Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1




It is impossible to include in this work any complete study of all that comes to view in this chapter. The Holy Bible itself is devoted in a large measure to the record of the sins of the Chosen People, who repeatedly, murmured, rebelled, rejected and disobeyed God's commandments. It would be nearly impossible just to count the apostasies that repeatedly marked Israel's history, and the numberless times when God overlooked their transgressions, renewed the covenant with a succeeding generation, or even blessed them (when justice required their punishment), doing so "for his name's sake," that is, to avoid what would have been the cry of pagan nations that Jehovah was unable to preserve and bless Israel.

Therefore, we shall handle much of the material here in an abbreviated form. A great many of the sins of Israel mentioned in this chapter have already received extensive comment in our Commentaries on the Pentateuch, the Minor Prophets, the Major Prophets, and the Book of Joshua. "The date of this chapter is July-August. 591 B.C.";[1]

"And this is also the date of what follows through Ezekiel 23."[2] "This date was only eleven months and five days after the date given in Ezekiel 8:1, twenty-five months and five days after Ezekiel's call to the prophetic office (Ezekiel 1:2), and twenty-nine months after the blockading of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (Ezekiel 24:1)."[3] This record of the sins of the Chosen People constitutes, "A literal presentation of that which is described figuratively in Ezekiel 16."[4]

It is an amazing historical coincidence that, "According to Jewish tradition, the fifth month on the tenth day of the month was the date of the `Sentence of Wandering' pronounced upon Israel in Numbers 14:29, also the date upon which the Temple was burnt by the Chaldeans (Jeremiah 52:12,13); and, according to Josephus, the date when the Romans burnt the Temple in 70 A.D."[5]

The historical background of this section (through Ezekiel 23) found the Jews of the captivity rejoicing over the victory of the Egyptians in the Sudan, and in the rumors that Pharaoh-Passammetic would soon conquer Palestine. This news, coupled with the knowledge that Zedekiah would soon transfer his loyalty to Pharaoh instead of Nebuchadnezzar, heightened their hope that their captivity would soon end.[6]

The text does not reveal the nature of the question that the elders intended to ask Ezekiel, but it very likely originated in their vain hope of an early end of their captivity.

Ezekiel 20:1-4

"And it came to pass in the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month, that certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of Jehovah, and sat before me. And the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, Son of man, speak unto the elders of Israel, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Is it to inquire of me that ye are come? As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I will not be inquired of by you. Wilt thou judge them, son of man, wilt thou judge them? Cause them to know the abominations of their fathers."

Whatever the question of the elders might have been, it was certainly unworthy of the Lord's attention. The wickedness of the whole nation from its beginning until that instant was so great that they deserved no communication whatever from the Lord.

"Wilt thou judge them, wilt thou judge them ..." (Ezekiel 20:4)? The true meaning is this emphatic command is given in the next clause. "Cause them to know the abominations of their fathers." "The Hebrew word here does not mean merely `to judge.'"[7] It also includes the meaning of prosecuting a cause before a tribunal; and that was what Ezekiel was instructed here to do.

These four chapters constitute the demonstration that, "The wickedness of Judah was now full."[8] Under the figure of a great fire that would burn up the whole land of Israel, Ezekiel outlined in the concluding portion of the chapter the inevitable result of their overflowing wickedness. The purpose of rehearsing all the sins of Israel was twofold. (1) It showed the absolute necessity and justice of their punishment; and (2) it also showed the infinite patience, longsuffering, forbearance and mercy of God so tenderly exhibited during long centuries of his dealings with them.

Verse 5

"And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah; In the day when I chose Israel, and sware unto the seed of the house of Jacob, and made myself known unto them in the land of Egypt, when I sware unto them, saying, I am Jehovah your God; in that day, I sware unto them to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands. And I said unto them, Cast ye away every man the abominations of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am Jehovah your God. But they rebelled against me, and would not hearken unto me; they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt. 9 But I wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, among which they were, in whose sight I made myself known unto them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt."


No other scripture pinpoints this phase of Israel's history; but there is ample evidence of the truth of it throughout the Bible. The worship of the Golden Calf was nothing but a throwback to Egyptian idolatry (Exodus 32).

"A land that I had searched out for them ..." (Ezekiel 20:6). The land of Canaan is called, "the glory of all lands," both here and again in Ezekiel 20:15. From the standpoint of its location, this is especially true, being in fact adjacent to three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa. Also, the ancient fertility and productivity of Palestine were, at one time, the best on earth. Many changes since those early times have no doubt altered that situation today.

"I wrought for my name's sake ..." (Ezekiel 20:9). This is a reference to the fact that God on several occasions did not judge Israel according to what they certainly deserved; but, that in order to prevent the pagan nations from questioning God's ability to protect his people, simply went on and blessed them in spite of their sins. Two examples of this are found in Exodus 32:12 and in Numbers 14:16.

There are at least two examples of Israel's rebellion in Egypt: (1) the first, when they demanded of Moses, "Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? and the second, when they rebelled against Moses and Aaron (Exodus 5:11).

"The idols of Egypt they did not forsake ..." (Ezekiel 20:8). Joshua, the great leader who led the Chosen People into Canaan speaks of this (Joshua 24:14).

The problem, from God's standpoint, in this chapter was, "How could God vindicate his moral character by punishing rebellion, and at the same time preserve his honor in the eyes of the world."?[9] We are happy indeed that Cooke gave the correct answer to this problem: "The punishment would come, all right, but there would be a restoration, involving a striking act of power that would prove to all the world that Jehovah is indeed the only God."[10] That world-shaking event, of course, was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the establishment of a New Israel of God, an Israel without any racial tones whatever, but composed of Jews, Gentiles, and people of every tongue and tribe and nation.

This is a very important admission from one of the most credible of the radical critics; because it explains why prophecies of blessing, restoration and salvation always follow the denunciations found so often in the prophets, and that those prophecies of doom and salvation always came from the mouth of the same prophet, whoever he was.

Verse 10

"So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them my statutes, and showed them mine ordinances, which, if a man do, he shall live in them. Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am Jehovah that sanctifieth them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness; and they walked not in my statutes, and they rejected mine ordinances, which, if a man keep, he shall live in them; and my sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I said, I will pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to consume them. But I wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I brought them out. Moreover I sware unto them in the wilderness, that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands; because they rejected mine ordinances, and walked not in my statutes, and profaned my sabbaths: for their heart went after their idols. Nevertheless mine eye spared them, and I destroyed them not, neither did I make a full end of them in the wilderness."


"Sabbaths, a sign between me and them ..." (Ezekiel 20:12). Behold here the true status of the sabbath. It was never given to all mankind, but to Israel only, as a sign between them and God. It was not revealed to Adam, who never heard of it, but to Moses (Nehemiah 9:13).

"Their heart went after their idols ..." (Ezekiel 20:16). The martyr Stephen mentions Israel's worshipping the host of heaven (Acts 7:42) during the period of their wilderness wandering.

"Their heart went after their idols ..." (Ezekiel 20:16). "Israel in Canaan might have deserved this sweeping condemnation, but not Israel in the wilderness; because only two outbreaks of idolatry are recorded, namely that of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), and that at Baal-Peor (Numbers 24-25)."[11] Such a comment is incorrect, because it is founded upon the false notion that Numbers records all that Israel did during the forty years of their sentence of waiting to enter Canaan. As a matter of fact, very little of what Israel did during that generation is recorded; because any significance of what that evil generation did was lost in their rebellion against God. And the very few instances where such details as the Golden Calf and the fiasco at Baal-Peor are mentioned, they are reported only, "For our information upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Corinthians 10:11). The total history of all of Israel's wickedness would probably have required a dozen volumes the size of the Biblical Numbers! Thus, there is no reason whatever to accept a comment that questions the blame here laid by God's prophet upon Israel. All of the incidents actually reported of that forty-year period in the wilderness probably took place in a time period of a few weeks or months, there being no effort whatever to provide a full history of that lost four decades.

Verse 18

"And I said unto their children in the wilderness, Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their ordinances, nor defile yourselves with their idols. I am Jehovah your God: walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them; hallow my sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am Jehovah your God. But the children rebelled against me; they walked not in my statutes, neither kept mine ordinances to do them, which, if a man do, he shall live in them; they profaned my sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them, to accomplish my anger against them in the wilderness. Nevertheless I withdrew my hand, and wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I brought them forth. Moreover I sware unto them in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the nations, and disperse them through the countries; because they had not executed mine ordinances, but had rejected my statutes, and had profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers' idols. Moreover also I gave them statutes that were not good, and ordinances wherein they should not live; and I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am Jehovah."


"And I said unto their children ..." (Ezekiel 20:18) This appears to be the second generation of the wilderness wanderers. They did not respond, but after the manner of their fathers, "rebelled against God" (Ezekiel 20:21). Baal-Peor is the only proof that is needed to demonstrate their total apostasy. In fact, God would have totally destroyed them at that time, except for the consideration that His holy name would have been profaned by the nations. Instead, he made another covenant with Israel, the wicked children of the first generation, and under Joshua, led them into Canaan.

"Scatter them among the nations ..." (Ezekiel 20:23). "Nine centuries were to pass before this threatened scattering took place; but that God actually did as he promised is evidenced today in the Jewish community in every city on the earth."[12]

"I gave them statutes that were not good ..." (Ezekiel 20:25). This is a reference to the judicial hardening that came to Israel, similar to that which Paul mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, "God sends them a strong delusion that they all might be damned, etc." There is even a hint here as to the mechanics of the deception that came upon them. God's law had indeed commanded that "The first-born of both man and beast were sacred unto God and were to be offered as a burnt-offering to God" (Exodus 13:12). However, there was an exception made in the case of human beings, as every student of the scripture knows. The ordinance was perverted to allow the sacrifice of children who were passed through the fire to Molech!. "It is perfectly self-evident here that we must not understand that these `ordinances which were no good' is a reference to anything whatever in the Mosaic Law; because the reference here is not to God's holy law at all, but to the wicked Israel's perversion of it."[13]

We must not suppose that Israel was innocent in this perversion of God's Word. "Ezekiel gives us to understand that it was, "Due to judicial blindness inflicted by God Himself."[14]

Verse 27

"Therefore, son of man, speak unto the house of Israel, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: In this moreover have your fathers blasphemed me, in that they have committed a trespass against me. For when I had brought them into the land, which I sware to give unto them, then they saw every high hill, and every thick tree, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offerings; there also they made their sweet savor, and they poured out there their drink offerings. Then I said unto them, What meaneth the high place whereunto ye go? So the name thereof is called Bama unto this day."


Despite the fact of God's having set up his holy altar at a specific location and having given the most solemn prohibitions against worshipping or sacrificing elsewhere, and in spite of God's having forbidden the Jews to honor or retain any of the pagan shrines and altars in Palestine, they nevertheless spared all the pagan shrines, and installed others.

Note the fourfold repetition of the word "there" in Ezekiel 20:28. It was especially an affront to the God of Israel that his people would patronize and even prefer to worship at such high places, rather than at God's true altar. Of course, it was the licentious worship of the pagans which they at once adopted and included along with God's worship that was the great attraction for Israel. Blasphemy against God? Of course; it was blasphemy of the worst kind, because it connected the holy name of the Lord Jehovah with all the immorality and debaucheries of paganism.

"Bama ..." (Ezekiel 20:29). "This is a Hebrew word meaning `High-Place.' The tops of high hills were used by the pagans for their idolatrous worship; and in response to that, Moses prohibited the use of them even for the worship of God."[15]

Verse 30

"Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Do ye pollute yourselves after the manner of your fathers? and play the harlot after their abominations? And when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, do ye pollute yourselves with all your idols unto this day? and shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live saith the Lord Jehovah, I will not be inquired of by you; and that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, in that ye say, We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone."

"Do ye pollute yourselves ..." (Ezekiel 20:30-31)? These interrogatives demand an affirmative answer, making it evident that apostate Israel's rejection of God was complete. Verse 32 indicates that the "elders" had already decided to adopt paganism and forsake the worship of God altogether. Ezekiel thundered the message, "Such a thing shall not be at all"!

Verse 33

"As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, surely with a mighty hand, and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, will I be king over you. And I will bring you out from the peoples, and will gather ye out of the countries wherein ye are scattered, with a mighty hand, and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out; and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will I enter into judgment with you face to face. Like as I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I enter into judgment with you, saith the Lord Jehovah. And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the land of the covenant; and I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that trespass against me; I will bring them forth out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall not enter into the land of Israel; and ye shall know that I am Jehovah. As for you, O house of Israel, thus says the Lord Jehovah: Go ye, serve every one his idols, and hereafter also, if you will not hearken unto me; but my holy name shall ye no more profane with your gifts, and your idols. For in my holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, says the Lord God, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them, serve me in the land: there I will accept them and there will I require your offerings, and the first-fruits of your oblations, with all your holy things."

"I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples ..." (Ezekiel 20:35). This new wilderness was not a geographical wilderness like the wilderness of Egypt, but a wilderness, "of strange peoples, unusual social customs, etc."[16] It was the wilderness of their captivity in Babylon; and the vast majority of Israel would not pass that test, any more than their fathers had passed it in the former wilderness. The most of them, enamored with the wealth and splendor of Babylon, would never leave for any return to Palestine, even when free to do so. Such persons were described by Cooke as, "Separated by the refining process, and not allowed to participate in the restoration."[17]

We agree with Keil who saw this ultimate gathering from the wilderness of the peoples, "As the gathering of the true Israel from the heathen world, which will ultimately be fulfilled in their conversion to Jesus Christ."[18] However, we cannot accept Keil's statement that, "The principal fulfillment is still future, when Israel as a nation shall be converted to Christ."[19] The Bible nowhere says that any nation whatever shall ever be converted to Christ.

"Go ye, serve every one his idols ..." (Ezekiel 20:39). This is the same kind of commandment that God gave to Judas Iscariot, when he said, "What thou doest, do quickly." God never restrains anyone from evil who has already made up his mind to sin. That would appear to be the condition of those elders who sat in front of Ezekiel.

A feature of this chapter here is the unchanging purpose of God to redeem all mankind through the posterity of Abraham, as he said at the beginning (Genesis 12:3). Many of Abraham's literal posterity will have no part of God's intention; but God will do it in spite of them. Jamieson paraphrased the thought of Ezekiel 20:40 -

"Although you, the rebellious portion of Israel, withdraw from my service, others of the believing remnant, will succeed after you perish, and will serve God purely."[20]

"In the mountain of the height of Israel, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them, serve me ..." (Ezekiel 20:40). As Cook noted, "All separation between Israel and Judah shall cease. This points to the times yet future, when in Messiah's kingdom, Jews and Gentiles alike shall be gathered into the kingdom, the kingdom of Christ."[21]

Verse 41

"As a sweet savor will I accept you when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you in the sight of the nations. And ye shall know that I am Jehovah, when I shall bring you into the land of Israel, into the country which I sware to give unto your fathers. And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have polluted yourselves; and ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed. And ye shall know that I am Jehovah, when I have dealt with you for my name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O ye house of Israel, saith the Lord Jehovah."

The purity and morality of the Christian religion will so discipline the minds and hearts of men, that all of God's children under the new covenant will despise and deplore the evil ways that marked the behavior of men in pre-Christian times.

Verse 45

"And the word of Jehovah came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face toward the south, and drop thy word toward the south, and prophesy against the forest of the field in the South; and say to the forest of the South, Hear the word of Jehovah; thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I will kindle the fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming fire shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burnt thereby. And all flesh shall see that I, Jehovah, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched. Then said I, Ah Lord Jehovah! they say of me, Is he not a speaker of parables?"


This parable emphatically teaches the total destruction of Jerusalem. If there could be any doubt of what is prophesied, the following chapter spells it out in language so blunt and specific as to shock the evil men who pretended not to understand it.

Incidentally, the Hebrew Bible begins the following chapter with verse 45 here; but we choose to discuss this paragraph in the same chapter where we find it in our English Bibles. "The riddle here was easy to solve, and Ezekiel was dealing with a sharp-witted people; but the sinful men who heard it simply did not wish to understand it, therefore they claimed it was too difficult to interpret. Ezekiel at once took that pitiful excuse away from them with the devastating message of the "Song of the Sword" in the following chapter."[22]

"The fire ... shall devour every green tree and every dry tree ..." (Ezekiel 20:47). Ezekiel 21:3 reveals that the green tree and the dry tree here stand for the wicked and the righteous, both of whom will perish in the forthcoming holocaust. It is regrettable that some scholars jump to the conclusion that this contradicts what the prophet said in Ezekiel 18 regarding the fact of God's judgments being strictly on an individual basis. However, such errors are due to the false interpretation of what God said there through Ezekiel. The "death" mentioned there as the penalty of wickedness is not temporal, at all, but eternal. Failure to see that, enables a scholar such as McFadyen to write that, "This rather conflicts with his theory of individual retribution which he so fully expounded in Ezekiel 18."[23] Canon Cook accurately explained that, "The equity of God is fully vindicated in the fact that the `death' prophesied here was only temporal, while the death promised to the disobedient in Ezekiel 18 is eternal."[24]

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Ezekiel 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.