In a previous issue of The Lampstand (Volume 7 No 6) we published a feature on Shepherds and Sheep. In this issue we consider a complementary theme under the title The Rôle of a Watchman. Both of these themes occur in consecutive chapters in Ezekiel 33 and 34 and are significantly located in the section chapters 33–39 dealing with the prophecies of the restoration of Israel. Those prophecies refer to the days in which we live and therefore give added importance and urgency to the exhortation, warning and message to our present ecclesial environment.

The watchman had one of the most responsible tasks in Israel. While daily life bubbled along in the streets below—the laughter, the gossip, the daily chores, the trading and commerce—he carefully kept his watch; and at night as the inhabitants of the city drifted off in peaceful sleep, the watchman remained vigilant and attentive at his post. He knew that the lives and security of his family, friends and all in the city were entrusted to his care. All such labours of love and diligent care for others are a heavy and constant responsibility to those who undertake them.

This man’s title described his responsibility. The Hebrew for watchman is tsaphah meaning “to lean forward, to peer”. So from his vantage point he would carefully scan the horizon for any sign of activity that might be either a threat or of importance to his fellows below. Sleep was driven from his eyes and drowsiness from his mind by the seriousness of his task. The one tool of his profession was his ram’s horn trumpet, the shophar. On this he could give the sharp penetrating alarm that would immediately punctuate life below, sweeping aside the trivia of normal daily cares or of nightly rest, and focusing attention on the reason for the alarm.

Yet how imperceptive the inhabitants of the city were if they placed their trust in the watchman alone to save them in trouble for “except Yahweh keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psa 127:1). It is only through the care of the heavenly “watchers” that true security was to be found, as Daniel and Elijah appreciated (Dan 4:13; 2 Kings 6:16,17).

Watching Requires Vigilance

Watchmen were entrusted with this important duty because of their knowledge, understanding and experience. We all know the story of the foolish shepherd boy who cried, “Wolf! wolf!” when there was no wolf. His continual false cries of alarm were responded to at first but finally resulted in disbelief, so that when the wolf did come no-one responded to protect his flock. As a watchman he was immature and irresponsible. Likewise, in ecclesial life, perpetual alarmists are annoying and unhelpful. The watchman needs to know “the signs of the times” and then be able to interpret them intelligently to protect the flock of God.

The Scriptures list many different troubles that can come over the horizon which, if not repelled, will disrupt the peaceful fellowship and diligent toil in the ecclesia. These include worldly ways, heresies, apathy, a lack of true love or love of ‘other things’, a lack of reading and meditation on the Word of Life, of prayer or even of a willingness to proclaim the Gospel to this perishing world. The watchman who limits his work to a perpetual analysis of the international political and military situation, accompanied by perpetual blasts on the trumpet over some seemingly interesting event, has not appreciated the fullness of his responsibility.

Not only was the watchman to warn of impending trouble but he was also the herald of good news. There are times to joyfully proclaim such good news. Isaiah spoke of this when he said: “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when Yahweh shall bring again Zion”. What caused this joy? The gospel of salvation had been proclaimed: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation” (Isa 52:7,8).

Keeping Awake and Instructing

There was a time when Yahweh said that Israel’s “watchmen” were “blind”. What an anomaly—a blind watchman! Yet so it was. “His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber” (Isa 56:10). Isaiah’s irony is cutting. Whoever would buy a ‘dumb’ watch dog?—it cannot bark! And furthermore, the watchman in the watchtower was sound asleep!

What of ecclesial watchmen today? Do we have vigilant brethren, keen to guide and encourage, while constantly looking to the horizon to see any approaching danger, ready to warn of its effect on the peace and harmony of the ecclesia and the individuals and families in it?

Paul teaches that being awake and watching go hand in hand: “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6).

Yahweh sent watchmen to sound the alarm and bring Israel back to “the old paths”. “Thus saith Yahweh, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein. Also I set watchmen over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet. But they said, We will not hearken.” (Jer 6:16,17).

The work of these watchmen was to follow up Yahweh’s plea to the nation to turn back to the old paths, the good way, urging them to walk therein. But they would not hear. This was a tragedy for the nation, and there is the danger of this tragedy being repeated in the ecclesial world today.

Those of us who have been in the Truth over forty years can see that humanism is taking its toll. Added to this, the daily pressure of the world we live in is having its destabilising influence on many. The sharpness of fundamental doctrine is not as evident in lectures or ‘presentations’ as it was, robust exposition is often lacking, and respect and reverence are being eroded by these new ways. Watchmen who raise these matters are often looked upon with ‘pity’, and accused of living in the past. But there can only be “old paths” because there was a past! The “holy men of God” who wrote the Bible through inspiration had a Godly fear and reverence. How foolish to ‘pity’ their mental discipline and way of life because we live in the ‘enlightened’ 21st century.

The Rôle of the Watchman

Ezekiel gives some very singular lessons for those who take on the role of the watchman. This is not restricted to experienced brethren alone, though in an ecclesial environment it may be. Both sisters and younger brethren and sisters do have areas in which they must exercise the responsibilities of being watchmen over those in their charge. For example, the sister in her home duties, who takes the “virtuous woman” as her example will be a vigilant watchman. The same word, tsaphah speaks of the way the virtuous woman “looketh well to the ways of her household” (Prov 31:27). Careful watchfulness at the doors of her home will allow nothing to pass the threshold that will disturb or threaten the spiritual growth of her young charges.

Seeing a complicated task performed by an expert in his profession makes it appear ever so simple. So with the watchman. The reliable watchman is one who has the knowledge, experience and perception to interpret the meaning of what he sees and how it can affect his ecclesia. A watchman is not a spectator. The spectator will watch with concern an army on the march. But the watchman, knowing the danger and potential loss of life in his city, will be busy assessing what action he should take.

Sadly in ecclesial life there are many spectators but few true watchmen. To the spectator the entry of ways into the ecclesia that are different from the “old paths” is passed off as just some bemusing aberration. The watchman who has weighed up the threat sees the need to sound the alarm. How many ecclesias today are but shells of what they once were, with few young families or young people as they have drifted off into the world? Were the watchmen not vigilant? Or could it be that the strident call on the trumpet went unheeded?

“Whoso Heareth and Taketh Not Heed”

The watchman was told: “If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people; Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head” (Ezek 33:3,4). The watchman has to be able to identify the enemy and interpret the meaning of his approach. There are many enemies that can threaten the development of the Truth in an ecclesia. Once the trumpet blast has sounded, the responsibility passes to those who hear. It seems inconceivable to think that people will not heed the alarm. But it is so. Jesus, like the watchman, sounded the alarm to the seven ecclesias of Asia: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the ecclesias” (Rev 2:7). But many did not heed and the established lightstands were soon extinguished. Thus it has ever been that some will not heed, even though the message is from the Lord himself. How foolish it would be to lie snuggled in the blankets, annoyed that the smoke alarm was disturbing your sleep—and perish in the fire! Yet many love spiritual slumber.

There is a two-fold responsibility associated with watching. The watchman must remain vigilant and give a clear warning when danger is near. Failure to do so can mean loss of life. If this happened his punishment was that “his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand” (Ezek 33:6). However it was the responsibility of those in the city to respond to the alarm. Failure to do so brought death, and “his blood shall be upon his own head” (v4).

Paul—The Ecclesial Watchman

There seems little doubt that Paul had in mind the two passages from Ezekiel 33 and 34 about watchmen and shepherds as he gave his final exhortation to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus. He rehearsed the events of the past three years that he had spent with them. He stated that, as a watchman, he had “kept back nothing that was profitable” unto them (Acts 20:20), and then proceeded to draw upon the lessons of the watchman and shepherd in his final exhortation. The parallels are clear.

  • I am pure from the blood of all men (Acts 20:26)
  • If thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way…his blood will I require at thine hand (Ezek 33:8)
  • I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God (Acts 20:27)
  • Thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me (Ezek 33:7)
  • Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock… to feed the ecclesia of God (Acts 20:28)
  • Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? (Ezek 34:2)
  • Grievous wolves [shall] enter in among you, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29)
  • Ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock (Ezek 34:3)
  • Therefore watch (Acts 20:31)
  • I have set thee a watchman (Ezek 33:7)
  • I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears (Acts 20:31)
  • Blow the trumpet, and warn the people (Ezek 33:3,7)

We see here Paul’s total commitment to both shepherding and watching over the ecclesia of God. He impressed upon the elders gathered there that it was now their responsibility to care for the ecclesia as he had, for he would not see them again. He loved his brethren and so warned of the impending troubles the ecclesia would face.

We too must heed Paul’s message. Those who take on the responsibility of a watchman because of their loving care for the ecclesia are to be valued and respected for their untiring and faithful labour. Their responsibility is to “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet” (Isa 58:1). All of us, though, should be vigilant and watchful, alert and awake, and in love stand together as we await our Lord’s return. Paul exhorted the ecclesia in Corinth in his day, and indeed his exhortation is clear for us all in these last perilous days: “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong. Let all your things be done with love” (1 Cor 16:13,14).