Sin and Its Shame

November 6, 2022 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Ezekiel: Tough Love

Scripture: Ezekiel 14:12– 16:63

30 “How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute, 31 building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. 32 Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33 Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. 34 So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different.

59 “For thus says the Lord GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. 62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, 63 that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord GOD.”

There are always two sides to every story. Unless we hear them both, we suspect that we have not really found out the truth.

Last week, we discussed the ways in which Israel had rebelled against God. When God’s people lose confidence in his word, believing it to be irrelevant, misunderstanding it, or finding it insufficient for their lives, they end up as rebels against the will and ways of God.

Today, as we look at the rest of Ezekiel 14 as well as chapters 15-16, we consider the problem of Israel’s rebellion against God from God’s perspective. The word that best captures this is the word sin. We find it here in Ezekiel 14:13. Ezekiel has used this word previously only in Ezekiel 3:20-21. As you know, it is an important word in Christian theology, so it is critical that we understand it.

So let’s talk today about sin. What is sin? What does it bring? What can be done about it?

What Is Sin?

First, let’s ask a basic question for Christian theology. What is sin? Now to be sure, we could pose an answer to that question in a few different ways. I’m not asking for the definitive definition here. But let’s consider the question from how it is presented in our passage today.

Sinning Against God

We understand that the word sin refers to doing something bad. That’s how we use it, anyway, in our common vernacular. But we also have a sense that this is a theological word. It is a religious word. In verse 13, God says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, when a land sins against me...” Stop right there. To sin is not just to do something bad or morally wrong. It is to do something morally wrong in the eyes of God.

That’s all true, of course, but we really need to say more. Because the problem here is that when we talk about sin, we assume we are dealing here with only a religious word. That is the meaning of the word in our cultural understanding. So, we ask things like, “Is this a sin according to Christianity?” or “Is this a sin according to the Koran?” And this just won’t do when we are trying to understand the Bible.

Covenant Infidelity

Keep reading in verse 13. “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly.” This last phrase is a translation of a key word for Ezekiel. The Hebrew word refers to an act of infidelity or defection from a contract or covenant.[1] In other words, what we see here is that to sin against God is not the violation of his rules that we are obligated to keep simply because he is God and, well, God gets to make the rules. No, sin is much more personal than that.

On the one hand, we can think of sinning as breaking our obligation to God since he is the Lord. That is to say, we can think of ourselves as his subjects who live under his rule and reign, so sinning is essentially rebelling against his authority. Again, that is not wrong. But it is insufficient to see the whole picture.

Let me put it this way. The word used here that describes sin as infidelity is never used in reference to unbelievers. It only refers to those who are in a covenant relationship with God.[2] That’s not to say that unbelievers can’t sin. It is to say that the real problem with sin is not the sins of unbelievers but rather the sins of believers. God’s concern here is not that pagans have sinned but that his own people have sinned.

Sin’s Abomination

The sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel is the longest chapter in the book. It is a retelling of Israel’s history, framed like a dispute between God and the nation’s capital city, Jerusalem. We’re not going to read through the whole chapter, but let’s take a quick glance.

In verses 1-5, God reminds Israel of her origins from “the land of the Canaanites.” Israel’s father “was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” Again, Ezekiel is telling Israel’s story from the perspective of the history of Israel’s capital city, and to speak of the city as coming from the Canaanites, Hittites, and Amorites is to say that the historical roots are not pious but pagan and that Israel comes from stock that represents the worst of human depravity.[3]

And it is from this stock that God took them and made them his own. In verses 6-14, we read of how it is that Israel went from rags to riches, from pauper to princess. It is all owing to God’s covenantal love. Here we need to point out something important. As you read through a chapter like this one with its rather explicit wording, there are all kinds of possible misconstruals of the meaning that you will sense are possible. This chapter does not justify the abuse of women. It does not tell us how prostitutes and adulterers are to be treated. What we need to understand here is the rhetorical effect that the prophet intends to make in his telling of the story. He uses graphic images and exaggeration in order to shock his listeners into a positive response.[4]

The shock comes especially in verses 15-34. After all that Yahweh had done for them with his love, the nation had “played the whore” with “any passerby.” Were we to slowly read these verses from God’s perspective, we would surely agree with his assessment in verse 30: “How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD.” The abomination of Israel is even worse than we think, as verses 33-34 communicate:

Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. So you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; therefore you were different. (Ezek 16:33-34)

The biblical concept of sin can only be explained in the context of a relationship of love between God and his people. Sin is not a black mark on an otherwise blank slate. It is the abomination of the most unimaginable acts of infidelity one could commit against his committed lover. It simply cannot be justified. There is no excuse for it.

What Sin Brings

The prophet is describing sin in this way in order to help us see the harm that sin has caused. Like the definition of sin, we could describe sin’s awful effects in different ways, but Ezekiel has framed it in such a way that we might summarize it with one word: shame. Israel’s sin has brought shame on themselves, on the land, on others, and on God.

Shame on Yourself

In the retelling of Israel’s story, we have seen the shame their sin had brought on themselves. In verse 23, God interjects, “Woe, woe to you!” Israel had heaped more and more shame on themselves by their treacherous acts against Yahweh.

This is what sin does to the sinner. Romans 3:23 tells us not only that “all have sinned” but also that by sinning we all “fall short of the glory of God.” That is to say, it is because of our sin that we are not the divine image bearers God intends for us to be.[5] Sin dehumanizes us and robs us of the God-intended glory we were meant to possess.

Shame on the Land

This understanding of sin’s effects helps us understand why, back in chapter 14:13, God could speak about “a land” sinning against him and acting faithlessly. Surely it is the people who live in the land, not the land itself, that sins. Why does he speak this way?

The reason is because the consequences of sin are experienced not just on people but on all creation. In verse 15 we read of God bringing wild beasts that pass through the land and ravage it, making it desolate and uninhabitable. The other judgments (sword, famine, pestilence) also affect not just the people but also the land and the beasts. God’s judgment against human sin shows the scope of sin and its effects. When we sin, it is not just we human beings who suffer its shame. It is all creation with us.

Recall that the consequence for Adam’s sin was not just his own death, returning to the dust of the ground at the end of his life. God brought judgment against the ground that Adam was created to tend to and to have dominion over (Gen 3:17-19). This is why, as Paul says in Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22). The prophet Joel can write about “How the beasts groan!” and how “the herds of cattle are perplexed” and “the flocks of sheep suffer” (Joel 1:18).

It is important to keep this biblical truth in mind when we talk about topics such as sin and judgment. The reason why God is so against sin is not because he is so easily angered but because he so deeply loves everything he made. He wants his world to work the way he made it to work. And since he made us to “work it” and to “keep it” (Gen 2:15), when we are out of sorts all of creation suffers along with us.

Shame on Others

And that of course includes other human beings. The effects of a person’s sins are never limited to oneself. We can think of obvious examples of how this is true, but it’s true even when it’s not so obvious. We can’t individualize our sin and demand everyone leave us alone to live our lives and make our own choices. Don’t you see how God is complaining against the collective sin of his people here? That’s because the Bible gives us the story of God’s intention to share his rule over his world with his image bearers. His business is our business, together, so if one should suffer shame then we all suffer shame. Sin is not just a moral wrong committed against God; it is also a corporate wrong committed against God’s kingdom in which we all have a stake.

Shame on God

And that’s why sin also brings shame on God himself. Go back to Israel’s story in chapter 16 and you’ll get the point. This is a humiliating story not only for Israel but for the God of Israel.

God humiliated? God shamed? Does your view of God make this impossible? If so, it might be because of our cultural allergy to shame. Most of us experience shame as an overwhelming sense of inadequacy, which we try our best to avoid and which we can never imagine God experiencing. But the biblical concept of shame depends primarily on how we are affected by the failures of others.[6] In other words, it depends upon a covenant in which two parties pledge themselves to be loyal to each other. If one party breaks the commitment, it is the one who is wronged rather than the wrongdoer who suffers the shame.[7]

So, yes, the sin of God’s covenant people has brought shame on God himself. It was God who had rescued them from Egypt and entered into a covenant with them to make them his “kingdom of priests,” a “holy nation” that would work with him to bring truth and beauty and justice to his world (Exod 19:5-6). The shame of sin is found not only in our failure to trust in God; it is also found in the failure that God has experienced by his trusting in his own people.

What Can Be Done About Sin?

What, then, can be done about sin? You know that this gets us to the heart of the Christian gospel, to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. But to really know what that means we need to see it in Israel’s own story. If we’re going to believe the gospel of Jesus, then we need to see how his good news is the answer to the bad news of sin in the story of Israel. We should expect, in other words, to find continuity in a passage like this with the promise of the gospel in the New Testament. Let’s take a look.

What If There Were One Righteous Person?

The rest of chapter 14 consists of a series of denials that there could be anyone who could stop the coming judgment of God against Israel for her covenant unfaithfulness. Noah, Daniel, and Job, three legendary paragons of righteousness, would all be incapable of stopping the coming judgment the nation deserved.

You remember the story of Abraham pleading with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if some righteous persons could be found. Here we see God saying that even if one righteous person—just one—could be found, they would be unable to spare the unfaithful city.

God’s Four Disastrous Acts

This is what Ezekiel has been saying repeatedly. God’s hand of judgment is coming down on the nation of Israel, and nothing can be done to stop it. He is brining upon the nation his “four disastrous acts of judgment . . . to cut off from it man and beast” (Ezek 14:21).

The story goes like this. God has decided that he must bring his judgment down on his covenant rebels. How else can he eradicate the sin of their infidelity? It’s not like they are pleading for mercy. It’s not like they are returning to him in repentance and faith. No, they are continuing in their rebellion, and their sin is bringing shame to themselves, to the land, to others—to God himself—and he simply must act.

In chapter 15 he uses a parable of a useless vine to ask if the nation in their rebellion against him is useful for anything (Ezek 15:4). By now we should have come to see God’s side to the story and to know the answer. The only thing that can be done, the only possible right response, is to give it up to the fire.

But what then would remain? Can the story just end like that?

The Everlasting Covenant

A surprise comes in Ezekiel 14:22 and following, where God says that, following his “four disastrous acts,” there will be “some survivors” who will be “brough out” to “console you, when you see their ways and their deeds,” to make known to all that God has “not done without cause all that I have done.” His all-consuming judgment is coming upon Israel, but somehow there will be some left to tell the tale.

And when we get to the end of chapter 16, we find that God has promised to remember his covenant he made with Israel—the covenant described in Israel’s story in that chapter—and to “establish for you and everlasting covenant.” There will come a time when God’s judgment will fall on Israel and effectively eradicate their sin so that a new covenant can emerge, an “everlasting covenant” that could never be broken again.

Let the Party Begin!

Now, follow the story, the story of Israel. When Jesus began his ministry, he went around telling stories, parables if you like, and they were, like Ezekiel 15 and 16, retellings of Israel’s story. And like Ezekiel 15 and 16, they retold the story in subversive ways.

Take the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. It is not just a moral tale of sin and shame and grace, it is an historical tale of Israel’s sin and shame and grace. It is a story that tells us of what has happened to Israel who rebelled against God, but also of what will soon happen to Israel when the son who is “Israel-in person” goes into “the far country” and takes “upon himself the shame of Israel’s exile, so that the kingdom may come, the covenant be renewed, and the prodigal welcome of Israel’s god, the creator, be extended to the ends of the earth.[8]

The claim of Jesus of Nazareth, the claim of the gospel of Christ, is the claim that Israel’s story is now complete. The long night of exile is over. In the flesh of the Messiah, Paul says, God condemned sin so that the righteous verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us who live by the Spirit rather than by the flesh (Rom 8:3-4). In Jesus Israel has been reconstituted, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, and for all who believe in him there is a party to be celebrated. What else is there left to do?

But the party can only be enjoyed when we, like the prodigal, see the whole story through the lens of our own shameful treachery against the backdrop of God’s redeeming love.

There are always two sides to the story. But when we see the story from God’s side, we get the true story. And we find the end of sin and its shame, and the arrival of all the possibilities of a new creation.

Sound too good to be true? If there’s a catch it is only this. The only hope we have for seeing the fruitfulness of the kingdom of God now come in Christ is through faith in Christ alone. And by “faith” we mean trust, reliance on him, dependence on him. We must “abide” in the true vine, for without him we are good for nothing and deserve only to be thrown into the fire and burned (Jn 15:1-6).

But if we abide in him, and his words abide in us, we will bear much fruit and so prove to be his disciples (Jn 15:7-8). That is the promise of the gospel, and this gospel will not put us to shame. How can it? It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16).

So be of good cheer, all you who hope in Christ. For Christ has spoken these things so that his joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (Jn 15:11).

_____

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, “מָעַל,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 520

[2] Ibid.

[3] 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), 475.

[4] Ibid., 469-70

[5] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 247.

[6] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, ed. P. Keith Gammons and Samuel E. Balentine, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2005), 196.

[7] Ibid.

[8] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 132-33.

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