JEHOVAH’S CONTROVERSY WITH ISRAEL
BY far the hardest trial of Ezekiel’s faith must have been the conduct of his fellow-exiles. It was amongst them that he looked for the great spiritual change which must precede the establishment of the kingdom of God; and he had already addressed to them words of consolation based on the knowledge that the hope of the future was theirs. [Ezekiel 11:18] Yet the time passed on without bringing any indications that the promise was about to be fulfilled. There were no symptoms of national repentance; there was nothing even to show that the lessons of the Exile as interpreted by the prophet were beginning to be laid to heart. For these men, among whom he lived, were still inveterately addicted to idolatry. Strange as it must seem to us, the very men who cherished a fanatical faith in Jehovah’s power to save His people were assiduously practising the worship of other gods. It is too readily assumed by some writers that the idolatry of the exiles was of the ambiguous kind which had prevailed so long in the land of Israel, that it was the worship of Jehovah under the form of images-a breach of the second commandment, but not of the first. The people who carried Jeremiah down to Egypt were as eager as Ezekiel’s companions to hear a word from Jehovah; yet they were devoted to the worship of the "Queen of Heaven," and dated all their misfortunes from the time when their women had ceased to pay court to her. There is no reason to believe that the Jews in Babylon were less catholic in their superstitions than those of Judaea; and indeed the whole drift of Ezekiel’s expostulations goes to show that he has the worship of false gods in view. The ancient belief, that the worship of Jehovah was specially associated with the land of Canaan, is not likely to have been without influence on the minds of those who felt the fascination of idolatry, and must have strengthened the tendency to seek the aid of foreign gods in a foreign land.
The twentieth chapter deals with this matter of idolatry; and the fact that this important discourse was called forth by a visit from the elders of Israel shows how heavily the subject weighed on the prophet’s mind. Whatever the purpose of the deputation may have been (and of that we have no information), it was certainly not to consult Ezekiel about the propriety of worshipping false gods. It is only because this great question dominates all his thoughts concerning them and their destiny that he connects the warning against idolatry with a casual inquiry addressed to him by the elders. The circumstances are so similar to those of chapter 14 that Ewald was led to conjecture that both oracles originated in one and the same incident, and were separated from each other in writing because of the difference of their subjects. Chapter 14on that view justifies the refusal of an answer from a consideration of the true function of prophecy, while chapter 20 expands the admonition of the sixth verse of chapter 14 into art elaborate review of the religious history of Israel. But there is really no good reason for identifying the two incidents. In neither passage does the prophet think it worth while to record the object of the inquiry addressed to him, and therefore conjecture is useless.
But the very fact that a definite date is given for this visit leads us to consider whether it had not some peculiar significance to lodge it so firmly in Ezekiel’s mind. Now the most suggestive hint which the chapter affords is the idea put into the lips of the exiles in Ezekiel 20:32 : "And as for the thought which arises in your mind, it shall not be, in that ye are thinking, We will become like the heathen, like the families of the lands, in worshipping wood and stone." These words contain the key to the whole discourse. It is difficult, no doubt, to decide how much exactly is implied in them. They may mean no more than the determination to keep up the external conformity to heathen customs which already existed in matters of worship-as, for example, in the use of images. But the form of expression used, "that which is coming up in your mind," almost suggests that the prophet was face to face with an incipient tendency among the exiles, a deliberate resolve to apostatise and assimilate themselves for all religious purposes to the surrounding heathen. It is by no means improbable that, amidst the many conflicting tendencies that distracted the exiled community, this idea of a complete abandonment of the national religion should have crystallised into a settled purpose in the event of their last hope being disappointed. If this was the situation with which Ezekiel had to deal, we should be able to understand how his denunciation takes the precise form which it assumes in this chapter.
For what is, in the main, the purport of the chapter? Briefly stated the argument is as follows. The religion of Jehovah had never been the true expression of the national genius of Israel. Not now for the first time has the purpose of Israel come into conflict with the immutable purpose of Jehovah; but from the very beginning the history had been one long struggle between the natural inclinations of the people and the destiny which was forced on it by the will of God. The love of idols had been the distinguishing feature of the national character from the beginning; and if it had been suffered to prevail, Israel would never have been known as Jehovah’s people. Why had it not been suffered to prevail? Because of Jehovah’s regard for the honour of His name; because in the eyes of the heathen His glory was identified with the fortunes of this particular people, to whom He had once revealed Himself. And as it has been in the past, so it will be in the future. The time has come for the age-long controversy to be brought to an issue, and it cannot be doubtful what the issue will be. "That which comes up in their mind"-this new resolve to live like the heathen-cannot turn aside the purpose of Jehovah to make of Israel a people for His own glory. Whatever further judgments may be necessary’ for that end, the land of Israel shall yet be the seat of a pure and acceptable worship of the true God, and the people shall recognise with shame and contrition that the goal of all its history has been accomplished in spite of its perversity by the "irresistible grace" of its divine King.
I. THE LESSON OF HISTORY
It is a magnificent conception of national election which the prophet here unfolds. It takes the form of a parallel between two desert scenes, one at the beginning and the other at the close of Israel’s history. The first part of the chapter deals with the religious significance of the transactions in the wilderness of Sinai and the events in Egypt which were introductory to them. It starts from Jehovah’s free choice of the people while they were still living as idolaters in Egypt. Jehovah there revealed Himself to them as their God, and entered into a covenant with them; and the covenant included on the one hand the promise of the land of Canaan, and on the other hand a requirement that the people should separate themselves from all forms of idolatry whether native or Egyptian. "In the day that I chose Israel and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, saying, I am Jehovah your God; in that day I lifted up My hand to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt, into a land which I had sought out for them. And I said to them, Cast away each man the abomination of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the block-gods of Egypt. I am Jehovah your God" (Ezekiel 20:5-7). The point which Ezekiel specially emphasises is that this vocation to be the people of the true God was thrust on Israel without its consent, and that the revelation of Jehovah’s purpose evoked no response in the heart of the people. By persistence in idolatry they had virtually renounced the kingship of Jehovah and forfeited their right to the fulfilment of the promise He had given them. And only from regard to His name, that it might not be profaned in the sight of the nations, before whose eyes He had made Himself known to them, did He turn from the purpose He had formed to destroy them in the land of Egypt.
In several respects this account of the occurrences in Egypt goes beyond what we learn from any other source. The historical books contain no reference to the prevalence of specifically Egyptian forms of idolatry among the Hebrews, nor do they mention any threat to exterminate the people for their rebellion. It is not to be supposed, however, that Ezekiel possessed other records of the period before the Exodus than those preserved in the Pentateuch. The fundamental conceptions are those attested by the history, that God first revealed Himself to Israel by the name Jehovah through Moses, and that the revelation was accompanied by a promise of deliverance from Egypt. That the people in spite of this revelation continued to worship idols is an inference from the whole of their subsequent history. And the conflict in the mind of Jehovah between anger against the people’s sin and jealousy for His own name is not a matter of history at all, but is an inspired interpretation of the history in the light of the divine holiness, which embraces both these elements.
In the wilderness Israel entered on the second and decisive stage of its probation which falls into two acts, and whose determining factor was the legislation. To the generation of the Exodus Jehovah made known the way of life in a code of law which on its own intrinsic merits ought to have commended itself to their moral sense. The statutes and judgments that were then given were such that "if a man do them he shall live by them" (Ezekiel 20:11). This thought of the essential goodness of the law as originally given reveals Ezekiel’s view of God’s relation to men. It derives its significance no doubt from the contrast with legislation of an opposite character afterward mentioned. Yet even that contrast expresses a conviction in the prophet’s mind that morality is not constituted by arbitrary enactments on the part of God, but that there are eternal conditions of ethical fellowship between God and man, and that the law first offered for Israel’s acceptance was the embodiment of those ethical relations which flow from the nature of Jehovah. It is probable that Ezekiel has in view the moral precepts of the Decalogue. If so, it is instructive to notice that the Sabbath law is separately mentioned, not as one of the laws by which a man lives, but as a sign of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel. The divine purpose was again defeated by the idolatrous proclivities of the people: "They despised My judgments, and they did not walk in My statutes, and they profaned My Sabbaths, because their heart went after their idols" (Ezekiel 20:16).
To the second generation in the wilderness the offer of the covenant was renewed, with the same result (Ezekiel 20:18-24). It should be observed that in both cases the disobedience of the people is answered by two distinct utterances of Jehovah’s wrath. The first is a threat of immediate extermination, which is expressed as a momentary purpose of Jehovah, no sooner formed than withdrawn for the sake of His honour (Ezekiel 20:14, Ezekiel 20:21). The other is a judgment of a more limited character, uttered in the form of an oath, and in the first case at least actually carried out. For the threat of exclusion from the Promised Land (Ezekiel 20:15) was enforced so far as the first generation was concerned. Now the parallelism between the two sections leads us to expect that the similar threat of dispersion in Ezekiel 20:23 is meant to be understood of a judgment actually inflicted. We may conclude, therefore, that Ezekiel 20:23 refers to the Babylonian exile and the dispersion among the nations, which hung like a doom over the nation during its whole history in Canaan, and is represented as a direct consequence of their transgressions in the wilderness. There seems reason to believe that the particular allusion is to the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, where the threat of a dispersion among the nations concludes the long list of curses which will follow disobedience to the law. [Deuteronomy 28:64-68] It is true that in that chapter the threat is only conditional; but in the time of Ezekiel it had already been fulfilled, and it is in accordance with his whole conception of the history to read the final issue back into the early period when the national character was determined. But in addition to this, as if effectually to "conclude them under sin," Jehovah met the hardness of their hearts by imposing on them laws of an opposite character to those first given, and laws which accorded only too well with their baser inclinations: "And I also gave them statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they should not live; and I rendered them unclean in their offerings, by making over all that opened the womb, that I might horrify them" (Ezekiel 20:25-26).
This division of the wilderness legislation into two kinds, one good and life-giving and the other not good, presents difficulties both moral and critical which cannot perhaps be altogether removed. The general direction in which the solution must be sought is indeed tolerably clear. The reference is to the law which required the consecration of the firstborn of all animals to Jehovah. This was interpreted in the most rigorous sense as dedication in sacrifice; and then the principle was extended to the case of human beings. The divine purpose in appearing to sanction this atrocious practice was to "horrify" the people-that is to say, the punishment of their idolatry consisted in the shock to their natural instincts and affections caused by the worst development of the idolatrous spirit to which they were delivered. We are not to infer from this that human sacrifice was an element of the original Hebrew religion, and that it was actually based on legislative enactment. The truth appears to be that the sacrifice of children was originally a feature of Canaanitish worship, particularly of the god Melek or Molech, and was only introduced into the religion of Israel in the evil days which preceded the fall of the state. The idea took hold of men’s minds that this terrible rite alone revealed the full potency of the sacrificial act; and when the ordinary means of propitiation seemed to fail, it was resorted to as the last desperate expedient for appeasing an offended deity. All that Ezekiel’s words warrant us in assuming is that when once the practice was established it was defended by an appeal to the ancient law of the firstborn, the principle of which was held to cover the case of human sacrifices. These laws, relating to the consecration of firstborn animals, are therefore the statutes referred to by Ezekiel; and their defect lies in their being open to such all immoral misinterpretation. This view is in accordance with the probabilities of the case. When we consider the tendency of the Old Testament writers to refer all actual events immediately to the will of God, we can partly under stand the form in which Ezekiel expresses the facts; and this is perhaps all that can be said on the moral aspect of the difficulty. It is but an application of the principle that sin is punished by moral obliquity, and precepts which are accommodated to the hardness of men’s hearts are by that same hardness perverted to fatal issues. It cannot even be said that there is a radical divergence of view between Ezekiel and Jeremiah on this subject. For when the older prophet, speaking of child-sacrifice, says that "Jehovah commanded it not, neither came it into His mind" (Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 19:5), he must have in view men who justified the custom by an appeal to ancient legislation. And although Jeremiah indignantly repudiates the suggestion that such horrors were contemplated by the law of Jehovah, he hardly in this goes beyond Ezekiel, who declares that the ordinance in question does not represent the true mind of Jehovah, but belongs to a part of the law which was intended to punish sin by delusion.
In consequence of these transactions in the desert Israel entered the land of Canaan under the threat of eventual exile and under the curse of a polluted worship. The subsequent history has little significance from the point of view occupied throughout this discourse; and accordingly Ezekiel disposes of it in three verses (Ezekiel 20:27-29). The entrance on the Promised Land, he says, furnished the opportunity for a new manifestation of disloyalty to Jehovah. He refers to the multiplication of heathen or semi-heathen sanctuaries throughout the land. Wherever they saw a high hill or a leafy tree, they made it a place of sacrifice, and there they practised the impure rites which were the outcome of their false conception of the Deity. To the mind of Ezekiel the unity of Jehovah and the unity of the sanctuary were inseparable ideas: the offence here alluded to is therefore of the same kind as the abominations practised in Egypt and the desert; it is a violation of the holiness of Jehovah. The prophet condenses his scorn for the whole system of religion which led to a multiplication of sanctuaries into a play on the etymology of the word bamah (high places), the point of which, however, is obscure.
II. THE APPLICATION
Having thus described the origin of idolatry in Israel, and having shown that the destiny of the nation had been determined neither by its deserts nor by its inclinations, but by Jehovah’s consistent regard for the honour of His name, the prophet proceeds to bring the lesson of the history to bear on his contemporaries. The Captivity has as yet produced no change in their spiritual condition; in Babylon. they still defile themselves with the same abominations as their ancestors, even to the crowning atrocity of child-sacrifice. Their idolatry is if anything more conscious than before, for it takes the shape of a deliberate intention to be as other nations, worshipping wood and stone. It is necessary therefore that once for all Jehovah should assert His sovereignty over Israel, and bend their stubborn will to the accomplishment of His purpose. "As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, surely with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and wrath poured out, will I be king over you" (Ezekiel 20:33). But how was this to be done? A heavier chastisement than that’ which had been inflicted on the exiles could hardly be conceived, yet it had effected nothing for the regeneration of Israel. Surely the time is come when the divine method must be changed, when those who have hardened themselves against the severity of God must be won by His goodness? Such, however, is not the thought expressed in Ezekiel’s delineation of the future. It is possible that the description which follows (Ezekiel 20:34-38) may only be meant as an ideal picture of spiritual processes to be effected by ordinary providential agencies. But certain it is that what Ezekiel is chiefly convinced of is the necessity for further acts of judgment - judgment which shall be decisive, because discriminating, and issuing in the annihilation of all who cling to the evil traditions of the past. This idea, indeed, of further chastisement in store for the exiles is a fixed element of Ezekiel’s prophecy. It appears in his earliest public utterance (chapter 5), although it is perhaps only in this chapter that we perceive its full significance.
The scene of God’s final dealings with Israel’s sin is to be the "desert of the nations." That great barren plateau which stretches between the Jordan and the Euphrates valley, round which lay the nations chiefly concerned in Israel’s history, occupies a place in the restoration analogous to that of the wilderness of Sinai (here called the "wilderness of Egypt") at the time of the Exodus. Into that vast solitude Jehovah will gather His people from the lands of their exile, and there He will once more judge them face to face. This judgment will be conducted on the principle laid down in chapter 18. Each individual shall be dealt with according to his own character as a righteous man or a wicked. They shall be made to "pass under the rod," like sheep when they are counted by the shepherd. The rebels and transgressors shall perish in the wilderness; for "out of the land of their sojournings will I bring them, and into the land of Israel they shall not come" (Ezekiel 20:38). Those that emerge from the trial are the righteous remnant, who are to be brought into the land by number: these constitute the new Israel, for whom is reserved the glory of the latter days. The idea that the spiritual transformation of Israel was to be effected during a second sojourn in the wilderness, although a very striking one, occurs only here in the book of Ezekiel, and it can hardly be considered as one of the cardinal ideas of his eschatology. It is in all probability derived from the prophecies of Hosea, although it is modified in accordance with the very different estimate of the nation’s history represented by Ezekiel. It is instructive to compare the teaching of these two prophets on this point. To Hosea the idea of a return to the desert presents itself naturally as an element of the process by which Israel is to be brought back to its allegiance to Jehovah. The return to the desert restores the conditions under which the nation had first known and followed Jehovah. He looks back to the sojourn in the wilderness of Sinai as the time of uninterrupted communion between Jehovah and Israel-a time of youthful innocence, when the sinful tendencies which may have been latent in the nation had not developed into actual infidelity. The decay of religion and morality dates from the possession of the land of Canaan, and is traced to the corrupting influence of Canaanitish idolatry and civilisation. It was at Baalpeor that they first succumbed to the attractions of a false religion and became contaminated with the spirit of heathenism. Then the rich produce of the land came to be regarded as the gift of the deities who were worshipped at the local sanctuaries, and this worship with its sensuous accompaniments was the means of estranging the people more and more from the knowledge of Jehovah. Hence the first step towards a renewal of the relation between God and Israel is the withdrawal of the gifts of nature, the suppression of religious ordinances and political institutions; and this is represented as effected by a return to the primitive life of the desert. Then in her desolation and affliction the heart of Israel shall respond once more to the love of Jehovah, who has never ceased to yearn after His unfaithful people. "I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak to her heart: and she shall make answer there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt". [Hosea 2:14-15] Here there may be a doubt whether the wilderness is to be taken literally or as a figure for exile, but in either case the image naturally arises out of Hosea’s profoundly simple conception of religion.
To Ezekiel, on the other hand, the "wilderness" is a synonym for contention and judgment. It is the scene where the meanness and perversity of man stand out in unrelieved contrast with the majesty and purity of God. He recognises no glad springtime of promise and hope in the history of Israel, no "kindness of her youth" or "love of her espousals" when she went after Jehovah in the land that was not sown. [Jeremiah 2:2] The difference between Hosea’s conception and Ezekiel’s is that in the view of the exilic prophet there never has been any true response on the part of Israel to the call of God. Hence a return to the desert can only mean a repetition of the judgments, that had marked the first sojourn of the people in the wilderness of Sinai, and the carrying of them to the point of a final decision between the claims of Jehovah and the stubbornness of His people.
If it be asked which of these representations of the past is the true one, the only answer possible is that from the standpoint from which the prophets viewed history both are true. Israel did follow Jehovah through the wilderness, and took possession of the land of Canaan animated by an ardent faith in His power. It is equally true that the religious condition of the people had its dark side, and that they were far from understanding the nature of the God whose name they bore. And a prophet might emphasise the one truth or the other according to the idea of God which it was given him to teach. Hosea, reading the religious symptoms of his own time, sees in it a contrast to the happier period when life was simple and religion comparatively pure, and finds in the desert sojourn an image of the purifying process by which the national life must be renewed. Ezekiel had to do with a more difficult problem. He saw that there was a power of evil which could not be eradicated merely by banishment from the land of Israel-a hard bed-rock of unbelief and superstition in the national character which had never yielded to the influence of revelation; and he dwells on all the manifestations of this which he read in the past. His hope for the future of the cause of God rests no longer on the moral influence of the divine love on the heart of man, but on the power of Jehovah to accomplish his purpose in spite of the resistance of human sin. That was not the whole truth about God’s relation to Israel, but it was the truth that needed to be impressed on the generation of the Exile.
Of the final issue at all events Ezekiel is not doubtful. He is a man who is "very sure of God" and sure of nothing else. In man he finds nothing to inspire him with confidence in the ultimate victory of the true religion over polytheism and superstition. His own generation has shown itself fit only to perpetuate the evils of the past-the love of sensuous worship, the insensibility to the claims and nature of Jehovah, which had marked the whole history of Israel. He is compelled for the present to abandon them to their corrupt inclinations, expecting no signs of amendment until his appeal is enforced by signal acts of judgment.
But all this does not shake his sublime faith in the fulfilment of Israel’s destiny. Despairing of men, he falls back on what St. Paul calls the "purpose of God according to election". [Romans 9:11] And with an insight akin to that of the apostle of the Gentiles, he discerns through all Jehovah’s dealing with Israel a principle and an ideal which must in the end prevail over the sin of men. The goal to which the history points stands out clear before the mind of the prophet; and already he sees in vision the restored Israel-a holy people in a renovated land-rendering acceptable worship to the one God of heaven and earth. "For in My holy mountain, in the mountain heights of Israel, saith the Lord Jehovah, there shall serve Me the whole house of Israel: there will I be gracious to them, and there will I require your oblations, and the first-fruits of your offerings, in all your holy things" (Ezekiel 20:40).
There we have the thought which is expanded in the vision of the purified theocracy which occupies the closing chapters of the book. And it is important to notice this indication that the idea of that vision was present to Ezekiel during the earlier part of his ministry.