Say to them, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
If you ask most Protestant clergy what they understand by the phrase, “prophetic ministry,” you will find that it usually involves the unwelcome task of confronting people with what is wrong, with what needs to be changed. It is commonly distinguished from “pastoral ministry,” which focuses on supportiveness and healing, and “teaching ministry,” which is relatively detached emtionally.
It is of course quite true that page after page of the messages of the Old Testament prophets rings with condemnation. Most of these prophets flourished as the glory of Israel and Judah was fading, as the great tide of Assyria and Babylonia was rising to engulf them. The historian cannot help wondering whether these generations of Israelites were any less faithful than their ancestors, whether the tide of transgression was actually rising, or whether it was simply revealed to the prophets that time was running out, that the reckoning could no longer be postponed.
But there is another side to the prophets that needs to be taken into account. The story of Jonah highlights it by contrast. The Lord called Jonah to carry the message of repentance to the gentile city of Nineveh, and when the Ninevites actually repented and were spared, Jonah’s nose was seriously out of joint. This was not the attitude of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah. They wanted to save their nation. In fact—and this is at the heart of their “other side”—they had a glimpse of the beauty that might be. Isaiah spoke of a Lord who would gather the lambs in his bosom, of a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares. Jeremiah spoke of a time when the covenant would be written on the heart, when the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord. Ezekiel closes with a vision of a restored temple, with a river flowing from it whose waters bring healing wherever they go.
In other words, the prophets’ dismay at the faithlessness of their nation was not fueled by a self-righteous attitude, by a delight in seeing the evil get wha was coming to them. It was fueled by grief at promise lost. It is the feeling parents have when their children go wrong, the pain of seeing a wasted life. It is the feeling we may have about ourselves when we compare what we are with what we might be, what we once dreamed we would be.
To be a prophet, is not simply to give voice to one’s own convictions. It is to have received a message from the Lord and the commission to proclaim it. That message, though, makes use of the forms that are in the prophet’s mind—both the language and the ideas. Often, human understanding being as imperfect as it is, the naming of evil is heard as a threat of divine punishment. The Lord will come like an all-consuming fire, or will make the earth open and swallow the wicked. The Lord will bring the enemy army from afar and enable it to slaughter and lead captive.
But from time to time, a deeper and truer view of the matter shines through, as it does in our text. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. . . . Why will you die, O house of Israel?” It is not just the prophet’s personal grief over lost promise, it is the Lord’s grief over these wayward children.
Evil itself is destructive. Evil itself is the sword that threatens the land. The prophet, as Ezekiel is shown, is like the watchman on the wall who sees the enemy approaching. If he does not sound the alarm, he is responsible for the vulnerability of the city. If the prophet shrinks from the task of pointing out the threat that evil is posing, he is like that watchman.
Let us look at this image in two ways, first as it applies to our relationships with each other, and second as it applies to the way we treat ourselves. As to the first, there is probably nothing harder than to confront someone who has done wrong. In part, this is because we know very well that we ourselves are far from perfect; but the greater part of our reluctance probably stems from the very natural desire to be liked.
But let us suppose that the wrong is quite clear, that someone has betrayed a confidence, for example. The easiest thing to do is to pretend that we don’t know this has happened. The consequence of this, however, is that we begin to build a make-believe world. We pretend that we trust this individual, but in fact we do not. The second-easiest thing may be to let our hurt explode, to batter the other with our own distress. This at least gets the issue out in the open, but it has a serious flaw. When this is the way we react, we are so full of our own feelings that we actually have no regard for the other. The other is nothing but the betrayal of trust.
The best confrontation, like that of the prophets, is in touch with a vision of what might be. Its mood is one more of grief than of outrage. There needs to be a vision of the other as a child of God and of the harm that betrayal does to that child. If we do in fact accept the vision of human nature that our theology offers us, then we believe that there is goodness within absolutely everyone, that there is beauty even in the worst devils in hell. Time and time again, we are told that our transgressions do not destroy the inner person, the potential angel, but wall it in, close it off. “So far as we recede from the good of life,” we are told in Arcana Coelestia 95942, “these [inner] levels are closed, that is, the heavens within us are closed; for just as the good of life opens them, so evil of life closes them.”
Another way this is expressed is in statements that “the good in the neighbor is the neighbor that we are to love” (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 88). This is not abstract, impersonal “good”—ultimately, there is no such thing. To put it in less abstract terms, we need to believe that within that individual who has betrayed our trust there is a voice, if you will, that protests. There is a deeper self that is dismayed at what has been done, that truly and deeply regrets the action. That is the person we want to talk to. We are the friend, the ally of that person against what threatens that person with imprisonment. We want to get a message through, to open a door.
We may not succeed. Some walls are too strong for us, some doors too tightly barred. Even the Old Testament prophets, with their messages quite directly from the Lord, met rejection time after time. Still, they knew that they had to try, to keep trying. They had to keep believing in the possibility of change. In a sense, then, they had to keep believing that within this stubborn and willful people there was a latent devotion. They had to believe that there was a heart that could respond to the vision, if only they could get in touch with it. In the words of Revelation, there was an ear that could hear what the spirit was saying to the churches.
When we turn to the spiritual sense as strictly defined, though, we are talking more about the way we treat ourselves than about the way we treat each other. The message, is still strikingly similar. It is when know that we have transgressed that it is easiest to condemn ourselves so thoroughly that we lose hope. There is a particular way in which it is vital that we believe in ourselves. Specifically, it is desperately important that we believe that the Lord believes in us.
This is put in startling language in Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion (n. 650). “The Lord ascribes good to everyone, and hell ascribes evil to everyone.” The whole marvelous power of a genuine conversion experience comes from the discovery that the Divine does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves. Because we think we have to make ourselves good and find that we are utterly unable to succeed, we blind ourselves to the fact that the Lord wants nothing more than to make us good if we will just get our preoccupation with ourselves out of the way. The Lord has no pleasure in our death, none at all.
There is, so to speak, an Ezekiel within us. There is a voice within us that would have us face our inadequacy, because as long as we claim the power to save ourselves, as long as we struggle to lay claim to virtue, we refuse to do what Scripture keeps insisting on, to turn to the Lord.
We do not want to hear that voice. It is easy to confuse it with the voice of hell that tells us that we are hopelessly beyond redemption. If the whole truth could be known, it would probably turn out that we are not all that bad, but “not all that bad” is woefully short of the blessing the Lord has in mind for us.
In fact, the same voice that would tell us of our present inadequacy is also telling us of our promise. When we condemn ourselves, who is the idealist who is doing the condemning? Who is the person who holds the high standards we are not meeting? We are dissatisfied with ourselves because we have not entirely lost faith in our early dreams of goodness. We do still have a sense of what might be. If we did not, we would lapse into cynicism and self-justification. Within each of us is that voice that we try to hear in others, that angel searching for release.
That angel is not of our own making. It is the image and likeness of God into which we have been created, the Lord’s gift to us. As we come to believe in it in others and in ourselves, we become more impatient with everything that walls it in. The voice of the prophet becomes more urgent, sounding the alarm against our evils—because nothing is worth the sacrifice of the beauty promised us, the beauty of heaven.