25 November 2008

Mind The Gap!

I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.

-Ezekiel 22:30

This verse is used often when we talk of intercessory prayer. We pray for those who cannot (or will not) pray for themselves. We call this "standing in the gap."

We pray to God for others. We pray for healing for those with no words. We pray for God to embrace those with no hope. We pray for reconciliation for those with no friends.

But often, we focus entirely on the spiritual side of this question, and ignore the physical reality that is written into this passage. It's all about prayer for things to happen, and for God to act. But a faith without works is a dead faith, and so I would like to consider the real, physical, concrete implications this passage would have had for those who heard it.

The book of Ezekiel was written during the Babylonian exile, after the Jewish people had been defeated and carted off to the land of their captors. So the entire population would have been fairly familiar with the military metaphor in use, probably more than they wished.

For years, Israel had been caught between Babylon/Assyria and Egypt. It seemed that every time these superpowers would go to war, that they would stomp all over Israel. So Israel, for a long time, had been paying tribute to whichever nation offered better protection. For a while, it was Egypt. Then it was Babylon. Then Egypt again.

But King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon decided that he wanted Israel's tribute money, so he went to Jerusalem to "ask" for it. In the process, he took the current Israelite king, a bunch of money, and a bunch of the "high society" people back with him to Babylon. It was said that the only people left in Jerusalem were the very poor. The people that no-one cared about. And a "king" that Nebuchadnezzar appointed over Israel as a tributary.

But this new king, Zedekia, tried to play Babylon's game and revolted. Again, Nebuchadnezzer's army stormed in from the north, this time with orders to completely level the city of Jerusalem. It was in this last invasion and siege that the Temple was destroyed, and most of the remaining Israelites were carried off into slavery.

We talk often about how the Babylonian Captivity was God punishing Israel for it's sins. The prophets of the time are very explicit in this as well, that God was using the nations of the world to punish Israel. What we get, then, is a picture of a vengeful god, who will smite all who do not meet his impossible demands. But this picture is inaccurate, and might be due to a slight misunderstanding of the idea of God punishing Israel.

You see, we have been given a choice in all that we do. Israel had been given a choice. God had delivered Israel from slavery, and brought them to the promised land, and blessed them with global influence and great wealth.

And they had a choice: They could choose the world's way, or God's way. God's way is the way of serving. Of looking out for those who have no-one to look out for them. To help those who need it. To feed the hungry, and care for the sick. To be a friend to the lonely, to be a guide to the lost. In this way, Israel would be a light to all nations, displaying the power of God to all humanity.

The world's way is different. The world's way is protecting your way of life. The world's way is accumulating and collecting more and more wealth, and then using that wealth to secure more wealth. The world's way used military might in order to secure a future for yourself and your people. The world's way did not care for the weak, or the sick, or the poor. The world's way exploited those for the gain of those who wanted more wealth.

So Israel had chosen the world's way. And God was punishing them, but not in the malevolent, lightning-bolt-from-the-sky, hellfire and damnation way we are used to thinking.

I think it was a bit more subtle than that. What we have here is a nation that had been given a special calling to be God's people in the world, and instead of living up to that calling, they have decided to live the world's way. They have decided to play the world's game. Babylon's game. Egypt's game. Assyria's game. The game of empires.

And in this game, there are no winners. Sure, it may for a time look like a winning game, but in the end, all empires will fall, just like the ones that came before.

And so in the end, sitting in captivity, Ezekiel writes that God was looking for someone to stand in the gap before Him, so he didn't have to destroy the land. God was looking for someone to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and defend the city.

The listeners and readers of this passage would have known what that meant. They would have understood. They would have remembered seeing the walls of Jerusalem knocked over, they would have remembered walking through the gaps in the wall as they were being led into captivity.

And they would have known that they didn't stand in the gap.

Obviously this can be taken on two levels. To actually stand and fight against the Babylonian army would have been sure suicide, and those in captivity would have known that, so there is a different, deeper level that this can be understood at:

When God is standing at the front of the army and looking for someone to stand in the gap, God is looking for someone to defend the city. To defend Jerusalem, defend Israel.

And defending Israel means defending the covenant relationship that God had with Israel. Defending and acting out the obligations in that covenant relationship. Watching out for the poor, the sick, the lonely. Taking care of the orphaned, the widowed, the aliens among them.

God is calling out to them, saying,

"I looked for even just one person that was not playing the world's game. Just one person that was looking out for the poor and not just himself. Just one person that wasn't collecting wealth for himself. Just one person that was trying to live out the covenant relationship with me. And I didn't find that person. What I found was that my covenant nation was trying to play the world's game, by the world's rules. And now, guess what? The Babylonians are better at that game than you are."

Defending Israel means choosing God's way, not the world's way.

Standing in the gap means taking care of the sick, the orphaned, the widowed, the poor, the aliens.

Standing in the gap means fighting against oppression, against exploitation, against slavery, and not just fighting for your way of life.

And this is a universal call.

God is standing outside our city walls right now, searching for someone to stand in the gap.



Archane said...

In a lot of ways, your commentary mirrors the 1976 Martin Niemoller poem First They Came..., which has been on my mind a lot lately:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

--cousin Kim

The Wingnut said...


I like that poem. It really does speak to the need to call out injustice whenever and wherever we see it.

Even if on the surface we may not think it will affect us, in the end, it will.