Feast of St Procopius the Confessor and St Raphael of Brooklyn
JUST AS the Q & A began at the close of the seventh annual Eighth Day Institute Symposium, it struck me that not once had Ezekiel’s name been mentioned. An ecumenical gathering of Christians, centered on the theme, Where Are the Watchmen? Theology in the Public Square, and not once does the prophet—explicitly called to be a “watchman” (Ez. 3:17)—make an appearance. It seems to me that this oversight manifests a more fundamental oversight: at no point in the general conversation was the notion of watchmen, or the public square, located within the fabric and testimony of Holy Scripture.
The effect of this oversight was a general confusion as to what it means to be a watchman, what the public square is, who issues the charge, what the qualifications might be, and what the content of that voice is to be. Names like C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr appeared (as they did in the article by Alan Jacobs, which instigated the Symposium); and Frederica Mathewes-Green noted her own approach and failure to attain the position. But in my church’s Bible study the next day, no one recognized Niebuhr’s name, and only a couple were familiar with Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (sadly, none recognized Frederica’s name either). The point is: the so-called agreed upon “watchmen” from ages past were, perhaps, not as well known to the run-of-the-mill Christians as the academic elites might have thought.
This brings me back to Ezekiel. How could we not mention Ezekiel? Twice God commissions Ezekiel as a “watchman.” Chapters 3 and 33 serve as structural markers in his book; and it’s important that he’s commissioned twice. Since the language is practically identical, we’ll only look at the first:
17 Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 18 If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 19 But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. 20 Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. 21 But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul. (Ez. 3:17-21, ESV)
From this, along with its counterpart in chapter 33, I’d like to draw out a definition of “watchman,” as well as what qualifies for “public,” and finally, what constitutes the message of the watchman. But first, a brief isagogical excursus about the Hebrew of Ezekiel.
Because the text invites us to do so, it is worth comparing Ez. 3 and 33. First, the charge in chapter 3 is to Ezekiel alone. It’s a commissioning, but with no direct prophecy to the people immediately connected to it. Rather, he’s to lock himself in a house and wait until the Lord opens his dry mouth (Ez. 3:24-27). In chapter 33 there’s an immediate word given to speak to the people; and it’s a beautiful word: “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Here’s the rub: chapter 3 is the commissioning towards the preaching of judgment; chapter 33 is the commissioning towards the preaching of repentance and salvation. As Lutherans might put it, the first is a commissioning in the way of the Law, the second in the way of the Gospel.
Ezekiel encapsulates what it means to be a “watchman” (3:17). First and foremost, he is made, or appointed to be such by the Lord. Second, his “watch,” or oversight, is over the “House of Israel.” Third, what he speaks is what he “hears from the mouth of the Lord.” Lastly, his task isn’t result oriented, or performance based—if he speaks what he hears, he saves his soul—whether the wicked turn, or not; if he doesn’t, not only does the one for whom he’s sent die, but the blood is required from Ezekiel’s hand (3:18).
The “watchman” metaphor isn’t unique to Ezekiel—though, he most fully captures it. Isaiah notes the watchman hearing of Babylon’s fall (Is. 21:6-10; Rev. 18:2); and he identifies “blind watchmen” with false prophets (Is. 56:10). Hosea affirms its prophetic character and acutely notes such a life under the cross: “The prophet is the watchman of Ephraim with my God; yet a fowler’s snare is on all his ways, and hatred in the house of his God” (Hos. 9:8). And Habakkuk climbs a tower to see what the Lord will give Him to see (Hab. 2:1).
All this is to say that the prophet is the “watchman.” He’s the one given to “watch”—both for the Word of the Lord to his people, and for the way of the people before their Lord. He’s charged with speaking the Word of the Lord, whether he likes it or not, for by doing so, he will save his soul.
This sort of “watchman” work—of bringing the Lord’s word to the Lord’s people—is the charge given to the Office of the Holy Ministry. In fact, at least in Arles at the time of Caesarius (early 6th century), when a Bishop was consecrated in the early church, Ezekiel 3 was read. So to the question—what is a watchman?—the Holy Scriptures, along with the tradition of the Church, brings us to the preaching office of the overseer, the Bishop, given to care for the people of God with the Word of God.
Alan Jacobs identifies Christian intellectuals as the watchman; folks like Karl Mannheim, J. H. Oldham and his Moot, including T. S. Eliot; there’s Dorothy Sayers, W. H. Auden, and even Jews such as Louis Finkelstein and Mortimer Adler; but most iconic were Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis. These were “figures,” he says,
equipped for the task of mediation—people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler. Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now.
The question that Jacobs asks, which has been asked since 1971, is: “Where Is Our Reinhold Niebuhr?” A better question might be: Where is our Ezekiel? For all that Niebuhr may have accomplished—whatever name he may have made for himself—my people have never heard of him. But they’ve gone through the same cultural shifts as everyone else. I still have members who remember the war (not just Vietnam, or even Korea, but WWII!). They know the ‘60’s well. They see the changes—not only in the world, but in the church itself. Who do they look to? Not the Reinhold Niebuhrs of the world (or even the Ross Douthats, or Mollie Ziegler-Hemingways), but to their pastors. They look to their Ezekiel, their “watchman.” They look for truth and goodness and beauty (though they wouldn’t call it such). They look for hope and guidance from the man the Lord has put there for them. They look for Law to show their sin and Gospel to reveal their savior.
“Where Are the Watchmen?” They’re behind the pulpit, and at the altar, in the hospital room, and making visits to the home. They may not like it very much—that’s okay, as St. Maximus of Turin rightly notes, “for bishops speaking is more a matter of obligation than of desire.” Being a watchman isn’t easy. It demands attention to our Lord’s word, and an indefatigable presence before the people of God with this word. It means not wavering, no matter what winds of culture may blow, or how it may turn easier for us. It means speaking the truth in love, in season and out, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:2). The Watchmen are the pastors of the church, servants of the Word, those given to exercise the special authority of the keys (Jn. 20:22-23; Mt. 16:19; 18:18). They’re commissioned, just like Ezekiel, with preaching both Law and Gospel: repentance and the forgiveness of sin. Rarely will they make a name for themselves, and if so, it’s purely accidental. It’s not about them, but the Lord who sent them.
But just as the Pastors are the Watchmen for the Church (the new House of Israel), so also are you, dear Christians, watchmen to the world. You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation to your unbelieving neighbors (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). You, too, are to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1). Your task is to call a thing like it is, and to do so in love. For we have a holy obligation, one to another, to call the wicked from his wickedness, and to encourage the righteous in his righteousness. This is what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Mk. 12:31).
The annual Eighth Day Institute Symposium, though overlooking the Scriptural injunction of Ezekiel, was not a failure. Frederica Mathewes-Green urged us away from the limelight and back to the local community. Martin Cothran located the great task of watchmen in our schools, where children are to be raised in what is real. And Brian Zahnd made a desperate plea for watchmen from the Church to see our days as analogous to the 1930’s in Germany. There’s clearly a breakdown of culture all around us. The public square seems to be almost non-existent. Nevertheless, the wicked must be urged to turn from their wickedness and live! And the righteous must find their righteousness in Christ alone. It’s the Lord’s doing—pastor and people together—and it’s marvelous in our watch! (Ps. 118:23)
Fr. Geoffrey R. Boyle is Pastor of Grace and Trinity Lutheran Churches in Wichita, KS. He's the father of five and currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, studying Old Testament Biblical Theology.