It has been a month now since our last study in Ezekiel and so it will help if I remind you where we are. We have been making our way through a lengthy series of oracles or prophecies of divine judgment. The repetition in this first section of the book – the first 24 chapters all concern the Lord’s impending judgment of Israel and Judah – is providing us the opportunity to construct a biblical doctrine of divine judgment, especially as that judgment falls upon the church and people of God when they forsake his covenant and rebel against his law. Remember, later in the book, Ezekiel will turn to the subject of God’s judgment of the nations. Now he is dealing with the fate to befall the apostate church, the people of God who have forsaken the Lord.
In constructing a doctrine of divine judgment we have said so far that wrath is a feature of God’s character. Ezekiel makes an emphatic point of saying that what is going to happen to Jerusalem, the devastation of that city and its people, will be Yahweh’s doing and that it will reveal the Lord. It will tell us about him. He is as surely a God of vengeance as he is a God of love. Then we said that wrath is a feature of God’s character precisely because divine wrath is nothing other than the exercise of God’s holy justice. Ezekiel is unrelenting in his demonstration of the fact that what Jerusalem will suffer is nothing other than what she deserves. She has sinned egregiously against God and man. She has violated his commandments not only willingly and comprehensively and heedlessly, but in ways that are genuinely ugly and repellent. What will happen to Jerusalem will be justice, pure and simple. Then we said that this judgment is slow in coming; it tarries. It will come, but God is patient. He warns and warns before the blow falls. People usually mistake the slowness of God’s wrath with the non-existence of it, but that is a grave mistake. People nowadays, as in Ezekiel’s day, suppose that because divine judgment has not fallen it will not fall. History is against them and so is the Bible!
Then, last time, we took up the next sub-section of this first part of Ezekiel, a section that begins in 8:1 and continues to the end of chapter 11. It is clear that these four chapters form a separate unit, as Ezekiel gets lifted up and placed in a vision in Jerusalem in the opening verses of chapter 8 and lifted up again and brought back to Babylon in the final verses of chapter 11. These chapters recount visions Ezekiel was given of the temple in Jerusalem. It is too long a section to read in one sitting, so we took chapters 8 and 9 last time and finish the section tonight.
In the first half of this four chapter section – and in the visions that they record – we saw that the emphasis fell on the thoroughness of the divine judgment that will befall Jerusalem – the slate must be wiped clean! – and the perfect justice of it. Israel had flaunted God in the most brazen and disgusting ways; she had exchanged her worship of the living God, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Sinai, for the ridiculous mythologies of the ANE. Moreover, her spiritual apostasy had led to a culture of violence and injustice. As we read in Jeremiah, Jerusalem society in those days was a city dominated by sexual sin, greedy business practices, and scarcely disguised indifference to other human beings. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Severe as the judgment would be, it would be nothing but what Israel deserved. But there was something more. In the judgment of Jerusalem to come there would be a careful discrimination between the deserving and the undeserving. The comparatively few in Jerusalem who were faithful to the Lord – their faithfulness was demonstrated by the fact that they mourned Israel’s apostasy and idolatry – were marked on their foreheads. They would not be judged as the rest. The Lord knows who are his. There is judgment but there is also immunity from judgment and both are clearly presented in the first half of this section.
I will make a good many comments on our text because modern readers of Ezekiel find it hard to understand. I want to overcome this barrier as much as possible. Much of chapter 10 is devoted to a description of the vision of the Lord’s throne and chariot, a vision that closely resembles that which Ezekiel was given at the time of his call and recorded for us in chapter 1.
The mention of the sapphire throne invites the reader to read this vision in light of Ezekiel’s inaugural vision in chapter 1, as will the presence of the cherubim below it.
The man in linen is the same figure who had been assigned the task of marking the righteous in chapter 9. Here he is given the opposite task of bringing the fire of Yahweh’s judgment upon Jerusalem. It is divine judgment as the coals are found beneath the cherubim and the Lord’s chariot, as if the chariot itself were on fire. In chapter 1 we are never told that the angelic figures were cherubim, but they are identified here and emphatically so, as we will see in vv. 20-22. There is in the Bible a close connection between cherubim and the presence of God. Ancient Israelites expected that where cherubim are, there God would be, in the same way that Americans expect that when they see a long black limousine with secret service agents running beside it, there is the president. [Stuart, 97] Large images of cherubim, remember, stood above the ark of the covenant, the physical sign of God’s enthroned presence in the temple. Additionally the temple was filled with carvings of cherubim (1 Kings 6:29, 35). Yahweh is routinely portrayed as borne by cherubim in the OT.
“He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind.” [Psalm 18:10]
“Here us, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock; you who sit enthroned between the cherubim…” [Ps. 80:1]
As we will see, the whole point of this in the context is that when the cherubim move that means Yahweh is moving too!
The chariot is parked to the south of the Temple, perhaps because of the idol that stands at the north gate, as we read in 8:5. The cloud is the glory of the Lord. The scattering of coals is an image of the burning of the city which, of course, would occur in 586.
The glory of the Lord, in other words, begins to move from its permanent position in the Holy of Holies. Here it goes as far as the threshold of the temple itself, the doorway to the building, filling the inner court with glory.
Remember, as we said in respect to the similar vision in chapter 1, Ezekiel does his best to describe what he saw, but it was all overwhelming and his powers of description were quickly exhausted. Interestingly, the four faces here are not the same as in chapter 1. The face of a bull has been displaced by the face of a cherub, whatever we are to understand that to be.
The glory now takes a second step away, moving from the threshold of the temple to the place where the chariot had parked on the south side of the temple. With the divine glory aboard, as it were, the chariot then “taxis” to the east gate of the temple. [Block, i, 326] It is significant that the temple is here identified as “the Lord’s house” at precisely the moment he is leaving it. The divine king is leaving his residence of the previous four centuries.
The importance of leadership is often asserted or illustrated in the Bible. The group usually does what its leadership does. Human beings follow the leader. So when leadership is corrupt it has large consequences. These two men are otherwise unknown to us, though obviously Ezekiel was acquainted with them from his days in Jerusalem. This is a different Jaazaniah than the one mentioned in 8:11. But they are clearly men of considerable power and influence in Jerusalem. They may be singled out because Ezekiel knew them or because they were leaders among the twenty-five. In any case, clearly, they had learned nothing from the judgment of the Lord Jerusalem had already suffered or from the preaching of the Lord’s prophets, especially Jeremiah. They had become arrogant and self-confident. As one commentator reminds us, “it is remarkable how often such attitudes are found in people least qualified in actual fact to hold them.” [Stuart, 102] Such was the case here. These men were fools, pure and simple, and events would soon unmask their foolishness in the most brutal and unforgiving way.
The sense of this figure of speech – “we are the meat in the pot” – is not clear. The reference may be to a pot in which meat was stored, not cooked. If that were the case, the reference would be to Jerusalem as offering security to the people, enabling them, as government officials do so often today, to go on about their business of using their power to get wealthy. [Block, i, 333-334] This seems to be the sense in v. 7. Confidence in Jerusalem, the city of Yahweh’s presence, was a chronic mistake among these Jews as we learn also in Jeremiah, especially in his great temple sermon in Jer. 7.
The repetition: “Prophesy…prophesy…” indicates the offense that God has taken and the urgency of the moment. Not much time remains.
As always, the Lord’s gaze penetrates to human motives. He knows very well that their confidence in Jerusalem has nothing to do with true faith in him, as is evidenced by the conduct of their lives. These men cavalierly remove people who get in their way.
v.7 The leaders are not prime cuts of meat, stored safely in Jerusalem’s pot; they are butchers who have made a stew of Jerusalem’s poorer, weaker citizens. [Block, i, 336]
The city of Jerusalem, in whose protection they placed so much confidence, would prove no safe haven. They would be driven out of the city and suffer either death or captivity. There would be mass executions, especially of the city’s leadership, in the presence of Nebuchadrezzar in 586 when Jerusalem was taken as we can read in 2 Kings 25:18-19.
The phrase “at the borders of Israel” once more emphasizes the point that being in the Lord’s land or city will prove no protection to them because the Lord himself will be their judge! Remember, “Then you will know that I am the Lord” occurs scores of times in Ezekiel. That is Israel’s problem, they do not know, they do not confess, not in anything but a hypocritical way, that Yahweh is Lord!
As this is a vision, it is hard to know precisely how to understand this report of Pelatiah’s death. Did he actually die at this moment or is this a vision of his death to come? The sense seems to be that he actually died at that moment when Ezekiel was prophesying in his vision.
The present leadership of Jerusalem – the inferior leadership that the Babylonians left in place when they deported the city’s great men – had somehow got the idea that they were a favored few, superior to the men who had been deported in the two deportations of Israel’s principal citizens to Babylon. They had regained their confidence and were now imagining that the future was theirs. Jerusalem was safe and would remain so under their leadership. The exiles had lost their place, for whatever reason, and those remaining in Jerusalem were now the proud possessors of the nation and they were happy to gain at the expense of those who have been dispossessed. When reported in Babylon that news must have been galling and discouraging.
Some have styled the remaining verses of chapter 11 as “The Gospel according to Ezekiel.” [Block, i, 341] As before in chapter 9, the Lord discriminates. His judgment falls upon many, but so does his mercy and grace. Yahweh begins by contradicting the assertion of the Jerusalem leaders. The exiles aren’t far away from the Lord. The Lord, in fact, had sent them away on purpose and has been a sanctuary for them where they have gone. In other words, the Lord will be for them in exile what the temple had been to Israel in Jerusalem. It was, of course, a truism of OT faith that the Lord was everywhere and that his people were with him wherever they happened to find themselves. But the point is made in a strikingly emphatic way here.
A new exodus will take place, a new entry into the Promised Land, but this of the exiles.
A new covenant will be made with them and a new living relationship established between the Lord and his people. You will notice the similarities between this text and Jer. 31:31-34 where a new covenant is explicitly mentioned. Ezekiel will discuss this again on several occasions and we will leave it to then to discuss in detail the meaning of this new covenant. In any case, we have, in the terms of theology, both redemption and the application of redemption; historia salutis and ordo salutis, the great redemptive work of God in history and the work of his Spirit in the individual human life. We have the cross and the resurrection on the one hand – the new exodus – and the gift of faith – the new covenant – on the other.
“They will be my people and I will be their God” is the ancient promise of God’s covenant and here is to be renewed with a new generation of his people after Israel has been judged and purified of her sins.
But this happy future belongs only to those who trust and obey the Lord. It is no comfort to those at present in Jerusalem worshipping their images and mistreating their neighbors. Ezekiel quickly returns to the prospect of judgment, for this is the primary theme of his vision and of these prophecies.
The final step in the departure of the Lord’s glory from the temple occurs as the chariot, with the glory of God aboard, ascends from where it was parked at the east gate of the Temple and moves to a place above the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem (the eastern horizon of the city). The point is that the glory of the Lord has left the temple and is leaving the land altogether.
The vision being concluded, Ezekiel is set down again in Babylon and he reports to the exiles what he has seen and heard.
The people in Jerusalem thought that fortune had smiled upon them. Not only had they remained behind in possession of the Great City, but property that belonged to others fell effortlessly into their hands. The political situation seemed to have clarified itself so as to suggest that there would now be years of peace and prosperity to be enjoyed. The exiles, on the other hand, were dispossessed, powerless, and faced an unpromising and altogether uncertain future. Humanly speaking it was easy enough for the folk back in Jerusalem to think that Yahweh had favored them and had rejected the exiles. In fact, however, the situation was precisely the reverse.
The exiles, at least those who then or who would eventually have a humble and submissive mind toward God and who trusted in him as Ezekiel did, who thought themselves castaways were, in fact, at the very center of God’s will for the future of the world and the church. The leaders in Jerusalem, then congratulating themselves on their good fortune, were in reality the castaways. [Stuart, 105] For their sins against God and his covenant their days were numbered and catastrophe was, unbeknownst to them, hastening on its way to Jerusalem. They did not interpret their situation covenantally; they did not think spiritually about their circumstances. They did not reckon with their sin or with the judgment of God. Far better, in fact, to have God one’s friend and sanctuary in a foreign land than to have him your enemy in your own capital city!
All of this is suggested by the arresting vision of the departure of Yahweh’s glory from the temple. The presence of God is a sign of his favor; his absence the sign of his rejection. Israel and the population of Jerusalem were counting on the fact that Yahweh would not desert his sanctuary or his city. He would defend them at all costs. The fact that Babylon had entered the Promised Land and carted off the cream of her population – not once but twice – did not register with them. They were counting on their being part of the people of God, on their living in the Land, on their possession of the sanctuary of Yahweh, and were utterly unaware that, in his judgment of their faithlessness and disobedience, he had left sanctuary, city, and land!
It is not at all hard to see that this has happened many times in the history of the church. God’s glory departed a church, a denomination, or a generation of the church, because it too, as Israel in Ezekiel’s day, “conformed to the standards of the nations around [her].” That community of professing believers didn’t know that Yahweh is the Lord either! He left her as a judgment against her infidelity and her disobedience. As surely as it is the record of the march of God’s salvation through the world, it is not too much to say that church history is, on one side, a record of one after another of these divine departures of God’s own temple and city. Europe, with its magnificent churches now empty of any spiritual life, the glory of God long since departed, is but one illustration of what has happened on every continent and time after time. As Peter will later put, “judgment begins with the house of God.” [1 Peter 4:17] In Tacoma, we have many nearly empty churches, but in true American fashion, in the spirit of efficiency, we are as likely simply to tear our old, empty churches down and build something really useful in their place: a hospital wing or, perhaps, a parking lot.
It is certainly an interesting and important fact that most of the Bible’s proclamation of the impending judgment of the Lord is directed to the church. You find this in the OT prophets; you find it prominently in the preaching of Jesus himself. His parables of judgment, preached at the most solemn moment during his ministry, the last few days before his crucifixion, deal specifically with the condemnation and damnation of those in the church who imagine themselves, like Ezekiel’s contemporaries in Jerusalem, safe and secure because they belong to the right people, go to the right temple, and invoke the name of the right God. No matter that they have no living loyalty to the Lord; no matter that their lives are the public demonstration of their contempt for God’s laws. What we have here in Ezekiel 10-11 is what we have times without number in the Bible: viz. the blasting of that false security that people so often find in religious associations irrespective of living faith in God, love for him, or obedience to his Word.
Here, then, is the next item in our outline of Ezekiel’s doctrine of divine judgment: it begins with the people of God and it is never stayed by considerations of outward association. Immunity from God’s judgment is based solely on divine redemption embraced by faith and love and translated into the willing submission of one’s life to God. Being a member of the church is the guarantee of nothing; a working faith in the Redeemer, that, and that alone is what counts.
I recently enjoyed reading Ravi Zacharias’ lively autobiography, God in the Shadows: Walking from East to West, a delightful account of his early life in India, his coming to faith in Christ, and the development of his world-wide ministry of apologetics. At one point in the story, he describes an incident in his boyhood reflective of the spiritual condition of his supposedly Christian family. The Zacharias family, indeed, had been Christian for generations, but was now Christian in name only.
“My mother once brought an astrologer to our house to read our palms and tell us our future. Actually, he was a sari seller who came once every few months, with a big trunk saddled on the back of his bicycle. He would customarily spread out a sheet on the floor, unload the trunk, and display his beautiful saris for sale. Often it became a neighborhood Tupperware-style gathering, only with saris instead of containers. Life in India is delivered at the door daily.
This man also claimed to be a palmist. He put on his old-fashioned, thick glasses, which dropped down halfway over a nose that was constantly sniffling, and in turn held our palms in his hand with total concentration The “hmm’s” and “oh’s” and “ah’s” that issued from him kept each of us riveted on what he was doing as we awaited his final pronouncement One after the other we took our turn, and the
futures he read for each of the others were all positive. But then he came to me, and the first note of uncertainty was sounded as he kept shaking his head with bad news about to spill out. “Looking at your future, Ravi Baba (Ravi, little boy), you will not travel far or very much in your life,” he declared. “That’s what the lines on your hand tell me. There is no future for you abroad.”
To say that I was deeply disappointed is putting it mildly. The one goal everybody had at that time in India’s fledgling economy since Independence was to go abroad. Of course, I had no reason to disbelieve this man, or for that matter to believe him. But it did plant another seed of uncertainty, however small.
Why an astrologer? It was just the done thing. As far as this one was concerned, I sincerely hope his sari sales did better than his astrological avocation. Today, travel is the hazard of my existence; I would love to cut it short a little. But the very fact that our family had such a reading reveals the cultural mix of religion, superstition, and “cover all bases” mentality with regard to the supernatural. From palmists, to Saint Philomena, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to attending festive celebrations at the local temple, to Anglicanism—ours was an eclectic faith and typical of an Indian Christian family, nominally Christian and nothing more than that. It never bothered my parents that I went to temple ceremonies with my buddies’ families. I thrived on going to all those annual festivals, and I did it unabashedly for the food. I couldn’t wait for festival times to come around so I could feast on all the goodies in the name of religion. I can’t tell you the number of times I ate food that I am sure had been offered to temple idols. Whether I knew it or not would not have made any difference to me. [63-64]
Happily, in later years both Ravi’s mother and father became devout believers, but during the years of his upbringing it was not so. A Christian seeking out an astrologer? An Israelite counting on Yahweh’s presence in the Temple but also bowing down to the animal deities of the ANE? Hello? How does this work out? How does that happen? It happens all the time. As utterly preposterous as it may seem to us, as utterly inconsistent as one would think it must have seemed to those who were doing these contradictory things, such is the power of sin and the influence of the Devil. He can make a man or woman who knows the Word of God and has heard the gospel bow down to birds and trees and beetles and think he is doing the right thing. But we in the secular west think, “Well, I would never make a mistake like that.”
And there is this further recollection from Zacharias’ book.
I saw vividly that things were not right in many of the families we knew, a fact that struck very close to home. On hot summer nights in Delhi, our entire family used to sleep on the lawn in front of our flat. A thick hedge of jasmine plants ringed the frontage of the home, giving us a degree of privacy, and after dark the servants would carry the beds outside and ready them for the night. That way we could enjoy the cooler fresh air outdoors rather than the stifling heat indoors, it was a lot of fun for us, and it usually involved plenty of laughter and pillow fights with my brothers and sisters, as we had more room to horse around than we had inside.
But while lying on our outdoor beds on some of those nights, we often heard the abuse that took place in the flat above us. Every now and then, the silence of the night would be broken by the horrific sounds of the husband beating his wife, even chasing her from room to room as she would try to flee his wrath. Yes, I could hear the thud of his hand landing on her as she would run and sometimes stumble. This is a horrible memory for me. I would take my pillow and cover my head, unable to block out her pleadings for him to stop.
And nobody did a thing about it—not us, not the other neighbors, no one. It was just not done within the cultural ethos. I would lie there silent, like my brothers and sisters, and terrified. I realized, “This isn’t right. Where does one go to complain? What does one do to make it stop?”
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, we would be awakened by the same couple singing together in worship, as if nothing had happened. Like a nightmare, it had come and gone, and the new morning was another day in which to just carry on living as if all was well. I fought it on the inside, but such dissonance is kept private in an otherwise very public culture. I would avoid even looking the man in the eye if I ever crossed his path.
We may not bow down to beetles, surely, but we break God’s law and we live in open defiance of his will and somehow still expect that his presence in the Temple will be our protection. How does it happen that supposedly Christian men beat their wives who live in terror in their own home, and yet these men suppose that somehow or other their religion will be their salvation? These are precisely the things that were happening in Jerusalem and, in similar ways, have happened in the history of the church more times than we can bear to recollect and they are happening everywhere today. Are they happening here? Christ is not the Lord, not in the hearts of these people; not in their lives. He may be in their words but not in their hearts and not in their lives. They do not love the Lord and they are not serving him. Their so-called faith leaves an almost imperceptible mark upon their lives. They live, in fact, according to the standards of the nations around them, not according to the covenant and not for the love of the God and not out of gratitude for his great salvation. They mix the Christian faith with the views of their culture and they ignore God’s law in order to live as they please.
Our land is full of churches like that and full of so-called Christians like that, and even believing churches have them. People who will suppose that all is well up to the very moment they discover that God, in fact, is their enemy and that they have provoked his holy wrath. Such a passage as we have read this evening is intended to remind us, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in I Corinthians and Romans, are written for us. They are written first and foremost for believers, for the real people of God. The unhappy fact is that the unbelievers in the church will, in almost all cases, not care. They won’t hear and they won’t attend. Ezekiel’s preaching of his visions at the very end of chapter 11 was designed in the first place to confirm the faith of real believers and to make them wary and careful of such a false presumption taking root in their own hearts. No Christian should read such a passage of God’s Word without considering once again if he or she could be deceiving himself or herself as these Israelites were. No Christian should read such a passage without praying to God once again that he would keep them in the true faith, such a faith as will always express itself in a genuine desire not only to confess Yahweh as Lord but to submit to him and serve him as the living Lord and true God that he is.