The Character of God
Ezekiel 6, Ezekiel 7
In the sixth and seventh chapters there are two distinct prophecies, yet both are to be traced to the symbolism detailed so graphically in Ezekiel 5. It is supposed that the prophecies in Ezekiel 6, Ezekiel 7 were uttered, not immediately one after the other, but with such intervals of time as to allow each of them to make a distinct impression upon those to whom they were delivered; yet, on the other hand, it has been noted that the interval could not have been long, on the ground that the eighth chapter bears the date of the sixth month of the sixth year. Blow upon blow the judgment falls; shock after shock of thunder rolls through the heavens, warning and threatening the people as with the audible voice of God. In the seventh chapter the judgment is set forth as coming with startling quickness, and as being utterly inevitable, either by the cry of the heart or by the use of the arm. The people are made to feel that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. In these prophecies there would seem to be enlargement of the object upon which they were to take effect, for they are not denounced against Jerusalem exclusively, but against the whole land, as if not one corner of it should be safe from the bolt of avenging fire. The sixth and seventh chapters may be taken to be almost complete in themselves.
The prophet was commanded to set his face toward the mountains of Israel and to prophesy against them. He personified the mountains and spoke to them as if they were living creatures, and in the same noble rhetoric he addressed the rivers and the valleys. It was not uncommon to speak to inanimate objects as symbolising the people. The mountains may be specially named because they were the seats of the most conspicuous and defiant idolatry. In various portions of the preceding Scriptures we have had testimony borne to this effect. For example: "I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcases upon the carcases of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you." Again we read: "Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father: only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places. And the king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there; for that was the great high place: a thousand burnt offerings did Solomon offer upon that altar." And once more we come upon the same grim fact: "Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon."
What wonder, then, that God should look upon these mountains as representing the supreme iniquity of his people! The prophet is made to speak in the name of God, yea, as if he were God himself incarnate, saying, "Behold, I, even I." This is a strong way of representing the fact that these judgments were not invented by the fancy of the prophet, but were direct communications from God himself, and not the less were they divine in their origin and their purpose that they were worked out as usual by human agency. When the prophet refers to "images," saying, "Your images shall be broken," we are to understand that these figures were used in connection with the worship of the sun. The verse is indeed a repetition of Leviticus 26:30. Moses had delivered the prophecy, and Ezekiel takes it up and affirms the nearness of its fulfilment. Great significance is to be attached to the threatening," And I will cast down your slain men before your idols." The figure is a very graphic one. The idols were no longer to have a living congregation of worshippers, but were to be surrounded as by a cordon of dead men, so that the gods and their worshippers should resemble one another. From Numbers 9:6-10, and 2 Kings 23:14, 2 Kings 23:16, we have learned that there was nothing so utterly defiling in the view of the Mosaic law as the touching of a dead body. It would seem as if God were about to execute what is known as poetic justice upon the land; because the Israelites have defiled it with idols, the idols themselves were to be defiled and degraded by the contact of dead bodies, the dead bodies being the carcases of the former worshippers of these very idols. God thus thrusts his justice in the faces of men in forms which they can understand. Sometimes he will take up the method of man and adapt it to his own uses, and thus give the idolater a familiarity with his idol and his idolatry which the idolater himself had never supposed to be possible.
There is no vengeance spoken of in the Bible that is so terrible as the slaying of a man by the word of his own mouth, taking that word, turning it into a spear, and thrusting it into the heart of the man who had once actually employed it as a defensive weapon. God promises that not only shall the images be cut down, but the works of the idolater shall be "abolished." We must not overlook the strength and completeness of the meaning of this word. To be abolished is to be utterly obliterated, sponged out, taken wholly out of existence, so treated as to leave no trace or token behind. Israel was required to abolish the images and idols of the Canaanites, to so utterly blot them out that no temptation could arise from a stone of the unholy altars that could be found in any part of the land. Not only was idolatry to be condemned or denounced, or spoken of in general terms of contempt; it was to be rooted out, eradicated, utterly, completely, and eternally destroyed. Here Israel failed in duty. Whatever general fulfilment of the prophecy there might be, it was not carried out to the letter, and therefore the very ruins of idolatry became temptations addressed to the men who had overthrown the altars, and became also a kind of plea that the ruin should be repaired and the altars reconstituted.
Amid all this thunder and lightning and terrible tempest of judgment, there was still a promise that a remnant should be left "Yet will I leave a remnant." For a moment the darkened heavens are somewhat relieved by light shining upon them from an infinite distance, but scarcely has that transient gleam passed over the thunderclouds than they seem to become darker than ever. From the beginning God has kept a remnant to himself. The Apostle Paul remarks strongly upon this fact in his Epistle to the Romans. We cannot understand what is meant by a remnant, except that it indicates that the divine purpose should not be utterly overthrown, and the word of God utterly avoided. What if this allusion has a reference far beyond the local Captivity? What if it should refer to wider and grander themes and prospects? Who can tell what that remnant might do even in heathen countries in the way of maintaining the worship of the true God, and keeping up a testimony in favour of the spoken word?
In the eleventh verse the prophet is commanded to "smite with thine hand, and stamp with thy foot." This was suiting the action to the word. It is in vain to lay down rules about men using gesture or dramatic action; when the heart is roused, when the whole man is thoroughly informed and inspired by a divine message, the actions will naturally express the great emotion. To clap with the hands and stamp with the feet are actions with which we are not unfamiliar. This energy is under moral inspiration. The prophet is not mad; this is not mere fanatical excitement, this is not rhetorical artifice; this is a natural method of expressing the judgment of God. Quietness has its place in all divine ministries, but so has storm and tempest or even violence itself. Do not limit the prophet in his use of methods, in his range of instrumentality; let him be faithful to the inspiration that is in him, because only a ministry that expresses the reality of emotion can be profoundly and lastingly useful.
The seventh chapter is to a large extent a threnody, or song; of mourning and lamentation. It is judgment set to music. It loses nothing of solemnity, but rather gains in spiritual effectiveness by its poetic structure. Even in English we feel how majestically the rhythm moves.
"An evil, an only evil, behold, is come. An end is come, the end is come: it watcheth for thee; behold, it is come. The morning is come unto thee:, O thou that dwellest in the land: the time is come, the day of trouble is near, and not the sounding again of the mountains" ( Ezekiel 7:5-7).
This last is a singular word, occurring only in this place. It denotes the joyful sounds of harvesters, who, returning from their gracious toil, fill the land with delightful music of praise. Hut this harvest-song was to be exchanged for tumult and trouble, suitable to the day of cloud and storm and war. Again, the poetry proceeds:—
"Behold the day, behold, it is come: the morning is gone forth; the rod hath blossomed, pride hath budded.... The time is come, the day draweth near; let not the buyer rejoice, nor the seller mourn: for wrath is upon all the multitude thereof" ( Ezekiel 7:10, Ezekiel 7:12).
All business had ceased, all life had been turned into utter desolation. Buying and selling of land was the most important transaction in which the Israelites engaged. Jubilee year was obliterated from the calendar of Israel. The desolation of this judgment was to continue so long that, even if the owner of the land lived, the year of jubilee could bring him no opportunity of selling the land or availing himself of any of the jubilee rights and privileges. Because of the sin of the people, all natural relations were to be reversed, and even the operation of cause and effect was in a sense to be suspended; for, in the language of St. Jerome, "when slavery and captivity stare you in the face, rejoicing and mourning are equally absurd." Nor were the people to be able to go forth to war; they should be utterly without energy and without disposition to defend themselves: the man who was in the field died of the sword, and he that was in the city was devoured by famine and pestilence; even those who escaped were to be on the mountains like doves of the valleys, all of them mourning, every one for his iniquity. "Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me." Strong men were to be bowed down as if knees of iron had been turned to knees of straw. Hands that were once as steel were to fall down in absolute feebleness. The knees of the warrior were to be weak as water, and as for military panoply, it was to be exchanged for sackcloth and horror; every face was to burn with shame, and every head was to be naked with baldness. "In that day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth."
Taking these two chapters as revealing the character of God, in how awful a light is the divine Being made to appear! How infinite, for example, are his resources of judgment and penalty! Never does he look around him, so to say, that he may find some new instrument or weapon larger and stronger than he has yet at command. In every instance he is more than equal to the iniquity that has to be avenged. He attributes to himself the exercise of every possible action of vengeance and humiliation: "I will bring a sword"; "I will destroy your high places"; "I will cast down your slain men"; "I will lay the dead carcases"; "I will scatter your bones"; "I will break the whorish heart"; "He that is afar off shall die of the pestilence"; "He that is near shall fall by the sword"; the man who remained was to "die by famine"; and thus, and thus, in every way, God said, "I will accomplish my fury." He said he would stretch out his hand upon the idol-cursed hills and mountains, and green tree and thick oak, and he would make the fair land desolate, yea, more desolate than the wilderness toward Diblath.
These are the judgments of the living God! Think of every disease that can afflict the human body; think of every force of nature that can strike human edifices and habitations; think of every trouble that can assail the sanity of the mind; think of every spectre and image that can come along the highway of the darkness and fill night and sleep with mortal fear; think of every appeal that can be addressed to the imagination; think of all possible terror, and loss, and shame, and ruin; multiply all these realities and possibilities by an unrestrained imagination, and even then we have hardly begun to touch the resources of God when he arises to shake terribly the earth and to inflict upon the nations the judgments which they have deserved and defied. Wonderful is the striking frankness of all these declarations on the part of the Most High God. He does not come before his people in an attitude of humiliation or supplication or apology; he tells them in words which are in themselves thunderstorms of the judgments that are immediately impending. There is mercy even in the terribleness of the revelation. An opportunity for repentance was created by the very awfulness of the method of revelation. Had the words been few, had the tone been quiet, had the attitude been apologetic, it would have been possible for the human heart to have doubted even the sincerity of God. The human heart believes in emphasis, in energy, in tremendous modes of utterance and action; it has not yet come to that state of moral rhythm which can accept a whisper as being as sincere as a voice of storm. God, therefore, sends, as it were, a preliminary tempest of words, if haply the people might be made afraid by such a whirlwind, and might at the bidding of such prophecies turn again in repentance and broken-heartedness. This is the meaning of all cross-providences, painful visitations, overwhelming sicknesses, and temporal losses. All these indicate, so far as they are related to the obduracy of the human heart, a still greater punishment to be inflicted in another world. Threatenings are meant to lead to promises. The thunderstorm is sent to advert us from a way that is wrong and to drive us to consideration on account of sin. God does not fulminate merely for the sake of showing his greatness; when he makes us afraid it is that he may bring us to final peace.
Nothing is more evident than that underneath all these denunciations, and in explanation of them, there is a sublime moral reason. These judgments are not exhibitions of omnipotence; they are expressions of a moral emotion on the part of God. The people had departed from him—they had done everything in their power to insult his majesty and to call into question his holiness and his justice; they had worshipped false gods; they had been faithful to forbidden altars; they had made a study of profanity and blasphemy; they had defied Heaven in all their abominations; and not until the cup of their iniquity was full did the last beam of light vanish from the skies, and the whole heaven become darkened with thunderclouds. It is not for a little evil, so to speak, that God turns away from his people; it is for evil upon evil, for iniquity continued through days and nights, for offence piled upon offence, until the very sunlight is shut out: then, not till then, does God awaken to execute his terrible judgments, and to pledge his word that it shall go sadly with the wicked in the day when the Lord comes to judge the earth. Nor was he judging the wicked as that term is generally understood. God is gentle towards the heathen who have not known him, as compared with his action towards those who, having known him and received his covenants, have turned away from him in a spirit of rebellion and thanklessness, and have prostituted the knowledge of the true God to the service of vain idols. When judgment begins at the house of God, it burns with infinite indignation; there are no mitigating circumstances, there are no palliations whatsoever; the judgment is inflicted upon men who knew the right and yet pursued the wrong, who were entrusted with the custody of the truth, and yet threw it down and went with eagerness to the altar of falsehood that they might worship and obey a lie. How terrible, then, must be our judgment when God comes to visit us! What have we not known? With what treasures have we not been entrusted? We have seen the Son of God, we have watched him die upon the Cross, we have heard his welcomes to pardon, to purity, to peace; if we have despised the blood of the everlasting covenant, and accounted it an unworthy or unholy thing, who shall speak for us when God comes to demand an account of our ways?
In the seventh chapter, as we have seen, judgment is turned to song. Is not this but another aspect of the truth we have been endeavouring to set forth? God employs every method that he may attract human attention, and win men to consideration and lure them through consideration to repentance and obedience. In this instance we have not religion degraded to art; we have art raised to religion. When men take to singing the judgments of God and the promises of Heaven and the vows and oaths of divine love, they may be but degrading the highest truths to merely artistic and commercial purposes. It Isaiah, indeed, a serious question whether any artist is not blaspheming when he sings in Song of Solomon, of which he has made a careful study as an art, the agony and the love of Christ. It is no wonder that when the sorrows of Gethsemane are imitated vocally or instrumentally some hearts should be shocked and wounded. On the other hand, there are times when by sudden and indisputable inspiration a man may employ every art known to human genius and custom for the purpose of carrying home divine truths to obdurate or uninstructed hearts and minds. No rule can be laid down. This kind of inspiration does not come forth at special times that can be defined or forecast: in this, as in other instances, at what hour the Son of Man cometh no man can tell; but when he does come there can be no doubt of his identity or of his power, by reason of the high, noble, unselfish excitement to which the heart yields itself with enthusiasm and thankfulness. The judgments which Ezekiel was charged to denounce began in symbol, but they ended in reality. The symbol might be treated as representing a more or less insane excitement. It would be easy for those who were wishful to avoid the judgments to credit Ezekiel with fanaticism or uncontrollable excitement, altogether destitute of moral dignity or spiritual purpose. We have seen, however, how the symbol became a reality, and how the reality transcended all that was suggested by the type. It is thus in all the providence of God. Rightly interpreted, every event in life is symbolical of the larger life that is to come. What we want is the seeing eye; what we should pray for is the hearing ear; for verily we are not left without instruction if we could correctly interpret all that is occurring in our lives day by day.
Then came the last great judgment of all: not when the heathen possessed the houses of the Israelites, not when the pomp of the strong ceased, not when mischief came upon mischief and rumour upon rumour; these judgments were heavy enough, but there was a greater judgment still—"Then shall they seek a vision of the prophet; but the law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancients." The prophets, the priests, and the elders were all to wander in a state of blindness. The spiritual element was taken out of human life, and consequently human life was reduced to poverty, darkness, and ruin. We do not value the prophet; we smile at his predictions, as we should smile at the expressions of fanaticism; but not until we have lost him shall we know how large a space he filled in human life. We have seen Saul when he was left without the presence of a spiritual ministry, we have watched him trying to reunite himself with spiritual actions; we have seen the desperateness of his mood, the utter despair which settled upon his once luminous and force ful mind. Pitiable is the figure which is brought before our vision—men seeking the spiritual, men inquiring for the prophet, men crying out for Samuel, men praying that they may be enabled to pray; yet every cry returning to the suppliant without an answer, and every expectation falling back upon its author only to increase his sense of mortification and loss. The end of all is—"The king shall mourn, and the prince shall be clothed with desolation, and the hands of the people of the land shall be troubled." Again we ask the question, Was this arbitrary? Was this a mere trick of the higher powers? Was this but a theatrical display of the forces of Omnipotence? To these inquiries there is a plain, solemn, sufficient answer: "I will do it unto them after their way, and according to their deserts will I judge them." Thus is the answer within the man himself, and thus, without awaiting for any formal day of assize and judgment, every man may now determine his relation to the Almighty, and through that his relation to all the punishment which lies within the ability of God.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 6". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany