Knowing the Lord: A Promise & Process
By Chelsea Rose Odhner, Guest Preacher
Readings: Ezekiel 3:4-11, 47:1, 8-9, 12, Secrets of Heaven #3318 (see below)
In the book of Ezekiel there is a phrase that occurs more than sixty times: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel is foretelling what’s going to happen to the children of Israel and the outcome is repeatedly “knowing the Lord”! What I’ve found from tracing Ezekiel’s use of this phrase is that knowing the Lord does not mean simply knowing of God, but it suggests a much more intimate knowing. It involves a change of heart: “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord” writes Jeremiah (24:7). I want to share with you Ezekiel’s use of this phrase, and then share some thoughts on what we might be able to draw from it about what it means to know the Lord in our lives.
Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to the children of Israel, many of whom by this time are in captivity in Babylon, where he is as well. They were taken from the land of Judah, the land the Lord had promised to them, and now they are on the brink of losing it all. The only thing that has yet to be taken over is the holy city of Jerusalem itself, which contains the Lord’s temple. The temple is their most holy site—in a sense, it’s where they would normally go to know the Lord. Now they are having to adapt to life in exile, and they’re faced with having to find new ways of knowing the Lord. Ezekiel has the job of telling the children of Israel that even though most of them are already in captivity, things are actually going to get worse. He foretells of the final stages of the Babylonian takeover—the siege and fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of their most holy temple. But somehow, through all of this, in the end they will know the Lord.
That might not sound like much of a door prize. It’s a tough message to give, and it’s a tough message to receive, and the children of Israel understandably have a hard time hearing it. The Lord warns Ezekiel that they aren’t going to listen to his words of prophecy because they are a rebellious house. The term rebel in Hebrew can mean turned away from the light. Their foreheads are hardened and their hearts are stubborn toward God. They can’t trust that this sequence of events could lead to anything good for them, and they deny that any of it is going to happen. But the Lord tries to reach them nonetheless; and Ezekiel is only one of many prophets that the Lord raised up to reach out to the children of Israel, in hopes of turning them back toward the light and back into a relationship with God; because the Lord has nothing but love for them and wills to dwell with them in an everlasting covenant of love.
There are two main phases of Ezekiel’s prophecies to the children of Israel, with a turning point in between: prophecies that lead up to the fall of Jerusalem, the actual siege and fall of Jerusalem itself, and then the prophecies that follow.
The first phase of prophecies are about the coming desolation. We read, for example in chapter 6:14, “I will stretch out my hand against them, and make the land desolate and waste . . . Then they shall know that I am the Lord.” And in chapter 12:20, “The inhabited cities shall be laid waste, and the land shall become a desolation; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” Or in chapter 13:14, “I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Somehow even their perishing would be a means of knowing the Lord! These prophecies of desolation come to fruition in the middle of the book of Ezekiel: the Babylonians manage to lay siege to Jerusalem itself, the heart and stronghold of Judah.
It takes three years of rising famine and disease until Jerusalem falls and the temple is burned to the ground. All of Judah is now in captivity, except for some of the poorest people who are left to tend the land—to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil on the footprint of what was Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has fallen. At this point there’s a distinct shift in the tone of Ezekiel’s prophecies for the children of Israel. They go from foretelling desolation, to promising deliverance and blessing. For example, in chapter 34:27, “And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them.” And in 36:11, “I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” Or in 39:28, “Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.”
The desolation wasn’t the end! It was unavoidable; and somehow that stage ushered in a new level of capacity for them to receive the blessings the Lord willed to give them.
Every step of this process fed into them knowing the Lord: the desolation, the surrender, and the blessing. It’s the same for us in our spiritual lives! We cycle through a spiritual version of desolation, surrender, and blessing. Swedenborg makes the point that an essential part of our spiritual growth is going through times of trial. We heard in our readings that “the only way [the vessels in our mind] can be softened is through times of trial.” We inevitably undergo spiritual struggles, times of mental anguish and inner anxiety when evil tendencies in us are stirred up and attack what we love and the truths we believe. The Lord foresees these states and makes them serve us by being a means for us to be freed from evil and to become more receptive to divine love. One way Swedenborg puts it is that we “come into spiritual crises at the point when love needs to take the lead” (New Jerusalem 198). Even though to us it feels like we’re entering further into bondage and suffering, our spiritual struggles are actually the way out of bondage! Just like the children of Israel couldn’t understand how losing Jerusalem and being entirely taken captive to Babylon could be a means to their ultimate freedom and renewal, our spiritual struggles feel like they shouldn’t be happening and they couldn’t possibly be good, but they actually free us from persistent negative thoughts and feelings in the long run, if we let them, which requires a surrender on our part.
The Hebrew word for desolate actually means “to be put to silence” or to be astonished or stunned. Our thoughts and feelings are actually vessels that can be more or less receptive to the Lord’s love. The ones that aren’t receptive resist and oppose the love that God is. These vessels are hardened against the Lord’s constant loving inflow. Thoughts of this kind never allow for a positive, loving outlook. Have you ever tried to talk yourself out of fear or reason with it? The thoughts that stem from fear have a way of always coming up with convincing arguments in their favor that keep us caught in a tangle of fear and worry. We can’t change what they’re like, but they can be stunned into silence. And when they are, we can surrender into the Lord’s loving presence, we can surrender our self-will to the Lord’s will. And then the Lord actually molds or works those “hardened vessels” until they become pliable and open to the Lord’s love. Desolation, or times of spiritual struggle bring about the exact conditions our minds need to be freed from hell’s oppression and opened to love.
I was amazed to learn that Swedenborg actually pinpoints fear and distress as the primary symptoms of the onset of a spiritual crisis—the phase just before a shift toward love takes place (Secrets of Heaven 4249). This doesn’t mean every time we experience fear we’re having a spiritual crisis, but I’ve noticed the truth of this claim in my own life. I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being caught up in worry and fear, or as Brené Brown calls it, a “shame storm”, and then something happens that tips the balance and you maybe just break down in tears, or soften in some way? There’s a release and then those tears bring a sense of relief; there’s an inner shift and the fear is lifted. For me, motherhood has provided ample opportunities for this spiritual growth cycle to occur. And for whatever reason, bedtime has been a prime setting. I can think of numerous times that I’ve been trying to wrestle three energetic children through proper dental care and down for bed, and if the hassle of trying to convince them to listen to me wasn’t enough, my outer experience is kicking up self-critical thoughts inwardly that churn away about my motherhood, how this is probably easier for other people, or I’d be having a different experience if only I were more patient, or positive. These escalate in proportion with the unmanageability of the moment, coming out sideways in anger and frustration. It reaches some inner tipping point, and then, it might be something one child says, or I catch my reflection in the mirror, or I’m just struck by the contrast between my inner overwhelm and the tenderness of the moment—settling kids safely in their beds—and my heart cracks open. My self-concern is stunned, and I soften. I soften enough to be present to the feelings that are coming up for me—the sadness, the shame, the fear—rather than being blindly driven by them.
Maybe you can think of a time or times in your life when blessing has come after desolation, with a pivotal moment of surrender in between. In the language of 12 Step recovery, our lives become unmanageable and we acknowledge our powerlessness, we soften in the face of life being “too much,” and then from that place of surrender, we come to believe that God—a power greater than ourselves—can restore us to sanity. An inner shift happens and we find ourselves surrounded by love, a love we weren’t able to perceive before.
These experiences are genuinely humbling. Swedenborg writes that “When we are feeling humble, we are in a state receptive to goodness and truth from the Lord” (Secrets of Heaven 4956). Surrender doesn’t feel like a win; but there’s a tenderness that wasn’t there before, which makes way for the blessings. This process, this cycle, going from desolation, to surrender, to blessing is how we “come to know the Lord” so-to-speak, but it’s really how we become united to the Lord in love. In knowing the Lord, our heart is transformed.
For the last nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel, the prophecies of blessing shift to visions he has of the holy city and temple restored, as the Lord promised. The glory of the Lord comes from the East and fills the temple. Ezekiel hears the Lord speak from the midst of the new temple, saying, “This is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will reside among the people of Israel forever” (43:7). Out from the sanctuary in the temple, a river of the water of life begins to flow, and feeds and heals the land. Swedenborg writes that this water is a symbol of the Lord’s mercy, now flowing into the vessels in our hearts and minds that are newly receptive to it. This is the outcome the Lord is leading us toward.
When we find ourselves in the thick of desolation, we can look within and see what needs to be let go of in order for us to soften to the possibility of love’s true presence. It takes surrendering something on our part, but we can trust that every state we go through can be a means to open us more to love—to having a heart that truly knows the Lord.
He said to me: Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them. For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel—not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to them, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. He said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”; whether they hear or refuse to hear.
Ezekiel 47:1, 8-9, 12
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. . . . He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. . . . On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Secrets of Heaven 3318
Before [the vessels in our mind] can become submissive and fitted for accepting any of the life belonging to the Lord’s love, they have to soften, and the only way they can be softened is through times of trial. Tribulation takes away elements of self-love, contempt for others, and therefore vain pride, and elements of a consequent hatred and vengefulness as well. So when these evils are somewhat lessened and conquered by our trials, the vessels start to become yielding and obedient to the life of the Lord’s love, which constantly flows into us.
Our trials (our spiritual struggles) regenerate us, or in other words, remake us and give us a different character ever after. We become gentle, humble, sincere, and chastened at heart. This now reveals the use that times of trial serve: they enable goodness not only to flow in from the Lord but also to make the vessels in us obedient and in this way unite with them.