Chapter 3 continues the encounter between the Lord and Ezekiel as the Lord continues to speak to Ezekiel, commissioning him to the role of prophetic watchman. Essentially, his call is to receive God’s words fully (eat them—1-3; “receive in your heart and hear with your ears”—10) and them speak them faithfully to the “house of Israel” (4). In the second half of the chapter, after a seven-day break, the Lord once again speaks to Ezekiel. This time the Lord describes his role as “a watchman for the house of Israel” (17). The job description of a watchman is described in terms of giving warnings: “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (17).
Once again, the Lord emphasizes the resistant condition of the Israelites. They will “not be willing to listen to you for they are not willing to listen to me” (7). Their foreheads are hard and their hearts stubborn (7). Their non-verbals (“their looks”—9) will show their disdain for the message and messenger (9).
The commission given to Ezekiel can be summarized in the three verbs found in verse 1: eat, go, speak. He is to ingest and digest God’s Word (“feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it” (3). Then he is to “go” (1,3) to the house of Israel (not foreign nations with strange languages—5-6). Going implies that Ezekiel is to take initiative to communicate God’s message, rather than waiting for the Israelites to seek him or inquire of the Lord. Finally, the Lord tells him to “speak with my words to them” (4).
Once again, the Lord emphasizes the disappointing reactions Ezekiel will receive from his hearers. While the Lord describes two possible or theoretical responses Ezekiel will encounter (hear it or refuse to listen—2:5, 7; 3:11), the expected outcome is actually quite grim: “the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me” (7). The Israelites are said to have a “hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (7).
How does Ezekiel respond to God’s commission? He opens his mouth and eats the scroll (2). Lifted by the Spirit, he goes to the exiles at Tel-abib (12-14). But he doesn’t initially speak the words given Him by God; he sits among them overwhelmed for seven days.
At the end of seven days, the Lord speaks to him again (without the stunning vision of the chariot/throne) to review his calling as a watchman who must speak God’s warnings to the people.
This second part of Ezekiel’s call to ministry can be understood in two different ways. On one hand, it’s possible Ezekiel was resisting this calling, rebelling against what God called him to do (2:8). Alternately, it’s possible to read the chapter and conclude Ezekiel was not resistant to his calling, just overwhelmed and paralyzed by it. After eating the scroll, which is filled with warnings but tastes like honey (3), Ezekiel says he returns to the Israelites, lifted and empowered by the Spirit, “in bitterness in the heat of my spirit” (14). He arrives in Tel-abib and sits among the exiles by the Chebar canal for seven days.
It would seem he remains silent the entire week, not giving out the message of the scroll he had eaten. Then the Lord appears again (actually twice more) to him, commissioning him as a watchman. Perhaps this was because he had been slow to get going (resistant); perhaps it was because he was unable to get going (overwhelmed, like Daniel after seeing the angelic messenger). The “bitterness” could be seen as his negative response to his difficult calling or as his response to the spiritual condition of the exiles. The Lord’s warning to him as a watchman (“blood I will require at your hand”—18, 20) could be understood as strengthening Ezekiel for his difficult task or as disciplining him for failing to immediately speak up. Finally, the fact that the Lord “binds” and “silences” Ezekiel until he receives a new word to deliver (25-26) could be an act of judgment/discipline (similar to Zechariah being struck dumb when he didn’t believe the angel’s announcement—Luke 1) or simply a dramatic way of conveying the truth that Ezekiel does not initiate his role as a prophetic watchman, but only responds when the Lord directs him to speak.
At this point, I lean towards a blend of the two readings. I see Ezekiel as genuinely overwhelmed by the vision of God and the calling he received. He’s dumbstruck. He feels the weight of it and “tastes” the bitterness of the message he will deliver (compare Rev 10 where John finds the scroll sweet to eat but bitter to digest). The second commissioning (16-21) and the third encounter (22-27) are needed to “strengthen” Ezekiel for his calling. There seems to have been some hesitancy to speak God’s words (hence, the warnings for Ezekiel not to rebel—2:8) due to the magnitude of the calling and his fears of the rejection he will face. Like Moses, Jeremiah, and Gideon, he doesn’t feel up to such a task.
The chapter ends with Ezekiel being told to leave Tel-abib and head into “the valley” where he once again sees the “glory of the Lord” like he had witnessed by the Chebar canal (22-23). Again, Ezekiel falls prostrate before the majestic glory of God. This dramatic vision bookends the calling (inclusio) and seems intended to ensure that Ezekiel faces his calling in light of God’s glorious appearing. Rather than comforting words, like those given Jeremiah (“I will be with you), Ezekiel (who is older than young Jeremiah at the time of his call—1:1, 30 years old) receives a vision of God’s greatness and glory to sustain and empower him.
Visions of God:
The vision of God’s glory overwhelms and empowers. As the Lord finishes speaking to Ezekiel (for the first time), the Spirit lifts him up and begins to move him toward Tel-abib (12). As he goes, he hears the sound of a “great earthquake” behind him. But this earthquake is speaking words: “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from its place” (12). Ezekiel discovers (did he turn around?) the sound was coming from the wings of the angels touching one another (evidently as they flew to move) and the sound of the wheels rolling (13).
Once again, we are reminded of the awesome power and majesty of God. The movement of the angels’ wings and wheels, combined with their words, rumbles loudly—like a great earthquake. The angels, like those seen by Isaiah at his call to ministry, are proclaiming the glory of God.
Ezekiel gets another glimpse of this same glory at the end of chapter 3. Having returned to the exiles is Tel-abib, he is instructed to go to the valley (alternate reading is “the plain”). Arriving in the valley he finds “the glory of the Lord stood there, like the glory I had seen by the Chebar canal” (23).
God’s glory is an awesome thing to behold. However, while the glory of God is a reality, it is an unseen reality most of the time to most people. Ezekiel’s vision is not shared by others. Even when he is back among the exiles at Tel-abib, he alone hears the word of the Lord. Then, he is instructed to go to the valley where, once again, he receives a private showing of the glory of God. While this vision is “blessed”, it’s also stunning and overwhelming (15). The sight and sound of it flattens Ezekiel.
Words to Watchman:
From Ezekiel’s call we learn lessons that apply to preachers—those called to proclaim God’s Word.
Watchman don’t get to select the parts of God’s message they take in or give out
Ezekiel is instructed to take the scroll and “eat whatever you find here” (1). In Ezekiel’s case, the initial scroll is filled with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10). Moreover, the words are characterized by God as His “warnings” (3:17). Still, Ezekiel is to take it all in. And give it all out. Watchmen don’t get to cut and paste the parts of God’s message they find acceptable for public consumption. Rather, they ingest it fully and deliver it faithfully.
Watchman must have receptive hearts so they can have hearing ears
I’m struck by the fact that God’s seems to invert the natural order of hearing and receiving in verse 10: “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears.” I would have expected hearing to come before receiving. Perhaps the reason a receptive heart is mentioned before hearing ears lies in the fact that it’s the disposition of the heart that largely determines whether or not we hear God’s words. Watchmen must live with receptive, responsive hearts.
Watchman need hard “faces and foreheads” to minister to a hard people
Preaching to rebellious people is not for the delicate. Opposition can cause us to go silent or go soft when it comes to delivering an unpopular message. God made Ezekiel’s face “as hard as their faces” and his forehead “as hard as their foreheads” (8). Lord, give me a soft heart and a hard forehead.
Watchman proclaim God’s warning to save others and deliver their own souls.
While the warning may not be heeded, a watchman still needs to speak it out—if only to deliver his own soul. If he failed to speak God’s word of warning, God told Ezekiel He would require the blood of the wicked that die “at your hand” (18). Conversely, by delivering the message, Ezekiel would deliver his own soul. To echo Paul, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Watchman will experience a kind of isolation among rebellious people
Ezekiel is told his calling will make him unable “to go out among the people” (25). This is not so much a call to preachers to be anti-social, but a reminder that bearing God’s message among rebellious people has an isolating effect. We don’t get invited to the parties, nor have the desire to go to them! While we have a heart for those we serve, our hearts our out of sync with them, leading to a kind of relational isolation.