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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Ezekiel 20

D. Israel’s defective leadership chs. 20-23

This section of the book is the final collection of prophecies that deal with the fall of Judah and Jerusalem. In these messages the prophet clarified further Yahweh’s motivation in bringing this judgment.

"One of the hardest tasks of Christian leaders today is to keep our churches true to the Word of God so that people don’t follow every religious celebrity whose ideas run contrary to Scrupture." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 198.]

Verse 1

Certain elders of the Jewish exiles came to Ezekiel to inquire of the Lord (cf. Ezekiel 14:1-11). Inquiring of the Lord meant securing a divine revelation concerning a particular event (cf. 1 Kings 14:5-18; 1 Kings 22:7-28; 2 Kings 8:8-15; 2 Kings 22:13-20; Jeremiah 21:2-14; Jeremiah 37:7-10). In view of the historical context of their request, the event that they wanted information about was probably King Zedekiah’s attempt to secure Egypt’s help in defeating the Babylonians.

"In the late summer of 591 B.C., the news of Egypt’s victory in the Sudan reached the remnant of Judeans at Tel Abib. Rumors also indicated that [Pharaoh] Psammetik II would make a triumphal conquest of Palestine. The exiles’ expectations were most certainly heightened as they hoped that Egypt would prove to be the redeemer to free them from Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah had foolishly shared the same dream when he revolted from Babylonian rule and placed his confidence in Egypt’s strength somewhere between the end of 591 and 589 B.C. Such a move was ill-timed; for the Pharaoh soon became ill, and the potential might of Egypt never materialized." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 832.]

These elders probably wanted to know if Zedekiah’s overtures to Egypt would be successful, if the Egyptians would help them defeat the Babylonians, and if the exiles could expect to return home soon.

This event happened in the seventh year of Jehoiachin’s captivity, namely, 591 B.C. The tenth day of the fifth month would have been August 14. [Note: Parker and Dubberstein, p. 28.] Eleven months had passed since Ezekiel began the preceding series of messages (cf. Ezekiel 8:1). The dating of the prophecy indicates a new section of the book and a new series of messages.

Verses 1-4

The introduction to a history lesson 20:1-4

Verses 1-44

1. The history of Israel’s rebellion and Yahweh’s grace 20:1-44

The structure of this passage is quite clear. It consists of a review of Israel’s history with an introduction and a concluding application.

"The chapter is remarkable in that it shows a uniform moral plane sustained by the nation throughout its history." [Note: Feinberg, p. 108.]

Other important themes in this chapter include God’s faithful grace in spite of Israel’s persistent rebelliousness, the repetition of a wilderness experience for Israel for her disobedience, and Yahweh’s concern for His own reputation (name).

Verses 2-4

In response to the request of these elders, God gave His prophet a message for them. He told Ezekiel to say that He would not satisfy their curiosity about the matters that concerned them. However, Ezekiel was to communicate another message to these elders, a message that included judgment because of the Israelites’ abominable idolatry throughout their history. The Lord’s repeated question has the effect of an emotional imperative: you must pass judgment on them.

Verses 5-6

The Lord reminded these elders that He had chosen the Israelites, made Himself known to them, and made promises to them when they were slaves in Egypt (Exodus 6:2-8; Deuteronomy 7:6-11). Leslie Allen observed that this is Ezekiel’s only reference to God’s election of Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 7:7; Deuteronomy 14:2). [Note: Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, p. 9.] The prophet began this historical review with Israel’s history as a nation in Exodus, not with her earlier history as the family of Abraham in Genesis. Yahweh had promised to be the Israelites’ God and to bring them out of Egypt and into the very best of lands, which He had selected for them to occupy (Genesis 12:7; Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:13-18).

Verses 5-9

Israel’s rebellion in Egypt and God’s grace 20:5-9

The Lord’s history lesson for these elders described Israel in four successive periods: in Egypt (Ezekiel 20:5-9), in the wilderness (Ezekiel 20:10-26), in the Promised Land (Ezekiel 20:27-29), and in the present time (Ezekiel 20:30-38). What the Lord said about Israel’s history in each of these four periods is quite similar. God had been good to His people, but they had rebelled against Him. Consequently judgment followed, but God had also extended His grace. The Lord then repeated the last two points in His summary of each historical period. Psalms 106 contains a similar review of Israel’s history, and Ezekiel 16, 23 describe Israel’s history metaphorically.

Verses 7-9

The Lord had told the Israelites to abandon the detestable, defiling gods of Egypt because He was their God, but they rebelled against Him and refused to do so (cf. Exodus 5:19-21; Exodus 6:9; Leviticus 17:7; Leviticus 18:3; Leviticus 26:30; Deuteronomy 29:16-17; Joshua 24:14). He purposed to judge His people in Egypt for their rebellion, and their enslavement there was partially a judgment for their idolatry. Some expositors believed that this is a reference to God judging the Israelites at Mt. Sinai because of the Golden Calf incident. [Note: E.g., Greenberg, pp. 365-66; and Cooper, p. 201-2.] However it seems clear that the Lord was referring to Israel’s idolatry in Egypt before the Exodus, which is not revealed as explicitly elsewhere in Scripture. Then He chose to bring them out of Egypt for the sake of His reputation among the other nations (cf. Genesis 15:13-16).

"Though Israel had failed to sanctify the name of the Lord among the nations, the Lord himself would do so by his deliverance of Israel from Egypt [cf. Exodus 7:5; Psalms 106:8-12]." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 834.]

Verses 10-12

So the Lord led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness. At Mount Sinai He gave them statutes and ordinances that would result in their welfare if they obeyed them, namely, the Mosaic Law. He also gave them the Sabbath Day as a sign of the special relationship and blessing that they enjoyed because He had chosen them. By observing the Sabbath the Israelites demonstrated their uniqueness among the nations, their sanctification unto Yahweh (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 31:13-17). The Sabbath was a dual sign to the Israelites. It reminded them of Yahweh’s creation of the cosmos (Exodus 20:11) and of His creation of their nation (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). It was the central sign of the Old Covenant (Isaiah 56:2; Isaiah 56:4).

Verses 10-26

Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness and God’s grace 20:10-26

Verse 13

Nevertheless the Israelites rebelled against their God in the wilderness by disobeying His commands, which God intended to result in their blessing (Leviticus 18:5). They also made the Sabbath common by failing to observe it as a special day of the week even though God intended it to be a day of rest and remembrance for them. Consequently, Yahweh decided to annihilate them in the wilderness.

Verse 14

However again His reputation as Israel’s God moved Him to have mercy on them. Annihilating them would have made it appear to the other nations that He was unable to sustain them and to fulfill His promises to them.

"’For my name’s sake’ expresses one of God’s motives in dealing with humanity. Although it means so little to most men, the name of the LORD is infinitely precious to Him. See Ezekiel 36:20, where the LORD says of unfaithful Israel, ’they profaned my holy name,’ and the following verse, where He says of Himself, ’I had pity for my holy name.’ Consistent with His holiness God is concerned to vindicate the honor of His name." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 858.]

Verses 15-16

Notwithstanding, He swore to the Israelites that He would not bring that generation of them into the Promised Land because they had rebelled against Him and had worshipped idols. For Ezekiel, "idolatry is the quintessential cause of the Babylonian exile." [Note: John F. Kutsko, Between Heaven and Earth, p. 25.]

Verse 17

So the Lord spared His people. He did this in response to Moses’ intercession for the people (cf. Numbers 14:13-19; Deuteronomy 1:26-40; Psalms 106:23-25).

Verses 18-20

The Lord then instructed the children of the generation that He had liberated from Egyptian bondage not to follow the bad example of their fathers. Since He was Yahweh their God they should remain faithful to the terms of the (Mosaic) covenant that He had made with their nation.

Verse 21

However, they also rebelled against the Lord, as their fathers had done, so He resolved to punish them in the wilderness.

Verses 22-24

Again the Lord withheld punishment for the sake of His reputation (cf. Numbers 16:21-22; Numbers 25:1-9), but He swore to them that He would scatter them among the other nations and disperse them in other lands because of their covenant unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:33; Deuteronomy 28:64; Psalms 106:26-27).

Verses 25-26

The Lord also gave them statutes that were not good for them in the sense that He allowed them to choose to live by worldly rules that caused them misery and death (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28:15 to Deuteronomy 29:19; 2 Kings 17:26-41). He also gave them ordinances that were too difficult for them to keep in that He did not lighten the burden of responsibility that the Mosaic Law imposed. When the people offered their children as burnt offerings to the idols, the loss of their children was God’s punishment for this sin (cf. Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Romans 1:24; Romans 1:26; Romans 1:28). He had commanded that they offer their first-born to Him or redeem those children (Exodus 13:12; Exodus 22:29; Numbers 18:15-19), but He had not told them to offer their children to Him as burnt offerings. Ezekiel seems to have been countering the people’s claim that because God had commanded them to dedicate their first-born to Him, He was authorizing child sacrifice. Ezekiel 20:25 may reflect a statement of the people that Ezekiel quoted and than rebutted in Ezekiel 20:26. [Note: See Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, p. 12.]

"A sacrifice as understood by Israel’s pagan neighbors was a way of giving desirable things to the gods. . . . How about really impressing a god with your dedication and sincerity by sending that god something more precious to you than anything else-your own firstborn child? Thinking themselves likely to gain the lifetime favor of the gods in this way, the Israelites borrowed child sacrifice, too, from their neighbors and began killing their firstborn infants and burning them on altars as a means of sending them to the false gods they were worshiping. It is evident that such people really wanted the gods to love them and were willing to ’give their all’ to gain such love." [Note: Stuart, p. 182.]

Verses 27-28

The Lord instructed Ezekiel to continue speaking for Him. The Israelites’ forefathers had blasphemed (slandered) the Lord with further covenant unfaithfulness (cf. Numbers 15:30-31). After He had brought them into the Promised Land, they used that good land to practice idolatry.

Verses 27-29

Israel’s rebellion in the Promised Land and God’s grace 20:27-29

Verse 29

The Lord had confronted His people with their use of the high places on hilltops for idolatry. The name of the high places, Bamah, had a double significance. It meant "high place," but it also meant literally "go where" or "go what" (Heb. ba mah). Thus Bamah became a contemptuous pun. When the people went to the high places to worship idols, where were they going? They were going nowhere of any significance to do nothing of any importance since these idols were nonentities and could not help them. The name Bamah said more about these places than just identifying them as high places of worship, and the Lord had perpetuated the name Bamah for this reason.

"In the world of the Old Testament, everyone worshiped by using idols. It was unthinkable not to. Idols were thought to be absolutely necessary for proper worship in the same way that wings are thought necessary for an airplane today. The practice of idolatry was based on what is sometimes called ’sympathetic magic,’ that is, the ability to influence reality by manipulating an image of that reality." [Note: Ibid., p. 172.]

Verse 30

Ezekiel was to ask his hearers if they planned to defile themselves and to prostitute themselves to things the Lord detested, as their ancestors had done.

Verses 30-38

Israel’s rebellion in Ezekiel’s day and God’s grace 20:30-38

Verse 31

They were defiling themselves by practicing child sacrifice. For this reason the Lord would not give them the answers to the questions that they brought to him (cf. Ezekiel 20:1; Ezekiel 20:3).

Verses 32-35

The Lord would not allow them to become like the idolaters all around them who served wood and stone. He would be their king, He swore, and bring judgment on them. But He would re-gather them to their land from the distant countries where He had scattered them (cf. Ezekiel 36:14-38; Ezekiel 37:21-23; Deuteronomy 30:1-10; Isaiah 11:11-16; Isaiah 49:17-23; Isaiah 60; Isaiah 61:4-9; Jeremiah 23:1-8; Amos 9:11-15; Zechariah 10:8-12; et al.). The descriptions of God doing this with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm recall the terms used of His liberation of the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 6:6; Exodus 32:11; cf. Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 7:19; Deuteronomy 11:2; Psalms 136:12). A second exodus is in view. He would bring them into another type of wilderness, a wilderness full of people, and there He would personally judge them. This probably refers to the present worldwide dispersion of the Jews that began in A.D. 70 when the Jews had to leave the Promised Land again. [Note: See Louis A. Barbieri Jr., "The Future for Israel in God’s Plan," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 163-79, for a concise survey of this large subject.]

Verses 36-38

As the Lord had judged the fathers in the wilderness long ago, so He would judge the children of His people. He would discipline them to sanctify them (cf. Jeremiah 33:13). It was customary for shepherds to count their sheep as they passed under their staff that they held over the doorway of the sheepfold.

"Reference to those who ’pass under my rod’ was first an allusion to the tithe (Leviticus 27:32). Every tenth animal that passed under a ’rod’ held over the sheep was separated and declared to be holy. The purification of the exile, likewise, would separate the righteous and the wicked. The ’rod’ also was an instrument of discipline, correction, and punishment. This was another way of communicating the purpose of the exile, which was to ’purge’ and purify those who rebelled against God (Ezekiel 20:38)." [Note: Cooper, pp. 206-7.]

The Lord would also bring His people under obligation to keep the terms of a covenant. This is evidently a reference to the New Covenant (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-38; Jeremiah 31:31-34). He would weed out the rebels and transgressors from among them and bring them out of the countries where they lived but would not bring them into the Promised Land (cf. Numbers 16; Deuteronomy 11:6). This probably refers to the Jews who will die during the Tribulation period (cf. Zechariah 13:8; Revelation 12:15-17) and or when the Lord returns to the earth (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). Of course, many other Jews will enter the Millennium, as the verses cited make clear.

"The passage is a prophecy of future judgment upon Israel, regathered from all nations . . . The issue of this judgment determines who of Israel in that day will enter kingdom blessing (Psalms 50:1-7; Ezekiel 20:33-44; Malachi 3:2-5; Malachi 4:1-2)." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 859.]

Then His people would know that the One who did this was Yahweh.

Verse 39

For now the Israelites to whom Ezekiel spoke could continue to practice idolatry, not with the Lord’s blessing of course, but in the future they would listen to and obey the Lord. Then they would make His name common no longer with their unacceptable worship, gifts, and idolatry.

"Those who consistently reject God and his Word favor self-willed idolatry and immorality and are finally given over by him to reprobation (Ezekiel 20:30-39), a process described in detail in Romans 1:24-28." [Note: Cooper, p. 207. Cf. Feinberg, p. 115; and Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 258.]

Verses 39-44

An application of this history lesson 20:39-44

Verse 40

At that future time, all Israel would serve the Lord, specifically on the holy mountain where the temple stood (cf. Isaiah 27:13; Isaiah 56:7; Isaiah 66:20; Joel 2:1; Joel 3:17; Zephaniah 3:11; Zechariah 8:3). Then the Lord would accept their offerings of worship, their special gifts to Him, and all the things that they devoted to Him because they had repented (cf. chs. 40-48).

Verses 41-42

The people would be as a soothing aroma to God when He regathered them to the Promised Land from where He had scattered them, and He would accept them. He would then prove that He is holy among the nations, namely, uniquely different from all the so-called gods. The Israelites would also recognize Him when He fulfilled His promise to the patriarchs to give them the Promised Land.

Verses 43-44

Back in the land then the Israelites would remember their past sins and loathe themselves. They would also come to know the Lord for the kind of God He is because they would recognize how graciously He had dealt with them as a people.

The prospect of future grace, restoration, and blessing has always been the strongest motivation for present holiness (Romans 2:4). This is why this message ends as it does.

"The prophet Ezekiel straddled two eras, the grim era of the past and present which culminated in double exile and-in prospect at least-a glorious era to be inaugurated by a new work of God. In this chapter both these aspects are set side by side so that it presents an epitome of his total message." [Note: Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, p 15.]

2. Judgment of Judah’s contemporary leaders 20:45-21:32

A new chapter in the Hebrew Bible begins with Ezekiel 20:45. The section of the book that it begins contains four messages of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem with special emphasis on the judgment coming on the leaders of the people. The Lord explained the basis for His judgment of Judah (Ezekiel 20:1-44) and then proceeded to describe and to affirm the certainty of that judgment (Ezekiel 20:45 to Ezekiel 21:32).

The parable of the forest fire 20:45-21:7

The prophet first presented another parable, and then he interpreted it.

Verses 45-46

The Lord commanded Ezekiel to address Teman with a prophecy. Teman (Heb. temanah, right) refers to the south. Perhaps the translators of the NASB left this word transliterated because Teman was also the name of an important town in Edom to Jerusalem’s southeast, and they felt the Lord might have intended this prophecy for that town. The Septuagint translators understood this word this way, and they also interpreted the other two words that describe Judah as place names. The Lord further described the object of this prophecy as the south (Heb. darom) and as the forest in the Negev (Heb. negeb). The Negev was the southern part of Judah that was a buffer geographically between the marginally fruitful southern part of Judah and the wilderness farther to the south. Evidently the whole kingdom of Judah was quite wooded in Ezekiel’s day, and the woods extended south into the upper Negev. By using the three most common Hebrew terms for "south," the Lord referred to Judah. Later He clarified that the south included Jerusalem, its sanctuaries, and all the land of Israel, which was then Judah (cf. Ezekiel 21:2). Judah was, of course, the "Southern Kingdom."

Verses 45-49

The parable itself 20:45-49

Verses 47-48

Here it becomes clear that God was using the trees in the south to represent Judah’s people. The Lord announced that He was going to judge the Judahites as when a fire sweeps through a forest. All types of people would suffer, the outwardly righteous (green tree) and the outwardly unrighteous (dry tree), and the judgment would affect the whole land. The fact that the Babylonians would capture and kill the righteous and the wicked does not contradict chapter 18, which teaches that every person is responsible for his or her own actions. There the point was that God does not punish people for the sins of others but for their own sins. Here the point is that the coming invasion would affect everyone. Everyone would eventually realize that Yahweh had brought this terrible judgment on the Judahites.

"The most devastating consequences [sic] by far of Judah’s covenant failure was her depopulation by exile." [Note: Merrill, p. 373.]

Verse 49

Ezekiel replied to the Lord that the people were not taking what he said seriously; they were explaining away his announcement of judgment as only a parable or fictional story, not as a symbolic message of real judgment to come.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezekiel 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.