God said to the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me. Ezekiel 3:17.
Here is one of the most intriguing metaphors used by God in all of prophecy. It is repeated in chapter 33 for emphasis, and sets the stage for the prophet’s ministry to the divided houses of Judah and Israel.
Just what was the role of a watchman to an ancient city? How does God use the role of a watchman to warn and teach? What does it mean for the work of God today as this world comes to a prophetic crossroads?
It’s vital you understand the answer to these questions as events grow increasingly tense in a rapidly changing world order.
A key figure
In the ancient world of agrarian societies, large watchtowers were placed overlooking the fields. There, in the weeks the crops were ripening toward harvest, men would stand watch, guarding the fields from animals or from thieves who would make off with the crops. With the community’s basic food stores at stake, the watchman’s role was critical to the townspeople.
We also find several references in Scripture to a watcher mounting the city walls in times of stress to survey the scene outside the fortifications. He was situated on a spot from which he could monitor the approaches to the town. If a threat appeared, he would sound a warning and the town would shut its gates and prepare for battle.
You can also imagine the watcher standing vigil at other times, observing the daily life of the city. He could see much of the activity in the streets and markets. He knew the people, their work, their habits and their lifestyles. If his position was near the city gate, he could also observe the business of the city transacted by its officials. Ruth 4:1-12
No wonder God uses this role to illustrate the job of the prophets He sent to comment on society’s behavior, as well as to deliver messages of warning and instruction.
Prophets set as watchmen
Focusing on the Old Testament prophets helps us understand the full meaning of the symbolism of a watchman. There may be more than you have noticed before.
We noted at the outset Ezekiel 3:17, where God told the prophet to warn Israel of its sins and His impending punishment, saying, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me.”
Notice it is God’s message, not Ezekiel’s message or any other prophet’s message. It is always God’s message delivered through the human instrument. The warning comes from God in language phrased to fit the situation and designed to bring people to repentance. Let’s keep this point firmly in mind.
Continuing: “When 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, to save his life, that same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet, if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul” Ez 3:18, 19
The prophet had the duty to deliver the sobering message: Unless the citizens of Israel and Judah acknowledged their sins, turned from them, repented and began again to obey God’s law, they would die in their sins. Regardless of how individuals responded to the warning, if they heard the message, the prophet had done his job and was no longer responsible. Only if the prophet did not deliver the admonition would he be judged along with the wicked.
Ezekiel 3:20-21 explain another aspect. If a righteous person turned to sin, he would suffer the penalty, but the prophet would also be held liable for not giving him instruction. If the prophet gave adequate warning, instruction and positive teaching, the righteous could understand the consequences of turning from the right path. This could help motivate him to stay firm to the faith, a choice that would vindicate the prophet’s work.
You get the sense here that a part of the prophet’s message was showing the people how to live and maintain their faith. It was not just a strident message focused only on pointing out their problems. If the goal is to get people to turn back to the Word of God, then the message must also show the benefits of doing so. It must show the positive, better way of life God desires His people to live.
What will the watchman say?
Let’s look closer at what a watchman is to do by bringing in what Isaiah tells us about those who would preach the gospel of peace.
The role of a watchman is not limited to speaking only about the sins and problems of the society. The watchman was also charged with proclaiming good news about salvation.
Notice this in Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Your watchmen shall lift up their voices, with their voices they shall sing together; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord brings back Zion.
“Break forth into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem! For the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”. Isaiah 52:7-10
To Jerusalem and the land of Israel God says the watchmen will hold a vigil day and night for the peace of the people. “I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they shall never hold their peace day or night. You who make mention of the Lord, do not keep silent, and give Him no rest till He establishes and till He makes Jerusalem a praise in the earth.
“The Lord has sworn by His right hand and by the arm of His strength: ‘Surely I will no longer give your grain as food for your enemies; and the sons of the foreigner shall not drink your new wine, for which you have labored. But those who have gathered it shall eat it, and praise the Lord; those who have brought it together shall drink it in My holy courts.’
“Go through, go through the gates! Prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway! Take out the stones, lift up a banner for the peoples! Indeed the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the world: ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, “Surely your salvation is coming; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him” ’”Isaiah 62:6-11
Here we see the watchman role given to a group of people charged with a prayer vigil for the well-being of Israel. These people, by their presence and their prayers, seek to keep the city from suffering the ravaging effects of evil.
These passages in Isaiah paint an image of godly people who are given unique vision into the world of today and the world to come. They understand the universal application of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. They see that God will bring that Kingdom to earth and will offer salvation not just to Israel, but also to all nations. They see the reuniting of the tribes of Israel in the Promised Land as the beginning of the times of restoration of all things spoken of by Peter in Acts 3.
But they also have insight into the world at the end of this age. They see the dark gathering clouds on the world’s horizon that spell the end of Satan’s reign as the god of this world and author of all its evil. This leads them to mount the “walls” of society and shout a warning to any who will hear. To say: “God is sovereign. He will bring a time of judgment on the world to prove that He alone is God. All other gods erected by people to hide His truth will be destroyed.”
This message includes teaching that will show any who listen the way to personal peace. It will show the true teaching of God and the way to salvation.