By Shelley Neese
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Welcome to Bible Fiber, where we are encountering the textures and shades of the biblical tapestry through twelve Minor Prophets, two reformers, and one exile. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are studying Ezekiel 11, the concluding sequence in Ezekiel’s multi-part vision, and his last message before the glory of the Lord departed Jerusalem. So far, the prophet has taken a tour of the temple’s abominations, observed a squad of executioners on a killing spree, and watched the man in linen drop fiery coals on Jerusalem. The last episode ended with the Lord mounting his throne chariot to depart the temple complex, but his glory paused over the east gate. Chapter 11 opens with the divine spirit depositing Ezekiel at the east gate where the throne chariot still hovered (11:1).

25 naïve officials

Ezekiel spotted 25 of Jerusalem’s political officials gathered in the temple court. Two of the officials he recognized by name, Jaazaniah and Pelatiah. Both names were common in Jerusalem at the beginning of the sixth century BCE, but nothing is known about these figures outside this reference. Still, Ezekiel must have been surprised to spot old acquittances from his life before exile.

By way of introduction, the divine spirit told Ezekiel, “Mortal, these are the men who devise iniquity and who give wicked counsel in this city” (11:2). Most commentaries agree that these 25 men were not the same group who worshipped the sun in an earlier scene (8:3). The 25 sun worshippers seemed to be an assembly of priests, and these 25 are described as political figures. Also, God accused these officials of corruption and poor ethics, but not idolatry.

Ezekiel overheard the men say, “the time is not near to build houses” (11:3). At least, that is how the NRSV translates Verse 3, but the Hebrew is too obscure to translate with certainty. If the officials paused construction, like the NRSV translation suggests, it was likely because they confiscated the property of the deportees now stuck in Babylon. No newly built houses were necessary, as there were ample abandoned ones to repossess.

The NIV translates the quote as an affirmative statement, instead of a negative. It reads, “haven’t our houses been recently rebuilt?” (11:3). If the 25 men were applauding their newly built houses, it was because they went on a building spree based on the naïve assumption that Jerusalem’s future was secure.

Regardless of the exact translation, God called the political figures’ counsel wicked because they were leading the people into the wrong mindset. They dismissed the Babylonian threat and carried on as usual with peacetime activities, blissfully unaware that they were on the brink of war.

Apparently, the officials were also going around boasting, “this city is the pot, and we are the meat” (11:3). The metaphor is awkward, but they were claiming that Jerusalem, with its walls and fortifications, was like an iron cauldron that would protect the occupants from outside enemies. The officials pompously saw themselves as the choice cuts of meat nestled inside the cauldron. In their opinion, they were the best Jerusalem offered, the worthiest of protection.

The officials’ misplaced confidence angered God because they were supposed to be in a state of repentance. Only the sincerest revival had a chance of stopping the Babylonian attack. Instead, they felt perfectly at ease with their situation. While they praised Jerusalem as impenetrable, they did not realize that God’s glory was exiting the city. They were blinded by their own complacency and busy congratulating themselves for surviving the two Babylonian deportations.

God twice commanded Ezekiel to prophesy against the leaders: “prophesy against them; prophesy, O mortal” (11:4). In Hebrew, when the biblical authors wanted to emphasize a point, they repeated it. In English, we add “er” or “est” to a word for inflection. Something is bigger or biggest. In Hebrew, if something is bigger, the biblical writer states it twice. It is “big, big” or “gadol, gadol.” So, when God twice commanded Ezekiel to prophecy, the prophet understood the command as a forceful imperative.

Speaking through the prophet, God warned the leaders of Israel that he could read their minds (11:5). God—who always knows the secrets of our hearts—differentiated between what they publicly told the people and their greedy interior motives.

As far as God was concerned, their corruption equated to violence and murder in Jerusalem; they had “filled its streets with the slain” (11:5). God reversed their own metaphor. They were not the choice meat in the cauldron, as they claimed. That role belonged to their innocent victims whom they butchered (11:7). Continuing the theme of meat, God, acting as the butcher, threatened he would cut them up with a sword (11:8). He would them over to strangers, a euphemism for the Babylonian army (11:9). Also, the city of Jerusalem was not the guarantor of the people’s protection; that role belonged to God. God warned, “this city shall not be your pot” (11:11).

Identifying the remnant

Ezekiel, like all true prophets, never described a coming punishment without also explaining the divine reasoning behind the punishment. Ezekiel uttered, “I am the Lord, whose statues you have not followed and whose ordinances you have not kept, but you have acted according to the ordinances of the nations that are around you” (11:12). As soon as he offered this definitive reproof of Israel’s leaders, Pelatiah, one of the two officials who Ezekiel had recognized, dropped dead. If Ezekiel’s vision was happening in real-time, Pelatiah might have died that very moment while the prophet was in exile but envisioning events in Jerusalem. In response, Ezekiel fell down crying and pleaded with God not to obliterate the whole remnant (11:13).

Pelatiah’s death triggered a mournful response from Ezekiel for probably two reasons. First, it is difficult to process tragedy on a mass scale, and much easier to wrap our heads around individual stories. Ezekiel had recognized Pelatiah, possibly as temple personnel or a member of the royal house. He knew his story and therefore his death felt personal. Second, Ezekiel must have taken his death as a sign that the destruction had begun. Yahweh’s wrath startled him. Even though he had been the megaphone preaching the divine judgement and salvation of a remnant, he equated Pelatiah’s death with Israel’s total elimination.

This was the second time, thus far, that Ezekiel broke down in tears, trying to intercede on behalf of the remnant (8:8; 11:13). The first time, in Chapter 8, God seemed to avoid the question and did not answer Ezekiel. The second time God stopped his oracle of judgment and offered Ezekiel a message of reassurance (11:14-21). In a lengthy hope-filled speech, God revealed surprising news: Ezekiel’s fellow exiles made up the future remnant of Israel.

Apparently, when the Babylonian army deported Ezekiel and thousands of other Judeans in 597 BCE, a new class of officials arose in Jerusalem to fill the power vacuum. Nebuchadnezzar had carted off the upper class, the royal household, temple personnel, and skilled laborers. Those who remained were mostly the poor and unskilled. However, within only a few years, they became the new elite and profited nicely from the power shift. Ezekiel’s vision made apparent that the formerly oppressed became the oppressor. Lacking compassion for their exiled brethren, they ruled over Jerusalem with their own systems of corruption and oppressive behaviors.

The events in Chapter 11, Ezekiel’s concluding vision in his divine tour of Jerusalem, must have occurred before the executioners began their murderous spree. Otherwise, it makes no sense for the Jerusalem officials to feel so confident. Although the last four chapters were part of one vision sequence leading up to the full departure of God’s glory from the city, not every scene was reported in sequence. Since it was a dream-like vision, Ezekiel’s visionary episodes were not bound by reason or chronology.

Knowing the circumstances of the previous visions, the concluding vision is ironic. Everything that the Jerusalemites believed to be true was the exact opposite of their reality. The 25 leaders of Jerusalem assumed their protection from the Babylonian deportation was a sign that God favored them. They saw themselves as the anticipated remnant and felt certain of their survival. As they judged the historical events, the exiles displeased God, so he banished them, allowing for the true believers to take hold of the reins. In fact, the Jerusalem officials had it backwards. They were the ones blindly tumbling toward their own destruction. The exiles who had been thrown out of Jerusalem were safe, and those inside Jerusalem who felt secure were doomed. By concluding that the deportees deserved God’s judgment, they justified their confiscation of the ancestral property, defying the Torah’s land laws (Lev. 25:10). They claimed, “to us this land is given for a possession” (11:15).

God set the record straight about the exiles. He stated, “Though I removed them far away among the nations and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone” (11:16). This was a revelation! The exiles encamped in Babylon believed that without access to Yahweh’s temple, they had no way to atone for their sins. Without a way to ritually purify, they assumed they were too contaminated to approach God. Yet, God promised that he sanctuaried among them in their captivity; he extended himself to them and abided with them in exile. The idea that God could not be confined to a temple was especially poignant coming from Ezekiel. As a priest, he was prophesying himself out of a profession!

When reading the concluding vision, it is important to remember that Ezekiel addressed one people group in his vision, the Jerusalem officials. Yet, his immediate audience was his fellow exiles in Babylon. It was a circuitous way to deliver a message. He essentially was reporting back to the exiles the word on the streets in Jerusalem, a place he visited in spirit but not in body.

The exiles were clueless as to how their compatriots in Jerusalem fared and how they interpreted their banishment. They took news in whatever form they could get it. Like any refugee, they were desperate for updates about their homes and their land. God intended for Ezekiel’s direct reproof of the prideful Jerusalem officials to be an indirect comfort to the disillusioned exiles.

Ezekiel prophesied a coming day when the exiles would return to their homeland. With the definitive prophetic stamp, “Thus says the Lord God,” the prophet promised, “I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel” (11:17). God was going to perform a second Exodus. By a miracle that only he could orchestrate, he would initiate their return. Like the period of wilderness wandering, the decades they spent in exile was their chance to rely only on God.

Heart of flesh

However, there is an important difference between Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and the returnees’ reclamation of their land. God tasked Joshua with cleansing the land of the idolatry of the nations. When the remnant returned to Israel after their period of exile was over, they had to purge the land of all the abominations (11:18). They were just as guilty as the former Canaanites of contaminating God’s territory.

The Israelites, from the beginning of the covenant on Mount Sinai, were caught in a cycle of rebellion, punishment, and renewal. To empower them to do better, God promised to give them a new heart. Ezekiel said, “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (11:19). No longer would they divide their loyalty between Yahweh and the pagan gods. The relationship between God and man would gain permanency. To Ezekiel, Yahweh reiterated the classic covenant formula first promised to Abraham: “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (11:20).

With the conclusion of the Jerusalem vision, Yahweh on his throne chariot “ascended from the middle of the city and stopped on the mountains east of the city” (11:23). The departure of his glory was complete. This was the disconcerting message to the Jews still living in Jerusalem. If they assumed their safety and wellbeing was based on the assurance of God’s presence, their protection was gone.

Ezekiel did not give the chariot’s full flight path or destination, only that it stopped on the mountain east of the city, the Mount of Olives. Perhaps God returned to the heavenly abode, or he went to Babylon where he promised to sanctuary among the exiles. Jewish tradition holds that the chariot hovered above the Mount of Olives for three years, prepared to return to Jerusalem if the people repented. If you have ever been to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, it offers the best perch to see the entire city and contemplate its past and future. The resurrected Jesus also ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:9-12).

As for the prophet, the spirit returned him to his home among the exiles in Babylon. Ezekiel stated, “Then the vision that I had seen left me” (11:24). If the Jerusalem vision had been a movie, this was the moment that the director lifted the clapstick and called “cut.”

When Ezekiel returned to his regular consciousness, the same elders were present who had been with him in his home when the vision first began. Likely, the vision transpired in a day, temporarily taking over his mind but with no obvious effect on his body. Ezekiel told the elders everything that God showed him in the vision (11:25). Their reaction to the news was left unsaid.

With this concluding vision, Yahweh declared his omnipresence and showed that unlike the local patron deities, he was not attached to any one place. Stories of gods abandoning their temples was a popular theme in the laments of the ancient Near East. For example, the Cyrus Cylinder described the Babylonian god Marduk abandoning his temple, out of frustration with the people, before the Persians overtook the city in 539 BCE. When an invading army attacked a Sumerian or Assyrian city, the most convenient explanation was often that the patron deity had departed from its temple and left the city vulnerable. That’s how they rationalized defeat without undermining their religion or political leadership. Because their gods were localized, they thought they only had power in the lands associated with their devotees.

Of course, their gods were movable idols that had to be deposited and removed from temple sanctuaries. The prophet Isaiah described the idols as a weighty burden that the captives had to carry with them into exile (Isa. 46:1-2). Yahweh did not require human hands to install or remove his presence. He abdicated his throne in Jerusalem, but he had a greater throne in heaven. He left Jerusalem of his own initiative and free accord, and he would one day return just the same. The divine abandonment was not permanent. The second half of Ezekiel promised the return of the divine presence. If Ezekiel’s lowest low was the departure, his highest high will be the return of God’s glory.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week we are reading Ezekiel 12.

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Shabbat Shalom