I read and listened to a sermon this week that involved the usage of Ezekiel 11. To put matter into a broad context, the sermon contains a call to unity in light of the Occupy HK protest. The call is for people of various opinions to be united under the banner of Christ. Already, I’ve discussed conditions of unity in my other blogs. Besides, one of my preaching students has also blogged on this particular sermon in Chinese. Under certain premise unity is preferred. Under other premises unity is not preferred. Unity and love do not trump truth. Unity is empty without proper content. At least that’s the way I’ve been reading Paul in my academic teaching the last decade and a half on Paul. This blog will devote to one thing only while putting aside the unity question: the usage of Ezekiel 11 in the sermon. The reason why I pick on Ezekiel 11 usage is simple. The entire sermon only contains one scriptural reference AND the preacher got it completely backward.
The sermon uses Ezekiel 11.19 to proof text that unity was always the heart of God above influence by the (unbelieving) media. It is the proof text to call all people, especially professors of biblical studies and theology (a guild to which I belong), to become more biblical and less driven by media sensationalism. Let’s examine what biblically sound hermeneutics actually look like in answer to this preacher’s admonition.
Some of this blog will be based on my previous lectures, my two books (one commentary and one monograph) and a journal article written on Ezekiel. Since these are all done in Chinese, not everyone is aware of them. For those who interested, they can look at the link I shared above. I’ll be in the process of revising and rewriting the Ezekiel commentary in a few years, but I simply can’t wait that long to refute such blatant homiletical and hermeneutical error that has such widespread effect.
Ezekiel 11.19 says, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (NIV) This is the context.
The first thing any reasonable interpreter does is to consider the overall structure of a section of a book. The section looks something like this.
Chapter 8 – ceremonial sins
Chapter 9 – punishment for ceremonial sins
Chapter 10 – departing glory
Chapter 11 – social sins, punishment for social sins, departing glory
Based on the structure, we can see that Ezk. 11 is mainly about the departing glory of God as a result of sin. We will elaborate on what that sin was.
The passage is part of a greater vision starting at Ezk. 11.1 where the Spirit lifts Ezekiel to the gate of the temple facing East. The problem with Judah at the time was injustice. The Spirit of the Lord God told Ezekiel that the leaders of Judah, especially two religious leaders (cf. Ezk. 8.11), plotted evil and committed murder against the people in Ezk. 11.6. Since it is a vision, it is hard to figure out whether such murders had actually taken place or that the murder was the result of Babylonian slaughter due to the fact of these religious leaders worshipping the false gods. The Hebrew word for the title of these leaders actually means “prince.” Perhaps the closest equivalence would be the word “governor.” They were probably left there to govern after Jahoiakim’s exile in 597 BC when Ezekiel was also exiled (cf. 2 Kings 24.10-17). Perhaps the one prince who would eventually come into sharp focus is Zedekiah, the puppet of Babylon. Instead of being worshippers of YHWH, they had now filled the power vacuum to do what they please. They had taken advantage of the pro-Babylonian politics and religion to gain power. They were the traitors to God, His covenant and His people. Either way, injustice was a theme and God condemned injustice. Anyone in the religious community giving advice in favor of oppression would be like these two religious leaders. GOD HATES INJUSTICE!
The prophecies against the leaders come in two statements of retributive justice where God would punish them with punishment that fits the crime. Ezk. 11.8, 10 tell us that the butchers will be butchered. Ezk. 11.8 says that the sword would be brought against them who use the sword. Ezk. 11.8-9 tell us that the leaders would experience a role reversal. Even though they thought of themselves as crème de la crème, they were in fact rubbish. Like cooking meat in a pot, these leaders would experience the burning of Jerusalem They would receive the reward of the burning coals.
The next section in Ezk. 11.16-25 shows Judah as a metaphorical body. Especially telling is the discussion of Ezk. 11.19 where God would give “them” (in plural) a singular heart. In other words, similar to the way Paul described the church, Judah was like a body. This body was meant to worship the right God instead of the false gods in Ezk. 11.18. The right worship would result in a just society as the body of believers would follow God’s law in Ezk. 11.20. God would then redeem them and their land much like a close and affectionate kinsman redeemer (cf. Lev. 25; Ruth 4.1-9). The process would not bypass the eradication of idolatry and injustice. There’s no easy gift of hear of flesh and unity without justice.
IF we read the passage carefully, we can see that the passage was precisely saying the very opposite of what the preacher said. The passage is saying that God hated injustice. A society like HK is doubtlessly unjust. Church leaders who side with the unjust government also bring injustice into the faith community. The society is not even “relatively just” when so many of its senior citizens had to collect cardboard boxes to pay rent and make ends meet. God hated injustice. The very fact these villains were condemned by God was due to their united effort to persecute those who were oppressed. Unity to side with injustice was one of the reasons why the Lord God condemned Judah. Unity under oppression was the true indicator of a heart of stone. Anyone who sides with injustice is indeed part of the oppressive unity that contains the heart of stone. Sinful unity leads to destruction. THAT is the message of Ezekiel 11.