Ezekiel 33

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Ezekiel chapters 18 and 33 serve similar thematic and structural functions within the book as a whole.[1]The call to personal righteousness in order to "live" and the call to repent amidst questions of God's justice first presented in chapter 18 are reviewed in chapter 33 in almost verbatim fashion.[2] However, chapter 33 introduces another idea not found in chapter 18: in Ezek. 33:1-9, God reviews Ezekiel's call to be a watchman or sentinel for the nation as first established in chapter 3.[3] Like a watchman at the city gate, responsible for warning the city's inhabitants of enemy threat, Ezekiel is personally responsible for proclaiming God's impending judgment and encouraging repentance in order to relieve himself of blame:

So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life (Ezek. 33:7-9).

This is an important addition to the call to righteousness introduced in Ezekiel 18 and recalled in chapter 33 on the eve of Jerusalem's destruction (Ezek. 33:21-22). God requires the sentinel to play an important role in the appeal to individual and corporate righteousness by taking personal responsibility and ownership of the exiles' repentance.

We are to identify not only with Ezekiel's audience (Ezekiel 18) but also with Ezekiel himself. We accept the God-given task of calling others to live justly and return to a right relationship with God. In the Old Testament, a few individuals were called to be prophets with the mandate to bring God's word home to his people. But as members of the new covenant, all Christians are called to the prophet's job. The prophet Joel foresaw this when he spoke God's word thus, "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions" (Joel 2:28). The apostle Peter announced this as a present reality on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33).[4]

The prophetic responsibility of all Christians yields several lessons for a theology of work and bears on our witness in the workplace. God calls each of us to take personal responsibility for the fate of others. We are to be sentinels in our own right as we hold ourselves accountable for the people around us. Not only are their lives at stake; ours are as well (Ezek.33:9).

This does not come to us naturally in an age and culture that cherishes individualism. But God will indeed hold us accountable for the righteous living of others. In terms of the workplace, this means that Christians bear personal responsibility to work for justice in their workplaces. This raises a few questions we may want to ask ourselves about this responsibility. For example:

  • Are we speaking God's words to people we work with? Christians in every workplace observe — and feel pressure to participate in — things we know are not compatible with God's Word. Do we put God's truth above the apparent comfort of fitting in? This is not a call to shrill judgmentalism at work, but it may mean standing up for the person being scapegoated for the department's failure, or being the first to vote in favor of dropping a misleading advertising campaign. It could mean admitting your own role in perpetrating an office conflict or voicing confidence that writing an honest performance review will ultimately be worth the pain it seems to incur. These are ways of speaking God's words to others at work.
  • Is our life an illustration of God's message? We communicate not only in words but in actions. Throughout his ministry, Ezekiel was literally a walking, visual illustration of God's promises and judgments. A Silicon Valley CFO was asked by her CEO to "find" $2 million of additional profit to add to the quarterly report due in one week. The CFO knew it would require inaccurately categorizing certain expenses as investments, and certain investments as revenues. During the week she happened to have her monthly meeting with other Christian CFOs. They gave her the courage to stand up to her CEO. On the day the report was due, she told the CEO, "Here is the report with the additional $2 million of profit as you requested. It might even be legal, but it's not truly accurate. I can't sign it, so I know you will have to fire me." Her CEO's response? "If you won't sign it, then I won't either. I depend on you to know what you're doing. Bring me the original accurate report and we'll issue that and take our lumps for not meeting forecast profitability."[5] In both her words and actions this CFO illustrated living according to God's word, and that influenced the CEO to do the same.

Ezekiel 33 demonstrates that while each individual is called to personal righteousness, prophets are also responsible to warn fellow exiles to act rightly. The sentinel metaphor in Ezekiel 33 reflects God's expectation for our vested interest in the life of others within our working world. This sets the stage for a similar idea in the next chapter where the metaphor changes.

See Preston Sprinkle, "Law and Life: Leviticus 18.5 in the Literary Framework of Ezekiel,"Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 31:3 (2007),  275-93.

Cf. esp., 18:21-22 / 33:14-16; 18:23 / 33/11; 18:24 / 33:12-13; 18:25-29 / 33:17-20.

Cf. esp., 3:17-19 / 33:7-9.

For more on this, see R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 169-173.

Reported to the Executive Editor of the Theology of Work Project on the condition of anonymity.