When you make your way chapter by chapter through a large book of the Bible, opportunity is afforded to treat subjects that you might not otherwise consider for years at a time. Such was the case last Lord’s Day evening. The warning not to follow one’s leaders if they are unfaithful is hardly a normal theme for a preacher on a Lord’s Day, but it is the teaching of Holy Scripture and it is not an unimportant thing for believers to know that they will not be excused their sins in the judgment of God because they were encouraged in them by those over them in the church. Bad leadership like bad parenting can be fatal to Christians, but it is no excuse for people who have been given the truth, have been provided every opportunity to repent, and still follow their leaders willingly over the spiritual precipice.
Tonight we have before us a chapter that recapitulates the central theme of Ezekiel and the prophesies we have read and considered so far. But nothing is ever said twice in quite the same way and there is here in chapter 20 a concentration on a particular point that is worth our attention. If every now and then we come across relatively unusual themes in such a book as Ezekiel, repetitive as it is, we also come across different ways of thinking about the same themes. Such is the case this evening. In the long chapter we are about to read Ezekiel once again condemns the people of Israel for their betrayal of God’s covenant, once again promises God’s judgment about to befall them and their co-conspirators in Judah at home in the promised land, and once again looks forward to the eventual restoration of Israel. But he says an interesting thing about Israel’s unbelief and betrayal and, in particular, explains, at least humanly speaking, the reason for it. In particular, as we read, I want you to notice the various references to Israel’s idolatry that serve as a unifying theme of Ezekiel’s condemnation of the people of the Lord.
- The date is August 14, 591 B.C. Almost a year had passed since the last dated prophecy, which was given in September of 592 (8:1). Ezekiel doesn’t bother to tell us what this particular delegation of elders was interested in knowing.
- The Lord is unwilling to be inquired of by these elders and this people; but, unwilling as he is to dignify their request, he had a message for them nevertheless. It was not the message they wanted but it was the truth they needed to hear. Don’t make Ezekiel a stone. You will appreciate the prophecy much more if you can put yourself with sympathy into his situation. It would have been no easier for him to deliver this message of woe to his friends and neighbors than it would be for you to stand up in a group of people and tell them that they are doomed and about to suffer the judgment of God. People tend to laugh at people who say such things and they certainly don’t admire them for it. Now what Ezekiel is going to do is done many times in the Bible. He is going to rehearse the history of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel. Stephen, if you remember, does very much the same thing in Acts 7 and for very much the same purpose, to underscore the long history of Israel’s unbelief and infidelity to God, to prove in this way that the present generation of Israel is in fact doing exactly what the previous generations have done to remind them of God’s patience, and to explain why God has acted and will act in judgment as he is about to do. Realize as we read this history of Israel that this is by no means the way Ezekiel’s contemporaries thought of their national history. They did not think of it as one long, sad story of spiritual defection. Quite the contrary. They took pride in the great story of the history of Israel. [Block, i, 613-614]
- An important piece of information, we are not told this in Genesis. Israel in Egypt was hardly a devoted and faithful people, waiting patiently for the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be fulfilled. They were idolaters, having adopted the particular form of idolatry then practiced in Egypt. We do not read this either in Genesis, but we learn in Joshua that Abraham was likewise an idolater before the Lord called him.
In any case, in making covenant with Israel, the Lord had made it absolutely clear that there could be no compromise with idolatry. The “I am the Lord your God,” indicates the reason: there is but one true and living God and all forms of idolatry are, in effect, a denial of him, a denial of a people’s belief in him, a repudiation of the revelation that he has given to them about himself.
- Yahweh did not punish Israel as she deserved to be punished. He was gracious to her and brought her out of Egypt nonetheless her idolatry notwithstanding.
- As an aside let me remind you that it is often claimed even nowadays and in our circles that the Sabbath commandment originated in Exodus 16 in the instructions for the gathering of manna. According to this thinking, before the wilderness God’s people were under no obligation to keep one day holy to God. The reference to God hallowing and setting apart the Sabbath day at the beginning of Genesis 2 is then taken as a prolepsis, a statement made beforehand as to the reason the Lord would later create a special day of obligation for his people. And one argument for this position is that the command to keep the Sabbath is not mentioned before Exodus 16. In a verse like this God is said to have given Israel the Sabbath Day in the wilderness. But reading carefully verses 11 and 12 here indicate that the Lord gave all his laws to Israel in the wilderness: the laws of sacrifice (certainly observed long before the wilderness; think of all the sacrifices from Abel through Jacob); the ten commandments (the moral laws were certainly in effect from Eden onward, though not all of them are specifically mentioned in Genesis); etc. The fact that he gave Israel his Sabbaths in the wilderness, therefore, hardly means that it was only then and there that the Sabbath became for the first time an obligation for the people of God. The reason you want, of course, to have the Sabbath be a specifically Mosaic commandment is that, if so, it is easier to get rid of it in the new epoch. If, however, it is a creation ordinance established for the life of mankind already in Genesis 2 like marriage, family and work so also the day of rest. It would be much more difficult to come to the conclusion that we are not still obliged to keep one day holy to God. In fact, we find indications of the existence of the Sabbath in a number of places in Genesis just as we conclude from statements in the first book of the Bible that people knew it was wrong to kill, to steal, to lie, to covet, to worship idols, or to be disobedient to their parents. The Sabbath, like the rest of the moral law, applied from the get-go. It was formally codified, like the rest of the law of God, for the first time at Sinai.
The Sabbath was a sign in that it was a regularly weekly reminder of God’s covenant – as that covenant was confirmed in weekly worship – and, what is more it was a perpetual reminder of Yahweh’s goodness in protecting them from the seven-day work week by which slaves were exploited in the ancient world.
- The reference is certainly to the incident with the golden calf at the foot of Sinai. But already the Sabbath was being regarded by Israel as a burden not a boon – as it always is when people don’t have faith in the Lord – and so they failed to keep the Sabbath holy.
- The Lord is speaking about the first generation, the generation that was forbidden to enter the Promised Land and that died in the wilderness. He didn’t destroy them outright, as he might have done, but he didn’t allow them to enter the Promised Land either. He did what was necessary to keep his name from being profaned by the nations.
- The second generation in the wilderness was hardly more faithful than their parents had been. The reference is probably to the incident at Baal-Peor recorded in Numbers 25. But generally, they too were indifferent to the obligations of the Sabbath, it is a thermometer taking a person’s or a peoples spiritual temperature. They were indifferent to the obligations of the Sabbath, and they saw the Sabbath as a burden, not a boon. We know from Deuteronomy how little confidence the Lord had in the spiritual commitment of the generation of Israel he first brought into the Promised Land.
- You see the repetitiveness of this chapter. That is the whole point that is the literary device Ezekiel is using, you are getting the theme. This happens over and over and over again – Israel’s betrayal of the Lord by idolatry and by her denial of God’s covenant by her disobedience to his commandments, by her profanation of his Sabbaths and God’s patience in return.
- Remember, this recital of Israel’s history is being given for the sake of Ezekiel’s contemporaries. The point is that they are descended from blasphemers and that idolatry is in their national DNA!
- One might well think that the one place where Israel would be faithful to the Lord would have been the Promised Land itself, a beautiful land that God gave them in defiance of the fact that they did not deserve such a gift. Surely being in the Promised Land would make them a grateful people. But it did not. Idolatry of the Canaanite sort now beguiled them as Egyptian idolatry had before.
The catchy phrase: “What is this high place you go to?” is missed by English speakers. In Hebrew the bamah occurs several times in the phrase. The sounds of the word high place. Of course, Israel was then still resorting to high places so the question implicates Ezekiel’s contemporaries in their fathers’ crimes and perhaps they were also finding high places in Babylon as well. [Block, i, 644]
- Now Ezekiel brings this summary home to his present audience.
- Israel has gone to the limit. She is not only an idolatrous people, but has even taken her idolatry to the point of child sacrifice something her forefathers never did, a monstrous outrage against the holiness of God. And now we come back to the beginning: and you, you sons of idolaters who are idolaters yourselves, you expect me to answer your inquiries? You expect me to serve you?
- “Mighty hand and outstretched arm” recalls the use of the same phrase in Exodus 6:6 to describe God’s power over Egypt and Pharaoh when he delivered Israel from bondage.
- The Babylonian exile is, in a way, a repetition of Israel’s history. She is being taken once again into Egypt, as we read in v. 36. There she will be judged and purified and then and only then will she be restored to the Promised Land and the return from the exile, a second exodus, a new beginning for the people of God.
- The Lord is, as it were, a shepherd, counting his sheep as they pass under his rod into the sheepfold again.
- Their restoration to God’s favor will have nothing to do with their achievement or performance – quite the contrary – but everything to do with who and what God is, gracious, merciful, and faithful to his word.
In the Hebrew text Ezekiel 20 ends with v. 44 and chapter 21 begins with what is our 20:45
People tend to idealize their history. We Americans certainly do. We have long tended to see our national story as an epic of the struggle for freedom and the prosperity and world leadership that fell to us as the victors in that struggle. We tended to downplay or forget altogether the seamier aspects of our national history: slavery, the brutal mistreatment of native Americans, the grasping materialism, and so on. When politicians refer to the greatness of the American people as they often do they are doing this. Presumably they don’t mean all the Americans who are deadbeat dads, or criminals (more than a million of us), or child abusers, or husbands who beat their wives, or tax cheats, or pornographers, or racists. They don’t mean people who aren’t ethical in their business practices, they don’t mean people who are real jerks, and they don’t even mean people who litter, the kind of people who throw their pop can out the window in the national park. But the fact of the matter is that when you begin adding up all those people you are pretty close to 300 million by the time you are finished. Well so it was with the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day. [So it would be, also, in Jesus’ day. The Jews of his time had a very rosy view of their own history, largely forgetting that they had betrayed the Lord’s covenant so often, that they had murdered the Lord’s prophets, and that the wilderness generation was an example not of faith but of unbelief. The Lord had to remind them over and over again that they were heirs not of champions of faith in God, but of rebels against the Lord.] The author of the book of Hebrews has to tell them, no, those people are not people to imitate, those are people who lost their souls because of their unbelief, don’t be like them, be the furthest thing from them if you wish to be saved. But their failure to read the story accurately, to see their history as it actually was and as God saw it, inoculated them to the spiritual apostasy that had brought upon them God’s judgment and was about to bring upon them a still much more severe measure of that judgment. They thought that they were better, much better, than in fact they were, in large part because they did not identify with the sins of their fathers or see the depth and breadth of the nation’s rebellion against Yahweh and betrayal of his covenant. Ezekiel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, set out to correct that mistake.
Israel, he said, speaking on Yahweh’s behalf, had been an idolatrous people from the beginning and had never purged herself of that idolatry. If for a time she forsook her idols, she returned to them soon enough like a dog to its vomit. Hers was a history far more of defying God’s law than obeying it. Ezekiel hits this delegation between the eyes with a two-by-four at the outset. We might miss the shock-effect of the phrase in v. 4, “the detestable practices” or “the abominations of their fathers,” but these Israelite elders would not have missed it. In Deuteronomy and in the historical books of the Old Testament this word “abominations” is found many times, but in such a phrase it is always “the abominations of the nations.” Only here in Ezekiel, here in 20 and in 6:11, do we find the phrase “the abominations of Israel” or “…of the fathers.” What was true of the pagan nations, Ezekiel said in this striking way, had been true of Israel from the beginning of her history. Abominations were not the province of the pagan nations; they were also the stuff of Israel’s history. Idolatry – no matter God’s covenant, no matter his laws, no matter the curses that the covenant pronounced on idolaters – had been a fact of Israel’s life throughout her history. And what is idolatry but the repudiation of the one true God, the repudiation of his commandments, and of his covenant.
Now, as I said, what is particularly interesting about this presentation of Israel’s long history of idolatry is the explanation Ezekiel provides for it. The reason Israel practiced idolatry, the reason she couldn’t seem to get herself rid of idols, the reason she came back to idolatry again and again was because of her desire to conform to the nations around her. She was idolatrous because the world around her was idolatrous. We read that directly in v. 32:
“You say, ‘We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world, who serve wood and stone.”
But the point is made in other ways in this chapter. What was the shape of Israel’s idolatry during the time of her slavery in Egypt? Well, as we read in v. 8, it was Egyptian. In Egypt she took to herself Egyptian idols. Later, as we read in v. 28, in Canaan she took to herself the practices of Canaanite idolatry, the worship of the high place and the grove. In other words Israel’s idolatry was invariably derivative. She took her cue from the nations around her. She conformed. She never developed her own, distinctive false worship and false theology; she simply took over whatever forms of thought and worship she found in the nations around her.
And in that there is a hugely important lesson. People will rarely admit that they are simply conformists, wanting to be like everyone else. Oh, no. They are seekers after truth. They are going where the evidence leads them. People in the church rarely admit that they were motivated to abandon the teaching and practices of Holy Scripture simply because they wanted to be accepted or be like everyone else. Oh, no. For them as well, they embrace anti-biblical ideas because they are convinced of their truth; which, no doubt they are at a superficial level. But why? In the Bible we expect to hear the honest, unvarnished truth and that is what we hear here. It is the desire to conform; it is the tendency to think right what the masses believe. We don’t put it that way to ourselves, but it is, in fact, the real explanation of our behavior. The influence of the world, its example, its demands are everywhere in the Bible a chief threat to true faith and fidelity to God and his Word. The world in the Bible is largely a sinister force, an enemy of the people of God and of their faith in Jesus Christ. This isn’t always what the world means. There are senses of the word that are very positive in the Bible; there are very wonderful things about this world. We live in this world and so enjoy many of God’s blessings. There are many things to embrace; there are many ways to love this world. But in this most important sense in the Bible, the world is a sinister force, an enemy of the people of God and of their faith in Jesus Christ, it is that sphere dominated and ruled by the prince of the air, Satan or the Devil. This is John’s point, when he writes in his first letter,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of the eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
John says it is either God or the world, it is living for the world or it is living for the Lord. Yahweh had said precisely that to Israel and all her life she had found it too difficult to believe. And so it had been: the world beguiling Israel and Israel following the world, wanting to be like the other nations, imitating their way of thought and their worship. After all, could so many people be wrong? Everyone else did it another way, thought about the gods and salvation another way? Surely they weren’t all wrong?
In the ancient Near East people believed that the image of something captured something of the essence of the thing. Primitive people who feared having their pictures taken were afraid for this same reason: they were idolaters in the ancient, historic sense of the word, they thought the camera, creating such an image of them, would capture something of their essence, their soul. [Stuart, 172] So ancient people believed that if they made an image of a god, no matter how crude the image, something of the god would be with them. The gods would be there to take note of their offerings and to hear their prayers. This idea was so deeply engrained in the ancient mind that to them idols were the only sensible way to worship. Would anyone worship a god without being sure that the god was present to receive the gifts and to note the gifts that were being given and who gave them? Such a thing to worship a god you weren’t even sure was there would be utter foolishness. To them the Israelite way of worship was absurd. The entire ancient world thought this way and Israel was acutely conscious, therefore, of how out of step she was with the rest of the world. It was very hard to believe that idols in fact kept you from the presence of God when everyone else thought that idols were necessary to obtain the presence of God. But, as is invariably true of the world’s way – under the spell of the Father of lies as it is and doing his will as it does – it was calculated to be popular with sinful human beings. Certain features of Ancient Near Eastern idolatry were tailor-made to attract worshipers and to keep them.
- First, there was “the vain repetition factor.” [Stuart, 180] The more you sacrificed, the more you won the favor of the god; the more the god was obligated to help you. You didn’t have to love the god, or honor him in your heart. You didn’t have to live your life in a way that pleased him. You merely had to give him gifts; the more you gave the better it would be for you. It was a simple calculation of input and output. Nothing very demanding and something, so it was thought, you could count on; you could take to the bank, as it were.
- Second, there was the appeal of ritual sex. The people of the Ancient Near East believed that all things came into being by being born. This was a major principle of their theology. Not only animals were born, but plants. This was a reason they sowed their fields with two kinds of seeds, male and female, as they thought of it. What came into being did so as a result of sex on the part of the gods, Baal and Asherah, for example, the god and goddess of fertility according to the Canaanites. They thought, accordingly, that if a person bringing a sacrifice had ritual sex with a prostitute at the shrine, this would stimulate the divine powers that control nature to have sex themselves and so more animals and crops would be born and agriculture would flourish. As ridiculous as this sounds to us, this was the fundamental theological outlook in the Ancient Near East. It was what the Israelites themselves found so easy to accept as early as Baal-Peor in the wilderness in Numbers 25. [Stuart, 181-182]
- Third, there was the appeal of convenience. No need to travel to the sanctuary in Shiloh, or later in Jerusalem. High places were everywhere. “Like barber shop signs that used to say ‘Four barbers – No Waiting’ the motto of Canaanite religion might have been “Countless Shrines – No Waiting.” Where there was a hill and bit of shade there was a sanctuary. Churches that advertise their services to the public should take very great care that they are not imitating Canaanite idolatry in its simplicity, its availability, its ease, and its entertainment!
Once again, a weakening faith does not typically invent a new substitute religion. It takes it from the world around because it is motivated to betray and to leave the truth of God’s word by a desire to conform to the world around. And so it has been through the ages of the church and so it is today. Liberal Christianity in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century did not develop a new message. It simply parroted the world’s message. And it followed the world’s fads one after another in lock step: Marxism, the so-called social justice movements, sexual liberation, you name it. Liberal Christianity did not have a single original idea. Where is the church of Jesus Christ bending in our day? What convictions taught in Holy Scripture has she abandoned or is she beginning to abandon? Well, let’s put the question a different way: what convictions of our biblical faith are most alien to the world around us, to our Western civilization? Which biblical convictions make us stand out against the world?
Well, can anyone doubt that they are such convictions as these?
- Exclusivism. The notion that one must be a Christian to be saved is simply intolerable to the relativist and sentimental world of the 21st century West. Toleration is the supreme ethical virtue of a relativist society. Our world has no difficulty in your believing virtually anything you want to believe. They will pat you on the head and say that if that works for you then that is just terrific! But, if you believe that everyone must believe as you do, you are the arch-heretic in our culture.
- Judgment. In a therapeutic society such as ours, when we have difficulty believing that a naughty child ought to be punished or a cold-blooded murderer ought to be executed, it should surprise no one that the doctrine of divine judgment, of hell, and of eternal woe should be anathema in our culture. Like idolaters of the Ancient Near East people simply can’t imagine that God is really as the Bible describes him to be: holy, just, pure, who will by no means clear the guilty and who is a consuming fire.
- Sexuality. In a pleasure ordered society as ours, the very idea that people should be forbidden to seek pleasures that come naturally to them is not simply unfair but genuinely unnatural. To deny the unmarried or the homosexual sexual fulfillment simply because such sexual expression supposedly is not God’s design for human life is cruel and unusual punishment we are told.
- Gender. In a freedom loving and permissive culture, to insist that men and women are obliged to fulfill the calling of their nature and are not permitted to break free seems like another form of slavery.
In our modern world, like idolatry in the ancient world, this is the way people think. It is the way most people think. It is the way they instinctively think. These are the orthodoxies of our culture. Some weren’t a generation ago and people didn’t think that way, but they are now. Other ways of thinking, such as the biblical way, strike them as odd or absurd or disgusting. And that fact brings terrific pressure on the Christian mind. And so it is not only not surprising, it is entirely predictable, that Christians are bending or breaking, whole churches are bending or breaking, at precisely those places where the Christian faith seems most out of step with the thinking and the feeling of the world around. Exclusivism, judgment, sexuality and gender. People predicted the capitulation of the church at these very points years ago and their predictions have come true like clockwork. “Tell me what the world is saying,” Francis Schaeffer used to say, “and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in ten or twenty years.” And this is always true. In Africa or Asia, the world also brings the weight of its influence upon the thinking of the church, but in different ways than it does in the Europe and North America. But the temptation to conform to the world, whatever that means in any time or place, is as powerful in one place as in another and is as powerful today as it was in the ancient Near East.
Paul may say that that wisdom of the world – what the world considers to be true – is foolishness to God (1 Cor. 1:20), but it remains powerfully attractive even to Christian people with a Bible in their hands. We too find within ourselves the desire to conform, to be like everyone else. No one likes to be scorned or thought out-of-date or dismissed as the advocate of discredited and unworthy ideas. Many of you in your work places have bitten your tongues; you know you have because you didn’t want to identify your opinions and your convictions for what they were in that environment among those people. You knew what they would think about that and about you for having them. The power of this desire to be accepted and so to conform is demonstrated everywhere we look. No matter what people may say in defense of themselves, it explains so much about life. We wear the same styles. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is not as though there is some morality to this in many respects and I think we would all agree that all of us in the world deciding at once to give up the styles of the 1970’s was an altogether good thing. We enjoy the same diversions’ they were not the same diversions that our parents enjoyed. But now we can hardly imagine life without them. Professors in universities think the same way – even though it may be quite a different way of thinking than was popular in the same university a generation before and I guarantee you a generation from now they will think differently but they will think the same way. The power to conform in the American academy is almost irresistible. We see it everywhere else baseball and football strategists adopt the same approaches, no matter that there may be precious little evidence to suggest that one approach is better than another, and so on. It is a fact of life. We are conformists. And we are especially conformists to the world’s way of thinking; in some large part because we find, as people have always found, that the world’s wisdom is always superficially attractive and easy to embrace. It is easier on our pride, it provides a simpler path to pleasure, it entices with pleasures that we all find particularly appealing: ease, money, health, sensual delights, power, and fame. I guarantee you nobody ever went to a high place in the Ancient Near Eastern world thinking that it didn’t make any difference, it didn’t make any difference whether God would make his life easier or difficult. Or whether it was going to have any influence whatsoever on his own personal peace and prosperity – he was going to make that sacrifice and offer that gift to Baal or Asherah simply because it was right, it was his duty, it was his obligation because he loved the god and wanted to please him or her. Nobody thought that way. It is a way of getting things, an easy way of getting things. The world will not ask you to embrace a message that is thought to be ridiculous by most people, including most educated people. But the world will also not require you to embrace a way of life that is demanding in those ways that human beings find most demanding. Ancient Near Eastern idolatry is a perfect illustration. It was in every way an easy religion, an undemanding one. What it required was easy enough to give. It made no demands of the heart, soul, strength, and mind. It indulged both man’s pride and his flesh.
And so does the wisdom of the modern western world: Darwinism, materialism, therapeutic psychology, Madison Avenue’s vision of the good life, and all the rest. And both the ancient and modern forms of the world’s wisdom have this in common. They both domesticate God and bring him down to our level. People often imagine that religion amounts to man’s quest for God. In truth religions provide ways for man to escape God. He may be exalted to a high place, far beyond and so out of touch with this world, so that man can either ignore him or worship the spirits of trees or animals. He may be turned into an impersonal calculator of performance, who simply waits to reward the efforts of the self-righteous; he may be dissolved into natural forces or reduced to the divine in everything so that human beings are no longer personally accountable to him. But as Israel was to learn the hard way and over and over again: such is not the living God. He is a personal God who is involved in the life of his people and the world, a God of grace but also a God of judgment. He is a God who takes the initiative; who intervenes, and who demands the allegiance and the reverence of all. Modern secularism is certainly just as much an opiate of the people as ancient idolatry was and embracing it is just as easy and just as foolish as when Israel worshipped images after the living God had revealed himself to her.
The only problem with Ancient Near Eastern idolatry was that it happened to be utterly and completely false, a gigantic lie, and as such it was an offense a deep and abiding offense that God’s people should practice it. Everything that made it attractive to people of that time and place made it offensive to God. Everything that made Israel want to worship idols like everyone else made idolatry the most fundamental betrayal of the living and true God and his covenant.
It is essential for us to take to heart the simple lesson of this chapter. The world of Ezekiel’s day took it as a point needing no demonstration that the essence of a god was present in its image. It built its whole understanding of reality upon that premise, a premise virtually all Western folk nowadays think utterly preposterous. Israel was beguiled by an idea so ridiculous we have a hard time understanding how intelligent people could ever have embraced it. And the same thing is happening today. The revelation of God is so obviously true, so luminescently real that to exchange it for the convictions of the world – no matter however firmly believed by how many people – is an inexcusable betrayal of the Lord. Our world today has embraced a set of beliefs fully as absurd and ridiculous as anything Israel believed in the course of her history. The very things that led her to sacrifice her own children in the fire thinking that somehow or this would do her good. How dumb do you have to be? And yet millions of people did that in the conviction that it would work.
One day, perhaps not very far in the future, people will say the same thing about the orthodoxies of our culture – relativism, Darwinism, sexual libertinism – that we now say about Ancient Near Eastern idolatry. What a crock! How in the world did reasonably intelligent people not see through ideas so preposterous? Ezekiel is reminding us that it will be small comfort to anyone then – especially anyone who was in the church of God – that those ideas seemed so powerful, so attractive, so inevitable simply because so many people believed them. The fact that the world thinks a certain way – here is the lesson of Ezekiel 20 – is much more likely to mean that what it thinks is false, not true. That the world thinks or lives is a certain way should be for the Christian an argument for remaining deeply skeptical of such thoughts and ways of thinking. The world is an anti-God system and its thinking is anti-God. If the world is generally for an idea, it is highly likely to be not only untrue, but outrageously untrue in the judgment of the only one whose judgment matters now and forever. Ezekiel chapter 20 should convince us to have a very skeptical attitude toward the thinking of the world when the world suggests or demands that we should think a certain way about God and salvation or about the righteous life.
You all want to be among those who pass under the Lord’s rod into his sheepfold. You will not get there by imitating the world!