God Will Perform His Word
Scripture: Ezekiel 12:1– 14:11
21 And the word of the LORD came to me: 22 “Son of man, what is this proverb that you have about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’? 23 Tell them therefore, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision. 24 For there shall be no more any false vision or flattering divination within the house of Israel. 25 For I am the LORD; I will speak the word that I will speak, and it will be performed. It will no longer be delayed, but in your days, O rebellious house, I will speak the word and perform it, declares the Lord GOD.”
26 And the word of the LORD came to me: 27 “Son of man, behold, they of the house of Israel say, ‘The vision that he sees is for many days from now, and he prophesies of times far off.’ 28 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be performed, declares the Lord GOD.”
Tomorrow is Reformation Day. It has now been 505 years since the day that represents the start of the Protestant Reformation. You and I worship today as protestant Christians largely because of the courage of a German Monk named Martin Luther. Luther believed in the authority of the Holy Scriptures. He believed that in the Bible God had spoken and that everything we believe and every way we are to behave is to come from the authority of the word of God. The world has never been the same since the Reformation, so it can be rightly argued that the world has been forever changed by the belief in the absolute authority of God’s word.
We turn our attention this morning to Ezekiel 12-14. “The word of the LORD came” to Ezekiel, reminding him that he dwelled “in the midst of a rebellious house.” This was the insight that Ezekiel was given about his fellow exiles back in chapter 2, where Ezekiel received his commission, being sent “to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against” their God (Ezek 2:3).
Let’s talk about rebellion against God. This “rebellious house” was not the Gentile, pagan nations but the chosen nation. How is it that anyone, including God’s own people, can rebel against him? In short, we rebel against God when we lose confidence in his word. We rebel against God when his word becomes irrelevant to us, or when it is misunderstood by us, or when it is insufficient for us.
Are you a rebel against God?
When God’s Word Is Irrelevant
In chapter 12, we see that Israel’s rebellion against God was fueled by the irrelevance with which they viewed God’s word.
God describes Israel as a “rebellious house” because they had “eyes to see” but did not see, and because they had “ears to hear,” but did not hear. In other words, their rebellion against God is not described in terms of brash idolatry, as if the people had decided to explicitly worship some other god rather than Yahweh. Their problem is different.
On the one hand, their rebellion is owing to a certain spiritual blindness or deafness. They rebel because they don’t see and because they don’t hear. If they did see and if they did hear, then they wouldn’t rebel. On the other hand, it’s not like this blindness and deafness could be excused as something entirely out of their control. They had eyes for seeing and ears for hearing. The reason they did not see and did not hear is not because they could not but because they would not. It’s kind of like staying willfully ignorant of something in hopes that you won’t be accountable for it. But God calls this rebellion, not ignorance.
God told Ezekiel in this chapter to perform another sign-act. In verse 3, God tells him to “prepare yourself an exile’s baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight.” This last phrase, “in their sight,” is repeated five more times through verse 6. It’s all in hopes that “they will understand” (v. 3).
Understand what? We find out a bit later, because in verse 9 we are told that the exiles came to Ezekiel asking him to explain his sign-act: “What are you doing?” they ask. God tells him to explain, “This oracle concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the house of Israel who are in it.” And in verse 11, Ezekiel is to explain that what he has enacted is what will happen to them.
It's a prophecy about the coming siege of Jerusalem. The prince is Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet king, who rebelled against him. You can read about it in 2 Kings 25 and compare what happened there with what is predicted here in verses 12-13. It seems that the exiles already in Babylon were holding on to hope that Zedekiah and the people still in Jerusalem would prevail over Babylon. Well, of course they would hope so! These were their fellow countrymen. But of course, this is no ordinary country.
Remember, we’re talking about Israel here and the fact that God had made a particular covenant with this nation of people. The rebellion described here is not because the people had rejected God and his covenant outright but because they wanted, expected—even demanded—that God would renege on its terms.
They expected and demanded that God, since they were his people, would defend their land, the capital city, and the monarchy, and especially his own temple, no matter what. Even Ezekiel’s audience, already exiled to Babylon, demanded that God come to their aid. And God calls this demand rebellion, because his word was that the city must fall, and the temple must come down.
Those stubborn Israelites!
The Fulfillment Is Near
But wait just a minute, what did God want these exiles to do? What would it look like for them to not rebel? Were they to hope for Jerusalem to fall to Babylon after all? Were they to cheer God on as he sent the rest of the inhabitants of Jerusalem into exile? Were they to betray their countrymen and express loyalty to pagan, idolatrous Babylon?
No, the way of God is never the choice between two different, idolatrous ways, or the demand to pick the lesser of two evils. God’s purpose in this sign-act, as well as in the brief one that follows it in verses 17-20, is made explicit by the thrice-repeated recognition formula in verses 15, 16, and 20. What God wanted Ezekiel’s fellow exiles to do was to know their God so they would return to him and away from their rebellion. To know God, they would need to see that he was not on Babylon’s side against Jerusalem, but he also was not on Israel’s side against Babylon.
Surprisingly, God was showing extreme loyalty to Israel precisely by sending the whole nation into exile. And what God wanted these exiles to do was to avoid the poisonous and bitter root God warned them of in Deuteronomy 29.
Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart” (Deut 29:18-19).
What all of us Christians must beware of is the all-too-common temptation to think that “I shall be safe” because of my identification as a Christian while paying no attention to my behavior as a Christian. It’s not enough to profess faith in Jesus but to not follow after the Christ we say we believe in.
Sadly, many who profess faith in Christ today do so with little thought about how faith in Christ applies to every area of their lives. So long as they avoid the “obvious” sins and show sufficient religious commitment, they are good to go. But, they believe, God’s word is irrelevant for the complexities of our modern world. So, they don’t give much thought to what God says about new technologies or modern conveniences. God may have something to say about life after death, but many live as though he leaves it to us to navigate the challenges of 21st century life.
But, as God asks Ezekiel in verse 22, “what is this proverb” that we have, saying, “The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing”? Or the one mentioned in verse 27, “The vision that he sees is for many days from now, and he prophesies of times far off”? As in Ezekiel’s time, so in ours: rebellion against God is fueled by seeing God’s word as irrelevant to our current time.[i]
Yes, of course the Bible is an old book, telling us of events from long ago. But here we find the warning that God’s word is always relevant in every generation.[ii] When we stop believing that, implicitly or explicitly, we become rebels of God, blind and deaf to what it is he is going to do.
God reminds us in verse 25, “I am the LORD; I will speak the word that I will speak, and it will be performed.” His word will not return to him empty, “but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).
When God’s Word Is Misunderstood
Now, let us be quick to add here that there is another way we can end up being rebels against God and his word, and this is almost the opposite problem of viewing God’s word as irrelevant. We can end up rebelling against God when his word is misunderstood. We believe it is relevant, but we get it wrong. Look with me at Ezekiel 13.
Warning to the Prophets
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: ‘Hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” (Ezek 13:1-3)
This chapter consists mainly of God’s denouncing the prophets of Israel, both the male (vv. 1-16) and female (vv. 17-23) prophets. Prophets are those who claim to speak for God, who announce what God has to say. Back in chapter two, Ezekiel received his commission to be a prophet, and his work involved pointing out treason against God and his kingdom and urging such traitors to repent all while representing the steadfast, loving presence of God.
But the prophets of Israel are here denounced because, verse 4 says, they “have been like jackals among ruins.” Rather than seeking to build up God’s people, they are like these nocturnal scavengers who live off the devastation of Israel’s rebellion.[iii] Down in verses 10-15, God speaks of these prophets as those who have smeared the wall with whitewash. The image is of someone covering over imperfections in a construction with a thin plastering that makes the building look good but does nothing to fix the problem.
So, God warns these prophets in verse 14 that when he comes and breaks down the wall, they will perish with it. But they will also in that day know that he is “the LORD,” the covenant-keeping God of Israel.
Proclaiming Peace When There Is No Peace
God’s complaint against these prophets is that, as verse 10 says, “they have misled my people.” They have led the people into error by, verse 19 says, “putting to death souls who should not die and keeping alive souls who should not live.” They have led the nation into rebellion by getting completely wrong the will and ways of God. Take a look again at verse 10. God says these prophets have misled his people by saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace.
Now here’s a warning for us today. You can sincerely rebel against God. You can be dead wrong, thinking you are walking right in step with God when you are actually going in the exact opposite direction. You can be convinced you are God’s ally when you are actually proving to be God’s enemy. And God will not put up with this rebellion.
It's easy to see this in others, but surely the weight of this warning should fall first on us and give us a moment’s pause and time to ask, like Jesus’s disciples upon hearing that one of them would betray him, “Is it I, Lord?” (Matt 26:22). We who are so quick to judge others, must we not intently judge ourselves? “If you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish” (Rom 2:19-20), will you not first examine yourself?
After writing his Narrative, Frederick Douglass added an appendix to clarify that he was no opponent of the Christian faith. But he believed that “the Christianity of America is a Christianity, of whose votaries it may be as truly said, as it was of the ancient scribes and Pharisees, ‘They bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.’”[iv] He had written that “the religion of the south” was
A mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, with the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.[v]
Why was this? Was it because these professed Christians were not sincere in their faith? Douglass wrote of one slave owner, a minister in the local church, that the slaves who could choose would choose to live with any other slaveowner than this reverend.
And yet there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals,—more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family,—that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer,—than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.[vi]
Again, Douglass said of one of his own masters:
I have seen him time up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drop; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”[vii]
I know, I know. That is the distant past, and we Christians have gotten past all that barbarity. But how frightful to hear many today say that they would rather be employed by anyone else than by some Christian company or to work for anyone other than a professing Christian. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so.
Neither should it be true—but it is—that “no group has shifted their position [on whether elected officials can be trusted to behave ethically in public if they have committed immoral acts in their personal lives] than white evangelical Protestants.” Only 30% affirmed this in 2011, while 72% did just 5 years later and three weeks before the 2016 national elections. [viii] And, we know, that many of these did so because they found justification for doing it from the Bible.
Following Our Own Spirit
These prophets that God is denouncing in chapter 13 were not flagrant worshipers of other gods; they believed they were accurately speaking on God’s behalf. But God says, in verse 3 that they were following “their own spirit” rather than getting their message from what God had said. But make no mistake: if the devil can twist Scripture for his own fiendish purposes, then so can you and I. Peter reminds us that “the ignorant and unstable” are quite good at twisting the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). So, what shall we do?
When God’s Word Is Insufficient
Let us pose an answer to that question by considering one last way we can rebel against God, and that is when we consider God’s word to be insufficient.
Idols in the Heart
In chapter 14, some of the elders of Israel have come to Ezekiel to inquire of God. This act shows they do not believe God’s word is irrelevant, and, coming to one of God’s true prophets, they are wanting to be sure they do not misunderstand God’s word either. But, God said to Ezekiel in verse 3,
Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? (Ezek 14:3).
Taking “idols into their hearts” means that these have not given up their idolatrous loyalties, even if outwardly they appear devoted to the God of Israel. And these “commitments remain the most serious obstacle to divine favor.[ix]
Anytime loyalty to God becomes mixed with loyalty to anyone or anything else, that person ceases to be loyal to God. It’s all or nothing with the God of Israel. And that’s because he is the one true God. He is the Creator of all there is. To the extent we pledge our allegiance elsewhere, we collude with evil against the good kingdom of Yahweh.
No Substitute Will Do
The opposite is not the case. Idolatrous worship is always syncretistic. The other gods care nothing if you worship in the pantheon of the world’s deities. When Jesus said that no one can serve two masters, that it is either God or money (Matt 6:24), it is clear that “money” stands as a representative for all other dependencies. If you don’t serve God, you will serve anything and everything else.
Only the God of the Bible accepts no substitutes or rivals. We are told in verses 7-8,
For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the LORD will answer him myself. And I will set my face against that man; I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the LORD (Ezek 14:7-8)
God will see to it that all other allegiances are destroyed so that everyone will know that he is Yahweh, the one true, covenant-keeping God.
God Wants Our Hearts
What is this exclusive demand of the God of the Bible? Is this not off-putting, abominable to our modern sensibilities? An angry, power-hungry God?
You can read the Bible that way, but only if you forget that there are plenty of voices in the world demanding your affection and allegiance. Either “Caesar is Lord” and the world is run by him and the gods made in his image, or “Jesus is Lord,” and the world is run by him and his people whom he is remaking into his image. God wants our hearts because he wants us to be an obedient house bringing the light of his love and joy into a world of darkness and misery.
Tomorrow is Reformation Day. And perhaps it is time for a new reformation. For me, this new reformation is coming to see again that the Bible is the ancient story of God who chose to make a world, chose Israel to be his agents in restoring his world, and chose Israel’s Messiah to be the one through whom his word is now being fulfilled in the world.
Let us join with him, through faith and in worship, and see that indeed, God will perform his word!
[iv] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Dover Thrift Editions (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), 73.
[v] Ibid., 46.
[vi] Ibid., 47.
[vii] Ibid., 33.
[viii] Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox. “Clinton maintains double-digit lead (51% vs. 36%) over Trump.” PRRI. 2016. www.prri.org/research/prri-brookings-oct-19-poll-politics-election-clinton-double-digit-lead-trump/.