Two sisters

Jerusalem and Samaria were described as two adulterous sisters in a parable that was intended to portray the two cities as corrupt and tied to the past by their habitual idolatry. (Ezekiel 23). The origin of the adulterous sisters’ behavior was an early exposure to sexual misconduct in the land of Egypt. The Israelites lived in bondage in Egypt for 430 years. When they were finally delivered from bondage by Moses, they had to be taken out of the land almost by force. During the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were continually reverting to old habits such as worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32:4), and engaging in the fertility rites of Baal, the god of the Moabites (Numbers 25:1-2).

The parable of the adulterous sisters opened with a stark picture of violent sexual abuse. God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother: and they committed whoredoms in Egypt: they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity” (Ezekiel 23:2-3). The accusation of having committed whoredom was due to a voluntary and willful choice of a particular lifestyle that was contrary to God’s commandments. As God’s chosen people, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any god other than Jehovah. Even before Moses was given the Ten Commandments, it was clear to Abraham’s descendants that they were not to engage in idolatry. Circumcision was symbolic of God’s ownership rights to Abraham’s offspring, and a token of his entering into a covenant with each man individually (Genesis 17:10).

In the parable of the adulterous sisters, Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Judah, was designated as the younger sister, Aholibah, who followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Aholah, who represented Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ezekiel 23:4). After the fall of Samaria, Jerusalem was expected to heed God’s warning and turn back to him, but instead, Jerusalem became even more corrupt than Samaria by defiling God’s holy temple. The result was alienation from God and isolation from his messengers, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

In the parable, Ezekiel was told, “And when her sister Aholibah saw this, she was more corrupt in her inordinate love than she…She doted upon the Assyrians her neighbors, captains and rulers clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men” (Ezekiel 23:11-12). Jerusalem’s reliance on military strength rather than God’s protection was evident when king Jehoiakim paid tribute or ransom money in order to receive protection from Pharaoh-nechoh of Egypt (2 Kings 23:35). In the end, king Hezekiah of Judah invited the Babylonians to view the treasures of his kingdom which were later taken by king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 20:13; Ezekiel 23:16).

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Too late

On August 14, 591 B.C., “certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:1). At that time, the fall of Jerusalem was inevitable and king Zedekiah’s plan to escape into the desert was most likely already in place. The elders of Israel may have been hoping that Ezekiel would give them an alternative to what they had already heard from the prophet Jeremiah. The fact that they went to see Ezekiel while he was being held captive in Babylon suggests that the elders of Israel were expecting Ezekiel to be aware of the current situation in Jerusalem and was able to tell them what to do even though he had been in captivity for more that seven years. Otherwise, there would have been no point for the elders to travel such a long distance to get his advice.

Unfortunately, the elders of Israel were disappointed when they arrived. Instead of receiving the latest news from God’s appointed messenger, the elders of Israel were told it was too late for them to seek God’s counsel, their judgment was already sealed and God would not reconsider his sentence against them (Ezekiel 20:31). Ezekiel was instructed to pronounce sentence against them and was told exactly what to say so that the elders of Israel would realize time had run out and Jerusalem would soon be destroyed.

The seriousness of Israel’s wrongdoing was such that God had Ezekiel recite the history of their idolatry from its beginning in the desert outside of Egypt before the people ever entered the Promised Land. Several times, God wanted to pour out his fury, but spared the people for his own name’s sake. Eventually, God gave up on his effort to change the Israelites’ behavior and let them have their own way. He explained to Ezekiel, “Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols. Wherefore, I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; and I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:24-26). In other words, God let them do what they wanted to so that they would become aware of their own sinful way of life.

The sisters

God’s anger toward the city of Jerusalem was not an isolated incident. Beginning with the flood that wiped out all life on earth (Genesis 7:21), God continually acted to rid the world of corrupt humans. Two cities in particular were singled out for their wicked behavior, Samaria and Sodom. God likened these cities to sisters that loathed their husbands and their children (Ezekiel 16:45). God said of Jerusalem, “And thine elder sister is Samaria, she and her daughters that dwell at thy left hand: and thy younger sister, that dwelleth at thy right hand is Sodom and her daughters” (Ezekiel 16:46).

The characterization of these cities as sisters was meant to portray a similar behavior that was common to all, as if it was a family trait. What was the same about all of them was idolatry. It was said of Jerusalem, “Thus saith the Lord GOD: Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredom with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them; behold, therefore, I will gather all thy lovers…and will discover thy nakedness unto them, that they may see all thy nakedness” (Ezekiel 16:36-37).

The city referred to as Jerusalem’s elder sister (Ezekiel 16:46), Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Among the many wicked kings that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel were king Jeroboam who made two calves of gold to be worshipped as gods, and Omri who established the capital of Samaria and instituted Baal worship there. Comparing Jerusalem to Samaria, God said, “Yet hast thou not walked after their ways, nor done after their abominations: but as if that were a very little thing, thou wast corrupted more than they in all thy ways…Neither hath Samaria committed half of thy sins; but thou hast multiplied thine abominations more than they, and hath justified thy sisters in all thine abominations which thou hast done” (Ezekiel 16:47,51).

Sodom, a city that was destroyed when God rained brimstone and fire on it from heaven (Genesis 19:24), was described as haughty or proud. God said, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). God said that Jerusalem had justified Samaria and Sodom because she was more wicked than they were. The Hebrew word translated justified in this instance is tsadeq (tsaw – dak´). “This word is used of man as regarded as having obtained deliverance from condemnation, and as being thus entitled to a certain inheritance” (6663).

Because Jerusalem was proven to be no better than Samaria and Sodom, these two cities would be restored to their former estate, just as Jerusalem would be in the future. In other words, when the Messiah came, he would not limit his ministry to the city of Jerusalem. God intended to extend his grace to the surrounding region, and eventually to the entire world. In spite of Jerusalem’s failure to meet God’s standards, God did not abandon his holy city. He said, Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant…That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more, because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 16:60,63).

The harlot

The city of Jerusalem was likened to a harlot or prostitute because of the idolatry that took place within her walls. God described Jerusalem as the child of prominent parents that was abandoned at birth, perhaps the result of a failed abortion. God said, “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy naval wast not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the loathing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born” (Ezekiel 16:4-5).

God’s claim to the city of Jerusalem was based on a covenant he likened to a marriage contract. He said, “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness; yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord GOD, and thou becamest mine” (Ezekiel 16:8). God’s relationship with his people was dependent on a land that would belong to them throughout eternity. In order to fulfill his promise to Abraham, God selected Jerusalem as the home where he would dwell with his people.

God’s commitment to the city of Jerusalem was met when king David made Jerusalem the capital of Israel and Solomon built his temple there. It was only because Good had chosen Jerusalem beforehand that these things were able to take place. Like a bride on her wedding day, God said, “Thus wast thou decked with gold and silver; and thy raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and broidered work; thou didst eat fine flour, and honey, and oil; and thou wast exceeding beautiful, and thou didst prosper as a kingdom” (Ezekiel 16:13).

The city of Jerusalem became attractive to foreign kings because of the wealth that flowed into her gates as a result of God’s blessing. Without fully realizing what he was doing, king Hezekiah invited dignitaries from Babylon to tour his capital. It says in 2 Kings 20:13, “And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and shewed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not.”

So that no one would be able to inhabit the city of Jerusalem besides his chosen people, God judged the land and caused it to become barren while his people went into exile. As if the land had committed adultery, God said of Jerusalem, “And in thine abominations and thy whoredoms thou hast not remembered the days of thy youth, when thou wast naked and bare, and wast polluted with blood…Behold, therefore, I have stretched out my hand over thee, and have diminished thine ordinary food, and delivered thee unto the will of them that hate thee, the daughters of the Philistines, which are ashamed of thy lewd way” (Ezekiel 16:27).

Idols

In his call to turn from idols, the LORD repeated three times the accusation, “these men have set up their idols in their hearts , and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face” (Ezekiel 14:3,4,7). To set up an idol in one’s heart means that you are intentionally giving it a place of priority in making your decisions. In other words, you are planning your life around the thing that you worship and want to make sure it remains a part of your life.

The Hebrew word translated idols in Ezekiel 14:3, gillul (ghil – lool´) is properly translated a log, as in something that is round and can be transported through rolling it (1544, 1556). A log was synonymous with an idol because the images of pagan gods were usually carved into wooden statues from giant trees. Jesus used the illustration of a log being cast out of the eye to teach against hypocrisy. He said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5, ESV).

Jesus may have been referring to the practice of idolatry as a serious problem compared with worry or being anxious about God providing for our needs (Matthew 6:32). At the core of idolatry was the belief that spiritual beings had power apart from God’s control. If you wanted to excel in a certain area of your life, you could gain an advantage by seeking the assistance of a god whose domain was that area. For example, Asherah was the Canaanite goddess of fertility.

Thinking of idols as images that were stored or set up in the heart, you could say that Asherah was a symbol of or was similar to pornography. She was often depicted as a partially naked woman and her image was probably intended to stimulate sexual excitement. As with pornography today, images of naked women take the place of a normal, healthy sex drive. When God said, “these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face” (Ezekiel 14:3), he was most likely referring to the statue of Asherah that was erected in the temple to serve as a daily reminder that sex was the most important thing in these men’s lives.

In as much as God knew that idols were a perpetual problem with his people, he reminded Ezekiel that the remnant of people that would be saved from destruction were just as evil as everyone else. It was only by his grace that God would be able to save anyone. He said, “Yet behold, therein shall be left a remnant that shall be brought forth, both sons and daughters: behold, they shall come forth unto you, and ye shall see their ways and their doings: and ye shall be comforted concerning the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, even concerning all that I have brought upon it. And they shall comfort you, when you see their ways and their doings: and ye shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 14:22-23).

The liar

One of the few descriptions of the devil in the Bible is found in John 8:44. Differentiating between those who are true children of Abraham and those who are not, it says, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lust of your father ye will do .He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for his is a liar, and the father of it.” Satan’s reputation as the father of lies implies that all lies originate from him. In the book of 1 Kings, there is recorded an incident in which a lying spirit was sent to the king of Israel (1 Kings 22:23-24). A conversation between God and the host of heaven suggested that king Ahab could be persuaded by a lying spirit to do something that would result in his own death.

At the time of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, the people were being told lies about their safety inside the city walls. Ezekiel was told, “They have seen vanity and lying divination, saying, The LORD saith: and the LORD hath not sent them: and they made others to hope that they would confirm the word” (Ezekiel 13:6). “Divination was a pagan parallel to prophesying…it seems probable that the diviners conversed with demons…Divination was one of man’s attempts to know and control the world and the future, apart from the true God” (7080). Even king Zedekiah participated in the deception of God’s people. His consultation with Jeremiah revealed that surrender was the only way to avoid death, and yet, Zedekiah chose to keep the information from the people and tried to escape secretly by night (Jeremiah 39:4).

In an attempt to make the truth known to his people, Ezekiel was given advance warning of king Zedekiah’s plot (Ezekiel 12:6) and was told to warn the people against false prophets (Ezekiel 13:2). God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, what is that proverb that ye have in the land of Israel, saying, The days are prolonged, and every vision faileth? Tell them therefore, Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will make this proverb to cease, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel; but say unto them, The days are at hand, and the effect of every vision. For there shall be no more any vain vision nor flattering divination within the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 12:22-24).

The connection between idolatry and lying divination was found in a sacrificial system that promised peace and prosperity at a price. In a sense, the false prophets were bribed to tell the people what they wanted to hear. Sacrifices to pagan gods were used as a front for the business of organized crime. It was illegal for the Israelites to worship other gods, and yet, idols were kept in God’s own temple (Ezekiel 8:12). God’s condemnation of the false prophets showed that his people were under their control and needed to be delivered from their dangerous practices. He said, “Because with lies ye have made the heart of the righteous sad, whom I have not made sad; and strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way, by promising him life: therefore ye shall see no more vanity, nor divine divinations: for I will deliver my people out of your hand: and ye shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 13:22-23).

Recompense

In an attempt to prepare Ezekiel for the worst catastrophe that the Israelites would ever experience, God showed Ezekiel exactly what his motivation was for completely destroying the city of Jerusalem. As if to announce a death sentence on a guilty prisoner, Ezekiel was told, “thus saith the Lord GOD unto the land of Israel; An end, the end is come upon the four corners of the land. Now is the end come upon thee, and I will send mine anger upon thee, and will judge thee according to thy wages, and will recompense upon thee all thine abominations” (Ezekiel 7:2-3).

The Hebrew word translated recompense in Ezekiel 7:3, nathan (naw – than´) means to give (5414). Nathan has a very broad context and can be used to convey many types of actions where there is a transfer of possessions. In a technical sense, nathan means to hand something over to someone in order to satisfy a debt or as payment for services rendered. “This word is used of ‘bringing reprisal’ upon someone or of ‘giving’ him what he deserves” as in the punishment for sins committed. The Apostle Paul taught in his message to the Romans, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Once again, Ezekiel was transported by the spirit to see with his own eyes the abominations taking place in Jerusalem. It says in Ezekiel 8:3, “And he put forth the form of a hand, and took me by a lock of mine head; and the spirit lift me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate that looketh toward the north; where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy.” The image of jealousy was most likely a statue of Asherah, the Canaanite goddess of fertility. The presence of this idol in the temple of God suggested that the Israelites were intentionally provoking God’s anger.

Along with the idols that were openly displayed, numerous objects were kept in the secret chambers of God’s temple. Ezekiel was asked, “Then he said unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen what the ancients of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery?  for they say, The LORD seeth us not; the LORD hath forsaken the earth” (Ezekiel 8:12). The idea that God was limited in his awareness of what his people were doing came from a distorted view of his deity. Much like a man, God was expected to behave in ordinary ways and was thought to be temperamental and easily provoked.

One of the objectives God expected to accomplish by punishing his people was to restore their respect and reverence for his position. As the sovereign LORD of the universe, God could do whatever he pleased. In order to reestablish a proper relationship with his people, God chose to put an end to sacrifices and burnt offerings, so that the basis of salvation would not be confused with earning God’s favor. Once God punished his children, he would be free to move on with his plan of salvation, which included the provision for all to be saved by his grace.