towards God. Whether our past feelings and actions have been wrong by way of omission or by way of guilty commission, the whole sin, greater or less, will be candidly confessed. Repentance does not consist in excessive grief, but in genuine turning—a complete change of mind. The repentant man opens his mind to the light. He allows the light of truth to enter every part of his nature. He yields to the light. He follows the light. He submits his thought, his choice, his will, his life, to God his King. He welcomes the indwelling and the inworking of the Holy Spirit. Righteousness is gradually wrought into the warp and woof of his nature, and so he becomes the righteousness of God through his Spirit.
VI. GOD'S COUNSELS ADVOCATING REPENTANCE ARE PROOFS OF HIS COMPASSION. Full well God knows that the possession of perfect righteousness is the noblest possession any man can acquire, and that this righteousness must begin in sincere and thorough repentance. We have a thousand proofs of God's compassion towards the erring children of men. We have them especially in the gift of his only Son, and in the gift of his Divine Spirit. But the crowning proof of his compassion is in stooping to plead with men's prejudices and pride. He remonstrates and entreats as if he were the party about to be benefited. Such self-forgetful love was never seen before on earth. It is distinctive of our redeeming God. And when he succeeds, and the human heart relents, then a new wave of joy rolls through the realm of heaven. "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God."—D.
Right, not might, the foundation of stable empire.
The shortest path to gaining empire over men seems to be might, or might conjoined with cunning. But "things are not what they seem." The throne whose foundations have been well and slowly laid will attain to greater permanence. The oak that has been rooting itself for a hundred years will resist many a howling tempest. Things unseen are the things that endure.
I. WE HAVE AN INSTANCE OF DIVINE CHASTISEMENT UNHEEDED. "The city is smitten." The city of which they had been so proud, the city which had seemed an impregnable stronghold, was captured by the invader. Their honored sanctuary was leveled to the ground. Precious lives were sacrificed. Their honor was trampled in the dust. Judah's scepter was broken. It had been long time announced that this would be the outcome of Jehovah's anger, and now the warning had been completely verified. If this painful event did not afflict their souls as an unmistakable chastisement for sin, then nothing would. The tree that remains fruitless, after skilful and severe pruning, is hopelessly barren. Affliction not Converted into blessing becomes a great disaster. Black clouds that dissolve not in rain become magazines of thunderbolts.
II. AN INSTANCE OF FALLACIOUS REASONING. Although their numbers were decimated by war, they discovered that they were yet more in number than when Abraham dwelt in the land. He was in a minority of one, yet his posterity attained possession. These, his degenerate progeny, were still a strong body compared with solitary Abraham. Therefore their case was not utterly forlorn. True, they had been defeated, driven back, pressed into the barren hills and wastes of the laud, yet they could still muster a thousand or two. This was enough to regain a conquest. Their confidence was in numbers—in themselves. "We are many; the land is given us."
III. THE IMPORTANT ELEMENT OMITTED. The vital omission was this, that Abraham had God at his back, and all the resources of heaven for his defense; they had set God against them as their foe, and all the forces of righteousness were leagued for their overthrow. Their banners were stained with vice and crime. They had forsaken God, and had sought unto idols. No marvel, then, that God had forsaken them. Violence; adultery, sensuality, and murder cried to Heaven for vengeance, and did not cry m vain. The pleasures of sin had blinded their eyes to the real facts of the case. They had forgotten that God had declared himself the Arbiter in the field of war, and a moment's reflection would have convinced them that God was with their adversary. The white escutcheon of their father Abraham had been by them basely defiled; and the worst feature was this—they perceived it not.
IV. AN INSTANCE OF JUDICIAL VISITATION. The great Judge of men had pronounced his verdict, and all their boastful expectations were reversed. Over against their boast, "The land is given us for inheritance," God placed his edict, "The mountains of Israel shall be desolate, that none shall pass through." The ministers of Divine vengeance had received their commission, and the time for revoking it had passed. Wild beasts, the pestilence, and the sword had heard the fiat of God, and proceeded to do their deadly work. No fortress could protect them against such insidious enemies. Into every secret cave of the mountains wild beasts and miasma would force their way. The army of God is a hundredfold more difficult to oppose or to elude than any host of human king. Sane men will promptly yield.
V. THE GREAT LESSON LEARNT TOO LATE. "Then shall they know that I am the Lord." The light which they had sullenly barred out of their minds all their lifetime shall find its way within in the hour of death. Some men will listen to no warning voice except the warning voice of death. They learn at last what, had they learnt before, would have been their salvation. But now to them the lesson is useless; it serves only to admonish others. Crowds of men are practical infidels all through life, although they profess to believe in a reigning God; but death scatters the clouds of unbelief, and is a startling revelation of the invisible world. Amid the excitements and the turmoil of life they would not reflect, nor ponder, nor decide. They preferred to remain in the haze of doubt. At no point would they brace up their moral energy to say, "I know." Yet there comes an hour when faith, and righteousness, and God, and judgment will be real. "Then shall they know."—D.
The Fall in Eden is an old story, yet it is repeated every day in our midst. Each one of us is in a garden of privilege. To each of us daily comes Divine commands and Divine prohibitions. The path by which we may rise to higher things, yea, to a higher life, lies open before us. It is straight and clearly seen. The path which runs downward to destruction is hard by. The tempter is still busy with his seductive whispers and false blandishments. Everything in our personal destiny hangs on this pivot, viz. whether we will listen to the voice of God or to the wily voice of the devil. Conscience or inclination—which shall rule us?
I. THE TRUE PROPHET BRINGS A MESSAGE FROM GOD.
1. A prophet possesses a spiritual organ by which he can receive communications from God. He is in touch with God. All his best faculties are enlarged and vitalized, so that the knowledge of God's will can be reached and received. To such a one God conveys special information, and delegates him to convey it to others. He is put in trust with the heavenly wisdom for the well-being of his fellow-men.
2. Such a revelation is known and recognized, partly by the internal character of the message, partly by the character and endowments of the man. Except where prejudice and guilty habits blind the vision, the hearers of the message feel and confess that it comes from a Divine origin.
3. Such a message must always conform to the known character of God. If the message is trivial, unimportant, puerile, baneful, it is clearly not from God. Falsehood is introduced somewhere. If it is a message salutary, elevating, purifying, benevolent, certainly it is Divine. It may run counter to a man's inclinations; it often will; nevertheless, if its tendency is to lead men to faith and holiness, it has the signature of God.
II. THE PROPHET'S MESSAGE EXCITES PUBLIC ATTENTION.
1. There is a craving to know the unknown. Men long to see the unseen—long to scan the future. Especially in times of adversity, in hours of serious illness, men yearn to know what the immediate future will bring. In times of health there is a prurient curiosity to gaze into the distant future, the great eternity. But in times of pressing personal danger a feeling of self-interest is vividly astir. Men naturally want to have clear and accurate knowledge respecting God, and respecting his dispositions manward. They want to know what the womb of the future contains for them.
2. The message will be welcome in proportion as it gratifies inclination, flatters pride, and opens a vista of sunny hope. Fidelity on the part of the prophet often exposes his message and himself to public contempt.
3. Shallow hearers discuss the messenger rather than his message. They "talked about him by the walls and in the doors of the houses." It was a matter of street-gossip rather than of heart-searching and personal profit. Was the preacher eloquent or dull? Was his voice mellifluent or harsh? Was his style plain or ornate? These are the trivial questions men ask, instead of—What word from God did he bring? By what steps can we find reconciliation? What immediate duty presses for fulfillment?
4. Imitation of good men is a confession of their excellence. "They come as my people come, and sit as my people sit." Such conduct is grossly inconsistent is self-condemning.
III. THE PREACHER'S MESSAGE MEETS WITH A SERIOUS HINDRANCE.
1. Obedience is difficult. To lend the ear is easy. Receiving the message is somewhat pleasant. It requires no serious effort. But to undo the past, this brings the ridicule of companions. To create new habits, this is laborious. To confess our past life to be folly, this is painful
2. The heart is preoccupied. Its tendrils of affection have entwined about other things. They can more easily trust to visible wealth than to the invisible God. They know by experience that money brings luxury, ease, human honor, sensuous pleasures; and they have learnt to prize these. The joys of religion are unknown—far away in cloudland. The eagerness for gain chokes the Word, so that it becomes unfruitful. "The love of money is the root of all evil." Covetousness is idolatry.
3. Behind this opposition lies the degrading power of Satan. "He blinds the minds of those that believe not." He gives to gold a blandishment which belongs alone to the surface. By the excessive pursuit of worldly gain he deadens the moral sensibilities and destroys the eye of immortal hope.
IV. THE PROPHET'S MESSAGE, RESISTED, DARKENS HUMAN DESTINY.
1. Men's neglect of the warning in no way hinders the catastrophe. The evil announced by God still "cometh to pass." "Judgment slumbereth not." The wheels of God's chariot are all the while moving on. As the poet says—
"Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small."
2. Comprehension of the truth often comes too late. When overwhelmed with the predicted calamity, men wake up to the fact that "a prophet has been among them." They had thought him only a plain man, who sought to alarm them needlessly and at every inconvenient time. Now how totally different the matter seems! Alas! how often does the sense of eternal things visit the soul too late!
3. Then comes useless self-blame. The lost man naturally reproaches himself. In the new light that has dawned he sees the folly of blaming others. He lashes only himself. He becomes his own tormentor. That Being whose word cannot be broken says, "Lo, it will come!"—D.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ministerial and individual responsibility.
The supposition in the text is that it is a time of war and consequently of danger; that therefore the people choose one that lives near the boundary of the kingdom or the province, and appoint him as a watchman, to give the signal at the first approach of the enemy. It is not pressing the figurative very far to say that all the life of man below is a time of spiritual conflict; we are all engaged in a long, a lifelong campaign. The enemy whom we have to fight is strong, subtle, dangerous (see Ephesians 6:12); and it may well be that one here and another there should be chosen as a spiritual "watchman "to observe and to forewarn.
I. THE MINISTERIAL FUNCTION. Those who have accepted the post of the Christian minister today are in a very similar position to the Hebrew prophet. It is their province:
1. To keep well in view the movements of their time; to observe with great care the advances which are made on the one band, and the withdrawals and retreats upon the other hand; to note with constant and sleepless vigilance the temper and spirit, the tendency and current, of the time.
2. To understand and to interpret all that is passing, in the light of revealed truth; to distinguish between a change of form and a decadence of life or a departure from Divine truth; to know what attitude should be taken up toward that which is new, and which approaches the people of God with professions of good will,—whether of welcome or resistance.
3. To utter the voice of truth, which is (or should be) the voice of Christ, with all promptitude, decision, earnestness, unflinching fidelity.
II. THE DUTY OF THE INDIVIDUAL CITIZENS. This is very clear; it is to heed and to act.
1. To give earliest heed to the warning that is uttered, to consider well whether it is not true, to have a mind prepared to receive the message. For as the watchman has been "taken" and been "set" by them (Ezekiel 33:2), and is their chosen guardian, he is entitled to their respect, while to his solemn monition a serious regard is due.
2. To act immediately on conviction; to place a distinct distance between themselves and the threatened evil; to keep the insidious theory, the subtle falsehood, the dangerous half-truth well out of their mind; to refuse any entrance to the perilous habit or the tainted practice; or, on the other hand, to welcome the old truth in its new form, render the old service in the new method, as the more suitable and the more excellent way.
III. THE LARGE ELEMENT OF MINISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITY. The watchman who sleeps at his post or who fails to arouse his fellow-citizens when the enemy is in sight, is severely condemned (see Ezekiel 33:6, Ezekiel 33:8). The spokesman for God who does not "watch for souls as one that must give account," who has no deep feeling of the seriousness of his position, and no abiding sense of the urgency and imperativeness of his duty, is gravely at fault; so also is that watchman (minister) who perceives but who does not speak, or who does not speak quickly, plainly, forcibly in the ears of the people,—he will have an account to give, and a judgment to bear, from which he may well shrink. But there is also—
IV. A LARGE REMAINDER OF INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY. "Every man must bear his own burden" here. No man can devolve it upon his religious teacher. He is only responsible for speaking the truth faithfully; that done, his soul is delivered (see Ezekiel 33:5, Ezekiel 33:9). Whether we, as individual men and women, are assimilating Divine truth or are appropriating deadly error; whether we are forming healthy and life-preserving habits, or poisonous and pernicious ones; whether we are moving up the incline of heavenly wisdom and Christian purity, or descending the decline of folly and of wrong; whether we are exerting an elevating and redeeming influence, or a depressing and degrading one, upon our contemporaries and upon those who will succeed us—this must depend very largely indeed on whom we hear, and how we hear. Therefore let the Master say to us, "Take heed how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he seemeth to have [thinketh that he hath]" (Luke 8:18).—C.
Ezekiel 33:10, Ezekiel 33:11
The hope and the way of life.
Taking these words apart from their immediate application, as we may do without departing from their spirit and inner meaning, we are invited to think of—
I. HUMAN HOPELESSNESS. "Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we pine away in them." The men into whose lips these words are put are very far from being the only ones to whom they apply. All men everywhere may say the same—all who live on in conscious departure from the will of God.
1. Sin bears its penalty with it; it enfeebles the body, it injures the mind, it lowers the life, it degrades the soul,—it robs of Divine favor, of spiritual worth, of abiding peace.
2. It may become an increasing burden. It may indeed lead down to a most dangerous and deplorable insensibility, so that the sinful man no more knows how serious and fatal is his condition than does the man who lies down to sleep in the snow, or he who talks freely and happily in a delirium; but often the conscious burden of sin rests with a heavy and growing weight upon the soul, and despondency leads down to despair.
3. It ends in hopelessness; the man feels that he is "pining away," that there is nothing for him in the future, his heritage is forfeited; there is nothing beyond but the gates of death. But he has not taken into his account—
II. THE DIVINE DISPOSITION. "As I live … I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked," etc. There is much in this statement:
1. Regarded in its negative aspect. "God has no pleasure," etc. That may not seem much to us who have become habituated to think of him as a Divine Father; but it was very much indeed to those who had not thus learnt of Christ, very much indeed to those who lived in an age when the Divine powers were supposed to find a terrible satisfaction in the miseries they inflicted on their enemies. Then the cruelty of man was transferred, in thought, to the beings who were worshipped, and they were believed quite capable of taking pleasure in the sorrows and in the death of their devotees. But God tells us here that that is not his disposition. The reaping by guilty men of the full consequences of their sin against himself would give him no pleasure at all; it would not be to satisfy him that their course would go downward until it ended in death.
2. Regarded in its positive aspect. God would "that the wicked turn from his way and live." If the absence of any desire on the part of the Supreme that sin should go on and down to death gives a gleam of hope to the hopeless, how much light may not be gained from the presence of a distinct and positive desire on his part that the sinner should live? If God wills that it should be so, there can be no occasion to despair; there must be reason, and strong reason, to hope. To know that this is the Divine disposition is a great thing indeed; it is to have left midnight a long way behind; it is to have entered the dawn of the morning. But we have much further to go into the light of day; for the prophet's message includes—
III. THE DIVINE CHALLENGE. "Turn ye … for why will ye die?" This includes:
1. A summons to repentance. Clearly repentance is an act which it is open to any soul to render at once if he will. It is not therefore either
(1) the feeling of a certain amount of emotion, for this is not always at command; or
(2) a certain amount of good works done or sacred services performed, for this can only be the issue of time. Repentance is the turning of the heart and of the will to God and righteousness; it is the act of the soul by which it turns away from its evil course of godlessness and wrong-doing, and turns toward the Divine Father with the full and fixed intention of henceforth serving him in the ways of righteousness. To do that which any and every soul may do and should do without a day's delay, God is summoning his disloyal servants (see Acts 17:30).
2. A gracious and powerful appeal. "Why will ye die?" Why should we die, when:
(1) Death means so sad and so great a sacrifice—the loss of a human soul, capable of such beauty and such blessedness on the one hand, and of such baseness and such misery on the other hand?
(2) God has done such great things to save us; has so loved us as to give his only begotten Son to die for us, and by his death to restore us.
(3) The way of life is so free and so open to us all: "Whosoever believeth …shall not perish, but have everlasting life."
3. The life that is offered us in Christ means all that eternal life is found to be here and will prove to be hereafter.—C.
God's equal way.
These words bring out—
I. THE OPPORTUNITY OF THE STONER. God gives him the opportunity of returning, and of recovering that which was lost (see previous homily). He is "not to fall in the day that he turns from his wickedness."
1. God condemns and warns him; he tells him that his sin is ruining him, leading him to death (Ezekiel 33:14).
2. He hearkens and repents; has so deep a sense of his folly and his guilt that he turns utterly away, in heart and in life, from all his wrong-doing (Ezekiel 33:14, Ezekiel 33:15). And then:
3. God takes him back freely and fully into his Divine favor (Ezekiel 33:16). His sin is frankly forgiven him, and he "lives" unto God and in his sight.
This opportunity is offered to:
1. The ignorant idolater who has been brought up in the dark shadows of superstition.
2. The man who, though brought up in the light of truth, has fallen into flagrant and shameful sin, into vice or crime.
3. The man who, while maintaining the proprieties of behavior, and perhaps the semblance of devotion, keeps his heart closed against the truth and grace of Jesus Christ. To all of these, though they have lived through many years and even whole periods of sin, there is open the gateway of immediate return and of full reconciliation to God.
II. THE PERIL OF THE RIGHTEOUS.
1. His God-given hope. He looks for life: "He shall surely live" (Ezekiel 33:13). The future before him is bright with many a precious promise; the further he goes the more he has to expect at the hands of the faithful and generous Giver. But let him not presume; here is:
2. His serious danger. He may, like the Jew, and like too many an erring Christian, imagine a favoritism on the part of the Supreme which does not exist, and, presuming upon it, may fall. If once the devout man loses his humility; forgets that he is but a weak, endeavoring human spirit; fosters in himself a sense of security; "trusts to his own righteousness; "—then he stands at once within the circumference of spiritual peril. It is "when he is (consciously) weak, then he is strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). And, conversely, when he is confidently strong, then is he weak, then is he most exposed to the darts of the enemy: pride precedes a fall.
3. His condemnation and his doom. His former "righteousness will not deliver him;" for his iniquity and in his iniquity "he will die." No man living in sin may look up to God and say, "I was once pure," with any hope of acceptance; God requires of us that we be pure in heart, loyal in spirit, upright in word and deed, or he cannot grant us his benediction or admit us to his home.
III. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IN BOTH RESPECTS.
1. God is righteous in forgiving the sinful man and restoring him to fullness of life. The Pharisaic view of this act is that it is unrighteous, inasmuch as a guilty soul is taken back to favor and raised up to life and joy. But there are two things overlooked.
(1) God is ever seeking the best in man; he is working towards purity and goodness. How can this be promoted in the sinful? In no way so well as by the extension of Divine mercy. Unrelieved penalty only crushes and condemns to a hopeless continuance in sin; but mercy implants hope,—it leads to penitence, and it ends in purity, in wisdom, in moral and spiritual well-being.
(2) Though mercifully restored to life, the sinner does not fail to suffer; some penalty for past transgression he must pay. In the nature of things, or rather under the working of the wise and righteous laws of God, sin works immediate mischief in the soul, and it importantly affects the life; so that not even the abounding mercy of God makes it the same thing to a man whether he spends his earlier years in wisdom or in folly.
2. God is merciful even in condemning the backslider. For if he were to act otherwise, if he were to allow a man, because he had once been righteous, to fall into any sinfulness without condemning and punishing him, what license he would be giving to iniquity, and how would he be multiplying transgression on every hand! It is in the true and lasting interest of our race, and of all his intelligent creation, that God affixes his rebuke and some appropriate penalty to all wrong-doing or wrong-being, in whomsoever it may be found. Thus the Divine Ruler and Father of men is righteous when he forgives, and is merciful when he condemns. His ways are equal, and if we fail to see it, it is because we fail to recognize the profound righteousness of mercy, and the equally profound mercy of righteousness.—C.
The address of the prophet is delivered to that "miserable fraction in Judaea who dwelt among its desolations, and who, notwithstanding all they had seen and suffered of the righteous judgments of God, were still wedded to their sinful ways, and cherishing the most groundless hopes They were appealing in the most confident manner to their connection with Abraham, and on that ground assuring themselves of their right to possess the land of Canaan. ' He, though but one, got the land for an inheritance, and we, his descendants, who are a greatly larger company than he could boast of, may we not justly expect to be kept in possession of it?'" (Fairbairn). The prophet dismisses this claim in the language of decisive disallowal and of strong rebuke. Fie tells them that, so far from God raising their position and making them possessors and rulers in the land, they may look for more judgments from his hand, for their iniquities were loudly demanding them. Here were—
I. MEN MISTAKING THEIR SPIRITUAL POSITION. It was much, in their mind, that they "had Abraham to their father." How little that mere genealogical fact weighed in the estimate of God we know from the language of the great prophet John, and of that One who was so much greater than he (Matthew 3:9; John 8:33-39). While boasting of their descent from Abraham, they were, in character and conduct, everything that Abraham was not—everything from which that "friend of God" would have turned away with holy indignation (see verses 25, 26). Consequently, they were numbered amongst the most disloyal subjects of Jehovah, and were the objects of his most severe displeasure. Their confidence in themselves was utterly misplaced. They may be said to be the spiritual ancestors of a very numerous seed. How many are they who because
(1) they have been born and brought up in the midst of some Christian community, or because
(2) they have gone through the formal rites of some Christian Church, imagine themselves to be the sons of God, enjoying his Divine favor and subjects of his spiritual kingdom! Yet the state of their heart, and even the tenor of their life, effectually disprove it. Their hearts are far from God, and their deeds from uprightness and Christian worth.
II. MEN DELUDING THEMSELVES WITH A FALSE HOPE. This, of course, follows from the other. The remnant of the Jews were hoping to become the possessors of the land, and to rise to the position from which their countrymen had fallen. But their hopes were vain, for they were built upon mistake and error. We may be looking forward to some position of authority and influence in the Church of Christ, or to a home in the heavenly country; but we have no right whatever to expect either of these if our claim is based either on fleshly connections or on the formalities of devotion, and the sooner we awake from our dream the better will it be for us. We must understand the one and only ground for hope in the future is our real, spiritual union with Jesus Christ, and the consequent rectitude of life which is the invariable and happy fruit of it.
III. A FAITHFUL HUMAN TEACHER. It is a very painful thing to extinguish a pleasant but a false hope in the heart. Yet it has sometimes to be done at all costs. And kinder far is it to destroy that hope when it is budding than to let it grow to maturity when it has to suffer a severe and sad extinction. The faithful course is always the kind one as well as the wise one, when all things are counted.—C.
The test of piety.
If we read "of thee" instead of "against thee", and understand that the captives by the Chebar were talking in not unfriendly fashion of the prophet, all the parts of this deliverance are consistent, and they supply a valuable lesson for all time. We learn what is the true test of piety; that it is found—
I. NOT IN ATTENDANCE ON RELIGIOUS ORDINANCES. These Jews were saying to one another, "Come and hear," etc; and they not merely exhorted one another thus, but they went and heard—they sat and listened to the truth as it was spoken by Ezekiel. But they were far from being right with God for so doing. We may be very attentive upon all "means of grace," may never absent ourselves from the "house of the Lord," may go solemnly and even reverently through all the outward ordinances of the Christian faith, and yet remain outside the kingdom of Christ. None were more constant in their "devotions" than the Pharisees, and none more blameless in their attitude and, demeanor—and none more really ungodly than they.
II. NOT CRITICAL UNDERSTANDING OF THE TRUTH. These captives of Babylon were habitually speaking about Ezekiel, and no doubt discussing his prophetic deliverances; they were probably very keen disputants, very fine analysts of his sentences, very careful hearers of his doctrine. But they were not "the children of wisdom" and heirs of the best inheritance. We, too, may take a very systematic view of the faith we hold, or we may be clever critics of the message to which we listen in the sanctuary, we may be able to discuss with much special learning and a great show of piety the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, but we may be very wide indeed of that knowledge of God which constitutes eternal life.
III. NOT SENSIBILITY. These hearers by the river-side were affected by what they heard. They "liked" Ezekiel well. His discourses charmed them much; they felt moved by his words as he spoke with that directness, fervor, and imaginative force which characterized his utterance, and which, whenever put forth, never do fail to attract and to delight. But it is one thing to be moved by sacred eloquence, and quite another thing to be filled with true conviction and to be governed by Christian principle. They who depend on the exciting impulses that come from the large assembly, the strains of powerful music, or the fervid addresses of the pulpit, for the movements of their soul, are leaning on the reed, are building on the sand. The piety that will be wanted for the long path of duty, for the deep waters of trouble, for the searching fires of temptation, for the hour of heroism, for the day of judgment, must go deeper down into the nature of spiritual reality than the stratum of sensibility.
IV. BUT OBEDIENCE. "They do them not." That was their defect; there was found the fatal omission. They had not the spirit of obedience. We know what the Master said on this subject (see Matthew 7:24-27). And that which Jesus Christ especially and emphatically calls upon us to do, which it is a fatal error to leave undone, is
(1) to come into close personal union with himself (Matthew 11:28, Matthew 11:29; John 6:35, John 6:50, John 6:51; John 15:1-7; 1 John 3:23);
(2) to follow him in the path of purity, devotion, love.—C.