Ezekiel by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

After waiting among the exiles for seven days, the word of God came to Ezekiel saying,

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel so hear the words I speak to you and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways, that wicked person will die for their sin and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they still do not turn from their wickedness, they will die for their sin but you will have saved yourself.”

The Prophet EzekielGod told Ezekiel,

“When a righteous person turns from righteousness and does evil, they will die. Since you did not warn them, they will die for their sin. The righteous things that the person did will not be remembered and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the righteous person not to sin and they do not sin, surely they will live because they took warning – and you will have saved yourself.”

The hand of God was on Ezekiel and said, “Get up and go out to the plain where I will speak to you.”

Ezekiel rose and went to the plain where he saw the glory of God standing there, like the glory he had earlier seen by the Kebar River. Ezekiel fell to his knees and lowered his head.

The Spirit went into Ezekiel and raised him to his feet. God said,

“Go and shut yourself inside your house. They will tie you with ropes. You will be bound so you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your moth so that you will be silent and unable to reprove them for they are a rebellious people. But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ Whoever will listen, let them listen. And whoever will refuse, let them refuse; for they are a rebellious people.”

What the story means to us today

Consequences of sin are the same for the wicked and the righteous

God told Ezekiel his task was to warn the Israelite captives that they were about to be disciplined and those who chose not to heed the warning would die for their sin. To many, the disciplinary action, death, seems severe.

Old Testament law was uncomplicated. Using a literary pattern known as “case law”, it was often presented in easy-to-understand terms – If you do that, then this will result. The discipline God intended to impose on the Israelites was presented in this same manner. If Israelites did not heed Ezekiel’s warning, they would die.

However, it is likely our unfamiliarity with the literary construct prompts misinterpretation of God’s intent. God did not mean wicked Israelites would be struck down for their sin but rather, that sin inevitably leads to death. The principle is common in the Bible and many verses warn us that the wages of sin are death.

Many relate good deeds to salvation. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that good deeds provide redemption but rather, faith is required for salvation. The distinction is subtle but important to understand. Our salvation is based on faith, an agreement to commit to God’s objectives.  This doesn’t necessarily mean good deeds won’t get you into heaven, but it is not what our religion tells us to base our foundation upon.  Good deeds are the result of our salvation and faith – not the key to it. Thus, we find the consequences of sin are the same for the wicked and the righteous.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Returning from sin is difficult

God told Ezekiel when a righteous person turns wicked, an obstacle would be put before them and they would die. God did not mean he would place a stumbling block before a person to trick or tempt them toward sin but rather, once a person becomes wicked, obstacles to righteousness will inevitably appear making it more difficult to return to God’s way.

God ensures the exiles hear only what he wants them to hear

God tells Ezekiel he will make his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth so he is unable to speak. God wanted Ezekiel’s message restricted to only the lesson the “sovereign Lord” wanted delivered to the exiled Israelites. He did not want the exiles hearing Ezekiel’s potentially emotional reaction to their obstinance. Thus, Ezekiel would remain mute, speaking only when God chose for him to speak. As the prophetic events unfold, we will see the elders sneak away to surreptitiously listen to God’s message through Ezekiel.

The uniqueness of Ezekiel’s muted state

Ezekiel by Cornelius Corneli Lapide (1567-1637)Unlike Old Testament prophets who moved about the people spreading God’s word, Ezekiel was struck mute and not allowed to speak except on God’s command. In Ezekiel’s time, the Israelites were held in captivity in Babylon and likely had given up hope, possibly even resenting God for the predicament they had brought upon themselves.

We will see Ezekiel’s muteness lasted for 7 ½ years – ultimately until the fall of Jerusalem. During that time, he would deliver several important messages to the rebellious Israelites.

Why would God hold Ezekiel responsible for others’ righteousness?

God tells Ezekiel he will hold him responsible for anyone he does not warn. Note that God does not tell Ezekiel he is responsible for their righteousness. He simply must attempt to dissuade the Israelites from their evilness.

Warning others is always the responsibility of the watchman whose job is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of others. In ancient cities, if the watchman failed at his job, he was held accountable – just like God holds Ezekiel accountable.

The science and history behind the story

Who was the watchman?

In Old Testament times, a watchman was responsible for guarding the city wall. The sentry stationed himself at the wall (sometimes in a booth, tower, or high spot) and watched for any signs of marauders who could be a threat to the city.

God does not specify Ezekiel’s punishment for failing to do his job, but in the ancient middle east, a watchman’s punishment for failing at his duty was well known. As in Ezekiel’s instance, the watchman was responsible for warning the people and if the people failed to heed the watchman’s warning, they were responsible for their own death. However, if the watchman failed to sound the alarm, he would be held accountable for every life lost.

Notes on Biblical translation

The “Spirit” raised Ezekiel to his feet

The original Hebrew word for “spirit” implies “wind” making the verse read “a wind came into Ezekiel and stood him on his feet”. In this case, the “spirit” could be a “breath of God”.

“Hold you accountable for his death”

A more accurate translation for “hold you accountable for his death” would be “his blood I will seek from your hand”. The phrase is used twice in 2 Samuel in a similar circumstance. It is a warning that punishment will be incurred if the person failed to uphold his responsibility.

Bible Text

The Flight of the prisoners by Brunoff (1904)NIV

16 At the end of seven days the word of the LORD came to me: 17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 18 When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. 19 But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.

20 “Again, when a righteous person turns from their righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before them, they will die. Since you did not warn them, they will die for their sin. The righteous things that person did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. 21 But if you do warn the righteous person not to sin and they do not sin, they will surely live because they took warning, and you will have saved yourself.”

22 The hand of the LORD was on me there, and he said to me, “Get up and go out to the plain, and there I will speak to you.” 23 So I got up and went out to the plain. And the glory of the LORD was standing there, like the glory I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown.

24 Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: “Go, shut yourself inside your house. 25 And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. 26 I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them, for they are a rebellious people. 27 But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ Whoever will listen let them listen, and whoever will refuse let them refuse; for they are a rebellious people.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

16 At the end of the seven days, I received this Message from GOD:

17–19 “Son of man, I’ve made you a watchman for the family of Israel. Whenever you hear me say something, warn them for me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You are going to die,’ and you don’t sound the alarm warning them that it’s a matter of life or death, they will die and it will be your fault. I’ll hold you responsible. But if you warn the wicked and they keep right on sinning anyway, they’ll most certainly die for their sin, but you won’t die. You’ll have saved your life.

20–21 “And if the righteous turn back from living righteously and take up with evil when I step in and put them in a hard place, they’ll die. If you haven’t warned them, they’ll die because of their sins, and none of the right things they’ve done will count for anything—and I’ll hold you responsible. But if you warn these righteous people not to sin and they listen to you, they’ll live because they took the warning—and again, you’ll have saved your life.”

22 GOD grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “Get up. Go out on the plain. I want to talk with you.”

23 So I got up and went out on the plain. I couldn’t believe my eyes: the Glory of GOD! Right there! It was like the Glory I had seen at the Kebar River. I fell to the ground, prostrate.

24–26 Then the Spirit entered me and put me on my feet. He said, “Go home and shut the door behind you.” And then something odd: “Son of man: They’ll tie you hand and foot with ropes so you can’t leave the house. I’ll make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so you won’t be able to talk and tell the people what they’re doing wrong, even though they are a bunch of rebels.

27 “But then when the time is ripe, I’ll free your tongue and you’ll say, ‘This is what GOD, the Master, says: …’ From then on it’s up to them. They can listen or not listen, whichever they like. They are a bunch of rebels!”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

Ezekiel and the Exiles in BabylonThe NET Bible

3:16 At the end of seven days the word of the LORD came to me: 3:17 “Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you must give them a warning from me. 3:18 When I say to the wicked, “You will certainly die,” and you do not warn him—you do not speak out to warn the wicked to turn from his wicked deed and wicked lifestyle so that he may live—that wicked person will die for his iniquity, but I will hold you accountable for his death. 3:19 But as for you, if you warn the wicked and he does not turn from his wicked deed and from his wicked lifestyle, he will die for his iniquity but you will have saved your own life.

3:20 “When a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I set an obstacle before him, he will die. If you have not warned him, he will die for his sin. The righteous deeds he performed will not be considered, but I will hold you accountable for his death. 3:21 However, if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he will certainly live because he was warned, and you will have saved your own life.”

3:22 The hand of the LORD rested on me there, and he said to me, “Get up, go out to the valley, and I will speak with you there.” 3:23 So I got up and went out to the valley, and the glory of the LORD was standing there, just like the glory I had seen by the Kebar River, and I threw myself face down.

3:24 Then a wind came into me and stood me on my feet. The LORD spoke to me and said, “Go shut yourself in your house. 3:25 As for you, son of man, they will put ropes on you and tie you up with them, so you cannot go out among them. 3:26 I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. 3:27 But when I speak with you, I will loosen your tongue and you must say to them, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says.’ Those who listen will listen, but the indifferent will refuse, for they are a rebellious house.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

And it came to pass at the end of seven days, that the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, 17 Son of man, I have made thee a fwatchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. 18 When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. 19 Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; mbut thou hast delivered thy soul. 20 Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand. 21 Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul.

22 And the hand of the LORD was there upon me; and he said unto me, Arise, go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee. 23 Then I arose, and went forth into the plain: and, behold, the glory of the LORD stood there, as the glory which I saw by the river of Chebar: and I fell on my face. 24 Then the spirit entered into me, and set me upon my feet, and spake with me, and said unto me, Go, shut thyself within thine house. 25 But thou, O son of man, behold, they shall put bands upon thee, and shall bind thee with them, and thou shalt not go out among them: 26 And I will make thy tongue cleave to the roof of thy mouth, that thou shalt be dumb, and shalt not be to them a reprover: for they are a rebellious house. 27 But when I speak with thee, I will open thy mouth, and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; He that heareth, let him hear; and he that forbeareth, let him forbear: for they are a rebellious house.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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