“Come Back, Lord, Come Back”
The sixth century BC was a turbulent period in world history in general and Jewish history in particular. The Chaldeans were on the march conquering all nations under the brilliant military leadership of Nebuchadnezzar. According to the general’s time schedule, the land of Palestine was to be desolated in the year 586 BC. It had been determined that not a trace of Solomon’s Temple, nor of the palaces of the Davidic kings would be allowed to remain. And it all happened according to plan. Israel was invaded, Jerusalem was captured, the Temple was destroyed, and political prisoners were rounded up for deportation. One young man who had already been carried into exile was Ezekiel. As a prophet of God, Ezekiel was given a vision that the destruction of Jerusalem would happen and that it would take place due to God’s judgment upon His people (Ezek. 10:1-22). From a human perspective the conquest of Palestine was simply a military objective. But from a divine perspective God was dealing with His Church.
Ezekiel was always God’s man. Born into a priestly family in Israel, his name means, “The Lord strengthens.” As a prophet, Ezekiel spent his early years in the city of Jerusalem until he was taken as a prisoner of war by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The year was 597 BC. Once in captivity, Ezekiel was allowed to marry and settle in his own house in a village near Nippur, along the river Chebar. After ten years of marriage, death came to Ezekiel’s wife in 586 BC.
Despite being a political prisoner in a faraway land, Ezekiel had a message from God, and therefore a ministry. His ministry was to keep before the exiles the sins which had brought God’s judgment upon them. It was not a pleasant thing to do, but it was what God wanted and what the people needed. The Lord knew that without consciousness of the penalizing consequences for inappropriate behavior, there would be no genuine repentance in the Church. Moral laws will always be violated without regret unless there is some form of accountability.
In 1989, Senator John Tower of Texas was facing strong opposition to his nomination as Secretary of Defense because of alleged moral improprieties and drunkenness. He told Congress he had repented. Appearing on Face the Nation and other programs, Senator Tower pledged not to drink in any shape or form while he was Secretary of Defense. But it was all too little, too late. He was not nominated for the presidential cabinet post. John Tower lived the rest of his life conscious of the fact that there are penalizing consequences for inappropriate behavior.
The spiritual consciousness of the Church should be just as sensitive as the social consciousness of society. And it will be when high and holy standards are set up and insisted upon. God’s Word has already set the standards of holiness summarized in the Ten Commandments. When the Church of the Old Testament violated them, God sent Ezekiel to remind the people that there would be a terrible price to pay.
The wages of sin is death. The wages of sin is destruction. The wages of sin brings the departure of God’s glory. The Lord will leave where He is not wanted, but He will not go quietly. Judgment will come to replace mercy and grace, and then it will be discovered afresh, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Ezekiel reveals for all to read just how terrible life can be when God leaves the Church.
In context, the words of the prophet are strange for Ezekiel is in the midst of a vision. The heavens have opened and he sees things mortal eyes do not normally behold. Ezekiel saw a sapphire throne and angels surrounding it. Then he saw a Temple like the one in Jerusalem. And a wall surrounded the great city.
As the prophet Ezekiel watched, he noticed something sensational beginning to take place in the Temple area known as the Holy of Holies. The Shekinah glory, that un-created light of God, began to move. The glory of the Lord moved from the Holy of Holies to the Outer Court. Next, it moved to the East Gate, and then, it vanished. Ezekiel understood the meaning of the Divine movement. The glory of the Lord had left the special habitation in the midst of the Church. By way of application, the movement of the glory of God away from the midst of His people still happens.
It is possible for the glory of the Lord to leave a Church. God is reluctant to leave, but leave He will. According to the divine vision, the pattern is that the Lord will leave first the Holy of Holies.
The Holiest of Holies in the New Testament Church is the pulpit. The Bible tells us that God has always been pleased to do mighty things through preaching because He has exalted His Word above His name. Through preaching souls are converted, lives are changed, the foundations of hell are shaken, and the majesty of God is displayed.
But what happens when people no longer want to listen to the message of the Word? What happens when the strong portions of the Scriptures are spit out? The answer is this: the glory of the Lord begins to move. At first, it is hardly perceptible, but the movement towards the exit has begun. Because this is true, it is important for the Church to learn to value the proclamation of the Word. When the Word of God is not valued, the glory of the Lord moves on.
The glory of the Lord in Ezekiel’s vision passed from the Holy place through the Outer Court where spiritual services took place. It was in the Outer Court that people prepared to listen to God and prepared to meet with God. The Outer Court in the New Testament Church is best represented by the people in the pew. There is the gathering of the congregation for worship. But wait! Wait! The glory of God is passing by. Why? Why is God moving away? The answer is that the covenant of grace has been violated. The holy standards no longer matter.
For a short while, David thought that. David was so strong and so powerful as a political ruler he thought he could commit adultery, cover it up. David thought that he could commit murder as well and cover that up. The holy standards no longer mattered. However, the things which David had done displeased the Lord. In like manner, it is possible for the Church to do things which displeases the Lord. If there is no physical adultery, there can be sins of the soul. If there is no physical murder, there can be hatred in the heart. The Apostle John reminds us that we cannot say we love God if love for the brethren is not in the heart. When the sins of the saints are found in the sanctuary without sorrow, the Holy Spirit is grieved, and God decides to leave.
But does anyone notice? Does anyone care? Shall God leave His people and it cause no concern?
It can happen.
Finally, in Ezekiel’s vision, the glory of the Lord moved from the Outer Court to the East Gate of the city wall of Jerusalem. The city walls were a long way from where the Temple had been built. The meaning is clear. God had once been the focal point of the life of His people. Now, He is on the fringe borders. The Lord no longer has the pre-eminence in the Church.
Spiritually, the East Gate of the New Testament Church is represented by the edge of town in a community. The glory of the Lord moves to the corners of the community. Then suddenly, God is completely gone. When that happens, what will the people do?
The Church of the Old Testament reminds the Church of the New Testament how quickly the gospel light can be extinguished. Unless there is a measure of spiritual discernment, no one will understand the events that brought God’s judgment, and made His glory depart.
Though initially Ezekiel had the burden of bearing a terrible message, in grace God finally gave to His prophet the privilege of announcing that one-day God’s glory would come back. The Church would not remain in exile.
God is a covenant keeping God. He will have mercy upon those who humble themselves and seek Him. God will return to His people who chose to worship Him in spirit and in truth. God will return to His people in great glory, when His presence is wanted. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”
This matter of wanting the Lord is not an easy concept to communicate, because on the surface everyone will always say, “Come back, Lord. Come back. We want you.” But the Lord knows the heart, and the truth of the matter is that not everyone really wants the presence of God. Why? Because the glorious light of the Lord reveals all the corruption of the heart. The glory of God reveals that there are secret sins that must be stopped. There are shameful attitudes that must change. There is a dying to self that must take place. And yet, if a searching for God begins, He will come back.
The Lord will come back when the old paths are asked for. “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:12).
By the old paths we do not mean necessarily how things were fifteen or twenty years ago. Time has a way of making former, turbulent periods seem tame. One of the oldest documents of the human race is a cuneiform fragment from one of the lowest strata of the ruins of Babylon. It begins with these words: “Alas! Alas! Times are not what they were.”
The plain fact is that there never have been any “good old days.” People have always been violent, and churches have always known controversy. Almost 200 years ago someone wrote a pamphlet with the title, An Old Fox Tarred and Feathered. It was a bitter pamphlet. The Old Fox was none other than the great John Wesley. And the author of the pamphlet was Augustus Toplady, the same man who wrote the words,
“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.”
Christians at odds with other Christians is a familiar and sad story. No, the old paths are not happier unless they are the paths of personal righteousness. Richard J. Foster reminds the Church about the way of righteousness in his excellent book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. By discipline, Foster means the voluntary act of learning to meditate, engaging in meaningful prayer, discovering the spiritual benefits of fasting, studying seriously the Word of God, learning to live in a more simple manner, spending time in solitude, submitting to others without manipulation, and learning how to be a servant to others. There is more. Spiritual discipline includes confessing sin, worshipping in spirit and in truth, knowing the joy of obedience, and seeking Divine guidance.
Foster is right when he says that, “In our day, heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emerging of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All of creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined freely gathered martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again.”
If we want it to happen again, then we must plead in prayer, “Come back, Lord, come back.” We must want God to come back to us first and foremost because He is our God. We are not heathens. We do not worship nature, nor animals, nor do we deify man. We worship God.
Second, we must want God to return in order to reveal His great power. The arm of the flesh cannot do much. In the end, it always fails. The arm of the flesh rejects co-operation, and refuses to be kind. It blasts others where a blessing is needed. The flesh divides, demands, argues, accuses, judges, silences, and explodes in anger without a just cause. The flesh fails to keep commitments, all the while making more promises it cannot honor. The Spirit of the Living God is needed for cleansing and the ability to forgive. God Himself is needed to empower and direct. Therefore let heaven hear the Church cry out, “Come back, Lord. Come back and show us yourself.”
Finally, the Church must plead with God to come back because there are so many souls that are not yet converted. Families and friends are still fragmented, and faith is weak. Therefore, let the Church humbly pray, “Come back, Lord, come back.”