Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.
Ezekiel is full of terrifying words from God. For the prophet Ezekiel, they often have a double edge to them: not only are they awful words of judgement on Israel for their rebellion and apostasy, but he is charged with speaking them to a stiff-necked people, hard-headed and hard-hearted, who do not want to listen to God’s word (cf. Ezek 3:4-7). God grants Ezekiel a hardness of his own to match that of his hearers, but this is still one of the toughest jobs around—Ezekiel here must warn God’s people of his impending judgement, so that they might turn away from the evil they’ve been doing.
Watchmen, or guards, have a reasonably obvious role: to act as a lookout to warn of coming danger. Normally they would be appointed by the people, but Ezekiel is chosen by God for this role. The job of the watchman was not to watch over the people, but to watch out for the enemy and tell the people about it—which leaves us with the stunning situation that in this instance, God is the enemy of Israel. Given what we discover about what Israel was like through the book of Ezekiel, not to mention the rest of their history, it’s not surprising that God was angry, but the description of the all-powerful creator as the enemy of Israel is still, as I said, a terrifying word.
Ezekiel’s job was simply to pass on the message. Over the next several verses a variety of different possibilities are laid out concerning Ezekiel’s action or inaction, and the response of his hearers. If he hears from God a message to the wicked, “You shall surely die”, and doesn’t warn that wicked man, when that man faces his judgement God will hold Ezekiel responsible (v. 18). If, however, he passes the message on, even if the wicked man doesn’t repent, Ezekiel will have delivered his own soul (v. 19). A similar scenario plays out with a righteous man who “turns from his righteousness and commits injustice” (v. 20). If Ezekiel doesn’t warn this man about the consequences of his actions, he will be held responsible as this man dies for his sin. On the other hand, if he warns him not to sin and he doesn’t sin, he will live and Ezekiel will be acquitted.
These different scenarios are given to demonstrate the various individual responsibilities at play. Ezekiel isn’t responsible for the coming destruction of Israel: God is the one who has set himself against Israel for their sin. Ezekiel isn’t the one who is responsible for what the people do with the message of coming judgement on their sin—that is a matter between God and the individual. Ezekiel’s job is to tell them about the judgement of God, and it’s then their place to respond appropriately. Provided he has given them God’s message, whether they respond rightly or wrongly he has fulfilled his role as the watchman.
Throughout this passage (and other early parts of the book where God is calling him to be a prophet) Ezekiel seems rather stubborn, a reluctant recruit to God’s service. God’s tone seems harsh as he keeps being explicit about what Ezekiel must do, but the entire appointment of a watchman demonstrates God’s grace. He reaches out from under the sentence of death and provides a prophet who will speak the sweet words of God into the community of God’s people.
Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 contains a striking parallel to Ezekiel’s task as a watchman: “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27). Not only does Paul see his role in declaring the gospel as his duty, he also calls on the elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (v. 28) and to “be alert” (v. 31), language similar to that of a watchman.
Ezekiel’s responsibility was great, but God equipped him with both word and Spirit to be a faithful messenger. Ezekiel’s success wasn’t measured by souls won, but by his faithfulness to the task he had been given. So too for messengers of the gospel of Jesus Christ: God is the one who saves souls and judges the wicked; our task is to proclaim Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return.