Hard to Swallow

Read: Ezekiel 2:8-3:3

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat (Ezekiel 2:9-3:2, NRSV).

I was casting about for something comforting to write about this week, but I kept coming back to this strange story from the book of Ezekiel. It’s not exactly comforting, but it may be the word we need to hear right now.

If the prophet Ezekiel were alive today, he’d probably be diagnosed with an eating disorder. (Pica to be precise—that’s a condition that causes people to eat things other than food.) And what God orders Ezekiel to swallow is definitely not food. It’s a scroll—a dry, double-sided scroll. That in itself would be hard to swallow, but this particular scroll is even less appealing because it is filled with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.”

Ezekiel was a priest who had been hauled off to Babylon during what’s called the First Deportation in 597 B.C.E. I suppose he should have been flattered since the Babylonians only bothered with the cream of the crop in that first round-up. But flattery was probably far from Ezekiel’s thoughts as sat beside the rivers of Babylon, waiting to see what would become of the Temple, the people, and the land he left behind. As it turned out, he had about ten years to wait before he would find out the rest of the story.

Not every story has a happy ending, as Ezekiel would discover. The Babylonians eventually burned the Temple, sacked the city of Jerusalem, and hauled a good part of Judah’s population back to Babylon. (That’s what’s cleverly called the Second Deportation.) But at the time of the “scroll incident,” Ezekiel had no idea how the story would turn out. He only knew that God wanted him to open wide.

Whatever this story is about, it seems to have something to do with the inevitability of God’s judgment. Once the prophet swallows the scroll, after all, the only way out is “through.” (Now there’s an unappealing image!) Still, the story makes a point of saying that once Ezekiel actually eats the scroll, its taste is “sweet as honey.” Maybe that detail is a nod to the sweetness of obedience—even when what we’re being asked to do is completely unpalatable.

I don’t know if God’s mind is made up yet as to the fate of our nation—or our world, for that matter. I hope not. I hope there are still things that we can do to contribute to a happy ending. But I also hope that those of us who call ourselves Christians will discover the sweetness of obedience—even when what we’re being asked to do is completely unpalatable.

What might that look like? It might mean speaking a hard word when it would be easier to speak a soft word—or a soft word when it would be easier to speak a hard one! Who knows. The trick is to be ready to be obedient, even if what God asks us to do is hard to swallow.

Ponder: What might unpalatable obedience look like for you?

Pray: Help us to know how to be obedient in these confusing times.