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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Ezekiel 20

Chapter Ezekiel 20:1-44 A History and Prophesy of God’s Dealings with Israel.

In this chapter we are given a detailed description of the history of what God had done for His people, and how they had not responded to Him, beginning with their experiences in Egypt, continuing in the wilderness, and then in the land of Canaan. It continues by speaking of what God’s purposes and intentions for His people are. In each example He reveals how He showed His goodness towards them, how they then rebelled against Him, how He purposed to reveal His anger on them, and how in the end He spared them for the sake of His own name and reputation. Then He reveals that in the end He will restore His people so that through them He might be revealed to the world, again for the sake of His own repute.

Verse 1

The Approach of the Elders of Israel.

‘And so it was in the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month, that certain of the elders of Israel came to enquire of Yahweh, and sat before me.’

The date given is in August 591/0 BC. Like the majority of the dates in Ezekiel it is related to the date of Jehoiachin’s captivity (Ezekiel 1:2). On that day some of the elders of Israel with him in captivity in Babylonia came to Ezekiel, and sat before him. Their purpose was to ‘enquire of Yahweh’.

Ezekiel was divided up into major sections by these datings. Ezekiel 1:2 is dated July 592 BC, Ezekiel 8:1 is dated September 592/1 BC, Ezekiel 20:1 is dated August 591/0 BC, Ezekiel 24:1 is dated January 588 BC, Ezekiel 33:21 is dated January 586/5 BC and Ezekiel 40:1 is dated April 573 BC, which are in chonological order. (The oracles against nations were also dated (Ezekiel 26:1 to Ezekiel 32:32), but not in chronological order).

No other reason is given for their enquiry, and no information about the content of their enquiry. It may simply mean that they wanted to know whether God had any message for them. But elsewhere ‘enquiring of Yahweh’ meant securing a divine revelation concerning a particular event (see 1Ki 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). So it may be that they were enquiring about the situation in Jerusalem and as to how long their exile would continue, especially having regard to Zedekiah’s attempted alliance with Egypt.

As we have seen there was a huge amount of intrigue between Jerusalem and Egypt. Who made the first contact we do not know, probably Egypt under Pharaoh Hophra, seeking to foment trouble among the smaller states for their own benefit, and seeking assistance in their own plans against Assyria. But Zedekiah saw his chance to break for freedom and ‘rebelled against the king of Babylon’ (2 Kings 24:20). This was contrary to Yahweh’s words through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 27:12-15). He sent to Egypt for assistance in the form of soldiers and horses (see Jeremiah 37:5), but the assistance would be shortlived.

We have independent confirmation of such intrigues in the Lachish letters, a collection of twenty one ostraca found in the ruins of Lachish. ‘Konyahu, the son of Elnathan, commander of the army, has gone down on his way to Egypt’.

Or it may be that they were seeking confirmation of the acceptability of an attempt to syncretise their worship of Yahweh with the worship of the gods of the land where they found themselves (see Ezekiel 20:32, and note the words ‘that which comes into your mind’).

Verse 2

‘And the word of Yahweh came to me saying.’

Ezekiel remained in his house under his enforced silence (Ezekiel 3:26), only speaking when ‘the word of Yahweh’ came to him. Silently he watched their assembly, and then the word of Yahweh came to him.

Verse 3

“Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, Have you come to enquire of me? As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, I will not be enquired of by you.’ ”

Note the continued use of ‘son of man’. It was a constant reminder to Ezekiel that he was but an earthly man, and yet we must also see in it that he was a man who was special to God, a man apart, a chosen instrument, a man set apart for God’s service. Its frequency was such that it became a semi-title.

But the reply that he had to give to the elders was an indirect one. It was no oracle responding to their questions, but a declaration of why they were in their present condition, and a refusal to acknowledge their right to ask Him anything.

It is most people’s assumption that when they are in some kind of trouble they can come to God and he is always ready to listen. Here, however, we learn differently. These men who represented ‘His people’ had come with that assumption, and they now learned that God would not speak with them. He would not resolve their problems. They were in rebellion against Him, revealed by the abominations they committed (see Ezekiel 18:10-13; Ezekiel 18:24), therefore He was deaf to their pleas.

Verse 4

“Will you judge them, son of man? Will you judge them? Cause them to know the abominations of their fathers.”

Instead Ezekiel must pass His judgment on them. He was to show them why, as with their fathers before them, they could not expect any response from God.

‘Will you judge them, son of man? Will you judge them?’ Ezekiel was there in his silent vigil before God, and as he looked at the elders he was wondering what he could say to them about why God would not reply to their questions. What judgment could he give? God simply said, remind them of their history, a history of disobedience and rejection in the face of all that God had done for them, a disobedience and rejection that still continued. There were no grounds for it. God had been continually good to them. Indeed He had persevered in His goodness long after they had revealed that they did not deserve it.

Verses 5-6

God’s Dealings with Them in Egypt.

“And say to them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh, In the day when I chose Israel, and lifted up my hand to the seed of the house of Jacob, and made myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up my hand to them and said, “I am Yahweh your God”, in that day I lifted up my hand to them to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt, to the land which I had espied for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands.”

God depicts His choice of them as occurring when they were in Egypt. Prior to that His choice had been of individuals and their households, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But in Egypt He had chosen Israel as a budding nation, as a people for Himself.

This reminds us that in spite of Ezekiel’s stress on individual responsibility, God was sovereignly at work in His people. Indeed He had bound Himself to them by an oath. To ‘lift up the hand’ was a popular means of swearing an oath.

Note the sequence. He chose them, then He swore to them, then He made Himself known to them, then He delivered them. The actions were all of God. Compare Exodus 3:6-8; Exodus 6:2-8.

‘In the day when I chose Israel.’ God had previously chosen Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 18:18-19). But the day when He chose Israel as a people with their own identity (composed not just of descendants of Abraham but of all those who had attached themselves to them as descendants of the servants of Abraham, and of those who had intermarried with them or thrown in their lot with them) was the day when he called them through Moses (Deuteronomy 4:37; Deuteronomy 7:6; Deuteronomy 10:15; Deuteronomy 14:2 compare Amos 3:2; Psalms 105:6; Psalms 105:9-11). Note that ‘Israel’ is defined as ‘the seed of the house of Jacob’, but the word ‘seed’ indicates the seed of all who were conjoined with Jacob in the family tribe, those who were ‘born in his household’ (compare Genesis 14:14).

‘And lifted up my hand to the seed of the house of Jacob.’ The ‘lifting up of the hand’, the swearing of the oath, is spoken of as being before the making of Himself known to them in order to bring out that it was the act of Yahweh alone in His divine will. The manifestation of this oath-swearing occurred a number of times, and especially at Mount Sinai, but these were all the result of His first oath made to Himself (compare Genesis 22:16; Hebrews 6:13).

‘And made myself known to them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up my hand to them and said, “I am Yahweh your God”.’ ‘I am Yahweh your God’ was first declared to them in Exodus 6:7; compare Ezekiel 6:2; Ezekiel 6:8, and confirmed in Exodus 20:2, compare Psalms 81:10; Hosea 13:4. This was a specific adoption of Israel by Yahweh as His ‘firstborn’ (Exodus 4:22).

‘In that day I lifted up my hand to them to bring them forth out of the land of Egypt, to the land which I had espied for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands.’ God’s intention in choosing them as His people was that He might deliver them from Egypt and bring them to a good land, a fruitful land. The term ‘flowing with milk and honey’, both natural products of the land, is a description regularly used of Canaan describing it as naturally fruitful (Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 13:5; Exodus 33:3; Jeremiah 11:5; Jeremiah 32:22).

‘To the land which I had espied for them.’ A beautiful picture. He had, as it were, looked around and selected out a suitable place for them.

‘Which is the glory of all lands.’ That was the Israelite view of it. They saw it as God’s land, God’s inheritance and therefore highly favoured (compare Jeremiah 3:19; Exodus 15:17; Deuteronomy 4:21; Deuteronomy 15:4. See also Daniel 11:16; Daniel 11:41; Daniel 8:9).

Verse 7

“And I said to them, ‘Cast you away every man the abominations of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God’.”

In Egypt the people had not been faithful to the God of their fathers, and had worshipped many gods. This is not mentioned in Exodus 1-15 although subsequent events confirmed it (see Exodus 32:1-4; Exodus 32:8; Exodus 32:23 compare Leviticus 18:3 which assumes it, and Exodus 33:5 where the ornaments would be connected with idolatrous practises). These would include Baal and Asherah among others, for the Canaanite gods were worshipped by many in the Goshen area. And God had commanded them to do away with them, and not to worship them.

‘The abominations of his eyes’, those abominable things to which they looked. All this helps to explain the mystery of why God allowed the descendants of Abraham to suffer so in Egypt. They had been unfaithful to Him and had followed after idolatry and the perverse lifestyle connected with it.

Verse 8

“But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me. They did not every man cast away the abomination of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said I would pour out my fury on them, to accomplish my anger against them in the land of Egypt.”

The people were continually rebellious and refused to obey God. This clearly went on even while Yahweh was working to deliver them. Thus He had intended again to bring on them His fury, something which they had already tasted in their bondage. But, as He then tells us, He did not do so. And why? Not for their sakes but for the sake of His own name and reputation. We must recognise that this ‘change of mind’ is putting what happened as a drama in human terms, depicting it as seen by men. God knew all along what He was going to do.

Verse 9

“But I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they were, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt.”

God had acted to protect His own ‘name’ and reputation (compare Psalms 106:8; Isaiah 48:9; Jeremiah 14:7; Jeremiah 14:21). The name in the ancient world indicated all that someone was. To see God’s glory was the same as knowing His name (Exodus 33:18-19). So instead of punishing Israel He had delivered them so that the nations would see what kind of a God He was, and would not be able to decry His great power and ability to deliver.

Verses 10-11

God’s Deliverance In The Wilderness.

“So I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness. And I gave them my statutes and showed them my judgments, which if a man does he shall live in them.

So God delivered His people from Egypt by His mighty power, led them out of it into the wilderness and there entered into His covenant with them at Sinai (Exodus 20:0), again with the promise ‘I am Yahweh your God’ (Exodus 20:2). There He gave them His statutes and judgments, response to which bring life (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus; Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 5:16). They would result in a full life of blessing. Primary in these statutes and judgments was their response to God, covered by the first five ‘words’ (commandments - the fifth is included because the parents stood in the place of God). They would live because they walked with God, which would then be revealed in their keeping the last five ‘words’ (commandments).

The later New Testament strictures against the Law (John 1:17; Acts 13:39; Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:10-11) were not against this significance of the Law, but against the idea that had grown up that eternal life was achievable by punctilious observance of every ordinance in exactly the right way, and of every detail of the moral Law. They had taken their eyes off God and fixed them on themselves.

To ‘live’ as compared with to ‘die’ indicated wellbeing and blessing. It indicated the enjoyment of God’s presence (Psalms 139:7-12). While there were a few indications of it, there was not at this stage, as far as we know, any general thought out conception of an afterlife. This would slowly grow through the coming centuries (but compare Daniel 12:2 which is its beginnings. See also Isaiah 53:12; Isaiah 26:19; Psalms 16:10-11; Psalms 17:15; also possibly Psalms 11:7; Psalms 140:13. It was at this stage an instinct within the heart of the righteous rather than an expressed doctrine).

Verse 12

“Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths to be a sign between me and them that they might know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies them.”

The importance of the sabbath as a sign that Israel were God’s people is stressed here. The keeping of the sabbath, first mentioned in Exodus 16:0 and ratified in Exodus 20:0, demonstrated that they were a people ‘set apart’ (sanctified) by Yahweh for Himself, and looked on as His own people. See on this Exodus 31:13-17. The Sabbath had a dual purpose for the Israelites. It was a constant reminder to them that Yahweh was the great Creator of all things (Exodus 20:11), and it reminded them 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).

Paul too indicated that to keep a day (or all days) to the Lord was right, but stressed that the particular day was unimportant. What mattered was the keeping of one day for Him (Romans 14:5-6). However in contrast with the Jewish Sabbath the early church generally did not see it as a day of total rest, but as a day for serving God.

Verse 13

“But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes, and they rejected my judgments, which if a man does he shall live in them. And my sabbaths they greatly profaned. Then I said I would pour out my fury on them in the wilderness to consume them.”

Again in the wilderness God’s goodness was not sufficient to stir the people to obedience. Again they rebelled against Him. And they played havoc with the Sabbath (see Ezekiel 20:16 which suggests that it was their idol worship that did this, see also, for example, Numbers 15:32). So again God determined to bring His judgments on them (see Exodus 32:10; Numbers 14:11-12; Numbers 16:21; Numbers 16:45; Numbers 16:49; Numbers 21:6; Numbers 32:9-13).

‘Which if a man does he shall live in them.’ See Leviticus 18:5; Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 5:16), and compare Psalms 19:7-11 and Psalms 119:0, especially Psalms 119:17; Psalms 119:25; Psalms 119:37; Psalms 119:40; Psalms 119:88; Psalms 119:92 etc.

Verse 14

“But I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I brought them out.”

But because He knew that the eyes of the world were on this nation whose God had so remarkably delivered them from Egypt, He spared them, even though they did not deserve it, so that the nations would recognise His power and graciousness, and realise that He was indeed able to preserve His own people (see Exodus 32:11; Numbers 14:13-16).

Further Comments on God’s Merciful Dealings in the Wilderness

Verse 15

“Moreover also I lifted up my hand to them in the wilderness, that I would not bring them into the land that I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands.”

This is the reversal of Ezekiel 20:6. He who had sworn to them to bring them out of Egypt into the good land He had prepared for them, now lifted up His hand and swore that those of that generation would not enter it (Numbers 32:10-13). The land that that generation had so looked forward to seeing was lost to them forever. God’s favours are conditional on obedience.

Verse 16

“Because they rejected my judgments and did not walk in my statutes, and profaned my sabbaths, for their heart went after their idols.”

The reason for His anger is again declared. They rejected His judgments and did not walk in His statutes. God’s requirements were put aside and ignored for the sake of their idols. They broke the covenant with Yahweh. And their idol worship led to them desecrating the Sabbath, presumably justifying it on religious grounds. We too may have our idols, things which we set our hearts on which prevent us living in accordance with God’s will and requirements. And they too will bring judgment on us.

Verse 17

“Nevertheless my eyes spared them from destroying them, nor did I make a full end of them in the wilderness.”

Although he prevented the first generation from entering the good land, He showed mercy. He spared their children that they might enter in. He refrained from making a full end of Israel.

Verses 18-20

God’s Dealings with the Second Generation in the Wilderness.

So His people had proved themselves unfaithful in Egypt, even when He was working mighty things for them, and again on their journey to freedom, when again He had worked for them. But now came the new generation who should have learned their lesson from what had happened, but they too rebelled against Him. Israel’s history was one of constant rebellion.

“And I said to their children in the wilderness, ‘Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with idols. I am Yahweh your God. Walk in my statutes and keep my judgments and do them, and hallow my Sabbaths, and they will be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am Yahweh your God.”

Yahweh had renewed His covenant with the children of those who had been disobedient. To them too He had said in the regular renewal ceremonies, ‘I am Yahweh your God, walk in My statutes and keep My judgments’, and had warned them against following the ways of their fathers. To them too He had stressed the need to observe His Sabbaths as the sign of the covenant. These were a gracious sign of His own creation rest, taken because all was ‘very good’. They too should have entered into rest as His obedient people.

Verse 21

“But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes, neither did they keep my judgments to do them, which if a man does he will live in them. They profaned my sabbaths. Then I said I would pour out my fury on them, to accomplish my anger against them in the wilderness.”

But the sad tale of rebellion was repeated. Once again they had turned from the covenant requirements which were designed to give them a full and abounding life, and had done what was wrong in God’s sight. And this included the fact that they had also failed to do what was right. Again they had profaned the Sabbath. So God had once more determined to bring judgment on them in His anger (His set attitude against sin), even there in the wilderness.

Verse 22

“Nevertheless I withdrew my hand and wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I brought them forth.”

Yet again Yahweh withheld His judgment for the sake of His reputation and His name (compare Numbers 16:21-22; Numbers 25:1-9). He continued to preserve them and to protect them from their enemies, so that the watching world might see that as the great Deliverer from Egypt He was able to keep and deliver them. The picture was one of man’s total undeserving.

Verses 23-24

“Moreover I lifted up my hand to them in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the nations, and disperse them through the countries, because they had not carried out my judgments, but had rejected my statutes and had profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their father’s idols.”

Nevertheless although He had spared them He had sworn to them (lifted up His hand to them in an oath) that if their behaviour continued He would scatter them among the nations, and disperse them throughout the known world to a life of restlessness and misery, because of their covenant unfaithfulness (Leviticus 26:33; Deuteronomy 28:64; Psalms 106:26-27). This would be due both to their refusal to obey His commands, and to their turning their eyes on other than Himself.

Verses 25-26

“Moreover I also gave them statutes which were not good, and judgments in which they would not live, and I polluted them in their own gifts in that they caused to pass through the fire all who opened the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am Yahweh.”

Finally because of their failure to respond to Him truly He left them to follow their own ways. This is depicted as the positive act of Yahweh. In the end all was seen as Yahweh’s doing. He allowed false prophets to rise, He allowed false teaching to be given, He allowed them to partake in the most degrading religions of Canaan. He withdrew His guidance and protection and admonition (although they were never fully withdrawn for He also sent true prophets to plead with them). Thus would follow the awful consequences depicted in Leviticus 26:14-45; Deuteronomy 28:15 Ezekiel 29:19)

Man’s evil heart continually distorts truth. Left to himself he brings harm on his own head, thinking all the time that it will benefit him. He softens the requirements of God’s laws and suffers the consequences. In the case of Israel it even led them to offer up their firstborn children to the gods in sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2Ki 21:6 ; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 19:5; Jeremiah 32:35). ‘Passing through the fire’ usually refers to the worship of Melek (Molech - the vowels, being the vowels of bosheth’ (shame) changed to reflect ‘shame’) although the idea of child sacrifice is occasionally referred to the worship of Baal (Jeremiah 19:5) probably through syncretism.

‘I polluted them in their own gifts.’ Their very worship had become polluted. Instead of the joyous gifts and offerings to Yahweh, and the redemption of the firstborn through sacrifices, allowing them to express their worship fully and without restraint while at the same time preventing the heartbreak of actually losing their children, they chose to enter into the painful, heartbreaking ways of sacrificing their own firstborn children, ways that brought them only desolation, and they did this in direct disobedience to the command of Yahweh because they thought that they knew better than He did.

This passage stresses the overall sovereignty of God. The same prophet who could stress the responsibility of each individual person to respond, also stressed that in the end all, including man’s ways, was under the control of God, for they could do nothing without His permissive will. Thus when Israel came to their senses they would recognise that all this had happened to them through Yahweh’s doing. Because of their sin and rebellion He had stood aside and left them to their own ways, thus bringing on them the consequences of their own actions. This finally brought home His sovereignty and purity in contrast with the degradation that their disobedience had brought. Then they would know that He was Yahweh, totally distinct from all the gods that they had served.

Their Behaviour on Entering in the Land of Canaan.

Israel were no more obedient when they entered Canaan, as the Book of Judges makes clear.

Verses 27-28

“Therefore son of man speak to the house of Israel and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, in this moreover have your fathers blasphemed me in that they have committed a trespass against me. For when I brought them into the land, which I lifted up my hand (swore) to give to them, then they saw every high hill and every thick (flourishing) tree, and there they offered their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offering. There also they made their sweet savour, and there they poured out their drink offerings.

They compounded their rebellion in that when God actually gave them the land He had promised them, in spite of their rebellion, they made use of it to worship other gods. The very basis of the land, the high hills and the flourishing trees (thickly branched and therefore prominent and flourishing) became the means of worship of false gods. Instead of seeing all that was in the land as the blessing of Yahweh, they offered up sacrifices, presented offerings, offered up incense and poured out drink offerings to the so-called gods of the land, utilising the ancient sanctuaries of the Canaanites. Yahweh was sidelined.

Thus they blasphemed the name of Yahweh, for they implied that it was to these gods that they were indebted and not to Him. All the worship that should have been His was poured out on others. No wonder He spoke of the ‘provocation’ of their offerings.

Verse 29

“Then I said to them, ‘What does the high place mean to which you go?’ So its name is called Bamah to this day.

This sentence is a play on words. ‘Bamah’ means ‘high place. But ‘ba’ means ‘go’ and ‘ma’ means ‘what’. In it God is challenging what the significance was to them of these high places. He wanted to sting them into recognising the folly of their behaviour.

Idolatry was worldwide outside Israel. By their idols, made usually with their own hands, they saw themselves as bringing the gods to some extent under their control. Here they could deal with their gods, worship them, influence them, and by destroying other men’s idols weaken their gods. Then they could go away and forget them, leaving them on their shelves or in their high places. And those gods were regularly depicted as creatures of the earth, with all their bestial ways. This was all in contrast with the invisible God of Israel Who was free to go where He would, was not restricted to a place, was transcendent and not a part of creation, and Who could not be manipulated but required obedience wherever they went. Let them think about that!

Verses 30-31

Why God Will Still Not Deal With Them And What He Intended To Do About It.

“For these reasons say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh. Do you pollute yourselves in the same way as your fathers did? And do you go a-whoring after their abominations? And when you offer your gifts, when you make your sons pass through the fire, do you pollute yourselves with all your idols to this day? And shall I be enquired of by you, Oh house of Israel?’ ”

The questions were confirmation that it was so. These men before Ezekiel were no different from their fathers. They still followed in their idolatrous ways. They still loved the worship of false gods and gave their hearts to them, even to the extent of that grossest of sins, child sacrifice. They continued to pollute themselves by idol worship (see Romans 1:18-31) and by setting up other things above Yahweh. Why then should they expect Yahweh to listen to them and respond to their questioning? He would not do so.

Verses 31-32

“As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, I will not be enquired of by you, and that which comes into your mind will not be at all, in that you say, ‘we will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.’ ”

They would have neither the one thing nor the other. They had lost their right to learn from Yahweh, but they would also not be allowed to continue in their idolatrous ways. It is always man’s desire to fit in with his environment and be like others and ‘accepted’. But God’s people are not to be like that, indeed will not finally be allowed to be like that. Note the contemptuous ‘serve wood and stone’. This is in contrast with worshipping the living, invisible God.

Verse 33

God Will Act Again In Power, As At The Exodus, To Deliver Them, Whether They Like It or Not. He Will Call Them To Account.

“As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, surely with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm and with fury poured out I will be king over you.”

‘As I live.’ This is in direct contrast with the gods of ‘wood and stone’. He is the living God. And because they are dealing with the living God they will be treated differently from others. He will come as their sovereign overlord to His rebellious subjects (just as Nebuchadnezzar would come against Jerusalem), and with power and vengeance, to take His rightful place as their King and to receive their submission. And this because it is His purpose.

Note how these words are a threat rather than a promise. They had wanted to be absorbed into the nations with their idolatry but it would not be allowed. God will not let them go. They will be called to account and then their future will depend on their response.

Verses 34-36

“And I will bring you out from the peoples, and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out, and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will plead with you face to face. Just as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I plead with you, says the Lord Yahweh.”

As He had done with the people of old at the exodus from Egypt, so will He deal with His people in the future. Although they have forsaken Him they will not finally be allowed to be forsaken, for it is He Who is Lord and over all, and not them. His purposes will not be allowed to fail. Thus they will be brought to a situation where they will have to choose between blessing or judgment.

They wanted to be ‘like the nations’ but there would come a day when He would no longer allow it. Indeed the nations would not want them, and that would be because of the hand of God. Thus would they be gathered out of the countries to which they had gone. But the picture is not one of untold blessing. Rather He would be dealing with them in His anger. He would be facing them up with what they were and would seek to bring them back into covenant with Himself, just as He had at Sinai. God will not be thwarted even by His people.

Note the emphasis that this will be in ‘the wilderness’. This will be a new Exodus, but here it also stresses that they will still be in barrenness (compare Hosea 2:6; Hosea 12:9). Their future blessing will depend on their response. There He will plead with them face to face, just as He had at Sinai in the wilderness. But many will not respond (Ezekiel 20:38) and will stay in the wilderness, just as the previously rebellious Israel in the time of Moses had died in the wilderness and had never seen the Promised Land.

Verses 37-38

“And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and those who transgress against me. I will bring them forth out of the land where they sojourn, but they will not enter into the land of Israel. And you will know that I am Yahweh.”

The passing ‘under the rod’ was picturing the way that the shepherd passed his sheep under his rod as he checked and assessed them (Leviticus 27:32; Jeremiah 33:13). Thus Israel would be assessed and called to account. Then the offer of the covenant will once again be made and they will be able to accept or reject it. And those who reject it, ‘the rebels’, will be purged out. They will not enter into God’s inheritance (contrast Hosea 2:14-15). God’s action on behalf of Israel will only mean blessing for those who truly respond.

Leviticus 27:32 depicts the passing under the rod as resulting in one out of ten being declared ‘holy to Yahweh’. There may here therefore be the expectancy that the faithful will be a small minority, a ‘tenth’. Compare Isaiah 6:13.

‘The bond of the covenant.’ The new covenant would be binding. It was not something that could be entered into lightly. Once they accepted it they would be bound by it.

Verse 39

“As for you, Oh house of Israel, thus says the Lord Yahweh, Go you. Serve every one his idols, now and hereafter if you will not listen to me. But you will no more profane my holy name with your gifts and with your idols.”

For the present those listening had a choice. They must choose between Him and idols. But they could not have both. If they wished to choose idols let them serve them, both now and later, but let them not then come to Yahweh with gifts or associate Him with idols. Then they would be in contrast to those who yet will serve Him purely (Ezekiel 20:40). They would reveal themselves not to be His people.

Verses 40-41

“For in my holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, says the Lord Yahweh, there will all the house of Israel, all of them, serve me in the land. There will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things. I will accept you as a sweet savour when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries in which you have been scattered, and I will be sanctified in you in the sight of the nations.”

In contrast with the disobedient and the rebels there will yet be those who once again serve God faithfully. The whole of Israel, yes ‘all of them’, will serve Him in the land. Note here what is meant by ‘all Israel’. It is those who remain after the rebels have been purged out and the disobedient excluded. Here already we have the seeds of the doctrine which Paul will expand in Romans 9-11. Not all Israel are the true Israel. Only those who respond and obey are the true Israel.

‘In my holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel.’ ‘The mountain’ was the term used to depict the whole of the mountain region of Israel from north to south, here described as ‘the mountain of the height of Israel’. This might seem therefore to be referring to the land of Israel as a whole. Thus we need not necessarily see it as limited to, although it includes, Mount Zion. It is true that in Isaiah 27:13; Isaiah 56:7; Isaiah 66:20; Joel 2:1; Joel 3:17; Zephaniah 3:11; Zechariah 8:3 ‘the holy mountain’ is Mount Zion. But Mount Zion was all inclusive. Indeed His people in exile could be called ‘Zion’ (Zechariah 2:7). Thus the whole mountain region was all God’s holy mountain, set apart for Himself and for His people. It was ‘the mountain of His inheritance’ (Exodus 15:17).

Mount Zion was seen anyway as inclusive of all the territory that surrounded it. Compare how in Psalms 78:68 ‘the mount Zion which He loved’ is the tribe of Judah, the ‘chosen’ tribe, over against the remainder of Jacob’s descendants, so that ‘He loves the gates of Zion more than the dwellings of Jacob’ (Psalms 87:2). The ‘beloved mountain’ therefore there refers to His chosen ones. Mount Zion was central because it was seen as the site of God’s earthly dwellingplace, where God was with all His people, but it was a part of the whole mountain range of Israel, which was His inheritance.

Israel would indeed return there to prepare the way for the coming of the One Whom God would send and through those who responded to Him God’s name would be sanctified, revealed as holy and unique, among all the nations.

‘There will all the house of Israel, all of them, serve me in the land. There will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things.’ To these rebellious people making their enquiries before Ezekiel God promised that one day there would be those who would truly serve Him in the land. All those who were truly His people would serve Him. They would be accepted, and from them He would require complete fulfilment of the covenant and active and true worship, and the giving to God of what was His. Ezekiel as a priest saw it in terms of the priestly offerings, but we may see it as symbolic of offerings of praise and thanksgiving and spiritual worship.

‘I will accept you as a sweet savour when I bring you out from the peoples, and gather you out of the countries in which you have been scattered, and I will be sanctified in you in the sight of the nations.’ One day God would again receive His people ‘as a sweet savour’, something welcome and pleasant and acceptable, who would bring honour to His name. This found partial fulfilment in those who served God faithfully after the restoration in the four hundred years before Christ, and final fulfilment in the ministry of Christian Jews to the world in the early church throughout the known world. Having been gathered to the mountain of Israel they had been prepared by Jesus for their worldwide task.

So in the end God would triumph. Once again we have in tension the idea of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, with God’s sovereignty prominent.

Verses 42-43

“And you will know that I am Yahweh, when I shall bring you into the land of Israel, into the country which I lifted up my hand (swore) to give to your fathers, and there you will remember your ways, and all your doings in which you have polluted yourselves, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that you have committed.”

The vision was for the future, but here God promises to these enquiring exiles (he was more merciful than He had said He would be, see Ezekiel 20:3; Ezekiel 20:31), that one day Israel will return to the land, and they will repent with a great repentance and awareness of sin, recognising their own total unworthiness. There would be a great restoration to God, as finally seen through the ministry of John the Baptiser and of Jesus Himself.

Verse 44

‘ “And you will know that I am Yahweh when I have wrought with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, Oh you house of Israel,” says the Lord Yahweh.’

Note the repetition of ‘you will know that I am Yahweh’. Compare Ezekiel 20:5; Ezekiel 20:7; Ezekiel 20:12; Ezekiel 20:19; Ezekiel 20:26; Ezekiel 20:38; Ezekiel 20:42. God had been revealed as He is in His mighty deeds in past days, and He will be revealed so again. All that He had done and would do was so that men may know Him as He is. What mattered was the full revelation of God, for thereby would man enjoy his greatest blessing. So God would do all this for His own name’s sake, for by their behaviour and their doings the people were totally unworthy of it.

It should be noted that there is no hint here of the rebuilding of the Temple. That was not what was important to God, although it may be seen as intended in a secondary way to be included in the comments about the offerings, the firstfruits of their oblations and the holy things.

Verses 45-46

‘And the word of Yahweh came to me saying, “Son of man, set your face towards the south (temana), and drop your word towards the south (darom), and prophesy against the forest of the country in the Negeb.” ’

There is an emphasis on the ‘south’ in the Hebrew brought out by the use of different Hebrew words (the Negeb also indicated south of the hills of Judah), and we can see Ezekiel turning towards the south from Babylon in the sight of his listeners. Today the Negeb is waterless desert except where it is watered by man made irrigation, but it is clear that in Ezekiel’s time the land somewhat more fruitful and sufficiently watered to produce a ‘forest’ of trees. It was from the south that Egypt was expected to come with its useless aid.

But ‘the south’ in the first two cases may have reference simply to the southern kingdom, to Jerusalem (Ezekiel 21:2 a) and the ‘land of Israel’ (Ezekiel 21:2-3). LXX translates the words for ‘south’ as place names.

Verses 45-49

Chapters Ezekiel 20:45 to Ezekiel 21:32 . The Certain Judgment of Yahweh.

In the Hebrew Bible Ezekiel 20:45 is the commencement of chapter 21, and the passage fits better with what follows. The picture moves from the overall view of history and the future to God’s certain judgments now to come on Israel. These verses consist of a number of oracles, probably occurring over a period of time. They are connected by the theme of God’s sword of judgment.

Verses 47-48

“And say to the forest of the Negeb, Hear the word of Yahweh. Thus says the Lord Yahweh, Behold I will kindle a fire in you and it will devour every green tree in you, and every dry tree. The flaming flame will not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north will be burned by it. And all flesh will see that it is I Yahweh who have kindled it. It will not be quenched.”

The fire would begin in the southern forest in the Negeb and would spread northward, devouring all in its path. For such forest fires as an illustration of the activity of Yahweh see Psalms 83:14; Isaiah 9:18-19; Isaiah 10:16-19; Jeremiah 21:14). In this case it was the fire of warfare, the fire of the invader, burning up the ‘trees’, the inhabitants of the land. In view of its starting point it was probably seen as involving in some way Egypt (possibly a threatening of their border by the Babylonians before proceeding against Judah), but speaking more of the forces of Nebuchadnezzar as they mercilessly reduced Judean cities one by one, until finally Azekah fell, and then Lachish, leaving Jerusalem to stand alone (see Jeremiah 34:7). Nothing would be able to quench it and no one would be able to turn his face from it. All will see in it that Yahweh has acted to bring about His will. Its unquenchability was a sign of the certainty of His judgment.

There is in letters discovered in the ruins of Lachish remarkable testimony to the way the watchmen of Jerusalem constantly took note of the signal fires of Lachish and Azekah as the invasion progressed, testimony that they were still holding out, until one night the lights of Azekah could no longer be seen. It is tempting to see this last as the last moments of Azekah, but it may just have been the result of bad weather.

‘Every green tree in you, and every dry tree.’ It will affect both seemingly righteous and those who were unrighteous (see Ezekiel 21:1) All will be involved.

Verse 49

‘Then said I, “Ah, Lord Yahweh, they say of me, is he not one who tells stories (or ‘a riddler of riddles’)?” ’

Here we have a very human touch. In spite of being the mouthpiece of Yahweh Ezekiel is still conscious of what his listeners feel about him. He is disconcerted once again to have to speak to them in parables, for they have clearly begun to criticise him for it and to accuse him of being ‘the riddler of riddles’ (memashel meshalim).

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezekiel 20". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". 2013.