You Trusted in Your Beauty-Ezekiel 16

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Big idea: God--in his grace and generosity--blesses you with every possible blessing under heaven, but you use and abuse his blessing for yourself like a brazen prostitute!

"But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore..." (Eze 16:15, ESV). “You did not remember the days of your youth” (Eze 16:22, 43).

In Ezekiel 16 God addresses the (false) assumption among God's people that that they are good and better than others, and therefore should not be judged or critiqued.

* When others see your beauty do they lust after your beauty or do they see the God and Giver of your beauty?

  • What is God's grace to you? Be specific. (See 16:1-14).
  • Is it too easy to use your God-given gifts ("beauty") for yourself (Eze 16:15)?
  • Do you remember your past and all the good that God has done for you (Eze 16:22, 43)? Or are you angry and upset?
  • What are some (false) assumptions that you might have about yourself or your church?
  • Are there any assumptions (about yourself or your church), which you cannot bear to hear, and adamantly refuse to hear?

In this one chapter (16), Israel is called a harlot, whore or prostitute some 21 times, and together with sexually explicit verbal graphics (Eze 16:25, 26, 36) is jarring and highly disturbing. Yet in all her promiscuity she was never "satisfied" (Eze 16:28-29). Ezekiel wants it to be very clear that Israel does not stand accused of just a single act of adultery (which is bad enough), but of prolonged, addictively repeated, insatiable promiscuity with multiple partners. It is an explicit and terrible indictment of "unrestrained nymphomaniacal adventures."

  1. The rescue: grace and generosity (1-14).
    1. Grace (1-7): God delivers the infant from its bloody death and decrees that it shall live -- though nothing in the condition of the infant deserved or compelled the gift of life.
    2. Generosity (8-14): God adds an outpouring of generosity -- in addition to pure grace.
  2. The response: ungrateful and unnatural (15-34).
    1. Religious prostitution (16-22).
    2. Political prostitution (23-34).
  3. The repudiation: terrifying and terminal (16:35-43; 23:22-49).
  4. Two ugly sisters (16:44-63; 23:1-49).
    • The surprise of restoration (16:53-63).

The lurid allegories of Ezekiel 16 and 23 must qualify as the chapters in the Bible (2nd perhaps only to the genealogies in 1 Chronicles) least likely to be read aloud in church and preached from. They are long, lewd and their language is graphically pornographic. They evoke images of the most vulgar sexual depravity and the most horrendous graphic violence. They are in short shocking.

Shocking is also what they were intended to be when they emerged from the mouth of this young son of a priest, who must himself have been utterly appalled at what he was being given to say as God;s spokesman. Would the holy God want me to use such sexually vulgar language? It is difficult to imagine Ezekiel pouring out this torrent of prophetic lewdness (prurience) without excruciating embarrassment and abhorrence.

Ezekiel claimed that his lips had never been defiled by unclean food (Eze 4:14). What must it have felt like to have his lips defiled by such unclean language? Especially if his wife was listening. Most English translations tone down the offensive coarseness of some of the original expressions of sexual lust and obscene behavior used in these chapters. If they offend our eyes and ears today -- we who are accustomed to a barrage of such language and images in the media -- what must they have done to Ezekiel's first hearers in their own language?

This is not a matter of gratuitous bad taste, or evidence of some sick perversion to add to the catalogue of Ezekiel's other alleged personality disorders. Rather, these are deliberate shock tactics on a scale probably unsurpassed in the entire Bible (the whole arsenal of prophetic assault and battery weapons).

So what was the shock intended to achieve? In the early years of the exile, Ezekiel's contemporaries were for the most part still convinced that they were being treated unfairly by God. Their story was not ending the way it should. They were supposed to be the elect people of God who had given them guarantees at several points in their glorious past and that he would always defend them. What had happened now must be some kind of temporary setback, a mere technical hitch in the divine management of affairs, which God will soon correct.

Thus, Ezekiel's ultimate purpose was to bring the exiles to recognize the truth about their sad situation and thus drive them to genuine repentance. That was impossible as long as they cherished false ideas about their past as well as their present. And it was doubly difficult as long as there was still hope because Jerusalem was still standing. Somehow Ezekiel had to get across the certainty that Jerusalem was doomed, and that such a fate was utterly deserved, fully explicable and long overdue. He had already acted out this message with great personal suffering for over a year (ch. 4-5). He had exposed what was going on in the heart of Jerusalem itself (ch. 8). But still the people clung in hope to their glorious history. So Ezekiel will revisit that history and retell the story in a thoroughly revisionist way...by choosing the literary device of allegory -- that is a deliberately constructed story in which it is clearly understood by teller and hearer alike that the language is symbolic and refers to some reality other than the characters and plot of the allegory itself.

Ezekiel's shocking allegory is the dynamite necessary to explode a whole set of false religious assumptions -- like demolishing an unsafe building and clearing the site before any reconstruction can be planted. He goes back over Israel's history to show that it constituted one long story of God's grace -- from its earliest beginnings to the present day -- only to be followed by Israel's repeated rebellion, followed by declared but suspended punishment.

Ezekiel's attempts here are not just fairy stories. What he is daring to touch here is the grand national epic of Israel, the story above all stories by which they understood themselves and the rest of the world. As human beings we live by stories -- the grand ones such as Israel's, by which we have received our cultural identity and our basic assumptive worldview, and the lesser ones that tell us who we are in our own smaller context of family and society. You don't tamper with the stories without upsetting people!

Israel knew their story more than most. Their whole sense of identity and their whole understanding of the world and the universe was dependent on the way they understood God to have acted in the past. At the time of the late monarchy, that story of Israel was that Israel was indestructible, Jerusalem was inviolable, the covenant was unbreakable and that all would be well, come hell or Nebuchadnezzar. But Ezekiel dares to tell the story that demands a very different ending -- all will NOT be well. Jesus did the same with the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, by giving the story of Israel a very different flavor and with a very different and unfavorable ending from the official version. This galvanized those determined to do away with him (Mt 21:33-46). You cannot tamper with stories and get away with it!

References:

  1. Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 1-24, NICOT (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1997.
  2. Wright, Christopher J.H. The Message of Ezekiel, BST (Bible Speaks Today). IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 2001.

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