A Bitter-Sweet Assignment

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.

“But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. – Ezekiel 2:1-3:3 ESV

Ezekiel had been given a vision of God’s glory, and it left him face down on the ground in reverential fear and wonder. As this exiled young priest stood by the banks of the Kebar River in Babylon, the God of the universe made an unexpected and highly spectacular appearance.

Above this surface was something that looked like a throne made of blue lapis lazuli. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man. From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the Lord looked like to me. – Ezekiel 1:26-28 NLT

It is safe to assume that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Ezekiel. He had never seen anything like this before, and to have the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appear to him in the remote recesses of the land of Babylon must have been a shock to his system. He was just a lowly priest who had been taken captive just like all the other residents of Jerusalem when the city had fallen to King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces.  Jehoiachin was the king of Judah at the time and, according to 2 Kings 12:9, “He did evil in the sight of the Lord as his ancestors had done.” Like most of his predecessors, Jehoiachin chose to use his royal power to promote idolatry that fostered unfaithfulness to God, and he suffered greatly for his refusal to honor the Almighty.

At that time the generals of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched to Jerusalem and besieged the city. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city while his generals were besieging it. King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, his servants, his officials, and his eunuchs surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon, in the eighth year of his reign, took Jehoiachin prisoner. Nebuchadnezzar took from there all the riches in the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and of the royal palace. He removed all the gold items that King Solomon of Israel had made for the Lord’s temple, just as the Lord had warned. He deported all the residents of Jerusalem, including all the officials and all the soldiers (10,000 people in all). This included all the craftsmen and those who worked with metal. No one was left except for the poorest among the people of the land. – 2 Kings 12:10-14 NLT

Living amongst the exiled people of God, Ezekiel had firsthand experience with the apathy and complacency that had taken hold of them. A long way from home and no longer able to avail themselves of the temple and the sacrificial system, they had begun to lose interest in the things of God. Their circumstances had left them feeling abandoned by God and distraught over the far-from-ideal conditions of their captivity. With the passage of time, God had become out of sight, out of mind. They simply assumed He had turned His back on them and so, in time, they gave up hope and determined to make the most of their situation in Babylon.

But God had other plans that included appointing Ezekiel as the one who would deliver His message to the exiles. He had not forgotten about them. They had not been abandoned. Their exile had been intended to get their attention and to bring them to a point of repentance. Now, Ezekiel was going to be commissioned to serve as God’s spokesperson, delivering His call to repentance.

Having gotten Ezekiel’s full attention through the grand display of His glory, God delivered the details of his new assignment.

“I am sending you to the nation of Israel, a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. They are a stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’” – Ezekiel 2:3-4 NLT

God makes it painfully clear that Ezekiel’s new task would not be easy. He would have to deliver a message from God to a people who had a track record of stubbornness and insubordination. And God warns Ezekiel that his audience may not receive his message with open arms.

“And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for remember, they are rebels—at least they will know they have had a prophet among them.” – Ezekiel 2:5 NLT

There was no guarantee that Ezekiel would experience success. Despite the fact that he would be speaking the words of God, he had no way of knowing how the people would respond. In fact, God made it sound like his mission was doomed to certain failure.

What would you do if God called you to a task that He knew you were going to fail at? What if He even told you your efforts would be fruitless and non-productive? Most of us would bail. We would give up long before we got going. Because we’re wired with one thing in mind – success – and failure is not an acceptable alternative. But when Ezekiel got his marching orders from God, he was also given the not-so-great news that his ministry would be unsuccessful because his audience was going to be unresponsive.  God even told Ezekiel to expect threats and animosity. This was going to be one difficult job assignment.

In a sense, God was foreshadowing failure, but demanding obedience. Ezekiel’s success would not be measured by the number of callous, carnal Israelites he converted, but on his willingness to carry out God’s assignment faithfully, even in the face of rejection, ridicule, and poor results.

Even the message God gave Ezekiel to share was anything but good news. In his vision, Ezekiel was given a scroll that was covered with writing front and back, from edge to edge. It’s content?

“Funeral songs, words of sorrows, and pronouncements of doom.” – Ezekiel 2:9b NLT

It was a veritable compendium of bad news. So, not only would Ezekiel have a non-responsive audience, he was given an unappealing message. But God fully understood the foreboding nature of Ezekiel’s assignment, and he knew that Ezekiel was already wrestling with whether to follow through with His command. The young priest was afraid of how he and his message might be received by the people, but God encouraged him to have faith.

“Do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briars and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels.” – Ezekiel 2:6 NLT

God was telling Ezekiel not to be frightened by the things they would threaten to do to him, the harsh words they might say about him, or the negative reaction they would inevitably have to him.

“Son of man, do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briers and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels. You must give them my messages whether they listen or not. But they won’t listen, for they are completely rebellious!” – Ezekiel 2:6-7 NLT

Ezekiel was going to experience resistance. His message would not be well-received and the people would hold him responsible for its content. It was only a matter of time before they sought to kill the messenger. That’s why God warned Ezekiel to refrain from emulating the rebellious nature of his audience. He was not to reject God’s assignment just because it sounded difficult and more than a bit dangerous. God was open and above board as to the difficulty of the mission. He didn’t attempt to sugarcoat the assignment or paint a rosy picture of its outcome. Instead, God gave His newly appointed prophet all he would need to succeed.

“Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth, and eat what I give you.” – Ezekiel 2:8 NLT

God held out a scroll, upon which were written lamentations, mourning, and woes. In other words, it was filled with bad news. The sheer volume of disheartening content was so great that it covered both sides of the scroll. God’s indictment against His people was great and He commanded Ezekiel to consume every last bit of it. He was to take it all in so that he might regurgitate it, word for word, to the disobedient people of God.

“Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” – Ezekiel 3:1 ESV

But much to his surprise, Ezekiel found the less-than-appealing content of the scroll to be “sweet as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:3 ESV). There is a similar scene described in the book of Revelation. In it, the apostle John is given a vision of an angel who descends from heaven with a scroll in his hand. He presents the scroll to John and commands him to eat it.

“Yes, take it and eat it,” he said. “It will be sweet as honey in your mouth, but it will turn sour in your stomach!” So I took the small scroll from the hand of the angel, and I ate it! It was sweet in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it turned sour in my stomach.

Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.” – Revelation 10:9-11 NLT

Both John and Ezekiel would find the words of God to be both sweet and bitter. When the truth of God is consumed, it is pleasant and life-giving, but it can also result in conviction and condemnation.

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. – Hebrews 4:12 NLT

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. – 2 Timothy 3:16 NLT

For Ezekiel, consuming God’s word was sweet to the taste, but declaring it to the people would be a bitter experience. They would find it distasteful and difficult to swallow. But God was calling Ezekiel to be faithful and fearless in declaring its truth regardless of the outcome.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.