Scattered Sheep and Shoddy Shepherds

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. Ezekiel 34:1-10 ESV

While every Israelite was personally responsible for their own sin, God placed blame on the nation’s leadership and held them culpable for the sorry spiritual state of the His chosen people. The civic and religious leaders of Judah had played an undeniable role in the nation’s demise. According to God, these powerful and influential men were guilty of using their positions of authority to mislead and abuse those under their care. Rather than serving as loving shepherds for God’s flock, they had used their God-given authority for personal gain.

Yahweh, the Good Shepherd, accused these men of fleecing His flock. When they should have been protecting God’s people, they had chosen to use their roles for personal profit and self-promotion. And God warns them that He will hold them responsible for their abuse of power.

What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? – Ezekiel 34:2 NLT

God is unsparing in His assessment of their crimes. Using the shepherding metaphor to full advantage, God accuses them of neglect, abuse, cruelty, and dereliction of duty.

“You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty.” – Ezekiel 34:4 NLT

But who are these shiftless shepherds? Throughout the Old Testament, the term “shepherd” is used to refer to kings, governors, priests, and even prophets. Since God is addressing His chosen people, His reference to shepherds would include the king and his royal court, as well as all the civic and religious leaders of Israel. Anyone in a position of authority would have been included in God’s indictment.

Earlier in his book, Ezekiel recorded God’s displeasure with the self-proclaimed prophets of Judah who were purporting to speak for God but were actually propagating false messages that contradicted the words of Ezekiel.

“…these prophets of yours are like jackals digging in the ruins. They have done nothing to repair the breaks in the walls around the nation. They have not helped it to stand firm in battle on the day of the Lord. Instead, they have told lies and made false predictions.” – Ezekiel 13:4-6 NLT

The people viewed these men as spiritual leaders and took their words as having come from God. But their messages were nothing but lies, intended to deceive and designed to provide false hope. They were nothing more than snake-oil salesmen promoting a self-concocted product offering beguiling but completely bogus benefits.

But the prophets weren’t the only ones whom God held responsible. The priests also played a role in the nation’s spiritual freefall. The very ones who should have been promoting obedience and modeling faithfulness were guilty of gross misconduct and failure to fulfill their God-given role. The prophet Hosea recorded God’s stinging rebuke of the priestly order and His intention to punish them for their catastrophic abuse of power.

“My people are being destroyed
    because they don’t know me.
Since you priests refuse to know me,
    I refuse to recognize you as my priests.
Since you have forgotten the laws of your God,
    I will forget to bless your children.
The more priests there are,
    the more they sin against me.
They have exchanged the glory of God
    for the shame of idols.

“When the people bring their sin offerings, the priests get fed.
    So the priests are glad when the people sin!
‘And what the priests do, the people also do.’
    So now I will punish both priests and people
    for their wicked deeds.” – Hosea 4:6-9 NLT

The prophet Malachi provides God’s clear explanation of the priestly role and His blunt assessment of those responsible for carrying it out.

“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:7-8 NLT

As the spiritual leaders of His people, God held the priests and prophets responsible for the well-being of the flock. They were the teachers and truth-tellers, the guides responsible for leading and feeding the sheep of God’s flock. But they had dropped the ball. Rather than model righteousness and promote holiness, they had led the way in wickedness and unfaithfulness. When God had made His covenant with the tribe of Levi, setting them apart for their role as the priestly order, He declared, “they did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin” (Malachi 2:6 NLT). But all that had changed. Over time, the priests had become corrupt and used their God-ordained roles to promote sin rather than sanctification, and God would hold them accountable.

But there’s one more group of shepherds whom God must expose and excoriate. At the top of the leadership pyramid sat the king and all his royal counselors. As the designated head of state, the king was ultimately responsible for the well-being of the nation. His position as supreme ruler meant that the buck stopped with him. His role as God’s vice-regent provided him with great authority but it came with significant responsibility. The king was to serve as the primary example of submission to God. His power and authority had been delegated to him by God and it was to be used to provide protection and promote godliness. Yet, all throughout the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, there appears a recurring theme. The vast majority of the kings “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” (2 Kings 15:9 NLT). They promoted idolatry, encouraged wickedness, and modeled unfaithfulness.

King David had encouraged Solomon, his son and heir to the throne, to remain faithful to God. His ascension to the kingship would require obedience to God.

“Observe the requirements of the LORD your God, and follow all his ways. Keep the decrees, commands, regulations, and laws written in the Law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. If you do this, then the LORD will keep the promise he made to me. He told me, ‘If your descendants live as they should and follow me faithfully with all their heart and soul, one of them will always sit on the throne of Israel.’” – 1 Kings 2:3-4 NLT

Yet, Solomon had proved to be far from faithful. While he started out well, he ended his reign by promoting idolatry and causing the people to sin against God. As a result, God divided his kingdom in half, creating the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And both kingdoms demonstrated a propensity for unfaithfulness. The sins of the kings resulted in God’s judgment of the people and their scattering among the nations.

“…my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 NLT

God accuses His shepherds of abandonment. Not only had they been the cause of their sin, but they had also done nothing to restore them to God’s fold when they had become scattered. And God declares His intention to hold these men responsible for their actions. And, more than that, He promises to step in and do what they should have done all along.

“I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:10 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.

The Final Purging

21 In the twelfth year of our exile, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, a fugitive from Jerusalem came to me and said, “The city has been struck down.” 22 Now the hand of the Lord had been upon me the evening before the fugitive came; and he had opened my mouth by the time the man came to me in the morning, so my mouth was opened, and I was no longer mute.

23 The word of the Lord came to me: 24 “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’ 25 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God: You eat flesh with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood; shall you then possess the land? 26 You rely on the sword, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land? 27 Say this to them, Thus says the Lord God: As I live, surely those who are in the waste places shall fall by the sword, and whoever is in the open field I will give to the beasts to be devoured, and those who are in strongholds and in caves shall die by pestilence. 28 And I will make the land a desolation and a waste, and her proud might shall come to an end, and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that none will pass through. 29 Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I have made the land a desolation and a waste because of all their abominations that they have committed.

30 “As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, ‘Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’ 31 And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. 32 And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it. 33 When this comes—and come it will!—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” Ezekiel 33:21-33 ESV

Exactly three years earlier, “in the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month” (Ezekiel 24:1 ESV), the prophet Ezekiel had received a message from Yahweh concerning the coming destruction of Jerusalem. He was told to “write down today’s date, because on this very day the king of Babylon is beginning his attack against Jerusalem” (Ezekiel 24:2 NLT). And God informed His prophet that the Babylonian siege would last three years, then end with the city’s fall.

“Son of man, on the day I take away their stronghold—their joy and glory, their heart’s desire, their dearest treasure—I will also take away their sons and daughters. And on that day a survivor from Jerusalem will come to you in Babylon and tell you what has happened. And when he arrives, your voice will suddenly return so you can talk to him, and you will be a symbol for these people. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 24:25-27 NLT

Up until that point, Ezekiel had been struck mute by God and was completely unable to speak to the people. He was restricted to conveying his messages through dramatic demonstrations as dictated by God. But Ezekiel was informed that his muteness would come to an end on the day he received news of Jerusalem’s destruction. And chapter 33 of Ezekiel records that fateful day.

The night before the messenger arrived from Jerusalem with news of the city’s devastating end, God had opened Ezekiel’s mouth so that he could speak. The prophet’s renewed capacity for speech would be put to use immediately as God provided him with a message for “the scattered remnants of Israel living among the ruined cities” (Ezekiel 33:24 NLT). It seems that for seven-and-a-half years, Ezekiel had only been able to speak when God allowed him to do so.

“I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be speechless and unable to rebuke them, for they are rebels. But when I give you a message, I will loosen your tongue and let you speak. Then you will say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!” – Ezekiel 3:26-27 NLT

But with Jerusalem’s demise, this on-again-off-again condition was removed and Ezekiel had full freedom to speak on behalf of God with no restrictions. His first message was to all those Israelites who were living as exiles in foreign lands or who had taken up residence in the wastelands of Canaan. Within these two groups, there were those who believed they had every right to return to the land and make it their own. Their assumption was based on their identity as children of Abraham, and the logic behind it was simple.

“Abraham was only one man, yet he gained possession of the entire land. We are many; surely the land has been given to us as a possession.” – Ezekiel 33:24 NLT

In a sense, they were right. The land had been promised to them by God, but that promise came with conditions. God expected them to live in obedience to His commands. Their status as descendants of Abraham was not enough. Prior to them entering the land of Canaan for the first time, Moses had clearly communicated God’s expectations.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

Obedience was the key to blessing. And those blessings would help to set them apart as God’s chosen people.

“If you obey the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways, the Lord will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do. Then all the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the Lord, and they will stand in awe of you. – Deuteronomy 28:9-10 NLT

But now, centuries later, the Israelites were the laughingstock of the world. Hundreds of years earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and now the southern kingdom of Judah was a vassal state of the Babylonians. Its cities lay in ruins and its people had been relegated to a life of poverty and dispossession. Yet, they still believed they had every right to return to the land and enjoy all its benefits.

But God had other plans for them because He knew they remained unrepentant and unworthy to occupy His holy land. Their sinful actions had left the land of promise defiled and in need of divine purging, and God was merciless in exposing their culpability.

You eat meat with blood in it, you worship idols, and you murder the innocent. Do you really think the land should be yours? Murderers! Idolaters! Adulterers! Should the land belong to you?” – Ezekiel 33:25-26 NLT

They were law-breakers and covenant violators and God knew that even the fall of Jerusalem would not cause them to acknowledge their sins and repent. Over the centuries, they had developed a track record of stubborn resistance to God’s calls for repentance, and now they were going to experience the full extent of His wrath, just as He had outlined it to Moses centuries earlier.

“…if you do not listen to me or obey all these commands, and if you break my covenant by rejecting my decrees, treating my regulations with contempt, and refusing to obey my commands, I will punish you.” – Leviticus 26:14-16 NLT

God had given Moses a detailed description of His judgments, clearly indicating the escalating nature of their intensity if the people refused to respond.

And if, in spite of all this, you still disobey me, I will punish you seven times over for your sins. – Leviticus 26:18 NLT

“If even then you remain hostile toward me and refuse to obey me, I will inflict disaster on you seven times over for your sins. – Leviticus 26:21 NLT

“And if you fail to learn the lesson and continue your hostility toward me, then I myself will be hostile toward you. I will personally strike you with calamity seven times over for your sins.” – Leviticus 26:23-24 NLT

“If in spite of all this you still refuse to listen and still remain hostile toward me, then I will give full vent to my hostility. I myself will punish you seven times over for your sins. – Leviticus 26:27-28 NLT

Every if-then statement was fulfilled because the people of Israel refused to listen. No judgment awakened their sense of shame or caused them to repent of their sins. They stubbornly clung to their ways and watched as wave after wave of God’s judgments came against them. And now, God declares that He is going to bring the last phase of His judgment, just as He had predicted through the pen of Moses.

“And for those of you who survive, I will demoralize you in the land of your enemies. You will live in such fear that the sound of a leaf driven by the wind will send you fleeing. You will run as though fleeing from a sword, and you will fall even when no one pursues you. Though no one is chasing you, you will stumble over each other as though fleeing from a sword. You will have no power to stand up against your enemies. You will die among the foreign nations and be devoured in the land of your enemies. Those of you who survive will waste away in your enemies’ lands because of their sins and the sins of their ancestors.” – Leviticus 26:36-39 NLT

That day had come. God declares to Ezekiel, “I will completely destroy the land and demolish her pride. Her arrogant power will come to an end” (Ezekiel 33:28 NLT). The time for purging and cleansing had arrived.

And as for the exiles among whom Ezekiel ministered, God had a word for them as well. Their plaintive pleas for the prophet to give them a message from God were a sham. They had no intentions of keeping the commands of God, whether written on a scroll as part of the Mosaic Law or spoken from the lips of His prophet.

“…my people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money. – Ezekiel 33:31 NLT

God informs Ezekiel that his audience only feigns interest. They listen politely and intently to what he has to say but have no intentions of changing their behavior. Yet God assures His prophet, “when all these terrible things happen to them—as they certainly will—then they will know a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 33:33 NLT). God hints at a day when the people will finally wake up and realize what they have done. The full weight of God’s judgment will have its full effect, awakening His rebellious people to their need for God’s healing and forgiveness. While this chapter ends on a negative note, it gives a glimpse of the good news to come. God’s judgment had a purpose and His plan was not yet complete.

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.

Do the Right Thing

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.

“So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.

10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?

12 “And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does injustice, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered, but in his injustice that he has done he shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live.

17 “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this. 20 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” Ezekiel 33:1-20 ESV

In this chapter, Ezekiel records the message he received from God concerning his ministry and mission. It seems to announce a shift in the focus of Ezekiel’s message. The earlier portions of his book contain repeated warnings of God’s pending judgment. They foreshadow the coming destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem. But in chapters 32-33, Ezekiel received and delivered the news that those prophetic events had become reality. The Babylonian siege of Jerusalem had ended and the city had been destroyed.

At this point, it seems that any calls to repentance would be unnecessary. The people of Judah had failed to turn from their sins and return to the Lord, so the judgment of God had come just as He had promised. But this chapter provides the people of Judah with a much-needed reminder that God was not done with them. His judgment, while just and well-deserved, was not the final chapter in His relationship with them.

The chapter opens with a personal message from God to Ezekiel that explains his role as “a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7 ESV), and it is not the first time the prophet has heard these words. All the way back in chapter 3, Ezekiel recorded the original commission he received from God.

“Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately.” – Ezekiel 3:17 NLT

It is as if God is recommissioning Ezekiel. With the fall of Jerusalem, it would have been easy for Ezekiel to assume that his work was done. He had warned of Judah’s coming destruction and now it had taken place. Jerusalem had been leveled and its people taken into captivity or scattered to the four winds. There was no longer any incentive left that might provide the people with sufficient motivation to repent. But God was not done and He wanted Ezekiel to know that his mission had not ended with the fall of Jerusalem. There was more to do.

God begins by reminding Ezekiel of the watchman’s role. He describes the scene of a city facing a possible attack from enemy forces sent by His hand. With the threat of divine judgment looming, the citizens of that city would appoint an individual to serve as an early warning system. His job would be to patrol the walls and announce any signs of enemy encroachment.

In ancient days, most of the larger cities were surrounded by massive defensive walls. On those walls were posted sentries or watchmen, whose responsibility it was to watch for potential threats. Day and night, as long as they were on duty, they had to keep an eye out for possible enemy attacks. When they saw trouble on the horizon, they were to sound an alarm to let the people inside the walls know that danger was imminent and that appropriate action was needed. If the watchman did his job and the people failed to listen, he was absolved of any responsibility for their deaths. But if he saw the threat and refused to warn the people, their deaths would be on his head.

Everything in this message is a repeat of the one Ezekiel received in chapter 3. God is reiterating His call for Ezekiel to serve as the watchman for the people of Israel. While he wasn’t standing high on the wall of a city, Ezekiel was prominently placed in the middle of the exiles living in Babylon. He had a unique vantage point that allowed him to see the future and warn the people of God what was going to happen next. As has already been proven true, his warnings were not idle threats, but God-given predictions of coming disaster, and his job came with obvious dangers. The most prominent one was that if he failed to sound the alarm and warn the people, he would be held responsible for the fate of their souls. But God makes it clear that if Ezekiel continues to do his job and the people fail to listen, then he will be absolved of any responsibility. He would have done his job.

But God wants Ezekiel to know that his ministry is far from done. Though the judgment of God had come and the nation of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, there was more for Ezekiel to do. That is why God recommissions His prophet by stating, “Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:7 NLT).

This time, God gives Ezekiel a message to deliver to the people that is much more personal than corporate. It focuses on the actions of the individual.

“If I announce that some wicked people are sure to die and you fail to tell them to change their ways, then they will die in their sins, and I will hold you responsible for their deaths. But if you warn them to repent and they don’t repent, they will die in their sins, but you will have saved yourself.” – Ezekiel 33:8-9 NLT

With the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews living in exile alongside Ezekiel found themselves in a state of depression and despair. They had lost hope of ever returning to their homeland and wondered what was going to happen to them. There was a palpable sense of guilt pervading the exiles as they questioned their own culpability in Judah’s fall. Were they responsible? Was God going to bring judgment on them? They had become conscious of their sins and were fearful of the possible repercussions, and God knew exactly what they were thinking.

“Son of man, give the people of Israel this message: You are saying, ‘Our sins are heavy upon us; we are wasting away! How can we survive?’ – Ezekiel 33:10 NLT

The hope of returning to Judah one day was all that had kept them going. Now that hope was gone. With their homeland in shambles, they were stuck in Babylon and facing an uncertain future. But God wanted them to know that it was not too late, and He gave Ezekiel a new message to deliver to His despondent people.

“As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?” – Ezekiel 33:11 NLT

In the next nine verses, God delivers a simple message of repentance. He calls on His people to do the right thing. Yes, they were guilty of sin and rebellion against Him, but they could reverse that trend. It was not too late.

In this passage, God is not suggesting that behavior can guarantee one’s eternal security. He is not promoting salvation by works. He is simply explaining the natural consequences of human actions. A man who lives a righteous life and yet commits a sin against God, cannot assume that his past acts of righteousness will exempt him from judgment. And an unrighteous man who decides to turn from his wicked ways must not assume that his past deeds will prevent him from enjoying God’s forgiveness.

God knew that the exiles were accusing Him of injustice. They felt as if they had been treated unfairly and that His judgment of them had been too severe. They exclaimed, “The Lord isn’t doing what’s right” (Ezekiel 33:17 NLT). But God turned the tables on them by stating, “it is they who are not doing what’s right” (Ezekiel 33:17 NLT). He was calling them to repentance and they were refusing to obey. God was looking for a change in attitude that showed up in a change of actions. He expected the righteous to continue pursuing righteousness. If they didn’t, they would face the consequences. He expected the wicked to turn back to Him in repentance. If they did, they would receive forgiveness. If they didn’t, they could expect to be judged accordingly.

And through it all, Ezekiel was expected to maintain his role as God’s watchman and messenger. He was to watch and warn. He was to continue encouraging the people to do the right thing by calling them to pursue righteousness rather than wickedness. God makes the message plain and simple.

“…when righteous people turn away from their righteous behavior and turn to evil, they will die. But if wicked people turn from their wickedness and do what is just and right, they will live.” – Ezekiel 33:18-19 NLT

And God knew that the people would continue to accuse Him of being unjust and unfair, but He reminded them, “I judge each of you according to your deeds” (Ezekiel 33:20 NLT). They each had a personal responsibility to heed the warnings of the prophet and respond accordingly. God, the just and righteous one, was simply reiterating the call He had given them from the very beginning.

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2 ESV

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.

Lord of All

17 In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre. Every head was made bald, and every shoulder was rubbed bare, yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had performed against her. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. 20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, declares the Lord God.

21 “On that day I will cause a horn to spring up for the house of Israel, and I will open your lips among them. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel 29:17-21 ESV

Some 17 years later, Ezekiel received yet another oracle from God concerning Egypt, and this one came sometime around his 50th birthday. The prophet placed it immediately after the prior message to identify Babylon as the source of Egypt’s fall. King Nebuchadnezzar would be the one wielding the sword against Pharaoh and his people. The same nation that brought about the end of Judah and Tyre would sweep down on the unsuspecting citizens of Egypt, “and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste” (Ezekiel 29:9 ESV).

The amazing thing about this passage is its insistence that Nebuchadnezzar acted as an agent of God Almighty. He was an instrument in the hands of God, carrying out the divine will exactly as God had intended. Unknowingly serving as God’s instrument of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar would lay siege to Tyre for 13 long years, forcing his army to endure a lengthy and costly campaign that resulted in little benefit.

“Son of man, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon fought so hard against Tyre that the warriors’ heads were rubbed bare and their shoulders were raw and blistered. Yet Nebuchadnezzar and his army won no plunder to compensate them for all their work.” – Ezekiel 29:18 NLT

This kind of expenditure against a relatively small coastal city made no sense for a global juggernaut like Babylon. It had little to gain from pouring such much time and resources into a single campaign against a city-state that posed little threat to its empire. But Nebuchadnezzar was doing God’s bidding. He was serving as God’s agent of wrath against Tyre, and he would perform the same role against Egypt.

In fact, God makes it clear that the Egyptian campaign would be a form of payback for Nebuchadnezzar’s losses suffered at Tyre.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He will carry off its wealth, plundering everything it has so he can pay his army.” – Ezekiel 29:19 NLT

The wealth of Egypt made that of Tyre pale by comparison. Nebuchadnezzar’s plunder of the vast Egyptian empire would more than compensate for any losses he suffered in his capture of Tyre.

In ancient days, plunder was one of the primary sources of payment for a nation’s armed forces. A soldier’s base salary was relatively small but the appeal of military service was in the sense of adventure it provided and the potential windfall of booty a successful campaign might bring. The conquest of a wealthy city could result in a sizeable bonus for the average footsoldier. Part of the incentive for defeating their enemies was the right to ransack and loot at will. Victorious soldiers were free to take whatever riches they could carry off as plunder, and the cities and towns of Egypt would prove to be a boon for the Babylonian forces.

“The scant historical data indicates that Egypt and Tyre became allies under Pharaoh Hophra (Apries). The extended siege of Tyre was perhaps due to the aid Tyre received from the Egyptians. In such an act Hophra was going contrary to God’s purposes. Not only was the siege prolonged by Egyptian support, but some also surmise that Egypt’s maritime aid enabled Tyre to send away her wealth for security during the siege. When Tyre surrendered about 573 B.C. . . ., Babylonia gained almost no spoils from the long siege.” – Ralph H. Alexander, Ezekiel

God rewarded Nebuchadnezzar for services rendered. This pagan king and his army would receive ample compensation for their role in the defeat of Tyre and it would come in the form of a successful military campaign against one of the greatest nations on earth at that time: Egypt.

This stunning victory against a perennial powerhouse in the region would be directly attributable to God, and this insight was meant to bring a sense of joy and hope to the exiled people of Judah.

“I have given him the land of Egypt as a reward for his work, says the Sovereign Lord, because he was working for me when he destroyed Tyre.” – Ezekiel 29:20 NLT

As the Jewish refugees living in Babylon heard this oracle from the lips of Ezekiel, they couldn’t help but recall the long and storied history of Israel’s relationship with Egypt. Their ancestors had lived as exiles in the land of the Pharaohs for more than 400 years. In the land of the pyramids and sphinxes, the descendants of Jacob had labored as slaves, building the very edifices that made Egypt the envy of the world (Exodus 1:8-14). They had heard the stories of how the Pharaoh had ordered the enslavement of their forefathers and foremothers. They knew the chilling details concerning the royal edict that ordered the infanticide of all the male children born to the Israelites (Exodus 1:15-22). The stories of Pharoah’s repeated refusals to allow Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt would have been seared into their collective conscience. The people of Judah had no reason to love the Egyptians, so the report of their demise at the hands of the Babylonians should have come as welcome news to the exiles. Any time an oppressor nation got a taste of its own medicine was music to the ears of all those who had suffered at their hand.

And to add a further ray of hope to the exiles’ dark and difficult existence, God informs them that the day is coming when they will experience His undeserved grace and mercy as He restores them to their former glory as a nation.

“And the day will come when I will cause the ancient glory of Israel to revive, and then, Ezekiel, your words will be respected. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 29:21 NLT

God had predicted the falls of Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and now, Egypt. The nations would fall like dominoes under the divinely ordained hand of King Nebuchadnezzar. Even Judah would succumb to Babylon’s insatiable and unstoppable quest to expand its empire and secure its place as the world’s most powerful nation.

But the Babylonians wold prove to be just another pawn in God’s strategic unveiling of His sovereign will for mankind. And while Babylon would enjoy its moment in the sunlight, it would prove to be shortlived. God’s real interest was in the well-being of His chosen people, and back in chapter 28, He revealed His intentions to restore them to the land He had given them.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel will again live in their own land, the land I gave my servant Jacob. For I will gather them from the distant lands where I have scattered them. I will reveal to the nations of the world my holiness among my people. – Ezekiel 28:25 NLT

God exists outside of time. He is transcendent and all-knowing, possessing the unique ability to see past, present, and future all at the same time. Time means nothing to Him. As the eternal God, a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8). For the exiles, their stay in Babylon seemed endless and hopeless. They couldn’t see past the next morning. And all this news of Judah’s destruction just seemed to make matters worse. But God was letting them know that He had plans and was working those plans to perfection. He was in control of all things, including their future. The nations were under His rule and operated according to His sovereign will. Their rise and fall were His doing. Their victories and defeats were ordained from His throne room in heaven. And the exiles living in Judah needed to understand that their God was more powerful than their captor. Their circumstance was not a sign of God’s demise. The news of Jerusalem’s pending fall was not to be read as His abandonment of them. He was still on His throne and fully in control of all things at all times. And the day was coming when they would know that He is and will always be the Lord.

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.

Our Multidimensional and Merciful God

20 The word of the Lord came to me: 21 “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, and prophesy against her 22 and say, Thus says the Lord God:

“Behold, I am against you, O Sidon,
    and I will manifest my glory in your midst.
And they shall know that I am the Lord
    when I execute judgments in her
    and manifest my holiness in her;
23 for I will send pestilence into her,
    and blood into her streets;
and the slain shall fall in her midst,
    by the sword that is against her on every side.
Then they will know that I am the Lord.

24 “And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God.

25 “Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. 26 And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.” – Ezekiel 28:20-26 ESV

We tend to struggle with a lot of the imagery and words used in a book like Ezekiel. In it, we get a glimpse of God that tends to make us a little bit uncomfortable. He appears angry, vindictive, and violent, using His power like a neighborhood bully.

After a steady diet of the more attractive version of God depicted in the New Testament, the wrathful, vindictive image found in the Old Testament can come across as a bit disconcerting. It can be difficult to reconcile the God found in Ezekiel with the loving, forgiving, merciful, and grace-giving God we have come to know and love.

But the Bible gives us a complete and holistic view of God. Yes, He is at times angry and wrathful. Yet He is also patient and forgiving. He punishes, but He also protects. He destroys, but He also restores. And in each and every case, all that He does is so that the world might know that He alone is God. Every action God takes is aimed at revealing who He is.

Two times in the closing verses of chapter 28, God declares that what He is about to do will result in a greater knowledge of Him.

“Then they will know that I am the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 28:24 ESV

Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.” – Ezekiel 28:26 ESV

Throughout the Bible, we see evidence of God displaying His power. From the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis to the cataclysmic events recorded in the book of Revelation, the immense and unmatchable power of God is evidenced for all to see. But at the same time, He also reveals His holiness. Not only is He all-powerful, but He is also completely righteous in all that He does.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works. – Psalm 145:17 ESV

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT

He makes this clear in His message to the Sidonians.

“Give the people of Sidon this message from the Sovereign Lord: ‘I am your enemy, O Sidon, and I will reveal my glory by what I do to you. When I bring judgment against you and reveal my holiness among you, everyone watching will know that I am the Lord.’” – Ezekiel 28:22 NLT

God’s judgment of the people of Sidon and His eventual destruction of them would reveal His holiness. But how? In its simplest form, God’s holiness refers to His set-apartness, His transcendence. He alone is God. There is no one and nothing else like Him. He is distinct and unmatched in all His attributes. He is not a God among gods. He is the only true God. And when God acts against evil and punishes sin, He reveals His distinctive nature. He displays His holiness.

Yet God also reveals His holiness through His kind, gracious, and undeserving treatment of His people. In the same chapter where God warns of His holy judgment against the Sidonians, He promises the restoration of His rebellious people.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel will again live in their own land, the land I gave my servant Jacob. For I will gather them from the distant lands where I have scattered them. I will reveal to the nations of the world my holiness among my people. – Ezekiel 28:25 NLT

God declares that He is going to reveal His holiness, distinctiveness, and set-apartness by returning His people to their land and restoring them to a right relationship with Himself. He is a promise-keeping God, and while He must punish His people for their sins, He will never fully abandon them. His holiness required Him to punish them for their sins, but He would also forgive and restore them.

“They will live safely in Israel and build homes and plant vineyards. And when I punish the neighboring nations that treated them with contempt, they will know that I am the Lord their God.” – Ezekiel 28:26 NLT

God reveals His holiness; His unmatched, unparalleled, distinctiveness in all that He does. Both His wrath and restoration reveal His one-of-a-kind nature. There is no other god like Him. There is no other god BUT Him. The Sidonians, neighbors and close allies to the residents of Tyre, were going to experience God’s judgment because of their unfair treatment of the people of Judah. And their false gods would prove to be no match for Yahweh. He declares Himself their enemy and vows to bring judgment against them. And for the third time, God announces, “Then everyone will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 28:23 ESV).

The people of Sidon will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh, the God of Judah, is the one true God. They will have experienced His power and irrefutable presence in the form of their own destruction. While the citizens of Tyre and Sidon gloated over Judah’s demise, they had no idea that a far worse fate awaited them. When they had chosen to align themselves against God’s people, they had unknowingly declared war against Him. They had made God Almighty their sworn enemy. But when the dust settled and the realization of their defeat had sunk in, they would know that He alone is the Lord.

The God of judgment and the God of love and mercy are one and the same God. His holiness requires that He judge sin justly and completely. He cannot turn a blind eye to it. That is why He had to punish the sins of Israel and Judah. Even though they were His chosen people, He could not ignore or overlook their rebellion against Him. But God’s judgment of them was always to be temporary and followed by a remarkable display of His unfailing love and covenant faithfulness, and the author of Hebrews reveals just how compassionate and forgiving God can be.

But when God found fault with the people, he said:

“The day is coming, says the Lord,
    when I will make a new covenant
    with the people of Israel and Judah.
This covenant will not be like the one
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    and led them out of the land of Egypt.
They did not remain faithful to my covenant,
    so I turned my back on them, says the Lord.
But this is the new covenant I will make
    with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds,
    and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
    nor will they need to teach their relatives,
    saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
    will know me already.
And I will forgive their wickedness,
and I will never again remember their sins.” – Hebrews 8:8-12 NLT

And centuries earlier, God spoke of this very same covenant to Ezekiel.

“And I will make a covenant of peace with them, an everlasting covenant. I will give them their land and increase their numbers, and I will put my Temple among them forever. I will make my home among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And when my Temple is among them forever, the nations will know that I am the LORD, who makes Israel holy.” – Ezekiel 37:26-28 NLT

And when God restores His people, rebuilds His temple, and takes up residence among them once again, the nations will know that He alone is Lord.

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.

Your Enemy Is My Enemy

15 “Thus says the Lord God to Tyre: Will not the coastlands shake at the sound of your fall, when the wounded groan, when slaughter is made in your midst? 16 Then all the princes of the sea will step down from their thrones and remove their robes and strip off their embroidered garments. They will clothe themselves with trembling; they will sit on the ground and tremble every moment and be appalled at you. 17 And they will raise a lamentation over you and say to you,

“‘How you have perished,
    you who were inhabited from the seas,
O city renowned,
    who was mighty on the sea;
she and her inhabitants imposed their terror
    on all her inhabitants!
18 Now the coastlands tremble
    on the day of your fall,
and the coastlands that are on the sea
    are dismayed at your passing.’

19 “For thus says the Lord God: When I make you a city laid waste, like the cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters cover you, 20 then I will make you go down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I will make you to dwell in the world below, among ruins from of old, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I will set beauty in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more. Though you be sought for, you will never be found again, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 26:15-21 ESV

The fall of Tyre would have a ripple effect, impacting a host of other nations that had grown rich benefiting from their trading relationship with this Phoenician coastal city. Ships from Tyre plied the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, transporting goods to distant ports in Cyprus, Rhodes, Malta, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, and Africa. As a result of its lucrative trading relationships, the city’s residents had grown wealthy and powerful, and while Phoenicia was a relatively small nation, its influence in the region was sizeable. But God was letting Ezekiel know that the Phoenicians, like the Ammonites, Edomites, Moabites, and Philistines, were going to experience the full measure of His wrath because of their treatment of His chosen people.

In Hebrew, the name Tyre (ṣōr) means “rock,” which provides an accurate description of the island’s geographic makeup. During Ezekiel’s lifetime, the city of Tyre was bifurcated, with the original “old city” located on the mainland and a newer city located on an island just offshore. With its rocky shoreline and impressive defensive features, the island city was thought to be impenetrable. But in 332 B.C., the forces of Alexander the Great constructed a massive causeway that connected the mainland to the island and allowed his troops to eventually reach the walls of the city, then besiege and destroy them.

Long before Alexander the Great came to power, God described the coming fall of Tyre in graphic terms.

“The whole coastline will tremble at the sound of your fall, as the screams of the wounded echo in the continuing slaughter. All the seaport rulers will step down from their thrones and take off their royal robes and beautiful clothing. They will sit on the ground trembling with horror at your destruction. – Ezekiel 26:15-16 NLT

The omniscient God was fully aware of Tyre’s fate because it would be His doing. He would bring judgment against the Phoenicians because they had taken advantage of the people of Judah during their darkest days. When Jerusalem eventually fell to the Babylonian forces, the citizens of Tyre rejoiced because they saw it as the elimination of one more competitor in the region. But while the Phoenicians would celebrate Judah’s demise, the day would come when their neighbors would mourn their destruction.

“O famous island city,
    once ruler of the sea,
    how you have been destroyed!
Your people, with their naval power,
    once spread fear around the world.
Now the coastlands tremble at your fall.
    The islands are dismayed as you disappear. – Ezekiel 26:17-18 NLT

Basking in the protective surroundings of its fortified walls, and enjoying the financial rewards of its trading prowess, the citizens of Tyre had grown arrogant and aloof. They saw themselves as untouchable and invincible. They had successfully survived the earlier threat brought on by the Assyrian invasion and now believed that they would weather the Babylonian storm as well. But they failed to realize that their real enemy was God. In choosing to treat Yahweh’s people with disrespect, they had made Him their adversary and would soon feel the full weight of His righteous indignation.

I will make Tyre an uninhabited ruin, like many others. I will bury you beneath the terrible waves of enemy attack. – Ezekiel 26:19 NLT

I will send you to the pit to join those who descended there long ago. – Ezekiel 26:20 NLT

I will bring you to a terrible end, and you will exist no more. – Ezekiel 26:21 NLT

They had made things personal. By choosing to mistreat the people of Judah, the Phoenicians had unknowingly picked a fight with God Almighty, and He had a long memory. He would not soon forget the actions of the people of Tyre. The prophet, Jeremiah, recorded God’s plans for all the enemies of Judah.

This is what the Lord said to me: “Make a yoke, and fasten it on your neck with leather straps. Then send messages to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon through their ambassadors who have come to see King Zedekiah in Jerusalem. Give them this message for their masters: ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: With my great strength and powerful arm I made the earth and all its people and every animal. I can give these things of mine to anyone I choose. Now I will give your countries to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who is my servant. I have put everything, even the wild animals, under his control. All the nations will serve him, his son, and his grandson until his time is up. Then many nations and great kings will conquer and rule over Babylon. So you must submit to Babylon’s king and serve him; put your neck under Babylon’s yoke! I will punish any nation that refuses to be his slave, says the Lord. I will send war, famine, and disease upon that nation until Babylon has conquered it.” – Jeremiah 27:2-8 NLT

God seems to indicate that every nation, including the Phoenicians and their city of Tyre, would fall to the Babylonians. But it seems that Tyre was spared destruction by making a treaty with King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, besieged Tyre for 13 years (585-572 BC), but the precise historical facts of its outcome are still unclear. He evidently did not conquer the city, but it may have surrendered conditionally to him. Both Jeremiah (27:3-11) and Ezekiel (26:7-14) spoke of this event. Apparently, both Tyre and Sidon surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, based on a fragmentary Babylonian administrative document which mentions the kings of Tyre and Sidon as receiving rations from the royal Babylonian household (Pritchard 1969a: 308).” – biblearchaeology.org, Fall 2002 issue of Bible and Spade.

If the citizens of Tyre did negotiate a treaty with the Babylonians and managed to stave off the destruction of their city, their joy would prove to be short-lived and premature. Their fall, ordained by God, would take place according to His timing and in keeping with His divine will. They would not escape His judgment.

You will be looked for, but you will never again be found. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 26:21 NLT

God describes destruction so significant that it will leave the city of Tyre virtually unrecognizable. This is not a declaration of Tyre’s complete elimination as a city. But it is a divine guarantee that the once-great city of Tyre would never rise to its former level of power and influence in the region.

“While Tyre seemed to withstand Nebuchadnezzar, it was not prepared for Alexander 250 years later. Although every Phoenician city to the north, including Sidon, welcomed Alexander, Tyre would only agree to surrender nominally to him. They would not allow him entrance to the city, which was exactly what Alexander intended to do. Not be denied, after only a seven-month siege of the island city, he did what no one else had ever considered possible. Utilizing stones, timber, dirt and debris from the mainland, Alexander constructed a causeway out into the Mediterranean. At last he reached the island, breached the city wall and slew or put into slavery the defiant Tyrians. An amazing feat, Tyre was changed forever.” – biblearchaeology.org, Fall 2002 issue of Bible and Spade.

As Ezekiel delivered this message to his fellow exiles in Babylon, it must have rung hollow. How were they supposed to find joy in the fall of Tyre when they were also facing the news of the coming destruction of their own hometown of Jerusalem? But God wanted them to know that He was in control of all that was happening. It was His doing. No one would escape His sovereign will or alter His providential plan. While the primary focus of His attention was on the rebellious people of Judah, God had not overlooked or ignored the rest of the nations. He would eventually deal with them all.

And God wanted His chosen people to know that they could rely upon Him to do what was just and right. His judgment was necessary and His wrath was justified. But He would also keep His covenant promises to them. And He gave the prophet Isaiah a powerful reminder of His unwavering faithfulness.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.” – Isaiah 35:3-4 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.

The Bloody City and the Boiling Pot

1 In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, write down the name of this day, this very day. The king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day. And utter a parable to the rebellious house and say to them, Thus says the Lord God:

“Set on the pot, set it on;
    pour in water also;
put in it the pieces of meat,
    all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder;
    fill it with choice bones.
Take the choicest one of the flock;
    pile the logs under it;
boil it well;
    seethe also its bones in it.

“Therefore thus says the Lord God: Woe to the bloody city, to the pot whose corrosion is in it, and whose corrosion has not gone out of it! Take out of it piece after piece, without making any choice. For the blood she has shed is in her midst; she put it on the bare rock; she did not pour it out on the ground to cover it with dust. To rouse my wrath, to take vengeance, I have set on the bare rock the blood she has shed, that it may not be covered. Therefore thus says the Lord God: Woe to the bloody city! I also will make the pile great. 10 Heap on the logs, kindle the fire, boil the meat well, mix in the spices, and let the bones be burned up. 11 Then set it empty upon the coals, that it may become hot, and its copper may burn, that its uncleanness may be melted in it, its corrosion consumed. 12 She has wearied herself with toil; its abundant corrosion does not go out of it. Into the fire with its corrosion! 13 On account of your unclean lewdness, because I would have cleansed you and you were not cleansed from your uncleanness, you shall not be cleansed anymore till I have satisfied my fury upon you. 14 I am the Lord. I have spoken; it shall come to pass; I will do it. I will not go back; I will not spare; I will not relent; according to your ways and your deeds you will be judged, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 24:1-14 ESV

The long-awaited and much-talked-about day of Judah’s judgment has finally arrived. In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, God informs Ezekiel that “the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day” (Ezekiel 24:2 NLT). The prophet was to take special note of this day because it marked the beginning of the end for the capital city of the southern kingdom of Judah. From his distant vantage point in Babylon, Ezekiel could only imagine the scene taking place back home. But his heart must have sunk when he heard the news that the judgment he had talked about for so long had just become a reality. 

The book of 2 Kings describes what happened that day.

So on January 15, during the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon led his entire army against Jerusalem. They surrounded the city and built siege ramps against its walls. Jerusalem was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah’s reign. – 2 Kings 25:1-2 NLT

And the prophet, Jeremiah, reports that the siege would be long and end in Jerusalem’s demise as the Babylonians broke through the walls and poured out their pent-up rage on the city and its inhabitants.

Two and a half years later, on July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, a section of the city wall was broken down. – Jeremiah 39:2 NLT

God gave Ezekiel a message for his fellow exiles, whom He addressed as “the rebellious house” (Ezekiel 24:3 ESV). They may have been safely ensconced in Babylon, more than 1600 miles from Jerusalem, but they were not to consider themselves guiltless or free from responsibility. The very fact that they were living as captives in Babylon provided ample proof that they had been complicit in Judah’s rebellion and that God held them personally culpable.

God’s message to the exiles came in the form of a parable. This would not be another one of Ezekiel’s dramatic demonstrations, where he was forced to act out the details in full view of his audience. This time, all the prophet had to do was repeat the highly descriptive words of God’s simple and easy-to-understand story of Jerusalem’s fall. God uses the familiar and non-threatening activity of making stew to portray the slow and steady “cooking” of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. For two-and-a-half years, God would use King Nebuchadnezzar as His personal chef to “stir the pot” of Jerusalem.

God describes water being poured into a large bronze cauldron, into which were added choice pieces of meat and bits of bone. A fire was kindled under the pot, bringing the water and its ingredients to a rolling boil. As the fire raged, the contents of the pot slowly congealed into a stew-like consistency as the meat, bone, blood, and marrow comingled. Like all parables, this simple story portrays what, at first glance, appears to be a rather non-threatening scene. For Ezekiel’s audience, the imagery could almost be appealing, as they imagine the pleasing aroma of the slowly simmering stew. But God was using this commonplace domestic scene to convey a powerful truth and illicit a repellant response from His rebellious people.

God provides no explanation for His parable, leaving His audience to wrestle with the exact meaning of its message. But it seems clear that the bronze cauldron represents Jerusalem. The fire symbolizes God’s judgment, kindled in the form of the Babylonian army. They encamped outside the walls of the city for two-and-a-half years, battering its walls and inflicting constant pressure on the inhabitants within. And God’s choice of imagery is interesting when one considers what was actually happening inside the city during those difficult days.

…the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. – 2 Kings 25:3 NLT

There were few pots of boiling stew in Jerusalem in those days. The food supplies had run out long ago due to the impenetrable Babylonian blockade.

Yet, in the parable, God describes choice pieces of meat and bones being added to the pot. What do these symbolize? The meat most likely represents the inhabitants of the city. God’s “chosen” people were being thrown into the crucible of His judgment, and even the wealthiest and most powerful citizens were not spared His wrath. No one escaped. They were all thrown into the same pot and forced to suffer the same fate.

But what about the bones? What do they represent? From looking at the rest of God’s message, it would appear that these bones symbolize the lives of those who had died as a result of Judah’s rampant injustice and idolatry. Jerusalem had earned its moniker as “the bloody city.” Back in chapter 22, Ezekiel recorded God’s indictment against the city’s murderous reputation.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: O city, who spills blood within herself (which brings on her doom), and who makes herself idols (which results in impurity), you are guilty because of the blood you shed and defiled by the idols you made. You have hastened the day of your doom; the end of your years has come.” – Ezekiel 22:3-4 NLT

They had actually murdered their own children, offering them up as blood sacrifices to their pagan gods. The list of their sins was long and unflattering.

“Slanderous men shed blood within you. Those who live within you eat pagan sacrifices on the mountains; they commit obscene acts among you. They have sexual relations with their father’s wife within you; they violate women during their menstrual period within you. One commits an abominable act with his neighbor’s wife; another obscenely defiles his daughter-in-law; another violates his sister—his father’s daughter—within you. They take bribes within you to shed blood.” – Ezekiel 22:9-12 NLT

The bones of innocent dead were mixed with the “choice meat” of Jerusalem’s citizens, creating a macabre stew where the blood of the victims comingled with that of their attackers. God was illustrating the permanent and irreparable state of Judah’s blood guilt.

The next phase of God’s parable contains a stark image of the contents of the pot being removed. By this time, the items inside would be indistinguishable from one another.  It has all blended together into what God describes as “corrosion.” Not exactly an appealing image.  The Hebrew word is ḥel’â, which can be translated as “scum,” “rust,” or “disease.” The contents are inedible and must be removed from the pot. So, God commands, “Take out of it piece after piece, without making any choice” (Ezekiel 24:6 ESV). Everything in the pot has been stained by blood and is poured out for all to see. Judah’s sins had been open and transparent. They hid nothing and unashamedly flaunted their rebellion in the face of God and for all the world to see. Now, God was going to display His judgment of them in a very visible and humiliating manner.

I have placed her blood on an exposed rock so that it cannot be covered up. – Ezekiel 24:8 NLT

With the pot now empty, God orders that it be set back on the coals “until it becomes hot and its copper glows, until its uncleanness melts within it and its rot is consumed” (Ezekiel 24:11 NLT). Jerusalem, once emptied of its corrupted contents, will be purified by God. After the Babylonians destroyed the city and took its citizens captive, it would remain a virtual wasteland for years to come. God would remove the “disease” from within its walls, then allow it to remain unoccupied until He returned a remnant of the people from captivity 70 years later.

But before that time can come, God must purge and purify Jerusalem.

“You mix uncleanness with obscene conduct.
I tried to cleanse you, but you are not clean.
You will not be cleansed from your uncleanness
until I have exhausted my anger on you.” – Ezekiel 24:13 NLT

And God makes it clear that His judgment is just, right, and fully deserved. They have earned their fate. He is judging them according to their conduct. And even the exiles in Babylon will come to realize that they too have been justly judged by God. Those who heard the parable of God from the lips of Ezekiel would not live long enough to return to the land of Judah. They would live out their lives as refugees in a foreign land, worshiping their false gods, and longing for a return to the good old days. But those days would never come because they refused to repent and be cleansed from their uncleanness.

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.

Polluted Prophets, Priests, and Princes

17 And the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are dross of silver. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have all become dross, therefore, behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. 20 As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. 21 I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. 22 As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have poured out my wrath upon you.”

23 And the word of the Lord came to me: 24 “Son of man, say to her, You are a land that is not cleansed or rained upon in the day of indignation. 25 The conspiracy of her prophets in her midst is like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows in her midst. 26 Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Her princes in her midst are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. 28 And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ when the Lord has not spoken. 29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 22:17-31 ESV

God pulled no punches in His indictment of His disobedient people. There were no bright spots for Him to point out and very few reasons for Him to offer compliments or commendations. His assessment of the Israelites was dark and far from flattering, and it left no one unscathed.

“…the people of Israel are the worthless slag that remains after silver is smelted. They are the dross that is left over—a useless mixture of copper, tin, iron, and lead.” – Ezekiel 22:18 NLT

The entire nation had become contaminated by centuries of sinful behavior, produced by their penchant for idolatry and immorality. Israel, once the prized possession of God Almighty, had allowed itself to become defiled and corrupted through its ongoing love affair with the world. They had lived out the stark reality of 1 John 2:15-17.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave.

And God informs Ezekiel that He would use His coming judgment as a refining fire to purify His contaminated people.

“Just as silver, copper, iron, lead, and tin are melted down in a furnace, I will melt you down in the heat of my fury. I will gather you together and blow the fire of my anger upon you, and you will melt like silver in fierce heat. – Ezekiel 22:20-22 NLT

God’s judgment was far from just punitive in nature. It had a positive aspect to it. God was going to use it to purify and cleanse His people; an act they had failed to carry out on their own. All throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses provides the Israelites with repeated instructions to “purge the evil” in their midst. These admonitions to practice corporate cleansing were written before the Israelites ever set foot in the land of Canaan. Moses was warning them that God expected His chosen people to pursue holiness at all costs.

Moses listed a variety of instances in which corporate cleansing would be necessary, including when any individual violated God’s covenant by practicing idolatry.

“…they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden…” – Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT

When that happened, an investigation was to be launched, guilt determined, and punishment served.

“…then the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death…” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

And Moses states the desired outcome of this display of corporal punishment: “In this way, you will purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:7 NLT). And he would apply this same exacting standard to false prophets (Deuteronomy 13), false witnesses (Deuteronomy 19), rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21), and those guilty of adultery (Deuteronomy 22). In each case, Moses affirmed that the goal was to “purge such evil from among you.”

But the Israelites had failed to heed Moses’ warnings. Over the centuries, they had developed a bad habit of excusing sin and turning a blind eye to its damaging effects on their corporate purity. As a result, by the time God was delivering His message of coming judgment to Ezekiel, He had determined that Israel was “a polluted land” (Ezekiel 22:24 NLT). They were damaged goods. And the cancer was widespread and went all the way to the top of the Israelite leadership structure.

In the closing verses of this chapter, Ezekiel includes God’s indictments against the prophets, priests, and princes who had played a role in the nation’s moral collapse. He accused the princes of devouring innocent people, seizing treasures, and extorting wealth (Deuteronomy 17:25). The priests were guilty of violating His instructions and defiling His holy things. They made no distinction between what is holy and what is not (Deuteronomy 17:26). The princes and priests were in it for the money, and the prophets were complicit in their sin by covering up for them by announcing false visions and making lying predictions (Deuteronomy 17:28). This unholy trinity of civic and religious leaders had done irreparable damage to the nation.

These men were in positions of responsibility. They should have been in the vanguard of those seeking to restore the holiness of God’s people. But sadly, God states that when He sought to find someone who would stand in the gap and restore the purity of His people, He came up empty-handed.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” – Ezekiel 22:30 NLT

It’s difficult to read this verse and not be reminded of the famous WWII recruitment poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying, “I want you!” Here in Ezekiel 22, God is pointing His finger and saying that He looked for a few good men, but found none. There was no one who might help rebuild the spiritual walls of the nation of Judah. Not a single man could be found who was willing or able to stand in the gaping holes of the nation’s proverbial spiritual wall. There was no one willing to protect the people and preserve the integrity of God’s name.

God said, “I searched…but I found no one!” He could find plenty of murderers, unethical leaders, immoral husbands and wives, extortioners, swindlers, unrighteous priests, and false prophets, but He couldn’t a single, solitary man to “stand in the gap.”

From God’s perspective, the land was polluted. The people were like worthless slag, the leftovers of the refining process. The chosen people of God had become valueless because they were no longer holy and set apart. Rather than live their lives as God’s special possession, set apart for His use and His glory, they had chosen to defile themselves and dishonor God by serving other gods. After all that God had done for them, there was not a single individual whom God could point at and say, “I want you!” Yes, He had Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and a handful of other prophets, but there was a glaring absence of faithful men and women who could be trusted to help rebuild the spiritual legacy of the nation of Israel. Things were so bad that even God’s faithful prophets would prove unsuccessful in stemming the tide of sin and rebellion. The moral condition of the nation had reached an all-time low.

But this chapter reminds us that God is always looking for men and women who will rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. Today, we face similar conditions to that of Ezekiel’s day, including immorality, unethical leadership, graft, greed, corruption, and a growing sense of spiritual apathy. And God is looking for a few good men and women who will stand in the gap and help preserve righteousness.

It’s not that they don’t exist, but that they seem to be few in number. The righteous seem to be overwhelmed by the unrighteous and the spiritually indifferent. But God has always worked with a remnant. He is looking for the faithful few through whom He can restore the spiritual walls that have been damaged by constant exposure to sin and unrighteousness.

God is still looking for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. He continues to search for someone to stand in the gap in the wall. Has He found you? Are you willing, ready, and able to do your part?

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.

When the Godly Become Godless

1 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “And you, son of man, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city? Then declare to her all her abominations. You shall say, Thus says the Lord God: A city that sheds blood in her midst, so that her time may come, and that makes idols to defile herself! You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made, and you have brought your days near, the appointed time of your years has come. Therefore I have made you a reproach to the nations, and a mockery to all the countries. Those who are near and those who are far from you will mock you; your name is defiled; you are full of tumult.

“Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you. You have despised my holy things and profaned my Sabbaths. There are men in you who slander to shed blood, and people in you who eat on the mountains; they commit lewdness in your midst. 10 In you men uncover their fathers’ nakedness; in you they violate women who are unclean in their menstrual impurity. 11 One commits abomination with his neighbor’s wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; another in you violates his sister, his father’s daughter. 12 In you they take bribes to shed blood; you take interest and profit and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; but me you have forgotten, declares the Lord God.

13 “Behold, I strike my hand at the dishonest gain that you have made, and at the blood that has been in your midst. 14 Can your courage endure, or can your hands be strong, in the days that I shall deal with you? I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it. 15 I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you through the countries, and I will consume your uncleanness out of you. 16 And you shall be profaned by your own doing in the sight of the nations, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 22:1-16 ESV

The people of Judah were lawbreakers – plain and simple. They were guilty of violating the commands of God as outlined in the Mosaic Law, and they couldn’t pass the buck and blame their ancestors for their predicament. No, this was a present-day problem that persisted in Judah and all the way to the Kebar River in Babylon. Wherever the people of God could be found, spiritual unfaithfulness and moral laxity were in close proximity. The exiles eeking out a living as refugees in Babylon couldn’t claim exemption from God’s wrath because they were just as guilty of apostasy and idolatry as their friends and family members back home. In the short time they had been in Babylon, they had acclimated to their new surroundings and even adopted the gods of their captors. They no longer bothered to keep the Sabbath day holy. Their observance of God’s commands had become optional rather than mandatory.

But God’s greatest condemnation was reserved for the citizens of “the bloody city” (Ezekiel 22:2 ESV). This was His less-than-flattering description of Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, and the location of the majestic temple that Solomon had built in His honor.

God’s description of Jerusalem as a bloody city was not just hyperbole. He wasn’t exaggerating or attempting to use over-the-top rhetoric to paint the city in as negative a light as He possibly could. In six verses, God lays out the evidence for His accusation of blood-guilt against Jerusalem’s inhabitants. In verses two and three, He refers to Jerusalem as a “city of murderers,” and each of these “murderers” was guilty of committing an actual crime.

“…you are guilty because of the blood you have shed.” – Ezekiel 22:4 NLT

Every leader in Israel who lives within your walls is bent on murder. – Ezekiel 22:6 NLT

People accuse others falsely and send them to their death. – Ezekiel 22:9 NLT

There are hired murderers, loan racketeers, and extortioners everywhere.” – Ezekiel 22:12 NLT

But now I clap my hands in indignation over your dishonest gain and bloodshed. – Ezekiel 22:13 NLT

The Mosaic Law had been intended to regulate human behavior, dictating how God’s people were to interact and engage with Him and with one another. The law had a vertical and horizontal aspect to it. It outlined how the Israelites were to conduct their lives and display their set-apart status as His chosen people. There were laws that determined how they were to treat God, and there were laws that determined their relationships with one another. And adherence to the law was to produce a community that was regulated and motivated by love.

There was an occasion when Jesus was approached by some Jewish religious leaders, and they asked Him to name “the most important commandment in the law of Moses,” (Matthew 22:36 NLT), to which Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 22:37 NLT). Jesus described this as “the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:38 NLT), but then quickly added the following addendum to His answer:

A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:39 NLT

Love God. Love others. The entire corpus of the Mosaic Law rested on those two timeless truths. Obedience to God’s law should reflect a love for Him and demonstrate a love for others. It was never intended to be a list of rules and regulations to adhere to out of some sense of duty or in hopes of a reward for a job well done.

God had graciously given His laws to the descendants of Abraham. They were unique to the people of Israel and were designed to set them apart from the rest of the world‘s population. By living in loving obedience to God’s commands, the Israelites would showcase God’s love, mercy, power, and grace to the nations. But rather than love and listen to God, they had chosen to adopt the ways of the world. They wanted to blend in, not stand out.

We want to be like the nations all around us, who serve idols of wood and stone.” – Ezekiel 20:32 NLT

They chose idolatry over fidelity and faithfulness. And in choosing to love false gods, they rejected the one true God. They fell out of love with God and abandoned His law and, in doing so, lost the capacity to love one another. The apostle Paul describes the sequence of events that leads to this kind of drastic behavioral change.

…they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself… – Romans 1:21-25 NLT

This pattern is on full display in Ezekiel 22, as God describes the downward trajectory of Judah’s apostasy. Their idolatry or love affair with false gods had resulted in abject hatred for one another. Selfishness ruled the day. The entire community was marked by injustice and abuse. By choosing to reject God and embrace idols, the people of Israel had jettisoned their set-apart status and took on the characteristics of the fallen world around them.

They no longer honored their fathers and mothers as God had commanded them to do. They extorted the foreigners living among them, profiting off of them by demanding payment for protection. Rather than treat orphans and widows with dignity and respect as God had commanded, they wronged and oppressed them. They were guilty of perjury and liable, falsely accusing one another just to line their own pockets. And they were even willing to see the innocent put to death if it meant they could somehow benefit from their demise. Adultery was rampant. Sexual sin was widely practiced and accepted. Rape and incest had become so commonplace that there was no longer any shame associated with these heinous acts. Hired murderers, loan racketeers, and extortioners were everywhere. And God sums up the sorry state of affairs by declaring, “They never even think of me and my commands, says the Sovereign Lord” ( Ezekiel 22:12 NLT).

In a sense, God was out of sight and out of mind. They lived as if He didn’t even exist, or if He did, He was too powerless or indifferent to do anything about their behavior. They truly thought they could continue to live in violation of His law and get away with it. But they were in for a rude awakening. God was about to bring their sinful free-for-all to an abrupt and ignominious end.

“But now I clap my hands in indignation over your dishonest gain and bloodshed. How strong and courageous will you be in my day of reckoning? I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I said. I will scatter you among the nations and purge you of your wickedness.” – Ezekiel 22:13-15 NLT

The people of God had become godless. They had abandoned their set-apart status in order to blend in with the rest of the world. But their idols would not save them. Their substitute gods would prove to be impotent and incapable of delivering them from the wrath of Yahweh. Their sinful behavior had polluted the land of promise, so God was going to purge the land of their presence, sending them into exile just like Ezekiel and his fellow refugees. But when all was said and done, they would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh alone is God.

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.

The Scepter and the Sword

And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord, say:

“A sword, a sword is sharpened
    and also polished,
10 sharpened for slaughter,
    polished to flash like lightning!

(Or shall we rejoice? You have despised the rod, my son, with everything of wood.) 11 So the sword is given to be polished, that it may be grasped in the hand. It is sharpened and polished to be given into the hand of the slayer. 12 Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people. It is against all the princes of Israel. They are delivered over to the sword with my people. Strike therefore upon your thigh. 13 For it will not be a testing—what could it do if you despise the rod?” declares the Lord God.

14 “As for you, son of man, prophesy. Clap your hands and let the sword come down twice, yes, three times, the sword for those to be slain. It is the sword for the great slaughter, which surrounds them, 15 that their hearts may melt, and many stumble. At all their gates I have given the glittering sword. Ah, it is made like lightning; it is taken up for slaughter. 16 Cut sharply to the right; set yourself to the left, wherever your face is directed. 17 I also will clap my hands, and I will satisfy my fury; I the Lord have spoken.” – Ezekiel 21:8-17 NLT

In this rather poetic-sounding passage, God refers to the rod and the sword, two symbols of kingly authority. The rod (šēḇeṭ) refers to the royal scepter of the king. It is the same word used in Jacob’s death-bed blessing of his son, Judah.

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
the one whom all nations will honor.– Genesis 49:10 NLT

Ezekiel’s audience would have been familiar with this passage and would have understood it as a guarantee of the unbroken line of kings to rule over the tribe of Judah. They couldn’t fathom the idea of an end to the royal lineage of King David.

The other imagery used in this passage is that of the sword, another symbol of kingly authority and power. With his sword, the king ruled over the people, providing them with peace and security as he defended them against all those who would bring them harm. The psalmist records the words of a song that celebrates the king and his sword of righteousness and justice.

I will recite a lovely poem about the king,
for my tongue is like the pen of a skillful poet.

You are the most handsome of all.
Gracious words stream from your lips.
God himself has blessed you forever.
Put on your sword, O mighty warrior!
You are so glorious, so majestic!
In your majesty, ride out to victory,
defending truth, humility, and justice.
Go forth to perform awe-inspiring deeds!– Psalm 45:1-4 NLT

The scepter and the sword. These two symbols of royal power and authority would have conjured up images of hope in the minds of the exiled Jews to whom Ezekiel was speaking. They longed for the day when King Zedekiah of Judah would put on his sword and ride out to victory against the Babylonians. They desperately longed for a king who would defend truth, humility, and justice. But from their vantage point in Babylon, they had yet to see anyone step up and wield the sword and the scepter in defense of Judah.

But God wanted them to know that the sword they longed for would not come in the hand of their kingly deliverer, but it would be clutched by their enemy and used to wreak havoc and destruction on His rebellious people.

“Son of man, give the people this message from the Lord:

“A sword, a sword
is being sharpened and polished.
It is sharpened for terrible slaughter
and polished to flash like lightning! – Ezekiel 21:9-10 NLT

God will leave no doubt as to who will be bringing this sword of destruction against the people of Judah. In verse 19, He refers to it as “the sword of the king of Babylon to come” (Ezekiel 21:19 ESV). This sword will be wielded by a king but not a king from the line of David. No, this king will be a foreigner whom God has chosen to be His royal executioner.

“Now will you laugh?
Those far stronger than you have fallen beneath its power!
Yes, the sword is now being sharpened and polished;
it is being prepared for the executioner.” – Ezekiel 21:10-11 NLT

God wanted His people to understand that this coming destruction was His doing. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians were His chosen instruments to carry out His just and righteous judgment upon His unrepentant people. In Jeremiah 45:10, God refers to Nebuchadnezzar as “my servant.”

Later in the book of Ezekiel, God will refer to Nebuchadnezzar as His employee.

“I have given him the land of Egypt as a reward for his work, says the Sovereign Lord, because he was working for me when he destroyed Tyre.” – Ezekiel 29:20 NLT

God was going to use this pagan king and his seemingly invincible army to carry out divine justice upon the recalcitrant people of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar and his forces would serve as God’s instruments of wrath, and He flatly states, “that sword will slaughter my people and their leaders—everyone will die!” (Ezekiel 21:12 NLT).

God is emphatic that this destruction will be all-encompassing and indiscriminate. All will die, including the king. And the historical record asserts that King Zedekiah was not spared the wrath of God. His royal position did not immunize him from God’s righteous reckoning.

But the Babylonian troops chased King Zedekiah and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. The king of Babylon made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered his sons. He also slaughtered all the officials of Judah at Riblah. Then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him in bronze chains, and the king of Babylon led him away to Babylon. Zedekiah remained there in prison until the day of his death. – Jeremiah 52:8-11 NLT

God wanted His people to know that the royal scepter, while a symbol of kingly authority, would not provide Zedekiah with any protection. The sword of Nebuchadnezzar would show no favorites and extend no courtesies.

“For testing will come, and what will happen when the scepter, which the sword despises, is no more? declares the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 21:14 NET

God was going to remove Zedekiah from the throne, in keeping with the prophecy He earlier gave to Ezekiel.

“…he will die in Babylon, in the land of the king who enthroned him, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke.” – Ezekiel 17:16 NLT

Zedekiah would be the last king to sit on the throne of David. According to the book of 2 Kings, “Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam and grandson of Shaphan as governor over the people he had left in Judah” (2 Kings 25:22 NLT). This abrupt end to the Davidic line left the people in a state of despair, prompting many of them to flee to Egypt for protection from the Babylonian occupiers.

It seems that a vital part of Ezekiel’s delivery of this less-than-pleasant message was his acting out of the coming destruction. God instructs his prophet to take an actual sword and swing it before the faces of his stunned audience.

“…take the sword and brandish it twice,
even three times,
to symbolize the great massacre,
the great massacre facing them on every side. – Ezekiel 21:14 NLT

The sight of this prophet wildly swinging an unsheathed sword while describing the wholesale slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants would have been unsettling. He was to accompany this disturbing display with loud shouts and the clapping of hands, all intended to create an atmosphere of fear and foreboding.

“Let their hearts melt with terror,
for the sword glitters at every gate.
It flashes like lightning
and is polished for slaughter!” – Ezekiel 21:15 NLT

God declares His intentions to guide the hands of His “servant” Nebuchadnezzar as he delivers each deadly blow with the sword of His fury.

“O sword, slash to the right,
then slash to the left,
wherever you will,
wherever you want.
I, too, will clap my hands,
and I will satisfy my fury.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”– Ezekiel 21:16-17 NLT

All of this disturbing imagery would have left Ezekiel’s audience confused and clamoring for answers. How could a good God pour out such devastating judgment upon His chosen people? For centuries, they had relied upon the enduring patience of God. In fact, they had grown accustomed to abusing His patience, assuring themselves that He would always forgive them of any indiscretions they may have committed.

“At least some of the problem that Ezekiel’s audience had in accepting such a gloomy picture of the future can be traced to the natural religious tendency to think of God as kindly and thus not really capable of punishing people decisively. Why would God destroy His own beloved people in whom He had invested such time and effort since He brought them out of Egypt centuries before? Some of the problem lay also in people’s natural, routine optimism. It is hard to imagine the country in which one grew up and enjoyed life in the past actually coming to an end, never again to be an independent nation, never again to have its own government and laws and economy and stable traditions.” – Douglas Stuart, Ezekiel

But they were in for a rude awakening. The patience of God had finally expired and the sword was coming. There would be no escape and no second chances. While they had long relished the idea of an all-loving, all-forgiving God, they had long ago abandoned any concept of His holiness and righteousness. And their actions had proven that they had no intentions of keeping His command:

You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. – Leviticus 19:2 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.