We have begun to consider Ezekiel’s prophecies of judgment against Jerusalem and Judah, the subject of the first 24 chapters of the book. We spoke last time, from chapters 4 and 5, of the reality of divine judgment, of God’s wrath as an inescapable fact of human existence and, emphatically in this part of Ezekiel, a revelation of the nature and character of Yahweh. The judgments to befall Jerusalem show us who Yahweh is and what he is like as surely as do his great acts of salvation. He is a God of love, to be sure; he is also a God of justice and vengeance. History proves both dimensions of his nature and character. Jerusalem’s devastation will be the Lord’s doing. It will not be simply the working out of the principles of a morally ordered world, as when a lazy man does not prosper or a promiscuous person contacts a disease. Those principles are real, but divine judgment is more than that. It is a very personal punishment visited upon his people by their offended God; that is what it is whatever instruments he may choose to employ.
Insofar as Ezekiel will follow one oracle of judgment with another through these first 24 chapters of his book, we are going to be given the opportunity, in effect, to develop a theology of divine judgment. Ezekiel will give us that opportunity by looking at God’s judgment from different points of view, but we will also take advantage of the opportunity to pay attention to one repeated theme or another as we advance through the succeeding oracles of judgment. And they are separate oracles, even if devoted to the same or similar themes. Ezekiel 6:1 begins with “The word of the Lord came to me…” and, you will see, 7:1 does as well. It is relatively easy to tell in Ezekiel where the chapter divisions fall. Chapters 4 and 5 formed a single unit, but chapters 6 and 7 are separate oracles.
The phrase “mountains of Israel” occurs 17 times in Ezekiel but nowhere else in the Bible. In view of the topography of the Holy Land it made sense to speak this way. Palestine is dominated by a central ridge running the length of the country from north to south. Jerusalem is located on this ridge, some 2500 feet above the sea to its west and higher still above the Jordan river and the Dead Sea to its east and southeast. However, the references to hills, ravines, and valleys, indicates that the entire country is meant. There are two reasons suggested why Ezekiel might have spoken this way of the Jews’ homeland. First, living as the exiles were on the flat plain of Babylonia, home must have seemed to them very much a mountainous place. Second, Ezekiel is going to be speaking of Israel’s embrace of pagan idolatry. That idolatrous worship was invariably practiced on hilltops and mountain tops, as Ezekiel will himself say in v. 13. [Block, Stuart, et al.] That Israel’s idolatry is his focus in this oracle is made immediately clear with the final statement in v. 3: the Lord is soon to fight against Judah on account of her idolatry. Because they wouldn’t forsake idolatry, he will put an end to it.
High places were, as I said, often sanctuaries located atop hills or mountains. But within cities they could be artificially constructed as well. So this promise of destruction would not be taken to mean that only rural high places or high places actually located on hilltops were endangered. High places were everywhere.
As we said in the introduction to this series some Lord’s Day evenings back, Ezekiel will consistently speak against Jerusalem. But his immediate audience is the exiles already living in Babylon. Those in Jerusalem will hear in time what Ezekiel is preaching in Babylon, but the message of Jerusalem’s doom has important implications for the exiles too. They are implicated in Jerusalem’s sins and have already suffered punishment for them.
This is an important observation, because, of course, in the nature of the case, most of the prophecies of judgment we read in the Bible concern someone else than ourselves and it is easy for us to dismiss them as irrelevant to our own situation. So easy, in fact, that most people do dismiss them as bearing on some long ago and far away people who must have been much worse than we are. But God requires the preaching of the judgment of others to us precisely because divine judgment is a reality that can be evaded or escaped by no one except for the one who has been forgiven by God. The Lord does not speak abstractly about judgment – he talks about the punishment of real people in specific times and places precisely to force upon us the reality of his wrath – and by linking his wrath to real events in human history he forces us to reckon with its meaning for us, situated in that same history as we are.
What follows in vv. 4-7 is a more specific account of the devastation that awaits Judah’s high places.
The altars are the structures, built of earth, or stone, or wood – and sometimes overlaid with bronze – upon which the sacrificial offerings were burned for the benefit of the particular god who was worshipped at that site. Incense altars held the hot coals that vaporized the sweet-smelling wads of incense, creating for the god a pleasing aroma. [Stuart, 71; though cf. Block’s contrary view, i, 225]
Obviously the emphasis in these verses falls on the thoroughness of the devastation the Lord will bring. Nothing will be left of Israel’s idolatry. The last vestiges will lie broken among the dead. The exposure of corpses as punishment is also one of the curses promised in the covenant to those who betray the covenant. We read in Deut. 28:26:
“Your carcasses will be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.”
As with the judgment so with the sparing of some, it is the Lord’s doing, not the achievement of the individual.
The purpose of sparing a remnant is to bring them to a right mind and to restore them to a life of faith in God and holy living. There is a terrible irony here: to be restored to the Lord they had to be cast out of the land the Lord had given them and stripped of all the privileges that had been theirs as his people. We have here again the often employed image of the emotions of a faithful husband who has been betrayed by an adulterous wife. That is what idols were in Israel’s history: paramours who lured her away from her husband and with whom she committed immoral acts.
This is the second time we have “and you will know that I am the Lord” (also v. 7). We will have it twice more in vv. 13 and 14. As we have said, this phrase, “then you will know,” that occurs so many times in the book, identifies the theme: Israel has lost the knowledge of the Lord and the Lord is acting to give it back to her. But only such drastic action as the destruction of Jerusalem would be sufficient to break the back of Israel’s ignorance, which itself is a form of rebellion.
The clapping of the hands and the stomping of the feet signify either joy [Stuart] in the sense of a kind of schadenfreude – a taking delight in the misery of another – or of anger [Allen, Block]. Ezekiel is here acting in the Lord’s place and expressing his disgust as what she has become.
Ezekiel seems to be envisioning Jerusalem and the Jews in a way similar to 5:2 and 12: those within the walls dying of famine, those trying to escape dying of the sword, and those at a distance dying of plague. In any case, famine, sword, and plague are the three primary forms of death as a result of siege.
The destruction will be as thorough as had been the penetration of Israel by idolatrous practices. Their high places, their places of sacrifice to pagan idols will become places of death, littered with the corpses of those so foolish as to offer themselves to gods who were not gods.
As so often in the prophets there is an implicit and mocking challenge to the so-called gods in this promise of the destruction of their sanctuaries. If these gods are really gods, surely they can defend their own sanctuaries. Don’t count on it!
Riblah, rendered Diblah in the LXX, was a town in Hamath, on Israel’s northernmost boundary. So from the desert (that is the Negeb in the south) to Riblah is a typical way of speaking of the whole of the land. It is the reverse of the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba,” but means the same thing.
As I said, Ezekiel’s lengthy and repetitive proclamation of coming doom for Jerusalem and the Jews still living there – some twenty-one chapters largely devoted to the same theme, afford us the opportunity to develop a theology of divine wrath, a doctrine fundamental to the Bible’s revelation of God, of human history, and of the nature of salvation. Last time we noted the way in which emphasis fell on the fact that these promised judgments are revelatory of God: they tell us something about who God is and what he is like. He is a God of vengeance as surely as he is God of love. It is critical for human beings to realize this and to banish the sort of sentimental views of God to which human beings are so prone, perhaps especially in the prosperous and decadent Western world. By sentimental I mean irreal in a soft way: believing about God what you hope to be true about him. The revelation of God’s wrath – so comprehensively made in the Bible – is a dash of cold water to the face. This God, the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, who laid waste the nations of Canaan, and then brought catastrophe upon his own people, this God of vengeance is the living God. There is no other. Nothing is more important than that people reckon with the true God and not with one who exists only in their own imagination.
Tonight we add another piece to our theology of divine wrath. This wrath, this determination to punish is not only a feature of the divine nature and character, it is the exercise of his justice. In the many examples of divine wrath furnished in Holy Scripture – all recorded in Holy Scripture as warnings to mankind – we do not see a capricious God, a God of ill-will, a God who has lost his temper and is lashing out in a pique of fury or irritation. There is nothing arbitrary, mercurial, unstable, erratic, spiteful, malicious, sullen, untamed, or peevish in the wrath of God. Very much the contrary! God’s wrath is his holy justice in operation. Far from a fit of temper, the divine wrath is reasonable, righteous, and even-handed in all its operations. So patient is the Lord, so compassionate, so ready to forgive, so much does the Lord delight to show mercy, that Isaiah can even refer to the Lord’s judgment, his punishment of sinners as “his strange and alien work” [28:21] almost as if it were forced upon him against his will. And we have the same thought in the New Testament as in the Old. The Lord does not desire the death of the wicked, but that all men should come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. He delays his judgment so as to provide maximum opportunity for repentance. Remember that Israel had to wait for centuries in Egypt, suffering greatly there, because she could not yet take possession of the Promised Land precisely because the iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full. The Lord would not bring his judgment, his wrath against that evil people until they had filled their cup and left him no choice. Remember the wrath of the Lord Jesus! The Savior himself, the prince of life, the king of love, is still the judge of the living and the dead. We hear in Rev. 6:16 of the “wrath of the Lamb” bringing death to the world. Think of the divine wrath as dwelling in the same heart as that mighty love as he hung upon the cross and you have a better idea of how pure, how right, how just is this holy wrath that brings death and catastrophe upon the world.
So, when his judgment falls, as it did against the northern kingdom in 721 and as it would against Jerusalem finally in 586, it was the final execution of a judgment a long time in coming. And, and here is my point tonight, obviously Ezekiel’s point in chapter 6, it was an absolutely just, reasonable, and fair response to Israel’s behavior.
This point is made in at least three important ways in our chapter.
- First, the just judgment of Israel is, finally, only what he had promised his people from the very beginning should they betray his covenant as they had and do what they had done.
Commentators will tell you that lying behind and beneath this oracle of judgment in Ezekiel 6 are two other biblical chapters, Deut. 28 and, especially, Leviticus 26. In those chapters the curses of the covenant are enumerated; that is, the punishments that God will inflict on his people if they violate the stipulations of the covenant he made with them. There are wonderful blessings to be claimed and to enjoy if they will remain faithful to the Lord, but if they should rebel, their punishments are enumerated carefully and at length.
This is the sense of the statement in 6:10:
“And they will know that I am the Lord; I did not threaten in vain to bring this calamity upon them.”
No doubt the preaching of the Lord’s prophets, who also threatened Israel’s doom if she did not repent and turn again to the Lord, is meant. But especially in view, given the repetition of so much vocabulary from Lev. 26 in the chapter, is the longstanding warning, known to every Israelite, that rebellion against the Lord and his covenant would have drastic consequences. [Block, i, 218-219] As one commentator puts it:
“At the root of Israel’s problems was a breaking of the covenant relationship. In reprisal Yahweh’s preordained curses had to come into operation. The growing dependence on Leviticus 26 as a basic text continues in chapter 6. A cluster of its threats now appear, from Lev. 26:25, 30-33. This literary agenda provides an ongoing rationale for Ezekiel’s interpretation of the catastrophe that was to sweep over the land in a few years’ time.” [Allen, i, 91]
What all of this means, of course, is that what is to befall Jerusalem is nothing other than justice: the Lord’s faithfulness to his promises made to his people long ago, and the execution of his judgment in precisely the terms he placed in his covenant from the beginning. He said this is what he would do if Israel flouted his rule and spurned her privileges and he is doing nothing but what he said he would do.
- Second, Israel’s behavior was, in fact, a complete and perverse betrayal of Yahweh, of his love, his holiness, and his condescension toward an unworthy people whom he had brought into covenant with himself.
We read of high places and sanctuaries and idols, but such words make little impression on us. They are not part of our world and we have little idea of what they actually represent. Some of us have traveled and seen a shrine or two in India or the Orient. We have, perhaps, wondered how anyone could do homage to a phallic symbol such as you find in Hindu shrines everywhere in India or ring a bell to get a god’s attention and sweep smoke over yourself with your hands to obtain blessing as are done in Japan. The spent momentum of biblical Christianity leaves most people of the West, no matter how religious or irreligious, contemptuous of the idea that you have to get God’s attention by striking a huge gong or that you can bring prosperity upon yourself by appealing to the sexual principle in worship.
But consider what worship had become in Israel, in Israel, the nation God had formed by his grace and power, the people he had delivered from bondage in Egypt as it were on eagles’ wings, and whom he had brought into covenant with himself.
People who worshipped in the way of the ancient near east typically went to a high place where a given idol’s shrine was located bringing meat for cooking so that it could be prepared and eaten fresh. Perhaps they would bring some money as well to purchase incense. They would bow to the idol, prostrating themselves completely and kiss the idol as well. Then they would eat and relax. They would, as well, often partake of ritual sex with a cult prostitute as a symbolic stimulation of the idol’s supposed powers of fertility. [cf. Amos 2:7; Hos. 4:14; Num. 25:6-8] “The entire system was materialistic, selfish, and degenerate!” [Stuart, 71] The theory, of course, was that these offerings would produce gratitude on the part of the god represented by the idol who would, in turn, bless the worshipper in some material way.
It made god to be a selfish and lustful prig, it made worship to be a commercial transaction, and it utterly neglected any ethical implications whatsoever. The worshipper at one of these shrines, not only had sex with someone not his wife as part of this so-called worship, but when he left the shrine – having given his god a gift of some food, a nice smell, a stimulating show, even in some cases the life of another human being, a child perhaps – he was free to live his life however he pleased. There were no obligations to live in a certain way for the sake of the honor of one’s idol. He was free to live a completely selfish life, as selfish as that of the idol itself. In other words, this was man’s dream religion. He could get something from his god when he wanted and live as selfishly and sensually as he wanted to. No costly discipleship here; no god worthy of one’s love and honor.
All religions of the ancient world were like this except one. [This is a fact to remember, by the way, when people say as they so often do nowadays that all religions are basically the same or that all roads lead to God!] The fact that everyone else – everyone! – worshipped in this way made the temptation to conform very powerful and Israel’s fascination with idolatry understandable. But it didn’t excuse it. In fact, it struck at the pure and holy faith that God had revealed to his people in the most fundamental and fatal way.
It utterly defamed God’s name and character, as if he were as low and vile as the gods these people worshipped. Remember what the Lord said to his people in Ps. 50:21: “You thought I was altogether like you.” And you remember the scorn that the prophets pour out on this idolatry.
But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men.
They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see;
they have ears, but cannot hear, noses but they cannot smell;
they have hands but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk;
nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will
be like them, and so will all who trust in them. [Ps. 115:4-8; cf. 135:15ff.]
Isaiah and Jeremiah talk of the stupidity of those who make a god from a block of wood, worship the part they carve, and burn the rest and warm themselves by the fire. How stupid do you have to be to bow down to something you made with your own hands?
The fundamentals of God’s covenant were all overturned by the idolatry that Israel was then practicing in Judah and Jerusalem; they were repudiated root and branch. There was no possible harmony between these two religious outlooks. In ANE idolatry there were many gods, not one. The gods, Yahweh among them, were petty potentates who cared for nothing more than their own pleasure. Their powers were limited and were not under the control of a worthy character. And they required nothing of their acolytes other than gifts. To imagine this of Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth, the savior of his people, was to blaspheme and defame his name in the worst conceivable way. Imagine what the creator of heaven must think when Israelites—Israelites!—acted as if he were hungry and thirsty! Imagine what the holy God of Israel, the God who wrote his law on human hearts and published it in the Ten Commandments, the God whose character is the origin of the Sermon on the Mount and the perfect life of Jesus Christ. I say imagine what that God thought of his own people who thought he enjoyed—like some lecherous old man, some leering dirty old man—watching his people copulate at a shrine!
This is the utter, the utter repudiation of everything, I mean everything that God had revealed of himself and his will to Israel. He was the living and true God. There were no others. He was a God of holiness and love and his people, to be and remain his people, had to commit themselves to imitate him in that holiness and love. He cared deeply about his people’s lives and conduct. He was able to look upon their hearts and was unimpressed with an outward show of religious interest. He didn’t need their gifts, he owned the cattle on a thousand hills; what he wanted was their heart and their lives devoted to him, because then it would also be devoted to all that is good and holy. In God’s covenant, the Lord’s interest was not in gifts for himself but in goodness in his people. You cannot imagine two more utterly contrary and contradictory religious principles than Yahweh’s covenant and ancient near eastern idolatry. You cannot imagine religious ideas or practices more disgusting to the living God than those Israel found preferable to those Yahweh had revealed to her.
And Israel’s repudiation of Yahweh and his covenant – or, better, her corruption of the name of Yahweh and the despoiling of his covenant by transforming them into varieties of ANE religious ideas – could not have been more perverse or unconscionable. Take an hour and see if you can think of worship more utterly perverse in God’s sight than one that assumes that God is a small-minded, selfish prig and likes to watch adultery and even murder from time to time! It was a shockingly unjust perversion of what Yahweh had revealed himself to be and despising of the gifts he had given to Israel. She was dragging the name of her god and his revelation of his will through the foulest gutter imaginable. That is why, after repeated refusals to repent and return, Jerusalem was leveled, her people killed or captured, and the land of promise left desolate.
- Third, and finally, the justice of Yahweh’s judgments against Israel – severe as he threatened to make them and as they would prove to be – is demonstrated by the fact that when God’s people, or what was left of them, finally came to their senses, they would be horrified not by what God had done, but by what they had done!
They would be the first to admit that their behavior had been execrable! There is strong language here in v. 9: “They will loathe themselves.” They will despise themselves for what they had thought and said and done. Remember Job after he comes to his senses at the end of the book, after hearing the Lord speak: “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” [42:6] He had caught a sight of God and realized how utterly foolish he had been, how wrong, how disgraceful had been his speech, how thoroughly indefensible. And so Israel will think. They will look at the catastrophe that befell Jerusalem and the only thing that they will think to say is that they deserved every death by famine, sword, and plague. They deserved it! They deserved it all.
When the people upon whom the judgments of the Lord fall themselves admit the justice of it, the perfect righteousness of it, the necessity of it, and every conceivable complaint is stopped, every objection is silenced.
I don’t say that the unbelievers upon whom the wrath of the Almighty was visited came to acknowledge the justice of the Lord’s judgment. There are those who argue that everyone in hell will accept that he or she is getting nothing but what he deserves. I’m not so sure of that. My sense is that their unrepentance follows them into eternity. But those who see the truth, even when they themselves have been caught up in that judgment, those who turn at the last or, indeed, like these in v. 8, escape the full force of God’s punishment and eventually repent, they will see with a perfect clarity that it was deserved, absolutely deserved. In other words, those thinking rightly will accuse themselves for their hardheartedness, for their stupidity, for their indifference to all the warnings that the Lord sent beforehand. And they will make no bones that what they had been doing was detestable and that the Lord would not be the Lord God, not the Holy One of Israel, had he not been revolted by it and had he not eventually exhausted his patience and punished it with ferocious judgments.
Here is the second piece of our theology of divine wrath. God’s vengeance is his holy and just determination to punish sin. It is always the execution of justice. It is always the punishment that men deserve. It may be less than they deserve, it is never more.
And it is important for us to remember that, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5:5 – where he says that the impure and the greedy are idolaters – or as John reminds us in the last verse of 1 John – where he warns his readers to keep themselves from idols in a context where it seems unlikely he is talking about images of wood and stone and metal – that idolatry is as real a temptation to us as it was to the ancient Israelites. Calvin and many since have reminded us: the human heart is an idol factory. Anything we place in our affections and loyalties where God himself should be, anything we serve as we ought to serve God that is an idol and by our service of it we become idolaters.
Idolatry consists in “trusting some substitute for God to serve some uniquely divine function.” [Wells, God in the Wasteland, 52] Money, power, expertise, the location of planets on an astrological chart, belief in progress, the capability of science, pleasure and sexuality, even fitness and health – all these things are among the popular idols of our time. People trust them to give meaning to their lives, invest in them in hopes of the return of a prosperous, happy life.
It is true, as the Bible often enough says, that because these idols are irreal they not only cannot deliver, cannot prosper the person who invests in them, but they make their worshippers like themselves: dead, irreal, worthless. But it is also true that such modern idols and man’s worship of them are as genuine affronts to the living God who made men in his image as ever were the silly stupidities of ancient near eastern religion. They are a repudiation of the heart and the mind and the conscience that God gave to man as a wonderful gift; they are a repudiation of the greatness of man as God made him in his own image; and they are a repudiation of that knowledge of God that is planted in every human heart.
Of one thing there can be no doubt: when men are punished severely for their idolatry, when God sets his face against man for his idolatry, man will get nothing but what he so richly deserves!