“…the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me. Because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.” Ezekiel 3:7-9
Sometimes I forget that being a pastor is not modeling the perfection of American culture’s understanding of virtue. The perfect person in our culture believes what he feels like believing, judges none for believing anything they feel like believing, no matter how ridiculous, and makes no attempt to sway another’s belief system, because to even suggest a person ought to believe differently will shatter the eggshell quality egos of our fellow citizens. We live in a society, and minister in churches, where unflinching, unmoving, hard-headed servants of God are extremely rare, and even when you find them, you’ll probably find they’re highly unwanted.
Now let me get this out of the way right up front, because if I don’t say it, someone will read this and think I don’t realize it: A Pastor is a shepherd. He is gentle, like a nursing mother. He is patient, he is kind. He is compassionate, and weeps with those who weep. He is not a brawler, and not a tyrant. He doesn’t return evil for evil, and he doesn’t take vengeance, but leaves room for the wrath of God.
But I’m very much intrigued by God’s words to His prophet in Ezekiel 3. I think if God were to tell me right up front that my preaching would fall on deaf ears, I wouldn’t even bother. God says the people to whom Ezekiel is going to preach won’t even listen to Him – what’s the use of sending Ezekiel? I think there are two reasons Ezekiel can use as some sort of motivation to keep pressing forward with his calling.
The first is God’s evaluation: “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” Now I can’t think of a single pastor who would wish to hear that evaluation concerning his congregation. But it’s a proper evaluation, because in this case, it’s God’s evaluation. And having been given a correct understanding of the true nature of things, at least Ezekiel knows exactly what he’s up against.
A pastor who preaches only to see no fruit is unquestionably going to fall into discouragement, and for me anyway, generally causes me to turn my gaze inward – if only I had studied more, prayed more, if only I were more gifted in my speaking skills, if only I could develop some meaningful relationships so the people would know I really care about them and actually listen to me, and a hundred other reasons I’m a failure that are so blatantly obvious, not to mention the thousand others that I know are there, I just can’t see them.
But wouldn’t it at least be a little bit helpful to know where God thinks the problems lie? Pastors I think feel almost obligated to come up with a different evaluation than what Ezekiel is given – how could we speak like this about the people of God? How could we say they’re a bunch of hard-headed people who won’t even listen to the voice of God Himself? But I do think it would take some of the results-oriented pressure off of us if we could understand the issue with the clarity of the evaluation of God Himself.
The second reason Ezekiel can plow forward in this ministry is God’s equipment. “I have made your face as hard as their face, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads…” Here is one of the more unusual gifts God may grant his ministers – heads as hard as the heads of those who won’t even listen to God’s own voice. That’s a pretty hard head. It seems that God knows that the only way Ezekiel survives is if his he is as impenetrable as the hearts of those he ministers to. It would seem to indicate that hard-headed people use their hard heads like a bighorn sheep – they don’t just passively ignore God’s servants, they try to butt them out of the way. That’s doubtless why God says, “Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks.” Hard headed people are scary. Those living in rebellion against God are going to use fear and intimidation as their weapon. God is going to give Ezekiel the equipment to deal with it – a head that’s just as hard. Bring it on; you can’t hurt Ezekiel, God gave him a head harder than the heads lowered and charging at him.
I can think of a few times when I’ve thought of this text asked God for a hard head. One of the reasons I’ve had to do that is because those with the most rebellious hearts and hard heads seem to be the ones crying for a softer minister. Those who try to grind a minister into pulp will curse his hardness and plead for tenderness, so the battle can be won more easily. Hard faced people seem to try to mash in the face of the shepherd by telling him he’s not gentle enough. In Ezekiel’s case, God isn’t going to allow his prophet to be softened in the least; on the contrary, He’s hardening him up – harder than flint! John Gill said it this way in his commentary on Ezekiel: “The Lord fits his ministers for the people he sends them to, and gives them courage and strength proportionate to the opposition they meet with; as their day is, their strength is.”
I don’t think any pastor would want to classify his people as a hard-faced people. It seems like a hopeless place to be. But sometimes that’s the correct diagnosis. And why should we be afraid of it? It’s not as though we’re unaware of the ugly power of sin – both in the life of unbelievers pretending to be believers and believers unwittingly fighting for the wrong team. Rebellion isn’t anything new, and for the life of me I can’t understand why it shocks me whenever I see it and why it’s so hard to just call it what it is.
But we may be given a most unexpected weapon when God calls us to speak to the rebellious house – an emery forehead. He gives it to us when we need it; he gives it in grace – grace to his servants, and grace to his hard-headed people. He gives the evaluation, and he gives the equipment to begin the laborious work of softening the flint face, of bringing the rebellious back into compliance. Calvin commented this way, and I give him the last word:
Whoever, therefore, shall acknowledge that God is sufficient for overcoming all obstacles, will gird himself bravely for his work; but he who delays for calculating his own strength is not only weakened but is almost overcome. Besides, we see that we are here instructed in humility and modesty, lest we should claim anything as due to our own strength. Hence it happens, that many are so full, yea so puffed out with confidence, that they bring forth nothing but wind. Hence, let us learn to seek from God alone that fortitude which we need: for we are not stronger than Ezekiel, and if he needed to be strengthened by the Spirit of God, much more do we at this time need it.