Three approaches to reading a book like Ezekiel. (David Pawson)
There is the verse-centered approach in which people look for a word for themselves. I’m tempted to call it ‘the horoscope method of Bible reading’, where we read through until a verse fits our situation. But this is not how God intended the Bible to be read. Indeed, you would have to go a long way through Ezekiel before you found a personally relevant verse that leapt off the page! Devotional Bible reading can be useful and is better than nothing, but it’s not the right way to read the Bible. It is an essentially self-centered way of reading.
2. The passage-centered approach (to give to others)
Next, there is the passage-centered approach. Some Christians read the Bible mainly for the sake of other people. This is especially the case for preachers and teachers, who are wondering what they should preach about. Four passages in Ezekiel are special favorites with preachers.
Perhaps the most popular is chapter 37, made famous by the Negro spiritual ‘Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones …hear the word of the Lord’. The themes of death and life are too good to resist, and the extraordinary image of bones joining together, covered with flesh, makes for dramatic effect.
Chapter 47 is another preaching favorite, through it tends to be taken out of context and used in an allegorical way. In the chapter a man finds a river flowing from the temple. He steps into it up to his ankles, and then up to his knees, and then up to his waist, and then it is deep enough to swim in. So preachers use the water as a picture of the Holy Spirit. They ask: ‘How deeply are you into the Spirit? Are you swimming in the Spirit yet, or are you just paddling?’ But geographical details in the context (fishermen at En Gedi by the Sea in the Arabah Valley) surely intend the prophecy to be taken literally. The Dead Sea becoming full of life with the influx of desalinating fresh water is a miracle of nature, but preachers find it easier to ‘spiritualize’ such events and apply them to human nature, especially if they have problems with supernatural intervention in the physical realm. And the allegorical treatment of the Old Testament has a long history in church pulpits, emanating from the Greek disdain for the literal and physical in the teaching of Clement and Origen of Alexandria in the third century AD.
3. The book-centered approach (God)
This is the best approach to Ezekiel, and it involves getting a grasp of the whole book rather than just parts of it. Only by doing this can we really understand what God is saying to us through it. Ultimately the main reason for reading the Bible is that we might know God. Bible reading teaches us what kind of a God he is – how he responds to us, how he feels about us and what he will do with us. So if we avoid Ezekiel we avoid a crucial part of God’s revelation about himself and we miss out on what it teaches us.
When Christians read the Bible book by book for the first time, I always recommend using the Living Bible. As I mentioned earlier, some years ago the church my Teacher served in Guildford read through the whole Bible non-stop in this version. The Living Bible is the most accurate translation of the feelings expressed in the Bible, but since it is a paraphrase, it is not the most accurate translation of the thoughts and the precise wording of the biblical text.
The Bible is of course, the word of God and the word of man. So we can look at it for both inspiration and interest. There is a great deal of human interest in it. God chose to communicate his word through people, in all their complexity, at particular times and in particular situations. These are not ‘ivory tower’ speculations but words that made a difference to the world and to people’s perception of it.
By understanding the real-life situations portrayed in the Bible we can appreciate the way in which God’s word came to real people in real history. When speakers take the divine word out of its human context, boring preaching and teaching is the result.
Taken from David Pawson