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.

Enjoy It While You Can

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Now you, son of man, raise a lamentation over Tyre, and say to Tyre, who dwells at the entrances to the sea, merchant of the peoples to many coastlands, thus says the Lord God:

“O Tyre, you have said,
    ‘I am perfect in beauty.’
Your borders are in the heart of the seas;
    your builders made perfect your beauty.
They made all your planks
    of fir trees from Senir;
they took a cedar from Lebanon
    to make a mast for you.
Of oaks of Bashan
    they made your oars;
they made your deck of pines
    from the coasts of Cyprus,
    inlaid with ivory.
Of fine embroidered linen from Egypt
    was your sail,
    serving as your banner;
blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah
    was your awning.
The inhabitants of Sidon and Arvad
    were your rowers;
your skilled men, O Tyre, were in you;
    they were your pilots.
The elders of Gebal and her skilled men were in you,
    caulking your seams;
all the ships of the sea with their mariners were in you
    to barter for your wares.

10 “Persia and Lud and Put were in your army as your men of war. They hung the shield and helmet in you; they gave you splendor. 11 Men of Arvad and Helech were on your walls all around, and men of Gamad were in your towers. They hung their shields on your walls all around; they made perfect your beauty.

12 “Tarshish did business with you because of your great wealth of every kind; silver, iron, tin, and lead they exchanged for your wares. 13 Javan, Tubal, and Meshech traded with you; they exchanged human beings and vessels of bronze for your merchandise. 14 From Beth-togarmah they exchanged horses, war horses, and mules for your wares. 15 The men of Dedan traded with you. Many coastlands were your own special markets; they brought you in payment ivory tusks and ebony. 16 Syria did business with you because of your abundant goods; they exchanged for your wares emeralds, purple, embroidered work, fine linen, coral, and ruby. 17 Judah and the land of Israel traded with you; they exchanged for your merchandise wheat of Minnith, meal, honey, oil, and balm. 18 Damascus did business with you for your abundant goods, because of your great wealth of every kind; wine of Helbon and wool of Sahar 19 and casks of wine from Uzal they exchanged for your wares; wrought iron, cassia, and calamus were bartered for your merchandise. 20 Dedan traded with you in saddlecloths for riding. 21 Arabia and all the princes of Kedar were your favored dealers in lambs, rams, and goats; in these they did business with you. 22 The traders of Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices and all precious stones and gold. 23 Haran, Canneh, Eden, traders of Sheba, Asshur, and Chilmad traded with you. 24 In your market these traded with you in choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in carpets of colored material, bound with cords and made secure. 25 The ships of Tarshish traveled for you with your merchandise. So you were filled and heavily laden in the heart of the seas. – Ezekiel 27:1-25 ESV

In this section, God personifies the city of Tyre as a successful merchant with an overinflated sense of self-worth and importance. This prosperous and cosmopolitan urban center is pictured as gloating over its prominence as a powerful hub of commerce to the world. Its fleet of trading vessels plied the waters of the Mediterranean, transporting goods from distant ports and lining the pockets of its already wealthy shipowners and tradesmen. But as God made clear in His earlier message to Ezekiel, the future prospects for this arrogant metropolis were far from encouraging. God was going to bring judgment and destruction upon Tyre and its neighboring communities.

Now, God commands Ezekiel to “sing a funeral song for Tyre” (Ezekiel 27:2 NLT). In essence, this chapter contains a mournful dirge that outlines the devastating prospects in store for this self-important Phoenician city. Like one of the stately ships that graced its port, Tyre was well-constructed and a beauty to behold.

“You boasted, O Tyre,
    ‘My beauty is perfect!’
You extended your boundaries into the sea.
    Your builders made your beauty perfect.
You were like a great ship
    built of the finest cypress from Senir.”  – Ezekiel 27:3-5 NLT

Tyre was like a finely crafted ship built from the finest wood and equipped with all the latest navigational technology of the day. It was a state-of-the-art city featuring first-class amenities and a wealthy patrician population. And they thought highly of their successful status as merchants to the world.

God gives a nod to Tyre’s international ties by mentioning cypress from Senir, cedar from Lebanon, oaks from Bashan, pine and ivory from the coasts of Cyprus, and the finest Egyptian linen. Goods from all around the known world found their way into the port of Tyre and onto its ships. Many of these exotic treasures graced the homes of the city’s elite and helped to fuel the meteoric rise of their financial fortunes. And the city itself became a cultural melting pot featuring people from virtually every ethnic origin. Even their army featured a multicultural blend of nations, being comprised of recruits from as far away as Mesopotamia and Africa. 

Merchants from Tashish, Greece, Tubal, and Meshech traded everything from human cargo to luxury items made from precious metals. In its busy marketplaces, a robust trade in horses, chariots, and mules was conducted. Along its crowded city streets, a virtual cornucopia of goods was available for purchase. The sights, sounds, and smells would have been all-pervasive and highly invigorating. Tyre was a happening place with a bright and prosperous future. 

Tyre’s connections were international in scope, featuring robust trading relationships with distant places like Damascus, Syria, Helbon, Zahar, Uzal, Dedan, Arabia, and Sheba. Even Judah and Israel had conducted business with Tyre, trading in agricultural commodities such as wheat, figs, honey, olive oil, and balm. And, as a result of this widespread and global marketplace, Tyre’s “island warehouse was filled to the brim!” (Ezekiel 27:25 NLT).

Yet, despite their prosperous fleet and bulging warehouses, the days ahead were going to feature anything but smooth water and overflowing inventory. Over and over again God has highlighted two indisputable facts: Tyre’s extreme wealth and God’s sovereignty. Tyre was a highly prosperous nation that benefited from diverse trade relationships with a variety of nations. They had taken advantage of their ideal location along the coast and had become a focal point along the trade routes of that day. They traded in everything from slaves to silver, wine to white wool, ivory to iron, and cloth to carpets. Their warehouses were filled to the brim and their ships were loaded with goods from all over the known world. They were rich, prosperous, and as a result, powerful. Their army was large and made up of mercenaries from around the world. And now, because Judah was suffering under the hand of God, the nation of Tyre was salivating at the chance to take over their trading relationships and prosper because of their demise.

But Tyre’s wealth was no match for God’s sovereignty. In fact, they were going to be destroyed by God as a reminder of His covenant relationship with the people of Israel and Judah. For the moment, God was punishing Israel, but He had still promised to restore them to the land. God was not about to let these foreign nations profit from Israel’s situation. He would keep the land for them and protect it in order that they might return when He deemed it appropriate.

The seven oracles found in this section of Ezekiel would have been words of hope to the exiled Israelites. In spite of their unfaithfulness, God was declaring His intentions to remain faithful to them, keeping the land safe for their eventual return. Tyre was wealthy and stood to profit from the fall of Jerusalem, but God was not going to let that happen. In fact, God was going to bring destruction on the nation of Tyre, eventually allowing them to suffer conquest and defeat at the hands of their own enemies.

Repeatedly, Ezekiel has written the words, “Yes, the Sovereign Lord has spoken!” None of the nations who stood opposed to Judah was any match for the power of Almighty God. No nation can stand against God. They may do so for a time, but the day is coming when God will bring judgment on all nations. China, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Cuba, South Korea, and yes, even America. God’s will is going to be done. And no nation will be able to stand against it. He is going to accomplish what He has promised and there is no power in the world that can prevent it. Our God is great, and He is in complete control of ALL things.

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.

No Right to Mourn

15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. 17 Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” 18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

19 And the people said to me, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” 20 Then I said to them, “The word of the Lord came to me: 21 ‘Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul, and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword. 22 And you shall do as I have done; you shall not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men. 23 Your turbans shall be on your heads and your shoes on your feet; you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall rot away in your iniquities and groan to one another. 24 Thus shall Ezekiel be to you a sign; according to all that he has done you shall do. When this comes, then you will know that I am the Lord God.’

25 “As for you, son of man, surely on the day when I take from them their stronghold, their joy and glory, the delight of their eyes and their soul’s desire, and also their sons and daughters, 26 on that day a fugitive will come to you to report to you the news. 27 On that day your mouth will be opened to the fugitive, and you shall speak and be no longer mute. So you will be a sign to them, and they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 24:15-27 ESV

After providing Ezekiel with the parable of the boiling pot, God informs His faithful prophet of a pending personal tragedy that will become another powerful illustration to His rebellious people. With everything else going on in his life, the last thing Ezekiel expected to hear was a divine pronouncement of his wife’s imminent death. Up to this point in the narrative, there has been no mention of Ezekiel’s family, so the sudden mention of his wife’s death is unexpected. And this tragic news must have hit Ezekiel with the emotional impact of a freight train.

But the gut-wrenching news of her death was accompanied by an equally difficult command from God. Not only is Ezekiel told that his wife, his “dearest treasure,” is going to die suddenly, but he is forbidden by God to mourn or weep for her publicly.

“Son of man, realize that I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you with a jolt, but you must not mourn or weep or shed tears.” – Ezekiel 24:16 NET

Ezekiel will not be allowed to show any outward signs of mourning. The normal rituals and rites associated with the loss of a loved one will be off-limits to him. Even when well-meaning friends heard the tragic news and brought him meals, he was not allowed to eat with them. God expected Ezekiel to act as if nothing happened, putting his turban on his head, his sandals on his feet, and going about his prophetic responsibilities as usual. And Ezekiel was given little time to prepare himself for this devastating event. Within 24 hours, his wife was dead.

So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died.  – Ezekiel 24:18 ESV

When Ezekiel’s fellow exiles saw that he showed no signs of mourning over his wife’s sudden passing, they were confused and confronted him about it.

“Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?” – Ezekiel 24:19 ESV

From their past experience with Ezekiel, they knew that something was up. He did nothing without a reason and seldom spoke without having a message to convey from God. So, they suspected that there was something behind his bizarre behavior, and they were right.

Ezekiel informed them that his response to his wife’s unexpected death was meant to be an example for them to follow. When the Babylonian siege ended and the city of Jerusalem fell, God was going to bring about the destruction of the temple. For the people of Judah, the temple was the symbol of their relationship with Yahweh and a constant reminder of their status as His chosen people. God describes it as “the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul” (Ezekiel 24:21 ESV). They took great pride in the temple. It was a majestic structure that dominated the city’s skyline from its vantage point on Mount Moriah. It was beautiful and built to last for generations. Yet, God was about to reduce it to a pile of rubble and, when He did, they were not to mourn over its loss. They were to follow Ezekiel’s example.

“…you will do as Ezekiel has done. You will not mourn in public or console yourselves by eating the food brought by friends. Your heads will remain covered, and your sandals will not be taken off. You will not mourn or weep, but you will waste away because of your sins. You will groan among yourselves for all the evil you have done.” – Ezekiel 24:22-23 NLT

But the temple would not be the only loss they suffered. God informs them that when Jerusalem falls, many of them will suffer the loss of family members who remained behind in Judah.

“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.” – Ezekiel 24:25-26 NLT

The exiles would not escape the devastating impact of the siege and subsequent fall of Jerusalem. Like Ezekiel, they would soon receive the unexpected and unwanted news of personal tragedy and loss, and God expected them to keep their mourning to themselves. God’s prohibition against any public displays of sorrow was meant to accentuate their guilt and prevent them from portraying their loss as somehow undeserved.

“Ezekiel had a right to mourn his undeserved personal loss but did not. The Israelites had no right to mourn for their well-deserved national loss and could not . . .” – Douglas Stuart, Ezekiel

God was going to use Ezekiel’s timely personal tragedy as a vivid illustration for the people of Judah living in captivity. Their glorious temple was about to be destroyed. It was the source of their security and pride. It held a special place in their hearts and lives, even from 1600 miles away in Babylon. As long as the temple stood, they had hope because it represented the presence of God. But God was going to allow His house to be destroyed and the exiles living in Babylon, who had been taken captive years earlier, were to mourn its loss in silence.

But what are we to do we do with the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the tragic death of Ezekiel’s innocent wife? Did God cause it? Did He deliberately take this woman’s life just to make a point? To answer these uncomfortable questions one must first consider the complete character of God as unveiled in the Scriptures. Attempting to put God on trial based on a single Old Testament story is risky business. So, it is necessary to consider the full scope of God’s divine attributes when confronted with a disturbing and somewhat confusing passage like this one.

There is no doubt that God was in control of the situation. He was sovereign over every event that happened, including the death of Ezekiel’s wife. But whether God caused her death or simply allowed it is difficult to know for sure. Based on what the rest of Scripture reveals about the character of God, it seems to make the most sense that God allowed Ezekiel’s wife to die at this particular time. Due to His omniscience and foreknowledge, God was fully aware of the timing surrounding her death. He knew in advance what was already going to happen.

Had she been sick? The passage doesn’t say. Was her condition the result of disease or plague? There is no way to know. But her death was timely. It came at just the right moment and was used by God as a power and memorable illustration to His rebellious people.

It is essential that we interpret this event based on other revelations of God’s character found in the Word. The question is not whether God could have caused her death, but whether He would kill an innocent woman just to illustrate a point. Would that be consistent with His character? In his Notes on Ezekiel, Dr. Thomas Constable writes, “The text does not say that God put her to death as an object lesson. She could have been ill for some time before she died. Another similar situation involved God allowing the death of His innocent Son to occur at precisely the time God intended as another expression of His love and judgment.”

In reading the Old Testament, we must be careful to interpret what it seems to reveal about God’s character by comparing what we read with other passages and revelations about God. Otherwise, we can easily build a case that God is callous, hard, vindictive, and heartless. But even in this very difficult book, we see that God is ultimately loving, kind, patient, and forgiving. While He punishes, He also restores. While He brings well-deserved judgment, He also brings undeserved mercy and grace. He is not one-dimensional, but multi-faceted and complex. And He is always righteous and just in all His actions.

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.

Repent and Turn

19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.

25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” Ezekiel 18:19-32 ESV

God has made it clear that the previous generations of Israelites had failed to live their lives in faithful obedience to Him. But He was not going to allow the present generation to blame their current condition on others. They were just as guilty and deserving of punishment as their parents and grandparents had been.

In this message to Ezekiel, God clears up a common misunderstanding and lets them know that each and every individual is responsible for their own behavior. But God has anticipated the reaction Ezekiel will get from his audience.

“What?’ you ask. ‘Doesn’t the child pay for the parent’s sins?’ No! For if the child does what is just and right and keeps my decrees, that child will surely live. The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent’s sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child’s sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.” – Ezekiel 18:19-20 NLT

God informs His people that His justice is not indiscriminate or applied in a one-size-fits-all manner.

“…if wicked people turn away from all their sins and begin to obey my decrees and do what is just and right, they will surely live and not die. – Ezekiel 18:21 NLT

God was reminding His chosen but rebellious people that there was a way to restore their relationship with Him. All they had to do was reject wickedness for righteousness. If they make the decision to live in obedience to His commands, “all their past sins will be forgotten, and they will live because of the righteous things they have done” (Ezekiel 18:21 NLT). And God informs them that He takes no delight in the deaths of the wicked. His desire is that they repent and replace their wickedness with righteousness.

I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.” – Ezekiel 18:23 NLT

This divine mindset was meant to be a source of encouragement to the rebellious people of Judah. They still had time to change their ways. They could reverse the downward spiral of their spiritual trajectory by returning to God in humble contrition. It was not too late. But God was not interested in those who were simply seeking “fire insurance.” In other words, He was not offering His forgiveness to those who thought they could go through the motions by offering up a temporary display of repentance to buy themselves time. God wanted to see true repentance that resulted in a long-term lifestyle of righteousness. To return to a life of righteousness only to reverse course and embrace wickedness again would not cut it with God.

“…if righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things and act like other sinners, should they be allowed to live?” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT

God answers His own question with an emphatic, “No!” An individual’s temporary display of righteous behavior would not preserve them from judgment if they decided to jettison a  life of godliness for one of wickedness.

“All their righteous acts will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.” – Ezekiel 18:24 NLT

But God knew that His people found His methods appalling. They even accused Him of practicing injustice.

“The Lord isn’t doing what’s right!” – Ezekiel 18:25 NLT

Because the Jews living in exile believed themselves to be undeserving of their punishment, they found God’s treatment of them to be unfair. He had wrongly punished them for the sins of their forefathers. In their minds, they had done nothing wrong or deserving of such harsh treatment by God. After all, they were His chosen people, the apple of His eye. How could He have allowed their deportation to the land of Babylon?

Yet God pulls no punches when He states, “O people of Israel, it is you who are not doing what’s right, not I.” (Ezekiel 18:29 NLT). They couldn’t blame Him for their predicament. They had brought it on themselves through their repeated acts of unfaithfulness and unrighteousness.

The judgment of God was inescapable without repentance. So God offers them another gracious opportunity to do the right thing and revive their status as His chosen people.

“Therefore, I will judge each of you, O people of Israel, according to your actions, says the Sovereign Lord. Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel?” – Ezekiel 18:30-31 NLT

As the righteous judge of the universe, God is obligated to deal justly with sin. He cannot overlook or ignore it. He cannot turn a blind eye to HIs peoples’ blatant displays of rebellion and their refusal to live in obedience to His commands. But He wants them to know that His preference for them is that they choose life over death.

I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live!” – Ezekiel 18:32 NLT

God’s standard of righteousness was demanding. He expected obedience, faithfulness, adherence to His Law, and unflinching worship of Him and Him alone. And no man was able to meet that standard. That is the whole reason God gave the Israelites the sacrificial system. It was intended to provide His people with a way of receiving atonement and forgiveness for the sins they committed. But they had turned the sacrificial system into a mechanical and ritualistic performance. Their hearts weren’t in it.

“These people say they are mine.
They honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
And their worship of me
    is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah declared God’s dissatisfaction with His peoples’ meaningless sacrifices.

“I will not accept your burnt offerings.
    Your sacrifices have no pleasing aroma for me.” – Jeremiah 6:20 NLT

Hundreds of years earlier, God had given His prophet, Amos similarly stinging words to convey to the rebellious citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had ignored God’s calls to repentance, wrongly assuming that they were immune from God’s judgment. They viewed themselves as deeply religious and, therefore, as righteous in God’s eyes. But God had a different perspective.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living. – Amos 5:21-24 NLT

When King Solomon finished constructing the temple in Jerusalem, he held a magnificent dedication ceremony to commemorate its grand opening. At that event, God made the following promise.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

That time had come. The people were wicked and the wrath of God had begun to descend upon the citizens of Jerusalem. But more was on its way. God was far from done because the people were far from repentant. But there was always an opportunity for God’s people to humble themselves, pray, seek His face, and turn from their wicked ways, and Ezekiel was letting them know that there was no time like the present.

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 Soul Who Sins Shall Die

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.

10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. Ezekiel 18:1-18 ESV

There was a common proverb among the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day that promoted the idea of transgenerational culpability for sin. It went something like this: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste”(Ezekiel 18:2 NLT).

It was a subtle form of the blame game. Rather than accept responsibility for their own sins and the subsequent consequences, Ezekiel’s peers preferred to blame their problems on their ancestors. In a sense, they had a point. Their forefathers had been guilty of committing egregious sins against God. The previous generations had failed to live their lives in faithful obedience to Him. But He was not going to allow the present generation to blame their current condition on others. They were just as guilty and just as deserving of punishment as their grandparents and parents had been.

God was clearing up a common misunderstanding in their day and letting them know that each and every individual was responsible for their own behavior. And both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were given clear instructions by God to dispel any lingering suspicions among the people of Israel that they were unjustly suffering for the sins of others. And God had Jeremiah predict a future day when everyone will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God’s punishment for sin is just and never capricious or misapplied.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” – Jeremiah 31:27-30 ESV

There is little debate that the sins of one generation can negatively influence the lives of the next. A sinful father can bring great sorrow to his own wife and innocent children. They can end up suffering greatly for his selfish decision to live in disobedience to the will of God. But God wants Ezekiel to understand that God never enacts His justice unfairly or applies His divine judgment inequitably.

God has already gone out of His way to prove the guilt of the current generation of Judahites. He transported Ezekiel to the temple in Jerusalem and revealed the gross sins being committed in the temple. The prophet was exposed to the hidden sins of the priests and civic leaders as they secretly offered sacrifices to their false gods in the inner recesses of God’s house.

By the time Ezekiel was penning the words of his prophecy, Zedekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah and, like the generations before him, he “did what was evil in the LORD’s sight” (2 Kings 24:19 NLT). He may have inherited a lot of his wicked traits from his father and forefathers, but he had made his own bed and would now have to suffer the consequences of having to sleep in it. The prophet Jeremiah warned Zedekiah of the fate that awaited him and his royal officials.

“But thus says the Lord: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.” – Jeremiah 24:8-10 ESV

And at the end of his book, Jeremiah describes the actual details concerning Zedekiah’s fall.

But Zedekiah did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, just as Jehoiakim had done. These things happened because of the LORD’s anger against the people of Jerusalem and Judah, until he finally banished them from his presence and sent them into exile.

Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. 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.

By July 18 in the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign, the famine in the city had become very severe, and the last of the food was entirely gone. Then a section of the city wall was broken down, and all the soldiers fled. Since the city was surrounded by the Babylonians, they waited for nightfall. Then they slipped through the gate between the two walls behind the king’s garden and headed toward the Jordan Valley.

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 52:2-11 NLT

Zedekiah was not punished unjustly. He got exactly what he deserved for his rebellion against God. The prophet Jeremiah had warned him repeatedly about the consequences that awaited him if he refused to repent, and God did exactly what He said He would do.

God wanted His people to understand that He took sin seriously and that He always dealt with sin personally. That is what He meant when He said, “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4 ESV). Each individual must pay for his own sins. But God assures Ezekiel and his audience that anyone who chooses to live righteously will be exempt from His judgment.  Basically, God provides Ezekiel with a brief synopsis of what it means to live righteously by detailing some of the laws contained in His covenant agreement with the nation of Israel. A just and righteous individual…

…does not feast in the mountains before Israel’s idols or worship them. – vs 6

…does not commit adultery or have intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period. – vs 6

…is a merciful creditor, not keeping the items given as security by poor debtors. – vs 7

…does not rob the poor but instead gives food to the hungry and provides clothes for the needy. – vs 7

…grants loans without interest, stays away from injustice, is honest and fair when judging others… vs 8

…and faithfully obeys my decrees and regulations. – vs 8

The problem was not that God meted out His justice unjustly, but that sin had become a pervasive and permanent fixture among His chosen people. Its influence was widespread and there was plenty of guilt to go around. The prophet Isaiah succinctly summed up the sorry spiritual state of the people of Israel.

You welcome those who gladly do good,
    who follow godly ways.
But you have been very angry with us,
    for we are not godly.
We are constant sinners;
    how can people like us be saved?
We are all infected and impure with sin.
    When we display our righteous deeds,
    they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
    and our sins sweep us away like the wind. – Isaiah 64:5-6 NLT

And to make matters worse, Isaiah points out that “no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins” (Isaiah 64:7 NLT).

God was not acting unjustly and He was not punishing unfairly. The all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe knew exactly what was going on among His people, and He was judging each of them fairly and appropriately, according to their sins.

God is the just judge of the universe who always administers justice righteously. If a righteous man bears a son who decides to live an unrighteous life, it will be the son who will face the judgment of God, not the father. And if that unrighteous son grows up to be the father of a son who rejects his sinful ways, that righteous son “will not die because of his father’s sins; he will surely live” (Ezekiel 18:17 NLT).

Zedekiah, the current king of Judah, did not have to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. He had every chance to reject the sins of his fathers and return to God in humble obedience. Jeremiah had repeatedly warned Him.

“Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! If you obey me, there will always be a descendant of David sitting on the throne here in Jerusalem. The king will ride through the palace gates in chariots and on horses, with his parade of attendants and subjects. But if you refuse to pay attention to this warning, I swear by my own name, says the Lord, that this palace will become a pile of rubble.’” – Jeremiah 22:3-5 NLT

But Zedekiah remained obstinate and unwilling to pursue a life of righteousness. So, he would eventually suffer a just and equitable punishment for his sin. And he would have no one to blame but himself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Our Proactive and Protective God

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “These are the names of the men who shall divide the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun. 18 You shall take one chief from every tribe to divide the land for inheritance. 19 These are the names of the men: Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. 20 Of the tribe of the people of Simeon, Shemuel the son of Ammihud. 21 Of the tribe of Benjamin, Elidad the son of Chislon. 22 Of the tribe of the people of Dan a chief, Bukki the son of Jogli. 23 Of the people of Joseph: of the tribe of the people of Manasseh a chief, Hanniel the son of Ephod. 24 And of the tribe of the people of Ephraim a chief, Kemuel the son of Shiphtan. 25 Of the tribe of the people of Zebulun a chief, Elizaphan the son of Parnach. 26 Of the tribe of the people of Issachar a chief, Paltiel the son of Azzan. 27 And of the tribe of the people of Asher a chief, Ahihud the son of Shelomi. 28 Of the tribe of the people of Naphtali a chief, Pedahel the son of Ammihud.” 29 These are the men whom the Lord commanded to divide the inheritance for the people of Israel in the land of Canaan. 

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. The pasturelands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure, outside the city, on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their cities.

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities that you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. And as for the cities that you shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it inherits, shall give of its cities to the Levites.” Numbers 34:16-35:8 ESV

God provided Moses with the name of one man from each of the ten tribes of Israel. These men, hand-picked by God, would assist Eleazar, the high priest, and Joshua in the distribution of the land. The tribes of Gad and Reuben were not included because they had chosen to settle outside the boundaries of Canaan. These men were well-respected leaders among their respective tribes and would help to guarantee that the land was fairly apportioned and that each tribe, regardless of its size, was treated equitably and fairly. There was to be no favoritism or any form of nepotism. The larger tribes, whose numbers would be based on the recent census taken by Moses, would be allotted more extensive land allotments. But that did not mean they would get the best land. God was giving these ten men the weighty responsibility of dividing up the Israelites’ inheritance in a way that would satisfy all the parties involved, and that would not be an easy task.

The next thing on God’s agenda was to arrange for the needs of the tribe of Levi. He had already informed Moses that the Levites would inherit no land in Canaan. He had set apart the tribe of Levi as His special possession and had dedicated them to the care and maintenance of the tabernacle. As a result, God promised to be their inheritance.

“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel. Instead, the priests and Levites will eat from the special gifts given to the Lord, for that is their share. They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. The Lord himself is their special possession, just as he promised them.” – Deuteronomy 18:1-2 NLT

But while the Levites would be allotted no land in Canaan, they would be awarded the deeds to 48 cities located within the territories of each of the other 11 tribes (Joshua 21). Even the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh were required to provide the Levites with towns and pastureland for their flocks. God had made accommodations for the Levites.

These Levitical cities were to be strategically located throughout the nation of Israel so that every Israelite was no more than ten miles from one of them. This helped to ensure that the people of God were never far away from a member of the Levitical priesthood, whose job was to provide instruction in the ways of God. The Levitical priests served as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and teachers of God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). So, it was essential that every Israelite had ready access to a Levitical town and a priest of God.

Of the 48 towns awarded to the Levites, six were to be designated as cities of refuge. These were specially sanctioned zones within the boundaries of Israel where anyone guilty of committing a non-premediated murder could seek asylum. God had already declared His ruling concerning murder (Exodus 20:13), but He had Moses present a special provision for cases involving accidental homicide.

“If someone kills another person unintentionally, without previous hostility, the slayer may flee to any of these cities to live in safety. – Deuteronomy 19:4 NLT

He even had Moses provide a potential scenario in which a city of refuge would become necessary.

“For example, suppose someone goes into the forest with a neighbor to cut wood. And suppose one of them swings an ax to chop down a tree, and the ax head flies off the handle, killing the other person. In such cases, the slayer may flee to one of the cities of refuge to live in safety.” – Deuteronomy 19:5 NLT

God knew that life would happen and that deadly accidents would be a part of the Israelites’ existence in the land. Men would be killed and justice would need to be pursued. But what He didn’t want was some form of vigilante justice running rampant through the nation. Yet God knew that the relatives of a murder victim would tend to seek revenge against the guilty party and ask questions later. The cities of refuge were intended to protect the innocent while justice was being served.

Since Israel had no professional police force, these kinds of accidents could easily turn into bloodbaths where the relatives of the victim sought to avenge their loved one’s death. So, these cities, occupied by the Levites, would provide a place where the guilty party could find solace and seek a fair judgment concerning his guilt or innocence. In His plans for the land of promise, God was leaving nothing to chance. He was creating a well-designed system for dealing with the inevitable problem of sin among His chosen people. He was going to distribute the Levitical priesthood among them to provide spiritual enlightenment and He was going to create safe havens for those who unwittingly committed even the gravest of sins. God was providing for and protecting His people.

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.

Faith is the Victory

25 The Lord said to Moses, 26 “Take the count of the plunder that was taken, both of man and of beast, you and Eleazar the priest and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the congregation, 27 and divide the plunder into two parts between the warriors who went out to battle and all the congregation. 28 And levy for the Lord a tribute from the men of war who went out to battle, one out of five hundred, of the people and of the oxen and of the donkeys and of the flocks. 29 Take it from their half and give it to Eleazar the priest as a contribution to the Lord. 30 And from the people of Israel’s half you shall take one drawn out of every fifty, of the people, of the oxen, of the donkeys, and of the flocks, of all the cattle, and give them to the Levites who keep guard over the tabernacle of the Lord.” 31 And Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.

32 Now the plunder remaining of the spoil that the army took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys, 35 and 32,000 persons in all, women who had not known man by lying with him. 36 And the half, the portion of those who had gone out in the army, numbered 337,500 sheep, 37 and the Lord’s tribute of sheep was 675. 38 The cattle were 36,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 72. 39 The donkeys were 30,500, of which the Lord’s tribute was 61. 40 The persons were 16,000, of which the Lord’s tribute was 32 persons. 41 And Moses gave the tribute, which was the contribution for the Lord, to Eleazar the priest, as the Lord commanded Moses.

42 From the people of Israel’s half, which Moses separated from that of the men who had served in the army— 43 now the congregation’s half was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 45 and 30,500 donkeys, 46 and 16,000 persons— 47 from the people of Israel’s half Moses took one of every 50, both of persons and of beasts, and gave them to the Levites who kept guard over the tabernacle of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses.

48 Then the officers who were over the thousands of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, came near to Moses 49 and said to Moses, “Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us. 50 And we have brought the Lord’s offering, what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and beads, to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” 51 And Moses and Eleazar the priest received from them the gold, all crafted articles. 52 And all the gold of the contribution that they presented to the Lord, from the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, was 16,750 shekels. 53 (The men in the army had each taken plunder for himself.) 54 And Moses and Eleazar the priest received the gold from the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, and brought it into the tent of meeting, as a memorial for the people of Israel before the Lord.  Numbers 31:25-54 ESV

There were 12,000 Israelite soldiers chosen to go into battle against the Midianites; 1,000 men from every tribe. That is a relatively small number when compared with the 601,730 men deemed battle worthy according to the recent census taken by Moses. This small contingent of soldiers easily defeated their enemy and brought back an abundance of plunder from their raids of the towns and villages of the Midianites. And according to the military leaders, they had not lost a single man in the process.

“We, your servants, have accounted for all the men who went out to battle under our command; not one of us is missing! – Numbers 31:49 NLT

The mission had been a rousing success, and the bounty they had taken from the Midianites was substantial. But before anyone could enjoy the riches they had plundered, everyone and everything had to be purified.

“Anything made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, or lead—that is, all metals that do not burn—must be passed through fire in order to be made ceremonially pure. These metal objects must then be further purified with the water of purification. But everything that burns must be purified by the water alone. On the seventh day you must wash your clothes and be purified. Then you may return to the camp.” – Numbers 31:22-24 NLT

Moses warned the soldiers that they must go through a purification ritual before they could enter the camp.

“…all of you who have killed anyone or touched a dead body must stay outside the camp for seven days. You must purify yourselves and your captives on the third and seventh days. Purify all your clothing, too, and everything made of leather, goat hair, or wood.” – Numbers 31:19-20 NLT

Contact with the enemy had rendered these men ceremonially impure. That required them to go through a period of forced isolation and cleansing, along with all those taken captive during the mission. This was the process God had established and communicated to Moses back in chapter 19.

“All those who touch a dead human body will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves on the third and seventh days with the water of purification; then they will be purified. But if they do not do this on the third and seventh days, they will continue to be unclean even after the seventh day. All those who touch a dead body and do not purify themselves in the proper way defile the Lord’s Tabernacle, and they will be cut off from the community of Israel. Since the water of purification was not sprinkled on them, their defilement continues. – Numbers 19:11-13 NLT

Once the men and their captives had completed the purification process, the booty was divided. The 12,000 combatants would receive their fair share of the reward, but those who remained behind would not be left out. This pattern of equity among those who went into battle and their brothers who remained behind would become a norm for the nation of Israel.

After a rousing victory over the Amalekites, King David encountered a problem among his soldiers. The ones who had assisted him in the battle were angry at having to share their plunder with those who had remained behind.

“They didn’t go with us, so they can’t have any of the plunder we recovered. Give them their wives and children, and tell them to be gone.” – 1 Samuel 30:22 NLT

These men wanted all the plunder for themselves. But David denied their selfish demands, saying: “No, my brothers! Don’t be selfish with what the Lord has given us. He has kept us safe and helped us defeat the band of raiders that attacked us. Who will listen when you talk like this? We share and share alike—those who go to battle and those who guard the equipment” (1 Samuel 23-24 NLT).

Moses followed a similar plan, first making a detailed list of all the plunder taken from the Midianites. Once that was done, he ordered that half be equally divided between the 12,000 men who had fought in the battle. The other half would be divided between the rest of the Israelites.

But a portion of all the plunder was to be dedicated to God. From the soldier’s share 1/500th of all that was taken was to be given to the Lord.

“…one of every 500 of the prisoners and of the cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats…” – Numbers 31:28 NLT

This share was to be given to Eleazar the priest as an offering to the Lord, and the numbers are staggering. The quantity of sheep and goats dedicated to God was 675. But there were also 72 cattle, 61 donkeys, and 32 virgin girls set aside for the Lord. It is likely that the young women became servants to the Levitical priests and assisted in the maintenance of the tabernacle. Of the plunder given to the rest of the people, 1/50th of it was given to the Levites.

Moses took one of every fifty prisoners and animals and gave them to the Levites, who maintained the Lord’s Tabernacle. All this was done as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 31:47 NLT

There was one final offering presented to Yahweh. The military leaders who oversaw the battle came before Moses with an offering of atonement. Out of gratitude for God’s protection of their men, they brought a large number of gold armbands, bracelets, rings, earrings, and necklaces that the soldiers had taken as plunder. This would have been from the portion of the booty that belonged to the 12,000 soldiers. These men willingly gave up part of their reward as an offering to God.

“…we are presenting the items of gold we captured as an offering to the Lord from our share of the plunder—armbands, bracelets, rings, earrings, and necklaces. This will purify our lives before the Lord and make us right with him.” – Numbers 31:50 NLT

In essence, this was a ransom for the lives that God had graciously spared. Not one man had died in this expedition and the generals and captains were expressing their gratitude to God for His mercy and providential care.

This entire scenario paints a picture of how things will begin to unfold as the Israelites enter the land of Canaan. It served as a practice run in preparation for their future conquest of the promised land. There would be many more battles ahead. And every victory they enjoyed would be because of the grace and mercy of God. He would be going before them and fighting alongside them. And they were never to forget to render their thanksgiving to Him for His protection and provision.

Moses would repeatedly warn the people to take their relationship with God seriously. Without Him, they were nothing. And he knew they would always face the temptation to take credit for their own success; a dangerous prospect that was to be avoided at all costs.

“Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your silver and gold have multiplied along with everything else, be careful!” – Deuteronomy 8:11-13 NLT

With every victory would come the temptation to glory in their success and celebrate their newfound wealth. But Moses wanted to remember that faithfulness was far more important than fame or financial success.

“Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath.” – Deuteronomy 8:18 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.

God of the Helpless and Hopeless

1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of Manasseh the son of Joseph. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chiefs and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin. And he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “The daughters of Zelophehad are right. You shall give them possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers and transfer the inheritance of their father to them. And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 And if he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. And it shall be for the people of Israel a statute and rule, as the Lord commanded Moses.’” Numbers 27:1-11 ESV

The Israelites were a patriarchal society in which the male was considered the head of the family, clan, and community. The historical context of the biblical narrative covers a long period of time in which virtually all societies were led exclusively by men. There were occasions when a woman would ascend to the throne as the queen but this was rare and usually only after her husband had died. For the most part, women played subservient roles in society and were relegated to relative obscurity. In most cases, they could not own property, file a lawsuit, testify in court, or hold public office. And because women had few rights and little power, this inequity was rarely challenged.

But the 27th chapter of Numbers presents the surprising case of a group of Israelite women who dared to bring their demands for equal rights before Moses. Sometime after the census was taken and the size of the tribes was determined, the daughters of a man named Zelophehad came forward and presented their case. Their father had been a member of the tribe of Manasseh but he had died sometime during the last 38 years. And the women point out that their father had died without leaving behind a legal heir. He had born five daughters but no son and the women understood the predicament that placed them in. As daughters, they were prohibited from inheriting their father’s goods or property. This posed a difficult dilemma for Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

When Israel entered Canaan and began the conquest of the land, each tribe would receive its allotment, which would then be divided among the members of that tribe. Since Zelophehad was deceased and had no sons, he would receive no land. That meant that the five unmarried sisters would be left homeless and impoverished. Unless they quickly found husbands, their prospects for survival were dim. So, they decided to appeal their case to “Moses, Eleazar the priest, the tribal leaders, and the entire community at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (Numbers 27:2 NLT).

These five sisters knew they had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they risked ridicule and rejection by bringing their predicament before the all-male leadership of their community. This action took courage and demonstrates the level of their concern. As the day grew closer when the nation would enter the land of Canaan and begin its conquest of it, these women knew their time was running out. So, they made their desperate appeal.

“Our father died in the wilderness,” they said. “He was not among Korah’s followers, who rebelled against the Lord; he died because of his own sin. But he had no sons. Why should the name of our father disappear from his clan just because he had no sons? Give us property along with the rest of our relatives.” – Numbers 27:3-4 NLT

They wanted everyone to know that their father had not been one of those who joined in the rebellion led by Korah. In other words, his death had not been because of God’s judgment. In their minds, he had died of natural causes brought on by his own sinfulness. This distinction was important because it portrayed their father as a relatively good man who had not disqualified himself through acts of rebellion against God. He had just died and left them with no hope of owning any land in Canaan, and they were appealing for the “court” to make a special dispensation in their case. “Give us property along with the rest of our relatives.”

It seems likely that there were murmurs of disagreement and shock among the men as they heard the words of the five women. This would have been unprecedented and unthinkable to many of them. To do such a thing, they reasoned, would have been without protocol and would establish a dangerous precedence that could disrupt the social fabric. There were likely some among the leadership of Israel who were ready to deny the women’s request with no further discussion. But Moses wasn’t ready to pass judgment or sentence. Instead, he “brought their case before the Lord” (Numbers 27:5 NLT)

As the God-ordained leader of Israel, Moses could have used his authority to settle the matter without debate. But the unique nature of this situation required input from the Almighty. He was not ready to treat this matter lightly or settle it too quickly.

The text does not reveal how Moses brought the matter before the Lord, but it does state that he received an answer.

The claim of the daughters of Zelophehad is legitimate. You must give them a grant of land along with their father’s relatives. Assign them the property that would have been given to their father. – Numbers 27:7 NLT

God spoke and He had come down on the side of the five sisters. He ordered that they be awarded a portion of land among their father’s relatives. This news must have come as a shock to the rest of the tribunal and left some of them shaking their heads in disagreement. And one can only imagine how the male relatives of Zelophehad must have felt when they heard God’s decree. This divine decision was going to cost them. It would result in each of them receiving less land in Canaan. So, while the women rejoiced in their good fortune and God’s good graces, their relatives were probably muttering under their breath. But God Almighty had intervened and provided for these helpless women. He had stood by their side and had determined to care for their needs. But He didn’t stop there. This was not to be an isolated incident but, instead, it was to become a permanent part of their case law with additional clauses that covered other potential circumstances.

“And give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If a man dies and has no son, then give his inheritance to his daughters. And if he has no daughter either, transfer his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. But if his father has no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan. This is a legal requirement for the people of Israel, just as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:8-11 NLT

By boldly speaking up, these five women had appealed their case before God and had helped to establish new legal parameters for other women in their community. Up until this moment, no one had bothered to think about these kinds of cases. No one had considered the plight of the countless women whose fathers had died during the nearly 40 years Israel had been in the wilderness. Many of those women remained unmarried and without any hope of survival once they entered the land of Canaan. Yet God heard their plea for help and He answered.

This story is similar to that of Hagar recorded in the book of Genesis. This Egyptian slave girl served as the maidservant to Sarai, the wife of Abram. When Sarai had been unable to provide Abram with a male heir, she gave him Hagar to use as a surrogate. This innocent young woman was treated like property and forced to bear a son for Abram. But when Sarai saw how quickly Hagar had conceived, she abused and cast out the pregnant mother-to-be. Hagar found herself in the wilderness all alone and with no hope for the future. But God saw her plight and made her a promise.

“Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.” Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count…You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress.” – Genesis 16:9-10, 11 NLT

And, as a result of this divine encounter, Hagar declared, “You are the God who sees me…Here I have seen one who sees me!” (Genesis 16:13 NET).

God had seen her plight and had intervened. And God had seen the plight of the five daughters of Zelophehad and done the same thing. He is the God who sees (‘ēl rŏ’î). Nothing escapes His attention. There is no one who gets overlooked. He is the God who cares for and intercedes for His own. 

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.