Bible Matters: Ezekiel’s Political Theology

The United States is in the midst of a presidential campaign. How should theology inform our politics? The prophet Ezekiel provides important answers that may surprise liberals and conservatives.

Ezekiel gave a clear political theology. He spoke during a time of national crisis in Jewish history. The Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, killed many people, and exiled others throughout the empire.

Those who survived asked the question of theodicy. If God is good and just, then why did this tragedy happen?

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Ezekiel’s political theology claims that the nation fell because the political leaders failed to care for the needs of the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Ezekiel speaks directly to the leaders of his day:

You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:4)

Ezekiel’s political theology tells us that any nation whose rulers that neglects the needs of the poor, weak, and marginalized will fall because God is just. God’s justice demands that those who are scapegoats of culture be cared for.

The good news is that the imperial violence of Babylon didn’t have the last word. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones receiving life is a sign that the nation will have another chance to live into a new social reality. The rulers of Israel will “Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right.” (45:9) To do what is “just and right” means that rulers are to stop their violence and oppression. Instead, they are to meet work for justice by meeting the needs of the marginalized.

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6 replies
  1. cken
    cken says:

    Interesting. This is the third article I have seen on the same subject in abut a week. Yet as a nation we do so much for the sick and the poor and others who need help. Why does it keep coming up this should be a current political issue. Those we actually ignore both as a society and our government are the elderly. Children no longer care for their parents in their dotage. Churches and communities basically ignore them. Medicare does a cost benefit analysis before the elderly receive treatment. The elderly have become disposables. It is the unspoken issue of our entire society.

    Reply
  2. Bill Dolan
    Bill Dolan says:

    Thanks Adam. I always wonder about punishment vs. consequences when I read of God’s wrath. It seems that the Babylonian exile is a clear punishment based on the warnings of the prophets. Ezekiel says Israel was defeated because it did not care for the poor and marginalized. The invasion seems unrelated to the domestic social issues within Israel so it looks like it is God using the Babylonians as an instrument to chasten Israel. It has only been in this election cycle that I’ve started to see that the failure to care for the poor and marginalized could have natural consequences of weakening a country’s international security. Perhaps that is a way that God’s economy works.

    For example, it is when people are angry, fearful and trapped by an unresponsive ruling class or an unfair economic conditions, that we are even more susceptible than normal to scapegoating messages that stir up hatred, tribal thinking and violence. Even in countries that are not democracies, the toxic atmosphere poisons not only domestic tensions but makes international relations difficult. Picking a fight with another country or tribe may even be an attempt to calm or distract from domestic tension. I’m purely speculating but, maybe Israel was not merely minding its own business when the Babylonians decided to invade. Tensions could have been running high because of the internal strife within Israel.

    I’m reading a lot in and obviously thinking of our present election cycle and how a large section of the electorate who feels marginalized seems to be rallying around a particular candidate. It is questionable whether the candidate has their best economic interests in mind or would be helpful in addressing the systemic issues at the root of their dissatisfaction but with a great deal of swagger and tough talk, he demonizes other groups in a way that feels satisfying. I am worried about what this type of leader would do to our international relations and though there is no “Babylon” waiting in the wings, we could cause a lot of problems for ourselves that one day we might look back at as God’s punishment.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Those are excellent points, Bill. I think your speculation is correct. Commentaries I read stated that the economic gap between the rich and poor in ancient Israel was massive – probably bigger than in the US. So, there were resentment and power struggles of internal strife.

      You also explain God’s “punishment” in a helpful way. I struggle with how to explain the prophetic role of divine judgement that leads to God using, even orchestrating, nations to destroy Israel/Judah and kill the people. Ezekiel is graphically violent in the portrayal, and God is behind it all. That’s how Ezekiel understood it, but not how I do. I like the punishment vs. consequence way that you put it. I remember Raymund Schwager says something similar in “Must There Be Scapegoats” – God’s wrath in OT-NT is seen as the natural consequences of our actions. But he also says that the trajectory of OT-NT leads him to believe that God only responds to us with grace. Good stuff!

      Peace,
      Adam

      Reply
  3. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    Question, does Israel being a theocracy cause the interpretation to be different? Technically, the kings of Israel were God’s agents for all areas of life for the people including the temple( I think that’s where they paid the tithe), whereas secular modern state leaders are not in that same role.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hmm…I’m not sure, Patrick. I’d have to think about that some more. I am struck by the fact that the Bible is very clear that the kings of Israel messed up royally! It’s even critical of David and Solomon. From neglecting the poor to allowing false worship, the kings don’t come off very well in biblical history. It’s that political critique that pushes against the abuses that can come from theocracy.

      But I think you are asking if secular modern states should be held to the same standards…It’s a good question. I think rulers of ancient Israel and modern secular states have the same goal, which is to seek justice. That’s the ideal, anyway. This brings up all kinds of questions about governance, like what is justice? and how might we best achieve it in a fallen world. The prophets would say that a nation that doesn’t care for the needs of the marginalized will fall because God is just. I think in a secular state, we should have debates about how best to do that, but I think that’s one aspect of justice that we shouldn’t ignore.

      Best wishes,
      Adam

      Reply

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