Studies in Ezekiel No. 24


Ezekiel 28:1-26

We are in the midst of an extended prophecy of impending judgment of one of Judah’s principal adversaries, the city-state of Tyre. We considered Tyre’s wealth and self-confidence and coming doom last time, making our way through chapters 26 and 27. Chapter 28 is a continuation of the same, this time directed not at Tyre herself but at her king. But there is a very interesting and important dimension to this prophecy that makes it worth our studying separately. We will concentrate tonight on that dimension found in this prophecy, but we don’t want to forget the main point, viz. that Tyre will be destroyed and that all her wealth and power would prove no protection against the wrath of God.

Rudyard Kipling, after World War I, pled with Britain not to forget the awful carnage, with a look back to Tyre’s fall from so great a height.

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre:
Judge of the nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget.

The history of the world is littered with the detritus of long gone and almost forgotten nations and empires that, in their time, seemed impregnable and eternal. But divine wrath is a far greater force than any army of mere human beings, however powerful, or any fortress however thick and high, or any wealth. Such was the lesson that Tyre learned.

Text Comment

v.2

Remember, in the ancient world government was an absolute monarchy. There were no legislatures, no elections, no system of checks and balances. The fate of the king and of the kingdom was so intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. And the people often loved and admired their king, all the more if he were responsible for the nation’s prosperity and greatness, as was the King of Tyre. He was a symbol of their own prestige. [Stuart, 269] Tyrians would have regarded an oracle against their king as directed against themselves as well. In Ezekiel’s day the king of Tyre was a man by the name of Ethbaal II, a name that meant “Baal is with him.” His problem was that Yahweh, the living God, was not with him!

In Tyre, as in many other Mesopotamian-Syrian states, traditionally the king was ordinarily thought to have been appointed by the gods, but he was notthought to be a god himself, as was, for example, the Pharaoh in Egypt. Ethbaal, moved by feelings of grandeur, may have introduced into Tyrian political life the sort of divine leader idea that the Egyptians had [Block, ii, 94-95] and that the Romans would later have, or this language may simply be Ezekiel’s way of saying that the King of Tyre had far too high opinion of himself; that he had become an egomaniac. “Look who thinks he’s God Almighty” as we might say. [Stuart, 270]

v.3

Daniel’s wisdom had become a proverb among the exiles. [Block, vs. Stuart and Allen]

v.5

There is no doubt that Ethbaal was a clever man and had amassed power and wealth as a result. There is a kind of worldly wisdom that gives great advantage to bad men and such was the case here.

v.7

The Babylonians are meant.

v.10

The king, in all his arrogance, had not reckoned with Yahweh or the purposes and the will of the living God. To die uncircumcised – the Phoenicians also practiced circumcision, though for different reasons and at a different time of life – and to die at the hands of foreigners was the ultimate indignity. There is no historical record of the end of Babylon’s thirteen year siege of Tyre and the city’s fall, but it is reasonable to suppose that after such a long and costly siege the king would have been executed, if not tortured first, as punishment for putting Babylon to so much trouble.

v.12

Remember, it is characteristic of biblical laments that the glory of the past is described in order to emphasize how terrible has been the fall. For example, Lamentations begins: “How deserted the city lies, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was a queen among the provinces has now become a slave.” Well so with the king of Tyre.

v.13

The King of Tyre’s glorious past is now likened to that of the first man or an angel in the Garden of Eden.

v.14

In the ANE the dwelling of God was often likened to a mountain (this is why “high places” are so important). Eden is not called a mountain in Genesis 2, though a river flows out of it; but it is a mountain in the metaphorical sense because of God’s dwelling in it. Remember how often Jerusalem is said to be a mountain and the temple to rest upon a mountain.

Remember, we saw cherubim in the opening chapters of Ezekiel – glorious angelic beings – and again in chapter 10. Cherubim were prominent in the iconography of ancient Tyre. A number of ivory carvings of cherubs have been found, many that were once decorated with gemstones. [Block, ii, 113n]

This cherub walks back and forth in the Garden; he is a creature of power and privilege.

v.15

Now the turning point. His great position, status, wealth and power corrupted him and led to his fall.

v.16

The description of the King’s punishment first sticks with the imagery of Eden. He is to be driven out of the Garden. Next however, the Garden of Eden is left behind and the description becomes more general.

v.21

Now follows a short prophecy against Sidon. Sidon was the second city to Tyre in Phoenicia and so a natural partner in this oracle of doom.

v.24

As we said in introducing the second section of the book of Ezekiel, chapters 25-32, this short section, at the end of our chapter 28 is the pivot around which the entire sections turns. It is virtually in the exact center of the section. It reminds us of Ezekiel’s overarching interest in these prophecies of judgment directed to the nations around Israel. The reason these nations were judged was precisely to deliver Israel from their influence, both spiritual and political. It is all preparation from Israel’s return from exile and the renewal of the life of the people of God in the Promised Land. That is the great subject of chapters 33 to the end and this second section prepares the way.

This renewal had been prophesied, but it would have been a hard thing for the Jews in Babylon to believe. They, like everyone else, understood how hard and usually permanent was the fate of captives. But the Lord was not limited by the supposedly hard facts of the political and military landscape. If it took the destruction of entire nations, the Lord would not be prevented from delivering his people and blessing them again in the Land.

Now it is without doubt that Ezekiel has employed the Genesis account of the perfection of Eden upon its creation followed by the terrible Fall into sin and the resulting punishment as a schema or paradigm to describe what is to happen to the King of Tyre. Great wealth and glory corrupted his heart, made him proud, and led to what will be his terrible fall.

You will not be surprised that Christians, at least from the time of Origen in the 3rd century, have found here an account of the fall of Satan, which, otherwise, is never recounted in the Bible. We know that Satan was created good, as all that God made was good at the first. God did not create evil beings! We know that he fell into sin and that this happened before man fell because Satan appears to Adam and Eve as a tempter and a liar. But how and why he fell we are never told in any direct way in Holy Scripture. But it has seemed to many that though Ezekiel is undoubtedly speaking about the 6th century king of Tyre, he uses the history of Satan’s fall as a paradigm of the fall of this man from great heights and great privileges to destruction and shame.

It is not hard to see why they came to the conclusion that lying behind this account of the fall of the King of Tyre we are to see the fall of Satan and that one is a kind of moral recapitulation or repetition of the other. It is certainly striking that Ezekiel chooses to describe the King of Tyre, not simply as a glorious human king, but as “a guardian cherub” as in v. 14 and then again in v. 16. Satan was an angel and in many respects touching his nature he remains an angel. When the Bible speaks of elect angels, it seems to be presupposing that there are angels of another kind, evil angels or demons. What is more, the metaphor seems stretched to the breaking point when the King of Tyre is described in the glorious way in which he is in v. 13 or when, in v. 15, it is said that he was “blameless in all his ways from the day he was created till wickedness was found in you.” But, if the history of Satan were being employed to describe a like fall from great height of the King of Tyre, it makes sense.

A similar comparison between Satan and a proud ruler before and after his fall is thought by many to have been made by Isaiah in chapter 14:5ff concerning the king of Babylon.

“How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations.
You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above
the stars of God…” [14:12-13]

That sounds like a description of Satan’s pride and his fall, at least to anyone who has read Milton’s Paradise Lost! In recent history, this interpretation has been favored by a number of dispensationalist writers, who, as a class, tend to more literalist interpretations and so to laying great weight on the fact that this figure is said to be an angel.

Others, however, and the majority of evangelical commentators, have rejected interpretations of the text that find a shadow of Satan himself lurking behind the king of Tyre. They argue that it is far more natural to see Adam in his innocence as the figure to which the King of Tyre is being compared, first in his magnificence and then in the ignominy that resulted from his punishment for his sins. The figure in the lament of the second half of chapter 28 is, after all, a human being and the description moves very easily from the figurative contrast to the actual king of Tyre. It is certainly possible to imagine the description of a man as a cherub, a metaphor for his greatness and glory. How often do we say to someone, “You’re an angel!” What is more there is no suggestion in the Genesis account that Satan was a guardian cherub, indeed quite the contrary. The guardian cherubs were still there when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden on account of their sin. Nor is there anything said about Satan being cast out of the Garden, while the casting out of Adam and Eve is the famous conclusion of the narrative.

I’m not sure it matters very much, actually, whether we see Satan’s fall, or Adam’s fall, or both lying behind this lament for the king of Tyre. What is most interesting and important, in my view, is that such falls from height to depth, from glory to ignominy become a paradigm for the life history of human beings in their sin. The fact is that pride going before the fall is the theme here. You will notice the repetition of the theme from the beginning of chapter 28:

“In the pride of your heart…” v. 2
“…you think you are as wise as a god”
“…your heart has grown proud” v. 5
“Your heart became proud” v. 17

And in the same way the threatened punishment is related to the pride that filled his heart.

“But you are a man and not a god” v. 2
“Will you then say, ‘I am a god,’ in the hands of those who slay you?” v. 9
“So I threw you to the earth and made you a spectacle before kings.” v. 17

And here is the great practical lesson of this chapter for you and me. It is a study in pride. Now remember what we said when we began our study of this second section of Ezekiel—prophecies against Israel’s enemies. These were not preached to these nations. Ezekiel never left Babylon. They were preached to God’s people, for God’s people. The lesson was for them. Learn from Tyre your own temptations and dangers. Take warning from her history about the subtlety and the danger of pride! Your pride, not Tyre’s, is the point! Pride is the idolatry of the self. It is the nature of pride as competition with God – the displacing of God by the self at the center – that has led many Christian thinkers through the ages to regard pride (superbia) as the mother sin and the essential element in all sin. Even if this passage tells us nothing about Satan’s fall, it is nevertheless strongly suggested in the Bible that pride was Satan’s first sin. In 1 Tim. 3:6, for example, a man’s conceit renders a man susceptible to the same judgment as the devil. The Devil was conceited and he was judged for that reason. That is the clear suggestion of that text, and so with Adam. Satan, conceited himself, tempted him with the lie that he could throw off his creaturely limitations and be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). And what is the general diagnosis of man’s condition in sin? He is a lover of himself instead of a lover of God.

And it is not difficult to work out the connection between that pride, that desire to be in the center, that refusal to take second place and all of man’s other sins. His hostility toward God and toward man is the offense and the insecurity he feels before competitors for that first place he covets for himself. Evil desires, hatred, greed, cruelty, deceit and all the rest come from that pride, that love of self. All of it in some way is motivated by and expresses the desire of men and women either to serve themselves as of first importance or to protect their place in the center of existence. Whether lust, greed, anger, or indifference toward others, it is not hard to see such sins as the expression of self-worship. It was for this reason that Alexander Whyte once observed that “self is simply another name for sin.” A person does not necessarily deny that God is immeasurably greater than himself, but theoretical admissions of that type are no match for raging self-admiration in the heart.

Here as everywhere else in the Bible the worst sin of pride consists in its breathtaking dishonesty: constructing a view of oneself in defiance of the facts. As Ezekiel sarcastically puts it to the king of Tyre: “…you are a man and not a god.” “You will be but a man, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you.” This is what Thomas Aquinas meant when he said that pride is an offense against right reason. A man can indulge his pride only by intentionally ignoring both his creatureliness and his moral unworthiness; both his finitude, his smallness compared to God and the rest of creation and his badness as a human being created to be good. The godly have always understood this. They recognized their pride and they recognized how utterly preposterous it was. St. Teresa of Avila once said, “I am always very glad that my slanderers should tell a trifling lie about me rather than the whole terrible truth.” Pride survives only in an environment in which the lie is accepted and never challenged.

It is the testimony of the Christian ages that the holiest men and women are invariably the most keenly aware of the humiliation they would suffer if others ever discovered the enormity of their moral failure. Samuel Rutherford was only speaking for a great company of Christians when he wrote, “despair might almost be excused, if everyone in this land saw my inner side.” And William Law said that he would rather be hung and his body thrown in a swamp than that anyone should be allowed to look into his heart! It is man’s most monumental effrontery to imagine that a selfish, petty collection of unworthy desires such as himself belongs in the center, even of his own life.

The insidious nature of pride is such that men and women rarely appreciate how proud they are and the index of pride’s power over the heart is that even the purest motions of the Christian soul are deeply affected by it. Indeed, it is possible to be proud of one’s confessions of sin and unworthiness or secretly to congratulate oneself on one’s “brokenness.” As anyone knows who has struggled against it, one of pride’s most sinister effects is its dulling our sense of appreciation for the kindness and mercy of God.

When I would speak what Thou hast done
To save me from my sin,
I cannot make Thy mercies known,
But self-applause creeps in.
(William Cowper)

A Christian, of course, would never say that he deserved salvation, perhaps never think it; but the difficulty every Christian has in being and remaining genuinely amazed and heart-broken at God’s grace to him or her is evidence enough of the pride that still fills the heart. We think so well of ourselves, it is very hard to think that God should not as well. Take Alexander Whyte to heart and deal with yourself truthfully: “Lucifer himself would be a humble angel with his wings over his face if he had a past like yours, and would often enough return to look at it.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 211-212]

It is the power and prevalence of pride as the principle sin of the human heart that explains the concentration on self-denial and humility in the Bible’s teaching of the Christian life, what Charles Simeon called, “growing downwards.” It is not too much to say, as Augustine did [Letters, 118], that humility is the first, the second, and the third part of godliness. If, he said, humility did not precede, accompany, and follow every action we perform, it would not be a good work because, in the nature of the case, it would be a selfish work, a work of petty vanity. That is what Pascal meant when he said that without humility all our other virtues are but vices. Paul said that it is in living for God and others rather than for ourselves – the Bible’s simplest definition of humility – that we are most like Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:3-4). If someone so worthy of the worship of all – as was Jesus Christ – nevertheless devoted himself to the life of others, how much more ought we sinners saved by grace cheerfully to live the life of a servant. And our lives cannot be a fit response to God’s grace if we do not live in heart and behavior as those who know very well that we have nothing that we did not receive (1 Cor. 4:7).

But to put pride to death is lifelong work of the most difficult kind. Augustine was just acknowledging the facts of the case when he wrote: “That which first overcomes man is the last thing man overcomes.” We get no help from our culture. Pride is a topic of little interest to modern psychology or the self-help industry and self-congratulation has become an accepted art form in the era of the “touchdown dance.” Whoever tells you nowadays not to be proud? Whoever makes fun of the pride of human beings? Whoever points out its absurdity? Whoever commends to you the beauty of truly humble heart? Whoever in our day and age? Whoever if not your ministers with God’s Word in their hands? Nowadays low self-esteem is very likely to be thought a far more serious problem than pride.

The godly have always known that true goodness requires the killing of their pride and they learned soon enough that there was no gentle way to go about it. It had to be hacked to death. Amy Carmichael required higher caste converts to break rocks and dig foundations in front of low-caste coolies. As she explained, “It is honorable to preach and grace in teaspoons would have been enough for a preaching tour. Ditch digging lent dignity to nobody. Grace in rivers was required for this. Day by day they grew in manliness.” [Cited in E. Elliot, A Chance to Die, 264]

One good man after another has attacked his pride as a well-entrenched enemy by giving himself orders such as these:

“Talk not about myself;” (Charles Simeon)
“Desire to be unknown;” (I found that in á Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, Archbishop Leighton, and François Fenelon)
“Lord, Deliver me from the lust of vindicating myself.”

And as you have heard me tell you before, once St. Francis of Assisi became a celebrated figure and the object of constant adulation, he is said to have assigned to a fellow monk the task of reminding him of his failures and of how little he deserved the praise he was receiving. Nobody gets rid of his or her pride, deep-seated as it is, so integrated as it is into our view of ourselves, without attacking it head-on and giving no quarter. Have you confessed your sins to another recently? There are other reasons constantly to confess our sins to one another, but the mortification of our pride is chief among them.

Let me conclude with some encouragement, a description of the happy state a human being reaches who kills his pride and puts on humility for Christ’s sake. This is from C.S. Lewis’ extended discussion of human pride in Mere Christianity. I wish I could read the whole, but this will be enough to set our hearts longing to be rid of our foolish pride – resting on the ridiculous lie that it does – and hungering and thirsting for humility.

“We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity – as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off – getting rid of the false self, with all its “Look at me” and “Aren’t I a good boy?” and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” [113-114]

There is that that is hard about killing your pride, but the honesty and the goodness and freedom that result from it, the prospect of God’s blessing through eternal years, and the honor that is by this means paid to Jesus Christ, well that will make all the effort worth while – more than worthwhile. Ask Ethbaal III, that foolish man, who thought himself a god until God showed him he was not.