Formations 07.09.2017: Ezekiel’s Silence

Ezekiel 8:1-2a, 16-17; 10:4-5, 16-19

A Russion icon depicting the prophet Ezekiel.

John Cage’s three movement composition “4’ 33”” begins the moment the pianist sits down and closes the lid. After three sections, each one adding up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the performance is over. No notes are played, but to say that no music is up to debate.

Much of the first audience wanted to drive Cage and the pianist out of Woodstock, NY. But this composition, perhaps for its controversy, is one of the most well-remembered pieces of the twentieth century. For Cage, the silence extended beyond performance. It created space to hear music already present in the world. So whether or not we should call this composition music, Cage’s question remains. Do we hear, or see or smell or feel, all that surrounds us?

Noise fills the temple. Women at the gate sing the Tammuz lament (8:14). Twenty-five men in the inner court call out to a God who won’t listen (8:18). God calls the guardians of the city to come with weapons of destruction (9:1). The guardians will mark “those who sigh and groan” (9:4). And as God leaves, “the sound of winged creatures’ wings could be heard as far as the outer courtyard. It was like the sound of God Almighty when he speaks” (10:5).

Just as noise fills the temple, chaos engages each sense as incense burns, smoke rises, and as the guide moves Ezekiel from act of worship to act of worship. But Ezekiel is remarkably silent for a prophet. Sure, because we know the contents of this vision, we know Ezekiel spoke “to the exiles about everything the LORD had shown to me” (11:25). But he functions in this narrative as a listener first. Even the more extended oracles of chapter 11 come clearly from God’s mouth (see vv. 2, 5, 7, 14, 16, 17).

When God leaves the temple and prepares for the city to be destroyed, Ezekiel is silent. He watches, just as those to whom he preaches watch. There are reasons for God’s leaving, and hope will even rise up (see 11:16-20). The Spirit makes him see the “destable things,” how “they have filled the land with violence” (8:17). God lets him see the return of God’s people.

To be sure, Ezekiel bears responsibility for both these messages of condemnation and hope. But first he experiences the destruction of Jerusalem as a member of the community of exiles. For the two times he himself speaks in this passage, he wails (9:8; 11:13).

The image of God leaving the temple might be strange. Still, we fill the land with violence. We treat others and ourselves in detestable ways. Chaos cuts through our interior and communal lives. Like Ezekiel, we claim a God who acts with justice and a God who redeems. But we struggle to respond to these times when God disappears. These visions of redemption and justice are necessary, but they are dangerous too.

In looking for explanations, we have asked what victims of violence should have done differently. We have explained that everything happens for a reason—even the deaths of the most innocent. From belief in final resurrections and God’s eternal presence, we’ve ignored the severity of our neighbors’ suffering. Like Ezekiel, the time comes when we must criticize and energize, but it carries the risk of not seeing pain that surrounds us, and of not hearing our own cries.

In four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, Cage invited listeners to hear the noises they had tuned out. When music stops, air conditions still run, seats still move, and people still cough. Ezekiel’s silence allows us to hear the sounds that remain when God leaves.

Will Hermes, “The Story of ‘4’33”’,”, May 8, 2000,


• What literal sounds or sights of suffering have you stopped noticing, either intentionally or unintentionally?
• How can belief in justice and resurrection shield us from acknowledging the extent of suffering in our own lives and in others’?
• How do we balance calls to reflection and action, silence, and speech?
• How might listening first shape our responses to suffering?

Reference Shelf

Absence and Presence

As Ezekiel looks on, he describes the movement of YHWH’s divine presence. Initially situated to the south of the temple, YHWH’s presence moves to the lintel (Heb., miftan) of the temple as the figure dressed in white linen goes in between the cherubs to fulfill the command. The figure’s approach to the cherubs recalls the movement of the high priest as he would approach the Ark of the Covenant in the holy of holies of the temple at Yom Kippur, but YHWH’s movement to the lintel of the temple signals that the temple is about to be destroyed, not purged as one would expect at Yom Kippur. As a result of YHWH’s movement, the interior of the temple fills with smoke, much as it would fill with smoke from the temple incense burners to represent the divine presence during times of worship. The sound of the cherubs’ wings, here compared to the divine voice of El Shaddai, would be represented by the sounds of the air movement through the upper windows of the temple structure as the hot air of the incense smoke would rise and the cooler air entering through the upper windows would sink to take its place. The effect would represent a whirlwind as the smoke circulated through the interior of the temple structure.


The departure of the divine presence then follows in vv. 18-22. YHWH’s departure from the lintel of the temple signifies YHWH’s departure from the temple altogether, leaving it subject to destruction as portrayed throughout Ezekiel 10. The movement to the eastern gate of the temple reverses the movement of YHWH’s entrance into the temple each morning, insofar as the morning service held at sunrise would see the illumination of the interior of the temple, signifying YHWH’s presence and the daily repetition of the act of creation, beginning with light, each morning (cf. Levenson 1988, 53–127).

Marvin A. Sweeny, Reading Ezekiel: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013), 63, 65.

Disappearing from Each Other

Far from a rejection of Yahweh, this prostration toward the east reflects the associations between Yahweh and the sun that appeared with increasing frequency during the monarchy. The act of awaiting the appearance of the sun is the climax of the ritual, which had begun with the elders’ entreaties in their darkened room and which will end in the morning, when Yahweh’s appearing is as “sure as the dawn” (Hos 6:3; cf. Pss 44:3b; 80:1b, 3, 7, 19; 89:15; 90:14; 130:5-6).

From beginning to end, the ritual expresses confidence in Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel—and misplaced confidence in Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh, as it enacts its devotion by way of the image of zeal. Yahweh’s reaction draws attention to the social and political consequences of the cultic abominations. It is not enough that they have defiled the sanctuary; they have also filled the land with violence. This violence makes it impossible for Yahweh to answer their complaint, and Yahweh closes with the now familiar declaration that he will act in wrath and spare no pity. In direct response to the ritual Ezekiel has just witnessed, Yahweh declares, “though they cry with a loud voice in my ears [NRSV: “in my hearing”], I will not listen to them.” The ritual fails, and Yahweh prepares to abandon the city to destruction.

Margaret Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 111–12.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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