Chapter 23, like chapter 16, presents a graphic, explicit extended metaphor to uncover the political and spiritual adultery of God’s people. In this chapter, the Lord likens the northern kingdom (Samaria) and the southern kingdom (Jerusalem) to two immoral sisters: Oholah (Samaria) and Oholibah (Jerusalem). Both sisters are promiscuous to the extreme, with Oholibah sinking to lower depths of depravity, in spite of seeing how the story ended for Oholah (13).
The sexual imagery is both extensive and explicit. The terms “lust” or “whoring” occur multiple times. The sisters act like shameless prostitutes, offering themselves to the Egyptians (3), Assyrians (7) and Babylonians (17). But instead of being loved and protected by these nations, the sisters are used up and discarded. Oholah, and her children, are captured and killed (10). In spite of seeing the tragic end of her sister, Oholibah (Jerusalem) follows the same path with even more self-destructive intensity. She lusts after both the Assyrians and the Babylonians, giving herself to them and then turning away disillusioned and disgusted (17).
The Lord, the Faithful Lover, watches all this and turns from the sisters in disgust (18). He turns them over to the wrath of the Babylonians and their allies (23), allowing them to be His instruments of judgment (22, 25). Oholibah is disfigured (cut off nose and ears—25), disgraced (stripped—26) and destroyed (“I will put an end to your lewdness and your whoring”—27).
As the Lord explains to Ezekiel (and through Him to Jews), the people of Judah have committed “abominations” (36). They have lusted after the power and protection they thought could come from powerful nations. They were enamoured by the powerful, desirable warriors and leaders from these nations (6, 14-15). After making alliances with these pagan nations, they adopted their pagan gods: “she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted” (7).
Worn out by all her adulteries (43), cheapened by her flirtations (4), and defiled by her lethal syncretism (“For when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it”—39), Jerusalem is spent, wasted and ruined. Worse yet, the Lord is bringing His judgment upon her in the form of “a vast host” (46). Jerusalem will be attacked, her people slaughtered, her homes burned (47). The Lord says that He will put an end to her appalling lewdness and cause her to realize—albeit too late—that “I am the Lord God” (49).
Chapter 23 is similar to chapter 16 in its lurid description of Israel’s infidelity to the Lord. Both chapters also capture the jealous, righteous fury of YHWH over Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness. However, unlike chapter 16, chapter 23 contains no mention of the Lord’s unfailing love for His unfaithful people. God’s response here is only a purging punishment.
Visions of God
The Lord turns in disgust from His adulterous people. “I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned in disgust from her sister” (18). When God’s people “forget” Him (35) and turn their affections to others, He turns in disgust from them. While it is true that His love is unfailing, it’s not unflinching or unaffected by our unfaithfulness.
The Lord turns the unfaithfulness of His people against them. Oholah and Oholibah both learn a painful lesson: false lovers become haters. Both Samaria and Jerusalem are ravished then ravaged by the nations they lust after. These illicit liaisons don’t last. Jerusalem becomes “disgusted” with the Babylonians who defiled her (18). Then, Assyria and Babylon turn on Israel. The Assyrians slaughter Samaria (9-10); the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem (22-24). In both cases, the Lord Himself is the one who moves these nations to attack and destroy His people (“Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians”—9; “Behold I will stir up against you your lovers . . . .the Babylonians”—22-23). God executes His judgment through the very nations Israel pursued for security and significance.
The Lord will not allow spiritual infidelity to end well. Israel pursued alliances with other nations that led her to adopt their idols as part of the deal (5). Both human dynamics and divine intervention combined to insure that these illicit alliances would end badly. Israel paid dearly for her failure to remain faithful to the One who had taken her to Himself in Egypt, even when she was already acting like whore (3-4). God does not tolerate our flaunting of His covenant.
Words to Watchmen
Watchmen need to warn God’s people not to be enamoured with the world. Like Israel, we can be enticed into pursuing alliances with the world around us. We can be impressed with the outward trappings of success we see around us. Like Israel, when we become enamoured with the world’s pomp, power, prominence, we will be quick to adopt the world’s idols, becoming spiritual syncretists who still claim to worship the true God while worshipping false gods as the same time (“on the same day”—36). When we do, the rebuke in James 4:4 thunders against us: “You adulterous people. Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” No wonder 1 John 2:15-17 warns us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
Watchmen must call God’s people to remember and rely on Him. Israel sought out other nations because she thought they could give her safety, security and significance. She dressed up (40) and undressed (18) to gain the attention of worldly powers, looking cheap in the process. The worldly powers she pursued disappointed her (“she turned from them in disgust”—18) and ultimately turned on her with deadly force (25-27). Not only did the adults suffer, but their children did as well—being sacrificed to idols (37) and slaughtered by enemies (45). All this happened because Israel forgot the Lord and cast him behind her back (35). Watchmen must continually remind God’s people to focus their hopes on Him for safety and security. Watchmen, who continually declare God’s Word, make it harder for God’s people to forget him and wantonly pursue worldly powers.
Watchmen cannot keep God’s people from disastrous, sinful choices. One of the sad realities is neither Ezekiel or Jeremiah could stop the Israelites from their suicidal choices. The Jews persistently pursued help in all the wrong places. Ezekiel was seen as a crazy uncle or harmless entertainer (33:30-33). Jeremiah was seen as a grumpy old man or traitor to the cause. Yet, both Ezekiel and Jeremiah faithfully fulfilled their callings. Ezekiel was a watchman who did his job (3:16-21). The Jews had blood on their hands (23:37), but Ezekiel’s hands were clean. He wasn’t able to keep his countrymen from catastrophic choices, but he did “deliver his own soul” (see 3:19)