Four centuries before this oracle, King David, a man ‘after his [God’s] own heart’(1 Samuel 13:14), had governed the Israelites in their Promised Land. His successor, Solomon, famous for his great wisdom, had built God’s magnificent temple in Jerusalem. But things had soon gone wrong, then from bad to worse. First disputes split the kingdom in two. Then the Assyrians defeated and dispersed the northern kingdom. By the time of this prophesy, the Babylonians had subdued the remaining southern kingdom, transporting Ezekiel and his contemporaries to exile in Babylon. This oracle, proclaimed in Babylon, immediately precedes the final total destruction of Jerusalem and its temple after a long siege. It is addressed to the Israelites in their despair, but as is often the case with Old Testament prophesy, the message is timeless – God can speak to us through it today.
First the people cry out in verse 10, ‘Our transgressions and our sins are on us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live?’ They felt hopeless. They knew full well why they were in this mess. Prophet after prophet had warned them about the consequences of not following God’s ways; but they had ignored God, living as they pleased. Judgement had been progressive and now seemed final. It’s into this depressing situation of national and personal destruction that Ezekiel speaks.
First, note that God exists, and is sovereign. This came as no surprise to the Israelites. God had manifestly burst into the affairs of their nation since its very beginnings. But God is right there before us too, if we will look and listen; as the Apostle Paul said to the Athenians ‘he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being’’(Acts 17:27-28). Creation bears the signature of its creator, by its very existence and majestic design. And through scripture God speaks, His Holy Spirit opening our hearts to His message. Perhaps the Israelites were surprised however to hear God addressing them despite their circumstances, and from Babylon. They and we shouldn’t be surprised if God finds us and speaks to us when we feel far from Him, or in despair.
What then is His message? God’s word to the Israelites is in some respects chilling. He doesn’t gloss over the stark reality, confirming their deserved death – both as a nation and as individuals. Our maker and sovereign knows the way we should live, what is good for us, and that other ways are, by definition ‘evil ways’; ‘the wicked’, those who live in these ways deserve to ‘die’. Later in the Bible we learn that to ‘die’ includes the ‘second death’(Revelation 2:11&20:6&14&21:8) i.e. Hell, and this is no sleepy non-existence. But God is no sadist. In fact God has ‘no pleasure’ in the Israelites judgement, or that of those who ignore him today. His tone of voice is a heart felt appeal for an about ‘turn, turn’ – repentance. Life is on offer, and the Bible’s definition of to ‘live’ is as full as its definition of death. It includes spiritual birth, which not only enriches our experience of life now, but leads on to a heavenly life with God forever. The Apostle Paul would pray for us that ‘having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope… the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints’(Ephesians 1:18). God’s pleasure comes when we accept this life, not reject it; in Jesus’ words, ‘“there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner repenting.”’(Luke 15:10)
The Israelites feared that life was no longer an option for them. They felt that centuries of ignoring God as a nation and decades of wrong living individually could never be counterbalanced – hence their cry of despair. They felt bogged down by their record and beyond salvation. This weighing scales idea of salvation has been a common misconception throughout history. But thankfully, as God explains in verse 12 ‘as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall thereby in the day that he turns from his wickedness’. His sin is wiped out. It’s the ‘turn’ to God that maters. He takes care of the penalty, as the thief on the cross discovered when on turning to King Jesus he received the reply, ‘“today you will be with me in paradise.”’(Luke 23:43)
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