Ringing In the New Year with Ezekiel

Some Christians treat the turning of the calendars as an opportunity to take stock spiritually.  Others emphasize gratitude, setting up memorials and declaring, “Hitherto the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12, RSV).  Looking ahead to a new year, some elaborate goals, while others fast and pray.

All of these practices have merit.  Yet one Old Testament prophet, at one new year, was led in a different direction.  God gave him a fresh vision, renewing his hope, not for the next twelvemonth but for a much longer vista:

In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was conquered, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me in the visions of God into the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city opposite me.  When He brought me there, behold, there was a man, whose appearance was like bronze, with a line of flax and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway.  And the man said to me, “Son of man, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your mind upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you; declare all that you see to the house of Israel.”  (Ezekiel 40:1-4, RSV)

This new year — the date was perhaps April 28, 573 B.C. by our calendar (1) — did not begin auspiciously.  Ezekiel was part of a second group of deportees, who had now lived a full quarter-century in exile in Babylon, a 900-mile journey from the city where the Lord had caused His Name to dwell. (2)  Jerusalem lay in ruins; the temple — of which the Lord had said, “I have chosen and consecrated this house that My Name may be there for ever; My eyes and My heart will be there for all time” (2 Chronicles 7:16, RSV) — was no more, the Glory departed (Ezekiel 8:3-11:23).  And the prophet’s wife, “the delight of his eyes” (24:16), had died.

No doubt Ezekiel, who even in a distant land saw visions of God, who upheld the Lord’s justice and declared His love, promising that He would gather His people (even from long death) and shepherd them once more — no doubt he could still have produced a gratitude list.  But sometimes God comes graciously to lift our eyes and set our hearts on all the goodness He has in store.

In the vision, Mount Zion has become “a very high mountain” (verse 2), “chief among the mountains” (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1, NIV).  A new temple stands and, as the prophet looks on, the Glory of the Lord enters and fills it, never again to leave (Ezekiel 43:1-9).  The rebuilt city around it receives a new name, which closes the vision and the book: “The Lord Is There” (48:35).

This is a remarkably long and detailed vision, but much of it makes dull reading.  The angel with the yardstick leads the prophet through the temple buildings, and we get the dimensions of every wall and alcove.  It’s about as exciting as a building inspector’s notes, except that here we don’t even find the occasional substandard flaw.  Everything is perfect: the Lord reestablishes the covenant of holiness as separation, with daily blood sacrifices to cover sin.  The very layout of the temple, along with its regulations, is intended to instruct the people in holiness and the fear of the Lord (43:10-12).  Only, since they will never forget their exile, and the sins that provoked it, this temple is the center of a spirituality steeped in shame.  Every distance and dimension is a reminder of falling short, every perfection a shining mirror in which to see the heart that must be covered:

Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins.  (43:10, NIV)

In fact, this is something of a theme in Ezekiel: the restored people of God will bear their shame (16:52, 54; 44:13), perhaps forever:

. . . that you may [earnestly] remember and be ashamed and confounded and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I have forgiven you all that you have done, says the Lord God.  (16:63, Ampl)

Yet there is a tension, for He also says:

They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward Me . . .   I will no longer hide My face from them, for I will pour out My Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.  (39:26, 29, NIV)

One is left with the impression of an ineradicable shame, an incurable disposition toward sin, that nevertheless is swallowed up by the power of His Presence.

There are many discrepancies, both small and significant, between the temples built by Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Herod and the one seen by Ezekiel.  None is more striking than the life-giving stream that flows out from it:

The man brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east).  The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.  He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was flowing from the south side.

As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep.  He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep.  He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist.  He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in — a river that no one could cross.  He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”

Then he led me back to the bank of the river.  When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river.  He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea.  When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh.  Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows.  There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.  Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets.  The fish will be of many kinds — like the fish of the Great Sea.  But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt.  Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river.  Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail.  Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them.  Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”  (47:1-12, NIV)

Jerusalem had no river, and none of Israel’s temples featured flowing waters, but the psalmist speaks of “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4, RSV, NIV) and “Your river of delights . . . the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8-9, NIV).  The Lord pours out His Spirit, His own life-giving Presence, and “where the river flows everything will live.”  Even the Dead Sea loses its salinity, confounding our expectations; just so, the Presence of the Lord will overturn the very limits established by His Law.  For in Mosaic Law, sin and uncleanness are more powerful than holiness; as the priests confirm to the prophet Haggai, a holy object consecrates only what it directly touches, while defilement continues to spread (Haggai 2:11-14).  By all the logic of the Old Testament, when Jesus touches a leper, He should be unclean and the leper unchanged.  Instead, like the potent, ever-fresh river, His touch banishes sickness and sin, while He remains pure.  Sorrow and sighing flee away (Isaiah 35:10).

We picture Ezekiel standing amid his measurements, scratching his head and wondering, Lord, how can this be?  Hasn’t God Himself said that our sin and shame must be reckoned up and remembered forever?  Yes, it is all counted, before our eyes — and then canceled and set aside:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse.  (Revelation 22:1-3, NIV)

God practices immersion learning.  Zeke is being set up, and he never quite realizes it.  He walks all around and through grace, gathers its dimensions incrementally, and knows nothing about it until he’s engulfed.  Look at him, solemnly led along by the Angel of Measurement: ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, splash!  And he’s in over his head, baptized, floundering in the immeasurable, hearing the angel asking, Do you get it?

Six centuries later, Paul writes:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV; Ampl “wholly filled and flooded with God Himself!”)

A river grows deeper only as tributaries feed into it, or as it runs through narrow channels. The river Ezekiel enters, the river of God, is fed by no other sources, and is spreading out.  The water rises, as it flows, because God does more than start it.  He sustains, feeds, and indwells the life-giving river. (3)

Corrie ten Boom said that we can never use our imaginations too strongly in thinking about heaven or things to come, (4) because “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.  But God has revealed it to us by His Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10, NIV; Isaiah 64:4) — and He revealed it, by His Spirit, to Ezekiel.

Sometimes life seems like a railroad track, straight and fixed.  When we look back, we see it stretching afar, the iron rails of our forced march, our banishment.  With hunch-shouldered heaviness, we turn and face forward, expecting more of the same.

Our past may be a long exile, our hopes in ruins, our delight more than a decade dead.  Our shame may appear inexpungible, and never more so than when we contemplate a holy God.  But a new year need not spell mere continuation.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a way of surpassing all measuring sticks, even the ones He has furnished.  When He chooses, He comes in power.  There is no deadness or uncleanness that His life cannot purify and make fruitful.  We cannot fathom His love, and yet it can fill us and flow out of us.  Even now, He calls us and carries us toward a future we cannot imagine, though we know its name: The Lord Is There.

 

(1) Mark Hillmer, note on Ezekiel 40:1, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 1283.

(2) Edwin Yamauchi and Ronald Youngblood, note on Ezra 7:7-9, in NIV Study Bible, 684.

(3) This sense of the Divine Presence, rather than the movement of heavenly bodies, also underlies the picture of the path of the righteous shining “brighter and brighter” as they walk with God (Proverbs 4:18, RSV; compare 2 Corinthians 3:18).  The philosophers Descartes and Malebranche argued that, since a cause must be greater than its effect, it is not enough to say that an object exists because it existed a moment ago; the greater cause must be the sustaining will of God, choosing to keep it in being.  Thus God is ever active, willing, sustaining, perhaps augmenting.  Jonathan Edwards drew on this idea in his misunderstood and vilified 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” arguing that only the forbearing will of God preserves the life of the wicked.  See Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (Works of Jonathan Edwards Online Vol. 22), ed. Harry S. Stout and Nathan O. Hatch with Kyle P. Farley (New Haven: Yale, 1957, 2003), 404-18; available at http://edwards.yale.edu/research/browse.

(4) Pamela Rosewell Moore, The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan-HarperCollins, 1986), 132.

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The Value of Futility

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 28:29, NIV). This is an apt description of some of us. We have a history of failed relationships, unfulfilling work, abandoned dreams, moral and spiritual defeat. With Job, we can say, “I have been allotted months of futility” (Job7:3); “when I hoped for good, evil came” (30:26).

Yet the Bible says of the righteous man, “Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The verdict “unsuccessful in everything” is part of a long passage describing the curses that come upon those who disobey God. Similarly, a sketch of people who “earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6) applies to those who fail to put God first and give to His work.

Why is it, then, that some of us who love Jesus lead lives characterized by frustration and futility? Does a failure to prosper always indicate that we are walking in disobedience?

Futility’s Many Levels

Taken as a whole, the Bible may be black and white about moral standards but it is faithful to the complexity of human experience. And so statements that the wicked “will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13) do not exhaust its teachings on futility. The poor, simply because they are poor and in a fallen world, also see their plans frustrated (Psalm 14:6).

In fact, God has subjected the entire creation to frustration and futility (Romans 8:20-22). The Lord Almighty has determined that our labor goes for nothing (Habakkuk 2:13). This is a universal experience, above all because we all must die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). “For what futility You have created all men! What man can . . . save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47-48).

In this setting, believers, no less than the most disobedient, are tempted to conclude, “It is futile to serve God” (Malachi 3:14); “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13); “I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). We are tested precisely in this regard. The patriarchs spent their lives wandering (Hebrews 11:8-9). Job lost everything and felt, “. . . my days have no meaning” (Job7:16). David was a fugitive, wondering if his integrity was “useless” (1 Samuel 25:21). Several of the prophets were commissioned specifically to speak to people who wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-10; Ezekiel 2:3-5). Jeremiah recorded one set of prophecies only to have them burned, and another set only to be told to sink it in a river (Jeremiah 36; 45; 51:60-64).

God Himself — whose every word accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:10) — at times expresses frustration. “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction” (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:29). He looks in vain for the righteous (Isaiah 59:15-16; Ezekiel 22:30). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; Isaiah 65:2)

Futility and Hope

God grieves (Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 53:3), yet He does not succumb to despair. Rather, in a wonderful paradox, it is “in hope” that He has subjected creation to futility — hope in the glory that will be revealed when we have despaired of our flesh and put it to death (Romans 8:18-21). He frustrates human wisdom and striving in order that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19).

There is a suspense about our lives. We groan with creation, and grieve with God and neighbors. Like farmers, we sow our seeds of effort and obedience, but may wait a long time for any indication of fruit. Yet because “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; 4:18; Romans 8:24), we continue to hope for a harvest and to trust that our work is not in vain. Sometimes, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), we must resolve to rejoice even in the absence of any prosperity.

We see this tension in Paul. At times he worries that he has wasted his efforts and labored for nothing with some converts (Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16) — that he, or they, might thwart or nullify the grace of God, receiving it in vain (Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 6:1). At other times, he is confident that godliness is profitable (1 Timothy 4:8) and labor fruitful (Philippians 1:22), that our work “in the Lord” is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

If Paul’s confidence occasionally wavers, it’s because he is “hard pressed on every side, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . struck down, . . . We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He compares himself to a broken jar (verse 7). Our English word futile comes from a Latin term meaning leaky or easily poured out. Paul lives with precisely this frustrating inability to retain and accumulate. Yet he refuses to “lose heart” (verses 1, 16) because, by the grace of God, what leaks out of him is “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6).

Paul also reminds us that, no matter who we are, our real work is other people. His converts are his joy and crown (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Philippians 4:1), his boast (2 Corinthians 1:14), the result of his work (1 Corinthians 9:1). If they frustrate him and cause him anxiety, still they are in his heart for life or death (2 Corinthians 7:3): that is, he is so identified with them that his own salvation is bound up with theirs. For their sake, he is willing, not only to leak, but to be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

We are not apostles, but on this point we are not so very different. Wittingly or unwittingly, we all sow into the lives of those around us. People watch us. Some may even be “won over without words” by our behavior (1 Peter 3:1). When we die, they may present evidence of our good works (Acts 9:39).

I sometimes wish that we could retire the phrase “full-time Christian service.” Of course we should honor our leaders, but every believer is a full-time servant of Jesus and of our neighbors. Paul makes this clear when he tells even slaves — who had little freedom to choose how they spent their time — that they are “serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:7; Colossians 3:23). In truth, we are all slaves marching in a procession that honors Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9).

So failure shouldn’t surprise or overwhelm us. I am not called to realize my artistic vision, but to be a vessel shaped by the finger of God. I may never inherit the promises in this life, but I can die still living by faith (Hebrews 11:13). I may never prosper, but I can sow abundantly. I may never proclaim, but I can leak.