Knowing God at the End

October 16, 2022 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Ezekiel: Tough Love

Scripture: Ezekiel 6:1– 7:27

1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, set your face toward the mountains of Israel, and prophesy against them, 3 and say, You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord GOD! Thus says the Lord GOD to the mountains and the hills, to the ravines and the valleys: Behold, I, even I, will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places. 4 Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense altars shall be broken, and I will cast down your slain before your idols. 5 And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars. 6 Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out. 7 And the slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the LORD.

8 “Yet I will leave some of you alive. When you have among the nations some who escape the sword, and when you are scattered through the countries, 9 then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations. 10 And they shall know that I am the LORD. I have not said in vain that I would do this evil to them.”

Who is God? What is he like? Could there be a more important question than these?

Last week I argued that chapters 4–7 should be read as Ezekiel’s initiation into the prophetic vocation that God called him to do. In chapters 6–7, there’s a phrase that comes up over and over again: “and you shall know that I am the LORD.” It occurs first in Ezekiel 5:13 and over 70 times throughout Ezekiel, but 10% of those are right here in chapters 6–7. Before Ezekiel can do his job, before he can go and speak for God, he needs to know who this God is.

So do you and I.

Scholars call this phrase the recognition formula. And its use throughout Ezekiel communicates that the way to know who God truly is comes not by philosophy but by history.[1] The reason for this is because God is the LORD, that is, he is Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God of Israel. If we want to know God, we must see him acting in his steadfast commitment to the covenant he made with Israel.

What do we learn about him through his covenant with Israel? We learn about his passion, his brokenness, and his justice.

The Passionate God

First, the God of the Bible is a passionate God. The first time we see the recognition formula, in Ezekiel 5:13, it goes like this: “Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. And they shall know that I am the LORD—that I have spoken in my jealousy—when I spend my fury upon them.” What kind of being is God? What does he want us to know about him? Here we are told that we are to know him as a God who is jealous.

God Cannot Be Ignored

Now that doesn’t paint a very positive image in our mind, does it? No wonder many modern versions (e.g. NIV, NASB) use the word zeal instead of jealousy. Still, in the context of this verse, which speaks of God’s anger and fury, and of him seeking to satisfy himself, we are invited to ponder this aspect of God that God wants us to know about himself.

The Hebrew word is found 43 times in the Old Testament, and Ezekiel uses it the most, ten times. There’s no doubt about it; this word gets your attention. Call it jealousy or call it zeal, either way we’re talking about an aspect of God that cannot be ignored.

And that may be the point we should start with. This is not a God that can be ignored. He doesn’t sit quietly away somewhere in heaven or anywhere else, untouched or unmoved by the events on earth. He isn’t disconnected from human history, or available to answer only if some person on earth decides he just might want to see if Someone is out there.

Detaching God from His World

But this is what so many of us in the West have come to think as the default disposition of God. When it comes to our assumptions about God, we have probably been more influenced by the Enlightenment than we have by the Bible. The God of the Enlightenment (if such a being even exists) is so high above the world that he can hardly be touched by the events here below. Thus, to talk of God is to immediately enter into the realm of religion, a private spirituality of faith that has very little to do with the public realities of science and history, of politics and mathematics.[2] We have yielded too much ground here, perhaps attracted by the way this view of God seems to exalt him above all created things. Such a view fits well with the gods of ancient paganism which, judging by this default position of God in our modern and post-modern world, only demonstrates that these gods are alive and well in the public imagination.

Christians should know better. The God of the Bible is Yahweh, quite simply not the kind of being we assume he must be. This God is different than what any human being has ever conjured up, and his jealousy is a clear indication of this.

God’s Passionate Love

So back to the word jealousy. This translation simply will not do when it is used in reference to God, since the word in our usage is entirely negative. Zeal or zealous is better, though it still leaves much more to be said. I’m not sure there is a word in English that will suffice.

But there is an analogy. Throughout the Bible, this word finds its central meaning in the marriage relationship.[3] It expresses the “entirely appropriate response” that “is aroused when a legitimate and wholesome relationship is threatened by interference from a third party.”[4] Ok, we get that. But do we get that when it comes to God?

The fact that God expresses this deep emotion and response does not tell us that God is capricious or reckless or out of control. It tells us, amazingly, that God is deeply passionate, a God of passionate love. God has made a promise to his people, a covenantal promise of love that the marriage relationship is meant to signify, and God is the most faithful lover there ever has been.

And as we read through chapter 6, we can see that this is the view of God that Ezekiel had to come face-to-face with. God’s actions against Israel, his promise to destroy their high places (v. 3), to break down their altars (v. 4), and even this talk of laying “the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols” and scattering their bones around their altars (v. 5) must be seen as the entirely appropriate response of God’s passionate love.

I realize, of course, that no one could justify talk of killing an adulterous spouse as an entirely appropriate response” to infidelity. But, before we come to that, let’s consider another revelation of God.

The Broken God

Take a look at verses 8-10. After promising to act out of his passionate, zealous, covenant love for his people, God says this:

Yet I will leave some of you alive. When you have among the nations some who escape the sword, and when you are scattered through the countries, then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations. And they shall know that I am the LORD. I have not said in vain that I would do this evil to them (Ezek 6:8-10).

Notice that God says, right there in verse 9, that the time will come when the survivors of the Babylonian exile “will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive.” They will remember, God says, “how I have been broken over their whoring heart.” And the recognition formula follows in verse 10. So, not only must we know that God is jealous, a passionate lover. We also must know that he has been broken.

Broken Idols

The run up to this statement in the previous verses has God promising to do to Israel’s idols what Israel has done to him. In verses 4 and 6 we find the same word, broken, as we find in verse 9. What has broken God is Israel’s worship of idols. What are these idols?

We can answer that question from the word Ezekiel uses. You see, there are various Hebrew words that translate to “idol,” but Ezekiel uses a very specific word. Of its 48 occurrences of this word in the Old Testament, 39 of them are found in Ezekiel. In his commentary on Ezekiel, Daniel Block says that this word for an idol appears to reflect God’s attitude toward them. What is the word? Well, let me quote Block here:

Modern sensitivities prevent translators from rendering this expression as Ezekiel intended it to be heard, but had he been preaching today, he would probably have identified these idols with a four-letter word for excrement.[5]

The use of this explicit term for idols is meant to signify that they are, Block says, “powerless figments of the human imagination.” And God’s utter destruction of them and those who worship them testifies to the impotence of the idols to defend themselves or their devotees.[6]

Broken Heart

You can imagine God however you want him to be, or you can let him reveal himself as he actually is. Far from God simply being jealous of his chosen people opting to worship some other god, he is broken hearted that they have gone after something which is worthless and powerless. But it’s not like these idols are just unable to do anything good. By worshiping them, Israel is becoming like them. And that means these idols are not innocuous. They are utterly destructive.

To see his people worship idols and to do nothing about it would mean that God is apathetic about the role his people are to have in his world. Many people think of God like that. Many Christians do. They think of God’s sovereignty as necessarily meaning that God is essentially impassive or unfeeling since, in the end, he can ensure that everything works out exactly as he intended anyway.

There’s a long-standing doctrine of God’s essential nature that he is impassible, but few attributes of God have been more susceptible to confusion and misunderstanding than this one.[7] The doctrine means only that “no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress” on God “at their own will.”[8] If God suffers and feels pain from creaturely actions, as we see here and plenty of places elsewhere he clearly does, then “it is by his own deliberate decision.”[9] By what decision? By his decision to enter into a covenant with his people for the sake of all creation.

Broken Remembrance

So, with this understanding of God in mind, take a look again at verses 8-10. When God goes to work against the idols we worship which actually dehumanize us, he does so from a heart of brokenness. And this heart of brokenness betrays his heart of steadfast love.

That’s why, at the end, we see here the hope that remains. God will leave a remnant (v. 8) who will remember God and how broken he has been over the dehumanizing idolatry of his people. “And they will be loathsome in their own sight,” we read in verse 9, “for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations.” And then verse 10: “And they shall know that I am the LORD.”

When God is done breaking the idols there will be left a remnant who will see that God has been broken, too. This will be the moment of God’s victory, when his people turn back to him in remembrance of God’s steadfast, covenant-keeping love. That moment arrived when Israel’s Messiah handed broken bread to his disciples and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24). When we see Jesus, we see who God is, a God of steadfast love who chose to be broken in order to break the idols which dehumanize us.

The Just God

Now, in chapter 7, we find the recognition formula three more times, in verses 4, 9, and 27. It seems that the emphasis throughout is on God’s justice. When God exercises his justice—his terrible justice—this will be when it will be made plain that he is Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God.

Caught in the Act

Here is where we need to remind ourselves that God’s great acts of judgment must be understood in light of his covenant. Unless we keep in mind that God initiated a relationship of love, a covenant of love with his people, we will simply not be able to stomach his great acts of justice. Until we see how broken God is by the infidelity of the people he loves so much, we will not have the proper context for knowing God in his judgments.

We will quite simply get the wrong impression when we read about God sending his anger upon Israel, like we do here in verse 3. We will be all out of sorts by God saying things like he does in verse 4: “And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity.” A God who is angry and has no pity? Can you comprehend that along with a God of deeply passionate love?

It was deeply unsettling for the people who would hear Ezekiel’s message. It was deeply unsettling for Ezekiel! So, it probably is for you and me, too.

But have a look at verse 4. God says he will punish Israel for their ways while their abominations are in their midst. They will be caught in the act, as it were. And so, God’s punishments will be deemed just: then they will know that he is Yahweh. The evidence will be overwhelming. This is the guarantee that God gives. On the day when he executes his justice, even the recipients of that justice will acknowledge that God’s action is right, that God is simply being true to his covenant with his people. It will be known at the end.

The Lord Who Strikes

In verses 5-9, we see many of these same themes repeated. Again, for Israel the message was that, as verse 7 says, the time had come and the day was near. It was time for God to act. This ought to have been the kind of thing that would be good news to God’s people, but it would be “a day of tumult, and not of joyful shouting on the mountains.” God’s actions would be in accordance with Israel’s ways.

What does this mean for us? It would be easy to turn this into a doomsday sermon, but that would be out of line with the meaning of the text. Except for this: we do confess as Christians that Christ will return “to judge the living and the dead.” And when he does, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord—that he is acting in accordance with his promise. When he “strikes,” as verse 9 says, it will be clear that he does so justly.

The End of Pride and Violence

God’s judgments, his “strikes,” will not be arbitrary or capricious. They will most certainly not be undeserved. Verses 10-11 describe the coming doom for Israel as the time when “the rod has blossomed” and “pride has budded” and “violence has grown up into a rod of wickedness.”

God will take action against the dehumanizing crimes of human pride and violence, and the effects described in the rest of the chapter is “the collapse of the entire social order.”[10] That’s what verses 12-13 tell us. But we must not think of God’s action against human sin as disconnected from that very sin. God’s judgments are manifestations of his covenant faithfulness. He made a world in which when we live in it rightfully, according to his instructions, life is the result. But when we think we know better than he, when human pride begins to bud, it is violence that emerges. God is right to serve as the facilitator of the disaster that we bring upon ourselves.[11]

What if the world as we know it were to be destroyed by a nuclear holocaust? Or what if in fact it is due to human misuse of our planet that a future ecological disaster comes to pass? Would this not prove the justice of a God who made a world to work by his people doing what is good, performing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with their God (Mic 6:8)?

Perhaps it will only be at the end that we will all finally come to know that the one true God is Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God of Israel.

But the good news is that for those who trust in Christ, “the end of the ages has [already] come,” as Paul reminded the Corinthians (1 Cor 10:11). So, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor 10:12). There is now a way of escape (1 Cor 10:13), a way to flee from the dehumanizing idolatry of our evil hearts (1 Cor 10:14).  “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).

So, let us come to “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 1:10).

_____

[1] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, ed. Terry C. Muck, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 108.

[2] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 348–49.

[3] Leonard J. Coppes, “קָנָא,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 802.

[4] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 13.

[5] Ibid., 226.

[6] Ibid.

[7] In his second edition to his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Second Edition [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020], xvi) listed his affirmation of God's impassibility as one of the "very little" changes he made after writing his first edition.

[8] J. I. Packer, “God,” New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 277.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. P. Keith Gammons and Samuel E. Balentine (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005), 87.

[11] Ibid., 97–98.

More in Ezekiel: Tough Love

December 18, 2022

The End of the Empire

December 11, 2022

When God Manifests His Holiness

December 4, 2022

The Satisfaction of the Fury of God