Do Not Let Iniquity Be Your Ruin
Scripture: Ezekiel 17:1– 19:14
25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
This is the tenth of our planned 26 sermons on Ezekiel. Ezekiel has 48 chapters, so to preach through the whole book will require us to cover multiple chapters most weeks. Today we again are attempting to cover three chapters, Ezekiel 17-19. How can we do this in one sermon?
Because we believe that the book of Ezekiel is inspired by God as it has come to us, we expect to find it to be a cohesive unity as we move from one chapter to the next. We also believe that Ezekiel, like the rest of Scripture, comes to us in order to tell us something about the gospel of the kingdom.
The kingdom of God is the central theme of Scripture that gives shape to each one of its parts. So, as we look at these three chapters, we can look to see what they combine to tell us about the kingdom of God. And what we shall see is that chapter 17 tells us about the planting of the kingdom of God, chapter 18 tells us about the preservation of the kingdom, and chapter 19 tells us about the predators of the kingdom.
The Planting of the Kingdom
Let’s begin with chapter 17. Here Yahweh, the God of Israel, instructs Ezekiel to “propound a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel.” We are prepared to find in what follows something of a puzzle, compounded by the fact that when the puzzle is put together, the picture on it is its own puzzle. A riddle in the form of a parable. What is it all about?
The Parable of the Two Eagles
In verses 3-6, the parable tells of “a great eagle” who breaks a twig off a Lebanese cedar “and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants.” After that, the eagle takes “of the seed of the land and planted it in fertile soil” and “beside abundant waters.” The seed “sprouted and became a low spreading vine” that “produced branches.”
Then, in verses 7-8, the parable tells of “another great eagle.” The vine bends toward this eagle hoping that it would water the vine even though it had already “been planted on good soil by abundant waters.”
Verses 9-10 present the moral of the tale. The vine, which could have grown deep, nourishing roots, will end up withering away so that anyone could easily pull it up from the ground.
If you’re wondering what all that means, keep reading. In verses 11-15 we are given the interpretation by God himself. And what we find here is essentially the same story that God gave as the interpretation for Ezekiel’s sign-act in chapter 12. Once more, this is the story of the fate of the Israelites who remained in Jerusalem, led by Zedekiah. The first great eagle is Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He had taken some of the Israelites into exile, but he had left “one of the royal offspring,” verse 13 says, referring to Zedekiah, in Jerusalem. He put them under oath to remain loyal to Babylon. But Zedekiah was now in the process of rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar by appealing to the second great eagle, the Egyptian Pharaoh. The result of all this, as the moral of the tale goes, is that whatever future Israel might have had has now been forfeited.
History and Theology
Because Zedekiah had broken his oath with Nebuchadnezzar, God declares in verse 16 that he will die in Babylon and that Pharaoh, the second great eagle, will be of no help to him in his rebellion (v. 17).
But take a look at verse 19. “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: As I live, surely it is my oath that he despised, and my covenant that he broke. I will return it upon his head.” Notice that God says that Zedekiah’s obligations to Nebuchadnezzar were also his obligations with God. God claims to be the real actor, the true king, in these historical events. And verses 20-21 make it plain that when Nebuchadnezzar hauls Zedekiah off to Babylon, it is God himself who is bringing down this judgment.
Now, one thing becomes quite plain here, if it hasn’t already been plain before. The God of the Bible is the God of history. He claims to be at work in the real moments of time and the things that happen day by day. It is easy enough for us to forget this and relegate God’s activity to the miraculous or otherwise unexplainable mysteries of life. But in verse 20, Zedekiah’s treachery against Nebuchadnezzar is even more so his treachery against Yahweh.
There’s no reason to suggest that God has pulled away from the everyday moments of life. If you want to know what God is up to, you can keep up with the news of the day, or better yet read some older history, or maybe just invite someone over and have them tell you the story of their life. It’s one of the best ways we Christians can come to know our God. History is theology.
The Interpretation of History
Now, having said that, we know that history can be misinterpreted. Beware of those who claim to know the real “meaning” behind every historical event. Were it not for the revelation of God’s interpretation of these historical events, a case could have just as easily been made that the “good guys” had lost, that God had abandoned his people, and that the gods of Babylon were greater than Yahweh. This was, in fact, what many in Israel thought was the only possible conclusion one could draw from what was happening right before their eyes. The events of history often remain “a riddle” and “a parable” that defy easy interpretations. Don’t make the mistake of claiming to know God’s intention behind every event in history.
But also, don’t make the mistake of ignoring the intention of God that has been made plain through his word. The Bible gives us plenty historical interpretations that greatly impact everything else in history.
Remember in the parable that the first great eagle took a twig from a Lebanese cedar “and carried it to a land of trade and set it in a city of merchants” (v. 4). We know that this refers to the exiles of Israel like Ezekiel who had been deported to Babylonia. But the Hebrew text, translated here as “a land of trade,” literally reads “the land of Canaan.” It reminds us of Psalm 80 which reminisces on the Exodus, describing it as God bringing a vine out of Egypt and planting it in Canaan to become a great vine higher than the mountains and the famed Lebanese cedars (Psa 80:8-13). This, then, is the riddle. God, having brought exiles to Babylon, was beginning a new exodos, and replanting his vine in a new Canaan.
So, the little detail at the beginning of the parable, quickly forgotten as the attention turned to the “see of the land” and the vine that grew there, this little detail, this little sprig, is where God’s activity, where his salvation, was to be found. The Davidic dynasty appears to be dead with Zedekiah’s failed rebellion. But the kingdom of God is alive and well, though it will take some time for it to grow into the “noble cedar” described in verses 22-24.
Those verses, by the way, remind us of Jesus’s own comments about the kingdom of God. “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” Jesus asked in Luke 13. “It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Lk 13:18-19).
This is the story of the kingdom of God, preserved through Israel’s long and tragic story, but slowly growing into a dominant, life-giving tree that brings life to all creation.
The Preservation of the Kingdom
When we turn to chapter 18, we move from a parable to a proverb.
The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? (Ezek 18:1-2)
In verse 3, God repudiates the proverb, and the rest of the chapter explains why. What this chapter has in common with the preceding may be detected by what it also has to say about the kingdom of God. Chapter 17 tells us about God’s planting of the kingdom in another Canaan. This chapter can tell us about God’s preserving of the kingdom in succeeding generations.
All Souls Are Mine
The proverb under consideration here essentially teaches that the children suffer the consequences for their parents’ choices. The proverb exists because it is a generally true statement. All of us can see how it is true in many ways. God does not reject the proverb wholesale; in the Ten Commandments, God says that those who serve other gods will negatively affect their children “to the third and the fourth generation.” The deal with a proverb is not in its general truthfulness but in what particular cases a proverb is applied. For example, we understand what is meant by the proverb “opposites attract,” but we also know what is meant by “birds of a feather flock together.” The truthfulness of a proverb depends on the situations in which it is applied.
Here we see that God rejects the application of this proverb to the fate of “the land of Israel.” It seems that the proverb was used in the debate between the exiles and those still living in Jerusalem to the question of who had the right to the land. But God says that this proverb doesn’t apply to this question. Instead, God declared, “all souls are mine,” and “the soul who sins shall die” (v. 4).
This first point (“all souls are mine”) sets up God’s claim over his people. His desire is for them. He wants them to live and reign with him over his world. But, “the soul who sins shall die” is God’s claim to absolute justice, first stated in Genesis 2:17 when God told Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or he would die. So, the question about who has rights to the land is not a cause-and-effect relationship between parent and child. It is a cause-and-effect relationship between God and his people.
The Choice of Each Generation
At the same time, as we read through the chapter, we notice it is built on the test case of three succeeding generations. In verses 5-9, we are told of the actions of a righteous man. In verses 10-13, we are asked to consider what happens “if he fathers a son who is violent” and wicked. Then, in verses 14-18, we consider again what happens if this wicked man fathers a son who turns from his father’s wickedness and practices righteousness.
The key to understanding this chapter, then, is not to focus on the relationship between God and every person individually, but to consider the relationship between God and each succeeding generation of his people. It is true, of course, that every person is individually accountable before God (see, for example, Romans 2:6-11). But what this chapter puts before us is the responsibility of God’s people in each generation to do what is right, to live in continuity with the reality of his kingdom.
I suppose it is something of a sign of growing old when we all start to speak of the “good ol’ days” of our childhood. Someone recently said to me that things were good in the 1940s and 50s as she went on to bemoan the problems of the current generation. I get it. It is tempting to look back on the past with a bit of romanticism as we feel the pains of the present time.
The problem is, this is just not a biblical perspective for God’s people to have. In some ways the world is getting worse and worse, yes; the Bible says something like this in places (e.g., 2 Timothy 2-3). But it also tells us of God’s ever-advancing kingdom on earth through his church that the gates of hell will not be able to withstand (Matt 16:18).
So, is the world getting better and better or worse and worse? Perhaps our technological advances are a net loss rather than a gain. But then again, I’m grateful for the technology that got us a COVID vaccine so quickly. I may bemoan how distracted I can be by technology, but I’m also grateful I can communicate with people all over the world with my mobile device and can reach my wife pretty much anytime anywhere, if she will answer her phone when I call!
Better and better or worse and worse? It depends how you use the proverb. But what God expects of his people is not so ambiguous.
The Demand of Kingdom Ethics
In each generation, God expects his people to be faithful to him, wherever they are, in whatever time and place they may be. The righteous man in verses 5-9 is described as the one who “does what is just and right,” who “keeps my rules by acting faithfully.” The wicked man in verses 10-13 is the one who “does all these abominations.” Let not one of God’s people blame it on a previous nor present generation. We are to live faithfully in our day regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
A major emphasis of righteous living in these verses is on the expectation that God’s people will pursue economic justice for all and fight against every form of exploitation. Well, of course! The kingdom of God is about justice in his world for all.
This could lead us into the political controversies of our day and the claim of both of our major political parties to have the best way to secure justice for all. There’s a place for that, but God’s people must be devoted to the ethics of God’s kingdom, especially noted in the Sermon on the Mount. There we find a challenge to every kingdom of man, a vision of a world where those who mourn are comforted, the hungry and thirsty are satisfied, and the persecuted and oppressed inherit the eternal kingdom (Matt 5:3-12).
To see God’s kingdom vision come to pass, God’s people must not concern themselves with political wins and losses. You will not see the kingdom of God in the perishing parties of power politics.
How will we see it? Look at verse 30. “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.” In verse 31, God says, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” That is the way of the kingdom. God preserves it in his people who repent, who have a new heart and a new spirit.
How can we get one?
The Predators of the Kingdom
Chapter 19 continues the argument of chapter 18 and shows us the way to a new heart and spirit. We move from a parable to a proverb and now to a poem, “a lamentation for the princes of Israel” (v. 1). The way to life may be detected when we see the way of death, when we see the predators of the kingdom that God ensures will not survive, and do whatever it takes to avoid them.
The Lioness and Her Cubs
The poem of lament in chapter 19 is cast in terms of the mother of the princes of Israel. In verse 2, the mother is compared to a lioness who raises her young cubs. In verse 10, the metaphor is “a vine in a vineyard.” These two metaphors are also combined in Jacob’s blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:9-11, indicating that just like the two chapters before it, chapter 19 still has as its subject the fate of Israel’s Davidic monarchy.
Like a lion, the expectation for the monarchy was utter domination over her foes. But the cubs of the lioness end up failing. The first cub is caught in the pit of the nations (v. 4). The second cub ends up devouring widows and cities (v. 7). Rather than being a light to the nations, “the land was appalled” by “the sound of his roaring” (v. 7), and, like his brother lion, is taken by the nations so “that his voice should no more be heard on the mountains of Israel.”
Here we see what God expects of his co-regents. They are to bring a righteous, joyful rule on his earth. But with this authority comes the possibility that they end up being predators of the world, and God will not tolerate such evil to be done by his people.
The Vine and Abundant Waters
The metaphor of the vine in a vineyard pictures this vine “planted by the water” producing fruitful branches “by reason of abundant water” (v. 10). But, the strength of this vine becomes the basis for pride in verse 11 as it towers aloft and is seen in its height. As quickly as it was exalted it is plucked up and cast to the ground and, by verse 14, it has forfeited its privilege of ruling.
Here again we see what God expects of his co-regents. The call to rule and reign over God’s world comes with the danger of pride, of exalting ourselves rather than the God whose glory we were made to reflect.
The Need for Revival
In her commentary on Ezekiel, Margaret Odell summarizes that what this chapter laments
is not the death of princes so much as a way of life—of seeking security through power and domination. This is the way of the world; but for Jerusalem, this way has sealed her doom.
And surely that is the warning that remains for the people of God today. To be a member of God’s family is an enormous privilege. It comes not merely with the promise of heaven after death, but with the assurance of a bodily resurrection to eternal life on this earth, ruling and reigning with our Lord forever.
But eternal life does not begin at death, nor even at our future bodily resurrection. Eternal life, according to our Lord, is to know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). The testimony of the New Testament is that God has already given us eternal life, because “this life is in his Son” (1 Jn 5:11) and we have been united to him by faith.
Consequently, we are already heirs of eternal life, and don’t you know, Paul says, that as God’s saints we “will judge the world?” (1 Cor 6:2). Perhaps you did not know that, but now you do. It is an awesome responsibility, and we must not let iniquity be our ruin.
What we must do then, is to seek the new heart and the new spirit that God desires to give us as we are renewed day by day in the Savior we have been united to by faith. We must pray the prayer of Psalm 80:7, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” We must renounce the power and pride of the world that seeks to rule by domination. We must believe that the cycle of “recrimination, revenge, and retaliation” is broken only by the love and grace and forgiveness of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world.
So, let us who believe in him and who worship him, come and be renewed by him again today.
 Actually, the Hebrew word in Ezekiel 18:2 translated “proverb” is the same word translated “parable” in Ezekiel 17:2.