7So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. 9But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
10Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” 11Say 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 their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
The charge given to the prophet Ezekiel to be a watchman is a reminder of the calling originally given to him in 3:16-21, in his initial prophetic vocation. In that passage, the prophet was sent to a resistant people, promised that YHWH would make him to be as hard as flint, unflinching before them.
Here YHWH introduces his renewed presentation of Ezekiel’s duty as a watchman with a more general statement about the duties of a watchman in verses 2-6, which Ezekiel is told to declare to the house of Israel. They are to be informed of how Ezekiel stands in relation to them:
If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take one of their number as their sentinel; and if the sentinel sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; then if any who hear the sound of the trumpet do not take warning, and the sword comes and takes them away, their blood shall be upon their own heads. They heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; their blood shall be upon themselves. But if they had taken warning, they would have saved their lives. But if the sentinel sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any of them, they are taken away in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at the sentinel’s hand.
This introduction gives an added salience to certain details of the verses that follow, most especially to the fact that it is YHWH himself—not the house of Israel—who establishes Ezekiel as its watchman. In establishing such a watchman, YHWH is taking a direct concern for the safety of the house of Israel in the face of imminent threats.
Yet if YHWH is the one establishing the protective watchman, he is also the one bringing the threat—‘if I bring the sword upon a land’ (verse 2). The fact that it is YHWH who both declares the fate of death to the wicked and establishes the watchman to warn them is a particularly potent expression of a tension that appears in many scriptural texts. The declaration of the threat of divine judgment is at the same time a gracious forewarning: ‘whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me’ (verse 7). YHWH is both the approaching enemy and the friend who sounds the alarm.
Ezekiel’s own life hangs upon his faithful performance of his task. If he does not discharge his duty in delivering the warning to the wicked, their blood will be required at his hand. The stakes for both the messenger and for the recipients of his messages couldn’t be higher: for both it is a matter of life and death.
Yet in answer to the house of Israel’s fatalistic attitude towards the prospect of judgment and their sense of futility and stillborn hopes in their gnawing guilt, YHWH declares a powerful word of mercy. There is hope for the house of Israel yet, if they will but turn back to YHWH. Repentance is not futile: the futility is continuing towards certain death on the path of wickedness, when a way of life is held open—‘turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’
The vehemence of YHWH’s declaration of his loving will towards the house of Israel adds a further layer of tension to the watchman picture, and to the fact that he is the approaching enemy. The statement of verse 11 couldn’t be stronger: YHWH swears by his own life that he finds no pleasure in the death of the wicked and then pleads with the house of Israel to arrest its headlong rush towards the precipice of his judgment. The great tragedy of the death of the wicked is in its utter needlessness.
As a watchman, Ezekiel’s task relates both to the house of Israel in general and to particular wicked persons within it. His calling exceeds merely sounding a general alarm for the people; he must also forcefully and particularly address wicked persons with the urgency of YHWH’s warning. This task is framed, not only as the discharging of his duty to YHWH who sent him, but also as a task in which he bears responsibility for the wicked people he is warning.
Ezekiel’s duties as a watchman have often been compared to the duties of the New Testament figures of pastors or overseers, who have to keep watch over and give an account for each person’s soul (cf. Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:17). The vocation of these figures are framed by the same tensions and urgency that framed the calling of Ezekiel: the approaching fierce wrath of God in judgment, the gracious divine sounding of an alarm so that people would escape it, and the profound love and grace of God in his will that the wicked might escape a terrible fate.
While such claims are often entirely projected onto an eschatological horizon—whether that of history as a whole, or, more typically, of each individual life as it hastens towards the final reckoning of divine judgment following death—Ezekiel’s message also related to more proximate and penultimate horizons of judgment in history and to the particular courses a life might take that would lead a person to their more ultimate destruction. Likewise, the overseeing task of New Testament pastor is characterized by the urgency of ensuring that, in a context fraught with spiritual perils, no soul committed to their charge is left unwarned. The Apostle Paul strongly alludes to the duties of the watchman when, in Acts 20:26-27, he declares: ‘Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.’
The Christian message of the gospel is a message of rich divine grace for the wicked who will turn to a freely offered life, framed by the approaching prospect of fearsome divine judgment for the impenitent. The figure of the watchman or overseer is established by this tension and urgency, by the limited window of opportunity opened up before final judgment by God’s word of grace. The watchman sounds the alarm that arouses the complacent and lethargic to emergency action, but also creates the space of possibility for those who feel crushed by the inevitability of impending fate—there remains hope yet!
The watchman’s role isn’t merely something that is exercised by key office-bearers in relation to the body of the Church: it is also something that must be discharged by the Church and by Christians to the wider society. The watchman must remain highly alert, sober, and vigilant always; the watchman both recognizes and communicates the life-and-death stakes that others are often dulled to.
In a society despairing of hope of change, the watchman alerts people to the remaining yet shrinking windows of opportunity and the fact that, even still, the lifeline of God’s grace is extended to us. In a society that takes its life and security for granted and is complacent in its sins, the watchman warns of the potential imminence of judgment, the perils to which we have blinded ourselves, and the imperative of a change of course. In performing this task, watchmen express their own responsibility to and membership of the society to which they are delivering their warnings.
A combination of fatalism and short-termism renders the task of contemporary ‘watchmen’ especially frustrating: either we are presumed to be inescapably caught up in the inexorable flow of a doomed outworking of inevitable disasters, like a slow-motion car crash, or the extreme cluttering of the foreground of our attention obscures any further horizon. Whether people are warning about the necessity of immediate action to mitigate the effects and the degree of anthropogenic climate change, challenging us to attend to the deteriorating state of our public discourse and political culture, alerting people to the rapid rise of toxic political movements and to the existence of profound social injustices, or exposing the moral, social, and ecological unsustainability of our decadent hedonistic individualism, the response almost invariably seems to display unconcerned indifference or abject futility.
Watchmen must model in their own behavior a radically different and non-fatalistic posture towards circumstances, disclosing through their actions and attitudes both the possibility of change and the urgency of action towards it—grace and hope remains for us still. Only as we are such courageous people will we be able to en-courage others to the action that is so desperately needed. Unfortunately, we are far too often shamefully complicit in the complacency and futility of our culture, indifferent to or despairing of our task as watchmen, unable to alert and urge people to seize the windows of possibility that are open to us.
Irrespective of the response we receive, an essential dimension of our political task as Christians will remain that of acting as faithful watchmen in our societies, bearing responsibility for the lives of our neighbors. We are those who, through God’s calling, owe them our alertness, our sobriety, our attentiveness, our candor, and our resolution. Like Ezekiel, we will face resistance and apathy, but we will only ‘save our lives’ (verse 9) as we tirelessly and courageously call people to turn to God’s graciously extended gift of a way of life and abandon the needless futility of the path of death. Let us stand firm in our posts, conveying in our lives and our words the hopeful urgency of divine grace to a society so often caught in the paralysis of fearful resignation and listless indifference.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.