We have noticed in our studies so far that the opening section of Ezekiel – the first 24 chapters dealing with impending judgment on Israel and Jerusalem – while betraying no obvious principle of organization perhaps other than chronological, occasionally contains sub-sections, material distinct to itself within the larger body of oracles or prophesies of judgment. For example chapters 8-11 contained a lengthy vision granted to Ezekiel of Jerusalem’s present and future. The next three chapters form another such sub-section. Each chapter contains an allegory, a fictional story meant to illustrate or embody some truth. Like other allegories in the Bible these three allegories are self-identified and self-interpreted. We do not have to work hard to decipher the allegories’ meaning. In each case we are told this directly.
Tonight we take the first two allegories of the three. The first, the eight verses of chapter 15, makes the simple point that Israel is like the wood of the grape vine. Israel no doubt flattered herself as the fruit of the vine – wine was a major feature of the agricultural life of Canaan – and the fruit is the only good thing about the grapevine. Its wood is virtually useless except for burning. It is too soft even to make pegs from. But Israel is, in fact, the wood not the fruit of the vine. Israel has borne no fruit and she is fit for nothing but to be destroyed in the fire. In fact, she has already begun to burn; she has been burned at both ends and charred in the middle by the first two Babylonian incursions into the Holy Land. There is nothing left to do but cast the remaining wood into the fire to be consumed.
The second allegory, that of chapter 16, is much longer. At 830 words the chapter is longer than 6 of the 12 Minor Prophets! It is certainly the longest allegory in the Bible. Its meaning is likewise obvious and its lesson much the same as the allegory of chapter 15. But it is much more elaborate and says much more about how Israel got into her present situation. It is, though not as much as chapter 23, quite sexually explicit. It employs the metaphor of prostitution to describe Israel’s spiritual infidelity and nakedness to describe her fate. Elaborate as the allegory is, many interesting and important points are made along the way.
It was customary in the ANE for invading armies to burn the cities they captured. The allegory thus merges into a literal account of Jerusalem’s future.
Contrary to Israelite sentiment that would have found the people’s origins in Abraham and Sarah, Ezekiel makes a point of saying that the city of Jerusalem was originally a Canaanite city and, spiritually speaking, the present Jerusalem is the true daughter of her pagan mother and father.
Rubbing an infant with salt is still practiced by some Arab mothers to this day. The origin or original purpose of the custom is not known for sure, but it may have been thought to be hygienic.
In human history most mothers love their babies and are devoted to their care. But in the ANE as today in pagan societies, poverty and other considerations can drive parents to abandon their newborn, especially their unwanted daughters. [Block, i, 477]
In the allegory, Yahweh is depicted as a passer-by who spies the abandoned baby girl.
The girl grows up and matures into a beautiful young woman, but she is still naked – no longer a naked infant but a naked woman, a completely different situation.
Yahweh preserves the young woman’s purity and marries her. The spreading of the corner of his garment over her is a custom, you remember, encountered in the book of Ruth (3:9). The Lord’s relationship to Israel was long before this described as a marriage and the allegory and the theology merge at the end of the verse. We are obviously talking about Yahweh’s covenant to be Israel’s God.
In keeping with the image of marriage, the blood that was washed from her is probably virginal bleeding, the effect of the first love-making. She was an innocent maiden. And now, as his wife, the Lord lavished luxuries upon her.
This abandoned baby girl was now clothed as a queen, fed as a queen; she had, in fact, become a queen.
Her beauty and her status and her fame were all Yahweh’s doing. She owed everything to him! Let me simply mention that this is one of a number of places in the Bible in which the adornment of the body and the cultivation of beauty, chiefly a woman’s beauty, is celebrated. In considering the warnings we also find against vanity and over-attention to appearance this positive view of jewelry and beautiful clothing needs to be kept in mind.
It is also worth noting that the description of her clothing – especially the phrases “embroidered cloth” and “fine linen” – occurs also in descriptions of the tabernacle, its curtains, and the priestly robes. The fine leather from which her sandals are made is referred to elsewhere in the Bible only in reference to the tabernacle. Her special food figured prominently in the sacred offerings made in the tabernacle and temple. Jerusalem and its temple are other ways to think of the bride of Yahweh. [Block, i, 485-486]
Against the backdrop of his love for and generosity to his bride, Yahweh now speaks as the betrayed husband. His wife has forgotten whence her blessings come. And she used her beauty for other purposes than for the pleasure of her husband. The verb, “to act as a prostitute,” [זָנָה] and its derivatives occur 22 times in the chapter. It may be regarded as the leitwort, the key word, of the passage. First we will hear of her misuse of the gifts Yahweh gave her.
Child sacrifice was the ultimate cultic crime, the perfect act of the pagan mind and the most extreme and thorough-going repudiation of Yahweh’s covenant. This marriage between Yahweh and Israel had produced children, but Yahweh’s wife offered his children to idols. The practice of child sacrifice seems to be have been introduced in the 7th century in the northern kingdom (2 Kgs. 17:17), spread to Judah during the reign of Ahaz (2 Kgs. 16:3), and was practiced with a vengeance during the reign of Manasseh (2 Chr. 33:6). Josiah took steps to eliminate it (2 Kgs. 23:10) but, after his death, the practice returned (Jer. 32:35) as we read in Jeremiah.
The statement here that the children of God’s people are God’s children and have been born to him – a point made in various ways elsewhere in the Bible – is a very important piece of our theology of children and their place in the economy of grace. That our children belong to the Lord and have been born to him makes all the difference in the world when coming to think of their place in the church and kingdom of God and of our responsibilities toward them. One of the reasons we baptize covenant infants and do not dedicate them is that they already belong to God. You can’t give to God what already belongs to him!
In any case, she who had been rescued as a child from abandonment by unloving parents is herself doing even worse. She is killing her children with her own hands!
Now we hear of Israel’s prostitution of herself. If the first part of the description of her prostitution stood for her religious betrayal of the Lord, this second part deal with her political betrayal of her status as the people of God. She trusted her welfare to everyone but Yahweh.
Ezekiel’s description of her behavior is more explicit than reflected in the NIV’s translation. She was brazen in her effort to attract other lovers. Here prostitution is a metaphor for military and political alliances with other nations, each of which represented a failure to trust the Lord. The order in which the other nations are mentioned — Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, and Babylonia — reflects the history of Israel’s relations with foreign nations. All of these political relationships proved harmful to Israel but she never learned her lesson and went from one such relationship to the next.
No doubt this would have been offensive to Ezekiel’s audience: the assertion that Israel’s behavior had been so disgusting that it was shocking even to her pagan neighbors.
This is a reference to the bribes and the tribute Israel paid to foreign powers. No doubt the tribute was imposed upon Israel by the greater power, that is, not something Israel would have wanted to pay, but Ezekiel sees it all as the result of Israel’s philandering.
Israel’s betrayal having been described and the case made against her, the sentence is now pronounced.
Here is an ironic twist. She bared her nakedness without shame before to entice her various lovers. Now she will be stripped and shamed before them. In any case, her fortune has come full circle: she began naked and abandoned by her parents and she will end naked and abandoned by the Lord.
Adultery was a capital offense in the Mosaic Law.
Israel’s paramours will become the instruments of the divine wrath.
God’s anger is the exercise of his justice. Once the punishment has been inflicted his holy wrath will be satisfied. We are reminded here, as so often in Ezekiel, that we are not talking about a fit of divine temper, but the exercise of Yahweh’s holy justice.
Again, the cause of all of this is that Israel forgot the grace of God, forgot his covenant, forgot his kindness to her.
Now, adding shame upon shame, Ezekiel constructs Israel’s family tree, again in a completely different fashion than any Israelite would have imagined. It is a theological/religious/sociological family tree rather than an ethnographic family tree. [Block, i, 508]
Other prophets compared Israel to Sodom, a city notorious for its wickedness, and compared Judah unfavorably to the northern kingdom of Israel, as Jeremiah did in 3:6-11.
Sodom’s sins mentioned are sins of arrogance and of unconcern for and mistreatment of the poor and weak, not the homosexuality other texts highlight, though that may be meant by “detestable things.” But the sins mentioned here are mentioned because they were Jerusalem’s sins at that time, often mentioned by the prophets, and so highlight the similarity of situation between Sodom and Jerusalem. Had he highlighted homosexuality the Jews might well have thought, well, we are not guilty of that. Ezekiel is uninterested in giving any hearer the opportunity to think better of himself because, after all, he didn’t commit this sin or that. [Allen, i, 244]
As Jeremiah reminds us, part of Judah’s greater sin is that she saw Samaria be punished for her betrayal of Yahweh’s covenant and still did not repent. Think of how you would respond if some prophet of the Lord were to appear to tell us that Iraq is more righteous than the United States, or France’s. That is the sort of visceral effect that Ezekiel is after in comparing Israel to Sodom.
Remember, the Lord will say a similar thing about the failure of the villages of Galilee to welcome the Messiah. Sodom was more righteous than they!
It is hard to know precisely what is meant by the restoration of Sodom but here, in any case, it is meant as a back-handed rebuke of Jerusalem. The point is that since Jerusalem’s wickedness is greater than Sodom’s or Samaria’s, they too should be restored if Jerusalem is to be.
“What you were before” refers not to their sinful past but to their past prosperity and well-being.
Sodom used to be a byword in Jerusalem, the paragon of evil; but now she will be replaced by Jerusalem herself and other nations will speak about Jerusalem as she once spoke about Sodom. It reminds me of the fact that for centuries up to our own generation the great historic example of ministerial corruption, the quintessence of Christian hypocrisy was a Catholic monk who, having sworn vows of chastity, had a number of illegitimate children. But, in a few years time we have managed to replace that example with one of our own: an evangelical TV preacher. We have managed to make people forget about RC hypocrisy; we replaced it with a distinctly evangelical kind. Then the Catholics, let off the hook, jumped right back on it with their sex abuse scandals. You see the point: Sodom, once the example of evil, has now been replaced by Jerusalem.
As so often in the prophets, the Lord looks beyond the judgment day to the new work of grace he will perform among his people by which, from the remnant he will restore the fortunes of Israel. The allegory continues with sisters and other women, but it is perfectly plain who and what the Lord is talking about.
Her restoration will humble her, not inflame her pride as God’s gifts to her in the past did and Sodom and Samaria will be united with Jerusalem – another of the pictures of universal salvation that we are given so often in the OT prophets. The original covenant God made was with Israel, not with the nations, but the nations will not be left out at the end.
Luther makes the point that we will still remember with shame our sins even when we are in heaven: “Sinner is my name; sinner is my surname; sinner is the name by which I always shall be known.” Otherwise we could not remember God’s grace to us nor be humble before God and others as we want to be and ought to be.
It has taken so long to make our way through this lengthy text that I want to draw your attention to but one aspect of Ezekiel’s oracle and that briefly.
We have in this longest single prophecy in the OT prophetic books one of the most vivid accounts of God’s grace to his people, their betrayal of that grace, his judgment of his people, and of their eventual restoration according to God’s covenant. You can tell by the tone and the explicitly sexual nature of Ezekiel’s portrayal that he was attempting to dislodge a strongly fixed prejudice in the minds of his hearers. Ezekiel’s language is deliberately coarse and repulsive because polite criticism is too easy to ignore. That prejudice was that Israel was immune from rejection by Yahweh because of her favored status as God’s chosen people. Yahweh couldn’t reject them or destroy them without betraying his own word, his own election, his covenant, and his own freely-made commitment. Jerusalem, they thought, was the “city that cannot be moved” (Ps. 46:6), the invincible apple of God’s eye. To disabuse his hearers of this feckless, irresponsible, and untheological sentimentalism, Ezekiel pulled out all the stops to describe Jerusalem as a city so corrupt, a people so depraved, that they made Sodom look good by comparison. The innocent young woman whom Yahweh had plucked from the gutter and turned into a beautiful queen, the envy of the world, had become a whore; indeed a nymphomaniacal whore. She was nothing but a whore, who had for hundreds of years acted like a whore, and had trampled under foot every kindness that her kind and generous husband had shown her.
Ezekiel was not the first to describe Israel’s idolatry as spiritual whoredom. Hosea had done this and so did Jeremiah, but no one elaborated the metaphor in so much detail and so disgustingly as Ezekiel does here. He was obviously attempting to break the back of Israel’s utterly unwarranted self-confidence.
His point is simply this: the claim to divine election is no substitute for covenantal faithfulness! Israel was God’s special treasure, his kingdom of priests, his holy nation as we read in Exod. 19:5-6, but she had betrayed his covenant and for that she would be punished and this generation of his people, or most of it, would either be killed or dispersed never to be heard from again.
God’s election of a people does not mean that each and every person, head for head, will finally be saved. God’s placing of people in the church in fact only increases their guilt and the severity of their judgment should they not prove faithful to his Word and keep his covenant. It is faithfulness that alone separates those who will not fail to obtain salvation from those who will. The covenant provided for this eventuality by threatening curses to befall those who are unfaithful as well as blessings to be enjoyed by the faithful.
No one can read this account of Israel’s spiritual history or the others like it given by the prophets without asking: “what went wrong?” And Ezekiel has an answer for that question. The great thing that separates the faithful from the unfaithful is made a repeated theme of this allegory. It is the remembrance of God’s grace, the sense in the heart that God has been merciful to me a helpless sinner, and the abiding sense of debt and gratitude to God that comes from that remembering.
It was Israel’s failure to remember God’s grace to her that is offered as an explanation of her betrayal of the covenant and her descent into the crudest forms of idolatry in verses 22 and 43 and, in v. 61, it is precisely this active memory that will characterize her life and humble her before the Lord when God restores her after the judgment. If “to act as a prostitute” is the leitwort or defining concept of the chapter, spiritual forgetfulness is the instrumental explanation of the sin of which Israel is being charged.
In the Bible forgetting and remembering are spiritual acts akin to unbelief and faith. I have commonplaced my Bible on the subject of forgetting and remembering at Psalm 78:11 where Israel’s betrayal of God’s covenant is explained in this same way: “They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them.” And, in turn, it is the active recollection of God’s grace that everywhere in the Bible empowers the faithful life. When Walter Marshall, in his classic, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, says, “We must first receive the comforts of the gospel in order that we may be able to perform sincerely the duties of the Law,” he is making the same point Ezekiel makes here. And so does Thomas Halyburton, when he writes, “…the most effectual inducement to obedience is, a constant improvement of the blood of Christ by faith, and a sense of forgiveness kept on the soul.” Live from life, not to life. And, practically speaking, the way that is done is by remembering God’s grace to us.
The memory we are speaking of here is not the natural power of recollection that some men have. Abraham Lincoln had a phenomenal memory, an almost instant recall of dates, names, and faces and the ability to recite long passages from memory. [Guelzo, 84] Spurgeon and C.S. Lewis had similarly powerful memories and stories are told of spectacular demonstrations of their power of recall. But the memory we are speaking of here, that Ezekiel is speaking of, is memory as an act and work of faith. This is memory animated by love. This is the deliberate recollection of God and his works and, especially, his works of grace to me and mine.
You remember how carefully God’s people fixed his grace in mind and what devices they employed to prevent their forgetting it. They fixed feasts at different times of the year to commemorate the great events of their redemption: Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles, for example. Or they would set up a memorial to commemorate some great deed of the Lord – the crossing of the Jordan on dry land, for example, or “Ebenezer” – Stone of Help – where the Lord gave them victory over the Philistines in 1 Sam. 7. Or think of Joseph who gave those strange names to his two sons born to him in Egypt. He named his first born Manasseh, a name that sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew word “forget” because God had caused him to forget all his trouble by blessing him so magnificently in the land of his captivity. His second son he named Ephraim, which sounds like the Hebrew for “Twice Fruitful” because the Lord had made his life so fruitful in the land of his suffering. He was making sure he would never forget what the Lord had done for him.
Imagine Joseph leaning out the kitchen door and calling to his young sons in the backyard to come in for dinner: “Forget and Twice Fruitful, wash your hands and come to the table!” He could hardly call his sons without remembering what the Lord had done for him. Or when he and Potiphera had guests for dinner, he would introduce his two boys to them. These are my sons, “Forget” and “Twice Fruitful.” Shake hands sons. And their guests would say, “My, those are interesting names.” And Joseph would reply, “Yes they are. Let’s go into the living room until dinner is served and I’ll tell you how my sons came to have those unusual names.”
Do you realize that this is why we come to church every Lord’s Day, to be reminded of what we might otherwise forget – God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ – and this is why we do what we do in worship, whether singing hymns or reading Scripture or hearing the Word of God? The Sunday sermon is not primarily designed to teach you things you do not know, but to remind you of things you know but are likely to forget. How much of Christian worship, including the Lord’s Supper itself – “This do in remembrance of me” – is designed to fix in believers’ mind and memory the grace of God! In Pilgrim’s Progress Part II, we learn that the battle waged between Christian and Appolyon in the Valley of Humiliation – a battle related in Part I – was fought just beyond “Forgetful Green” which Bunyan describes as “the most dangerous place in all these parts.” It is precisely to avoid forgetful green that we come to worship every Sunday. And that means that you and I are to open our minds to recollect, to remember when we come to church.
Israel forgot her miserable situation when Yahweh found her. She forgot the heights to which the Lord raised her. She forgot the promises he had made to her. It had all slipped from her mind and the result was she thought and lived as if she had never been a sinner, never been redeemed, never brought into covenant with the living God, never been made his bride. The pollution of her heart and life came naturally from the pagan culture around because she had forgotten everything that made her different from those people.
Not for us, brothers and sisters. You have a Bible. You have your own life and a mental record of that life. You have experienced God’s grace, mercy, kindness, generosity, and his father’s affection in countless ways. The sins you committed and God forgave. The blessings poured out that you did not begin to deserve. You are to remember them all and live on the recollection.
So mused I silently, as o’er and o’er
I turned the wrinkled pages lying round,
The well-worn relics of long-buried years,
Which rise to life again in every page.
Brief memories of love, and grief, and peace,
With glimpses of still unforgotten scenes; –
Faces and names of former days are here.
The brightest possible future is the happy prospect of the Christian who never forgets his or her past!