If you are following the Old Testament track of our daily reading plan, then you are moving out of Judges and Ruth this week and moving into Ezekiel.
While I understand and love Judges and Ruth, I struggle with Ezekiel. I’m not saying I do not like or dislike this book; I don’t not like or dislike any book of the Bible. I’m just saying I struggle with it.
Part of this struggle is due to the perennial problem of length. I find longer books harder to understand than shorter books, and Ezekiel is definitely a longer book. Another part of this struggle is due to the fact that I never spent the time with Ezekiel that I spent with other books of the Bible. We “surveyed” Ezekiel rather than studying it verse-by-verse.
So Ezekiel is one of what I call the “holes” in my Bible knowledge. I don’t know it like I know the shorter and/or more prevalent books of the Bible. I don’t know its “big picture”, its main teaching, its structure, or any of the other characteristic things I know about the other books of the Bible which help me understand what they are teaching and see how it applies to my life.
There is something I noticed during this reading of Ezekiel, though, something which I believe is at least part of the big picture of this book if not the big picture itself. That something comes in the phrase Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.
A Formula Statement
That phrase is what I call a “formula statement”, that is, a statement that is repeated in the Bible by multiple authors. “The Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness” is probably the premier formula statement, being coined by God Himself in Exodus 34 and then repeated by Jonah, Joel, Nehemiah, and some psalms. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever” is another, being repeated in the post-exilic books like Chronicles, Ezra, and a few psalms of its own.
Likewise, then you will know that I am the LORD your God is repeated in various books by various authors. It is used at least 72 times in the Bible, including Exodus, Deuteronomy, I Kings, Joel, and even a couple times in the New Testament (John and The Revelation). That makes it a formula statement.
And nobody uses that formula statement as much as Ezekiel does. Of the 72 times this formula statement appears in the Bible, 58 of those times are in Ezekiel.
Sometimes Ezekiel (or God through Ezekiel) attaches this phrase to prophecies of punishment. For example, in Ezekiel 6:7 God says, “Your people will fall slain among you, and you will know that I am the Lord.”
Other times, Ezekiel (or, again, God through Ezekiel) attaches this phrase to prophecies of rescue or restoration from punishment. In the great “Valley of Dry Bones” episode of chapter 37, an episode in which God promises to resurrect those who have suffered and died in the coming calamities, God says, “I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”
Over and over, in both positive and negative situations, God makes this statement. Ensuring that people know He is the Lord, that is, the One True God who is active in their lives, must therefore be at least part of the message of this book.
A People Caught Between Two Gods
And it is part of the message of this book for good reason. In Ezekiel’s time, the people were “caught” between God and idols. While idolatry had always been a problem among the Israelites, it seems that by Ezekiel’s day it had become such a problem that the people’s cognitive functions were truly failing. They were not simply indulging the flesh but were apparently genuinely confused about what god was God and whether or not He was involved in their lives.
We see one incident which suggests this in chapter eight. There God takes Ezekiel in a vision to the Temple in Jerusalem to show him the idolatry taking place there. While God has the prophet there, He asks Him, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’”
Now this statement “The Lord does not see us” could be nothing more than a fleshly excuse to keep doing the sinful things they want to do. But it also could be legitimate confusion. It could be that this people really didn’t think God was either real or really active in their situation.
And that is what God is going to remedy through the course of Ezekiel and the major events that both occur during the book or are predicted by the book. By first allowing the Israelites to fall to the Babylonians and then by restoring them after they fall to the Israelites, God is going to prove to them that He alone is God and that He is active in (ultimately) positive ways. He is going to teach them not just intellectually but experientially that He is the One True God.
Do You Really Know?
This book can teach us modern readers the exact same thing. We have the opportunity here to not just learn from history but to learn the most important and encouraging thing there is to learn from history. We have the opportunity to not just see but also feel (and feelings indeed affect how we respond to God) that the God of the Bible, the father of Jesus Christ, is Lord.
That truth is reality. That truth will encourage us as our situations do their best to discourage us. That truth will pull us out of the idolatry we still stumble into today. And that truth is one of the biggest if not the biggest truths of this book.