There are many ways to think about the recent American tragedy. One can discuss international relations and global politics. One can dissect end time prophecies. One can examine concepts of justice and peace.
But another way to look at these recent events is to hold them up to the light of the Old Testament prophets. There is much to be learned, and much of relevance here. Many of the prophets can be consulted. I want to look at just one: Ezekiel. Any of the other exilic prophets would do. But the context, the setting, the message and the vision of Ezekiel’s prophetic voice seem especially appropriate as we try to understand the times we now live in.
Ezekiel was one of the exilic prophets, who ministered to the Jewish exiles who were holed up in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had carried Ezekiel and many other Israelites to far away Mesopotamia, in 597 BC. Ten years later, after continued rebellion by the remaining kings of Judah, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and many more Israelites were deported to Babylon.
Ezekiel had two tasks: to try to make sense of all this, and then to convey that understanding to his fellow captives. The insecurity, fear, anguish and uncertainty which many people are feeling right now would have been the kind of emotions felt by these ancient Jews.
To understand their concerns, a bit of background is needed. Israel, especially by the time of the divided kingdom, had come to embrace many half-truths. For example, they believed that they were God’s special chosen people (true enough). But their election was based on Yahweh’s grace, not on their own goodness or worth. They relished this knowledge that they were God’s chosen ones, but they then wrongly assumed all other people’s were God’s enemies. Again, yes and no. God has always had a place in his heart for the nations, but their salvation was to be achieved by means of Israel.
Israel also felt very secure as God’s covenant people. But that security was to an extent conditional. Fulfill the covenant conditions (of obedience and righteousness, etc) and rest assured of His hand of blessing. But become proud, complacent, idolatrous, immoral, etc., then expect his judgment. But Israel forgot that. They felt God would never abandon his people. They felt Jerusalem was inviolate. They treated the Temple as an amulet.
Thus their overwhelming shock when these symbols of God’s presence fell. And they fell to such pagans as the Babylonians. How could this be? How could God cast off his own people? How could gentile nations become the master instead of the servant? How could God seem so absent, so distant, so cold?
Israel needed to be reminded by Ezekiel and the other prophets of several truths, just as we do. First, God is sovereign. He is in control. He could use Babylon, or Assyria, or any other gentile nation, as his instrument, as His servant, to judge Israel. But these nations in turn also would be judged. The mysteries of divine sovereignty and human responsibility come together here. God can use a pagan nation to judge His people. He can ensure that this happens, but they are still accountable, still guilty, and still to meet their own judgment.
Second, God will not share his glory with any other. When his people put their trust and security in idols, in wealth, in other nations, in anything other than Yahweh, then he must act to ensure his glory is not undermined or diminished. When his people engage in idolatry and divide their loyalties, then God must act. While America is not God’s covenant people, it contains many Christians, who are God’s new covenant people. It is possible that God could use the godless terrorist to get the church’s attention. How guilty are American Christians (and other western Christians) of the same kinds of idolatry and disloyalty? What are the gods we worship? Where is our security? What do we trust in?
The symbol of America’s financial might was destroyed in an hour, and the effects will be felt for years. The action of the terrorists is unjustifiable and totally culpable. But could God have used such an attack to rouse a sleeping church, to get our attention, to give us a warning? To the extent that we have made wealth, materialism and consumerism our new gods, then we need to have his chastening hand. He certainly did just that in Ezekiel’s day. It seemed utterly incongruous and incomprehensible that God could do such a thing, but he did. And he can do it again. And just as he eventually judged Babylon, so too will he judge these terrorists.
But more important than asking when and how this judgment will come, we need to be asking what it is that God is saying to his church. Will we heed his warning? We have been told that all things have changed now, that we cannot go back to the way things were before. But that is just the point. To go back to the status quo is to go back to death. The church has been lulled to sleep, and was in danger of losing its inheritance, just as Israel had done. Will we respond in the right way? Will we drop to our knees, and seek his forgiveness for our nominalism, our indifference, our idolatry, our immorality? Or will more chastisement be needed?
This in no way implies that there is anything good or commendable about what the terrorists did, just as there was nothing praiseworthy in what the Babylonians did to Israel. But God did use Babylon as his instrument of judgement. He may be doing the same today. God is involved with the nations. He does have a plan and purpose. He is at work in this world. But not in the way we think or want. We say like the ancient Israelites said, God will never judge us. We are his people. He is on our side. He will only judge our enemies.
But it is just because God loves us so much, because he is concerned for the salvation of others, and because he will not share his glory with another, that he acts, and will act again. He cannot leave us in our delusion, in our self-entrapment, in our mirage, in our dead-end. He must act, for our own good. We need him to act. We are lost if he does not.
It has often been noted that after the exile, we have no record of Israel falling back into idolatry, at least of the kind it engaged in before judgment. It had learned some lessons. It needed the chastisement. And God is not finished with Israel yet. Nor is he finished with us. In an age in which we have reduced God to a celestial Jeeves, ever ready to do our bidding and keep us happy, the thought of a God who loves us so much that he may take extraordinary steps to keep us in relation to him may seem harsh and unjust – even unloving. But it is the most loving thing God can do. He must break our idols or we perish.
A third truth is that good can come out of evil. Reports are telling us that churches in countries like England are beginning to fill up. People are coming together. People are getting their priorities rights. People are seeing the things that really matter. This is true both of believers and non-believers.
For believers, as I already said, this is a much needed wake-up call. It is a call to repentance and renewal and recommitment. But it is also being used by God to prepare non-believers. Many of them are now less secure, less certain, less arrogant, less independent. They have become fertile ground for the gospel. In an age of uncertainty, fear and change, we can point people to the unchanging God who is a rock in the storm. And believers, with God’s grace, can give evidence of that security in their own lives. Out of tragedy can come great opportunity.
Of course with the coming of Christ, the ultimate judgment of God has been absorbed by his son. We can now offer God’s love and forgiveness to the peoples of the world. That does not mean that God no longer has purposes for the nations, or that he will not deal with nations in judgment if need be. But individuals need not fear judgment, because we have one who was judged in our place.
A fourth and final theme is hope. The book of Ezekiel ends as it begins, with a picture of God’s glory and hope of renewal. Almost always when the OT prophets pronounce judgment, they also proclaim hope and restoration. While God must judge to maintain his holiness, he must also show grace and mercy, because that is part of his character. The glorious end of Israel, helped by God’s spirit, is the truth we now experience. The promised spirit is here, and we have God’s presence in the closest and most real way – living within us.
In the light of the recent horrible events in the US, we need to go back to the prophets and draw deep from the wisdom, the spirituality, the body of divinity found there. To ignore these treasures will only further impoverish us. May this time of terrible suffering and tragedy be turned around. May it mark the turning point for God’s people. May it mean that we will learn our lessons, and get our priorities right. May it mean that we begin to treat God as God.