The message from the Lord recorded in chapter 20 is triggered when “some of the elders of Israel” pay a visit to Ezekiel to “inquire of the Lord” (1). The Lord’s response is not what they expected or, at least, not what they were hoping for.
The Lord gives Ezekiel a message of powerful rebuke and painful restoration to deliver to these elders. The message recounts the nation’s wayward history, from their idolatrous years in Egypt (5-12), to their rebellious years in the wilderness (13-27), to their continued compromise in the land of promise (28-32). In spite of the fact that the Lord graciously entered into covenant with the nation (“I swore to them, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God’”—5), and promised to bring them out of Egypt into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (6), the people of Israel refused to give up their Egyptian idols (7-8). Still, for the sake of His own name (9), the Lord kept His promise and delivered them from Egypt and into the wilderness (10).
In the wilderness, He gave them His statutes, rules and Sabbath command (11-12), not so that they might become His people (which they already were!), but so that they might live as His people (“if a person does them, he shall live”—11). Tragically, the people of Israel rejected His rules, profaned His Sabbaths and continued to go after their idols (13, 16).
Responding to this continued rebellion, the Lord swears He will not bring this adult generation in to the Promises Land (15, see Psalm 95); however, in His mercy, He does fulfill His promise to the next generation (“their children”—18). Before He brings the next generation into Canaan, He repeats His requirements, rules and Sabbath commands (18-20). Obedience is both expected of His people and evidence that they belong to Him (20). Sadly, the next generation does no better than their fathers (“But the children rebelled against me”—21). Still, for the sake of His name, the Lord graciously withholds His anger and brings them into the Promised Land (22). Seeing their wayward hearts and disobedient actions, the Lord gives them “statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life” (25). Commentators have puzzled over whether this is a reference to God’s laws being “not good” or to another set of laws. I see this statement as an Old Testament version of Romans 1:24—God gives people over to follow their own willful ways. In Deuteronomy 28:64 (given to the second generation in the wilderness), the Lord declares that those who persist in rebelling against him will wind up serving other gods of wood and stone. God gives them over to taste the bitterness of living under “not good” laws and statutes of false religions.
True to form, the new generation, enters the good land but acts in evil ways. They establish idolatrous high places “(Bamah—29) on “any high hill” or under “any leafy tree” (28). They continue their pursuit—one which the Lord will accept—to be “like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone” (32).
In verse 33, the message from the Lord shifts from the past to the future. Though He had said He would not be inquired of by the elders of Israel who visited Ezekiel, the Lord chooses to disclose His upcoming plans for the exiles. He will bring them out from their captivity and gather them again in the “wilderness” (35). Once again in the wilderness, He will “enter into judgment” with His people, purging out the rebellious from among them (36-38). When He does, the exiles will “know that I am the Lord” (38). The chastened and cleansed people will re-enter the Promised Land and remember their past unfaithfulness, loathing their former compromise (42-43). His mercy in continuing to remain committed to a rebellious, unfaithful people is motivated by His commitment to His own reputation (“for my name’s sake). He will prove faithful to His promises.
The chapter ends in a somewhat unexpected way. The word of the Lord again comes to Ezekiel with a message for the “southland” forest in the Negeb desert (45). The Lord declares He will kindle a fire in the forest that will scorch the faces of everyone from south to north (47). Everyone (“all flesh”—48) will see it and realize that this fire has come from the Lord. This seems to be a metaphorical way to reference the coming fire of destruction that will burn through Judah and Jerusalem. In other messages, the fire is identified as the invading Babylonian army.
What is the response of the elders to these messages from Lord? They see to dismiss them as coming from Ezekiel, whom they see as an imaginative storyteller: “They are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of parables?’” (49). Rather than allow the stories and images to move them (like David had done when Nathan told him a story of the one ewe lamb—2 Sam. 12), the exiles complain Ezekiel is spinning stories without a point. As Jesus would later explain, parables not only reveal truth, they can also conceal truth for those whose hearts are heart and eyes are blind (Matthew 13:13).
Visions of God
The Lord sees more corruption in us than we see or acknowledge. In this retelling of Israel’s years in Egypt, we learn that God’s chosen people were clinging to the idols of Egypt while still in Egypt (8), in the wilderness (16) and even when they were graciously led into the Promise Land (28, 30). Idolatry runs deeper in our stories than we like to acknowledge when we recount our spiritual journeys. As J. I. Packer writes in Knowing God: “There is . . .great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see (and am I glad!), and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which in all conscience, is enough).”
The Lord is patient but His patience will give way to punishment. Repeatedly, we see the Lord delaying judgment on His people after promising to judge. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
The Lord acts for the sake of His great name. Four times the Lord declares that He acted or will take action on behalf of his wayward, rebellious people “for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations” (9, 14, 22, 44). His name includes His righteous character (covenant keeping) and, especially in this context, His reputation among the nations. Once the honour of His name has been defamed, he acts to restore the fame of His name. We fancy that God’s actions on our behalf are primarily motivated by our value to Him. While He does value us (as we bear His image), His highest value is His own great name.
The Lord will rule as King over His repentant, restored people. God allows His people to wander—for a time (39). However, He will not permanently allow His people to “be like the nations” in their idolatrous ways (32). He will be king over His people (33). He will purge out the rebels (38) and rule over a restored, humbled people (40, 43). His kingdom will come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen must realize not every seeker is sincerely seeking God. Ezekiel is visited by some of the elders of Israel who want to inquire of the Lord. Surely this must be evidence of a spiritual turning! Actually, it isn’t. The Lord’s message reveals that the exiles want God’s help without God’s holiness. They seek revelation without repentance. The Lord allows Ezekiel to see their hypocrisy and respond accordingly. So today, watchmen must be mindful that not all who seek God’s help are willing to come on His terms. The spiritual state of Ezekiel’s visitors comes out in the final verse of the chapter (49) where they accuse Him of spinning riddles rather than delivering clear messages from God. They have eyes but don’t see and ears but can’t hear.
Watchmen provide God’s perspective on the past, present and future. Ezekiel’s message revises popular perceptions about Israel’s past by showing how spiritual compromise started early (in Egypt) and continued consistently in the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Ezekiel shows his hearers that their idolatry ran deeper than realized. He also shows God’s solution will be more encompassing than imagined!
Watchmen proclaim God’s great passion for His name as His primary aim. In a world where we humans assume life revolves around us, God’s watchmen bring a corrective and reorienting perspective. They declare God’s passion for the fame of His name. Nothing in the world matters more to God than His own name. For nothing in the world is higher or better than God. In His justice, He acts for what is brightest and best—His own great name. As Dan Block insightfully writes,
While all human beings do indeed have intrinsic dignity by virtue of their status as images of God, notions of self-worth must be distinguished from ideas of worthiness. Our status as God’s image promise the basis for his unique interest in us, but our fallen condition disqualifies us from claiming this status as a natural right. God did not express his love in Jesus Christ in response to our worthiness, but to redeem us from our unworthiness. The fundamental problem with most of us is not deficient self-esteem but an inadequate divine-esteem. As we submit ourselves to God, recognizing that ultimately he operates for his own name’s sake, and that his investment in us relates to agendas far greater than ourselves, we will treasure the grace with which he reaches out to us. Within this framework, the fundamental human pathology is not self-loathing but pride, an unhealthy and unrealistic self-esteem. It is from this arrogance that we, especially we in North American, need deliverance. (Block, NICOT, Vol 1. 659).