In our last post we saw looked at Ezekiel 1. There we find a vision of the glorious presence of God that came to Ezekiel in a foreign land, by the Chebar river in Babylon. What was God’s glorious presence doing there with Ezekiel, so far from the Temple in Jerusalem? What happened that made God come find Ezekiel so far from the land of Israel?
Chapter 2 of Ezekiel begins to answer this question. God came to Ezekiel to give him a mission. Ezekiel 2:1-4 says:
1 Then He said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak with you!” 2 As He spoke to me the Spirit entered me and set me on my feet; and I heard Him speaking to me. 3 Then He said to me, “Son of man, I am sending you to the sons of Israel, to a rebellious people who have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. 4 I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’”
God comes to Ezekiel in this amazing vision with a wakeup call for His people in Babylonian exile. “Son of man,” God calls to Ezekiel, “stand on your feet that I may speak with you!” And the Spirit of God stands him up! The charge that He brings is that Israel has rebelled against their God. In verse 4, God calls those in exile with him “stubborn and obstinate children.” If you look further in verses 5-7, the people’s rebellion becomes something of a refrain, and God vividly describes them as “thistles,” “thorns,” and “scorpions.” Sounds pretty terrible, right?
In addition to this depressing description of Ezekiel’s audience, we also hear the message he is to bring at the end of chapter 2. Ezekiel 2:8-10 says:
8 “Now you, son of man, listen to what I am speaking to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house. Open your mouth and eat what I am giving you.” 9 Then I looked, and behold, a hand was extended to me; and lo, a scroll was in it. 10 When He spread it out before me, it was written on the front and back, and written on it were lamentations, mourning and woe.
Why does God tell him to eat this scroll covered in lamentations, mourning, and woe? Because that is his message for the people. It is the message from God to them. Ezekiel was to dispel any remaining hope for Israel.
A Major Sin Problem
When Ezekiel experienced this vision, Jerusalem still stood, though the nation was limping along. Some may have thought God was still going to intervene to protect His people from the Babylonians, to preserve the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple. Some may have felt that God had to protect them, that they were entitled to His care.
However, we find in the following chapters that Ezekiel goes to great lengths to help the people see how severe their sin was and also how certain God’s judgment. In chapters 4-5, Ezekiel gives his audience visual aids about the upcoming siege on Jerusalem. In chapters 6-7, Ezekiel gives descriptions of the upcoming total destruction of their land.
But in chapters 8-11, we find another vision that helps us better understand the vision in chapter 1. God takes Ezekiel to the Temple in Jerusalem to show him and the exiles the depth of the nation’s rebellion. In verses 2-6 of chapter 8, we read:
2 Then I looked, and behold, a likeness as the appearance of a man; from His loins and downward there was the appearance of fire, and from His loins and upward the appearance of brightness, like the appearance of glowing metal. 3 He stretched out the form of a hand and caught me by a lock of my head; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the idol of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy, was located. 4 And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the appearance which I saw in the plain. 5 Then He said to me, “Son of man, raise your eyes now toward the north.” So I raised my eyes toward the north, and behold, to the north of the altar gate was this idol of jealousy at the entrance. 6 And He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, so that I would be far from My sanctuary? But yet you will see still greater abominations.”
The place of God’s glorious presence on earth, Jerusalem’s Temple, was now home to an idol of jealousy. The identity of this idol is not given here. Rather the focus is on the outrage it produces from Israel’s jealous God. The idol’s presence in God’s house is called a “great abomination,” in verse 6. It is this abomination that has driven God’s glorious presence away from the Temple to find Ezekiel in exile. And yet, God tells Ezekiel that he will see greater abominations.
In the rest of chapter 8, God takes Ezekiel on a tour of the Temple, showing him the people’s detestable practices, worship of other gods, and justifying their spiritual adultery by saying that their God, Yahweh, had abandoned them. On top of this, God’s anger is kindled because the land is filled with violence and injustice (8:17; 9:9). Because of this, judgement is certain.
God’s Glory Departs
At the end of chapter 10, we witness something tragic. Verse 18-19 say,
18 Then the glory of the Lord departed from the threshold of the temple and stood over the cherubim. 19 When the cherubim departed, they lifted their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight with the wheels beside them; and they stood still at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel hovered over them.
Then in 11:23, the glory departs the city:
“The glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood over the mountain which is east of the city.”
The centerpiece of God’s covenant with Israel, His glorious presence in their midst, was no more. Sin and God’s presence do not go together. So, God was leaving His Sanctuary.
But did this mean that He also leaving His people? Ezekiel 11:14-15 speaks directly to this question,
14 Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 15 “Son of man, your brothers, your relatives, your fellow exiles and the whole house of Israel, all of them, are those to whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said, ‘Go far from the Lord; this land has been given us as a possession.’”
The foolish boast of those living in Jerusalem is recorded here. Those still in Jerusalem believe the exiles have been excluded from the promises of God. The exiles were taken away and punished, while they remain safely in the land. Ezekiel knows this is wrong. He has just seen in his vision how wicked the inhabitances of Jerusalem really are.
But what about their exile? Have they really been driven “far from the LORD” (v. 15)? Verse 16 gives God’s answer, “Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, Though I had removed them far away among the nations and though I had scattered them among the countries, yet I was a sanctuary for them a little while in the countries where they had gone.”‘ God left His House, His Sanctuary in Jerusalem because of His people’s persistent rebellion. But God did not leave them. God Himself was a Sanctuary for His people in exile. God’s glorious presence was not confined to the Temple. Ezekiel saw for Himself that God’s throne was quite mobile.
A Glimmer of Hope
In Ezekiel 11:17-20, we get a glimmer of hope before God executes His full judgment on His people. God promises:
17 “Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries among which you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. 18 When they come there, they will remove all its detestable things and all its abominations from it. 19 And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God.’”
In these verses God promises to bring His scattered people out of exile. But more importantly, God promises to root out the cause of their exile in the first place. Verse 19 says:
“And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.”
God says that He is going to perform heart surgery. Their stubbornness, their inclination to rebel and disobey—God promises to get to the source, the internal problem, to provide a transformation from within.
This glimmer of hope quickly gives way in chapters 12-24 where Ezekiel announces the completion of God’s judgment on His people. The nation is pictured as a burnt and useless stick (ch. 15), a rebellious wife (ch. 16), a dangerous lion (ch. 19), and two promiscuous sisters (ch. 23). Like a lawyer, Ezekiel makes the case in 12-24 that Israel’s judgement is deserved and certain (chs. 14, 18, 20). Finally, in chapter 24, God assures the exiles that Jerusalem will fall. And in 24:13, he tells the people that cleansing is coming, but not until God’s wrath was spent on the nation: “In your filthiness is lewdness. Because I would have cleansed you, yet you are not clean, you will not be cleansed from your filthiness again until I have spent My wrath on you.” Ezekiel truly had a ministry of lamentations, mourning, and woe.
In chapters 25-32, God’s judgment continues. But, in relief to Israel, it is not directed at them. God turns his attention outward to the surrounding nations. Ezekiel prophecies against them for their wickedness. Though these chapters are severe and sobering, they indicate some sense of hope for God’s people, who were being judged through these savage nations.
In chapter 33, we find that the end has finally come. Ezekiel 33:21 says,
“Now in the twelfth year of our exile, on the fifth of the tenth month, the refugees from Jerusalem came to me, saying, ‘The city has been taken.’”
Jerusalem had finally fallen. In 597 Zedekiah, the King that Nebuchadnezzar installed in Jerusalem, decided to make an alliance with Egypt and so rebelled against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem, laid siege, and took the city. This time he left nothing. The Temple was burned to the ground, the walls were destroyed, all the Israelites living there were exiled, and Zedekiah and his family were brought to Babylon for execution. God’s destructive discipline was complete.
Hitting rock bottom is hard. It is painful. It is embarrassing. The pain and suffering that God unleashes on Israel is severe. Why would God do this? Why would God orchestrate His discipline on His people through evil nations? Through this suffering, exile, and death? Why did God let the nation of Israel get off the rails in the first place? Why didn’t he intervene to stop them in their own wickedness?
Sin Leads to Death
I don’t have a simple, definitive answer on that. But I would offer this thought: God is more concerned about sin and evil in His creation than you or me or anyone who has ever lived. Ezekiel 33:11 says that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. More than any other, God wants His rebellious image bearers to turn from their sin and live.
I know for myself, I have wished that God would intervene to stop grave evil from occurring. More than ever, we are aware of what is going on in the world each day. And perhaps, more than ever, we are aware of the sheer evil that God’s image bearers perpetrate against each other. I see it, and I want God to do something. And sometimes, we see Him act and intervene. But so many times, like we have seen in Ezekiel, sinful humans run amuck.
And yet, God is more concerned about sin and evil in His creation than me. Consider with me for a moment that perhaps God’s concern for our distorting and destructive sin is a part of the reason why He often does not intervene to keep our sin from breaking out. God knows full well that all sin—murder, abuse, lust, greed, deceit, pride—all sin, leads to death. God isn’t working to merely keep especial destructive sin at bay. His plan for humanity isn’t merely to suppress the sin of the really bad people.
I want to believe that the evil that I hear about on the news is something totally different than the evil in my own heart. I want to believe that I could never do anything like that. But God knows that isn’t true. He’s not fooled by my self-righteousness. And he doesn’t want us to miss this lesson: Sin leads to death. Israel’s sin led the nation to death. Our sin will lead us to the same destination. The lie that someone else’s sin is more deserving of God’s judgment than my sin, that’s a lie that’s dangerous. That’s the lie of the Pharisee, the person who does not believe they are lost or sick or evil.
What hope is there for our world in the face of our evil? Well, chapter 34 of Ezekiel is where the book starts getting really good. And that’s where we’ll begin in the next post.