Life in displacement – the story of a prophet
Chan Chu So Wah Professor (Biblical Studies)
The story of this prophet began in 597 BC.
That year, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and his great army besieged Jerusalem, plundered the Temple, and carried away captive Jehoiachin (who had become king for just three months), his nobles and the upper class of the country. This was the first Babylonian exile of Israel. Then the king of Babylon made Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king of Judah. Although Judah was not completely destroyed, it was gravely ruined. Many still thought the exile was temporary, and they would soon return to their homeland. However, a decade of waiting had passed. In 587 BC, two years after Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, he took the city again. The 400-year-old Davidic Dynasty ended. In 582 BC, the third captivity took place.
The exile not only overturned the Israelites’ belief system, but also initiated their unusual history. Yet, what did it mean to be in exile? Many scholars in the past two decades have approached this subject from different perspectives involving history, archaeology, literature, psychology, theology, sociology and even refugee studies. Their works often use the word ‘displacement’ to describe the situation, that is ‘people being forced to move from their place’. The word includes ‘-place-’ which is distinguished from ‘space’. ‘Place’ is part of our lived, everyday experience. Displacement does not necessarily involve a change in space but there is necessarily a social, cultural and historical shift. The year 597 BC marked the displacement of the Israelites.
In 597 BC, the prophet Ezekiel was carried away to Babylon by the river Chebar. Having stayed there for five years, he realized that his homeland was near destruction. He was already thirty by which age, according to the Israelite tradition, the trained priests should have begun serving in the temple. However, he was disappointed and frustrated because he was located in a foreign and unclean land, helpless against the fact that the kingdom of Israel was coming to an end. But then the LORD revealed Himself to him in the land of exile, and let him see the visions of God, through which He spoke to the Israelites and also to us today.
The first vision that Ezekiel saw was the image of the four living creatures (Eze 1:4- 14). The living creatures each had the faces of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. The lion is the formidable king of beasts, the ox is the biggest and most indispensable of all livestock, the eagle is the most gallant of all birds and man is the most precious in all God’s creation. These living creatures were a combination of His creation of heaven and earth. God showed Ezekiel His incomparable power and authority. The LORD wanted to tell Ezekiel that despite that the displacement seemed to turn his lifetime training to nothing, he still needed to open his eyes and see – not to see his own powerlessness or desperation, but to look at His magnificent power which combined all creation into one and was beyond any human imagination. Today, do we see our own strength or the unfathomable strength of God which is far beyond our expectations?
The second image Ezekiel saw was the wheels (Eze 1:15-21). Here, the action of the wheels is repeatedly mentioned, thus emphasizing the dynamic and the power of their unstoppable movement. Through this image, the LORD showed that He could go wherever He wished without hindrance. Such message countered the local deity concept of ancient Near East culture. The LORD was telling Ezekiel that, in spite of being exiled, God could go anywhere as He wished and the whole earth was under His gaze. We may feel that God is distant from us, but through this image He says to us, “I can be where you are, and nothing can escape my sight.”
The third image was one of the firmament and the throne (Eze 1:22-25). Above the firmament over the living creatures was the likeness of a throne. Sitting on the throne was the indescribable great King. Exile denotes a breakdown of a person’s mission and his value system, but it was exactly where the LORD prepared this supernatural image for those who were exiled and yearned for a return. The image declared that He was the Almighty One. In spite of noises from great waters and armies, and chaos in the world, He remained the sovereign King sitting on His throne.
After the “visions of God”, The LORD sent Ezekiel on an impossible mission: to deliver His message to the people who had been rebelling against Him. Whether they obeyed or refused, Ezekiel only needed to ensure that he proclaimed His words to them (Eze 1:28b-2:7). Ezekiel was to go to Israel the rebellious house, impudent and hard-hearted, and “whether they obey or whether they refuse”, he was to say to them, “Thus says the LORD God”. Ezekiel was made a ‘watchman’ for the house of Israel (Eze 3:16-21), giving them warning from the LORD. He did not need to worry if they accepted the warning and so repented and be saved. His sole concern was whether he had spoken faithfully. Ezekiel’s proclamation was doomed to be futile. Even so, however much the people and the elders had rejected his reproof and would not obey God’s words through him, they went to inquire of Ezekiel again and again, for they were certain that he was a prophet. By speaking faithfully among the exiles, Ezekiel showed himself to be the spokesman for the LORD.
Finally, God commanded Ezekiel to perform a series of sign actions which were hard to understand. Ezekiel had to lay down on his sides (Eze 4:4-8) to show that he was bearing the iniquity of the Israelites. He baked bread with human waste (Eze 4:12- 15), deliberately defiling himself in violation to priestly prohibition, to show that the Israelites were eating unclean food in a foreign land. He followed the command to shave his head (Eze 5:1-2), again violating a priestly prescription (see Lev 21:5), to show the judgment which the Israelites suffered. These sign actions were meant to indicate the fate of the Israelites. For Ezekiel, these actions also demanded him to continually put aside the priesthood that he took pride in, forsaking all that he had, and suffering with the people whom he was told to reproof. Although Ezekiel was not able to change the fact that God would punish the people, they were nonetheless “your people” (Eze 3:11), whom he willingly was in solidarity with and even sacrificed himself for.
In recent years Hong Kong is going through some irreversible changes. The core values which we cherish, such as democracy, freedom, equality and rule of law, are corroded. We are like being exiled and displaced. How are we to respond to such a situation? There is no account of Ezekiel returning home in his lifetime, just as we have no idea when our current state will come to an end, or whether it will end in our days. We can only ask the LORD to reveal to us the “visions of God”, to grant us faith in His sovereignty. And let us pray that He will make us watchmen who will faithfully proclaim what has to be proclaimed, and make us prophets among the people who are willing to be in solidarity with the displaced, even to the point of sacrificing our whole lives for them.
1. Brad E. Kelle, Frank Ritchel Ames, and Jacob L. Wright (eds.), Interpreting Exile: Displacement and Deportation in Biblical and Modern Contexts (Ancient Israel and Its Literature 10; Atlanta: SBL, 2011); John J. Ahn, Exile as Forced Migrations: A Sociological, Literary, and Theological Approach on the Displacement and Resettlement of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (BZAW 417; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011); John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas (eds.), By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of Exile (LBH/OTS 526; London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2012).
2. Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).