Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, May 25th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 20

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary


Prophecies Against the Land (20:1-24:27)

This final major section in the first half of the book repeats much that has already been said, while moving ever closer to the fulfillment of predicted doom. The whole scope of Judah’s life is examined in review, and every element in society is brought into focus for condemnation by the Lord. The approach of Nebuchadnezzar is sensed as the indelible condition of Judah’s black character is described.

Verses 1-44

Review of Judah’s Sorry and Tragic History (20:1-44)

Various phases of the history of Judah and Jerusalem have been presented before in chapters 16, 17, and 19, but here the catalogue is plain and complete. Ezekiel, unlike some of his prophetic forebears, recognizes no time when the people were obedient to God. He believes rather that their whole history is the story of broken Covenant and disobedient life.

The date for this oracle is given in the same sequence as all other dates (see Introduction). The seventh year would be 591 B.C., when certain "elders of Israel," probably inhabitants of Tel-abib, came to sit with Ezekiel. The prophet would not talk to them on God’s behalf because of their heritage of disobedience.

God made his Covenant with "the house of Jacob" while the people were captive in Egypt, revealing himself and promising to be the God of Jacob (Israel). This aggregation of clans became his people. Furthermore, God promised to bring Israel to a land of promise, "the most glorious of all lands" (vs. 6), The only requirement was that they free themselves from idols and other gods, since the Lord was their only God, Rebellion, however, was in their hearts even in Egypt, whose idols they never forsook.

In order to reveal his true nature among the nations, God did not let his people be destroyed in Egypt; rather he brought them out of bondage into the wilderness. Statutes, ordinances, and Sabbaths were given to them as memory devices, but to no avail. The Lord complains: "But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness" (vs. 13). In the wilderness the Lord again considered destroying a rebellious people, but for his name’s sake he did not. His chief concern was to reveal himself through Israel as a God with interest in all nations.

Exhortation to change their way of life and turn from the ways of their fathers failed to awaken a true response in the children who entered the land of promise (vss. 18-21a). Threat of punishment and exile did not deter the headlong rush to serve idols. Since nothing else worked, God gave them over to false statutes and perverted ordinances, making them subject to the rules of Molech worship, in which it was necessary to offer the first-born by fire. Not even the horror of this false religion made them turn (vss. 21-26).

Coming into the land, they were enticed by the Canaanite fertility cults located on every high hill and under every leafy tree, where sacrifice was made. Canaanite gods had become the objects of worship; now the Lord would not bear their iniquity. The whole tragedy of Israel’s history is caught in the saying, "Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone" (vs. 32). This is the sorry story of the conformity which the nation chose as a substitute for the opportunity God had given — the opportunity, as his people, to be especially useful to him.

God’s case has been presented; now he will execute judgment upon the guilty even as he did in Egypt and in the wilderness (vss. 33-36). The people will pass under his rod even as sheep pass under the rod of their shepherd and will go in by number (vs. 37 ) , but the rebels will be purged from among them ( vs. 3 8 ) . These rebellious ones shall not enter the land of Israel. The people of Israel are warned that they can serve their idols still, if that be their desire, but God will no more receive gifts from those whose true loyalty is to idols (vs. 39).

God does promise a return from exile and the restoration of the sacred offerings, with opportunity for all to serve him in obedience. Thus, God says, "I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations" (vs. 41). Once more the purpose of self-revelation to all nations is set forth. When the people have received the fulfillment of these promises, then they will be sorry for their wicked past (vs. 43). Then they will understand that the Lord is not finally motivated by their "evil ways" or "corrupt doings" but acts for the sake of his name. God is true to his purpose and character in all circumstances.

Judgment (20:45-21:32)

Not since chapters 4-7 and chapter 9 has the theme of judgment been presented with such force and thoroughness as it is in the following uninterrupted proclamation of doom. At least four oracles about the sword are intertwined in this passage: (1) The sword of the Lord unsheathed (Ezekiel 20:45 to Ezekiel 21:7); (2) the song of the sword (Ezekiel 21:8-17); (3) the sword of Nebuchadnezzar en route to Jerusalem (Ezekiel 21:18-22); and (4) the sword of Chaldean conquest (Ezekiel 21:28-32).

The prophet is instructed to turn his face southward toward the Negeb (the desert south of Hebron) and say to "the forest of the Negeb" (no trees grow in this region today) that a fire of destruction has been kindled which shall destroy the whole forest, green and dry trees alike. When this happens, men shall know that the Lord is the true God. At this juncture in his ministry Ezekiel heard his people’s sardonic comments about his preaching. They were expressing mild contempt for his talk about forest fires with the question, "Is he not a maker of allegories?" (vs. 49).

The prophet, under divine instruction, then turns his face toward Jerusalem to preach against "the sanctuaries." God proclaims that he will draw forth his sword against "the land of Israel." Along with this news, Ezekiel receives the command to sigh with deep grief. When he is asked the reason for his sighing he will answer, "Because of the tidings. When it comes, every heart will melt and all hands will be feeble, every spirit will faint and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it comes and it will be fulfilled" (vs. 7). This description of the reaction within Jerusalem to an attack from without closely parallels what has previously been said in Ezekiel 7:10-22. In the real crises of human history, man’s power fails and only God can help.

Dramatic exultation over such tragedy is hardly what we could expect. The outburst in Ezekiel 21:8-17 must be understood in the light of the prophet’s time and the whole conception of prophecy current then. Much prophecy from the time of King Saul on was given in an ecstatic state when all inhibition was cast aside and the prophet was under the compulsion of the divine Spirit. This ecstatic state was accompanied by rhythmic words and music, with some dancing. Ezekiel’s dramatic exultation might have been accompanied by a sword dance of some kind. It is introduced with the exciting words found in verses 9 and 10. The sword is drawn by the Lord against his people and the princes of Israel. The words that follow are in the same mood and milieu as the display in Ezekiel 6:11-12, where rhythmic clapping of hands and movement of a sword back and forth accompany the words. The oracle ends as it began, with an unsheathed sword, busy at the slaughter to which God had directed it. The prophet’s real exultation is in God’s triumph over evil. To him the integrity of God, who is great beyond comprehension, and his true manifestation in history are absolutely primary.

Prediction now begins to blend into fulfillment (vss. 18-22). Nebuchadnezzar has started his approach from the north to attack the city of Jerusalem which has stubbornly resisted his rule. At a crossroads, the king of the Chaldeans must make a decision between attacking Rabbah of the Ammonites and turning his force against Jerusalem. Three means of divination were in use for such decisions at that time: shaking the arrows, consulting the teraphim, and looking at the liver (vs. 21). Leaving nothing to chance, the king is said to have followed all three methods. The exact technique and interpretation used in divination by the drawing of an arrow or the use of teraphim (household gods which were sometimes portable) we do not know. In Babylon the examination of the liver of a sacrificial animal was given priority. The lot fell out in favor of attacking Jerusalem. Although by the people of the city this is thought to be a false divination, capture is sure (vs. 23).

Verses 24-27 once more speak of the unforgiven sin of the people and direct scathing denunciation at Zedekiah, who is described as an "unhallowed wicked one" whose time of punishment has come. The turban and crown are removed and the kingdom shall be left in ruins until someone comes who has a right to rule.

Ammon had escaped the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar for the moment, but the wrath of the Lord would still be poured out on that nation. The same words used against Judah in the song of the sword are directed against the Ammonites. These people from across the Jordan had taken advantage of the disorganized and helpless state of Judah to pillage and plunder. As a result they now are condemned to be delivered into the "hands of brutal men, skilful to destroy." Ammonites will be like fuel for fire, and their blood will be shed in the midst of the land. Eventually marauders from the desert did reduce Ammon to impotence, all but blotting out her memory.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 20". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/ezekiel-20.html.
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