If you make your way through the Bible book by book and chapter by chapter, as we do here, sooner or later you come to everything. And we do tonight: come to what may be historically one of the least preached chapters in Holy Scripture that isn’t a genealogy. It is one of the very few chapters in the Bible that ministers avoid not because they have any difficulty understanding what it says but precisely because it says what it says in the way in which it says it. Try to find, if you can, a sermon on this text from any famous Christian preacher! The chapter we are about to read contains some of the coarsest and crudest language in the Bible. We have already encountered something like it in chapter 16, but chapter 23 surpasses chapter 16 in this respect by several orders of magnitude. In Jewish tradition this chapter was among the last to be taught to young men because of its potential to offend. As we shall see, its potential to offend is precisely the point. [Stuart, 220]
My pastor in Aberdeen, a great man and a great preacher, would skip over passages like this one because he felt that they were not suitable for children. I don’t agree with that argument in largest part because the Bible was originally intended to be read aloud to the congregation and heard aloud by the congregation at worship rather than read in private as we so often read a book today. Very few people, very few members of the church in the day when the Bible was first written would have ever owned themselves a copy of a biblical book. They would have heard it read on the Sabbath day when the congregation was gathered for worship. The children would have been present and would have heard the Scripture read and so, it seems to me, the biblical writers expected what they wrote to be heard by the entire congregation. For that reason, I will read the text in its entirety tonight.
The daughters are Samaria and Jerusalem, the capitals, respectively, of Israel and Judah.
We had the same image of Israel as a prostitute in chapter 16 and, as you know, that image or the similar one of Israel as an adulteress is found in a number of places in the prophets. It is founded on the fact that the Lord represents his relationship to his people as that of a groom to a bride or a husband to a wife. So unfaithful Israel’s running after other gods or after other nations to provide her security is like the unfaithfulness of a wife who seeks after other lovers.
It is not the point of the remark but it is a reminder that the patterns of sin formed in youth are very difficult to break. That is why it is so important for godliness to be formed early. The easiest bad habits to break are those that are never formed! And that is especially true in matters of faith in and obedience to God.
Oholah means “tent” and Oholibah means “my tent within her.” There may be some overtone of the tabernacle where God met with his people in the wilderness, but it is a typical Hebrew name. But the important point is that they both married Yahweh; they were his wives. Their prostitution was in fact adultery.
Israel, the northern kingdom, had been mightily impressed with Assyria, in that time the great empire of the ANE world. She copied Assyrian ways and religious practices and wanted to be like her.
But Assyria turned out to be a cruel lover, destroying Israel in 721 B.C., depopulating the land, and scattering her population across her great empire.
Ezekiel’s audience was, of course, drawn from Judah, not Israel, from Jerusalem, not Samaria. It wouldn’t have been so hard for them to hear that Israel had offended God; after all, she had virtually disappeared from the face of the earth. She must have done something bad. But it was easy for the Jews to think that, since their nation still existed, even her recent misfortunes did not mean that the Lord was angry with her or would punish her in the same way he punished Israel. But, in fact, the Lord was more angry with the south even than he had been with the north. The south had observed what Israel had done and had witnessed the Lord’s furious response. She had no excuse for imitating her sister in her infidelities. Jeremiah makes this same point in his third chapter. Judah continued to be impressed with Assyria even after the Assyrians had destroyed Israel. Here her jealous fascination with the great empire is portrayed as the lust of a young woman for a dashing, handsome lover.
But Judah took this spiritual rebellion still further. After the Babylonians conquered Assyria the Jews lost no time in transferring their affection.
After some time wooing the Babylonians, the Jews attempted to rebel.
Jerusalem’s continued infidelity has finally caused Yahweh to turn away from his wife in disgust.
For some time before the end in 586 B.C. Judah was seeking to secure her safety by diplomacy (in the allegory by taking lovers) – now Babylon, now Egypt – having to be willing, of course, to pay huge tribute and to supply large numbers of soldiers to the armies of these far greater nations. None of it worked, of course.
Now the Lord promises that these lovers that Judah gave herself to will be the instrument of her destruction. She will suffer the same foreign invasion and conquest that Israel had suffered a century and a half earlier. She committed the same sins as her older sister; she would reap the same whirlwind.
In describing the punishment that Jerusalem will suffer, Ezekiel breaks away from the allegory and offers a literal description of military conquest.
These are the peoples, or some of the peoples, that made up the Babylonian empire and would, in the nature of the case, be found in the Babylonian army.
This description of the treatment of conquered peoples, horrific as it is, agrees very closely with what we know from other ANE sources. In fact in some chronicles written by conquering nations, such as the Assyrians, the brutality of their treatment of captives is a source of pride.
Returning to the allegory, Judah’s destruction is likened to a woman being stripped and humiliated in public. She imitated her sister in Israel’s infidelity; Jerusalem must be prepared to suffer as Samaria had.
We’ve encountered this catalog of Judah’s sins already a number of times in Ezekiel.
The picture is of women who can’t get enough. Judah went from one nation to another. She lost all standards. She was willing to take dirty drunk Bedouins from the desert into her bed. She wasn’t choosy. In the Law of Moses the punishment for adultery was death.
The gist of the chapter is clear and, after all, is more of the same. We have had the sins of Jerusalem described in many different ways in this first section of Ezekiel and we have had one prophecy after another of Jerusalem’s soon-coming destruction as Yahweh’s judgment upon those sins. But what are we to do with the almost obscene description of Jerusalem’s spiritual whoredom in v. 20 where we read that Oholibah “craved copulation with [her lovers], men with phalluses like donkeys and ejaculations like stallions.” [Block, i, 742, 746] She is a sex addict. She can’t get enough. Anyone can have her. She remembered past affairs and was aroused by the memory of her lovers in Egypt fondling her nipples and caressing her breasts. [The NIV characteristically softens the rough edges of Ezekiel’s Hebrew. We saw that tendency also in the translation of chapter 16.]
There is something very crude about all of this. Something we certainly do not expect to find in the Bible of all places. We think of Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4 that we are not to let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths [v. 29] or in Ephesians 5 that Christians are not to engage in “obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking which are out of place,” and that among us there is not to be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity…because these are improper for God’s holy people.” [5:3-4]
Well, obviously, it is precisely the violation of decorum that is the point of this coarse language. It is meant to take us aback, to shock us. It was meant to shock Ezekiel’s original audience. It is a blunt, crude description of Judah’s rebellion against Yahweh meant to stun a complacent and self-confident people. The Jews to whom Ezekiel preached simply didn’t think that they had done anything deserving of Yahweh’s wrath. They were, by and large, happy with themselves. They were, as people would say it today, “good people.” They thought highly of themselves, as most people do.
You’ve heard these statistics before, but it is important to remember, all the more in our ridiculously self-worshipping age, the bare fact that human beings think always far better of themselves than they ought to think. A few years ago, according to a survey of nearly one million American high school seniors who took the SAT:
- 70% rated their leadership ability “above average” and only 2% below
- In getting along with others, zero rated themselves below average and 25% placed themselves in the top 1%
In a study by David G. Myers reported in the journal Social Psychology in 1993:
- 90% of American business managers rate their performance “superior”
- 86% of employees rate themselves as “better than average”
- Among divorced couples 90% insist that the breakup was their spouse’s fault
And in February of last year the Washington Post reported the results of a survey it had commissioned which produced the following results:
- 94% of Americans said they were “above average” in honesty
- 89% above average in common sense
- 86% in intelligence
- And 79% above average in looks.
In this atmosphere of complacency and self-congratulation, hardly anyone faces the facts about himself or herself; hardly anyone is prepared to acknowledge the truth about his character or her behavior and, as a result, virtually no one is prepared to accept that God is genuinely angry with the wicked every day and disgusted with the behavior of human beings in general and many who claim to be his people in particular. Judah was doing many things that were direct and public transgressions of God’s commandments, but she found it impossible to believe that God was really offended and that he was actually going to punish her as severely as he repeatedly said he would. Ezekiel’s language in v. 20 is a bucket of cold water to the face or a slap or a punch to the solar plexus. It is a way of getting the people to face the fact that God is disgusted with what they are doing and how they are living; he is angry with them in the holiest way; and they will pay dearly for their contempt for him and for his covenant and for his law.
Let me put it this way. Most of us who have been Protestant Christians for any length of time have cut our teeth on the death struggle between the gospel of grace and all forms of legalism. The Reformation, after all, was a protest against a particular form of legalism in which people sought to gain divine favor by doing this and doing that. The notion that one can in some way earn his or her way to heaven has surfaced and resurfaced a thousand times in the history of the gospel in the world. It is, we might say today, the default position of the human heart to suppose that salvation can be obtained by relatively modest investment in ritual acts and decent living. Again and again, if asked to explain why they think they will go to heaven when they die, or why their loved ones will, people will say, “Well he was a good person; he loved his wife and children; he paid his taxes; he never killed anyone; and so on.” Apparently that is supposed to be enough to please God and obtain his favor.
But lurking behind and beneath that legalism is another and far more sinister error. It is antinomianism, not legalism that is the real danger and the capital error of the natural human heart. “Anti” against; nomos law. By antinomianism I mean the sinner’s quarrel with the authority of God and his law. It takes many forms, but its most basic form is the disinclination to take sin seriously, to take God’s holiness seriously and, therefore, to take God’s law seriously. The antinomian is not concerned about the fact that he is not doing what God requires him to do. He doesn’t think it matters all that much.
And if you talk to American people (people who, by and large, still believe in God and in heaven) and to American church-goers – remember, Ezekiel’s audience was composed of church-goers one and all! – you will find that they are to a very great degree antinomians. They don’t worry about God’s wrath. They don’t worry about their disobedience to God. They may worry about its consequences for themselves in the immediate present, but the fact that God may hold them accountable for it never enters their mind.
The modern American and the modern American church-goer (there isn’t nearly as much difference between the two groups as there ought to be) isn’t a legalist in the ordinary sense of the term. He or she is not counting up merits and demerits according to some scheme in which 51% merit is required or in which merits off-set demerits. I almost wish that were the case. The advantage of the true legalist is that at least he takes the question of God’s favor seriously. At least he is reckoning with the possibility that one might miss God’s favor or fail to obtain it for want of enough obedience. The serious legalist is in a fair way of realizing that what God requires he cannot really produce and then he is ready to discover that what God requires Christ has already done and his righteousness can be obtained by faith in Jesus.
But the antinomian doesn’t really care about any of this. He doesn’t take it seriously. As Rabbi Duncan, the perceptive Scottish Presbyterian of the 19th century put it, antinomians have “a conscience very partially alive to the holiness of God, the sinfulness of sin, and the unchangeable demands of [God’s] law.” [Just a Talker, xxxviii] Such people are, as Amos put it, “at ease in Zion.” They are complacent. They have no fear of their sin and still less any fear of God. They are sure he is too nice to take offense at anything they do or fail to do and, superficial as they are in the estimation of sin, they are pretty sure, in any case, that God admires them, and, if he does not admire them, at least he is avuncular in his toleration of their foibles and faults. I saw a portion of movie a few nights ago in which the protagonists were facing some difficulty and one said to the other, “if you have any pull with the old man upstairs put in a word.” That is the way people think about the living God: the old man upstairs. What is there to fear about the old man upstairs? No doubt he has a long white beard and a somewhat flushed complexion and frequently pats children on the head.
Well, you’ll stop thinking that way about God and about your sin and about his law when you hear him speak of your life as lusting after lovers with phalluses like donkeys and ejaculations like those of stallions, of your finding one lover after another to caress your nipples and fondle your breasts.
That doesn’t sound at all like the old man upstairs. That sounds like the living God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, who dwells in inapproachable light, whose glory no man has seen or can see, who is angry with the wicked every day, and who will by no means clear the guilty. That sounds like the jealous God who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons unto the third and fourth generation. That sounds like the God who would leave the city where his temple was located and upon which he had so long poured out his favor, lying devastated, little more than rubble, its population dead or captured, and would use to effect this judgment the pitiless soldiery of the Babylonian empire.
You cannot get started understanding the truth about yourself, about the world, about the history of the world, about the future of mankind, about your own future, and about the way of salvation unless and until you realize that God is holy, that you have offended him every day in a great many more ways than you begin to realize, and that God is offended, personally and deeply by your selfishness, your indifference to others, your contempt for him who made you, and for his laws and commandments.
It is only the person who realizes that – seriously – who will understand that he or she needs forgiveness from God, that such forgiveness must be a very great thing to be given to someone so unworthy of it, and that something as great as the death of the Son of God on the cross would be required to make that forgiveness possible. It was precisely a last ditch attempt by Yahweh himself to shake the Jews out of their complacency before it was too late that prompted the use of such language as we have here in Ezekiel 23.
It is just as important today for all of us to hear that language and recoil from what seems to be the indecency of it, in case some of us are actually thinking in the same complacent way about God and salvation as these Jews were and are as little minded to take our sins seriously as they were. They didn’t think their indifference to God was of any real importance. They certainly didn’t think of themselves as prostitutes so desperate for love that they were actually paying their clients instead of being paid themselves! They were to discover, however, that that was precisely how God viewed them and that God’s taking offense at their rebellion against him would bring upon them, just as the Scripture said it would, judgment and raging fire that consume the enemies of God. God is not the old man upstairs. He is the judge of all the earth, whose ministers are flames of fire. If he will not be glorified in the salvation of the human beings whom he has created, he will be glorified in the justice of their judgment. He is the God whom we must worship with reverence and awe for he is a consuming fire. It is the very last thing that far, far too many people will believe and the very first thing that they need to believe. That is why we read of phalluses and ejaculations and nipples and breasts and prostitution and whoredom.