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.

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.

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.

Worse Than Sodom or Samaria

35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, I will gather all your lovers with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated. I will gather them against you from every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. 38 And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. 39 And I will give you into their hands, and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber and break down your lofty places. They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. 41 And they shall burn your houses and execute judgments upon you in the sight of many women. I will make you stop playing the whore, and you shall also give payment no more. 42 So will I satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you. I will be calm and will no more be angry. 43 Because you have not remembered the days of your youth, but have enraged me with all these things, therefore, behold, I have returned your deeds upon your head, declares the Lord God. Have you not committed lewdness in addition to all your abominations?

44 “Behold, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you: ‘Like mother, like daughter.’ 45 You are the daughter of your mother, who loathed her husband and her children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. 46 And your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. 47 Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. 48 As I live, declares the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. 51 Samaria has not committed half your sins. You have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed. 52 Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have intervened on behalf of your sisters. Because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous. Ezekiel 16:35-52 ESV

In this chapter, God directs His righteous indignation at the city of Jerusalem, which stood as a symbol of the rebellious and unrepentant people of Judah. It was a well-fortified city featuring the magnificent architecture of the temple and Solomon’s former palace. Its many opulent homes were the pride of the wealthy and well-to-do, who went about their daily lives with an over-confident air of privilege and pretentiousness. Its massive stone walls and well-fortified gates provided an atmosphere of peace and security to the residents safely ensconced inside its impenetrable perimeter.

Ever since its founding by King David, Jerusalem had enjoyed a reputation for being the royal city of the thriving nation of Israel. During Solomon’s reign, it expanded its borders northward with the construction of the temple and the king’s palace compound. Solomon spared no expense in creating a royal city that was the envy of Israel’s enemies. It symbolized their prosperity and prominence as a nation.

But despite Jerusalem’s impressive appearance, all was not well within its walls. Even during the reign of Solomon, the practice of idolatry had become a pervasive problem, and he was personally responsible for its spread.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The Lord had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the Lord.

In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the Lord his God, as his father, David, had been. Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done. – 1 Kings 11:1-6 NLT

Influenced by his many foreign wives, Solomon erected places of worship for their false gods all over Israel. He built a shrine to the Moabite god, Chemosh, on the Mount of Olives, just east of the magnificent temple he had constructed for Yahweh. He also authorized the creation of another shrine to Molech, the god of the Ammonites. At these pagan altars, the people burned incense and offered sacrifices to their false gods and, in doing so, they angered the one true God who had chosen them to be His prized possession. As a result, God determined to punish them by dividing Solomon’s kingdom in half.

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants.” – 1 Kings 11:9-11 NLT

Upon Solomon’s death, the kingdom of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Ten tribes would form the northern kingdom and set up their capital in the city of Samaria, while the southern kingdom of Judah would consist of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. They would maintain Jerusalem as their capital city. And this division would remain in place for centuries, with each kingdom featuring its own set of kings but sharing the common bond of spiritual unfaithfulness demonstrated by their shared passion for idolatry.

In 721 BC, the northern kingdom of Israel experienced God’s wrath in the form of the Assyrian invasion, which left their capital city of Samaria destroyed and their days as a nation brought to an abrupt and ignominious end.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They had followed the practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of them, as well as the practices the kings of Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17: 5-8 NLT

And God warns Ezekiel that the very same fate awaits the rebellious citizens of the southern kingdom of Judah. As they huddled in the safe confines of the walled city of Jerusalem, they believed they were immune from attack. And they assumed that the presence of the temple would guarantee God’s protection. But they were mistaken and God lets Ezekiel know just how wrong they were.

“…this is what I am going to do. I will gather together all your allies—the lovers with whom you have sinned, both those you loved and those you hated—and I will strip you naked in front of them so they can stare at you.” – Ezekiel 16:37 NLT

They had tried to form alliances with the Babylonians, in the hopes that this powerful nation would become their savior. But instead, God would use their “lover” to destroy them.

They will knock down your pagan shrines and the altars to your idols. They will strip you and take your beautiful jewels, leaving you stark naked. They will band together in a mob to stone you and cut you up with swords. They will burn your homes and punish you in front of many women. – Ezekiel 16:39-41 NLT

God lets them know that what happened to their “sister” Samaria, was going to happen to them. They would suffer the same fate. In fact, God declares that the southern kingdom was guilty of greater sins than its sisters, Samaria and Sodom.

“Your older sister was Samaria, who lived with her daughters in the north. Your younger sister was Sodom, who lived with her daughters in the south. But you have not merely sinned as they did. You quickly surpassed them in corruption.” – Ezekiel 16:46-47 NLT

God explains that the ancient city of Sodom, which He had destroyed in the days of Abraham, had been guilty of “pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door” (Ezekiel 16:49 NLT). Yet the sins that brought about the complete annihilation of Sodom were nothing compared with the sins of Judah. And even the capital city of Samaria was a rank amateur in terms of sinfulness when stacked up to Jerusalem.

“Even Samaria did not commit half your sins. You have done far more detestable things than your sisters ever did. They seem righteous compared to you. Shame on you! Your sins are so terrible that you make your sisters seem righteous, even virtuous.” – Ezekiel 16:51-52 NLT

Not exactly a glowing endorsement of Judah’s spiritual state. In His estimation, nothing had changed, even since the days when Jerusalem had been occupied by pagans.

“Truly your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite.” – Ezekiel 16:45 NLT

Once occupied by idol-worshiping Canaanites, the tiny city of Jerusalem had undergone a remarkable physical transformation during the reigns of David and Solomon. They had turned this former Canaanite stronghold into an awe-inspiring symbol of Israel’s power and prominence. God had richly blessed David and Solomon, providing both men with great success. He had given David countless victories over his enemies. He had bestowed Solomon with great wealth and wisdom. But despite God’s gracious outpouring of unmerited blessings, the city remained a haven for false gods and a bastion of idolatry and unfaithfulness. But all that was about to change.

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.

A False Bill of Sales

17 “And you, son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people, who prophesy out of their own hearts. Prophesy against them 18 and say, Thus says the Lord God: Woe to the women who sew magic bands upon all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature, in the hunt for souls! Will you hunt down souls belonging to my people and keep your own souls alive? 19 You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, putting to death souls who should not die and keeping alive souls who should not live, by your lying to my people, who listen to lies.

20 “Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against your magic bands with which you hunt the souls like birds, and I will tear them from your arms, and I will let the souls whom you hunt go free, the souls like birds. 21 Your veils also I will tear off and deliver my people out of your hand, and they shall be no more in your hand as prey, and you shall know that I am the Lord. 22 Because you have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not grieved him, and you have encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life, 23 therefore you shall no more see false visions nor practice divination. I will deliver my people out of your hand. And you shall know that I am the Lord.”  Ezekiel 13:17-23 ESV

Contrary to popular opinion the prophet fraternity was not a male-only club. While men were the primary members of this elite group of divinely commissioned messengers, the Old Testament does indicate that women also served as prophets. In Exodus 15:20, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is listed as a prophetess. According to Judges 4:4, Deborah was a prophetess who also served as a judge over Israel. In 2 Kings 22:14, Hilkiah the priest, and a number of royal officials in King Josiah’s court, consulted the prophetess Huldah, who gave them a message from the Lord. Finally, Nehemiah 6:14 provides the name of Noadiah the prophetess. Each of these women was recognized as an official spokesperson for God and treated with the same respect and honor as their male counterparts, but it would appear that the number of female prophets was relatively small.

Yet, while they may have represented a tiny segment of the overall population, this didn’t stop them from populating the ranks of the false prophets who were leading the people of Judah astray. For those living in Judah during Ezekiel’s day, the presence of a female prophet would not have been unexpected. But God found these women to be unacceptable and intolerable because what they were doing was deceptive and deadly. So, He gave Ezekiel a message aimed directly at them.

“…son of man, speak out against the women who prophesy from their own imaginations…” – Ezekiel 13:17 NLT

God makes it clear that they were not acting on His behalf. Their words were their own and had not come from the Lord. And He exposes their so-called prophecies as a form of witchcraft or sorcery.

What sorrow awaits you women who are ensnaring the souls of my people, young and old alike. You tie magic charms on their wrists and furnish them with magic veils.” – Ezekiel 13:18 NLT

God accuses these women of hunting the souls of His people. It’s unclear just exactly what this phrase means or what role the “magic” wristbands and veils played in their actions, but it would seem to involve some sort of occult practices. Whether they were using these magical items to bring others under their control or in an attempt to cast spells is uncertain.

But what is clear is that these women were offering their services in exchange for payment. They were making a profit from prophesying.

“You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, putting to death souls who should not die and keeping alive souls who should not live, by your lying to my people, who listen to lies.” – Ezekiel 13:19 ESV

It may be that these women were promoting their magical trinkets as talismans that could ward off evil or protect their wearer from harm. Perhaps they were marketing their products as a way to escape the coming judgment of God. In doing so, they were offering people the false hope of salvation. Rather than repent of their sins, their customers could simply rely on the prophylactic effects of their magic wristband or veil.

Whatever it was that they were doing was leading the people of Judah astray. Instead of listening to the warnings of Ezekiel, the true prophet of God, the people were buying into the lies of these women. They were selling hope in the form of magic. They were assuring their customers that they were safe from harm and free from worry. But in doing so, they were condemning these people to certain death and destruction. No piece of cloth was going to stay God’s hand, and no magic spell was going to protect anyone from His wrath.

So, God declares that He will expose their true identity as charlatans. He will rip the wristbands and veils off the arms and heads of His people, setting them free from their captivity to these false forms of hope.

“I will tear them from your arms, setting my people free like birds set free from a cage. I will tear off the magic veils and save my people from your grasp. They will no longer be your victims. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 13:20-21 NLT

The actions of these women had changed nothing about God’s plans for Judah and Jerusalem. The Babylonians were still going to destroy the city and take captive thousands of its inhabitants. The temple would be destroyed. Many would die of starvation during the siege. Others would fall by the sword when the Babylonians entered the city.

These self-proclaimed prophetesses were guilty of false advertising. They were telling their customers that they were safe and secure. And they were assuring all those who refused to buy their products that they were condemned to certain death. But God assures Ezekiel that these women had no power and their products offered no lasting benefits. The only thing these women had managed to accomplish was to lead the people astray. Their efforts had produced discouragement and disillusionment among the godly because they refused to buy their products. And those who purchased their magic clothing lived under a false delusion of invincibility, inducing them to continue their sinful lifestyles unabated and unafraid.

“You have discouraged the righteous with your lies, but I didn’t want them to be sad. And you have encouraged the wicked by promising them life, even though they continue in their sins.” – Ezekiel 13:22 NLT

Whatever these women were doing had left God extremely displeased. He had seen enough and was going to deal with their behavior once and for all.

“Because of all this, you will no longer talk of seeing visions that you never saw, nor will you make predictions. For I will rescue my people from your grasp. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 13:23 NLT

When God states that they will no longer talk of seeing visions they never saw, He is predicting their deaths. He would no longer tolerate their aberrant behavior. The problem inherent with all false prophets is the fact that their prophecies are untrue and, therefore, unreliable. They talk a good game and promote a product with a long list of attractive benefits, but they can’t ever produce what they promise. Their ad copy doesn’t ever add up. Their sales pitch never quite delivers. Because they don’t speak on behalf of God. Like all the other false prophets, they are selling lies. They offer peace instead of warning about God’s punishment. They promise deliverance from His discipline. They encourage a false sense of hope when God is demanding true repentance and a spirit of humility among His people.

It didn’t matter whether the false prophets were male or female. They all faced the same stinging indictment from God because they were all guilty of the same thing.

“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.” – Ezekiel 13:5 NLT

They had failed to do the job of a prophet. Rather than call the people to repentance, they had encouraged further rebellion. Instead of standing on the walls and warning the people of coming judgment, they had promoted the status quo. Judgment was coming and they did everything in their power to refute it and convince the people to ignore it. But in the end, they would know that Yahweh was Lord.

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

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

Taking Sin Seriously

1 While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

14 The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.

16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” Numbers 25:1-18 ESV

There is no way to escape the fact that this is a graphic and disturbing text. And its close proximity to the oracles of blessing pronounced by God through Balaam makes it all the more difficult to reconcile. In what appears to be a relatively short period of time, King Balak’s hopes of placing Israel under a curse seem to take place without the help of Balaam or any other seer or sage. And the amazing thing is, the Israelites bring it on themselves.

Moses describes the situation in less-than-flattering terms: “ the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1 ESV). It seems that the residents of Moab had done what their king had not been able to do. They had managed to find a chink in the armor of God’s chosen people, and it involved the two evils of immorality and idolatry. While Balaam had been unsuccessful in pronouncing a curse on the people of God, the citizens of Moab had come up with an ingenious plan for destroying the Israelites from within.

While the Israelites were encamped in the plains of Moab, waiting for the next phase of their conquest of Canaan, the men became distracted by and attracted to the women of Moab. And before long, “the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women” (Numbers 25:1 NLT).

Concessions were made, compromises were considered, and in no time the set-apart status of the Israelites was eventually jeopardized. What began as illicit sexual encounters between the men of Israel and the women of Moab turned into spiritual adultery and apostasy.

These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. – Numbers 25:2 NLT

Uncontrolled sexual desires led to compromised convictions. Suddenly, the Israelites’ physical allure for the Moabite women created a spiritual attraction for their rogues’ gallery of deities. Forbidden fruit created an insatiable appetite for false gods.

What makes this whole affair so egregious is that it comes fresh on the heels of God’s promise to bless the people of Israel.

No curse can touch Jacob;
    no magic has any power against Israel.
For now it will be said of Jacob,
    ‘What wonders God has done for Israel!’” – Numbers 23:23 NLT

Balaam had not been allowed to curse them. His “magic” had proven unsuccessful. But the women of Moab had managed to cast a spell on the unsuspecting men of Israel. They simply used their feminine wiles to bewitch the hapless Israelites and cause them to turn their backs on Jehovah. And because men were responsible for the spiritual oversight of their households, it wasn’t long before the apostasy spread throughout the camp.

Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:3 NLT

The fallout from this act of unfaithfulness was immediate and widespread. But God quickly intervened, ordering Moses to take immediate action.

“Seize all the ringleaders and execute them before the Lord in broad daylight, so his fierce anger will turn away from the people of Israel.” – Numbers 25:4 NLT

There would be no compromise on God’s part. He would not tolerate sin in the camp of Israel, especially that involving immorality and idolatry. The guilty were to be made examples of, delivering a sobering warning to the rest of the nation of Israel. And Moses was quick to follow God’s instructions, calling on the judges of the tribes of Israel to carry out the executions of all those who had taken part in this act of rebellion against God.

And this is where the story earns its NC-17 rating. What happens next is both shocking and unimaginable. As a result of this corporate act of sin and God’s prescribed solution, the people had been called to gather before the tabernacle. Moses describes the tone as sorrowful, likely because of sorrow for the deaths of some of their sons, fathers, and husbands. Yet as the people wept over their sin and the loss of their loved ones, one of the guilty men did something that is difficult to believe. He brazenly took a Moabite woman into his tent, in full view of Moses and the rest of the assembly. He exhibits no shame and, completely controlled by his sexual desires, he displays no self-control.

He does the unthinkable. Either he was flaunting his personal preferences in the face of Moses and God, or he was so consumed by his physical appetites that he could no longer control himself. The apostle Paul describes such people in condemning terms: “Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth” (Philippians 3:19 NLT).

As Moses and the rest of the people looked on in shock, this moral reprobate flaunted his disdain for the holiness of God and rejected his own personal guilt. He shows no regret, remorse, or repentance. But his unprecedented display of disrespect for God got the attention of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the high priest. This young man was the grandson of Aaron the former high priest and he took his role as servant of God seriously. Unwilling to stand back and watch this affront to God’s holiness take place, he took matters into his own hands – literally. 

he jumped up and left the assembly. He took a spear and rushed after the man into his tent. Phinehas thrust the spear all the way through the man’s body and into the woman’s stomach. – Numbers 25:7-8 NLT

The actions of this man were more than an uncontrolled sexual encounter with a pagan woman. They were engaged in an act of worship associated with Baal, the false god of the Moabites. Sexual promiscuity was a regular feature in the rites and rituals associated with this pagan deity. But Phinehas refused to turn a blind eye to their immorality and idolatry, executing the guilty couple on the spot. And Moses indicates that the quick action of Phinehas brought an end to a plague that had already ravaged the lives of 24,000 Israelites.

And due to his actions, Phinehas received a covenant promise from God.

“Phinehas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the priest has turned my anger away from the Israelites by being as zealous among them as I was. So I stopped destroying all Israel as I had intended to do in my zealous anger. Now tell him that I am making my special covenant of peace with him. In this covenant, I give him and his descendants a permanent right to the priesthood, for in his zeal for me, his God, he purified the people of Israel, making them right with me.” – Numbers 25:11-13 NLT

Phinehas was rewarded for his efforts. This young man had executed the righteous judgment of God but, in so doing, had spared the nation from further deaths. God’s anger was satisfied and the sins of the nation were atoned for. But God was not done carrying out His judgment. Because the woman found in the tent was of Midianite extraction, God ordered that the Midianites be completely destroyed for the role they played in Israel’s rebellion against Him.

“Attack the Midianites and destroy them, because they assaulted you with deceit and tricked you into worshiping Baal of Peor, and because of Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, who was killed at the time of the plague because of what happened at Peor.” – Numbers 25:17-18 NLT

In a sense, Cozbi had accomplished what Balaam had failed to do. She and the other Midianite and Moabite women had successfully cursed a portion of the Israelite camp by luring them into immorality and idolatry. And while this resulted in the deaths of 24,000 Israelites, it did nothing to thwart God’s plans to bless them and provide them with the inheritance He had promised to them. It would be the Moabites and Midianites who suffered the greatest losses due to this fateful event. But God would prove faithful to His covenant promises to Israel.

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.

A Little Folly Goes a Long Way

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench;
    so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right,
    but a fool’s heart to the left.
Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool.
If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest.

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves. Ecclesiastes 10:1-7 ESV

There is little doubt that Solomon was a big fan of wisdom. He knew first-hand the value that wisdom could afford a man. But he also knew that wisdom has its limits. In the world in which he lived, there was no one who possessed perfect wisdom. Even he, the wisest man who ever lived, had made foolish mistakes. Despite the vast amount of God-given wisdom he possessed, he had ended up violating the commands of God. During his long life, he had made many unwise decisions that had left an indelible mark on his life and his reign as king.

That seems to be his point in verse 1, where he uses the metaphor of a fly in the ointment. The ointment Solomon had in mind was most likely olive oil, which was used as both a perfume and a healing agent. Like wisdom, the ointment was intended to have a positive effect, acting as a sweet-smelling perfume or a health-inducing medicine. But one dead fly could turn the positive properties of ointment into a diseased-filled, stench-producing product that was of no good to anyone. In the same way, one foolish act can destroy years of wise decision-making. The damaging effects of even a modicum of foolish behavior are immeasurable. It doesn’t take much. And Paul used a similar metaphor when he warned against the impact of false teaching on the church.

This false teaching is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough! – Galatians 5:9 NLT

There are two ways we can look at Ecclesiastes 10:1. The first is that a wise person can destroy their reputation for wisdom by making one foolish decision. It can become like a fly in the ointment, quickly nullifying the years of beneficial value established by living a life of wisdom. But it can also refer to the impact one fool can have on a family, community, or nation. All it takes is a single individual making one foolish decision to destroy years of wise counsel and leadership. And interestingly enough, Solomon’s own foolish decisions would eventually reap devastating consequences for the nation of Israel. The kingdom his father David had established would end up divided in half and would never regain its former glory. The book of 1 Kings provides a description of Solomon’s fly-in-the-ointment failure that led to God’s removal of him as king and the division of the Davidic Kingdom.

The Lord was very angry with Solomon, for his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. He had warned Solomon specifically about worshiping other gods, but Solomon did not listen to the Lord’s command. So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.” – 1 Kings 11:9-13 NLT

And perhaps it was because Solomon had seen the error of his ways, even if a bit too late, that he spoke so often and so highly of wisdom. He knew that godly wisdom was a deterrent to poor decision-making because it led its adherents down the right path.

But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light,
growing brighter and brighter until full day.
The way of the wicked is like gloomy darkness;
they do not know what they stumble over. – Proverbs 4:18-19 NLT

Solomon knew that a fool, devoid of godly wisdom, would allow his deceived heart to lead him down the wrong path. And it’s not difficult to spot a fool, because the course of his life gives ample proof that his decision-making is godless and unrighteous.

Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense,
    and he says to everyone that he is a fool. – Ecclesiastes 10:3 ESV

He’s unable to hide his foolishness because his life choices provide glaring evidence of his lack of wisdom. And Solomon provides a real-life example that contrasts the actions of a fool with those of a wise man.

If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place,
    for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. – Ecclesiastes 10:4 ESV

If you find that someone in authority is angry with you, don’t act like a fool and impulsively quit. Instead, respond with wisdom, remaining calm and allowing your superior time to cool off. Use self-control. Don’t allow foolish pride to dictate your response and determine your fate.

This is not a guarantee that the ruler will calm down. It doesn’t mean that your wise response will necessarily produce the right reaction from the one who is angry and acting unjustly. But a wise person will not allow the foolish behavior of another to infect and affect their own behavior.

The truth is, there are sometimes fools sitting in places of authority who wield great power. That seems to be Solomon’s point when he writes, “folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place” (Ecclesiastes 10:6 ESV). The sad reality is that the undeserving and unqualified are sometimes rewarded with positions of power where they rule over those with greater skills and proven track records of success. Solomon refers to them as “rich”, but the Hebrew word can refer to someone who is honorable and noble. In other words, they are someone of worth and character who finds themselves placed in an inferior position and having to submit to the authority of a fool. Solomon describes this sad state of affairs as an evil under the sun. But it’s just a reality of life.

Like Solomon, we live in a world that is sometimes topsy-turvy, where everything appears to be just the opposite of what it should be. In his day, he put this incongruity in visual terms, describing the disturbing sight of “slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves” (Ecclesiastes 10:7 ESV).

This was just further proof of the injustice and inequities that abound in this life. And we see the same thing in our day. How many times have we witnessed the promotion of a less-qualified individual for a position of prominence in our company? How often have we seen the undeserving fast-tracked to promotion while the more gifted and talented are overlooked? We have experienced this kind of injustice ourselves. But the fact that it happens doesn’t disqualify the value of wisdom over folly. It’s simply proof of the pervasive presence of sin in the world. 

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a glimpse into the mindset that permeates our fallen world.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

What an apt description of the world in which we live. And it was true in Solomon’s day as well. It is the nature of life in a world where godlessness has produced a pandemic of foolishness. And while wisdom is essential and to be desired above all else, wisdom alone cannot rectify the problem we face in this world. As Solomon so aptly put it in Proverbs 1:7: “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”

Without a knowledge of God and a reverence for who He is, humanity lacks the ability to understand right from wrong, truth from falsehood, good from evil, and righteousness from wickedness. Without God, mankind invariably turns to human wisdom, which always proves insufficient and incapable of providing reliable help in navigating through life. The apostle Paul gives us a wonderful description of the difference between worldly wisdom and that which comes from God.

Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. As the Scriptures say,

“He traps the wise
    in the snare of their own cleverness.”

And again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise;
    he knows they are worthless.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 NLT

Surviving in this world requires wisdom, but it must be wisdom that is founded on a relationship with God Almighty. The wisdom we need must be based on who He is and what He desires. Without Him, our wisdom becomes folly. Apart from God, man’s wisdom always proves insufficient and inadequate to comprehend the dangers of a fallen world and a foolish heart.

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 Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Learning to Trust the Ways of God

All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. Ecclesiastes 8:9-17 ESV

In this life, things don’t always turn out the way we think they should. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Good people experience a lot of bad things. And, far too often, bad people seem to come out on top. Solomon is wise enough to know that, in the end, everybody dies. But some wicked people can spend their whole lives fooling others into thinking they were actually good and godly people who lived religious lives. So, when they die, they receive the unmerited praise and honor of men.

I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 8:10 NLT

They lived a lie, and in death, they receive unwarranted admiration. As far as Solomon is concerned, this is just another proof of the vanity and futility of life. At the time of death, good people get forgotten, while the wicked get a parade in their honor.

When Solomon mentions the wicked, he is not just speaking of the godless and immoral. He is referring to those who hurt others, abusing and taking advantage of them. They are the oppressors he mentioned in chapter four.

Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. – Ecclesiastes 4:1 NLT

These people don’t commit their wicked deeds in a vacuum. Their behavior inevitably impacts the lives of those around them. There are always victims involved because wickedness is an equal-opportunity destroyer. And sadly, it is usually the innocent who end up suffering because of the lifestyle choices of the wicked. For Solomon, the actions of the wicked against the innocent are just another example of life’s meaninglessness.

I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other. – Ecclesiastes 8:9 NLT

Prostitution and human sex trafficking destroy the lives of countless individuals every year. The drug cartels line their pockets with cash paid out by those seeking yet another high in a hopeless attempt to escape the lows of life. Abusive husbands have abused wives. Rapists have victims. Con artists have their marks. Bullies have the helpless. Liars have the naive and gullible. The powerful have the defenseless. The list goes on and on. And when the wicked see that they can get away with whatever it is they do, they feel emboldened to do more. Solomon put it this way: “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NLT). 

But Solomon introduces a vital point of clarification. Even though the wicked may appear to escape any retribution or justice, he knows that eventually, there will be payback. He has confidence that God’s justice will one day be meted out on all those who have made wickedness their lifestyle.

it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. – Ecclesiastes 8:13 ESV

From our perspective, it may appear as if the wicked just keep on sinning, committing evil after evil, with no apparent consequences. It can even seem as if they live charmed lives, marked by longevity and free from accountability. But Solomon knows that it is those who fear God who will prosper in the long run. They may not experience it in this life, but our righteous God will one day ensure that all is made right. In the meantime, we have to live with the incongruous reality that things don’t always add up in this life. It is full of contradictions and apparent paradoxes. This is why Solomon observes:

good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. – Ecclesiastes 8:14 NLT

It can feel so meaningless and futile. And trying to make sense of it all is about as productive as chasing the wind. You get nowhere. You expend a lot of energy but have nothing to show for it in the end. So, Solomon simply concludes. “I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NLT).

Is this advice from Solomon wise? Does it even make sense? It may sound appealing but just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s godly counsel. This isn’t the first time that Solomon has reached this conclusion and passed it on to his readers. He offered up the same basic conclusion back in chapter five.

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. – Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT

He said virtually the same thing in chapter two, verse 24. He repeated it in chapter three, verses 12-13, and then again, here in chapter five. Eat, drink and enjoy your work. Eat, drink and be joyful. What’s Solomon saying and how should we take his advice?

He is not advising a life of hedonism and self-centered pleasure. He is not advocating unbridled self-satisfaction. But he is suggesting that there are joys associated with hard work and diligent effort in this life. We get to reap the rewards of our work. We can enjoy the warmth and safety of the home our labor helped to we helped to provide. We can take advantage of the many material blessings that God allows us to enjoy as a result of our work. Unlike a slave, who receives no personal benefit from his labors, but must watch the rewards be consumed by his master, we can enjoy the fruit of our effort. We can find joy in a job well done and the benefits it offers. And Solomon would have us remember that “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God” (Ecclesiastes 8:20 NLT).

We may not have much, but what we do have, we should appreciate and view as a gift from God. The ability to find joy in our labor is something God supplies, and it comes from having a healthy reverence for God. If you despise your job and resent the time you spend having to work for a living, you are essentially expressing to God your ungratefulness for His provision. Your job is not good enough. The benefits it provides are not sufficient enough. So, rather than joy, you express resentment and disappointment. You begin to look at the apparent prosperity of the wicked and question the goodness of God. This can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that produces a ledger of God’s failures to provide for you. This can lead to a lack of fear of God. And this can result in a failure to show Him reverence, honor, glory, or gratitude.

A big part of learning to fear God is learning to trust Him. It is coming to grips with who He is and who we are in comparison. He is God. He is sovereign, all-knowing, and all-powerful. He is not wise; He is wisdom itself. He knows what is best. He always does what is right. Moses expressed it this way:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    how glorious is our God!
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect.
    Everything he does is just and fair.
He is a faithful God who does no wrong;
    how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:3-4 NLT

Yes, there are many things in this life that appear unfair and unjust. There are paradoxes and incongruities galore. Our circumstances may scream to us that God is nowhere to be found, but the Scriptures tell us something radically different. He is always there. The wicked may appear to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, but God is still in control. He has a plan. He will do what is just and fair. He can do no wrong. And if we could learn to view life through the lens of God’s transcendent power, glory, goodness, and love, we would be better able to enjoy our lives on this planet – in spite of the seeming contradictions and incongruities that surround us.

Solomon realized that “no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim” (Ecclesiastes 8:17 NLT). God’s ways are not our ways. His sovereign plans are sometimes a mystery to us, but they are always righteous and good. Attempting to judge the faithfulness of God based on the incongruous circumstances of life is a dangerous game to play. The apostle Paul warned against presumptuous behavior.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” – Romans 9:20 NLT

And Paul borrowed his analogy from the prophet Isaiah.

How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    “He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
    “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

Both men believed it was ludicrous for a mere man to question the goodness of God just because life had not turned out as expected. For Isaiah, it was ridiculous for the creature to question the Creator. The one who was made had no right to call into question the integrity and righteousness of his Maker.

…can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it? Is the saw greater than the person who saws? Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it? Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT

In the end, Solomon recognized his inability to understand the ways of God. No amount of wisdom would ever explain the vagaries of life and the mysteries of God’s ways. And it was the apostle Paul who succinctly summed up the lesson that Solomon was learning.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!

For who can know the Lord’s thoughts?
    Who knows enough to give him advice?
And who has given him so much
    that he needs to pay it back?

For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 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.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 ESV

Don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too wicked. Don’t be too wise, but don’t be too foolish. That sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? It comes across like Solomon is recommending a life of mediocrity – a middle-of-the-road kind of mentality that avoids the ditches on either side. His assessment is that the righteous die in spite of their righteousness and the wicked succeed in spite of their wickedness. So, he recommends avoiding the extremes and fearing  God instead.

What Solomon seems to be saying is that a man will end up disappointed if he pursues righteousness and wisdom thinking they will provide him with a long and prosperous life, free from trouble and trials. A life of righteousness, marked by wisdom is no guarantee of immunity from difficulty. Good people still suffer and die. Wise people still make dumb decisions. But at the same time, Solomon warns that a life of wickedness may bring you a semblance of pleasure and happiness, but you’ll end up paying for it in the long run. This leads him to conclude: “Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NLT).

It’s important that we not misunderstand or misinterpret what Solomon is saying. He is not diminishing the importance of righteousness or wisdom. He knows that both are essential and, when pursued properly, honoring to God. He even acknowledges that “One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town!” (Ecclesiastes 7:19 NLT). A wise person possesses an inner strength that provides protection from the effects of adversity. It provides a form of self-reliance and security that is preferable to dependence upon outside sources.   

But wisdom has its limits. So does righteousness. There is no one who is all-wise. There is no one who is fully righteous.

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

That’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s so important that we recognize and come to grips with the truth it proclaims. In this lifetime, we will never experience unvarnished righteousness. We will never be completely holy and sinless. So, while righteousness is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, we must remember that it will never keep us from suffering. Or to put it another way, no amount of righteousness in your life will protect you from pain and suffering. The righteous and wicked both experience difficulties in life. In fact, sometimes it appears as if the righteous suffer more than the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah took pains to share his frustration with this disturbing reality to God Himself.

Lord, you always give me justice
    when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
    Why are evil people so happy?
You have planted them,
    and they have taken root and prospered.
Your name is on their lips,
    but you are far from their hearts. – Jeremiah 12:1-2 NLT

From our earth-bound perspective, it can sometimes appear as if the wicked are being blessed by God. They seem happy and content. Their lives appear to be relatively free from pain and marked by prosperity. But as the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” Solomon had lived long enough to realize that the righteous and the wicked both experience their fair share of suffering. No amount of wisdom can guarantee a trouble-free life. This was a man who had pursued wisdom in a vain attempt to make sense of the incongruities and inequities of life.

And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 ESV

Solomon had been blessed by God with greater wisdom than any other living man. But he had not been satisfied. Instead, he spent years trying to acquire even more wisdom. It became an obsession. For Solomon, the accumulation of wisdom had become the end-game, rather than recognition and reverence for the One who made wisdom possible.

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright describes wisdom as “not the knowledge of accumulated facts but the inner strength that comes from a God-instructed conscience” (J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes). John Piper describes wisdom as “that practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. It begins with the fear of the Lord and consists in humbly hearing and doing God’s will perceived both in Scripture and in the unique circumstances of the moment” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “Get Wisdom”).

Solomon knew and understood the importance of wisdom, so he went out of his way to get his hands on it. But it seems as if he treated it as just another commodity, like gold, silver, horses, houses, chariots, and servants. As John Piper stated, the fear of the Lord is central to getting the full advantage of wisdom. And, of all people, Solomon should have understood that truth. After all, it was he who included the following proverb in his well-known collection:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. – Proverbs 9:10 NLT

But despite his awareness of this truth, Solomon’s self-obsessed accumulation of wisdom left him less than satisfied.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 ESV

Solomon had lived a long life. He had accomplished much and enjoyed all the perks that came with his achievements. And while he could put abundant wisdom at the top of his long list of assets, he still found himself operating in the red.

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

Despite his superior intelligence, the only conclusion Solomon could reach was that wisdom was an antidote to foolishness. It was like a vaccine that protected one against infection from folly.

I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:25 NLT

To Solomon, wisdom was nothing more than a panacea against a life of foolishness. He even characterizes folly as a seductive woman.

I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. – Ecclesiastes 7:26 NLT

And Solomon was somewhat of an expert when it came to seductive women. He was addicted to them. You don’t amass 700 wives and 300 concubines without some kind of a physical and psychological obsession with the opposite sex. And so, when Solomon attempted to describe the attractive nature of folly and the life of foolishness, he tended to use the familiar allure of a promiscuous woman.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
For she cares nothing about the path to life.
    She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. – Proverbs 5:3-6 NLT

Solomon knew that a life of foolishness could be highly appealing, but also extremely deadly. It was an equal-opportunity trap that ensnared both men and women. In fact, when he makes the statement, “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous”, he uses the Hebrew word adam, which can be translated as “man” but is actually a generic term referring to both sexes. Foolishness is not a male-dominated trait. Every human being, regardless of gender, class, educational status, or social standing, is susceptible to the allure of foolishness.

Yet, in verse 28, Solomon seems to be saying that only men can be virtuous.

I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman! – Ecclesiastes 7:28 NLT

It would seem that his use of the term “woman” in the second half of this verse is a direct reference to the seductive woman in verse 26. He is stating that folly is never virtuous. The individual who pursues a life of foolishness will never discover virtue or righteousness. Wisdom can prevent us from succumbing to folly’s temptation, but folly will never produce wisdom or result in a life of righteousness. This is why Solomon closes out this chapter by saying, “God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NLT). God created men and women to live righteously. But ever since the fall, humanity has made a habit of following a divergent path, pursuing darkness rather than light.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. But pursuing wisdom without a healthy reverence for God simply turns it into a commodity to be coveted and acquired. It becomes the objective rather than a relationship with God. Instead of viewing wisdom as a gift from God, designed to help us live in obedience to Him, we make it our end goal. Wisdom becomes nothing more than a tool to make us smarter, wealthier, healthier, and happier.

Solomon had spent decades in search of the meaning of life. And, in his relentless quest, he had tried wisdom and wickedness, viewing both as potential doorways to his desired destination. But God and a healthy reverence for Him were, and still are, the only ways for a man or woman to discover their true purpose in life and enjoy their days “under the sun.”

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.