Ezekiel 20:45-21:32

Remember, the chapter break in the Hebrew Bible is between 20:44 and 20:45. So, while not in the English Bible we are reading a chapter tonight.

Text Comment

It is not certain that, at least at first, Ezekiel himself understood this parable or allegory. It had not yet been interpreted to him as it would be. But it is obvious that his audience did not understand and complained that they couldn’t make hide nor hair of what Ezekiel was preaching.
As always in the prophets there is this realism. The righteous often suffer in the punishment visited upon a wicked nation.
Ezekiel would groan out loud to excite curiosity but then tell his people that he was groaning to make a point; the time was coming when they and all Israel would groan for real.
Now in these verses we get the explanation. Fire = war. South = Judah. Green tree = the righteous; dry tree = the wicked. Babylonian armies would come to Judah by following the fertile crescent roads to the northwest, then west, and finally south to Jerusalem. [Stuart, 192] But, as always, the Babylonians will be instruments in God’s hand doing his will.
The leitwort or key word of this chapter is “sword,” standing for warfare.
The verse is difficult to interpret. Perhaps the point is that the Jews would have imagined that Yahweh brandishing his sword would be good news. He would be preparing to defend and avenge Israel and Jerusalem. But, as in 19, the promise to the house of David did not mean that he would defend his king no matter what. He had rejected the kings of Judah and so far from defending them was about to destroy them.
Yahweh has prepared his sword and is about to hand it to the one who will wield it, that is, Nebuchadrezzar. [Block, i, 678]
Earlier he was to groan; here he is to wail.
The exile of Jehoiachin and those with him, including Ezekiel, had been accomplished in 597 B.C. after a rather short, bloodless siege and a rapid capitulation by the Jewish king. What is about to happen in Jerusalem will be far more brutal.
Ezekiel is to pretend to be Nebuchadrezzar having come west and now finding himself at a northern crossroads, probably in Syria, perhaps in Damascus, having to decide whether to strike eastward toward Ammon or southward toward Judah and Jerusalem. Using the various tools for divination he customarily used, he will conclude that he is to strike to the south. The examination of the liver of animals (hepatoscopy) was a standard technique (like Tarot Cards today). Arrows were marked with various options and drawn from a bag; something like drawing straws. Usually divination was used in cases where there was but a single alternative: go to war or not; attack this way or that, and so on. Interestingly, astrology, or the effort to discover the future in the stars, was developed in Babylon about this time. It shows you how important the ancients thought it was to know the future. Of course, we feel the same way, spending billions on consultants of one kind or another to tell us what will happen if… Our methods aren’t too much more reliable than theirs. In the Bible divination was forbidden. The future was God’s business; our business was to live in faith and obedience in the present and leave the outcomes to the Lord.
The point here seems to be that the Jews would have thought themselves safe from Babylonian attack because they had sworn loyalty to Nebuchadrezzar. But that oath of loyalty would be broken by Zedekiah (2 Chron. 36:13)
He is speaking of Zedekiah.
In Hebrew the word “ruin” or “rubble” occurs three times in a row. The three-fold repetition is the ultimate Hebrew superlative (as “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Isaiah 6). [Stuart, 203] The coming king is not simply another Judean monarch, but the messianic king, as Ezekiel will make clear in chapters 37-39.
This is the only prophecy against another country in the opening section of Ezekiel, chapters 1-24. Prophecies of judgment against the surrounding nations begin in earnest in chapter 25. But having mentioned Ammon earlier, there is a natural curiosity as to what would become of Israel’s ancient enemy. Ammon’s insults are the insults they uttered against Israel. Obviously, having participated in Israel’s rebellion against Babylon, Ammon would have heaved a sign of relief to see the Babylonian army move against Jerusalem instead of against Rabbah. [Block, i, 696]
Like modern fortune tellers, the diviners in Ammon were forecasting good news as well. It was not to be.
For all her sins and the judgment about to befall her, Israel had a future. God still had designs to bless her. Ammon was to disappear, never to rise again.

As we have made our way, chapter by chapter, though this first section of Ezekiel – one prophecy of doom after another – we have been piecing together a doctrine of divine judgment. We have noticed such features of the biblical doctrine of divine judgment as these: 1) the judgment of the wicked is made necessary by God’s character; that is, it is inevitable God being who and what he is; 2) that it is so because the divine wrath is nothing other than the exercise of his holy justice; 3) that God is patient and so his judgment is characteristically slow in coming; 4) that in his judgment he makes a careful discrimination between the wicked and the righteous and promises to spare the righteous; 5) judgment begins with the people of God and, contrary to a well nigh universal expectation among people who ought to know better, that judgment is never stayed by considerations of merely outward association, as if being an Israelite or living in Jerusalem near the temple, or, even participating in some way in the religious life of Israel were talismans to ward off the wrath of God. This last point looms so large in the preaching of the prophets and of the Lord Jesus himself that we must consider it one of the principle emphases of the Bible; 6) bad news is always the hardest to believe and judgment is, therefore, the doctrine concerning which men – whether in the church or out of it – are most practically and theoretically skeptical; and 7) whatever may be the spiritual condition of a people or culture, every individual human being is responsible for his or her own behavior and, when summoned to believe in the gospel, is free to respond in faith and so obtain God’s salvation. The Lord does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should come to repentance.

But we have not yet grasped the nettle. All of that would be comparatively easy to accept were it not for something else. The prospect of divine judgment, the fact of it, would not be the scandal that it is were it not for this: the judgment of the Lord against sinners is so severe and unrelenting. Here is the problem, perhaps the chief problem posed by our Christian faith for unbelievers and it is, for that reason, essential that from time to time we face it squarely, think it through again, and settle our minds once more as to the truth of God’s Word.

We have this emphasis on the severity of the judgment over and again in this chapter as we have had it in previous chapters. Fire, blazing flame, a sword sharpened for the slaughter. “Cry out and wail; beat your breast.” Man fallen. Ruin, ruin, ruin. Bloodshed. Remembered no more. Now, it is bad enough, that such judgments should fall upon people in this world: a city destroyed, thousands killed in battle or by execution afterward, women raped, houses and fields burned, and so many, their spirits shattered, shuffling into bleak exile. But, of course, what makes this so much more significant is that this judgment is everywhere in the Bible the image, the sign and seal, the foretaste, the anticipation of a far more serious judgment to come. Fire, ruin, death, wailing: these are also the images of hell.

And, frankly, if they were not, even this judgment, the judgment of 586 B.C. loses much of its sting. After all, everyone dies and death at home on one’s bed can be just as horrible – disease being what it is – as swift death at the hands of a conqueror. Everywhere there is this assumption in Holy Scripture and often enough this explicit teaching: judgments in this world take on their greatest importance from what they teach us about judgment in the next. The fact that, as we read here, the green tree and the dry are both swept up in the judgment Ezekiel is prophesying – the righteous as well as the wicked – is the demonstration that the Lord, who promises to punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous, has another, greater judgment yet to execute upon mankind. That judgment must come after death, after this world, which is just what the Bible says it does. That judgment will be complete and entire and the separation between the righteous and the wicked then will be absolute and permanent. Otherwise, what is the point of being righteous and what is the consequence of being wicked?

And, as I say, it is the severity of that later, final, judgment, its unrelenting character, its duration that is the great scandal of our faith as Christians. Look, you know as well as I do that if we taught that

  1. the impenitent and unbelieving sinner received a year of hard time after the last judgment and then was granted life in heaven; or
  2. that such sinners were punished in hell but only until they repented, however soon or late that might be; or even
  3. that such sinners were simply extinguished so as not to feel or think again

the fundamental objection against our faith would immediately disappear. For example, the problem posed for many modern minds by our exclusivism – our contention that one must be a Christian to be saved – would disappear because punishment for unbelief would be only a temporary punishment that followers of other faiths – Buddhists, Muslims, secularists, and the like – would have to pay for their unbelief. After that punishment was paid, eternity would soon swallow the memory of it up in the happiness of endless years in heaven. Or, take another typical objection to the Christian faith. The problem posed for many minds by human suffering in this world – how could a good God allow it? – would likewise disappear because, of course, that suffering would be temporary and soon be forgotten by everyone, once they were at last in the endless world of joy, peace, and love.

What offends sinners about Christianity is hell, pure and simple, a punishment terrible to contemplate, that lasts forever, and that can be fairly described in the brutal images used to describe it in the Bible: the fire that doesn’t go out; the lake of fire; weeping and gnashing of teeth; the worm that never dies; outer darkness; and so on.

As the British philosopher John Stuart Mill put it: “Compared with the doctrine of endless punishment, every objection to Christianity sinks into insignificance.” [Cited in W.F. Buckley, Nearer My God, 67] And that is why, of course, there has been such pressure on this doctrine from the very beginning. Universalistic ideas were hovering around the margins of Christian theology already in the patristic period and have surfaced countless times since. And, in our day, annihilationist views are making a comeback. This is the idea that the judgment of sinners in the world to come, what the Bible calls hell, is not a condition of active suffering, of conscious suffering, but is rather simply the extinguishing of the very existence of the unbelieving and impenitent. At the judgment, in some forms of this view, or after a certain period of conscious suffering, in other forms, life for the unbelieving simply fades to black. No suffering, no torment, no weeping, no bitter dwelling on wasted opportunities; nothing at all. Like sleep forever without dreams. What is the great attraction of these views but this: they blunt the criticism leveled against the Christian faith for its doctrine of a stern and lasting judgment that sinners experience in their conscious existence. The fact is this is the entire argument for annihilationism. The argument from the biblical evidence is so poor that, try as they might, in making their case the advocates for these views almost invariably give themselves away. They believe that the wicked are extinguished for one reason and one reason only: to get God off the hook for what would otherwise be thought too severe a punishment.

I enjoyed reading this summer W.F. Buckley’s spiritual autobiography Nearer My God. In that book Buckley includes exchanges with a number of other writers, particularly with several who became Christians (in their case, Roman Catholics) in the middle of their lives. Interestingly, though hardly surprisingly, a number of these men admitted that it was eternal judgment that was the final sticking point, the most severe impediment to their embracing the Christian faith, the one that remained when all the rest had been removed.

And I daresay, for some of you, perhaps for many of you, when you have thought deeply about the faith, you have more than once recoiled from this part of our doctrine. You may admit to feeling that this is the part of the teaching of Holy Scripture that is the hardest for you to accept and to reconcile with what you believe about God and justice and love. Hell seems too harsh. You cannot view God as someone who takes pleasure in a person’s pain. You are tempted to think that there must be an end at some point. Justice will have been served; enough punishment endured. I confess to you that I have more than once, in my own soul, echoed the sentiments of C.S. Lewis. Speaking of hell he said,

“There is no doctrine which I would more remove from Christianity than this if it lay in my power.”

So why don’t we remove it? Why don’t we lop off this sharp point that pricks and cuts and make our Christian faith smooth and easier to grab onto? There are plenty of people nowadays, both inside and outside the church, urging us to do just that.

Well, here are some of the reasons why we cannot do that, tempting as the prospect may be. I can only mention some of them and these I can only briefly describe.

First, the fact of a severe divine judgment is not simply a question of the future. It is with us already in this world. We are face to face with it every day and cannot deny divine wrath without closing our eyes to reality.

The fact is, Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. and it was horrific. Thousands died. Many who took refuge in the city starved to death or resorted to cannibalism to survive. Women were raped; babies were torn out of wombs; the city was destroyed until hardly one stone stood on top of another. The army was destroyed in the field. The king’s sons were executed before his eyes and then he was killed as well. The bedraggled survivors were forced to march hundreds of miles eastward into exile. And this is but one such incident of divine wrath being visited upon sinful human beings. Whether we think of peoples outside the orbit of the covenant community, such as Sodom and Gomorrah or the peoples of Canaan, or we think of the covenant people, of Israel herself, the northern kingdom in 721 B.C., the Lord as an avenger of his justice has not left us without a witness. Sodom and Gomorrah were so thoroughly punished that no one today knows precisely where these cities were! Perhaps their location lies now buried under the southern end of the Dead Sea, under those toxic salt waters, thrice dead.

Israel did not receive a slap on the wrist: generations of the nation were destroyed. She was not punished for a month or a year and then restored to a prosperous, happy life. She was to wither for centuries under God’s mighty hand and after 586 would never return to her former glory. There has not been a temple in Jerusalem for nearly 2000 years! And so it continues into our own time. If not the greatest loss of life, the most gruesome fate of the 20th century befell Jews in Nazi concentration camps. There may have been righteous suffering and dying with the wicked in the death camps, as there were in 586 – both green trees and dry – but the ferocity of the penalty borne by human beings in this world is a fact of life, like it or not. And it is everywhere we look: 9/11, Darfur, Zaire, Iraq, Afghanistan in acts of violence, earthquakes and eruptions here and there, victims of crime (both those who die and those whose lives are blighted and ruined by the evil done by others) and, of course, the unrelenting march of time trampling upon individual homes all over the world. 12 to 13 Tacomas die every year in the United States, 2,500,000 people, 7,000 every day. This world stands under death, violence, hatred, misery. There are, to be sure, many foretastes of heaven, but, if so, all the more we must attend to the foretastes of hell everywhere we look.

If we are going to object to severe punishment as unworthy of God or unworthy of our faith, we face the problem now, not simply in the future. We are everywhere told that the judgments we witness in this world are an anticipation of those to come. Why would anyone who took careful notice of human life and human suffering and the misery that evil imposes upon this world, why would anyone suppose that pain and suffering so ferocious now, should turn suddenly mild and temperate in the world to come. Isn’t it rather to be expected that what we have now in this world will be magnified in the next. We certainly expect that to be the case with the foretastes of heaven; why not of hell?

We have been making our way slowly through Ezekiel. Chapter after chapter he hammers away at this single theme. Apart from this prospect of doom, at least so far Ezekiel has little to say to us. And, lest anyone forget, Ezekiel was right and the judgment fell and Jerusalem lay shattered. And so again in A.D. 70, again a judgment prophesied beforehand. It is a foolish man or woman who reads these prophesies of divine wrath and does not take them to heart, but somehow convinces himself that, for some unmentioned reason, God will not be wrathful toward those who have rebelled against him and betrayed him. He judges very severely the sins of man already, but it is obvious that he doesn’t judge them all as they deserve. The separation between the righteous and the wicked is not made clear in this world. Some sinners escape any real consequence and few get all they deserve. Hitler committed suicide and never faced a tribunal. Stalin and Mao, responsible for more human misery and heartbreak and death than we can imagine, died in their beds. Many churchmen who have undermined the faith of God’s people die confident of all the false doctrines they have taught. No, there must be a judgment in the future for justice to be done. That is everywhere the Bible’s teaching.

If, in fact, we are meant to assume that the punishment of the wicked in the world to come is relatively mild, or short-lived, or non-existent, the Bible was written strangely indeed for it seems very clearly to teach and to warn of the existence of hell as a place of enduring suffering. Everywhere in the Bible hell is a real place to which ordinary human beings go after leaving this world. William Buckley refers to the author Ralph de Toledano, whose editor lowercased the word “Hell” in a novel he had written, which de Toledano recapitalized on reviewing the editor’s draft. “Why do you want to capitalize hell?” the editor asked. “Because,” Toledano replied, “it’s a place. You know, like Scarsdale.” Is that not the Bible’s true and consistent teaching? It is sentimentality to believe to be true what we want to be true. I challenge anyone carefully to observe this world and conclude that it does not ring with the sound of judgments to come.

As we have seen, the reason Ezekiel hammered away at this prospect as he did was precisely because his audience didn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it, couldn’t be made to believe it. It was unwelcome; it violated their sense of theological propriety; in their view God shouldn’t do such a thing to his chosen people and to his chosen royal house. But he did do it and just as savagely as he said he would! Idolaters, violators of God’s law, betrayers of God’s covenant are not the best authorities to consult on the judgments of the Lord.

And that leads us to the next reason why we cannot eliminate the prospect of a cruel fate for the unbelieving and impenitent in the world to come. It is, in fact, the clear, emphatic, repeated teaching of Holy Scripture.

Hell is, in fact, what is everywhere taught in the Bible. Scripture moves seamlessly from the judgments of human history, such as the one Ezekiel is predicting here, to those of eternity. It warns us time and time again not to fear the one who can kill the body, but to fear the one who having killed the body can cast the soul into hell. And no one spoke more often or more solemnly about the wrath to come than Jesus himself, the Prince of Life. It was he who spoke of eternal fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth and of the fire that does not go out. It was he who warned of the eternal separation of the sheep from the goats on the great day. It was he who said that any suffering in this world is to be borne if only one might not be cast into hell at the end.

It is interesting that several of William Buckley’s correspondents, all well-read, intelligent, thoughtful men, made this point in describing how the problem of eternal punishment was resolved in their minds when becoming Christians. They weren’t settled in their minds; they couldn’t get past their distaste for the doctrine of eternal punishment; they weren’t able to answer the objections that they made to it in their own minds, but the Bible taught it and the church believed it and good and gracious men and women through the ages had felt it absolutely necessary to believe it. They accepted that it would be a risky strategy to require the Lord God to explain himself to their satisfaction before believing what he taught in his Word. If man – a pipsqueak sinner, selfish, small-minded – feels that he must have complete intellectual satisfaction before he believes, then he deserves to be judged and will be last seen straining to untie that last knot, having, so he thinks, unraveled all the rest, as he falls away down the circles of hell.

We have been told and told again to fear the judgments of the Lord. Those judgments have been anticipated in horrifying forms already in this world. Our Savior took it upon himself to assure us of the truth of the coming wrath and warned us again and again to flee it. To refuse to believe this is to shut one’s eyes to the world and one’s ears to the sound of the Savior’s voice. That cannot be wise.

The Bible, of course, roots the coming judgment in divine justice. The Bible explains it; gives a reason for it; justifies it. As Ezekiel has been at pains to show us through these chapters, Israel got was she deserved: nothing more, nothing less. He enumerates at length the Jews’ many and persistent betrayals of the Lord and his covenant, their corruption, idolatry, cruelty, sins of the flesh and, in particular, their spurning of Yahweh’s repeated summons to repent and his repeated offer to forgive them and restore them if only they would repent. He reminds them of the Lord’s patience with them and of their forgetfulness of all he had done for them, given to them, and revealed to them.

As you know, this point about the justice of the divine wrath is made with still greater precision later in the Bible’s teaching. The future judgment is nothing else but precise and exact justice. Everyone is not punished the same way – though the biblical teaching is often caricatured as if it taught that all sinners received the same punishment – some, as Jesus said, receive many stripes and some few. It is this sense of perfect justice that is reflected in Dante’s vision of hell in his Inferno, in which he labors to show that in every case the punishment fits the crime.

The images employed in Holy Scripture to describe eternal punishment are just that: images. We are told very little about precisely how men and women will be punished. What we are told is that they will be punished in perfect justice. Surely we can trust the Lord God to do that. Surely we, who have so much trouble with justice – who find it so easy to have a narrow standard for others and a wide one for ourselves – surely we can trust the Lord God to do what is perfectly just. Surely we can trust the God of infinite wisdom and infinite love to dispense justice with exactness.

I remember the late John Gerstner, in a sermon on the theme, saying that if you, God forbid, were to find yourself among the damned on the last day, you should still be glad for those who were saved even as you yourself head to ruin. You should be glad that others were shown mercy and that others believed in Jesus, though you did not. After all, you were deprived of nothing; you got your due, no more, no less. You got precisely what you deserved and what you chose for yourself when you were in this world. No one will have cause to complain when the Lord punishes the wicked.

We can put the same points negatively and perhaps they will prove more striking to you in these forms. You cannot demand that judgment be lessened in the world to come without in effect denying or diminishing your own culpability. You are, in effect, saying that you do not deserve to be punished so severely. You are better than that. You lived better than that. My friends, if your view of what God should and should not do is based on your own assessment of your own righteousness, here is my advice to you: keep that to yourself. Neither God nor anyone else is going to take that argument seriously, and all the more when all the facts about your life are known, as they will be on the great day and when your life is compared to the true standard, not one you or other men have invented. If your argument against eternal punishment finally rests, as it usually does, not on your sense of justice but your pride and self-centeredness, then we have another very good reason to believe what the Bible teaches us about the judgment of the wicked in the world to come. What is more, we cannot object to the biblical teaching of eternal punishment, a severe judgment of the wicked in the world to come, without diminishing Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. The Lord endured our punishment in our place so that we would not have to endure it. In the nature of the case you cannot lessen the divine wrath that threatens the unbelieving and impenitent without lessening the weight of that burden our Savior bore. Every Christian should be very, very careful before ever contemplating taking such a step.

So much more can be said and must be said over and over again. We are not talking, after all, first and foremost about a doctrine, but about existence and reality and what catastrophic things are to happen before too long. No one will live the same life or give his mind and heart to the same thoughts and purposes who really believes the Bible’s teaching about hell. Everything in the Bible, in the Christian faith, is pointed forward to the world to come and takes its meaning from the double destiny of mankind: eternal weal and eternal woe.

What makes salvation so indescribably magnificent; what makes Jesus Christ and his love and
sacrifice important and wonderful beyond the power of words to describe is what happens to people who are not saved and who do not know Jesus Christ.