Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
Ezekiel and the History of Hope
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
History reminds us of the past, defines us in the present, and prepares us for the future. In Scripture, we have something more, something we might call holy history. The narratives of the Old Testament become the palette the New Testament authors used to paint the answers to the great questions of God, faith, and human meaning.
This is the last in a series of five articles on holy history, examining how the Apostle Paul uses Old Testament narratives.
Why should holy history give me any hope when my present life is far from holy?
Our culture presents us with two radical views of our own lives and circumstances.
Option A: Everything is fine. Nothing is wrong with you that a little more positivity and self-actualization can’t fix. The sun is shining everywhere, and global peace is probably right around the corner. People are all basically good, after all.
Option B: Everything is terrible. You are terrible. Circumstances are terrible. The past is terrible. The present is terrible. The future is terrible. People are terrible, covered in terrible, and dipped in a side of terrible sauce.
Neither of these options amount to anything we might call hope. Both oversimplify reality.
Biblical faith offers us Option C: a candid assessment of the evil in the world and a reason to believe something better is not only possible but certain. In other words, Option C is hope.
Other than Jesus himself, hope is perhaps the greatest legacy left to the world by the ancient Hebrew people. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians to siege the city of Jerusalem and squash a little kingdom that had rebelled against the Babylonians once too often to be tolerated any longer. He sacked the city and burned the temple. Leading dignitaries and the entire ruling class of the kingdom of Judah was taken captive and began a long exile far from home in modern-day Iraq.
The Fall of Jerusalem was cataclysmic. It should have marked the end of Jewish faith, the dynasty of David, and Hebrew culture. One notable psalm captures the feeling of the exiles as they reached Babylon: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)
Their home was in ruins. Their temple was destroyed. To all appearances, their God and Protector had been defeated by the Gentiles. It was tempting to “hang up their lyres” and give up entirely, looking instead to see what the Babylonian and Chaldean gods had to offer.
However, at this very moment, in a pit of despair, Ezekiel is granted a vision of a Option C and the hope of Israel.
”In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). Ezekiel is quite literally standing next to the “waters of Babylon” when something extraordinary happens. Instead of seeing defeat, Ezekiel sees God.
In the following chapter, Ezekiel details his ecstatic experience of God, complete with dramatic metaphors and vivid images. Perhaps the most notable feature of his vision is the perception of the throne of God.
Other prophets, like Isaiah, had seen the throne of God with the Ancient of Days seated upon it (Isaiah 6 & Daniel 7 for example). Ancient Hebrews seemed to believe that the throne of God was connected to the Ark of the Covenant which was to be found within the temple. Within the Holy of Holies, God’s presence was enthroned above the Ark on the Mercy Seat, and this locus of God’s presence was tied to the temple. The throne of Heaven mirrored the temple, and God reigned above Jerusalem.
Most ancient people had a notion of their gods similar to this, imagining their god located in a place or attached to an object or idol in some way. However, the God of Israel had consistently rejected the idea that he could be contained in a house or even represented by an idol. In Ezekiel, this depiction goes one step further.
“Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them” (Ezekiel 1:15). Ezekiel sees the throne of God, perhaps an image much like the Ark itself, but the throne is mounted on wheels. The design of the throne is certainly supernatural and not likely to be physically represented (“And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around,” Ezekiel 1:18). However, the point being made to Ezekiel quickly becomes clear: “When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went” (Ezekiel 1:17).
God has wheels.
God is mobile. He is not fixed to one place on the Earth, but rather the Creator of All is free in his action and in his motion. There was no corner of the Earth, even the depths of Babylon by the Chebar Canal, where God could not go. His people could not be hidden from him. He is not a God so easily defeated as that.
A few chapters later, Ezekiel is given a glimpse of God again. Ezekiel is sitting in his new house in Babylon in the company of the exiled leaders of Judah when he is offered a vision (Ezekiel 8:1). He even comments that the vision was “like the vision that I saw in the valley” in that it centered on the glorious presence of God (Ezekiel 8:4).
This time though, it is a vision of the temple as well. Ezekiel is taken on a tour of the temple in the days before it had been destroyed, a little glimpse of the past. He peeks through a hole in the wall and sees God’s people being unfaithful within the temple itself (Ezekiel 8:7-13).
Because of what was being done in his temple, God’s glory voluntarily leaves. First, it rises up from the cherubs of the Ark of the Covenant (9:3), and then the cherubs and the wheels of God rise up and leave the temple entirely. “Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim” (10:18). From there, “the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city” (11:23).
What does this mysterious vision mean, and what does it have to do with hope?
The vision is a startling revelation for a people in despair. The exiles believed that their God, tied to their temple, had proven to be weaker than the Babylonian gods. The destruction of the temple represented a defeat of Judah’s God. But Ezekiel sees something completely opposite of that grim fate. God had left the temple and the city of Jerusalem because of its sins.
God had not been defeated when the temple fell. The temple fell because God was angry with his people.
This is not a sugar-coated reconstruction of history. Ezekiel does not suggest that everything is fine or that no one is to blame. He assesses blame with candor and levels judgment against the very exiles who are suffering. But in this honesty, there is hope. If God has been defeated, there is no hope for us, but if we have been defeated by God, then that same God could restore us again.
This is the same message contained in Ezekiel’s later and most memorable vision. The Spirit again comes and gives Ezekiel something new to consider. This time it is a valley, and the valley is full of bones, “very dry” and long dead (Ezekiel 37:1-2).
God asks Ezekiel the true question of hope: “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3). Ezekiel, for his part, is uncertain of how to answer. It certainly does not seem like the bones could live, but he timidly answers, “O Lord God, you know.”
God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones as if they already lived, and sure enough, they come to life. In a disturbing sequence, the bones are covered again in muscle and flesh and even begin to breathe again.
What is the meaning of this most unusual vision? “Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:11-14).
Nothing is truly dead if God says it will live. This is the true meaning of hope. Hope is not denying the dire circumstance, but rather the certainty of a God greater than our circumstance.
Paul explains the same message, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6).
Indeed, Paul tells us there is a way of life without hope. Self-obsessed self-indulgence leads to nothing but self-destruction. “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God .. Those in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). If you feel like your whole being is dead, you may be right. But that does not mean you are hopeless.
”You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. … If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:9-10). God was not defeated in the fallen city of Jerusalem, and God is not defeated in the fallen state of your soul. The same Spirit that gave life to a valley of dry bones can breathe life into you.
The gospel does not deny our dead state. It gives hope that death need not be permanent.
”If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).
This hope is not wishful thinking. The vision Ezekiel saw became beautifully, tangibly true in the Resurrection of Jesus. His body was brought out of the grave - not because he never died - but because God has defeated death.
The God who raised Jesus is on our side. We will never be without hope.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.