Having considered the false prophets (the clergy in our parlance) in the previous chapter, the Lord’s next communication to Ezekiel addresses the elders and the people themselves. The elders are always in the Old Testament the assembly, the congregation in a representative form.
They came, as we will learn in v.4, to make some inquiry of the Lord through Ezekiel, perhaps about their future prospects, perhaps about Jerusalem’s, perhaps something Ezekiel had said had worried them or concerned them and they wanted to know more.
Idolatry was the standard form of religion and religious practice in the ANE. People believed that any depiction of a god, however crude, partook of the essence of the god himself or herself and so, where the statue was, the god or goddess was as well. Anything offered to the statue was thus, in the nature of the case, offered to the god. And, it was believed, the gods appreciated gifts and would respond in kind. They were relatively easily pleased and the more generous the worshipper, the more prosperity he would receive from the gods.
Idolatry had crept back into Israel’s life. It was, perhaps, more covert than before, hence “in their hearts,” but in a search for “collateral securities” [Eichrodt, 180] they tried to combine a recognition of Yahweh’s lordship with recourse to other gods as well. Being in Babylon, a far more wealthy, prosperous, and powerful nation than their own, they were tempted to imitate Babylonian ways. It was, of course, the pagan’s mind, not the mind of someone who had a true faith in Yahweh. In the ANE the pagan gods could tolerate other loyalties, but not the one, living and true God of Israel. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and the reason, of course, as is often explained in the pages of the Old Testament there is no other god before me, everything else is a lie, foolishness, irreal. Though Ezekiel doesn’t tell us precisely what idols were involved, excavations in Canaan have uncovered large numbers of small statuettes of Babylonian and Egyptian deities. The Babylonians had more gods than you could shake a stick at and it is hard to know which particular ones might have been most popular in Israel at this time. What this means, of course, is that these men had come to Ezekiel as if he were in effect a fortune teller; they had no plan to submit their lives to the Lord in true faith. They did not want their covenant God to speak to them his truth. They just wanted an answer to a question they had and they intended to go back to the very lives they had been living up to this point.
In any case, in v. 3 Ezekiel, like Abraham in Gen. 18, has the extraordinary honor of being made a confidant of the Lord, hearing his private thoughts and witnessing his struggles over his people. [Block, i, 425]
Ezekiel, as a true prophet, could not answer an idolater and we expect that the Lord will refuse to answer, but instead he promises to answer the inquiry directly. But, as we will see, it will not be the kind of answer the inquirer expects or is hoping for! The Lord’s promise of a reply is thus ironic. “I’ll reply all right!”
The response to the inquirer will be made for the sake of the larger people of God as a whole and not, in fact, for this particular generation of God’s people as the rest of the book will make clear.
This is the first instance, one of a very few, of a call to repentance in Ezekiel and seems, in a way, to contradict the earlier statement of 3:26 that Ezekiel would not be preaching for repentance. The dye was cast, the point of no return had long sense been reached, this generation was going to be judged and there was no hope left for it. But Ezekiel here does not suggest that the inevitable judgment will some how or another be forestalled, it will not come; only that repentance is always God’s hope. In this case, it will not be forthcoming and God’s hand will not be stayed and as is often the case in his way with the world and with his people even things God wishes and longs for in the perfect wisdom of his will he does not see fit to bring to pass..
The sin under view is that of a man who is an idolater, that is his religious principal, but who continues to pose as a member of Yahweh’s covenant people. The judgment of the Lord against that man will be designed precisely to disabuse the rest of God’s people from committing the same sin.
Here is one of many instances in the Bible troubling as they may seem to us, difficult as they may be entirely to understand in which the Lord is in some respect complicit in a sin. It is an instance of what my pastor in Scotland used to refer to as God “using sin sinlessly.” It is the Lord visiting sin upon a sinner as punishment for his sin. More sin is very often the punishment for sin, we know that. A liar gets lies in return, that’s what we have here and God is seeing to it.
And any prophet who is complicit in this hypocrisy will suffer accordingly and the people will learn not to take seriously the word of prophets who do not remain faithful to the Word of God. The prophet, of course, is judged because he is still more dangerous in his complicity in the man’s sin because of his additional power to mislead people. [Eichrodt, 183]
In four successive paragraphs the Lord assures Ezekiel of the inexorable and merciless judgment that awaits those who rebel against him. It is, one commentator calls it, as a “lecture on divine justice.” [Block, i, 439] The Lord speaks generally – “if a country sins against me” – but, while other countries will suffer God’s wrath and we will get to that after chapter 24, it is Israel who is in view in these paragraphs. The particular judgments listed are the typical curses of the covenant which God long before promised to visit upon his people if they were unfaithful to him: famine, wild beasts, sword, and plague. [Leviticus 26; Deut. 32]
The mention of Noah, Daniel, and Job is due probably to the fact that they were all conspicuously godly men who lived outside of Israel. They lived themselves also as the exiles in Ezekiel’s time in some other land. The presence of men of great godliness, and this seems to be the basic point, does not make the people or nation righteous by association. The Israelites, the Judeans especially, were assuming that because there were good people among them, even heroically good people among them, they would as a class, be exempt from judgment. As if the Lord sparing Sodom if there had been ten righteous men were some kind of divine law or principle that would be observed in every case.
By the way, this Daniel is often even by very faithful and conservative commentators on the Bible thought to be someone else than the Daniel of the OT book that bears his name. He would have been such a young man at this time, he would be too young, it is thought, to set beside such ancient and venerated names as Noah and Job. What is more, Ezekiel doesn’t spell his name the same way Daniel’s name is spelled in the book of Daniel. However, other proposals are not terribly convincing, we don’t know of any other Daniel who is regarded in Israelite tradition as a man famous for his godliness, certainly no other person in the Biblical history, and it is certainly very possible that Daniel has already by this time been regarded by the Israelites as a man famous for his godliness. The great and daring sacrifices that he made at the beginning of his life and work in Babylon preceded this time and might very well have been famous among the Jews. So perhaps all in all Daniel should be taken to be the Daniel of the book that bears his name. Like Noah and Job, he too demonstrated his righteousness in a time of personal crisis.
The point, in context, seems to be that, in the same way, Israel will not be able to claim some special privilege that will exempt her from God’s wrath. Salvation cannot be obtained by proxy! [Block, i, 450]
- v. 21
As always in the Bible the judgment of those who know the truth who have had the light shine upon them is worse, heavier, than the judgment of those who have not. To whom much has been given much is required.
The consolation seems to consist in this: when the exiles see the new exiles come from Jerusalem after the destruction of the city in 596, when they take the measure of these people and find out how faithless and wicked they are, they will realize that Yahweh was entirely just in destroying the city. Their impiety will be visible to the entire Israelite community in Babylon.
Israel will get an even more savage response from the Lord for her sin is greater, not less because of her privilege, her history, her knowledge of God’s word and her privileged place in God’s covenant. But the idea of these exiles coming to Babylon is not here the idea of a remnant from which God will renew his chosen people. It is more like Amos’ “two legs or a piece of an ear” (3:12) or Isaiah’s “two or three olives on the topmost bough” (17:6). These are just the leftovers, random survivors. [Block, i, 451] Their primary value will be as proof of the fact that Judah and Jerusalem got precisely what they deserved.
The vain hope of Ezekiel’s contemporaries was that God would not destroy his favored and ancient people and that there were reasons to believe that he would preserve Israel no matter what, no matter even his anger over her behavior. There godly heroes among her and in her history, men like Daniel and Jeremiah and, perhaps those in Babylon would have said, Ezekiel himself. The people didn’t follow their example necessarily, but they took some pride in them and comfort from their exemplary lives you can see that very clearly in the book of Jeremiah. Every now and then they want to kill the guy but most of the time they want to hedge their bets, they have a nagging suspicion that Jeremiah is in fact pleasing to God and they want to hold them in their midst for that reason. They were Israel too these godly folk and God would certainly not destroy them!
It is this sentimentalism that still looms so large in the thinking of both religiously minded people and secular-minded people today. Surely God would never punish the wicked as some say he will and as the Bible says he will. No matter how rebellious a people may be or an individual may be, so they think, everyone has some good in them and God will certainly take note of that and a loving God would not destroy someone who was at least partly good. Even very bad people have some good in them and even the worst have features of their character that may result from the sins of others and they are not entirely their fault, that God would not hold such people responsible when some of the defective features of their lives are not entirely their fault. I just read this past week that close friends of Heinrich Himmler, the dreaded chief of the Nazi SS, and organizer of the mass murder of millions, I say some friends of Himmler pitied him because his wife was such a shrew. One visitor wrote,
“We sat down for coffee. Mrs. Himmler, a cool, serious woman, treated her husband badly. I had never seen a man as henpecked as Henrich Himmler. He overflowed with kindness, but the kinder he was, the worse he was treated. At home, the SS leader was a nobody, always having to give in.” [Anna Maria Sigmund, Women of the Third Reich, 192-193]
When he was at home he was subject visitors said to a constant barrage of criticism from his wife. Nothing he did pleased her. When he offered her something, a cup of tea, she never wanted it. When they learned, these friends that Himmler was keeping
a mistress, friends who knew the Himmlers, and knew how subservient he was to his wife, registered surprise that Heinrich had the courage to risk her wrath should he be discovered. People who knew him pitied the man who so cruelly sent so many innocent people to their deaths. If he didn’t have some good in him, at least Himmler was a man in some respects to be pitied.
People do have some good in them and all their faults are not entirely the result of their own choices. This is true of all people. The goodness in them is the inevitable effect of their having been made in God’s image, of their having his law written in their hearts, and of their living in God’s world. Take this account by Ravi Zacharias of a Hindu man, the father of one of his boyhood friends, a friend who would later marry Ravi’s sister.
Mr. Krishnan [was] a roundly respected man who was also an incredibly devoted Hindu. His character was his most striking feature, as he was not blessed with the finest of physical features and had a very high, shrill voice. We used to unthinkingly chuckle about it, because at times it could sound almost freakish.
Sunder’s dad’s story, Mr. Krishnan’s story, is a textbook example of how things go in the Indian culture. He never met his wife until the day they were married, which was the Hindu cultural way, at least at that time. After the wedding ceremony the couple went to the home where they would now live out their years together, and it was then his wife saw him for the first time. She was deeply disappointed by his awkward physical appearance. When he saw the look on her face, he was silent. “I’m sorry” was all he could bring himself to say. After he gathered his thoughts, he told her, “I can see why you have reacted as you have. I want you to know, you don’t owe me anything. We have one bedroom, and that will be yours. I will sleep in the verandah.”
Then he made her a promise. “I will treat you with dignity and respect,” he said, “and do all for you that you ask of me.” One thing everyone knew about Sunder’s father was that, despite his status in the community, he never put on airs. This man held as high and influential a position as my own father. Yet, each day, as Sunder’s dad went to work, he never went by car. He always took the bus, which was the way of the common people. It was something he didn’t have to do but chose to do.
Day after day, his wife watched this man conduct himself honorably, and over time his character won her over. She began to see him for the extraordinary human being he was and ultimately the marriage worked. Honor—it was the way Mr. Krishnan carried his life, and I responded to that. [Walking From East to West, 90-91]
I’ll bet that most of you listening to that story were thinking in the back of your minds “Why can’t more Christians be more like that Hindu man?” I should tell you that Mr. Krishnan, devout Hindu that he had been most of his life, and married to a woman as devout as he, became a Christian late in his life. But it was as an unbeliever, a devout Hindu, Ravi Zacharias refers to him as one of the finest men he had ever known.
I want you to feel the force of that description and that admiration of this Hindu man. Brethren, don’t read the Bible woodenly or without recognition of its historicity, of the real world that it always describes. I tell you, some of those elders who came to inquire of Ezekiel and who were idolaters themselves, perhaps most of them, maybe all of them, were impressive men, admirable men. Men we would say nowadays of quality. They would have been admired and well-liked in the community. They were substantial men and, at a certain level, they were ethical men. That is why they were elders! But they were idolaters and the fact that there was “some good in them” the Lord is at pains to say will not forestall his judgment any more than the fact that there is some good in a community, even some very righteous people in a community, will not spare that community divine judgment on account of its sins.
I received the news this past week of the death of Richard Rorty, an important American intellectual during this past generation. Rorty was an outspoken enemy of biblical Christianity, a denier of ultimate truth and of the existence of God, but he was a modest man by almost all accounts and a consistently dutiful man who worked hard to teach his students in an interesting and effective manner. But what is that, our chapter is saying, in comparison to his contempt for the living God of Holy Scripture and for the holiness of life demanded by that God in his Word?
These men that came to Ezekiel had set up idols in their hearts. It is in the heart, of course, that most sin occurs. It is the smallest part of our sin that is in our behavior our speech and our acts. It is in the attitudes and the thoughts of the heart that we are most consistently and comprehensively sinful. Because we are so at home in our own hearts and minds, we hardly ever reckon with the stench of that standing sink of selfishness and pride and bitterness and envy and lust that is the human heart. But, of course, God sees that heart every moment of every day. He sees it far better than we do. He knows what is really there. He also knows precisely what we would do and how we would behave if only given the opportunity and the right temptations because he knows who and what we really are. He judges us by our hearts which is of course the truest part of us and the worst part of us.
We sometimes pray in our corporate confession of sin on a Lord’s Day morning that God would forgive our secret sins. We commit many sins that are secret to others. Perhaps the vast majority of our sins, certainly the vast majority of them are a complete secret to others. What, after all, of the thousands of unworthy and impure and unkind and irreverent and self-preoccupied thoughts that we think but never utter for another human being to hear? God knows all of those, of course; he is a witness to all of those.
But, actually, when the Psalmist speaks of his secret sins and asks God to forgive them, and when we do the same in Lord’s Day worship, we are not asking forgiveness for the sins we have committed in secret, the sins that are known to us but not to others. We have confessed those already in the prayer of confession. When we ask for the forgiveness of our secret sins we are asking God to forgive the sins he knows, he sees in us that we do not see, the sins that are a secret even to ourselves. And what a world of sinning that is!
Think of how many sins people commit that they do not recognize for the sins they are. There is the bigot who prides himself on what he takes to be his high standards but which are really nothing but his pride and his stupidity. There is the critic whose unkind judgments and hard words he justifies as speaking the truth in love but which is nothing remotely resembling love. There is the business man whose practices fall far short of the honesty and forthrightness Holy Scripture requires but who is sure that they are simply what business requires. And these sorts of outward but unrecognized sins are but the tip of the iceberg of our secret sins.
How many of our thoughts and, still deeper, our attitudes are unrecognized by us for the utter lack of love for God and others that they represent. And we still haven’t yet discovered the largest mass of our secret sins. Surely these are our sins of omission. The righteous thoughts, words, and deeds that ought to fill up our lives but die stillborn in our uninterested hearts. [Cf. Hodge, Princeton Sermons, 111] Why, when a Christian gets to heaven, and he or she becomes like Christ, I guarantee you that you will hardly recognize yourself within because your heart will be filled to the brim with thoughts you rarely thought before, and you will find within yourself attitudes you scarcely had before, and interests will be demanding attention that only rarely you ever encountered within yourself before. We do not realize how different our hearts ought to be because we are so used to them as they are. We hardly begin to realize what a heart filled to the brim with love for God and others would be like, and so we don’t realize how very far from that heart is our heart, yours and mine, everyday.
To say that “there is some good” in a man or a woman, believe me, brothers and sisters, is not to say very much at all, whether we are talking about a Jewish elder in Ezekiel’s day or a Hindu in our day or ourselves. Fact is, if there is some good, it floats on an ocean of evil, a great deep of evil attitudes and thoughts and still more utterly unworthy words and deeds. This is you and I of every moment of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year that we live in this world and God sees it all and so much more of it than we do.
It didn’t seem a great evil to these Jews that they were toying with the idols of the surrounding paganism. It seemed to them simply prudent to hedge their bets. The world was a dangerous place and they needed all the help they could find. They never thought of what they were doing with their idols and their hearts as an out and out repudiation of the living God, as contempt for his redemption and love, as a betrayal of his covenant, as thoroughgoing ingratitude for his goodness to his people. They didn’t see their hearts’ interest in idols as anything but the normal sort of thing people in their world were always doing. Everybody was doing it. They didn’t see it as God saw it: an outrage, defiance, a repudiation of the truth about God, human beings, and salvation that God had at such great cost to himself so kindly given them in defiance of their ill-desert.
It is this complete disjunction between our lives as we see them and our lives as God sees them that explains the general indifference of human beings to the question of salvation. They are sure that God will spare them, not because they have done so much or have been so good. Most people don’t think in those terms. They are not legalists in the sense that they have taken care to tote up their merits and demerits to be sure that the scale shows them to be in the plus column. Fact is, they hardly think about it at all. They are just sure that God would not do what he everywhere and so solemnly and emphatically says everywhere in Holy Scripture he will most certainly do. They don’t take holiness of life seriously, fidelity to God seriously and don’t imagine that God does.
And here is the living God telling them once again that he takes their heart and the behavior that flows from it very seriously indeed. So seriously, in fact, that a bit of good in them here and there, or presence of really righteous people in their community won’t matter one wit.
Idolatry – and remember, as the rest of the Bible reminds us, every way in which we put other things where God ought to be in our hearts and remember we are to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength and mind, that’s where he is supposed to be in our hearts; I say every misplaced loyalty, every love of this world, every sinful desire for more (“greed, which is idolatry” Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5) – I say every instance of this is a crime against God and man and an utter repudiation of what a human being was created to be and to do. A man or woman made in the image of God worshipping the creature rather than the creator. This is what people are doing with every breath they breathe. However normal it seems to them, it is utterly repugnant to God.
If there is a single lesson we should take away from Ezekiel, it is this next piece in the theology of judgment that we are constructing from the prophets oracles: God’s judgment is rendered against the true moral condition of a person’s life, all the way down to the heart, and not measured according to the miserably low, artificial standards by which human beings typically judge themselves. “He who judges himself by himself,” Paul says is not wise.”
This is the great significance of the final verses of this fourteenth chapter. When we see people at the last judgment and cast into that judgment, when we see them – remember how they are described in Rev. 21:8: “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars” – I say, when we see people finally for what they always actually were in theirhearts and as being the people God always saw them to be, we will not doubt, there will not remain the shred of a doubt in our minds as to the justice of the punishment that God is meting out to them.
This is why the conviction of sin, the recognition of how much true badness exists in you and me, is the beginning of all wisdom and the first step on the path to life. So long as man or woman is content with what he or she is, morally speaking, or even mostly content, he will continue to think his idolatry a small thing and she will never grasp how very terrible a thing her idol-filled heart is to the God who is observing it every moment of every day. In the thick fog of their sinful and unrepentant hearts and minds, these people can spit on God and still go to his prophet and expect him to tell them their fortunes. Well here is there fortune, God says: famine, wild-beasts, sword, and plague.