In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God. (It happened on the fifth day of the month, in the fifth year after King Jehoiachin’s deportation. The LORD’s word burst in on the priest Ezekiel, Buzi’s son, in the land of Babylon at the Chebar River. There the LORD’s power overcame him.) – Ezekiel 1:1-3 (CEB)
I’ve come back again to the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is not a well-read, much-loved prophet. When I was studying for my Bible content exam, my rule of thumb was if it was crazy, it had to be Ezekiel. When you begin reading Ezekiel, the “crazy” begins right away with Ezekiel’s first vision. I imagine many a faithful reader begins Ezekiel with good intentions, only to be lost in supernatural visions that defy our human understanding. To truly read Ezekiel, you must let go of the need to know and surrender yourself to just enter into it.
With all the crazy, supernatural – yet insightful – words of Ezekiel, the book does begin rather benignly. Ezekiel calls us to remember how God’s people were exiled from the Promised Land for a period of time. While the Assyrians scattered Israel, Babylon intentionally deported the best Judah had to offer. We see this in the story of Daniel and his friends. When Babylon first defeated Judah, they brought the power players back to Babylon and left a puppet government to manage the masses.
Ezekiel was part of this group. We learn in these opening verses that Ezekiel was a priest, therefore he would have had some training and education in Torah and worship. With the aid of a biblical map, we learn that the Chebar River was really a canal of the Euphrates. We would also learn that it is along this canal that many Jews settled in their exile. I think Ezekiel tells us he “was with the exiles at the Chebar River” to remind us that though the community was exiled, it was still a community.
As I read these opening verses, which seem written to locate us in time and place, I was left with questions about my time and place.
Ezekiel begins “in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month.” Scholars don’t know what this means. Some think it might be the period of time since Josiah found the book of the Law (2 Kings 22:8). Some think it might be Ezekiel’s age (Numbers 4:3 says that Levites aged 30 – 50 were to be enrolled and in service to the LORD). Others think it might be the years Ezekiel had been in ministry. Regardless, the first words of Ezekiel are a mystery to us.
After this, though, Ezekiel tells us where he is. Even if we don’t know what the 30th year means, we at least know where we are and who we are with. Lovingly, we’re given a way to place ourselves in the story of this community: “the fifth year after King Jehoiachin’s deportation.”
This brings me to the question: How do we mark time?
We can mark time by our age, or by how long we have been in our current career, or by some other event that occurred in the past. We can mark it based on the community we find ourselves in, how long it has been since we left some place, or how long we find ourselves in the place we are now. However we mark time, we find that time is always relative. Time only makes sense based upon circumstances, events and location. Determining where we are in time requires us to be aware of the people and world around us.
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-2, 4 (NRSV)
So what about this place? As I’ve already mentioned, King Jehoiachin wasn’t the only one who was deported. This helps us to understand that Ezekiel and his community are not just exiled from home – but are also exiled to a place that was not their choosing. God’s Word may be true in every time and place, but the time and place this word is revealed matters.
During exile, Jews still lived in Jerusalem – Jeremiah continued to be a prophet in Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah composes a letter the exiles in Babylon: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)) While we don’t have the date of this letter, we know that the chapter immediately preceding it was in the fifth month of the fourth year of King Zedekiah’s reign (Jeremiah 28:1). This was the puppet king Babylon set up. Therefore, I think we can assume that when Ezekiel is sitting beside the Chebar, the community was aware and contemplating Jeremiah’s letter.
For five years, the exiles had waited. Perhaps the only word they had from Jerusalem is this command to build houses and marry in this foreign land, to pray for this pagan city, to trust that God will bring them home after 70 years. What do you do with this word? Is it true? Wasn’t fraternizing with the pagans what got them into trouble in the first place?
But then these questions come: How far will God go to be with us? How far can God go?
Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean— even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight! – Psalm 139:7-10 (CEB)
It’s in the midst of this that God raises up a prophet in this foreign land.
Even though it may seem that God has been silent for five years, the exiles were never out of God’s presence. Even in exile, we find that God will not be silent. Instead, God “bursts in” and God’s power “overcame” Ezekiel (language geek note: the Hebrew says “the hand of Yahweh was over him” – this seems to be another way to say Psalm 139:10). And in verse 4, we see a manifestation of this in the driving storm, a cloud flashing fire, with brightness all around it. There can be no doubt that God doesn’t simply reach to the exile of Babylon, but God comes in power.
I’m excited to walk with Ezekiel again – straddling the reality of exile with the certain hope of redemption. I’m ready to engage a little crazy and supernatural visions I cannot understand but can only accept. How about you?
In whatever time and place you find yourself in, what marks your time? How have you experienced just how far God will go? In what way is God’s strong hold hand holding you?