“And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a
pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not” (Ezekiel 33:32)

The above quotation may enable us in some measure to understand the failure of Israel to comprehend God’s message through His prophet Ezekiel at the time of the overthrow of Jerusalem, and may furnish exhortation to us in these closing days of the Gentiles.

We are all familiar with the story of Israel’s faithlessness and the Divine retribution which followed it. We may even become weary of the constant reiteration of apostasy, prophetic remonstrance and Divine judgment. Is not the sorry theme summarized in the closing words of Chronicles?

“They mocked the messengers of God, and despised His words, and misused His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy.”

Familiarity must not blind us to the lessons which the failure of Israel is intended to teach us. Paul reminds us that their experiences “happened unto them for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition upon whom the ends of the world are come”. Instead of dismissing the story of Israel’s rebellion and punishment with a bored shrug of the shoulders born of familiarity, let us rather examine that story a little more critically each time we read it, and seek to find something of value and exhortation therein.

Ezekiel’s ministry to Israel in the closing days of the monarchy was characterized by many “signs” or symbolic actions, designed to bring home to his hearers the reality of the Divine message. The prophet himself is described as a “sign” to the house of Israel—“according as he (Ezekiel) hath done shall ye do”. In no other instance of prophetic ministration is this method of instruction so largely used; it seemed as if God determined that no stone should be left unturned to convince His people of their apostasy and bring them back to the way of righteousness.

So we find Ezekiel used by God as an “object-lesson” to Israel. He is made dumb, and is allowed to speak only when God chooses to speak by him: he is required by God to portray in dumb-show the coming siege of Jerusalem; to demonstrate by cutting off his hair and beard the destruction which should overtake the inhabitants of the capital by fire, sword and captivity. Even the details of his domestic life become symbols of the national calamity which was to consume Israel: his wife—the desire of his eyes—is taken from him with a stroke, but he is forbidden to mourn for her. How tragic in its terseness is the record!

“So I spake unto the people in the morning, and at even my wife died: and I did in the morning as I was commanded.”

The people of Israel—the rebellious house—were impressed by these signs. They came to Ezekiel to ask what they meant: “Wilt thou not tell us what these things are to us, that thou does so?” They were told—plainly and unmistakably—what these things meant; but, as God had warned Ezekiel at the beginning of his ministry, they would not hear. They had their own explanation of the Divine dealings. “The Lord seeth us not: the Lord hath forsaken the earth . . . The days are prolonged and every vision faileth.” In short, “It won’t happen in our time!”

But in spite of their refusal to accept the Divine message, they found considerable attraction and entertainment in listening to Ezekiel and witnessing his demonstrations. They discussed and criticised his efforts:

“They come unto thee as the people (of God) cometh, and they sit before thee as My people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness (Ezekiel 33:31)”

His eloquence attracted them; his performance they admired. He was to them as one that sang a lovely song with a pleasant voice, and accompanied it skilfully on an instrument. Their aesthetic sense was gratified, and they were content to be entertained by such an artistic presentation of the Divine message. But they missed its essential meaning, and it had no influence on their lives; and Divine retribution followed their refusal to take heed thereto.

Is there no message for us in this experience of Ezekiel and Israel?

Undoubtedly there is, for human nature being the same throughout the ages we are liable to fall into the same errors as the people of God did in former days. We may come, as Israel did, to hear the Divine message; we can be attracted so much by the form of its presentation as to lose entirely the force of its meaning: we can place eloquence, charm of diction, correctness of pronunciation as the essential qualifications of our speakers. Novelty of presentation may become more to us than accuracy of Biblical knowledge; a slip in grammatical construction may be regarded more seriously than a doctrinal error. We may even reach the stage when we judge the efforts of our speakers solely from the point of view of entertainment value—that is, on the gratification of our appetite for pleasing sound and skilful performance: but when we have reached that stage we are like Israel of old—useless from the Divine point of view.

We must be on our guard not to allow the pleasure created by the pleasant voice and the skilled performance to mask the essential meaning of the message. There were those in the synagogue of Nazareth who listened with rapt attention to the gracious words which proceeded out of the mouth of Jesus: but who a few minutes later rose up in wrath and thrust him out of the city and would have flung him headlong down the hill on which the city was built. They admired his eloquence: but they hated his teaching.

The Apostle James undoubtedly knew a great deal about human nature; perhaps for that reason he exhorts us in his epistle:

“Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22–23).

(F. Turner, 1941)