The beginning of Ezekiel 33 reiterates an idea found earlier in the book in chapter 3; that Ezekiel is a watchman for Israel. The watchmen was like a military scout, the ancient version of an early warning device. It was the watchman's job to be on the lookout for an approaching enemy. If an army was approaching, the watchman was to sound the alarm so that the people would have enough time to get inside the city walls before the enemy was at hand. Obviously, many lives depended on the attentiveness of the watchman. If he failed to carry out his duties responsibly, it could cost a lot of people their lives. On the other hand, if for some strange reason the inhabitants of the city were to ignore the warning of the watchman and then died as a result, this would not be the watchman's fault since everyone had the choice whether or not they would heed the watchman's call.
The watchman is indeed an apt metaphor for Ezekiel's role within his community and the role of any prophet in any community really. In Ezekiel's context, the very real, literal army of the Babylonians has already come and carried Ezekiel and many of his fellow Israelites into exile. Nevertheless, Ezekiel's role as watchman continues even within the exiled community, warning those around him of the consequences of unfaithfulness to God. But like the watchman, it is only Ezekiel's job to warn. He has no power to enforce the warning. As long as Ezekiel issues his prophetic warning then he has done his job and it is up to those who hear the warning to respond accordingly.
As a pastor, this is one of the responsibilities I hold within this community of faith and it is one of the most difficult of those responsibilities. Especially in a culture where someone can easily find another church to attend if they don't like what you have to say, it seems almost impossible to speak words of warning like these in a way that is edifying and beneficial when someone is on the wrong path. Perhaps what is worse though is the powerlessness I have felt when I have uttered those words of warning. Such words are difficult enough when they actually lead to repentance but so often they actually lead to rejection and strife. While I continue to pray that God will give me wisdom and humility in these matters, I have also began to learn the truth that not everyone heeds the watchman's warning. Often we must simply speak the truth in love and leave the rest up to God.
Of course, it is not only my responsibility. The entirety of the Church has a prophetic role to play and therefore it is a task left to all of us to speak words of truthfulness and warning to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are called to be watchmen to each other, reproving each other when we are not living up to the holy life to which we have been called. It is my prayer that God will give us the courage to speak what needs to be spoken and the wisdom and humility to speak it well.