You can learn a lot eavesdropping. You can learn what folks believe about others, about themselves, about you. God eavesdrops, too. In Ezekiel 33-34, we get the insider’s scoop on what he hears from his people and what he has to say in response.
God tells Ezekiel what he’s overheard from his people, those who’ve been carried away to Babylon from Jerusalem. They’re talking about themselves. They say they’re so weighed down by sins and shame, they can hardly be expected to live for God. Word on the street is that life’s too hard where they are. They’re captives in a foreign land with temptations and without the temple to keep them in line. A victim can’t be responsible. 33:10, embellished.
But God says they can repent and choose to live his way, and that’s what he wants. “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” 33:11.
God doesn’t buy their victim lie. He holds them accountable. They can repent. They can choose righteous living. What pleases him isn’t the deaths of sinners: it’s the lives of the repentant. God doesn’t enjoy the consequences of sin for anyone. His heart is for repentance and faith and restoration to him and to real living. He says, “turn and live” because they can.
The exiles have also let slip what they think about God. The other word on the street is that God’s unfair: he punishes people for their past, and he doesn’t give them a chance. If you blew it, you’re doomed. If you do well, you don’t get credit. 33:17, 20.
But God counters this lie with the opposite truth: if the righteous person falls into sin, they’ll be judged for what they do then, not the goodness of their past, “…none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered; he will die for the evil he has done.” And if the wicked person cleans up their act, they’ll be judged for what they do today, not the mistakes of yesterday, “None of the sins he has committed will be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he will surely live,” 33:12-19.
God tells the exiles they’re the unjust ones who’ve misjudged him. Not only can they repent, they can start over right this minute. As far as God’s concerned, everything done before today is gone. God’s time is now. It’s why Paul said, “Now is the time of God’s favor, today is the day of salvation.” Restarts are as close as the next breath. Ez 33:12-19; 2 Co 6:2.
God’s people have also said what they think of Ezekiel. Their word on God’s prophet is he’s good entertainment. They talk about his messages at the doorways of their homes, like he’s a lounge act. It’s “Heard the latest?” Not, “Lord, have mercy!”
Ezekiel’s their beloved blues singer, not someone to heed. “Indeed, to them you’re nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but don’t put them into practice…with their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain,” 33:31-32.
These words had to have stung the prophet, but God gives Ezekiel his word: “You’re my guy, and one day they’ll get it. When everything you’ve said comes true, they’ll know you’re my prophet in their midst,” 33:33, paraphrased.
It’s heartening that Ezekiel’s public affirmation comes running in on legs about this time: a man comes with news of Jerusalem’s collapse, 33:21. Elsewhere in God’s word, it’s said that a true prophet will be known because all his prophecies come true. Ezekiel’s prophet pass got a truth stamp. Je 28:9.
I also find it heartening that God shares the gossip he’s overheard. He lets Ezekiel in on what’s up, and he lets the exiles know he’s up with them, too. But he does more: he kindly corrects them, and he gives them good news,
“You’re not victims.
Repent and live!
Today is what matters.
What’s past, I forgive.”
It’s encouraging to me that God doesn’t let their failure to listen keep him from saying more. It’s hard to keep speaking when you see your teens aren’t tracking. What you want is to jerk them up by the scruff and remind them who pays the bills, who gave them birth, who nurses their ills. But good parents know that truth-in-love works best, and that happy endings are an easier sell. Evidently a Good God does, too.
Because next he tells them about the wicked shepherds and sheep.
Wicked shepherds are understood to be the leadership who hasn’t cared for God’s people–princes, priests, prophets. The princes were the officials of the city who managed it for the king. The priests’ job was to teach them who God is, to feed them his love, and to represent them before God with sacrifices. The prophets were to speak God’s words. But all of them abandoned their jobs in Jerusalem. Elsewhere in Ezekiel they’ve been condemned for their failures, Ez 13:1-16; 22:25-28.
God says, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Shouldn’t they take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you don’t take care of the flock. You haven’t strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You haven’t brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You’ve ruled them harshly and brutally,” 34:2-6.
Modern day shepherds are thought to be church pastors, responsible for their flocks in much the same way as priests and prophets were. They teach God’s word and tend to people’s needs, (enduringword.com/bible-commenatry/ezekiel-34/). My pastors do these things.
I feel comfortably distant and safe. Prince, priest, prophet, pastor—these aren’t part of my job description.
But my antennae still goes up. What’s going on?
And then I feel–or think–or think I feel, “…and parents.”
Wait. Who said that?
And I see. It’s true. Everything in this passage can be said of parents, too. I look over the list again, but this time, words pop as if marked with a yellow highlighter: shepherds were responsible to care for their flock, to feed, strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back strays, search for the lost, and by inference, be compassionate and kind along the way. The words, “You’ve ruled them harshly,” ring my bell.
I still have a lamb living at home since Covid-19 drove him out of his dorm in March. Like a sheep, this boy is prone to wander. We’ve had issues. You’ve got my attention, God.
I looked back again. So what did these princes-priests-prophets-pastors-parents do instead of care for their sheep? “They took care of themselves.” Rather than care for the flock, they used the flock to meet their own needs. But God said they were the ones who should’ve done the tending, and he holds them accountable. What’s more, he’ll remove them as shepherds so they can no longer feed on the flock, “I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them,” 34:10.
But they’re not the only ones reprimanded. [I’m glad to move on.] God has words for wayward sheep as well. Who are they? They’re the fat, strong sheep who push ahead of others to feed in the best pasture and drink the clearest water and don’t make room for the weak, who are left with trampled grass and mud, 34:17-19.
These are thought to be the powerful, the proud, the knowledgeable, the ones with clout. They are the pushy sheep in any group who look out for themselves and drive weaker sheep away, (enduringword.com/bible-commenatry/ezekiel-34/). God always looks out for the weak and poor wherever they are, and here he says he’ll judge the sheep who don’t do the same. “Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another,” 34: 20-22.
I was ready for the “woe to the bad sheep” verses, aimed at the prodigal and profligate, but the bad sheep here are the strong, sleek ones that bully. These are those on top, the ones who likely make the rules and pay the bills. They drive the weak away. Though I haven’t seen myself as an oppressive parent, I realize I’ve certainly got more power than my son. How does he see me? He spent the summer wandering between friends’ homes, not wanting to live with us.
My heart is pounding. I’m listening, but I’m also defending…didn’t I try, God? Didn’t I plead? Didn’t I want to make it work? Didn’t I bend over backwards again and again?
I look back in the verses about shepherds, “You’ve ruled them harshly.” These words rise up from the text in 3-D. Yes, I’ve been harsh. I remembered how in all “my trying,” there was also contract-signing and substance-testing and ultimatum-making. A lot for him to do.
Did I ever ask you what to do, God? I don’t remember.
“So they were scattered because there was no shepherd…and they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains, scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them,” 34:5-6. By this point, my sympathy for God’s lost sheep has been diverted to my own and is streaming down my cheeks. What most breaks my heart is that my son wasn’t kicked out–he left on his own.
One night, he just didn’t come home and then the next and the next. Because of many reasons, he decided that home wasn’t where he wanted to live–so he left. After all we’d been through, some parents might have felt relieved, “Good riddance!” But I deep-grieved the thought of him on his own because anywhere was better than home.
I sure would like some good news about now, God.
I look back at chapter 34 and find some, “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.” God says he’ll bring his sheep back to Israel from where he’s scattered them in other countries and give them good pasture again, 34:11-15.
I’m comforted to believe that God looks after my son when he’s away from home, as a shepherd “looks after his scattered flock when he is with them,” 34:12. I think about the exiles and see how God watched out for them when he brought them to Babylon before Jerusalem was destroyed. He still watches out for sheep, keeping tabs and protecting, giving them green pasture and quiet water, even in death valleys, Ps. 23.
But there’s more…
“I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down…I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.” He gives them rest, not work to do. He has them “lie down.” And he doesn’t just wait for them to come home, he’s out looking for them. When he finds them weak and wounded, he’ll bandage them and strengthen them and destroy their bullies. And it gets better: he’ll give them a shepherd, like David, who will tend them. “I the Lord will be their God and David will be prince among them,” 34:13-16, 22-24.
This is remarkable news. The Savior Jesus came from the line of David. Four hundred years before he’s born, God is promising he will come as the good shepherd for his sheep, the one who lays down his life for them, as a matter of fact, Jn 10:15. And God says he’ll make a peace covenant with his people and keep them safe from wild beasts. He’ll also bring dependable rains and abundant crops. It’s a beautiful description of “one day,” whenever that day actually is.
And while the interpretation of this prophecy of rest and restoration for God’s sheep has lots of *wiggle room, the point for me is that God will one day make everything right. Because he’s good and he’s God, I can count on him to keep his word, to be the God who saves his people and sent the Savior who shepherds them. And one day, he’ll gather us to him forever.
Our son came home in late August without explanation and has been here ever since. Interestingly, all the other reasons he wandered away are still here, too. As far as I can tell, love is the only thing that changed. (For the story God used to bring love home see onetruelove.blog/2020/09/24/the-comeback/). With the lenses of God’s word today, I see more clearly than ever why he went away, and that binding up and healing is what he needs.
Thank you, God, for this reminder today that it’s never too late to repent and live, and that what matters most is your love. Mine wears thin: it’s your love that remains.
I’m encouraged to believe that a prodigal mama and her prodigal sheep are included in God’s fold, because restarts happen as soon as we turn, and God knows where we are. He will bind us up, and he will bring us home.
That will be a happy day.
(*Some think the return of the scattered sheep was fulfilled when the temple was rebuilt by the exiles who returned 70 years after Jerusalem fell; some see it fulfilled in 1948 when the nation of Israel was re-established; some think it refers to a future thousand year millennium age before heaven; and some see it as being fulfilled in heaven. Guzik, enduringword.com/bible-commenatry/ezekiel-34/)
The writer of Hebrews tells his readers how to live with integrity in the time since-and-before: since Jesus’ resurrection and before his return, which is now. He’s told them in previous chapters what faith is and how God’s made it available to them in their high priest, Jesus, who tore down the curtain between God and his people and poured out his blood for their sins.
In this chapter, he gives them pretty much a bulleted “do good” list. And he reminds them that the reason for doing good is out of praise for Jesus, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased,” 13:15.
The focus of Hebrews has been to show us Jesus as better than. He’s better than angels who minister, and he’s better than earthly priests who minister. He’s the highest priest who has done all that was needed to open the door into God’s presence for us. There’s no longer any need for offerings and sacrifices as Old Testament priests were required to give.
But we’re told in verse 15 that there is something we can give to God out of gratitude for his inestimable gift: we can give continual praise to him and do good deeds for others. These are the sacrifices that please God. They don’t open the door to God, but they say thank you to him for opening it for us.
So what’s the bulleted “do good” list?
–Love each other like family.
–Entertain strangers, (some of them are real angels).
–Remember prisoners as if you were locked up with them.
–Remember the abused as if you were suffering, too.
–Honor marriage and be sexually faithful.
–Be free from greed and content with what you have.
–Remember your leaders and imitate their faith.
–Focus on grace and the gospel and don’t get sidetracked by fads that don’t get at the heart.
–Don’t look to be comfortable here; focus on what is coming.
–Praise God continually.
–Do good and share with others.
–Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.
–Pray for God’s servants.
This could read like an impossible list of duty-and-drudge, but the writer plugs us into the power source at the end–the God of peace who works in us through Jesus:
“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen,” He 13:20-21.
I love how Hebrews includes “that great Shepherd of the sheep” as a nod to Ezekiel today. It’s like God’s winking and saying, “See how I bring it all together for you?”
There’s so much in this psalm, but I can’t get past the first verse:
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness,” Ps 15:1.
I give glory to God because of his love and faithfulness to me, not because of mine to him. Mine is just a response to his. His love is what’s worth praising,
The reading in Proverbs 27:21-22 for today is…
“The purity of silver and gold is tested by putting them in the fire;
the purity of human hearts is tested by giving them a little fame.”
I usually skip Proverbs because there’s already so much to ponder everywhere else, but today it relates to this verse in Psalms: glory. The rest of this psalm goes on to describe the blessedness God gives, the active goodness he pours into our lives, as compared to the deaf, dumb, and blind idols who suck goodness out.
Proverbs tells me that human hearts are tested by a little taste of glory. We’re made in God’s image and it’s part of our human nature to be like him. In many good ways, we reflect him. But it’s part of our depravity to lust for glory and try to steal it from him. Psalms says glory belongs to God; he’s the only one who deserves it. How we handle the little bits of fame that he brings says a lot about who we are and what we really want.
The psalmist throws off the desire for personal glory. He says it doesn’t belong to us, but to God. God’s the one with the love and faithfulness. God’s the one with the Jesus-plan to save us. God’s the only one who deserves glory and fame.
[I need to lay off the stats.]
My take away today is Jesus, the Good Shepherd who came after me, who heals and refreshes me, and who teaches me and leads me to repent (Ezekiel). He empowers me to praise and do good (Hebrews) and to worship him for all that he’s done (Psalms, Proverbs). Thank you, Father–Shepherd–Spirit-Lover for understanding that my love is weak and for doing everything I need to make me strong. Your love and faithfulness are so beyond me, I still don’t get why you do all this for me.
Who is like you?
Worthy is the Lamb.