Scripture: Ezekiel 8:1– 11:25
1 In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord GOD fell upon me there. 2 Then I looked, and behold, a form that had the appearance of a man. Below what appeared to be his waist was fire, and above his waist was something like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming metal. 3 He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy. 4 And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the valley.
5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, lift up your eyes now toward the north.” So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.”
7 And he brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, there was a hole in the wall. 8 Then he said to me, “Son of man, dig in the wall.” So I dug in the wall, and behold, there was an entrance. 9 And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” 10 So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. 11 And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. 12 Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.’ ” 13 He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.”
Many of you have heard me say it before: Oklahoma is the best state to live in. Because when you go on vacation, it’s an immediate upgrade!
Hey, it’s just a joke! I shouldn’t make it sound like this is some godforsaken land. This really is a great place to live. We went hiking recently again in the Wichita Mountains, and while it’s not like Colorado or anything—I mean, are they really mountains?—it really is nice. Oklahoma is ok!
I’ve lived here now for 17 years. Oklahoma is my home, and I care about what happens in my homeland. Did you know God cares about it, too, along with everywhere else in his world. He made it to be inhabited by us, his image bearers, and his plan all along has been to dwell with us here in this world. And here’s a point I’d like us to consider this morning. Because God loves the world so much, he insists on being the sole focus of our worship. He will not allow his world to become a godforsaken land.
We turn our attention today to chapters 8–11 in the book of Ezekiel. Here we find the beginning of Ezekiel’s public ministry as a prophet. He tells us that during “the sixth year” of his exile, during “the sixth month, the fifth day of the month,” which would be September 18, 592 BC, on that day he was in his residence in Babylonia, with the “elders of Judah” there with them. These elders would have been the heads of the various family clans in exile with Ezekiel, who we will find coming to Ezekiel regularly hoping to receive a word from their God. On this occasion, they were not disappointed, for what we find in these four chapters is a vision that Ezekiel received from God, pertaining to events taking place in Jerusalem.
When the vision is over, we read of Ezekiel telling the exiles everything he had seen (Ezek 11:25), namely, the abominations in the temple, the cleansing of the land, and the promise of a unified heart.
Abominations in the Temple
Here in chapter 8, the God of Israel takes Ezekiel on a tour of the temple in Jerusalem. He wants Ezekiel to see what is going on behind the scenes in the place that was dedicated to the worship of Yahweh. What did Ezekiel see? In short, he sees various abominations taking place in the temple of God.
Greater and Greater Abominations
First (vv. 5-6), he saw, in the entrance to the altar gate, an “image of jealousy.” It was some sort of statue; Ezekiel calls it in verse 3 a statue “of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy.” Whatever it was, it signified a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the God of Israel. [Block, 282] The temple was the place that represented the throne room of God and his reign on earth, but here was something else vying to take his place. Ezekiel saw it, but God said in verse 6, “you will see still greater abominations.”
Second, in verses 7-13, Ezekiel sees in the courtyard of the temple, “all the idols of the house of Israel” (v. 10), and the seventy elders of Israel worshiping these idols. It is Israel’s own leaders that are leading this idolatrous charge. Ezekiel sees it, but God said to him in verse 13, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.”
Third, in verses 14-15 Ezekiel is taken “to the entrance of the north gate” of the temple where he sees “women weeping for Tammuz.” Tammuz is a well-known Mesopotamian deity, and it seems that what the women are doing here is singing some sort of lament. The historical situation gives us insight into the motivation. Remember, Babylon has already exercised their might over Israel and carried some captives into exile. Although Israel has something of a king in Jerusalem, the exile of Jehoiachin signified that the monarchy was already compromised. These were desperate times, and those who remained in Jerusalem were desperately trying to make sense of it all. Here, even the expression of their grief is idolatrous. But God told Ezekiel, in verse 15, “You will see still greater abominations than these.”
The fourth scene is in verses 16-18. In the inner court of the temple, he sees 25 men, early in the morning, “worshiping the sun.” If the previous scenes were done somewhat “in the dark” (v. 12), this one is done in the light of day. Ezekiel has gotten a glimpse of Israel still in Jerusalem totally given over to the worship of idols.
Rebellion in the Temple
And the reason God gives Ezekiel this insight is to show him why God is about to do what he is going to do. Look at verse 18. “Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.”
A simplistic reading of the Bible might go like this. “God makes human beings, commands them to worship him, but they don’t, and so God gets furious and punishes them for not worshiping him.” There’s plenty of truth in that reading, but it also leads to all kinds of mischaracterizations about God and the story of the Bible.
Let’s tell the story better, more accurately, both to others as well as to ourselves.
Let’s start with the basic meaning of the temple. The whole point of the temple is to signify God’s intention to live with his human creatures here on the earth. The temple is the place where heaven and earth meet, where the two are united and joined together so that God’s will is done “on earth as in heaven.” The God who made the universe is eager to share the well-ordered operation of his universe with his image-bearers. It is just this eager desire of God that raises the question of what would happen to his universe should his human beings decide to get along without him, thank you very much. What would happen if God’s chosen do not merely ignore God but storm into his temple and seek to, as God says in verse 6, drive him far from his sanctuary?
Provoked to Anger
The answer, as we are about to see, is that the Creator God, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, will not go quietly. He loves his world too much! As verse 18 says, “he will act in wrath.” He “will not spare.” He will have no pity. Yes, you will read in the Bible plenty of descriptions of the absolutely terrifying reality of God’s vengeance and wrath.
But it would be a mistake to come away with a perception that these are the defining characteristics of God’s persona, that the God of the Bible is a God of wrath, eager to execute his vengeance on sinners. We need to see what Ezekiel saw and then we will understand that God has to be provoked to wrath.
Lamentations 3:32-33 says it well:
[T]hough he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart…
Make no mistake: God is just and will not tolerate idolatry of any kind. But God’s natural disposition, what he is most eager to do, is to bless with his steadfast love.
The Cleansing of the Land
What is it, then, that provokes God to wrath, that causes him to “afflict,” though not from his heart? The short answer is idolatry. But the longer answer is the injustices that stem from idolatry and God’s insistence, stemming from his abundant heart of love, that justice must prevail. God must have justice in his temple. All idols must come down. He insists on cleansing his land of all vestiges of idolatry.
The Definition of Idolatry
Let’s take a closer look at idolatry and the injustices it generates. What does the Bible mean by idolatry?
Our catechism (Q79) answers it like this: “An idol is something in which one trusts instead of or alongside our only true God, who has revealed himself in his word.”
So, idolatry is a question about what it is one trusts. And what you trust is what you worship, because we worship what it is we recognize as possessing the highest worth. Notice that we are not talking only about “religion” here, but about “truth” and “value.” No one can be worshipless because we naturally live our lives by what we perceive to be true, and by what we attribute the highest worth. As has been said, if you refuse to worship the one true God you don’t worship nothing; you end up worshipping anything and everything. Just ask Ezekiel about the abominations he saw in chapter 8. If you give up on worshipping the God of the Bible, any other god will do.
Now, it would be easy for us Christians to shout out a hearty, “Amen!” here, looking down our noses at all those idolatrous unbelievers out there, sleeping in on Sunday morning. But be careful here. It is easy to be idolatrous; avoiding it is very, very hard.
In Ezekiel 8:12, God explained to Ezekiel that the idolatrous practices of the elders of Israel were what happened when they said, “The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.” Israel slumped into idolatry when it seemed rather obvious to them that God was not listening, when God did not care about their plight. The Babylonians were taking over. Where was Yahweh? Where was the God of Israel? We will justify our idolatry, with our turning away from God, when we have convinced ourselves that he has turned away from us. Idolatry begins when God seems anemic, apathetic, and irrelevant.
How subtle idolatry can be! These elders of Israel did not turn to idolatry because they no longer believed God existed but because they did not believe he was sufficient. Idolatry is perfectly happy to coexist with orthodoxy.
The Consequences of Idolatry
To detect idolatry, then, we must not look only at our beliefs or even our religious practices. Don’t satisfy yourself that you are free from idolatry because you read your Bible, pray, or go to church, or that you are baptized and identify as a Christian. You must also look at the fruits that come from our worship.
There is a direct connection between what it is we worship and how it is we live, the fruit that comes from our lives. Take a look at Ezekiel 9:9. God said to Ezekiel, “The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great.” Yes, of course; as Ezekiel saw in chapter 8, the people were given to idolatry. But here God says instead that the people are guilty because, “The land is full of blood, and the city full of injustice.” And lest we think that this violence and injustice is another matter altogether, notice that God ties the two together. The reason violence and injustice have broken out is because of the same belief that led the people into idolatry, the belief that the God of Israel had “forsaken the land,” and that he did not see what was going on there.
What comes out of our lives is directly related to what it is or who it is that we worship. Lots of people admire Jesus for his insistence that we show love to our neighbors and that we pursue justice and equity. Who doesn’t want to live in a world like that? Virtually everyone is captivated by the vision of what Jesus called the kingdom of God. But idolatry comes by wanting the kingdom without the king.
It's easy to see the violence and the injustices in the world and say, “See there. It’s because people are not Christians like us.” Problem is, you and I are just as idolatrous as our pagan neighbors. It’s one reason so many of our churches are known for our hypocrisy, for our scandals and our abuses, rather than by our love. What we say we believe does not match the fruit of our lives.
I’m talking about myself here. What I sometimes notice about myself when I drive by the homeless camps and the panhandlers is how easy it is for me to ignore them. What I wonder about myself is what kind of a world this would be if the way I sometimes treat my wife and kids—far more often than I would like to admit—were the way everyone treated their wife and kids. “Well, at least I’m above average here. Overall, I do a pretty good job. The world would be better if everyone was like me.” Perhaps. But is “better” what we are after, just a little less abomination than what currently exists? Is that good enough?
What if everyone handled their money the way I do? Would poverty be eradicated? What if everyone viewed politics the way I do? Would our society be just, or would I just be more advantaged? What if everyone thought of themselves the way I think of myself? Would our world be flooded with humility and love or with pride and just other forms of self-centeredness? “Well, at least I’m no criminal,” I say to myself, “at least I’m not filling the land with violence.” But then I’m chastened by the fact that I (yes, even I!) sometimes fight and quarrel with others, and the Bible says this is not because people are at war with me but because my own desires are seeking to make war with God (Jas 4:1-4). My own sins are just consequences of my idolatrous heart.
Will the Remnant Survive?
Look, unless we read the Bible like this, we simply will not be able to stomach what we read in Ezekiel 9, when God sends in “the executioners” (v. 1) to “pass through the city” and “strike” (v. 5), killing “old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women” (v. 6). What is this? It reminds us of other biblical stories, especially the story of Noah and the Flood and the story of the last of the ten plagues in Egypt. God is cleansing the land, cleansing his world, of violence and injustice. You and I know that human efforts at cleansing injustice with violence often provoke more violence and injustice, but that’s because we are not God. Our hands are never clean like his are. It’s why human attempts at justice never seem to satisfy, why the Supreme Court of the United States hardly ever is unanimous on a high-stakes issue. We have too many different idols to try to please.
We are left wondering if anyone could survive God’s cleansing of his land of all injustice and violence and idolatry. Apparently, Ezekiel wondered the same thing. Look at Ezekiel 9:9. “And while they were striking, and I was left alone, I fell upon my face and cried, ‘Ah, Lord GOD! Will you destroy all the remnant of Israel in the outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?” Or, will the world be left desolate, a godforsaken land after all?
The Promise of a Unified Heart
Chapter 9 ends on a dreadful note. God will take no pity on the idolators in Jerusalem. His justice will sweep through the land and raze every deed of injustice they have built. But, then what? When God executes his justice against all the abominations, when everything has been torn down, then comes the promise of a unified heart.
Burning Coals and Departing Glory
Chapter 10 reminds us of chapter 1 and the inaugural vision. Here we find again the four living creatures, now identified explicitly as cherubim and signifying that we are in the throne room of the God of Israel. We are in the holy of holies. We are in the presence of God.
Chapter 10 is divided into two parts. In verses 1-8, the focus is on one of the cherubim who takes some “burning coals” to give to “the man clothed in linen” so he can scatter them over the city. The meaning is straightforward. Just as God promised to execute those who polluted his land by their idolatry in chapter 9, here he is promising to destroy the city itself with “fire from heaven.” Jerusalem has become like Sodom and Gomorrah and will now suffer a similar fate (Gen 19:24).
Then, in verses 9-22, the focus is on the movement of the glory of God away from the temple. In verse 18, we see the glory now on “the threshold of the house,” and in verse 19 it taxis out to the east gate. Again the meaning is straightforward. When the God of Israel leaves the temple, the judgment of the city described in the first part of chapter 10 will commence.
Heart Corruption Exposed
To understand chapter 11, we should remember that the vision Ezekiel receives in these chapters comes as God’s answer to the inquiry of the elders of Judah in exile who had come to Ezekiel (Ezek 8:1) looking for some answers. They would be wondering about their countrymen still in Jerusalem who represented hope for the nation’s survival. What were they thinking? What were they planning?
Ezekiel gets a glimpse at the answer to these questions. God says they were devising iniquity and giving wicked counsel, saying, “The time is not near to build houses. This city is the cauldron, and we are the meat” (Ezek 11:2-3). Verse 5 then has God exposing this deviousness. He knows “the things that come into [their] mind. Here were the leaders of the remnant left in Jerusalem thinking to themselves that with so many of their countrymen hauled off to Babylon, they were the true remnant. God must have chosen them to carry the flag of Israel. But this perception allowed them to cover up their real hope of profiting on the homes left abandoned by the leading citizens of Israel who had been deported.
How tempting it is to see material prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing and therefore God’s permission to enjoy it however we want. But such thinking does not signify those who are truly God’s elect and who will inherit his kingdom. God indicates that he will judge the remaining Jerusalemites as well, leaving Ezekiel to exclaim to the Lord—verse 13 is not a question, but the answer to Ezekiel’s question in 9:9—“So you are intending to exterminate the remnant of the house of Israel completely!” Or, as the disciples of Jesus asked him in exasperation, after he said it would be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” “Who then can be saved?” (Matt 19:24-25).
When the Glory Returns
Where can anyone find proof that God has favored them and marked them as his own? In verse 17, Ezekiel is promised that God will one day gather his exiled people and give them the land of Israel. These will put away all detestable things and abominations. And God “will give them one heart, and a new spirit” (v. 19) so they will walk in his statutes and keep his rules. “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God (v. 20).
But first, judgment must come as we see the glory of God depart the city in verse 23. When would the glory return? When would the unified heart come to his people? Even after the Babylonian captivity when the temple in Jerusalem was built, something was still missing, namely, the glory of the God of Israel. And Israel remained as divided as ever: Pharisees and Sadducees, Galileans and those living in Jerusalem, zealots who plotted the overthrow of Rome and tax-collectors who were happy to make peace with Rome for their own material profit. National division is not just our own current political challenge.
What the world needs is the unified heart that God promised would come when his glory returns to his temple. And that’s exactly what Jesus promised with his claim to have inaugurated the new covenant.
Of course, plenty who claim to follow Jesus, who profess to be Christians, do not show any evidence of the unified heart. Authentic faith in Jesus cannot remain only a profession of faith while we go on with our adulterous affair with idols. Rather, as one commentator puts it, “Authentic faith affirms that the privilege of being the people of God must be matched by fidelity to his covenant.” And that’s why we must worship Jesus day by day, being renewed in the covenant of grace, and increasingly shaped into his image.
It’s not just for your own soul’s sake, but also for the sake of the whole land which otherwise would be left godforsaken forever.
 Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 140–41.
 The observation is usually attributed to G. K. Chesterton.