“Blood” and “bloodshed” occur seven times in the first sixteen verses: a leitwort. The terms refer not only to actual physical violence committed against another person, but, by extension, any harm done to another.
The great empire of David and Solomon will have come to nothing; other nations will make jokes about it. The covenant God made with Israel envisioned her exalted above all the other nations of the earth; Israel’s sins will create the opposite situation: she will be humiliated before all the other nations.
The first sixteen verses of chapter 22 are like a great many other passages in the prophets in which the prophet indicts the people for their betrayal of God’s covenant and, like any good prosecutor, amasses the evidence of their crimes. He doesn’t cite chapter and verse, but every violation he will now list is clearly an act of disobedience to the law of God as it was revealed to Israel. He will also, as the prophets always do in such contexts, describe the punishment that is to befall the people for their sins against God, the very punishments that were promised in the covenant when God first made it with Israel. From the opening statement – “Will you judge or arraign her?” [There is a question as to whether the opening sentences should be read as questions or as commands: “Arraign her; arraign the city!”] – the entire passage has the overtones of a courtroom in which the defendant is found guilty by a judge. This effect is created also by the device of addressing Jerusalem, by synecdoche standing for the nation as a whole, throughout in the second person singular (“you” in the feminine singular; cities are typically feminine in Hebrew). The “I” and the “My” obviously refer to Yahweh, who is the judge. The chapter begins as if Ezekiel is the judge, but it becomes quickly obvious that Ezekiel is only Yahweh’s mouthpiece or spokesman.
It is important to remember, as we have already seen, the fact that Jerusalem is being condemned and threatened with judgment does not mean that everyone in the city or the nation is guilty of the crimes listed. It is always understood that in cases of corporate judgment the fewer innocent will be caught up with the many wicked. This is one reason why you cannot make sense of the teaching, that you also find everywhere in the prophets, that God will vindicate the righteous without assuming that there is another judgment still to come, a more definitive, complete, and perfect judgment.
Ezekiel begins his case with the sins of the leadership, but the accusations by no means apply only to the kings of Judah. Like king, like people.
To violate one’s father’s bed means to have sexual intercourse with a woman reserved for the father; hence, they had sexual relations with their mothers, a capital crime in Lev. 20:11.
The use of “violate” or “humiliate” suggests that they engaged in sex with a menstruating woman in an abusive way. These were men who would not wait to satisfy the cravings of their flesh and who took no thought for the women involved. [Block, i, 710]
The sins listed are obviously only a sampling. They represent a cross-section of violations of God’s law. But, taken together as Israel’s way of life, they indicate that the people have forgotten Yahweh, “an idiomatic way of saying ‘have rejected my covenant.’” [Stuart, 211] So the sins are not listed as simply the specific violations of the covenant that they represent, but as evidence that the people have no interest in honoring the God who brought them into covenant with himself.
Both verse 6, introducing the catalog of sins, and v. 13, introducing the punishment to be visited upon Jerusalem as a result, begin with the same word, a demonstrative particle [הִנֵה], “Behold” or “See” or “Lo!” They are two separate but related sections: the one presenting the evidence of Israel’s crimes, the other the penalties she must now suffer.
Yahweh’s striking his hands together is a gesture indicating both Yahweh’s anger and his order that this all be stopped.
Israel may have forgotten Yahweh; she will find to her dismay that he has not forgotten her!
There are three purposes of all proper punishment. The first is retribution, the paying back what is deserved, and the balancing of the scales of justice. Retributive justice is built into the inescapable order of human life because we are made in the image of a just and holy God who will by no means clear the guilty. The second aspect of punishment is correction, by which a person learns not to commit the same sin again. People argue over the merits of deterrence – whether punishment actually deters disobedience in the future – but, while it is certainly true that sinners will sin again, no one can deny the power of punishment to deter who has ever taken his foot off the accelerator at the sight of a police car by the side of the highway or who drives more sedately than before because he cannot afford another ticket. The third purpose is purification: not simply the correction of behavior but the creation of a new mind, a new heart, a new attitude. Sometimes to create that something new among a people requires that other people be got rid of, bad influences eliminated, temptations removed. [Stuart, 212-213] This is the thought here. If the people of God are to be purified, a great deal of dross must be removed, burned away.
As you know, and as all fans of Handel’s Messiah will appreciate, there are other texts in the prophets that speak of the Lord’s punishments as a refiner’s fire.
This is a specific reference to the gathering of refugees in Jerusalem upon the advance of the Babylonian army and the swelling of the population of the city just as the siege is about to begin. People race to the capital to find safety, but find disease and starvation instead.
In furnaces designed to melt metal the fire must be terrifically hot. In the old days, as today, air is blown into the fire to superheat it. Joe Westerlund, long known to this congregation, operates a plant in Pueblo, CO that does nothing but supply gas to super-heart the blast furnaces of one of the largest steel plants left in the United States.
As before in Ezekiel, the leadership of the people comes in for particular condemnation as it was their example and their policies and their contempt for God’s covenant that led the people to forsake it as well. Five different groups of leaders are mentioned: kings, priests, government officials, prophets, and the wealthy landowners, the “people of the land” in v. 29. In every society, today as then, the cultural elite, the opinion shapers, the people with clout, the wealthy and the powerful not only shape the beliefs and ethics of the people, they bear the greatest responsibility for the society that is produced under their leadership. The call to leadership is primarily a call to responsibility not to privilege, but there are few leaders who really grasp that. They will have to answer for their misuse of the position God gave them in due time.
Drought was a curse in a land where rain was already scarce.
A reminder that the priest was ordinarily what we would call a minister today: he preached the Word of God and he superintended the worship of God’s people. As so often since, they were indifferent to the teaching of the Word of God and encouraged the people to be rebels, though, of course, they would never have put it that way.
Government officials are supposed to protect people; but they are in an ideal situation to take advantage of people and to profit from their power to tax, to punish, and to sell their influence to those willing to pay.
False prophets outnumbered faithful prophets during most of Israel’s history and there are plenty of them in the church today. And then as now, the characteristic of their message is to whitewash. It will be alright not to believe what God says and not to do what he requires.
Jeremiah has a similar passage in which he scours Jerusalem trying to find one honest man. [5:1-6]
Now, the themes of this chapter are the common themes of the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel. We’ve heard more than once of the special responsibility of the leadership and, therefore, of their greater accountability; we’ve noticed frequently how careful Ezekiel is to demonstrate that the punishments about to befall Jerusalem are precisely those punishments that she deserves and precisely the ones that God in these particular ways long before promised he would impose upon his people should they betray his covenant.
But I want to take special notice of the catalog of sins that we are given in vv. 6-12. Here we have one of, if not the longest such list of sins to be found anywhere in the Bible. Alexander Whyte once said that he aspired to be an expert on sin, and there is a sense in which every Christian ought to be an expert on sin. We live with it every day. It is the reality that is most dangerous to us, that most keeps us from the happiness and holiness of life that we desire, it is the dimension of our existence most displeasing to God and dishonoring to Christ. We ought to know about sin and we ought to be past-masters at sniffing out all the various ways and means by which human beings learn to take sin less seriously than they should. We prayed this morning as we often do in our Confession in our Lord’s Day morning worship that the Lord would forgive our secret sins by which we mean not the sins we know about but nobody else knows about, but rather that entire world of sin and sinning of which we are blissfully unaware. We ought not to be among them and for many reasons, but for this one first of all: he who despises the disease despises the doctor. What every Christian ought to be is head over heels in love with Jesus Christ and that love, as the Bible and all history proves, is more or less in our hearts according to the measure of our estimation of our own sin. If we don’t think much of our sin, we aren’t going to think all that much of its forgiveness or of the sacrifice that made that forgiveness possible. It is when someone sees the true blackness of his heart and life that he comes to realize what a stupendous thing it is, and how utterly inexplicable, that God loved us and Jesus died for us knowing full well who and what we are.
And that is just the beginning. I could spend the entire evening enumerating the advantages of an honest reckoning with our sin and sinfulness. Let me mention one other thing. How easy it is to accept one another, to bear with one another’s faults, to be kind to one another, to be generous in judgment, to be sympathetic and to understand when we ourselves are feelingly aware of our own failures, our massive moral failure. It is when we think well of ourselves, when, forgetting our sins we take pride in ourselves, it is then that we find it so easy to look down on others, to be judgmental, critical, and unsympathetic. When you see yourself as you really are, you are not only free to see God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice as the utterly amazing and wonderful things they are, but you are free to see others as people just like yourself in their weakness, foolishness, selfishness, and the like. It’s hard to be hard on someone who reminds you so much of yourself!
So, for those best reasons in the world – that we might think more of Christ and more kindly of others – let’s take a look at this catalog of Israel’s sins in vv. 6-12.
- The first thing to notice is that the sins listed are violations of God’s law, specific transgressions of the commandments found in Holy Scripture. It is true that most of these commandments are also violations of the natural law, the law written upon the heart of every man and woman created in the image of God, but not all of them are. In verse 8, for example, we have “Sabbaths” in the plural. This may suggest that not only the weekly Sabbath but some of the annual festivals (also called Sabbaths in the Law of Moses) are intended. To keep Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles is not an obligation of the natural law. What we are being reminded here is that we are to take our orders for life from Holy Scripture. That is where God has revealed his will. Those laws are the laws that bind us. What is found there as our duty is our duty indeed. I find it amazing how cavalier many Christians are nowadays about the teaching of the Bible; how glibly they ignore or minimize its teaching and its requirements. Whether it is getting a divorce that God forbids, or going to court against another Christian, or sleeping with someone to whom you are not married, or any number of other things, far too many Christians seem to think that it doesn’t matter all that much whether one obeys the Bible’s commands. The Jews in Ezekiel’s day thought the same way and the Lord demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they were mistaken, grievously mistaken. You are obliged to obey the commandments of God, period. And those commandments are the very commandments given to us in Holy Scripture. Any disobedience to those commandments, the Lord himself regards as an act of rebellion against him.
- The second thing to notice about this catalog of sins is the ground it covers. We have religious idolatry cheek to jowl with demanding sex of menstruating women; we have disrespect toward one’s parents together with the profaning of the Sabbath day. We have hard business practices listed next to incest. All of this is sinful; all of it is an offense to God. Now, what is certain is that everyone did not commit every one of these sins. There were people who, for their own financial gain, took advantage of other people’s misfortunes who never had sex with their daughters-in-law. There were people who were respectful of their parents who worshipped idols at high places. There were men who took bribes who didn’t cheat on their wives. And every one of those men and women thought better of themselves because they didn’t do the things that other people did. We all pick and choose the sins that we will find offensive and the sins that we will tolerate. The distant, unloving husband will sneer at gossips; the grasping businessman will stick his nose in the air when talking about sexual sinners; and how many people have we met who can detect the theological or liturgical error of others but who seems incapable of detecting the slander in his speech or the hardness in his heart that others can detect as soon as he opens his mouth. The fact is, there is no pecking order here, as if disrespect of parents is worse than incest or unjust gain is less important that Sabbath breaking. These sins are not being ranged on a continuum of evil. They are being listed as the various things that sinners so. They are all sin and all offensive to God. A thoughtful Christian does not think well of himself because he only regularly commits some sins!
The third thing to notice about this catalog of sins is the way in which it mixes together sins against God with sins against man. Now, to be sure we are well aware that all sins, even sins committed against other human beings, are ultimately committed against God. David makes that point memorably in the 51st Psalm when, after committing adultery and murder, he says to the Lord, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.” He had slept with another man’s wife – in that he had sinned against her and against her husband – and he had then arranged the death of her husband – certainly a sin against that man. And yet David can say to the Lord “against you and you only have I sinned.” Nevertheless, the law of God is not summarized simply by saying that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are also to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The law of God distinguishes between vertical and horizontal sins, even as it recognizes all sin to be first and foremost a violation of God’s will and so a sin against him.
And so it is important for us to notice that sins of the first type – sins such as those forbidden in the first four of the Ten Commandments – are mixed together with sins of the second type – that is, the sins of the last six of the Ten Commandments. Idolaters are lumped together with hard bargainers; Sabbath breakers with those who are disrespectful of their parents. The history of modern Western Christianity is the history of people thinking that so long as they work for social justice they can deny any or all of the Bible’s revelation of the Living God and his salvation. Alas, it is also too often the history of people who seem to think that, so long as they confess the name of God and practice his worship, they can treat other people however they please. Just as we have liberals who have just as really forsaken the biblical faith as any Jew in Ezekiel’s day who worshipped at a high place but who nevertheless think God must be pleased with them for their commitment, however theoretical, to the poor; so we have founders of Christian ministries, evangelists and humanitarians, who were terrible husbands and worse parents. But you don’t get to balance your vices with virtues. It is just sin, plain and simple. If you know to reverence the holy name of the one true and living God, then you have still less excuse for breaking any of his commandments touching your duties to other human beings. And if you know that God cares about the poor, you know enough to know that the salvation of sinners happens in only that way revealed in Holy Scripture. The one kind of sin will damn you as surely as the other, a point the prophets are always making, by accusing Israel now of idolatry, now of the mistreatment of the poor and weak; now of false worship or Sabbath-breaking, now of sexual sins, greed, or false-witness.
- A fourth thing to notice about this catalog of sins is that it describes every one of these sins and all of these types of sins as being, at bottom, the same thing: a forgetfulness of God, a repudiation of his covenant, and a rejection of Yahweh personally. Most human beings never face this; even we Christians far too rarely face it. Unbelievers know they do wrong. Chesterton was certainly right when he spoke of the uneasy conscience as the most universal human experience. People know they are sinners. They may not know the half of their sin, but they know that they don’t meet the moral standards they themselves accept and hold others to. But they don’t make it personal. They don’t typically accept that they have personally offended God himself. That they have acted against him. They never think that they have repudiated God’s rule and as much as spit in his face. They never think that! But even we Christians too often depersonalize our sins. We are more likely to worry about what others think about our misbehavior than about what God thinks of it. We rarely visualize our unseemly and unworthy behavior as being committed before the face of God and as offending him and displeasing him. We know we have done wrong; we tend not to think nearly so often that we have grieved the Holy Spirit. But Ezekiel will have none of that. Sinners are not simply transgressing a moral code, they are rejecting God. That is how he sees their sin and so that is how they must see it also because, of course, how God sees it is how it really is.
Now, put all of that together and you have a realism about sin that should help us in every way. We are obliged to live according to Holy Scripture, come wind, come weather. Our rules for life come from nowhere else. We are to absorb the ethical system of that book, its principles and its practices and they are to become the warp and woof of our life. We are to concern ourselves with all of God’s demands and excuse no violation of his Law and to be as committed to a reverent life as we are to the loving treatment of others and vice versa. And we are never to forget the personal element of sin. Sin is as much a personal affront and personal rejection of the Lord as sins against our neighbors are dismissive of them as persons. Take all of that to heart and you have your work cut out for you. You will need to live your life day after day with your mind hard at work, constantly inspecting your own behavior and its motivations, constantly reminding yourself of what sin is and what it amounts to; never allowing yourself to depersonalize it. Sin will always be as bad as it ought to be in your view when you see it as an act of rebellion, of spite, of indifference, and of ingratitude committed against God himself.
But we cannot finish there. Not here, in a Christian church. Not here in a Sabbath day’s worship service. Sins must be punished. Every sin ever committed in this world by every human being who has ever lived or who will ever live must be punished and will be punished. God is just, his eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and he will by no means clear the guilty. Every sin you have ever committed, only the tiniest fraction of which are known to you, everyone must be and will be punished. They cannot be overlooked and will not be.
But the punishment of those sins can be transferred and has been in the case of all who are being saved. Your sins must be punished, but Christ took that punishment on himself. Every act you ever committed against God, every thought you thought, word you spoke, and deed you performed before God, in his presence, that was disgusting to him and amounted on your part to pure indifference to him and disrespect for him – the thousands upon thousands and millions of such acts of both commission and omission – I say they were punished, but they were punished in the punishment Christ suffered in your place. And sinner that you are, that ought to make you a very grateful human being, who loves God with a passion, and trusts Christ without reservation, and wants, desperately wants, to get rid of as much of your sin as you can and to live as much as you can to please and honor the Savior of your life. Sin is most important for what it teaches people about the love of God and the salvation of Christ and what it makes them want to be and do because they have been forgiven.
“O happy sin, that has found such a Redeemer!” [Gregory in Owen, Works, viii, 35]