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Unlike the picture of the foundling child in Ezekiel 16 and the parable of Oholah and Oholibah in Ezekiel 23, here, in Ezekiel 20, we have a description of Israel’s past with its ongoing rebellion against God in actual historical terms without the aid of pictures and parables. The chapter describes the main events of the past, beginning with slavery in Egypt and the exodus from it. Then the description moves through the experiences of the wilderness to life in Canaan ending with the scattering among the nations.
The final period of Israel’s history – the scattering among the nations – is presented as a return to life in the wilderness, that is, the return to the period that preceded the settlement in the land of Canaan (Eze 20:35). That God finally blesses the people anyway is not because of their faithfulness, for there is none, but because of His own Name (Eze 20:44).
A recurring theme is the rebellion of the people against God during the various periods of their existence. This rebellion manifests itself in disobedience and unfaithfulness (Eze 20:8; 13; 21; 27). The periods are successively:
1. the Egyptian slavery (Eze 20:5-9),
2. the wilderness journey (Eze 20:10-26) and
3. the dwelling in the promised land (Eze 20:27-29).
The Elders Come to Consult the LORD
“In the seventh year”, that is, the seventh year after King Jehoiachin was taken away to Babylon (Eze 1:2), the year 591 BC, “certain of the elders of Israel” come again to Ezekiel to consult the LORD (Eze 20:1; cf. Eze 8:1; Eze 14:1-3). They had been with him before and heard from him the word of the LORD. What did they do with that word? They now sit down before Ezekiel again to hear from him the word of the LORD. Their desire to consult the LORD does not come from a heart that wants to devote itself undividedly to Him. They do not want to give up the idols.
It may be that they want to know how Jerusalem will fare. Now that so many months have passed after the ominous message of Ezekiel 8-11, they are given hope that the announced destruction will not occur after all. Also, three years have passed since Hananiah’s prophecy (Jer 28:1-3). Hananiah prophesied that the exiles from Babylon would return to Jerusalem with King Jehoiachin within two years, that is, no later than the sixth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile.
The LORD knows their motives and speaks to Ezekiel about it (Eze 20:2). Ezekiel has to show the LORD’s amazement to the elders by repeating the question, indicating that He is indignant that they dare to come and consult Him (Eze 20:3). It is as if the LORD is saying to them that He is amazed at this audacity. His answer is clear: He will not have Himself consulted by them. In the following verses He explains why not.
Israel’s Idolatry in Egypt
The LORD commands Ezekiel to hold a court hearing. He is to judge the elders of Israel (Eze 20:4; cf. Eze 22:2; Eze 23:36). Ezekiel here is a picture of the Lord Jesus Who has been given judgment by the Father (Jn 5:22).
The indictment runs until Eze 20:29; from Eze 20:30 the verdict follows. Ezekiel is to present the elders with their own history, a history of apostasy and of willful sin and thus of a taunting of the LORD. Ezekiel must first point out the great mercy of the LORD that He chose Israel during the time of their slavery in the land of Egypt (Eze 20:5). In Egypt, Israel became a people, which it was not before that time.
God made Himself known to the people through Moses as the LORD (Exo 6:5-6). Twice it is mentioned in this verse that He has sworn on behalf of the people. He has sworn to them that He will lead them out of Egypt and bring them “into a land” that He “had selected for them” (Eze 20:6). When the LORD selects a land, it must be the most beautiful land. He therefore calls it “the glory of all the lands”. In other places God speaks of “the pleasant land” and “the beautiful land” (Deu 8:7-10; Psa 106:24; Jer 3:19; Jer 12:10; Eze 20:15; Dan 8:9; Dan 11:16; 41; 45; Zec 7:14).
The sight of that “glorious land” should be enough to cast away “the detestable things”, “the stink gods of Egypt” (Eze 20:7). Surely you are happy to surrender worthless things for something that would dwarf those worthless things and be able to make the worthless ones forget, aren’t you? Unfortunately, that is not how it went for Israel (Eze 20:8). Disobedient as they are, they do not listen to God. They don’t take notice of all the good He does for them. They do not throw away the abominations and stink gods, but continue to look up to them in the expectation that they will help them (cf. Psa 25:15).
In response, God does have to pour out His wrath on them. He does so in Egypt, where they are already unfaithful to Him (Eze 23:3; Jos 24:14; Lev 17:7). Pharaoh has aggravated the affliction under which they are suffering. But the LORD has not completely given them up to judgment (Eze 20:9). He acts for the sake of His Name when He leads His people out of Egypt. If He had already exterminated Israel in Egypt, the nations would have mocked Him for not being able to deliver them. He has chosen them to be His people, He has attached His Name to that people, and He has therefore spared them.
Israel’s Idolatry in the Wilderness
Despite their idolatry in Egypt, God redeemed His people (Eze 20:10). He has led them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. There, at Sinai, He gives them His law (Eze 20:11). If they keep His law, they will live (Lev 18:5). Among the provisions of the law, the sabbath holds a special place (Eze 20:12). The sabbath is the day of rest and God gives this day of rest as a special sign between Him and His people.
Through the sabbath, Israel is set apart from all the nations in a special way. The sabbath is the sign that the LORD sanctifies them, that is, He thereby sets them apart from the other nations to be His people (Exo 31:13-16). The exiles cannot keep many laws in Babylon because they have no temple there. Laws they can keep, for example, are the food laws – Daniel did so (Dan 1:8) – and the sabbath.
However, the people show themselves unworthy of this special sign of their relationship with God and do not keep the sabbath (Eze 20:13). After their disobedience in Egypt, their stay in the wilderness is also marked by disobedience. They scorn and violate the statutes and ordinances that the LORD has given for life. The book of Exodus and the book of Numbers provide many examples of this. The sabbaths, of which the LORD says again “My sabbaths” (Eze 20:12), are profaned by them. This profanation is so great and gross that the LORD says He will pour out His wrath upon them and annihilate them.
The LORD must act for the sake of His Name (Eze 20:14). His Name has been profaned by the people’s rebellion against Him. He cannot let their disobedience go unpunished. After all, He led Israel out of Egypt before the eyes of the nations to be His people. But they are not behaving as His people. Therefore, He must discipline them and put them to death, so that they will not come into the pleasant land, the glorious land, that He has given them (Eze 20:15).
They have profaned Him, on the one hand, by rejecting His ordinances and profaning His sabbaths and, on the other hand, by attaching with their hearts to their stink gods (Eze 20:16). Despite their continual deviation from Him, He spares them so that He does not totally destroy them in the wilderness (Eze 20:17). As punishment for their deviation, the entire first generation of those He led out of Egypt must fall in the wilderness. However, He spares their children in order to fulfill to them His promises. Will they be better than their fathers who all perished?
Idolatry of the Children in the Wilderness
After the old generation has fallen in the wilderness, the LORD addresses the word to their children (Eze 20:18). He warns them not to follow the example of their fathers. He declares that He is the LORD their God and commands them to walk in His statutes and to keep His ordinances (Eze 20:19). He commands them to sanctify His sabbaths, as He commanded their fathers (Eze 20:20). Again, He speaks of the sabbath being a sign between Him and them and that by it they will know that He is the LORD their God.
Unfortunately, the children’s response is no different than that of their fathers. The children also rebel against Him (Eze 20:21; Num 25:1-9). There is no question with them, either, that they are faithfully observing His statutes and ordinances. And again the LORD points out that keeping those statutes and ordinances means life (Lev 18:5). He wants them to live. So they deliberately choose death by not caring about it. Instead of sanctifying the sabbaths they profane them. Thereby they arouse God’s wrath. He says that in the wilderness He will accomplish His anger against them and kill them.
But God in His mercy withdraws His hand, which was stretched out against them in wrath, and does not annihilate them (Eze 20:22). If He would kill them in the wilderness, His Name would be profaned before the eyes of the nations. Those nations could then say that He was unable to lead the people He led out of Egypt before their eyes also through the wilderness. Therefore, He wants to act differently with His people. He already swears in the wilderness that He will scatter them among the nations in all kinds of lands (Eze 20:23; Lev 26:33; 39; Deu 28:36; 64).
As the reason for this scattering, He mentions their disobedience to His ordinances, their rejection of His statutes, and the profaning of His sabbaths (Eze 20:24). This all led them to follow the same stink gods that their fathers followed. They are no better than their fathers. In response, God gives them over to their own will (Eze 20:25). They choose their own statutes to live by and God gives them up to it.
The meaning of the phrase that the LORD gives statutes that are not good and ordinances by which they can not live, is that He gives His people over to their own statutes and ordinances if they will not obey Him. He lets them go on their self-determined path. God punishes His people by allowing them to do what they like to do (Acts 7:42-43; Psa 81:11-12; Rom 1:24; 26; 28).
The gifts that the people offer to the idols, the LORD uses to pronounce them unclean (Eze 20:26). They even sacrifice their children as gifts to the idols. On this, God's wrath must come in full measure. The end of such depraved heathen practices is national devastation.
Even today, countless children are sacrificed to idols. We can think of the countless abortions that have been and are being done. How many children have not been aborted because the parents see children as an impediment to their personal enjoyment? The same is true when parents show their children a life that is full of greed, which is idolatry (Col 3:5), causing the children to turn away from the Lord and His way.
Israel’s Idolatry in the Promised Land
With the recalling of the people’s idolatry in the wilderness and God’s judgment on it, the story of the people’s unfaithfulness is not over. All of God’s efforts to bring the people to repentance the people have answered with new unfaithfulness. Ezekiel is commanded to bring that to the people’s attention as well (Eze 20:27). He is to tell them that they have blasphemed the LORD by acting treacherously against Him. They have taunted and insulted Him. The LORD now speaks of the time He brought His people into the land (Eze 20:28).
He has sworn to bring them there. He did that in His faithfulness. However, there is no mention of any thanks from the people to Him for that. In their blindness, they think they are offering sacrifices to the LORD. But instead of worshiping Him in the manner prescribed by Him and in the place chosen by Him, they imitate the nations and bring “the provocation of their offering” to the idols in all sorts of places. In the term “the provocation of their offering” we hear the LORD’s pain over their conduct.
He addresses the people by asking them why they keep going to that high place (Eze 20:29). He asks, as it were: ‘Is this the place where I want to be served?’ In this way He wants to get them to think about their foolish ways and to repent. However, they are no longer approachable for their bad behavior. The high place has been given the name “Bamah”, or “High Place”, and bears it “to this day”, that is, to the day that Ezekiel writes the book of Ezekiel. That name is thus a permanent reminder of their continued unfaithfulness. It indicates that the whole land, with its many high places, has become one great sacrificial place where sacrifices are made to idols.
The words “to this day” also apply in a spiritual sense. The high places in our lives are every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God. They are the deliberations of the human mind. This symbol of unfaithfulness still exists and is cast down when Christ is given dominion in our lives. These lofty places are thrown down when we listen to the teaching of Scripture. Then they are taken captive to the obedience of Christ (2Cor 10:4-5).
Starting in Eze 20:30, the verdict follows. Remembering the continued unfaithfulness of the fathers and their children, Ezekiel has to let his contemporaries hear his warnings (Eze 20:30). Past generations have forsaken the LORD. The present generation must be warned not to do so. Ezekiel is to call them to account for their behavior, for it is similar to that of their fathers. They are defiling themselves in the same way and like them are playing the harlot by indulging in abominable idolatry.
The exiles to whom Ezekiel addresses the word have continued to commit the sins their fathers committed and for which the LORD has punished them. Will He then allow Himself to be inquired of them when they deliver their children to idols and defile themselves in a repulsive manner with all their stink gods (Eze 20:31)? They can absolutely forget about that!
Anything that has come to their minds, which they have imagined that it should happen that way, will certainly not come about (Eze 20:32). God knows their true intentions. He knows that they are bent on being like the nations and like the tribes of the lands and serving wood and stone like them. They have sunk so low that they are giving up all the privileges of Israel to serve the idols of the nations in their place.
Lawsuit and Restoration in the Future
Because the people are so determined to be like the nations and like the tribes of the lands (Eze 20:32), the LORD must confront them in His government (Eze 20:33). He cannot let such deliberateness go unpunished and will, by His strong hand and outstretched arm, make them experience His wrath. They may think they can forsake Him, but He will not relinquish His claims on His people.
Added to that, He will know how to find them among the nations and in the lands to which they are scattered (Eze 20:34). Even there, in their exile, He maintains His claims on His people. He will lead them out of exile to bring them into the wilderness of the nations. By this is meant His dealings with them in the time when they are delivered to the power of the nations. There He will enter into judgment with them (Eze 20:35).
He will act with them just as He acted with their fathers in Egypt, the land that has been like a wilderness to them, a land of death (Eze 20:36). He will act with them as a shepherd acts who passes his sheep under his rod at night to count them to see if one is missing and if there is not a stranger among them (Eze 20:37). The law prescribes that every tenth sheep that passes under the rod, is for the LORD (Lev 27:32; Jer 33:13). The ‘sheep’ of His people selected in this way the LORD then brings back into the bond of the covenant He has made with them.
He will remove the rebellious and transgressors from His own sheep, bring them out of the land of their exile, and then judge them (Eze 20:38). They will think they are on their way back to the promised land according to the word of the false prophets, but they will not reach that land. They will perish along the way.
The LORD tells the house of Israel to just continue serving their stink gods (Eze 20:39). After all, they have no intention of listening to Him anyway. At the same time, He tells them not to profane His holy Name any more with those stink gods. The same goes for His holy mountain, Mount Zion (Eze 20:40). On that mountain is the temple and there He wants to be served with sacrifices.
It is the high mountain of Israel, where “the whole house of Israel” will serve Him, no one excepted. This is the new Israel of twelve tribes, the remnant, which will be all Israel, for the apostate multitude will have been judged. In the sacrifices then brought to the LORD, He will be pleased. His people there will willingly answer His request to bring Him the very best of all their sanctified gifts.
The people have then returned to God in their entirety, and a soothing aroma goes out from them to Him, in which He delights (Eze 20:41). He has brought them back to Himself. The stench of the stink gods has been driven out. Their forsaking Him is over. They have been gathered by Him from the lands to which He had to scatter them as a result of their sins. The nations will see it and marvel at His ways with His people.
When they are back in the land, they will know that He is the LORD, the faithful God of the covenant, Who carries out His counsel right through all the deliberations of men (Eze 20:42). The territory of Israel is the land about which He swore to their forefathers to give it to them. Then they will realize how much they have forsaken Him and wounded Him by despising what He has sought to give them (Eze 20:43). They will loathe themselves. When we think about the history of Christianity and our personal history, it will also bring about a sense of loathing in us.
His people will be impressed again by Him, that He is the LORD, the God Who keeps and fulfills His promises. It will create in them a new admiration for His faithfulness (Eze 20:44). They will be humbled by it and realize that all the blessings they may enjoy are due only to His faithfulness. For this course of action He has found a reason exclusively in His Name.
The same applies to us who belong to God’s people in this age. With us, too, for the sake of His Name, He has not done according to our evil ways and depraved deeds, as it was with the house of Israel. All the blessing we may enjoy is due only to His faithfulness.
The Fire of Judgment in the Negev
In the Hebrew text, a new chapter begins with Eze 20:45. It is a new prophecy, a new word from the LORD to Ezekiel (Eze 20:45). Ezekiel, again called “son of man”, is to set his face “toward Teman” or “toward the south”. “The south” is mentioned four times with three different words in Hebrew, including the word “Negev”, known from the wilderness in Israel (Eze 20:46). The prophecy is about the southern land of Judah. The words “speak out” are also translated with “drop [words]” [Dutch translation and Darby translation]. The words to be spoken by Ezekiel are presented as a down pouring torrential rain. By “the forest land” the inhabitants of Judah are meant.
“The forest of the Negev” is commanded to listen to the word of LORD (Eze 20:47). It is a word of judgment. The LORD says He will kindle a fire in them that will do a devastating work among young and old. By the green tree may also be meant the righteous and by the dry tree the wicked (cf. Lk 23:31). The righteous and the wicked both face this disciplinary rod of God. Not only did the wicked suffer under the discipline of God, but God-fearing men like Ezekiel and Daniel also suffered under it.
It will be impossible to block this devastating work. It will turn the entire land into a blackened field. This refers to what Nebuchadnezzar and his armies will do when they execute God’s judgments on Judah. Everyone will see that the real instigator of this fire is God Himself (Eze 20:48). Because He kindles the fire, it will not be extinguishable. The destroyer is unstoppable. Any attempt to defend against it will come to nothing.
Ezekiel feels the burden of the words he must speak weigh heavily upon him (Eze 20:49). He knows that his fellow exiles will not take him seriously. His words make no impression on them. They refuse to take them seriously and get rid of them by attributing his message to his imagination. He is seen by them as a chatterbox who comes with a self-made message that they do not want to understand. About this the prophet complains to the LORD, but he gets no answer.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ezekiel 20". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20