Ezekiel’s Response to the Culture War of His Day
[NOTE: The following assessment by A.P. board member Frank Chesser is excerpted from his upcoming commentary on Ezekiel.]
Ezekiel 16 is a treasure house of nuggets of truth that Americans need to heed, ten of which will be addressed in this article. First, only divine revelation can enable a man to “know” his sin (vs. 2). Only by knowing God can a man know his sin. The Bible commences with God: “In the beginning God” (Genesis 1:1). It ends with God: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21). In between these bookends of divine truth is a library of sixty-six books that paint portraits of the nature of God, from whom all spiritual truths flow. Three words sum up the book of Isaiah and the whole of God’s revelation to man: “Behold your God” (Isaiah 40:9). When Isaiah beheld God in all of His glory, majesty and holiness, he saw the scope of his sin as never before (Isaiah 6:1-5).
Adam and Eve lost sight of the God they both saw and knew and plunged themselves and the world into darkness. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). The power of fleshly lust blinded the spiritual eyes of the righteous descendants of Seth to the beauty of God’s holiness as they gazed with delight upon the carnal daughters of Cain’s descendants and “they took them wives of all which they chose” (Genesis 6:2), acts of sin that produced a world of people void of a single righteous thought and opened the door to the global Flood. The first generation from Egypt never saw the God that Isaiah saw, and their lives testified to their spiritual sightlessness. God informed Samuel that from Egypt onward “they have forsaken me, and served other gods” (1 Samuel 8:8). They wanted a God of power that could liberate them from Egypt but not a God of holiness, justice, and wrath Whose very nature demanded, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), and condemned and punished sin.
The idols that Israel brought out of Egypt were added to and multiplied, and they plagued the nation for most of its national life. Solomon allowed his love for God to be supplanted by his love for “many strange women” (1 Kings 11:1), and “his wives turned away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:4). The northern kingdom inaugurated its national existence with roots in idolatry as Jeroboam “made two calves of gold, and said unto them, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt’” (1 Kings 12:28). Israel became so enamored with lifeless pieces of wood and stone that God said, “Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone” (Hosea 4:17), because His mercy upon them was gone (Hosea 1:6), He was no longer their God (Hosea 1:9), and He would “cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). Except for a minute remnant, they lived their national life sightless of the God that Isaiah saw. They were powerless to know their sin because they rejected God’s revelation of Himself through the material Universe, the law, the prophets, and confirming miracles. God destroyed them in Assyrian captivity (2 Kings 17:21-23).
Under Rehoboam’s rule, the nation of Judah initiated their national life with idolatry as they “built them high places, and images, and groves, on every high hill, and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:23). With a few exceptions, they followed king after king who led them in idol worship and all of its confederate sins. God told Isaiah that except for a “very small remnant” (Isaiah 1:9), Judah would never be able to see their sin because they refused to see Him (Isaiah 6:5-12). This very chapter is permeated with God’s condemnation of Judah’s idols and their affiliated sins. Ezekiel’s audience in Babylon was led by leaders with “idols in their heart” (14:3), who could not see and know their sin because they could not see the “glory of the Lord” that Ezekiel saw (1:28).
Second, covetousness is idolatry. Paul affirmed this truth in Colossians 3:5. Verse 3 of Ezekiel 16 illustrates it. Why does God point to Canaan as the place of Israel’s national birth? Not because they were actually born there, but because Israel coveted the gods of Canaan and the sins of the flesh that idol worship allowed. This covetous spirit inhered in Israel’s request for a king so they could “be like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:20). God said, “they have rejected Me that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). This rebellious spirt was not something new in the hearts of Israel. It was Samuel’s appointment of his wicked sons as judges that opened the door for Israel to request a more formal system of government that would remove every vestige of their national distinctiveness and allow them total kinship with the heathen nations of the world.
Israel had already been living like pagans for over three centuries. When Joshua and those who served him died, “there arose another generation after them which knew not the Lord” (Judges 2:10). They did not know the Lord because they did not want to know the Lord. They were like the people of Judah, “for they proceed from evil to evil, and they know not me saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:3). Israel lived among the heathens in Canaan, intermarried with them, and adopted their gods as their own (Judges 3:5-7). They coveted the heathenish lifestyle that idolatry licensed. They loved their idols because they loved the “pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25) that they vouchsafed to them. They “ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn way” and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 2:19; 21:25).
Covetousness lusts, longs, yearns, and desires. It is selfishness in its purest form. It is determined to have its way regardless of the consequences. Eve desired self-rule to the ruin of her life in Eden (Genesis 3:5-6). The cities of the plain lusted for sexual sin to their utter destruction (Genesis 19). Achan “coveted” gold, silver, and a garment to the subversion of himself and his family (Joshua 7:21). David yearned for his neighbor’s wife to the detriment of his spiritual life, family, and stature in Israel and the world (2 Samuel 11-12). Amnon longed for his brother’s wife and paid for his covetousness with his life (2 Samuel 13). Solomon coveted “strange women” and strange gods (1 Kings 11:1,4-8), to his personal ruin and the ruin of Israel. A thief (John 12:6) and a traitor (John 18:2) were the products of Judas’ covetous spirit. Herod’s desire for personal acclaim led to his death on a bed of agony (Acts 12:21-23). Demas yearned for worldly pleasure (2 Timothy 4:10), Diotrephes for preeminence (3 John 9), and Israel for the gods of Canaan to the spiritual devastation of each.
Third, Israel misread God’s love, grace, and goodness. The nation is depicted as a new born infant, discarded and left to die, floundering in the blood of its birth, and void of human pity (16:4-5). God washed, cleaned, clothed, fed, loved, protected, preserved, and blessed Israel to her national maturity. Israel viewed God’s work as merit because they were fleshly descendants of Abraham and special in their own eyes. God denied repetitively their right to specialty and feelings of superiority to all other nations, but they refused to believe it. God affirmed that His spiritual blessings through Abraham embraced “all families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3), but Israel could see only themselves as recipients of God’s love and goodness. Three times in three verses (Deuteronomy 9:4-6), God asserted that they did not deserve the land of Canaan, and then reminded them that from Egypt to that moment, “ye have been rebellious against the Lord” (Deuteronomy 9:7). But nothing that God said or did in acts of judgment upon them could shake their feelings of national peerlessness.
It was God’s intention to reach Calvary with the seed of woman and Abraham (Genesis 3:15; 12:3). This was a work of pure love, grace, and goodness, and national Israel fought God every step of the way. They loathed the law of God and loved their idols. They thought they could sin with impunity (Jeremiah 7:8-10). The Old Testament closes with Israel’s corrupt priests’ horrendous accusation of God’s delighting in evildoers, robbing God of tithes and offerings, and affirming the vanity of serving God (Malachi 1-3). The New Testament opens with John the Baptist in spiritual combat with Pharisees and Sadducees yet clinging to Abraham as their spiritual savior (Matthew 3:7-9). Having pointed to the truth that makes man free, Jesus encountered this Jewish proclivity as some answered, “We be Abraham’s seed and were never in bondage to any man” (John 8:33). It took miraculous intervention (Acts 10) to convince Peter that what God said in Genesis 12:3, what Jesus said in John 3:16, and what Peter said in Acts 2:39 was the truth. Prior to embracing Christ and the Gospel, Paul considered his Jewishness as “gain” (Philippians 3:7). To this present hour, the love, grace, and goodness of God is sifted in the sieve of human reasoning.
Fourth, misplaced trust leads to spiritual ruin. “But you trusted in your own beauty, played the harlot” (vs. 15). Improper entities of trust assume many and diverse forms and all lead to spiritual decay. Moses warned Israel about displacing God with fortified walls as objects of their trust (Deuteronomy 28:32). Israel trusted in oppression and perverseness (Isaiah 30:12), military aid from Egypt (Isaiah 31:1), idols (Isaiah 42:17), wickedness (Isaiah 47:10), vanity (Isaiah 59:4), lying words (Jeremiah 7:8), the temple (Jeremiah 7:14), and in their own ways and mighty men (Hosea 10:13). God placed a curse upon “the man that trusted in man” (Jeremiah 17:5) and likened him to a shrub in the desert barely cleaving to life and without hope for betterment (Jeremiah 17:6). Paul warned about trusting in “uncertain riches” (1 Timothy 6:17).
Biblical faith involves trust and obedience. The Word of God is the basis of faith (Romans 10:17), and the faith that saves is the faith that obeys God. Jesus described faith as a work (John 6:28-29), and Paul spoke of the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26), because faith is active in its submission to the will of God. James said, “I will show thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The object of faith’s trust is God, not the works of righteousness that faith produces. The Pharisee was rejected because he trusted in himself and his own works instead of God (Luke 18:9-14). Misplaced trust negates Biblical faith.
Fifth, Israel abused blessings on loan from God (vss. 16-21). They honored their idols with gifts from God. They made, adorned, and paid homage to the works of their own hands with material endowments from God. Having abandoned all natural affection, they descended into the depths of human depravity by offering their children as sacrifices to their idols. God said these children were “born unto me” (vs. 20), and they have “slain my children” (vs. 21).
Israel was a steward of the blessings of God and so are all men. Stewardship does not imply ownership. A steward does not own anything. “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (1 Timothy 6:7). God allows man an accommodative usage of “my money, house, land, cars,” but these and all material things are gifts and blessings from God and on loan from God. God is the “possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19); everything “under the whole heaven” (Job 41:11) belongs to Him; “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1), and all the silver and gold on Earth belongs to God (Haggai 2:8).
David pointed to the material riches that he and Israel had donated for the construction of the temple and asserted, “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? For all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (1 Chronicles 29:14). Joseph was the steward over Potiphar’s house and “all that he had he put into his hand” (Genesis 39:4), but not one thing belonged to Joseph. Even a man’s children belong to God. “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward” (Psalm 127:3). Israel misused blessings and gifts on loan from God and so has the preponderance of humanity from time’s beginning.
Sixth, idolatry and sexual sin are twin sins. Illicit sexual conduct inheres in Ezekiel’s “eminent place” (vss. 24,31,39), his phrase “opened their feet to everyone that passed by” (vs. 25), and the “great of flesh” (vs. 26) comment that describes the fleshly lewd nature of Egyptian idolatry borrowed and made common in Israel’s own idolatrous practices. This chapter pulsates with sexual connotations. Physical whoredom follows spiritual whoredom like the night follows the day. Physical adultery is spiritual adultery’s shadow. It is idolatry’s cardinal sin. Balaam knew that idolatry and fornication were comrade sins and would bring divine judgment upon Israel that his initial efforts failed to achieve (Revelation 2:14; Numbers 25:1-9). If sexual lust in thought and act was idolatry’s only fruit, the worship of idols would yet have been as common in Israel as the rising of the Sun.
Seventh, memory failures beget ingratitude that often ends in spiritual death. The spirit of thanksgiving is as rare as was the good man in Israel (Micah 7:2). In an unsurpassed catalog of massive evils, ingratitude was at the top of the list (Romans 1:21). When a man refuses or neglects to reflect daily on the innumerable wonders of God’s love, grace, and goodness, he is paving the road to his own spiritual deterioration. Twice, Ezekiel points to Israel’s failure to remember the blessings of God in her national youth as one of the foundational reasons for her idolatry and companioned sins (vss. 22 and 43). Joseph languished two additional years in prison because the chief butler of Pharaoh did not “remember Joseph, but forgot him” (Genesis 40:23).
One negative report from ten spies drained Israel’s memory of God’s mighty miracles in Egypt onward and left them weeping all night in ingratitude and unbelief (Numbers 14:1-3). “Remember” was one of the key words that Moses used in his final sermon to the second generation from Egypt in the book of Deuteronomy. When David saw Bathsheba bathing, if he had supplanted inquiring about her (2 Samuel 11:3) with reflection and gratitude for God’s love and goodness, he would never have consummated his act of adultery. Remembering and thanking God continually for the blessings of 1 Kings 10 would have saved Solomon from the evils and consequences of 1 Kings 11. In conjunction with his wife, Jehoiada saved, protected, preserved, and aided Joash in becoming king and ruling over Judah until he died. At Jehoiada’s death, Joash forsook God, embraced idolatry, rejected the preaching and warnings of the prophets, and had Jehoiada’s son, Zechariah, stoned to death for rebuking him. Inspiration’s report of this tragedy reads, “Thus Joash the king remembered not the kindness which Jehoiada his father had done, but slew his son” (2 Chronicles 24:23-25). Memory failures and ingratitude accompany every continuous sin and sin of rebellion.
Eighth, the desires of the flesh are insatiable (vss. 28-34). Israel pursued political alliances with the heathen nations and claimed their gods as their own. Pagan nations were jealous and protective of their own gods, but Israel’s love affair with idols was indiscriminate. Multiplying gods meant multiplying opportunities for the flesh. When Syria was defeated by Israel, instead of forsaking their gods, the Syrians chose a different location for their conflict, declaring, “Their gods are gods of the hills, therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they” (1 Kings 20:23). Conversely, when Assyria’s military proved superior to Israel’s, Ahaz said, “Because the gods of the king of Syria help them, therefore will I sacrifice to them that they may help me. But they were the ruin of him and of all Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:23).
When a man’s life is void of God, it is void of reason. There is nothing rational about the flesh. It feels, but does not think. Severed from God, law, and restraints, it choses sin’s pleasures with reckless abandon. Noah’s contemporaries were dominated by the “flesh” (Genesis 6:3) and pursued its ravenous passions until their minds were empty of a single righteous thought. A lifetime of fleshly lust cannot quench the fires of its interest. It does not pause to consider its ways. It is ever open to new ways of expression. It is oblivious to shame. Were the prophets, priests, and wise men of Judah “ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush” (Jeremiah 8:12). The flesh does not need the darkness to conceal its baseness. It considers it a “pleasure to riot in the daytime” (2 Peter 2:13). It possesses “eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin” (2 Peter 2:14). Israel loved their gods of wood and stone because they allowed the flesh the freedom to pursue its uninhibited desired ends.
Ninth, greater responsibility is attached to superior spiritual advantages that demand a more severe judgment for sin (vss. 44-51). Jesus utilized this principle when He depicted the day of judgment as rendering a more intense degree of punishment for certain Galilean cities “wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not” (Matthew 11:20) as compared with the pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom that did not enjoy such opportunities. Spiritual advantages abounded to the Jewish nation. Paul affirmed that Israel’s possession of the law of God was their chief advantage (Romans 3:1-2). Moses asserted that God’s statutes and judgments were so noteworthy that even the pagan nations would declare, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6) because of their possession of the righteous laws of God. Due to their unique spiritual advantages, Israel’s sin was highhanded rebellion against God.
In depicting His judgment through Babylon, God said, “Behold I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle” (2 Kings 21:12), and in describing God’s judgment on Jerusalem by the Roman army, Jesus said, “For there shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21). The severity of their judgment would match the severity of their sin.
Tenth, following the darkness of the night is the comfort and solace of the day’s light (vss. 53-63). The deep darkness of sin needs the bright light of redemption. The world of Genesis 1-2 was a world of continuous light. The physical night was bathed in the light of perfection and innocence. Even the darkness of the night carried the brilliance of the day’s light in its bosom. The day closed in consummate physical and spiritual serenity and the night welcomed its return in an unaltered state. Genesis 3:6 ruined everything. The Sun was shrouded in sackcloth. Nature wept, and its tears displaced the dew of the Earth. In fig leaves, shame, and dread, Adam and Eve hid among the trees of Eden.
From the grave of despair, arose the resplendent light of redemption. The seed of woman (Genesis 3:15), of Abraham (Genesis 12:3), of Isaac (Genesis 26:4), and of Jacob (Genesis 28:14), was deposited in a small righteous remnant of Israel and Judah, secured in David (Acts 2:30), and assigned to Mary, “of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16), who paid the penalty for the catastrophe of Genesis 3:6 and every subsequent sin until time’s end, and became the “author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).