The life of an Old Testament prophet was not easy. A reading of the Old Testament reveals the problems and the challenges the prophets faced as they proclaimed the word they had received from Yahweh to a people who refused to listen.
The Rejection of the Prophets
When God sent Jeremiah to speak to a rebellious people, God told Jeremiah how disappointed he was with his people. God told Jeremiah, “my people have forgotten me, days without number” (Jeremiah 2:32). God also said, “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good” (Jeremiah 4:22). The reason for the people’s rebellion was because they were an “evil people, who refuse to hear my words” (Jeremiah 13:10). Another reason for the people’s rebellion was because of the preaching of the false prophets. God told Jeremiah that the false prophets “plan to make my people forget my name” (Jeremiah 23:27).
Jesus had much to say about the problems that prophets faced in their ministry to the people. Jesus said that in the past, the people of Israel “persecuted the prophets” (Matthew 5:12). Jesus said that the people also shed the blood of the prophets by murdering them (Matthew 23:29–31). This is the reason Jesus said that the only place a prophet is not honored is in his hometown and in his own house (Matthew 13:57).
The author of the book of Hebrews also writes about the problems the prophets had in ministering to the people. He wrote, “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of . . . the prophets who . . . suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, [and] tormented” (Hebrews 11:32–38).
The Call of Ezekiel
The prophet Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to a rebellious people. When God called Ezekiel to the prophetic ministry, God told him, “Son of man, I am sending you to the people of Israel. They are people from a nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have rebelled against me to this day” (Ezekiel 2:3).
God’s words to Ezekiel spelled trouble. Ezekiel was about to find out how difficult his work would be. The first section of the book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1 to 25, reflects the ministry of Ezekiel before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. A careful reading of these chapters reveals that Ezekiel had to do many difficult things to show the people in captivity what would happen to Jerusalem and to the people living in the city when the city was captured.
When God revealed himself to Ezekiel, God told the prophet what to expect as he faced the rebellious people. God told Ezekiel,
I am sending you to these defiant and stubborn children. Tell them, “This is what the Almighty LORD says.” Whether these rebellious people listen or not, they will realize that a prophet has been among them. Son of man, do not be afraid of them or the things they say. Do not be afraid, even though briers and thorns are around you and you live among scorpions. Do not let the things they say frighten you. Do not be terrified in their presence, even though they are a rebellious people (Ezekiel 2:4–6).
Four times in Chapter 2 the Lord says that Israel is “a rebellious people.” This expression declares that the people of Israel had been an obstinate and stubborn people, a people who were hostile to God and hostile to the message of God’s prophets. The people’s opposition to Ezekiel was at the same time a reflection of the people’s opposition to God.
The Ministry of Ezekiel
The ministry of Ezekiel would be difficult because God was sending him to a defiant and stubborn people. It was because of their stubbornness that they were in exile in Babylon. When God sent Jeremiah to tell the people to repent and change their ways, the people told Jeremiah, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil hearts” (Jeremiah 18:12).
God also told Ezekiel that he had to be faithful in proclaiming the message he was about to receive. Proclaim the message, he was told, “whether these rebellious people listen or not.” It would be through his faithfulness in discharging his ministry that the rebellious and stubborn people would know that “a prophet has been among them.” “This is the first of several hints in the book that Ezekiel’s prophetic status was in doubt” (Carvalho 2016:14).
Ezekiel had to proclaim the message he had received from God. God encouraged Ezekiel not to be afraid of the people and not to be afraid of their words. Ezekiel would be attacked and criticized by the people in response to his message. God was preparing the prophet for the painful treatment he would receive at the hands of a rebellious people.
The words Ezekiel uses for “briers and thorns” appears only here in the Old Testament. Briers and thorns pierce and wound those who touch them. In the Old Testament, briers and thorns are used to describe the people who reject the message of God and his prophets. “But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand” (2 Samuel 23:6). “For wickedness burned like a fire, consuming briers and thorns; it kindled the thickets of the forest, and they swirled upward in a column of smoke” (Isaiah 9:18)
The words of God to Ezekiel reveal that he will not be successful in convincing the people with his message. The people are compared to “scorpions.” and their rebellion is compared with the stinging of scorpions.
The opposition of the people and their rejection of his message would be painful to Ezekiel. God compares the pain of this rejection and the people’s hurtful words to “living among scorpions.” To help Ezekiel deal with the rejection and the stubbornness of the people, God will make Ezekiel’s face “as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads” (Ezekiel 3:8). “Two irreconcilable worldviews will collide and the prophet will take the onslaught” (Meier 2014:205).
The work of the ministry is as challenging today as it was in the days of the Old Testament prophets. Those who speak on behalf of God must be sure of their call before confronting today’s secular society. Ministers must hear from God, receive the divine message, and then be obedient to God’s voice and faithfully proclaim that message.
At times, ministers, like Ezekiel, must live among scorpions. Those who rage against God and are critical of those who faithfully proclaim the word of God are people who, like scorpions, wound, torment, and kill.
Ministers who speak on behalf of God also minister to rebellious people. Ministers who offer superficial treatments for the people’s mortal wounds, who give assurances of peace when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14), are like the false prophets, of whom Jeremiah spoke. Ministers who “go about uttering empty falsehoods” (Micah 2:11) make themselves partakers of the people’s guilt.
In his book, God in Search of Man, Abraham Heschel writes about the “misery and darkness” Ezekiel would face in discharging his prophetic ministry. Heschel writes,
almost every true prophet begins with a message of doom, and only after long periods of misery and darkness is he able to speak of the dawn and to proclaim a message of hope.
Bitter is the taste of the divine word to the prophet’s soul; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper it. In the very hour when the call first came to Ezekiel, he was told what to expect: it will be as though briars and thorns were with him, as though he dwelt among scorpions (Heschel 1976:225).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Carvalho, Corrine L. and Paul V. Niskanen. Ezekiel, Daniel. New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Heschel, Abraham J. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
Meier, Samuel A. Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.