Reading one oracle or prophecy of judgment after another in this opening section of Ezekiel – twenty-four chapters on the impending judgment of Jerusalem and Israel – we are taking the opportunity to construct a biblical doctrine of divine judgment. When the same topic is considered over and over again, different features surface here and there and a great deal of detail is added to the general conception. We have so far said that 1) the intention to judge the wicked is a feature of God’s character; 2) that it is so because the divine wrath is nothing other than the exercise of his holy justice; 3) that God is patient and so his judgment is characteristically slow in coming; 4) that in his judgment he makes a careful discrimination between the wicked and the righteous and promises to spare the righteous; and, finally, 5) judgment begins with the people of God and, contrary to a well nigh universal expectation among people who ought to know better, that judgment is never stayed by considerations of merely outward association, as if being an Israelite or living in Jerusalem near the temple, or, even participating in some way in the religious life of Israel were talismans to ward off the wrath of God. This last point looms so large in the preaching of the prophets and of the Lord Jesus himself that we must consider it one of the principle emphases of the Bible! Now we proceed to chapter 12.
When Ezekiel was called to be Yahweh’s prophet he was told that Israel was rebellious and spiritually deaf and blind and that she would not listen to Ezekiel when he warned them of God’s impending wrath. The implication here is that Ezekiel had been trying to communicate his message of judgment but with scant success. [Allen, i, 178]
While the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants would not alter the circumstances of the exiles already in Babylon, it would dash their hopes of a speedy return home. The exiles in Babylon apparently at this time fervently believed in Jerusalem’s security, just as much as did those who remained behind in Jerusalem, and all because they still did not accept that their own exile had been divine punishment for their own sins. This enactment of the exile of the remaining population of Jerusalem by Ezekiel would remind his fellow exiles of the spiritual issues of unbelief and disobedience toward Yahweh that they still had not faced. Neither they nor their countrymen back home had yet repented of their sin against God’s covenant. There were, no doubt, some exceptions.
Apparently the Babylonians had allowed the people they deported from Jerusalem in 597 B.C. to bring with them whatever they were able to carry. Ezekiel doesn’t need to be told what to pack. He knew from his own personal experience what exiles carried with them when they forced from their homes on a long journey to a foreign land. Assyrian victory reliefs depict the scene quite frequently: deportees carrying over their shoulders bundles that contain all that is left of their worldly possessions. [Allen, i, 179] In any case, Ezekiel is to perform his reenactment in the daytime, when people can see what he is doing.
The sign falls into two stages: first the carrying about of one’s possessions; second the acting out the start of the actual trek into captivity. It has been suggested that this two part scene recollected the exiles own last hours in Jerusalem in 597: fearfully responding to harsh and unsympathetic military orders, gathering their few possessions, then waiting in a large group, than finally being given orders to march. (A scene repeated far too many times in the 20th Century!)
Ezekiel’s digging through the wall appears to represent the Babylonians’ breaking through the walls of the city. [Allen, Block] This is confirmed in v. 12. It will be out through those breaches of the wall that the exiles will then be forced to march. Amos 4:3 speaks of the wealthy women of Samaria being marched out to exile through the breaks in the wall the Assyrians created when they conquered the city.
Ezekiel is to cover his face as a symbol that the holy land will be lost to the exiles’ view. Perhaps we are to imagine him walking off into the dusk until he is out of sight.
Ezekiel’s performance at least had its first intended effect: it aroused his neighbors’ curiosity. But they didn’t grasp the point. So now the prophet must explain what he meant by his skit.
The meaning of Ezekiel’s sign is stated in general and will now be elaborated in the following verses. Notice in the verses that follow the repeated “I will do this and that…” Babylon will be the instrument, but Yahweh is the judge!
As we read in 2 Kgs. 25:7, Zedekiah eyes were put out before he was taken to Babylon.
A remnant will survive and the foundation of the spiritual renewal of the people of God will be their recognition that their judgment, heavy as it was, was richly deserved. The Lord will be vindicated in what he has done by his own people, the objects of his wrath!
We are to imagine the prophet’s exaggerated actions: taking his cup of water but having difficulty getting it to his mouth without spilling or struggling to eat or to swallow because he is terrified. [Block, i, 382]
It isn’t only the king who will suffer; everyone will be caught up in the catastrophe.
Ezekiel faced the same problem Jeremiah did at the same time. As we read in Jeremiah 5:12, the people were insouciant, unconcerned, nonchalant. As Jeremiah put it,
“They have lied about the Lord; they said, ‘He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine. The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them…”
In Jeremiah this is an often repeated theme. In his temple sermon Jeremiah says in 7:12,
“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’ – safe to do all these detestable things?”
Well it was the same sort of audience that Ezekiel encountered in Babylon, no matter that they were themselves exiles, already having suffered punishment for their sins. They did not make the connection between their infidelity and their exile and still imagined that Jerusalem would be secure. They heard Ezekiel’s oracles of impending judgment but, as time elapsed and nothing happened, they grew increasingly unconcerned themselves, even optimistic. They repeated the proverb
“The days go by and every vision comes to nothing.”
As one scholar gives the gist of what they said to Ezekiel and Jeremiah: “Here is the way it is with you fellows: you talk tough, but nothing ever happens.” [Polk in Allen, 198]
Here then is our next piece of the Bible’s doctrine of divine wrath or judgment. Bad news is always the hardest to believe and judgment is, therefore, the doctrine concerning which men – whether in the church or out of it – are most practically and theoretically skeptical. It is not only the fact that the doctrine of divine wrath poses the greatest intellectual difficulties for people, even among believers in divine judgment the fact of it is among the hardest truths of our faith genuinely to embrace and to integrate into the pattern of our lives.
It is simply a brute fact of human nature that bad news is harder to accept. No one can deny the inevitability of death. Everyone is going to die; but comparatively few people have a will. Pat Robertson, by his own admission, says foolish things in public, but when he suggested after 9/11 that these attacks were divine judgment upon our sinful land, the vast majority of intelligent Christian people couldn’t distance themselves fast enough from those remarks and the elite culture howled at the very idea. But why? Because God doesn’t punish sin? Because God never uses wicked men with their own agenda to exercise his judgment? Because he would never ruin a city in some devastating way? Because some of the righteous perished with the wicked? Because the Lord never sends anticipations and foretastes of his judgment to warn a wicked people of worse to come? What was there about 9/11, biblically speaking, that made people so sure that this was not the rod of God being laid to the back of a once, at least superficially, religious people toying again with paganism, whose sensuality and worldliness, whose rapaciousness and self-centeredness, whose utter forgetfulness of God was an offense to him?
Well the main reason people wouldn’t seriously ponder that possibility – that God was angry with the United States of America and in his kindness was sending us warning sufficiently stern to awaken us to the possibility of far worse things to come – I say the main reason people didn’t consider that possibility seriously was because they are constitutionally inclined to ignore that possibility; it is altogether natural for them: to deny it, even to mock it. Lest we forget, the first sin, the cause of the fall of mankind, was disbelief in the threat of divine judgment. God had said to Adam, “On the day you eat of it you will surely die,” and the Devil flatly contradicted that in his conversation with Eve: “you surely will not die!” The history of Genesis 2 and 3, remember, is not just history. It is supra-history or meta-history. It establishes the patterns that will shape human life. And we have such a pattern here. From the time of the fall to our own day the Devil’s first and primary argument for sin is the same one he used on Eve: you will not die. You can sin and not suffer consequences. You will not be punished. And no lie is more commonly, or readily, or easily believed by human beings.
As Bishop Wordsworth put it long ago, “There is nothing that Satan more desires than that we should believe that he does not exist, and that there is no such a place as hell, and no such things as eternal torments. He whispers all this into our ears, and he exults when he hears a layman, and much more when he hears a clergyman, deny these things, for then he hopes to make them and others his victims.” [Sermons on Future Rewards and Punishments, 36] Remember Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and eternal judgment lie very close together: one is not only the image of the other, but for so many of those killed in that siege and destruction it was their immediate entrance into perdition. The principles of the one are those of the other and vice versa. Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction and Jerusalem’s destruction become in the Bible images of the far greater calamity at the end of history. But people don’t see that; they don’t believe that.
In a survey taken some years ago in Minnesota, only one Minnesotan in twenty-five believed that he or she deserved to be punished in hell (though one in five thought he knew someone else who deserved such a fate). A similar study a few years later reported that only 57% of Minnesota’s professing Christians believed that all people are sinful and fully a third of them thought that though people make mistakes they should not be thought of as sinful. Well, the reality of hell and of divine wrath will not survive as anything more than an antiquarian, outmoded belief in such an environment.
But in the years since that survey was taken the evangelical church has openly embraced a market approach to its ministry. When the church and its message are marketed, they must be reshaped for the market because no one buys a displeasing or unpleasant product. So the church now sticks to those parts of the message that are uplifting, positive, and attractive. In one survey of modern preaching it was found that the old subjects of sin, Christ’s redemption, and the forgiveness of sin have almost disappeared from the American pulpit. It is not necessarily the case that the harder, more solemn truths of the Bible are no longer believed – though it is clear that to one degree or another they are being abandoned by many – but that they are never preached for fear that people won’t like the message and will never return. Well that is a recipe for disaster in the not too distant future when people are already constitutionally disinclined to believe bad news. Will they continue to believe in divine judgment – without which Christianity makes no sense at all – in the decades to come if it is not preached to them; if they are not warned about it; if it is not explained and justified as preachers used to do? I very much doubt it. [Cf. Wells, Losing our Virtue, 201-204]
I have regaled with you such statistics before but it is important for us to remember and never forget that human beings typically view themselves in wildly complementary terms. Whether it is the recent Washington Post report of a survey that found that 94% of Americans said they were above average in honesty, 89% above average in common sense; 86% above average in intelligence; and 79% above average in looks; or a recent report in the journal Social Psychology (1993) that 90% of American business managers rate their performance “superior”, 86% of employees rate themselves as “better than average”, and among divorced couples 90% insist that the break-up was their spouse’s fault; or the enormous survey some years ago of American high school seniors who took the SAT, of whom 70% rated their leadership ability above average and only 2% below, as to getting along with others zero rated themselves below average and 25% saw themselves in the top 1%. When people think about themselves this way, in such complementary and congratulatory terms, it is not hard to understand why they discount the seriousness of the prospect of divine judgment. Why would God be angry at someone as attractive, as above-average as I am?
My father told the story of visiting some years ago a village in the Philippines in which pigs were the currency of wealth. If you had one pig you were of the lower class; two pigs put you into the middle class and three pigs into the upper class. Four or more pigs were the equivalent of two Cadillacs in your garage. The name of the village was Benaui and the large communal pig pen had been dubbed by the Westerners living there as “the Wall Street of Benaui.” Dad was shown the pig pen on a tour of the village and said that the stench was so bad – so much worse than a U.S. pig farm – that he literally had to move away to prevent being sick right then and there. But the pigs were perfectly content and so were their masters. They had no sense whatsoever of being offensive to anyone else. The stench was fresh air to them; they were completely used to it; it was normal. Well so it was with the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day. They found Ezekiel’s messages of gloom and doom simply hot air. Nothing had happened and, frankly, they couldn’t see why anything should. They did not think of themselves as bad people; quite the contrary.
And if, as was certainly the case with some and perhaps most of these people, there remained some place for divine judgment in their theology or philosophy of life, they found it easy to push the thought away and to consider it someone else’s problem, not their own. It is the problem of some generation in the distant future. We read of this thinking in vv. 26-27. This too is a very common seduction of the human, of the churchly, even of the Christian mind.
A prime biblical example of this tendency is provided by Hezekiah, Judah’s greatest king and unquestionably a man of faith. You remember that shortly after the Lord had graciously spared his life when he was ill and added fifteen years to it, he entertained envoys from Babylon and proudly showed them all the wealth of Jerusalem. Babylon was not yet the international threat it would soon become, but Hezekiah, in his vanity, made sure that the Babylonians knew that Jerusalem was worth attacking when the time came. In response to Hezekiah’s vain and thoughtless exposure of his nation and people to the lust and rapacity of a great world empire, the Lord promised Hezekiah that all the wealth he had strutted before the envoys would in time be carried off to Babylon. But when that sentence was announced to Hezekiah by the prophet Isaiah, the ungrateful dolt had the temerity to say to Isaiah,
“‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good…’ For he thought, ‘Will there
not be peace and security in my lifetime?’”
No doubt you and I will both have to admit that, while in our theology the looming specter of divine judgment is the controlling fact of human existence and of our own individual existence – that every man and that we ourselves must appear before the judgment seat of God – in our daily living we think impossibly little about it and it bears little weight upon our thinking, our choosing, our speaking, and our living day by day.
And what is the antidote to that? One thing and one thing only! It is passing interesting, it is fascinating and immensely important that Ezekiel does not say, “You idiots; you are already living in exile in Babylon and still imagine Jerusalem to be impervious to destruction! Hello! It has happened already twice; what makes the third time so impossible in your minds?” Instead he says, “Thus saith the Lord. I have spoken and my words will all come true and very soon.” We are a people whose lives are to be lived by the Word of God, not by our calculation of the meaning of events or our predictions about how geo-political affairs will unfold. Our Savior made a great point of this. If they will not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if a man rises from the dead!”
Samuel Rutherford put it this way:
“But why do we not hear and see Christ revealing himself in his ways and works? Reason would say, if hell and judgment were before our eyes, we should hear, and come to Christ. Suppose we saw with our eyes, for twenty or thirty years together, a great furnace of fire, and [people…] in a dungeon of everlasting brimstone, and the black and terrible devils, with long and sharp toothed whips of scorpions, lashing out scourges on them; and if we saw there our neighbors, brethren, sisters, yea, our dear children, wives, and fathers, and mothers…sinking in that black lake; and heard the yelling, shouting, crying…blaspheming the spotless justice of God: — if we saw this, while we are living here on earth, we should not dare to offend the majesty of God, but should hear, come to Christ, believe, and be saved. But the truth is, if we believe not Moses and the prophets, neither should we believe for this, because we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, even while we are in this life, daily, pieces and little parcels of hell; for we see and hear daily, some tumbling in their blood, thousands cut down of our brethren, children, fathers, malefactors hanged and quartered, death in every house. These, these be little hells, and little coals and sparkles of the great fire of hell, but certain documents to us that there is a hell; yet we neither hear, nor come to Christ…. Alas! Our senses are confined within time.” [The Trial and Triumph of Faith, 64-65]
This is Ezekiel’s point. Israel must believe the Word of God because when the event is upon her it will be too late! Besides, events are too easy to interpret in other ways. Israel proved that all too many times. To the law and the testimony! We must go there and stay there! We have to put ourselves to believing and remembering all God tells us in his word. We have to work to remember that we are going to die. Lord, teach us to number our days. We have to work to remember that the world around us is hurtling to judgment. We have to work to remember that we too must stand before the judgment seat of God, clothed in Christ’s righteousness as we may be. But the Lord has spoken. There is not a single chance in all the world that it is not so and that judgment will not be meted out and that an offended God will not unleash the fury of his wrath. And it is well for us to remember that, as a matter of simple fact, shortly after Ezekiel acted out the exile, Babylon entered Judah, besieged Jerusalem, reduced the population to starvation – until they were drinking their own urine and eating their own excrement, until at last they were eating each other – finally broke through the walls, captured the king, killed his sons before his eyes, gouged out his eyes and carried the pathetic fool back to Babylon, despoiled the land, killed many who survived the siege, most of the soldiers, dashed babies against the rocks, tore the city down until it was little more than rubble, burned what was left, and carried off into exile the remnants of the once great kingdom of David and Solomon, leaving at the last only a few poor folk to tend the fields on their behalf.
And when the caravan arrived in Babylon with the long train of Israelites afoot stretched out for miles behind, carrying their bundles over their shoulders as they shuffled along, utterly desolate, hopeless, exhausted, not one, not a single person, not one Israelite said again, “The days go by and every vision comes to nothing.”