As I read through this text, first I am struck by the rich imagery that is used – being lifted up by the Spirit, seeing God’s throne room in rich detail, being given a scroll to eat. My mother had the hobby of painting and our home is littered with paintings of all kinds made by her on my walls. Likely because of her influence, there is something about rich imagery that helps draw me in to connect with a message like Ezekiel’s so that it becomes real to me.
Thinking about this imagery in the way I think of momma’s painting is helpful to me. Growing up we used to attend an Adventist-style church in the Adventist “Church of God” tradition. In the Adventist tradition, historically there is much preaching from the prophetic books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Jude, and Revelation. I remember many a sermon trying to decode the rich imagery in these books as if they were a literal description of some event to happen in the future, like a videotape of future events which the ancient authors could only imperfectly describe. This approach to prophecy is still popular today, in such series as Left Behind which tries to imagine what such a literal future would look like.
I’m learning to read these sections of Scripture less like I would watch a documentary video from the future, but more like how I look at one of momma’s paintings. The imagery in a painting is not intended to always be a literal representation of an actual scene. Often it is more an expression of a feeling, a movement, or big ideas which are beyond words. In fact even with realistic looking pictures rarely is a good painting an exact duplication of what people see, but usually it is portrayal of the feeling of the moment the painter is depicting or the character of the person being painted. To convey the feeling of a scene or the character of a person is to convey something beyond words, and something beyond what a mere photograph would convey.
I am coming to see something similar in these grand scenes in the prophetic and especially apocalyptic writings. They paint very deep, rich images which are sometimes abstract, impressionistic, or larger than earthly life. Instead of depicting literal events whether in the past, present, or future they attempt as all great spiritual visions have done for those that witnessed them throughout history to look behind the veil of events to disclose the meaning behind them. They attempt to gaze into heaven and look at the world’s struggles from that perspective. They invite us to do so as well by experiencing a change in perspective through seeing ourselves within that alternative vision.
Read in that way, I find the words of prophets and visionaries in Scripture very differently. No more are they fear-inducing, the cause of nightmares or rushes to the altar to confess that one last sin lest I be left behind. Instead like a great painting or poem, I step away from them seeing myself and the world with new eyes.
The other thing which stands out to me in this passage is what a thankless task Ezekiel is called to. Essentially God tells Ezekiel “I am calling you to reach out to folks who have not just refused to listen to me in the past, but who have actively fought against me. They’ll do the same to me”. Sometimes we get this idea if we are faithful to God, things will go easy. Ezekiel reminds us that is not the case. You can be the best spouse and have the marriage fall apart if your partner refuses to do their part. You can be the best parent and have your children make horrible choices that damage their lives. You can be the best employee and the company make decisions that cause you to be out of work, losing your pension to boot. And I’ve seen many a good talented pastor who did their jobs right but were called to churches or communities that struggled to survive, that failed, or that actively fought moving forward in the direction the Spirit seemed to be leading them. This was not because the pastor was unfaithful, but because God called them to a difficult task, a difficult job. We need to realize the call is to be faithful and the road might not be easy. But if your path is harder, it is because God sees in you the potential to do what those called to a seemingly easier journey could not handle. And just as Ezekiel’s words remain though his task was hard, so you will leave a legacy in the lives of others if you are faithful.