1 In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me. 2 And the word of the Lord came to me: 3 “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Is it to inquire of me that you come? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you. 4 Will you judge them, son of man, will you judge them? Let them know the abominations of their fathers, 5 and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob, making myself known to them in the land of Egypt; I swore to them, saying, I am the Lord your God. 6 On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. 7 And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’ 8 But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.
“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. 9 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. 10 So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 11 I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. 12 Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.
“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them. 14 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. 15 Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land that I had given them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands, 16 because they rejected my rules and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols. 17 Nevertheless, my eye spared them, and I did not destroy them or make a full end of them in the wilderness.
18 “And I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor keep their rules, nor defile yourselves with their idols. 19 I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, 20 and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God.’ 21 But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes and were not careful to obey my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; they profaned my Sabbaths.
“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the wilderness. 22 But I withheld my hand and acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. 23 Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, 24 because they had not obeyed my rules, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols. 25 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, 26 and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord. – Ezekiel 20:1-26 NLT
Sometime around 591 BC, Ezekiel received a delegation of Jewish officials who sought to receive a word from the Lord. Rumors had been circulating among the exiles that the Egyptians had secured a victory in Sudan and were flexing their muscles in Palestine. They had also heard that Zedekiah, the king of Judah, was seeking an alliance with the Egyptians in hopes of overthrowing the occupation of the Babylonians. So, the dignitaries who knocked on Ezekiel’s door were most likely looking for divine confirmation that their hopes for a successful alliance with Egypt would be confirmed. But God had a different message for them.
First, He confronted them for their audacity to seek His face when they had been defaming His name for so many years. They had no interest in getting to know God but simply wanted to know what He knew. They were attempting to use God as a fortune teller, hoping to extract from Him the information they wanted to hear. But what God had to tell them would not be music to their ears.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: How dare you come to ask me for a message? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I will tell you nothing!” – Ezekiel 20:3 NLT
Yet, God went on to tell them more than they wanted to know. He revisited their long track record of idolatry and apostasy, reminding them how little had changed over the centuries. From the moment He chose them as His special possession, they had made a habit of worshiping other gods. In fact, when God had come to the descendants of Jacob who had been living in captivity in Egypt for more than 400 years, He found them worshiping the false gods of Egypt. But, He promised to deliver them and take them to the land of Canaan, but with one condition.
“Each of you, get rid of the vile images you are so obsessed with. Do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt, for I am the Lord your God.” – Ezekiel 20:7 NLT
Even after hearing God’s promise of deliverance and His description of the fruitful land they would receive as their inheritance, they continued to worship the gods of Egypt.
“They did not get rid of the vile images they were obsessed with, or forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I threatened to pour out my fury on them to satisfy my anger while they were still in Egypt.” – Ezekiel 20:8 NLT
Yet, God kept His word and freed them from their captivity. But He did so in order to protect the honor of His name. He had committed Himself to love and protect the descendants of Abraham. He was their God and they were His chosen people. If He abandoned them, the honor of His name would be diminished among the nations.
God’s name represents who He is. It encompasses His character and nature. His name isn’t just a label or designation to help differentiate Him from something or someone else. It is His essence. And as the chosen children of God, the people of Israel were to help set apart His name by living lives that were distinctly different from the nations around them.
In this chapter, God reminds the people of their repeated rejection of Him over the centuries. Over and over again, He says, “But they rebelled…” God had made a solemn oath to deliver them from captivity and give them the Promised Land. In return, He had asked them to get rid of their idols and worship Him alone. But they couldn’t do it. They repeatedly rebelled and refused to obey His law – all throughout their years in the wilderness and even after they arrived in the Promised Land. So God was forced to punish them for their rebellion. He would have been absolutely just in wiping them out completely, but instead, He showed them grace and mercy – all to protect the integrity of His name.
He was going to do what He said He would do. He was going to keep the terms of His covenant. He had promised them the land and He was going to give it to them – in spite of their unfaithfulness and rebellion. God’s name and His character were at stake. If He failed to bring the people of Israel into the promised land, the nations would have questioned His integrity. They would have doubted His power. They would have never seen His holiness or set-apartness – those characteristics about Him that made Him distinct from all other gods.
Over the years, the people of God had brought shame on His name. They had been set apart by God as distinct and holy. They were His possession and were to live like it. That is why He gave them the Law. That is why He provided the sacrificial system.
“I gave them my decrees and regulations so they could find life by keeping them. And I gave them my Sabbath days of rest as a sign between them and me. It was to remind them that I am the Lord, who had set them apart to be holy.” – Ezekiel 20:11-12 NLT
Unlike all the other nations, the Israelites were commanded to worship God alone. But they had failed to do so, and as a result, they had defiled His name. And while God would have been completely justified in destroying them, He was committed to keeping His promises because the honor of His name was at stake.
Yet, even after experiencing the grace of His miraculous deliverance from captivity, they continued to worship the false gods of Egypt.
“They wouldn’t obey my regulations even though obedience would have given them life. They also violated my Sabbath days. So I threatened to pour out my fury on them, and I made plans to utterly consume them in the wilderness.” – Ezekiel 20:13 NLT
Several times along the way from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel tested God’s patience and pushed His mercy to the limits. But when they arrived at the banks of the Jordan River and refused to enter the land, God determined to curse them so they might wander in the wilderness until that first generation died off. Then He would allow their descendants to enter the land and enjoy His presence and provision. But even that second generation of Israelites proved to be far from faithful.
“But their children, too, rebelled against me. They refused to keep my decrees and follow my regulations, even though obedience would have given them life. And they also violated my Sabbath days.” – Ezekiel 20:21 NLT
The pattern continued. Each generation repeated the same deadly mistake, forsaking the one true God for the false gods of Egypt and Canaan. They refused to obey His commands and worship Him alone. For 40 long years, God endured the stubborn resistance of His covenant-breaking people. And while He refused to destroy them, He did predict their future downfall. He would bring them to the land and bless them abundantly, but He would also punish them for their unwillingness to honor Him as God.
“Nevertheless, I withdrew my judgment against them to protect the honor of my name before the nations that had seen my power in bringing them out of Egypt. But I took a solemn oath against them in the wilderness. I swore I would scatter them among all the nations because they did not obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 20:22-24 NLT
As the covenant-keeping God, if He failed to keep His promises, He would prove Himself either untrustworthy or incapable of doing what He had promised. So when the people failed to honor God’s name, He intervened so that he might protect the integrity of His name. He punished justly, spared them graciously, and continually extended mercy – refusing the wipe them out completely, all to protect the honor of His name.
But if the Jewish officials thought God was going to overlook their track record of sin and give them a favorable message concerning their deliverance, they were going to be disappointed. God warned Ezekiel that the day of judgment was about to come. The gracious and merciful God of Israel had seen and endured enough.
“I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life. I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them, and I allowed them to give their firstborn children as offerings to their gods—so I might devastate them and remind them that I alone am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 20:25-26 NLT
Zedekiah’s overtures to Egypt would amount to nothing. Any hopes of securing an alliance against the Babylonians would fail. If the Israelites would not honor the integrity of God’s name, He would do so Himself.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.