With chapter 25 we begin the second major section of the prophecy of the book of Ezekiel, I know this because I have now moved from the first volume to the second volume of the larger commentary that I am using in preparing these messages. The first volume was 800 and some pages, and the second volume about as much. The first volume ended at chapter 24 with the end of the first section of the prophecy which is about the first half of the book. This next section, eight chapters, 25-32, contains oracles of impending judgment against sixteen separate nations, though there are separate oracles against, not surprisingly to anyone familiar with the Old Testament, seven separate nation states. The one interesting omission from this list is Babylon herself. This is not because Babylon does not deserve God’s judgment but because she will be, in each of the sixteen cases, the instrument of God’s judgment. Babylon is the sword in the Lord’s hand. That may explain why more attention is devoted to Tyre and Egypt in the coming chapters than any of the other countries or nations because those two nations were the principle obstacles to Babylon’s imperial ambitions. [Block, ii, 4] In any case, Judah was not the only nation to suffer destruction at the hands of the Babylonian army. These eight chapters, in a way, give us a wider sense of the scale of the impact of Babylon’s imperial designs on the nations of the ancient world. A few of the sixteen nations will be mentioned only in passing. Four of Egypt’s allies are mentioned in chapter 30:5 as about to suffer catastrophe at Babylon’s hands otherwise nothing is said of them. Other nations are considered at far greater length, such as Tyre – the subject of three chapters – and Egypt – the subject of four.
What is also important to note is that all of these nations were enemies of Israel. The promise of the judgment of these nations is, thus, also a matter of some hope for the people of God. This point is made explicit in the section by its center pivot at chapter 28:24-26. This section of three verses lies almost exactly in the middle of this section of eight chapters. In the English Bible there are 97 verses in the section before it and 97 verses in the section following it. Here the judgment of Israel’s neighbors is made a matter of Israel’s encouragement:
“No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns.”
We’ll come back to this point later. The prophesies or oracles against the nations mentioned in chapter 25 presuppose the destruction of Jerusalem, so though there are not specific indications of date given, they all were delivered after August of 586 B.C. when the city of Jerusalem was laid waste. Notice, for example, in our own reading of chapter 25:3, where the Ammonites are condemned precisely because of the delight and pleasure they took in the destruction of the temple and the sending of the Jews into exile. The fate they rejoiced to see overtake the people of God would overtake them as well and still more severely.
If you remember, there was a previous prophecy against Ammon in chapter 21:28-32, the only prophecy concerning some other nation than Israel in the first 24 chapters of Ezekiel. Ammon lay east of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, on the fringe of the Arabian desert. They had a long history of animosity toward Israel, beginning when Israel was in the wilderness making her way toward the Promised Land. Both Saul and David fought them and they remained an enemy right up to the time of Jehoiakim, that is to say right up to Ezekiel’s own day.
If you remember earlier, Nebuchadrezzar, making his way westward paused at a point in modern Syria before turning south into Palestine and he had a choice of targets when he first entered the Levant: either Rabbah the capital of Ammon and the Ammonites or Jerusalem. He chose Jerusalem, because Yahweh had ordained her punishment. But Rabbah, for that reason, was not to be spared.
“Aha” was the equivalent of a cheer. Ammon was sure that her ancient foe had been destroyed and would never rise again.
The “people of the east” would be the Arabs from the desert. The main point is that Yahweh had not ceased to be the defender of his people even though he has acted in judgment against them. Her enemies continued to be his enemies. And he would punish those who rejoiced at the punishment of Israel, however just that punishment in fact was. Ammon wasn’t rejoicing in the justice of Israel’s fate; she wasn’t rejoicing that covenant breakers had been punished as the covenant required, she was a people deeply sinful herself. Her rejoicing was animated by selfishness and a spirit of vengeance, nothing more. Yahweh was no territorial god, conquered when his people were. Ammon would have to deal with him as every other nation and every other people.
Moab had been dominated politically and militarily by Israel for much of its history so it is not hard humanly speaking to understand that its people roared their approval at Jerusalem’s catastrophic destruction. [Stuart, 251] They had no reason to believe that Israel was not like other nations, at least any more, maybe once they did. They had seen God intervene on Israel’s behalf, but Jerusalem’s destruction and the catastrophic measure of it had seemed to put to rest thoughts of Israel’s special status. Moab’s sin was to deny Israel’s election, to suppose that Yahweh was unable or unwilling to act on behalf of his people. Ironically, Israel herself had wanted to be just like the other nations as we read in chapter 20:32. She had come to have the same view of herself, she had wanted to have the same view of herself that Moab came to have after her judgment.
The key to controlling a land was to gain control of or destroy its principle cities. Moab too would fall to the desert tribes.
How many Ammonites or Moabites do you know? They do not exist as an identifiable people in the world today.
Edom’s sins are not specified but from other material in the OT it appears that once Israel was preoccupied with Babylon’s army Edomite raiders took advantage of its unprotected southern borders, attacking towns and cities there and Jews fleeing south to escape the Babylonians.
Israel and Edom had been at odds since Genesis 25, Edom having descended from Esau, Israel from Jacob, Esau’s younger brother. In Numbers 20:15 Moses appealed to the Edomites for some consideration of Israel’s circumstances moving through their territory on the strength of “their brotherhood.” There was precious little of that in the years and centuries that followed. “From Teman to Dedan” is like the phrase “From Dan to Beersheba,” though in reverse, that is from the very south to the very north, the whole land in its entirety.
We really don’t know enough of the history between the sixth century B.C. and the third century B.C. to know how precisely Israel was the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance on Edom, an outcome also prophesied in Obadiah verse18. By the fourth century B.C. at least, Edom had ceased to exist as a political entity and its people as a separate, distinguishable population.
It is the Philistines, by the way, that gave their name to that region, that region known by this name from Roman times at least. Palestine is derived from Philistine. The Philistines lived on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine (in what is now the Gaza Strip) and, during the time of the Judges and early monarchy, had threatened to dislodge Israel as rulers of the Promised Land. David, however, completely subdued them and, perhaps as a result, their hostility to Israel never abated. The Babylonian invasion provided them the opportunity to get back at Israel, as the invasion had given the same opportunity to the Edomites, and they took advantage of it as God says “with malice in their hearts.”
There is no record of Philistine civilization after the second century B.C.
Despite the wording at the beginning of the first of these four oracles: “Son of Man, set your face against the Ammonites and prophesy against them…” there does not seem to be any suggestion that these prophecies were ever delivered to or were ever intended to be delivered to the peoples themselves. Ezekiel was among the Jewish exiles in Babylon and would not have had occasion to travel to preach to these distant peoples, and in that fact hangs a tale.
These prophesies are not intended really for the peoples whose fates they concern. They were always intended for the people of God. They were a message for Israel, not for the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, and Philistines. And their importance for the church, both then and now, is not difficult to understand. In this world the fortunes of the people of God wax and wane in accordance with the vigor and the malevolence of her enemies. I am not speaking of persecution only, though that is certainly a crucial factor in many times and places and was a crucial factor in the history described in Ezekiel chapter 25, but also of the force of the temptations that arise from the world in which the church lives. It was certainly so in Israel. As we pointed out in a previous sermon, the form of Israel’s unbelief and disobedience was always derivative. She did not invent brand new ways of betraying God and his covenant; she simply adopted the world-view, the thinking, and the practices of the peoples around her. As a result, it is a simple fact, it is a fact of history that we ourselves can observe that the church will never come fully to enjoy the holiness, happiness, and prosperity promised to her in the gospel so long as her enemies are not subdued and remain free to bedevil her life by temptation or by outright hostility and attack.
These prophesies of judgment and doom for the nations that were the ancient and natural enemies of Israel – that is the prophesies that make up the second section of the book of Ezekiel – are the beginning of Ezekiel’s message of encouragement and hope for Israel in the future. One thing that will be necessary for Israel’s restoration is the subjugation of her physical and spiritual enemies. That is what is being promised here. These nations that have done Israel harm in so many ways through so many years are to be stripped of any and all means to do her any further harm.
It is interesting and very important to observe that it is the same in the New Testament. The prophesies of final judgment and the doom of the wicked are preached almost exclusively to the church. You find it a prominent theme in the Lord’s preaching but the majority of his most explicit teaching about the eternal punishment of the wicked is given explicitly to his disciples. Some, to be sure, is given when the crowds were listening, but, the crowds of Jews who gathered to hear Jesus speak were, of course, the church of that day and saw them as that, the church of that day. The warning element in this preaching so prominent in the Lord’s preaching of the final judgment – “Take care to be sure that you are not found among those sent to hell at the last day!” – is almost exclusively found in preaching either to the Lord’s disciples or to those who would have thought themselves the people of God. We’ve had that preaching of course in spades so far in Ezekiel and all of it delivered to the church.
You find little of the preaching of judgment and hell in the evangelistic preaching of Paul in the Book of Acts. He speaks to Jews of the appearance of their Messiah and to Gentiles of the revelation of the true and living God and of the hope of resurrection. Paul did not, so far as we can tell, preach what would nowadays be called hellfire and damnation certainly not to congregations of strangers in Gentile cities. His approach seemed to be that recommended by an old Puritan phrase: “catch them with honey.” He spoke of sin and grace, of the need for repentance, but he did not characteristically evangelize communities by preaching the coming punishment, doom and judgment of the wicked. It is certainly true that divine judgment is the presupposition of the preaching of Christ and salvation. There must be something from which we are saved if there is to be salvation or a Savior. No doubt Paul made that clear when it was necessary to do so or in answer to questions. But what Charles Hodge said of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God could be said just as well of the doctrine of eternal punishment and hell.
The doctrine of the sovereignty of God “is to all other doctrines what the granite formation is to the other strata of the earth. It underlies and sustains them, but it crops out only here and there. So this doctrine should underlie all our preaching, and should be definitely asserted only now and then.” [Princeton Sermons, 6]
In the Bible the doctrine of doom is preached definitely and asserted for primarily two purposes: 1) to awaken the spiritually complacent in the church to the necessity of a living, active faith in God and Christ – which was the purpose of the preaching of Ezekiel in chapters 4-24 and much of the Lord’s preaching of this same theme of judgment – and 2) to encourage the saints with the prospect of their enemies eventually being vanquished, which is the purpose of such teaching of divine judgment as we have it, for example, not only here in Ezekiel chapters 25-32, but as well in 2 Thessalonians 1 or in the Book of Revelation. Hard as it may be for us to reconcile ourselves to the thought of punishment so severe and so endless, it is simply the cruel fact that Satan and his minions, including the human beings who do his will, must be laid in the dust if God’s people are to enjoy the lasting freedom and happiness that is their inheritance in the gospel. These punishments may not be pleasant to contemplate, but they are an essential prerequisite of the fulfillment of salvation for the people of God.
As has often been pointed out, you cannot as a Christian pray maranatha, “O Lord come!” without, in effect, praying for the destruction of the enemies of the Lord and his people for that will and must come with his appearance. They are the Lord’s enemies before they are ours and they must face his justice, not ours.
But, whether or not it is a message to be prominently proclaimed to the world – which it seems not to be in Holy Scripture – it is in fact the truth: that God will judge the nations and that he will punish the wicked severely. And, in our experience especially those of us who have been Christians for any length of time, whether it is simply the presupposition of our message or the message itself, and unbelievers appreciate what is being said and respond in understandable and predictable ways. It is a difficult doctrine to face, it is an unpleasant prospect and so a difficult one for us to explain, and is impossible really to explain it to people who are not yet conscious of their guilt and so do not yet feel the enormity of their crimes against God and man.
But as we begin our consideration of this theme it will do us good to remember some important features of the Bible’s teaching of the judgment of the nations.
First, as in every case of divine judgment, people get what they deserve and only what they deserve. Here, as in every judgment account in the Bible, a point is made of the fact that those being punished are guilty. In each of these four prophesies the sin for which they are to be punished is at least generally described. Much more of course is assumed but the particular sin is described. Ammon did this, Moab that, and so Edom and Philistia. They sinned against God and man and are to be punished for their sins. The fact that they were unrepentant, refused to acknowledge that what they did was wrong, as is the case today, does not make their guilt less but more. A point made emphatically by Ezekiel in the oracles against Jerusalem in the first 24 chapters of the book was that Jerusalem was about to receive nothing other than what her sins deserved. What was the case in respect to the Jews is similarly true of the nations. There is even a special emphasis on their just deserts in these oracles in that the Lord adjusts their punishments to fit their crimes.
Ammon rejoiced over the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem and, in consequence, will see her cities catastrophically destroyed. As Edom and Philistia took revenge on the Israelites, made vulnerable by the invasion of the Babylonians, the Lord will take vengeance on them.
It is, of course, a fact that people do not usually accept that they are guilty as charged in Holy Scripture. They think far better of themselves than they ought to think. We know this. But it is not their opinion of their lives that matters; it isn’t on earth. In the courtroom it isn’t your opinion of the situation that matters it is the judge’s and jury’s opinion, and in this case it is God’s opinion. He holds them to his standards, not theirs. These nations, as we read in v. 12, “became very guilty” because of what they did. That is the brute fact that explains what befell them. They sinned against the holiness and law of God.
Second, the nations will be judged according to the light that they have, not according to the revelation of God’s will as it was given to Israel. In all the prophesies of the judgment of the nations that we find in the Bible, and there are many chapters of them in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and elsewhere, men are condemned for violations of the moral law, the law that is written on the hearts of all mankind, the law that human beings universally confess to be good and right by holding others to precisely that same standard, even though they violate it a thousand times a day.
So here. Ammon and Moab, Edom and Philistia are not condemned for failing to offer sacrifices to Yahweh, the nations never are, or to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, or to practice the laws of jubilee. They are condemned because they were cruel, because they stole what did not belong to them – attacking and sacking Jewish cities –, because they took advantage of the weak, and because they murdered other human beings. They did to others precisely those things that human beings always condemn as evil when done to them. What is more they gave themselves to a spirit of malice and hatred – what Jesus describes as murder in the heart – and rejoiced at the suffering of others.
The Apostle Paul, as you remember, makes a point of reminding us of this fact when he describes the judgments of the Lord.
“All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law; and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” [Rom. 3:12]
These nations are not punished for not doing what they did not know to do or for doing what they did not know not to do. They are to be punished for doing what they very well knew was wrong, however they may have suppressed that knowledge to the comfort of their own hearts. As Paul sums up the facts of the case – facts that can be confirmed very easily in the observation of human affairs – “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” [Rom. 1:32]
Listen carefully to this biblical wisdom from Bishop Joseph Butler’s famous defense of the Christian faith, Analogy of Religion [Pt. ii, chapter vi].
“All shadow of injustice, and indeed all harsh appearances in the various economy [sic] of God, would be lost, if we would keep in mind that every
Merciful allowance shall be made, and no more shall be required of anyone, than what might have been equitably expected of him from the circumstances in which he was placed; and not what might have been expected from him had he been placed in other circumstances.”
Do you understand that? God does not charge men and women with a fault and will not punish men and women for what they did not know to do or for what they did not know not to do. He judges them with strict justice according to standards of conduct they knew very well and failed to meet. And not failed only, but comprehensively and willfully failed to the harm of other human beings and to the disgrace of the God who made them and wrote his will upon their hearts. This is everywhere the Bible’s viewpoint. Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philistia knew better than to do what they did. That they did it anyway strips from them every pretense of an excuse as it does vast multitudes of human beings today.
You will hear people complain of God’s judgment of the world in these terms: “but what of those vast multitudes who didn’t know better? What of the innocent or the righteous or the good heathen?” And the Bible’s straightforward answer is that were there such a person he would be vindicated in God’s judgment where absolute justice is always the rule. But there is no such person. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; there is none righteous, not even one.” And all have sinned against the light they had, the standards they knew, the laws they themselves perfectly understood governed the behavior of God’s creatures.
The severity of God’s judgment is likewise adjusted precisely to meet the measure of the crime. All nations are not simply destroyed root and branch. Ammon, Moab, Edom and Philistia are destroyed never to rise again. Those peoples were destroyed and their remnants absorbed by other peoples. But not so Egypt. You remember perhaps that amazing prophecy at the end of Isaiah 19.
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be a third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.’” [19:23-25]
I confess that I never paid much attention to that text until we were visited many years ago by an Egyptian Presbyterian pastor, Sobhi Ouida. I remember distinctly his preaching in this church and his drawing attention to that text and to Egypt’s promised place in the salvation of the world. With all the bitterness nowadays between Israel and Egypt it was tremendously impressive to hear an Egyptian talk of Egypt as the Lord’s people and Israel as the Lord’s inheritance making two-thirds of a triumvirate of great ancient nations who have an eternal place in God’s heart.
It is very important to remember this as well. There are now vast numbers of people in heaven who are not Jews. The Lord always had the entire world in his view when he made his covenant with Abraham and with Israel. It was never a limited vision but an expansive one, pious Israelites knew that. All who would be saved from every tongue, tribe, and nation. No doubt there were some Babylonians who came to know the living God through the witness of Jewish exiles; there were certainly some Egyptians as well.
Let me sum up this way. The salvation of a human being never rests simply on the presence or absence of the knowledge of the Gospel. People tend to think that is the key point, whether a person knows the Gospel, but it is not obviously, it is never the determinative issue. Plenty of people have heard the Gospel who never combined it with faith and who got no good from it whatsoever as a result. Large numbers of generations of Israel and Judah are classic examples. They were judged so severely precisely because they knew the salvation of God and chose to ignore it, they knew God’s covenant and chose to betray it, they knew their special calling as the people of God and chose to repudiate it so that they might live as the other peoples of the world lived.
Without the grace of God, without the heart-transforming work of the Holy Spirit no sin-enslaved human being will ever choose God and Christ and life in the Spirit. It is, in fact, a kindness on the Lord’s part that he did not reveal his Gospel to many people whom he knew would not believe the good news of redemption. To know the Gospel and not believe it increases one’s guilt and the severity of one’s judgment. As Jesus said, some will be beaten with many stripes and some with few. He said that in the context of making the very point that the more one knows the greater his accountability.
“The servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded…” [Luke 12:47-48]
If there is a reason why so many have lived and died without the knowledge of the Gospel it is this reason: God did not want their guilt to increase or their punishment to become more severe. He knew they would not believe and so did not give them the opportunity to reject his Gospel.
There is a great deal about the judgment of the wicked over which Holy Scripture draws a veil. We are told of the punishments of the wicked almost entirely in figurative language. The horrific punishments described here in Ezekiel 25 were death and destruction in this world and they took place just as described but they serve only metaphorically as we have seen on many occasions previously in the first 24 chapters so did the punishments threatened to Jerusalem, they served metaphorically, indications, foretastes and anticipations of the judgments to come at the end of the world, as did, for example, the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah. But what we do know is that it is just – in all things perfectly just –, it is precisely suited to the crimes against God and man that were committed, it is adjusted according to the light and the knowledge that people had, and, as a consequence, there will be no grounds for complaint on the great day.
When people complain of the prospect of divine judgment, it is ours to remind them that it is only the divine image in man that explains the universal moral sense of mankind, that without that moral sense, human beings descend almost immediately below the level of beasts, and that the acknowledgement of that moral standard and its universality cannot be honestly made without acknowledging at the same time man’s universal failure to live up to that standard. To complain of the prospect of divine judgment is nothing more nor less than to admit that God has taught us right and wrong, that we have chosen times without number to transgress his standard, and that we want to be free to do so without consequence. We are not willing in this life and this world to allow transgressors to escape the consequences of their transgressions. Indeed, we have set up elaborate systems of justice whether it is in a school, or a workplace, or a society, or a nation as a whole, precisely to ensure that crime is punished. We universally mourn our systems’ failure to punish every criminal and we are always fearful that some injustice might be done to the innocent. In all of this we accept that perfect judgment is a good and necessary thing. What is more, outside of the reach of our criminal justice systems, we see heavy punishments being imposed upon multitudes of people in a more organic or natural way – the shame that dogs the offender against moral standards; or the vicious falling out among thieves; or the fear of discovery that haunts the offender; or the venereal disease that afflicts the promiscuous; and so on – and have no difficulty seeing the connection between their crime and their punishment. To then begrudge God, the creator of every human being, the right to impose punishment for similar reasons and to do so with perfect justice; according to perfect knowledge is one of the most indefensible and egregious hypocrisies human beings ever commit.
Like it or not; protest it or not: Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philistia were overwhelmed by catastrophe; they were wiped off the map. Their people exist no more. That is what God does to the wicked. He punishes their crimes. It is the fact that defines the real issue, the only issue of human life. What will become of me? What will become of my loved ones? What will become of my friends? I have certainly; they have certainly sinned against God and man. What then will become of me? And what will become of them? And it is that fact and that question pressed upon us so constantly and so emphatically and so powerfully and so persuasively not only by the teaching of Holy Scripture but by the observation of life is that fact and that question that make Jesus Christ the centerpiece of all human existence because he and he alone can save us from the wrath to come. Vast multitudes give this almost no thought whatsoever. They will wish that they had! And we will wish that we had thought of it much more often than we did so that we would love our Savior more for his rescuing us from that wrath to come.