36. The Book of Ezekiel, Part 1
The Holiness and Judgment of God323
What is the most basic relationship that a Christian can have? You would agree with me that the most basic relationship the Christian can have is his relationship with God.
But the question is, how can we develop that relationship with God? Developing a personal relationship with God, as with any other person, requires a personal and intimate knowledge of the person. Knowledge of God is the basis of eternal life, as John notes Jesus saying, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Not only is the knowledge of God the basis of eternal life, but continued growth in the knowledge of God is the basis of a life that is pleasing to Him.
On the other hand, the lack of the knowledge of God is the basis of a life that is not pleasing to Him. One of the most basic weaknesses of the church today is not having enough emphasis on the knowledge of God. J. I. Packer, in the preface of his book Knowing God, writes:
The conviction behind the book is that ignorance of God – ignorance both of His ways and of the practice of communion with Him – lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today. . . The modern way with God is to set Him at distance, if not to deny Him altogether; and the irony is that modern Christians, preoccupied with maintaining religious practices in an irreligious world, have allowed God to become remote.324
Knowing God is the basic theme of the Book of Ezekiel. The phrase, “They/you shall know that I am the Sovereign Lord” is used around 70 times in this book.
On the one hand, the book presents God as holy and sovereign. On the other, it provides the picture of the sad predicament that the people of God – in a sense the whole world – has come into because of their lack of the knowledge of God.
It is not just the lack of the knowledge of God; it is a lack of desire for the knowledge of God. The picture is of willful ignorance and rebellion in spite of God’s clear revelation. The Apostle Paul writes in the New Testament:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible
qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18-23).325
If God holds the heathen accountable for their willful ignorance of the knowledge of God, how much more His own people, who in spite of His clear revelation in His Word would ignore Him?
Ezekiel’s message is not much different from his older contemporary, Jeremiah, who wrote:
This is what the Lord says: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Jeremiah then follows up in verses 25-26 to spell out the result of the lack of the knowledge of God.
Likewise, Ezekiel’s message is not much different from his predecessor the prophet Isaiah. Actually, the first few verses of the Book of Isaiah provide a concise overview of the Book of Ezekiel!
Right after the first introductory verse, the Book of Isaiah begins with God’s lament about His people not knowing Him:
Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand (Isaiah 1:2-3).
Right after this, verses 4-7 describe the sinful condition of the nation, which is the direct result of the lack of the knowledge of God. Then verses 7-8 describe the judgment of God on the nation because of their sinfulness. Finally, verse 9 provides the message of hope, “Unless the Lord almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” This is not only the concise overview of the Book of Isaiah, but also of the Book of Ezekiel, except that Ezekiel adds one more principle, the principle of individual responsibility which was also touched by the prophet, Jeremiah.
Ezekiel preached to Israel from 592 to 570 B.C. for 22 years during their Babylonian captivity. During the later years of the monarchy, before the Babylonian captivity, the people of God had taken Him for granted. They assumed that God’s covenant with their forefathers was irrevocable, the ownership of the land was permanent, and that they were immune to any foreign captivity as long as God was in their midst because of the temple in Jerusalem.
But to their utter shock, Jerusalem was captured, and the nation was exiled from the land to live in captivity. How could this happen? Is our God impotent before the Babylonian gods? Has He forgotten us? Why has He abandoned us? They became angry. They became disillusioned. Bitter. Cynical.
To these people, Ezekiel is called to bring God’s message to the people who have constantly rebelled against God.
I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn (Ezekiel 2:3-4).
They are repeatedly described as a rebellious house or a house of rebellion.
Ezekiel has a two-fold message. On the one hand, he brings the message of judgment. The holiness of God cannot tolerate sin, especially sin in the life of His own people, people known by His name. So He has to bring judgment on them. God seems to be saying, “I have not forgotten you, you have forgotten Me; I have not been unfaithful to you, you have been unfaithful to Me.” If God seems far away, before blaming Him, consider who has moved! The first half of the book, chapters 1-24, presents this message of judgment.
On the other hand, Ezekiel brings the message of hope. God cannot forsake His people. God cannot forget His covenant.
God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23:19)
God is going to restore the faithful ones back to the land, back to the worship that will come from their hearts and He will be their God, and they will be His people. The second half of the book, chapters 25-48, presents this message of hope.
The book is filled with many visions and allegories and the prophet’s strange actions and behavior. Because of this, for many Christians, Ezekiel is too strange and the book too complex and bizarre to deserve serious attention. So the prophet remains a mystery. Liberal scholars have branded Ezekiel as ecstatic, visionary, neurotic, someone who periodically practiced acts of levitation, and the one who was psychotic and schizophrenic. However, no other prophet in the Bible is so creative in his presentation and forceful in his message as the prophet Ezekiel.
The book begins with a vision, with the call of the prophet which is not much different than the prophet Isaiah’s call in Isaiah chapter 6. We cannot and do not need to go into explaining all the details and symbols of the vision. But similar to Isaiah’s vision, Ezekiel’s vision reveals the character of God.
Isaiah saw God seated on a throne, high and exalted. Similarly, Ezekiel saw God seated on a throne high above. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the sovereign ruler of the whole universe. The faces of the four living creatures, of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle, represent aspects of the creation over which God rules.
The other aspect of God’s character revealed in the vision is the holiness of God. Ezekiel does not describe His holiness as much as He brings it out by powerful symbols. God is surrounded by flashing lightening and brilliant light (Ezekiel 1:4). “He looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire . . . and brilliant light surrounded him” (Ezekiel 1:27). All this shows His glory, His holiness, His judgment and wrath.
The most natural response of Ezekiel was, “When I saw it, I fell facedown” (Ezekiel 1:28). It was just like the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
In contrast to God’s awesome glory, Ezekiel is addressed as “son of man.” This phrase is used around 93 times in the book, which expresses the idea of man being formed from the dust, as it was said to Adam, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Several other places, especially in the Book of Psalms, the fact of man being created from dust is presented to bring out the contrast between God’s eternal character and man’s transitoriness (e.g., Psalm 90:2-3; 103:14-17; 104:29-30).
When we have a true vision of God and see Him in His glory, we cannot help but realize that God is so exalted, so awesome, and we are but dust and we cannot stand before Him. We are filled with awe and fear and reverence. And when we know God in that manner, we will live a life that is pleasing to Him, a life that honors His name. We will not approach Him lightly, but with awe and reverence, with far more awe than queen Esther had before the king, her husband (Esther 4:11, 16). No wonder the wise man said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).
But the sad reality is that the holiness of God and sinfulness of His own people are placed
side-by-side. The darkness and awfulness of man’s sin is presented against the brilliant light of the glory of God. The major part of the first half of the Book of Ezekiel is spent in presenting the sinfulness of the people known by His name and God’s wrath against them because of that. As Moses wrote in his psalm, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (Psalm 90:8).
The emphasis in the New Testament is upon the love of God, and the grace of God. We do not talk much about the holiness of God and the wrath of God. However, why would we need the grace of God if there was no cause for the wrath of God? The tendency in the church today is to give them the “good” news; why talk about the bad news? However, the good news is good news only in the background of the bad news. But we do not want to scare the “seekers” away by preaching the wrath of God!
The result is that we have produced a wishy-washy Christianity that talks only about the promises of God, without mentioning commitment to God, and brings God down to the level of a vending machine. Again, hear what Packer says about the subject of God’s wrath:
The modern habit throughout the Christian church is to play the subject down. Those who still believe in the wrath of God (not all do) say little about it; perhaps they do not think much about it. To an age which has unashamedly sold itself to the gods of greed, pride, sex and self-will, the church mumbles about God’s kindness, but virtually says nothing about God’s judgment.326
There is no other book in the whole Bible that presents the sins of God’s people in as much detail as the Book of Ezekiel. Do you want to get the full picture of the sinfulness of man? Do you want to get the full picture of the hopeless situation of man? Do you want to get the full picture of the awesome character of God and His holiness? Do you want to get the full picture of the wrath of God? Study the Book of Ezekiel, and your life will be transformed.
In the beginning of his book, Isaiah described the awful situation of the people of God:
Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil (1:5b-6).
What Isaiah described through symbols, Ezekiel describes in gory details.
Their sin of idolatry takes the most prominent place. Idols are mentioned more often in the Book of Ezekiel than any other book of the Bible (52 times). Chapter 8 describes the idol worship by the leaders of Israel right in the temple. God asks the prophet, “Is it is trivial matter for the house of Judah to do detestable things they are doing here?” (8:17) Chapter 16 describes Israel’s idolatry in most graphic terms. In spite of God’s love and tender care, they lusted after other gods.
Idols are the things we create to take care of our needs so we do not have to depend on God or anybody else. That is why idol worship in Israel was always connected with their foreign alliances:
You engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, and provoked me to anger with your increasing promiscuity. . . . You engaged in prostitution with the Assyrians too, because you were insatiable; and even after that, you still were not satisfied. Then you increased your promiscuity to include Babylonia, a land of merchants, but even with this you were not satisfied . . . . You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband! (Ezekiel 16:26-32).
The prophet Isaiah too noted:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord (Isaiah 31:1).
What they were looking for was safety and security – outside God. What they really found was spiritual bondage that led them into the physical bondage. Instead of trusting God, they trusted their idols and perished because of the lack of their knowledge of God,
My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests” (Hosea 4:6).
The lack of fear of God led them into the lack of fear and respect for man. Those who do not fear God do not care about men (Luke 18:4). Like all the other prophets, Ezekiel takes note of the social sins of the people of God:
The sin of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice. See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. . . . In you one man commits a detestable offense with his neighbor’s wife, another shamefully defiles his daughter-in-law, and another violates his sister, his own father’s daughter. In you men accept bribes to shed blood; you take usury and excessive interest and make unjust gain from your neighbors by extortion. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord (Ezekiel 9:9; 22:6-7, 10-12).
One of the sins noted both by Jeremiah and Ezekiel is the sin of desecrating Sabbaths:
I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy. Yet the people of Israel rebelled against me in the desert. They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws – although the man who obeys them will live by them – they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God. But the children rebelled against me: They did not follow my decrees, they were not careful to keep my laws – although the man who obeys them will live by them – and they desecrated my Sabbaths (Ezekiel 20:11-13, 19-21).
In the New Testament economy, we feel we are not under the law, and so we are not under the law of keeping the Sabbaths. However, the concept of keeping the Sabbaths is not based on the law, it is based on the character of God. In the creation account:
By the seventh day God finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Genesis 2:2-3).
This is the same reason given behind keeping the Sabbath holy in the Ten Commandments:
. . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:11).
There was a time in the United States when most everything was closed on Sunday except the necessary services. All the department stores were closed on Sunday. Grocery stores were open, but you could buy only foodstuff from the grocery stores. If you needed to buy a pen or a paper or a hammer, you would have to wait for Monday. Now everything is open not only seven days a week, but also many places 24 hours and 7 days a week. Behind all this, the main reason is greed, “For their hearts were devoted to their idols” (Ezekiel 20:16).
One of the main reasons behind the breakdown of our family structure, the social structure, and the moral structure of our nation, is not keeping the Sabbath holy. Because with all of this, there is no time left for the family or for moral instruction to the children, and the vicious cycle of greed continues leading to the total breakdown. We have really ignored this important aspect of the Word of God.
A holy God cannot tolerate sin, especially sin in the people who are known by His name.
One of the results of their sin is the impending judgment:
Yet in her wickedness she has rebelled against my laws and decrees more than nations and countries around her. She has rejected my laws and not followed my decrees. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees and kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you (5:6-7).
What an indictment on the people of God that their heathen nations are morally better off! Like Paul said, quoting from Isaiah and Ezekiel, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24; Isaiah 52:5; Ezekiel 36:22).
And so, “They will go into exile as captives” (12:11). Babylon will be God’s sword of judgment.
Therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your vile images and detestable practices, I myself will withdraw my favor; I will not look on you with pity or spare you (Ezekiel 5:11).
Another result of their sin was that the glory of God departed from among them.
The glory of God was in the temple, “And the glory of the Lord was standing there” (3:23). From there it moved to the threshold of the temple” (9:3). “Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim at the entrance to the east gate of the temple” (10:18-19). “Finally the glory of the Lord departed from within the city and stopped above the mountain outside the city” (11:23). And the sad fact was that the people of God did not even know it or care that it happened.
The moving of the glory of God in stages and also the hovering of the glory of God before it moves away seem to indicate the hesitation of God in leaving His people. God never leaves His people willingly and cheerfully. It breaks His heart. He leaves them as a last resort. But leave He will, because He cannot tolerate sin in His own people.
That departed glory is still not returned. Ezekiel later describes the return of the glory of God to Jerusalem in the millennial kingdom. But until then, as Jesus said, “Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:38-39; Luke 13:35).
The Soul that Sins Shall Die
The people said, “That’s not fair! We have not done anything wrong! We can’t help it if our forefathers sinned! Why are we punished for the sins of our forefathers?” Ezekiel sets down the principle, “The soul that sins shall die.” Jeremiah had already laid down this principle, “Everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes – his own teeth will set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:30). Ezekiel expands this principle with illustrations from three successive generations (chapter 18). The son is not punished because of his father’s sin, nor is he spared for his wickedness because of his father’s righteousness.
The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him (Ezekiel 18:20).
Of course, they had been warned earlier that, “I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). And it is true that the children suffer for the sinful lifestyle of parents and also that the parents are responsible for raising children the way they should go so when they are old they will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6). Children coming from broken homes many times suffer the consequences of their parents’ mistakes. In the case of the Israelites, a whole generation was born in the exile because of their parents’ sin as Jeremiah noted, “Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment” (Lamentations 5:7).
However, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel note here the principle of personal responsibility. A person cannot excuse his sinful lifestyle by saying that he was raised in a sinful environment. A person raised in a broken home does not have to go that way. He himself is responsible to take charge of his own life. Today we live in a society where people are very eager to take credit for anything good that happens in their life, but always find fault with someone or something else when they mess up their own life. Of course, there is nothing new, as we saw in Genesis when Adam blamed God when he said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” She in turn tried to shift the blame when she said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12, 13).
Ezekiel also speaks about a person’s responsibility before God. When we stand before God, we will give account of our own life, not of the messed-up lives of others.
God’s Love Through Judgment
The question that may be asked is why God is so cruel in His judgment. Why would God be so cruel to His own people? Ezekiel brings out that God does not delight in judgment. We choose the judgment of God; God does not:
Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
Son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you are saying: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ezekiel 33:10-11)
God does not delight in the death of the wicked. God provides them the way of life. People choose death, God does not. Even through His judgment, He shows His love for us so we would know Him and His loving concern for us.
When we know God as the holy One who cannot tolerate sin, we are forced to live a life that is pleasing to Him. But when we know God’s fatherly love, we WANT to live a life that is pleasing to Him.
In his epistle, Peter brings out both these aspects of God’s character when he says, “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:17), and he presents God both as a Judge to be feared and a Father Who loves.
323 Copyright 2002 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 49 in the From Creation to the Cross series prepared by Imanuel G. Christian on October 14, 2001.
324 Packer, J.I., Knowing God, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973, p. 12).
325 All Scripture is taken from the Holy Bible, new International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.
326 Ibid., p. 148.