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Here Ezekiel relates an event worthy of notice. For this was not a mere vision, but a real transaction, since some of the elders of Israel came to him for the sake of consultation. He says that he sat, as men who are perplexed and astonished by evils are accustomed to do, when they see no remedy. The gesture then which the Prophet describes was a sign of anxiety and despair. A person wishing for an answer is said to sit before another; but since it is probable that they disputed among themselves about beginning, and did not immediately discover how they should commence, hence they became anxious to consult the Prophet. Ezekiel, indeed, might be touched and softened by pity when he saw them seeking God in this way. For this was a sign of repentance when they turned to the true and faithful servant of God. But since they had no sincerity, the Prophet is warned in time against supposing them to come with cordiality. Hence God instructs his servant not to give way with too much facility when he sees old men coming to be disciples. But he shows their hypocrisy, because superstition still reigned in their hearts; nay, they desired openly to violate God’s law, and they did not disguise this feeling whenever occasion offered. First, he says they have set up idols in their hearts; by which words he means that they were addicted to superstition, so that idols obtained a high rank in their hearts; as Paul exhorts the faithful, that the peace of God which passes all understanding may obtain the rule in their hearts (Philippians 4:7; Colossians 3:15); so on the other hand the Prophet says that these men had given supreme sway to idols. And again an implied comparison must be remarked between God and idols. For God has erected the seat of his empire in our hearts: but when we set up idols, we necessarily endeavor to overthrow God’s throne, and to reduce his power to nothing. Hence the most heinous crime of sacrilege is here shown in those old men who caused idols to rise above their hearts. For hence it follows that all their senses were drowned in their superstitions.
He adds, they placed the stumblingblock of their iniquity before his face. By this second clause he signifies their hardness and perverseness; as if he had said, although the doctrine of the law was put before their eyes, yet they had no regard for piety, and despised even God’s threats, as if he were not going to be their judge. When, therefore, the sinner is not moved by any admonitions, and is more than convicted of his impiety, and is compelled, whether he will or not, to suffer God’s anger, and yet afterwards despises it, he is said to put the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face. For many slide away by error and thoughtlessness, because they do not think they can attempt anything against God. But here Ezekiel expresses that there was a gross contempt of God in these old men, and even a professed rebellion against him. Now he asks, Shall I by inquiring be inquired of by them? Some translate, Shall I, when consulted or asked, answer them? But this comment seems to me too remote from the mind of the Prophet; and it is probable that they thought this to be the sense, because they could not understand what else the Prophet meant. But God shows that this was like a wonder, since these old men dared to break forth, and to pretend to have some desire to inquire the truth. Hence their impudence is shown here, because they did not hesitate to place themselves before God’s servant, and to pretend a regard for piety when they had none. God says, therefore, can it be done? For this question expresses the absurdity of the thing, and that for the above mentioned purpose, that their wickedness may be the more apparent in their daring to insult the face of God. For what else is it than openly to reproach God when impure men approach him, and wish to become partakers of his counsel? Meanwhile they show by their whole life that they are most inveterate enemies of the whole heavenly doctrine. Afterwards it follows —
Here God seems to treat those hypocrites too indulgently who pretend to ask his advice and yet despise his counsel. But God here rather threatens what would be destructive to the wicked than promises anything which they ought to expect. It is indeed a singular testimony of God’s grace when he answers us: for prophecy is an image of God’s paternal anxiety towards us and our salvation. But sometimes prophecy only ends in destruction; and this is but an accident. Although, therefore, God’s word by itself is naturally to be greatly desired, yet when God answers as a judge, and takes away all hope of pardon and pity, no taste of his favor can then be perceived. Thus this passage must be understood. God pronounces that he would answer, but whom? The reprobate, and those who tauntingly inquired of the Prophet what they should do. When he answers them, he only shows himself the avenger of their perfidy; and thus his answer contains nothing else but the fearful judgment which hangs over all the reprobate. For God does not here impose a perpetual law on himself; for he does not always act in the same way towards all the reprobate, but says that those impious ones should feel that they shall not profit by their cunning and artifices, since they shall find the difference between God and Satan: for they were accustomed to lies, and had itching ears; hence they wished to have some pleasing and flattering answer from the servant of God, since the false prophets gratified their inclinations. What then does God say? I will answer them, but far otherwise than they either wish or desire: for I will answer them according to the multitude of their idols: for they bring with them the material for their own condemnation: hence they shall take back nothing from me but the seal of that condemnation which is already placed upon their hearts, and appears on their hands. In fine, God here laughs at the foolish confidence of those who inquire about future events of his prophets; but meanwhile they have their heart bound up with superstitions, so as openly to show their gross impiety: hence he says, that he would answer them, not as they thought, but as they deserved.
He shows God’s object in being unwilling to dismiss without an answer the hypocrites who still impiously trifled with him. He says, that I may seize the house of Israel in their heart. It is yet asked how the impious are seized, when God answers them neither according to the opinion of their mind nor their expectation, but pronounces what they dislike and fear most grievously. I reply, that the impious are answered when they are driven to madness, and God thus extracts from them what was formerly hidden in their own hearts. He says, therefore, that their impiety may be manifest to all, I will answer them. For as long as God spares the impious, they endeavor to soothe him by a kind of flattery; but when they see that they take nothing by their false blandishments, then they roar, nay, bellow furiously against God: thus they are caught in their own hearts: that is, all their former dissembling is made bare, so that all may easily perceive that there never was a spark of piety in their hearts. God, therefore, bears witness that his answers would be of this kind, that he may take the house of Israel in their hearts; that is, that his severity may draw out into the light what was formerly hidden; for the word of God is a two-edged sword, and examines all the sentiments of men. (Hebrews 4:12.) Some are so slain by this sword that they grow wise again; but others are stung with fury when they see that they must engage with the power of God; therefore they are seized in their own hearts when God twists from them what they would willingly have kept always hidden. Since they have estranged themselves from me, literally, in their idols. This passage is explained in two ways, as we have said. Some say, because they separated themselves; but I approve of the other version, because they have alienated themselves, and we shall understand the point more clearly afterwards when the subject leads us to it. They alienated themselves, then, from God; that is, when they had utterly declined from God’s law; yet, as long as this was concealed, they still wore their masks. The separation of which the Prophet here speaks seems to be referred to this pretense. Since, then, they so alienated themselves from me by their idols; that is, he says they are deceived in thinking that they cannot be discovered, and that their abominations, however foul they are, will remain secret. And this agrees with the last clause, namely, that he would seize the hypocrites in their own heart.
Now God shows why he had threatened the false prophets and the whole people so severely, namely, that they should repent; for the object of God’s rigor is, that, when terrified by his judgments, we should return into the way. Now, therefore, he exhorts them to repentance. Hence we gather the useful lesson, that whenever God inspires us with fear, he has no other intention than to humble us, and thus to provide for our salvation, when he reproves and threatens us so strongly by his prophets, and in truth is verbally angry with us, that he may really spare us. But the exhortation is short, that they may be converted and turned away from their idols, and may turn their faces from all their abominations. When he uses the word
(40) Calvin has not explained the difficulty which he raises. The verb “return” is in Hiphil, and thought to have a case following it. Houbigant reads it in Hophal, and Newcombe prefers to understand “yourselves.” Rosemuller, as usual, is very explanatory.
Ezekiel again returns to threats, because exhortations was not sufficiently effectual with such hardened ones; for we have seen that they were obdurate in their vices and almost like untamed beasts. For unless God’s judgment had been often set before them, there had been but small fruit of teaching and exhortation. This then is the reason why God here sets before them his vengeance: a man, a man, says he, or a stranger who sojourns among Israel. When he adds strangers, he doubtless speaks of the circumcised who professed to be worshipers of the true God, and so submitted to the law as to refrain from all impieties. For there were two kinds of strangers, those who transacted business there, but were profane men, continuing uncircumcised. But there were others who were not sprung from the sacred race, and were not indigenous to the soil, but yet they had been circumcised, and as far as religion was concerned, had become members of the Church; and God wishes them to be esteemed in the same class and rank as the sons of Abraham. The law shall be the same for the stranger and the home-born, wherever the promise is concerned, (Numbers 15:15,) and the same sentiment is repeated in many places. Thus the word foreigners is now to be explained. But this circumstance exaggerates the crime of the chosen people. For if any one settled in the land of Canaan and embraced God’s law, this was an accidental event: but the Israelites were by nature heirs of eternal life, for the adoption was continued through successive ages. Since then they were born sons of God, it was the more disgraceful to depart from his worship. And so when Ezekiel here gravely rebukes the strangers, he shows how much more atrocious the crime was in the case of those who were bound by a more sacred bond to the worship of God. He says, and he was separated from after me. The Prophet yesterday said
At length he repeats what we saw yesterday, he who caused his idols to ascend unto his heart, he who placed the stumblingblock of his iniquity before his face, that is, was drowned in his own superstitions, so that his idols bore sway in his heart: lastly, he who is so forward in audacity that he did not conceal his wish to oppose the Almighty:if any one, says he, came to a prophet to inquire of him in me, or my name, I will answer him. He confirms what we saw yesterday, that he could no longer bear the hypocrites who deluded themselves so proudly. And certainly when they openly worshipped idols, and were fined with many superstitions, what audacity and pride it was to consult true prophets? It is much the same as if a person should want only insult and rail at a physician, and not only load him with reproaches, but even spit in his face: and should afterwards go and ask his advice, saying, “What do you advise me to do? How must I be cured of this disease?” Such pride could not be borne between man and man. How then will God permit such reproaches to go unpunished? For this reason he says that he would answer, but after his own manner, as if he had said — they seek flatteries, but I will answer in myself: that is, in my natural character. I will not change it according to their pleasure, for they change my character by their fictions, but they are deceived: they profit nothing when they expect me to answer according to their views:I will answer, says he, in myself; that is, they shall feel that the answer proceeds from me, and they shall have no reason for thinking that my servants will be submissive to them, as they are accustomed to abuse the false prophets whom they buy for reward, because they are venal. For when any one is venal he is compelled to flatter like a slave. For there is no freedom but in a good and upright conscience. Hence God here separates his servants from impostors who make a trade of their flatteries. Now it follows —
Here God adds, that the execution of his wrath would be ready when the prophet had denounced it. For profane men always fabricate for themselves empty treaties, and when God threatens they say that it is only thunder without lightning. Since the prophetic threats moved the reprobate either nothing or but little, so God now shows that he would not only answer what they did not wish to hear, but they should perceive by its effect how truly he had spoken. And this ought to be understood from the last sentence; for when God answers by himself, he neither is nor strikes the air with threatening words, but denounces what he determined to fulfill and accomplish in his own time. For God never answers in himself without joining the effect with the prophecy. But hypocrites are too stupid to acknowledge this, unless a clearer explanation was afforded. This then is the reason why the Prophet brings a message respecting the effect.
He says, I will put my face upon that man: when God speaks openly against us, this is sufficient for our destruction; but he wished to express more in this case, namely, that prophets were the heralds of his wrath, and that hypocrites should be admonished about the penalties which await them, and even now hang over them, since his hand is stretched out against them. He is said to place his face against another who rises against him, or descends to a contest and engages hand to hand. So also God pronounces that he would be an adversary to all the reprobate who thus endeavored to elude him. He says, I will place him for a sign and a proverb. He marks the heaviness of the punishment by these words: for God sometimes chastises the faults of men, but after a common and accustomed manner. But when punishment excites the wonder of all and is like a portent, then God puts forth the sign of his wrath in no common fashion, as they say. The Prophet then means this, and hence at the same time admonishes us how detestable a crime it is to decline from the pure worship of God. For God chastises thefts and lewdness, drunkenness, deceits, and rapines: but not always so rigorously that the punishment is remarkable, and turns the minds of all towards itself. Hence from the greatness of the punishment the atrocity of the crime is made known. He now adds, for proverbs. This phrase is taken from the law, as the prophets who are the interpreters of Moses make use of words from it. (Deuteronomy 28:37.) When any remarkable slaughter occurs it is said to be for a proverb, as all persons usually boast when speaking of any slaughter, that none is equal to it or more horrible. But,
Here God meets that foolish thought in which many minds are rapt up. When they had their own impostors at hand, they thought that all God’s threats could be repelled as it were by a shield. Jeremiah and Ezekiel threaten us, say they, but we have others to cheer us with good hope: they promise that all things shall be joyful and prosperous to us: since, therefore, only two or three deprive us of the hope of safety, and others, and those, too, far more numerous, promise us security, we have no need to despair. Since they thus oppose their impostors to the true prophets, and imagine a kind of conflict, in which imposture prevails and God’s truth is vanquished, he says there is no reason why the flatteries of the false prophets should deceive you. For if you say that they bear also the prophetic name and office, I reply, that they err through your fault; for I deceive them because your impiety deserves it. This may as yet be obscure, but I will endeavor to explain it by a familiar example. At this time we see that many through sloth withdraw themselves from all fear, and promise themselves freedom from punishment, while they reject all care for God. O, say they, what have I to do with religion? for this only occasions me trouble; whoever wishes to give himself up seriously to God amidst, these dissension’s and divisions will enter a labyrinth. Since, therefore, many think themselves free from fault, even if they reject God, this doctrine may be turned against them. There are, indeed, at this day dissension’s in religion which disturb many; but do you think that this happens rashly: Oh! we know not which party to follow: inquire; for God has not so given the rein to Satan and his ministers, that the Church is disturbed, and men are mutually opposed by chance. But when this happens by the just judgment of God, it is certain that no one can be deceived unless of his own accord. For the Prophet takes that principle from Moses, whenever false prophets come forth, that this is a proof of faithfulness and of sincere piety. Thy God tries thee, says Moses, whether you love him. (Deuteronomy 8:3.) Since, therefore, no false prophet arises without the just judgment of God, and since God wishes to distinguish between sincere worshipers and hypocrites, it follows that no one can be excused on this pretext, of differing opinions which arise by wise ordination. For since God wishes to make an experiment, as I have said, concerning his servants and sons, and since false prophets so mingle all things, and involve the clear daylight in darkness, no one who truly and heartily seeks God shall be entangled among their snares.
But Ezekiel will proceed still further, as I have previously hinted, namely, that all impostures and errors do not spring up rashly, but proceed from the ingratitude of the people itself. For if they had not so willingly given themselves up to the false prophets, God would doubtless have spared them. But, since false prophets abounded on every side, and were so plentiful everywhere, hence it may be understood that, the people were worthy of such impostures. Now then we perceive the meaning of the Holy Spirit when God pronounces that he is the author of all the error which the false prophets were thus scattering abroad. For it is not sufficient to observe merely the sound of the words, and then to illicit the substance of the prophetic teaching; but we must attend to the Spirit’s purpose. I have already explained why the Prophet says this, namely, that the Israelites should cease to turn their backs according to their custom, saying, that if they remained in doubt amidst various opinions, this ought not to be imputed to them as a crime. For he answers, that the false prophets only took this license, because the people deserved to be blinded: and in fine, he says that Satan’s lies multiplied not at random or at the will of men, but because God repays a graceless and perfidious people with a just recompense. So Paul says that error has a divine efficacy, when men prefer embracing a lie to the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:11), and do not submit themselves to God, but rather shake off his yoke. Now, therefore, whoever wishes to excuse himself under the pretext of simplicity for not acquiescing in God’s word, this answer is at hand — that all things are thus mingled by God’s just decree. Since, therefore, Satan eclipses the light whenever clouds are scattered to disturb the weak, we here find God to be the author of it, since man’s impiety deserves it. For the Prophet does not here discourse profanely about God’s absolute power, as they say; but when he brings forward God’s name, he takes it for granted that God is not delighted with such disturbance, when false prophets seize upon his name. It is certain, then, that God does not delight in such deception; but the cause must be thought, as we shall soon see: the cause is not always manifest; but without controversy this is fixed, that God punishes men justly, when true religion is so rent asunder by divisions, and truth is obscured by falsehood.
We must hold, then, that God does not rage like a tyrant, but exercises just judgment. Besides, this passage teaches us that neither impostures nor deceptions arise without God’s permission. This seems at first sight absurd, for God seems to contend with himself when he gives license to Satan to pervert sound doctrine: and if this happens by God’s authority, it seems perfectly contradictory to itself. But let us always remember this, that God’s judgments are not without reason called a profound abyss (Psalms 36:6), that when we see rebellious men acting as they do in these times, we should not wish to comprehend what far surpasses even the sense of angels. Soberly, therefore, and reverently must we judge of God’s works, and especially of his secret counsels. But with the aid of reverence and modesty, it will be easy to reconcile these two things — that God begets, and cherishes, and defends his Church, and confirms the teaching of his prophets, all the while that he permits it to be torn and distracted by intestine broils. Why so? He acts thus that he may punish the wickedness of men as often as he pleases when he sees them abuse his goodness and indulgence. When God lights up the flame of his doctrine, this is the sign of his inestimable pity; when he suffers the Church to be disturbed, and men to be in some degree dissipated, this is to be imputed to the wickedness of men. Whatever be the explanation, he pronounces that he deceived the false prophets, because Satan could not utter a single word unless he were permitted, and not only so, but even ordered; while God exercises his wrath against the wicked.
In another sense Jeremiah says that he was deceived (Jeremiah 20:7). I am deceived, but you Jehovah have deceived me: for there he speaks ironically. For when ungodly men boasted that so many of his prophecies were delusive, and derided him as a foolish and misguided man, he says, If I am deceived, you, O Lord, have deceived me. We see, then, that by false irony he reproves the petulance of those who despised his prophecies; and finally, he shows that God was the author of his teaching. But in this place God pronounces without a figure that he deceived the false prophets. If any one now objects, that nothing is more remote from God’s nature than to deceive, the answer is at hand. Although the metaphor is rather rough, yet we know that God transfers to himself by a figure of speech what properly does not belong to him. He is said to laugh at the impious; but we know that it is not agreeable to his nature to ridicule, to laugh, to see, and to sleep. (Psalms 2:4; Psalms 37:13.) And so in this place, I confess, there is an improper form of speaking; but the sense is not doubtful — that all impostures are scattered abroad by God — since Satan, as I have said, can never utter the slightest word unless commanded by God. But the kind of deceit which will solve this difficulty for us is described in the sacred history. For when Ahab had a great crowd of false prophets, Micah alone stood firm, and faithfully discharged his duty to God: when brought before king Ahab, he immediately blows away their boastings — Behold! all my prophets predict victory: he answers — I saw God sitting on his throne; and when all the armies of heaven were collected before him, God inquired, Who shall deceive Ahab? And a spirit offered himself, namely, a devil, and said, I will deceive him, because I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. God answers, Depart, and thus it shall be. (1 Kings 22:0; 2 Chronicles 18:0.) Afterwards it follows, Therefore the Lord put a lie in the mouth of all those prophets. Here he distinctly shows us the manner in which God maddens the false prophets, and deceives them, namely, since he sends forth Satan to fill them with his lies. Since, then, they are impelled by Satan, the father of lies, what can they do but lie and deceive? The whole of this, then, depends on the just judgments of God, as this place teaches. God, therefore, does not deceive, so to speak, without an agency, but uses Satan and impostors as organs of his vengeance. If any one flies to that subtle distinction between ordering and permitting, he is easily refuted by the context. For that cannot be called mere permission when God willingly seeks for some one to deceive Ahab, and then he himself orders Satan to go forth and do so. But the last clause which I have quoted takes away all doubt, since God put a lie in the mouth of the prophets, that is, suggested a lie to all the false prophets. If God suggests, we shall see that Satan flies forth not only by his permission to scatter his impostures; but since God wished to use his aid, so he afforded it on this condition and to this end. But we shall leave the rest for the next lecture.
Here what Ezekiel had partially touched upon is more clearly taught. For he had said, that at length false prophets should meet with punishment, but he now joins the whole people with them, and at the same time repels the empty pretenses by which men are always willing to conceal their fault. For when he mentions their iniquity by name, it is the same as forbidding them to turn their back any more. In this way, then, God removes all the cavils to which men usually resort, since they never pursue these tortuous paths without being conscious of their iniquity. For when God says that he is a searcher of hearts, he brings openly before us the secret feelings of mankind. As long as hypocrites have to deal with men, they easily delude them: and then they put on various disguises, by which they throw off the blame from themselves. But when God addresses them, his language necessarily penetrates to their hidden thoughts. Now therefore we understand the force of the words which God uses, they shall bear their iniquity
He now adds, the iniquity of the inquirer shall be like that of the prophet. We have said that the sacred name of prophet is improperly transferred to impostors: but God often speaks thus by concession, and in this way a stumbling block occurs by which the weak are disturbed. For when they hear that deceivers, who not only obscure God’s word but pervert it, proudly boast in their title, they are moved, and not without reason. For divine things ought seriously to move us to reverence, since prophets are organs of the Holy Spirit. Hence that man is worthy of such honor that no man ought to despise one who is reckoned a prophet. But because God tries his own people and blinds the reprobate, as we have said, when he sends them false prophets, in order that the faith of the pious should not faint when they hear that sacred name profaned, he says by concession — well, they shall be called prophets — but he does not mean that those shall be truly and really esteemed such who falsely claim to themselves that glory. Now let us come to the next clause, the iniquity of the inquirer shall be like that of the prophet. We have already spoken of the iniquity of those who, being led captive by the lies of Satan, endeavor to pervert both the worship and the pure doctrine of God. Since therefore they propose to contend with God, their iniquity is by no means excusable. But another question may arise concerning the people, which, although we have solved it before, yet it may be expedient to repeat it. He says, then, that those who had been deceived by the false prophets would be subject to punishment, that they may sustain the same penalty. This seems hard, as I have said: but the Prophet had previously taught that the people would be justly involved in the same punishment with the impostors, because they erred knowingly and willingly. For if they had cordially devoted themselves to God, and had suffered themselves to be ruled by his Spirit, and by the teaching of the law, they had doubtless been freed from all error. For God takes care of his own people, though he does not defend them from the insults of the ungodly, yet he fortifies them by the foresight and fortitude of his Spirit. Those who are deceived, receive the just reward of either their sloth or pride or ingratitude. For many scarcely deigned to inquire what the will of God was: others looked down as from an eminence on whatever was uttered in God’s name: for through self-confidence they receive with difficulty any instruction but their own. Since then they were so unteachable, they are worthy of the reward which I have mentioned. Others again are ungrateful to God: for they stifle his instructions and the knowledge of heavenly things, and contaminate and pollute what is sacred; so that God justly joins the disciples with their masters when he revenges sacrilege as we see, since all sacred teaching is overthrown.
But Ezekiel expresses more when he says, that the people had inquired. For they had counselors, who thereby gave a direct approbation to their employment. If they had been teachable they would not have betaken themselves so eagerly to the false prophets: hence the greater their diligence in this direction, the more their crime was apparent, since they purposely rejected God and his servants, by transferring themselves to the false prophets. We now understand the meaning of this sentence. It only remains that each of us should apply what is here said to his own profit. The Papists think themselves to be twice or thrice absolved if they have been deceived in any quarter. But, on the other hand, Christ exclaims — If the blind lead the blind, it is not surprising if both fall into the ditch. (Matthew 15:14.) The reason is here expressed, because however those who are deceived show their simplicity, it is by no means doubtful that they flee from the light and desire the darkness by a crooked and perverse craving. Hence it happens that the iniquity of the inquirer is like that of the prophet.
Here God shows that there was no other remedy, if he would recall to safety those who had almost perished, and at the same time he teaches that it is useful to the Church to chastise those who had so impiously declined from himself. Meanwhile it happens that God thunders, and exercises his judgments even to the extreme of rigor: meanwhile men do not repent but remain obstinate: nay, the punishment which God inflicts upon the reprobate sinks them into deeper destruction. How so? Those who harden themselves against the hand of God heap upon themselves severer punishments, since the reprobate do not submit to the yoke when God wishes to correct their hardness and obstinacy. But here God announces that he will not be so severe as not to consult for their safety. But this contradiction might disturb many, since God destined the people as well as the false prophets to destruction, for this seems to render his covenant vain. But he prevents this question, and says, since he should exact such severe penalties from the despisers of his word and from apostates, that rigor would be useful to the Church. Now we understand the meaning of the saying, the house of Israel shall not err any more: since otherwise their obstinacy was incurable: and unless God had seriously roused them up, they had never been brought back into the way of their own accord. Here therefore God obliquely rebukes the hardness of his people, because they could not be instructed except by punishment. For incorrigible indeed are those sons who, while their father cherishes and indulges them, despise him, and become worse by the indulgence. Of this then God now complains, that the children of Israel were so untractable that they could not bear destruction, unless he descended to the utmost rigor. For it was a very sad spectacle, that God’s truth should be corrupted and adulterated by lies, and that the people, with those who imposed upon them, should utterly perish. But we now hear that there was but one remedy since the children of Israel were untameable, unless they were completely broken down. He now adds, from me: a phrase worthy of notice, for we here gather, that as soon as we bend ever so little from following God, we wander after errors: for we shall never hold on in the right way unless we follow God, that is, unless we are intent upon the end which he sets before us: and then unless our eyes are turned in the direction that he points out, lest we bend to either the right hand or the left. Thus we shall be beyond any danger of wandering if we, follow God: on the other hand, if our minds turn to either this side or that, and we are not retained in obedience to God alone, the Prophet teaches that we wander in error, and that this will at length turn out unhappily for us. When he speaks of the house of Israel, he does not embrace without exception those who spring from Jacob; for both the false prophets and those who consulted them were of Jacob’s line, and had a name in that family. But we have already seen what was decreed concerning them, namely, that God would destroy them and blot them out from the midst of his people. We see then that they are not; comprehended under the offspring of Abraham or the house of Israel; but this is restricted to the remnant of the people whom God wished to spare. For we know that there was always some seed left, that the covenant which had been made with Abraham might be firm and sacred. This sentence then properly refers to the elect, who are called by Paul the remnant of grace. (Romans 11:5.) But God says that the example would be useful to the survivors, since the punishment of others would instruct them: and when they should see the false prophets perish, and should acknowledge God’s remarkable judgment in their destruction, then they would profit by it. Now we understand what the Prophet means by the destruction of the false prophets and of those hypocrites who despised the true prophets, and prostituted themselves to be deceived by impostors: when God makes them an example of his wrath, the Prophet says that the house of Israel should receive advantage from their perishing, and profit by their utter ruin.
Now he adds, And that they should not be polluted any more in all their wickedness. Here he purposely enlarges on their crime, that he may the more magnify the mercy of God; for if they had been only moderately guilty, his pardoning them had not been so remarkable. But the Prophet here pronounces them abandoned in sin, and does not condemn them for one sin but for many: he says they were polluted and contaminated in their crimes: and when God’s mercy is extended to such as these, we discover with certainty how inestimable it is. Finally, let us learn from this passage, that God not only pardons men who transgress but lightly through want of thought and error, but that he is also merciful to the abandoned who are convicted of many iniquities. He says, that they may be my people and I may be their God. God had already adopted the whole seed of Abraham, and all were circumcised to a man: and thus they bore personally the testimony and covenant of God’s paternal favor. Since, therefore, they were already God’s people, and were considered as members of the Church, what can it mean that they shall be my people? For God seems here to promise them something new. But by this form of speech the Prophet marks their declension and manifests their deserts. For although God had thought them worthy of such honor as to reckon them among his elect people, yet they had cast themselves out by their own depravity. For since all religion among them was corrupt, God’s worship was profaned, his whole law almost buried, and they were separated as far as possible from God, as we shall afterwards see. On the part of God the adoption remained firm: but here Ezekiel regards their condition if they would really look at it themselves, namely, as one of estrangement, since their own wickedness had cut them off: hence he speaks as of a new benefit when he says, they should be for a people when they repented.
The second chapter of Hosea will help us to understand this more clearly, when it is said,
“I will call them my people who are not my people,
and her beloved who is not beloved.” (Hosea 2:23.)
For the Prophet was commanded to go into an improper house and to take an impure female and to beget sons: he says that a son was born to whom God gave the name
The next verse thought to be joined: for some interpreters altogether pervert the Prophet’s sense by finishing the sentence there, as if he had said, I will extend my hand over it, &e. But the sentence is dependent, as we shall see —
Here again God threatens the people of Israel with final destruction: but the words seem opposed, that God would be merciful and propitious to his people, and yet that no hope of pardon would be left. But we must remember the principle, that the prophets sometimes directed their discourse to the body of the people which was utterly devoted to destruction, since its wickedness was desperate; yet afterwards they moderated that rigor, when they turned to the remainder, which is the seed of the Church in the world, that God’s covenant should not be extinguished, as we have already said. Hence, when we meet with this kind of contradiction, we know that God affords no hope to the reprobate, since he has decreed their destruction: so that language ought to be transferred to the body of the people which was already alienated, and like a putrid carcass. But when God mingles and intersperses any testimony of his favor, we may know that the Church is intended, and that he wishes a seed to remain, lest the whole Church should perish, and his covenant be abolished at the same time. The Prophet, therefore, as before, so also now, sets before himself the people desperate in wickedness, and says that they had no right to hope that God would act mercifully as usual, since necessity compelled him to put his hand for the last time to the destruction of the impious. This is the full meaning. We had a similar passage in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:1), where he said, If Moses and Samuel had stood before me, my mind is not towards this people; that is, it never could be that I should return to favor them, even if Moses and Samuel should intercede for them, and endeavor to obtain pardon by their own intercession. The papists foolishly distort this passage to prove that the dead intercede for us, for Moses and Samuel had been dead some time; but God says, Even if they should pray for the people, their prayers would be in vain. But this passage refutes that gross ignorance: for God is not here making a difference between the living and the dead; but it is a kind of personification, and of bringing back Moses and Samuel from the grave; as if he had said, Were they living at this time, and entreating for these wicked ones, I would never listen to them: for Ezekiel here mentions three, Noah, Job, and Daniel. But Daniel was then alive: he had been dragged into exile, and lived to a mature old age, as is well known. Then he expresses his meaning more clearly, by saying, if they had been in the midst of the city they had escaped in safety themselves, but they would not have prevailed for others. The whole meaning is, that God cuts off all hope of mercy from the abandoned people.
We must remark the form of speech which is used: he relates four kinds of punishments by which men’s crimes are usually avenged, and enumerates them distinctly. If I shall break the staff of bread, says he, because the land has revolted from me, and I shall send famine upon it, Daniel, Job, and Noah, shall preserve their own souls, but shall not profit others by their holiness: then he adds,if I shall send a sword, that is, if I shall follow up the impious by wars, even Daniel, and Job, and Noah, shall save their own souls, but they shall not intercede for others. He pronounces the same of pestilence and wild beasts. At length He reasons from less to greater. When I shall have punished any nation, says He, with famine, pestilence, and the sword, and wild beasts, how much less shall Daniel, Job, and Noah, prevail with me by their intercession? But God had condemned the house of Israel to all punishments, just as if he had poured all his curses like a deluge to destroy them. Hence He concludes that there is no reason for cherishing any hope of escape from these imminent dangers. Now then we comprehend the Prophet’s meaning.
Now let us come to the first kind of punishment. If the land, says he, acts wickedly against me, or conducts itself wickedly,
Again, and I will stretch forth, my hand upon it, and will break the staff of bread, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off from it man and beast. Here, as I have mentioned, he touches upon only one kind of punishment; for God is accustomed to take vengeance on men in four ways; and the prophets, as you have often heard, usually adopt the form of speech used by Moses. These four curses of God are everywhere related in the law, — war, famine, pestilence, and the assault and savageness of wild beasts. Now the Prophet begins with hunger; but he points out the kind of hunger — if God has broken the staff of bread. For sometimes, when he does not reduce men to poverty, yet he puffs up the bread, so that those who think to use it as nourishment do not gather any rigor from it. But the Prophet properly means it in this second sense, as we see in Ezekiel 4:0 and Ezekiel 5:0. The metaphor is in accordance with the word staff: for as the lame cannot walk unless they lean on a staff — and tremulous old men need a similar support — so by degrees men’s strength vanish, unless new rigor is replaced by meat and drink. Bread is, therefore, like a staff which restores our strength when want has weakened it. We now come to the word breaking. How does God break the staff of bread? By withdrawing the nourishment which he had infused into it; for the virtue which we perceive in bread is not intrinsic: I mean this — that bread is not naturally endued with the virtue of continuing and inspiring life within men; and why? Bread has no life in it: how then can any one derive life from it? But the teaching of the law has been marked: that man lives not by bread only, but by every word proceeding from God’s mouth. (Deuteronomy 8:3.) Here Moses intends, that even if God has inserted the virtue of nourishment in bread, yet this is not to be so attributed to it as if it were inherent in it. What follows then? That as God breathes a secret virtue into the bread, it sustains and refreshes us, and becomes our aliment. On the other hand, God says that he breaks the virtue of the bread when he withdraws from it that virtue: because, as I have already said, when we taste bread, our minds ought to rise immediately to God, since men, if they cram themselves a thousand times, yet will not feel their life to be deposited in the bread. Therefore, unless God breathes into bread the virtue of nourishment, the bread is useless; it may fill us up, but without any profit. Now, then, we understand the meaning of this sentence, about which we shall have something more to say.
Now he mentions the second kind of punishment. For we said that God’s four scourges were here brought before us, which are more familiarly known to men through frequent use. They are hunger and wild beasts, war and pestilence. The Prophet has spoken of famine; he now comes down to wild beasts. This kind of scourge is rarely used in Scripture; for God more frequently mentions the sword, pestilence, and famine; but when he distinctly treats, of his scourges, he adds also savage beasts. Now therefore he says, if he had sent wild beasts to lay waste the land, and Noah, Job, and Daniel, had been in that land, they would be free from the common slaughter, but that their righteousness would not profit others. He expresses a little more clearly what he had spoken briefly and obscurely when he treated of the famine. If, says he, I shall cause an evil beast to pass through and injure the land, so as to lay it waste, that no one may pass through on account of the wild beasts, as I live, says he, if these three men shall free their sons and their daughters. This passage teaches what I lately touched upon about the famine, namely, that the beasts did not break in by chance to attack and rage against men, but that they are sent by God. Thus God follows out his judgments no less by means of lions, and bears, and tigers, than by rain and drought, the sword and the pestilence: and surely this may be understood, if we reflect upon the great savageness of these beasts; first, when hunger arouses them they are carried along by a ravenous impulse; and then, without the compulsion of necessity, they are hostile to the human race, and without doubt they would urge themselves on to tear to pieces all whom they met with, unless restrained by God’s secret instinct. If, therefore, God restrains the wild beasts, thus also he sends them forth as often as it pleases him, to exercise their ferocity against mankind, and in this way to become his scourges. But here an oath is interposed that God may inspire confidence in his sentence, so God swears by his own life. This is the meaning of the phrase as I live; that is, I swear by my life. This is indeed spoken improperly, but elsewhere we have seen that God swears by his life; that is, just as if he swore by himself, because he has no greater by whom he can swear, as the Apostle says (Hebrews 6:13); and as often as we swear by the name of God we attribute the supreme power to him, and thus we profess our life to be in his hand, and he to be our only Judge. When, therefore, he swears by himself, he admonishes us at the same time that his name is profaned if we swear by any others: then he shows how much religion is to be exhibited in oaths. Let us follow, therefore, God’s example, when our speech needs confirmation, by calling in a witness and judge: next, that we should not use his name rashly and falsely, but that our oath should be truly a testimony to our piety. But here in truth a question arises, — How God can say that the land should perish which has been once subjected to wild beasts? For sometimes wild beasts have infected many regions, and God has immediately restrained them, and so their cruelty has passed away like a storm.
Again, we knew that the prayer of the saints are not superfluous when they pray for others; but God seems here to deny what is clearly manifest. But the solution is easy. For since he does not inflict his judgments equably but variably, and at one time hastens punishments and at another suspends them: at one time punishes men’s sins and at another delays doing so, he fixes for himself no sure law by which he is always bound, but he speaks of the land which he has destined to destruction. God therefore will strike one region with famine, another with war, a third with pestilence, a fourth with wild beasts, and yet he can mitigate his own rigor, and when men begin to be terrified, he can withdraw his hand. But if it has been once decreed that any land must perish, all the saints would run together in vain, because no one would be a fit intercessor to abolish that inviolable decree. We now understand the Prophet’s intention, for he does not speak generally of any lands whatever, but he points out the very land which was devoted to final destruction. It follows —
The Prophet now descends to the third kind of punishment. Hence God says, if he send a sword upon a land, he cannot be entreated so as not to consume it utterly, neither will he admit any man’s intercession, although the most holy dwell there, namely, Job, Noah, and Daniel. But the phrase used must be marked: if I shall say to the sword, pass through to exterminate and blot out the whole land, or cut off from it, both man and beast, because we here gather the great power of God’s secret government. For we think that wars are stirred up at random: and as men are in agitation, so also we imagine war to be nothing but confusion and turbulence. But God governs even wars by his inestimable wisdom, and also men and their swords: men are enraged, their swords fly about in their hands, and they seem to go hither and thither at random by blind impulse. But God here announces that he permits swords to pass through a land, and to destroy both men and cattle. If he had said, after the language used in many places, that he would arm men, it would not have been very wonderful: for everywhere throughout the Prophets he calls the Chaldaeans and Assyrians executors of his judgment. Hence that sentence of Jeremiah, Cursed is he who has done God’s work negligently. (Jeremiah 48:10.) But that work of God was the slaughter at Jerusalem. So also Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant and minister when he laid waste Egypt, and God promises him the reward of his labor. (Ezekiel 29:20.) So here Ezekiel proceeds further, not only that the hands of men are directed as God wishes, but also that their swords listen to his secret command, so that they neither pass by nor strike any man or animal except as far as God pleases. But if God so commands the swords, let us know that whenever men rise up against us, that our patience is exercised and our sins chastised in this way: and that the impious are God’s agents: and let us determine that we shall never profit by noise and resistance, since there is but one remedy, to humble ourselves under God’s strong hand. Now the fourth kind of punishment follows —
He now affirms of the fourth kind of punishment, what he has hitherto pronounced of the rest. He says, then, If I shall have sent a pestilence, and have devoted a land to devastation, that Job, Daniel, and Noah, should be safe if they dwelt there: but that their righteousness should not profit even their sons and their daughters. Nay, he seems to speak with greater restriction, since he has substituted the singular number for the plural: for he had just said, they shall not free either sons or daughters. He now says, not even a son or a daughter, that is, they shall not prevail with me by their intercession so much as to save from death even a single son or daughter. We must also remember what I have said, that God does not always act in the way related here: for he has manifold and various methods of carrying out his judgments. Hence it would not be just to impose a law not to liberate any one, and according to his own will either to hear or reject their prayers. But here he only means, that when he has determined to destroy a land, there is no hope of pardon, since even the most holy will not persuade him to desist from his wrath and vengeance. But now the conclusion follows —
He now reasons, as we said in the beginning, from the less to the greater. Hitherto he has said, If I shall have sent forth only one weapon to take vengeance upon men, no one will oppose my following out my decree: then he enumerated four weapons, one after another. Now he adds, What then, when I shall have heaped together all punishments, and not only shall have sent pestilence or sword or famine, but as it were when I have four armies prepared and drawn up, and shall command them to attack and destroy mankind, how shall even one person escape? If Job, Daniel, and Noah, cannot snatch away even their sons and daughters from a single scourge, how shall they snatch them from four at once! We see, then, that God here cuts away the false and specious hopes by which the false prophets deluded the miserable exiles when they promised them a return to their country, and daily proclaimed how impossible it was that the sacred city, the earthly dwelling-place of God, could be taken by the enemy, and the religion which God had promised should be eternal could perish. Since, therefore, the false prophets so deceived these miserable exiles, here God shows how greatly they erred while they cherished any hope in their minds; because he had not only held one kind of scourge over Jerusalem, but approached it with a whole heap of them to destroy and cut off both man and beast. This then is the full meaning.
Now he says, If I shall have sent my four evil judgments. Here God calls his judgments evils, in the sense in which he says in Isaiah, that he creates good and evil, (Isaiah 45:7,) since immediately afterwards he expresses his meaning by saying life and death. Hence what is against us is here called evil, and so this epithet ought to be referred to our perceptions. For our natural common sense dictates that whatever is desirable and useful to us is good: food and life and peace are good, and whatever is conducive to life, and what we naturally wish for, we call good. So also, on the other hand, death and famine are evils: so are nakedness, want, and shame: why so? since we dread whatever is not useful to us; and because we fly from evils as soon as reason dawns. In fine, evil here is not opposed to justice and right, but, as I have said, to men’s opinion and our natural senses. He now confirms what we before said, namely, that these are God’s judgments when enemies rage against us, pestilence attacks us: poverty assails us, and wild beasts break in upon us. When therefore we suffer under these afflictions, let us learn immediately to descend into ourselves and to discover the cause why God is so angry with us. For if we turn our attention towards the sword, and pestilence, and famine, we are like dogs which gnaw and bite what is thrown at them, and do not regard the hand which threw it, but only vent their rage upon the stone. For such is our stupidity when we complain of famine being injurious to us, wild beasts troublesome, and war horrible. Hence this passage should always be borne in mind that, these areGod’s evil judgments, that is, scourges by which he chastises our sins, and thus shows himself hostile and opposed to us.
He now adds, there shall be a remnant in that escape. They explain this verse parenthetically, as if God by way of correction engaged to act more mercifully towards that city, than if he struck any land with only one scourge. They explain it thus: although these four scourges should meet together, yet I will mitigate the rigor of my vengeance, since some shall go out safely, and reach even to you. Almost all agree in this sense; but when I weigh the Prophet’s intention more accurately, I cannot subscribe to it: because God seems to me to confirm what he had said before, that he would be a just avenger of wickedness while he treats the Jews so harshly. To discover the most suitable sense, we must consider the condition of the exiles: it was surely worse than if they had been destroyed by a single death for they were dying daily; and at length, when cast out of the sacred land, they were like the dead. Hence that exile was more sorrowful than death, since it was better to be buried in the holy land than among the profane. Since, then, they had been mixed with dog’s, it was no life to them to protract a wretched existence amidst constant languor; and if the hope of restoration had been taken away, concerning which we are not now treating, and to which not a single syllable applies, exile was by itself like death. Since, then, the Prophet here says, that some should be left, to escape, he does not mean that they should be safe: hence this is not a mitigation of their punishment. For as we saw before, and especially in Jeremiah, those who died quickly were less to be deplored. (Jeremiah 22:10.) Finally, when the Prophet here says that some should come to Babylon, he does not promise them pardon, as if God was propitious to them, or noticed them favorably; no such thing: for he speaks of the reprobate, and of those who bore on their forehead the manifest sign of their impiety, and show by their whole life that they are abandoned, and most worthy of final destruction.
For he says, a departure of those who go forth shall come: sons as well as daughters shall come to you, says he, and you shall see their ways and their work: that is, you shall see that the men are so wicked, that their ungodliness shall compel you to confess the city to be worthy of perishing, and the people deserving destruction. For the word consoling, which the Prophet uses immediately afterwards, refers here to the acknowledgment of their wickedness appeasing the minds of those who formerly roared and murmured against God. Neither does he mean that consolation which, according to the common proverb, has many friends; but only the calm acknowledgment of God’s just vengeance, in which the ten tribes acquiesced. For before they saw the state in which the inhabitants of Jerusalem were, they thought that God was too severe, and hence their outcry and complaint against God. The Prophet, therefore, now says, that the sight of your wickedness will bring you consolation; for you shall see that it could not be otherwise, and that you deserved such punishment: hence, when you have acknowledged your abandoned wickedness, you will regard my justice with peaceful and tranquil minds; and you will so finish and cease your complaints which now agitate your minds in different directions. The rest, to-morrow.
He now puts the verb for comforting in the third person, but in the same sense, because after the Jews shall have been led captive, they will bear sure and special marks of God’s justice against their sins. This, then, is the consolation, as I explained it yesterday, while the exiles acknowledge that cruelty cannot be ascribed to God, as if he had exceeded moderation in exacting punishment; for the desperate wickedness of the people demanded it. But this passage contains a useful doctrine, since we collect from it that we are never tranquil in our minds unless when the greatest equity and justice appears in God’s judgments, and become present to our minds. As long, therefore, as we do not acknowledge God to be severe in just cases, our minds must necessarily be disturbed and disarranged: hence the word “consolation” is opposed to those turbulent thoughts. But since nothing is more miserable than to be distracted and drawn hither and thither, and to be anxiously disturbed, let us learn that those profit most who acquiesce in God’s judgments, although they do not perceive the reason of them, yet modestly adore them. But when God shows why he treats either us or others so severely, this is a special favor, since he offers us material for joy and tranquillity. Let us proceed.
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 14". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent