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THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF ISRAEL (Chap. 20.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The date given in Ezekiel 20:1 applies also to chap. 20–23. (compare chap. Ezekiel 24:1). These four chapters are bound together by their contents into one group of connected words of God, and also by the threefold repetition of the expression, “wilt thou judge?” (chap. Ezekiel 20:4; Ezekiel 22:2; Ezekiel 23:36). The prophet is appointed to judge the people, i.e., to make manifest their sin to them, and to predict the punishment. In Ezekiel 20:1-4, we have the date, occasion, and subject of the prophetical discourse.
Ezekiel 20:1. “In the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month.” There is a Jewish tradition that the tenth day of the fifth month was the day on which the “Sentence of Wandering” was passed (Numbers 14:29). It is remarkable that this was also the same day on which the Temple was burnt both by the Chaldeans (Jeremiah 52:12-13), and according to the testimony of Josephus, by the Romans. This chapter (in which Numbers 14:0 is several times referred to) announces a new and a far heavier “Sentence of Wandering” (Ezekiel 20:35-38). “If we compare the date given in Ezekiel 20:1 with chap. Ezekiel 8:1, we shall find that this word of God was uttered only eleven months and five days after the one in chap. 8.; two years, one month, and five days after the call of Ezekiel to be a prophet (chap. Ezekiel 1:2); and two years and five months before the blockading of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (chap. Ezekiel 24:1). Consequently it falls almost in the middle of the first section of Ezekiel’s prophetic work.”—(Keil). “To enquire of the Lord.” Heb. “to seek Jehovah,” i.e., to ask, a revelation from Him.
Ezekiel 20:3. “As I live, saith the Lord God, I will not be enquired of by you.” “The Lord’s answer is similar to that in chap. Ezekiel 14:3. Instead of giving a revelation concerning the future, especially with regard to the termination of the penal sufferings, which the elders had, no doubt, come to solicit, the prophet is to judge them, i.e., as the following clause explains, not only in the passage before us, but also in chap. Ezekiel 22:3, and Ezekiel 23:36, to hold up before them the sins and abominations of Israel. It is in anticipation of the following picture of the apostacy of the nation from time immemorial that the sins of the fathers are mentioned here.”—(Keil). “No reply is given to the sinners, but chiding for their sins; and He adds the oath, ‘As I live,’ that the sentence of refusal may be all the stronger.”—(Jerome). When Saul “enquired of the Lord,” we are told that “the Lord answered him not” (1 Samuel 28:6).
Ezekiel 20:4. “Wilt thou judge them, son of man wilt thou judge them?” The repeated question has the force of a command, yea, even implies that a necessity is laid upon the prophet to pronounce judgment. “The Hebrew word signifies, not merely to judge, but also frequently, as here, to conduct a cause before a tribunal by adducing or hearing such evidence as bears upon it, and shall lead to the delivery of a righteous sentence.” (Henderson.) “The question is repeated in the liveliness of emotion. It is a question of impatience, to which things go too slowly, and show how little right they have to look for grace, or expect a pleasing answer. The son of man cannot go soon enough for the Lord to the work of judgment and punishment for sin, which is here alone announced, and is to be executed in his name. Those who wish to have another answer, must repent beforehand. The summons to make known to them the sins of their fathers, points to this, that the evil is deep-seated, and a radical cure is to be desired, which can only be effected by a judgment of inflexible rigour.”—(Hengstenberg.) “Cause them to know the abominations of their fathers.” The evil which called for judgment had entered the very life of the nation. They inherited it like a disease—like a bad name. But the prophet not only mentions the sins of their fathers in order to show the magnitude of their guilt, but also that they might see how great was the patience and long-suffering of the Lord.
THE ELDERS BEFORE EZEKIEL
This is a very different result from that which we might have expected. We might have been inclined to say of the elders, that they could not have inquired of the Lord once, but they have learned wisdom from adversity, and they are come to enquire now. And so Ezekiel would also have said to these elders had they come in the right spirit and temper of mind; as penitents, with sorrow and contrition of heart, bemoaning their past obstinacy and rebellion, and beseeching God to receive their cries of earnest sorrow and their promises to do better things in the future. Had they so come they would have been well received. That prophet who was commissioned to say, “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right he shall save his soul alive,” and again, “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth,” and the like—the prophet who was charged with such messages as these could never have been commissioned to drive away with hard reproachful words any true penitent, who came to enquire of the Lord by him.
This is the point in which the elders failed. There is no evidence of their penitence. They came to enquire of the Lord without first repenting and bringing forth works meet for repentance. Look at Ezekiel 20:35, and the great reason will be seen why the enquirers were rebuffed, “When ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, “even unto this day”—even to this day; you perceive that their sins were not events of the past, but things going on in full vigour up to this very time. It was in the midst of these unrepented sins that they were come to enquire of the Lord; “and shall I be enquired of by you, O house of Israel?”—so the verse continues—“As I live, saith the Lord God, I will not be enquired of by you.” Here you have the repetition of the words of the text. The prophet is then commissioned to make known the abominations of their fathers. He shows them that they were as guilty as their fathers, and more guilty, because they had more teaching, more experience, more examples. And yet without any repentance, they expect that they are to be permitted to enquire of the Lord acceptably, but no—God will not be mocked; He will hear the penitent, but not the self-satisfied sinner.
There was nothing harsh and unreasonable in the answer which Ezekiel gave to the elders. He did not send the hungry empty away, but only as God’s ambassador refused to answer those who would not leave their sins behind them when they entered into the Temple of God. These elders wished to make a mere convenience of the oracle of God. They might have enquired of God continually, but they did nothing of the kind. But when they found themselves in distress, and knew not which way to turn, then they presented themselves before God’s prophet. They were brought to enquire of God not by love, not by a sense of duty, not even by habit, but merely by a desire to find their way out of difficulties from which they were unable to discover any human means of escape.
We see, in the first place, that they were not hardly dealt with; and, secondly, that the whole story may be useful by way of parable to teach people how they must enquire of God if they would enquire aright. It is well that we should look into this matter carefully; for we are apt to give an unlimited interpretation to what we read of God’s mercy in hearing prayer, that we perhaps forget that there are very important limitations, and that a prayer may sometimes obtain no answer because there is something amiss in him who makes it. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is an instance. The Pharisee who went up to the Temple to pray was a very respectable elder apparently, something much more than respectable if we attend to his own account of himself,—yet this Pharisee received no answer, was not justified as the Gospel has it. God would not be enquired of by such. This is an instance of unsuccessful prayer. Let us consider what the true conditions of successful prayer are—
I. True religion is emphatically a walking with God. It is not a mere occasional coming to Him. A certain amount of reproach seems to be implied in the manner in which the day of the visit of the elders, is accurately set down; it was “in the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month.” These visits of the elders were few and far between, there was no danger of confounding one with another. In chap. 8, we read, that “in the sixth year, in the sixth month, in the fifth day of the month,” there was a similar visit to the prophet, and there appears to have been none between; so that nearly a year separated the one visit from the other. The precise manner in which the date is given may be taken as conveying a reproof to those who, instead of making it their constant business to know God’s will, were contented to let a year elapse between two successive visits to the prophet. Walking with God is the scripture phrase which well describes that constant nearness to God, that affinity of heart and affections, which the really religious man strives for. The notion of life, too, expresses the same thing. Religion is a life, by which word we intend to express, that it is not a series of irregular spasmodic efforts, not an enquiry of God now and then, not a coming to His prophet in the sixth year and the sixth month, and again in the seventh year and the fifth month, but an enquiry in all years and all months and all days, a habit of opening our hearts and consciences to Him, and of guiding our conduct by the answers which we are able to obtain.
II. We must leave our sins behind us when we come to enquire of God. The severe answer which the elders received was due to the fact that they came without first repenting. As a further illustration of this we find, that in their former visit, their presence at once brought upon the prophet a vision of the sins of the people. The prophet’s eyes wandered in spirit to Jerusalem, and there he saw all the abominations of the house of Israel; there were men offering their incense to idols, and saying, “The Lord seeth us not;” there were women weeping for Tammuz; worse than all, there were men bowing down in worship to the sun of the creation, not the Creator. These visions rose to Ezekiel’s prophetic eye when the elders came and sat before him; and because they contained precisely the explanation of all the misery under which the people groaned. The elders may come and sit before the prophet and bemoan their captivity, but of what profit will that be? That will not cure the disease. The disease is unrepented sin, and without a change here there can be no acceptance, no answer to prayer. Self-examination, earnest efforts to forsake the evil and to do the good, must ever be the preparations for successful inquiry of God. Prayer is not a thing which is at our command at any moment. Sinners can come to Christ, but they must leave their sins. John the Baptist came as the herald of Christ, and because he did so, his chief text was: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” No other way is sure but this; nothing else can save us from the possibility of such a rebuke as that in the text, “As I live,” etc. The history brings before us this lesson also, that—
III. Prayer, or coming to God in any way, must not be made a mere matter of convenience, but must be regarded as a matter of constant spiritual necessity. These elders came when they thought it would answer their purpose. They forgot God when all went well, they sought Him when they were at their wit’s end; they did not look upon communion with God as the one great spiritual need of their souls. They were a type of the mass of mankind. Large numbers of our fellow creatures do live in utter neglect of God. They live without prayer, and without the Scriptures—passing a quiet, animal kind of life, with no cares except those of getting daily bread. And yet many of these persons will cry to the Lord in trouble; put them upon a sick-bed, and they will say their prayers, for the most part, vigorously enough. This is no right use of prayer, but a most unchristian abuse. It was never intended that man should be careless while in health, and religious in sickness; never intended that young men should be dissipated and only old men sober and chaste; never intended that the best of a Christian’s life and strength should be given to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and only the dross and refuse to Him who made him and redeemed him. Prayer was never intended to be made use of as a convenience when earthly aid fails, but to be the medium of communication with God. the means of gaining continual aid and daily blessing from Him. “Pray without ceasing” is the best text to enforce our duty. These did not “pray without ceasing.” It was but an occasional work, a remedy resorted to in the last extremity, a death-bed cry for help. If we were independent creatures and lived by our own strength and energy, then we might be content to make our approaches to Him rare and exceptional, and only necessary when called for by special circumstances. But what a false view would this be of our relation to Him in whom we live and move and have our being, who alone is able to help us, whom to know is life eternal! And how comforting, how satisfying is that view which represents God as a Father ever ready to bless us, and to whom, therefore, if we pray at all, we can scarcely fail to pray without ceasing!—(Goodwin’s “Parish Sermons.”)
Ezekiel 20:1. It is enough to say merely that they came to inquire, for from the prophet’s mode of answering them we see that they made no inquiry as to deliverance and the way of salvation; they were troubled as to political things, the duration of the exile, the end of the Babylonish power, the issue of Zedekiah’s faithlessness. We, too, ask, Watchman, what of the night? rather than, How shall I find grace? Why are we so concerned about the future? It will be like our past. We should be deeply concerned on account of our past. In our approaches to God, humility and reverence should be combined with a strong and assured faith, which must acquiesce in the authority of the one God, and yet must not object to hear God speak through his servants. Summon thyself to the study of the prophets and apostles through whom God has spoken! God will be inquired of, but still more should His will, which is sufficiently known to us, be done. To call on God, and yet not to obey Him is an abomination in His sight. “He heareth not sinners” (John 9:31; Isaiah 1:15). Ezekiel 20:2-3. God’s suggestive silence, and His more suggestive answer. God in the mouth, and idols in the heart, a most critical condition. God speaks not the smallest word of comfort to hypocrites. For hypocrites there is in the heart of God, and in the Holy Scriptures, no other counsel but to sincere repentance (Isaiah 55:7). Thus these elders were not in a condition to hear God’s word. God hides Himself from those who hear His word with their gaze fixed only on their idols. They have no part in God’s word.—(Lange).
1. The Lord keeps an exact account of his people’s sufferings. Be the time long or short, He observes, “In the seventh year, fifth month, and tenth day;” that was of their captivity. The Lord forgot not how long they had been in Babylon, He notes how the time of their trouble passes. They were captives in Babylon, suffered hard things; but God took notice of the time, and how the years ran out. It is not said only that the woman had a spirit of infirmity, but the time is recorded also, she had it eighteen years (Luke 13:11). Also in John 5:5, not only the man and his infirmity is mentioned, but the time also how long, thirty-eight years. God tells the years, months, and days that His people endure adversity. Seventy years were determined that they should be in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:10-11), and God gave them to see; He observed as well, yea, better than they, how they passed.
2. The time of men’s doing some things is specially noted by the Lord. The time of these elders coming to inquire of the Lord is recorded. See how the actions of Josiah are observed (2 Chronicles 34:3). When Jeroboam feasted and sacrificed to the calves he had made, God took notice of the month and day (1 Kings 12:32). When the persecution of the Church was, God took notice of it; “at that time” (Acts 8:1).
3. Hypocrisy is a close sin, and is in those ofttimes we little think. It is found where it was not expected, “in the elders of Israel:” those who here came to Ezekiel, pretending piety, sat before him, as if they would hearken to whatsoever the Lord should say, and do it; yet they intended no such thing, but were resolved to go on in their own ways, and to be as the Babylonians and heathens (Ezekiel 20:32), so that they might enjoy peace and safety. So those who came to Christ (Matthew 22:16-18), they carried a foul business very smoothly. There are many who will be found hypocrites at last, who now frequent the assemblies and come to hear the word of God, but do it not.
4. To inquire and ask counsel of the prophets and man of God, is of ancient standing and warrantable. Their coming was not unlawful, but their coming sinfully. It was a frequent practice of old to consult with the prophets (1 Samuel 9:9; 1 Kings 22:15; 2 Kings 8:8; Jeremiah 21:2; Jeremiah 37:7); and their coming to them was coming to the Lord. What though, now there are no prophets nor apostles immediately inspired and infallible to consult withal, yet there are pastors and teachers with whom Christ hath promised to be to the end of the world.
5. The prophets were to give out the Lord’s mind in His name and words. “Speak unto the elders of Israel, and say, thus saith the Lord God.” He must not say, thus saith Ezekiel, but, “Thus saith the Lord.” That which is from the Lord hath a divine stamp upon it, a divine power in it; but that which is man’s is like himself, frail and feeble.
6. When men come to God or His ordinances with hypocritical hearts, they get nothing of Him. “Come ye to inquire of me? as I live, I will not be inquired of by you.” Job, speaking of a hypocrite, saith, “Will God hear his cry when trouble cometh upon him?” (Job 32:9). If men’s hearts be not upright, sincere, let them pray and cry in prayer, let them come to a prophet and ask counsel and wait, God respects them not, will not answer them. “The way of the Lord is strength to the upright” (Proverbs 10:29). What is the way of the Lord? Prayer, hearing of the word, asking counsel of His prophets and servants, are the ways of the Lord. In these He appears, is found, lets out strength; but it is when men are upright, not hypocritical.
7. Hypocrites may deceive the prophets and servants of God. Ezekiel thought that they were good men, and worthy of a better entertainment at the hands of God, but he was deceived. Simon Magus demeaned himself so that he begat a good esteem in the heart of Philip, and was admitted to baptism (Acts 8:13). False apostles had got into the church at Ephesus, and had for a time gained too much upon the angel thereof (Revelation 2:2).
7. Hypocrites are not to be pleaded for. “Wilt thou judge them, son of man, wilt thou judge them? God would not have the prophet to plead for or excuse them. Hypocrites are not always the greatest of sinners, but they are ever the worst of sinners. The devil is never more devil than when he transforms himself into an angel of light. The Jews were “a hypocritical nation” (Isaiah 10:6; Jeremiah 7:9-10); and, therefore, God forbids Jeremiah to pray for them (Jeremiah 14:11). And what if they should pray themselves? You have an answer in Job 13:16; God tells you that “an hypocrite shall not come before Him,” that is to have acceptance of His person, or hear any comfortable answer from Him.
9. The prophets and servants of God, when they are inquired of by men, must not proceed according to their desires, but they must wait for the mind of God and do answerably thereunto. “Wilt thou judge them, son of man? Cause them to know the abominations of their fathers?” They would have thee inquire of Me for them, but I will not be inquired of, they shall not have their desires. Go thy ways, lay before them the abominable things their fathers have done. Not the people’s desires, nor the prophet’s fancies, must be his direction, when he is to make answer to those that inquire; but the will of God made known by His word and Spirit.—(Greenhill.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The election of Israel in Egypt, where God made Himself known to them by wonders and signs, and promised to become their God. Israel’s ingratitude, though the Lord brought them out of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey.
Ezekiel 20:5. “When I chose Israel.” God chose them for high purposes, of His own free grace, and not for any deserving on their part (Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Deuteronomy 10:15; Deuteronomy 14:2). “Lifted up mine hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob.” The reference is plainly to the lifting up of the hands, as in the act of swearing (Genesis 14:22). “I am the Lord your God.” This was God’s ancient promise renewed to Moses (Exodus 6:6-8).
Ezekiel 20:6. “Had espied.” “God, as it were, spied out this land for them, sought it out with the greatest care as the best.”—(Hengstenberg). “The glory of all lands.” It was a “goodly land” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9), even in its physical characteristics: but eminently “glorious” (Daniel 11:16; Daniel 11:41; Daniel 11:45), because it was the scene where the glories of the Son of God were displayed. It was the land from which the streams of salvation should flow all over the earth.
Ezekiel 20:7. “The abominations of His eyes.” The worship of visible objects which Israel had substituted for the invisible God. “Defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt.” “The election of the Israelites to be the people of Jehovah, contained eo ipso the command to give up the idols of Egpyt, although it was at Sinai that the worship of other gods was for the first time expressly prohibited (Ezekiel 20:3), and Egyptian idolatry is only mentioned in Leviticus 17:7.”—(Keil).
Ezekiel 20:8. “Neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt.” “History does not expressly mention such a revolt of the people in Egypt; yet we are led indirectly to this by the statements of the books of Moses concerning the perpetual tendency of the people in the wilderness to the customs of Egypt. To this belongs, e.g., the making of the golden calf, in which there is an imitation of the Egyptian worship of the brute; further (Leviticus 17:16), according to which Israel in the wilderness served he-goats. The worship of a deity under the form of a he goat was peculiar to Egypt (Leviticus 18:3), when the people are admonished; “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do.” That the Israelites generally served idols in Egypt is attested by Joshua 24:14; and this being so, it is to be expected beforehand that this inclination would not immediately cease after the true God had made Himself known to them. The murmuring also of the people in Egypt again Moses and Aaron (Exodus 5:21), implies an under-current of Egyptian tendencies.”—(Hengstenberg). The evidence furnished by Joshua 24:14). established the fact that the Israelites practised idolatry in Egypt. Israel had to be redeemed, not so much from the bondage of Pharaoh as from “the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12), whom Pharaoh and his magicians served. The whole controversy with Pharaoh turned on the question, would he allow Israel to serve the Lord?
Ezekiel 20:9. “But I wrought for thy name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen among whom they were.” “The missing object explaining what He did, namely, abstain from pouring out His wrath, is to be gathered from what follows: ‘for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen.’ This would have taken place if God had destroyed Israel by pouring out His wrath; in other words, have allowed them to be destroyed by the Egyptians. The heathen might then have said that Jehovah had been unable to liberate His people from their hand and power (Numbers 14:16; Exodus 32:12.”)—(Keil). “Not only the miserable circumstances of their external condition, but still more the state of spiritual degradation into which the Hebrews had sunk, infinitely magnified the Divine mercy which interposed for their deliverance. ‘Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.’ The glory of this, as well as of the other attributes of Jehovah, was the ultimate end which He had in view in bringing them forth from the house of bondage. This is described as His name, i.e., the sum-total of His known perfections (Romans 9:17; 2 Samuel 7:23; Isaiah 63:12). The preservation of that name from desecration is repeatedly spoken of this chapter (Ezekiel 20:14; Ezekiel 20:22; Ezekiel 20:39).—(Henderson)
I. It was of God’s free choice. “In the day when I chose Israel” (Ezekiel 20:5). This choice had no reference to their merit or special fitness. They were selected to carry out the special purposes of redemption, because such was the will of God, who is not obliged to give any account to men of His matters. We must, however, avoid the error of attributing any caprice to God. He works not according to mere will, but “after the counsel of His own will” (Ephesians 1:11).
II. It implied His willingness to be their God. “I am the Lord your God” (Ezekiel 20:5). This includes all that the Creator can give to the creature—every blessing for time and eternity. Several stages were necessary for the realisation of this gift.
1. God revealed Himself to them. “And made myself known unto them in the land of Egypt.” It is absolutely necessary that the soul should know Him whom it is to serve, and from whom it is to expect every blessing. “He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). But how can we come to God and have faith in Him unless He makes Himself known to us as an object worthy of our trust and reverence? We cannot know a person except he speaks and we cannot know God unless He reveals Himself in an intelligible voice. Therefore it is that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
2. God entered into covenant with them. “And lifted up thine hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob” (Ezekiel 20:5). God’s communication to His people was a covenant wherein He bound Himself to bless them, binding them at the same time to certain conditions.
3. God engaged to lead them. “To bring them forth of the land of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:6). He sought out and prepared for them a place of habitation, had espied for them a land flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands. Thus when God promises His people to be their God, this promise implies all that is meant by godliness and its reward—revelation, covenant blessings, discipline and guidance, the peace and rest of the lot of the conquered inheritance.
III. It demanded corresponding duties. By every revelation of Himself, by every gift of God, man comes under obligation. It was the duty of Israel
1. To forsake all false objects of worship (Ezekiel 20:7). But instead of this they defiled themselves with the idols of Egypt.
2. To yield obedience to God’s commands. But instead of this, they rebelled against Him. God chooses men not for evil, but that He might redeem and save them. But they cannot be saved unless they are obedient to God’s way of salvation. The children of Israel were disobedient. They did the very things which were contrary to the purpose for which they were elected. They were infected by the idolatry of Egypt. Though they were called out of the world to be a peculiar people, yet the influence of the world overcame them. They wished to stand well with Egypt, which was then the world-power.
IV. It heightened Israel’s ingratitude. When they sinned against their high calling their sin was all the greater.
1. The anger of God was provoked. “I will pour out my fury upon them to accomplish my anger against them.” The Egyptians were the instruments of this vengeance. It was, “in the midst of the land of Egypt” that God would accomplish His anger. They were punished by the very people whom they sought to propitiate. Thus God chastises men by those things in which they most delight.
2. Even in the punishment of His people, God has regard to the honour of His name. “But I wrought for my name’s sake that it should not be polluted before the heathen among whom they were, in whose sight I made Myself known to them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:9). “But the revelation which I had given of Myself before the eyes of the heathen among whom they were was not to be desecrated before these same eyes, especially before the Egyptians, as if to wish well to My name were present with Me, but not the power of performance (regard being had at the same time to the heathen, as Israel was placed in a peculiar position in regard to humanity as a whole) Comp. Numbers 14:13, etc.; Exodus 32:12; Numbers 23:19.”—(Lange).
1. Old mercies should be remembered. Not only by those they were first bestowed upon, but also by their posterity. In this, and in the former verse, God reminds them of old mercies, His choice of them, His professing to be their God, His bringing them out of Egypt, which were some eight or nine hundred years before, and His espying out a land for them, which was four hundred years before that; for it was in Abraham’s days that God took notice of that land (Genesis 12:1; Genesis 12:7). These old mercies God would have them to mind, though they were in Babylon, and deprived of the good land God had given them. Let men be in what condition they will, old mercies should not be forgotten (Psalms 44:1-2; Judges 6:13). And because men are apt to forget former mercies, when they grow old they grow out of mind, the Lord laid a charge upon the Jews that they should not forget them (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).
2. Countries and habitations of people are appointed by the Lord. He distributes lands and habitations to whom He thinks meet. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Psalms 24:1). He is the sole owner, the true Lord of the soil, and all it brings forth, and He hath “given it to the children of men” (Psalms 115:16). He hath assigned them their several portions (Deuteronomy 32:8). The most high God, being Lord paramount, would not have the sons of Adam to live all in one country, but appointed them several lands to dwell in, and set their bounds and limits. Alter the flood, at the building of Babel, God confounded the languages, and dispersed the posterity of Noah into divers lands, and set them their bounds (Genesis 11:9). And so, when He brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan, He gave them their bounds (Psalms 78:55).
3. The Lord provides and bestows the choicest mercies upon His own people. If there be a land in the world that flows with milk and honey, that exceeds all other lands for plenty and pleasantness, His people shall have it. When God carried Jacob and his family into Egypt, He provided the good and fat of that land for them (Genesis 45:18); yea, they were placed in “the best of the land” (Genesis 47:11). God fed and filled His people with “the finest of the wheat” (Psalms 147:14). Moses mentions seven things together in Deuteronomy 32:13-15, as “honey out of the rock, oil out of the flinty rock, butter of kine, milk of sheep, fat of lambs, and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, fat of kidneys of wheat, the pure blood of the grape;” these the Lord provided for His people, and they had all an excellency in them. God bestowed choice mercies upon this people (Ezekiel 16:10-13). David acknowledges that he had a “goodly heritage,” even a “wealthy place.” Daniel and the three children were set in eminent places (Daniel 2:0; Daniel 3:0).
4. Spiritual mercies make a land glorious. Canaan was the glory of all lands, not so much for its great plenty as for the spiritual mercies it enjoyed. There was the Lord’s presence, His prophets, His worship, His oracles, and His ordinances, and these made it glorious, yea, more than all the nations far or near. “In Judah is God known: His name is great in Israel. In Salem also is His tabernacle, and His dwelling-place in Zion” (Psalms 76:1-2). God was not known in Babylon, in Egypt, in other nations; His tabernacle and dwelling-place was not amongst them, therefore they were not glorious. “Thou art more glorious than the mountains of prey”; thou Judah, thou Israel, thou Salem, thou Zion, that hast spiritual mercies and blessings, art more glorious than they, whatever their glory be. Have the nations abroad goodly towers? thou hast the temple. Have they stately cities? thou hast Jerusalem, the city of God. Have they wise men? thou hast the prophets. Have they gods of gold, silver, and stones? thou hast the true living God, Jehovah, to be thy God. Have they human laws that are good? thou hast divine laws that excel. Have they temporal excellencies? thou hast spiritual. Have they the glory of the world? thou hast the glory of heaven. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined” (Psalms 50:1-2). What made Zion so glorious and beautiful? It was the presence of God; if He had not been there, Zion had been like other mountains, and Canaan like other nations; but His presence was like the sun, darting out His beams, and making all glorious and beautiful. Spiritual mercies are beams and rays of that God who is brighter than the sun; by these He shined in Zion and made it the perfection of beauty. By these He shined out of Zion, and darkened all the glory of the nations. Where God and His ordinances are, there is glory; and where these are not, there is no glory, but Egyptian darkness—a land without the sun. In Canaan was spiritual light and glory. There were glorious appearances of God, glorious praisings of God, glorious conversions of sinners unto God, glorious sabbaths and assemblies, and glorious beauties of holiness, glorious types of Christ, and people who were the glory of God (Isaiah 4:5). There were glorious truths, ordinances, and dispensations of God. Plenty of outward things do not make a land glorious as spiritual mercies do. If God, Christ, Gospel, and the ordinances of it be in a land they make it glorious above all other nations. Let us learn to know our true glory, even spiritual mercies, and prize them highly, though loathed by some, like the manna of old, and pray that such glory may ever dwell in our land.—(Greenhill.)
God’s name is polluted.
(1). When it is not hallowed. Not acknowledged, or esteemed to be holy and honourable.
(2). When it is slighted, and not used reverently. God’s name is great, glorious, excellent, holy, and ought to be reverenced (Psalms 111:9).
(3). When occasion is given to the wicked to speak evil of God and His ways. David by his sins gave great occasion to the enemies of God to blaspheme (2 Samuel 12:14). The Jews by their sinful carriage caused the name of God to be profaned among the heathen. Had the Lord, then, destroyed this people in Egypt, according as He purposed, the Egyptians and other nations would have slighted Him, spoken evil of His doings, blasphemed His name, and wounded His honour. Therefore, though this people deserved to die in the way of justice, yet God spared them in the way of mercy for the honour of his name. “Before the heathen.” The Hebrew is, “in the eyes of the heathen.” God would not have them to see or behold anything which might occasion them to dishonour Him. He would not slay His people in their sight, but made Himself known by His word and mighty works unto the Jews, in the sight of the heathen, so that hereby He was known unto both.
1. The Lord spares and saves sinners deserving death, even for His name’s sake. God’s honour and glory are strong arguments to move Him to show mercy to His people. This the servants of God have known, and made use of, in their straits. When Jerusalem was in a manner laid desolate, and the jealousy of God burned like fire, what argument did the Church use then to move God to show mercy but His “name,” and the glory of it? (Psalms 79:9). What hurt would it be to God’s name if He did it not? It would not be glorious, but dishonoured; for in the next verse it is said, “Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is their God?” They trusted in their God, and He is a non-helping God, a non-delivering God. This was the argument Joshua used when Israel fell before their enemies, “Lord, what wilt Thou do unto Thy great name?” When the people forgot the multitude of great mercies they had in Egypt, and provoked Him at the sea, even at the Red Sea, and deserved to be drowned in it, what saith the text? “Nevertheless, He saved them for His name’s sake.” (Psalms 106:8).
2. God’s sparing of His people is an honouring and sanctifying of His name. God deals with His people sometimes, not after the ordinary rule and course of His proceedings, but in a prerogative way; He spares them, though their sins be great, because their enemies would be proud, arrogant, and blasphemous. (Deuteronomy 32:26-27.)
3. That notwithstanding the sins of God’s people, He shows them kindness openly, and in the face of their enemies. Though the Jews had rebelled against God, and the Egyptians would have rejoiced in their ruin, yet, in their sight, God made Himself known unto them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt. God would have the Egyptians see that He could be kind to His people, though they were disobedient unto Him.—(Greenhill.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The sin of the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness: yet the Lord did not make an end of them.
Ezekiel 20:11. “And I gave them My statutes, and showed them My judgments.” This was a general expression for the law which was delivered to them. “God gave laws at Sinai to the people whom He had brought out of Egypt, through which they were sanctified as His own people, that they might live before God.”—(Keil.) “Which if a man do, he shall even live in them.” He who obeyed God’s laws would find them tend “unto life” (Romans 7:10; Romans 10:5). The life which comes of obedience was not mere existence, but prosperity and blessedness, both bodily and spiritual, temporal and eternal (Deuteronomy 4:1; Matthew 19:17; Exodus 20:12, etc.). The leading through the wilderness served to test their obedience.
Ezekiel 20:12. “I gave them my Sabbaths.” “God concludes the directions for His worship by urging upon the people in the most solemn manner the observance of His Sabbaths, and thereby pronounces the keeping of the Sabbath as the kernel of all divine worship. And, as in that passage (Exodus 31:13), we are to understand by the Sabbaths the actual weekly Sabbaths, and not the institutions of worship as a whole, so here we must retain the literal signification of the word. It is only of the Sabbaths occurring every week, and not of all the fasts, that it could be said that it was a sign between Jehovah and Israel. It was a sign, not as a token, that they who observed it were Israelites, but that they might know that Jehovah was sanctifying them, namely, by the Sabbath rest—as a refreshing and elevation of the mind, in which Israel was to have a foretaste of that blessed resting from all works to which the people of God was ultimately to attain. It is from this deeper signification of the Sabbath that the prominence given to the Sabbaths here is to be explained, and not from the outward circumstance that in exile, when the sacrificial worship was necessarily suspended, the keeping of the Sabbath was the only bond which united the Israelites, so far as the worship of God was concerned.”—(Keil). The weekly pause in the midst of earthly labour was a “sign” of the spiritual work which God was performing among His obedient people; a “sign” also that they were sanctified, were set apart from all other nations, as that day was from the rest of the week.
Ezekiel 20:13. “They walked not in My statutes, and they despised My judgments.” Historical examples of Israel’s rebellion against God’s commandments in the wilderness are given in Exodus 32:1-6; Numbers 25:1-3; and of the desecration of the Sabbath in Exodus 16:27; Numbers 15:32. “My Sabbaths they greatly polluted.” “History records nothing of an external violation of the Sabbath during the journey through the wilderness. Numbers 15:32, where the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath was brought before the congregation, and stoned by them after formal sentence, is rather a proof that in this respect they were not wanting in zeal. But the prophet, in accordance with Isaiah 58:13-14, and with Moses himself, who commanded to sanctify the Sabbath, to consecrate it in every respect to God, and withdraw it wholly from the region of self-interest, of personal sinful inclination, according to which the festival cannot possibly be observed with indolent repose, forms a deeper and more spiritual idea of the Sabbath. ‘Thou shalt cease from thy doing, that God may have His work in thee,’ in this sense the truly God-fearing only can celebrate the Sabbath; so that all that in the books of Moses attests the want of true godliness among the people in the wilderness, involves at the same time the charge of desecrating the Sabbath.”—(Hengstenberg).
Ezekiel 20:14. “But I wrought for My name’s sake.” “For His name’s sake God destroys not the people; but He excludes the present generation from the possession of Canaan, in just retribution for that which they have practised against Him. To this just retribution points the—‘And I also’ (Ezekiel 20:15). It depends on the will of every one what position he will take towards God; but he must be prepared for this, that his act will be attended with a corresponding Divine act.”—(Hengstenberg.)
Ezekiel 20:15. “Yet, also, I lifted up My hand unto them in the wilderness.” The lifeing up of God’s hand signifies the Divine oath (Numbers 14:28-30; Psalms 106:26).
Ezekiel 20:16. “Their heart went after their idols.” The idolatries of the children of Israel during their wanderings in the desert are referred to by the prophet Amos, and in St. Stephen’s speech (Amos 5:25-26; Acts 7:42-43).
Ezekiel 20:17. “Mine eye spared them from destroying them, neither did I make an end of them in the wilderness.” Though the generation that sinned in the desert perished, yet God did not give the whole of the people over to the destruction which they deserved. The “hand” of righteous anger was lifted to smite, but the “eye” of gracious pity restrained it.
THE SIN OF THE FIRST GENERATION OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL IN THE WILDERNESS (Ezekiel 20:10-17)
I. It was a sin aggravated in its character.
1. They sinned after a great deliverance. In Egypt they were persecuted and held in cruel bondage. They learned to worship the gods of the nation which ruled over them (Joshua 24:14). But they were brought out of that land by the manifest power of God, and were thus delivered both from bodily and spiritual slavery.
2. They sinned after special means had been used to preserve their spiritual character as the elect of God.
(1). They had a clear revelation of God’s law. God had given them His “statutes,” and showed them His “judgments.” The observance of these would have been their peace, happiness, and salvation. (Ezekiel 20:11.) For the law of God tends to “life” (Romans 7:20.) It is true that the law would give the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), yet that knowledge ought to have brought them to confess their sins and to seek forgiveness through the blood of the atonement. They had to render obedience not to a blind power, making in some way for righteousness, but to a living will,—to the one true God who was merciful and desired their salvation.
(2.) They were placed in circumstances favourable to the spiritual life. God had brought them out from the bondage and seductive civilization of Egypt and had led them into the wilderness (Ezekiel 20:10). The seclusion of the desert was favourable to contemplation,—to seriousness of character. They would have a time to reflect upon God’s loving kindness in redemption. Obedience would have given them the means of making a great history (Exodus 19:3-9). Placed in such outward conditions as would naturally have the effect of leading them to cast themselves upon God’s care and governance, and delivered from the corrupting influences of the world, they had the most favourable opportunity for becoming a spiritual people.
(3.) They had the ordinance of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given to them as a “sign” and to promore the holiness of the nation (Ezekiel 20:12). For this intermission of earthly work was a pledge of that work which God was carrying on amongst His obedient people (Exodus 31:13). It was a sign that God sanctified the people, that He separated them from the rest of the world, and that He would bring them, at last, to their quiet inheritance of rest. To keep the Sabbath with due regard to its spiritual significance was truly to fear and to serve God. But they rebelled against God in the wilderness, they polluted His Sabbaths (Ezekiel 20:13). In the pollution of the Sabbath there was a special danger to their religious life. For if that sacred day was not piously observed, it only exposed them the more to strong temptation. If it was not occupied with thoughts of God, it laid their souls open to the incursions of every evil thought. Some of the early Christian writers charge the Jews of their time with spending their Sabbaths in licentiousness. Thus Israel had superior religious advantages in the wilderness, but idolatry was in the heart of the people. The corruptions of Egypt clung to them (Ezekiel 20:16).
II. It was a sin which was visited with a fitting punishment. A punishment, not only in degree, but also in kind. They polluted God’s Sabbaths, and He would not bring them to the land of rest. His plan concerning them was to lead them to the land of their inheritance, where they might dwell in peace and safety. But all revolt from God must be followed by darkness and disorder, by a disarrangement of all those good things which He has prepared for us.
III. Their sin did not altogether shut out God’s mercy. They were not all destroyed in the wilderness as they deserved. God has an “eye” of pity which arrests His “hand” of righteous anger.
Here a difficulty ariseth. In Ezekiel 20:6 it is said that God had lifted up His hand, and so sworn to bring them out of the land of Egypt into the land of Canaan; and here it is said He hath lifted up His hand to the contrary. It seems that here is one oath against another. And in Numbers 14:34, God acknowledges His breach of promise, for He saith, “Ye shall know my breach of promise.” I have promised and sworn to bring you into the land of Canaan, but you have so sinned against and provoked Me that I will not do it, yea, have sworn you shall not enter into my rest (Psalms 95:11). This difficulty is removed by considering that God did not make His promise or swear to those individual men that were kept out of Canaan, that they should be brought into it, for if it had been so God had forsworn Himself; but His promise and oath was that the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should be brought into it (Genesis 12:17; Genesis 13:15; Genesis 15:18; Genesis 24:4; Genesis 50:24; Deuteronomy 34:4); and their seed was brought into the promised land (Joshua 1:2; Joshua 4:1; Joshua 14:1; Joshua 24:13); and so God’s promise and oath were kept. Those He swore against were those that murmured against Him, even all from twenty years old and upwards, except Caleb and Joshua, whose carcases fell in the wilderness (Joshua 5:6). As for Numbers 14:34, God’s breach of promise is, in the original, by frustration: you looked certainly to have entered into Canaan, but for your murmuring and unbelief I have frustrated your expectations. Or thus, you think My oath cannot be true, because of a former oath, and that the words I have uttered will prove false; but you shall know whether my words and oath be false or not. [The Revised Version (1885) has, “And ye shall know my alienation,” with the rendering in the margin. “The revoking of my promise.”]
“Flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands.” Of these words hath been spoken largely in Ezekiel 20:6. They are repeated here to show the ingratitude of the people, that were not affected with this land, which was a second Paradise, but despised it, and raised an ill-report upon it; as also to show what they lost in being kept out of it, and their folly in preferring Egypt before it.
1. Men’s sins disappoint them of choice mercies. Yea, mercies promised, expected, and near at hand. God had promised them Canaan, they were near unto it (Numbers 13:0), expected to go in and possess it; but God would not bring them into the land because they despised His judgments, walked not in His statutes, but polluted His sabbaths.
In Hebrews 3:19, it is said, “They could not enter in because of unbelief;” and Psalms 106:24, “they despised the pleasant land, they believed not His word.” It was their sins kept them back from so great, so near, so longed-for a mercy. Such is the malignity of sin that it drives mercies back when they are at the door, and blocks up the passage, that none for the future may issue forth towards us. God can hear and help; “but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2); your sins stand like a trap-wall, a mighty mountain, between Him and you; they have cramped His will, so that though He can, yet He will neither hear your prayers nor help your persons. It is sin that keeps mercy from us. (Jeremiah 5:25).
2. When the heart is carried out after unlawful things, then the ways and ordinances of God are neglected, slighted, and profaned (Ezekiel 20:16). Their idols had stolen away their hearts from God. They had whorish hearts, and whorish eyes which went after their idols, and made them depart from God. David advised men not to set their hearts upon riches (Psalms 62:10); they will then be their idols, and make them forget God and His ways, and do those things which will profane His ordinances. Look well to your hearts, and let not them carry you away (Job 15:12).
3. When sinners provoke God into ways of destruction, He doth not utterly destroy them, but shows some pity and mercy. “Nevertheless mine eye spared them from destroying.” God did destroy many of them in the wilderness; three thousand upon their making the calf (Exodus 32:28); twenty-four thousand upon their committing whoredom with the daughters of Moab (Numbers 25:9); much people by fiery serpents upon their murmuring (Numbers 21:6); Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were swallowed up of the earth, and all theirs, and the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense were consumed by fire (Numbers 16:32-35); fourteen thousand seven hundred were destroyed by the plague (Ezekiel 20:49); and many by the Amorites in Seir (Deuteronomy 1:44). Yet all were not destroyed; God did not make an end of them in the wilderness, He did not consummate and perfect His wrath upon them. Though men have sinned much, yet God hath an eye to spare and a heart to pity. If He should punish and destroy none, He would be thought to be like unto sinners (Psalms 50:21); if He should destroy all, He would be thought to be cruel; to show, therefore, that He is a just God, He cuts off some; and to show He is a merciful God, he spares some.—(Greenhill.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The prophet describes the sins of the generation that grew up in the desert.
Ezekiel 20:18. “But I said unto their children.” The second generation of the children of Israel in the wilderness. “To the ‘children’ belongs, among other things, the whole second lawgiving, with its impressive admonitions, as it was promulgated in Arboth-Moab, and is recorded in Deuteronomy” (Hengstenberg). “Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers.” “The ‘fathers’ in question are represented in their constant disobedience to the laws which Jehovah gave (which even necessitated their repetition and renewal in Deuteronomy), as in some sort law-givers according to their own ideas and on their own authority.”—(Lange.)
Ezekiel 20:21. “Notwithstanding the children rebelled against Me.” “The sons acted like their fathers in the wilderness. Historical proofs of this are furnished by the accounts of the Sabbath-breaker (Numbers 15:32, etc.), of the rebellion of the company of Korah, and of the murmuring of the whole congregation against Moses and Aaron after the destruction of Korah’s company (Numbers 16:17). In the last two cases God threatened that He would destroy the whole congregation (Numbers 16:21; Numbers 17:9-10), and on both occasions the Lord drew ba His hand at the intercession of Moses, and his actual intervention (Numbers 16:22; Numbers 17:11), and did not destroy the whole nation for His name’s sake. The statements in Ezekiel 20:21-22 rest upon these facts” (Keil.) God’s justice was slow to punish; for from the murmuring at Kadesh (B.C. 1453) to the date of this chapter (B.C. 593) was 860 years; being two cycles of 430 years.
Ezekiel 20:23. “Scatter them among the heathen.” Dispersion among the heathen is threatened to apostate Israel (Leviticus 26:33; Deuteronomy 28:64). Nearly nine centuries had elapsed before this penalty was actually inflicted.
Ezekiel 20:24. “Their father’s idols.” They had been warned against these (Ezekiel 20:18). The vain traditions of their fathers had more authority with them than God’s own word (1 Peter 1:18.)
Ezekiel 20:25. “Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live.” This was a second retribution. We may compare here Romans 1:24, according to which God, in just retribution for their revolt, gave over the heathen to vile affections; Acts 7:42, where it is traced back to God, that the heathen served the host of heaven; and 2 Thessalonians 2:11, where God sends the apostates strong delusions. Grotius writes: “I have taken from them the understanding, that in despising my laws they may make for themselves hard and death-bearing laws.” (Hengstenberg.) “Various attempts have been made to get rid of the apparent incongruity of the language here employed by the Divine Being. Taken absolutely it would be flatly contradictory of the purity and rectitude of His character, as well as that of the laws which He actually gave to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 4:8; Nehemiah 9:13; Romans 7:12). The solution of the difficulty proposed by Manesseh Ben Israel, that the words should be read interrogatively, is altogether unsupported by the structure of the sentence, and is otherwise not borne out by Hebrew usage. I agree with those interpreters who are of opinion that the reference is to the idolatrous enactments of the heathen, and that the language may be best illustrated by comparison with Psalms 81:12; Hosea 8:11; Acts 7:42; Romans 1:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:11. Because the Hebrews cherished a propensity to indulge in idolatrous practices, God in His holy providence brought them into circumstances in which this propensity might be fully gratified, without His in any way imposing upon them the statutes of the Pagan ritual. On the contrary, He did all that was calculated in the way of moral influence to deter them from idolatry. Preferring, however, the rites and ceremonies of the heathen to His holy and righteous ordinances, they experienced not only that they were not good, but, as the language by meiosis imports, that they were most pernicious.”—(Henderson.)
Ezekiel 20:26. “And I polluted them in their own gifts.” “The language of this verse is quite in accordance with that of the preceding. The Holy One did not actually pollute the people; He only permitted them to pollute themselves, and pronounced them polluted when they had rendered themselves such. In the language of the Hebrews, and of the Orientials in general, God is frequently said to do that which He permits to be done.”—(Henderson.) “They caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb.” They followed the custom of the Canaanites in sacrificing their children to Moloch, in whose fiery arms they were destroyed. This was an awful perversion of God’s law which bade them consecrate their firstborn to Him as “living sacrifices” (Exodus 13:2), so that the whole nation might thereby be hallowed. They preferred to serve an imaginary malignant deity, whose commands were unnatural and cruel, to the one true God who gave them a righteous law. This was a sin which brought its own punishment in doing violence to the most sacred feelings of human nature. The repeated prohibition against offering children through the fire to Moloch is an evidence that this custom made its way among the Israelites (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:10). “To the end that they might know that I am the Lord.” “By which they might learn that their paternal God, whom they set at nought, is God in the full sense, whom to forsake is at once to fall into misery.”—(Hengstenberg.)
THE SIN OF THE SECOND GENERATION OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL IN THE WILDERNESS. (Ezekiel 20:18-26)
I. They sinned after many warning examples. Their fathers had forsaken God’s ordinances and turned to their idols. The children are warned against their evil example (Ezekiel 20:18); yet though they saw the sad effects of transgression against God, they sinned after the same manner. They rebelled at Kadesh (Numbers 20:2); by the Gulf of Akaba (Numbers 21:5); and at Shittim, (Numbers 25:2-3). They had seen by sad experiment how rebellion against God must end, and yet they persisted in eating the grapes which had already set their father’s teeth on edge. They disregarded the lessons of history. Thus there was less excuse for them than for the first generation.
II. They sinned after renewed precepts.
1. Their relation to God was restated. “I am the Lord vour God” (Ezekiel 20:19).
2. Obedience was again commanded. They were ordered to walk in God’s statutes, to keep His judgments, and to observe the ordinance of the Sabbaths (Ezekiel 20:19).
III. Their punishment. They were to be scattered among the heathen, and dispersed through the countries (Ezekiel 20:23). A retributive providence was at work to bring this terrible infliction upon them.
1. God abandoned them to their own devices. “Wherefore I gave them statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live” (Ezekiel 20:25). These were the statutes of their fathers (Ezekiel 20:18). The meaning is, that God withdrew His providential restraint and permitted them to have what they were bent upon (Psalms 71:12; Acts 7:42; Romans 1:24). The parable of the prodigal son teaches us, that if a man thinks he can better himself elsewhere, God allows him to make the choice. It is a sad evil when the sinner is left to his own devices, when he casts off the authority of God and becomes his own master; “Lord of himself, that heritage of woe.”
2. God allowed their inward corruption to show itself. “And I polluted them in their own gifts” (Ezekiel 20:26). They felt that they must offer gifts to some invisible Power of which they were afraid. For they were conscious of impurity within; they felt the burden of sin, but they sought relief in will-worship until they became the victims of that awful infatuation which led them to offer up the fruit of their body for the sin of their soul (Micah 6:16). It is the saddest punishment when a man’s inward corruption is allowed to spread and grow unchecked.
3. Yet there was mercy in their punishment:—
1.—It was long delayed. In order that they might have space for repentance. They had been threatened long before with dispersion among the heathen (Leviticus 26:33), but nearly nine centuries had elapsed before that sentence was actually inflicted.
2.—It was for a gracious end. “To the end that they might know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 20:26). In the worst punishments of sinners God has a gracious end in view. Mercy, at length, rejoices over judgment.
IV. The lessons to be derived from their sin and punishment.
1. That the standard to which we ought to conform our lives should be the Word of God. This second generation of Israel in the wilderness forsook the direct commands of God and followed the vain traditions of their fathers. They received for doctrines the commandments of men. The truly righteous man looks to his God alone, and is governed not by human opinion, or by ancient custom, but by the revealed Word (Psalms 119:105).
2. That even Godlessness may become a law unto men. They had “statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live” (Ezekiel 20:25). Thus the world and the devil have also their statutes and ordinances.
3. That God punishes men through the very instruments of their sin. They had copied the heathen around them, had followed man’s doctrine, and it had brought them no rest or peace, nothing but sorrow and death.
4. That even the very errors of the heathen show man’s need of a religion. The fact that Israel sacrificed their children to a malignant deity shows that they felt the burden of sin and the need of forgiveness.
5. That the true reform of the Church of God must begin with youth. The law of God as to His statutes and ordinances was repeated unto “their children in the wilderness” (Ezekiel 20:18). When the Church is greatly polluted the only hope lies in the careful instruction of the younger generation.
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Israel continued to commit these sins in Canaan also, and still refuses to give them up.
Ezekiel 20:27. “Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed Me, in that they have committed a trespass against Me.” The prophet is addressing the people of his own time, and boldly charges them with committing the same sins as their fathers in the land of Canaan. The sin of the children of Israel in Canaan took a worse form than their sin in the wilderness. It was a more open affront to God, for they deliberately “blasphemed” His name. They rejected Him contemptuously when they left that one place which He selected “to put his name there,” and chose places of their own, offering sacrifice “on every high hill.” They did dishonour to the Holy Place.”
Ezekiel 20:28. “They saw every high hill, and all the thick trees, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offering: there also they made their sweet savour, and poured out there their drink offerings.” The stricter designation of blasphemy follows in this verse, after it was designated in general at the close of Ezekiel 20:27. “The provocation of their offering” the offerings to idols, whereby they provoked the anger of God; comp. Deuteronomy 32:16-17, “They provoked Him to jealousy with strange (gods); with abominations they made Him indignant. They sacrificed to lords which were not God, to gods whom they knew not.” God says to them in the tone of reproach (1 Kings 9:13), “What is the high place whereunto ye go?” (Ezekiel 20:29): How can ye, instead of seeking Me in My true sanctuary, turn to these miserable places, with their miserable gods? And yet these are named high places unto this day, in the sense of sanctuaries, and with the notion that they have something peculiar about them.”—Hengstenberg. The repetition of the word “there” three times seems to be an echo of Deuteronomy 12:5-7, “Unto His habitation … thither … thither … “there” (Ezekiel 20:40).
Ezekiel 20:29. “And the name thereof is called Bamah unto this day.” “Bamah,” a Hebrew word, signifying High-Place. The tops of high hills were used by the heathen for idolatrous worship; and, in consequence, Moses interdicted the use of them even for the worship of the true God (Deuteronomy 12:1-5).
I. The nature of the sin of blasphemy. “Your fathers have blasphemed Me” (Ezekiel 20:27). This was the “trespass” which they committed against Jehovah. The essence of blasphemy consists in contempt of God; in deliberately disobeying His commands, especially as to worship. For surely God has the absolute right to lay down the manner in which He shall be approached served, and adored. He appointed the Holy Place for His worship, but Israel served their own Gods in places of their own appointing. When once God has spoken clearly, all mere will-worship is of the nature of blasphemy.
II. Blasphemy is ever the sin of the unregenerate heart. We speak especially of those who have the advantages of a Divine revelation, and who have means therefore for knowing the mind and will of God. Those who have no means of knowing God cannot consciously blaspheme Him
1. The unregenerate heart may recognise the idea of God, and the duty of worship. The Israelites of the prophet’s time felt that they must worship some divinity. They must have a religion. But
2. The unregenerate heart, though it pretends to a religion, leaves out the true essentials of it. And what are these? A recognition of God’s supreme authority as a righteous Ruler, a Saviour from sin, and a Sanctifier. Such men are ready to “recognize the idea of God,” but under the pretence of a lofty philosophical religion they practically deny God’s authority, they destroy the foundations of all truth in belief and worship. Sinful man, even when he holds by some prime necessity of religion, is ever prone to exalt his own mind and will.
3. The unregenerate heart has a natural preference for a burdensome and difficult religion. Israel was not satisfied with worshipping God in His holy temple, but preferred travelling great distances and climbing the high hills. Man is ever ready to “do some great thing.” God’s way is too simple for him. There is something in human nature which is flattered by difficult demands.
III. The sin of blasphemy especially interferes with God’s gracious purposes for mankind. God chose His ancient people that through them all the families of the earth should be blessed. Salvation is of the Jews. Israel was becoming like the heathen, whereas it was God’s purpose that the heathen should become like Israel. Thus by their idolatry and even blasphemy, the chosen people were working against the gracious purposes of the Most High. All manner of blasphemy against God, whether arising from intellectual pride, or superstition, or will-worship hinders the progress of His kingdom.
“Have blasphemed Me.” The Hebrew word signifies, to revile with words, to reproach, and blaspheme. To blaspheme is to hurt the name or fame of any, and is a kind of evil speaking, derogating from the glory of God. God’s glory or name in itself is inviolable, but blasphemy doth what it can to violate it Blasphemy consists—
1. In attributing to God what is not congruous to Him. As to say. He is the author of sin; He sees not, He hath forsaken the earth (Ezekiel 8:12); He is like unto man (Psalms 50:21).
2. In detracting from Him what belongs unto Him. As to deny His providence, His omniscience, His omnipotence, as, “can He provide a table in the wilderness?” (Psalms 78:19); If He should make windows in heaven could this thing be? (2 Kings 7:2).
3. The doing of such things as cause God’s name to be blasphemed. As, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you.” As there is practical atheism, so there is practical blasphemy (Titus 1:16). “In that they have committed a trespass against Me.” The doubling of the word in the Hebrew notes the greatness of their sin, and progress in their wickedness. They sinned not ignorantly, or of common infirmity, but with a high hand. They spake against the true worship of God, and practised contrary thereunto. Wilful sinning is a reproaching of God, and provokes Him greatly. “They have committed a trespass against Me.” They have spoken against My worship, and run out to other ways which I forbade them. Other sins they have committed which I could have winked at, but when they sin wilfully, despising Me, My laws, My worship, they reproach, blaspheme, provoke Me so, that they shall hear of it. Son of man, go and speak to the house of Israel; go and tell them how they have dealt with Me, and how I take it. Such sins deserve death (Numbers 15:30). “The soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord.”The Hebrew word here rendered “reproacheth” is the same as that rendered “blasphemed” in Ezekiel 20:27. For he that reproacheth the Lord blasphemes Him, and he that blasphemes Him reproacheth Him: they are joined together (2 Kings 19:22). There was no mercy for those who sinned in that manner (Hebrews 10:26-27). Many commit such trespasses in these days, by speaking against providence, ordinances, Scriptures, angels, Christ, God himself; and so sin away mercy and their own souls at once. David prayed that God would keep him back from “presumptuous sins” (Psalms 19:13); and we have need to do it, for there is that in our natures which carries us on strongly towards them. Solomon saith, “Happy is the man that feareth always; but he that hardeneth his heart”—that presumeth, that is wilful, pertinacious—“shall fall into mischief,” into mischievous sins, into mischievous judgments.—(Greenhill.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The prophet addresses the men of his day, showing that they are equally guilty with their fathers. They are to receive just retribution, and to be purified among the heathen.
Ezekiel 20:30. “Are ye polluted after the manner of your fathers? and commit ye whoredom, after their abominations? These interrogations are intended to imply a strong affirmative.
Ezekiel 20:31. “Even unto this day.” “The note struck in the question of Ezekiel 20:29 is still maintained, not merely to express astonishment, but still more to compel self-reflection. I ask, what further communication you would have?”—(Lange.)
Ezekiel 20:32. “We will be as the heathen” They flattered themselves that the heavy judgments which the prophets had threatened would not be inflicted; that they could accept without molestation the state of the heathen, and the responsibility of the heathen. “That which cometh into your mind shall not be at all.” That wish is declared to be impossible, for they stood before God on a different foundation from the heathen around them. “Here we have the announcement of their continued punishment. The heathen stood under the divine long-suffering (Romans 3:25); not so Israel, to whom God had so gloriously made Himself known. Wherein the heathen may prosper, therein Israel must decline. The designation of the heathen gods as wood and stone, alone sufficient to counteract the strange notion which attributed a real existence to the heathen gods, is taken from Deuteronomy 4:28; Deuteronomy 28:36.”—(Hengstenberg.)
Ezekiel 20:33. Surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched-out arm, and with fury poured out, will I rule over you.” “Their thought was, that they should become like the heathen in the lands of the earth, to serve wood and stone; that is to say, we will become idolators like the heathen, pass into heathenism. This shall not take place; on the contrary, God will rule over them as King with strong arm and fury. The words, “with a mighty hand, and with a stretched-out arm,” are a standing expression in the Pentateuch for the mighty acts by which Jehovah liberated His people from the power of the Egyptians, and led them out of Egypt (Exodus 6:1; Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 7:19, etc.). By the introduction of the clause, “with fury poured out,” the manifestation of the omnipotence of God which Israel experienced in its dispersion, and which it was still to experience among the heathen, is described as an emanation of the divine wrath, a severe and wrathful judgment.—(Keil). “For the friendly and gracious government of God they have given Him little thanks, and have wickedly withdrawn from Him. As God, however, must come to His sovereign rights, so His sovereignty now assumes a terrible form.”—(Hengstenberg.)
Ezekiel 20:34. “And will gather you out of the countries wherein ye are scattered.” “Although Keil explains the ‘leading out’ as neither local nor material, yet we do not understand it with him of a spiritual separation from the heathen world (to which they are immediately brought, Ezekiel 20:35), ‘lest they should be absorbed in it,’ etc., but of an aggravation of their exiled condition, a spiritual experience of it, so that they should know and feel that they as the people of God were once more in the wilderness, but not at all in the same sense as before (Deuteronomy 8:15; Deuteronomy 32:10).”—(Lange.)
Ezekiel 20:35. “The wilderness of the people.” In ancient time, Israel had been trained and disciplined in the literal wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:15-16); now God was about to send them to a new school of affliction, among the busy, populous world. There they would be made to feel their isolation severely. “The wilderness is designated as ‘the wilderness of the peoples’, in contradistinction to the former wilderness, where was only the howling of wild beasts (Deuteronomy 32:10), lions, serpents, and the like (Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 30:6). The new wilderness is one in which Israel is in the midst of the peoples, and can therefore be no ordinary wilderness, for wilderness and peoples exclude one another. It must rather be a symbolic or typical designation of the state of punishment and purification. The interchange of type and thing is in Ezekiel 20:36 separated. From the defect of historical notices concerning the state of the exiles, we cannot show the fulfilment of this prophetic announcement. It is natural, however, to suppose that the part taken by the exiles in the political intrigues of the home country brought upon them also severe sufferings.”—(Hengstenberg.) “There will I plead with you face to face.” “Jehovah threatens to deal with them as in open court by clearing those who had repented of their wickedness, and punishing the obstinate as He had done their fathers of old.”—(Henderson.)
Ezekiel 20:36. “Like as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt.” “They were not led into the wilderness of the peoples as a punishment; although on account of their disobedience it often became a place of punishment; but the divine intention was to try them, to prove them (Deuteronomy 8:2, etc.), from which resulted separation of individuals, purification, which was so strongly urged upon them in reference to Egypt, whither they were always looking back (Numbers 20:5; Numbers 21:5).” (—Lange.)
Ezekiel 20:37. “And I will cause you to pass under the rod” The reference is to the rod of a shepherd counting his sheep (Leviticus 27:32). “A shepherd lets his sheep pass through under the rod for the purpose of counting them, and seeing whether they are in good condition or not (Jeremiah 33:13). The figure is here applied to God. Like a shepherd, He will cause His flock, the Israelites, to pass through under His rod, i.e., to take them into His special care.”—(Keil.) “And I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.” “By this we are not merely to understand covenant punishments, but the covenant promises must also be included. For not only the threats of the covenant, but also its promises, are bonds by which God trains His people. The Hebrew word is not only applied to burdensome and crushing fetters, but to the bonds of love as well (Song of Solomon 7:1-6).”—(Keil.) The “bonds” of God’s covenant are those of love (Hosea 11:4).
Ezekiel 20:38. “The rebels.” Those who would not have the Lord for their king (St. Luke 19:14; Luke 19:27). “I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel.” Canaan was called “the land of their pilgrimage” (Exodus 6:4). They had debased the land which God gave them to dwell in by their idolatries, and so it became to them the land of bondage. Therefore God would bring them out of it, and send them to wander in the world’s wilderness. Through unfaithfulness they were unable to enter “into God’s rest” (Psalms 95:11), that rest which remaineth only for those whose God is the Lord (Hebrews 4:9). “The language here implies that the great body of the nation should be recovered from idolatry, and return to their native land, and that only a portion would continue in a state of rebellion against Jehovah, and consequently remain in exile” (Henderson.) “And ye shall know that I am the Lord.” “This is the painful experience that will sooner or later force itself upon all those who despise salvation.”—(Hengstenberg.)
GOD HIDING HIMSELF FROM ISRAEL PROFESSING TO SEEK HIM
The Elders professed that they had come “to inquire of the Lord.” But they came insincerely. That High-place still remained as a witness to their idolatries (Ezekiel 20:29). In spite of the reformations under Hezekiah and Josiah, and the frequent warnings of the prophets, they worshipped false gods even in front of the Lord’s Temple (1 Kings 11:7). Hence God’s final refusal, through His prophet, “I will not be enquired of by you” (Ezekiel 20:31). Why did God hide Himself from His people, who, through these Elders, were professing to seek Him?
I. Because of their continuance in the sin of idolatry. They were polluted after the manner of their fathers (Ezekiel 20:30-31). God encourages all who seek the truth in sincerity, even though it be through ignorance and superstition. But when the truth we seek is a delusion, which we wilfully follow—a mere idol, God hides His face from us.
1. Idolatry obscures man’s natural knowledge of God. It leads the religious instinct astray, and into all that is debasing and vile. Though it may call in the aid of beauty and refinement, yet it has ever a degrading and downward tendency.
2. Idolatry in the chosen people was the rankest transgression. They were God’s people by vocation, by covenant, by special providence. This sin was, therefore, the worst that Israel could possibly commit. And it shewed further,—
(1.) The power of bad example. The corrupting influences of the idolatries around them.
(2.) The perils of all pomp and glaring externals in religion. They were attracted by the outward and the sensual, which were the characteristics of heathen worship.
II. Because of the impossibility of their becoming in all respects like the heathen. They might imitate their customs, worship their idols, and sink down into their degraded condition; yet they could not be made to stand on the same footing before God.
1. They could not get rid of their responsibility. God had made Himself known unto them by revelation. Therefore they could not be judged as the heathen, but by a different standard. Men will be judged by the highest standard revealed to them, and not by the lowest, which they have chosen in their sin and folly.
2. God’s long suffering towards the heathen did not apply to Israel. The patience which God showed towards the heathen could not be expected towards those who had higher religious advantages.
3. It is impossible so to obliterate the past as though it had never been. The memory of the past makes our whole life one. We cannot part from our former selves. However Israel might have sunk into idolatry, the fact of their glorious privileges in the past still remained. None of those who dwell in a land visited by the light of God’s Revelation can become, in all respects, like the heathen. We may choose the sins of heathenism, but we must be judged as those who have had opportunity for the knowledge of God.
1. The Lord doth distinguish His people from others. “I will cause you to pass under the rod.” I will examine which are sheep, and which are goats, and will sever the one from the other. Christ knew His sheep, His little flock, from all the goats of the mountains. When the men appeared with weapons of slaughter in their hands, and execution was to be upon Jerusalem, the Lord made His people to “pass under the rod.” He numbered them, and set His mark upon them, that they might not perish in the common calamity (Ezekiel 9:0).
2. Though God’s people do go out from Him, and violate the covenant, yet He will not let them so go, but will bring them under His power. These had transgressed the covenant, broken the bonds, cast off the ways of God, thought to exempt themselves from His rule over them, but, saith the Lord, “I will bring you into the bond of the covenant;” you shall be under my power and law. Though I suffer Babylonians and other nations to be at their own disposal, yet it shall not be so with you who are my people with whom I am in covenant, and to whom I must be faithful whatever you are to me, and will be known to be your God and Sovereign. I will have account of you, and make you know that you are under my bonds, and not Babylonish ones.
3. God’s dealings with His people is very different. He brings them “into the bonds of the covenant,” to see what they are; if they be goats, wicked, He punishes them and purges them out; if they be sheep, though they have gone astray, He pardons them and enables them to yield to covenant obedience. He purged out the wicked by judgments and death, and preserved the others. The righteous were jewels, and therefore spared; the wicked were stubble, and therefore destroyed.
4. Though the wicked be among the godly yet they shall not always be so. “I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me.” It is God’s method, even here in this world, ofttimes to separate the wicked from the godly, to fan out the chaff from the wheat.
5. Whatever man’s thoughts are of the world, they are but sojourners therein. “I will bring them out of the land of their sojournings,” were it Canaan or Babylon, they were no more than “sojourners.” Wicked men think they are heirs to, owners and lords of the earth (Psalms 49:11). David, though king in Israel, yet acknowledgeth himself a sojourner, as all his fathers were. They spent a few days therein, and so passed away, and this was his condition. Let us look so upon ourselves, and “pass the time of our sojourning here in fear” (1 Peter 1:17); and mind that city which hath foundations, out of which, if we be once possessed, we shall never be removed.
6. When God brings His people into Canaan, He will shut out the wicked, they shall not enter into the land of Israel. Others shall be brought in, but as for those who would be as the world, as the heathen, as Babylonians, they shall never come into Canaan. Canaan was the type of heaven, and this exclusion of these wicked ones, represents the exclusion of ungodly ones out of heaven. However, good and bad are mingled together in this world, and oft in the church, yet when God brings His people to the heavenly Canaan, no unclean thing shall enter there (Revelation 21:7; 1 Corinthians 6:9).
7. Mercies and judgments make God known experimentally. “Ye shall know that I am the Lord.” God would purge out the rebels from the obedient; there was mercy. Keep them out of the land of Israel; there was judgment. The rebels should know and acknowledge Him to be Jehovah, being convinced with the equity of His judgments, and affected with the severity of them. The godly should do it, being convinced and affected with the nature, greatness, needfulness, and freeness of that mercy. Judgment upon these rebels was mercy to the godly; and mercy to the godly was mercy to the rebels; and both were brought to acknowledge the Lord. Mercies and judgments work most affectionately and effectually upon the godly; for it is said, “Ye shall know,” ye that are purged, ye that shall come to the land of Israel.—(Greenhill.)
“And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people, and there will I plead with you face to face.” The history of the Jews is a surprising but most instructive history. These men have been the moral benefactors of the world by what they have said, by what they have done, by what they have suffered. Men have been blessed in them, and all generations have reason to call them blessed. In their prosperity they were the lights of the world; in their adversity they have been the instructors of it also.
The situation of Judea was remarkably adapted to the moral purposes God had in view. Placed in the centre of those great continents of the ancient world, at the head of the Mediterranean, and surrounded by those empires and dynasties which contended for the sovereignty of the East, they were happily so situated as to convey the light of truth in different directions. They were in the direct line of intercourse between the Assyrians and Egyptians, and a prominent object of attention to the Grecians and Romans. It was a place of great resort though little engaged in commerce. Frequent embassies were exchanged by the Jewish government and foreign nations, which rendered their laws and customs, and, above all, their Scriptures known.
But, strange to say, in their adversity they have been quite as useful as in their prosperity. In prosperity they held the lamp of truth to the view of the nations; in adversity they carried it wheresoever they wandered; a striking proof that if we will not voluntarily honour God in our enjoyments, He can make us honour Him in our distresses. In their very captivities they were made a blessing. They were scattered for their own sins, but God brought a revenue of glory to Himself and a harvest of blessing to the world from that very event. God brought them, as the text says, into the wilderness of the nations. They were scattered into all lands,—many of them never returned, and the ten tribes still are mixed with the nations.
The subject arising from the text is, The mixed character of Divine dispensations. Not all judgment, lest we despair; nor all mercy, lest we presume. Affliction is here traced in its causes, design, consolations.
I. The causes of affiiction. These are to be traced to human sinfulness. Israel’s sorrows are here traced to Israel’s sins. Though the righteous and wicked are both involved in the same calamities, yet God has different ends in the same dispensation. That which hardens the one, softens and sanctifies the other. The two chief sins of the Jews were—
1. The abuse of mercies (Ezekiel 20:5-26; Hosea 2:8). Teaching that sins under or after peculiar mercies are greatly offensive to God. Jesus said, “Go thy way, sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee.” It is a remark respecting Solomon’s idolatries that he fell into them “after the Lord had appeared unto him twice.” The aggravations of David’s sin (2 Samuel 13:7). Sins under or after special mercies will meet with a severe rebuke. Nothing more distresses the conscience than the remembrance, in darkness, of abused light; in desertions, of neglected love. Great opportunities of service neglected, and great gifts unimproved, involve guilt.
2. The abuse of trials. This involves guilt, and calls down heavier afflictions. This constitutes the peculiar instruction of their history. They were now in captivity. The elders of Israel came to Ezekiel in the most hypocritical manner. They proposed to consult God about their joining the people of the country, abandoning their religious peculiarities, and conforming to the customs of the heathen. God would not be consulted, but instructs Ezekiel to detect and expose their hypocrisy. It seems they had not openly expressed the sentiment, but it was “in their mind” to say, “we will be as the heathen to serve wood and stone.” This calls down the threatening of the text (Ezekiel 20:32-35). Religion is the best armour, but not the best cloak.
Guard against taking occasion from your afflictions of plunging into greater guilt. Many fail to improve their afflictions, but it is awful indeed to be the worse for them like Ahaz, who, in his distress, sinned yet more. It is a fearful thing to have hard hearts under softening providences, and to have proud hearts under humbling ones. We may say of affliction as Paul said of the Law, “That which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.” Men’s hearts are of an anvil temper, made harder by affliction, and reverberate the blow. Guard against going farther from God under trials, against having recourse to sinful means and worldly appliances to extricate yourself from calamity, against despising “the chastening of the Lord, or fainting when thou art rebuked of Him.” This course will either call down greater judgments, or provoke God to withhold chastisement altogether: which is the greatest of all judgments. The wrath of God is then suffered to accumulate, till it breaks down all the fences and barriers that restrained it, and then comes upon us to the uttermost. They that will not fear shall feel the wrath of heaven. The rods shall be changed into scorpions. “God shall wound the head of His enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses” (Psalms 68:21.) The chapter closes with solemn threatening (Ezekiel 20:47.)
II. The design of affliction. God has designs of love in bringing them into the wilderness. “Then will I plead with you face to face.” He pleads with them, not against them.
1. With convincing power. He will be justified when He speaketh. Job complained against his friends, but not against God. David was “dumb with silence” when the hand of God was upon him.
2. With compassionate tenderness (Hosea 2:14-15; Hosea 2:19-23).
3. With long forbearance and condescension.
III. The consolations of which this state is susceptible.
1. From the Author of affliction consolation is derived. God brings us into the wilderness; He neither drives us there nor leaves us there. Affliction is not casual, but designed by Him who knows us better than we know ourselves. It “springeth not from the dust.” God pleads with us there. Better to hear His voice in thunder than to be deserted by him altogether. Better for Adam to be called from his hiding place by a voice of terror than to be allowed for ever to separate himself from God. It is rebuke, not destruction; mercy, not judgment; life, not death. It is the death of the sin, not the death of the soul. God says, “I will allure her.”
2. From its design. The design of affliction is to embitter sin, to separate the sin that God hates from the soul that He loves, to improve the character, to promote spirituality, to prevent greater sufferings, to inspire sympathy, to further usefulness, to prepare for higher enjoyments. God says, “I withheld thee from sinning against Me” (Genesis 20:6). Paul was kept from pride, how? by the thorn in the flesh. God prevents us by the blessings of his goodness. By affliction, God promotes self-knowledge, humbles us and proves us to know what is in our heart. “I little thought,” says one, “that I was so proud till I was called to stoop; or so impatient till required to wait; or so easily provoked till I met with such an offence; or so rooted to earth till so much force was required to detach me from it.
3. From its promised support. “I will be with thee in trouble.” “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
4. From its ascertained issue.
IV. There are some special lessons to be learned.
1. Take heed that you do not plunge yourself into a wilderness. By careless, sinful, inconsistent conduct. Self-made troubles are hard to bear.
2. If you are in scenes of difficulty, be anxious to converse with Him who brought you there. Though He “plead with you face to face,” do not shun the intercourse, but submit, say, “Show me wherefore thou contendest with me.”
3. Pray for those who are in the wilderness without a shepherd, and without a hope. The heathen, the Jews, the ungodly, etc.
4. Rejoice that the permanent home of God’s people is not the wilderness. They are there but for a short time on their way to a better country.
(From MSS. Sermons by the Rev. S. Thodey.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES.—The prophet now declares the promise for the future. Israel is to be gathered again, and to be converted to the Lord.
Ezekiel 20:39. “Go ye, serve ye every one his idols, and hereafter also if ye will not hearken unto Me.” “Jehovah here utterly disowns all relationship with the rebels. He would have idolatrous worship severed from all connexion with His name. The tone in which they are addressed is one of the keenest irony. Compare Revelation 22:11. It is as much as to say, Well, since you will not listen to Me and return to My service, you may take your own course; we henceforth part company. The expression “and afterwards” is intended to give emphasis to the address, and anticipates the continued apostacy of the rebels.” (—Henderson.)
Ezekiel 20:40. “In the mountain of the height of Israel.” Mount Moriah. “There shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve Me.” Not the former rebellious house of Israel (Ezekiel 20:39), but the people now restored to the practice of true religion. They should all congregate at the appointed festivals as of old, at Jerusalem. “There will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things.” The Lord will then accept them with delight, and all their sacrificial gifts and offerings. This promise implies the bringing back of Israel from its banishment.
Ezekiel 20:41. “Your sweet savour.” Heb., Odour of satisfaction. “This is the technical expression for the cheerful (well-pleased) acceptance of the sacrifice, or rather of the feelings of the worshipper presenting the sacrifice, which ascends to God in the sacrificial odour (Genesis 8:21). The thought therefore is the following: When God shall eventually gather His people out of their dispersion, He will accept them as a sacrifice well-pleasing to Him, and direct all His good pleasure towards them.”—(Keil.) “And I will be sanctified in you before the heathen.” “The restoration of the Hebrews from the captivity and the re-establishment of their religious services, would have the double effect of procuring honour to Jehovah from the surrounding nations, and attesting in their own experience the happiness springing out of the true knowledge of the Divine character.—(Henderson.)
Ezekiel 20:43. “And there shall ye remember your ways.” In Ezekiel 20:40 the outward acts of the religion are described; here we have that inner condition of spirit, that heart of repentance, which alone can make such acts acceptable to God.
Ezekiel 20:44. “And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for My name’s sake.” “The gathering of Israel from among the heathen will be fulfilled in its conversion to Christ, and hitherto it has only taken place in very small beginnings. The principal fulfilment is still to come, when Israel, as a nation, shall be converted to Christ.”—(Keil.)
ISRAEL’S CONVERSION TO THE LORD
I. The divine method in their conversion.
1. They were urged to decision. “Go ye, serve ye every one his idols” (Ezekiel 20:39). Make your choice, at once; let there be no double-heartedness. Make full proof of the idols ye have chosen, “If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). This would have the effect of detecting hypocrites, and bringing the true servants of the Lord to a full determination.
2. They are brought to contrition. Contrition for past sins always accompanies true conversion. Such a condition is produced
(1) By a remembrance of sin as a transgression against God. “Ye shall remember your ways, and all your doings wherein ye have been defiled” Ezekiel 20:43. Ye shall think of your sins as having defiled your souls, and therefore were contrary to the nature and will of a God who is holy, and whose commandment is holy, just, and good.
(2.) By self-loathing. “Ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils which ye have done.” The conviction of sin, when brought home to a man, makes him to see himself in the true light.
II. The results of their conversion.
1. They should be in reality what they had hitherto been only in name. In Ezekiel 20:39, they are addressed as, the “House of Israel,” though they went after their idols. The name was but a hollow unreality. They are now the true “House of Israel” (Ezekiel 20:40). They should still worship on the height, but that would be on God’s holy mountain and with a pure worship (Ezekiel 20:28).
2. They should render an acceptable worship (Ezekiel 20:41). As they were in a right state of heart, their service of worship and offerings would be well-pleasing unto the Lord. The principle of Divine worship, in both Testaments, is the same,—“In spirit and in truth.”
3. The penalty of their sin should be remitted. For their sins they were scattered; now they are to be restored (Ezekiel 20:42).
4. They should give God all the glory. His forbearing mercy. His forgiving mercy. His mercy so great as not to be restrained by all their sins from granting the greatest gifts.
5. Their conversion would promote the true knowledge of God.
(1) Among the nations around them. “I will be sanctified in you before the heathen.” (Ezekiel 20:41). The heathen would see that the God of Israel was holy, just in all His ways; yet merciful, and faithful to His covenant promises.
(2) Among themselves. “And ye shall know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 20:44). And there is a knowledge of God which we can gain from the history of His dealings with His ancient people. We see that God brings His purposes to pass amidst all human opposition and rebellion. We know that, in the worst times, there has always been an elect, remnant of faithful men to glorify Him. And the history of the past assures us that it will be thus in the future.
“I will accept you with your sweet savour.” The spirit of the Gospel is observable under the law. There can be but one way to heaven. David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel were sinners saved by grace as much as Paul, and Peter, and John. And they were saved by the same Mediator. Let us consider the blessings promised in the text, and then we shall give some directions for the attainment and preservation of the enjoyment it reveals.
I. Some remarks upon the blessing promised. These are acceptance with God through a Redeemer, through His grace and righteousness. His sacrifice is as a sweet smelling savour, and the worship of His people is as incense acceptable to Him. Acceptance stands opposed to condemnation, and is enjoyed through faith in Christ.
1. This blessing is the grand discovery of the gospel. It is the design and end of all God’s communications with men—“God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.”
2. It is always the result of an experience of the work of grace upon the soul. It puts the life of hope into obedience. Our persons must be accepted before our works.
3. It secures the true and right enjoyment of all temporal blessings. To a man who has no sense of God’s friendship, the best earthly enjoyments lose their charm; and to a man who has hope of pardon through Christ, all outward trials lose their sting.
4. It is essential to a victory over death and a joyful eternity.
II. Some directions for the attainment and enjoyment of this blessing.
1. Look carefully to the fact of your own acceptance of Christ, and to the sincerity of your hearts in their covenant closure with Christ. See that you take him, with the happiness He has promised, for your All. Take heed of looking after another felicity, or cherishing other hopes than those of which He is the Author and object. Christ is the great promise made to faith; and faith is the soul’s acceptance of Christ as He is freely promised. To present Christ before us with all his gifts and blessings is the design of the Gospel; and to rest in Christ as the fountain of all our hope and joys is the first act of a believer. God prays you to accept Christ: as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you in Christ’s stead be ye reconciled to God.
2. Cherish habitual and confiding thoughts of the freeness and riches of God’s grace through a Redeemer. This will greatly kindle that love which brings its own evidence of its truth. This will make God appear more amiable in your eyes, and then you will love him more abundantly; and as your conscious love to Him increases your doubts and apprehensions will give way. So much love, so much comfort. Those right apprehensions of God also will do much to drive away those terrors which arise from false apprehensions of Him. Delightful objects draw the heart after them as the loadstone draws iron. In Christ you see goodness and mercy in its condescension, and brought nearer to you than the Divine nature originally was. In Christ God is come down into our nature, and so Infinite Goodness is become incarnate.
3. Every day renew your apprehensions of the truth and value of the promised felicity. Consider the end of your faith, in order to see the vain and delusive character of things below. Let not heaven lose with you its attractive force through your forgetfulness or unbelief. He is the best Christian who knows best why he is a Christian. Look upon all present actions and conditions with a remembrance of their end. Value not earthly things beyond their true worth. Be not ambitious of that honour which must end in confusion, nor of the favour of those whom God will call His enemies.
4. Guard against those snares and temptations which you know to be most hurtful to the life of religion in the soul.
5. Gather up and improve your own past experience of God’s mercy towards you and others. We do God and ourselves great wrong by forgetting, or not improving, our experience of His goodness. God does not give His mercies only for present use, but for the future also. What a wrong it is to God in your next trial to forget His last deliverance! Have not mercies come so unexpectedly, and in such a wonderful manner, that you have (as it were) the name of God written on them? (Judges 13:23). “All my bones shall say, who is like unto thee.” You may make great use also of the experience of others.
(From MSS. Sermons by the Rev. S. Thodey).
1. Sense of mercies, rather than of judgments, makes sin bitter, and leads unto repentance. Their captivity, and the sad things they suffered therein, did not embitter their sin unto them, and break their hearts; but God’s kindness in bringing them out of Babylon into the land of Israel, that prevaileth with them; when they had received marvellous kindness from God, then they were marvellously affected, greatly ashamed of their ways, and loathed themselves. Mercies in Zion produced that which judgments in Babylon did not. Great mercies bestowed upon great sinners, do preach the doctrine of repentance most effectually, convincing them strongly of their unworthy and vile carriages towards the Lord. David’s kindness brake the heart of Saul, and made him to weep and say, “Thou art more righteous than I; for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil” (1 Samuel 24:0.) If human favour hath such influence into a sinful heart, what hath Divine? Moses, by his strokes, fetched water out of a rock; David, by his kindness. God sometimes by His judgments humbles men, and brings them to repentance, but mostly by His mercies. The sweet influences of the Gospel have pierced deeper into sinners’ hearts than the terrors of the law.
2. When the Lord gathers up His people out of the world, and brings them into nearer relation to Himself, into Canaan, and Church order, He looks that they should review their former ways and be much affected with them, and thoroughly repent for them. When brought into Canaan, they were not only to eat the milk and honey, to behold the glory thereof, but they were to remember days of old, their sins in Babylon, how they had polluted themselves and provoked the Lord; and thereupon to mourn kindly for their unkindnesses to Him, who hath showed such marvellous loving-kindness unto them. When God brings man out of the world now unto Zion, gives them the milk and honey of the gospel, shows them the glory thereof, then they look back, wonder at their wickedness, and loathe themselves for it, saying, Who is like unto us in sin and wickedness, and who is like unto our God in grace and goodness, in pardon and forgiveness? (Micah 7:18). When it shall please God to bring the Jews out of that Babylon they are now in, unto the true Canaan, the Church of Christ, they will remember their iniquities, their bitter and bloody doings against Christ, mourn and loathe themselves for the same (Zechariah 12:10; Revelation 1:7).)
3. When repentance springs from sense of love and kindness, as it is real and deep, so it is secret and universal. They should, being brought into Canaan, not only remember their sins, but they should loathe themselves, be displeased so with themselves, that they should smite and abhor themselves, and that in their own sight, and for all the evils they had committed; when no eye saw them, they would spread all their sins before them, and in the sight and sense of them be vile in their own eyes.—(Greenhill.)
EXEGETICAL NOTES. The destruction of Jerusalem under the image of a forest devoured by fire.
A comparison of these verses with Ezekiel 21:2-5, shows that they belong properly to Ch. 21. They form the commencement of that chapter in the Hebrew Bible.
Ezekiel 20:46. “Set thy face towards the south.” “There are three words in the Hebrew text of this verse to empress south. They are merely used as synonyms for the sake of varying the expression. The first signifies to be on the right, honoured with reference to the position of the quarter of the heavens when facing the east. The word is used both for the right hand and the south. The second word is of less frequent occurrence, and besides in our prophet, and once in the Pentateuch, is found only in Job and Ecclesiastes. The third word signifies to be dry, dried up: hence the south, where the heat of the sun is most severely felt. All the three terms specially apply here to the southern division of the Holy Land, of which at the time Jerusalem was the capital.”—(Henderson) “Drop thy word.” “A very common expression for prophetic discourse (Deuteronomy 32:2). It is suggested by the rain or the dew, and points to the place of its origin,—above, and also to the beneficial influence which it is intended to exert, and is used even when the discourse does not contain promises merely, but also threatening and judgment, as is the case here exclusively, and to a large extent also in Deuteronomy 32:0. May it not also hint at the concise, abrupt style of composition adopted in this chapter?”—(Lange) “The forest of the south field.” Forest is used figuratively to denote dense masses of people. The densely populated country of Judea 246 is intended. Ezekiel here declares the doom of the Southern kingdom, as Amos had declared the doom of the Northern kingdom (Amos 7:9; Amos 7:11; Amos 7:17).
Ezekiel 20:47. “Every green tree in thee, and every dry tree.” The righteous and the wicked (Ezekiel 21:3-4) Our Lord probably refers to this passage in St. Luke 23:31. “The flaming fire shall not be quenched.” The fierce flame of God’s jealousy (Song of Solomon 8:6). “All faces.” “Every single thing in the forest, which is caught at once by the flame. From south to north, i.e., through the whole length of the land. From the terrible fierceness of the fire, which cannot be extinguished, every one will know that God has kindled it, that it has been sent in judgment.”—(Keil.)
Ezekiel 20:49. “They say of Me, doth he not speak parables?” They wish to get rid of the application of the prophecy to themselves by describing it as obscure. They pretend not to understand it. “At the same time, it contains within itself a request that they may be explained. This request is granted; and the simile is first of all interpreted in Ezekiel 21:1-7; and then still further explained in Ezekiel 20:8, etc.”—(Keil.) “The riddle is easy to solve, and the prophet has to do with a sharp-witted people; but the hearers will not understand, because the truth is unpleasant to them, and retire with a certain irony behind the difficulty of the form, and make as if they did not understand. To take away this miserable excuse from them, to punish them for their ironical hardness of hearing, he expresses the same in clear and plain terms in the following passage.”—(Hengstenberg.)
“Drop thy word towards the south.” Heb. Drop towards the south. The word properly signifies the dropping of the clouds, or rain, and is metaphorically put for prophesying and preaching. These are likened unto rain or the droppings thereof.
1. In respect of the flowing and succession of one drop after another. “The heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water” (Judges 5:4). So in prophesying, there is one word, one truth after another.
2. In respect to the influence thereof. The drops soak into the earth; so words have influence into men’s ears and hearts (Deuteronomy 32:2). As the rains and dews insinuate themselves into the grass and ground, so do words into the heads and hearts of men (Psalms 119:130).
3. In respect to the trouble and hurt that oft rains and droppings produce. “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike” (Proverbs 27:15), alike grievous, troublesome, wasting, and wearying; so prophesying of judgments and destruction is grievous and troubles much; it is like great rains and drops (2 Chronicles 34:25). The Hebrew is, “shall drop upon this place.” There should be a storm, and such great drops of God’s wrath as should consume it. (Greenhill.)
The word of God is rightly likened to rain. Like rain, it descends from above, and not according to man’s will; it is also, like it, useful and beneficial; as rain flows down from rocks upon the fields, so the word of God upon the godless, and, on the other hand, into pious hearts; and, like the rain, it is not equally acceptable to all. (Fessel.)
THE PROPHECY OF JERUSALEM’S DESTRUCTION
Consider this prophecy—
I. As to its form. This prophecy is uttered in a poetical form, most wild and rugged. The awful and the terrible, as well as the beautiful and tender, find their expression in poetry. The imagery here is that of a forest on fire, and its devouring flame raging beyond the control of man. The boldness of the image will account for the strange and wild forms of the expressions used, and the rapid transitions from one thought to another. We can only understand the style of the Bible, in its prophetic writings, when we consider the intensity and depth of those feelings which possessed the minds of the prophets.
II. As to its substance. The “forests” signify multitudes—the great masses of the population upon whom terrible judgments are about to fall.
1. The judgments are irresistible. The power of God, which is a righteous power, would be at work in them. The storms of the Almighty rush over the forest, and the trees must bend. Moreover, God sends fire, against which nothing can prevail. “The flaming fire shall not be quenched.”
2. The judgments fall even upon the righteous. “And it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree.” The “dry tree” would be fuel for the flame, but so great would be the destruction that even the “green tree” could not escape. Judgment would come even upon the house of God. Even the people of God have sins enough to bring upon them great calamities. “I will kindle a fire in thee,” in Jerusalem, the centre of religious life, of Church privileges. Like a raging fire, God’s judgments devour all before them.
3. The ungodly are admonished by the afflictions of the righteous. The prophet Zechariah warns the people that, when the great and noble among their countrymen fall, they cannot possibly escape, “Howl, fir tree, for the cedar is fallen” (Zechariah 11:2.) This is but another form of the Apostle’s statement; “If judgment first begin at the house of God, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of Christ?” It is the very truth which the same apostle puts in the form of a question, “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” When our Lord bids the daughters of Jerusalem to weep for themselves for the destruction which was about to come upon their devoted city, He adds, “For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (St. Luke 23:31). When the green tree cannot stand before the flame, how can the dry tree hope to escape! Christ was righteous, yet He did not escape the judgments of sin. He suffered for sin. “It pleased the Lord to bruise Him and to put Him to grief.” “He was numbered with the transgressors.” We can see how real a thing sin is, and how hateful in the sight of God, when we reflect how terribly the effects of it were visited upon Jesus Christ, the Righteous. And God employs judgments to purify His people; yet, even in their case, these are truly chastisements. God is specially severe in His judgments upon the chosen people, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore will I punish you for all your iniquities.” His very intimacy with them is put forward as a reason for leaving no iniquity unpunished. In all His dealings with His chosen, God has ever acted upon this principle. Witness the wanderings and sufferings of the patriarchs—the dispersions and captivities of Israel—the untimely death of Moses and of Aaron—the troubles of Eli—the sorrows of David—the present afflictions of the righteous. If the green trees thus suffer, the dry cannot be spared.
III. As to its reception. The prophecy is objected to as obscure, as a dark and mysterious saying. “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?” As if they said, “He is a speaker of parables, a mere utterer of dark sayings.” There is probably a vein of irony in these words with which the hearers received the prophet’s message; as if they would thus speak, “It is a clever saying of things which sound very terrible, if we could only understand it.” Sinners never want excuses for neglecting the prophet’s message. Either the message is too dark and mysterious, or else it is too simple. If the prophet announces unwelcome truths, and touches their conscience, they cry out against him. If he threatens God’s judgments, he is not to their mind. They will have none but those who prophesy smooth things. Thus men find fault now with God’s revelation. If He says what we already know, we think it is superfluous: we do not want a revelation to teach us that. If He says one word beyond what nature or reason might have taught us, we say it is irrational. One plain declaration of the Bible we pronounce as inconsistent with probability, another as inconsistent with some human authority, another as inconsistent with God’s justice, and another as inconsistent, with Christian charity. And in the same way men treat the proofs and evidences of religion. One does not like miracles, and another objects to the very idea of prophecy. The one saying, that it is altogether unworthy of God to suspend His own laws; and the other, that it is unworthy of God to dignify human persons by the prediction of their names and deeds. Another will hear of nothing but the internal evidence of the truth, the goodness of the word spoken, the comfort conveyed to his own heart. And what each man does not personally like, he casts aside as of no value. Objections of this kind are often but mere excuses. The real repugnance is to the idea of being taught anything from God or His prophets. Neither the ministry of John the Baptist nor even of Christ Himself could please the evil generation of their day. “But wisdom is justified of her children.”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ezekiel 20". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12