If we may think of Ezekiel as compiling and arranging his own prophecies, we may think of him as returning, with something like a sense of relief, to his own special work as the watchman of the house of Israel. For upwards of two years the messages which it had been given him to write (how far they were in any sense published we have no means of knowing) in Ezekiel 25-32; had dealt exclusively with foreign nations. Now his own people are again the object of his care. He resumes his pastoral office at once for warning and consolation. From this point onwards, with the exception of the strange Meshech-Tubal episode in Ezekiel 38:1-23; Ezekiel 39:1-29; all is leading onwards to the final vision of the rebuilt temple, and the redistributed land of Israel, and through them to the times of the Messianic restoration. No date is given here for the word of the Lord which now came to him, but it may, perhaps be inferred, from Ezekiel 39:21, Ezekiel 39:22, that it was immediately before the arrival of the messenger who brought the tidings that Jerusalem was taken. In the ecstatic state indicated by "the hand of the Lord" he knew that some great change was coming, that he had a new message to deliver, a new part to play.
Speak to the children of thy people. (On the force of the possessive pronoun, see note on Ezekiel 3:1.) The formula is carried on throughout the chapter (Ezekiel 33:12, Ezekiel 33:17, Ezekiel 33:30). Set him for their watchman. Ezekiel falls back upon the thought of Ezekiel 3:17, but the image is expanded with characteristic fullness. The function of the watchman, in which he sees a parable of his own office, is to stand upon his tower (2 Samuel 18:24, 2 Samuel 18:25; 2 Kings 9:17; Habakkuk 2:1), to keep his eye on the distant horizon, and as soon as the clouds of dust or the gleam of armor gives notice of the approach of the enemy, to sound the trumpet of alarm (Amos 3:6; Hosea 8:1; Jeremiah 4:5; Jeremiah 6:1), that men may not be taken unawares. If he discharge that duty faithfully, then, as in Ezekiel 3:17-21, the blood of those that perish through their own negligence shall rest on their own head.
But if the watchman: etc. The words imply what we might almost call the agony of self-accusation. The prophet asks himself whether he has acted on the warning which was borne in on his mind at the very beginning of his mission. Has he sounded the trumpet? Has he warned the people of the destruction that is coming on them? The outward imagery vanishes in Ezekiel 33:7. It is of no Chaldean invader that the prophet had to give personal and direct warning, but of each man's own special sin which was Bringing ruin on himself and on his country.
Thus ye speak, saying, etc. At the earlier stage the prophet had to contend with scorn, incredulity, derision (Ezekiel 12:22). They trusted in the promises of the false prophets (Ezekiel 13:6). They laid to their soul the flattering unction that they were suffering, not for their own sins, but for the sins of their fathers (Ezekiel 18:2). Now they stand face to face with the fulfillment of the prophet's words. They cherish no hopes, and they make no excuses. They have fallen into the abyss of despair. Admitting their own sin and the righteousness of their punishment, does not the very admission exclude hope? Who can bring life to those that are thus dead in trespasses and sins? The parallelism with Le 26:39-42 is so striking that it can scarcely be accidental
Say unto them, etc. To meet that despair the prophet has to fall back on the truth which he had proclaimed once before (Ezekiel 18:32). He must appear as uttering a message of pardon resting on the unchanging character of the great Absolver. Now, as ever, it is true that he willeth not the death of the wicked, that all punishment (in this world, at least) is meant to lead to repentance, and that for those who repent there is the hope of restoration and of life. No righteousness in the past avails against the transgression of the present (Ezekiel 33:12); but then also no wickedness of the past prevails to shut out the penitent's claim to pardon. As a man is at any given moment, when the judgment comes on him, so is he dealt with. In some sense, as in Ezekiel 33:13, the righteousness of the post may become a stumbling-block. The man may trust in it, and be off his guard, ceasing to watch and pray, and so the temptation may prevail.
If the wicked restore the pledge. In Ezekiel 18:7, Ezekiel 18:12, Ezekiel 18:16, this and its opposite had been grouped with other forms of good and evil. Here it stands out in solitary preeminence. The reason may possibly be found in the fact that a time of exile and suffering was likely to make the sin, which the penitent thus showed that he had renounced, a specially common one. The starving man pledged his garment or his tools for the loan of money or of food at a price far below its value. There was a real self-sacrifice, a proof of the power of the faith that worketh by love, when the creditor restored it. The primary duty, when a man turned from evil, was, as far as in him lay, to overcome his besetting sin and make restitution for the past. Compare the words of the Baptist (Luke 3:12-14), and those of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8). The statutes of life. The words are used as in Ezekiel 20:11 and Le Ezekiel 18:5, on the assumption that, if a man kept the statutes, he should (in the highest sense of the word) live in them. It was reserved for the fuller illumination of St. Paul, taught by a representative experience to proclaim the higher truth that the Law, ordained for life, was yet the minister of condemnation and death unless there was something higher than itself to complete the work which it could only begin (Romans 7:10; Romans 8:3; comp. also Hebrews 7:19).
The way of the Lord is not equal. The prophet now proclaims what he had been taught, perhaps then, without proclaiming it, in Ezekiel 18:25-30. Men are dealt with by the Divine Judge, not as their fathers have Been before them, not even as they themselves have been in times past, but exactly as they are. Where could there be a more perfect rule of equity? The question how far Ezekiel thinks of the judgment itself as final, whether there is the possibility of repentance and pardon after it has fallen, and during its continuance, is not directly answered. He is speaking, we must remember, of a judgment on this side the grave, and therefore what we call the problems of eschatology were not before him. But the language of the document which lies at the basis of his theology (Le 26:41) asserts that if men repented and, "accepted" their earthly punishment, then Jehovah would remember his covenant, and would not destroy them utterly. And his own language as to Sodom and Samaria (Ezekiel 16:53) indicates a leaning to the wider hope. If the problems of the unseen world had been brought before him, we may believe that he would have dealt with them as with those with which he actually came in contact, and that there also his words would have been, "O house of Israel, O sons of men, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?"
In the twelfth year, etc. The capture of Jerusalem took place in the fourth month of the eleventh year (Jeremiah 39:2; Jeremiah 52:6) from the captivity of Jehoiachin and the beginning of Zedekiah's reign. Are we to assume some error of transcription? or is it within the limits of probability that eighteen months would pass without any direct communication from Jerusalem of what had passed there? There is, I conceive, nothing improbable in what is stated. The exiles of Tel-Ahib were not on the high-roads of commerce or of war. All previous communications were cut off by the presence of the Chaldean armies. In the words, one that had escaped, the prophet clearly referred to the intimation given him at the time of his wife's death (Ezekiel 24:26). When the fugitive entered he saw that the hour had at last come. One would give much to know who the fugitive was, but we can only conjecture. Had Baruch been sent by Jeremiah to bear the tidings to his brother prophet? Such a mission would have been a fulfillment of Jeremiah 45:5. A later tradition ascribes to Baruch a prominent part as a teacher among the exiles of Babylon (Bar. 1:2) shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Now the hand of the Lord. When the messenger arrived he found the prophet in a state of ecstasy. This was in the evening. In that prophetic ecstasy his mouth was opened, and the long silence broken, and though he had not heard the message with his outward ears, he had taken, as it were, that message as his text. It was not till his discourse was ended, and the morning came, that he himself heard the terrible tidings from the lips of the messenger. Then a change came over him. He was no more dumb. The long silence was broken. Had the silence lasted, we ask, from Ezekiel 3:26 onward? Had the whole intervening period been one of simply symbolic action, and of written but unspoken prophecies? The words at first suggest that conclusion; but it is traveled by the facts; by the commands of Ezekiel 12:10, Ezekiel 12:23; by the order to "prophesy" in Ezekiel 13:2; by the message to speak unto the elders in Ezekiel 14:4; by the question, "Doth he not speak parables?" of Ezekiel 20:49. I infer, therefore, that, though the silence had been dominant, it had not been unbroken. To some, at least, a message had been spoken. Others may have been allowed to read the written prophecies. The death of the prophet's wife tended, probably, to the continuance of the silence, and it seems a legitimate inference from Ezekiel 24:27 that it had continued from that date onward.
They that inhabit thou wastes of the land. The utterance that follows was probably the direct result of what Ezekiel heard from the messenger. He it was who reported the boastful claims of those who had been left in the land by the Chaldean armies—the "bad figs" of Jeremiah's parable, the least worthy representatives of the seed of Abraham. the assassins of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41:1, Jeremiah 41:2), who in these "waste places," the dens and eaves in which they found a refuge, led the lives of outlaws and bandits. The very words of their boast are reproduced: "Abraham, when he was yet but one, received the premise of inheritance. We are comparatively many, and are left as the true seed of Abraham (comp. Matthew 3:9). The land is ours, and we will take possession of the estates of the exiles."
Ye eat with the blood. It is characteristic of Ezekiel that the first offence which he names with horror should be a sin against a positive commandment. He felt, as it were, a sense of loathing at what seemed to him a descent into the worst form of pollution, forbidden, not to the Jews only (Le Ezekiel 17:10; Ezekiel 19:1-14 :26; Deuteronomy 12:16), but to mankind (Genesis 9:4); compare the scene in 1 Samuel 14:32. The same feeling shows itself in Zechariah 9:7 and Acts 15:20, Acts 15:29. The prohibition of blood took its place, in later Judaism, as among the precepts of Noah, which were binding even on the proselytes of the gate, upon whom, as distinct from the proselytes of righteousness, the rite of circumcision was not enforced; and as such were accepted by the council at Jerusalem, as binding also among Christian converts. Not for such as these was the inheritance of Israel, and the prophet asks indignantly, after naming yet more hateful offenses, Shall ye possess the land?
Ye stand upon your sword. The words point to the open assertion of the law that might is right. Men relied on the sword, and on that only, for their support. Assassinations, as in Jeremiah 41:1-18; were, so to speak, as the order of the day. Ye work abomination. The noun, Ezekiel's ever-recurring word, indicates both the act of idolatry and the foul orgiastic rites that accompanied it. The verb, curiously enough, has the feminine suffix. Was it used intentionally, either as pointing to the prominence of women in those rites (Jeremiah 44:15), or to the degrading vices which involved the loss of true manhood (2 Kings 23:7)? So some have thought; but I agree with Keil, Smend, and others, in seeing only an error of transcription. Once more, after heaping up his accusations, Ezekiel asks the question, "Shall ye possess the land?" "Are you the seed of Abraham?"
They that are in the wastes. The words paint, with a terrible vividness, what was passing in Ezekiel's fatherland. Did the fugitives of Judah seek the open country? they were exposed to the sword of the Chaldeans or of marauding outlaws. Did they seek safety in fortresses or caves? they were exposed, crowded together as they were under the worst possible conditions, to the ravages of pestilence.
The children of thy people. The words, like those of Ezekiel 14:1 and Ezekiel 20:1, Ezekiel 20:49, throw light on the prophet's relations to his people. Now that the long silence was broken, and the prophet spoke with greater freedom than he had ever done before, he acquired a fresh notoriety. The character of his last utterance, vindicating, as it might seem, the claim of the exiles to "possess the land," as against that of the remnant "in the wastes," may even have made him popular. The Authorized Version against is misleading; read, with the margin and the Revised Version, about. There was for the time no open hostility. They talked much, in places of private or public resort, of the prophet's new action. Each invited his neighbor to go and hear the prophet as he spake to them his message from Jehovah. And they came as the people cometh, in crowds, even as my people, the people of Jehovah, with reverent gestures and listening eagerly. Never before, we may well believe, had the prophet had so large or so promising a congregation. But he was taught to look below the surface and to read their thoughts, and there he read, as preachers of all ages have too often read after him, that they were hearers, and not doers (Matthew 7:24-27; James 1:23-25). In words they showed much love (the LXX. gives "falsehood"), spoke pleasant things, but the root-evil, the besetting sin, was still there. Their heart went after their covetousness (camp. Matthew 13:22; 2 Timothy 4:10).
A very lovely song; literally, a song of love, an erotic idyll, the word being the same as in Ezekiel 33:31. Yet this was the meaning of the large gathering. They came to hear the prophet, as they would to hear a hired singer at a banquet, like those of Amos 6:5. The prophet's words passed over them and left no lasting impression. All that they sought was the momentary tickling of the sense. The words receive a special significance from Psalms 137:3. The Jewish exiles were famous among their conquerors for the minstrel's art. The nobler singers refused to "sing the songs of Zion in a strange land;" others, it may be, were not so scrupulous. Had the prophet seen his people gather to listen to such a singer? Were they better occupied when they were listening to his message from Jehovah.
When this cometh to pass. The words can scarcely refer to the immediately preceding predictions in Ezekiel 33:27, Ezekiel 33:28, which were primarily addressed to "the people in the waste places," the remnant left in Judah, and we have to go back to the wider, more general teaching of Ezekiel 33:10-20. That was the prophet's message of judgment, his call to repentance. When the judgment should come, as it surely would, then they would know, in the bitterness of self-condemnation, that they had been listening, not to a hireling singer, but to a prophet of Jehovah.
Ezekiel here returns to an idea which he has expressed earlier (Ezekiel 3:17). He stands as a watchman for his people. Every Christian preacher and teacher is in a similar position. The same may be said of every Christian man and woman who knows the peril of sin and has an opportunity of warning the ignorant and. careless.
I. THE DUTIES OF THE WATCHMAN.
1. To watch. In order to serve his people he must first of all see for himself. We can only teach men what we have first learnt. The prophet must be a seer, the apostle a disciple, the missionary a Christian. To watch means
The Christian watchman must be spiritually alert; he must not be satisfied with his own notions; he must sweep the horizon of truth; he must consider the distant and the future, but chiefly that which is approaching and of practical moment. He must look especially in two directions:
2. To warn. Having seen danger, the watchman must at once inform the city of the fact. He must wake the slumbering guard, blow the trumpet, or run to the belfry and sound the alarm. The Christian teacher is to warn as well as to comfort and exhort (1 Thessalonians 5:14).
II. THE LIMIT OF HIS RESPONSIBILITY. The watchman has but to watch and warn. When he has been quick to detect approaching danger, perhaps at first but as a faint cloud of dust on the horizon, and vigorous in blowing his trumpet to rouse the city, his part is done. He cannot meet the foe in the plain and prevent them from approaching the city. He cannot man the walls and guard the citadel. He can but blow his trumpet. Further, if the people will not heed or believe him, he cannot compel them to prepare for the conflict. If they still prefer their couches to their swords, the watchman cannot force them to arm. He is not the commander of the city. The greatest Christian teacher is but a watchman. No servant of Christ can compel men to turn from their carelessness and face the stern facts of life. If they will not hearken to faithful expostulation, the preacher can do no more for them. They are free, and they must choose fur themselves.
1. This is a warning to the careless. They may refuse to attend. They can fall asleep again, vexed at the rousing trumpet-blast. But if they do this it is at their peril.
(2) The folly and sin of negligence aggravate the faults of those who give no heed to warning. Now they are without excuse. They can blame no one but themselves.
2. This is a consolation for the faithful watchman. If he is a true man, he must grieve over his negligent hearers. Still, his Master will recognize his fidelity.
III. THE GUILT OF HIS NEGLIGENCE.
1. It is failure in a trust. The citizens sleep in time of peril, and no one expects them to be on guard. But the watchman's special duty is to be awake and give warning. He who is entrusted with responsibility is expected to be true to his charge.
2. It is sin against light. The watchman sees the danger which the sleeping citizens do not perceive. His knowledge adds to his responsibility. His sin is but negative, he gives no false news, he does not play the traitor by opening the gates to the enemy. Yet he is unfaithful.
3. It is negligence that hurts others. It risks a whole city. We risk the welfare of all whom we might help to save, if we fail to warn them. Fear of disturbing their peace is no excuse. The watchman must have courage to sound the alarm. There are times when the harp must be exchanged for the trumpet. The preacher must have courage to say unpleasant things.
A question of despair.
I. THE CAUSE OF THE DESPAIR. The prophet has just been told that his responsibility is limited to his warning the people faithfully. If the watchman blows the trumpet lustily he can do no more. The blood of the careless people will then be on their own heads. But this truth, which gives consolation to the prophet, is alarming to the people. It is meant to be so. Yet the alarm may be taken in a wrong way. Instead of rousing themselves to meet and overcome the danger, the people may sink down paralyzed in the blankness of despair. The explanation of this despair is suggested by the language of the people.
1. A consciousness of guilt. The people perceive that their transgressions and their sins are upon them. The pilgrim feels the weight of his burden. The sudden awakening of an evil conscience plunges its possesser into midnight darkness. The new thing is not to know that wickedness was done; that knowledge was always possessed, though hitherto not much considered. It is to know that the sins still rest upon their doer, i.e. it is the feeling of present guilt for past deeds of wickedness.
2. An experience of the consequences of sin. "And we pine away in them." The death-penalty of sin does not come like a flash of lightning. Sin is a slow poison. It kills by a sort of spiritual consumption. With an awakening conscience the man perceives himself to be in a spiritual decline. No perception can be more provocative of despair.
II. THE QUESTION IT AROUSES. "How should we then live?" The despair is not yet absolute, or it would not suggest such a question as this. The most awful despair does not live in Doubting Castle. It is immured in a black dungeon of certain negation. Possibly the question suggested does not expect any answer. It sees no reply, and does not believe that any can be given. The decline is so steadfast, and the disease of sin that causes it so deep-rooted, that the despairing soul cannot look for deliverance, and the question is a sort of expostulation offered to the prophet when he would take a more hopeful view. Still it is a question, and therefore it leaves room for an answer. It is much that men should be brought to ask such a question. Too many do not perceive their danger, though they live in sin unrepented and unrestrained. The question implies certain thoughts.
1. Sinners are in imminent peril of death. To those who are truly awakened the prospect must be alarming. But the danger is not the less for those who do not yet perceive it.
2. Men cannot save their own souls. These endangered people must look elsewhere for safety. Unless salvation comes from above, it cannot be had.
3. Men need light on the way of salvation. It is not visible to the eye of sense; it cannot be discovered by thinking. The world needs a gospel. The heathen pine away, not knowing the Divine source of life.
4. Christ answers the Question of despair with a gospel of hope. The answer is suggested in the next verse (Ezekiel 33:11). It is completed in the gospel of Christ.
God's desire for the world's salvation.
This is a Divine oath. God swears by his own life (see Hebrews 6:13). This shows how certain are the words spoken, how earnestly God desires men to accept them, and how difficult it is for men to believe them.
I. MEN HAVE FOUND IT DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE THAT GOD HAS NO PLEASURE IN THE DEATH OF THE WICKED. Doctrines of reprobation were once popular. People thought that God destined the greater part of mankind to eternal misery before they were born, in order to magnify his own glory. The heathen have had ideas of gods who delighted in blood. Christians have thought that there is a certain Divine satisfaction in taking vengeance on the sinner. Consider the causes of these views.
1. Divine warnings. God warns sternly. Hence he is thought to will harshly. It is supposed that he desires to do what he threatens.
2. The analogy of human passions. With man "revenge is sweet." Therefore it is thought to be so with God. Men act too much in order to please themselves. Therefore they imagine that God does the same.
3. The experience of Divine judgments. They are at times so sweeping and wholesale, and escape from them seems to be so hopeless, that their victims are tempted to regard them as the outcome of God's own desires.
II. IT IS A FACT THAT GOD HAS NO PLEASURE IN THE DEATH OF THE WICKED.
1. This is positively affirmed. Here it is stated on oath. No truth of revelation is more clear or positive than this.
2. It is true to the character of God. God is love, and love can have no pleasure in suffering and death. God is our Father, and a true father can have no pleasure in the death of his children.
3. It is confirmed by the action of God, who has sent his Son to save the world. While death is the wages of sin, the gift of God is the opposite-eternal life. The New Testament is a grand contradiction to theological pessimism.
III. THE DEATH OF THE WICKED IS DUE TO THEIR OWN WILLS. "Why will ye die?" He wills to die who wills the means of death. The man who takes poison takes his life. When the process is revealed this is done openly. When it is not seen it is still done. The sinner then wills his own death, though unwittingly, by deliberately choosing the course that will certainly issue in it. Now, this is a matter of a man's own volition. So absolute is the territory of will that the wicked may yet die in their sins, although God not only does not desire their death, but earnestly desires their salvation. The awful freedom of man's will—this is the rook on which universalism breaks.
IV. GOD ENTREATS MEN TO TURN AND LIVE.
1. It is possible for all to live. As the sinner chooses his own death, so the means of life-deliverance are within his reach. He cannot save himself, but he may choose whether he will be saved.
2. The condition of life is conversion. "Turn ye from your evil ways." This is true repentance. It means more than regretful tears. It takes place in the will, not merely in the emotions. A tearless change is true conversion, while weeping without change is worthless sentiment. Yet this does not require perfect conquest of evil and a full recovery from it before God will have mercy. We are to turn round. The progress up the hill to light and life has yet to be made. Repentance sets cur faces in the right direction.
3. God urges and entreats sinners to turn and live. This shows
Thus God still pleads in infinite pity with his lost children. Happy are they who hear his gracious call and respond to it!
Past and present.
I. THE PRESENT WILL NOT BE JUDGED BY THE PAST. This is one principle underlying the various very clear statements of the passage. It is a principle that is needed in order to balance the influence of other principles that appear to work in an opposite direction. Indeed, at first sight it seems to be contradictory to some well-known laws. Is it not repeatedly asserted that a man will be judged by his past life? The sins of the past may be forgotten, but they stand recorded in the book of judgment and the guilt of them remains on the sinner. How, then, is it possible for the present and future to be free from the past?
1. The past lives by its effects in the present. If, however, by effort of will, aided by Divine grace, we neutralize the bad past, then that past is slain.
2. Forgiveness removes the guilt of the past.
3. Past innocence has no power in it to prevent present sin. It is a help in that direction, for it works through the force of habit. But habit may be resisted and broken.
II. PAST RIGHTEOUSNESS WILL NOT EXCUSE PRIEST SIN. We are judged chiefly, at all events, by what we are, rather than by what we were. Moreover, there is no possibility of our having acquired an extra stock of merit in the past which we can set off against our present failing. We never have a balance on the credit side of our account with Heaven. At our best we are but "unprofitable servants' (Luke 17:10). An employer cares little for old testimonials. He must see a certificate of character up to date. If a man has borne an excellent reputation for years, and at last breaks down and disgraces himself, he is said to have "lost his character." His good name in the past now counts for nothing. It is utterly gone. Now, the practical warning that issues from these considerations is that we must take good heed to our present life. It is of no use to hark back to the day of conversion for assurance. We may long have left the good beginnings of that day. There is no security in past service, position in the Church, etc. We need to be on our guard against falling, even to the last. It is possible to turn aside at the eleventh hour. The ship may be wrecked in sight of the haven; then her passengers will not be saved by their memory of their long prosperous voyage.
III. PAST SIN WILL NOT PREVENT PRESENT SALVATION. Happily, the principle works both ways. If we must first take it as a warning against trusting in a good past, we may also consider it as a reason for not despairing on account of a bad past.
1. The bad past may be forsaken. The grace of Christ will help us to break loose from the tyranny of habit.
2. The bad past may be forgiven. The Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world removes the stains of guilt from penitent souls. Then God will no more accuse them of the past. Pardon covers the past with oblivion.
3. The new present is what God observes. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Then God only looks at the new life and judges of that. Therefore we supremely need grace for the present moment. We live in the present. Religion is for the present.
Charging God with injustice.
I. IT IS NATURAL FOR MEN TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE JUSTICE OF GOD'S ACTIONS. The moral character of Providence is of immense importance. If God acted from caprice, there would be no ground on which we could rely in approaching him, and our whole lives would lie at the mercy of chance. If he were unjust, the most fearful confusion would result. Our security lies in the justice of God, in our knowledge that he will only do what is fair and equable and right. Though we depend on the mercy of God, we cannot refrain from appealing repeatedly to his justice. We are much concerned to know that he is perfectly just.
II. THERE ARE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH GOD APPEARS TO BE UNJUST. It certainly cannot be said that nature and providence are clear revelations of Divine justice, so legibly written that he who runs may read. The world abounds with inequalities. There are the greatest differences in the lots of innocent children. Good men fall into adversity; bad men prosper. The special ground of difficulty with the readers of Ezekiel was that men of time-honored character were punished, while notorious sinners were pardoned. This was apparently a matter of much distress and doubt, leading to accusations against God for not acting equally, i.e. fairly.
III. IT IS FOOLISH TO FORM HASTY OPINIONS CONCERNING GOD'S JUSTICE.
1. We do not know all the facts. We see a certain superficial condition; what lies deeper is hidden. Possibly Ezekiel's contemporaries did not know of the fall of the men of good repute, or of the amendment of their notoriously wicked acquaintances.
2. We do not know all the principles on which God acts. They may be ultimately based on justice, and yet they may be complicated with various considerations. God is not only rewarding and punishing.
3. We do not know the true character of events. What we name evil may really be good. At all events, there may be mercies in disguise.
IV. MEN ARE SLOW TO RECOGNIZE GOD'S PERCEPTION OF CHARACTER. Most people are reluctant to admit that characters are susceptible of change. They label their acquaintances with certain moral titles, and they refuse to allow that those titles are altered. At all events, this is especially true in regard to changes for the worse in themselves and in regard to alterations for the better in others. A man takes it for granted that he will always be estimated according to his old good character. On the other hand, the world is slow to believe in repentance and amendment. It regards the pardon of the sinner as unreasonable, because it will not see that when he repents he is no longer a sinner.
V. IT IS COMMON TO LAY THE CHARGE OF MAN'S INJUSTICE TO GOD'S ACCOUNT. "But as for them, their way is not equal." Straight lines look crooked when regarded through a crooked glass. To the unjust man justice seems to be unjust. Sin gives an evil color to holiness. The righteousness of God is obscured by man's unrighteousness,
VI. IT WOULD BE WELL FOR MEN TO CONSIDER THEIR OWN WAYS INSTEAD OF JUICING GOD'S WAYS. The trouble that is wasted in difficult theological speculations had better be spent in searching self-examination. While we are looking for a mote in God's eye, we Jail to see the beam in our own eye—the beam that caused us to fancy there was any mote in God's eye at all! Theology is too often an excuse for the neglect of religion, but difficulties in providence do not destroy the guilt of sin.
The right of the many.
The idea seems to be—though Abraham was but one man, yet he was promised Canaan; much more, then, must his descendants have a right to the land, since they now form a numerous nation. This plea is urged against the threat that the Jews shall be expelled from their land. It is not difficult to discover its hollowness. But it is propped up by common fallacies against which we need to be on our guard.
I. THE PLEA. It stands on two grounds.
1. That children have a right to their father's property. This is recognized in law and equity. If a man dies intestate, his family inherits his goods as a matter of course. The same is looked for in regard to the special privileges of Divine grace.
2. That numbers multiply rights. If Abraham had a right to the land, much more must a whole nation of his descendants hold that right. This democratic age glories in the rights of numbers. No doubt the people have rights as against privileged monopolists. Thus it may well be urged in an over-populous country, that the people have certain rights in the land, that there must be some limit at least to landlord monopoly. The same democratic feeling passes over to religion. Christ preached to the people, and "the common people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37). Hence the idea that privilege in religion is transferred from the monopolist to the multitude, from priest to people, from Israel to the world.
II. THE FALLACY.
1. The descendants of Abraham may not be his true children. It was a mistake to make much of descent from the great ancestor. That only condemned the more heavily the sins of his unworthy descendants. John the Baptist rebuked this mistake when he told the proud Jews that God was able to raise up children to Abraham from the very stones of the wilderness (Matthew 3:9). St. Paul pointed out that not all who were of the stock of Israel could be accounted the true Israel of God (Romans 9:6). They are Abraham's children who inherit Abraham's faith.
2. Where no right exists, the number of claimants will not create it. The right to Canaan was only conferred by God's grace, and only held on condition of faithfulness. It could be and it was withdrawn when that condition was broken. The number who claimed the right could not affect the question as to the desert of the people to retain it. No one merits the kingdom of heaven. If millions claim the privileges of the kingdom, the millions have no right to it. The number of sinners creates no fight to have the pardon of sin. If the whole world deserves destruction, the whole world may be destroyed. Its numbers will not save it. If we appeal to God's grace, that applies to a single individual. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his notice. He has infinite love for the most obscure of his subjects. Therefore the multiplication of the number of the guilty will not arouse his pity in a new and special manner.
3. Each individual must seek individual grace. We cannot be made citizens of the kingdom of heaven en masse. We must go single file through the strait gate.
4. There is room in the grace of God for the greatest number. The multitude of applicants can never be too great for infinite bounty. The many can claim no rights. But the gospel is for them, not for the few. Christ came to give his life a ransom "for many" (Matthew 20:28).
Ezekiel illustrates the characteristics of popular preaching in his own person and example. He is also brought to see how vain and delusive the attractiveness of it may be.
I. THE SECRET OF POPULAR PREACHING.
1. A good voice. Ezekiel's preaching was "as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice." The first physical condition of preaching is to be able to make one's self heard. The story of Demosthenes declaiming with pebbles in his mouth by the seashore shows how the Greeks valued good articulation in oratory.
2. A graceful manner. Ezekiel was compared to a skilled player of music. The human voice is a delicate instrument. The manner in which it is used considerably affects the attractiveness of the speaker. An audience likes to hear pleasant speaking.
3. Rhythmic utterance. The special charm of Ezekiel's speech was compared to song and music. There is a rhythm of thought as well as of words. People do not enjoy rude shocks to their prejudices.
4. Imaginativeness. We have the substance of Ezekiel's preaching, and even in the reduced form of an abstract and a translation it teems with imagery. People enjoy good illustrations. The concrete is more interesting than the abstract.
5. Fervor. The popular description of Ezekiel's preaching would do injustice to the prophet if we were not able to supplement it with is recorded utterances. Ezekiel was not an empty, mellifluous rhetorician. He put his heart into his words. Though less pathetic than Hosea and Jeremiah, and though falling short of the rapture of Isaiah, he was a preacher of power and earnestness. Pleasant words cloy if forcible words do not accompany them. Demosthenes the orator of force was greater than Cicero the orator of grace.
6. Truth. Ezekiel spoke true words—words that were true to fact and life, true to the heart of man, and true to the thought of God. There is a spell in truth. To speak truth feebly may arrest attention when to clothe error with all the charms of rhetoric fails.
7. Inspiration. Ezekiel was a prophet. He spoke under Divine influence. This was the greatest cause of his power. The preacher needs to be a prophet. He must drink of the Divine well if he would give forth words of power.
II. THE FAILURE OF POPULAR PREACHING.
1. Popularity is no proof of success. In his early preaching Ezekiel was neglected (Ezekiel 3:7). But there came a turn in the tide, and then his name was in everybody's mouth, and people thronged to hear him. Yet this was not success. There is no proof that a good work is being accomplished, in the fact that crowds hang upon the utterances of a famous speaker. It may be that he is prostituting his gifts, and catering only for applause, to the neglect of truth and right, like Jeremiah's pleasant-speaking rivals (Jeremiah 23:16, Jeremiah 23:17). But even if he speaks like Ezekiel, like Ezekiel he may be to the people but a pleasant voice.
2. To be interested in preaching is no proof of truly benefiting by it.
3. Preaching fails if it does not lead to practice. Ezekiel's hearers flatter hum with lip-thanks, and make verbal acknowledgments, of what he says; but they go no further.
Ezekiel agrees with St. James, that hearing without doing is vain (James 1:22). So Christ teaches in his parable of the house on the sand and the house on the rock (Matthew 7:24-27).
The recognition of a prophet.
I. A PROPHET IS NOT ALWAYS RECOGNIZED. Ezekiel was among his people as a prophet, yet they did not admit his claim. This is the more remarkable because they recognized the charm of his preaching, which had become exceedingly popular. His higher ministry was still ignored. While the common people heard Christ gladly, and confessed that "never man spake like this Man," his greatest message was ignored, and his chief claim set aside by the multitude. God sometimes sends a prophet to these later times. His gifts and powers are recognized, but the world is slow to perceive that he brings a message from God.
1. The deeper truth does not show itself in outward effects on the senses.
2. Men are too often out of all sympathy with spiritual truth.
3. A prophet's words may refer to the future.
II. A PROPHET WILL BE RECOGNIZED WHEN THE TRUTH OF HIS WORDS IS CONFIRMED BY EVENTS.
1. A prophet's words are true. The mere utterance of lofty thoughts is of little value if those thoughts are not true. The authority of a prophet resides in the truth of his message.
2. A true prophet's words concern facts of life. They have not only to deal with unseen verities; they also concern the application of those verities to everyday experience. There they may be seen and tested. Religion bears upon life. Its truth is illustrated by its working in the world. If our faith will work, we have a good reason for believing that it is grounded in truth.
3. A prophet's words will be tested by events. The false prophet will be surely exposed. If people had not very short memories they would observe how a succession of modern prophets have fixed near dates for the accomplishment of predictions in Daniel and the Revelation; the wave of time has wiped out these fatal dates, and yet the world exists! On first thought we should think it a privilege to have been contemporaries with the prophets-to have heard Isaiah preach, and Ezekiel, and Hosea; to have listened to Peter and John and Paul; above all, to have been in the throng that gathered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus was on earth. Yet our present privileges are really greater than any could have been under those circumstances, because we have the grand confirmation of history.
III. A PROPHET SHOULD BE RECOGNIZED BY HIS HEARERS.
1. Not to recognize him reveals spiritual callousness. The true prophet is not only discerned by visible signs. We are required to "try the spirits" (1 John 4:1). Thus it is possible to know whether a man comes to us from God. At all events, we may judge by the present moral and spiritual results of teaching. Without waiting for historical events, "by their fruits ye shall know them" in their influence on present-day life. It is to the disgrace of the Church that some of her best teachers have been tabooed as heretics or neglected with chilling indifference.
2. Not to recognize him means to miss a golden opportunity. For a prophet to have been among us, and yet not to have been recognized, means a sad loss. He may have been popular as a preacher, yet we have grieved his heart if we have not acknowledged his Divine mission. When it is too late this is seen. No sooner is the persecuted or neglected prophet departed than a chorus of praises springs up around his grave. It would have been better to have hearkened to his living words. Men build the tombs of dead prophets, and s