Ezekiel 33 – The Prophet as Watchman
A. Ezekiel the watchman.
1. (1-6) The principle of the watchman.
Again the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, speak to the children of your people, and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from their territory and make him their watchman, when he sees the sword coming upon the land, if he blows the trumpet and warns the people, then whoever hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, if the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be on his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, but did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But he who takes warning will save his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.’
a. When I bring a sword upon a land: This establishes the context for all that Ezekiel wrote regarding the watchman. As spoken before in Ezekiel 3:16-27, the image of the watchman has the context of warning of God’s approaching judgment. Ezekiel’s role as a watchman was connected to when he sees the sword coming upon the land.
i. There are many who consider themselves watchmen to the people of God today. They watch carefully and look for signs of error or apostasy. There is always a place for those to do what Ezekiel was called to do as a watchman – to discern that God’s judgment was coming soon and to warn the people. Yet many who consider themselves modern “watchmen” focus on the examination of supposed error more than the proclamation of God’s truth. This is a distortion of Ezekiel’s calling as a watchman.
ii. Another way this modern office of watchman may distort the Biblical idea is by untruthful or unfair examination of others in search of error or apostasy. If a watchman alerts people to dangers but does not give an honest and fair report, then he will not be believed when he warns of a genuine danger.
b. If he blows the trumpet and warns the people: When the judgment of God came upon the land and especially to correct God’s people, the watchman had a sacred responsibility to warn the people. If he did, then if any did not heed the warning, his blood was upon himself. This was a great assurance to Ezekiel and Jeremiah because they warned many but few listened.
c. He who takes warning will save his life: When the judgment of God comes upon the land, the only preservation is in hearing the warning of the watchman and responding properly.
d. If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet: If the watchman did not warn the people about God’s judgment, then the blood of those who perished would be held against the watchman.
2. (7-9) Ezekiel the watchman.
“So you, son of man: I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die!’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul.
a. I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear a word from My mouth and warn them for Me: The watchman did not gain his knowledge by studying the armies of the Babylonian empire, or by looking at the false prophets among God’s people at that time. Ezekiel heard from God that judgment was coming soon, and had to announce it.
b. O wicked man, you shall surely die: This was the main message of Ezekiel (and Jeremiah), though in general they brought the message to Jerusalem and to the kingdom of Israel more than to specific individuals.
c. If you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way: If the watchman faithfully delivered his message, then the response of the one he warned was the responsibility of the one who heard it. It could be said to the watchman, you have delivered your soul.
B. The fairness of God’s judgments.
1. (10-11) God’s judgment is fair because He takes no special pleasure in it.
“Therefore you, O son of man, say to the house of Israel: ‘Thus you say, “If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live?”’ Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’
a. If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live? This was an accusing question raised against the fairness of God’s judgment. The idea was that God was happy to make His judgment so severe that it left no room for His people to repent.
b. I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live: God responded to the accusing question of His people by declaring a basic principle about His nature and dealings with humanity. God takes no special pleasure in the death of the wicked. God’s heart is for people to repent, to turn from their way and live. God is not sadistic and cruel, making repentance impossible because He loves to see humanity suffer.
i. The fact that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked does not mean that it will not happen. God’s general desire for all humanity is that they would repent, turn to Him and be saved; yet He will not spare the requirements of justice and holiness for those who refuse to turn to Him.
ii. It is especially important to understand these statements in their context; that Ezekiel spoke this regarding the judgment to come upon Judah and Jerusalem in this life, and not in first reference to eternal judgment. Nevertheless, since this principle is so rooted in God’s character, it applies to God’s eternal judgments. God is not “happy” when people choose hell; His general desire for all humanity is that they would repent, turn to Him and be saved.
c. Turn, turn from your evil ways: This communicates the desire, even the pleasure of God. The LORD’s longing is that men and women would choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19) and not death. God wanted Israel to live and not die. The question, why should you die, O house of Israel? means that they didn’t have to perish in the coming judgment.
2. (12-16) The principle of the changed life.
“Therefore you, O son of man, say to the children of your people: ‘The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression; as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness; nor shall the righteous be able to live because of his righteousness in the day that he sins.’ When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die. Again, when I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right; he shall surely live.
a. The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression: God told Ezekiel to speak to another accusing objection from the people of God. This was an accusation based on fatalism, which basically said: the good are good and the bad are bad and nothing can be done about it. To answer that objection, God reminded them all that every righteous man could end up with a life dominated by his transgression. His prior righteousness would not rescue him on the day of God’s judgment.
b. As for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness: On the same principle, someone who lived a prior life of wickedness was not pre-ordained to continue that way. They could turn and be spared in the season of God’s judgment.
c. When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness: No one is so righteous that they cannot fall into great error and danger if they were to trust in their own righteousness instead of God and His mercy. To do so may mean to have all of one’s righteous works account for nothing before God, and he shall die. The same principle worked in reverse for the wicked. In both cases, if God pronounced “he shall surely live” to the righteous or “you shall surely die” to the wicked, neither was an irrevocable or irreversible pronouncement.
d. If the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen: Again, the point is clear. God does not want us to regard human destiny as fatalistically determined by a person’s past, either for good or evil.
3. (17-20) Unfairness found with Israel, not God.
“Yet the children of your people say, ‘The way of the LORD is not fair.’ But it is their way which is not fair! When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die because of it. But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is lawful and right, he shall live because of it. Yet you say, ‘The way of the LORD is not fair.’ O house of Israel, I will judge every one of you according to his own ways.”
a. The way of the LORD is not fair: This was another accusation against God and His prophets. When Ezekiel and others announced God’s coming judgment, some responded by questioning the fairness of it.
b. But it is their way which is not fair: God boldly replied to their accusation. God was entirely fair; it was the children of your people who unfairly looked to fate or the past to determine a person’s destiny.
c. When the righteous turns from his righteousness…when the wicked turns from his wickedness: Yet, as in the previous verses, God declared that man is not fatalistically bound to his past, whether his past was righteous or was wicked.
d. I will judge every one of you according to his own ways: This was God’s standard of judgment, and it was (and is) entirely fair. It was fair under the old covenant, which was greatly based on works. It is also (in another sense) fair under the new covenant, where a person’s faith is proved to be real by their works (James 2:14-17).
C. The messenger from Jerusalem.
1. (21) The messenger arrives.
And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, that one who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been captured!”
a. In the twelfth year of our captivity: This was seven years after the first prophecies of the Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:2-3).
b. The city has been captured: The messenger told of what Ezekiel had long predicted, that Jerusalem would be utterly overwhelmed by the armies of Babylon. This was a sad and tragic vindication of the prophet.
2. (22-24) The arrogant proclamation of the few Jewish survivors remaining in Judea.
Now the hand of the LORD had been upon me the evening before the man came who had escaped. And He had opened my mouth; so when he came to me in the morning, my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Son of man, they who inhabit those ruins in the land of Israel are saying, ‘Abraham was only one, and he inherited the land. But we are many; the land has been given to us as a possession.’
a. He opened my mouth: God had given Ezekiel a sense of a significant revelation to come (the hand of the LORD had been upon me the evening before) but had made the prophet mute until the messenger came.
b. Abraham was only one, and he inherited the land. But we are many; the land has been given to us as a possession: These were the thoughts and words of the small remnant that remained behind in Jerusalem and Judea. Here we learn that they thought they would inherit the land and rebuild a new Israel and Jerusalem. But God had promised that this would come from returning exiles, not those who remained in the land.
i. Jeremiah described these remaining few and the tragic events connected with them in Jeremiah 40-44.
3. (25-26) God’s answer to the surviving remnant.
“Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “You eat meat with blood, you lift up your eyes toward your idols, and shed blood. Should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you commit abominations, and you defile one another’s wives. Should you then possess the land?”’
a. You eat meat with blood, you lift up your eyes toward your idols, and shed blood: These few survivors who somehow evaded death and exile were not godly, covenant-keeping men. They did not observe God’s dietary laws, they did not worship Yahweh alone, and they were violent.
b. Should you then possess the land? God repeated this question twice to emphasize that they would not possess the land. God’s promise to restore Israel and Jerusalem would be accomplished, but not through ungodly men like these.
4. (27-29) God’s promise of judgment on the few survivors.
“Say thus to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “As I live, surely those who are in the ruins shall fall by the sword, and the one who is in the open field I will give to the beasts to be devoured, and those who are in the strongholds and caves shall die of the pestilence. For I will make the land most desolate, her arrogant strength shall cease, and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that no one will pass through. Then they shall know that I am the LORD, when I have made the land most desolate because of all their abominations which they have committed.”’
a. Those who are in the ruins shall fall by the sword: The survivors did not truly escape God’s judgment; it was only delayed for a short time. The same judgments of the sword, the beasts, and pestilence would strike them in time. Jeremiah 40-44 proved this to be true.
b. I will make the land most desolate: The arrogant dreams of the few survivors would come to nothing. God would further His work of making the land most desolate despite their arrogant strength.
c. Then they shall know that I am the LORD: Jerusalem had just fallen, and an almost unimaginable calamity came upon the people. Yet God promised a further desolation to come, and it would come because of their terrible idolatry (because of all their abominations which they have committed).
5. (30-33) The people were pleased to hear Ezekiel but did not truly listen.
“As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses; and they speak to one another, everyone saying to his brother, ‘Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them. And when this comes to pass—surely it will come—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.”
a. The children of your people are talking about you: God wanted Ezekiel to know that his message was getting out to the people. Even if they did not obey what God told them to do, they did talk about him and regard what he said as the word that comes from the LORD.
b. They hear your words, but they do not do them: In a superficial sense Ezekiel was popular as a prophet. People talked about his prophetic words and gave lip-service and the words being from God. Yet it was a very superficial sense; they heard, but they did not really listen or do them.
c. With their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain: People said good and kind things about Ezekiel’s preaching, but it made no difference in their hearts or lives. They still lived for their own gain and not the honor and holiness of God.
d. You are to them as a very lovely song: They liked to listen to Ezekiel as anyone likes to listen to a good singer (a pleasant voice) and well-played music (play well on an instrument). They enjoyed the prophet’s “music” but did not respond to his message with truth, faith and action.
e. Then they will know that a prophet has been among them: Ezekiel had already been proved a true prophet because Jerusalem had been captured (Ezekiel 33:21). Yet as his prophecies continued to be fulfilled and woe came to those who did not receive them with faith and action, at the very least the people would know that Ezekiel was indeed a true prophet, and should never be regarded as an entertainer or mere inspirational speaker.