The Final Purging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Right Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punishment in Keeping With the Crime

45 And the word of the Lord came to me: 46 “Son of man, set your face toward the southland; preach against the south, and prophesy against the forest land in the Negeb. 47 Say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. 48 All flesh shall see that I the Lord have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.” 49 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! They are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of parables?’”

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries. Prophesy against the land of Israel and say to the land of Israel, Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you and will draw my sword from its sheath and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked. Because I will cut off from you both righteous and wicked, therefore my sword shall be drawn from its sheath against all flesh from south to north. And all flesh shall know that I am the Lord. I have drawn my sword from its sheath; it shall not be sheathed again.

“As for you, son of man, groan; with breaking heart and bitter grief, groan before their eyes. And when they say to you, ‘Why do you groan?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that it is coming. Every heart will melt, and all hands will be feeble; every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it is coming, and it will be fulfilled,’” declares the Lord God. – Ezekiel 20:27-21:7 NLT

The final phase of God’s judgment was coming and He has confirmed that its arrival would be well-deserved and fully just. The people of Israel stood before God guilty and condemned. From the northern borders of Israel to the southern tip of Judah, the entire land of promise had been polluted by the unfaithfulness of God’s chosen people. During the reign of King Josiah in Judah, the prophet Jeremiah delivered a warning that the southern kingdom would suffer the same fate as the northern kingdom because they were guilty of the same crime. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians and yet the southern kingdom of Judah had learned nothing from watching God’s destruction of their ten fellow tribes.

“Have you seen what fickle Israel has done? Like a wife who commits adultery, Israel has worshiped other gods on every hill and under every green tree. I thought, ‘After she has done all this, she will return to me.’ But she did not return, and her faithless sister Judah saw this. She saw that I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 NLT

God also gave Ezekiel a message for the recalcitrant citizens of Judah. Despite the fall of their northern neighbor, they remained just as stubbornly committed to their idolatrous ways. They had shown no signs of regret, remorse, or repentance. So, God provides Ezekiel with a series of prophetic statements concerning the land of Judah, beginning with the southern region of the Negev.

“Son of man, turn and face the south and speak out against it; prophesy against the brushlands of the Negev.“ – Ezekiel 20:47 NLT

The Negev was an expansive desert region that extended from Bathsheba in the north all the way down to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. While the Negev was predominantly an arid region, in Ezekiel’s day the northern portion was forested and rather lush. The southern region was more desolate and featured drought-resistant shrubs and bushes. It was less populated but still considered a part of the promised land. Yet, God declares that He is going to bring destructive fires to turn the entire region into a vast wasteland.

“I will set you on fire, and every tree, both green and dry, will be burned. The terrible flames will not be quenched and will scorch everything from south to north.” – Ezekiel 20:47 NLT

The devastation will be complete and the divine nature of its source will be readily known.

“And everyone in the world will see that I, the Lord, have set this fire. It will not be put out.’” – Ezekiel 20:48 NLT

 

But Ezekiel complains that this message is falling on unreceptive ears. He is stuck in Babylon, delivering God’s warnings of judgment against the Negev to people who don’t even live there. His fellow exiles view his messages as incomprehensible and non-applicable to them.

“O Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘He only talks in riddles!’” – Ezekiel 20:49 NLT

But rather than address Ezekiel’s concerns, God simply provides him with further details by focusing the point of His message further north.

“Son of man, turn and face Jerusalem and prophesy against Israel and her sanctuaries. – Ezekiel 21:1 NLT

It seems that God required Ezekiel to physically turn and address these different regions of Judah. Once again, he is expected to act out his prophecy by turning south and then north to accentuate the different regions of Judah. Perhaps he was using the miniature model of Jerusalem that God had commanded him to make earlier (Ezekiel 4:1-17). This physical orientation was probably intended to remind the exiles of the geographic layout of their former homeland. It was a visual demonstration of the vast and diverse nature of Judah’s territory.

In the less-populated south, the primary recipients of God’s fury would be the trees and shrubs. But as His wrath moved northward, it would focus on the people who occupied the cities, villages, and towns that dotted the landscape, including the capital city of Jerusalem.

“This is what the Lord says: I am your enemy, O Israel, and I am about to unsheath my sword to destroy your people—the righteous and the wicked alike. Yes, I will cut off both the righteous and the wicked! I will draw my sword against everyone in the land from south to north.” – Ezekiel 21:3-4 NLT

In some sense, God seems to be comparing the entire nation of Judah to a desert, a virtual spiritual wasteland where the life-giving presence of God is nowhere to be found. Despite the presence of the temple in Jerusalem, their knowledge of God’s Law, and the availability of the sacrificial system, the people of Judah showed no signs of spiritual life and vitality.

The prophet, Habakkuk, gave an eyewitness account of the sorry spiritual state within the land of Judah.

Wherever I look,
    I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
    who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
    and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
    so that justice has become perverted. – Habakkuk 1:3-4 NLT

And God provided Habakkuk with His divine solution to Judah’s moral and spiritual problem.

“I am raising up the Babylonians,
    a cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world
    and conquer other lands.
They are notorious for their cruelty
    and do whatever they like.
Their horses are swifter than cheetahs
    and fiercer than wolves at dusk.
Their charioteers charge from far away.
    Like eagles, they swoop down to devour their prey.” – Habakkuk 1:6-8 NLT

God had determined to destroy His rebellious and unrepentant people. He had relented long enough and now it was time to deal with their rampant and escalating wickedness. And to help accentuate the devastating nature of the coming destruction, Ezekiel is instructed to “groan before the people! Groan before them with bitter anguish and a broken heart” (Ezekiel 21:6 NLT). His presentation of God’s prophecies is to be accompanied by heartfelt distress and visible expressions of sorrow. And it probably didn’t require a lot of acting on Ezekiel’s part to carry off this request. He was personally grieved by the news of his nation’s pending destruction, and he was not alone. Even Habakkuk expressed his concern about God’s plan.

“O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
    swallow up people more righteous than they?” – Habakkuk 1:12-13 NLT

Even God’s prophets struggled to understand God’s ways. His determination to use a pagan nation to punish His own people made no sense to them. It seemed out of character and in direct violation of His covenant commitments. But what they failed to understand was the egregious nature of Judah’s sin. They had yet to comprehend the gravity of the situation or the full extent of Judah’s spiritual degradation. But God was letting Ezekiel know that the punishment would be commensurate with the crime. And when the judgment of God came, it would leave a lasting impression.

“When it comes true, the boldest heart will melt with fear; all strength will disappear. Every spirit will faint; strong knees will become as weak as water. And the Sovereign Lord says: It is coming! It’s on its way!” – Ezekiel 21:8 NLT

Their wandering and unfaithful hearts will be left in a state of abject fear. The false gods they loved so much will abandon them. In their time of greatest need, their idols will prove powerless, leaving them without a source of strength or security. The formerly prideful and arrogant will find themselves humiliated and degraded. Those who rested on their financial strength and self-sufficiency will become destitute and devoid of all material wealth.

And the impact of this coming judgment would be without boundaries. From the Negev to Jerusalem and from Babylon to the Kebar River, the full force of God’s wrath will be felt by His chosen people. Even from their distant vantage point in Babylon, the exiles will not escape the consequences of their unfaithfulness to God. And God provided the prophet, Habakkuk, with the simple antidote for escaping the wrath of God: Faithfulness.

“This vision is for a future time.
    It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
    for it will surely take place.
    It will not be delayed.

“Look at the proud!
    They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked.
    But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” – Habakkuk 2:3-4 NLT

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

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

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.

Repent and Turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soul Who Sins Shall Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. So on January 15, during the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon led his entire army against Jerusalem. They surrounded the city and built siege ramps against its walls. Jerusalem was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah’s reign.

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

But the Babylonian troops chased King Zedekiah and overtook him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They captured the king and took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. The king of Babylon made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered his sons. He also slaughtered all the officials of Judah at Riblah. Then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him in bronze chains, and the king of Babylon led him away to Babylon. Zedekiah remained there in prison until the day of his death. – Jeremiah 52:2-11 NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faithful to the End

53 “I will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes in their midst, 54 that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all that you have done, becoming a consolation to them. 55 As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters shall return to their former state, and Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former state, and you and your daughters shall return to your former state. 56 Was not your sister Sodom a byword in your mouth in the day of your pride, 57 before your wickedness was uncovered? Now you have become an object of reproach for the daughters of Syria and all those around her, and for the daughters of the Philistines, those all around who despise you. 58 You bear the penalty of your lewdness and your abominations, declares the Lord.

59 “For thus says the Lord God: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. 62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, 63 that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God.”  Ezekiel 16:53-63 ESV

Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem are each accused of wickedness. Sodom is intended to represent the pagan nations with its blatant immorality and subsequent judgment and annihilation by God. Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, were the two poster cities for moral decadence and excess, and God destroyed them both. Samaria was the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. It was comprised of the ten northern tribes that God had split apart from Solomon’s kingdom as a result of his wicked behavior in the latter part of his reign. This son of David had chosen to erect idols to false gods all across his kingdom and, as a result, God divided his kingdom in half.

Jeroboam, who became the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, proved to be a less-than-ideal leader. In an attempt to eliminate any allegiance the people might have to their former kingdom and to prevent them from returning to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, Jeroboam created his own capital in Shechem and then created two alternative worship centers dedicated to false gods.

…on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.

Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. And Jeroboam instituted a religious festival in Bethel, held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in imitation of the annual Festival of Shelters in Judah. There at Bethel he himself offered sacrifices to the calves he had made, and he appointed priests for the pagan shrines he had made. – 1 Kings 12:28-32 NLT

Decades later, Omri would ascend to the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel, and he would relocate the capital city to Samaria.

Omri bought the hill now known as Samaria from its owner, Shemer, for 150 pounds of silver. He built a city on it and called the city Samaria in honor of Shemer.

But Omri did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, even more than any of the kings before him. He followed the example of Jeroboam son of Nebat in all the sins he had committed and led Israel to commit. The people provoked the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, with their worthless idols. – 1 Kings 16:24-26 NLT

Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab, who managed to exceed his father in terms of wickedness. Early on his reign, Ahab “built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. Then he set up an Asherah pole. He did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:32-33 NLT).

Yet as morally decadent and spiritually vacuous as Sodom and Samaria may have been, God declares that their wickedness paled in comparison to that of the city of Jerusalem. The capital city of the southern kingdom had become so evil that it made the deeds committed in Sodom and Samaria appear righteous in contrast. But despite this stark assessment, God declares that He will one day restore the fortunes of all three cities.

“But someday I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and Samaria, and I will restore you, too. Then you will be truly ashamed of everything you have done, for your sins make them feel good in comparison.” – Ezekiel 16:53-54 NLT

This astounding statement ties directly back to a promise given to the people of Israel long before they entered the land of Canaan. God had given the people of Israel His commands and ordered them to obey them. He even outlined the blessings they could expect if they obeyed and the curses that would befall them if they disobeyed. And then, Moses assured them that even if they failed to obey, they could experience God’s forgiveness and restoration if they returned to Him in humility and contrition.

then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes. He will have mercy on you and gather you back from all the nations where he has scattered you. Even though you are banished to the ends of the earth, the Lord your God will gather you from there and bring you back again. The Lord your God will return you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will possess that land again. Then he will make you even more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors! – Deuteronomy 30:3-5 NLT

God was informing Ezekiel that the judgment for the sins of Jerusalem was about to come upon them. The Babylonians would soon arrive and bring devastation and destruction to the land of Judah. The capital of Jerusalem would fall and the temple would be destroyed. Then the exiles living in Babylon would see their ranks swell as the tens of thousands of captives began to arrive after their long march from Jerusalem.

And yet, God declares that He will one day restore the fortunes of all those living in the land of Canaan, including Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem.

“Yes, your sisters, Sodom and Samaria, and all their people will be restored, and at that time you also will be restored.” – Ezekiel 16:55 NLT

This prophetic statement has yet to be fulfilled. While Ezra and Nehemiah eventually led the people of Israel out of their captivity in Babylon and back to the land of Judah, their fortunes were not completely restored. They did rebuild the city of Jerusalem and restored the temple to a semblance of its former glory, but Israel would never rise to its former state of power and prominence in the region. They would never have a king who would reign over them as David or Solomon had. In fact, their lowly status as a nation would be a constant reminder of just how egregious their sin had been.

“…now your greater wickedness has been exposed to all the world, and you are the one who is scorned—by Edom and all her neighbors and by Philistia. This is your punishment for all your lewdness and detestable sins, says the Lord.” – Ezekiel 16:57-58 NLT

They would be back in the land, but their fortunes would be far from fully restored. God warns them, “I will give you what you deserve, for you have taken your solemn vows lightly by breaking your covenant” (Ezekiel 16:59 NLT). They will reap the consequences of their sin. He will graciously restore them to the land but they will have to suffer the constant reminder of their unfaithfulness in the form of their diminished status as a nation. No longer would they reflect their former lofty position as God’s chosen people. And they will remain in that state for centuries.

But God points to a future time when He will fully restore His wayward people. He will do for them what they were incapable of doing for themselves. He will heal their sick and sinful hearts and restore them to a right relationship with Himself.

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died. – Ezekiel 16:62-63 NLT

They will grieve, but only for a little while. God’s faithful adherence to His covenant commitments will cause the people of Israel to mourn their past behavior. They will regret their long history of rebellion against God, but God promises full restoration and a complete renewal of their relationship with Him. God will later provide Ezekiel with further details concerning this amazing transformation.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“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.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 NLT

Despite the unfaithfulness of His people, God will remain fully committed to His covenant promises. He will do all that He has promised to do, down to the smallest detail. While He had been forced to punish them for their sins, He had never stopped being their God, and He would never fail to fulfill each and every promise He had made.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 ESV

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

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

Idols of the Heart

1 Then certain of the elders of Israel came to me and sat before me. And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself. And I will set my face against that man; I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord. And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. 10 And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the prophet and the punishment of the inquirer shall be alike— 11 that the house of Israel may no more go astray from me, nor defile themselves anymore with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, declares the Lord God.” Ezekiel 14:1-11 ESV

After exposing the lies of the false prophets and pronouncing judgment upon them, God turns His attention to the religious and civic leaders of Israel. A group of these men showed up at Ezekiel’s house with the likely intention of confronting him about his pessimistic messages and the negative impact they were having on the exiles. It seems apparent from the text that they had come to ask Ezekiel to tone down his rhetoric and to have the prophet intercede with God on their behalf. They sensed that He had a direct line to the Almighty and could do something to assuage His anger. But before they could utter a word, God spoke up and dressed them down. He knew why they were there and was not going to give them an opportunity to express their grievances or put in a request for Ezekiel’s intercession. Instead, God warned the prophet to see these men for who they really were: Idolatrous hypocrites who had no intention of giving up their false gods and returning to Him.

“Son of man, these leaders have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin. Why should I listen to their requests? – Ezekiel 14:3 NLT

With this statement, God exposes the true source of Israel’s problem. It wasn’t that they had erected shrines, altars, and high places all over Judah and even in the remote environs of Babylon, it was that they had made a home for these false gods in their hearts. They had developed a deep and abiding affection for “logs, blocks, and shapeless things.” That is what the Hebrew word גִּלּוּל (gillûl) means. The chosen people of God had fallen in love with shapeless and lifeless blocks of wood. And that was true of those men sitting in Ezekiel’s home preparing to request his intercession with the one true God. Their own hearts had become the shrines at which they bowed down and worshiped their false and formless gods.

The prophet Isaiah used biting satire to expose the ridiculous nature of idolatry.

How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit? – Isaiah 44:9-10 NLT

The Hebrew word גִּלּוּל (gillûl) could actually be translated as “dungy thing” and was anything but a compliment. Idols were worthless because they were powerless. They were little more than blocks of wood, bits of stone, and chunks of metal formed by human hands to represent non-existent deities. And Isaiah describes with thinly veiled scorn the transition of a block of wood to a worship-worthy idol.

Then the wood-carver measures a block of wood
    and draws a pattern on it.
He works with chisel and plane
    and carves it into a human figure.
He gives it human beauty
    and puts it in a little shrine.
He cuts down cedars;
    he selects the cypress and the oak;
he plants the pine in the forest
    to be nourished by the rain.
Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire.
    With it he warms himself and bakes his bread.
Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it
    and makes himself a god to worship!
He makes an idol
    and bows down in front of it!
He burns part of the tree to roast his meat
    and to keep himself warm.
    He says, “Ah, that fire feels good.”
Then he takes what’s left
    and makes his god: a carved idol!
He falls down in front of it,
    worshiping and praying to it.
“Rescue me!” he says.
    “You are my god!” – Isaiah 44:13-17 NLT

What seems readily apparent is that the men sitting in Ezekiel’s home had most likely called upon their false gods to rescue them from the wrath of God Almighty. These “idols of the heart” had probably gotten an earful from their fearful admirers but, as the psalmist points out, “They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear…” (Psalm 115:5-6 NLT). Their gods had failed to answer them so they were hoping Ezekiel might have better luck with Yahweh.

But the truly sad thing is they couldn’t see the futility and foolishness of their situation; a point that Isaiah expresses quite well.

Such stupidity and ignorance!
    Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see.
    Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.
The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
    “Why, it’s just a block of wood!
I burned half of it for heat
    and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat.
How can the rest of it be a god?
    Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?”
The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes.
    He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” – Isaiah 44:18-20 NLT

God was personally offended by their actions. They had the audacity to replace the One who had created them with gods they had made with their own hands. And to make matters worse, when their false gods failed to deliver, they had shown up at the prophet’s house expecting Yahweh to do them a favor.

“The people of Israel have set up idols in their hearts and fallen into sin, and then they go to a prophet asking for a message.” – Ezekiel 14:4 NLT

But the message they received was not what they were hoping to hear. God gave them an ultimatum: They would have to repent. If they wanted to hear from Him, they would have to abandon their idols and return to Him in humble obeisance and faithful obedience to His commands.

“Repent and turn away from your idols, and stop all your detestable sins.” – Ezekiel 14:6 NLT

And if they refused to do, the consequences would be sorrowful and severe.

“I will turn against such people and make a terrible example of them, eliminating them from among my people.” – Ezekiel 14:8 NLT

This was not the message Ezekiel’s guests had hoped to hear. God’s non-negotiable call to repentance was repellant to them. They couldn’t fathom the idea of giving up their idols of the heart. God was asking too much. They viewed His requirement of unwavering, faithful devotion to Him alone as too restrictive and repressive. And God knew that when they heard His conditions, they would make a beeline to one of the false prophets in hopes of getting a more favorable response. But God warned that the lies of the false prophets would do nothing to thwart His sovereign will.

False prophets and those who seek their guidance will all be punished for their sins. In this way, the people of Israel will learn not to stray from me, polluting themselves with sin. – Ezekiel 14:10-11 NLT

Fake gods and false prophets would prove helpless and hopeless in the face of God’s judgment. Idols of the heart would disappoint. The popular prophets would be punished for promoting lies. But when the dust settled, everyone would know that Yahweh alone was God. That was always God’s purpose and plan. His blessings had always been intended to demonstrate His existence as the one true God. But His curses were meant to accomplish the same thing. When He poured out His wrath on the rebellious and unrepentant, it would serve as a wake-up call to the rest of the nation. His punishment of the wicked would serve as a powerful incentive for His chosen people, prompting them to return to Him in humility and brokenness. And when they did, God would restore them, just as He had promised.

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

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 Fallacy of False Hope

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: ‘Hear the word of the Lord!’ Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel. You have not gone up into the breaches, or built up a wall for the house of Israel, that it might stand in battle in the day of the Lord. They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word. Have you not seen a false vision and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, ‘Declares the Lord,’ although I have not spoken?”

Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Because you have uttered falsehood and seen lying visions, therefore behold, I am against you, declares the Lord God. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord God. 10 Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash, 11 say to those who smear it with whitewash that it shall fall! There will be a deluge of rain, and you, O great hailstones, will fall, and a stormy wind break out. 12 And when the wall falls, will it not be said to you, ‘Where is the coating with which you smeared it?’ 13 Therefore thus says the Lord God: I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath, and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger, and great hailstones in wrath to make a full end. 14 And I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you shall perish in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lord. 15 Thus will I spend my wrath upon the wall and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash, and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it, 16 the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her, when there was no peace, declares the Lord God. Ezekiel 13:1-16 ESV

The citizens of Judah wrongly assumed that nothing bad was going to happen to their great city of Jerusalem. After all, as far as they could tell, none of God’s prophecies had come to fruition, so they had nothing to worry about. He had warned of destruction but the walls still stood and the temple was fully intact. And, even if God’s judgments were to come, the common opinion was that they would happen any time soon. Any destruction that God might bring upon Judah and its capital city was reserved for some future generation. As far as they could tell, there were safe and sound.

But where did the people get their over-confident and somewhat complacent view of God’s judgment? How did they come up with these faulty conclusions concerning the prophecies that God had pronounced? Well, God provides the answers to those questions by calling out the men who were responsible for the nation’s continued disobedience.

“Son of man, prophesy against the false prophets of Israel who are inventing their own prophecies. – Ezekiel 13:2 NLT

God accused these self-proclaimed prophets of “following their own imaginations” (Ezekiel 13:3 NLT) but claimed to be speaking on behalf of God. Yet, God had neither commissioned them nor given them any message to deliver. They were freelancers, operating in the name of God but without His permission or blessing. And the messages they were sharing were doing far more damage than good.

“They have done nothing to repair the breaks in the walls around the nation. They have not helped it to stand firm in battle on the day of the Lord. Instead, they have told lies and made false predictions.” – Ezekiel 13:5-6 NLT

Judah was in trouble. They were about to experience the righteous wrath of God because of the centuries-worth of rebellion and apostasy that characterized them as a nation. They had a track record of disobedience and had displayed a stubborn resistance to the calls of God’s prophets that they repent and return to Him in humility and brokenness.

And one of the key factors behind their long history of disobedience was the presence of false prophets, and this was not a new problem. For as long as God had been appointing men to speak on His behalf, there had been another group of individuals who claimed membership in that elite group. But they were charlatans and pretenders. God had neither sent them nor spoken to them. And yet…

“They say, ‘This message is from the Lord,’ even though the Lord never sent them. And yet they expect him to fulfill their prophecies! Can your visions be anything but false if you claim, ‘This message is from the Lord,’ when I have not even spoken to you?” – Ezekiel 13:6-7 NLT

What made these men so popular with the people was that their messages were more palatable and acceptable than the ones given by God’s true prophets. While men like Ezekiel were declaring the pending judgment of God, these individuals were promoting a contrary narrative that provided the people with false hope. In a sense, they were telling the people what they wanted to hear. “Everything’s going to be okay,” they claimed. “You’ve got nothing to worry about,” they confidently boasted. And, the citizens of Judah must have found these claims to be like music to their ears when compared with Ezekiel’s messages of doom and gloom.

The apostle Paul warned his young protégé, Timothy, that people will always have a partiality for those who tell them what they want to hear.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. – 2 Timothy 4:3-4 NLT

While Ezekiel was busy telling the people the truth of God – there were plenty of false prophets happy to provide the people with reassuring words and comforting, yet contradictory messages of hope. These men blatantly repudiated Ezekiel’s prophecies, declaring them to be nothing but lies but God had a different opinion.

“They were lying prophets who claimed peace would come to Jerusalem when there was no peace.” – Ezekiel 13:16 NLT

They were deceiving the people by promoting a false sense of calm and assurance when calamity was right around the corner. They were putting words in God’s mouth when they hadn’t heard from God at all. Rather than call the people to repentance, they promoted a lifestyle of continuing decadence, immorality, and idolatry.

But God’s indictment of them was severe. He was no longer going to tolerate their deceitful masquerade as His messengers. These self-proclaimed prophets of God were going to find themselves on the receiving end of God’s wrath.

“Because what you say is false and your visions are a lie, I will stand against you, says the Sovereign Lord. I will raise my fist against all the prophets who see false visions and make lying predictions, and they will be banished from the community of Israel. I will blot their names from Israel’s record books, and they will never again set foot in their own land.” – Ezekiel 13:9-10 NLT

They would pay dearly for their penchant for popularity and fame. While the people loved to listen to what they had to say, God had heard enough. Their false claims of peace and safety were highly appealing and caused the people to reject Ezekiel’s less-attractive message of pending judgment.

The people had manufactured unstable walls of security based on wishful thinking, and these pseudo-prophets had validated those false hopes with pleasant-sounding words of affirmation. They concealed the lies with white-washed words of false assurance, like pouring white paint on a poorly constructed wall, in the hopes that it would appear more stable and secure. But in the end, they would find their wall of lies destroyed and their 15 minutes of fame brought to an ignominious end.

“At last my anger against the wall and those who covered it with whitewash will be satisfied. Then I will say to you: ‘The wall and those who whitewashed it are both gone.’” – Ezekiel 13:15 NLT

God’s Word can be difficult to understand and even harder to obey. It’s not always easy to comprehend how a loving God can come across as demanding and judgmental. We struggle to deal with the stories in the Old Testament that seem to reveal a God who is quick to anger and not afraid to destroy those who don’t measure up to His high standards. Concepts like hell and judgment seem uncharacteristically unloving and therefore, unacceptable to us. So we try to come up with ways to reject or replace them.

We create our own versions of God’s message. We dumb it down, soften it up, make it more palatable, and in the end, spread a false message that is easy on the ears, but destructive to the soul.

Yes, God is love. But His love does not diminish His holiness. He cannot overlook sin or leave it unpunished. That is why He sent His Son to offer His life as payment for the sins of mankind. But if men ignore God’s call to righteousness and reject the reality of His coming judgment on all mankind, they will miss out on His offer of salvation through faith in Christ. Men who see no need for salvation because there is no judgment will see no need for a savior.

In Ezekiel’s day, there were plenty of false prophets proclaiming that “all is peaceful.” Today, there are those who prefer to claim that “God is love,” while ignoring the truth of His holiness and His hatred for sin. May we never stop speaking the truth of God so that others might receive the grace of God through the free gift of salvation provided by the Son of God.

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

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