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The Suffering Servant

October 30, 2011, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Ezekiel 24:15-27) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ezekiel
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Ezekiel, 以西结书

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Sermon on Ezekiel 24:15-27

On the way to their annual pilgrimage, the Hasidic Jews (a branch of Orthodox Judaism) were competing among themselves who had endured the most suffering in life, and thus was most entitled to complain. Their leader upon hearing the argument told them the story of the Sorrow Tree: On the Day of Judgment, each person will be allowed to hang one’s unhappiness and sufferings on a branch of the great Tree of Sorrows. After all have found a limb from which their miseries may dangle, they may all walk slowly around the tree. Each person is to search for a set of sufferings that he or she would prefer to those he or she has hung on the tree. In the end, each one freely chooses to reclaim his or her own assortment of sorrows rather than those of another. Thus, each person leaves the Tree of Sorrows wiser than when he or she arrived (“The Sower’s Seeds” by Brain Cavanaugh). Yes, brothers and sisters, down through history, suffering remains a problem for philosophers and a severe test of the faith of religious people. It is not natural for people to see any profit in suffering. Rather, people would consider it a tragedy, a fate to be avoided. Someone asked C. S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?” he replied. “They are the only ones who can take it.” So, sometimes it seems that when God is about to make preeminent use of a person, He puts him or her through the fire. Thus, the notion that servants of God have to endure and go through sufferings should not be ruled out in our minds. In today’s Scripture passage, we come to see Ezekiel’s personal suffering is caught up in his role as a prophet to his people in exile. Ezekiel is called to sacrifice his wife on the altar of his prophetic vocation. He is indeed a suffering servant as called by God.

(1)There is an inevitable cost involved in being a servant of God.

The entire painful experience of Ezekiel together with his behavior at God’s command is to serve the people of Israel as a message from God. Thus, the first point of today’s sermon: There is an inevitable cost involved in being a servant of God. Today’s account begins with God’s announcement to Ezekiel that He will take away in sudden death his wife, who is described as “the delight of your eyes”. And when this happens his reaction is to be stoic—no lamenting, no crying and no tears.

For the previous twenty three chapters until now, Ezekiel has been proclaiming the wrath of God to come on Jerusalem. Finally, in Ezekiel chapter 24, the sword of judgment is to descend on the city. But the sword that is going to strike Jerusalem first strikes the prophet himself in the most painful life of his prophetic vocation. His own wife, the delight of his eyes, will be suddenly taken away from him. God’s harsh announcement in today’s passage permits us a rare glimpse into the personal life of Ezekiel. It is only from this text that we know Ezekiel had a wife at all. She would have been carefully chosen, for the rules regarding priests’ wives were strict (Lev.21:7-8, 13-15). We know that Ezekiel was called by God in the fifth year of his exile (593 B.C.) in the land of the Babylonians. He was then thirty years old (1:1-2). So, he was not alone five years earlier in 597 B.C., (the first fall of Jerusalem), when he was deported with his wife. In any case, his wife must have ministered to his needs from the very beginning of their exile. And five years later when Ezekiel was called to be a prophet, she became the witness to her husband’s prophetic service. She surely showed her care and support for Ezekiel during the hard years of his prophetic ministry. Thus, God describes her as the delight of Ezekiel’s eyes, the expression of endearment to imply an intense affection in their marital relationship. “The delight of your eyes” sums up all the love of Ezekiel’s life!

Some five years into his prophetic ministry, we get to today’s passage. One day what a great horror must have engulfed Ezekiel when God’s announcement in verse 16 bore in upon him. God tells Ezekiel with one blow the delight of his eyes would be snatched away from him. And Ezekiel was given only a day’s warning to prepare for the loss of his only precious possession. In chapter 3, we were told that Ezekiel was made dumb apart from what God wanted him to say to the people of Israel. So, Ezekiel could not even share the horrible news with his wife about the imminent heavy hand of God on her. And instead of spending the remaining precious day with his wife alone, he was told to carry out his normal duty as a prophet giving God’s word to those who turned up at his house. Ezekiel knew very well that every minute spent in speaking to people who came to him was the minute less that he had with ‘the delight of his eyes’. So, with a heartbreaking brevity, Ezekiel simply records: “and in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded”.

Amid his grim harshness of suffering, Ezekiel is further commanded by God to forgo all the rites of mourning. He is forbidden to weep or lament loudly. Instead of letting his hair hang loose in mourning, he is to put on his usual turban, a headgear worn by priests. And instead of going about barefoot, he is to wear his sandals. He is not to cover his head down to his upper lip, an ancient custom designed to make the mourner unrecognizable to the dead person who returned as a ghost. He is also not to eat the usual meals of lamentation, prepared by friends and neighbors. All Ezekiel can do is to “groan quietly”, which means he can only mourn in privacy and isolation without the usual rites, so as not to invoke sympathy from others. In other words, outwardly he is to behave as if nothing has happened.

So, in today’s text, we see Ezekiel’s most treasured possession occupies just only two verses. In verse 16, she appears for the first time, the delight of Ezekiel’s eyes. In verse 18, she is gone, and the light of Ezekiel’s life goes out for ever. Yes, brothers and sisters, the price Ezekiel is asked to pay for the privilege of serving as God’s agent is high. He is asked to play the role of a suffering servant. But the Bible makes no secret of the cost involved in being a servant of God. So, he is not alone. Hosea is asked to marry a temple prostitute, whose unfaithful relationship with him becomes a type of Israel’s faithlessness to the Lord. The vocation of Jeremiah prohibits him to have a family. His childlessness points to the future death of Judah’s children and the withdrawal of Yahweh from the life of His people. Considering the importance of children in ancient society, one can imagine the pain of Jeremiah’s deprivation. And throughout his prophetic ministry, he suffers horribly. Perhaps, some similarity of Ezekiel’s suffering is to God’s command to Abraham to offer his son to Him as a sacrifice (Gen. 22). God indeed describes Abraham’s son, Isaac, as “your son, your only son, whom you love”. So, God is very much aware of the severity of the sacrifice which He is demanding. Thus, sacrifice and suffering seem to be part of the divine calling from the very early history of Israel.

Yes, brothers and sisters, suffering and sacrifice are a reality in the life of men and women of faith. Many Christians are suffering from persecution around the world, but more are suffering or experiencing losses by virtue of living in a fallen world where social injustice, diseases and accidents abound. To be honest, how we wish we would not have to face suffering at all. We want to believe that God’s loving plan for our lives must surely include reasonable health, a good paying job, a spouse who is a delight in our eyes, children with filial affection and a decent standard of living. So, deep down we are not comfortable with a God who tells Abraham to sacrifice his only beloved son, and Ezekiel not to mourn the loss of his precious wife. But nowhere in God’s words does He promise us an easy ride through life. What we can cling to, however, is that we serve a God who suffers Himself. What God asks His people to undergo for His sake is no more what He himself is willing to go through for their sake. His beloved Son, Jesus, is nailed to the cross so that salvation for mankind could come through the suffering of His Son. The cross of Jesus bears witness to the fact that God suffers in and with Jesus when He freely gives His Son up into the hands of sinful people. So, the cross of Jesus should always be a reminder for us that we can expect our share of sorrows in life, but we can also expect God to be with us in the midst of our suffering. And when we are called to make sacrifice, we can be assured that God knows our pain and we can trust Him to sustain and guide us to go through the difficult moments of our lives.

(2)The word of God is proclaimed most powerfully when it is incarnate in the life of His suffering servant.

Yes, God’s servants are often called to suffer or to make sacrifice. This is because the word of God is proclaimed most powerfully when it is incarnate in the life of His suffering servant. This is the second point of the text which I want to highlight now. When the news of the sudden unexpected death of Ezekiel’s wife reaches the exile community, we are not told about the public reaction to it. But as Ezekiel did what God had commanded him, that is, he is to appear in public, displaying his apparent lack of affect and ritual conformity, the people of his community were deeply puzzled by his behavior. By this time, after observing Ezekiel for the past five years, they have apparently accepted him as a recognized prophet. And they know that whenever Ezekiel speaks or does something it will be aimed at them. Now, after the sudden death of his wife, Ezekiel responds as though nothing were wrong. His strange actions surely must have portentous significance. So, they flock to Ezekiel’s house and ask: “Won’t you tell us what these things have to do with us?” In other words, the people grasp the fact that the death of his wife and Ezekiel’s reaction must be a sign for them. So, they want to know the meaning of this sign. Their inquiry gives Ezekiel the opportunity to deliver the message from the Lord.

In his explanation, Ezekiel relates his actions very closely to the divine message. As God had taken from him the delight of his eyes, he will likewise take away the Temple in Jerusalem which God describes as: “the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, and the object of your affection”. For too long now, the Israelites had arrogantly assumed that God would continue to dwell in the Temple of Jerusalem no matter how lousy they conducted their lives. The people had placed all their confidence naively believing that Jerusalem as God’s holy City could never be touched by any enemy. To them, so long as the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and with God’s patron presence in the City, they guaranteed their nation’s future and God’s favor on them. But now God is determined to deliver a fatal blow to their official and popular theology. God will do so by desecrating His own sanctuary, which means God’s glory will leave the Temple severing the link between Him and His people. As a result, the Temple will be profaned, trampled by Babylonian soldiers as a consequence of the coming fall of Jerusalem.

Besides the loss of the Temple, God will deliver a second blow to them with the fall of Jerusalem. Just as Ezekiel had lost his wife, the fall of the City would mean the deaths of members of the exiles’ families. In 597 B.C., the first fall of Jerusalem, the older and more influential members of all families had been deported to Babylon as hostages to insure Judah’s loyalty. The younger and less experienced were allowed to remain at home in Jerusalem, being regarded as less dangerous to the Babylonian Empire. All along the hopes of future reunion with them had helped the exiles to endure their plight. But now, their hopes of reunion would be dashed as their children, the delights of their eyes, would be slaughtered in battle as Jerusalem falls again.

When these double blows are to befall the exiles, as God takes away all those treasures in their eyes, the Temple and their children, they will be overwhelmed by inexpressible grief just as Ezekiel has experienced. And they will do exactly as he is doing now. They are to copy Ezekiel’s stoic response. They would mourn but with a mourning too great for words and symbolic gestures. They would be completely paralyzed with a devastating, debilitating and wasting grief. They are to groan among themselves, only to know that it is their own sins that have caused such desolation.

Yes, the suffering which Ezekiel experienced in his calling as a prophet is itself the message of what the exiles would experience. In other words, the message of God is proclaimed most powerfully when it is incarnate in the suffering event of Ezekiel’s life. The call to divine service cost Ezekiel his wife, the delight of his eyes. In his stoic reaction to his wife’s death, he was a sign for his people pointing towards God’s coming judgment upon them, and for them to copy his behavior. But for contemporary readers what are we to make of such a desperately costly sign? How could a loving God who takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, even the wicked, actually arrange the death of a righteous young woman just to make a point? We cannot take refuge in imagine that Ezekiel’s wife was already ill at the time God announced her impending death, as some commentators would argue. Ezekiel’s own account is too specific for that. The beloved woman’s death is indeed announced as the Yahweh’s own act: He will “take” her suddenly. Yes, Yahweh did give warning to Ezekiel, but still it was Yahweh’s direct action that left him desolate.

So, to the ineluctable question: Why such a radical action taken by God, and why her?” there is no simple answer to it. But one thing is clear in today’s text is that God does not say why, He does not give an ulterior reason for her death. God indeed says that her death will be His act, that He will “take” her. But God does not state His motive for taking her. In particular, God does not say that He is doing this in order to set up a sign or putting her death as an object lesson to warn His people. God would not arbitrarily take the life of Ezekiel’s wife to bring forth His message to an unrepentant people. Yes, there is no doubt a connection between her death as God’s action and for Ezekiel to take this tragedy as an occasion to enact a prophetic sign. But one should not be quick to come to any simplistic, black-and-white answer accusing God for His radical action. Nevertheless, because God acts in this way, He sets His own honor at stake in the judgment of the world. The Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel, in his book, The Prophets, emphasizes that a prophet is above all a person of pathos, one who in personal life shares God’s pathos and suffering for the people (Millard Lind). Israel though as God’s elected covenant people, they nevertheless have often turned away from God. Their worship was hollow and empty, and their society has become corrupt and unjust. To make things worse, they have no trouble following pagan beliefs and practices. Thus, God has raised many prophets throughout their history to warn and to correct them. Judgment followed by forgiveness and restoration seems to be the repeating cycle of God’s relationship with His people.

As I have mentioned before, the painful marital relationship of Hosea and his unfaithful prostitute wife became a type of Israel’s faithlessness to the Lord. Nevertheless, Hosea is called to show his love to his unfaithful wife, as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they have turned to other gods. So, we see the deep pathos and the suffering of God in His relationship with His people, which Hosea is called to enact. Likewise, by telling Ezekiel that he is going to deprive him of the one who is ‘the delight of his eyes’, God conveys to him how well He knows the pain of what is to come. That God must take such a dramatic action only highlights the seriousness of Israel’s sin and the pain level of the coming judgment—both for the people and for God Himself. Ezekiel’s pain was in some sense a sharing in the pain of God. We must take note of God’s own description of the Temple as He announces that He will give it into the hands of foreigners. God calls it my sanctuary, which means that His actions have brought grief to His own heart first before they cause distress for His people. And God even put Himself to be mocked by the foreigners. Yes, even though the Temple is as dear to God as Ezekiel’s wife is to the prophet, God has no choice but to leave His own Temple. It is the people of Israel who have chased Him out.

Yes, brothers and sisters, how do we understand “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away”? We can interpret it as life is out of our control and therefore all human life is vanity. Or we can see our life as a gift from God and therefore blessed be the name of the Lord. It all depends on what we think our God is like. And the final understanding to that is God’s own message incarnated in the life of His suffering Son. His Son, Jesus, becomes an object of scorn and contempt in the eyes of the world, who even on the cross cried out to His Father “why have You forsaken me?” But in God’s raising Him from the dead, Jesus is vindicated and through His suffering He has brought in salvation to all mankind. While few will be asked to go to the lengths of the suffering prophets in the past, we are all called to be agents of God. The cost of bearing in our lives the message of God we must proclaim can be high. We can rebel against this calling or we can obey unswervingly knowing that in such event of sacrifice God will reveal Himself to us in the truth of His own being. And this is also the third point of today’s text.

(3)The servant of God could take hope in knowing that his suffering would lead to a renewed knowledge of God.

The only consolation that we are told about Ezekiel comes in the personal word of God to him at the end of the chapter. When the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple occurs as confirmed by a fugitive, all former restrictions on Ezekiel (3:25-27) at the outset of his ministry will be removed. Ezekiel’s mouth will be opened to speak freely and he will be free to move among the people to relate God’s message to them. So, out of Ezekiel’s personal tragedy and the devastating disaster of his people comes the turning point in Israel’s fortunes. By this time, God’s opening of Ezekiel’s mouth is indeed a second ‘sign’ for the people. The first tragic sign of Ezekiel points to judgment and death for his people; whereas now the regaining of his speech totally serves as the second sign from God pointing to life and salvation for his people. We see previously God remained silence to His people by restricting Ezekiel to speak freely except on His words of judgment. God stayed away from His people is an indication of His displeasure with them, for they had rejected God Himself and His prophet. Thus, God had nothing more to say to them except words of judgment. In today’s text, we see Ezekiel’s mute response to the death of his wife. His reaction to it as instructed by God anticipates and sets the pattern for the people’s reaction to the loss of Temple and of their children left behind in Jerusalem. But after the people had served the full judgment of God, the old era of sin and God’s wrath would come to an end; the new era of hope and salvation could now begin. And Ezekiel’s authenticity as a true prophet of Yahweh would once again be established as what he has proclaimed has finally come true. God will once more make use of the services of Ezekiel to extend His favor towards His people. From this time on, Ezekiel’s message will change from primarily judgment to restoration and hope.

Furthermore, the loosening of Ezekiel’s tongue signals also the beginning of a new relationship with his audience. He could finally assume the normal prophetic role of interceding with Yahweh on behalf of his people to avert His wrath, rather than serving simply as a messenger of divine fury. His previous role as a messenger and sign of God’s judgment is now being transformed into an agent and sign of divine grace, offering hope to his people. Most importantly, Ezekiel could take comfort in knowing that his personal suffering is not in vain for with the death of His wife, together with the destruction of the Temple, the end has indeed come. He has become a living sign that points beyond the tragedy to a new beginning for his people with the announcement of Yahweh’s promise of restoration. When Ezekiel speaks freely the words of promise after the fall of Jerusalem, he will be disclosing the positive, promissory character of Yahweh. And the people will thereby recognize and acknowledge that Yahweh is truly their God, as stated by God Himself twice in the text: Ezekiel will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord!

In other words, out of the tragic events of Ezekiel and the house of Israel comes a renewed knowledge of God. Such a knowledge of God tells of His grace, mercy, pathos and love; but also His wrath, resolve and determination to deal with His people’s sin because of His holiness. In other words, God’s no to a sinful people had to be heard and accepted with despair before good news could take its place. And their old and false foundation of God’s guaranteed favor on them, no matter how bad they conduct their lives, had to be cleared away in order that an authentic relationship might be inaugurated. That is why God must take away His own temple so as not to let it become the focus of His people’s affection. For they take pride in the Temple as the center of their lives instead of demonstrating their true devotion to God Himself. So, God’s message to them is clear: The Temple means nothing to Him compared to having a people who really tried to live their lives as He has asked them to do. Yes, God delighted in the Temple, too, but it could only be secondary compared to the delight He wanted to be with His people in a true and authentic relationship with Him. For more than three hundred years Solomon’s temple had stood as a magnificent symbol of Yahweh’s glory and holiness. This was His earthly residence, the place He had chosen for His name to dwell. But when ritual and formality had replaced authentic faith and their genuine relationship with God, the Temple could only become a false security to God’s people, having no more significance than any other building. So, although the Temple is as dear to God as Ezekiel’s wife is to the prophet, not even the sanctuary is immune to His wrath when His people lack the true knowledge of who this God is and their obedient response to Him.

Yes, God truly treasures our relationship with Him more than His own Temple. And our genuine relationship with Him can only be built on the right foundation that Yahweh truly is God. He is a God of grace, mercy and love; but also a God of pathos who suffers with His people in this fallen world. And He is determined to deal with sin and to eradicate it. As such, God wants us to be His agents, to become a living sign to the people around us of His grace and glory. We must become living demonstrations to others that we do not regard God as our accomplice, whose job is to ensure that we live comfortable and fulfilling lives. Rather, He is our Lord, who has brought us with great price and He owns us and everything we have (Iain Duguid). There is an inevitable cost involved if we truly want to be a servant of God. So, when we are called to make sacrifice for the sake of God and others, we can take comfort that He will be in the midst of us, guiding us according to His good will. And most of all, we could take hope in knowing that through our sacrifices, God would certainly reveal to us the very personal being of Himself. We would thus gain a renewed knowledge of God as He draws close to us. And our lives would surely become the incarnate message of God, able to proclaim powerfully and bring hope to the people around us.

Ezekiel 24:15–27 (Listen)

15 The word of the LORD came to me: 16 “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; 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 shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” 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.

19 And the people said to me, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” 20 Then I said to them, “The word of the LORD came to me: 21 ‘Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul, and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword. 22 And you shall do as I have done; you shall not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men. 23 Your turbans shall be on your heads and your shoes on your feet; you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another. 24 Thus shall Ezekiel be to you a sign; according to all that he has done you shall do. When this comes, then you will know that I am the Lord GOD.’

25 “As for you, son of man, surely on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their soul's desire, and also their sons and daughters, 26 on that day a fugitive will come to you to report to you the news. 27 On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the LORD.”

(ESV)