In our last lesson, Yahweh put His prophet Ezekiel through an extremely difficult assignment in which he acted out the horrific fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent scattering of the Jews to foreign nations. Ezekiel’s been at his prophetic role for well over a year now, and still Jerusalem stands. Such is the lot of a prophet: you go through a lot of effort to deliver God’s messages just the way He wants, but there’s no guarantee that He’ll actually fulfill them in your lifetime. When He doesn’t, well, it’s hard not to feel frustrated. But real prophets have to learn to get over themselves and deal with the embarrassment of having other people think they’re full of baloney. God will move when God’s good and ready, and when He’s revving up for wide scale discipline, He often does a whole lot of talking first. In the case of Jerusalem, He’s been prophesying about this great city’s destruction for quite some time and He currently has multiple prophets acting as His mouthpieces regarding the coming doom. Lately the messages have been shifting in tone: they’re becoming more graphic, more angry, and more emphatic because the time for action is drawing near. Jerusalem is going to fall in Ezekiel’s lifetime—and in the lifetime of Jeremiah, who is currently living in the city and also delivering Yahweh’s messages of doom.
It’s been about six years since Ezekiel’s been home. He was hauled off as a captive by the demon worshiping Babylonians, and he’s been living in Babylon among a colony of other Jewish exiles all this time. Ezekiel’s fellow Jews had no idea they were living with a prophet of Yahweh when they first arrived in Babylon. Ezekiel had no idea, either. It was only after he’d been in Babylon a few years that Yahweh suddenly shocked him with the news that he was to be Yahweh’s mouthpiece to the Jews in Babylon. Yahweh is not a fan of the brats who are living in Babylon because their hearts are remaining hard and unrepentant. They haven’t been very supportive of Ezekiel—in fact, they’ve already assaulted him once because they thought he was a nutcase when he came back from one of his meetings with Yahweh acting very strange. And it’s not helping matters that Yahweh has stuck Ezekiel’s tongue to the roof of his mouth so that he can’t talk between prophecies.
Well, what can a guy do? Yahweh must be obeyed and now that His first charade is over, He’s got some visions that He wants to share with Ezekiel so that Ezekiel can relay them back to the punks around him. The visions have to do with Jerusalem, of course, and by now Ezekiel has a regular audience of community elders who are showing up at his house to hear what the fruit loop has to say today. After watching Ezekiel lie in the dirt for over a year, people aren’t feeling so threatened by him anymore. Now he’s become an entertaining freak show and a good source of fresh gossip. On this particular morning, the elders are in for a treat as Ezekiel gets in another one of his strange trances. Looks like the nutcase must be having some sort of vision. This ought to be good.
A TOUR OF THE TEMPLE
In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting in front of me, and there the hand of the Lord Yahweh came down on me. I looked, and there was a form that had the appearance of a man. From what seemed to be His waist down was fire, and from His waist up was something that looked bright, like the gleam of amber. He stretched out what appeared to be a hand and took me by the hair of my head. Then the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and carried me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the inner gate that faces north, where the offensive statue that provokes jealousy was located. I saw the glory of the God of Israel there, like the vision I had seen in the plain. (Eze. 8:1-4)
We don’t know what Ezekiel looks like to the elders while he’s having this vision, and Ezekiel probably doesn’t either because he’s so caught up in the experience he’s having. This vision isn’t like sitting back and watching a movie, it’s hands on. First the Holy Spirit up and grabs Ezekiel by the hair—that’s personal! Next Ezekiel finds himself standing inside Yahweh’s House in Jerusalem. Yahweh is going to showcase for His little man just how horrific the idolatry problem is in His holy Temple—the place where He alone was to be worshiped. Notice how Ezekiel refers to an idol that “provokes jealousy.” Any idol makes God jealous when it represents people worshiping something other than Him. We don’t know which idol this was, but it doesn’t matter. It’s an idol. It’s offensive, and it has no business being in God’s House.
We just can’t emphasize enough what a personal assault on Yahweh it is for the Jews to go stuffing His Temple with the paraphernalia needed to worship other gods. This is rebellion of the greatest magnitude.
Yahweh said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” I looked to the north, and there was this offensive statue north of the altar gate, at the entrance. He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing? Do you see the detestable sins the people of Israel are committing to drive Me from My Temple? But come, and you will see even more detestable sins than these!” (Eze. 8:5-6)
This vision is like traveling through a house of horrors: Yahweh wants each new scene to be even more shocking to His loyal prophet. If we really care about God, we should be outraged to see Him defied by any creature—but especially His own people. The Jews of the Old Covenant were analogous to Christians today—they were people who God had set apart and called to be His own. They’d been given extensive illumination about who Yahweh was and what He wanted, so they were without excuse.
Then He brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked there was a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, dig through the wall.” So I dug through the wall, and there was a doorway. He said to me, “Go in and see the terrible and detestable things they are committing here.” I went in and looked, and there engraved all around the wall was every form of detestable thing, crawling creatures and beasts, as well as all the idols of the house of Israel.
Seventy elders from the house of Israel were standing before them, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had a firepan in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising up. Then Yahweh said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his idol? For they are saying, ‘’Yahweh does not see us. Yahweh has abandoned the land.’” Again He said to me, “Come, and I will show you even more detestable sins than these!” (Eze. 8:7-13)
Notice the reference to the leaders of Israel. Yahweh is making it very clear how completely the Jews have turned against Him. Back in Jeremiah 5:1, Yahweh had said to His Jerusalem-based prophet:
“Go up and down every street in Jerusalem–look high and low; search throughout the city! If you can find even one just and honest person, then I will not destroy the city.”
Jeremiah gave it his best shot only to be horrified to discover that both the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the leaders and the priests had all turned away from Yahweh. Now Ezekiel’s getting the same education via prophetic vision as he sees even the leaders of the land worshiping their detestable idols inside God’s Temple.
The tour continues to another section in the Temple where Ezekiel sees Jewish women weeping for the god Tammuz. There’s a real irony here, for Tammuz is a Babylonian god and the Babylonians are the current enemies of the Jews. Why are the women weeping? It’s a worship ritual: they’re crying over Tammuz’ annual death which supposedly brought on the change of seasons. Utterly ridiculous, and yet how insulting that the Jews would so readily pick up new gods from their hated enemies while they refuse to pay their own God any mind.
The last stop is to another place inside the Temple where twenty-five men are bowing down to worship the sun. Wow.
“Have you seen this, son of man?” Yahweh asked. “Is it nothing to the people of Judah that they commit these detestable sins, leading the whole nation into violence, thumbing their noses at Me, and provoking My anger? Therefore, I will respond in fury. I will neither pity nor spare them. And though they cry for mercy with a loud voice, I will not listen.” (Eze. 8:17-18)
So what has been the point of this exercise? Yahweh is justifying all the horror that He’s about to unleash on His people. Now don’t jump to wrong conclusions: God doesn’t feel the slightest need to defend His behavior to us. But because He is so kind and generous, He will often volunteer to help us understand things from His point of view. Sitting hundreds of miles away in Babylon, Ezekiel doesn’t see all of the shocking things that are happening inside the Temple back home. But Yahweh wants His little man to see—He wants the whole world to see and understand just how horrifically His chosen people treated Him so that we can all understand why He did what He did to them. If we’re listening to the Holy Spirit, we should be shocked and outraged by Ezekiel 8 and we should conclude that there is no earthly punishment severe enough to fully balance out the wrong that’s being done here. This is the kind of willful rebellion that leads us to Hell–this attitude of “I know that You’re God and I know what You want, but I’m going to defy You anyway!” Today we act out our rebellion in many different ways. Many souls who end up in Hell today never worshiped demon gods in some fancy Temple. But their heart attitudes were just as defiant as the Jews’ were. Make no mistake: souls know when the Holy Spirit is talking to them because He knows how to make Himself heard. No one gets into Hell due to a lack of information. The only way we get there is by receiving the truth and intentionally rejecting it.
AVENGING ANGELS & THE MARK OF THE RIGHTEOUS
Whenever Yahweh sets out to shock someone, He always succeeds, and we can be certain that Ezekiel has been properly horrified by everything he’s seen so far. But Yahweh isn’t done yet. He’s shown how the people are flaunting their idolatry in His face. Now it’s time to show how He plans to avenge Himself. Happily, there are other beings who are a whole lot more faithful to God than these twerps in Jerusalem. The mood of the vision changes dramatically as Yahweh calls some of His loyal angel warriors onto the scene.
Then Yahweh thundered, “Bring on the men appointed to punish the city! Tell them to bring their weapons with them!” Six men soon appeared from the upper gate that faces north, each carrying a war club in his hand. With them was a man dressed in linen, who carried a writer’s case at his side. They all went into the Temple courtyard and stood beside the bronze altar. (Eze. 9:1-2)
Except for some incidents of strange multi-headed creatures, angels usually appear in the Bible in the form of adult male humans. All those depictions of fat baby cherubs and large-chested sexy women angels that you find floating about the internet are inappropriate contortions based on a desire to over humanize and sexualize beings that we know very little about. The point to focus on in this passage is that Yahweh involves angels in His work with us and that the angels put us to shame with their swift obedience. What Yahweh says, they do.
Yahweh said to him, “Walk through the streets of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of all who weep and sigh because of the detestable sins being committed in their city.” Then I heard Yahweh say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all—old and young, girls and women and little children. But do not touch anyone with the mark. Begin right here at the Temple.” So they began by killing the seventy leaders. “Defile the Temple!” Yahweh commanded. “Fill its courtyards with corpses. Go!” So they went and began killing throughout the city. (Eze. 9:4-7)
Once again Yahweh is emphasizing how fair He is by showing how He keeps careful track of the humans who are loyal to Him. At this point, not every soul in Jerusalem is applauding the terrible activity going on in the Temple. Some are groaning over it just as some Christians today groan when they see God being publicly mistreated. Yahweh never loses track of who is on His side. If He were to go marking His faithful souls today, would you be one of them?
The angels are swift to carry out their task. The marking angel sets to work dividing the righteous from the rebels, and his companions follow behind killing everyone who doesn’t receive the mark. Instead of swords, these angels are carrying war clubs that are used to bludgeon people to death. This is a very violent and graphic scene.
Now in real life, Yahweh kills both the righteous and the unrighteous during seasons of Divine discipline. When He kills the righteous, it is to bring them to their eternal reward. When He kills the rebellious, He is acting out of anger and sending them on to their eternal punishment. Realize that prophetic visions are usually far more figurative than they are literal. Here Yahweh isn’t trying to say that the righteous will always be protected from harm on earth. Instead, He’s emphasizing how important the righteous are to Him: that He notices their loyalty to Him and He cherishes it. All loyalty to God will be rewarded—even if life on earth is a miserable affair that ends in violence.
At this point, Ezekiel loses a grip on his priorities, which is often the case when God’s prophets see Him unleashing His wrath. Moses, Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah all pleaded with Yahweh to lighten up when He started threatening mass slaughter. As he watches the angels setting out on their mission, Ezekiel is too upset to stay quiet.
While they were out killing, I was all alone. I fell face down on the ground and cried out, “O Sovereign Yahweh, will Your fury against Jerusalem wipe out everyone left in Israel?” (Eze. 9:8)
This is a lousy way to talk to God. So what if He does destroy all of Israel? Is preserving a particular ethnicity more important than seeing God honored? How quickly we humans get distracted by meaningless details.
Then He said to me, “The sins of the people of Israel and Judah are very, very great. The entire land is full of murder; the city is filled with injustice. They are saying, ‘Yahweh doesn’t see it! Yahweh has abandoned the land!’ So I will not spare them or have any pity on them. I will fully repay them for all they have done.” (Eze. 9:9-10)
Yahweh answers Ezekiel’s question by reminding him once again about how outrageous the people’s rebellion is. He is not in a merciful mood. Now Ezekiel has already witnessed God telling His avenging angels not to strike down the righteous, so his question was already answered: no, obviously God isn’t killing everyone in Israel, for the righteous are being spared. So what Ezekiel is really protesting is how many people God is slaughtering, and this is a protest we often voice today. How swift we are to tell God He’s overdoing the discipline while we refuse to acknowledge the extent of the rebellion that He’s dealing with. Even after receiving a shocking tour through the Temple, Ezekiel feels God’s disciplinary response is unjustified. We need to learn from this prophet’s poor example and ask the Holy Spirit to move all of our loyalty firmly to God’s side. God being honored should matter a whole lot more to us than the welfare of humans. It’s out of line for us to demand that God just eat our irreverence without complaint, and that is what we’re doing when we complain against His disciplinary methods. If God is disciplining, then discipline is surely due.
ARROGANCE & EXILES
When hearts become hardened with willful rebellion, people lose their fear of God as well as their fear of being punished. In the next part of this long vision, Yahweh shows Ezekiel how the evil rulers of Israel think their city is as invincible as an iron pot—it will never be destroyed and they are safe inside its protective walls. This is pretty foolish thinking, considering that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has already invaded Judah twice, done major damage to the land, and hauled off thousands of Jews as captives. How can these fools in Jerusalem possibly think they are safe with the mighty Babylonian Empire ready to strike again at any time? Well, stupid starts sounding smart when we aren’t listening to God.
“I will drive you out of Jerusalem and hand you over to foreigners, who will carry out My judgments against you. You will be slaughtered all the way to the borders of Israel. I will execute judgment on you, and then you will know that I am Yahweh. No, this city will not be an iron pot for you, and you will not be like meat safe inside it. I will judge you even to the borders of Israel, and then you will know that I am Yahweh. For you have refused to obey My decrees and regulations; instead, you have copied the standards of the nations around you.” (Eze. 11:9-12)
So what about all the exiles that have already been driven out of Israel? Yahweh has a word for them as well:
“Although I have scattered you in the countries of the world, I will be a sanctuary to you during your time in exile. I, the Sovereign Yahweh, will gather you back from the nations where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel once again.’
“When the people return to their homeland, they will remove every trace of their vile images and detestable idols. And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey My decrees and regulations. Then they will truly be My people, and I will be their God. But as for those who long for vile images and detestable idols, I will repay them fully for their sins. I, the Sovereign Yahweh, have spoken!” (Eze. 11:16-21)
Now this is a very interesting prophecy for when the exiles actually do return to Israel, they are anything but responsive to God. Instead, they are terribly defiant and rebellious. Elsewhere Yahweh will predict that the returning exiles will be a bunch of brats and that the only reason He’s sparing them is for the sake of future generations who will obey Him. So what’s with the contradiction?
In this passage, Yahweh is not talking about Jews anymore, but about the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were God’s chosen people. But once Christ comes, they will lose this special standing with God unless they align with the tenants of the New Covenant, which means putting their faith in Christ as their Savior and God. In the Old Testament prophetic books, we will find Yahweh making many references to gathering people to Himself from all over the world who are faithful to Him. He talks about establishing a New Covenant of eternal peace with this group of obedient souls and forever blotting out their sins. All of this is a reference to Christians. At first glance, it sounds like He’s just talking about the Jews who have been dragged off as prisoners to foreign lands. Yahweh intentionally misleads people into thinking He’s just talking about Israelite exiles because it’s way too early to drop the whole bomb of a second God and a new system of salvation onto these souls. At this point, Yahweh is still planning to continue the Old Covenant for hundreds of years, so He doesn’t want to say stuff that will upset His immediate audience with theological questions He’s not ready to answer. After all, if God were to say to us today, “One of these days putting your faith in Jesus won’t be enough to save you,” how comfortable would you be? You’d panic, of course, frightened that you might miss important updates from God and end up in Hell.
By talking about the New Covenant in strictly Jewish terms, Yahweh accomplishes multiple goals at once. First, He lays down some prophecies that we will later understand the fulfillment of after the New Covenant has been established. By prophesying about the New Covenant centuries in advance, God glorifies Himself by demonstrating His knowledge of the future.
The second goal Yahweh accomplishes is giving His immediate audience a sense of hope. There are a few exiles like Ezekiel who do care about honoring God. These souls are feeling very discouraged by the way their homeland is being systematically destroyed by their outraged God. The image of exiles one day returning and repopulating Israel is very encouraging to the faithful remnant—especially when Yahweh provides so many descriptions of restored Israel being a glorious God-honoring nation which the entire world is attracted to. Of course what none of these people realize is that the glorious pictures of a restored Israel will never be fulfilled literally. Whenever Yahweh speaks of an Israel in which everyone is worshiping Him, He is speaking figuratively of Heaven. On this earth, the political nation of Israel will never wholeheartedly return to Yahweh, and even if they did, it wouldn’t be anything like Yahweh describes in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, Yahweh’s perfect Israel is one in which Yahweh alone is being worshiped in His Temple. Today we understand that there are three Gods: Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. In Heaven, They will all be worshiped and there will be no Temple because the Temple was part of the old sacrificial system which Yahweh has abolished. But all of this information is way too much for Old Covenant Jews to take in so far before the coming of Christ. Faithful exiles like Ezekiel never dream that there is more than one God, and they could not imagine life without the sacrificial system. Many of these exiles will die without ever seeing their homeland again, but Yahweh doesn’t tell them this for it would only depress them. Instead, He paints glorious pictures of restoration and hope, knowing that in the end, His faithful souls will not care whether they saw the literal fulfillment of His prophecies or not. Once they die, they will be rejoicing with Him in Heaven, no longer caring about the things of earth.
GOD’S COMMUNICATION STYLE
Studying prophetic passages in the Bible reveals many useful insights about how Yahweh communicates with us—especially when it comes to Him not being literally honest in the things that He says. There is a whole lot of deception and intentional misleading happening in biblical prophecies. Today our Gods continue to use these same methods in Their communications with us. When you ask God if you should do something and He says “yes”, He knows that you are reading many incorrect assumptions into His answer. Maybe you ask if you should attempt a certain ministry. When He says “yes”, you assume He means your venture will be ragingly successful when in reality, He is planning to make the thing succeed only a little while before making it tank miserably. So often we are focused on productivity and end results while God is focused on obtaining growth through frustrating experiences. We want a sense of completion when all He wants is to go through the motions of attempting something that He is not yet ready to totally bless. We want victory over our enemies, but He just wants us to clock some time on the battlefield. We want to reach a certain destination but He just wants to give us practice in staying aligned with His stop and go orders.
God likes to work in seasons, and He likes to meander all over the place instead of traveling in straight lines. There’s nothing comfortable about learning how to keep in step with a God who does things that often seem illogical and pointless to us. Yet the more we practice, the better we get at making abrupt turns and keeping our human agendas flexible. Learning to keep in step with God eventually results in greater soul peace and satisfaction as we realize that pleasing Him really is the only thing that matters. Life isn’t about trying to save a certain number of souls or accomplishing certain tasks. Life is about pleasing God: about staying in alignment with Him as He causes us to flourish under His loving care. God’s motivations towards us are always good, even when His methods seem a bit shady. He is always leading us towards what is truly best for us, even though it often feels like He is leading us through pointless frustration. Pursuing God’s pleasure in life—even when He is driving us up the wall with His lack of clear communication and His refusal to provide the explanations that we so dearly want—is the only path that will lead us to the greatest soul joy and peace. We were designed to thrive when we put God’s desires above our own. With His help, we can learn to do this in every season of life. God loves us and He is for us. When we trust Him with our lives, we end up feeling joyful, complete, and lacking in nothing.
Yahweh is a big fan of having His prophets act out His messages so that the people around them really get an idea of what’s coming. In our next lesson, we’ll watch as Ezekiel goes through some more strange behaviors in the sight of the people. Ezekiel will have to sneak out of his house in the dead of night, and tremble in fear while he eats his food. But what will Yahweh say when the people see all this and scoff?
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