Abide: Ezekiel 1–3; 33–34; 36–37; 47
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We are blessed to live in a time of prophets. I define this in two ways. The first is that we are fortunate to live in a time where the priesthood has been restored and that the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks for the Lord under priesthood authority. The second is to live in a time where God conveys His word to use through good people of all faiths or no faith at all. Prophecy, or speaking prophetically, can and must and does happen under the authority of the prophet, but also takes place in how we speak to each other, doing our best to align our wills to God and to care for Their children as They would have us do. We’ll discuss prophecy and much, much more on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
Joseph Stuart: We are blessed to live in a time of prophets. I define the word “prophet” in two ways: the first is that we are fortunate to live in a time where the priesthood has been restored, and that the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks for the Lord, under priesthood authority. The second is to live in a time where God conveys his word for us to use through good people of all faiths, or of no faith at all. Prophesy, or speaking prophetically, can and must happen under the authority of the Prophet, but also takes place in the way that we speak to each other, doing our best to align our wills with God and to care for their children as they would have us do. In short, being prophetic is not only about authority, but about intent and about service. For instance, I often think about President Monson and how he served the members of his ward, especially visiting the widows and those who are sick and think of that in a way that he was being prophetic, far before he was called to be prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We’ll discuss prophecy and much much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.
My name is Joseph Stuart and I’m the public communications specialist in the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for religious scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Institute and each week we discussed the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather to hit on a few key themes from the scripture block, so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and engage the world with religious ideas.
Today, we are joined once again by Julia Evans, one of our research assistants, who’s pursuing a degree in linguistics and preparing to attend law school. Before joining our research team at the Maxwell Institute, Julia worked at the MTC for a year as a Norwegian teacher and then as a training supervisor. Currently, she is also involved in research in several areas of linguistics and has strong interest in religion and philosophy. Welcome back Julia!
Julia Evans: Thank you so much.
Joseph Stuart: It is our pleasure. So Kristian, we’re looking at the book of Ezekiel today. What should we know before we dive in?
Kristian Heal: The Book of Ezekiel is the only prophetic book written from exile. Other prophets wrote about exile or to those in exile, but only Ezekiel prophesied within the Babylonian Empire. Ezekiel was among those exiled to Babylonia by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE. His prophetic activity spans from the fifth year of this exile, in 593, all the way through 571. During this time, the temple was destroyed and Jerusalem razed to the ground and the exiled population increased. Now there are two separate Jewish communities: those that remained in Judea, and those in exile in Babylonia. Ezekiel’s writings give us some sense of the formation of Jewish identity outside of the land, and identity forged against the backdrop of the seeming failure of all of God’s promises to Israel. The book is divided into three sections: the first section, chapters 1-24 are oracles of impending judgment, given to his ego before the destruction of the temple, and the city of Jerusalem. They’re arranged in chronological order, and this chronological order continues in chapters 33-48, with some exceptions. These chapters contain oracles given to the Prophet in response to the destruction of the temple, including restoration prophecies in chapters 33-39 and ending with the vision of the future temple and chapters 40-48. The middle of the book, chapters 25-32, is composed of topically organized oracles directed to the nations surrounding the land of Israel and to Egypt. We’re used to seeing these in Jeremiah and other books. Ezekiel’s prophecies transcended the temporal boundaries of the Babylonian exile and the return of Israel under the Persian Empire. His prophecies of restoration and the future temple seem to point to further targets. For example, the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 And the battle of Gog and Magog and chapters 38 and 39, are usually read in an eschatological context. These are last days’ events, and Ezekiel is rightly counted among those Old Testament prophets. People saw so much more of the history of Israel than their immediate future. These tend to be the portions of the book that were especially interested in Latter-day Saints.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that Kristian. In reading Ezekiel, I was really struck by the idea of how many things outside of the ordinary are happening. Lots of interaction between heaven and earth, for instance, visions and other examples of spiritual gifts that aren’t especially common today and weren’t especially common back then either. Is this unique to the book of Ezekiel?
There is lots of Ezekiel that is unusual. And this is certainly a strange book in some ways. Ezekiel as a prophet, enacting his prophecies acting out prophecies is often doing very strange things, things that we don’t expect prophets to be doing today. And so as you read through Ezekiel, you see all sorts of interesting things that he’s up to. It is a book which makes us feel that we’re in a slightly different space in terms of a prophetic book. One of the ways that it does this is in this opening chapter. We’re used to call narratives and prophets, with the way that Isaiah is called in Isaiah chapter 6, where he sees the heavenly throne, Jeremiah’s call, and other calls. So we’re used to prophets having some kind of visionary experience. But what we have in the opening of Ezekiel, and in other places in the book, is this marvelous description of the chariots and I want to focus in a little bit on this, and connect, I suppose, the reading of is equal to the my early academic life, when as an undergraduate in University College London, I took courses in early Jewish mysticism. Jumping off point, so let me explain. So I tend to focus in this podcast on the narrative of the Bible, something which I really love and which is so compelling, and on its overarching structure and on the themes of individual books. But the Bible also works on a micro-level. So we’re used to thinking about the big message of the books. But often, when we read the Bible, the thing which strikes us, that moves us, that shapes us, is a single verse or a single image that we can carry with us. And that can really shape and form our mental framework, our religious worldview, and so on and so forth. Individual verses can sometimes contain worlds, and individual images can fire the imagination for centuries, but one of these images is the chariot or throne, that’s described in the first chapter of Ezekiel. It’s not actually called a chariot in Ezekiel, but it is in the book of Chronicles. And within the tradition, this is seen as a chariot because of these wheels within wheels. It’s a spectacular vision, and I almost want to sort of read the whole thing out loud. But go ahead and read it yourself, you can press pause, and read this chapter all over again, it’s marvelous and one in which we find ourselves lost in the images. Because everything, everything, everything is unfamiliar, there’s no heavenly throne room, like we find in Isaiah no sort of lovely, accessible image of God. What there is, is something that almost looks like something out of science fiction. And in fact, people have connected this vision to an alien spaceship. There’s whirring and there’s figures with strange faces, and there’s clouds, and there’s noises, and there’s all kinds of interesting things going on.
Joseph Staurt: I was really surprised when I began to study the Nation of Islam, to realize that they also use the book of Ezekiel to great effect, and that the imagery is not only relevant in a Jewish or a Christian context, but also in a Muslim context.
Kristian Heal: That’s fascinating. This is potent stuff that we’re dealing with here. So in the context of Ezekiel’s prophecies, the image in the opening chapters should be read alongside other passages in the book, such as chapters 10 and 11. And thus understood as a sign that the Lord’s presence has departed the Jerusalem temple. This is what seems to be conveyed in approximate context, in Ezekiel’s context, by this vision. The presence of the Lord was in the temple but with the conquering of the land, and Nebuchadnezzar’s sort of victory, and this initial wave of exile, the presence of the Lord has been removed, the land has been defiled and Ezekiel is very concerned about purity. And this departure suggests dire consequences. In Ezekiel’s view with the defiling of the temple and the departure of the Lord’s presence, the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple was almost inevitable, it’s just the next bad thing that’s likely to happen. This first chapter of Ezekiel, so in addition to what the work that it does, in Ezekiel’s time, as this chapter is read in Jewish tradition, it becomes the focus of a Jewish mystical tradition in the Second Temple, and in the late antique tradition.
Joseph Staurt: Now you’ve mentioned mysticism and mystical tradition. How would you define that?
Kristian Heal: So, I like this definition that one scholar uses to define mysticism. Mysticism is the type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense and living stage. That’s a scholar called Rufus Jones and he’s quoted in a wonderful book by Gershom Scholem, called Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, and this is the first book anyone should read who’s interested in the Jewish mystical tradition. Gershom Sholem shares the major trends in Jewish mysticism. Now in the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas defined mysticism as a kind of experiential knowledge of God, obtained through living experience. Such Christian mystics saw this experience explained in Psalms 34:9 which caused the reader to taste and see how good the Lord is. This verse, Psalms 34:9 is one of those individual verses that contains worlds within it. Taste and see how good the Lord is. The desire for this experience of God is the essence of mysticism. “It is this tasting and seeing” says Gershom Sholem, the founding scholar of Jewish mysticism really, “that the genuine mystic desires.” This is the thing it is the desire to enter into the presence, as the prophets described it, to encounter the divine, whether in or out of the body, it makes no difference.
Joseph Stuart: So how does this relate to Ezekiel chapter one?
Kristian Heal: So the vision that inspired generations of Jewish seekers was is Ezekial’s vision of the heavenly chariot, found in this opening chapter. This vision was so vivid, and God’s throne so strange, and so tangible, that it made believers want to see it too, to want to ascend to the seventh heaven like Paul, and to see and taste the glory of God. And so they set about trying to do this, to find ways in which they could experience an ecstatic vision. They sought this out, what can we do to engage to see what Ezekiel saw as Gershom Sholem tells us, the earliest Jewish mystics who formed an organized fraternity in Talmudic times and later, so this is an organized and deliberate group, speak of the ascent of the soul to the celestial throne where it obtains an ecstatic view of the majesty of God, and the secrets of his realm. This reminds us, I think, of those opening chapters of the Book of Abraham. These will seekers after righteousness, who wanted to gain greater knowledge, so they could be great to seekers after righteousness. This chapter of scripture seems to be the point at which the veil between heaven and earth was thin. A means through which one was able to call down the powers of heaven, as it were. David Halperin, another great scholar of this tradition, gives an example of this. He says when Rabbi Eliezer Ben Arach expanded Ezekiel chapter 1 in Rebbi Yohannes presence, “Fire descended from heaven and surrounded them. Angels came leaping before them, like a wedding party rejoicing before a bridegroom” so they’re surrounded by these angels. “an angel spoke from the midst of the fire, as you have expounded, Eliezer Ben Arach, thus is Ezekiel chapter 1.” This is sort of high stakes exegesis. Here are these rabbis together, two or three gathered together, looking at this particular chapter, expounding it, describing its meaning, and in that process, drawing down, pulling down, inviting down these angels to come and have this mystical experience. Now, some experiences of these rabbis are described in the so-called “Hekhalot literature”. This is referring to the Hekhalo, the temple or palaces, referring to the Temple of palaces in which God lives and these are the places where God is encountered in these heavenly ascents, so they’re trying to ascend up the to these thrones thinking about these chapters, using these things as a means to do this. And such mystical quests, however, are not without their perils. And so rabbis prohibited the faithful to study the passage alone. This was not something that one should sort of engage in by oneself. In the famous story of the four who entered paradise, for example, Rabbi Akiva, the great first century rabbi says, “We were four who entered paradise, one peered in and died, one peered in and was struck down, one peered in and cut the plants.” This is obscure, what the Hebrew says, It is not clear what it means. “I entered safely, and went both safely. Why did I enter safely and go forth safely?” He asked, “not because I was greater than my associates, but my works accomplished for me to establish what the sages taught in their mishnah: “your work shall bring you near, and your work shall take you far away.”” So here we have the idea. We have four people who are gathered around to have some kind of mystical experience, and three of them either go mad or die, and only one of them makes it through because of his, it would seem preparation, his spiritual and intellectual preparation. It is important, as Joseph Smith also warned, to be prepared when encountering the things of God. Remember that lovely quotation, Joseph said “The things of God are of deep import and time and experience in careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, oh man, if thou will lead a soul unto salvation must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and the broad expanse of eternity, thou must commune with God.”
Joseph Stuart: So seeking after these mystical events, maybe in a Latter-day Saint context might be thought of as pursuing spiritual gifts. Does that metaphor work or is it hand-handed?
Kristian Heal: So, I think in our spiritual worldview, we Latter-day Saints often assume that such visions as those experienced by the rabbi’s or by Ezekiel are things that happen to prophets, rather than things that happen to ordinary believers or indeed things that ordinary believers should seek. In fact, some might argue that our religion does not have a mystical tradition in this sense of seeking and tasting the things of God. We, of course, seek both the spirit, we seek guidance from the spirit, but to see angels to enter into the presence of God actively, to be taught by heavenly instruction. So this sounds like something from the Kirtland period, not something from 2021 Provo, yet it seems that there are in our roots, these kinds of traditions and these kinds of promises. Doctrine and Covenants 93:1 for example, states that, “Verily, thus saith, the Lord is will come to pass that every soul who forsaketh his sins, and cometh unto me and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face, and know that I am.” This is the tasting and seeing that’s at the heart of the mystical tradition. Another example is found in the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon, where Nephi, after hearing the words of his father’s vision, “was desirous also that I might see and hear and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all who diligently seek him.” Nephi wanted to taste and see and suggests that anyone can: “for he that diligently seeketh shall find”, he says, “and the mysteries of God should be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times, as in the times of old, and as well in times of orders in times to come. Therefore, the course of the Lord is One Eternal round.”
Joseph Staurt: Keeping this in mind from ancient texts as well as modern scriptural texts, what could the average Latter-day Saint take away from this?
Kristian Heal: This is a good question, because we’ve been sort of sailing with Ezekiel’s chariot, in our minds at this point. And it’s all very exciting and heady. But how does it actually relate to us, as Latter-day Saints? What can we take from this, if anything, what should we take from it? I think, first of all, we recognize as Latter-day Saints, that the object of the restoration is indeed to prepare us to enter into the presence of God. This is done through many means. But most deliberately, in the temple endowment ceremony. As Brigham Young said, “Your endowment is to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words and signs and tokens pertaining to the holy priesthood, and gain your exaltation in spite of Earth and hell.” So, the whole purpose of our religion, this restoration, this project that Joseph Smith engaged in, the angels coming to earth and priesthood being restored, and all of this is to enable us as Latter-day Saints to enter back into the presence of God. D&C 93 suggests that that can be done sooner rather than later. But all of us at some point, are going to pass through the veil, and at that point, enter into the presence of God. So that’s the first point. Our religion is one in which we are preparing to enter back into the presence of God. Secondly, it’s clear that we are also invited to seek the Lord on a personal basis, to cultivate our relationship, to purify our lives, and keep His commandments. And as we do, we are promised that he will appear to us. It seems that these experiences are deeply personal and sacred, as is that personal, mystical journey back into the presence of our Heavenly Parents. So, we want to cultivate an active spiritual life. And I think one of the most wonderful guides and somebody worth spending time on this is Elder Richard G. Scott, who really sought to help develop in the saints, this experience of communing with God and learning to receive revelation, to act upon revelation and to receive more. Finally, I think we learned from this that we’re not alone in this journey. Many of God’s children hear His voice and seek His face. Many believers desire to taste and see. So we’re part of a community of seekers from many different traditions. And to learn more about these fellow travelers, we can read from their experiences of encountering God and that I think is worth doing.
Joseph Stuart: We’ll include the citation to that quote in the show notes, which you can sign up for at mi.byu.edu and look for the sign up for our newsletter tab. Now, Julia did any phrases or verses in particular stick out to you as you were reading Ezekiel in preparation for this podcast?
Julia Evans: Yes, absolutely. I feel like with these episodes, there’s always something that many Latter-day Saints kind of know already and relate with. And that’s what I usually find that I relate with, or stands out to me initially. But I think this passage in Ezekiel 11 is very powerful. This is like Ezekiel 11, verses 19-20. It talks about the Lord and His people, how he will give them an entirely new heart. It’s interesting, we talk a lot about the Lord changing our hearts, you know, that idea from the Book of Mormon and things like that. But I think this metaphor is very cool, where he says, I will take out the stony heart from you and put in a heart of flesh. My mission leader Patrice Tu, he talked about this idea frequently. And she would often ask us a question, how is your heart? And just look into our souls, and it was so cool, that really impacted me.
Joseph Staurt: So why do you think that I’d had such a great impact on you?
Julia Evans: Maybe it’s part of just who I am as someone who whether or not like I’m a good scholar, I’m very intellectual, right? I like to understand things and sort of see why with my mind. But it made me realize that no matter how scholarly we are, our heart is a big part of the equation when it comes to building a relationship with God.
Joseph Staurt: Yeah, certainly. It’s something that I love working at the institute, to speak with those who have the pedigree academically, but also whose hearts are so open and willing to serve others. So I’m curious, Julia, how would you respond to someone who said, “I’m looking for someone who is learning to balance the scholarly and the faithful?” What sort of advice would you offer to them?
Julia Evans: Something that’s helped me is something a friend actually told me, she said, one of her religion professors said that science will give you the how, and the when, and religion tells you the who and the why. So, I really loved that, because it made the Bible and other parts of religion makes sense that maybe weren’t clear from a very, like empirical or academic standpoint, but just kind of focusing on the relational aspects of the gospel has been super helpful for me, and realizing that God is a person and he wants to help us, he wants to relate with us. And we can relate with him as well.
Joseph Staurt: Yeah, I think that it also takes a certain amount of humility to recognize that having a fleshy heart is having an exposed heart. It’s having a heart that is open to change, or open to impressions. I’m wondering if this is a way of thinking about who to trust or how to trust as well?
Julia Evans: That’s a really good question. It’s interesting in Ezekiel as well, there’s a part of her talks about prophets and false prophets and then also, I guess, real prophets, true prophets. And it describes in Ezekiel 13, foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and prophecy out of their own hearts. And so my question, I guess, reading this was, is it foolish to trust only yourself? In answering your question, should we trust people who only trust themselves? There’s this proverb that suggests that where no counsel is, the people fall. But in the multitude of counselors, there is safety. And that’s Proverbs 11:14. I love that. I love this idea in religion and other contexts as well. I think it applies to science nicely, but that we are safer with other people in the company of other people and receiving the counsel of others. I think there’s something innate and just really powerful about us depending on each other as human beings. We’re the animal species, after all, that depend on each other to most to survive, literally, which is kind of cool. But I think, in this world of really complex human relationships, we can include our trust in God in that sort of relational realm, that he’s a person. We can trust him.
Joseph Staurt: Also, brings to mind President M. Russell Ballard’s wonderful book Counseling with our Councils and thinking about not only involving God in our decision making process, but other people who rely on God. And essentially, with our powers combined, we seek revelation as a group and trusting the Lord through trusting each other. And I guess a peek behind the curtain, we record these well before they come out. But Julia, you’ll be working for FSY this summer as a session coordinator. Has anything stood out to you about the theme this year, which is based on the Old Testament passage, and found in Proverbs to “trust in the Lord”.
Julia Evans: Yeah, I love that question. I think the first thing that stands out is that that applies just as much or more to the people kind of running the camps, behind the scenes and to the youth themselves. I don’t know about more, but definitely to us as well. But second of all, as I was kind of thinking about this theme a couple of weeks ago, I remembered something that I learned about CTR rings, which is kind of a funny comparison, but in the church, people often wear CTR rings which stands for “choose the right.” I don’t even know if I heard or thought of it myself. I mean, I probably just heard somewhere that CTR could also stand for “choose to rely” on Jesus Christ. And I really loved that, especially as someone who’s sort of a recovering perfectionist. Like the idea of the mandate, choosing the right seemed a little bit overwhelming or unattainable for me as someone who wanted to actually do it. But then the call to rely on Jesus Christ I think includes the very important idea of being obedient, but also encourages us to view our discipleship as a path to become more like God rather than an idea, or a place, a stage, to perform the right actions and behaviors.
Joseph Stuart: And that’s the perfect place for us to end this week. Have a blessed week y’all. Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast? And follow us on social media at @BYUMaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu, thank you and have a great week.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)