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THE BROAD CONTEXT:
The Jewish people experienced two major exiles, the Assyrian Exile and the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonian Exile—the exile in which Ezekiel was involved—came in two waves, the first beginning in 597 B.C. and the second beginning in 587 B.C. To understand Ezekiel, it helps to see where he fits in the context of these exiles.
THE DIVIDED KINGDOM: Keep in mind that, after Solomon’s reign, Israel split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was composed of ten tribes, and was known as Israel. The southern kingdom was composed of two tribes, and was known as Judah.
THE ASSYRIAN EXILE: The first major exile was the Assyrian Exile, which began in 722 B.C. Assyria forced the ten northern tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. These ten tribes of Israel are sometimes called “the lost tribes,” because they became assimilated and never returned to their homeland in an organized way.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE, STAGE ONE: Another exile, the first of two Babylonian exiles, took place in 597 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion in Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carrying off “all the treasures of the house of Yahweh, and the treasures of the king’s house, and (cutting) in pieces all the vessels of gold, which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of Yahweh, as Yahweh had said. He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths; none remained, except the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:13-14).
EZEKIEL, a priest, was one of the people exiled to Babylonia at this time. Five years later, Yahweh called Ezekiel to be a prophet, prophesying both doom for the city of Jerusalem and hope for the Israelites. Ezekiel, therefore, was a contemporary of Jeremiah, who was living and prophesying in Jerusalem while Ezekiel was living and prophesying in Babylonia. Ezekiel continued his prophetic ministry for approximately thirty years—until well after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE, STAGE TWO: In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion by Zedekiah of Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, a Jew serving as Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. This Babylonian Exile was the second major exile—Judah’s exile.
Ezekiel made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for its sins, but he also held out hope for the future. In the last chapters of his book, he tells of Yahweh blessing Israel (chapter 36)—and the dry bones coming to life, symbolizing Israel’s restoration (chapter 37)—and Yahweh’s judgment on Gog (chapters 38-39)—and the vision of a new temple in Jerusalem (chapters 40-44)—and the restoration of life as it had been and as it ought to be (chapters 45-47).
THE RETURN OF A REMNANT: In 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, whose policies would prove to be quite different from those of the Babylonians. Cyrus encouraged subject peoples to retain their culture and traditions, including their religions. In 538 B.C., Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. He even returned the temple vessels to the exiles for use in the new temple and provided financial backing for their return (Ezra 6:2-5). In 520 B.C., a large group of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua. In 516 B.C., they were able, finally, to dedicate the new temple.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
In the first six verses of this chapter, Yahweh sends Ezekiel with a warning for the people of Judah—called here “the house of Israel” (v. 7). If Yahweh is prepared to assault the people with a sword—and their sentinel warns them—and the people ignore the warning—then their blood will be on their own heads (vv. 2-5a). However, if they heed the warning, their lives will be spared (v. 5b). But if their sentinel fails to sound the alarm so that the people die without having been warned, then Yahweh will hold the sentinel responsible for their deaths.
The model for these verses is a military encampment that has posted guards. In that setting, if a guard sounds a warning and the rest of the encampment fails to rally, the guard cannot be held accountable. However, if the guard sees danger and fails to sound a warning—so that the enemy is able to infiltrate the encampment and kill its inhabitants—then the guard is held responsible. In that setting, the guard’s failure would be considered a capital offense if it resulted in the deaths of his fellow soldiers. In other words, the guard would likely be executed for failing to sound the alarm.
EZEKIEL 33:7-9. I HAVE SET YOU A WATCHMAN TO THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL
7So you, son of man, I have set you a watchman to the house of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. 8When I tell the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you don’t speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at your hand. 9Nevertheless, if you warn the wicked of his way to turn from it, and he doesn’t turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your soul.
“So you, son of man, I have set you a watchman to the house of Israel; therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me“ (v. 7). These are almost the exact words that Yahweh used in 3:17 when he appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel for the house of Israel. As noted above, verses 1-6 spell out the responsibilities of a sentinel.
“the house of Israel” is the people of Judah. As noted in the Context above, the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, has ceased to exist. However, the word Israel is also used more broadly to indicate all of the chosen people.
Ezekiel is not charged with assessing the spiritual state of these people. Yahweh will do the assessment and will provide the message that Ezekiel is to give the people. Ezekiel’s only responsibility is to deliver Yahweh’s message faithfully.
In verse 2, the scenario had the people choosing a sentinel. However, now Yahweh appoints the sentinel—Ezekiel.
“When I tell the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you don’t speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at your hand“ (v. 8). The death sentence, “you shall surely die,” is not etched in stone. When Yahweh tells Ezekiel to pronounce that sentence on Israel, it will be for the purpose of warning Israel—redeeming Israel—rather than for setting her up for destruction.
But if Ezekiel fails to sound the warning, two things will happen. First, “the wicked man shall die in his iniquity,” because he has not been warned. Second, Yahweh will hold Ezekiel responsible for the demise of the wicked man, because he failed to sound the warning. Verse 9 implies that the penalty for failure to sound the alarm will be Ezekiel’s death.
“Nevertheless, if you warn the wicked of his way to turn from it, and he doesn’t turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your soul“ (v. 9). Yahweh will not hold Ezekiel responsible for persuading Israel to amend her ways. If they fail to do so after he has sounded the warning, they “shall die in his iniquity.” Ezekiel, however, will live, because he sounded the warning. He is not responsible for getting results—for persuading the people to repent. He is responsible only for sounding the warning. Yahweh will hold the people of Israel accountable for their response, whether positive or negative.
If there is a word from the Lord for today’s church in this text, it would seem to be that we have a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to sound the warning when we see people living sinful lives. God will not hold us responsible for the results, but will hold us responsible for faithful proclamation.
EZEKIEL 33:10-11. TURN FROM YOUR EVIL WAYS
10You, son of man, tell the house of Israel: Thus you speak, saying, Our transgressions and our sins are on us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live? 11Tell them, As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, house of Israel?
“You, son of man, tell the house of Israel: Thus you speak, saying, Our transgressions and our sins are on us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live?“ (v. 10). At some point, the people will bemoan their transgressions and the suffering that their sins have brought them. At that time, they will ask, “How then can we live?” Ezekiel needs to watch for that opening so that he can advise them what they need to do.
“Tell them, As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, house of Israel?“ (v. 11). The prophetic message to these people is that their fate has not been sealed. Yahweh has no desire to punish them. He wants only that they turn from their sins so that they might live.
This verse is a keening cry—an anguished call from a grieving Yahweh. It is his plea that they might turn from their wicked ways so that they might not die. Any parent whose son or daughter has gone down the wrong path can appreciate Yahweh’s heartbreak. In his holiness, Yahweh cannot overlook Israel’s wickedness, but neither can he stop loving Israel.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World EnglishBible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica StutgartensaOld Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Blenkinsopp, Joseph, Interpretation Commentary: Ezekiel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990)
Block, Daniel I., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48 (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Bowen, Nancy R., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)
Clements, Ronald E., Westminster Bible Companion: Ezekiel, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Cooper, Lamar Eugene, Sr., New American Commentary: Ezekiel, Vol. 17 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994)
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Eichrodt, Walther, The Old Testament Library: Ezekiel, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970)
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Odell, Margaret S., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Ezekiel (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2005)
Olson, Dennis T., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Stuart, Douglas, The Preacher’s Commentary: Ezekiel, Vol. 20 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Taylor, John B., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel, Vol. 20 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Zimmerli, Walther, Hermeneia Commentary: Ezekiel, Volume 2 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1979)
Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan