Chris Green’s introduction to the theology of Robert W. Jenson, The End is Music, persuaded me to finally begin rereading the Book of Ezekiel, accompanied by Jenson’s Brazos commentary, shockingly titled Ezekiel. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have not read it cover to cover since my days in seminary. To a large extent my reading of the Old Testament has been limited to the passages appointed in the lectionary; and of those I’ve always found the stories more interesting and spiritually helpful than the words of the prophets (don’t judge me too harshly). Back when I was rector of St Mark’s Church in Highland, Maryland, I preached on the Book of Genesis, spread out over several years. A few folks still remember my homilies on Abraham, Jacob (“Jake the snake”), and Joseph. I was inspired to take up this task by a series of lectures given by Elizabeth Achtemeier at the Virginia Theological Seminary, as well as by her book Preaching From the Old Testament. I love preaching the stories of the Old Testament, but I have never been able to figure out how to preach the prophets. I deem this a failing of some sort. In any case, I am very interested to see how a dogmatic theologian like Jenson reads a prophet through gospel-eyes, in contrast to the ways commended by the critical-historical method. While I’d like to say that my goal is to read a chapter or two a day, I know I wouldn’t keep that commitment. Two or three chapters a week is probably more reasonable for a sinner like myself. I hope that my reading will feed into my blogging. That’s the curse that goes with being a blogger: it’s hard to read anything, even the Word of God, without always thinking, “What can I write about what I’ve just read.” I probably won’t be blogging on every chapter (audible sigh of relief from the audience). Also, I expect to quote a lot of Jenson. He’s going to teach us how to read the Old Testament as revelation of Christ.
The prophet Ezekiel introduces himself:
In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (Ezek 1:1)
To be given a vision by God is to see something of the way things are, a “looking at something,” as Jenson puts it (p. 33). God is both the giver of the revelation and its content. We must not make the mistake of thinking that a vision is about the inner psychology of the prophet, though that is surely how we moderns might prefer to think of them. Our modern prejudice is just that, says Jenson, a prejudice:
If there is the God of scripture, he sees himself and his creation, including heaven, as they truly are; and if we are the fallen creatures that Christian theology describes, we on both counts do not. If then we are to see things rightly, this can happen only if God shows it to us and in such fashion as to penetrate our dim sight. We must suppose that there are many ways in which God can do this: the “we” who according to Paul now do “see,” even if “darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12), certainly included many faithful who lacked overt visionary experience and saw divine truth in other ways. But if for certain purposes or times God employs visions, we must allow him that choice—which still of course leaves the question of how to tell when he has done this. (p. 34)
The heavens opened to him, Ezekiel tells us. This immediately raises the question: What is heaven? This question has been discussed in depth by Christian theologians:
In the theological tradition, heaven is the part of creation that the Creator has made as his own place within his creation. Apart from creation, God is not in any place but simply is his own place; therefore for him the creation is merely a single other place. But if he is not only to create others than himself, but to live with these creatures, he must have a place within the place made for them, from which to come and go with them. “Heaven” is that part of creation. And what is in heaven besides God is the present reality with God of the future that his history with creatures intends, the divine present tense of “the kingdom of God” and of what “must come before” it. Ezekiel’s report fits very well with this tradition. (p. 33)
I like the way Jenson phrases it: heaven is God’s place within his creation. Clearly we are not talking about a place of which the physicists might speak, a specifiable point on the map of timespace. Heaven, rather, is the transcendent yet all very near Temple where God makes himself available to his creatures, “from which to come and go with them.” The figurative nature of this language is patent; no further demythologization is needed. And note: not only is God in heaven, but so also is his coming Kingdom. Heaven “up there” is identical to the New Creation. Those who have read Jenson before will not be surprised by this claim. For prophets of hope, eschatology determines eternity.
Ezekiel also tells us that he was given visions of God. Another question rises: How can we see the transcendent, ineffable Deity? Isn’t he, by his very nature, beyond our sight? “You cannot see my face,” the LORD warned Moses on Mt Sinai; “for man shall not see me and live” (Exod 33:20). This is a question that Jenson will address later in his commentary, but here are his initial thoughts:
Vision becomes especially problematic when the object is supposed to be God. Can one see God? The doctrine of the Trinity says that we can, in that the second person of God is a particular man, Jesus the Christ, who can of course be seen: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But without the identification of God as triune, the matter becomes highly problematic. Thus the Targum glosses “visions of God” with “a vision of the glory of the Shekinah of the Lord,” putting not one but two intermediaries between God himself and what is seen. We will, to be sure, shortly (1:25–28b) need to consider just what sort of intermediary each is. (p. 34)
Are you prepared for Ezekiel’s first vision?