Ezekiel 33 begins the second section of the words to Israel. The opening section, chapters 1-24, was filled with repeated messages of coming judgment. Following this, the Lord’s word addressed the surrounding nations (25-32), demonstrating that He is the Lord of the nations and brings down the proud. Chapter 33 commences the final section of the book, starting from the news that Jerusalem has indeed been “struck down” (33:21). Ezekiel now brings messages from God that show a future and hope for the fallen nation of Israel, in addition to a continued call to the Jews (both in Israel and in exile) to repent and return to their God.
The opening verses of chapter 33 echo the calling given to Ezekiel in chapters 1-3. As Ezekiel was chosen by God to be a “watchman” (3:16-21), so again this calling is renewed. The first extended address to Israel (chapters 1-24) ended with the prophetic word that Jerusalem would fall, a fugitive would bring Ezekiel and the exiles this devastating news, and Ezekiel’s would no longer be “mute” but have his mouth opened to speak again for the Lord to His people (24:25-27). This is exactly what chapter 33 records happened. A fugitive does arrive in Babylon with the news of Jerusalem’s fall (33:21). Ezekiel, who had been recommissioned as a watchman (33:1-9), has his mouth opened (22) to proclaim the Lord’s message to His people.
Ezekiel is reminded of his initial call to be a watchman who warns the people by faithfully reporting to them any word he receives from the Lord. If he fulfills his calling as a watchman, he will save his own soul, even if his message of warning is disregarded and ignored (9). Conversely, if he fails to give the warning, the people will die for their own iniquity (8), and God will hold Ezekiel accountable (“that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand”—8).
After being reminded of his calling, Ezekiel is put to work. He’s given a message to relay to the exiles. God is aware of their accusations against Him: “Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live’” (10). God challenges this false, fatalistic, defeatist attitude. He reminds them of an amazingly wonderful truth—“As I live declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (11). Here is a reminder of God’s compassionate, covenant-keeping heart. He is not willing that any should perish, but that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
In light of God’s grace and His justice, the message He has Ezekiel deliver is filled with hope and warning. The wicked who truly repent (showing their repentance by their actions—14-16), will live. Conversely, the righteous who become careless and callous, who turn away from righteousness to wickedness, will die (13). This message is met with objections from the exiles. They twice accuse God of being unjust (17, 20). Evidently, they are troubled with grace for the wicked and judgment on the formerly righteous. The Lord has Ezekiel repeat the promise/warning: the righteous who turn to wickedness will die (18) and the wicked who repent and do what is right will live (19). Rejecting the asserting that His ways are “not just”, the Lord reiterates His pledge to judge each one according to his or her ways (20).
Speaking of God’s judgment, verse 21 begins a new section in this chapter as a fugitive arrives from Jerusalem, announcing that the “city has been struck down” (21). Ezekiel had been prepared for this tragic news. The prior evening, the “hand of the Lord” had been upon him, opening His mouth to speak (22). The Lord was fulfilling His promise to judge Jerusalem and to keep Ezekiel mute until the city fell (24:25-27). Whether being “mute” referred to complete silence or a cessation of messages from God, Ezekiel is now given a “word of the Lord” to deliver (23). And the message is not encouraging for the remnant back in Israel. Evidently, they were still holding out hope of regaining what they had lost. Recalling that Abraham had been “only one man, yet he got possession of the land” (24), they cheer themselves with the hope that they will regain possession of the land. The message from God refutes their hopes. Because these Israelites had persisted in their disobedience (25-26), God would see to it that they perished (27). Israel would continue to be desolate.
The chapter concludes with a reminder that the exiles in Babylon were no better than their countrymen back in Israel. True, the exiles seemed eager to hear Ezekiel’s message, gathering to listen to his words. But God knew their hearts. They were holding tight to their sinful ways (lustful talk and greedy hearts—31). In fact, they were treating Ezekiel as a spiritual entertainer. To them he was like a musician singing love songs or skillfully playing an instrument (32). They enjoyed hearing him perform but did not put his words into practice. The Lord’s message to the exiles is sobering: when judgment comes—as it will—then they would realize that a true prophet (Ezekiel) had been among them (33).
Visions of God
The Lord communicates to and through His watchmen. With His great power, the Lord could send direct messages to people to warn or direct them. While Scriptures show He does this at times, His usual message is to communicate through spokesmen. Ezekiel is commissioned to pass along His warnings: “If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die and you do not speak to warn the wicket to turn from his way. . .” (8). The Lord speaks through the speaking of His watchmen. Preaching is heralding God’s message for Him, in the tradition and train of prophetic watchmen. As preachers today, we still receive God’s message (through His Word) and speak it on His behalf.
The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. While it’s clear the Lord sends the sword of judgment (“If I bring the sword”—2), He does so with no joy. Even when His people have greatly sinned and deserve severe judgment, the Lord still “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (11). God’s heart is inclined toward mercy and salvation. 2 Peter 3:9 echoes the same theme: God is not willing that any should perish but that all come to repentance.
The Lord is righteous, not ruthless, in His judgments. The Israelites, who complain that God insists on making them pay for their sins (10), are twice reminded God’s ways are just (17, 20). The wicked who repent and turn back will live; the righteous who abandon God’s ways for wickedness will die. As the Lord makes clear, “I will judge each of you according to his ways” (20). Still, there’s hope for the wicked as Gods desires to show mercy (11).
The Lord sees past spiritual posturing to the spiritual reality in our hearts. The Lord divests Ezekiel of the notion that he’s making progress with the exiles. While they see to be “coming to church” and appear to be eager to listen to him preach, the Lord knows it’s all a show. They listen to Ezekiel as a form of spiritual entertainment, but “they will not do” what he says (31). Whether or not they fooled Ezekiel, they did not fool Him.
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen need reminders of their job description: faithfully delivering the Lord’s message. Chapter 33 begins with a restatement of Ezekiel’s original calling to service. He is reminded of his posting as a watchman. His job is not to make up a message but to faithfully deliver what the Lord gives Him. The fact that the Lord repeats the fundamental nature of Ezekiel’s role implies reminders are needed. Preachers can lose clarity on their role if they don’t recall the essence of their calling.
Watchmen will be held accountable by the Lord. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter what the exiles think of Ezekiel. What matters is what God thinks of Ezekiel. And the Lord makes it clear, He expects Ezekiel to deliver His messages of warning to resistant sinners and welcome for repentant sinners. If Ezekiel does this faithfully, he will have “delivered his soul” (9), even if no one responds well to his message. Conversely, if Ezekiel fails to faithfully deliver God’s message, he and his listeners will be judged: “that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand” (8). The same holds true for preachers today, as Paul makes clear in his sobering preamble he gives to his young son in the faith, Timothy: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
Watchmen can be seen as spiritual entertainers by those with calloused hearts. Ezekiel was creating quite a stir in Babylon. Originally written off as eccentric and bizarre, he seems to have gained a fair amount of credibility with the exiles. Especially once his predictions of Jerusalem’s demise became reality (21). Suddenly, the soothing messages of the false prophets were exposed as lies. Ezekiel evidenced the accuracy of a true prophet (Deut. 18:21-22). On top of this, Ezekiel was a creative, captivating communicator. His dramatic flair captured the attention of his hearers. So the exiles started making a habit of gathering to hear him preach (31). The problem was that they treated him as an entertainer (“you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument”—32). They listen to what he says but don’t act on it (32). The same sad tendency can be found today. Preachers can faithfully and engagingly communicate God’s Word. That does not ensure the listeners will be both hearers and doers of the word (James 1:22).