Expressing emotion during a time of grief is a very natural thing to do. To not grieve, and to suppress emotion, is a very unnatural thing to do. If we understand that, then we are well on our way to understanding why God told Ezekiel to show no grief over the death of his wife:
Ezekiel 24:15-18 (NRSV) The word of the Lord came to me: 16 Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. 17 Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. 18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.
So why is Ezekiel told not to grieve? Ezekiel’s lack of grief becomes a lesson in grief for God’s people during the exile. They have been demonstrating a lack of grief over something very important. We find the clue as to what in these following verses:
Thus says the Lord God: I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire . . . . And you, mortal, on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their heart’s affection, . . . Ezekiel 24:21-25 (NRSV)
Do you notice something about the loss God’s people are experiencing? Where is the mention of the presence and glory of God? Remembering that the temple was to be known as the place of God’s presence, and remembering the need for humility in approaching God’s glory and presence, it is strange that the temple should be called “the pride of your power”. The temple has become “the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire,” and their “joy and glory.” The temple has taken the place of God in the lives of His people. The temple itself has become for God’s people nothing more than another idol. Yet there has been no grief over the fact that God has already “left the building.”
When God’s people lose the temple they are told they ought not to grieve, for all along they have not shown any grief over losing what should have been most important to them, the presence and glory of God. In fact God’s people have been actively doing the very things that take them away from the presence and glory of God: “you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another” (Ezekiel 24:23 ESV). In other words, this is the status quo. God’s people have not been grieving over the sin that has led them away from the presence and glory of God.
What are we to learn from this for our day?
There are two things:
First, we learn about what ought to elicit deep emotions in us. When you have an understanding of the reality of the presence and glory of God, then anything that would take you in the opposite direction should make you feel sick. What are those things? We learn them from God’s Word, but let Jesus summarize for us:
Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV) 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
When we know the Lord, when we have a mature understanding of His greatness and glory, we will naturally grieve when we see a lack of love, both for God and for neighbour. When we see God mocked, and when we see people suffer injustice, we ought to grieve.
Second, is it possible that our grief as God’s people is misplaced in very much the same way it was misplaced in Ezekiel’s day? We grieve over the loss of churches and church buildings. A recent local newspaper article lamented the closure of churches in the rural areas. To quote one church member: “When I was a kid, there would be square dances and community meals here” (Northumberland News, Thursday, June 22nd 2017). What about the prayer there, the digging into the Word of God there, the care of the soul there, the presence of God among God’s people there, the worship of God there? To quote a clergy person from the same article: “When I was a child everyone went to church – why do people go to church? For the community. It was the only game in town for some communities.” Again, does no one go to church for prayer, for the Word of God, for the presence of God, for the worship of God, for the glory of God?
The sentimentality around losing churches and church buildings is completely natural and understandable. But are we grieving more over the apathy towards Christ, and active pushing away from God in our day? Are we getting emotional over God’s presence and glory? To do otherwise is unnatural and we may be lacking in good grief.