45 And the word of the Lord came to me: 46 “Son of man, set your face toward the southland; preach against the south, and prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb. 47 Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. 48 All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.” 49 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of parables?’”
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries. Prophesy against the land of Israel 3 and say to the land of Israel, Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you and will draw my sword from its sheath and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked. 4 Because I will cut off from you both righteous and wicked, therefore my sword shall be drawn from its sheath against all flesh from south to north. 5 And all flesh shall know that I am the Lord. I have drawn my sword from its sheath; it shall not be sheathed again.
6 “As for you, son of man, groan; with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan before their eyes. 7 And when they say to you, ‘Why do you groan?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that it is coming. Every heart will melt, and all hands will be feeble; every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it is coming, and it will be fulfilled,’” declares the Lord God. – Ezekiel 20:27-21:7 NLT
The final phase of God’s judgment was coming and He has confirmed that its arrival would be well-deserved and fully just. The people of Israel stood before God guilty and condemned. From the northern borders of Israel to the southern tip of Judah, the entire land of promise had been polluted by the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people. During the reign of King Josiah in Judah, the prophet Jeremiah delivered a warning that the southern kingdom would suffer the same fate as the northern kingdom because they were guilty of the same crime. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians and yet the southern kingdom of Judah had learned nothing from watching God’s destruction of their ten fellow tribes.
“Have you seen what fickle Israel has done? Like a wife who commits adultery, Israel has worshiped other gods on every hill and under every green tree. I thought, ‘After she has done all this, she will return to me.’ But she did not return, and her faithless sister Judah saw this. She saw that I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 NLT
God also gave Ezekiel a message for the recalcitrant citizens of Judah. Despite the fall of their northern neighbor, they remained just as stubbornly committed to their idolatrous ways. They had shown no signs of regret, remorse, or repentance. So, God provides Ezekiel with a series of prophetic statements concerning the land of Judah, beginning with the southern region of the Negev.
“Son of man, turn and face the south and speak out against it; prophesy against the brushlands of the Negev.“ – Ezekiel 20:47 NLT
The Negev was an expansive desert region that extended from Bathsheba in the north all the way down to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. While the Negev was predominantly an arid region, in Ezekiel’s day the northern portion was forested and rather lush. The southern region was more desolate and featured drought-resistant shrubs and bushes. It was less populated but still considered a part of the promised land. Yet, God declares that He is going to bring destructive fires to turn the entire region into a vast wasteland.
“I will set you on fire, and every tree, both green and dry, will be burned. The terrible flames will not be quenched and will scorch everything from south to north.” – Ezekiel 20:47 NLT
The devastation will be complete and the divine nature of its source will be readily known.
“And everyone in the world will see that I, the Lord, have set this fire. It will not be put out.’” – Ezekiel 20:48 NLT
But Ezekiel complains that this message is falling on unreceptive ears. He is stuck in Babylon, delivering God’s warnings of judgment against the Negev to people who don’t even live there. His fellow exiles view his messages as incomprehensible and non-applicable to them.
“O Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘He only talks in riddles!’” – Ezekiel 20:49 NLT
But rather than address Ezekiel’s concerns, God simply provides him with further details by focusing the point of His message further north.
“Son of man, turn and face Jerusalem and prophesy against Israel and her sanctuaries.” – Ezekiel 21:1 NLT
It seems that God required Ezekiel to physically turn and address these different regions of Judah. Once again, he is expected to act out his prophecy by turning south and then north to accentuate the different regions of Judah. Perhaps he was using the miniature model of Jerusalem that God had commanded him to make earlier (Ezekiel 4:1-17). This physical orientation was probably intended to remind the exiles of the geographic layout of their former homeland. It was a visual demonstration of the vast and diverse nature of Judah’s territory.
In the less-populated south, the primary recipients of God’s fury would be the trees and shrubs. But as His wrath moved northward, it would focus on the people who occupied the cities, villages, and towns that dotted the landscape, including the capital city of Jerusalem.
“This is what the Lord says: I am your enemy, O Israel, and I am about to unsheath my sword to destroy your people—the righteous and the wicked alike. Yes, I will cut off both the righteous and the wicked! I will draw my sword against everyone in the land from south to north.” – Ezekiel 21:3-4 NLT
In some sense, God seems to be comparing the entire nation of Judah to a desert, a virtual spiritual wasteland where the life-giving presence of God is nowhere to be found. Despite the presence of the temple in Jerusalem, their knowledge of God’s Law, and the availability of the sacrificial system, the people of Judah showed no signs of spiritual life and vitality.
The prophet, Habakkuk, gave an eyewitness account of the sorry spiritual state within the land of Judah.
Wherever I look,
I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
so that justice has become perverted. – Habakkuk 1:3-4 NLT
And God provided Habakkuk with His divine solution to Judah’s moral and spiritual problem.
“I am raising up the Babylonians,
a cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world
and conquer other lands.
They are notorious for their cruelty
and do whatever they like.
Their horses are swifter than cheetahs
and fiercer than wolves at dusk.
Their charioteers charge from far away.
Like eagles, they swoop down to devour their prey.” – Habakkuk 1:6-8 NLT
God had determined to destroy His rebellious and unrepentant people. He had relented long enough and now it was time to deal with their rampant and escalating wickedness. And to help accentuate the devastating nature of the coming destruction, Ezekiel is instructed to “groan before the people! Groan before them with bitter anguish and a broken heart” (Ezekiel 21:6 NLT). His presentation of God’s prophecies is to be accompanied by heartfelt distress and visible expressions of sorrow. And it probably didn’t require a lot of acting on Ezekiel’s part to carry off this request. He was personally grieved by the news of his nation’s pending destruction, and he was not alone. Even Habakkuk expressed his concern about God’s plan.
“O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
to punish us for our many sins.
But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
swallow up people more righteous than they?” – Habakkuk 1:12-13 NLT
Even God’s prophets struggled to understand God’s ways. His determination to use a pagan nation to punish His own people made no sense to them. It seemed out of character and in direct violation of His covenant commitments. But what they failed to understand was the egregious nature of Judah’s sin. They had yet to comprehend the gravity of the situation or the full extent of Judah’s spiritual degradation. But God was letting Ezekiel know that the punishment would be commensurate with the crime. And when the judgment of God came, it would leave a lasting impression.
“When it comes true, the boldest heart will melt with fear; all strength will disappear. Every spirit will faint; strong knees will become as weak as water. And the Sovereign Lord says: It is coming! It’s on its way!” – Ezekiel 21:8 NLT
Their wandering and unfaithful hearts will be left in a state of abject fear. The false gods they loved so much will abandon them. In their time of greatest need, their idols will prove powerless, leaving them without a source of strength or security. The formerly prideful and arrogant will find themselves humiliated and degraded. Those who rested on their financial strength and self-sufficiency will become destitute and devoid of all material wealth.
And the impact of this coming judgment would be without boundaries. From the Negev to Jerusalem and from Babylon to the Kebar River, the full force of God’s wrath will be felt by His chosen people. Even from their distant vantage point in Babylon, the exiles will not escape the consequences of their unfaithfulness to God. And God provided the prophet, Habakkuk, with the simple antidote for escaping the wrath of God: Faithfulness.
“This vision is for a future time.
It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
for it will surely take place.
It will not be delayed.
“Look at the proud!
They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked.
But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” – Habakkuk 2:3-4 NLT
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.