NO BASIS FOR HOPE Ezekiel 12–19
” ’In your days, you rebellious house, I will fulfill whatever I say,’ declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezek. 12:25).Maybe someday, but not now,” and “Maybe somebody else, but not me,” are still common reactions to warnings about the consequences of sin. This passage reminds moderns that such hopes are empty.
The Jewish exiles expected an early return to their homeland. Optimism was fostered by false prophets, and encouraged by popular notions—that a God of love would never really judge; that the visions of Ezekiel would not come true; that if judgment did come it would strike a different generation. In this section of Ezekiel the prophet dealt with the false hopes of God’s still stubborn people. Through him the Lord announced that the judgments prophesied would strike the present generation. In an address on personal responsibility that is vitally relevant to us today, Ezekiel showed that individual choices affect individual destiny. It was too late for Judah as a nation, but the individual could still respond to God, and be safe.
Ezekiel acted out the imminent deportation of Jerusalem’s population (12:1–20). Hope of delay was futile (vv. 21–28): the prophets who stimulated such hope lied (13:1–23), for purifying judgment (14:1–11) is inescapable (vv. 12–23). Two allegories show the justice of the coming judgment (15:1–16:63), while a third shows the futility of a military alliance against Babylon (17:1–24). Ezekiel then proclaimed that each person would live or die according to his own decision to obey or disobey God’s word (18:1–32). The section concludes with a dirge poem for Judah’s rulers (19:1–14).
Understanding the Text
“While they watch” Ezek. 12:1–16.
Again Ezekiel acted out a prophecy. This time he played the role of an inhabitant of Jerusalem, packing his few belongings in the morning, and in the evening digging through the mud-brick wall of his house to crawl out with them and move to another location. In just this way the few survivors of Jerusalem’s siege would crawl out of the ruined city on the way to Babylon. But Ezekiel’s actions had a more direct reference to the “prince among them.” This is Zedekiah, called a prince because Judah’s rightful king, Jehoiachin, was alive in Babylon. Zedekiah was to leave through a hole in the wall, his head covered (indicating a disguise), only to be snared by the Babylonians and brought to the land of the enemy, though “he will not see it.” Within a few short years, when the city of Jersualem fell, Zedekiah tried to make his escape. He fled toward the Jordan, but was caught by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces. There his sons were slaughtered as he watched, and he was blinded. Zedekiah did go to the land of Babylon as a captive. But, in accord with Ezekiel’s words, the eyeless king never saw the land of his exile. The word of the Lord is sure. What God says is utterly trustworthy. How desperately the exiles needed to hear, and to believe. Even as today our generation needs to hear, and to believe, the words of Scripture. “Tremble as you eat your food” Ezek. 12:17–20. Ezekiel was told to shudder as he ate and drank to portray the utter terror soon to be felt by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. People who fail to fear the Word of the Lord will feel fear—when the things foretold in that Word come to pass. “Every vision comes to nothing” Ezek. 12:21–28. Ezekiel now began to deal with the false hopes held by the captives in Babylon as well as by the Jews left in the homeland. One basis for these rests on the observation that past warnings by God’s prophets seem to have “come to nothing.” Ezekiel did not bother to explain that judgment had been delayed by a gracious God, whose loving-kindness had been expressed in His long-suffering attitude toward an unrepentant people. Ezekiel simply said that the disasters foretold by the former prophets would be fulfilled “in your days.” This thought is reemphasized, for another popular saying is that prophetic visions of judgment are “for many years from now.” It might be that God would do what He had said. But surely not now! Again God spoke through Ezekiel: “None of My words will be delayed any longer.” There’s a carelessness here that is often reflected in the Christian church. When Christ taught His disciples about His return, He emphasized the importance of being ready (see esp. Matt. 25–26). The Lord might appear at any time, and so His servants are to actively go about His business, eager and excited at the prospect of His sudden return. It’s to be this way for us: we’re to be constantly aware that Jesus may come today—this morning, this afternoon! Yet as the years pass, and we begin a career, marry, and plan for our children’s college and for our retirement, the sense of imminence is somehow lost. Some, looking back over two millennium, dismiss the whole idea, saying “every vision comes to nothing.” Others, more conservative, simply assume the return “is for many years from now.” And so we settle down in this world, adopt its values, and lose sight of our calling as servants of a Master who may appear at any moment. A Master who expects to find His staff ready, actively involved in doing His business. We do not know, as Ezekiel did, that this vision is for our generation. It may not be. I clearly remember my mother telling me, when I was a child of just five or six, that she expected the Lord to return in her lifetime. He did not. But I expect Him to return in mine. And if He delays beyond the length of my years, not one thing will change. The vision of Jesus’ return is still for each believer today. And the expectation that Christ might come at any moment remains one of the most purifying doctines in the Word of God. “Foolish prophets who follow their own spirit” Ezek. 13:1–16. False prophets are a major theme addressed in Jeremiah and in Ezekiel. The emphasis reminds us to be very careful in our response to modern spiritual leaders. Ezekiel noted that such persons may be totally sincere: they “expect their words to be fulfilled!” He also observed that they tend to preach popular messages. People want to hear about peace? OK, the theme of today’s sermon is peace, even though there is no peace (v. 10). Sincerity without truth is as useless as a map of Kentucky when you’re traveling through Texas. A good many people, totally sincere in what they believe, are on the highway to hell, and all too many totally sincere preachers are busy erecting signs along the roadway. “They cover it with whitewash” Ezek. 13:10. What a powerful image. Build a flimsy wall, cover it with whitewash, and everything seems all right. But no matter how good it looks under all that trim, a flimsy wall remains flimsy. The teachings of false prophets may look attractive. But however thick the coat of whitewash they are given, the teachings are still flimsy, and will be carried away in the torrent of God’s judgment. “I am against your magic charms” Ezek. 13:17–23. I suppose Shirley Maclaine is sincere in her “new age” writings and lectures. The crystal craze, the notion that there is power in pyramids, fascination with “channeling” and supposed contact with beings who lived long ago, all relate to the theme Ezekiel touched on here. Divination. Magic. Charms. Efforts to find and manipulate the supernatural while ignoring God. Whatever the fad, Scripture has a simple message: God is “against the daughters of your people who prophesy out of their own imagination.” “They could save only themselves” Ezek. 14:12–23. Another argument raised by the exiles and by the population of Jerusalem against imminent judgment was rooted in Genesis 18. God heeded Abraham’s prayer, and promised to spare Sodom if even five righteous men might be found in it. Surely God would not destroy a nation that must possess at least some godly men and women! Ezekiel destroyed this notion—which by the way has remained popular in Judaism—by saying that even if several of sacred history’s most righteous persons (Noah, Daniel, and Job) lived in Jerusalem, the city would perish even though they would be saved. Similar thinking about our own country is just as erroneous. You’ve no doubt heard, or thought, something like . . . God will spare the United States because (a) We supply most of the world’s missionaries, (b) We have the highest percent of churchgoers in the Western world, (c) We are a “Christian” nation, (d) Democracy is closer to the divine ideal than any other form of government, (e) Any other, similiar reason. Ezekiel suggested that such notions foster false hope. God deals with any nation as its deeds require. The righteousness of the few will in no way preserve the wicked. “The wood of a vine” Ezek. 15:1–8. The Old Testament frequently portrays Israel and Judah as a vine (cf. Gen. 49:22; Ps. 80; Isa. 5:1–7; Hosea 10:1). The vine was prized for the fruit it bore, and so was an appropriate symbol of God’s people as His prized possession. But the vine was prized only for its fruit. The wood is stringy and twisted, and has no use in construction or value for fashioning furnishings. All a fruitless vine is good for is to be burned. Fruitless Judah, already charred by the flames of God’s judgment, was totally worthless, and destined to be consumed. “You prostitute, hear the word of the Lord” Ezek. 16:1–63. In an extended allegory the Lord compared His people to an unwanted girl-child, discarded at birth. God saved her life, nurtured her, and ultimately accepted her as His wife and showered her with presents. Then unfaithful Judah broke the covenant relationship by seeking out pagan gods to worship, and by turning to immorality. God would punish Judah for her spiritual adultery and prostitution, and for being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” with “the poor and needy.” Yet when the time of punishment is past the Lord would again “establish My covenant with you” and make atonement for Judah’s sins. “The soul who sins . . . will die” Ezek. 18:1–32. In reading this chapter it’s important to understand that “soul” is used in the common Hebrew sense of “person” or “individual.” Also, death in this chapter is physical rather than spiritual. Ezekiel’s message is that those who obey God will be spared in the coming devastation of Jerusalem, while God will use the Babylonian invasion to take the life of the wicked. Thus each individual’s choices will determine his own fate. (See DEVOTIONAL.) “His roar was heard no longer” Ezek. 19:1–14. The section ends with a dirge poem, a lament intended to express grief and sorrow. This poem is about the rightful kings of Judah, and particularly Jehoiachin, who was pulled into a cage with hooks and brought to Babylon. The Promised Land, once so fruitful, has become a desert, as shriveled as a vine torn from the earth and left, unrooted, on the burning sand. Yes, judgment does come. It comes on individuals as well as nations. And when it does, even though judgment is deserved, we are free with Ezekiel to mourn over what was, and what might have been.
Who Done It?(Ezek. 18)
A columnist recently made an acute observation about the gang of boys who raped and nearly killed a woman jogger in New York’s Central Park. The columnist noted that already some psychiatrists had popped up, eager to explain away the attack, to call it an expression of frustration and anger by disadvantaged youths who had been forced by society to hate. What the columnist noted was that the boys involved, when asked “why?” at the time of their arrest, had just shrugged and said, “It was fun.” No doubt, the columnist suggested wryly, by the time of the trial the teenagers would know enough to redefine their act, and blame society for victimizing them. The argument that society is at fault when a person acts in a criminal way isn’t new. Even back in Ezekiel’s time, people were saying that if judgment came, it would be their father’s fault, not theirs (vv. 1–2). That’s what “my teeth are crooked ’cause dad ate sour grapes” means. What happens to me, what I do, isn’t my responsibility. My acts are determined by what others have done to me. Ezekiel 18 confronts this still popular view, and flatly denies its validity. Yes, we may be influenced by others. But we remain responsible for our choices. What we choose to do is not determined by anyone else at all. When someone asks, “Who done it?” there’s no use pointing the finger of responsibility at someone else, and crying, “It wasn’t really me.” To drive home this point Ezekiel set up a number of cases. What about the good man who has a bad son? The dad’s merits will not save the son from the consequences of his acts. What about the good son of an evil father? The dad’s sins will not be held against the son. Each person is responsible for his own choices. So the message is clear. Don’t blame dear old Dad for what you do, even if Dad isn’t such a dear. And don’t blame society, even if society hasn’t given you a fair shake. Most important, don’t buy the notion that you haven’t got a chance because of your past. You do have a chance. You can succeed. Because you can choose.
The freedom to choose is one of the many gifts that God has given to you.