Every now and then you encounter a Bible passage which doesn’t work nearly as well in English as it does in the original, in this case Hebrew. There are a couple of puns which really drive home this tragic message, and the whole genre of the text shows a subtle recasting of two well-known literary styles. Let’s try to unpack it and gain the full impact of the prophet’s words.
The text, we are told in 5:1 is a love song, a popular form of literature at the time, as indeed it is today. It is clearly a love song between the prophet and his God, but there is a sudden twist in v 3 where God becomes the speaker and the love song turns into a funeral lament. The nation of Israel become the loved but unfaithful other half, and the prophet vanishes from view until he returns, as narrator and interpreter, in v 7. It is in the context of this narration that two key puns are used: God has looked for justice (mishpat), but instead he finds bloodshed (mispach). He expected righteousness (tsedaqah) but all he can find is a cry (tse’aqah), presumably of distress. God has done everything he can to create the conditions under which his vineyard will grow and thrive (v 2), but in spite of it all the harvest has been rotten and rancid (‘bad fruit’ in v 2 is a bit of an undertranslation of the Hebrew). And then, just in case we are left in any doubt, we’re given the interpretation of this parable/love song/lament in v 7: God’s vineyard is the Israelite nation, and because of our refusal to bear the right fruit we’re bound for exile and punishment.
The theology here is to be restated by Paul in Romans 1: when we give up on God he gives up on us. His patience is not infinite, despite what we might like to think, and when his vineyard is not producing that for which he hoped he decides not to keep flogging a dead horse: his judgement in v 5-6 is active as well as passive: he will stop doing the cultivation which is needed, and instead he will actively break down and remove its protection.
So what of the Church, the ‘Israel of God’? We may put up our hands to a certain sense of not quite being what God would like us to be, although of course we don’t go in for any of the crimes which the prophet outlines as he continues this chapter. But this side of the cross, surely God would never turn against us? As soon as I find myself entertaining those kinds of thoughts I can’t help but wonder whether I might be guilty of the same kind of presumption the pre-exilic Jews were guilty of: they had the Temple of the Lord; they were the chosen race, so God must be mighty pleased with them. I’m an Anglican, and we have Canterbury Cathedral, and in any case Jesus died for us. Whether or not God will judge his church, or indeed whether or not he has, is something you might like to reflect upon.
There is an interesting dynamic of ‘tipping points’ in today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Firstly, chapter 33 forms a kind of pivot point between 1 – 32, which are predominantly about judgement, and 34-48, which have much more to say about restoration. As though to emphasise this great pivot the news comes to Ezekiel in v 21 that ‘The City has fallen!’ We can’t really imagine the significance of this for the exiles, but the destruction of 9/11 doesn’t come close. It is as though we heard that Westminster, Canary Wharf and Canterbury Cathedral had all been blown to bits in a single act of warfare.
So this passage sets before the people the need for repentance, and the role that the prophet has in calling them to it. The image of the ‘watchman’, one which Ezekiel commonly uses, relates to those placed on city walls to give early warning of imminent attack. But the danger here is less about the physical destruction of their home capital, and more about the internal eating away of their society by the cancer of immorality and godlessness.
But there is a smaller, more subtle pivot in the centre of the passage for today. By the time we get to v 10 the people apparently need no further calls to repentance: they are only too well aware of their offences and sins, and the results of them. Ezekiel’s word to them must now be different. No longer is he to give a warning of judgement: now his message is one of hope and restoration, and repentance as the way to it.
This corrects two common caricatures we may have unconsciously slipped into regarding prophets and their God. So often we think of those with prophetic giftings as miserable people who can only speak of gloom and destruction: indeed many modern-day prophets only serve to reinforce this caricature. This in turn can lead us to the belief that God himself is a miserable punisher. One of my bosses used to say that the job of the Holy Spirit is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, and we have something of that here. To presumptuous and self-satisfied sinners God’s word is a harsh one, but to those who realise their own need of repentance he speaks mercy and restoration. This of course can’t help but raise the question ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What would God want to say to me?’ Clearly to speak words of peace to sinners who are completely unrepentant is as useless and counter-productive as calling to repentance those who are already broken-hearted. But so often all we want is to hear God saying to us that everything is just dandy.
There is also an interesting question here about how this passage might relate to evangelism. In the past it was thought to be all about calling sinners to repentance: indeed that is the thrust of most of the preaching recorded in Acts. But now the fashion has changed, and in a society which doesn’t really ‘do’ sin our call is more likely to be about comfort than confrontation. Maybe we need to rethink what the call of God on our generation really is.