Remember now, we are making our way through a lengthy series of oracles or prophecies of divine judgment. The repetition in this first section of the book – the first 24 chapters all concern the Lord’s impending judgment of Israel and Judah – is providing us the opportunity to construct a biblical doctrine of divine judgment, especially as that judgment falls upon the church and people of God when they forsake his covenant and rebel against his law. Remember, later in the book, Ezekiel will turn to the subject of the judgment of the nations.
We have said so far that wrath is a feature of God’s character. Ezekiel makes an emphatic point of saying that what is going to happen to Jerusalem, the devastation of that city and its people, will be Yahweh’s doing and that it will reveal the Lord. It will tell us about him. He is as surely a God of vengeance as he is a God of love. Then we said that wrath is a feature of God’s character because it is the exercise of his holy justice. Ezekiel is unrelenting in his demonstration of the fact that what Jerusalem will suffer is nothing other than what she deserves. She has sinned egregiously against God and man. She has violated his commandments not only willingly and comprehensively and heedlessly, but in ways that are genuinely ugly and repellent. What will happen to Jerusalem will be justice, pure and simple. And then last time we said that this judgment is slow in coming. It will come, but God is patient. He warns and warns before the blow falls. People mistake the slowness of God’s wrath with the non-existence of it, but that is a grave mistake. People nowadays, as in Ezekiel’s day, suppose that because divine judgment has not fallen it will not fall. History is against them and so is the Bible! Now tonight we move on.
The next sub-section of this first part of Ezekiel begins in 8:1 and continues to the end of chapter 11. It is clear that these four chapters form a separate unit, as Ezekiel gets lifted up and placed in a vision in Jerusalem in the opening verses of chapter 8 and lifted up again and brought back to Babylonia in the final verses of chapter 11. These chapters recount visions Ezekiel was given of the temple in Jerusalem. It is too long a section to read in one sitting, so we’ll take chapters 8 and 9 tonight.
The date is September 18, 592 B.C, some 14 months after the first vision, recorded in chapter 1. Apparently the group of elders were there seeking some word from the Lord. The fact that they were there indicates that they recognized Ezekiel’s prophetic authority. He was a substantial man among the exiles; at least he was at this point. The king was in Babylon too, of course, but he does not seem to have maintained any formal authority over the exiles and the leadership vacuum was filled by the elders.
As in the first vision, he sees a general shape of a man, fiery and bright. This is again a manifestation of Yahweh himself. We wonder, of course, what the elders saw who were gathered in Ezekiel’s house. Could they tell that Ezekiel was seeing visions? We are not told.
God has no hand, of course; and it was the Spirit that lifted him up. He was taken to Jerusalem in visions. That is, physically he remained where he was in Tel Abib.
There were three gates that led from the outer court of the temple to the inner court. The north gate was the one the king used and may have been the most prominent. [Stuart, 89] We aren’t told what the idol was but it obviously provoked God.
The glory of God that he saw in the first vision he sees again, but now in the temple. The idol Ezekiel just saw stands in pathetic contrast to this divine glory. In any case, God has not yet completely deserted his temple.
It was called the “Altar Gate” presumably because one could see the great altar through it from the outer court. [Block, i, 280]
Things look appalling enough; but, in fact, they are worse than they appear.
That is, there was a curious hole in the wall and Ezekiel is instructed to enlarge it sufficiently to pass through it himself.
The images would have been carved into the wall or created with inlaid tiles. [Block, i, 291]
Ezekiel saw a private service of full-blown pantheistic idolatry with Israel’s leadership participating
Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was from a prominent Israelite family. Ezekiel probably had known him before being taken to Babylon. Jaazaniah’s father had been secretary of state under the last of Judah’s righteous kings, Josiah (2 Kings 22:3), and one of his brothers had been a defender of Jeremiah (26:24). It is all the more sad to think of a man from such a family leading Israel astray in animal worship, such a crude and senseless substitution for the knowledge of the living God. The presence of this man and the elders indicates that the spiritual rot had thoroughly penetrated the highest reaches of Israelite society. The fact that there were 70 elders indicates that this is the equivalent to the national counsel of Judea. [Allen, i, 143] Pantheism – that everything is a god or part of one and that the gods are part of everything – was rife in the ancient world. The Egyptians, for example, worshipped the dung beetle because it was alive. All life was divine. [Stuart, 89] So here are Israelites appealing to the spirits of various animals, represented by images on a wall; the incense being a gift given to these various gods, a pleasant smell for them to enjoy. You hoped to please selfish and sensual gods with gifts in ANE worship. In the Bible incense had a different use as an emblem of prayer, an act of personal confidence in a God of love who cared for his people. The room was probably one of the chambers built into the temple complex and used, as the true faith disintegrated, for pagan worship and banqueting (cf. Neh. 13:4-9).
Ezekiel’s vision of paganism in the temple was just a sample of what one could find throughout the land. What the elders probably meant was that Yahweh had been defeated by the gods of Babylon and was no longer able to help them. They are looking for help wherever they might find it. The irony – so thick that you can cut it – is that what they say about Yahweh is not true about him, but is true about the images they are worshipping! [Block, i, 294] So true to life, these Israelites are both defiant and ashamed. They justify themselves so defiantly precisely because their consciences are guilty! [Allen, i, 144]
Tammuz was a Babylonian god and appealed particularly to women. So another pagan cult had made its way into Jerusalem. The mourning had to do with the mythical tradition that Tammuz had been banished to the underworld. But even this was not the worst. There was more to come.
The sun had been worshipped for decades in Judah (2 Kings 23:5, 11) but now it was being done more brazenly than every before; at the very entrance to the temple itself. What is more, one had to bow to the rising sun in the east, as the temple faced to the east, turning one’s back on the temple. Yahweh was being displaced in his own sanctuary! The high, holy worship of Yahweh was forsaken for the nature worship of the ANE. It is one thing – bad enough – for men made in the image of God to descend to such ridiculous practices, but for Israel, who had been given the knowledge of the true and living God, to do was the deepest conceivable affront to God. They were underestimating God in every way: to imagine that he was like the sun or the plants, his creatures, and that he didn’t know or couldn’t do anything about the behavior of his people. They would find out how catastrophic their mistake was only when it is far too late.
In any case, this is how ancient near eastern people thought about their gods and the way their fortunes were tied to a particular territory and a particular people. Isaiah and Jeremiah both poke fun at the idols of Babylon and Moab. They will go into exile, carried out of their homelands on the backs of beasts of burden (Isa. 46:1-2; Jer. 48:7). If Yahweh leaves, however, it has nothing to do with impotence; it is rather an act of judgment.
The Israelites were not only guilty of false worship and apostasy, but of innumerable crimes against one another. The two always go hand in hand. A people who forget God will not be a people who are just in their dealings with one another.
No one has provided an entirely convincing explanation of the idiom the NIV translates as “the branch to the nose.” It may be some pagan ritual or simply an insulting physical gesture, something akin to giving Yahweh the finger.
In all likelihood we are to think of these “men” as angels sent to execute God’s sentence. Six have weapons, the seventh a writing kit. The executioners, of course, would do their work through the Babylonian army. Angels are often said to work behind the scenes to bring to pass the will of God in this world.
The sense seems to be that the glory of the Lord is making ready to leave the temple. The Lord is forsaking his dwelling place on account of Israel’s rejection of him.
In Hebrew the word for “mark’ in v. 4 is the taw, the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet and shaped, in Ezekiel’s day, like our letter X. You can well understand that commentators have thought that this was a prefigurement of Christ, as the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek is the letter chi which also looks like our X. But no one in Ezekiel’s day would have known that and it is doubtful any such intention lay behind the instruction to mark the penitent with this sign.
Everyone was not complicit in Jerusalem’s apostasy. Jeremiah was there and a number of others, however much they may have constituted a small minority of the total population. God’s judgment would make appropriate distinctions. And the fact that one was mourning over Israel’s sins demonstrated that he looked upon all of this from God’s perspective. [Block, i, 307]
The total destruction of the population, including women and children, is a feature of the holy war, which is a divine war against a wicked people. It is precisely God who is executing, by whatever means he may have appointed: Israel when she entered the land of Canaan, or these angels entering Jerusalem, or by the Babylonian army. The first upon whom the stroke would fall would be the leaders of the people, especially those who were participants in the vile worship at the very entrance to the temple. The omission of strong men is because they would have borne the brunt of the fighting and would have been killed in combat. The categories of people listed here are those who would have hidden for protection behind the city walls.
Galilee and the Transjordan were lost in 733 B.C.; Samaria and what was left of the northern kingdom was destroyed and its people carried off in 721 B.C. Judah had suffered two incursions and depopulations already and little is left but a rump kingdom around Jerusalem. Ezekiel is worried that after this judgment there will be nothing left and the kingdom of Israel will completely disappear.
They were so spiritually clueless that they couldn’t imagine that Babylonia could conquer Jerusalem unless Yahweh was powerless. They didn’t imagine that Babylon was the Lord’s instrument and that Jerusalem’s destruction was precisely Yahweh’s doing.
Once again the emphasis falls on the justice of this punishment. Israel is getting nothing more, nothing less than she deserved.
But the section concludes with the reminder that a taw had been placed on the forehead of every true believer, a mark obviously visible to the angels charged with the execution of the population.
The emphasis falls in these two chapters and in the visions that they record on the thoroughness of the divine judgment that will befall Jerusalem – the slate must be wiped clean! – and the justice of it. Israel had flaunted God in the most brazen and disgusting ways; she had exchanged her worship of the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Sinai, for the ridiculous mythologies of the ANE. Her spiritual apostasy had led to a culture of violence and injustice. As we read in Jeremiah, Jerusalem society in those days was a city dominated by adultery, greedy business practices, and scarcely disguised indifference to other human beings. Severe as the judgment would be, it would be nothing but what Israel deserved.
A week ago Saturday I turned on the television to watch what remained of the Washington State – Vanderbilt basketball game in the NCAA tournament. I saw the last eight minutes of regulation and the two overtimes of what proved to be the Cougars final game of the season. But, as you know, the last part of a basketball game is interminable, with timeouts being taken seemingly every minute and, all the more at tournament time when every available opportunity is seized to sell commercial time. So I found, with my trusty remote control, another program to watch during the commercials. It was a movie review program. At one point they were reviewing a new movie Ultimate Gift, which I have not seen but which is apparently a film with a moral lesson that treated religion as a positive force in life. The reviewers panned it and this after lavishly praising a bleak film about Japanese soldiers at the end of World War II reduced to cannibalism. One reviewer, a New York newspaper movie critic, after a series of negative comments about Ultimate Gift concluded by chuckling, “But I am not the intended audience. See you in hell.” That got a chuckle in return from the other reviewer and on they went to the next film.
He doesn’t believe in divine judgment; it is something to chuckle about, nothing to take seriously. But then, of course, he wasn’t a Japanese soldier having to eat his comrades to stay alive or Israelite men and women who would be reduced to doing the same during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Nor does he believe that the conduct of our society is repellent to the Judge of all the earth: Abortion, sexual promiscuity of every kind, the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of others, a culture of irreverence and utter indifference to God; indeed a turning of our backs to God to worship man; most of this is actually a positive development in his mind. We might well ask: what about our world makes hell unbelievable to this man? Darfur? A US penitentiary? Child prostitution? Broken homes and shattered lives everywhere we look? Drug use, drunkenness among our young, widespread cheating from school right up to the top of the worlds of business and politics, a culture of both petty and serious crime? But none of that would make the prospect of divine wrath more believable to this man. God is not in his view. He left a long time ago and has been long since forgotten in the segment of our culture inhabited by this man.
So it was in Jerusalem. They were worried enough to keep looking for help wherever it might be found – just as we are in our humanist and secularist ways looking for answers to our problems. They imagined they would find it in the gods of the ANE. We suppose that we will find it within ourselves. I give us about the same chance the seventy elders had waving incense before the images of birds, animals, and crawling things.
I don’t know when or how but there is nothing more certain – history teaches no lesson more inexorably – than that such a culture as ours will not survive. The people can ignore God, but that does not mean he will ignore them! That continues to be the burden of Ezekiel’s prophecies and of the visions that he saw. God is disgusted and offended by this behavior and he will punish it. However patient he may be, his patience has limits and the longer a people indulge in practices offensive to him the more ferocious his eventual response.
But there is something else here. In the midst of this emphatic demonstration of the inevitability of God’s wrath consuming this sinful people – all of them, men, women, and children – there is a striking interruption in thought. A man dressed in linen, almost certainly an angel (as his appearance in chapter 10 will further indicate), who is instructed to go throughout the city to take note of those who are mourning and grieving Israel’s sins and to put a mark on them, a mark that will tell the avenging angels that they are not to be destroyed with the rest of the population.
That we are to take careful note of this piece of information inserted against the run of the narrative is indicated by the reappearance of this man in linen at the very end of chapter 9, at the conclusion of the account of the slaughter to come, who says “I have done as you commanded.” That is, the righteous, the penitent, the faithful have been marked as ordered.
Now we will return to this in a subsequent sermon, but for now let me say that in Ezekiel and, for that matter, in the whole OT there is a clear understanding that the judgment of sin in this world is not and cannot be the whole story. Everyone dies eventually of something. The righteous even sometimes die in the punishments visited upon the wicked. What makes the divine judgments of Israel or of the nations so significant is precisely that it is a foretaste of a greater, more perfect judgment still to come. When the author of Psalm 73 speaks of the “end” of the wicked, he means their ultimate end, not their end in this world. It was precisely the fact that their end in this world did not seem all that different from the end of the righteous that had raised doubts in his mind in the first place. When he says that his doubts were removed when “understood the final destiny” of the wicked he means precisely that the true issue of a human life is revealed only in the world to come. The judgments in this world must be as severe as they are precisely because their greatest importance is found in their revelation of the judgment that is to come in the next world.
There is, in any case, a very clear distinction made between the divine wrath that is visited upon the faithless and impenitent in this world and the wrath of God that befalls them in the world to come: the one anticipates the other. One demonstration of this is that, in the terms of Ezekiel’s visions, people with the mark on their forehead could still die in the siege, still lose their property, still face the prospect of the destruction of their livelihood. There were comparatively few righteous people in Jerusalem in those days but when the hammer fell they suffered together with the wicked. It was not as if Jerusalem were destroyed except those few neighborhoods where the righteous people lived which were all left intact and undamaged. The whole city was torn down and burned. The righteous suffered with the guilty. They always do in this world. This is obvious and would have been obvious to Ezekiel’s original hearers. There are two judgments; one in this world another in the next.
Nevertheless the Lord knows who are his. This is the emphatic point being made with the angel dressed in linen with a writing kit in his hand. The righteous suffered great loss on account of the wicked, but they were not in fact being condemned by the Lord; they were, in that judgment actually spared! More on this later. But the point here is clear enough and will become a special emphasis of Ezekiel in later chapters: God’s judgment is perfect justice and as a result it makes individual distinctions. No matter that the people as a whole have gone over to the Devil, those who have not will be saved. There are important aspects of solidarity in the life of the people of God, but in the matter of God’s judgment, a single faithful man or woman is picked out of the mass of unrepentant and disobedient people. Jeremiah speaks of one from a town or two from a clan being spared.
If we were to generalize we might say that Ezekiel will prove to be the prophet of individual responsibility. There is so much of this in the Bible, of course. Joshua and Caleb alone saved out of the corrupt generation in the wilderness. There were 7,000 in Ahab’s day who had not bowed the knee to Baal. The Lord speaks of his little flock, and so on. It is essential to a life of faithfulness that a believer know that his or her faithfulness matters no matter that the church or the world around him or her has gone over to the other side. And the Bible is constantly reminding us of this very fact: the Lord knows those who are his.
Everyone of us, every day is subject to temptations that arise from the world in which we live. Not for us the temptations of ANE pagan worship – we are not inclined to think it better to offer incense to images of animals than to pray to the Lord God – but plenty of temptations nonetheless and many of them the very same ones to which the Jews succumbed in Ezekiel’s day: a craving for security without regard to God’s will, sexual sin, materialism, a love of self that displaces a proper interest in the welfare of others, and practical doubt about the usefulness of obeying God and trusting our welfare to his promises.
Some will tell you that the reason why you ought not to give in to such temptations is that doing it God’s way works so much better. You are more likely to be happy and successful if you live by God’s law instead of practicing the way of the world. And I would not deny that. It is true. But it is not true in a way that any superficial observer could tell that the one who sticks with God through thick and thin will be obviously better and happier for it. Those with a mark on their head lost their city just as surely as those who had no mark. They too lost their businesses, suffered deaths in their family, and went through the terrible ordeal of siege, famine, plague, and even, at the very end, witnessed, whether or not they participated in, the despair that led some to cannibalism. In the same way, God’s people who obey him sometimes suffer for their obedience and do not realize some worldly blessing as a consequence. Think of the martyrs.
But there is a fact that looms far above and beyond any temporal or worldly consideration. God’s judgment makes a separation between those who obey and those who do not; those who mourn sin and those who make peace with it; those who are so committed to God’s way that they will follow it in defiance of the multitudes going the other direction. I guarantee you, you will want to have the mark on your forehead – the mark placed upon those who are faithful to the Lord – when the angels of God unsheathe their swords to execute God’s wrath upon a sinful world. Better to have an eye gouged out, or an arm cut off, or to lose family, fields, and even one’s very life, than to find yourself without the mark on the day of God’s wrath! There are many reasons to be faithful to the Lord and to his covenant, but this is first among them: those who are will escape his wrath, and only those!
The people of St. Kilda, the remote island beyond the Outer Hebrides, said to the evangelist who had visited them when no one else would “send us a good minister.” “What kind of minister would you have to be sent?” he asked. They replied, “One that will tell us of our danger and preach Christ to us.” [Cited in I. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage, 137] Exactly. Given the realities of time and eternity, a minister who is not often telling people of their danger and preaching Christ to them cannot possibly be faithful minister.
People who chuckle and blithely say, “See you in hell,” are people who have never seen hell and, in all likelihood, have never seen any of its ghastly anticipations either. Or, if they have seen them, they are too spiritually dead to feel their force. No one ever passed under that gate, over which are inscribed the words “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here,” I say, no one ever passed under that gate with a chuckle!