Ezekiel 33:1-33

Tonight we begin the third and last major section of the Book of Ezekiel. The first section, the first 24 chapters (including the account of the prophet’s call in the first three chapters of the book), are devoted to prophecies of Jerusalem’s fall. From a variety of perspectives and from a time some seven years before the event Ezekiel forecast the destruction of the city and the nation by the Babylonian army. This message was preached so many times because the people were loathe to believe it. Against all the evidence and in indifference to Yahweh’s offense at their unbelief and disobedience, the people continued to believe that things were looking up. The second section of the book – chapters 25-32 – is devoted to prophecies of judgment concerning the nations that surrounded Israel. As we said, it was preliminary to the prophecies of Israel’s restoration that comprise the last section: chapters 33-48. For the people of God to be restored in the land and then to prosper there, her enemies needed to be weakened if not destroyed. But now we turn to happier things, prophesies of the restoration of the people of God and of the renewal of God’s blessing upon them.

Now as we begin this third and last section it must be noted that we have not heard the last of the fall of Jerusalem. Indeed in chapters 33-37 the fall of Jerusalem remains the backdrop. But now there is a difference: the tone is hopeful, positive, and more is said of the Lord’s plan to restore his people after they have been purged by the catastrophe of August 586 B.C. As before in chapter 18 there is an emphasis on the individual and his responsibility and his opportunity to respond to the Word of God with faith and obedience.

Text Comment

The logic is clear and unassailable: if the watchman warns of impending catastrophe but the people ignore his warning, they have no one to blame but themselves for the disaster that overtakes them. They might have escaped. But if the watchman failed to give the warning, while his failure does not exonerate the population for its previous crimes, the watchman has to answer not only for himself but for those who were swept away because they were given no warning. Now Ezekiel proceeds from illustration to application.
There is no doubt that the people now see that they have suffered for their sins and they are depressed and discouraged about their situation. But is this sorrow yet repentance?
After years of hearing Ezekiel forecast Jerusalem’s catastrophic devastation and after some years of living the life of exiles, far from home, working at the behest of their conquerors, the pessimism is understandable. But, in fact, there is always reason for hope if only one will repent and turn to God. People have a hard time believing that their lives can be dramatically different – that they themselves can be dramatically different – but that is because they have no imagination; they do not reckon with the power of God or the Lord’s willingness to bless those who trust in him. The Lord wants men to live, really to live – not simply to exist – and so calls on them to come to him, which is a way of saying to trust his promises, to count on his faithfulness, and to obey his commandments. Here is the challenge: death is not inevitable, whether we are thinking of death as a condition of human life in this world or as the ultimate destiny of human beings; life is available; why then die?

We have here an important insight into the heart of God that we must never forget in our assertion of the undeniably biblical doctrine or teaching of God’s sovereignty. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. If we must say, as certain biblical texts require us to say, that it is not God’s will that certain people be saved, we must also say that in another sense it is God’s will that they be saved, or that for reasons known to him and perfectly right and just, God has determined not to fulfill his own desires.

A man is not bound by his past nor is he saved by it! A person’s past does not necessarily determine his future.
A man who has lived a righteous life by all appearances will not be excused if later he turns away from righteousness to sin and a man who has lived a wicked life is not prevented by his past from becoming righteous all at once by turning away from sin to the Lord.
The righteousness of the Lord’s judgment is obvious: he judges everyone according to his ways, or his conduct; he holds all to the same standard; he treats everyone according to the same principle.
Finally, after years of predicting the city’s fall, word reaches Babylon on January 8th 585 B.C. that it has come to pass. Judah, the remainder state of Israel is no more. Jerusalem, remember, fell in August of 586 B.C. It took Ezra, some years later, more than four months to travel to Jerusalem from Babylon with a large company, over well-maintained roads, in a time of peace. It took this messenger, who, if he were not a prisoner or exile himself, may have had to wait in hiding first and dodge Babylonian troops while traveling, a bit more time to reach Babylon. Obviously Ezekiel was a known figure in Jerusalem as the messenger from Jerusalem came directly to him. Actually, the chapters of the second section, 25-32, have interrupted the chronological sequence; this chapter follows on chapter 24 where Ezekiel was told, if you remember, that he could expect the arrival of a messenger who would tell him that the city had fallen so that he could begin to speak freely again.
Remember, the Lord had imposed a symbolic silence on Ezekiel, as we read back in 3:26. Now he was free to resume ordinary day to day speech with people.
It may be of symbolic significance that Ezekiel does not use the names Jerusalem or Judah. It is as if the city and the land no longer deserve their names.

If you remember, those Jews left behind at the time of the deportation of 597 B.C. – the deportation that sent Ezekiel to Babylon – coined a phrase that expressed their sense of God’s favor, “The city is the cooking pot, and we are the meat.” We read that in 11:3. The idea was: the city is now ours; we fall heir to it. God meant us to be preserved in Jerusalem and we are the rightful heirs of the Promised Land. They saw the devastation of Judah as good news for them, so little were they reckoning with Yahweh’s judgment of his people. Well, some were left behind this time as well, though the city was in ruins, not intact as 11 years before. They too were taking comfort from the fact that they had managed to dodge the bullet. The city was now theirs. Their slogan “Abraham was only one man…but we are many” apparently expressed their idea that God had left the land and the city to them and it was their right to take over the property of the hapless exiles. But, as we now hear, they were as spiritually clueless after the destruction of the city, as they had been beforehand. Repentance was not in their minds at all. They were thinking of the land without respect to God’s covenant with Abraham or the responsibility of Abraham’s descendants to be faithful to its provisions. The saying reflects a lack of spiritual sensitivity on the one hand and smug self-interest on the other. [Block, ii, 260]

“Ironically, those [who are elsewhere described as] “the poorest of the land” (2 Kings 25:12) have succumbed to the temptation to hubris. The faith of Abraham has been replaced by Darwinian materialism – the fittest have survived. This reorientation is evident also in the survivors’ disposition toward the exiles…. There is no thought for the welfare of their compatriots nor any anticipation of their return.” [Ibid]

In other words, they don’t deserve the land – the survivors are no more faithful than the exiles had been – and the fact that they sit on its ruins is no proof that it has been given to them. The spiritual situation has not yet changed.
As we know from Jeremiah as well, the life of the remnant left behind in what was left of the Promised Land went from bad to worse. There was an abortive rebellion that led to the flight of many to Egypt, poverty increased, and peace and prosperity did not return. When the exiles returned from Babylon they found the people eking out a hardscrabble existence.
Years of Ezekiel’s prophecies of Jerusalem’s doom had now been vindicated. Ezekiel was suddenly a popular prophet. Wherever people met to talk, they began talking about Ezekiel. He was the man who had gotten it right. The people came to him with a new enthusiasm to hear the word of the Lord. What is more, bad news is always gripping and Ezekiel had plenty of that to tell. News shows operate according to the adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and it was the same in Ezekiel’s day. However, the recognition of the truth is not always coupled with a willingness to obey. In that respect nothing changed and the exiles continued to live lives unmarked by true faith and true obedience to the Lord and are still as enamored of their sins as before.
Ezekiel the preacher was, in fact, little more than an entertainer, as is every faithful preacher to whom people give their attention but whose message they neither take to heart nor practice in their lives. They feel spiritual for listening to him and coming to hear him makes it easier for them to sustain the illusion that they are righteous. Charles I loved to hear Thomas Ken—he knew a man of God when he heard one—but he didn’t obey the word of the Lord that came from his mouth.
When the word of the Lord comes to pass the people will finally realize that Ezekiel was more than their entertainer; he spoke for God and when he spoke they were hearing the Almighty himself.

No thoughtful reader of the Bible can read Ezekiel 33 and not immediately recognize themes that are familiar from throughout the Bible and, in particular, in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Our Westminster Confession of Faith in listing the various features of the Bible that prove it to be the Word of God mentions, along with the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, “the consent of all the parts.” [I, v] That is, we have in the Bible a book that was at least a millennium and a half in the making and yet its doctrine is the same from beginning to end. It is put in different ways but it is always the same. Ezekiel preaches the same message that Moses did, and both preached the same message Peter and Paul did.

The Bible constantly contrasts as the two spiritual states or conditions of mankind self-confidence with confidence in the Lord, self-righteousness with the righteousness that comes through faith in God, trust in man with trust in the Lord. So when we read in v. 13 of a man trusting in his own righteousness, and doing so even though he is obviously and observably a sinner, we rightly feel as if we have been transported into a letter written by the Apostle Paul.

And similarly, when we read that a man’s righteousness is not a matter of the accumulated acts of his life, the sum total of his good deeds, as we do in vv. 12-16; when we read that long life of sinfulness can be made righteous by a turn to God or that a long life of ostensible righteousness can count for nothing if it does not continue in faith, repentance, and love, we rightly recognize that we have heard this many times before. It is not always put the same way – though it is put in quite similar ways many times in the Bible – but, as clear as day, it is the message of the first five chapters of Romans and the next three after them. A long life of sin is not an insurmountable barrier to salvation and to peace with God precisely because the righteousness men need and can acquire is not a certain proportion of good acts among all the acts of an entire life. If it were, 50 years of sin could not be overcome by turning to God and to holy living at the end of or near the end of one’s life. As Ezekiel makes clear, it is the state of a man, not the accumulated record of his life that tells for life and for eternity.

But just as surely, the character of a man’s life, his ways as we read in v. 20, tell the tale. Here in chapter 33 we don’t read, to be sure, of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Actually we will get to that subject in a few more chapters, but here it is perfectly clear that the “turn” that God is after in human beings is a turn in behavior, in one’s way of life. The wicked are wicked because of the wickedness they practice, the bad things they do. The righteous are righteous because of the good things they do. That is not the entire story, of course, and Ezekiel will have more to say about that. But, here too, there is nothing unique in this emphasis. We find it elsewhere in the prophets and then again in the Gospels and in the Apostle Paul.

In Jeremiah we read:

“O great and powerful God, whose name is the Lord Almighty…. Your eyes are open to all the ways of men, your reward everyone according to his conduct and as his deeds deserve.” [32:18-19]

It was the Lord Jesus who said:

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” [John 5:28-29]

And it was the Lord again who said, at the very end of his Bible:

“Behold I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” [Rev. 22:12]

It is absolutely true that cheek to jowl with such texts are always other statements that make it perfectly clear that the righteousness in which we stand accepted before God is not the righteousness of our own performance, that salvation is God’s free gift to the undeserving, and that it is faith, faith in the Son of God, that secures it. But all through the Bible the connection between this faith and its consequence in life, between faith and a changed life, between faith in God and righteous living is so complex, so inseparable, so organic, that in the Bible we find righteousness sometimes described as that moral perfection that Christ gives us when we trust in him and sometimes as that obedience that his followers practice; we find true Christians sometimes described according to their confidence in Christ and his salvation and sometimes according to their new way of life. It makes no difference because where there is the one there will be and must be the other. Jack Collins describes the nature of a human being as a soul/body tangle. It is not nearly enough to say we are a soul in a body. The relationship is far more inextricable and far more organic than that. Well in the same way, faith and works in a godly life is a tangle, they are so entangled that it is difficult to treat them as separate things or even precisely to define their relationship. We become righteous before God because Christ’s own perfect righteous life is reckoned to us as if it were our life and not his and that happens when we trust in the Lord, turn from ourselves to count on him. But we are also righteous before God because we live righteously. We are changed from bad to good at the very beginning, at the very outset of faith. Christians are believers; they are also livers of a new life. That is often said in the Bible and at very important junctures not least in descriptions of the last day and the vindication of people before the final judgment of God.

Sometimes the relationship between faith and works is explicitly described, as when Paul summarized his message by saying that he preached that people “should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” or when Paul says that “faith expresses itself through love,” or when James says that “faith without works is dead” because, as he goes on to say, good deeds are the proof or demonstration of faith. More often it is simply stated either that Christ is our righteousness or that righteous people live righteously, often with no effort made to relate the one righteousness to the other.

And so it is here. As Ezekiel puts it in vv. 12-16, a righteous man is one who lives righteously. He even is willing to speak of a man living righteously and then becoming wicked. We might well think, well, if he became wicked later, they he was not truly righteous before. And that would be true enough. But Ezekiel speaks phenomenologically, according to what can be seen of a man’s life, of how we observe it, of what we can know about it. And it is certainly the case that we can sometimes think a man is righteous because he seems to be living righteously – he is in the ways that we can observe – and then, to our chagrin, we watch him begin to live unrighteously. From the vantage point of our observation he has changed from righteous to unrighteous. And the Bible often speaks this way. The secret things belong to God – what the true state of a person’s heart maybe at any time – we can judge only what we can see. And by that standard men are righteous if they live righteously.

But, with all of that acknowledged, it is ours this evening to consider the burden of this 33rd chapter, which is the offer of peace with God, of salvation, of life itself, life with a capital “L,” the life that lasts forever and gets better all the while, the offer of all of that if only a sinful man or woman will turn. There is here as everywhere else an interest in, an expectation of, and hope for a fundamental change of, a revolution in, a transformation of a person’s life; a before and a very different and wonderfully better after. Call it the new birth or the new creation from God’s side or conversion from man’s side. Think of it in terms of putting faith in Christ or think of it as a transformation of one’s way of life. It matters not. The point is: there must be this turning. The people of Judah had not turned. Nothing the Lord had done or said had brought them to turn. No matter their circumstances they continued in the same direction they always had. They wouldn’t turn. All God required of them was that they turn. But they would not. If only they would everything wonderful immediately becomes possible, but they must turn.

I am just beginning to read a book that I first learned of from a reference that Dr. Samuel Hsu made in his Sunday School class here several weeks ago. He mentioned, if you remember, Franz Mohr, the celebrated piano technician, who as Head Concert Technician for the Steinway Company prepared the pianos for the greatest pianists of the 20th century, including Horowitz, Rubenstein, and Cliburn. He became a good friend of all those great musicians. He once said that he had played more at Carnegie Hall than anyone else, because he prepared the pianos prior to so many memorable concerts held there. A devout Christian, Mohr tells his life story in a book entitled My Life with the Great Pianists. In the forward to the book Henry Steinway writes, “To understand Franz one must understand that he is truly and thoroughly a religious person. His Christian faith is at the core of his being and affects everything that he says or does.” [By the way, that is another way of explaining why Ezekiel can speak so innocently about a person being righteous or unrighteous in terms of his behavior. Faith or the lack of faith in the Lord is at the core of one’s being and affects everything that he says or does.] So you can talk of faith or the results of faith, the core principle or what it brings to pass in our lives.

Early on in the book, Franz Mohr tells of being at one of Vladimir Horowitz’ birthday parties – Horowitz wouldn’t let anyone prepare his piano except Mohr; sometimes a condition of his playing was whether Mohr could be with him to attend to the instrument – and someone at the party mentioned that Malcolm Forbes had given a birthday party for himself at a cost of one million dollars and that he was very proud of it. A reporter had asked Forbes on the occasion, “If you could have one wish, what would it be? Forbes had replied immediately, “I want eternal life; what I desire is immortality in a healthy body.” Hearing that story there, surrounded by the musical and literary elite, Mohr had piped up, “And you know what? Everyone can have this for the asking!” But he says, “there was no response from any of them. It went over everyone’s head.” [37] I tell that story as an introduction to the man; just so that you have a feel for Franz Mohr as a devout Christian, a faithful witness to his Lord, a man much admired even by unbelievers for his sterling character, his kindness, and his loyalty. Reading the book you come to know a very fine man, a very attractive man, a righteous man.

Franz Mohr was born and raised in Germany before the Second World War. His was a musical family. He was twelve when the war began. His father was violently anti-Nazi and had many Jewish friends. His older brother was killed in action against the Russians near the end of the war. His younger brother was killed when the family home was destroyed by American bombers. The catastrophe of the war, the shame over Germany’s sins, especially those against the Jews, left him an embittered young man and defiantly uninterested in religion and talk of God. He was proud of his new-found atheism. But he was unhappy and confused and his questions about the meaning of life would not go away. He became a chain smoker and discovered that he couldn’t quit even though the smoking was ruining his health and his doctor had ordered him to stop.

One night a friend invited him to meet an Englishman who was visiting. It turned out to be a Bible study and the Englishman was a missionary. Franz was put off, rude to the man actually, but the missionary was kind to him, promised to pray for him, and gave him a Bible. “You will find the answers to your questions in this book,” he told him. He couldn’t refuse a gift given with such kindness, but he took it home and put it on his shelf. A year later he took it down and began to read, right from the beginning and, as so many others, encountered an authority and a manifest truth that he could not escape or deny. Here was the explanation of the terrible mess that had been made of the world. Over time the gospel began to become clear to him and he encountered himself the love of God in Christ. And all of a sudden, his life was profoundly different.

He became an avid reader of the Bible. He stopped smoking immediately and hardly noticed that he had. He found love in his heart toward people he had before hated with a passion. His parents, long-time Roman Catholics, could not tolerate his simple biblical faith and required him to leave the family home, an alienation that was happily later overcome. He was taken in by another Christian and his new life began. He was engaged to be married when he became a Christian and feared that he would have to forsake the love of his life because she did not share his love for Christ; but just before announcing to her that the engagement must be broken, she announced that she had become a Christian herself. He became a piano technician in Germany and then eventually came to New York to work for the Steinway Company.

Just one more story of a man who turned, who turned away from unbelief and the life that unbelief produces, to God and to the life that faith in him must produce. A man who forsook unrighteousness and began to live righteously. One man who, realizing that the Sovereign Lord takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but wishes that they turn from their ways and live, decided not to die but to live. One man who forsook a past of unrighteousness to embrace a future of righteousness and who has lived now many years as a faithful servant of the Lord, rejoicing in the goodness and grace granted him in defiance of his undeserving, grateful that he has been given the opportunity to live a life pleasing to God.

The history of the world is the history of men and women turning or refusing to turn, choosing to live or choosing instead to die, answering the Lord’s appeal or turning a deaf ear to it. Most magnificently it is a history of vast multitudes of lives that changed, root and branch, and became something very different, more beautiful, more worthy than they were or ever could have been had they never turned.

Not many years after Ezekiel received news of Jerusalem’s destruction, the book of Chronicles was written to tell the story of Israel’s history up to and through the exile in Babylon. In that book there is an account of the prayer that Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. Part of that prayer reads this way:

“When they sin against you – for there is no one who does not sin – and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you.”

That is the very situation and those are the very people that Ezekiel is talking about in chapter 33. There in Chronicles, their righteousness and their salvation upon their repentance is described in terms of the Lord’s forgiveness of their sins. Here in Ezekiel, it is put in terms of the transformation of “their ways,” their behavior. Both, of course, are true, part of the same grace and the same salvation.

But here in Ezekiel, we are reminded – and it becomes ours always to remember – that God is summoning us to live a beautiful life, a good life, a kind and loving life, a reverent and devout life, a generous, gracious, loyal, faithful life. That too is salvation. That too is the will of God. That too is righteousness. All of you know very well how your lives ought to be different than they are: how you ought to be righteous, how your “ways” should change. Well it is high time. Turn to God and change then. You can, life is before you; choose it! As we rejoice in the forgiveness of our sins, we must not forget that we are forgiven precisely to live a new life, a different life, better by far.