So I've been looking at Ezekiel recently in my foray through the OT prophets, and specifically I've focused on Ezekiel 47. Partly because this passage has been given as a prophetic word for our church and has been important to us, but also because I wrote a short talk on it as a piece of coursework for #VicarSchool . So this lengthy post is some thoughts based on that talk...
So what's Ezekiel all about...?
Well, this was the 6th Century BC, and the ruthless ruler Nebuchadnezzar was forcibly taking land into his kingdom of Babylon. As part of this campaign, his armies plundered Jerusalem, carrying off into exile the king, royal family and significant leaders and people of importance, fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans, about 10,000 people in total (you can read about this in 2 Kings 14). Ezekiel was at this stage a trainee priest and he was included in the exiles. Subsequently (10 years later) the city was completely overthrown, after 18 months of siege, resulting in destruction, famine and disease. The city was almost completely destroyed and any surviving inhabitants were carried off into exile to join those who had previously been taken.
In amongst all this chaos, God called Ezekiel to be a prophet to these people, the Israelites. Chapter, 47, is actually part of a vision God gave to Ezekiel, which starts in Chapter 40, of the new temple restored and with God’s presence within.
So, here we have a people (the Israelites) in despair, dejected, having been through all kinds of pain and torment and now living in exile. Previously they would have heard some doom and gloom from Ezekiel but as we progress into the book and his later visions and prophecies they focus on hope, and renewal, a new and glowing future, one inhabited by God prophesied for them. This would have given them something to believe in, to hope for, and would have helped them to focus back on God.
And here in Chapter 47, there is almost the ultimate message – not only will the city and the temple be restored, but life in abundance will flow into the land. I am reminded here of John 10:10 where Jesus says: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’
And what have the Israelites been through? – everything they had has been stolen away, people have killed in their thousands, and their homes and city destroyed but here God is saying to them through Ezekiel, I will give you life and in abundance. It’s the same message from the Old Testament, later given by Jesus in the New Testament, and it’s also the same message for us today, that God brings us life in abundance.
So what can we draw from this passage for ourselves today?
In fact I think there are a lot of similarities with the Israelites situation and with our world today, but perhaps in a more spiritual sense. Obviously there are areas of the world where the scene of post-war destruction and despair are a daily reality, but for us here in our western world, I think it relates to us more spiritually. We battle daily with the evils of this world: of temptations, of debauchery, of ungodly attitudes and behaviours, all of which fuel our society and all of which pull as away from God. Our idolatry isn’t towards the God Baal or Asherah as it was then, our idols are things like money, fame, sex and status, but the result is the same - that these things can so easily pull us far from God. In Chapter 9 we see God saying to Ezekiel:
Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.
Ezekiel 9:4 (NIV)
As a society of course there are faithful Godly individuals today, just as here in this book, so a question for us is: are we going to be the kind of people who lament the detestable things going on in our society and if so, how do we do it?!
I think it’s simple - we get right with God, we focus on him. That is the key here and now, just as it was then.
If we look back slightly as Chapter 43 we see the glory of the Lord re-entering the new temple (43:4-5)
As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
So the vision is of this new temple, now filled with God’s glory and as we read on in our passage, we see this stream, this river, flowing from the temple, directly from God’s glory, from his presence. God enters the temple from the east and here the water flows back out to the east, increasing as it goes.
This speaks to me of the importance of our worship in God’s presence. God’s glory already inhabits the temple, we see that, but then his life flows from the temple. So what happens then for God’s presence to be transformed in that place to then go out in such abundance? I believe it is through the active worship of the people in the temple in the presence of God. Exodus 33:14 shows the Lord telling Moses his presence will go with him, so we know that God’s presence can be carried. Something happens when we come into God’s presence, something that allows his glory to increase, to spread and to impact.
And for us, we don’t worship in God’s presence in the same way, do we? 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19, tells us our bodies are a temple for the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. So how can we then enable that abundance of life from God’s presence to go out from us? to the land, or to the people around us?
I think it’s both clear and simple: By being in God’s presence, in worship.
Back then, they went to the temple, but we have that within our very beings. So we should honour God with out bodies, in worship and prayer, in time in his presence, and then we can be filled up - to go out. And what might start as a trickle of water from us can become a flowing river too deep to stand in. You never know what a small act of kindness or blessing or a word can do for someone else – something seemingly small God can grow into a river teeming with life.
Did you know that rivers are particularly significant in the Hebrew scriptures, usually signifying the bringing of God’s blessing. For example there’s the river flowing from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10) and in Psalm 46:4 which talks of: the river ‘whose streams make glad the city of God’ and ‘God is within her…’ and of course here in Ezekiel 47 we see the river bringing abundant life wherever it flows, with trees on either side, (v.7) and (v.9) swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows, waters that were once dead will become alive with life. It’s a complete reversal of the situation!
And in fact, the description of where this river will flow is interesting because it means that to get to the Dead Sea as described in the passage, it would literally have a geographically impossible route, across parched valleys, up and through mountain ranges (water doesn’t flow up hill!). But filled with God’s glory, it goes to impossible places. I feel that for us it’s a word that we will go to impossible places taking his life and abundance with us. Not only that but the waters it flows into, the Dead Sea, cannot sustain any life at all as it has such a high salt content, but this river not only changes the water to fresh, but brings swarms of living creatures. Completely miraculous!
So then, how is that going to happen for us? What do we learn from this passage? It’s significant that this water flows from the heart of the temple, from the altar, where the glory of God resides and it is this water, this life bringing water that brings life to the surrounding land. So, if we are to be like this life bringing water, where do we need to reside? In a place of worship – as I said, in God’s presence, for us as individuals but also for us corporately in our churches.
This is a message of hope and renewal, just as it was then, it is now. But above all it is a call to turn to God: for us to turn to him, to be filled by him and to then be used by him, to share this glorious life giving water with all those who need it. The church can be an agent of renewal, a source of life, but to do that we, all of us, we need to turn again, to God...