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Ezekiel 20. The Wicked Past and the Blessed Future.
Ezekiel 20:1-32 . A Sketch of Israel’ s Early Idolatries.— It is now 590 B.C. Almost a year has elapsed since the last incident that was dated ( Ezekiel 8:1): and as the doom draws nearer, the prophet grows fiercer. This lurid sketch of Israel’ s ancient sins, which partly recalls ch. 16, was occasioned by a visit of some elders ( cf. Ezekiel 8:1, Ezekiel 14:1), who put to him a question which though not recorded, may perhaps be inferred from Ezekiel 20:32. It seems probable that, in disgust and despair, the exiles may have been on the point of throwing over their allegiance to Yahweh who seemed so impotent, and adopting the worship and gods of the Babylonians. This gives Ezekiel the chance to denounce the wickedness and folly of Israel’ s idolatry, so ancient, so persistent, and so ruinous in its consequences ( Ezekiel 20:1-4).
Israel’ s idolatry is as old as Yahweh’ s choice of her. It goes back to Egypt. There He gave them a revelation, made gracious promises, and in return only asked them to abstain from Egyptian idolatry: but they refused, and, but for His name’ s sake ( i.e. regard for His reputation, which would have suffered had His people been annihilated) He would have destroyed them ( Ezekiel 20:5-9). When Israel left Egypt and entered the wilderness, the same melancholy story was repeated. At Sinai Yahweh showed His favour by giving them certain laws (such as we find in Dt. or in the smaller Book of the Covenant, Exodus 20-23), obedience to which would have meant life and prosperity. The Sabbath is singled out for special mention— significant of the high place it received in exilic and post-exilic times. But Sabbath and laws were alike despised, and it was only Yahweh’ s pity and regard for His name that kept Him from destroying them ( Ezekiel 20:10-17). The second generation was no better than the first ( Ezekiel 20:18-27). They too profaned the Sabbath, spurned the laws, and indulged in idolatry, so that Yahweh, though He would not destroy them, determined to scatter them one day throughout the world (an allusion to exile). The strangest and most difficult utterance is in Ezekiel 20:25 f. where Yahweh is represented as giving them statutes which were not good. The allusion appears to be to some such law as that of Exodus 13:12; Exodus 22:29, that the first-born must be offered to Yahweh, interpreted as a demand for child sacrifice (in spite of the provision that “ the first-born of man” was to be redeemed). Elsewhere Ezekiel ( Ezekiel 16:20) speaks with horror of the practice, and he cannot, any more than Jeremiah ( Jeremiah 7:31 *, cf. Leviticus 8:21 *), have regarded it as prescribed by Yahweh, but, at the most, as permitted by Him, on the principle that the sin of idolatry involves such frightful misconceptions of the Divine nature, and carries such awful consequences in its train, and that behind all development, law, incident, is Yahweh ( Amos 3:6). When the people emerged from the wilderness upon the promised land, the idolatries of Egypt and the wilderness were succeeded by the cruel and immoral idolatries upon the high places of Canaan. Such a people, idolatrous now as then, does not deserve and will not receive an answer from Yahweh through His prophet ( Ezekiel 20:28-32). ( Ezekiel 20:29 involves an unimportant play upon Hebrew words.)
Ezekiel 20:33-44 . The Restoration of the Future.— But after all, Yahweh has chosen Israel ( Ezekiel 20:5) for a purpose, and that purpose must not be frustrated; and despite the sin and darkness of the present, Ezekiel looks hopefully out to the future. But first there must be a sifting. Israel is to be gathered into the wilderness between Babylon and Canaan ( Ezekiel 20:35) and passed under the rod as the shepherd passes the sheep; there the rebels shall be left, but the good shall be brought to Canaan, and with self-loathing and penitent hearts they will offer on Mount Zion acceptable worship. Then Yahweh’ s gracious purpose will be fulfilled, and His power and His character will be recognised by Israel and the world alike.
Ezekiel 20:45 to Ezekiel 21:32 . The Terrible Sword of Nebuchadrezzar.— Here again, as shortly before (chs. 18f.), a piece of theological oratory is followed by a poem— this time a wild irregular dithyramb (esp. Ezekiel 21:8-17), the text of which is, unhappily, corrupt in places to the point of desperation. But perhaps its very perplexities reflect the tumult of the prophet’ s soul. The nearer the doom approaches, the more vividly does he conceive it.
Ezekiel 20:5-49 . He begins by announcing a supernatural conflagration in the south, which is to scorch the land bare. On Ezekiel’ s audience objecting to his allegorical description, he then speaks his mind with deadly plainness.
Ezekiel 21:1-7 . The south land is Judah, and in particular Jerusalem, and the conflagration is the fire of war, or rather the sword; and the whole chapter has been well called The Song of the Sword. It is Nebuchadrezzar’ s sword, but it is even more truly Yahweh’ s, for He has drawn it, and it is destined to slay righteous and wicked alike. (Ezekiel sees that the fall of Jerusalem will involve this indiscriminate destruction, though this rather conflicts with his theory of strict individual retribution which he had so fully expounded in ch. 18.) The thought of this inexorable issue makes Ezekiel’ s heart faint and sore.
Ezekiel 21:8-17 . This awful sword will do its work well. It is sharp and shining, ready for the slaughter of Israel’ s princes and people, a great murderous sword to be brandished again and yet again. It will strike terror into every heart, whirling to the rear, to the right, to the front, to the left, wherever its edge has been appointed by the indignant Yahweh for slaughter. ( Ezekiel 20:10 and Ezekiel 20:13 defy translation.)
Ezekiel 21:18-23 . This deadly sword is making straight for Jerusalem. In an unusually interesting passage, Nebuchadrezzar is represented as reaching a point in his westward march from which two roads diverge, one leading to the capital of Ammon, the other to Jerusalem. Along which shall he move? In various ways he seeks to ascertain the will of his gods— by shaking two arrows, one marked Rabbah ( Jeremiah 49:2 *), the other Jerusalem, and drawing one out, by consulting his images, by inspecting the liver of an animal. These superstitions of Nebuchadrezzar were all overruled to advance Yahweh’ s purpose. The lot decided for a march upon Jerusalem, and though the infatuated inhabitants are represented as not greatly perturbed, the Babylonian advance is a stern reminder of Zedekiah’ s perfidy ( Ezekiel 17:19), which they are coming to avenge.
Ezekiel 21:24-27 . At this point Ezekiel’ s emotion flames into white heat. He apostrophises the “ wicked” Zedekiah, sees him stripped of his regalia, and announces for his kingdom utter ruin, until some worthy successor shall arise— even the Messianic king— to whom it will be given back.
Ezekiel 21:28-32 . Ammon, though spared for the moment ( Ezekiel 20:22), shall not escape. Despite plausible oracles to the contrary, the sword that cut so deep into Judah will cleave Ammon too (in Ezekiel 20:29 for “ thee” read “ it” ). The Divine fury would be wreaked upon her through the brutish Babylonians; but unlike Judah ( Ezekiel 20:27) she would never rise again.
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Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Ezekiel 20". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
Eve of Ascension