The Glory Departs
Formations: July 9, 2017
Scripture: Ezekiel 8:1-2a, 16-17; 10:4-5, 16-19
I have vivid dreams, in Technicolor with stimulating images, and often unexplained challenges. Some of my dreams have unmistakably been a message from God, some predicted an event in the future, and others have reflected stress in my life. So when I read this account of Ezekiel's dream or vision, I am drawn into the revelation that continues to challenge believers today. What happens to a people, who have received God's promises and blessings, and then walked away from God as though he is just one of many choices for meaning and happiness?
We go back to the sixth year of King Jehoiachin's exile, about 591 BC, when it seems God is not showing up at the Temple in Jerusalem and the future looks very bleak for a people who expect God to make life good seven days a week. Can you begin to understand Ezekiel's pain as he confronts the unfaithfulness and immorality of this people, who have broken the heart of God? Our text tells of Ezekiel's second vision from God. The scene is Jerusalem, where the prophet sees God's people breaking God's laws and turning to pagan pretend-gods, and then God's glory leaving the Temple and city.
Ezekiel sees four shocking scenes. In 8:5-6 he sees an “outrageous image” north of the altar gate, perhaps an idol of the Canaanite goddess Asherah, known as “the queen of heaven.” Asherah was the mother of the primary Canaanite god Baal. Some Israelites blended their beliefs, including the idea that Asherah was also the wife of Yahweh, the true God of Israel! In 8:7-12 Ezekiel sees seventy Israelite elders worshiping pagan images engraved on the wall of a secret chamber in the Temple! In 8:14-15 Ezekiel looks to the north gate, where he hears Israelite women singing the “Tammuz Lament” to the Mesopotamian fertility deity.
Then comes the foulest idolatrous worship of all. Ezekiel looks upon the inner court of the Temple, between the porch and the altar, which Joel 2:17 describes as the place where Israel's priests wept and prayed daily for God's mercy on the people. In a vile act of their rejection of God, twenty-five men stood with their backs to the altar of God and bow to worship the sun in the east. Deuteronomy 4:19 expressly forbids worship of any of the heavenly bodies of this world. These visionary scenes indict Israel for breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-5). Ezekiel is faced with the heartbreaking truth when God asks, “Isn't it enough that this house of Judah has observed here (in God's Temple) all these detestable things” (8:17)?
The connection that must not be overlooked here is the result of Israel turning from God: “They have filled the land with violence, and they continue to provoke my fury. They even put the branch to their noses.” We do not know the meaning of the “branch to their noses” image, but it likely refers to a pagan rite. Faith in God is not a religion of secret meetings and rituals, but the living out of God's love and grace every day in every circumstance. This vision reveals the undeniable truth that what you believe is known by your values and relationships and not religious rituals. The Hebrew word for violence used here to describe the actions of the people is the same word used in Genesis 6:11 to describe the cause for God destroying the world with a great flood in Noah's time. The people who claimed to be God's chosen; the people who lived as though God did not deserve their love or faithfulness; the people who thought they were guaranteed success – they were about to learn that there is a critical difference in life with or without God!
The winged creatures from the vision in chapter 1 reappear in chapter 10. In chapter 1 they are called chayot (living creatures), but in chapter 10 they are called cherubim (celestial or angelic creatures of God's heavenly host). In this vision their roll seems to be carrying the glory of God away from the Jerusalem Temple. More than anything else the Temple represented God's faithful presence among his people (Deuteronomy 12:5,11,21). Although this scene reminds us of a computer-generated image, it was explicitly clear to the Israelites: a scene of ultimate abandonment by God. The brilliant glory of God being lifted up by these cherubim, wings and wheels whirring, flame and cloud moving through the Temple and out, and then God is gone! After the deafening sound and shaking earth there is silence as though there is nothing left but cold stones and an empty altar.
Perhaps we can identify in a limited way with the horrible emptiness of that tragic day in Jerusalem. Maybe we know a similar desperation and disbelief when the doctor's diagnosis is terminal cancer, or the heartache when a child or parent dies, or the sudden loss of a job or financial resources, or the wound of someone's lies that rob you of your reputation. Pain is part of living. Because we hold on to the idea that good work is rewarded and failure exacts a price, we don't know how to handle circumstances that do not fit our expectations. Because we think our faith in God is a guarantee that life will be easier and better, we have trouble believing God cares when there is no instant miracle. Israel was different, we say; they deserved what they got! True, but is that the moral of this tragic story? Israel's sins were wrapped tightly in their arrogance and idolatry. They treated God like some kind of lucky charm in the Temple while they lived like selfish monsters. God was not in their thinking, their values, their actions or their heart.
Ezekiel is reminding us that life is found in loving God. Israel only existed because God chose to love them and invite them to be his people. In that relationship are promises more vast than easy days and abundance. God offers a relationship, a way to experience life beyond the world's transient rewards, a connection beyond 70+ years, a discovery of things words cannot describe. When the Apostle Paul declares there is “faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13), he is telling us that the greatest gift God gives, the most wonderful life that is possible and the way to become all that God created you to be is found in a life based on God's love.
Faith in the God who loved Israel becomes real when you begin to know how much God loves you, as you are, so that you can become whole. When you begin loving God, then and only then can you begin to truly love others. That love involves forgiveness, generosity and the awareness we must all seek God's help. The story of Israel shows how easy it is to drift away from God and how the grace of God can draw is back when we fail.
Often it is not until God seems to be far away that we realize our need to return to God, to search for him in a dark and confusing world. If I were God the period of Israel's exile would have been the end, the flood without an ark, the final broken promise. But the God who is beyond human description and manipulation is the God who brought Israel home again and sent his Son to offer life to all who believe.
I confess: When God seems distant is when I seek him more diligently. Our faith is tested, but our Savior is never absent. It is in how we live through life's trials and how we put God's love in practice that others can discover authentic faith in God.
Retired after 46 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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