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.

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Second chances

God’s system of justice is based on his willingness to give second chances. Although God judges us and punishes us when we do something wrong, he does not expect perfection or condemn us because we can’t stop doing what is wrong. Even when we intentionally break God’s commandments, all we have to do is repent and God will give us a second chance to do things right.

God’s exception to his rule of judgment was explained to Ezekiel this way. He said, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from his sin that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:20-21).

The Hebrew word translated turn in Ezekiel 18:20 is shuwb (shoob). Typically, shuwb is used to describe a situation in which one must go back to a previous location. “The basic meaning of the verb is movement back to a point of departure,” (7725) but it does not necessarily mean that you have to return to the starting point. In the context of a journey, shuwb means that you go back to the point where you got off track or departed from the prescribed pathway you were supposed to follow.

Although some people may think God wants to punish us and is glad when we get into trouble, God’s intention in establishing the Mosaic Law was to prevent his people from doing things that offended him. God asked Ezekiel two rhetorical questions to point out the absurdity of believing God wanted to destroy his people. He said, “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

In an attempt to set the record straight once and for all, God said plainly, “I will judge you,” but added that it would be on an individual basis that he would make his call. He said, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30).

In his plea for repentance, God explained that it was necessary for a change to take place that involved the inner being of man. As if it were possible to become an entirely different person, God said that heart and spirit must be transformed in order to truly have a second chance at life. He said to his people, “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed:  and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? for I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye” (Ezekiel 18:31-32).

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).

The vineyard

The nation of Israel was likened unto a vineyard that was planted in the midst of hostile territory (Psalm 80:8-13). Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard began with an introduction that expressed God’s emotionally attachment to his people. He said, “Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:1-2).

The Hebrew word translated wild in Isaiah 5:2, beushiym means poison-berries (891). The implication being that the fruit of the vineyard was inedible. God’s intention in establishing the nation of Israel was for it to be a witness to others of his existence and of his involvement with mankind. In spite of the painstaking effort God made to bless his people and to show them his loving-kindness, he was continually rejected and replaced with the pagan gods of other nations. Exasperated, God asked the question, “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (Isaiah 5:4).

Ezekiel’s parable of the vineyard revealed that God’s people were useless to him because they refused to listen to and obey his commands. God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, What is the vine tree more than any tree, or than a branch which is among the trees of the forest? Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon?” (Ezekiel 15:2-3). The point God was trying to make was that the purpose of the vine was not to produce wood, but to produce fruit. The vine was necessary, actually essential for producing fruit, but the problem was God’s people were no different than the people that lived around them. They were unable to perform the ministry they had been chosen for because the Israelites’ hearts did not belong to God.

Referring to Israel’s ability to minister to the nations around them, God asked Ezekiel, “Behold, when it was whole, it was meet for no work, how much less shall it be meet yet for any work, when the fire hath devoured it, and it is burned?” (Ezekiel 15:5). In other words, the nation of Israel was corrupt from the beginning. Even when king David ruled, there was conflict and dissention among God’s people. David’s brief reign of 40 years represented the best that Israel had to offer, and yet, David’s sin of adultery, and the family conflict that followed, no doubt caused God’s kingdom to suffer disgrace in the eyes of unbelievers.

God’s final judgment of his people was necessary to purge the pride and self-sufficiency that was evident to everyone. God told Ezekiel, “And I will set my face against them; they shall go out from one fire, and another fire shall devour them; and ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I set my face against them, and I will make the land desolate, because they have committed a trespass, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 15:7-8). The use of the name Lord GOD as opposed to LORD or Jehovah, God’s personal name, meant that when God set his face against his people, he would be dealing with them as the Lord of Lords or divine ruler of the universe, a.k.a. Jesus.

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 mark

In his divine judgment of the city of Jerusalem, God demonstrated his ability to exercise self-control, in spite of fierce emotions that caused him to destroy everything, including his holy temple. Before he undertook the action to kill everyone within the city walls, God ordered a mark to be placed on the forehead of every person who shared his disgust with the situation. Calling forth the seven guardian angels that protected his people, God gave instructions to set apart those who were faithful to him. It says in Ezekiel 9:4, “And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.”

The seventh angel, who was clothed in linen, carried a writer’s inkhorn with which he was to place the mark (Ezekiel 9:2). Although it is not specified exactly what type of mark was made, the Hebrew word translated mark in Ezekiel 9:4, tav or taw, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, specifies a signature. The signature may have only been represented by an X, but the implication was that the mark was a sign of ownership that was imprinted on the forehead. A similar marking is found in the book of Revelation where it says of the Antichrist, “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive the mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Revelation 13:16-17).

God’s judgment of Jerusalem was in many ways the foreshadowing of God’s final judgment of everyone on earth. It says in Revelation 3:12, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.” It is possible that the mark placed on the foreheads of those in Jerusalem at the time of the city’s destruction was linked to Christ and was the equivalent of receiving salvation. The remarkable thing about receiving the mark was the only  requirement was to sign or groan, as if in despair (Ezekiel 9:4).

Ezekiel’s visions of God allowed him to see beforehand the outcome of God’s judgment of Jerusalem. In spite of his lenient excusal of anyone that cried out in despair, it appeared that none would survive. After the order was given to slay everyone that did not have the mark, Ezekiel exclaimed, “And it came to pass, while they were slaying them, and I was left, that I fell upon my face, and cried, and said, Ah Lord GOD, wilt thou destroy all the residue of Israel in thy pouring out of thy fury upon Jerusalem?” (Ezekiel 9:8). God’s reply to Ezekiel’s question suggested there were none who believed and were willing to cry out to him for help. “Then he said unto me, The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceeding great, and the land is full of blood, and the city full of perverseness: for they say, The LORD hath forsaken the earth, and the LORD seeth not” (Ezekiel 9:9).

Divine influence

The explanation Ezekiel received for God’s punishment of his children was that they were to serve as a warning to the nations around them. God said, “So it shall be a reproach and a taunt, an instruction and an astonishment unto the nations round about thee, when I shall execute judgments on thee in my anger and in fury and in furious rebukes. I the LORD have spoken it” (Ezekiel 5:15).

God intended to judge the nations surrounding Israel, but first he set an example by punishing the nation of Judah and more specifically Jerusalem because he said, “they have refused my judgments and my statutes, they have not walked in them” (Ezekiel 5:6). According to God, the people of Jerusalem had acted more wickedly than the nations around them by defiling his temple (Ezekiel 5:11) and would be reduced to cannibalism as a sign of their depravity (Ezekiel 5:10).

In a final symbolic act, Ezekiel was instructed to shave his head and beard (Ezekiel 5:1). Afterward, he was told, “Thou shalt burn with fire a third part in the midst of the city, when the days of the siege are fulfilled, and thou shalt take a third part, and smite about it with a knife: and a third part shalt thou scatter to the wind; and I will draw out a sword after them” (Ezekiel 5:2). These gestures signified the ways God’s people would be destroyed: famine, being killed in combat, and being scattered abroad.

The harsh treatment God’s people received was due to their continuous rebellion over a period of more than 400 years. Rather than give up on them completely, God wanted to show them they would not escape judgment if they refused to repent. God’s judgment of the nation of Judah was actually a one-time event that was never to be repeated (Ezekiel 5:9). The outcome would be a strong turning to a new course of action by God. He said, “Thus shall mine anger be accomplished, and I will cause my fury to rest upon them, and I will be comforted” (Ezekiel 5:13).

The Hebrew word translated comforted, nacham (naw – kham´) means to sigh or to be sorry. Nacham is also associated with repentance. “Comfort is derived from ‘com’ (with) and ‘fort’ (strength). Hence, when one repents, he exerts strength to change, to re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of purpose and action” (5162). God’s judgment of his people marked the end of his effort to get them to obey his laws. From that point forward, God would deal with his people as sinners that could only be saved by grace; through his divine influence upon their hearts.