Disappointing Leaders and Ezekiel 34.

People suffer when bad leaders are in charge. We might feel the pain of disappointing leadership in our workplace, affecting our work, our livelihood, family life, and finances.  Those who are to provide leadership within the family can leave family members scarred for life. This happens too often here in Canada, where we have it easy. Consider the poor leadership around the world, whether it be a tyrannical dictatorship over an entire nation, or an enforcement of archaic man-made rules. The so-called “Islamic State” comes to mind.

What are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific, leadership? Ezekiel 34 is about leaders and leadership. As we read this chapter, we may think the word “shepherd” refers to the “pastors” of Ezekiel’s day. However, many Ancient Near East societies, including God’s people Israel, spoke of their kings and political leaders as “shepherds.” Therefore we should think of Ezekiel 34 as being about all kinds of leadership, not just “pastors”. With that in mind, let us take a look:

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. Ezekiel 34:1-5 (NRSV)

The first thing we notice is that God is very disappointed in the leaders. To summarize, the leaders were exploiting people rather than caring for them. Rather than caring for the people; “with force and harshness you have ruled them” (verse 5). Sheep should be fed, not fed-up.

I wonder how many people in being asked to define a “leader” would focus on someone who is a ruler. The Bible never gives us a definition of leadership that would suit an entry in Webster’s Dictionary, but it does give us an analogy. A leader is to be like a shepherd. Any self-indulgent person can be a ruler given enough power. Such rulers are usually a disappointment in the eyes of the people under their care. They are also a disappointment in God’s eyes. It takes a person who has high regard and concern for others to be the kind of leader that pleases God, the kind of leader who can be described as a shepherd.

In the midst of His disappointment, God makes a promise:

Ezekiel 34:11-16 (NRSV) For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them  . . .  I will bring them out . . . I will feed them . . .  I will feed them with good pasture . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,. . .. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, . . .

God, Himself, will be the shepherd. And He will do this through His servant:

Ezekiel 34:23-24 (NRSV) 23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While this prophecy includes the restoration of God’s people from exile, the promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” as Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:11,12). Jesus saw the people as scattered without a shepherd, as we are told in Mark 6:34 (reflecting Ezekiel 34:5). Mark also tells us that Jesus made the people lie down on green grass in verse 39, to feed them (reflecting Ezekiel 34:14, and also Psalm 23). In fact all along we see Jesus doing all the things a good shepherd does. And of course we ought to consider Jesus’ teaching in John 10, especially: “I Am the Good Shepherd” in verse 14. Jesus also teaches about leadership in a way that reflects the shepherd leader-as-servant teaching of Ezekiel 34:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Matthew 20:24-28 (NRSV)

From all this let us look at two practical applications.

The first concerns people who are leading. Anyone who is in a place of leadership, who has any kind of influence over others, is accountable to God. Therefore they would do well to look to God for His leadership on how to be a leader. It is not about ruling. It is about caring. The best example of that is the Good Shepherd Himself.

The second concerns people who are led. All human leadership is unsure and temporary.  There is not a leader in place today who will still be in a place of leadership 100 years from now. Most have less time that that, some much, much less. Disappointing leaders are really disappearing leaders. In contrast, God’s leadership is certain and eternal. God’s leadership is good. This is especially hopeful for those who suffer a lifetime under a terrible regime, or who suffer a whole lifetime because of one bad decision by a leader. There is a much more caring leadership for those who follow the Good Shepherd, now, and into eternity.

So what are we to do in the face of bad, and even horrific leadership? Look to the LORD to take the lead!

Evangelism, Typewriter Sales, & Ezekiel.

As Christians we have an amazing message to share with the world. God is love and desires to be reconciled to each and every person no matter where they came from or what they have been like. He has done the heavy lifting necessary for reconciliation through Jesus and offers His Spirit. We share in God’s amazing ministry of reconciliation. Yet it often feels like this amazing message falls on deaf ears. Churches have tried a great many things in order to get the message out, including revamping the experience of church in an effort to get people in. However, many have felt the frustration of trying change after change, and program after program, with limited results. The message seems stuck within our walls, and even when it gets out, it feels like no one is listening. It feels like we are selling typewriters.

Ezekiel had a similar experience of not being heard. For seven years he faithfully spoke messages from the Lord to God’s people in exile. These were, more often than not, messages of judgement, or stated more precisely, messages of opportunity. In Ezekiel 33 we get a glimpse of how successful he was:

As for you, mortal, your people who talk together about you by the walls, and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to a neighbor, “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.” 31 They come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, . . .

So far so good!

. . . but they will not obey them. For flattery is on their lips, but their heart is set on their gain. 32 To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it. Ezekiel 33:30-32 (NRSV)

In other words, Ezekiel was not very successful at all! No one was really “getting” the message. Ezekiel may have had more success selling them Latin-script typewriters.

So is there any encouragement for us from Ezekiel’s experience? Yes, there are four points of encouragement:

First, look to the future.

Having been told that his efforts have failed, Ezekiel is pointed to the future:

When the thing takes place — and it is beginning now — they will know that there has been a prophet among them.’ (Ezek. 33:33 NJB)

In this chapter word arrives that Jerusalem and the temple have been destroyed. Now that judgement has come, the truth about Ezekiel is made plain. He is not just a “singer of love songs,” he is a prophet of God, and has been speaking true and truly significant things.

The Church might be thought of as many things to many different people; a curiosity, a museum, a historical footnote, a crutch for the weak, a drug for the masses, a danger to society, a false religion, a source of entertainment, a social opportunity, a collection of nice, but not very bright people, and of course, a bunch of hypocrites. But, when Jesus returns, the truth will come out as to what the Church really is. We are not typewriter salespeople. We have a prophetic role, we speak a message on God’s behalf to the world:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (NRSV emphasis mine)

We are ambassadors for Christ, we we fulfil a prophetic role by speaking a message on behalf of God; be reconciled to God. That may seem like hogwash to many today, but the day will come when “they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Second, Ezekiel had confidence in his calling. He knew he was a prophet.

When this comes—and come it will!—then they shall know that a prophet has been among them. Ezekiel 33:33 (NRSV)

Before the people knew a prophet was among them, Ezekiel had to know it first! Do we as God’s people today have confidence in God’s call upon us? Many things have been tried, and will be tried in efforts to attract people to the Church and Jesus. However, sometimes we confuse our methods with our calling. Our calling is not to attract people, but to call people to reconciliation with God. We will know we have been faithful in our calling if it said of us “the Church has been a prophet among us, those people have been speaking a message of reconciliation on behalf of God.”

Third, Ezekiel had confidence in his message. He knew his message was the correct one.

Just as the message of Ezekiel was not popular, and certainly not as popular as the “happier” messages from the false prophets, so the Christian message is not popular. I am reminder of the hymn lyric “Oh the old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me.” Despite the unpopularity of the message, we can have confidence that it is the correct message, and the most important message in the world.

In luring John Scully away from Pepsi to work at Apple, Steve Jobs famously asked “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” There is no doubt that Apple products like the iPod and iPhone have been transformative. But if Steve Jobs were still alive we could ask him if he wanted to sell circuit boards the rest of his life, or if he wanted to join Jesus and change the world. Even the smallest, most stuck in the mud church, with the most boring preacher ever heard, has a greater and more significant calling than the extraordinary Apple company. The message we have been entrusted with is the most important message in the world. We do know that, right?

Fourth, Ezekiel was faithful despite being ignored for 7 years. 

We need to be faithful for as many years as it takes. When the world does not listen to God’s message, let us remain faithful as God’s messengers.

Finding Hope in the Judgement of God.

I have stretched out my hand against you, and will hand you over as plunder to the nations. I will cut you off from the peoples and will make you perish out of the countries; I will destroy you. (Ezekiel 25:7 NRSV)

Thus says the Lord with regards to the people of Ammon in Ezekiel chapter 25. Messages of judgement like this carry on for seven chapters to various nations. I suspect these chapters are rarely preached upon, nor mined for a fitting verse to quote in a “Thinking of You” card. Perhaps we tend to skip over these doom and gloom judgement kinds of chapters because we fail to find any hope in them. However, they are full of hope! How so? Somewhere close to the middle we find these verses:

25 Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall settle on their own soil that I gave to my servant Jacob. 26 They shall live in safety in it, and shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall live in safety, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God. Ezekiel 28:25-26 (NRSV)

Do you notice what is so important that it is repeated? “They shall live in safety.” We have difficulty reading the Old Testament without visualizing what we know, such as our peaceable neighbours in our day. The peoples of the Old Testament, however, could be brutal and barbaric. The rise of the so-called Islamic State has given us a glimpse of what the Old Testament peoples were capable of. God’s messages of judgement to the nations in Ezekiel chapters 25-32 were the flip side of the message of safety for the people of God. God’s people could only be safe if the nasty neighbours were subdued. Thus the judgement of God is part and parcel of the love of God. Consider a father who removes an untrainable and vicious dog from a home for the sake of the safety of his infant child. The judgement and removal of the dog is an expression of love for the child.

These messages of judgement against the nations conclude with the interesting passage of Ezekiel 32:17-32. I encourage you to read it in full. In this passage Egypt and Pharaoh are to go down to the place of the dead. Notice what it is that gets repeated again and again, the thing that all the peoples who are there have in common (see verses 23,24,25,26,27,30,& 32); they “spread terror in the land of the living.”

We can all think of people who in our day spread terror in the land of the living. For example, a recent news article suggested that the leader of Boko Haram, previously thought killed, is still alive and is vowing to kill Christians and bomb every church in Nigeria. Does such anti-Christian sentiment remind you of anyone?

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” Acts 9:13-14 (NRSV)

This man who was bent on destroying the Christian movement was Saul, better known to us the apostle Paul who confessed he was “least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1st Corinthians 15:8 NRSV). From Paul’s experience we learn a valuable lesson about those who would spread terror in the land of the living. They have the opportunity to repent. Upon learning of the atrocities of Boko Haram we might cry out for the destruction of the key leaders. However, consider the greater impact if they turned from their sin to Christ. Dead leaders are easily replaced by people equally fanatical about spreading terror in the land of the living. On the other hand, transformed leaders can be the start of a transformed society. Those who remain unrepentant may think they are getting away with it, but they will not. They will stand before the judgement seat of Christ whose justice is perfect, and whose judgements are well informed.

Let us choose three specific areas to bring this into focus:

Women: Around the world women are not given equal opportunities for education. Female babies are more likely to be aborted than male babies. Too many widows have shared with me how they stood by their men while their men stood by the bottle. We could say much more, but suffice it to say here that women and girls are suffering around the world because people are sinful. Sinful people have the opportunity to repent. Those who are unrepentant and continue to spread terror in the land of the living will face judgement.

The LGBTQ+ community: When our hearts broke for Christians who were suffering the violence of the Islamic State, did our hearts also break for gay men who were thrown to their deaths from towers? No one has the right to tell God what marriage is supposed to look like, but all peaceable people should have the right to live free from harassment and threat of violence. While debate rages in churches as to whether or not homosexuality is sinful, there ought to be no debate or doubt that homosexuals are suffering around the word because people are sinful. Sinful people have the opportunity to repent. Those who continue to spread terror in the land of the living will face judgement.

Refugees: We have tended to focus our prayers on our Western response to the refugee crisis and the refugees themselves. Do we pray for the people refugees are fleeing from? Leaders who would rather use violence to take or keep power, than seek peace? We have a refugee crisis because people are sinful. Sinful people have the opportunity to repent. Those who continue to spread terror in the land of the living will face judgement.

One question remains: Are we sometimes the ones who spread terror in the land of the living? If so, opportunity knocks.

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Revelation 3:20-21 (NRSV)