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And it came to pass, etc. We begin with a fresh date. One year and one month had passed since the vision of Chebar, and had been occupied partly by the acted, partly by the spoken, prophecies of the preceding chapters. In the mean time, things had gone from bad to worse in Jerusalem. In the absence of the higher priests, idolatry was more rampant, and had found its way even into the temple. It is probable that tidings of this had reached Ezekiel, as we know that frequent communications passed between the exiles and those they had left behind (Jeremiah 29:1-3, Jeremiah 29:9, Jeremiah 29:25). Directly or indirectly, Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Genesisariah the son of Hilkiah. may have conveyed a message, orally or written, from Jeremiah himself. Some such report may have led to the visit from the elders of Judah, if we understand by that term the exiles of Tel-Abib. I venture, however, on the conjecture that possibly those who came to the prophet were actually visitors who had come from Judah. Elsewhere, as in Ezekiel 14:1 and Ezekiel 20:1, those who thus came are described as "elders of Israel," or the captives (Ezekiel 1:1), "they of the Captivity" (Ezekiel 3:15). In either case, the visions that follow gain a special significance. The prophet becomes the seer. It is given to him to know, in a manner which finds a spurious analogue in the alleged mental travelling of the clairvoyant of modern psychology, what is passing in the city from which the messengers had come—and to show that he knows it. With such facts before his eyes, what other answer can there be than that evil must meet its doom? And so we pass into the second series of prophecies which ends with Ezekiel 13:23. It would seem as if the enquirers had kept silent as well as the prophet. We are not told that they asked anything. His look and manner, perhaps also attitude and gesture, forbade utterance. The hand of the Lord—the trance state—was in the act to fall on him (see notes on Ezekiel 3:14, Ezekiel 3:22). When the trance state was over, we may think of him as reporting and recording what he had thus seen in vision..
I beheld, and lo a likeness, etc. The vision opens with a theophany like that of Ezekiel 1:1-28.; but here, as there, Ezekiel uses the word which emphasizes the fact that what he had seen was but a "likeness" of the ineffable glory, an image of the Unseen. (For "amber," see Ezekiel 1:4, Ezekiel 1:27.) In this case we note the absence of the cherubic figures. It is simply the "appearance of tile likeness of the glory of Jehovah," seen now in the glow of fire, without the milder, more hopeful brightness of the rainbow (Ezekiel 1:28).
The form of an hand (comp. Ezekiel 2:9; Daniel 5:5). For the mode of transit, see Bel and the Dragon, verse 36. as probably a direct imitation. The touch of the "hand" was followed by the action of the Spirit, in visions which he knew to be more than dreams, visions that came from God (comp. Ezekiel 1:1; Ezekiel 40:2). The word is not the same as that commonly used by Daniel (chazon), and often by Ezekiel himself (Ezekiel 7:13; Ezekiel 12:22, Ezekiel 12:23, et al.), but mareh, which implies a more direct act of intuition. The word appears again in Ezekiel 11:24; Ezekiel 43:3, and in Daniel 8:26, Daniel 8:27, et al. To the door of the gate, etc. From the first we trace the priest's familiarity with the structure of the temple. He is brought, as it were, after his journey in the spirit, to the door of the gate of the inner court that looketh towards the north (Revised Version). This is identified in Daniel 8:5 with the "gate of the altar." It may probably also be identified with the "upper gate" of Ezekiel 9:2; the "high gate" of Jeremiah 20:2; the "higher gate" of 2 Kings 15:35, built by Jotham; the "new gate" of Jeremiah 36:10. Obviously it was one of the most conspicuous portions of the temple, where the people gathered in large numbers. And here the prophet sees what he calls the image of jealousy. The words that follow probably give his explanation of the strange phrase, not found elsewhere, though it might naturally be suggested by Deuteronomy 32:16, Deuteronomy 32:21; Psalms 78:58. What this image was we can only conjecture. The word for "image" is a rare one, and is found only here and in Deu 4:16; 2 Chronicles 33:7, 2 Chronicles 33:15. It may have been the Asherah (the "grove" of the Authorized Version), or conical stone, such as Manasseh had made and placed, with an altar dedicated to it, in the house of the Lord (2 Kings 21:3; 2 Chronicles 33:3), or one of Baal, or of Ashtaroth, or even of Tammuz (see verse 14). As the word "grove" does not occur in Ezekiel, it may be sufficient to state that the Ashera was a pillar symbolical either of a goddess of the same name, or, as some think, of the Phoenician Astarte. The worship seems to have first become popular under Jezebel (1 Kings 18:19), and took deep root both in Israel and Judah. The cultus, as in 2 Kings 23:7, seems to have been connected with the foulest licence, like that of the Babylonian Mylitta (Herod; 1.199; Baruch 6:43). The work of Josiah had clearly had but a temporary success, and the people had gone back to the confluent polytheism of the reign of Manasseh. In such a state of things the worst was possible. For recent discussions on the Ashera, see Kuenen. 'Relig. Isr.' (Eng. transl.), 1.88; Schrader; Robertson Smith, 'Relig. of Semites,' p. 172; and T.K. Cheyne, in the Academy of December 14, 1889.
Ezekiel 8:4, Ezekiel 8:5
And, behold, etc. In appalling contrast with that "image of jealousy," Ezekiel saw what he had not seen, as he first became conscious that he was in the court of the temple—the vision of the Divine glory, such as he had seen it on the banks of Chebar (Ezekiel 1:4-28). He was to look first on this picture and then on that, and the guilt of Judah was measured by that contrast.
That I should go far off, etc. The lesson taught was that already implied in the fact that the glorious vision and come to him from the north (Ezekiel 1:4). The temple was already as a God-deserted shrine. His return to it now was but the coming of the Judge and the Destroyer. We are reminded of the Μεταβαίνωμεν ἔντευθεν, ("Let us depart hence"), which was heard in the darkness of the night before the later destruction of Jerusalem (Josephus, 'Bell. Jud.' 6.5.3) Bad begins, but worse remains behind. The prophet is led onward as through the successive stages of an inferno of idolatries.
To the door of the court. What follows suggests that the prophet was led to the gate that opened from the inner to the outer court. This gas surrounded by chambers or cells (Jeremiah 35:4). The term for "wall" (kir) is that specially used for the wall which encloses a whole group of buildings (Numbers 35:4). Behold a hole in the wall. The fact was clearly significant. The worship here was more clandestine than that of the "image of jealousy." We are not warranted, perhaps, in insisting on minute consistency in the world of visions, but the question naturally arises—How did the worshippers enter the chamber if Ezekiel had to enlarge the hole in the wall in order to get in? We may surmise that the entrance from the temple court had been blocked up all but entirely in the days of Josiah, that the idolaters now entered it from without or through some other chamber, while Ezekiel thinks of himself as coming upon them like a spy in the dim distance of the covered passage through which he made his way.
Every form of creeping things. The words obviously paint the theriomorphic worship of Egypt, the scarabseus probably being prominent. The alliance between Jehoiakim and Pharaoh (2Ki 24:1-20 :33-35), and which Zedekiah was endeavouring to renew, would naturally bring about a revival of that cultus. Small chambers in rock or tomb filled with such pictured symbols were specially characteristic of it.
Seventy men, etc. The number was probably chosen with reference to the "elders" who had seen the Divine glory in Exodus 24:9, Exodus 24:10. The Sanhedrin, or council of seventy, did not exist till after the Captivity. The number can scarcely have been accidental, and may imply that the elders were formally representative. Another Jaazaniah, the son of Jeremiah, appears in Jeremiah 35:3; yet another, the son of Azur, in Ezekiel 11:1. If the Shaphan mentioned is the scribe, the son of Azaliah, under Josiah (2 Kings 22:3), the father of Ahikam (2 Kings 22:12), of Elasah (Jeremiah 29:3), and of Gemariah (Jeremiah 36:10, Jeremiah 36:11, Jeremiah 36:12), and the grandfather of Gedaliah (Jeremiah 39:14, et al.), all of whom were prominent in the reform movement under Josiah, or as friends of Jeremiah, and no other Shaphan appears in history, the fact that one of his sons is the leader of the idolatrous company must have had for Ezekiel a specially painful significance. He could scarcely have forgotten the meaning of his name, "The Lord is listening," and probably refers to it in verse 12. As the climax of this chamber of horrors, the seventy elders were all acting as priests, and were offering to their pictured idols the incense which none but the sons of Aaron had a right to use, and which they offered to Jehovah only.
Every man, etc. And this, after all, was but a sample of the prevalence of the Egyptian influence. Other elders had, in the dark, a like adytum, a like chamber of imagery, like the Latin lararium, filled. with a like cloud of incense. And though the name of the leader of the band might have warned them that the Lord was listening, they boasted, in their blindness, that Jehovah did not see them; he had forsaken the temple, and had fiche elsewhere. They thought of Jehovah as of a local deity who had abdicated. They were free to do as they liked without fear. The words are worth noting further as the first of a series of popular half proverbs, in which the thoughts of the people clothed themselves (see Ezekiel 11:3; Ezekiel 12:22; Ezekiel 18:2, Ezekiel 18:19; Ezekiel 33:10; Ezekiel 37:11). All these imply some personal knowledge of what was passing in Jerusalem.
Behold, there sat women wailing for Tammuz. The point of view is probably the same as that of Ezekiel 8:3, but the women were apparently in the outer porch of it, as he has to be brought to the gate in order to see them. We are led to note two things:
(1) the general prominence of women in the later idolatry of Judah;
(2) the specific character of the Tammuz worship.
(1) we have the women who wove hangings for the Ashera (2 Kings 23:7), those who had burnt incense to other gods, especially to the queen of heaven (Jeremiah 44:9, Jeremiah 44:15-19), probably, i.e; to Ashtaroth.
(2) The name Tammuz does not meet us elsewhere in the Old Testament. All interpreters, however, agree that it answers to the Adonis of Greek mythology. So Jerome translates it, and expressly states (in loc.) that what Ezekiel saw corresponded to the Adonis festivals. It may be enough to state, without going into the details of the story, that Adonis, the beautiful youth beloved of Aphrodite, was slain by a wild boar; that after his death he was allowed to spend six months of each year with her, while the other was passed with Persephone in Hades. The cultus thus became the symbol of the annual decay and revival of nature; but the legend rather than the inner meaning was in the thoughts of the worshippers. The emotions of women poured themselves out in lamentations over the waxen image of the beautiful dead youth who had perished in his prime, and in orgiastic joy over his return to life. Milton, deriving his knowledge, probably, from Selden's 'De Diis Syris,' has painted the whole atone in words which may well be quoted—
"Thammuz next came behind,
Whose annual wound in Lebanon allured
The Syrian damsels to lament his fate
In amorous ditties all a summer's day;
While smooth Adonis from his native rock
Ran purple to the sea, supposed with blood
Of Thammuz yearly wounded: the love-tale
Infected Sion's daughters with like heat;
Whose wanton passions in the sacred porch
Ezekiel saw, when, by the vision led,
His eyes surveyed the dark idolatries
Of alienated Judah."
('Par. Lost,' 1:446, etc.)
The chief centre of the Tammuz-Adonis worship was Byblos, in Syria. but it spread widely over the shores of the Mediterranean and was fashionable both in Alexandria and Athens. One of the practices of the festival, that of planting flowers in vases for forced cultivation, has been perpetuated by Plato's allusion to "the gardens of Adonis" as the type of transitoriness. Cheyne, following Lagarde, finds a reference to the cultus in Isaiah 17:10; Isaiah 65:3 : Isaiah 66:17. The festival of Ishtar and Tammuz (or Tam-zi) at Babylon presented a marked parallel. Adonis is, with hardly a doubt, identical with the Hebrew Adonai (equivalent to "Lord"). Tammuz has been explained as meaning "victorious," or "disappearance," or "burning;" but all etymologies are conjectural. Lastly, it is not without interest to note
(1) that when Jerome wrote, the Cave of the Nativity at Bethlehem was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz ('Ep. ad Paul.'); and
(2) that the later Jewish calendar included the month of Tammuz, which corresponded to July. The festival seems to have been celebrated at the summer solstice. The time of Ezekiel's vision was in the sixth month, sc. about the time of the autumnal equinox (see 'Dict. Bible,' art. "Tammuz"). Mr. Baring-Gould, treating the legend as a solar myth, finds the old Phoenician deity represented in the "St. George of Merrie England". An exhaustive monograph, "Tammuz Adonis," has been published by Liebrecht, in his 'Zur Volkskunde', reprinted from the Zeitschrift Deutschen Morgen-Gesellschaft, vol. 17. pp. 397, etc.
He brought me into the inner court. The last and the worst form of desecration follows. It was the "inner court" (Joel 2:17) which, after the exile, was entered only by the priests. During the monarchy, however, it seems to have been accessible to kings and other persons of importance, as in the case of Solomon (1 Kings 8:22, 1 Kings 8:64; 1 Kings 9:25) in the revolution against Athaliah (2 Kings 11:4-15), and Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:14), and Josiah (2 Kings 23:2). Ezekiel does not say that the men whom he saw were priests, though the number twenty-five suggests that they were taking the place of the high priest and the heads of the twenty-four courses of the priesthood (1 Chronicles 24:4-19), and so symbolized the whole order of the priesthood as the seventy elders represented the laity. In 2 Chronicles 36:14 the chief of the priests is spoken of as having been prominent in "polluting the house of the Lord." They were seen turning their backs to the temple of Jehovah, i.e. the sanctuary. The very act was symbolical of their apostasy (2 Chronicles 29:6; Isaiah 1:4; Jeremiah 7:24). And they did this in order that they might look to the east and worship the rising sun. That, and not the temple (Daniel 6:10), was the Kiblah of their adoration. The sun worship here appears to have had a Persian character, as being offered to the sun itself, and not to Baal, as a solar god. Of such a worship we have traces in Deuteronomy 4:19; Deuteronomy 17:3; Job 31:26; 2 Kings 23:5, 2 Kings 23:11.
For returned read, with the Revised Version, turned again. The wind seems chosen with special reference to the attitude of the idol worshippers. It may be noted that even here the prophet speaks not only of the idolatry of Judah, but of its violence also, as bringing down the judgments of Jehovah. Lo, they put the branch to their nose. The opening word expresses the prophet's burning indignation. The act described probably finds its best explanation in the Persian ritual of the Avesta. When men prayed to the sun, they held in their left hands a bouquet of palm, pomegranate, and tamarisk twigs, while the priests for the same purpose held a veil before their mouth, so that the bright rays of the sun might not be polluted by human breath. And this was done in the very temple of Jehovah by those who were polluting the whole land by their violence. The LXX. gives, as an explanation, ὡς μυκτηρίζοντες, as though the act was one of scornful pride (comp. Isaiah 65:5), the sign of a temper like that of the Pharisee as he looked upon the publican (Luke 18:11). Lightfoot takes the "nose" as the symbol of anger, and looks on the phrase as proverbial: "They add the twig to their anger, fuel to the fire;" but this has little to commend it. The word for "branch" is used in Ezekiel 15:2 and Numbers 13:23 for a vine branch.
The verse serves as a transition to Ezekiel 9:1-11. The unpitying aspect of the Divine judgments is again prominent. Such sins deserved, and could only be expiated by, the judgments to which we now pass.
A revelation of fire.
The prophet is visited with a series of new visions under fresh circumstances. No longer walking among the weeping captives by the waters of Babylon, or standing in solitude upon the great plain, Ezekiel is now in his own house receiving a deputation of Jewish leading men, who have evidently bees impressed by his earlier prophecies, and who have come to consult him on the condition and prospects of his nation, when he is seized with an inspired rapture. The house and the visitors melt away from his consciousness, and there in the very presence of these waiting and astonished guests the prophet's eyes are opened to a vision of God, and he is carried in imagination to scenes of sin and shame in the temple at Jerusalem. Was ever there a more unlikely time and setting of revelation? Truly the Spirit breatheth where it listeth. God may visit a soul in company as well as in solitude, in the home as well as in the temple or in the seclusion of nature. He, is ever present. The only question in—When and how will the veil be lifted?
I. A VISION OF GOD. It is evidently a Divine appearance, a theophany, that is here portrayed. Not that man at any time can see God with the outward eye, for flesh cannot see spirit. But in vision and representative form God now manifests himself to Ezekiel.
1. The vision of God precedes the revelation of truth. It was usual for this great seer of visions, Ezekiel, to have a new series of revelations opened by some overwhelming manifestation of God's presence. The same occurred with St. John's visions in the Apocalypse. We must know God before we can understand Divine truth. The vision of God in the soul must come first. Then truth can be seen in his light.
2. The vision of God precedes the revelation of man. Ezekiel is about to see awful sights of sin. He must first behold the pure fire of God's presence. We cannot know man till we see him in the light of God. The Bible that gives us our highest knowledge of God also gives us our deepest insight into man. Vague ideas of God lead to light thoughts of sin. When about to visit the haunts of wickedness, the Christian should first come into communion with God. This will help him to see the horror of sin, to keep himself from contamination, and to feel the right commiseration for the fallen.
II. A VISION OF FIRE. The Divine manifestation seems to have been in a human shape, but in one of fire—burning flames below, brilliant radiance above.
1. The fire below suggests wrath against sin. "Our God is a consuming Fire" (Hebrews 12:29). Christ came to baptize with fire, and to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:11, Matthew 3:12). There is a righteous indignation against sin, the lack of which would mean moral feebleness. God burns to consume all evil.
2. The brightness above suggests the supreme glory of God. The crowning characteristic of God is nut wrath. Above the fire is the serene radiance. There is terror in the holiness of God when this touches the sin of man. Yet God himself is supremely calm and beautiful. If we can rise from the flaming wrath about his feet, and behold the beauty of his countenance, we shall see on it the expression of eternal goodness.
The image of jealousy.
Ezekiel in vision imagines himself plucked up by a lock of hair and carried from the land of his exile back to Jerusalem, there to behold the abominations that are being practised in the temple of Solomon. In the sacred enclosure he sees an idol that provokes the jealousy of the true God.
I. GOD IS JUSTLY JEALOUS. The Old Testament idea of the jealousy of God has been grossly misapprehended. It has been taken as meaning that God was regarded as narrow, self-seeking, harsh. Such criticisms reveal a total misapprehension of the Old Testament position, according to which the jealousy of God is a necessity of his nature and righteousness.
1. A necessity of God's nature. There is but one God who fills all things. When he is represented as jealous, thin cannot be because he grudges a certain amount of honour to a rival—as Zeus might be jealous of Apollo—for God has no possible rivals. The supposed rivals are not gods at all. The worship of them is the worship of empty names. God is calling men back from delusion to fact when he is jealous of heathenish worship.
2. A necessity of righteousness. Forsaking Jehovah for false gods is not merely leaving one deity for another, nor even only turning aside to vanity and a delusion. It is turning from holiness to sin. The worship of God involves purity of heart and life; idolatry means a lower moral life. For the sake of holiness God cannot endure the lower worship. It might be said that God could be worshipped under various names as "Jehovah, Jove, or Lord." But if the lower forms of worship involve false thoughts of God and evil practices in morals, they are degrading and unendurable.
II. AN IDOL PROVOKES THE JEALOUSY OF GOD. The idol takes the place of God, sits on his throne, defiles his temple, usurps his Name and authority and worship. Anything that works in this way is an idol, and needs to be visited with the just indignation of God. Let us note some of these "images of jealousy."
1. Pleasure. If men set pleasure first, guiding their lives by its gaudy radiance, pleasure presides over the altar of their souls. "Love not pleasure, love God," says Carlyle; for the supreme love of the one excludes the supreme love of the other.
2. Money. This idol of gold is the modern representative of Nebuchadnezzar's statue on the plain of Shinar—a hard, helpless idol, which the man who lives for money enshrines in the temple of his soul.
3. Earthly love. God does not require us to abandon human affection; on the contrary, we cannot love God unless we love man, and we]earn to love God best through the exercise of human affections (1 John 4:20). But when a human affection is supreme and will not yield in submission to the will of God, the object of it becomes an "image of jealousy."
4. Self-will. We may think we serve God and yet we may refuse to obey him, only working according to our own will. This also is idolatry.
5. Fixed opinions. Instead of loving truth, we are tempted to love our own ideas; wishing them to be true, we are led to regard them as such, and so to shut our minds against the correcting voice of Divine revelation. All these images of jealousy are just so many embodiments of self, the monster idol of the soul and rival of God. To cast out these images we need the true Image of the invisible God, Jesus Christ, to come and take possession of our hearts.
Chambers of imagery.
Old men who should have been the guides of the younger generation were found by the prophet to have their secret practices of idolatry in private chambers, where they kept idols unknown to the world at large. Too careful for their reputation to share in the open idolatry of the mass of the people, these venerable hypocrites aggravated their guilt by cowardly deception. Safely ensconced in the seclusion of their chambers of imagery, they revelled in the orgies of a degrading idolatry, and then appeared in the streets as sedate citizens. The shameful sin of this double living may be practised in other forms with another kind of chamber of imagery.
I. EVERY MAN HAS A CHAMBER OF IMAGERY IN HIS OWN HEART. Children and poets are possessed of the most Powerful imagination; but even the dullest, most prosaic person is haunted with visionary presences, though of the most common place order. When we retire into ourselves, we unlock the door of our chamber of imagery and look at its ghostly scenes. There hang the portraits of the past, some blurred by the dust of years, others as clear as when they were first painted by the flash of a keen experience; some distorted into painful, impossible ugliness, others rounded into equally impossible perfection. There, too, are vague shadows of the future. But the most important images are designs and wishes, favourite fancies and pet ideas. These we embrace as friends; before some of them, perhaps, we prostrate ourselves in idolatrous worship. But happily we may also find there inspiring images of noble deeds, the ideals we would strive to copy in actual life. We may have left them too long in the dim chamber of imagery. We should bring them forth and clothe them with the flesh and blood of living deeds, while the bad images had better be crushed before they reach the doorway of utterance.
II. THERE ARE DEEDS DONE IN THE CHAMBER OF IMAGERY. Lust is there, and adultery, covetousness, theft, hatred, and murder. So long as a man restrains his utterance he is tempted to believe that it matters not what he imagines. No greater delusion can be possible; for the true life is that which is lived within. While in his chamber of imagery, a man is his true self divested of the cloak of semblance which he wears when about in the world. What images does he there delight to gaze upon? The true character of the man will be determined by the answer to that question. Certainly evil images may come there unsought and unloved as painful temptations, and it is the duty of one who loves holiness to turn aside from such. But the images delighted in reveal the true self. The wickedness there planned and gloated over in evil thought is sin—a deed of the soul. Ultimately it must come out in the life, for the imagination of the heart colours the external conduct, Shakespeare says—
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons,
Which, at the first, are scarce found to distaste,
But, with a little act upon the blood,
Burn like the mines of sulphur."
III. IT IS A DELUSION TO SUPPOSE THAT GOD IS INDIFFERENT TO WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CHAMBER OF IMAGERY. The old men of Jerusalem comforted themselves with the notion that God did not see them, that he had forsaken the earth. This Ezekiel knew to be a monstrous delusion.
1. God looks into the chamber of imagery. There is a window in every soul, through which the eye of God gazes right down to the bottom of its most secret thoughts. He knows us better than we know ourselves. The cloak of hypocrisy is not as the thinnest veil between us and God. Now, this is of supreme interest, because, while it does not very much matter what our fellow men may think about us, God's thought of us is all-important.
2. God will judge us for deeds done in the chamber of imagery. Knowing all, he will not judge only by what the world sees. Sins of the heart will be noted by God, and will bring down upon us his just wrath, even though the hands have been clean from iniquity.
3. The only effectual salvation must be ore that cleanses the chamber of imagery. "Create in me a clean heart, O God," cries David, in the depth of his penitence, knowing that the outward sins he had committed have sprung from the evil of his imagination. Therefore nothing short of the new birth which Christ brings can save our souls.
As Ezekiel is taken from one chamber of idolotry to another, in his visionary visit to the temple, he finds to his horror a continuous aggravation of the abominations. This is similar to the results of a survey of the world's sin.
I. SIN IS FOUND IN VARIOUS DEGREES OF ABOMINATION. The patristic statement that all sin is infinite, because it is an offence against the infinite God, is not found in Scripture, nor is it borne out by observation or experience. The Bible refers to various degrees of guilt; e.g. John 19:11. Peter's denial of Christ was a sin; but Judas's betrayal was a vastly greater sin. We are conscious of degrees of guilt in our own lives. It looks as though the sink of iniquity must be a bottomless pit. There are even deeper, blacker, more frightful and damnable sins yet to be reached by an abandoned soul that plunges down an unchecked descent of iniquity. No one is so bad that he can say, "I can do nothing worse than I have done."
II. THE VARIOUS DEGREES OR ABOMINATION CANNOT BE MEASURED BY EXTERNAL STANDARDS. They are not to be determined by any graduated code of formal morality. What is a weakness in one man may be a crime in another. The father of a starving family who steals a loaf—like the hero of Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables'—is not to be judged as the respectable promoter of rotten investments, who grows rich on the ruin of thousands of helpless people. The miserable child of the London thief, whose training has been at a school of crime, cannot be justly put into comparison with the son of a happy, prosperous Christian home. There are hereditary tendencies to evil and peculiar circumstances of temptation which beset certain people more than others. The degree of guilt varies accordingly. We cannot weigh all these conditions. Hence the advice, "Judge not, that ye be not judged."
III. ALL SIN TENDS TO AN AGGRAVATION OF ITS ABOMINATION. As Ezekiel went from one chamber to another, he came upon a continually descending series of scenes of wickedness. The worst were last. Sin is never at a standstill. It is a dark and turbid torrent that swells and blackens as it flows. The man who begins with a slight lapse from virtue is on the road to greater abominations. Herein is the danger, the fatal insidiousness of evil. If the sinner saw the whole course of his future from the first and at once—like Hogarth's pictures of the 'Rake's Progress'—he would start back with horror. Yet while he lingers and toys with sin it is silently coiling about him with more and more direful entanglements.
IV. THE EXISTENCE OF VARIOUS DEGREES OF ABOMINATION IS A REASON FOR SPEEDY REPENTANCE.
1. All sin is abominable. One sin may be a greater abomination than another, but the standard of measurement is not the depth below, but the height above. The question is—How far have we fallen? not—How much further may we yet sink away from the light? A man's sin is not one whit the less because his brother's sin is greater in guilt.
2. The sooner we repent the easier it is to return. Sin hardens as it becomes more aggravated in evil. While the light of God is waning, the way of recovery is becoming more obscure. "Today is the accepted time."
3. It is possible for the greatest abomination to be forgiven. The obstacle is only on one side. Christ can save the worst of sinners.
When Ezekiel, in his visionary visit to the temple, came upon the last scene of horror, and beheld the greatest of all the abominations therein committed, he saw twenty-five men performing rites of worship before the rising sun.
I. SUN WORSHIP IS MOST FASCINATING. This was the most common, and perhaps also the most primitive, heathen cult. It was very prominent in the ancient Egyptian religion—the rising, the midday, and the setting sun being honoured with separate names and rites; it was the essential idea of the Canaanite Baal worship, as well as of the Babylonian religion; and it lies at the heart of the Aryan mythology in Sanscrit, Greek, and Teutonic forms. If any material object should be selected for worship, it is natural that the earth's great source of light, power, and life should be the universal favourite. Our modern idolatries do not reach this material form, but they contain the same ideas.
1. The worship of light. This takes two forms.
(1) AEstheticism. Grace of form and tone are set up as supreme objects of admiration, to the neglect of moral goodness.
(2) Science. This is put on a pinnacle as lord of all thought and life. Now, knowledge is good, and all truth, which is the subject of science, is in itself pure, and should be pursued by men. But the exclusive cult of science is idolatry, because it is placing knowledge above obedience.
2. The worship of power. The sun is the great motive power of the universe. Latent sun heat in coal drives our steam engines. Direct sun heat lifts the water from the sea, that afterwards descends in avalanches and mountain torrents. We do not prostrate ourselves before the sun, the source of all this force, but we do magnify the virtue of the power itself. Yet material resources are not the highest good.
3. The worship of life. The sun is the great fertilizing influence of nature. The return of its warm rays awakens nature from the death of winter, and creates the new life of spring; its great heat makes the tropics to teem with swift growing vegetable and insect life. The most modern idolatry is the deification of the vital powers—the idea that, as all natural instinct is pure, the indulgence of naturalism is commendable. This is just the old Canaanite abomination.
4. The worship of the future. The sun worshipper turned to the east and hailed the sunrise. There is something fascinating and exhilarating in this anticipation of the morning. Christianity consecrates hope. But it is a mistake to believe in the future as in a fate of coming good. The future can only be good because God is in it, and blesses it.
II. SUN WORSHIP IS MOST ABOMINABLE. It includes many evil things.
1. Departure from God. The sun worshippers stood with their backs turned towards the temple. Their attitude was most significant. All idolatry must be practised with the back turned towards the truly Divine. We cannot serve the false and the true at one and the same time.
2. The degradation of God's greatest works. The more beautiful and powerful and fruitful the sun is seen to be, the more shameful is it that men should degrade their thought of it into idolatry. When we abuse God's best gifts by idolizing them, we turn what should occasion our deepest gratitude and admiration for God's goodness into an occasion for departing from him.
3. The consecration of sin. Sun worship began in adoration of the lord of day. But it descended into gross licentiousness, through the selection of the fertilizing power of sun heat as a special object of adoration. Thus sun worship became the worship of lust. This will be the inevitable effect of naturalism regarded as a religion. The worship of nature powers pure and simple involves the consecration of the lowest of those powers, so that what should be kept down as a slave claims to rule as a master, with obscene effrontery.
CONCLUSION. The rescue from nature worship—modern as well as ancient—is to be found in the revelation of One infinitely greater than nature. No wonder men who had no vision of the spiritual God selected the sun—so powerful in his southern splendour—as the greatest object of adoration. But we have "the Sun of Righteousness," before whose glory all physical brightness grows pale and fades away.
Making light of sin.
I. SINNERS MAKE LIGHT OF SIN. This is a commonly observed fact. Let us see how it is caused.
1. As an attempt to excuse the sinner. This, of course, is the most obvious and palpable reason why many people try to minimize their own sin. The prisoner pleads "Not guilty" simply to save himself. The same is done even before the private bar of a man's own conscience; for we wish to excuse ourselves to ourselves. Thus there may be no conscious deception, no hypocrisy. We may really persuade ourselves that we are not so bad as we seem to be. The wish is father to the thought.
2. By the force of habit. We grow accustomed to the worst companions if we are much with them, as we scarcely notice the ugliness of what is constantly with us, though strangers would be struck with their first sight of it. So while we become familiar with our sins, their supreme and most dreadful wickedness ceases to affect us, as the fearful sight of mutilated bodies ceases to affect hospital surgeons. The horror dies out of the aspect of wickedness, and a look of familiarity takes its place.
3. Through the influence of example. If a man stood alone in his sin, he would he appalled at the singular horror of it. But he sees it reflected in the lives of his neighbours, and, judging himself by the average standard of society, instead of taking the Law of God for his measure, he passes an easy sentence.
4. In the deadening of conscience. This is the worst and the most dangerous effect of sin. The sense for perceiving its guilt is blunted. Until conscience is reawakened by the Spirit of God, no man truly appreciates his own guilt.
II. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR GOD TO MAKE LIGHT OF SIN.
1. He sees it as it truly is. God is not deceived by our excuses. He sees into the true nature of our thought and conduct with an all-searching eye, and he is perfectly true and just to judge according to fact.
2. God measures it by the law of holiness. He knows our weakness, our ignorance, our temptation; and he does not judge men as he would judge angels—of that we may be sure; for "shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" But according as we have light he will estimate our conduct, measuring it against that light, and not against the darkness of our neighbours. God cannot endure iniquity. In his sight it is hideous and hateful and utterly deserving of condemnation. Let us remember that we shall not be judged by man's standards of conventionality, but by God's pure law of righteousness.
3. If God forgives sin, he does not make light of it. Forgiveness is not excusing evil. It recognizes the whole black guilt of it. Jesus who brought free forgiveness denounced sin itself as no stern Hebrew prophet had ventured to denounce it. In pardoning the penitent he carefully hotel that her sins were "many" (Luke 7:47). The publican is commended for his humiliation in the confession of sin (Luke 18:13). We can only judge of God's horror of sin by the darkness and agony of Gethsemane and Calvary. God forgives sin at the cost of his own Son. The great atonement of Christ was rendered necessary because God could not make light of sin, though he desired to save the sinner. We can be saved from our sin, not by making light of it, but when we fully confess its whole guilt and shame.
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
Ezekiel 8:4, Ezekiel 8:5
The glory of God and the image of jealousy.
In prophetic vision Ezekiel was transported from the place of exile to his country's metropolis, and to the temple which was the very centre of his people's religious observances. It may not be certain whether what in this vision he discerned actually took place, or whether the vision was representative and symbolical of what was occurring elsewhere in Judah and even in Jerusalem. But what an extraordinary juxtaposition and contrast is that described in these verses! One observer in one spot is brought face to face both with the splendour of the Divine manifestation and with the horror of idolatrous rites!
I. THE GLORY OF THE GOD OF ISRAEL. The prophet beheld an appearance of splendour, such as he had previously beheld in the plain, and had described in an earlier passage of iris prophecies.
1. This appearance was emblematical of the Divine attributes; alike of God's power to punish and to save, and of his moral excellences, justice and truth, mercy and love.
2. This appearance was peculiarly suitable to the place where it was discerned: the temple of Jehovah was his dwelling place, and the scene of his peculiar presence, who giveth not his glory to another.
3. This appearance was a reminder that for the Jewish people there was one, and only one, proper Object of adoration and worship.
II. THE IDOLATROUS IMAGE.
1. This was doubtless a figure of one of the false gods worshipped by one of the nations in the neighbourhood of Palestine, by whom Judah had been corrupted and seduced. Which of the several idols was at that time worshipped by the Jews we are not told; and, indeed, this does not signify.
2. Whatever this imaginary deity may have been, it is certain that the attributes assigned to it were opposed to those belonging to Jehovah. Cruelty and impurity were certainly qualities attributed to this false god.
3. Thus moral degradation was involved in the worship of this image; degradation all the more signal because the Jews forsook a God of righteousness and clemency, and fashioned or accepted an imaginary deity embodying their own worst faults and vices.
III. THE INDIGNATION WITH WHICH JEHOVAH REGARDED JUDAH'S PREFERENCE. The image was an "image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy." The reasons why the idol should be so designated, why such should be the way in which it was regarded, are obvious enough.
1. Jehovah had enjoined upon the posterity of Abraham abstinence from the idolatries from which the great forefather of the chosen people had been delivered. Monotheism was the very stamp and seal of their election.
2. The very first and second commandments of the first table of the moral Law prohibited idolatry.
3. The history of Israel had been one long rebuke of idolatry, and one long warning against falling into this seductive snare.
4. The ordinances and institutions of the nation were expressly designed to act as a check and dissuasive against the sin of the surrounding and heathen nations.
APPLICATION. Apostasy from the service of the one living and true God is rendered inexcusable, and is worthy of severe condemnation, when, as in the case of Judah, and in our case, light is clear, privileges are many, and opportunities and inducements abound to be faithful and diligent in the practice of pure religion.—T.
Placed, as the children of Israel were, in a very central position among the nations, they were exposed to a great variety of temptations. Circumstances must sometimes have favoured the influence of one nation, sometimes of another. Commercial intercourse, political leagues, matrimonial alliances, all had a share in determining which nation should predominate in influencing the Jewish people. And it is certain that by such influences the people were led into idolatries of different kinds. Egypt, as the neighbour of Israel upon the south, naturally came again and again into contact with the people who had been by Divine power delivered from her hands. Probably some relics of Egyptian superstition lingered for generations among the Jews, and it seems certain that efforts were made to introduce the deities and idolatrous worship of Egypt among the professed worshippers of Jehovah. This verse obviously refers to the practice of Egyptian idolatry in the capital, and in the very temple courts.
I. THE CHARACTER OF THIS IDOLATRY.
1. It was the worship of living creatures.
2. And of the lowest forms of life. This we know to have been especially characteristic of the religion of ancient Egypt.
II. THE VILENESS AND ABSURDITY OF THIS IDOLATRY.
1. It was the elevation of the creature above the Creator.
2. It was the glorification of animal in preference to spiritual life.
3. It manifested itself in the most irrational and indefensible forms which so called religion could possibly assume.
4. It lowered the worshippers to a moral level of degradation below which it was scarcely possible to sink.
III. THE GUILT OF THE JEWS IN PRACTISING THIS IDOLATRY.
1. They forsook the pure and elevating worship of the living and true God, preferring the vile to the precious, the disgusting to the sublime.
2. They acted in a manner contrary to all the lessons of their past history.
3. They rebelled against the authoritative admonitions of the Lord's faithful prophets. In all these respects the Hebrew people were far more blamable than the surrounding nations who had been trained in idolatrous practices, and had never declined from a purer and nobler faith and worship.—T.
In the chambers of the temple courts the prophet in his vision beheld seventy elders, representing the people of Judah and Israel, engaged in idolatrous worship. The walls of the chambers were decorated with figures of the animals to which homage was rendered. Those who by reason of character and station should have been the leaders of the people in the offices of pure religion were engaged in waving the censers of the idolatrous worship, and the thick cloud of unholy incense filed the chambers. As the prophet gazed appalled at this awful spectacle, the voice of the Lord addressed him: "Hast thou seen what they do? They say, The Lord seeth us not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth." Here was the true explanation of the defection of the Jews—leaders and common people alike. It was atheism which led to idolatry. And atheism is far more generally at the root of all evils in society than many superficial observers are willing to allow.
I. THE ELEMENTS OF ATHEISM. There are many who are not professedly and openly atheists, who are such in reality. They may not cast aside the Name of God, they may not openly repudiate the Law of God; but in their hearts they believe not in him. There may be recognized on their part:
1. Disbelief in the Lord's omniscient observation of men. "They say, The Lord seeth us not."
2. Disbelief in the Lord's presence and activity. "They say, The Lord hath forsaken the earth." Whoever they may be who make these assertions, and whatever their standing among their fellow men, they are practically and really atheistic.
II. THE OPERATION OF ATHEISM. It is impossible that such disbelief as that described should be without influence upon the moral nature and conduct.
1. Atheism removes the restraints from sin which belief in the Divine presence imposes. This is not the highest view to take of the question, but it is a just one; and many natures are largely influenced by the knowledge that an all-seeing God regards all their ways and thoughts.
2. Atheism removes the inspiration to goodness which belief in the Divine presence furnishes. The knowledge that a holy and omnipotent Father is ever with us, is ever ready to encourage and assist us in all our endeavours to realize our highest ideal, must needs be a factor of great importance in our spiritual life. Let this be withheld or contradicted, and how much that is best must be withdrawn along with it!
III. THE FRUITS OF ATHEISM.
1. Among these Jews at Jerusalem disbelief in Jehovah led to superstition and idolatry—no unusual conjunction.
2. Very generally, atheism leads to self-indulgence and vice.
3. And it is destructive of all higher national life. Fidelity to God is fidelity to principle, fidelity to society, fidelity to the highest conception formed of human life. Infidelity to God involves the opposite of all these virtues, and abandonment to the life of interest, of ease, of pleasure; it gives power to every temptation to sin, to every evil tendency of society. Under its influence man sinks to the merely animal life, and to such mental activity as subserves that life.
APPLICATION. We are sometimes told that in speculative atheism there is no great harm; that without belief in God men may be good citizens, and may discharge honourably the several relationships of life. Without denying that, in certain instances, the influence of Christianity may for a time abide after Christianity itself has been abandoned, we have yet to look at the proper and inevitable consequences of a general abandonment of belief in God. We shall find these so terrible, that we may well watch and pray against the first loosenings of belief in the most fundamental and precious of all truths.—T.
Weeping for Tammuz.
If the usual interpretation of this passage is correct, then it is clear that there had been introduced from Northern Syria into Jerusalem a superstitious practice and cultus, which was altogether alien from the beliefs and the worship proper to the nation whom the Supreme had favoured with a clear and glorious revelation of his blessed character and his holy will. It is an illustration of the weakness and proneness to err characteristic of our humanity, that a nation so favoured as Judah should borrow from their neighbours religious rites and observances utterly inconsistent with their own religion, and of a kind fitted to degrade rather than to exalt the moral life. We may observe of this special superstition—
I. THAT IT SUBSTITUTED FICTION FOR TRUTH.
II. THAT IT CONCENTRATED ATTENTION UPON NATURE INSTEAD OF UPON THE AUTHOR OF NATURE.
III. THAT IT SUBSTITUTED AN IMAGINATIVE AND FANCIFUL FOR A REAL AND LEGITIMATE CAUSE OF EMOTION.
IV. THAT IT PROMOTED VICE INSTEAD OF MORAL PURITY.
V. THAT IT CONSEQUENTLY DEGRADED THE NATION THAT SUFFERED ITSELF TO BE SEDUCED BY IT.
APPLICATION. No nation and no individual is superior to the necessity of watchfulness against the contaminating influence of neighbours upon a lower moral platform, "Evil communications corrupt good manners." instead of the good leavening the evil, and so purifying the mass, the contrary may happen, and the defiling influence of error and impurity may spread. In this case there is every likelihood of the fulfilment of the proverb, "The companion of fools shall be destroyed."—T.
Sun worshippers in Jerusalem.
Although the worship of Baal and other similar deities was no doubt a corruption due to the personification of the great orb of day, it does not seem that, in this passage, the prophet intends to denounce that form of idolatry. It appears that actual sun worship, which we know to have been practised among the Persians, obtained in the time of Ezekiel at Jerusalem, though it is scarcely credible that it took place literally in the circumstances depicted in the context.
I. THE SUN WORSHIP ITSELF. Of this it is enough to say that it is creature worship, and is therefore dishonouring to the Creator who kindled the sun in the firmament, and who is himself the eternal, uncreated Light.
II. THE SUN WORSHIPPERS.
1. They included the priesthood; for the five and twenty here mentioned were doubtless the heads of the twenty-four courses, with the high priest presiding over them.
2. Their attitude was indicative of profanity and defection; they are depicted as turning their backs towards the temple of Jehovah that they might face the sun as he rose in the east.
III. THE EFFECTS OF SUN WORSHIP.
1. This superstition estranged the minds of those who practised it from the God who is Light, and in whom is no darkness at all; it rendered them indifferent to the Divine Law, and inattentive to the Divine service and worship.
2. It was the means of filling the land with abominations and violence, and this was especially the case when conjoined with the worship of the Phoenician sun god.
3. It thus became one of the many occasions for the arousing of the anger of God, and led to the retributions and chastenings which speedily came upon the ungrateful, unspiritual, and apostate people.—T.
HOMILIES BY J.D. DAVIES
Gradual disclosure of human sin.
The prophet notes the exact date of the vision, so that, if any doubt arose, the circumstance could be verified, so long as any one of these elders survived. These details of day and month may seem to many readers needless and tedious; yet, in an earlier day, they probably served an important purpose, and may be again useful in a future age. Even now they demonstrate with what diligent care the prophet preserved the records of Divine manifestations. The three hundred and ninety days during which Ezekiel was to be a living sign were now fulfilled.
I. THE OCCASION. The occasion arose out of a visit made to Ezekiel by the elders of Israel. Genuine inquiry on the part of men is always pleasing to God. If men ask after truth from righteous motive, God is prepared to meet them. The response from heaven may not be in the mode men expect, yet some response there will be. On this occasion, too, God was honoured in the person of his messenger. It becomes us to use those channels for information which God has opened. If we are at our Sovereign's footstool, we shall not have long to wait.
II. GOD'S GRACIOUS MANIFESTATION. It was an act of grace that God should reveal himself to his prophet, so that through the prophet he might reveal himself to the elders. In every age God has chosen the most fitting agencies through which to manifest himself to men.
1. It was an exact repetition of a former appearance. This was to intimate that God's designs had in no respect changed. There were the same splendours of majesty—the unchangeable glory—of Jehovah; there was the same appearance of radiant fire in the loins and feet, to indicate that he was about to march through the land in righteous indignation. "Verily, a fire goeth before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about." "For he cometh to judge the earth."
2. A mighty energy was put forth. There was the form of a hand, by which the prophet was lifted up. From first to last we need Divine assistance. So feeble is human nature, that at every step we need gracious succour, both to learn and to do God's will. We must be separated from earthly scenes—have elevation of mind—if we would see things as God sees them.
3. Personal effort. There was place and scope for the prophet's exertion. Man must cooperate with God. "I beheld." Ezekiel must use his eyes. In that state of ecstasy to which he had been raised there is need for special activity. Human nature at present cannot long endure the ecstatic state. Golden opportunities such as these are brief. Therefore note well the precious lessons.
III. THE GRADUAL DISCLOSURES OF ISRAEL'S GUILT. The glory of God was manifest in the temple.
1. In the clear light of Jehovah's presence we see the real character of sin. The eye of man needs the medium of light through which to discern objects; and a special revelation of God is required in which to discover the turpitude of sin. It was when God came near to Job that this exemplary man exclaimed, "I abhor myself." It was when Christ first revealed his glory to Peter that he put up the prayer, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord."
2. All forms of idolatry provoke God's jealous anger. We take this "image of jealousy" as an allegorical representation of the many sided idolatry of Israel. Whatever forms their idolatries assumed, they all had this in common—they usurped Jehovah's place; they supplanted his authority. In stupendous condescension, God speaks to us after the manner of a man. As the strongest passion which fallen man knows is jealousy, so God represents this as the picture of indignant sentiment in his own breast. He sets high value on our human love. It is the most precious thing we can give him. Hence, we wound him in the tenderest part when we erect a rival in his place. This is a root sin.
3. Sin becomes most heinous of all sin when committed in the temple. God's dwelling place on earth is designed to be a fount, whence streams of blessing may flow to every province of our human life. To defile this fount is to send a stream of pollution into the domestic, commercial, and political life of the nation. If there be idolatry in the temple, there will be idolatry in the home; there will be disorder everywhere. The sanctuary will always be a source of life or of death to the whole empire.
4. God's disclosures of our sin are gradual. This method has two advantages:
(1) It gives us a clearer conception of the magnitude and the degrees of sin.
(2) It serves to deepen impression, while it does not overwhelm us with despair. If we desire to know the truth respecting our sin, God's Spirit will lead us from point to point, so that we may have an ever-deepening sense of our iniquity.
IV. THE HEINOUSNESS OF ISRAEL'S OFFENCE.
1. Its secrecy. The prophet had to break through the wall in order to discover it. Men will often indulge secretly in sins which they are ashamed to commit openly. The censure of our fellow men is often a useful deterrent. The opinion of others is a mirror, in which we see ourselves. Every man has his "chamber of imagery" within. Idolatry in the heart precedes the idolatry of temple worship. Can we not find some image of evil painted on the wails of our imagination—some form of mammon, or pleasure, or self? Therefore "keep thy heart with all diligence."
2. The deceitfulness of sin. It had blinded men's eyes to the fact of God's presence—to the fact of certain discovery and certain retribution. A growing acquaintance with sin convinces us of its many wiles to deceive. Few men venture to sin until they forget God's omniscience; and the habit of forgetfulness leads swiftly to atheism.
3. The sin was spread by most pernicious example. The men who ought to have been beacons and bulwarks against idolatry were pioneers in iniquity. Men holding high rank, whether in Church or in state, cannot sin as others do. Their influence is enormous, and it is inevitable that they lead others to heaven or to hell. Every station has its responsibilities. If, in Israel, the princes and elders had set a high example of pious obedience, in all likelihood the fortunes of the nation had been retrieved. If the helmsman be blind, there is small chance for the safety of the ship.
4. This sin is seminal; it soon produces a brood of other sins. Idolatry blossomed into sensual lust—into vice, disorder, and violence. The idolatries of the heathen suited the popular taste, because they did not curb natural inclination; gave a dangerous licence to every sensual and selfish passion. They who have driven from the heart the love of God are soon filled with every vile affection. They who have ceased to fear God soon cease to have any regard for others' weal. Sin rapidly generates a swarm noxious vices. The women who wept for Tammuz at the door of the temple were, without doubt, living in shameless prostitution. To depart from God is to run into every excess of iniquity. The more we examine the matter, the more flagrant and aggravated human sin appears. Superficial observers may talk of sin as a mere bagatelle; but they who search out the matter conclude that language is too poor to describe the cursed thing. It is the heaviest calamity that can rest on a human being; worse than poverty, or pain, or ill-repute, or desertion, or death: "He is in danger of eternal sin."—D.
Ezekiel 8:17, Ezekiel 8:18
Men co-assessors in judgment with God.
In saving men from sin, God qualifies them for the highest offices in his kingdom. "They shall sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."
I. GOD GIVES US, IN STAGES, HIS VIEW OF HUMAN GUILT. Without question, we should take very low and imperfect conceptions of sin, unless God revealed to us the facts in the moral department of existence. By such means, God condescends to train us for companionship with himself, and for high office in his realm. "Know ye not that we shall judge angels?"
II. GOD SHOWS US FURTHER THE MANIFOLD EFFECTS OF HUMAN SIN.
1. Its inexcusableness. It is not committed from want of knowledge. Those in Judaea who had the clearest access to knowledge respecting God yielded to idolatry.
2. Its effect upon others. All sin is contagious; and when exhibited in the lives of learned and official personages, it has peculiar fascination. The mystic force of influence diffuses it far and wide.
3. Its penetrative power. It touches and taints every part of man's nature—body, soul, and spirit. It defiles every department of human life and interest—agriculture, commerce, literature, legislation, the household.
4. Its cumulative energy. It grows worse and worse, until every restraint is broken down, and all sense of shame is destroyed. Open defiance of God is the last phase of iniquity.
III. GOD SUMMONS OUR JUDGMENT TO ASSESS THE GUILT. God appeals to his prophet for his estimate of the case. "Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is this a light thing?' Our judgment, our reason, our moral sensibility, our conscience, have been conferred upon us for this selfsame purpose, viz. that we should condemn what is evil and approve what is good. Under certain circumstances it is our duty not to judge; as, for instance, when all the facts of the case are not within our possession, or when sympathetic help is better than critical examination, or when our judging faculty is better exercised about ourselves than about others. Our good, and the world's advantage, must be our guide when to judge and when not to pass a judgment.
IV. GOD DESIRES TO HAVE OUR ACQUIESCENCE IN HIS DECISIONS. He puts great honour upon men in making them partners with him in the highest offices of the heavenly state. God is no lover of monopoly. As his creatures become fitted for eminent office and honour, he promotes them. To give them pleasure is to give himself pleasure. If any of his creatures become as wise and pure and good as he is, he will not repine. He calls us his sons and daughters; and inasmuch as the relationship is real, he loves to have our companionship, ay, and our hearty approval of all that he does. When Christ shall sit as Judge, in glorious state, we are told that all the holy angels shall sit with him. And if he will come to "be admired by his saints," he will desire to have admiration for his deeds as well as for his Person. "He shall be justified" by his people "as often as he judges."—D.
HOMILIES BY W. JONES
The vision of the image of jealousy.
"And it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month," etc. This and the following three chapters are one discourse, or the record of one vision. In this chapter we see how the prophet was transported in spirit to the temple at Jerusalem, and caused to behold the open and the secret idolatrous abominations of which the people of Israel were guilty. Several portions of these verses have already engaged our attention in other connections. Moreover, Ezekiel 8:1-4 are merely introductory to the vision; but the following points may perhaps be considered by us with advantage.
I. THE ELDERS SEEKING COUNSEL OF THE PROPHET OF THE LORD. "I sat in mine house, and the elders of Judah sat before me." It has been suggested that this was on the sabbath day, and that the elders were accustomed to meet thus on that day to hear the Word of the Lord from Ezekiel, and to unite in the worship of the Lord their God. But others are of opinion that the occasion was an extraordinary one, and that they were assembled to seek counsel or comfort from the prophet. Whatever the occasion might have been, there can be but little doubt that they were endeavoring to obtain some communication of the Divine will. Thus in the troubles of their captivity, when removed from their temple, and deprived of the regular ordinances of religion, these elders of Judah seem to have been more attentive to the prophet of Jehovah than they were when they had their religious privileges in fall. When the vision had become rare, it was prized. It is our sin and loss that our blessings are often not justly and adequately valued until we have lost them wholly or in part.
"What we have we prize not to the worth,
Whiles we enjoy it; but being lack'd and lost,
Why, thee we rack the value; then we find
The virtue, that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours."
Wise and blessed are they who duly prize their good and perfect gifts while in the possession and enjoyment of them.
II. THE DIVINE INSPIRATION OF THE PROPHET OF THE LORD. Ezekiel had been inspired previously. The Spirit of God had moved him mightily before; but now the hand of the Lord came again upon him. New services require new inspirations. Fresh duties demand for their worthy discharge fresh impartations of strength. Each day we need the renewal of grace and strength from above. We discover in the prophet a triple effect of Divine inspiration.
1. Strengthening him. "The hand of the Lord God fell there upon me." (We have spoken of this in our remarks on Ezekiel 1:3.)
2. Exalting him. "And he put forth the form of an hand, and took me by a lock of mine head; and the Spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem." While Ezekiel was sitting there amidst the elders of Judah, his spirit was exalted and carried away to Jerusalem. The inspiration of God raises the human spirit above its ordinary level, stimulates it into greater and nobler activities, and renders it more capable of receiving Divine impressions and communications.
3. Enlightening him. The Spirit enlightened the prophet by quickening his spirit to perceive Divine visions, and by unfolding those visions unto him. (See our remarks on Ezekiel 1:1, "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.")
III. THE SPIRITUAL VISIONS GRANTED UNTO THE PROPHET OF THE LORD.
1. A Vision of the glory of the Lord God. "Then I beheld, and lo a likeness as the appearance of fire: from the appearance of his loins even downward, fire; and from his loins even upward, as the appearance … as the colour of amber Aria, behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, according to the vision that I saw in the plain." Thus the prophet himself informs us that this vision of the glory of God corresponds with one which he saw before, and which we have already noticed (on Ezekiel 1:26-28).
2. A vision of the dishonour done to the Lord God. The prophet was transported in spirit "to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate that looketh toward the north; where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy … So I lifted up mine eyes the way toward the north, and behold northward at the gate of the altar this image of jealousy in the entry." Many have thought that this was an image of Baal. Lightfoot concluded that it was an image of Moloch. Others are of opinion that it was an image of Asherah or Astarte, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 21:7; 2Ki 23:4, 2 Kings 23:7, and incorrectly translated in the Authorized Version "grove." It has been suggested that it was an image of the Tammuz or Adonis mentioned in 2 Kings 23:14, "and called 'the image that provoked to jealousy,' with special reference to the yonthful and attractive beauty of the object it represented." The view of Fairbairn seems to us the most probable. "We are disposed to think," he says, "from the ideal character of the representation, that it should not be limited to any specific deity. The prophet, we are persuaded, purposely made the expression general, as it was not so much the particular idol placed on a level with Jehovah, as the idol worship itself, which he meant to designate and condemn. So sunk and rooted were the people in the idolatrous feeling, that where Jehovah had an altar, there some idol form must have its 'seat'—a fixed residence, to denote that it was no occasional thing its being found there, but a regular and stated arrangement. And whatever it might for the time be—whether it was Baal, or Moloch, or Astarte, that the image represented—as it was necessarily set up for a rival of Jehovah, to share with him in the worship to which he alone was entitled, it might justly be denominated 'the image of jealousy,' as it provoked that jealousy, and called for that visitation of wrath, against which the Lord had so solemnly warned his people in the second commandment." "The image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy," is an expression which looks back to Deuteronomy 32:16, Deuteronomy 32:21 : "They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger." Thus Ezekiel beheld the Lord Jehovah dishonoured by his own people, and at the gate of his own altar. And being thus dishonoured, Jehovah abandons his temple. "He said unto me, Son of man, seest thou what they do? even the great abominations that the house of Israel committeth here, that I should go far off from my sanctuary?" When that sanctuary has been grossly polluted with idols he will no longer dwell there. And this is applicable to the Church of Jesus Christ. If a spirit of pride, worldliness, or selfishness become predominant in any Christian community, he departs far off from it. If any idol of creed, or ritual, or fashion, or popularity be established therein, he will go far away. And this is applicable also to the human heart. If we give the devotion of our hearts to another object or objects, he will leave us. He claims our supreme affection. He will not have any rival for our love.—W.J.
The chambers of imagery; or, secret sins.
"And he brought me to the door of the court; and when I looked, behold a hole in the wall," etc. In the case of "the image of jealousy" the idolatry of the Israelites was open; in this case it is secret. In that the abominations were committed by the house of Israel; in this by the elders of the house of israel. The paragraph suggests several observations on secret sins.
I. THE MOST HEINOUS SINS ARE GENERALLY COMMITTED IN SECRET, These chambers of imagery, in which the elders of the house of Israel did their wicked abominations, were concealed and difficult of access. The secrecy with which their vile sins were committed is graphically set forth in the text. "He brought me to the door of the court; and when I looked, behold a hole in the wall. Then said he unto me, Son of man, dig now in the wall," etc. ‹eze-3› The idolatry practised in these chambers of imagery was the animal worship of the Egyptians. The prophet beheld "every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed upon the wall." Such idolatry indicates deep spiritual degradation, and by its influence it increases that degradation. It is fitly characterized as "the wicked abominations that they do." Hengstenberg well says, "Every thing created, however good it may be in itself, becomes an abomination as soon as it stands with man beside, or quite about, God." What a fall for the elders of Israel, from the elevating worship of the true and holy God to the debasing adoration of cattle and creeping things! And they must have felt the wrongness of this, or they would not have so carefully striven to conceal it. There are secret sins in the lives even of good men—sins of thought and feeling that are hidden from our fellow men. Who could bear to have everything that transpires in his mind and heart exposed to the gaze of even his tenderest and best human friend; or, indeed, to any one except the merciful and holy One?
"Or what if Heaven for once its searching light
Lent to some partial eye, disclosing all
The rude bad thoughts, that in our bosom's night
Wander at large, nor heed Love's gentle thrall?
"Who would not shun the dreary uncouth place?
As if, fond leaning where her infant slept,
A mother's arm a serpent should embrace:
So might we friendless live, and die unwept.
"Then keep the softening veil in mercy drawn,
Thou who canst love us, tho' thou read us true;
As on the bosom of th' aerial lawn
Melts in dim haze each coarse ungentle hue."
But the secret sins most analogous to those of the text are those which are practised wilfully. Could we read the chambers of imagery in human hearts, what pictures of sins tolerated, and even indulged in some, we should see, while the lives present a fair exterior! Secret impurities, veiled dishonesties, concealed jealousies and animosities, and hidden idolatries, would appear before us in appalling shapes and velours, and perhaps in astounding numbers.
II. THE MOST HEINOUS SINS ARE SOMETIMES COMMITTED SECRETLY BY THOSE WHO ARE UNDER THE STRONGEST OBLIGATIONS TO ESCHEW THEM. "And there stood before them seventy men of the ancients of the house of Israel," etc. (Ezekiel 8:11). (On the "seventy men of the ancients," cf.; Exodus 24:1, Exodus 24:9; Numbers 11:16, Numbers 11:24, Numbers 11:25.)
1. The seventy elders may be viewed as representing the whole people, and thus indicating the general corruption. In accordance with this view, the entire nation is represented as having fallen from its high and holy calling into this grovelling superstition. And with comparatively few exceptions the whole house of Israel had departed from the pure worship of the Lord Jehovah.
2. The seventy elders may be viewed as showing the corruption of those who should have been most incorruptible. They were the representatives and counsellors of the people, and as such they were morally bound by advice and example to have endeavoured to keep the people from idolatrous associations, and to have main ailed in its integrity the worship of the true God; yet they fell themselves into abominable idolatries. More than once, persons standing highest in religious position have been amongst the lowest in their real character. Such was the case with the scribes and Pharisees during the time of our Lord's life upon earth (cf. Matthew 23:13-33). Exalted religious position or office is no guarantee of exalted spiritual excellence.
III. THE PRACTICE OF SECRET SINS SPRINGS FROM PRACTICAL ATHEISM. "For they say, The Lord seeth us not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth." Here is a twofold denial.
1. Denial of the Divine observation of human life and conduct. "The Lord seeth us not." The attempt at concealment implies the fact that they ignored the all-seeing eye. The practice of sin generally involves the overlooking or ignoring of the presence and observation of God. "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good." Let this become a conviction, let it be realized as a solemn fact, and sin would become an impossibility, at any rate with most persons.
2. Denial of the Divine interest in human life. "The Lord hath forsaken the earth." Their feeling seems to have been this: "God does not care for us; he is indifferent to what we do, or what becomes of us." "As he does nothing for them, they must help themselves as well as they can." This practical atheism is the prolific parent of secret and other sins. If man realized the deep concern of God for his well being, in that realization, he would have a most effectual restraint from sin.
IV. THE FACT OF THE EXISTENCE OF SECRET SINS DEMANDS THE EARNEST CONSIDERATION OF THE FAITHFUL SERVANTS OF GOD. "He said unto me, Go in, and behold the wicked abominations that they do here …. Then said he unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen what the ancients of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery?" Thus the prophet was summoned to consider the secret idolatries which were being practised by the elders of Israel. It is important that the faithful servants of God should consider the existence and practice of secret sins:
1. To qualify them for battling with such sins. The reformer must become acquainted with the full measure and force of the evils which he would abolish, if he would succeed in his mission. And the physician, if he would overcome disease, must know it in its inner workings as well as in its outer manifestations. So also is it with him who would wage war against sin.
2. To qualify them for estimating the righteousness of God's treatment of sinners. To appreciate how just and true he is in all his dealings with men, it is necessary to consider the sins of mind and heart which are committed against him, as well as those of the tongue and hands.
V. THE MOST CAREFULLY CONCEALED SINS WILL ASSUREDLY BE MADE MANIFEST. God is perfectly acquainted with every one of them. Our secret sins are set in the light of his countenance (cf. Psalms 90:8). The revelation to the prophet of the wicked abominations practised in the dark in the chambers of imagery, is suggestive of the unveiling of all secret sins.
1. In the present life circumstances sometimes arise which occasion the revelation of hidden sins. Afflictions sometimes strip off the mask from the face of the hypocrite. Or the near approach of death leads to the acknowledgment of concealed vice or crime.
2. In the future life there will be an awful revelation of human character and conduct. "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." "Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts."
1. "Create in me a clean heart, O God;" "Cleanse thou me from secret faults."
2. "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life."—W.J.
Man's provocations of God, and God's punishment of man.
"Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north," etc.
I. MAN'S PROVOCATIONS OF GOD. In Ezekiel 8:17 it is said, "They returned to provoke me to anger." The sins mentioned in this paragraph were not the only provocations of the Most High, as the words of the clause imply. Professor Cheyne translates, "provoke me to anger again and again." And Ewald, "exasperated me repeatedly." The various idolatries and other sins committed by the people were so many provocations of the Lord. But as to those mentioned in the text, notice:
1. The foul idolatry of the women. "He brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz." The meaning of Tammuz is not certain, but the conjecture which is by far the most probable is that it is the Hebrew and Syriac name for the heathen god Adonis, who, according to the fable, was the beautiful paramour of Venus. He was said to have been killed by a bear in the chase, and afterwards to have returned to life. The worship of Adonis took its rise at Byblos, in Phoenicia. "From Byblos it spread widely over the East, and was thence carried to Greece." It was probably introduced to the Jews front Syria. The festival of Adonis was celebrated in the fourth month. This celebration "was of a twofold character: first, that of mourning, in which the death of Adonis was bewailed with extravagant sorrow; and then, after a few days, the mourning gave place to wild rejoicings for his restoration to life. This was a revival of nature worship under another form—the death of Adonis symbolized the suspension of the productive powers of nature, which were in due time revived. Accordingly, the time of this festival was the summer solstice, when in the East nature seems to wither and die under the scorching heat of the sun, to burst forth again into life at the due season" ('Speaker's Commentary'). For seven days the women gave themselves up to this lamentation, chanting mournful songs to the accompaniment of pipes, cutting their breasts with knives, and either cutting off their hair as a sacrifice to the god, or presenting to him the more costly and shocking sacrifice of their chastity. Well does Fairbairn say, "This Phoenician abomination had become one of the festering sores of Judah's disease."
2. The idolatry of the men. "And he brought me into the inner court of the Lord's house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the Lord," etc. (Ezekiel 8:16). Most expositors follow Lightfoot in regarding these five and twenty men as the presidents of the twenty-four orders into which the priesthood was divided (1 Chronicles 24:1-31.), with the high priest at their head; and thus they look upon them as representing the entire priesthood. This, however, is by no means certain. As a matter of fact, the priesthood as a whole had never given themselves up to idolatry. Professor Cheyne says, "The number (twenty-five) is a round one, as in Ezekiel 11:1. Had it been stated that the men were priests, we might have supposed that they were the heads of the twenty-four courses, together with the high priest. But no; they were 'elders' (Ezekiel 9:6), i.e. laymen. The inner court was not closed to the laity till after the return from exile (see 1 Kings 8:22, 1 Kings 8:64; 1 Kings 9:25; 2 Kings 11:4-15)." But to whatever class these men belonged, they were offering provocation to God by worshipping the sun. This form of idolatry was of very ancient origin. Job declares his innocence of it (Job 31:26). It is distinctly prohibited in the Law given by Moses (Deuteronomy 17:3). In its earliest form, among the Arabians, the worship was addressed directly to the heavenly bodies, without the intervention of images. In times preceding those of the prophet this idolatry had been introduced into Jerusalem, and abolished by King Josiah (2 Kings 23:5, 2 Kings 23:11). But by some means it had been revived or reintroduced, and now in the days of Ezekiel was openly flourishing again. Moreover, their worship of the sun was aggravated by the posture in which it was practised. "With their backs toward the temple of the Lord, and their faces toward the east." The sanctuary of the Lord God was behind them, as a thing they were renouncing, while they were looking to the new object of their hope and adoration rising in the east. A still further aggravation of their sin is mentioned: "And, lo, they put the branch to their nose." We are not certain as to the meaning of this expression. But the opinion of Hengstenberg seems to us the most probable: "The Persian sun worshipper, according to Strabo and others, held in his hand a bunch of shoots, called barsom, when praying to the sun, and applied it to the mouth when uttering prayer. This quite agrees with the rite here." And Professor Cheyne says of this rite, "It appears to be of Persian origin; only this qualification must be made that, considered as a Persian practice, it has reference not to the worship of the sun, but to that of the sacred fire. In the Avesta we read of a bundle of branches called baresma (later writings call it barsom), which occupied as important a place in Zoroastrian worship as in the worship of these 'five and twenty men.' The twigs preferred for this sacred object were those of the date, the pomegranate, and the tamarisk, and the words of the Zoroastrian Scripture (Vendidad, 19:64) are rendered as follows by the latest translator: 'Let the faithful man cut off a twig of baresma, long as a ploughshare, thick as a barleycorn. The faithful one, holding it in his left hand, shall not leave off keeping his eyes upon it.' Thus it is not expressly stated by the Zoroastrian authorities (nor yet is it by Strabo) that the baresma was to be held to the mouth (or the nose). This, however, was the way of holding the veil called paitidana, the object of which was to prevent the impurities of the breath from passing into the sacred fire. Professor Monier Williams informs me that this at least is still in use among the Parsee priests." By this heathenish and idolatrous practice the Lord Jehovah was insulted by his own people.
3. The social injustice and oppression. "They have filled the land with violence." Unfaithfulness to God and cruelty to man were sins that went hand in hand amongst the people of Israel (cf. Ezekiel 7:23; Ezekiel 9:9). "State oppression and Church corruption go together," says Greenhill; "in the temple were pollutions, and in the land violence. The princes and judges, they wronged men; the priests and prophets, they wronged God (Zephaniah 3:3, Zephaniah 3:4) If there be violence in a land, there will be corruptions, pollutions, abominations in the sanctuary; if there be superstition, idolatry in the Church state, there will be oppression, injustice, and spoil in the civil state: when the temple is a den of thieves, the land will be a den of oppressors and murderers (Jeremiah 7:9-11)." Thus the people provoked the Lord to anger by their oft repeated and much aggravated sins and crimes.
II. GOD'S PUNISHMENT OF MAN. "Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare," etc. (verse 18). The nature of the punishment is not stated here; but it has already been set forth at length by the prophet, and is still further indicated in the next two chapters. Two remarks concerning it are suggested by this verse.
1. It will be the expression of his righteous anger. "Therefore will I also deal in fury." The "therefore" indicates the close connection between the sin and the punishment. They are related as cuisse and effect (see our remarks on Ezekiel 7:4).
2. It will be inflicted without any relenting. "Mine eye shall not spare, neither will I pity: and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them." The former of these clauses we noticed on its occurrence in Ezekiel 7:4. And as to the loud cries of the wicked in their distress, they are generally the mere outburst of selfishness, without a particle of true penitence or prayer (cf. Proverbs 1:24-31). "When Nebuchadnezzar came, besieged the city: when plague and famine increased, then they fell upon their knees and cried to God for help; as malefactors, when the judge is ready to give sentence, cry out, and importune him to spare their lives. Such prayers are the voice of the flesh, not of the spirit: forced, not free: faithless and unseasonable prayers, coming too late, and therefore unacceptable. Let men therefore not defer seeking of God till necessity puts them upon it" (Greenhill). And let us seek him, not with the selfish cries of terror, but with penitent and believing hearts. "It is not the loud voice, but the upright heart, that God will regard."—W.J.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Ezekiel 8". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13