Face the Facts about Your (His)Story-Ezekiel 20-23

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How do you remember your story and your history? [Outlines below]

Always encourage. "The narrative of our church must always encourage and never discourage," say some church leaders. It sounds right. But in order to encourage those who come to church they may bend the facts and spin the story a particular way. They fudge, embellish or even fabricate the facts to make their church look good and holy and worthy, as this is surely what Jesus would want them to be. In time the church members believes this "positive encouraging" story of their church history, though the reality and the stuff that happens betray this nice clean story. You may ask, "How can a holy Christian church do this? Isn't this deception?" Interestingly, Israel remembers their own story and history with a positive encouraging spin, which makes them the good guys, but which betrays the truth of what the reality is.

  • Ezekiel 20: What you do.
  • Ezekiel 21: What God does.
  • Ezekiel 22: Why God does it.
  • Ezekiel 23: Why it is fair.

Ezekiel 20 addresses Israel who take comfort in her glorious history of conquest and triumph. God wipes away their self-assurance by telling them that actually their history was one of repeated rebellion against him. In fact God says that it was due to nothing but sheer mercy that he did not destroy them long ago. Their glorious history was entirely due to his grace, NOT their righteousness (Dt 9:4-12).

Israel's tendency to take comfort in such lies is not unique to them. Deep in every human heart is a settled inclination toward self-justification and self-assurance, a willingness to lie to ourselves or others, in a futile effort to avoid the reality of sin and its consequences. What kind of assurances do you give yourself about your sin? How well do those assurances hold up in light of God's assault on such excuses (Ezekiel 17-20). Acknowledge your failures and find hope. In your contrition, God draws near (Isa 66:2).

For sure there is more than one way to tell the story about the same historical event or period. The Pentateuch portrays the wilderness period as substantially a time of grumbling, unbelief and wasted oppourtunity. Hosea saw it as a time of inexplicable betrayal of God's love (Hos 11:1-4). Jeremiah, for a different rhetorical purpose, could liken it to Israel's honeymoon period with God (Jer 2:1-3). The story of Israel could be written in a way that highlighted the mighty acts of God on behalf of his people--as a "salvation history." Ezekiel knew that story well and does not question it. But the same story could be told from the perspective of Israel's constant failure, and how that was seen from heaven's point of view. This latter presentation is just as true if not more honest than the "nicer, positive and encouraging" selective history.

In telling your story what you select depends on what you want to say and what your reason is for telling the story at all. How many biographies of great Christian leaders and missionaries leave you wondering what has been left unsaid? The offical biography and story--perhaps with laudable intention of inspiring priase to God and imitation by lesser mortals--will concentrate on the great achievements, the mighty moments, the long struggle perhaps, and the triumphant conclusion. Another story could be told in every case, of the petty failures and sad betrayals, of times of doubt, depression, disobedience, dishonesty, of sexual misdemeanor, lack of integrity, playing church power politics, etc.

What of the history of the Christian church as a whole? Most of us know the broad outlines of the great tale of the spread of the gospel, of the missionary expansion of the church, of the great triumphs of the faith all over the globe, and mission growth in the 20th century. But if it were appropriate--in the kind of situation Ezekiel faced--we know that an entirely differently flavoured story could be told, a story of Christianity which could spin an unending list of atrocities and perversions of the gospel, which would have assaulted the gates of heaven and brought grief and wrath to the heart of God: the Crusades, pogroms, Inquisition, conquistadores, the drowing and burning of Anabaptists, the Holocaust, apartheid, religious bigorty, genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the Balcans, slavery, etc, which is often told with lurid malice in the media and by secular opponents of the faith. Rather than reacting defensively to the way the world (or "other" Christians) sees us, we should listen for the echoes of Ezekiel's voice and turn again in repentance to the severe but persistent grace of God -- grace which will ultimately work God's saving will for humanity in spite of the wretched failures of those whom he has called to be God's people.

Big Idea: If you think, you're basically OK, you're probably not.

In chapter 20 Ezekiel continues to hammer away at the delusions that plagued his exilic audience. In the process he offers a corrective for many false perceptions held in our own time.

  1. God often interprets history quite differently from humans. This is especially true of one's own story, whether it be personal, congregational, denominational, or ecclesiastical. Those who claim to be the people of God have often idealized their past and been blinded by pride in their own election to deny or ignore the darker sides of their story. We may gloat over the cultural achievements of the Western church, but overlook the role that Christians played in violent crusades against "infidels," genocidal pogroms (massacre or persecution of an ethnic or religious group) against Jews, and dehumanizing enslavement of non-Europeans. At the denominational and congregational level we may hold high our orthodoxy, liturgy, evangelistic energy, and creativity, but avoid the weightier matters of covenant relationship: integrity, humility, honesty, compassion, self-sacrifice, and love. Ezekiel affirms again that one's subjective perceptions may be totally divorced from reality. In the end it will not matter how we have told our story, but only how God sees it.
  2. God desires that the world knows who he is; this is the primary motivation behind divine revelation (Eze 20:20, 26, 44, 7, 12). In our individualistic and hedonistic world it is difficult to understand, let alone accept, that the universe does not revolve around oneself. God, the source and sustainer of all things, is also the goal of all things (Col 1:16). When he intervenes in earthly affairs he does indeed respond to human needs, but the nature of his response is set by his own character. His reactions are never arbitrary or capricious (sudden mood changes), but driven by his internal consistency. We must never forget to be grateful that grace is a significant element in that character, and that in his struggle over human rebellion his justice is tempered by mercy. But even when he acts with compassion, his concern is the manifestation of his holiness.
  3. His divine reputation depends on the fate and welfare of his people. All of God's dealings with Israel were public -- before the eyes of the nations. Israel was to be the agent through whom the nations would come to know that he is God. Nothing has changed. Jesus reminded his disciples that their prayers should be different from the self-seeking petitions of the Gentiles (Mt 6:5-15). Concern for the sanctity of his name and the glory of his kingdom remains the mark of God's people (Eze 20:9, 14, 20).
  4. The experience of divine mercy drives true covenant people to their knees. Those with an overly optimistic view of the human condition tend to dismiss this text (esp. Eze 20:43-44) as a theological archaism (old-fashion), damaging to one's mental well-being. This only perpetuates our delusional optimism, like Ezekiel's audience. The good news of the gospel is not "there must be something truly wonderful about us since God can love us and accept us so readily." Rather the gospel is that there must be something truly wonderful about God! Yes, all human beings do have intrinsic dignity by virtue of our status as images of God, but notions of self-worth must be distinguished from ideas of worthiness. Our status as God's image provides the basis for his unique interest in us, but our fallen condition disqualifies us from claiming that status as a natural right. God did not express his love in Jesus in response to our worthiness, but to redeem us from our unworthinessThe fundamental problem with most of us is not deficient self-esteem but an inadequate divine-esteem. Ultimately God operates for his own name's sake (Eze 20:9, 14, 20). His investment in us relates to agendas far greater than ourselves. As we submit ourselves to God, we will treasure the grace with which he reaches out to us. Within this framework, the fundamental human pathology is not self-loathing but pride, an unhealthy and unrealistic self-esteem. It is from this arrogance that we, especially in the US, need deliverance.

Rewriting Sacred History (Ezekiel 20) [The pattern of history; Retelling history; History with an attitude; Know your history; History that screams, "You're a sinner"; Don't assume blessing; Don't assume security; The delusion of the exiles; Don't delude yourself]

  1. The call for Israel's arraignment (1-4).
  2. The indictment of Israel: The nations history of rebellion (5-31).
    1. Israel's rebellion in the distant past (5-26).
      • Phase I: Rebellion in Egypt (5-9).
      • Phase II: Rebellion in the desert (10-17).
      • Phase III: Rebellion in the desert: the second generation (18-26).
    2. Israel's rebellion in the recent past (27-31).
      • Phase IV: Rebellion in the land (27-29).
      • Phase V: Rebellion in exile (30-31).
  3. The future transformation of Israel (32-44).
      • Phase VI: Israel in the desert of the peoples (32-38).
    1. The transformation of Israel (39-40a).
    2. God's acceptance of Israel (40b-42).
    3. Israel's response to God's action (42-44).

The Avenging Sword of God (Ezekiel 21; 20:45-21:32) [Babylon as God's Sword of Judgment]

  1. The riddle of the sword (20:45-49; 21:1-7).
  2. The song of the sword (8-17).
  3. The agent of the sword (18-27).
  4. The taunt of the sword (28-32).

What is the theological significance in the quartet of oracles devoted to the sword of God?

  1. God becomes the enemy of those who claim to be his people but refuse to accept the responsibilities accompanying that privilege. The sword in Ezekiel 21 functions as a frightening instrument of providential fury unleashed against his own people -- the benefactors of his covenant. The notion or idea or utterance is divine wrath is reprehensible to many, that it should be directed at his own people in intolerable. But God's application of principle is not affected by human sentimentality. If "his people" spurn his grace, they cannot expect to be spared the fate of the wicked.
  2. The Lord is faithful to his word. This applies not only to his promises of presence and well-being, but also to his warnings of judgment for apostasy and infidelity (Lev 26; Deut 28). Parroting covenant promises is no substitute for obedience and offers no immunity from divine wrath. In the end the sword fell on the nation, precisely as Moses and Ezekiel had forewarned. Contra Ezekiel's contemporaries, this did not signify divine betrayal of covenant promises, but the rigorous fulfillment of its fine print.
  3. God can achieve his divine agenda through those who do not worship him. The achievement of the divine agenda is not bound by human definitions of propriety. In these oracles God's will was revealed through pagan divination and executed through pagan instruments. However, the end does not justify the means, nor does the commission offer immunity from divine scrutiny to the agent. Those charged with fulfilling God's commission must still account to him how they executed the charge.

Woe to the Bloody City (Ezekiel 22) [Judgment on Jerusalem's Sins]

  1. The indictment of Jerusalem - the bloody city (1-16).
    1. The call for Jerusalem's arraignment (1-2).
    2. The summons to Jerusalem (3).
    3. The announcement of the charges (4-5).
    4. The presentation of the evidence (6-12).
    5. The announcement of the sentence (13-16).
      1. A society that thrives on violence not only self-destructs but will also have to contend with God.
      2. Community leaders bear special responsibility for the maintenance of justice and the welfare of its citizenry.
      3. Knowledge of the will of God is no substitute for obedience to that will.
      4. Although humans may renege on their covenant commitments, God will not.
  2. The judgment of Jerusalem: In the smelter of God's wrath (17-22).
    • The nation may consider itself precious metal in God's sight, but this is a delusion. For the people to become what God wants them to be, they must be subjected again to the refiner's fire. This time, however, it is the fire of divine wrath, which is terrifying as painted in this oracle. Like the gardener who cuts off fruitless branches and casts it into the fire (Jn 15:1-11), it serves as a warning for all who claim security in divine election but refuse int heir lives to reflect the glory of the divine Elector. God's passion for a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special treasure, has not diminished (1 Pet 2:9).
  3. The rationale for the judgment of Jerusalem: The unmanned breach (23-31).
    1. The thesis statement (23-24).
    2. The crimes of Israel's leaders (25-29).
    3. God's response to the crimes of Israel's leaders (30-31).
      1. The call to leadership is primarily a call to responsibility, not privilege. But power has the baneful (deleterious, detrimental, harmful) tendency to transform noble lions and majestic wolves into cannibalistic beasts. The people of God are not immune from the temptation to exploit positions of power for personal advantage and thereby threaten the vitality of the community. Those who pervert "Thy kingdom come" to "My kingdom come" invite the wrath of God.
      2. Whatever responsibilities other leaders have, those called into divine service are charged with maintaining the sanctity of God. This is accomplished by the scrupulous personal observance of sacred-profane distinctions and the indoctrination of the people of God with the same sensitivity. The absence of such distinctions leads to theological and moral anarchy and, even more seriously, the desecration of the reputation of God.
      3. The survival of the church depends on the positive response of leaders to the call of God to stand in the breach. This call is not fulfilled by professional self-gratification or plastering decayed walls with reassuring pronouncements of peace. The breach is defended and the wrath of God averted with compelling appeals for repentance from sin and a new commitment to God.

O Oholah! O Oholibah! (Ezekiel 23) [Two adulterous sisters]

  • The opening formula (1).
  1. The introduction of the accused (2-4).
  2. The historical background of the case (5-35).
  3. The case against Oholah and Oholibah (36-49a).
  • The concluding formula (49b).

The Boiling Cauldron (Ezekiel 24:1-14) [Jerusalem as a cooking pot]

  1. Preamble (1-3a).
  2. The popular saying (3b-5).
  3. The dispute (6-8).
  4. The counterthesis (9-13).
  5. Conclusion (14).

The End of an Era (Ezekiel 24:15-27) [Ezekiel's wife dies]


  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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