Last Sunday, I was speaking at Liberty Community Church near Motherwell on five chapters from Ezekiel. I was very much challenged by them and decided to post an abbreviated version of the message here.
Ezekiel is not an easy book to read, but then the message he had for the people of God was not an easy one either. Whether he was having to pass on the message that God was removing his glory from the temple in Jerusalem or tackling the issues in these chapters, Ezekiel’s message was shocking!
Chapter 16 presents us with a situation where God calls on Ezekiel to “confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices.” Ezekiel is being told by God to act like a prosecuting counsel in a criminal trial. He is to stand up and put the accusations to the people of how they have failed to be the people God expected them to be. God wants Ezekiel to tell it like it really is; to strip away the lies and the fabrications of how they see themselves and to see themselves as God sees them. And this is a painful experience.
There aren’t many of us who like the truth, really. We like to hold on to our own imaginings and fantasies. But in our dealings with God, we cannot allow that to happen.
So Ezekiel passes on the message of God and attacks four basic lies that they were telling themselves. What I find amazing in some ways is that these are lies we tell ourselves now. Human nature doesn’t change!
So, we are going to move around the chapters a little before coming back to chapter 16 for what is God’s main charge and shocking conclusion.
LIFE DOES NOT REVOLVE AROUND ME
I am Yahweh your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am Yahweh your God.
So what are we to make of that? God says his people are to keep his laws – well we can probably agree to that being right. But why pick on the Sabbath day?
The peoples around the Jews tended to run their calendars on a monthly and yearly basis – according to the seasons and the harvests. And the Jews did this to some extent as well.
But one thing that set them apart was their observance of the Sabbath – the day of rest. One day in seven when they would do no work. And clues as to why God chooses to pick on this commandment in this context are to be found in the verses above.
Notice how they start and end with God saying who he is – using his personal name – the name of the covenant-making God. He then reminds them that he is their God – not just a friend, or even a king – but their God.
The Sabbath was a reminder of this. A reminder that because the Jews were God’s people they were to run their lives according to different rules. They were to play to a different drummer. It was to remind them that the world did not revolve around them, it revolved around God.
We need that reminder as well. The world does not revolve around me. I am not the centre of the universe – God is. So the principle of the Sabbath is relevant today. It reminds us that in a world where earning and owning as much as possible is the be all and end all; where I sit at the centre of my own little universe – we as Christians are to take a step back. We are to say ‘I’m not playing that game’ God is at the centre and I am going to give him his due.
Pressure must have been on Jewish farmers to bring in the harvest on the Sabbath – but they were to rest because Yahweh was their God and he sets the agenda. The pressure is on us to use every available minute to follow the demands of our society. God says, ‘stop!’ Get yourself off the treadmill and set your heart and mind on me. Re-balance – reset your priorities because I am your God.
I CANNOT DO AS I PLEASE
And so to the second truth that God speaks to his people in this section. A truth we need to hear as well.
Therefore this is what King Yahweh says: As surely as I live, I will bring down on his head my oath that he despised and my covenant that he broke. I will spread my net for him, and he will be caught in my snare. I will bring him to Babylon and execute judgment upon him there because he was unfaithful to me.
Chapter 17 is an allegory – a story in pictures – of the political decisions the king in Jerusalem had taken. In many ways, they had been sensible political decisions – but they had been very much against God’s commands. They were about building political alliances with seemingly strong allies instead of relying on God. Zedekiah, the king, decides he is going to do things his way rather than God’s way..
We might recognise that idea. It has almost become a badge of honour today to say that you’ve done things your way – been true to yourself. But if we are God’s people – if when we say that Jesus is Lord we really mean it, then our lives need to show it.
God comments on the self-centred, self-aggrandising, short-sighted actions of Zedekiah by reminding him that he, God, Yahweh is the real king. We cannot do as we please, we cannot do things our way. As his people, we can and must only do this his way.
We sing quite happily
I will offer up my life/in spirit and truth/pouring out the oil of love/as my worship to you. /In surrender I must give/my every part/Lord, receive the sacrifice/of a broken heart
But do those sentiments last beyond the door on a Sunday? When we walk out into the street outside, are we truly surrendered or are we still doing it our way?
I DID DO IT
Difficult truth number 3.
Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares King Yahweh. Repent! Turn away from all your offences; then sin will not be your downfall.
Chapter 18 shows us the situation in Jerusalem where the people of God were complaining that God’s judgement on them was unfair. Why were they suffering exile when it was the fault of their forefathers? The generations before had sinned – but it was this generation that had suffered the exile. “God, it’s not fair!” was the accusation.
We may well have felt like that on occasions, but God gives the thought short shrift.
As chapter 18 makes clear – the generation that has suffered the exile is as guilty as any other. They could not make the excuse that it was not their fault any more than we can say, ‘I didn’t do it’. Because I did. We did.
We like to pass the buck for errors and mistakes. Humanity has done it from the very beginning in the garden in Eden when the man blamed the woman and then blamed God, and the woman blamed the serpent. Neither held their hands up and said, ‘I did it!’
God says, no. We are all guilty. All have rebelled, all have sinned.
But as the verse we read says, there is hope. and we will return to that. But for now, let’s get one thing straight. We did it.
LIFE IS TOUGH
We all go through difficult times, whether job problems, unemployment, relationship and family issues, illness and bereavement. How do we react to those times when they arrive?
Your mother was like a vine in your vineyard planted by the water;
it was fruitful and full of branches because of abundant water.
Its branches were strong, fit for a ruler’s sceptre.
It towered high above the thick foliage,
conspicuous for its height and for its many branches.
But it was uprooted in fury and thrown to the ground.
The east wind made it shrivel, it was stripped of its fruit;
its strong branches withered and fire consumed them.
Now it is planted in the desert, in a dry and thirsty land.
Fire spread from one of its main branches and consumed its fruit.
No strong branch is left on it fit for a ruler’s sceptre.’
Chapter 19 talks about how the glory of Israel’s past has descended into the desolation of its present. It’s about how what had seemed great became useless. Sometimes our lives can seem a little like that for a variety of reasons. What is important is not whether we go through difficulties, but how we react to them when they occur.
Life is tough and difficult and can often be painful but that is a truth we don’t often want to hear. We think we deserve something better as though if things go badly that there is something wrong. This attitude will simply lead to frustration and anger.
The truth is – life is like that. We are not owed anything. We are not owed a nice, simple, straightforward life without pain and suffering. Life is not a bed of roses. The best way to deal with it is to accept it.
How do you react when as a father of two children you find yourself diagnosed with cancer? “It’s not fair? Why me?” Or the biblical answer of, “Why not me?” Accepting the situation as from God and working and living within it. That’s what God expects of us.
IT’S ALL PROSTITUTION
We have seen four difficult truths that these chapters in Ezekiel remind us of.
- Life does not revolve around me.
- I cannot do as I please.
- I did do it.
- Life is tough.
These truths were necessary because the Jews of Ezekiel’s day were telling themselves the lies associated with them. That they were the centre of the universe, that it was all about them, about their fulfilment. That somehow or other they were innocent and God was guilty and unfair. That God owed them an easy ride because they were his people.
As if that message was not tough enough, chapter 16 comes along like a vicious slap in the face to these people. It is one of the most shocking chapters in the whole Bible – equalled probably only by chapter 23 in Ezekiel. It is a chapter which lists with graphic sexual imagery the sins of Israel.
Our translations tend to tone down the imagery because they don’t want to shock us. But God wants to shock us. He wants to shock the people listening to Ezekiel because sometimes we need to be shocked and have the truth told exactly as it is.
These people, with the lies they had been telling are likened by God to a prostitute. Worse to a prostitute who actually pays her clients rather than receiving pay.
‘Woe! Woe to you, declares the Sovereign LORD. In addition to all your other wickedness, you built a mound for yourself and made a lofty shrine in every public square. At the head of every street you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, offering your body (literally ‘spreading your legs’) with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by.
This is shocking stuff, so why does God say it? Because rebellion, telling the lies we have seen earlier, is sin. And sin is tantamount to not just adultery – a picture the OT often uses about God’s people – but rather as God describes it here as wanton, unchecked nymphomania.
In spiritual terms, for God’s people to rebel against him and his covenant is like a woman having sex with every other man in the street while her husband is in the room. That is how God views it when his people turn from him.
But that is not where it ends – not for us, not for them.
So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares King Yahweh.
Despite all that has happened, God says he will remember his people and that he will establish a covenant with them. We are the recipients of that. This new covenant – the covenant that comes through the death and the resurrection of Jesus. There is hope – there is always hope. Hope in the cross.
It is no surprise that the cross is such a degrading, humiliating, disgusting death. The sin it had to deal with was degrading, humiliating and disgusting. But that sin is washed away – atonement has been made. We are recipients, through the grace of God – of forgiveness.
So let’s live lives where we don’t accept the lies. Where we embrace the truth. Embrace the reality of our salvation in the God who has said, ‘I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ Jeremiah 31:34