All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

Ezekiels Job

Mr Foley, a parmer in Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

Basic distinctions often prove elusive. Whether by virtue of inattention, human resistance, lack of comprehension, or some indefinable perversity of life, we human beings often fail to grasp and act upon the most central differences both of concept and deed. As a result, all manner of disappointing and disturbing events take place, inasmuch as one misstep at the outset of a journey can foreordain an unexpected destination.

Consider one such essential distinction: personal belief and action premised upon a set moral code versus the coercive imposition of one% moral strictures upon another, unwilling human being. The dissimilarity is fundamental and not particularly obscure; yet, the blurring and commingling of these two very different precepts (and their attendant activities) have vexed men and women across time.

Ezekiel provides insights into this common and perplexing situation. Of course, it is not “with it” to relate modern problems to some old fellow who lived long ago and far away; in the skeptical and intolerant climate of today, so lacking in the civility of open thought, it just does not meet the modern dictates of intellectual exclusivity to refer to the Bible, to Christianity, or to any traditional religion-particularly one with established attitudes of “right” and “wrong.” Yet the Book of Ezekiel lays a firm foundation from which all of us, no matter our religious persuasion, may investigate the differences between proper belief and proper respect for the beliefs of others. After all, the essence of the human condition remains unchanged despite the passage of centuries.

Recall the backdrop of history. The Jewish people received the gift of insight into the very marrow of the individual—the ability to choose, to evaluate, and to select among alternatives, and in so doing to affect not only the actor’s destiny but also the course of a lineal world history: “. . . I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil . . . . I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed shall live       “(Deut. 30:15,19)

These ancient men and women displayed the same features and failings as we do. At times they made venal, undesirable, and unwise choices, and as a result suffered the inexorable consequences which flowed from their conduct. As a nation, ancient Israel waxed and waned: Things worked out well when the people adhered to the Decalogue, and bad times followed their evil exploits. God endowed men with freedom, even the freedom to forsake Him and to choose wrongly, for freedom necessarily entails the freedom to fail. Although the ineluctable law of cause-and-consequence foretold unpleasant sequels from inappropriate acts, the Jews of old seemed hell- bent on the eternal folly of trying to beat the house.

Now and then, when the Hebrew nation deviated sufficiently from the proper standard of behavior, God sent a prophet, a man assigned to remind His flock of the rules of the game and to warn them of the inevitable lunacy of trying to avoid responsibility for their wickedness. Sometimes the body politic listened; more often, the people ignored, joshed, or abused the prophet.

Enter Ezekiel

Ezekiel was one of the major prophets, a chap God called forth 26 centuries ago during one of those troubled times for Israel. Prophets were role players; they were given a part to play without a thought of the consequences. They spoke to largely hostile audiences. They faced uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous, situations. They forsook popularity, credibility, status, and wealth. In return, they knew that somewhere, somehow, a dutiful Remnant would hear and heed the words they uttered as God’s intermediary. Ezekiel fit right into this tapestry of history and role of prophet. God instructed him and he, in turn, carried the message to those of the multitude who chose to listen. And, it is that critical message recorded in Ezekiel 33:1-11 which edifies us specifically as to the dichotomy between personal commitment and coerced orthodoxy.

Ezekiel 33:1-11 imparts threefold tidings. First, God tells His people “I have sent thee a watchman” (Ezek. 33:7) and He outlines the obligations of the watchman. Second, He advises the Remnant of the duties laid upon those who hear His watchman. Third—and most saliently for our present purpose—He answers the ageless inquiry of the listeners, “How should we then live?” (Ezek. 33:10)

How should we then live? Distinguish between the encompassed relativism of a humanistic “man is the measure of all things” precept and an understanding that imperfect individuals will profess different beliefs. It is one thing to ascertain for oneself how the moral life is to be lived; it is quite another matter to impose that particular view upon an unwilling neighbor. The Christian may think it great folly for each man to live according to his internal moral code oblivious to God’s law (“ye shall be as gods,” Gen. 3:5), or “each indi vidual’s innate sense of truth and justice”; does this profession of faith necessarily or properly vest in the practicing Christian the right to compel all others to accept his creed? Or rather, doesn’t the modern theocrat—be he religious, atheistic or agnostic—confuse subjective value with moral absolutes?

Thus, the Remnant through Ezekiel asked God, “How should we then live?” and received a simple and direct mandate: “As I live, saith the Lord.” (Ezek. 33:11) Yet, simple declarations may cloak deeper lessons. Surely, reflective men and women in the sixth century before Christ, as now, wondered how the Lord did live. And, for the Jew of 2,600 years ago, as for the Christian in the late 20th century, the answer appears in the recorded reports of eyewitnesses to history.

God’s Answers

God often provided sound answers to this secondary inquiry (How does the Lord live?) for Old Testament followers. For example, in the entire passage from Deuteronomy abstracted heretofore, God directed His people to follow His statutes and laws (see Deut. 30:15-19), a message often repeated but seldom heeded. He condensed His rules of conduct in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:117), a precise summary not dissimilar from the essential teachings of most of the world’s great religions, and not wholly unlike the alleged inbred “innate moral sense” so popularly presupposed in current lore to reside in all individuals.

Somehow, the content of these simple yet exact rules of order either escaped most folks or suffered the serious amelioration of convenience. Hebraic law became burdensomely formal and uselessly coercive, smothering the essence in add dust. People became baffled: How did God live? Was it as some neighbor declared? Or according to the local prophet, general, or rabbi? Couldn’t these restrictive commandments be modified just a bit to fit a particular case which coincidentally happened to be of personal interest to the inquirer? Didn’t modern times mandate more modern and less archaic solutions? And so the waxing and waning of the Old Testament travails continued unabated long after Ezekiel departed.

For the Christian, a remarkable and unprecedented event occurred 2,000 years ago: God answered the secondary inquiry (How does the Lord live?) in a unique and direct way. God became Incarnate, sending His Son in the form of a man, to live among witnesses, to encounter and suffer the range of human events and emotions and, incidentally, to show us just how the Lord does live.

In the examination of Jesus’ life, set against the backdrop of the Old Testament law, we see not only how the Lord lives but also the stark distinction between principled personal belief and the mandate to respect the beliefs (no matter how dissimilar or possibly erroneous) of others. Simply put, Jesus lived a life of pristine purity: He adhered to the essence of the Ten Commandments and eschewed sin and evil. He built no monuments to His reign; He assembled no mighty army to strike down the soldiers of Satan; He accepted no patronage; He granted no special favors; He left no estate of substance. In short, Jesus lived quite unlike any human being, ruler or ruled, in all of human history.

Did Jesus ever force anyone to believe, to chant His praise, to recite His creed, to follow Him? Did He ever box the ears of an unreceptive and hoot: ing audience and charge them to “be Christians and do exactly as I say and do or I’ll whomp you”? Did He ever ostracize or humiliate those who declined His offers? There is absolutely no evidence of such behavior.

Peter presents the perfect counterpoint, the epitome of demonstrative evidence. Once Peter figures out who his Master is he immediately suggests building a grand temple (Matt. 17:4-9); he admonishes Jesus that He must avoid His trip to Jerusalem and His destiny on the cross (Mark 8:31-33); and, in the garden, he slices off the ear of the servant of the high priest (Matt. 26:51-52). In every instance, Peter’s actions earn stern rebukes, for Peter behaves as men do, not as the Lord does.

Abundant Lessons

Layers of lessons abound in the Lord’s answer to Ezekiel’s question, and each layer offers guidance for believer and nonbeliever alike.

First, Ezekiel and his counterparts must adhere to principle in a sea of challenge, doubt, and seduction. Absolutes in the form of correct choices and proper principles do exist; consequences flow from all choices, results that must be endured, events that beget future choices. Selection between alternatives may be made randomly, thoughtlessly, malevolently, or may rest upon the basis of the actor’s understanding of, and adherence to, fundamental principle. The principled individual is charged to live scrupulously, to make the right choice at each and every opportunity, be he Christian or Jew, atheist or agnostic; the distinction exists in the standard.

When the moral individual refuses to soften this quest for perfection, he is often met with derision, enticement, or compulsion. In this regard, scant differences separate the doctrinaire libertarian and the overzealous Christian. There appears a natural human tendency to challenge the beliefs of others, first through shunning and scorn, last by force and fraud. Those most inflexible in principle seem to suffer the greatest assaults, possibly because the traducers implicitly recognize the propriety of the upright and seek to wrench them down to their level.

Disorderly man occupies an orderly sphere and setting. Gifted with the power to choose, flawed mankind necessarily makes poor choices on occasion, for freedom encompasses the power and the right to be wrong. The Christian is called only to be a faithful steward, not a perfect one. Perfection is our goal; it is not within our grasp. A sentry at Buckingham House, two and one-quarter centuries back, put it artfully: “But, Sir, if GOD was to make the world today, it would be crooked again tomorrow.” Intolerance of human failings—of self or others—often eclipses the quest for betterment; this inherent intolerance leads directly to the second layer of understanding and the dichotomy between principle and force.

Second, then, Jesus’ answer to Ezekiel’s inquiry aptly illustrates the difference between holding and practicing a belief and demanding adherence by others to that ideal. While men are flawed, God is not; yet Jesus did not command obedience to His banner although He knew it to be true. Nor should men. Indeed, since men—unlike God—do not inevitably know that they hold proper principles and exhibit correct behavior, they ought not compel others to accept and adopt a possibly flawed precept.

Ample manifestations of the impermissible blurring of principle and command appear upon reflection: the religious zealot who seizes the machinery of government, establishes a state religion de facto or de jure, enacts blue laws, and orders compulsory chapel; the arid libertarian who, intolerant of any suggestion that others might reach similar results from dissimilar bases, mocks his Christian counterpart out of the discussion; the well- meaning sophisticate concerned about the homeless, the young, the irascible, or the disabled, who induces the county commission to use tax revenues to pay for shelters and rehabilitation centers; the illiberal liberal who concocts false testimony concerning, and selectively applies state legal sanctions against, disliked religious persons or groups who hear a different voice and dare to speak out. Sadly, the list appears endless: For religious and agnostic alike, the concept of “witness” has all too often transmuted proper belief and the quest for moral excellence into an evil charade replete with clever rationalizations, as each individual seeks to impose his agenda upon all others, to limit the discussion to prescribed topics, and to foreordain all solutions, hence circumscribing human action with his own finite boundaries in the name of his “truth.”

Third, Ezekiel reveals the role assigned to the committed: They are called to be watchmen (Ezek. 33:1-10). Watchmen perform specific tasks: They search out the truth, live out the truth, and speak out the truth, in order that others may hear and assimilate. No one expects a watchman to bat-fie those about him. Watchmen cry out; they sound the tocsin; they raise the alarm; but Ezekiel does not suggest that the watchman’s obligations include compelling anyone to believe, to profess, or to act in any discrete manner. Instead, God’s watchmen provide knowledge and opportunity, a palpable form of due process, to any and all who choose to consider the message.

The watchman directive applies to the nonreligious believer by a parity of reasoning. Leonard E. Read devoted many of his adult years to the study and explication of the appropriate methodology of freedom. He repeatedly reminded his readers and listeners that one who truly espouses the freedom philosophy could not coerce others to adopt those premises, since to attempt to do so would constitute the most startling contradiction in terms. He admonished us that the “end preexists in the means,” “the bloom preexists in the rose.” If we improve our own self and live according to right precepts, others will observe and be drawn to the proper path by the flame of attraction. Leonard Read’s adjurations do not differ in essence from God’s admonition to Ezekiel and echoed in Matthew 16:5 to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven.”

In this fashion, the Ezekiel passage makes it manifest that committed individuals are duty-bound to honor their commitment, but they are not to coerce others to follow theft opinions or mimic their precepts. They should seek the truth, follow the right, improve the serf, and never stray from fundamental principle. In the timeless truth of the redoubtable F. A. Harper, “A principle can be broken, but it cannot be bent.” Concomitantly, committed men and women should attract others by the light of their words and the propriety of their deeds, never by the exercise of compulsion, aggression, fraud, manipulation, or malevolence- with or without the sanction of the state.

Further, Ezekiel offers us a fourth lesson. Those who hear the watchman must heed his warning or suffer the ineluctable consequences. Remember, one need not accept or act favorably upon a warning, but God makes it clear that the listener disregards the sound of the tocsin at his own peril. Once more, this passage accords with the fundamentals of freedom. Force and freedom are inimical: Freedom includes the freedom to fail, to make choices that seem wrong to legions of observers, to act meanly or intolerantly or foolishly, to go against the crowd. The essence of man resides in his power to make meaningful choices that will affect not only his life but also the lives of others here and hereafter. Deprivation of this power of creative choice, for whatever reason, not only limits that man’s array of selections but also diminishes him as a person. “To enslave” is much too light and lax a verb to describe such oppression, for the person restricted is thereby lessened as a human being, stunted in his potential, and cut down in his moral growth.

God’s watchman must speak out fearlessly and his listeners must act accordingly, or both will suffer inevitable consequences of their respective breaches of duty. But nowhere does the message provide that disagreeing men should either thwart the warning or forestall the reaction by destructive means. Just so the observant nonbeliever may deny the existence of the law of gravity, but when he leaps from an airplane without a parachute he pays the inexorable price for his sincere if incorrect intellectual position.

Limiting Human Action

What limits then restrain human action? The rules and order of the universe and the civil sanctions against aggression. The nature of man and the consequential constraints of the world permit growth but preclude perfection. The civil or positive law—no less than the essential Biblical code—ought to deter and punish the employment of fraud and the initiation of aggression; after all, if Ezekiel demonstrates that proper belief does not include the coercive imposition of that belief upon an unwilling other, the lesson must also implicitly dis parage the use of force for lesser purposes as well.

Most compulsion develops facially as a quest for “good” and as an affray against evil. B wishes to protect A from his folly. B “knows” that he knows better what ought to be done under the circumstances by virtue of his expertise, his beliefs, or his prominence, so he substitutes his moral, aesthetic, political, or economic judgment for that of his fellows. After all, if left to their own devices and desires, “they will make bad choices.” On the surface, B’s outward clamor is always for good, justice, and protection. In fact, the Bs of the world seek glory, patronage, and power, and their conduct displays the most heinous intolerance and cant. Those who seek to “do good” by coercive means accomplish great evil by depriving their subjects of their primary human trait. These dictators great and small live as men do, not as God.

Commitment to Christianity and to the free society are one and the same, The sole difference of note lies in the choices made by freely choosing individuals once all recognize the fundamental difference between commitment to principle and the use of compulsion to impose that principle upon others.

1.   See, for example, Isaiah 1:9; Nehemiah 1:3.

2.   Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job,” available-as a reprint from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

3.   It is confusing and amusing to consider the reluctance of some individuals to credit the notable—if not inspired—eyewitness accounts of ancient men and women, when those same individuals voraciously grasp as gospel the silly and demonstrably unsupported reports of modern ideologues and charlatans. For further insight, consider G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, t925), and Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (London: Richard Bentley, 1841).

4.   James Boswell, Boswell’s London Journal, edited by Frederick A. Pottle (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), entry of December 22, 1762, p. 100.

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.