The God in Exile
As we have said earlier, Israel always had an ambiguous view on the royal institution. This is particularly true for the prophets. Hosea was very vocal in rejecting and condemning the kingly establishment. Indeed, it appears that prophets have dedicated their ministry to denounce the wickedness and to highlight the failures and sins of the kings. Finally, the Babylonian invasion has brought the times of the kings to an end. The kingdom of God becomes then an eschatological hope when a new Messiah will reappear.
Ezekiel’s exile was caused by the foolishness of the kings who have departed from the Law and Covenant of God through their reliance on political partnerships other than God. Instead, Ezekiel depicts Yahweh as the sovereign Lord who this time denounces his People in Jerusalem by announcing its destruction, especially that of the Temple which had become a place of idolatry. This is part of God’s punishment against Israel’s unfaithfulness. Only a small portion of Israel who acknowledges Yahweh as THE LORD will survive God’s wrath and anger. Ezekiel’s monotheistic belief is clearly shown here. God’s discontent with Israel’s behaviour and disloyalty is just a part of a larger rejection of the Temple. It prepares the inhabitants for the departure of Yahweh from the Temple. Ezekiel tried to plead with God, but his attempt was futile when God finally left the Temple in chapter 10. Yahweh’s departure by the East gate was a radical cutting off any contact between the Temple and God’s presence: “Then the dazzling light of the Lord’s presence left the entrance of the Temple and moved to a place above the cherubim.” (Ezek 10:18). It is the logical outcome of the people’s moving away from God’s law. With the departure of Yahweh from the Temple, Ezekiel brought the prophetic anger towards the unfaithful Israel to an end. The Temple was closed off for God and his People for another 70 years, until it was partially rebuilt in 519 BCE by Ezra.
It was a time of lamentation for Israel. Psalm 137:1-4 reflects this desperate situation where the deportees had to endure the cruel demand by the captors: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down; there we wept when we remember Zion. On the willow near by we hung up our harps. Those who captured us told us to sing; they told us to entertain them: ‘Sing a song about Zion.’ How can we sing a song to the Lord in a foreign land?” The Babylonians had not only raided God’s dwelling place but now also ridiculed his People by demanding entertainment from captives. Yet, Israel has not given up the hope in God who had redeemed their forefathers. Ezekiel was confident that Yahweh will rescue his People from the claws of the Babylonians and bring them back to the LAND, albeit only a remnant will enjoy this blessing. However, the problem remains for Ezekiel: How can God’s presence be felt in a land that despises God? Furthermore, Babylonia’ temples were nothing short of glory of the Temple in Jerusalem and its religious cult and organisation were highly elaborated.
In chapter 11, Ezekiel offers a radical, yet traditional understanding of a God moving with his People. As the Temple was in ruin, Ezekiel returns to the notion of the wandering God, like in the times of Exodus. However, Ezekiel radicalises this wandering motive to include the exile while the God of the Patriarch moved with his People towards the Promised Land. In chapter 11, God reassembles his People amidst the nations and amongst the pagan gods. To the concern that the worship of God in a foreign land was impossible, Ezekiel lets God answer: “Now tell your fellow exiles what I am now saying. I am the one who sent them to live in far-off nations and scattered them in other countries. Yet, for the time being, I will be present with them in the lands where they have gone.” (Ezek 11:16-17, emphasis is mine). Extraordinary is the fact that God was willing to take responsibility and to leave his dwelling and to accept living in a foreign land amongst other gods, only to stay close to his People in challenging times. In doing so, Yahweh renews his People by giving “them a new heart and a new mind” (Ezek 11:19). The Spirit of God makes the exiles becoming his People again because it purifies and heals the hearts that will remain faithful to God’s law.
To portrait the wandering God, Ezekiel also returns to the traditional images of God: Yahweh is the Shepherd of his sheep in contrast to the self-indulgence and self-preoccupied kings (Ezek 34:1-10). The New Testament picks up the Shepherd tradition but ascribes it to Jesus who left the 99 behind to find the one lost sheep.
The Closure of Places of Worship and God’s Presence
Ezekiel’s view of the Temple and the image of God moving with his People can help us to thrive in times of closure of places of worship and lockdowns. Like the exiles in Ezekiel’s time, worshippers find themselves somewhat in exile. For Catholics, the situation is even worst since the lockdown also restricts the reception of sacraments, especially the reception of the sacred species of the Body and Blood of Christ. Some theologians have raised the question of how Catholics can experience the REAL presence of God if masses are streamed online. Hence, the “full, conscious, and active participation” during the Mass remains a hot issue for liturgists during the time of online liturgy. In this context, Timothy O’Malley, the academic director at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Liturgy is correct: “If you turn to a TV Mass with the same attitude that you binge-watch the latest season of [Netflix series] The Crown, then this is not a real act of participation. Of course, if you attend Mass as a spectator, hoping to hear some nice music, to see some of your friends, this is not the ideal sense of participation either.”
Yet, liturgy is not just a human making, but also God’s acting in the hearts and minds of the people, as we have seen above. God’s presence can be encountered also in times of closure and restrictions because God, too, is there where the people find themselves. According to Ezekiel, God has temporarily left the Temple to move to places where his presence was even denied. If God is to be found not just in places of worship, but also on the streets, in people’s homes, in the sufferings of people etc., then the full and active participation is expanded to the entire creation and not just confined to the moments of the reception of the sacraments. Indeed, for Augustine, the whole world is the sacrament of God since He made everything. The closure of the church’s buildings does not restrict the presence of God but may be seen as a new opportunity for full participation in the mission of God if our lives are “clothed in heartfelt compassion, in generosity and humility, gentleness and patience” (Col 3:12). The reception of the spiritual communion finds here its full meaning and expression.
Fr Joseph Lam OSA is the parish priest of St Finbar’s Parish, Glenbrook.
This essay is part of a series of reflections entitled ‘I Will Cause My Spirit To Enter You And You Shall Live: Biblical Theological Essays on the Pandemic’ by Fr Joseph Lam OSA.
The book can be purchased directly from Fr Joe for $AU9.99 plus postage, with all proceeds going to the Diocese of Parramatta’s Clergy Support Foundation. To order a copy, email Fr Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Hos 8:4: ‘My people chose kings, but they did it on their own. They appointed leaders, but without my approval.’
 Ezek 6:7.
 Ezek 9:8.
 Later on in Ezekiel 43, God re-entered by the same gate. It reflects the location of the Garden Eden which was in the East of Jerusalem. So, the return of Yahweh implies the re-creation and reestablishment of order. By the way, Jesus entered Jerusalem by the East gate as well.
 Michael W. Duggan, The Consuming Fire. A Christian Guide to the Old Testament (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2010), 385: ‘This communication of YHWH’s spirit constitutes the source from which the civilization of Judah will emerge as YHWH had always intended.’