That I knew the phrase from Ezekiel as a book title (one which I wrote about recently) before I knew it as a phrase from Ezekiel makes me sad, but I don’t think that such skewed priorities are uncommon. After all, just last school year I had the distinct pleasure of doing a close reading of the Biblical book of Job with a group of honors-program freshmen, then sitting with a small group of the same freshmen and noting the profound change of context in a happy-clappy, electric-guitar-heavy praise chorus that used the phrase “My redeemer lives.” Chatting with them after the service, I could tell that they were stepping into a new way of relating to church music, and just in case you were worried, I did encourage them to “read” such songs through the lenses of sensus plenior, the doctrine that the death and resurrection of Christ did in fact open up new meanings for Old Testament texts, meanings well beyond the intellectual horizons of the mortal authors.
But Ezekiel 37, as far as I know, isn’t the stuff of any praise chorus, yet the moment in the story of Israel could easily translate there. After all, this oracle is the sort of meta-revelation that contemporary Christian song thrives on, the sort that doesn’t directly sing of God’s love but tells anyone within earshot that those singing could sing of God’s love forever, given the vocal endurance and days off of work. This one, though it doesn’t lend itself quite as well to interminable key changes and repetition, nonetheless has the same potential for meta-song, perhaps as a slightly less-catchy course:
God sent me to warn the people
So my words the air will burn
How can we live with our sins, they cry out,
And I say, the LORD says, “Turn!”
Alright, so perhaps I should keep teaching English and leave the catchy praise choruses to those who are good at them. The point here is that this Ezekiel text has an unappealing side, not unlike the less-happy reality that Job most likely wants a redeemer (a word that has connotations of retributive killing in significance of the Old Testament) because he wants revenge on whatever invisible power is oppressing him or at least someone to proclaim his (Job’s) innocence in public places once God has killed Job off. In Ezekiel’s case, the unappetizing part of the passage is the long string of conditionals. The last pair is familiar enough, speaking Biblically, not to warrant too much attention: if the people turn from their wickedness, they will live. No biggie. Such comes across in places as diverse as the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Deuteronomy, and even sometimes in the sayings of Jesus. What’s shocking is the set of conditionals directed directly at the prophet, stuff that decidedly wouldn’t make it into any praise chorus that I could imagine: if you keep silent, you will die. If you speak, but the people don’t turn, you live, but the people die. Such is not the way of the praise-chorus deity, but there it is in the Bible.
Such a stark and sad job for the sent messenger is not unique either, of course. With a bit of familiarity with the text, one can easily enough remember Isaiah’s bittersweet call to proclaim until ears go numb and Jesus’s rationale for using parables that quotes the same passage: sometimes God speaks in mixed crowds, and not all among them will turn. Such is the harsh reality of the Parable of the Sower, and such is the relationship between proclamation, hearing, faithfulness, and witness that makes intelligible Paul’s great teachings on the Church as the new Israel, the true Temple, and the body of the King constituted wherever we gather. We are at once the Israel who hears and the prophets who proclaim, and neither of those roles in the story is always a happy one. Sometimes indeed we come across those who want to know “how should we then live” (an Elizabethan construction that indicates means of survival more than ethical ordering of life), but perhaps even more often we come across those for whom the cross is scandal and foolishness. Such is the life of the people of God.
May our LORD grant us the fortitude to proclaim and the endurance to proclaim once more.