Thinking about preaching while reading the prophets is a sobering thing. Whether it’s Isaiah’s commission to preach to a deaf and blind people, or Jeremiah’s call to go preach without fear to those who threaten his life and reject his message, the prophets don’t exactly make good promo material for aspiring seminarians. (“Preaching God’s Word–Learn how to do it without getting killed.”) Nevertheless they are essential reading for anyone trying to engage in ministry within the church, especially the ministry of the Word. I was reminded of this again this week as I came to Ezekiel in my devotional.
In Ezekiel 2-3, Ezekiel receives his commission to preach to the wicked, rebellious house of Israel in a vision. The basic call was to persevere in preaching the word of the Lord no matter what because through him God will make them know that “a prophet has been among them.” (2:5) This seems tough, but encouraging right? I mean, he is told that it will be evident that Ezekiel is God’s anointed prophet. God will be with him powerfully. That’s gotta be good?
Eh, not so much. There’s more.
See, while promising to be with him, God also makes it clear he’s not going to be greeted with a lot of success. He is going to be rejected. His message will fall on rebellious ears and stubborn hearts. He says that he’s sending him to a people who are so stubborn that, even though the message is not hard to understand, and the language is not a barrier, even so, they will reject it because they continually reject God. (3:6) Yet still, God calls him to be a “watchman” over the house of Israel (3:17), preaching a warning to God’s people so that they might turn, repent, and not come under judgment. Knowing that the people will rebel, knowing that they will reject him, knowing the difficulty he is still to preach the word of the Lord.
How are we to preach under conditions like this? What drives faithfulness in situations like this? How do we bear up under the pressure? Most of us don’t think about this going in. I mean, we might “know” it’s going to be hard. We might “know” that if we faithfully preach the word, not all that we say is going to be received well. Nevertheless, coming face to face with recalcitrant members of the body, people who won’t repent, members you’re intimidated to speak honestly to for fear of causing them to leave, can catch some of us off guard and make us lose our nerve. Even with the Spirit of God indwelling the hearts of believers, nobody likes being told to repent. The house of Israel can still be a rebellious people this side of the Cross.
A Hard Forehead
So what do you need to preach faithfully to people with stubborn hearts? First of all, you apparently need some good facial bone density.
Early in the chapter the Lord says to Ezekiel, “But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.”(3:7-9)
The Lord uses the picture of Israel having a “hard forehead” after years of rebellion; they were people with a stubborn will that won’t be turned aside, having set their face against the Lord. God tells Ezekiel that as hard as their forehead was, he would make Ezekiel’s that much firmer. God would give Ezekiel a strength of will, a forehead harder than flint that was used to strike a fire. We need a supernaturally emboldened will to preach. Ezekiel did not derive his boldness from his own strength—his strength was the Lord’s. It was the Spirit of God who proved to be the firm ground on which he could make his stand. You can’t preach to a stubborn people if your will is weaker than theirs. Inevitably heads will butt and someone’s will have to break. Pray for the sake of your people that it’s not yours.
A Heavy Heart
Your people need you to have a hard forehead because this passage also teaches us that our message is a weighty one. It can only be preached with heavy heart, burdened with the gravity of God’s words. That’s the only way I know how to describe the Lord’s charge in the middle of the chapter. God tells Ezekiel that he must preach to the people because unless he does he’s accountable for their blood.
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.” (3:16-21)
God says that he will punish the wicked and forgive the repentant according to their own actions, but Ezekiel is still held liable for whether he preached the word of repentance to them or simply left them to their wickedness.
All throughout the Scriptures there is a weight to being a preacher and teacher of God’s Word. (Jas 3:1; Heb 13:17) They are to be faithful shepherds to the flock knowing they must give an account to the True Shepherd. (1 Peter 5:1-4) Paul tells Timothy “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:16)
Preachers have to know that there is a weight to the words we speak. We’re not just bandying about interesting ideas that are fun to debate sometimes. We are preaching the difference between life and death, both in this life and what follows. . This knowledge should drive us to set our foreheads like flint and preach no matter the “result.” All too often we pull back for fear of the “results” when the results of pulling back are far more terrifying. Instead, our charge should propel us forward, to humbly, but confidently speak “thus says the Lord” for the sake of our hearers.
Getting Weightier Hearts and Tougher Craniums
A lot of us reading Ezekiel 3 know that we don’t have that hard forehead or that heavy heart. In moments of weakness I want to turn aside from saying what I need to say and console myself with the thought that, in the grand scheme of things, my words won’t really make that great a difference. The bracing truth is that this is a lie that our people can’t afford for us to believe.
How do we gain some weightier hearts and tougher craniums?
- Pray. It’s that simple. God promises that HE will make Ezekiel’s forehead hard. We need to be on our knees, pleading with God for the might to bear up under the pressure. The Spirit is the only one who can impress upon our hearts the burden of the word as well as give us the courage we need.
- Preach the word alone. We gain strength and passion for preaching when we commit ourselves to studying and wrestling with God’s word in order to present it to God’s people. It is then that we are convinced and convicted of what God has said,; it is then that we are unhindered by the ambition to forward our own clever ideas; it is then that our fears are quenched that would cause us to shrink from our task. “But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’ He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house.” (Ezek 3:27) When we preach the word and that alone it gives us confidence that it is the Lord “opening our mouth.”
Once again, I offer these incompletely reformed thoughts more as a prayer for my own ministry than as the distilled wisdom of achieved experience.
Soli Deo Gloria