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Here begins a new series of prophecies, extending to the close of Ezekiel 23:0, and immediately called out (Ezekiel 20:1), like Ezekiel 14:0, by an inquiry on the part of the elders of Israel. The subject of the inquiry is not given in either case, and can only be inferred from the prophecy itself. This series begins a little more than two years (two years, one month, and five days) after Ezekiel’s call to the prophetic office (Ezekiel 1:2), or a little less than a year (exactly eleven months and five days; comp. Ezekiel 20:1 with Ezekiel 8:1) after the beginning of the former series; and it is just two years and five months (Ezekiel 24:1) before another series begins. The following series is simultaneous in date with the commencement of the final siege of Jerusalem, and this series therefore, in part at least, must have extended over the time of the preparations for the siege, when generals and armies were marching out for the destruction of Jerusalem and the removal of the people. At this near approach of the long-threatened judgments these prophecies take a peculiarly dark and gloomy tone, relieved only by the briefest intimations of distant good. They are for the most part couched in plain language, though falling occasionally, especially in Ezekiel 23:0, more or less into an allegorical form.
Chapter 20 recounts the history of Israel along with the often repeated warnings given, and may be compared with Nehemiah 9:0; Psalms 78:0, and the speech of St. Stephen in Acts 7:0. It is also to a large extent a more literal repetition of the allegory of Ezekiel 16:0. After the first four introductory verses, the chapter falls into two main portions, the first of which (Ezekiel 20:5-31) is subdivided into five sections, corresponding to as many marked periods in the history of Israel.
(1) Came to enquire.—It does not appear that the elders actually proposed their enquiry. It doubtless had relation not to personal affairs, but to the welfare of the nation, and in this prophecy the Lord meets their unspoken question.
(3) I will not be enquired of by you.—As in Ezekiel 14:3. St. Jerome thus comments on the words:—“ To the holy, and to those who ask for right things, the promise is given, ‘While they are yet speaking, I will say, Here I am;’ but to sinners, such as these elders of Israel were, and as those whose sins the prophet proceeds to describe, no answer is given, but only a fierce rebuke for their sins, to which He adds His oath,. ‘As I live,’ to strengthen His solemn refusal.”
(4) Wilt thou judge them?—The form of the repeated question is equivalent to an imperative—judge them. Instead of allowing their enquiry and entreaty for the averting of judgment, the prophet is directed to set before them their long series of apostasies and provocations. “Judge” is used in the sense of “bring to trial,” “prefer charges.”
(5) When I chose Israel.—In Ezekiel 20:5-9 the Lord takes up the first, or Egyptian period of the history* of Israel. The record of that period, as it has come to us in the Pentateuch, does not contain either any commands against idolatry, or any notice of the rebellion of the people against such command; but both are clearly implied. The very mission of Moses to deliver them rested upon a covenant by which they were to be the peculiar people of Jehovah (Exodus 6:2-4); the command to go into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord implies that this was a duty neglected in Egypt; and their previous habitual idolatries may be certainly inferred from Leviticus 17:7, while the disposition of their hearts is seen in their prompt relapse into the idolatry of the golden calf in Exodus 32:0. Their whole murmurings and rebellions were but the manifestation of their resistance to having the Lord for their God, and His will for their guide.
Lifted up mine hand—As the form of taking an oath (see Ezekiel 20:23 and Ezekiel 47:14). The reference is to such passages as Genesis 15:17-21; Exodus 6:8; Deuteronomy 32:40, &c. The phrase is repeated in Ezekiel 20:6. which is a continuation of Ezekiel 20:5.
(6) The glory of all lands.—So Palestine is constantly spoken of, both in the promise and in its fulfilment. (Comp. Daniel 11:16.) However strange this may seem to us now in regard to parts of the land, after centuries of desolation, misrule, and oppression, it is plain from Joshua 23:14, and many other passages, that at the time the Israelites entered upon its possession it fulfilled their utmost expectation.
(8) The land of Egypt.—Of this idolatrous rebellion, and of this threat of the Divine anger while they were still in Egypt, as already said, we have no specific record. But they had the same disposition then as they had afterwards; and, even without such a charge, we could infer the probability of their idolatry. It is possible that the prophet may have had in mind such incidents as are related in Numbers 14:11-20, happening while the Israelites were still in the neighbourhood of Egypt, and when the report of them would speedily have reached Egyptian ears. It is by no means necessary to suppose that in this broad and general review of the teachings of history each incident is kept in its strict chronological place. Yet idolatry in Egypt is distinctly charged upon the Israelites in Ezekiel 16:3; Ezekiel 16:19, and this verse may well refer to God’s judgment for this sin suspended and delayed while they were in Egypt lest it should be misunderstood by the heathen.
(9) For my name’s sake.—This is the express ground of Moses’ pleading for the people in the passage just referred to, and again in Exodus 32:12; Deuteronomy 9:28; and it is repeatedly given, as in Deuteronomy 32:27-28, as the ground on which the Lord spared His rebellious people. Had they been treated according to their deserts, and destroyed for their sins, the heathen would have said that God was unable to deliver them.
(10) Brought them into the wilderness.—Here begins the second period of the history under review—viz., the earlier part of the life in the wilderness (Ezekiel 20:10-17). It includes the exodus, the giving of the law, the setting up of the tabernacle, the establishment of the priesthood, and the march to Kadesh. By all this the nation was constituted most distinctly the people of God, and brought into the closest covenant relation with him.
(11) He shall even live in them.—Comp. Deuteronomy 30:15-20. It becomes plain, on a careful perusal of this passage, that what was required was not a mere outward, technical, and perfunctory keeping of certain definite precepts, but a living and loving obedience to God’s will from the heart. The same fundamental principle of life underlies the Old Testament as the New; yet the former is justly regarded, and frequently spoken of in the New Testament, as a covenant of works, because the people were not yet sufficiently educated spiritually to be able to receive the principle of faith, and were therefore placed under a law of many definite precepts, that by keeping these with glad alacrity they might show their readiness and desire to do the Lord’s will. It is in this sense that a man should live by doing the statutes of the law, and not on the ground of his thereby earning for himself salvation. But even thus, they failed miserably under the test.
(12) I gave them my sabbaths.—“Not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers” (John 7:22). The Sabbath, like circumcision, was an institution far older than the period here spoken of, but was now commanded anew, and made the especial pledge of the covenant between God and His people. The verse is a quotation from Exodus 31:13; and every one must have remarked the great stress everywhere laid in the Old Testament upon the observance of the Sabbath, and the prominence given to it among the privileges of the Divine covenant. It is plain that the day is regarded not in its mere outward character, as a day of rest, but as “a sign” of the covenant, and a means of realising it in the study of God’s word, and the communion of the soul with Him. It is in these latter aspects also that the weekly day of rest still retains its inestimable value—that men “might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them.”
(13) Rebelled against me.—See Exodus 32:1-6; Numbers 14:1-4; Numbers 14:16; Numbers 25:1-3; and for the desecration of the Sabbath in particular, Exodus 16:27; Numbers 15:32.
I will pour out my fury.—Comp. Exodus 32:10; Numbers 15:12; and on Ezekiel 20:14 comp. Note on Ezekiel 20:9.
(15) I would not bring them into the land.—Numbers 14:28-29. In consequence of their rebellion and want of faith, all the men above twenty years old when they came out of Egypt were doomed by the Divine oath to perish in the wilderness. Yet He did not utterly take His mercy from them, but promised that their children should be brought into the land, as is set forth in Ezekiel 20:17.
(18) Unto their children.—The prophet comes now to the third part of his historical retrospect (Ezekiel 20:18-26)—the generation which grew up in the free air of the wilderness, and under the influence of the legislation and institutions given at Sinai. At the same time, it would be a mistake to confine what he says exclusively to that generation. In this, as in the other parts of the discourse, he regards Israel as a whole, and while speaking of one period of their history especially, yet treats of national characteristics which may have come to their most marked development only at a later time. This generation was very earnestly warned against the sins of their fathers, and exhorted to obedience to the Divine law. The whole Book of Deuteronomy is the comment on Ezekiel 20:18-20.
(21) The children rebelled.—The history of the wanderings in the wilderness, given in Exodus and Numbers, offers abundant illustrations of the truth of this and the following verse.
(23) I would scatter them among the heathen.—This threatening was not designed to be fulfilled in that immediate generation, as abundantly appears from Leviticus 26:33; Deuteronomy 4:27, Deut. 27:64, and the other passages in which it is given, especially Deuteronomy 29, 30. It was given to that generation as representing the nation, but was only to be carried out when, by a long course of obdurate sin, it should be shown to be imperatively required. The threat had now been already realised in part, and was on the eve of being fully accomplished. It was important that the people should be made to understand that this had been the Divine warning from the beginning, and that in its fulfilment they were only receiving that punishment which had always been designed for such sin as they had committed.
(25) Statutes that were not good.—In this verse the general statement is made of which a particular instance is given in the next. The “statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live,” cannot be the same with those described in Ezekiel 20:11 as “judgments which, if a man do, he shall even live in them.” They are not, therefore, to be understood (as many of the fathers took them) of any part of the Mosaic law. Neither is it a sufficient explanation to say that God gave them what was intrinsically good, but it became evil to them through their sins; such a view of the law is emphatically discarded in Romans 7:13. The statutes of the Mosaic law are not intended here at all, as is plain from the particular instance of the consecration of children to Moloch in the next verse. These evil statutes and judgments were those adopted from the heathen whom they had suffered to dwell among them, and from the surrounding nations. But how can the Lord say that He gave these to them? In the same way that it is said in Isaiah 63:17, “O Lord, why hast thou made us to err from Thy ways, and hardened our heart from Thy fear?” So also St. Paul says of the heathen (Romans 1:21-28) that God “gave them up to uncleanness,” “unto vile affections,” “to a reprobate mind;” and of certain wicked persons (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12) “God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believe not the truth.” And St. Stephen says of these very Israelites at this very time, “God gave them up to worship the host of heaven” (Acts 7:42). It is part of that universal moral government of the world, to which Ezekiel so frequently refers, that the effect of disobedience and neglect of grace is to lead the sinner on to greater sin. The Israelites rebelled against the Divine government, and neglected the grace given them; the natural consequence was that they fell under the influence of the heathen. Comp. Note on Ezekiel 14:9.
(26) To pass through the fire.—The word “fire” here, as in Ezekiel 16:21; Ezekiel 23:37, is not in the original, but is rightly supplied from Ezekiel 20:31. The custom referred to was probably that of consecrating their seed to Moloch, expressly forbidden in Leviticus 20:1-5. (Comp. also Acts 7:43.) The causing children to pass through the fire continued a common sin even to the later days of the monarchy (2 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 21:6).
(27) Your fathers have blasphemed me.—The fourth period of Israelitish history, though actually far the longest, is very briefly passed over (Ezekiel 20:27-29). It includes the whole period of the settlement in Canaan, from the conquest to the prophet’s own time, and was marked by the same characteristics as before. The particular way here specified by which they blasphemed was by the erection of idolatrous altars on every high place.
(29) Is called Bamah.—Bamah itself means high place. Some have fancied that the word is derived from the two words “go” and “where,” and therefore that it contains a play upon the question in the first part of the verse; but this etymology must be considered fanciful.
(30) Are ye polluted?—This and the two following verses constitute the fifth and concluding portion of this historical review, and relate to the then existing generation. The questions asked answer themselves, and yet in the following verse are answered for the sake of emphasis. They bring home to Ezekiel’s own contemporaries the sins which had characterised their race through nearly all the ages of their history, and show the justice of those long-threatened judgments which were now bursting upon them.
(31) I will not be enquired of by you.—This takes up the refrain of Ezekiel 20:3, and with the following verse fitly closes this portion of the prophecy which was introduced by the coming of the elders to enquire.
(32) As the heathen.—The desire to be “like the nations that are round about,” had long been a ruling ambition with the Israelites, as shown in their original desire for a king (1 Samuel 8:5; 1 Samuel 8:20), and this desire, as shown in the text, had been one chief reason for their tendency to idolatry.
The second part of this prophecy extends from Ezekiel 20:33 to Ezekiel 20:44, where the chapter closes in the Hebrew, and it would have been better if the same division had been observed in the English, as the fresh prophecy of Ezekiel 20:45-49 is more closely connected with the following chapter. The object of this concluding part of the prophecy is to declare the mingled severity and goodness with which God is about to deal with His people to wean them from their sins, and prepare them to receive His abundant blessing.
(33) With a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm.—As the delineations of this whole passage are founded upon the exodus from Egypt (comp. Hosea 2:14-15), so this particular expression is the standing form in the Pentateuch for the series of mighty acts by which the Lord effected that deliverance (see Exodus 6:1; Exodus 6:6; Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15; Deuteronomy 7:19, &c). In Exodus 6:6 it is connected with “great judgments”; here and in the next verse, on the contrary, with “fury poured out.” Then the Almighty power was manifested for deliverance, but now it shall be for discipline; He “will rule over” and purify them with the same resistless energy which He formerly put forth to save them from their enemies.
(34) Bring you out from the people.—This and the parallel clause, “gather you out of the countries,” cannot refer to the restoration of the people to their land, both because it is an avenging act, “with fury poured out”; and also because its object is said in the next verse to be to bring them into the wilderness. It must therefore refer to the Divine dealings with the people in their dispersion. He will separate them from other people; He will not allow them, as they proposed (Ezekiel 20:32), to “be as the heathen;” but will bring them out and gather them as a distinct race and spiritually separated from them all, to be dealt with as His own peculiar people.
(35) Into the wilderness of the people.—As in the past there was a period of probation and discipline in the wilderness, so shall there be in the future. The similarity is insisted upon in Ezekiel 20:36, and the phrase “face to face” is taken from Deuteronomy 5:4, not to show that the Lord will interpose again with the same sensible manifestations, but will plead with them in ways equally adapted, in their more advanced condition, to show them His overruling hand. As this phrase is plainly to be understood according to its sense, and not according to the letter, so it is quite idle to attempt to locate “the wilderness of the people” as any material wilderness, as that of Arabia, or that between Babylonia and Palestine. The phrase must mean that wilderness condition of the people, scattered among the nations, in which the Lord will plead with them as He did with their fathers. This might refer, as some commentators think, to the state of the Jews in our own time, dispersed among all nations; but there is nothing in the connection to indicate so distant a future, and it may quite as well refer to the then approaching condition of the people. Already many thousands of them had been carried captive to Babylon; others (see Jeremiah 10:12; Jeremiah 43:5) had been scattered among all the surrounding nations; the mass of the ten tribes had long before been carried by the king of Assyria to other regions; and the large remnant still left in Judæa, influenced by their own fears, soon afterwards went down to Egypt. In Ezekiel’s own life-time, Israel was scattered widely among all the prominent nations of the earth, and thus brought into the “wilderness of the people.”
(37) To pass under the rod.—A figure taken from the shepherd’s way of counting and examining his flock. (Comp. Leviticus 27:32; Jeremiah 33:13; Micah 7:14.) By this the people were to be brought “into the land of the covenant,” selected and reconstituted God’s covenant people.
(38) I will purge out.—The discipline of affliction should have the effect of separating the rebellious in heart from the purified remnant, so that they should not return with them to the land of their fathers. A striking instance of the way in which the Divine purposes are fulfilled through the operations of ordinary laws, occurred on the return of the Jews from their exile. After a residence of more than two generations in Babylonia, they had made themselves homes there, and had become prosperous and contented. Jerusalem and Judæa were utterly desolated and environed with their persistent enemies. The journey thither was long, attended with hardships and danger, and at its close lay the toilsome and self-sacrificing work of pioneers. When therefore, the permission was given for the return, only those who were most earnest in their zeal for the home and religion of their fathers were ready to avail themselves of the opportunity. A great sifting of the people thus took place from the very circumstances of the case, and only a comparatively small portion constituting the better part, returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.
(39) Go ye, serve ye every one his idols.—Comp. Joshua 24:15. If, after the warning given, ye still refuse obedience, then the Lord gives you up to your fate; “go, serve your idols.” Such should be the terrible end of the persistently rebellious part of the nation, as with the obdurate sinner of all ages, they will be given up to the punishment—than which nothing can be imagined more fearful—of being allowed to follow to the end the ways of their own choice.
(40) In mine holy mountain.—See note on Ezekiel 17:23. The former prophecy was distinctly Messianic; in this, taken by itself, there is nothing which might not refer to the restoration from the exile. Yet in view of the parallelism and connection between the two, we can hardly avoid the supposition, that in predicting the restoration the prophetic eye looked beyond to the greater glory of the Christian dispensation, of which that restoration was a type. But, however this may be, it is not necessary to explain any of the expressions in this passage as looking for their direct and immediate fulfilment beyond the restoration under Zerubbabel.
All the house of Israel.—It has already been shown (see notes on Ezekiel 2:3; Ezekiel 4:3) that the existing nation is recognised as constituting “Israel,” except where special occasion arises for distinguishing between the ten tribes and the two. Here “Israel” is used throughout for the people whom the prophet is directed to address (Ezekiel 20:39), as is further shown by the parallel, “all of them in the land.” Though the restored nation was made up chiefly of Judah and Benjamin, there were also among them considerable remnants of the other tribes; and it is declared that the offerings of them all shall be alike acceptable.
(43) Ye shall lothe yourselves.—The especial sin above all others for which Israel had been reproved in past ages, and which still formed the burden of Ezekiel’s denunciations, was idolatry; from this they were weaned, once for all, at the restoration, and whatever other sins may have been committed by them, into this, as a nation, they have never since relapsed.
With Ezekiel 20:44 this prophecy ends, and here the chapter closes in the Hebrew and in the ancient versions.
(45) Toward the south.—The parable of Ezekiel 20:45-48 forms what might be called the text of the discourse in Ezekiel 21:0. The word south, here occurring three times, is represented in the Hebrew by three separate words, which mean, by their derivation, respectively, “on the right hand” (the orientals always supposing themselves to face the east when they speak of the points of the compass),” the brilliant or “mid-day direction,” and “the dry land,” a common name for the south of Palestine. Judæa is spoken of as “the south,” because, although actually nearly west from Babylon, it could only be approached by the Babylonians from the north, on account of the great intervening desert. Hence the prophets always speak of the armies of Babylon as coming from the north (see Note on Ezekiel 1:4; Jeremiah 1:14-15, &c.).
The forest of the south field, might be originally a mere poetic description of the land; but the figure is developed in the following verses, to make the forest the nation, and its trees the people which compose it.
(47) Every green tree in thee, and every dry tree—i.e., persons of every condition, the condition here having reference probably to their moral state; the approaching desolation should be so complete, that, like other national judgments, it should sweep away all alike. No distinction could be made in favour of those who might be less ripe in evil. Our Lord may have had this expression in mind in Luke 23:31. At the close of the verse, by introducing the words “all faces,” the prophet, as he so often does, breaks away from the figure to its interpretation, and shows plainly the meaning of the former.
(49) Doth he not speak parables?—Or enigmas—things that we cannot understand. This the prophet did designedly, as he had done in other cases, to awaken the attention of the people to the explanation he was about to give.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 20". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19