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As he compiles a collection of prophetic messages from Yahweh, the prophet Ezekiel occasionally slips in a clue as to what year it is. Just as prisoners often mark time by how long they’ve been incarcerated, Ezekiel often dates his messages by referring to how much time has passed since he was personally dragged out of his homeland by the fearsome Babylonian army and forced to relocate to the capital city of the empire that is slowly destroying what’s left of his beloved Israel.
As we start Ezekiel 20, we come across another timestamp—only this time Ezekiel is clocking how long another Jewish man has been in captivity. If we count all of the kings who ever reigned in Israel and Judah, we come to a total of 41. King Jehoiachin [jeh-HOY-uh-kin] was number 40. The last fellow—King Zedekiah [zed-uh-KI-uh]—took over when King Jehoiachin was slapped in chains and dragged off to Babylon as a prisoner. That was seven years ago, and Zedekiah has been reigning ever since. In just four more years, Zedekiah will meet with an ugly end: blinded by Babylonians and hauled off to be another one of their trophy prisoners. When you’re trying to expand your empire, it helps you maintain a fearsome reputation when you’ve got prison cells filled with the monarchs of nations who you’ve conquered.
On August 14, during the seventh year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity, some of the leaders of Israel came to request a message from Yahweh. They sat down in front of me to wait for His reply. (Eze. 20:1-2)
Ezekiel and his fellow Jewish exiles are living in a crummy section of Babylon. Back in Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah is spinning out one message after another as time winds down. Through the mouths of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Yahweh keeps telling the Jews that Judah’s fate is sealed: she’s going down because He’s fed up with the Jews’ incessant rebellion. He says that pleading for Jerusalem to be spared is a total waste of time—instead, He tells the Jews that they need to accept their lot and try to make the best of it.
Well, the sourpusses that Ezekiel is living with don’t want to make the best of it. They want Yahweh to fix this mess, slaughter the Babylonians, and restore Israel to her former glory. Leaders of the exile community keep showing up at Ezekiel’s house to see if the freak prophet has any new words from Yahweh. Yahweh has been giving plenty of words, but none of them are what the Jews want to hear, so they just keep pretending like Yahweh is talking over their heads when they really understand Him just fine. And of course when they’re not at Ezekiel’s place, they really enjoy listening to the oracles that false prophets are spinning out—oracles which are all prophesying that soon Yahweh will be crushing Babylon and restoring His chosen nation (see Ezekiel 13-14: Yahweh Condemns False Prophets). The false prophets are all claiming to speak in the Name of Yahweh, of course, and the fact that the community leaders are cheering the false prophets on makes it more than a little obnoxious for them to then show up at Ezekiel’s place inquiring of the Lord.
Then this message came to me from Yahweh: “Son of man, tell the leaders of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: How dare you come to ask Me for a message? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Yahweh, I will tell you nothing!’” (Eze. 20:3)
At this point in Jewish history, the nickname “son of man” is like saying “Hey, human.” By the time Jesus comes along, the title Son of Man has changed in meaning, and actually refers to a mysterious Supernatural Being who Daniel once saw in a vision (see Understanding Jesus’ Use of Titles: Son of God, Son of Man, I AM).
Now by the time people are intentionally ignoring what God says, they’re in a state of willful rebellion, and rebellious souls love to pretend that they’re not rebelling. This is what’s going on with these Jews who are visiting Ezekiel: they love to act distressed and bewildered whenever Yahweh refers to their rotten soul attitudes. They love to pretend that they have no idea why He’s upset with them. Sin? What is that? Yahweh is the national God of Israel—how could He ever think that His people aren’t for Him?
Now of course Yahweh sees right through this phony act, yet He often responds to this attitude by once again reviewing the Israelites’ long history of despising Him. Why does He bother to keep going over this? He’s actually multi-tasking. You see, even though this conversation that Ezekiel is recording probably occurred in the privacy of his own home, the message ended up being widely circulated. The whole Jewish community heard about it. The Babylonians heard about it. A whole bunch of foreigners living in the Babylonian Empire heard about it. Today, we’re hearing about it. And every time someone hears Yahweh list off what snarky zeroes the Jews have been, it’s Yahweh who shines. These long speeches go a long way towards helping us move out of our natural pro-human bias and get our priorities where they ought to be.
Whenever we hear about humans getting pounded on earth, we instinctively sympathize with the humans, because we’re humans, and we identify with our own kind. For the most part, we never hear God’s side of the story when He nails some mass of people. We don’t hear Him explaining what His motivations are, and we don’t even care. When we pray about disasters in the world, it’s never, “Wow, God, it looks like You’re upset about something. Is there anything You want from me that I’m not giving You? I sure don’t want to be part of the problem—I want my devotion to You to be the real deal. Is there anything You want me to learn from this situation?” This kind of prayer is what we should be praying, but instead, we’re full of criticism, complaints, and demands for help. “God, how horrible! How could You let this happen?! Those poor people! Please comfort them! Clean up this mess that never should have happened! This is all so terrible—wow, You really dropped the ball this time!” We might dress up our language a bit, but these are the basic sentiments that Christians blast God with time and time again whenever He does something that they don’t like.
Well, if we’re going to ever grow past spiritual infancy, the day must come when we start treating God a whole lot better than this. Here’s where all of His speeches in the Old Testament prophetic books become a huge benefit to us. As we read speech after speech of Yahweh explaining why He is disciplining the Jews so harshly—and as we see Him giving warning after warning centuries in advance—we get a whole new perspective of the situation. We stop siding with the humans and we start siding with God. We finally see and appreciate the incredible mercy and patience He is doling out even in the midst of great disasters.
As we begin Ezekiel 20, first Yahweh snaps angrily at the rebellious punks who are asking Him for a word. He’s not going to play their game by talking about what they want Him to talk about. Instead, He’s going to voice out loud the convictions that He’s already giving these people in the privacy of their souls.
“Son of man, bring charges against them and condemn them. Make them realize how detestable the sins of their ancestors really were. Give them this message from the Sovereign Yahweh: When I chose Israel—when I revealed Myself to the descendants of Jacob in Egypt—I took a solemn oath that I, Yahweh, would be their God. I took a solemn oath that day that I would bring them out of Egypt to a land I had discovered and explored for them—a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the best of all lands anywhere. Then I said to them, ‘Each of you, get rid of the vile images you are so obsessed with. Do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt, for I am Yahweh your God.’
“But they rebelled against Me and would not listen. They did not get rid of the vile images they were obsessed with, or forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I threatened to pour out My fury on them to satisfy My anger while they were still in Egypt. But I didn’t do it, for I acted to protect the honor of My Name. I would not allow shame to be brought on My Name among the surrounding nations who saw Me reveal Myself by bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. So I brought them out of Egypt and led them into the wilderness. There I gave them My decrees and regulations so they could find life by keeping them. And I gave them My Sabbath days of rest as a sign between them and Me. It was to remind them that I am Yahweh, who had set them apart to be holy.
“But the people of Israel rebelled against Me, and they refused to obey My decrees there in the wilderness. They wouldn’t obey My regulations even though obedience would have given them life. They also violated My Sabbath days. So I threatened to pour out My fury on them, and I made plans to utterly consume them in the wilderness. But again I held back in order to protect the honor of My Name before the nations who had seen My power in bringing Israel out of Egypt. But I took a solemn oath against them in the wilderness. I swore I would not bring them into the land I had given them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful place on earth. For they had rejected My regulations, refused to follow My decrees, and violated My Sabbath days. Their hearts were given to their idols. Nevertheless, I took pity on them and held back from destroying them in the wilderness.
“Then I warned their children not to follow in their parents’ footsteps, defiling themselves with their idols. ‘I am Yahweh your God,’ I told them. ‘Follow My decrees, pay attention to My regulations, and keep My Sabbath days holy, for they are a sign to remind you that I am Yahweh your God.’
“But their children, too, rebelled against Me. They refused to keep My decrees and follow My regulations, even though obedience would have given them life. And they also violated My Sabbath days. So again I threatened to pour out My fury on them in the wilderness. Nevertheless, I withdrew My judgment against them to protect the honor of My Name before the nations that had seen My power in bringing them out of Egypt. But I took a solemn oath against them in the wilderness. I swore I would scatter them among all the nations because they did not obey My regulations. They scorned My decrees by violating My Sabbath days and longing for the idols of their ancestors. I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life. I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them, and I allowed them to give their firstborn children as offerings to their gods—so I might devastate them and remind them that I alone am Yahweh.” (Eze. 20:4-26)
This passage gives us a lot of fascinating insights into how God responds to rebellion. First there’s this business about Yahweh delaying His punishment of rebellious souls as a means of protecting the honor of His Name. What is that about? Well, first we need to understand that the ancient peoples attached a lot more significance to names than many of us do today. In modern America, we’re pretty casual about names. If we don’t like the name our parents gave us, we pick another name to go by. Our names are important to us, but they’re also just names. We don’t view them as having magical power.
But in ancient times, names were considered to be very important things—too important, in fact. People got carried away with names, and started imagining that names could be used as magic spells. To invoke the Name of Yahweh was a way of trying to tap into the great power that Yahweh had. People were very concerned about their names being associated with good things—with power, respect, and hopefully some glory. When a man accomplished something big or did something that made others admire him, he often acquired a new name to memorialize that moment. After Gideon shocked his community by destroying his father’s altar to the idol Baal, the people started calling Gideon Jerub-Baal, which meant “the one Baal fights with” (see Gideon: Idolatrous to the End). After bratty Jacob wrestles with a supernatural being all night, Yahweh renames Jacob Israel which means “fights with God” (see Jacob Wrestles with an Angel). Neither of these are complimentary titles. Gideon’s people thought he was crazy to assault Baal, and Yahweh was not pleased with Jacob’s very fickle loyalty. But then there was Abram, who Yahweh renamed Abraham. Abram was very sad over being childless, and when God renamed him Abraham—a name which means “father of many”—God was encouraging Abraham to believe God’s promise that he would end up being the father of countless people. Then there were the prophets—men whose names were so conveniently aligned with their callings, that they were probably chosen later in life after the men were called to function as prophets. Yah was a nickname for Yahweh in the Old Testament. Listen to how you end up saying Yah when you pronounce the names of these Old Testament prophets:
Isaiah means Yah is salvation.
Elijah (which was pronounced Eli-YAH) means Yah is my God.
Obadiah means servant of Yah.
Zechariah means Yah remembers.
And by the way, when you say hallelujah today, it’s specifically Yah that you’re praising. So names were big deals to the Jews. If your name became associated with shame, that led to social shunning, and other unpleasantness. Because the Jews were so obsessed with ancestry, it really got in your way if your father was a zero, because then people would look down on you for your genetic association with him.
In Ezekiel 20, when Yahweh keeps talking about the honor of His Name, He’s intentionally talking like a Jew. Is Yahweh really so threatened by people slandering His Name? Of course not, but the Jews He is speaking to were very sensitive about how their names were used. So Yahweh is talking to them within the context of their cultural values in order to help them understand certain points.
Now to a modern American, the idea of God being uptight about the honor of His Name can come across as pretty petty and insecure. But once we understand that God is intentionally adjusting His language to make sense to name-obsessed Jews, we can stop getting tripped up by the name business and appreciate the more important point that Yahweh is a major Multitasker. To Him, it’s never just been about the Jews—He’s always been looking at the global picture. Yahweh loves all souls, and He doesn’t think something as irrelevant as genetics or ethnicity makes one human better than another. Here in Ezekiel 20, Yahweh is telling the Jews that one of the main reasons He’s been so gracious towards them was to draw other nations closer to Him. He reminds the Jews of what rebellious twerps they’ve been since the beginning, and He makes it clear that their rebellion was not a trivial deal to Him. He’s been quite disgusted by their attitudes—so much so that He’s threatened to wipe them off the face of the earth. But then He keeps saying, “You guys aren’t the only souls I’m interested in, so I’ve been sparing you for the sake of all the other people who I’m also calling to come to Me.”
The next time you hear someone glorifying the Jews as being God’s chosen people, think of Ezekiel 20 and it will help you keep that chosen business in perspective. The Jews are not God’s favorite people, and they certainly aren’t the only people He really loves. Such carnal claims were perpetuated by the Jews, but they are not what Yahweh has taught. Here in Ezekiel 20, Yahweh’s disgust with the Jews comes through quite clearly, and by the time He keeps emphasizing how He only spared them in order to help His relationship with other people, you can start to appreciate how absurd the Church is being to put so much energy into schmoozing Israel today.
Now at the end of the excerpt we’ve read, Yahweh gives us another key insight into His disciplinary methods.
“I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life. I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them, and I allowed them to give their firstborn children as offerings to their gods—so I might devastate them and remind them that I alone am Yahweh.” (Eze. 20:25-26)
Think about the society you live in. Do you feel like there are a lot of useless laws and foolish regulations that are hampering good and encouraging evil? The American justice system has some very crooked aspects to it—sometimes we feel like the whole system is designed to help the criminals and punish those who are trying to do right. Ever wonder why God allows such laws to be created and enforced? He tells us why here in Ezekiel 20: it’s one of the ways He disciplines rebellious souls. He talks about wrecking people with things that started off as blessings, and in America we can certainly identify with this. We enjoy fabulous freedoms in our country, yet today many of those freedoms have become anchors to us. Free speech can be a wonderful thing—but when we use such freedom to publicly mock God and scorn all of the authority figures in our lives, soon our society is a chaotic mess. America has abundant wealth—and we’re also the world’s top producer of porn, which says a lot about how poorly we’re using our wealth. How many movies and video games do Americans crank out every year which encourage people to pursue relationships with demons, laugh at human suffering, and pursue meaningless things? Sure we’ve got a lot of talent, but when we use that talent to produce things that harm us, we’re like the athlete who works out long and hard at the gym to build up his muscles so he can do the most damage when he beats himself up. When we refuse to live in submission to God, He makes sure that our blessings turn into miserable burdens which drain the joy from our lives.
“Therefore, son of man, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Yahweh: Your ancestors continued to blaspheme and betray Me, for when I brought them into the land I had promised them, they offered sacrifices on every high hill and under every green tree they saw! They roused My fury as they offered up sacrifices to their gods. They brought their perfumes and incense and poured out their liquid offerings to them. I said to them, ‘What is this high place where you are going?’ (This kind of pagan shrine has been called Bamah—‘high place’—ever since.)” (Eze. 20:27-29)
In ancient times, it was very popular to pick out some particular patch of ground that you found attractive either because of its height or lush foliage. Then you’d designate it as sacred, set up some idol worshiping equipment, and make regular sacrifices to your false gods at that spot. If you wanted to get fancy, you’d build a whole structure, but this wasn’t necessary. Just as people construct meditation gardens for themselves today, the Jews were very good at setting up sacred worship spots for themselves. The problem was that Yahweh was never the God being worshiped in these areas which became known as high places. Instead, it was always other gods who the Jews were worshiping.
Now before you know who the real Gods are, you aren’t defying Them by worshiping other gods, because you don’t know any better. But this wasn’t the case for the Jews. To properly interpret Yahweh, you have to realize that all of the people He’s complaining about were well aware of who He was, and that made their worship of other gods an intentional rejection of Yahweh. And what makes the whole thing extra vicious is the fact that the Jews went to such extreme lengths to appease their false gods. Sacrifices are costly—when you roast some bull for Baal, you’re giving up a beast that could have really benefited you on your farm. When you roast your own kid, you’re deeply traumatizing yourself, breaking your own heart, and destroying a potential heir. When you realize how obsessed the Jews were with having many children and having long lasting family lines, it helps you understand what an epic sacrifice it was for them to murder child after child in order to appease some god who wasn’t even real. Clearly people who are willing to go to such lengths in order to please supernatural deities aren’t shying away from Yahweh because He’s too demanding. On the contrary, compared to the cruel gods that the Jews were so bonded to, Yahweh was super easy to please. Yahweh wouldn’t accept human sacrifices—and that alone spared His followers so much misery. Yahweh was totally against people mutilating their bodies with cutting and scarring—that was another huge relief. So why did the Jews hate Yahweh so much when He was so kind? Well, they had a lot of lame excuses, but at the end of the day the issue was one of control. Yahweh is a Sweetheart, but He is also God Almighty, and as God, He doesn’t take orders from His own creations. The Jews didn’t want to be accountable to a real God—they wanted to fuss around with phony gods whose personalities they could adjust. It’s rather like choosing imaginary friends over real friends because imaginary friends make you feel in control. You can interact with your imaginary friends whenever it suits you, and ignore them when it doesn’t. If you abuse your imaginary friends, there are no consequences. But if you abuse real friends, those friends are likely to retaliate in ways you’re not prepared for. Things get even more dangerous when you’re dealing with the real God. Yahweh warned people over and over that defying Him would have eternal consequences. But the Jews so despised the idea of submitting to Yahweh, that they decided to take their chances.
Now so far in Ezekiel 20, Yahweh has been talking about Jews who are long dead—the ancestors of His immediate audience. Does God really condemn us based on the choices our ancestors make? No, He doesn’t. God judges each of us according to our own soul choices, and now Yahweh turns the focus onto the Jews who are actually alive at the time that Ezekiel is delivering this message.
“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Yahweh: Do you plan to pollute yourselves just as your ancestors did? Do you intend to keep prostituting yourselves by worshiping vile images? For when you offer gifts to them and give your little children to be burned as sacrifices, you continue to pollute yourselves with idols to this day. Should I allow you to ask for a message from Me, O people of Israel? As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Yahweh, I will tell you nothing!
You say, ‘We want to be like the nations all around us, who serve idols of wood and stone.’ But what you have in mind will never happen. As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Yahweh, I will rule over you with an iron fist in great anger and with awesome power. And in anger I will reach out with My strong hand and powerful arm, and I will bring you back from the lands where you are scattered. I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations, and there I will judge you face to face. I will judge you there just as I did your ancestors in the wilderness after bringing them out of Egypt, says the Sovereign Yahweh. I will examine you carefully and hold you to the terms of the Covenant. I will purge you of all those who rebel and revolt against Me. I will bring them out of the countries where they are in exile, but they will never enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am Yahweh.” (Eze. 20:30-38)
In this part of the speech, Yahweh is really emphasizing that rebellion has consequences. Notice how He says the Israelites of this time are actively worshiping false gods—even in the face of Yahweh destroying their homeland. And yet according to Yahweh’s Covenant with Israel, anyone who refused to remain faithful to Him would be eternally damned. In this speech, the wilderness and Israel become symbolic for judgment and reward. Yahweh says that He’ll bring all of the Jews out of exile to be judged. Those who are refusing to submit to Him will never experience the reward of returning to Israel. This is metaphorical language—Yahweh is talking about eternal judgment here. The important point for us to grasp is that rebelling against God results in dire consequences. We must submit to Him while there is still time. If we wait too long, we’ll be permanently banned from experiencing joy.
“As for you, O people of Israel, this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: Go right ahead and worship your idols, but sooner or later you will obey Me and will stop bringing shame on My holy Name by worshiping idols. For on My holy mountain, the great mountain of Israel, says the Sovereign Yahweh, the people of Israel will someday worship Me, and I will accept them. There I will require that you bring Me all your offerings and choice gifts and sacrifices.
When I bring you home from exile, you will be like a pleasing sacrifice to Me. And I will display My holiness through you as all the nations watch. Then when I have brought you home to the land I promised with a solemn oath to give to your ancestors, you will know that I am Yahweh. You will look back on all the ways you defiled yourselves and will hate yourselves because of the evil you have done. You will know that I am Yahweh, O people of Israel, when I have honored My Name by treating you mercifully in spite of your wickedness. I, the Sovereign Yahweh, have spoken!” (Eze. 20:39-44)
Here the metaphorical discussion of eternal judgment continues. Notice how Yahweh says that only those who are devoted to Him will return to Israel. In real life, the Jews who finally returned to what was left of Israel were still in rebel mode. We read about those brats in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (see Know Your Bible Lesson 41: Meaningless Vows). So this prophecy is not to be taken literally. Instead, it’s conveying important concepts about Divine judgment.
Focusing on soul attitudes will really help you interpret Old Testament prophecies accurately. In this section of Ezekiel 20, what are the soul attitudes of the people who Yahweh talks about being delighted with? People who are worshiping and obeying Him. People who have turned away from their false gods.
Today there is a very common misconception that many Jews will be saved simply because they are Jews. But no, this is an absolute lie. In the Bible, both Yahweh and Jesus make it very clear that the only souls who will be accepted by Them are souls who embrace the soul attitudes that They say please Them—especially the soul attitude of submission. Obedience is a form of submission, so when Yahweh talks about souls obeying Him and worshiping Him, He’s talking about souls who are submitting to Him. Notice how He describes these submissive souls as looking back over their rebellious period and hating themselves for what they’ve done—this demonstrates that these souls are living in alignment with God by agreeing with His moral code. Now does God really want us to go through life focusing on what crumbs we’ve been in the past? Not at all. The language here is intended to show how sincere these people’s repentance was. When we really care about pleasing God, we are genuinely distressed at the thought of disrespecting Him. In this passage, Yahweh makes it clear that it is sincere repentance that He is pleased by, not just lip service.
Now in real life, the Jews who finally returned home to rebuild Jerusalem were full of attitude and still worshiping those stupid idols. So was Yahweh pleased with them? No, He was furious with them, and we find Him railing at them in the prophetic books of Haggai and Malachi. So if most Jews will never return to Yahweh, why is He painting such a rosy picture in Ezekiel? He’s being metaphorical. His purpose right now is not to predict what’s actually going to happen to the Jews. Instead, He’s reminding this crowd of rebels that the only way they’ll ever get into a good place with Him is if they repent out of their rebellion and get serious about submitting to Him. The fact that He’s even bothering to talk like this indicates that He’s giving this particular batch of folks more time to repent. Perhaps someone somewhere heard this message, felt convicted, and finally turned around. But most won’t. Most of the Jews who are alive right now are still mocking the whole notion of Yahweh actually following through on His threats to totally trash Jerusalem and His own Temple. It’s all just too fantastic.
Well, Yahweh knows that this is what the people are thinking, so now it’s time for Ezekiel to stand up and turn to face the south. This points him in the general direction of the Negev—a dry wilderness located between Israel and the more southern nation of Egypt.
Then this message came to me from Yahweh: “Son of man, turn and face the south and speak out against it; prophesy against the brushlands of the Negev. Tell the southern wilderness, ‘This is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: Hear the word of Yahweh! I will set you on fire, and every tree, both green and dry, will be burned. The terrible flames will not be quenched and will scorch everything from south to north. And everyone in the world will see that I, Yahweh, have set this fire. It will not be put out.’” (Eze. 20:45-48)
Green foliage is harder to burn than dry foliage—but this fire of Yahweh’s wrath is going to burn up everything. The Negev was a region of land which was located to the south of Israel. Judah borders the Negev. A modern day geography parallel for Americans would be if Yahweh said, “I’m going to start a fire in Mexico that is going to sweep northward and consume everything in its path!” If you’re living in the south of Texas, you’d find this kind of imagery very alarming, because your state shares a long border with Mexico. In the same way, the folks living in Judah were sitting right on top of the Negev, so this metaphorical language is very threatening.
Well, now that Ezekiel is standing up and shouting at some distant southern land, he really looks like a dingdong, and the Jewish leaders are scoffing at him.
Then I said, “O Sovereign Yahweh, they are saying of me: ‘He only talks in riddles!’” (Eze. 20:49)
No human enjoys being mocked, but mockery is part of the package when you’re one of God’s prophets. So how is Yahweh going to respond to Ezekiel’s protests? Well, as you might guess from the angry tone of this passage, Yahweh’s not in the mood to listen to griping—especially from a guy who is supposed to be on His side. Since the Jews were such theatrical people, Yahweh often had His Jewish prophets incorporate dramatic actions into their prophesying style. In other words, He wanted them to do bizarre things while they preached, instead of just standing there saying words. Right now Ezekiel is facing the south and yelling at the distant Negev. As we start the next chapter, Yahweh instructs Ezekiel to adjust his position a bit so that it will look like he is facing Jerusalem. Physically facing Jerusalem was a common custom for Jews who were trying to say something to Yahweh while picturing Him sitting in His grand Temple. So when Ezekiel faces Jerusalem, everyone gets what he’s doing. But they don’t like what he says at all.
EZEKIEL 21: THE SWORD OF YAHWEH
Then this message came to me from Yahweh: “Son of man, turn and face Jerusalem and prophesy against Israel and her sanctuaries. Tell her, ‘This is what Yahweh says: I am your Enemy, O Israel, and I am about to unsheathe My sword to destroy your people—the righteous and the wicked alike. Yes, I will cut off both the righteous and the wicked! I will draw My sword against everyone in the land from south to north. Everyone in the world will know that I am Yahweh. My sword is in My hand, and it will not return to its sheath until its work is finished.’” (Eze. 20:1-5)
You really don’t want Yahweh to start coming after you with a sword. This is metaphorical language of course, with the sword representing Divine judgment. And in a time when hand-to-hand combat was a common style of warfare, this sword imagery is very relevant. There’s just nothing nice about getting killed by a sword. There are so many ways a sword can injure you without instantly killing you, which means you could end up lying on the ground in defenseless agony for many hours. Factor in the ancient people’s intense fear of death, and this sword business is downright terrifying.
Now in some passages Yahweh says He’s going to spare the righteous and only destroy the wicked—but here He says He’s going to chop down everyone. What are we to make of this contradiction? Well, here you need to step back and consider which speech you’re in, and what the main points of that speech are. It’s when Yahweh is addressing concerns about His justness or concerns that He is forgetting the righteous that He talks about sparing the righteous from death. In real life, God kills both the saved and the unsaved every day—but we need to remember that the saved go on to a much better place. So to die means radically different things, depending on where you’re at with God. When we forget this and view all death as the same, we end up clinging to wrong priorities and griping against God’s fabulous grace. What’s more ludicrous than beefing about the fact that you’re about to go to Heaven? For the soul who is pleasing God, death is a reward, not a punishment. But like Christians today, Old Covenant believers were very shortsighted, and so they foolishly viewed death as some terrible punishment when it was nothing of the kind. To address these fears, we find Yahweh using metaphorical imagery of the righteous being rewarded by Him while the wicked perish. The point of such passages is to remind the righteous that they do not need to fear, because God is pleased with them and is therefore planning to reward them.
Well, here in Ezekiel 21, Yahweh is not trying to console anxious souls who sincerely care about pleasing Him. Instead, He’s working on terrifying hardened rebels by emphasizing how vast the carnage will be when Judah falls to the Babylonians. Thousands will die, and those who die will be at all different points in their spiritual journey. Yahweh’s purpose in emphasizing terror is to motivate repentance—remember that God always has a positive spiritual purpose, even when He’s talking about negative things. He doesn’t scare us just to do it. When He amplifies fear, it’s because the souls He’s talking to are full of attitude. Fear inspires reverence, and reverence drives us towards submission. So this whole terror speech is about motivating rebels to repent while giving us all a healthy reminder that God’s wrath is not something we want to mess with.
Well, now that Ezekiel has stood and shouted at two different geographical regions, Yahweh wants to add more drama. So now He tells Ezekiel to start throwing an adult tantrum: groaning and wailing as loud as he can, waving his arms about, maybe even throwing some dirt on himself. This is what the Jews did when they were upset—and of course the purpose of these theatrics was to attract attention so people would ask what was wrong. After all, it’s no fun to cry alone.
“Son of man, groan before the people! Groan before them with bitter anguish and a broken heart. When they ask why you are groaning, tell them, ‘I groan because of the terrifying news I have heard! When it comes true, the boldest heart will melt with fear; all strength will disappear. Every spirit will faint; strong knees will become as weak as water. And the Sovereign Yahweh says: It is coming! It’s on its way!’” (Eze. 21:6-7)
And when the people scoff at this message—which they will—Yahweh will be ready with more terrifying language.
Then Yahweh said to me, “Son of man, give the people this message from Yahweh: “A sword! A sword is being sharpened and polished! It is sharpened for terrible slaughter and polished to flash like lightning! Now will you laugh? Those far stronger than you have fallen beneath its power! Yes, the sword is now being sharpened and polished; it is being prepared for the executioner!” (Eze. 21:8-11)
After sobering everyone’s mood with this frightening language, Yahweh then orders Ezekiel to do more wailing and flailing. This time Ezekiel needs to throw in some vigorous thigh slapping as well, because nothing communicates a dire crisis to ancient Jews better than a grown man bent over, screaming and pounding on his own legs.
“Son of man, cry out and wail; pound your thighs in anguish, for that sword will slaughter My people and their leaders—everyone will die! It will put them all to the test. What chance do they have? says the Sovereign Yahweh.” (Eze. 21:13)
Now it’s time for a loud hand clap, which was the Jewish way of expressing an exclamation point, and in this case, it’s an angry one. It’s also time to make this sword feel more real, so Ezekiel is instructed to grab an actual sword and start slashing the air with it.
“Son of man, prophesy to them and clap your hands. Then take the sword and brandish it twice, even three times, to symbolize the great massacre, the great massacre facing them on every side. Let their hearts melt with terror, for the sword glitters at every gate. It flashes like lightning and is polished for slaughter! O sword, slash to the right, then slash to the left, wherever you will, wherever you want!” (Eze. 21:14-16)
At this point Ezekiel is prancing around looking like he’s dueling with some invisible foe. Ah, the dignity of the prophetic calling.
“I, too, will clap My hands, and I will satisfy My fury. I, Yahweh, have spoken!” (Eze. 21:17)
You really don’t want Yahweh directing an angry clap at you. This is like Him saying an angry “Ha!” or a victorious “Serves you right!” as He looks over a sea of Jewish corpses.
Now back in Ezekiel 14, Yahweh said He would send His famous four deadly terrors into Jerusalem. First, there would be horrific famine when the Babylonian army surrounded Jerusalem, cut off all incoming supplies, and remained there for years while the people inside slowly starved to death. Once the Jews were resorting to cannibalism and everyone was feeling psychologically defeated, then the real fighting would begin. The Babylonians would climb over the wall and smash through the gates, thus bringing in the second terror of war. After the whole place was turned into a bloody sea of corpses, wild animals would arrive to feast on the dead and the dying. Lastly, disease would spread through the rotting corpses, infected wounds, and compromised immune systems. All told, the loss of life would be staggering. But the worst part would be how unnecessary it all was. If the Jews had only repented, things could have gone so differently. But no, they just had to cling to their stupid idols and insist on warring against their own Creator. Talk about ancient Israel being a terrible spiritual role model.
Well, Yahweh feels Ezekiel has played swords long enough. It’s now time to bring in some fresh props: some kind of parchment and something to write with. Ezekiel is to draw a big Y, which will represent a road out of Babylon which then splits into a fork. One fork leads to the nation of Ammon, the other to Judah. Which nation should King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon attack? He’s on the road with his massive army, trying to decide. Being the superstitious fellow that he is, he calls on his demon worshiping advisers to see if they can inquire of the gods and get him some divine omen. The dingdongs will do their usual thing: toss around the ancient equivalent of dice, kill some small animals and sift through their entrails for supernatural signs. And after all of this nonsense, they’ll end up giving their king the advice that Yahweh wants them to give: attack Jerusalem. It’s the better choice.
Then this message came to me from Yahweh: “Son of man, make a map and trace two routes on it for the sword of Babylon’s king to follow. Put a signpost on the road that comes out of Babylon where the road forks into two—one road going to Ammon and its capital, Rabbah, and the other to Judah and fortified Jerusalem. The king of Babylon now stands at the fork, uncertain whether to attack Jerusalem or Rabbah. He calls his magicians to look for omens. They cast lots by shaking arrows from the quiver. They inspect the livers of animal sacrifices. The omen in his right hand says, ‘Jerusalem!’ With battering rams his soldiers will go against the gates, shouting for the kill. They will put up siege towers and build ramps against the walls. The people of Jerusalem will think it is a false omen, because of their treaty with the Babylonians. But the king of Babylon will remind the people of their rebellion. Then he will attack and capture them.” (Eze. 21:18-23)
In real life, the final siege of Jerusalem dragged on for years. When attacking such a large, fortified city, it was critical to starve everyone out first so that the soldiers would be too weak to fight well. As the attacking commander, the old “starve out” strategy really helped to keep your own losses down.
Well, after watching Ezekiel dance around with his sword and draw this creepy map, the Jews are feeling very uneasy.
“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: Again and again you remind Me of your sin and your guilt. You don’t even try to hide it! In everything you do, your sins are obvious for all to see. So now the time of your punishment has come!” (Eze. 21:24)
This is all very grim. But what about the current king of Judah—nasty old Zedekiah who is giving Jeremiah all kinds of attitude while he ignores Yahweh’s instructions to surrender peacefully when the Babylonians arrive? Yahweh has a word for Zedekiah as well, and it’s not a happy one.
“O you corrupt and wicked prince of Israel, your final day of reckoning is here! This is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: Take off your jeweled crown, for the old order changes. Now the lowly will be exalted, and the mighty will be brought down. Destruction! Destruction! I will surely destroy the kingdom. And it will not be restored until One appears who has the right to judge it. Then I will hand it over to Him.” (Eze. 21:25-27)
Yes, that is a Messianic prophecy that Yahweh tagged onto the end of this angry word to King Zedekiah. And the language is an intentional imitation of something said way back in Genesis 49 when elderly Jacob was going through the highly cherished ritual of speaking blessings over his sons. To superstitious Jews, verbal blessings had real power, and if daddy said it, then it must be a prophecy we can all stand on. Were these true beliefs? No, they were absurd, and what little we know of Jacob reveals him to be a very lousy role model. But the ancient Jews all worshiped his memory, so when Yahweh quotes Jacob, it really grabs people’s attention.
Back when it was time to give parting blessings to his sons, elderly Jacob suddenly went into prophet mode and declared many not-so-nice things over his twelve sons. Jacob was a dysfunctional man who managed a very dysfunctional home and we see a lot of issues in his sons. Jacob played favorites big time, and his personal dislike of many of his sons comes through very loudly in his parting words. He makes most of his sons sound like unruly jerks whose ancestors will make many people miserable. Judah fairs better than most in Jacob’s prophetic speech, and one of the things Jacob prophesies about Judah’s descendants is this:
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor.” (Gen. 49:10)
So what is Yahweh’s point in quoting a twit like Jacob? Well, boosting hopes of a coming Messiah served many useful purposes. First, it gave the few souls who did care about God reason to hope that brighter days were coming for Israel. Second, Yahweh is laying down the groundwork for future Jews to revere Jesus once they realize that Jesus actually is the Messiah who Yahweh has been hinting about for so many centuries. Third, associating the Messiah’s coming with the start of a new order with new rules would one day help the Jews realize that it was appropriate to abandon the Old Covenant when Jesus said it was no longer relevant.
Jesus ushered in a New Covenant when He came—and in doing so, He threw out the dietary laws, the sacrificial system, the tithing system, and many other rituals that Yahweh describes in the Torah. The New Covenant is much simpler. It pulls our focus off of rituals and encourages us to focus on soul attitudes. We still acquire salvation through submission—that has been the same since the beginning of this Creation. But we no longer have to worry about ceremonial cleanliness or concern ourselves with the concept of atonement (see Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God). The New Covenant is simple and straightforward, but of course we’ve spent 2,000 years making it complicated because we humans are so bad at listening to God.
Now in real life, did Jesus rule in Israel? Not at all. Did Yahweh hand the kingdom of Israel over to Jesus? No, because as Yahweh’s Peer and Equal, Jesus owns everything that Yahweh owns. Yahweh doesn’t give Jesus anything—it’s more like They share all that They have made. But you shouldn’t expect to find an accurate description of the way things are in a prophetic message that is filled with metaphorical imagery, thigh slapping, and sword waving. In our Ezekiel passage, Yahweh is talking to rebellious Jews within the framework of their cultural superstitions, bad theology, and backwards priorities. Because these Jews think Israel is the best place on the planet, Yahweh uses Israel as a metaphor for eternal rewards. Does Yahweh agree with the Jews that Israel is the greatest nation in the world? Of course not. Yahweh is not a Jew and He’s not stuck viewing reality from some pinched up human perspective. Yahweh is only talking like a Jew in order to help Jews relate to Him better, because He’s nice that way. If Ezekiel 21 was directed at Americans, we’d find very different language being used.
So what key points are we supposed to be learning from this passage? Don’t mess with God. Obey Him the first time. Don’t hold back in your submission to Him. God’s wrath is real, and to provoke that wrath to lash out at us by refusing to respect our Creators is beyond stupid. Yahweh is a wonderfully kind and gracious God who is so very easy to get along with. But He demands submission from us, and if we refuse to give it to Him, then we’re going to meet with the business end of His infamous sword.
Ezekiel 19: Yahweh Laments Two Lions & A Vine
Prophets in Action: Ezekiel & the Siege of Jerusalem
Understanding Yahweh’s Wrath: Judah’s Alliance with Egypt (Isaiah 30:1-17)
Jeremiah 2-3: Yahweh Justifies His Wrath
Your End Times Faith Crisis: Staying Aligned with a Scary God
Distinguishing Between the Real End Times & the Day of Yahweh
Psalm 74: Asaph Flaunts His Contempt for Yahweh