A new date is given, and includes what follows to Ezekiel 23:49. The last note of time was in Ezekiel 8:1, and eleven months and five days had passed, during which the prophecies of the intervening chapters had been written or spoken. We may note further that it was two years one month and five days after the prophet's call to his work (Ezekiel 1:1-28.), and two years and five months before the Chaldeans besieged Jerusalem (Ezekiel 24:1). The immediate occasion here, as in Ezekiel 8:1, was that some of the elders of Israel bad come to the prophet to inquire what message of the Lord he had to give them in the present crisis. Whether any stress is to be laid on the fact that here the elders are said to be "of Israel," and in Ezekiel 8:1 "of Judah," is doubtful (see note on Ezekiel 14:1). Ezekiel seems to use the two words as interchangeable. Here, however, it is stated more definitely that they came to inquire, probably in the hope that he would tell them, as other prophets were doing, that the time of their deliverance, and of that of Jerusalem, was at hand. Passing into the prophetic state, Ezekiel delivers the discourse that follows.
As I live, saith the Lord God, etc. The inquirers are answered, but not as they expected. Instead of hearing of the "times and seasons" of the events that were in the near future, the prophet at once enters on his stern work as a preacher. The general principle that determines the refusal to answer has been given in Ezekiel 14:3.
Wilt thou judge them, etc.? The doubled question has the force of a strong imperative. The prophet is directed, as it were, to assume the office of a judge, and as such to press home upon his hearers, and through them upon others, their own sins and those of their fathers. He is led, in doing so, to yet another survey of the nation's history; not now, as in Ezekiel 16:1-63; in figurative language, but directly.
Ezekiel 20:5, Ezekiel 20:6
In the day that I lifted up mine hand. The attitude was that of one who takes an oath (Exodus 6:8), and implies the confirmation of the covenant made with Abraham. The land flowing with milk and honey appears first in Exodus 3:8, and became proverbial. The glory of all lands is peculiar to Ezekiel. Isaiah (Isaiah 13:19) applies the word to Babylon.
No special mention of the idols of Egypt occurs in the Pentateuch, but it lies, in the nature of the case, that this was the form of idolatry implied in the second commandment, and the history of the "golden calf" (Exodus 32:4) shows that they had caught the infection of the Mnevis or Apis worship while they sojourned in Egypt. Here apparently the prophet speaks of that sojourn prior to the mission of Moses. In bold anthropomorphic speech he represents Jehovah as half purposing to make an end of the people there and then, and afterwards repenting. He wrought for his Name's sake, that the deliverance of the Exodus might manifest his righteousness and might, the attributes specially implied in that Name, to Egypt and the surrounding nations. They should not have it in their power to say that he had abandoned the people whom he had chosen.
I gave them my statutes, etc. Ezekiel recognizes, almost in the very language of Deuteronomy 30:16-20, as fully as the writers of Psalms 19:1-14 and Psalms 119:1-176. recognized, the excellence of the Law. A man who kept that Law in its fulness would have life in its fullest and highest sense. He was beginning, however, to recognize, as Jeremiah had (lone (Jeremiah 31:31), the powerlessness of the Law to give that life without the aid of something higher. The "new covenant" was already dawning on the mind of the scholar as on that of the master.
I gave them my sabbaths, etc. As in Exodus 31:12-17, the sabbath is treated as the central sign (we might almost say sacrament) of the Jewish Church, not only as a mark differencing them from other nations, but as between Jehovah and them, a witness of their ideal relation to each other, a means of making that ideal relation a reality.
It is hardly necessary to count up the several instances of rebellion, from the sin of the golden calf onward. Of direct violation of the sabbath we have but two recorded instances (Exodus 16:27; Numbers 15:32); but the prophet looked below the surface, and would count a mere formal observance, that did not sanctify the sabbath, as a pollution of the holy day. (For parallel teaching in the prophets, see Isaiah 56:2-4; Isaiah 58:13; Jeremiah 17:21-27; and later on in the history, probably as the result of their teaching, Nehemiah 10:31-33; Nehemiah 13:15-22.) Then I said. The history of Numbers 14:26 and Numbers 26:65 was probably in Ezekiel's thoughts.
Their heart went after their idols. The words may point generally to the fact that the idolatrous tendencies of the people, though suppressed, were not really eradicated. The history of Baal-peor (Numbers 25:3-9) shows how ready they were to pass into act, and Amos 5:25, Amos 5:26 implies a tradition of other like acts during the whole period of the wanderings in the wilderness.
I said unto their children, etc. The words can refer to nothing but the great utterance of the Book of Deuteronomy as addressed to the children of those who had perished in the wilderness. That utterance also, it is implied, as indeed the Baal-peor history at the close of the forty years showed, fell on deaf ears. Then also there was, once again, in the inevitable anthropomorphic language, a change of purpose, from that of a rigorous judgment to the mercy which prevailed against it.
That I would scatter them among the heathen. The words seem to refer to the generation that had grown up in the wilderness, and, so taken, do not correspond with the history of the conquest of Canaan. What Ezekiel contemplates, however, as the resolve of Jehovah, is the commutation of the sentence of destruction for that of the dispersion of the people, leaving the time and manner of that dispersion to be determined by his own will. Possibly even in the time of the judges, with its many conquests and long periods of oppression, there were instances of such dispersion, and these, with others that would naturally accompany an invasion like that of Shishak (2 Chronicles 12:2-9), not to speak of frequent attacks from Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, Edomites, and Syrians, may have seemed to the prophet the working out, step by step, of the dispersion which culminated in the deportation of the ten tribes by Shalmaneser, and of Judah and Benjamin by Nebuchadnezzar. Traces of such dispersions before Ezekiel's time meet us in Psalms 78:59-64; Isaiah 11:11, Isaiah 11:12; Zephaniah 3:10, Zephaniah 3:20.
I gave them also statutes that were not good, etc. The words have sometimes been understood as though Ezekiel applied these terms to the Law itself, either as speaking of what St. Paul calls its "weak and beggarly elements" (Galatians 4:9), or as unable to work out the righteousness which it commanded (Romans 3:20), and the language of Hebrews 7:19 and Hebrews 10:1 has been urged in support of this view. One who has studied Ezekiel with any care will not need many words to show that such a conclusion was not in his thoughts at all. For him the Law was "holy and just and good," and its statutes such that a man who should keep them should even live in them (verses 13, 21). He is speaking of the time that followed on the second publication of that Law, and what he Says is that the people who rebelled against it were left, as it were, to a law of another kind. The baser, darker forms of idolatry are described by him, with a grave irony, as statutes and judgments of another kind, working, not life, but death. Sin became, by God's appointment, the punishment of sin, that it might be manifest as exceeding sinful. So Stephen says of Israel that "God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven" (Acts 7:42). So St. Paul paints the corruptions of the heathen world as the result of God's giving them up to "vile affections" (Romans 1:24, Romans 1:25). So in God's future dealings with an apostate form of Christianity, the same apostle declares that "God shall send them strong delusions that they should believe a lie" (2 Thessalonians 2:11). Psalms 81:12 may have been in Ezekiel's thoughts as asserting the same general law.
I polluted them through their own gifts. The noun includes all forms of blessing bestowed on Israel—its corn and wine and oil (see Ezekiel 16:19, Ezekiel 16:20), even its sons and daughters, the fruit of the womb, as well as the increase of the earth. (For the prevalence of Moloch worship, and for the phrase, "pass through," see notes on Ezekiel 16:21.) The sins were to bring desolation as their punishment, and then men would learn to know Jehovah as indeed he is.
It was a special aggravation of the sin that it was committed in the very land into which they had been brought by the oath (the "hand lifted up") of Jehovah, that it might be a holy land, a witness of the Divine righteousness to the nations round about. The forms of worship include that of the high places, and the thick trees (Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:6) width witnessed the cultus of the Asherah or of Ashtaroth.
What is the high place, etc.? Bamah, in the plural Bamoth, was the Hebrew for "high place." At first it was applied to the hill on which some local sanctuary stood (1 Samuel 9:12; 1 Kings 3:4), but was gradually extended, after the building of the temple as the one appointed sanctuary, to other places which were looked upon as sacred, and which became the scenes of an idolatrous and forbidden worship. Ezekiel emphasizes his scorn by a conjectural derivation of the word, as if derived from the two words ba ("go") and mah ("whither"); or, perhaps, What comes?. Taking the words in their ordinary sense, they seem to express only a slight degree of contempt. "What, then, is the place to which you go?"—what is the "whither" to which it leads? But I incline (with Ewald and Smend) to see in the word "go into" the meaning which it has in Genesis 16:2 and Genesis 19:31, and elsewhere, as a euphemism for sexual union. So later the word "Bamah" becomes a witness that those who worship in the high place go there (as in Genesis 19:30) to commit whoredom literally and spiritually. Its name showed that it was what I have called "a chapel of prostitution" (Genesis 16:1-16 :24, 25).
Say ye unto the house of Israel, etc. The words are addressed primarily to the elders who had come to consult the prophet (Ezekiel 20:1), but through them to all their contemporaries and fellow countrymen. They still in heart and even in deed (comp. Isaiah 57:4-6, Isaiah 57:11, and Isaiah 65:3, as showing the habits of the exiles) clung to the old idolatries. The question for them was whether they would continue to walk in the ways of their fathers. If so, it was true of them, as of the elders, that the Lent to whom they came would not be inquired of by them.
That which cometh into your mind, etc. The prophet reads tide secret thoughts of the inquirers. If the temple were destroyed, they thought, then the one restraint on the idolatries they loved would be removed. They would be no longer a separate people, and would be free to adopt the cultus of the heathen among whom they lived. If that was not Jehovah's purpose for them, then there must be no destruction of the temple, no dispersion among the nations. They come to Ezekiel to know which of the two alternatives he, as the prophet of Jehovah, has in store, and his answer is that he is bound to nether. They could not abdicate their high position, and would remain under the burden of its responsibilities. Scattered though they might be among the heathen, yet even there the "mighty hand and the stretched-out arm" (we note the phrases as from Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15) would hunt them down, and punish them for their iniquities.
Ezekiel 20:34, Ezekiel 20:35
The prophet's words seem to look beyond the horizon of any fulfilment as yet seen in history, of which the return of the exiles under Zerubbabel was but the pledge and earnest. He contemplates not a return straight from Babylon to Jerusalem, but a gathering from all the countries in which they had been scattered (Isaiah 11:11). When gathered, the whole nation is to be brought into the wilderness of the peoples, bordered by many nations. This may probably point to the great Syro-Arabian desert lying between Babylon and Palestine. This was to be to them what the wilderness of Sinai had been in the time of the Exodus. There Jehovah would plead with them face to face, in the first instance as an accuser. (For face to face, as expressing the direct revelation of Jehovah, see Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 5:4; Deuteronomy 34:10, and elsewhere.)
I will cause you to pass under the rod. The "rod" (same word as in Psalms 23:4) is primarily that of chastisement, but it is also that of the shepherd who gathers in his flock (Ezekiel 34:11; Le Ezekiel 27:32; Micah 7:14). Into the bond of the covenant. The word for "bond" (only found here in the Old Testament) is probably cognate with that for "fetter" or "bond" (Isaiah 52:2; Jeremiah 5:5; Jeremiah 27:2). The chastisement was, for those who accepted it, to do its work by restoring the blessings of the covenant which apostasy had forfeited.
The thought of the shepherd suggests, as in Matthew 25:33, the separation of the sheep from the goats. The land of the restored Israel was to be a land of righteousness, and the rebels were not to enter into it. Was Ezekiel thinking of those who were thus to die in the "wilderness of the peoples" as a counterpart of those who perished in the forty years of the wandering, and did not enter Canaan? Verse 36 seems to imply that he was looking for a repetition of that history. The solemn fast kept by Ezra by the river of Ahava (Ezra 8:21-22) may be noted as corresponding, on a small scale, to Ezekiel's expectations.
Go ye, serve every man his idols, etc. The command comes as with a grave irony. "Be at least consistent. Sin on, if it is your will to sin; but do not make the sin worse by the hypocrisy of an unreal worship, and mix up the name of Jehovah with the ritual of Moloch" (comp. Joshua 24:19, Joshua 24:20). The margin of the Revised Version, with not a few critics (Keil), gives, "but hereafter surely ye shall hearken unto me" ("if not" equivalent to "ye shall," as in the familiar idiom of Psalms 95:11, where "if" is equivalent to "shall not"). So taken, the verse looks forward to what follows.
From the earlier stage of the restoration the prophet passes on to its completion. The people have come to the mountain of the height of Israel (Micah 4:1, Micah 4:2; Isaiah 2:2, Isaiah 2:3). Ezekiel sees an Israel that shall at last be worthy of its name, the worship of false gods rooted out forever. The all of them points to the breaking down of the old division between Israel and Judah (Isaiah 11:13). Jehovah would accept the "heave offering" (same word as in Exodus 24:1-18 :27; Le Exodus 7:14, et al.) and other oblations. The fact that Israel itself is said to be the "sweet savour" (Revised Version) which Jehovah accepts suggests a like spiritual interpretation of the other offerings, though the literal meaning was probably dominant in the prophet's own thoughts. The nearest approach to a parallelism in a later age is that presented by Romans 9-11.; but it is noticeable how there St. Paul avoids any words that imply the perpetuation of the temple and its ritual, and confines himself to the spiritual restoration of his brethren according to the flesh. It was given to him to see, what the prophets did not see, that that perpetuation would frustrate the purpose of the restoration; that the temple and its ritual took their places among the things that "were decaying and waxing old," and were ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13).
I will be sanctified in you, etc. God is sanctified when he is manifested and recognized as holy (Le Ezekiel 10:3; Numbers 20:13). That recognition would be the consequence of the restoration of Israel, for then it would be seen, even by the heathen, that the God of Israel had been holy and just and true in his judgments, and that he seeks to make men partakers of his holiness.
And there shall ye remember, etc. The words stretch far and wide, and throw light on many of the problems that connect themselves with the conversion of the sinner and the eschatology of the Divine government. The whole evil past is still remembered after repentance and forgiveness. There is no water of Lethe, such as the Greeks fabled, such as Dante dreamt of as the condition of entering Paradise ('Purg.,' 31.94-105). The self-loathing and humility which grow out of that memory, the acceptance of all the punishment of the past as less than had been deserved,—these are the conditions and safeguards of the new blessedness. Ezekiel teaches us, i.e; that it is possible to conceive of an eternal punishment, the punishment of memory, shame, self-loathing, as compatible with eternal life. So (in verse 44) the prophet ends what is perhaps, the profoundest and the noblest of his discourses, his "vindication of the ways of God to man."
In the Hebrew the verses that follow form the opening of the next chapter. The Authorized Version follows the LXX; the Vulgate, and Luther. The section has clearly no connection with what has preceded, and, though fragmentary in its character, seems by the words, "set thy face," to connect itself with Ezekiel 21:2, and to lead up to it. The words of verse 45 imply, as always, an interval of silence and repose.
Drop thy word. The verb is used specially of prophetic utterances (Ezekiel 21:2; Amos 7:6; Micah 2:6, Micah 2:11), and stands, therefore, in the Hebrew without an object. Toward the south. Three distinct words are used in the Hebrew for the thrice-repeated "south" of the Authorized Version.
All faces from the south to the north, etc. The phrase seems, at first, to pass from the figure to the reality. Possibly, however, face may stand for "the outward appearance," the leaves and branches, of the trees. "From the south (Negeb) to the north" takes the place of the older "from Dan to Beersheba" ( 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20). Of that "fire" of judgment, it is said, as in our Lord's use of a like imagery, that it shall not be quenched (Mark 9:43). It shall do its dread work till that work is accomplished.
Doth he not speak parables? We can scarcely wonder that Ezekiel's enigmatic words here, as in Ezekiel 15:1-8, Ezekiel 16:1-63, and Ezekiel 17:1-24, should have called forth some such expression from his hearers; but he obviously records the whisper which he thus heard, in a tone of sorrow and indignation. It was to him a proof, as a like question was to the Christ proof that those hearers were yet without understanding. The question was, for those who asked it, an excuse for hardening their hearts against remonstrances which needed no explanation. The indignation was followed by another interval of silence, during which he brooded over their stubbornness, and at last, in Ezekiel 21:1, the word of the Lord comes to him, and he speaks "no more in proverbs," but interprets the latest parable even in its details.
The silent oracle.
An embassy of elders is sent to Ezekiel to make an inquiry of the Lord through the prophet as to what is to be expected at a new juncture of national affairs, and Ezekiel is instructed to tell them that God will vouchsafe no answer.
I. THOSE WHO REFUSE TO HEAR WHAT GOD DESIRES TO TEACH THEM ARE ANXIOUS FOR LIGHT ON LESS IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. This was the peculiar, the anomaluus, position of Israel. God had not been keeping silence. On the contrary, he had been sending repeated messages to his people, and the Prophet Ezekiel had been busy in teaching what God had revealed to him. This was not a time, like that of Samuel, when the word of the Lord was rare. But the people had not cared to receive the Divine messages. Here was Ezekiel's trouble. He had to preach to deaf ears and to exhibit his prophetic signs to blind eyes (Ezekiel 12:2). The perversity of his audience had driven him to novel and startling symbolical representations of truth in a last, despairing endeavour to arrest attention. And yet even these efforts seemed to have been all in vain. Then there came to him an embassy, innocently ignoring all these neglected oracles, and blandly requesting a Divine answer to certain inquiries of their own. Was there ever a more insolent approach to God? Now, we have a full and rich Divine revelation in the Bible, and especially in the gospel of Christ. Here we may see God's message to man and God's answer to the most momentous inquiries of the soul. Yet there are men who set aside these voices of God, and then plead piteously for light. No doubt these elders of Israel did not wish to be troubled about their sins; they were anxious for light on their fate. They were like those people who discuss the problem of future punishment, and with keen interest, but who are indifferent to the voice of conscience and the Divine call to repentance. Yet there is a pathetic side to this subject. Those who reject God still feel driven to him for refuge in trouble.
II. GOD WILL GIVE NO ANSWER TO THE NEW QUESTIONS OF THOSE WHO REFUSE TO GIVE HEED TO HIS WORD ALREADY RECEIVED. We cannot be surprised that Ezekiel's oracle was silenced. Such insolence as that of the elders of Israel could meet with no more gracious reception.
1. If we refuse to hear God's Word, we must expect to be left in darkness. Before we cry for more light, let us use the light we have. We may indeed pray for God's Spirit to help our interpretation of the Bible, and having read the written Word we may crave more light still. But first to reject the Divine revelation and then to seek for new light is not the way to receive more truth.
2. God will not give light to those who harden themselves in impenitence. The Jews had been charged with sin and called to repentance. They had refused to admit the charge and had declined to repent. Thus they had shut the door against further Divine communications. The spiritual vision is best purged by the tears of penitence. A hard heart is deaf to God's Word.
3. It is useless to be informed about the future unless we listen to the spiritual teachings of God. Men resorted to oracles to satisfy idle curiosity or to seek mere worldly guidance. God does not speak for such comparatively worthless ends. We most need spiritual instruction for the guidance of our souls into the way of life. Till we have received and obeyed that instruction any other form of revelation must be irrelevant, distracting, and therefore positively injurious.
The elect Israel.
The elect Israel is a type of the people of God, the spiritual Israel. Consider the peculiarities of the one as indications of the special marks of the other.
I. THE WAY IN WHICH ISRAEL WAS MADE AN ELECT NATION.
1. Chosen by God. This is the root idea of election. God chooses his people before they choose him—chooses them out of the multitude, and so constitutes them a separate nation. The grounds of the choice rest with him and need not be divulged. But we may be sure there are grounds, and that these are not capricious. History has revealed one great end of the election of Israel. The nation was chosen in order that it might become the channel of blessing to all nations. So the Church is chosen to be God's means of bringing the gospel to the whole world.
2. Chosen in a state of degradation. The Jews were chosen in Egypt. Though promises had been made to the patriarchs centuries earlier, the fulfilment of those promises commenced with God's deliverance from the bondage of Pharaoh. When the people seemed to be most lost they were found by God. When they appeared to be of least value he chose them for himself. The Lord married the castaway child (Ezekiel 16:8). Thus God now takes his people in their low estate.
3. Chosen by deeds of might. God proved his choice by bringing his people out of bondage. He "lifted up" his "hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob." With God to will is to do. The mighty deeds of God in the plagues and the passage of the Red Sea are outdone by his great work in Christ. In Christ God does not only choose us, he lifts up his hand to save.
4. Chosen through the revelation of God. God made known his Name to Israel through Moses (Exodus 3:15). We must know God to hear his voice. The revelation of Christ goes with the election of God. The chosen are called by means of the gospel.
II. THE PURPOSES FOR WHICH ISRAEL WAS ELECTED.
1. High privileges.
2. Holy living. There was a condition of the Divine election, or rather, a condition on which the continuation of its privileges depended. The Jews were to cast away their idols, as God could endure no rivals. The people had been chosen in their idolatry; but they were required to renounce it. God chooses his people now while they are yet runners. But his choice means that they must give up their sins, and if they still cleave to them the election will be rendered null and void. The great mercy of God in choosing souls before the souls have turned to. him should be sufficient ground to induce all who accept the privileges of the gospel to live up to the standard it sets forth. After God has chosen us to be his people the least we can do is to choose him to be our Portion (Psalms 73:26).
Law and life.
I. THE LAW WAS GIVEN AS A MINISTER OF LIFE. God vouchsafed his statutes in order that the Jews might live by means of them. Without those ordinances they were in danger of death, for they were sinners, and the fruit of sin is death. Thus we see that the Law was given in mercy. It came as a blessing. It was in its aim a gospel. Nothing can be further from the truth than the notion that it was a rod of chastisement, or even, as some have regarded it, an evil thing, a sort of curse upon sinners. It was not so regarded by the Old Testament saints, who sang hymns in praise of it, and hailed it with language of affection and rapture (e.g. Psalms 40:1-17 and Psalms 119:1-176).
1. Truth leads to life. The Law was a revelation of God's eternal verities, without which the soul would perish in the night of its own ignorance.
2. Righteousness would make for life. The Law declared the nature of righteousness, and pointed out the path on which it could be pursued. Thus it was an aid to conscience. Further, by its sanctions of menace and promise it urged the careless to walk in that path.
3. Grace leads to life. The Law did not exclude all grace. On the contrary, it was given in mercy, and it contained saving provisions in various forms of condescension to human weakness and in the great institution of sacrifices for sin.
II. THE LAW PROVED TO BE A MESSENGER OF DEATH. (See Ezekiel 20:25). We have come to regard the Law with aversion under the influence of the arguments of St. Paul. Yet he distinctly teaches that the Law was good, but that the perversion of it led to ruin (Romans 7:12).
1. The Law condemns sin. Before we have sinned it is a friend to warn us against doing wrong, but by sinning we have turned it into an enemy. The warning beacon has thus become an ominous meteor, the sign post a gallows tree. That which by its guidance protects the innocent from death, by its judgments condemns the guilty to death (Romans 7:10).
2. The Law is powerless to save from sin.
III. THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST IS THE ONLY EFFECTUAL WAY OF LIFE. The Law was "weak," though not on account of its own imperfection, but "through the flesh," i.e. on account of man's human degradation, so that man did not respond to it. Therefore God sent his Son to bring the salvation which the Law was powerless to produce (Romans 8:3).
1. In Christ we have the gift of life. (1 John 5:12). Nothing less than death is due under the Law; nothing less than life is given by Christ. This we receive by active regenerating grace, not by the erection of a new standard of morals—the Sermon on the Mount substituted for the Ten Commandments—but by the presence and work of a living Saviour.
2. This life in Christ does not destroy the glory of the Law.
The sanctity of the sabbath.
The sabbath was given to Israel as a day of rest for man and beast (Exodus 20:8-11). But it also had a deeper mystical significance which gave it a peculiar sanctity. It was the sign of Israel, the note by which the chosen people might be marked, the seal of the covenant of Sinai, as circumcision was the seal of the earlier covenant with Abraham. In this particular, of course, the sabbath belonged only to the Jews under the Law, and our neglect of the seventh day and observance of the "Lord's day" are signs that we have passed under a new covenant with a new sanction, seal, and token, viz. that of the communion (Luke 22:20), which therefore takes a place with us corresponding to the sabbath in the Law and circumcision among the patriarchs. Nevertheless, the grounds on which the sabbath was selected as the symbol of the covenant of the Law are wider than the dominion of Israel, and deserve to be inquired into with a view to ascertaining their perpetual significance.
I. THE SANCTITY OF THE SABBATH WAS ASSOCIATED WITH NATURE. God rested from creation (Genesis 2:2). This fact is stated in primitive language. But the latest science shows that the course of nature is not a mechanical revolution, but a sort of vital pulsation. Its movement is rhythmic. It goes by shock and pause. It has its work and its rest. Summer activity and winter sleep, day and night, storm and cairn, are nature's alternate week days and sabbaths. We are part of nature, and must observe its methods.
II. THE SANCTITY OF THE SABBATH WAS ASSOCIATED WITH THE NEEDS OF MAN. "The sabbath was made for man." Therefore man needed the sabbath.
1. He needed the rest. Ceaseless toil wears and frets the very fibre of life. Masters and slaves, as well as the beast of burden, were benefited by the Jewish sabbath. We are not under the same formal regulations as those by which Israel was governed. But the conditions of business life in the modern world are so much more exacting than any that can be imagined to belong to the simple pastoral and agricultural life of the ancient Jews, that the requirement of some equivalent to their sabbath must be much stronger with us.
2. He needed the opportunity for remembering God. The sabbath was sacred to the covenant. Sunday is sacred to the resurrection of Christ. The congenial thoughts and holy occupations of such a day are helpful.
"The Sundaies of man's life,
Thredded together on time's string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternal, glorious King.
On Sunday heaven's gates stand ope;
Blessings are plentiful and rife,
More plentiful than hope."
III. THE SANCTITY OF THE SABBATH WAS ASSOCIATED WITH GOD. God ordained the sabbath; it was typical of his resting; and it was the seal of his covenant with Israel. Thus it was in a threefold sense God's day. Christ has warned us against the formal abuse of its sanctity, and St. Paul has dared to assert a large Christian liberty in regard to it. Anything that makes its use formal savours of the Law, is Judaistic, is anti-Christian. Anything that makes it a day of gloom and repression is even contrary to its old Jewish observance as a festival. But, on the other hand, God has claims of worship. If Sunday is given up to amusement or toil those claims are ignored. It is our duty to give them all possible range in this age of driving secular interests. Thus are we led on to
"The sabbaths of eternity,
One sabbatic, deep and wide."
(Tennyson, 'St. Agnes.')
A human wilderness.
I. WHAT IT IS. Israel is to be brought "into the wilderness of the peoples." The wanderings of their fathers was in "a waste howling wilderness" (Deuteronomy 32:10), among the wild beasts and far from the cities and homes of men; but the exile of the nation in Ezekiel's day was a transportation into the midst of the settled populous country of Babylon. ChaLdea was no Siberia. Banishment from Canaan did not lead to a return to the freedom and the hardships of a nomadic life. The captive Jews were planted among other nations. Although a strange blight has since fallen upon the scene of the exile, and the ruins of the great cities of the Euphrates have now become a veritable wilderness, haunted by lions and hyenas, those cities were at the height of their prosperity and splendour when the prophet lived and wrote. How, then, could he speak of them as a wilderness?
1. A great city is a human wilderness. The greater the city, the more desolate is the wilderness. The social life of small cities like Jerusalem and Athens must have been strong and pleasant. But this life is swamped in the myriads of unknown faces that one sees in a vast city. Great Babylon, Rome, and London—the modern Babylon—have the character of a wilderness.
2. There is no banishment so terrible as that of being lost in a human wilderness. People who could be tracked over Dartmoor and among the fells of Yorkshire may be utterly lost in London. Every year there are many broken lives that go down in the awful misery that floods the lower parts of a great city, and no one misses them. Their individuality has been drowned in a sea of humanity. The most heart-rending loneliness is that of a friendless man in a crowd—so many fellow beings, and not a spark of fellow feeling!
II. HOW IT IS USED. The city wilderness is used for the punishment of the Jews; but not for that only.
1. God meets his people in the wilderness. Success blinds us to the presence of God. Society makes us deaf to his voice. Adversity and solitude prepare us to remember him and to hearken to his Word. We need not flee to the wilderness of a John the Baptist—to the seclusion of a hermitage among the silent rocks—in order to meet with God. He will visit us in the crowded city. When the heart sinks, sad and faint at its own loneliness amid the din of a crowded life in which the lost wanderer has no share, God is ready to whisper words of comfort. He can find his poor suffering child in the crowd, and draw near to him there as well as in the field, the chamber, or the temple. God comes into most intimate relations with his people in their hour of desolation. He meets them "face to face." In the old wilderness of Sinai the Jews shrank from such near contact with God, so that it was reserved for Moses alone (Exodus 33:11). Now it is to be for all Israel. Thus deep distress has its privileges.
2. God pleads with his people. He desires to save; he urges repentance. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord" (Isaiah 1:18). When men are most cold and repellant, perhaps our heart may be open to the sympathy of God. Then we can see that he seeks us in a great, undying love.
Note, it is a shame to Christendom that there should be a human wilderness among us. Heathen cities were cruel. But brotherhood is essential to Christianity. May we not say that, after pleading with us for our own sakes, God also pleads with us that we may save our lost brothers and sisters?
God's holy mountain.
I. THE SITE. God's holy mountain is the site of the temple at Jerusalem. God promises his people that the exile will cease, that they shall return and worship him once more at the old sacred spot. Note the characteristics of it.
1. It is exalted. A mountain. Jerusalem is two thousand feet above the level of the Mediterranean Sea. The rock where the altar of burnt offering stood—now covered by what is called the "Mosque of Omar"—is the highest part of Mount Morlah. We look up to heaven in worship.
2. It is conspicuous. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Private worship should be unostentatious and secret (Matthew 6:6); but public worship should be open to all, and well known, that others may be invited, and that God may be glorified. Churches should be built in conspicuous places.
3. It is consecrated by old memories. There the fathers worshipped, and there also God came down and blessed his people in the olden time. Faith is strengthened, and worship stimulated by such memories.
II. THE SERVICE.
1. The people are to serve. They will not be rescued only to be left to enjoy themselves in idleness. The restored exiles are redeemed for high service. Christians are not saved from ruin that they may slumber in listless indifference. Indeed, part of Christ's salvation is deliverance from idleness, and the redemption of our powers that they may be turned to higher uses, i.e. to the service of God.
2. God is to be the one Lord served. In the old days of sin the people had attempted a divided allegiance. But this must now cease. The redeemed must live to the Lord. "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24).
III. THE ACCEPTANCE. This is the heart of the whole promise, from which the glow and joy of it spring. God had rejected his people and their sacrifices, casting the men into exile and permitting the sacrifices to cease. Before that disaster, he had refused to accept the offerings of those who practised wickedness (Isaiah 1:13). But now on their return to their old home as purged penitents, God will accept both the people and their gifts. All our labor is in vain unless it be accepted by him to whom it should be offered. God accepts his repentant and returning people
IV. THE SACRIFICES. The people, while they render service, do this especially by means of the offerings that they bring.
1. They express gratitude. Sacrifices for sin are excluded from this passage. Doubtless they will be required, for unhappily the people will sin again. But so sad a prospect is not to be contemplated as yet. The offerings now thought of are those of thanksgiving. They suggest the thought that God will give bountiful harvests. Here is a picture of joy in worship.
2. They were required by God. One would have thought that gratitude would have made the commandment superfluous. But Malachi shows that, as a matter of fact, the people were backward with their gifts (Malachi 3:8). "Where are the nine?" (Luke 17:17). Christ is our one Sacrifice for sin. Yet God still requires us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices for thank-offerings and self-dedication (Romans 12:1).
For my Name's sake.
The grounds of the Divine action are not man's deserts, but considerations in regard to God himself. This is the secret of our hope. "He hath not dealt with us after our sins" (Psalms 103:10). He hath dealt with us alter his Name. God's Name stands for what is known of him—his revelation of himself; it also represents his fame, and then his honour—as we should say, his "good name." No doubt the latter is the meaning of God's Name in the present instance, although this rests upon the former meaning, and in a measure includes it. Our word "character" has this twofold meaning—what is known to be in a person and the reputation he bears—the subjective and the objective characters. We may say that God saves us for the sake of his own character in both senses.
I. HIS PUBLIC CHARACTER.
1. God is honoured by his fidelity. His name is pledged to his word. His promise involves his Name. When a man has put his name to a deed, he is bound to fulfil its conditions. If he fails, his name is dishonoured. Promoters make great efforts to secure for their enterprises names that will inspir