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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

Ezekiel 8

Verses 1-12

III.—FURTHER PROPHETIC ACTION IMPOSED ON EZEKIEL. CHAPS. 8–19

Ezekiel has recorded the circumstances in which he received his call to be a prophet, and then the signs and words by which he was to signify the doom that awaited the whole of his people, because of their clamant iniquities. Fourteen months pass over him, and no other communication from the Lord is related. At the end of that time the power of God once more affects him, and imparts to him a succession of experiences, which are all ranged under one date. As in the preceding, so in this cycle of his prophecies he begins with a vision and ends with a dirge. “Here also he strives against political dreams, represents the destruction as inevitable, and points to repentance as the only way of safety.”—Hengstenberg.

1. VISION OF THE SINS AND JUDGMENT OF JERUSALEM (Chaps. 8–11)

Here we find not only a symbolical representation of the supreme glory and power of the God of Israel, but also of the procedure of the people. This is accomplished by putting Ezekiel in a kind of constraint, and that in the presence of onlookers. Did this visit of the elders cause an excitement in the sensitive prophet, and so prepare his mind for impressions from the Divine? Their visit is a significant fact. It shows that Ezekiel was no mere cipher among the units of banished Jews. Whatever had been their words and their looks respecting him, he became too much of a power amongst them to be insulted only. He was observed, and his confinement to his house was considered not as a result of ailment merely, but as a condition demanding general interest. Whether the people realised that he was “a messenger of the Lord of Hosts,” and the elders came sincerely to inquire “what saith the Lord?” may be doubted; but that this was the case after a few years is certified (chap. Ezekiel 33:30).

The constraint imposed on Ezekiel by the action of the Lord was that in which the external senses are apparently cast into an unsusceptible state. He was thus withdrawn from the relation to his house and the elders in which he seemed to be, and was rendered capable of receiving impressions of things far remote from his physical environment. Involuntary on his part though his state might be, there was no abeyance in the action of his chief faculties. He could internally see, hear, speak; his spirit is liberated and strengthened instead of clogged. The overruling force directs his attention to the Jews who had not been deported, and especially to the procedure of the dwellers in Jerusalem.

No indication is given of the length of time passed in his ecstasy. The elders may not have remained so long as his perception of external things was in suspense; but they may, as visional events proceed more rapidly than external. They would have seen a rigid and sudden prostration of the prophet’s body, and heard his ominous cry (chaps. Ezekiel 9:8, Ezekiel 11:13), and the phraseology of chap. Ezekiel 11:25, may be understood to mean that on his return to consciousness he described to them, as representing “them of the captivity,” all that had been shown to him. “The supernatural being once recognised as having a place in the dealing of God with man, we ought to be open to evidence as to facts in every individual case” (Campbell), and abide in the light of the messages.

(1.) A SURVEY OF THE FOUR ABOMINATIONS IN JERUSALEM (Chap. 8)

This experience of Ezekiel could be only an internal one, and was intended to make him perceptive of the ungodly ways of his contemporaries who were left in Judea.

Prelude to a view of the abominations (Ezekiel 8:1-4)

EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Ezekiel 8:1. “And it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month, in the fifth day of the month.” Since his first vision, Ezekiel’s time had been divided into 7 days, 390 days, and 40 days, in all 437 days. Reckoning up to the date here given, 14 months had passed, and, us lunar months, they would make 413 days. Were we to consider that the prophet lay on his sides for 390 + 40 days in external appearance, we should be at a loss to explain the discrepancy between 413 and 430, or else we should conclude that this ecstasy happened to Ezekiel while he lay upon his right side for Judah; i.e., he would be disturbed in the process of executing one commission by the interruption of another. As this seems improbable, we suppose that he had fulfilled his appointment in some form, but not literally. The next expression supports that opinion. “I sat in my house,” as he had been commanded (chap. Ezekiel 3:24). Keil says that the verb is “used in the more general sense of staying or living in the house.” We keep to the more restricted meaning, because the same verb is employed in reference to the elders. He and they were in the same posture in his house. He was not on his side; and though in seclusion, yet it was a seclusion which did not prevent his neighbours from observing him or conversing with him; “and the elders of Judah were sitting before me;” the civil organisation, which existed from the primitive times of Israel, was kept up among the captive Jews. The Babylonian government did not imperil its own quietness by nullifying the authority of the elders. That was allowed—no doubt to the advantage of captor and captive. Some special motive must have induced these head men of Judah to wait seated in the prophet’s house. Its nature is not mentioned; but the communications he makes to them offer the probable clue; “and the hand of the Lord fell there upon me:” a sudden and palpable change in Ezekiel’s aspect is intimated by the word fell—it is not used in the other two cases (chap. Ezekiel 1:3, Ezekiel 3:22)—one of those symptoms which are chiefly observed in persons of a high-strung, nervous temperament. He was rapt out of control of himself. Under this influence the people of Jerusalem chiefly became the objects of his study, and he afterwards communicated his descriptions and denunciations to the elders of the captives. It would seem that tidings of the prophecies of Ezekiel had reached the city, and produced in the minds of its inhabitants a despisal of those who were in exile. “They were separated from the privileges of worship in the Holy Temple; they must bear their troubles and not look for a return to their confiscated property; they should know that possession of the land was secured to the people remaining in Jerusalem, who were, in their own esteem, the favoured of the Lord” (chap. Ezekiel 11:15). Reports of some such words had come to the ears of the captives. They felt aggrieved, and they presented themselves before the prophet to learn what he had to say in reference to that consequence of his prophecies, and also the course which should be taken in regard to this cynical treatment by their brethren. The answer is conveyed in the vision which Ezekiel narrates.

Ezekiel 8:2. “And I beheld, and, lo, a likeness as the appearance of fire,” &c. The Sept. reads man instead of fire. It is a correction which is unnecessary, and may be regarded as a mistake. The earlier manifestation (chap. Ezekiel 1:26-27) showed indeed the appearance of a man upon the throne. That was not visible now. What was visible was that part which displayed the fire of the lower members and the brightness of the upper glowing like ore. Thus Ezekiel sees at first, “below, towards the earth, the person on the throne appeared in the glowing ire of His function as judge and avenger, above in the pure splendour of His calm, untroubled heavenly majesty.”—Züllig.

Ezekiel 8:3. “And He put forth the form of a hand.” He whose glory was present to the prophet was not materially acting—His hand was visionary; “and He took me by the front hair of my head,” as if to give an unimpeded view to him by holding him so as to make him look straight before him. It was not to carry him: another agency does that; “and a spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven;” or, a wind lifted me up, an interpretation which may be defended on the ground that the Hebrew word, which signifies both wind and spirit, is used with a distinction when Ezekiel tells of the cessation of his ecstasy (chap. Ezekiel 11:24). Like Paul, he could not tell whether he was out of the body, or in the body. He knew this, that the power of the Mighty One was investing him with marvellous capabilities which needed no physical forces to sustain them. It is interesting to note that while Matthew reports our Lord as saying, “If I by the Spirit of God cast out devils, then is the kingdom of God come upon you,” Luke reports Him as saying, “If I by the finger of God cast out,” &c., thus illustrating, as here, the varying aspects of spiritual influence. That spiritual domination over Ezekiel placed him not at his own point of view but at that of the Lord. He saw the evils of his people, not by the insight of his own nature, but by the revealing light of God, and he condemned them as from His righteous sentences: “and brought me to Jerusalem in visions of God;” in this rapt condition he seemed taken to the Temple, and “to the opening of the gate of the inner (court) that looks toward the north.” He was on the northern face of the Temple, and at that opening which made a communication between the outer court, that of the people, and the inner court, that of the priests. That entrance to the more sacred part of the building was in the face of “where is the seat of the image of jealousy:” this is meant to define Ezekiel’s standing-place, not to define the worshipped object. The reference to it follows in Ezekiel 8:5. The position at the north side is indicative of the quarter from which both the sin and punishment of Jerusalem were chiefly derived, “which provoketh to jealousy.” Idols are an offence to “the jealous, energetic God, who, as such, gives not His honour to another, and calls forth His reaction against the wrong done to His honour” (Heng.). He cannot renounce His rights, and shows that He will not.

Ezekiel 8:4. In the place He is dishonoured He gives tokens of His power and glory: “and, behold, there was the glory of the God of Israel, like the vision that I saw in the valley.” The appearance of fire which Ezekiel saw in his house seems not to have shown throne or cherubim or wheels. Now that he is in the Temple, the complete glory becomes manifest to him as he had already seen it in the valley near Tel-Abib. Its presence is a sign that the God of Israel will search into all the secrets of His people’s worship, and that whatever is inconsistent with the glory of His power, wisdom, holiness, love, among those who are left in Judea, will be laid bare and denounced. It cannot be said that the practices which were thus unveiled must have been confined to the precincts of the Temple. Those various forms of unhallowed worship could hardly be going on at the same time and within its comparatively limited space; and it may be questioned if certain of them were ever transacted therein. The vision is symbolical. The mere eye of flesh did not see what was done, but a spiritual imagination did. It recognised the Temple as the centre of the national life—the natural meeting-place for all Israelitish religious thought, and a focus for the abominations which were committed in the land. This idea is supported by the words of Jeremiah (Ezekiel 7:10), “Ye come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations.” And yet he writes (Ezekiel 8:17) as if they committed them elsewhere: “Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem?” Ezekiel’s vision includes the four chief manifestations of evil among the people, in public and in the dark, and becomes a striking picture of the apostasy of the house of Israel.

First abomination (Ezekiel 8:5-6)

EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Ezekiel 8:5. The prophet, standing by the gate of the inner court, is commanded, by a voice from the glorious appearance, to consider the idolatrous figure confronting him. “And I lifted up my eyes … and behold northward of the gate of the altar,” standing in the outer court so that it was in the way of all who came in view of, or passed through that gate which was called the gate of the altar, probably because it led to the spot where sacrificial animals were slain, this image of jealousy at the entrance. Various conjectures are made as to the special object represented by this image—Baal, Moloch, Astarte. It is preferable to regard it as a figure which embodied in its shape the ever-working tendency to associate the worship of idols with that of the Lord God, and thus to idealise the opposition which was perceived by Him among those who trod His courts.

Ezekiel 8:6. “Seest thou … the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here,” they seem to pay divine homage to images as often as they pay it to me. They may not purpose the certain result of such procedure, but it cannot fail to happen, and that is “in order to be far off from my sanctuary.” Who is meant—the people or the Lord? Not the former, but, what is unspeakably more terrific, the latter, as was illustrated at the close of this manifestation (chap. Ezekiel 11:23). “My glory I will not give to another;” therefore He writes “Ichabod” on His Temple in Jerusalem: “and turn again, thou shalt see great abominations.”

HOMILETICS

GOD’S WAYS MADE KNOWN (Ezekiel 8:1-4)

The methods by which the Father of spirits communicates with human hearts are wrapt in symbol and mystery. We do not know how the life in plants concurs in their growth; we know that it does by the effects on them. And a man may not be able to explain how he has obtained a consciousness of God, yet unhesitatingly premise that he has the witness in himself that God has come to him and given him power.

I. He receives this power amid the ordinary conditions of life; within the walls of his own house, a sufferer under ailments, with a few companions, he realises that the Lord has visited him. “He besets us behind and before, and lays His hand upon us” wheresoever He will. The idea that He may affect us is sometimes a source of fear and repulsion. This is to discredit God. Why should not the possibility of His power manifesting itself to us, anywhere and at any time, be esteemed as one of the highest privileges of our life? His visits may be made:

1. In seasons of trouble. The elders and exiles, flouted by their unbanished brethren, received good from the Lord by means of His word to Ezekiel. They learned that though far from their sacred Temple they were not forgotten by its Lord; that though despised as outcasts, they knew that His prophet was among them; that their iniquities had not taken away His truth and mercy from them. The needy cried to Him, and He sent from above to alleviate their need just where they felt it.

2. In personal associations. The power that came to Ezekiel and the elders came in private. It seems to be the usual course. Prophets and apostles were specially influenced by the Lord when they were away from ordinary stated worship. This was not meant to disparage assemblies for public religious services; it was rather to signify that, if we are to learn effectively that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, we must be alone, or with two or three gathered in His name. God honours not the service but the servants, and while public means have their own place among the ordinances of His kingdom, they must not be supposed to secure for us “power from on high.” From the Lord we must expect “grace to help in time of need”—not from any mere means even though called sacred. “Blessed is he that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.”

II. The Divine Spirit produces new experiences.

1. There are fresh impulses. The common routine of thought is broken through. The feeling of a new presence touching our inner man becomes definite. A prophet sees the brightness of a radiating glory; apostles behold “the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father;” any man who calls Jesus Lord has a revelation within of the light of the knowledge of His glory. All of them feel and know that they are brought into contact with a strength that is made perfect in weakness—the impelling of the Holy Spirit.

2. There is an exaltation of heart. Ezekiel felt lifted above the ground by a spirit. “Between earth and heaven” he sees wider views. He moves amidst rays from God. When we have a plainer and ampler sight given to us of the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, how differently we look upon our own needs and the needs of other men. We may sigh, we may lift up longing eyes, we may bend our heads and knees, but we do so because our hearts testify that they have “the Presence infinite” which makes its creatures blessed. Self and the world keep our spiritual life down; but the uplifting of the Holy Spirit enables us to “mount up with wings as eagles, to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint.” Evermore give us this power.

3. There is a clearer understanding of the religious condition of a people. The prophet saw the abominations which the house of Israel committed, by the penetrating power of the glory of God in the Temple. Nothing like a display of the character of God to make sin appear, and to make it appear “exceeding sinful.” Even if we be not addicted to the same iniquities as other men may be, our standing in the light of God’s countenance will enable us to discover their sins, and so to speak of them that they shall be convicted in their own consciences that we speak the truth, that the evils which we portray are their evils. So a motive may be given for repentance towards God. We learn to cherish:

1. A certitude that God will teach His ways. Faithfulness in little opens a way for the reception of much which will demand faithfulness. Obedience to many commandments of Christ prepares for learning commandments that are yet unrecognised. They who grow in grace grow in knowledge of Jesus Christ. The variety of forms which His teaching takes does not weaken but strengthens the conviction that He will teach. So it comes to pass that multitudes of persons can avow that He who was once an unknown God is now honoured as a Father; that the Christ who was once admired is now adored as a Saviour and King; that the persons with whom they are brought into association are regarded with a heightened and distinctive sympathy. They have learned from Him who gives rest to their soul, and they trust to Him to teach them still. Whereas they were blind now they see, and they are sure that He who has opened their eyes will point out their way and inform them of all its dangers and its provisions.

2. A hope of special teaching. Unlooked-for changes, perplexities, difficulties appear. Does one revelation, does a series of instructions for one’s common way of life, exhaust His supplies? No; “all things work together for good.” Let all things be against us, that does not show that God is unable to take us through them all. It only shows that we must not lose heart and hope; that we must wait for Him when He is not in view; that we must trust that the all-sufficiency of heavenly power and love is acting with steady force, though impalpable for a time. “Now we see in a mirror darkly,” but enough to satisfy us that all needed light will be shed, that human sins will not prevail against the rule of God.

VAIN WORSHIP (Ezekiel 8:5-6)

The spirit and truth which are needful in serving the Holy One of Israel are often absent from those who profess to worship Him. Individual worship and common worship are equally faulty as to this, and call forth the stern appeal from the great King, “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination to me.” He thus repels the worship because—

I. It is divided. The worshippers set up an image in His courts. They acknowledged Him, but He was not the only one regarded. They mingled up in what they did for Him a reference to some custom of other people, or some misapprehension of their own mind. They did not submit themselves to the inalienable rights of God. The rite or ceremony may be very attractive to the eye or ear, generation after generation may have found it agreeable, but the condemnation stamped on it is “God alone is not here!” Many prayers which seem earnest are not answered because they supplicate for gratification to some lust of the flesh or mind. Many a religious meeting dissolves as a vapour wherein no appearance of God is traceable, because they have not come to the Father only by Christ. Get a single eye, purify hearts by faith, search out all doublemindedness in private or public means of worship, lest God go far off, refusing to accept and hear. “Beside Him there is no God,” and a divided worship is worthless.

II. It belies His character. He is supreme. It is impossible for any created thing to share His sovereign authority, and any kind of worship which reverences an idol, or a form, or an idea of man’s heart, must, by its very nature, be repudiated as an abomination. Who dare presume to ascend the throne of the Almighty! He is righteous. Jealousy amongst men is tainted to a greater or less degree by selfish elements. We cannot bear a thing because it somehow shadows our contracted range of view, does not let us step easily on to our own comfort. In God’s jealousy there is no element but what is true, and holy, and kind. He cannot give up such principles if He is to continue to govern the world. He maintains “the integrity and dignity of His own position in the face of every free being.” It is the rights of God and with them the rights of every moral being which vibrate in the words, “The Lord shall be jealous for His great name;” and that He should be provoked by honour given to another is to be true to the claims which human nature makes upon Him who formed it to be good. He is accessible. The image of jealousy stood in the very face of the Lord’s altar, as if He were to be served only after an idol had been acknowledged; as if the first step towards Him must be taken by the help of that which is not God. In Christian service we too frequently fancy that if we first pray, or read the Scriptures, or fast, we shall find the Lord easier of access. Alas for us! if we do not learn that He is nigh to all that call upon Him, that between the High-priestly Son and them nothing should intervene, that to use any other mediator is to make a movement which tends to put Him far off. Not that He does not see, does not care for the worshippers He may forsake; but that they may learn that they have treated Him as if He were a retired or an absent God. Forms of worship thus become a mere ceremonial. Darkness and deadness cover the heart, and He cannot but count vain that which by act takes from His character its authority, justice, and immediate presence.

III. It is made obvious to God-fearing men. “Son of man, seest thou what they do?” Dare he consider the abominations? Yes; if in obedience to the Lord. Ezekiel lifted up his eyes to see the abominations, not because he wanted to look on evil, or because he thought his soul strong enough to venture without harm “among serpents;” but because the Lord told him to do so. We may look upon things which offend God—bad books, besotted men and women, unscriptural practices in worship—but we need to beware of the danger in such procedure. Many a youth has committed evil because he wanted to see what it was like. Many a worshipper has gone to look at forms of worship with which he was not familiar, and lost his power to distinguish between that mode of service which leads to Christ and that which draws away from Him—between a fruitful worship and a vain. And if at times there does not appear sufficient ground for judging whether or not a certain worship veils the glory of Christ, the true way in which it can be made clear is to give honest answer to the question, Shall I be obeying the Lord Jesus Christ in attending on this thing? The weak conscience is defiled, the strong in the Lord is made able to stand. One goes into the lion’s den and is safe, for Cod sends him; many go and are torn in pieces, for their own will moves them. We touch a great principle for our guidance in worship when we say that wrong against God is plain to those who fear His great name. Yes; if he is to be fit to act as a watchman. Ezekiel looked at the image of jealousy, but it was that he might say, “God will withdraw if that is honoured.” Jesus ate with publicans and sinners, but it was that He might call them to repentance. And if we be disposed to observe any unholy thing, it must be with the desire so to know it that we shall see its offensiveness to God, and shall warn the men who sanction it that they are sinning against the only true God.

GOD’S DISCLOSURE OF SIN (Ezekiel 8:6; Ezekiel 8:13; Ezekiel 8:15)

The disclosure shows—

I. There are degrees of wickedness—“greater abominations.” The longer we look the more we see. There is a sin of ignorance like Paul’s—“I did it ignorantly in unbelief”—and sins of knowledge like those who “sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth.” Some sins withhold the honour which is due the Lord in worship; other sins act against His laws of conduct, and prostitute the powers of manhood and womanhood in brutal license.

II. Knowledge of the degrees of wickedness is not acquired all at once. “Thou shalt see greater.” The first conscious sin is no evidence of other sins which will be committed by an individual. He begins to court the will to be rich, and then comes the will to lie, cheat, steal; or the desire for power, and then come deeds of injustice, oppression, murder; or neglected worship, and then “they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame.” The evils in churches are gradually recognised. They may be indulged in by many, and who discovers at once that the stream is tending to the wrong quarter? They may be kept from honest probing, and how can we test their danger? They may be undetected because we have been accustomed always to see them, and where is the power to show their offensiveness to the Lord? Once brought to see one allowed course in its sinfulness, we may be brought to see others also. We need to have eyes opened that we may see, and we shall find that “in the lowest deep there is a lower deep still threatening to devour.”

III. The light of God alone unveils the amount of wickedness. He has a time and ways of discovering what is in our hearts, what in our societies. We must look by it, walk in it if we are to remember whence we are fallen and not have our candlestick moved out of its place. Let us wait on the Lord Jesus Christ, that in His light we may see the light for our own state and the state of others. “It is time for Thee to work, for men have made void Thy law.”

Second abomination (Ezekiel 8:7-12)

EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Ezekiel 8:7. The prophet having turned, he says, “He brought me to the opening of the court;” his position being changed, he must have been taken to some other door than that mentioned in Ezekiel 8:3, most probably to the opening which led from the outer court into unwalled space; the worshippers would thus be less exposed to observation than if they had to cross the court to the inner gate. “and I saw and, behold, a hole in the wall,” but too small for him to pass through, and a mode of ingress must be made.

Ezekiel 8:8. At the command of the Lord he dug out part of the wall, as Eastern robbers do, and, entering by the breach, “behold an opening” which the wall concealed, and so was known to the initiated alone. The seer has the key which opens it—the word of the Lord.

Ezekiel 8:9. “Come and see the wicked abominations which they are doing here.” Ezekiel was moving in the region of symbols. The hole; the door walled in; a secret worship by elders; a large room, within the Temple-precincts, having its walls covered with the figures of various animals representing the visible powers of nature, are all tokens that it was not a real sight he was looking on—that it was a representation of the masked and wide-spread guilt of the mass of the people.

Ezekiel 8:10. “And I came and saw; and, behold, every form of reptiles and cattle, abomination, and,” besides those animal figures, there were representatives “of all the refuse idols of the house of Israel portrayed upon the wall round about.” Ancient writers, and tombs opened in recent times, show how common was the practice in Egypt of decorating their walls with painted figures, while the worship of animals in that country was long the popular form of worship. It seems as if this prominence given to Egyptian habits had reference to the leanings towards that government of many among the leading men of Jerusalem, and to their efforts to bring about an alliance offensive and defensive. Allusions, in the larger prophetical books especially, prove that there was a political party among the Jews whose cry was, “Let us go down to Egypt for help!” Now that the Babylonian power was in the ascendancy, that party was obliged to resort to underhand schemes, to secret meetings and proceedings, with the hope, no doubt, that they might contrive, with the aid of Egypt, to get rid of the Chaldean yoke. The Jewish people were not contented with their compromises with Egypt, they also adopted other varieties of idol-worship. The new forms did not prevail so as to extirpate the old, and overwhelming superstition spread over the covenanted land. Thus did created things become an abomination. Good in themselves, they were placed by the people alongside of the Lord God, if not above Him, and became objects of His loathing.

Ezekiel 8:11. “And seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel.” The number is historical (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:16). It is not to be understood here of a standing council of the people, but of an ideal representation of them as a whole. The contrast between the present provocation of the Lord and the honour paid to Him formerly by the seventy is also to be considered. “To render the contrast still more palpable between what was and what should have been,” it is added, “and Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing in their midst;” why he was so conspicuous is unknown. He was one of a family of Jewish statesmen. His father was the patriotic and God-fearing scribe—chancellor—of King Josiah during his reforming reign (2 Kings 22:3, ff.). Another son was Abikam, who, as also his son Gedaliah, nobly stood for Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:24; Jeremiah 39:14). Jaazaniah had apparently deserted the purer traditions of his family and become prominent among the idolatrous and Egyptian party. It is a sad but not an isolated spectacle. Righteousness does not run by a law of heredity. “were standing before them,i.e., before the figures drawn on the walls, “and each man with his censer in his hand,” thus assuming a prerogative of priesthood, and in the posture of performing an act of worship of the highest kind. “and a prayer of the cloud of incense was going up.” The A. V. has “a thick cloud.” The only other place where the Hebrew word is found gives in its translation “suppliants” (Zechariah 3:10). In biblical language, the ascending incense is symbolic of prayer—“the twenty-four elders having each one golden bowl full of incense which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8). On these grounds we prefer to read here “prayer.”

Ezekiel 8:12. The interpretation comes. “Hast thou seen, son of man, what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark:” that this abomination was to be sought for in such a secrecy, while the others were seen in the open daylight, supports the idea that the former was maintained for the furtherance of occult political aspirations—aspirations which the Providence of God would not sanction: “each man in the chambers of his imagery?”—rooms in which images were delineated. Each of the seventy had such a chamber for himself—a place in which he installed his own special favourite objects of worship. It is indicative of the addiction in private houses to the unhallowed ceremonies which the prophet beheld in the light of God. Proceedings like these gave practical expression to the thought, “the Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.” They did not deny the Lord’s existence, they used His name; but their conduct was tantamount to reducing Him to a nonentity in the world, for it denied His knowledge and mercy. To put a fact into the terms of a popular saying is one of the features of Ezekiel’s style, and is a mode of intimating that the thoughts so embodied in speech were not mere hasty and transient impressions, but were the outcome of habitual choosing their own ways and forsaking those of the Lord. When such notions about Him were cherished, apostasy from Him was, not probable only, but certain. Men might live as they liked, they might despise God, they might tempt and deceive their fellowmen, no account would be demanded. God saw not. They may degrade the worship of a people, they may corrupt the moral atmosphere of a city, they may strive to promote political ends, both at home and abroad, which shall be unworthy of a high-minded people. They allow no scrupulous afterthoughts to hold them back. God has forsaken the land—a nation has no God, no eternally righteous law to obey!

HOMILETICS

CORRUPTION OF TRUE WORSHIP

Account for it as philosophers may, the fact is patent that most men will worship. They are in the abyss of savagery, or they plume themselves on the summit of the highest civilisation of centuries, and at not one stage, from the lowest to the highest point of the long slope, is there a belt of which it can be said, “Worship was never made within its limits.” The object of such worship as is rendered may be a fetish, or a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; but in each variation there is understood to be the existence of something in which power resides. The tendency thus universally observed, like all human tendencies, is susceptible to change of direction. As certain elements in nutritious food are adapted to build up a healthy body, so there are certain elements required in worship to meet the wants of a human being as he stands related to the Power which made him and fashioned him. As food may be used lavishly or sparingly and produce diseases incident to over-indulgence or insufficiency; or as good food may be refused and hurtful taken instead, so worship may be carried out to strengthen or weaken, to elevate or degrade the soul; or that worship which is right and true be forsaken for that which is false and destructive. The features of the latter delineated here are—

I. It takes a place among purer forms. The Jewish elders, burning incense before animal figures and other objects, stood within the area of the Temple dedicated to the honour of the only living and true God. They practised their dark rites under the shadow of a holy fane. The craving for worship seeks its appeasement not only in the pure and true, and a past enlightenment does not guarantee it against a present error. In all the ages during which men have walked among the revelations of God, some amongst them “have forsaken the fountain of living waters and hewn out for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water.” The churches, taught by men who had been with Jesus and had seen “the power of His resurrection,” included persons who held the teaching of Balaam, ate things sacrificed to idols, and committed fornication. The present Church of Rome boasts of its unbroken succession from the simple primitive Church, yet the walls of its buildings are often covered with pictures, lights are burned at the shrines of saints, Mary is worshipped more than Jesus, and a frail man is revered as infallible! Where, too, there has been a practical protest against Papal departures from purer worship, who dare to say that no heed is paid to seducing spirits, no “departure from the faith” has occurred? Called Christians, counted among those who profess belief in Jesus, how many have only a name to live! How many use their position to do that which is not seemly! And spiritual worship is made to provide a room for that which is earthly and sensual.

II. It needs a close search to perceive its obliquity. The hole in the wall could excite only suspicion, but an investigation made by the breaking through could expose the corruption which was festering. It is a suggestive omen for those who would discern the times, and learn the judgment of truth respecting them. We must wait and watch in the light which Jesus sheds, follow up the questions which the Holy Spirit may prompt in regard to the meaning of our forms of worship. There are “depths of Satan” into which no sounding-line will be let down without some impulse; there is a hating of the light of which no estimate can be made till the Divine word measures it. The external worship of a church may be associated with for years, and not a fear startle the soul lest there should not be spirit and truth in its observance. The forms may be appropriate; but beneath them there may be no loyalty to the Christ, only a care for personal satisfaction and comfort. The pens may be filled, and filled with anything but sheep! Only He who holds the seven stars in His right hand knows and can reveal the lurking sins which offend Him and hinder the Gospel of His Son. What right-hearted man will not pray, often and expectingly, “Lead me to where I can see, open mine eyes that I may see that which impinges against Thy truth and holiness and love, no matter by whom or by what numbers the evil thing is committed”?

III. It manifests a voracious appetite. Several animals do not satisfy, idols of other kinds are accepted as objects for worship. As in Jerusalem, so it was in the days of imperial Rome—a niche was provided for the gods of all nations. Corruption spreads by its own nature. One step is not much out of the narrow way, but the line which that step begins to trace will take to far-off regions. The mystery of lawlessness, with its power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceit of unrighteousness, started on its career from the bosom of apostolic churches; and the warning-note, needed by all seekers for God’s will, is, “Be not moved away from the true worship, lest you go from bad to worse, and weary the Lord.”

IV. It exercises varied influences. Over the higher ranks of society. Their position and their intelligence do not act as a safeguard against a deteriorated religiousness. They are most under the claims of worldly fashion, and a fashion in worship is most likely to be potent amongst them. At any rate, church history may be adduced to show that it is not the common people but the aristocracy of a country from whom a change from a simple to a complex and sensuous ritual finds its chief support. Over the aged. The elders of the house of Israel corrupted the statutes of the Lord. The lapse of years brings trial and failures. Men get weary of the God whose command is, “Be ye holy for I am holy,” who allows no illegitimate indulgence to the lusts of the flesh and mind, and they go into self-pleasing causes after a lifetime of hearing a voice behind them continually say, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” “There is no fool like an old fool!” Over family associations. The chief among the abettors of corrupted worship was a man of whom it would have been said, “The influences of his family will prevent him from going amongst the secret worshippers of idols.” But this saying is superficial and inconsistent with facts. Our generation has seen not a few out of the families of evangelical Protestants become enthusiastic Roman Catholics or Ritualists—ready to stand among them as leaders. They who should have been barriers against turning out of the way of the Lord go at the head of those who turn from it. They whose experience should have confirmed the younger in truth, encourage them to believe in lies. And this lesson is written clear to view, that subjects of the most religious instruction and the most patriotic procedure will not always be found to obey the will of God. Thus influential is the corruption of true worship.

V. It becomes paramount with its adherents. They overcome all scrupulosity in regard to the Lord’s Temple, and prostitute it to their debasing ceremonies. They expend money and time in maintaining them. They at length treat the living and holy God as if He paid no concern to what they did, and, having forsaken Him, speak as if He had forsaken them. They impute to Him an ignorance and a heartlessness which, if they did exist, would utterly disqualify Him from being God. So they are subjected to their own devices; they are filled with their own ways.

How strange it seems to leave the right way for the wrong! How unreasonable and unlikely it looks! But yet how familiar the case is! And it is so because men “did not like to retain God in their knowledge.” “They have gone away backward.” No eyes but God’s can detect the many forms of this apostasy, and point out the hole in the wall of religious profession which leads to abominations within hearts and within churches. His ears alone can catch the meaning of those who serve divers lusts and pleasures, who say virtually, “The Lord seeth us not.” “I say unto you, Fear Him.”

CHAMBERS OF IMAGERY

Then said He unto me, Son of man, hast thou seen what the ancients of Israel do in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery? For they say, The Lord seeth us not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth” (chap. Ezekiel 8:12).

A hall of imagery! No phrase could better describe the mind of man, and memory the painter. In colours bright or dark, in the very lineaments of joy or shame or grief, she paints every struggle of the soul; our very wishes and purposes, though unacted, are all there. We behold all the scenes of the past fixed immovably on the walls and silently smiling or frowning upon us.
What is upon the walls? Some spaces are blank, condemning our profitless days. Some, like the dark catacombs of Rome, have scenes of decay and death portrayed. Here the innocence of childhood is slowly dying; there honesty is bartered away for gain, or virtue for pleasure. It may be there are chambers in which are beheld a virtuous youth, a devout age, a divine faith triumphing over the powers of the world. But at the best there is only a mingled series of pictures. Each soul is a temple, each heart an altar, and often the unhallowed rites of another worship than that of the Lord of heaven are practised there.
We are apt to feel as if what was done in those chambers was unmarked. Darkness and thick walls gave concealment to the ancients of the house of Judah: “The Lord seeth us not.” Yet the angels were looking in; and to the prophet, his eyes touched with spiritual light, all became visible.
In our chambers of imagery there may be other witnesses than we think. Surely it is not a vain or unreasonable thought, that round us are spiritual beings to whose spiritual eyes the mind lies open as the scenes of the world lie open to the bodily eye. Happy if we suffer to abide in our mind only those thoughts and purposes which these spiritual beings may gladly look upon!
But if there be no other, there is one eye that looks through all the veils of time and sense. In the sight of God the mind is the seat and source of all good and evil. The purpose clothes the act with its own goodness or guilt. The same act may be disinterested or selfish; the same forms of worship a mockery or a devotion, according to the purpose. In those chambers is the real life of man, and the imaginations we indulge in take shape, and the hopes we cherish are audible prayers before the Lord who seeth, and who has not forsaken the earth.
We may enter those chambers of imagery for correction and improvement. The time comes when we must enter them for judgment. In that dread hour the memory must take a conspicuous part. In the midst of the awful congregation of the risen dead again must we pass through the halls of imagery. The silent walls shall need no voice—memory and conscience shall affirm the righteous judgment of God. For that day, when the strong shall bow and the most devout tremble, may we in mercy be prepared!
Our life is founded on what is past, and every year we live the past becomes more important in its steady influence; we live in the midst of its memorials. It is the home which we build around us day by day, and according to what we make it will there be liberty or imprisonment. Each day let your deeds and your purposes be such that a new picture shall take a place on the walls that you will be glad to see. The past is fixed on the walls, we cannot take it down, but we may correct and alter. The picture of the prodigal’s departure has added to it the picture of his return and the father’s enduring love. Over scenes of guilt there may be arched the rainbow of the Divine mercy. Repentance may not efface the past, but it transfigures it. While bygone sins remind us of our weakness, they bring us nearer to Him whose strength saves and whose mercy forgives.—Peabody (abridged).

Verses 13-18

Third and fourth abomination (Ezekiel 8:13-18)

EXEGETICAL NOTES.—Ezekiel 8:13-14. The seer is led from the secret chamber back to the point at which he had first approached to the precincts of the Temple (Ezekiel 8:3). He stands now at its northern entrance, not at the entrance to the inner court as in the former case, “and, behold, the women weeping for Tammuz were sitting there.” Whether they were without or within the Temple walls is not stated, but they were in the attitude of mourners. Jeremiah bears witness (Jeremiah 7:11; Jeremiah 44:17) to the activity of women at this period in the service of idolatry, though he does not mention their devotion to Tammuz. Nor is it mentioned anywhere else, and no satisfactory explanation has been given of it. Conjectures are abundant—often wide of the mark. They have too readily accepted this weeping and that of the Syrians, Greeks, &c., for Adonis, or the Egyptians for Osiris, as standing on the same ground. It might be no forceful objection against such comparison to say that the rites in those countries involved rejoicings as well as lamentations, and that they were accompanied with “unbridled license and excess.” But surely we may believe that if the women of Jerusalem indulged in the gross orgies common to Adoniac worship, Jeremiah was not the man to have shunned all reference to their wickedness. Whether the “Babylonian legend,” deciphered from an ancient tablet, and which tells of “a goddess, widow of Duzi, the ‘Son of Life,’ descending through the seven circles ‘of the land of invisibility,’ and reascending after various vicissitudes,” indicates the quarter from which the weeping for Tammuz was derived, is of no consequence as yet. “The Speaker’s Commentary,” while mentioning the legend, acknowledges that its purport and its influence are utterly obscure. The habit of the Jewish women, somehow or another, must have demoralised themselves and those related to them, and so was regarded as an “abomination.”

Ezekiel 8:15. The seer had to observe great abominations (Ezekiel 8:6), then great abominations they were doing (Ezekiel 8:13), and now greater abominations than these he had already seen. His view had gone from general idol-worship to secret worship among the magnates of Jerusalem, afterwards from open debasement of the women to utter defiance of God in the priestly portion of the Temple. The climax of evil in warfare is reached when the soldiers become rebels, when works of darkness are substituted for the whole attire of light.

Ezekiel 8:16. Again Ezekiel is taken further, to a point from which he can inspect the spot “between the porch and the altar,” a sacred place in the inner court where the priests gathered together apparently only in seasons of extraordinary interest, such as a national fast (Joel 2:17). On that hallowed ground he saw “as it were twenty-five men.” Fairbairn calls them men “of priestly rank, the princes of the sanctuary,” and considers the number was made up of the High Priest and the twenty-four heads of the courses of the priests which had been arranged by David. He takes them as representing “the whole priesthood.” Is it not better to regard the number, as the Seventy was, as a historical number, and intended to show nothing more than that the priesthood even was not wholly loyal to God? Consecrated for His worship in the place where He had chosen to put His name, they were seen “with their backs towards the temple of the Lord, and their faces to the east, and they worshipped the sun toward the east.” The worship of the sun, so common in many countries, had already been practised in Judea, and was put down in Josiah’s reforming reign (2 Kings 23:5; 2 Kings 23:11). It was too deeply rooted and too attractive to be overturned by a transient revival of purer worship; and here it is seen to have seduced the guardians of that worship.

Ezekiel 8:17. The scenes which had been unfolded in the seer’s vision were in palpable contrariety to the worship of the Lord, but the forms of apostasy he had observed were of little account, “a light thing to the house of Judah:” they would disregard God if they disregarded the rights of their brethren, “for they filled the land with violence, and returned,” i.e., gone back again and again to their evil doings, “to provoke me to anger, and,” something especially offensive is singled out for mention, “lo, they put the branch to their nose.” The explanations of this obscure phrase, which refer it to a rite of heathen worship in which a branch was carried in the hand, or raised to the mouth, do not agree with the words: Moreover, the context has left the sphere of religion for that of morals, and would suggest some action not directly religious—at any rate, some very gratuitous evil deed. But there is no tolerable accounting for the words, and the conclusion to which Fairbairn comes seems reasonable: “One would expect the clause to denote something that rendered their sinful ways peculiarly obnoxious to God, and nothing would more readily do this than feelings of fancied security and insolent scorn.” So he surmises that it must have reference to some insulting kind of proceedings. The result would be a correspondence between their conduct and the position which the Lord was driven to take—urgent prayers but no reply (Ezekiel 8:18). “I will show them the back, and not the face, in the day of their calamity” (Jeremiah 18:17).

HOMILETICS

EMOTIONAL WORSHIP (Ezekiel 8:14)

This abomination in worship is not described by Ezekiel, as it has been by many interpreters, as gross and licentious. And though, probably, it deserved such epithets, yet the one term which he employs, “weeping,” suggests a course that leads far from holiness and love. We see the dominance of the emotions in worship—

I. In sensuous procedure. Weeping at one time, shouting at another, processions and extravagant gestures, are specimens of the actions to which the indulged emotions prompt. That those manifestations might appear when any feeling is casually and strongly moved need not surprise; but that they should be made a regular part of the service throws doubt on their genuineness, and brands them as unworthy of the God who is Spirit and Truth. If the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets, why should not the emotions also be?

II. In the persons chiefly affected. More readily than men, women are stirred on the emotional side of their nature. Let that side be controlled so as to stand in due proportion to the other sides, and it will help to fill worship with the tone befitting One who is loved for His love. But when it is unduly fostered, when it is fascinated to extravagant assertion of itself, a deteriorating effect must follow. For then the influence of womanly emotion, which should keep clear our family life and purify it when muddied, not only loses its efficacy, but tends to render it turbid and malarious. Women stand in a perilous position when they allow free scope to their emotions in worship. They make it an offence to God, however devoted and continuous it may be.

III. In a wrong estimate of the objects. Legends which have no truth, or so scanty an item of it that prehistoric studies and mythological suggestions are needed to find it; imaginary evils; a morbid craving for some excitement to break into the idleness of life, or into the trials which seek for the relief of change, these “beguile women of her tears,” and draw into sentimental and fantastic expressions of devotion. True, the gross aspects of emotional worship may be little manifested in modern Christendom; but emotions still count for something in worship; and we do well to remind ourselves that however deeply we feel awe in what are called sacred or holy places, however moved by a dim religious light or music, by prayer or pathetic preaching, that the worship engendered from such feelings does no more in the perfect will of God than idol images or clouds of incense. We need truth to originate and regulate emotions.

“Let Christian women, instead of wasting in sickly and carnal sentimentality the tender and susceptible natures which God has given them, weep with them that weep, heal the bruises of the suffering members of the Church, and minister to those who need temporal or spiritual help. Let them, instead of weeping over fictitious tales of morbid love and carnal sorrows, consecrate their fine sensibilities to the active promotion of the glory of Him who is altogether lovely, and whose bitter sufferings for us should call forth our tears of gratitude and glowing love. Let them try to resemble Mary, who, in her devotion, when all others were gone, stood at the sepulchre of her crucified Lord weeping, and so had her tears dried up by the risen Saviour Himself.”—Fausset.

WILFUL WORSHIP (Ezekiel 8:16)

All forms of worship are not equally dishonouring to the only Lord. However foolish, corrupted, or exaggerated some of them may be, the climax in evil is assigned to that which springs from the determination of men to turn their backs upon Him who has revealed Himself to them. Their worship is—

I. Against knowledge. The spot at which the twenty-five men carried on their worship indicated a priestly office. Of that office it was said, “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” But here were men disowning their highest functions, doing despite to the law they were appointed to observe, who “loved darkness rather than the light,” and fell under the condemnation passed upon those who forsake their own mercies. It is hard on a father that he should be disobeyed by his child, and the hardest point of such disobedience is when it is done notwithstanding clear knowledge of his commands.

II. In desecration of the temple. Sun-worship would have been sinful anywhere; this had its aggravation in that it was conducted in the place where God’s honour dwelt. They provoked Him to His face. They deliberately polluted with their abominations that which He ordained to be holy. And though there be no such sacred place now, yet may we learn that if we take our self-pleasings in where we and others worship, we erect barriers between us and our Lord. We sin against Him and sin against our brethren.

III. In preference of the creature to the Creator. The altar was the spot on which God received the signs of homage due to Him. They turned their backs on it and insulted Him by rendering homage to the sun. The east was more to them than the threat or the promise of the God of their fathers; the seen more reverenced than the unseen; a dead object chosen rather than the living God. Thus they were guilty of treason, and under the awful ban of those who are without excuse! Alas! a similar procedure may be found still under the shadow of the Cross. “If we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth”—how could professing Christians regard these words as true if it were not for sad examples to illustrate them? How many preach for self or the world! How many enter into places of worship rather to be considered respectable, to please a patron, to acknowledge an unknown God, than to “rejoice in God through Jesus Christ the Lord!” Surely we all need to try our ways in worship, to realise the Light which is ever searching our services, not that it may find fault, but that it may show our faults, so that we shall repent of our errors and form a pure and steadfast regard to the Lord alone. Then, when we cease from the creature, we shall worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, seeking not our own glory, but the glory of Him who is greatly to be feared and had in reverence.

RELIGION AND MORALITY (Ezekiel 8:17)

The “abominations” were meant to make a deep impression upon the seer as to the religious condition of his people in their own metropolis. But more was to be observed. The evils which were seen in the Temple were surpassed throughout the land; and he is asked to institute a comparison between worship and conduct, religion and morality. Among the elements which bring religion and morality into comparison are these—

I. They are distinguished from each other. Religion has reference to visible and invisible objects in which some kind of force is supposed to reside, and which are rarely men. When they are human beings, real or imaginary, they have ascribed to them certain attributes which separate them from ordinary men. Morality has reference to the men whom we think of, speak to, act with or on. This distinction, however, does not imply separation of the two spheres.

II. They are intimately associated. Religion and morality may be separated in thought; they cannot be in practice. This is not to be understood to say that a religious man cannot exist without some kind of moral conduct, or a moral man without some friendly or unfriendly attitude towards religion. It is to say that a man’s religious sentiments have always some influence upon his social actions, even if image or sun worship could be shown never to have let their rill of religious thought flow into the stream of moral requirements. It may be that a man who worships an idol, or says there is no God, is irreproachable in his morals. Allowing that there might be no question as to the reality of individual cases, yet are they rare. They are exceptions to the general rule that a high morality depends upon a true religion. This is manifest where the God of Israel, the only true God, is served or disobeyed. His religion is inextricably mingled up with morality. Whosoever gives due honour to the Lord God accepts every moral obligation. The love of God and the righteousness of God produce love and rectitude in all relations. And should it be said that His professed worshippers are often unfaithful, dishonourable, impure, self-seeking in regard to man, it can be replied that such persons do not possess the religion pure and undefiled before God and the Father. If they went out from it, they were not of it. They never knew Jesus the Holy One or His Father. They swell the instances which show that an irreligious class or nation must be, on the whole, immoral—a moral class or nation, on the whole, religious.

III. They are unfairly estimated. The bearing of the question put to the prophet defines not only a set of opinions which held that it was not an evil thing to resort to idol-worship, but also that it was even a lighter evil to commit flagrant injustice towards each other. Both religion and morality were under-estimated; and such a course implied that if a man kept up forms of worship, he might be a tyrant, a cheat, or seducer, and be at ease! Against the notion that morality is of less consequence than religion, this appeal to Ezekiel takes an unfaltering stand. It signifies that men who supposed that acts of worship allowed them liberty to set at nought the rights of the poor and needy provoked the Lord deeply. It signifies that by the former course they had put God far away, had removed the great restraint against wrong-doings, and in the latter sent violent dealings into every circle of social life in which they could press their selfish interest. It signifies that men who were more careful to pay their idolatrous worship than to do justly and love mercy were preparing for themselves a fearful doom. Whether religion is to be more highly valued than morality is a vain question. The doctrine of God our Saviour insists on their interfusion as parts of doing His will. When sects, churches, societies, speak lightly of a man’s bad conduct because he is a recognised member; when it is judged more expedient to bend the head or knees, to wave incense, to weep over fancies or pictures, to say the words of a creed, to make reverence towards the east, to have a form of godliness, than it is to keep evil thoughts down, or to do fairly to every man, or to live unspotted from the world; when there is an attempt to palliate covetousness, misrepresentations, unkindness, on the ground that they belong to the reign of “mere morality”—then the standard of God must be lifted up, “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.” On the other hand, when it is maintained that religion is of no force to form a moral life; when palliation is made for worldly and unrighteous conduct on the ground that the doers make no profession of faith in the Christian’s God, then we must affirm that the religion of Christ is a religion of righteousness, and that they who make light of Him will go on in darkness, and so will reap the fruit of their own ways.

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ezekiel 8". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/ezekiel-8.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.