By Archie England, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at NOBTS
Question: What was the responsibility of the Old Testament watchman – Ezekiel 33 – and is this task still operative today?
Archie England responds: God informed Ezekiel that Israel needed a watchman (Ezek 33:1-6). Good watchmen would see the coming danger and sound the alarm; bad watchmen would fail to see or sound the early warning. Whereas God would require the blood of all who perished from the negligent watchman, the diligent watchman would not be held accountable.
God appointed Ezekiel as a watchman. And that made sense, because Ezekiel lived during the final turbulent days of Babylon’s invasion and conquest of Israel. But God’s task for Ezekiel was not watching for the coming Babylonians. No! God required Ezekiel to sound a prophetic warning against sin. To illustrate why this warning is necessary, Ezekiel addresses two particular groups of sinners, the thoroughly wicked and the mostly righteous. The first group has nothing but the mercy of God to hope for, and God offered it – when they would turn from sin to God. The second group has a lifetime of past righteous deeds. The prophet warns that these are not enough! Past deeds cannot impact present circumstances. A righteous sinner is still a sinner. God’s watchman must sound the alarm for both kinds of sinners, or he will be held accountable for their death.
God, however, wanted something further from His watchman: Not only should Ezekiel sound the alarm but he should also reason with Israel so as to convince them to turn from their wickedness. Given the finality of death, which is made clear in 33:8 (the certain death of the wicked), God desired that His watchmen have His same passion and compassion for those soon to perish. The prophets must warn the “wicked to turn from his way,” because God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (33:8,11). Thus, repeatedly throughout Ezekiel 18 and 33 God commands Israel to repent (“turn away” or “turn back”). God loves even His wicked children and desires for them to turn from their iniquity – and live!
The task of the watchman is an analogy that shows us the heart of God, who takes no pleasure in a person’s death. God desires life for His creation. To enjoy this life, people must repent and turn to God. God will not allow such evil to flourish. God’s judgment will make that painfully clear. Now is the time for His righteous servants to stand and sound the warning – judgment is coming. Like Ezekiel’s watchman, Christians today bear the task of showing the world God’s heart: repent, return, and be restored to life eternal – or forever endure death.
Archie England Ph.D. is director of the Baptist College Parnership and Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, occupying the J. Wash Watts Chair of Old Testament and Hebrew at NOBTS.