Our Multidimensional and Merciful God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He makes this clear in His message to the Sidonians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Enemy Is My Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

From Retribution to Restoration

27 “Therefore, son of man, speak to the house of Israel and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: In this also your fathers blasphemed me, by dealing treacherously with me. 28 For when I had brought them into the land that I swore to give them, then wherever they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices and there they presented the provocation of their offering; there they sent up their pleasing aromas, and there they poured out their drink offerings. 29 (I said to them, ‘What is the high place to which you go?’ So its name is called Bamah to this day.)

30 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Will you defile yourselves after the manner of your fathers and go whoring after their detestable things? 31 When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.

32 “What is in your mind shall never happen—the thought, ‘Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.’

33 “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out I will be king over you. 34 I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out. 35 And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. 36 As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, declares the Lord God. 37 I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. 38 I will purge out the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against me. I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall not enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

39 “As for you, O house of Israel, thus says the Lord God: Go serve every one of you his idols, now and hereafter, if you will not listen to me; but my holy name you shall no more profane with your gifts and your idols.

40 “For on my holy mountain, the mountain height of Israel, declares the Lord God, there all the house of Israel, all of them, shall serve me in the land. There I will accept them, and there I will require your contributions and the choicest of your gifts, with all your sacred offerings. 41 As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations. 42 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the country that I swore to give to your fathers. 43 And there you shall remember your ways and all your deeds with which you have defiled yourselves, and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed. 44 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 20:27-44 NLT

God goes on to reveal that, even after the second generation of Israelites successfully conquered the land of Canaan and established it as their homeland, their apostasy continued. He helped them to defeat their enemies and provided them with cities and homes to live in that they didn’t have to build. He blessed them with vineyards and fields they neither tilled nor planted. And yet, despite God’s gracious provision of their promised inheritance, they continued to blaspheme and betray Him.

“…for when I brought them into the land I had promised them, they offered sacrifices on every high hill and under every green tree they saw! They roused my fury as they offered up sacrifices to their gods. They brought their perfumes and incense and poured out their liquid offerings to them.” – Ezekiel 20:18 NLT

The delegation of Jewish dignitaries who had come to Ezekiel’s home had been hoping that the prophet would provide them with a positive message from Yahweh. They were of the mistaken opinion that God’s intentions to punish Judah was undeserved and, therefore, unjust. In their minds, God was punishing the wrong people. They truly believed that God was acting unfairly by visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, and they were hoping Ezekiel would intercede on their behalf and get God to change His mind. But God was adamant in declaring their culpability and guilt.

“Do you intend to keep prostituting yourselves by worshiping vile images? For when you offer gifts to them and give your little children to be burned as sacrifices, you continue to pollute yourselves with idols to this day. Should I allow you to ask for a message from me, O people of Israel? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I will tell you nothing.” – Ezekiel 20:30-31 NLT

They were far from innocent. In fact, their sins were actually worse than those of their forefathers. Their idolatrous behavior had degraded to the point that they were actually offering up their own children as blood sacrifices to their false gods. The prophet, Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, had declared God’s disdain for this pagan and perverse practice.

“The people of Judah have sinned before my very eyes,” says the Lord. “They have set up their abominable idols right in the Temple that bears my name, defiling it. They have built pagan shrines at Topheth, the garbage dump in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, and there they burn their sons and daughters in the fire. I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing! – Jeremiah 7:30-31 NLT

Just like the northern kingdom of Israel, the southern kingdom of Judah was guilty of embracing the false gods of the nations who surrounded them. And, according to God, this was a premeditated and calculated plan on their part. They willingly and wholeheartedly embrace the gods of their enemies in the hopes that they could provide them with an added measure of protection and provision.

“You say, ‘We want to be like the nations all around us, who serve idols of wood and stone.’ But what you have in mind will never happen. As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I will rule over you with an iron fist in great anger and with awesome power.” – Ezekiel 20:32-33 NLT

But God was not going to allow them to continue their pattern of spiritual adultery. He was no longer willing to tolerate their wandering eyes and unfaithful hearts. So, He had Ezekiel tell them the devastating news of a coming judgment that would include the exiles living in the land of Babylon.

“I will judge you there just as I did your ancestors in the wilderness after bringing them out of Egypt, says the Sovereign Lord. I will examine you carefully and hold you to the terms of the covenant. I will purge you of all those who rebel and revolt against me. I will bring them out of the countries where they are in exile, but they will never enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 20:36-38 NLT

Even those living in captivity in Babylon would have to face the music because they were no less guilty of apostasy. In an attempt to acclimate to their new surroundings, many of them had chosen to embrace the gods of Babylon. Believing that Yahweh had abandoned them, the exiles decided to try their luck with the gods of their captors, and there was no shortage of options. The Babylonians worshiped a veritable pantheon of deities that included Ishtar, Nabu, Apshu, Shamash, Ea, Tiamat, Nergal, Marduk, and Adad. To the exiled Jews, it appeared as if these pagan gods had provided Babylon with unprecedented success over their enemies, so it only made sense to test their effectiveness. But like their counterparts in Judah, they were going to discover the painful lesson that their false gods were powerless to deliver them from the coming judgment of Yahweh.

“Go right ahead and worship your idols, but sooner or later you will obey me and will stop bringing shame on my holy name by worshiping idols.” – Ezekiel 20:39 NLT

God reveals His plan for the future restoration of the nation of Israel. He predicts a day when their idolatry will come to an end, but it will only take place after their judgment and with the advent of a new covenant.

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 31:31-32 NLT

And later in the book of Ezekiel, God describes what He will do to make this new covenant possible.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:25-27 NLT

God makes it painfully clear that there will be retribution for their idolatry, but He also promised a time of restoration and renewal.

“For on my holy mountain, the great mountain of Israel, says the Sovereign Lord, the people of Israel will someday worship me, and I will accept them. There I will require that you bring me all your offerings and choice gifts and sacrifices.” – Ezekiel 20:40 NLT

The fulfillment of this prophecy has not yet been fully realized. While Israel has been restored as a nation, it does not enjoy unbroken fellowship with Yahweh. There is no temple in Jerusalem, so there is no means for offering sacrifices to God. There is no king sitting on the throne of David, ruling in righteousness over God’s redeemed and restored people. But the day is coming when all those things will come about. And when they do, God says, “You will look back on all the ways you defiled yourselves and will hate yourselves because of the evil you have done. You will know that I am the Lord, O people of Israel, when I have honored my name by treating you mercifully in spite of your wickedness. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken” (Ezekiel 20:43-44 NLT).

God will do for them what they were unwilling and incapable of doing for themselves. He will restore and reestablish them as His chosen people and revitalize their affection for Him. Centuries will pass and their apostasy will continue. But God will be faithful to keep His covenant promises and restore His people to their rightful place as His sons and daughters.

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.

For the Sake of His Name

In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Is it to inquire of me that you come? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you. Will you judge them, son of man, will you judge them? Let them know the abominations of their fathers, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob, making myself known to them in the land of Egypt; I swore to them, saying, I am the Lord your God. On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. And I said to them, ‘Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’ But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.

“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. 10 So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 11 I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. 12 Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. 13 But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.

“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them. 14 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. 15 Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land that I had given them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands, 16 because they rejected my rules and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my Sabbaths; for their heart went after their idols. 17 Nevertheless, my eye spared them, and I did not destroy them or make a full end of them in the wilderness.

18 “And I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor keep their rules, nor defile yourselves with their idols. 19 I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, 20 and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God.’ 21 But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes and were not careful to obey my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; they profaned my Sabbaths.

“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the wilderness. 22 But I withheld my hand and acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out. 23 Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, 24 because they had not obeyed my rules, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols. 25 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, 26 and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord. – Ezekiel 20:1-26 NLT

Sometime around 591 BC, Ezekiel received a delegation of Jewish officials who sought to receive a word from the Lord. Rumors had been circulating among the exiles that the Egyptians had secured a victory in Sudan and were flexing their muscles in Palestine. They had also heard that Zedekiah, the king of Judah, was seeking an alliance with the Egyptians in hopes of overthrowing the occupation of the Babylonians. So, the dignitaries who knocked on Ezekiel’s door were most likely looking for divine confirmation that their hopes for a successful alliance with Egypt would be confirmed. But God had a different message for them.

First, He confronted them for their audacity to seek His face when they had been defaming His name for so many years. They had no interest in getting to know God but simply wanted to know what He knew. They were attempting to use God as a fortune teller, hoping to extract from Him the information they wanted to hear. But what God had to tell them would not be music to their ears.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: How dare you come to ask me for a message? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I will tell you nothing! – Ezekiel 20:3 NLT

Yet, God went on to tell them more than they wanted to know. He revisited their long track record of idolatry and apostasy, reminding them how little had changed over the centuries. From the moment He chose them as His special possession, they had made a habit of worshiping other gods. In fact, when God had come to the descendants of Jacob who had been living in captivity in Egypt for more than 400 years, He found them worshiping the false gods of Egypt. But, He promised to deliver them and take them to the land of Canaan, but with one condition.

“Each of you, get rid of the vile images you are so obsessed with. Do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt, for I am the Lord your God.” – Ezekiel 20:7 NLT

Even after hearing God’s promise of deliverance and His description of the fruitful land they would receive as their inheritance, they continued to worship the gods of Egypt.

“They did not get rid of the vile images they were obsessed with, or forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I threatened to pour out my fury on them to satisfy my anger while they were still in Egypt. – Ezekiel 20:8 NLT

Yet, God kept His word and freed them from their captivity. But He did so in order to protect the honor of His name. He had committed Himself to love and protect the descendants of Abraham. He was their God and they were His chosen people. If He abandoned them, the honor of His name would be diminished among the nations.

God’s name represents who He is. It encompasses His character and nature. His name isn’t just a label or designation to help differentiate Him from something or someone else. It is His essence. And as the chosen children of God, the people of Israel were to help set apart His name by living lives that were distinctly different from the nations around them.

In this chapter, God reminds the people of their repeated rejection of Him over the centuries. Over and over again, He says, “But they rebelled…” God had made a solemn oath to deliver them from captivity and give them the Promised Land. In return, He had asked them to get rid of their idols and worship Him alone. But they couldn’t do it. They repeatedly rebelled and refused to obey His law – all throughout their years in the wilderness and even after they arrived in the Promised Land. So God was forced to punish them for their rebellion. He would have been absolutely just in wiping them out completely, but instead, He showed them grace and mercy – all to protect the integrity of His name.

He was going to do what He said He would do. He was going to keep the terms of His covenant. He had promised them the land and He was going to give it to them – in spite of their unfaithfulness and rebellion. God’s name and His character were at stake. If He failed to bring the people of Israel into the promised land, the nations would have questioned His integrity. They would have doubted His power. They would have never seen His holiness or set-apartness – those characteristics about Him that made Him distinct from all other gods.

Over the years, the people of God had brought shame on His name. They had been set apart by God as distinct and holy. They were His possession and were to live like it. That is why He gave them the Law. That is why He provided the sacrificial system.

“I gave them my decrees and regulations so they could find life by keeping them. And I gave them my Sabbath days of rest as a sign between them and me. It was to remind them that I am the Lord, who had set them apart to be holy.” – Ezekiel 20:11-12 NLT

Unlike all the other nations, the Israelites were commanded to worship God alone. But they had failed to do so, and as a result, they had defiled His name. And while God would have been completely justified in destroying them, He was committed to keeping His promises because the honor of His name was at stake.

Yet, even after experiencing the grace of His miraculous deliverance from captivity, they continued to worship the false gods of Egypt.

“They wouldn’t obey my regulations even though obedience would have given them life. They also violated my Sabbath days. So I threatened to pour out my fury on them, and I made plans to utterly consume them in the wilderness. – Ezekiel 20:13 NLT

Several times along the way from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel tested God’s patience and pushed His mercy to the limits. But when they arrived at the banks of the Jordan River and refused to enter the land, God determined to curse them so they might wander in the wilderness until that first generation died off. Then He would allow their descendants to enter the land and enjoy His presence and provision. But even that second generation of Israelites proved to be far from faithful.

“But their children, too, rebelled against me. They refused to keep my decrees and follow my regulations, even though obedience would have given them life. And they also violated my Sabbath days.” – Ezekiel 20:21 NLT

The pattern continued. Each generation repeated the same deadly mistake, forsaking the one true God for the false gods of Egypt and Canaan. They refused to obey His commands and worship Him alone. For 40 long years, God endured the stubborn resistance of His covenant-breaking people. And while He refused to destroy them, He did predict their future downfall. He would bring them to the land and bless them abundantly, but He would also punish them for their unwillingness to honor Him as God.

“Nevertheless, I withdrew my judgment against them to protect the honor of my name before the nations that had seen my power in bringing them out of Egypt. But I took a solemn oath against them in the wilderness. I swore I would scatter them among all the nations because they did not obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 20:22-24 NLT

As the covenant-keeping God, if He failed to keep His promises, He would prove Himself either untrustworthy or incapable of doing what He had promised. So when the people failed to honor God’s name, He intervened so that he might protect the integrity of His name. He punished justly, spared them graciously, and continually extended mercy – refusing the wipe them out completely, all to protect the honor of His name.

But if the Jewish officials thought God was going to overlook their track record of sin and give them a favorable message concerning their deliverance, they were going to be disappointed. God warned Ezekiel that the day of judgment was about to come. The gracious and merciful God of Israel had seen and endured enough.

“I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life. I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them, and I allowed them to give their firstborn children as offerings to their gods—so I might devastate them and remind them that I alone am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 20:25-26 NLT

Zedekiah’s overtures to Egypt would amount to nothing. Any hopes of securing an alliance against the Babylonians would fail. If the Israelites would not honor the integrity of God’s name, He would do so Himself.

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

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

Our Right and Righteous God

12 And the word of the Lord came to me: 13 “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, 14 even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.

15 “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, 16 even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate.

17 “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, 18 though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered.

19 “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, 20 even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord God, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.

21 “For thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! 22 But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. 23 They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord God.”  Ezekiel 14:12-23 ESV

Even prophets of God have their moments of doubt and discouragement, and Ezekiel was no exception. Although he was a divinely-ordained spokesman for the Almighty, there must have been times when Ezekiel grew concerned about the message he was commanded to deliver. Standing before his peers each day and communicating God’s blistering message of condemnation and judgment could not have been easy. It’s likely that the shocked members of his audience registered their dissatisfaction with his raging rhetoric and raised questions of their own, causing Ezekiel to have second thoughts about God’s proposed plan for Jerusalem’s destruction.

Somewhere along the way, the young prophet must have considered the story of God informing Abraham of His intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s little doubt that Abraham knew about the less-than-flattering reputation of this pair of pagan communities. The tales of their immoral exploits had become legendry, and Abraham’s nephew, Lot, who had taken up residence in Sodom, had likely confirmed the truth behind the stories. So, when God informed Abraham that He was going to judge these cities “because their sin is so flagrant” (Genesis 18:20 NLT), Abraham grew concerned about the fate of Lot and his family, and he raised a concern about God’s plan.

“Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” – Genesis 18:23-25 NLT

It seems only logical that Ezekiel would have harbored similar apprehensions concerning God’s plans for the righteous remnant in his own day. He would have known about individuals back in Jerusalem whom he considered to be faithful followers of Yahweh. Were they to suffer the same fate as the wicked? Were they doomed to the same destruction as those who refused to honor God?

Whether Ezekiel had expressed his concerns verbally or they remained as unspoken thoughts in his mind, the all-knowing God of the universe knew what His prophet was thinking. So, He addressed the 800-pound gorilla in the room by proposing a not-so-hypothetical situation.

“Son of man, suppose the people of a country were to sin against me, and I lifted my fist to crush them, cutting off their food supply and sending a famine to destroy both people and animals. Even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were there, their righteousness would save no one but themselves, says the Sovereign Lord. – Ezekiel 14:13-14 NLT

God was describing the fate that awaited Jerusalem and Ezekiel knew it. But God informs His prophet that the presence of a handful of righteous individuals would not be enough to spare the city from judgment – even if they were well-established icons of religious virtue and moral respectability. And to drive home His point, God lists the names of three such men: Noah, Daniel, and Job.

As a priest, Ezekiel would have been familiar with all three men. He was well-versed in the Genesis account of Noah and the great flood that destroyed all living things on the earth.

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. – Genesis 6:6 NLT

In the midst of the growing wickedness, there was one man in whom God found favor: Noah. He was a solitary ray of light in the pervading darkness of sin.

Noah was a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time, and he walked in close fellowship with God. – Genesis 6:9 NLT

Yet, Noah’s righteous standing did not forestall the destruction God had ordained. The flood came and the wicked were destroyed. But Noah and his family were preserved in the safe confines of the ark. While all humanity perished, Noah and his seven family members were spared.

What about Daniel? He was a fellow exile who had also been taken captive in the first deportation but had ended up living in the Babylonian capital. The book of Daniel provides the story of his life and affirms that he was a godly young man who had grown up in Jerusalem. But his righteousness had not prevented the fall of the city or kept him from being sent as a captive to Babylon. And while God knew that Daniel continued to walk in keeping with His commands, even while living as an exile in Babylon, the righteous behavior of this one man would not deliver Jerusalem.

Then there’s Job, an Old Testament character whose righteous reputation would have been very familiar to Ezekiel. His story, recorded in the book that bears his name, portrays him as a righteous man who enjoyed great favor with God.

He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil. – Job 1:1 NLT

God even confirmed Job’s sterling reputation.

He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.” – Job 1:8 NLT

And yet, the book of Job tells the story of how this righteous man was forced to endure great suffering and undergo a devastating series of painful losses, including the deaths of all his children, devastating economic failure, and debilitating physical ailments. Yet, through it all, Job remained faithful to God. He was able to say, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10 NLT). This man’s righteousness did not immunize him from suffering. It did not prevent the deaths of his children.

God wants Ezekiel to understand that the presence of a righteous remnant would not be enough to save the city of Jerusalem.

“…even if those three men were there, they wouldn’t be able to save their own sons or daughters.” – Ezekiel 14:16 NLT

War, famine, wild animals, and disease were coming. There were the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of Judah’s sin. But God acknowledges that He will preserve any who are righteous. If there are any in Jerusalem who model their lives after Noah, Daniel, and Job, they can expect to enjoy the same fate as these three men.

“They alone would be saved, but the land would be made desolate.” – Ezekiel 14:16 NLT

“They alone would be saved.” – Ezekiel 14:18 NLT

“They alone would be saved by their righteousness. – Ezekiel 14:20 NLT

But the rest will experience the full extent of God’s wrath.

“How terrible it will be when all four of these dreadful punishments fall upon Jerusalem—war, famine, wild animals, and disease—destroying all her people and animals.” – Ezekiel 14:21 NLT

Yet, God will mercifully spare some, and they will end up as exiles in Babylon just like Ezekiel and Daniel. And when Ezekiel sees them for the first time, he will fully understand the nature of God’s ways.

Yet there will be survivors, and they will come here to join you as exiles in Babylon. You will see with your own eyes how wicked they are, and then you will feel better about what I have done to Jerusalem. When you meet them and see their behavior, you will understand that these things are not being done to Israel without cause. – Ezekiel 14:22-23 NLT

Even after experiencing the fall of Jerusalem, witnessing the destruction of the temple, and enduring their forced march to Babylon, these wicked and rebellious people will have learned nothing. Their unrighteous behavior will be on full display and provide ample justification for God’s actions. Ezekiel will know with unquestionable certainty that the Sovereign Lord has administered justice and displayed His glory and holiness in the lives of His rebellious people. The Judge of all the earth has done what is good and right.

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 Work of the Ministry

1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. – Titus 1:1-4 ESV

As the title of this letter reflects, Paul was writing to Titus, another one of his young disciples in the faith. This letter, like the ones Paul wrote to Timothy, is intended to encourage and instruct Titus as he ministers on behalf of the gospel.

Paul had left Titus in Crete with the task of ministering to the faithful living there, and had given him orders to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 ESV). Now, Paul was writing to this young man with further words of encouragement and instruction. But Paul’s letter begins with a customary salutation or greeting. This was a common feature of most letters during that day. Unlike modern letters, where the sender signs their name at the end, ancient letters began with a formal introduction of the sender at the very beginning. All of Paul’s letters begin this way, with some featuring longer salutations than others. This is a particularly long one and is far more than a simple greeting or introduction. In it, Paul provides a summation of what he is going to be dealing with in the main content of his letter.

Paul begins with a dual description of himself as the servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. Both are intended to establish Paul’s credentials as a minister of the gospel. He is, first of all and most importantly, a servant of God. The Greek word he used for servant is doulos and it refers to a bondservant or slave. Paul, as a former Pharisee, was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been very familiar with the use of the term, servant, in association with some of the great patriarchs of the Israelites.

Moses, David, and Elijah were each referred to as servants or slaves of God. This was a designation of honor, not infamy. Each of these men had been chosen by God for His role and, in essence, they belonged to Him. Yet, they viewed their subservient status to God as a privilege and not a burden. And Paul claimed to have that same kind of relationship with the God of Moses, David, and Elijah. Yahweh had hand-picked and commissioned Paul to accomplish His will on this earth. So, Paul understood that he served God and not man. It was to God he would ultimately have to answer for his life and ministry. His was a divine calling, complete with the authority and power that had been given to Him by God Himself.

Secondly, Paul states that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ. The Greek word is apostolos and it refers to a delegate, messenger, or one sent forth with orders (“G652 – apostolosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Paul was not only a chosen servant of God but he had also been delegated by Jesus Christ as His representative and had been given a very specific task to perform. The exact words of that commission recorded in the book of Acts. They are part of Paul’s testimony regarding his salvation experience on the road to Damascus.

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” – Acts 26:15-18 ESV

Jesus had appointed Paul to be His servant, with the task of telling others all that he had seen and heard. Paul had been given the privilege of seeing the resurrected Christ. He would be anointed by Ananias and receive the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And Paul was to take this message to the Gentiles, opening their eyes to the good news of the gospel.

In the opening lines of his letter to Titus, Paul provides further clarification of the purpose behind his role as a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 NLT

This point was important for Titus to hear because it applied to him as well. Paul had been sent to proclaim the message of salvation by faith in Christ so that all those whom God had chosen could hear it. And when those so chosen by God had placed their faith in Christ, Paul was obligated by God and His Son to teach them the truth, so that they might live godly lives. In other words, Paul had a dual responsibility: To play a role in the salvation of the lost, but also in the sanctification of the saved. And Titus shared that same responsibility.

As the opening line of this letter indicates, Paul had a firm belief in the doctrine of election. He uses the term, “God’s elect” in order to refer to those whom God has chosen to come to faith. The Greek word is eklektos and it means “picked out or chosen” (“G1588 – eklektosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). In Paul’s understanding of the gospel, God was the acting agent behind salvation, leaving nothing up to chance. Just as God had chosen Paul for salvation, so He has pre-ordained all those who will come to faith in Christ.

Paul had played no role in his own salvation. He had not been seeking the resurrected Christ. In fact, he had been busy persecuting and eliminating all those who claimed to be followers of Christ. And yet, God had chosen him for salvation. And Paul strongly believed that fact was true for all who come to faith in Christ, past, present, or future.

The doctrine of divine election firmly establishes the believer’s eternal security. God has not left the believer’s assurance of salvation captive to changing feelings or faltering faith. Rather, the faithfulness of God demonstrated in his divine election secures the believer’s salvation in the will and purposes of God himself. – Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin Jr., 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 265

For Paul, salvation, godliness, and eternal life were all the work of God. None of them were possible apart from God. And all of them were pre-ordained and promised by God “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2 ESV). And Paul insists that the message regarding salvation, godliness, and eternal life was given at just the right time, through men like Paul, so that the elect might come to faith through the preaching of the good news. Paul wanted Titus to know that he was nothing more than a messenger and a means by which God would accomplish His preordained will concerning the elect.

Suffice it to say, Paul saw himself as a man with divine authority and a providential responsibility to spread the gospel so that others might come to faith in Christ. But Paul also believed that he had a divine commission to ensure that those very same individuals grew in godliness. And he wanted Titus to know that he shared this very same responsibility and calling. This young man, whom Paul saw as his child in the faith, was also carrying the heavy burden of ministering the gospel to the people of Crete, carrying on what Paul and others had begun. And in the rest of his letter to Titus, Paul will provide him with much-needed guidance and encouragement for the task that lay before him.

That’s why Paul extends to him “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:4 ESV). Paul knew exactly what Titus was up against. The gospel ministry was anything but easy and Titus would need to be constantly reminded of his dependence upon the grace (charis) or unmerited favor of God.

grace: the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues. – Blue Letter Bible, Outline of Biblical Usage

Titus would know the peace of God only to the extent that he understood the grace of God. His effectiveness as a minister of the gospel would be directly tied to his reliance upon God’s power and his understanding of his role as a servant. And Paul wanted Titus to never lose sight of the fact that the greatest expression of God’s grace and mercy is found in “Christ Jesus our Savior.” It was God who graciously sent His Son to suffer in the place of undeserving sinners. This was a recurring theme in Paul’s letters.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in offenses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved! – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

It was not Titus’ job to save anyone. He was simply to point them to the Savior, the one who had already paid the penalty for their sins and guaranteed their hope of eternal life. Titus was a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, just like Paul. And, while he had a job to do, the work had already been accomplished by Jesus.

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.

Faithfulness: The Key to Preventing Spiritual Failure

12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. – 1 Timothy 1:12-20 ESV

Paul was a man who was comfortable in his own skin. He was well aware of his past and not afraid to confess it or to come face to face with it. He regularly revisited the life he lived before coming to faith in Christ and recognized that his past was a vital part of his present identity. He unabashedly admits to Timothy, “I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people” (1 Timothy 1:13 NLT). 

There was a dark side to Paul’s past that he was more than willing to admit. He didn’t attempt to hide or gloss over it. In fact, it was his honest recognition of his past that made his present state of grace in Christ that much more amazing. It wasn’t that Paul had lived a life of moral degeneracy and spiritual bankruptcy. No, he had been a faithful adherent to the Hebrew religion and a committed member of one of the most strict religious sects of his day.

I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT

It had been his zeal for his religious faith that had led him to attack the followers of Jesus. Like most Jews of his day, Paul had viewed the disciples of Jesus as members of a dangerous religious sect that were falsely proclaiming that the Jewish Messiah had come. And Paul saw this rapidly growing religious movement as a threat to his Jewish faith. That led him to wage a one-man crusade against the followers of “the way.”

I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. – Acts 22:3-4 NLT

Paul was brutally honest about his past, fully admitting the role he had played in trying to exterminate any and all Christians from the fact of the earth.

You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion—how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. – Galatians 1:13 NLT

But Paul’s sordid past had not proved to be a problem for God Almighty. In fact, God had redeemed Paul in spite of his former way of life.

He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him – 1 Timothy 1:12 NLT

It was not Paul’s zeal that earned him a right standing with God. His well-intentioned but misguided efforts to purge the world of all Christians had failed miserably, because God had other plans for this hard-driving, high-energy crusader.

Paul regularly shared the story of how God transformed his life from a persecutor of the church to a proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ (Acts 9). While on his way to Damascus to arrest and imprison Christ-followers, Paul had an unexpected encounter with the resurrected Jesus Christ that changed the entire trajectory of his life. Paul would later be discipled by a man named Ananias, who revealed to him his new God-ordained life’s mission.

“The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.’ – Acts 22:14-16 NLT

And Paul freely admitted to Timothy that his salvation had been the gracious work of God, who had sent His Son into the world to save sinners just like him.

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. – 1 Timothy 1:15 NLT

Paul was still blown away by God’s unmerited favor and immeasurable grace.

God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. – 1 Timothy 1:13-14 NLT

As far as Paul was concerned, his life was meant to be an example to others of just how gracious and forgiven God could be.

God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. – 1 Timothy 1:16 NLT

Paul wanted Timothy to understand the magnitude of God’s power and undeserved goodness. It was essential that Timothy fully embrace the one-of-a-kind nature of God Almighty.

He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. – 1 Timothy 1:17 NLT

All of this was meant to be an introduction or preface to the primary point behind Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul knew that Timothy was in a difficult spot. He was a young man attempting to minister to a small congregation of believers living in the hostile environment of Ephesus. They were surrounded by pagan unbelievers and a vocal and sometimes violent contingent of local Jews who had targeted them as enemies.

So, Paul was desperate to prepare and encourage Timothy for the battle ahead. This young pastor was facing strong opposition from a zealous and determined foe. And Paul fully understood what it was like to have a strong opinion about something. He also knew that passion and zeal did not make someone right. The individuals who were negatively influencing the believers in Ephesus and causing problems for Timothy were all convinced that they were right. Paul describes them as wanting “to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently” (1 Timothy 1:7 NLT).

At one time, Paul had been much like them. He had been an expert in the law and a Pharisee. He described himself as “a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today” (Acts 26:3 NLT).

During that period of his life. Paul had done everything in a misguided attempt to honor God. He did what he did with confidence and a clear conscience, including blaspheming the name of Christ and persecuting the people of God. But as Paul looked back on his life, he recognized that it all had been done “in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13 NLT).

Paul wanted Timothy to know that even those individuals who were causing confusion and conflict within the church in Ephesus were not hopeless cases. They were not lost causes. If God could extend mercy and grace to Paul, He could certainly do the same with those who “have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions” (1 Timothy 1:6 NLT). It seems that Paul was attempting to encourage Timothy to trust in the grace and mercy of God in the midst of all that he was facing. God had been able to take a man like Paul and miraculously change his heart and his life through an encounter with His Son, Jesus Christ.

God had mercy. God extended grace. Paul’s life had not been beyond the reach of God. His life had not been too far gone for Jesus to transform. He had not been irredeemable. Paul’s life had become “a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:16b NLT).

Paul reminded Timothy to never lose sight of the fact that, despite all the opposition, confusion, setbacks, false teachers, uncommitted congregants, limited converts, and trying circumstances. He gave Timothy one simple directive: “Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear” (1 Timothy 1:19 NLT).

Faith in what? Faith in Christ. Jesus Christ was the one who made it possible for men to be made right with God. He was the one who provided redemption and restoration with the Father. It was through Him that all men gain access to God’s incredible mercy, grace, power, presence, and provision. Paul wanted Timothy to remain faithful to Christ and faithfully fulfill his work as God’s minister of the Gospel. Some had failed to do so, and Paul used them as an example and a warning.  

Hymenaeus and Alexander, evidently believers and members of the local fellowship there in Ephesus, had not remained faithful to Christ. They had violated their consciences, somehow disobeying what they knew to be true and right, and, as a result, they had shipwrecked their faith. Their lives were spiritually “on the rocks,” out of commission, and under God’s discipline.

Faithfulness is the key to preventing spiritual failure. God was going to use Timothy in a powerful way, but Timothy would need to remain faithful to Christ and focused on God’s power to extend grace and mercy to all, even the worst of sinners. Timothy’s God was still on His throne.

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.