Turn and Live (Ezekiel 18:4, 20-23, 30-32)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 30, 2007)
The final sentence in our lesson from Ezekiel summarizes his message in just a few words: “Turn, then, and live” (18:32). In these words we have a need implied, an action required, and a promised proclaimed.
The word “turn” (which could also be translated “repent”) implies the need to turn away from one’s present path. Ezekiel ministered at roughly the same time as Jeremiah. He spoke in the midst of Israel’s fall, the time of accounting following generations of defying God’s will.
Israel’s injustice, trust in weapons of war, and worship of things other than Yahweh corrupted the community at its core. Ezekiel only repeats what had been said many times before: Turn from this corruption.
This is the prophet’s message: Acknowledge that you have let other commitments take the place of Yahweh’s way. You have become alienated from your loving creator. You are broken and you need healing.
The action God requires to turn the tide is very simple, though not easy. Turn toward God with open hands of trust. Ezekiel’s Israel is going through a kind of crisis intervention. All of the attempted ways to turn the tide and sustain the nation have failed.
The perils of anxiety
Going back to the time of Samuel, we read of anxiety among Israel’s leaders leading to human kingship. Anxiety about the sufficiency of God’s care led the people to turn toward other gods for fertility and brute power. Anxiety about economics led to the wealthy and powerful exploiting the poor and vulnerable to expand their possessions.
Insecurity about God’s presence among them led to the centralized temple, easily manipulated by kings. Anxiety about little Israel staying viable amidst the maneuverings of the great powers led to their leaders playing power politics.
These sources of security the Israelites had clung to wound up destroyed–their nation-state, their economy, their temple. Nothing is left–except the word of the prophet reminding the people that Yahweh remains. With all other objects of trust gone, that leaves only Yahweh.
So, you need to turn. And here comes the promise proclaimed: When you genuinely turn to Yahweh you will find life. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (18:23).
God’s renewal of life
Like the other prophets, Ezekiel’s book is structured with critique followed by hope of healing. The latter part of Ezekiel provides one of the most profound visions of hope in the Old Testament. In chapter 37 he uses the metaphor of dried bones being brought back to life; portraying the transformative mercy of God.
Ezekiel does nothing to diminish the horrors of Israel’s rejection of God’s ways – and the consequences of that generations-spanning rejection. This honesty makes the vision of life restored even more remarkable, and even more a testimony of the life-giving intentions of God.
The God who restores life to dried bones does not gain pleasure from the wicked being punished. God delights in them turning from their ways so that they may live.
Ezekiel, like the other prophets, anticipates the message of Jesus: “Repent and believe the good news.” The prophets remain crucial for us, though, because along with the call to turn to God (and the promise that God will respond with healing), they also make clear the consequences of not turning. Turn to God and live–or remain linked with injustice, with trust in things rather than God and with giving your allegiance to the practitioners of power politics. It is truly one or the other.