From the shortest chapter in Ezekiel (15), we move to the longest chapter. Dan Block points out that chapter 16 is longer than six of the minor prophets. But what makes chapter 16 so memorable is not primarily its length but its content. It is one of the most evocative, emotional, disturbing sections of Scripture. The Lord gives Ezekiel an extended word-picture of Jerusalem’s spiritual infidelity that is graphic and grisly. Jerusalem is compared to a wife who, after having been saved and served by her divine Husband, opts to become a foolish prostitute with other gods and surrounding nations. After brazenly playing the whore, she receives the “blood of wrath and jealousy” from the Lord (38). Although we would expect a complete and final divorce, the Lord astounds once again by promising to establish an “everlasting covenant” (60) with the very one who broke His covenant (59).
This chapter is difficult to read but not difficult to understand. The chapter reads like a movie script, starting with the birth of an unwanted girl to a mixed marriage (Amorite and Hittite—3). This daughter was cast into an open field to die, left wallowing in her own blood, completely uncared for (4-5). But the Lord saw this orphaned, helpless child and showed compassion by giving her life (“‘Live’ I said to you . . . ‘Live’”—6). He takes the girl in and, when she has grown up, takes her as His bride (“entered into a covenant with you”—8). He cleans her up (9) and then lavishes her with the finest of clothing, jewelry and food (10-12). She becomes a queen (crowned—12), stunning in the beauty and splendor given her by the Lord (14).
Then, instead of hearing they “lived happily ever after,” the story line takes a dark turn. The queen goes rogue. Over the course of the next 20 verses (15-34), we read a sexually-explicit account of her infidelities. She plays the whore with false gods and surrounding nations. And she does it all at her own expense, paying her other lovers with the very riches and children she received from her divine Husband. The translators of the Hebrew text had a difficult time bringing some of the phrases into English in a way that would be appropriate for all-ages. This is no longer a G or PG movie.
The Lord—the divine Husband—is both broken hearted and outraged. He sentences her (Jerusalem) to a just but gruesome punishment. Her so-called lovers will be brought to turn on her, strip her bare and cut her to pieces, and burn her houses (39-41). Thus the Lord says He will “satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you, I will be calm and will be no more be angry” (42). This woman (Jerusalem) has proven to be more wicked than her “sisters”—Samaria and Sodom (46-51).
However, just when we expect the story to end tragically, it takes another unexpected turn. This time in a way that is unimaginably better. The Lord is not finished with his wayward bride (or her sisters). He has a future planned for them that is both undeserved and unexpected. In verses 59-63, the Lord says he will “remember my covenant with you” and establish “an everlasting covenant” (60). His bride will be ashamed of her ways (61) and will know that He is the Lord (62). She will never open her mouth again about her shame for the Lord has atoned for all the abominations she has done (63). Simply amazing!
Visions of God
In Dan Block’s excellent commentary, he has an excursus where he acknowledges the strong and stinging reaction against this chapter by some scholars. They see this vision of God as unworthy and off-side with His character: being wrathful and jealous; “abusing” His bride with humiliating and brutal punishments. This portrayal of God runs counter to modern sensibilities of what God should be like. However, as Block points out, these critics seem to miss the nature of covenantal love (desiring and demanding loyalty), the nature of humans (fickle, wayward and unfaithful), and the nature of God (amazingly compassionate and passionate for the love of a wayward people). I come away from chapter 16 deeply moved at the unmerited favour (grace) shown by God, His wounded, passionate heart for His people and His redeeming, covenantal love that endures when given every reason to end the relationship.
The Lord is compassionate Father and passionate Husband to His people. As a compassionate Father he saves and adopts an unwanted people. As a passionate husband He pursues, punishes and atones for an unfaithful people. God is not some distant, detached deity, spinning the world into existence and then keeping His distance. He is an involved father and lavish husband.
The Lord is jolted by and jealous for the affection and confidence of His people. The stark, sensual language used in this vision serve to emotively convey the repugnance of Israel’s infidelity and the devastating effect it has on their God. The story line jars our sensibilities and causes us to cringe. I’m appalled by the reminder that God’s people (then and now) can go whoring after other idols and rely on other “saviours”. I’m also stunned by how our unfaithfulness wounds our heavenly Lover. The imagery of a child and a wife (rather than of a servant or slave) evidence God’s attitude towards His people is an intimate and exclusive.
The Lord does not spare His people from the just outcome of their infidelity. Sin has consequences—not just natural, but supernatural. Sin angers God who is not only our Father and Husband but also our Holy Judge. He judges with justice: “behold, I have returned your deeds upon your head” (43).
The Lord’s loyal, covenantal love is more enduring than our darkest iniquity. He remains faithful when we are faithless. Faithful to judge. Faith to atone for the very sins He judges. He reduces, reclaims and restores. Who is like our God? Dan Block comments that what strikes him most in this chapter is the theme of God’s constancy.
This chapter, dark as it is, reveals something bright and brilliant about our God!
Visions of God’s People
Everything we have is the gift of a gracious God. He is the one who saved us (“Live”—6), watched over us (“I made you flourish”—7), initiated a covenant with us (8), cleaned us up (9), lavished us with every good gift (10-13) and restored us after we went astray (59-63). There is no room for pride or self-promotion. As Isaiah says, “All we have accomplished, You have done for us” (Isa. 26:12). Or as Paul asks the proud Corinthian Christians, “What do you have that you did not received?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
The gifts we receive from God can tempt us to wander from God. Israel’s beauty and splendor made her think she was more desirable and accomplished than she was. Ironically, God’s gifts which make us stand out can delude us into thinking we can stand on our own. But as Jesus told us, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If we love the world, we trade a faithful Lover for unfaithful ones who cannot satisfy. Israel turned her attention and affections to the nations who seemed large and in charge—Egypt, Assyria and Babylon (26-29). Somehow the security and prestige they offered seemed more desirable than what the Lord provided. But it didn’t work out. In fact, other lovers were never enough (“you were not satisfied”—28). In the end, they actually turned on Israel and were God’s instrument of judgment (37).
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen must warn believers against “loving the world.” Augustine speaks of our sad propensity of having “disordered loves.” Instead of loving the One who is only good, we love false gods and turn to worldly sources for security and status. 1 John 2:15-16 reminds Christians to check this tendency to love the world, which is passing away. Watchmen must help God’s people not be distracted or deceived into thinking the world has more to offer than the Giver of all good gifts.
Watchmen need to call believers to remember the story of the gospel. The remedy for Israel’s wandering was found in remembering: “Because you did not remember the days of your youth” (43, see also 63). When we remember that we were once “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), we are far less likely to become proud, independent, wayward and unfaithful to our Saviour and Lover. When we remember (give attention to) the unmerited favour of God in saving us and bringing us into covenant with Himself, we will be moved to love and loyalty.
Watchmen should proclaim the dark parts of God’s Word to show His great glory. The message contained in this vision is one of the starkest and darkest in the Scriptures. It is painful to read of Israel’s infidelity to God, told in shockingly sexual terms. However, Ezekiel 16 provides a greater vision of God’s glory than is found in other parts of Scripture that are more palatable to our tastes. Here we see God’s lavish grace, His passionate love, His broken, jealous heart, His deadly wrath and His constant, abiding faithfulness—all in one chapter, told in story form! Truly, all Scripture is God breathed and profitable (2 Cor. 3:16).