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God's Care of His Altar
Is not this rather severe upon the stranger? The injunction does not rest upon the fact of the strangeness of the stranger, because in chapter Eze 47:22-23 there is a distinct provision for the stranger in Israel: "And it shall come to pass, that ye shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you, and to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you: and they shall be unto you as born in the country among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. And it shall come to pass, that in what tribe the stranger sojourneth, there shall ye give him his inheritance, saith the Lord God." That preserves the great catholic genius of the Bible. From the first God was trying (with reverence be it spoken) to find a foothold for the stranger. The Jew had wholly misapprehended the purpose of God. The Jew thought he only had the book and the seal, the covenant and the whole insignia of election. God was constantly endeavouring to make a little place for the outsider, the Gentile, the stranger. It would be very perplexing to the spiritual conscience to find at last that the Redeemer is less than the Creator; that God fails in his second endeavour in the region of human propagation and culture; great in creation, but only partial in redemption; making all men, but able only to save a few of them. The Lord was constantly rebuking this superstitious imagination. What did it come to in the case of the Jews? It came to this, and to this it must always come, that if any man suppose himself to be the pet and favourite of Heaven, or any nation should entertain so wicked a superstition, they will kill the very God whom they suppose themselves to have accepted. The Jews so treated themselves, mischievously and falsely interpreting the purpose of God, that when God came to them in an incarnate form, they murdered him. You can only be just to yourselves in proportion as you are just to others. Only the man who sees the whole can properly see the individual part. God will therefore have the stranger in Israel have his inheritance, his lot; but when it becomes a question of the altar God naturally looks round for the Levite.
In this case the Levite was not present; the Levite had "gone away." How had the Levites disqualified themselves? The facts are given in the context and in the text itself. First, in Ezekiel 44:10 , they "are gone away." Better not adorn that simplicity; that is a pathos to which we may not add one tear. Pause awhile and think of it "are gone away." Some men have no right to go away; some men are bound by heredity, by environment, by pledge and covenant, by solemn seal and vow, to be always here. Other men seem to be uncentred, and to be as much at home in one place as in the other. They have a liberty that has corrupted itself into licence and wantonness; we never know where to find them. But the Levite, the sworn man, the man who has exchanged vows with God, should always be found in his place. When he goes away, it is like high treason in the army; when such a man goes away, it is as if a troop had been cut down with the edge of the sword. Some men are the trustees of society. We can always point to them and say, Come weal, come woe, they will be found heart-stout, true as steel, faithful unto death. When we lose these men the earth has lost its rocks, and when the rocks have gone the gardens will soon go after them. "Gone away far." Observe that next word. The statement could not have ended at "gone away." It was not a little lapse, one step aside, a little outre; but "gone away far from me." You cannot stop one inch away from God; one inch means two, and two inches mean a foot, and the foot soon grows into furlongs and miles. When some men do not pray it is as if there were silence in the whole universe; their voices seem necessary to the completeness of things; a great awful breach or rupture has been made in the music of creation when such voices cease their adoration and the utterance of their desires. Here, then, is a wonderful difference in men. Sometimes one man is as a thousand. If that one man be found true he will bring the thousand right, if they can be brought right; but if that one man be gone astray and far away from God, who can set the thousand in their places? It is as if a section of the stars had been shattered.
To what had they gone? They "went astray away from me after their idols." Here is the prostitution of reason. Here is no theological mystery, but a mystery of daily life that a man should know the true God, and turn away from him; a man should know that there is a coming eternity, and yet tabernacle himself in the huts of minutes and hours and all the other little details of perishing time. This we do; this is not a lesson to be found in the ancient books only, this is the tragic and unpardonable experience of the day. To know the right, and yet the wrong pursue, is the miracle of manhood. A man shall know that to take a certain vessel and drain its contents means madness; he shall walk around the vessel and look at it and condemn it, and say that he is well aware that there is death in the cup; and, having made this plain avowal, it lies within the mystery of manhood to take that vessel and drain its dregs. Why trouble yourself, therefore, about metaphysical perplexities and differences of a purely scientific or theological kind? Here is the awful mystery, that a man can turn his back upon the truth, and run after lies, and love them with all that is left of his soul.
But were the Levites without excuse? They had their reasons. They knew that they could account for this. There was a general decadence in Israel. In Eze 44:10 we have these awful words: "When Israel went astray." What is the meaning of that word, which may be regarded as in some sense parenthetical? The reference is to a great historical apostasy: as who should say, in paraphrase, There was a time when all Israel loved the Lord. It was not the movement of a man or two here and there, or of a Levite or a priest, or an eminent legislator or leader; but all Israel in one great mass, as it were, went away, and the Levites went with them. Were not the Levites justified? May we not follow the times? Is there not a lead in the air? The Levites could rise and say, We did not go away by ourselves, we were only part of a general apostasy; there were hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of us; the great lapse was in Israel, and not in any one section of Israel: may we not therefore be pardoned for following a multitude? If we had gone astray Levitically or officially, we should see that we had deserved the great judgment of God; but all Israel, as it seemed to us, went astray, and we were only part of the crowd. The Lord will not have it so. It is the part of the Levite to stem the torrent of the crowd. It is the part of great statesmen and great writers and great characters to stop others from doing evil, not to go along with them. The Levites should have stood firm, whatever others did. Yet we must not make a perverted use even of this explanation. There is no more claim for a Levite to be good than there is for the humblest man in Israel. There is no more claim, in other words, for a Levite to go wrong than there ought to be for the very humblest creature in the whole Church. God expects every man to be firm, and we only increase in responsibility as we increase in capacity, in opportunity, in faculty, and in profession. Whilst, therefore, it is quite right to expect that certain men should keep the faith and walk in the right way, our expectancy concerning them is no excuse why we ourselves should go wrong. True, all Israel, speaking in the bulk, had become apostate; but the Lord will not, therefore, excuse the Levites "they shall even bear their iniquity." The Lord will not deal with us in crowds, but in individual relationship to himself, his throne, and his law.
What was the result? Were the Levites wholly discharged? No; the word "yet" with which the eleventh verse opens points to an exercise of the divine clemency that is really wonderful, and it is worth while to indicate this in words because it continues unto this day. The Lord will never give up a man until the man literally wrenches himself out of the divine grasp. What became of the errant Levites? First, they were deposed. They were to have charge at the gates of the house; they were to do certain menial work in the house; they were to slay certain offerings and sacrifices. They were simply, therefore, deposed, put down to lower work; degraded, we may say, to the second place; taken down one step, three steps, a dozen steps, but still not wholly banished and excommunicated from the service of the sanctuary. Now this may happen with all of us. This may happen with men. What some men might have been! They might have led us; instead of that they are put down to menial service. Search into the reason, and you will find there has been a moral lapse, or an intellectual infirmity, or some proof of disqualification. Providence rectifies things, providence attends to its own music. The harmony of Providence will not be ultimately and permanently spoiled by the works of men. All persons shall be put into their right places and set in their right relation. If the Levite who might have been at the top has disqualified himself he may not be altogether ungowned, but he will be put far away down according to the enormity of his transgression. This is right. Some men go amongst us as deposed. They might have been as the star of the morning, they might have led the way to better things, to green Canaans and fruitful places; and yet because they have gone far away from God they are degraded. They are not cast into the bottomless pit, they are not put beyond the reach of light and hope and mercy; but it is of necessity that they should be deposed or degraded.
What is true of men individually is true of men ecclesiastically. Churches are put into the second place; churches are put back into the third place. There is a law to this effect: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first"; and the reason of the transposition shall not be arbitrary or mechanical, but shall be spiritual and moral. If we are not faithful to our vocation we shall go back a point or two; if we are lacking in courage other men shall be called forth to do the work; and what the Church is lacking in every day is courage, fire, accent, and emphasis of purpose. Thus the great Church is put down, and the almost new Church is put to the front. The Church that ought to lead the world because of its wealth, its learning, its historical opportunities and advantages, may so act that men who have no name, no status, no background of history, shall come forward by the voice and appointment of God, and lead the world into redemption and liberty and prospect of heaven.
Was the Lord then left wholly without faithful men? We find the contrast in Ezekiel 44:15 :
"But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of my sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from me, they shall come near to me to minister unto me, and they shall stand before me to offer unto me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord God."
There is always a contrast in history. We thought in the preceding verses that all Israel had gone astray, we find in this verse that the sons of Zadok "kept the charge of my sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from me." There has always been a faithful party in the State. There has always been an element of constancy in all the mutation of men and times and institutions. God keeps watch over that permanent quantity; it is as his own ark in the wilderness of time. Some times the faithful man says he alone is left; and the Lord says, That is not the case, for in point of fact there are seven thousand men within call who have not bowed the knee to Baal. This is God's historical record. Sometimes the case of the ark has been brought very low; now and then in history it would seem as if the kingdom of God had been within a very short distance of extinction: but what is a "short distance" in the estimation of God? A hair's breadth is a universe; if there is one moment between a nation and destruction, in that one moment God can work all the miracles of deliverance. "Man's extremity is God's opportunity." This lies within our province and within our hope may it lie also within our sense of duty that it is possible for us though few to be faithful; it is possible when all others have proved faithless for us to be faithful found. It is hard work. The other way would be much pleasanter to the flesh and to the sense to go with the multitude to do evil; we might go behind a blaring band and flaunting banners, and we might make merry because we were going down to the house of the devil to revile the memory of God. But reviling hath only a short night; wantonness hath but a short story, and then comes its ever-deepening perdition. Let us pray for the spirit of faithfulness, not for the spirit of popularity. Let us pray that we may always be able to express our conscientious convictions, come what may; then even if we be wrong in judgment it shall not be reckoned against us. The things that are reckoned against men in heaven are moral offences. The judgment may go far astray, but if the heart point to the north-star of righteousness and heaven, God will bring all the judgment up, and all the understanding will be rectified. All our merely intellectual errors shall be set down as transient infirmities, and if the heart be staunch to God, no man, no devil, can keep us back from heaven.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 44". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25