“Listening to the Sermon”

“As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.”

Ezekiel 33:30-32

Ezekiel had a tough job. He was commissioned to preach an unpopular message to people who wouldn’t listen. He was to act as a watchman and warn his fellow exiles in Babylon of judgment if they did not turn back to the Lord. Ezekiel announced the sad news that the siege back home in Jerusalem had begun (24:1-2). After two years of waiting, news of the city’s fall finally reached them in Babylon (33:21). This marked a turning point in Ezekiel’s career.

The prophet was recommissioned (33:1-9) and repeated his original message of repentance (33:10-20). After Jerusalem fell, the prophet was vindicated in the eyes of the exiles (33:21-22). Before, nobody would listen to him. But now, he had an eager audience. Ezekiel went from being an unpopular, despised prophet (cf. 2:3-7; 3:4-9) to a vindicated, popular prophet. Suddenly, he was the talk of the town. People came in droves wanting to hear what this eccentric prophet would say next (33:30). They hung on his every word but they viewed his preaching as mere entertainment (33:31-32). Ezekiel was to them “like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument.” Yes, they would listen and admire the words, but they would not obey the message. It went in one ear and out the other. They acted not in response to Ezekiel’s preaching but by their “lustful talk” and their “heart… set on gain.” (33:31)

God’s people today should draw three warnings from this text:

The dangers of becoming a “popular” preacher — Ezekiel had been both unpopular and popular, both “in season and out of season,” so to speak. It would be hard for Ezekiel not to be flattered by all this newfound attention and think he was now successful. Successful preaching, however, is not measured by the number of people who hear it, by the congratulatory words of the listeners, nor even by its reception. Rather, successful preaching is gauged by whether or not the message is God’s word. By this measure, Ezekiel was just as ‘successful’ in chapter 33 when lots of people were listening as he was in chapter 3 when no one was.

The dangers of listening to “entertaining” preaching — There are many preachers whose sermons lack substance and biblical content but, because they are entertaining, get an audience. On the other hand, there are many compelling speakers who also preach God’s word faithfully. Ezekiel, evidently, was one. But we can’t think that simply by attending the assembly and being entertained by the lesson that that, by itself, accomplishes anything. If we have not enjoined our listening with life-changing obedience, our listening does us no good (Jas. 1:22-25; Mt. 7:24-27). The exiles were entertained but not changed by the sermons. What about us?

The dangers of listening with impure hearts — Ezekiel’s fellow exiles had their hearts “set on their gain.” This possibly indicates they were trying to exploit the popular preacher for their own ends, trying to make a fast buck out of Ezekiel’s entertainment value. As with Simon (Acts 8:18-24), their receptivity to God’s word was distorted by greed. Instead of asking, “What would the Lord have me do?” they asked, “What’s in this for me?” God’s word bears fruit in us only if we “hold it fast in an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15).