The Satisfaction of the Fury of God

December 4, 2022 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Ezekiel: Tough Love

Scripture: Ezekiel 23:1– 24:27

1 In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, write down the name of this day, this very day. The king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day. 3 And utter a parable to the rebellious house and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD:

      “Set on the pot, set it on;
      pour in water also;
      4 put in it the pieces of meat,
      all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder;

      fill it with choice bones.
      5 Take the choicest one of the flock;
      pile the logs under it;
      boil it well;
      seethe also its bones in it.

6 “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the bloody city, to the pot whose corrosion is in it, and whose corrosion has not gone out of it! Take out of it piece after piece, without making any choice. 7 For the blood she has shed is in her midst; she put it on the bare rock; she did not pour it out on the ground to cover it with dust. 8 To rouse my wrath, to take vengeance, I have set on the bare rock the blood she has shed, that it may not be covered. 9 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the bloody city! I also will make the pile great. 10 Heap on the logs, kindle the fire, boil the meat well, mix in the spices, and let the bones be burned up. 11 Then set it empty upon the coals, that it may become hot, and its copper may burn, that its uncleanness may be melted in it, its corrosion consumed. 12 She has wearied herself with toil; its abundant corrosion does not go out of it. Into the fire with its corrosion! 13 On account of your unclean lewdness, because I would have cleansed you and you were not cleansed from your uncleanness, you shall not be cleansed anymore till I have satisfied my fury upon you. 14 I am the LORD. I have spoken; it shall come to pass; I will do it. I will not go back; I will not spare; I will not relent; according to your ways and your deeds you will be judged, declares the Lord GOD.”

A specific date notice begins this chapter. “In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month.” It’s been about a decade since Ezekiel has been in exile in Babylonia. In verse 2, the God of Israel tells Ezekiel to “write down the name of this day, this very day.” The day was January 5, 587 BC.[1] We get the sense that what happened on this particular day is a key moment in history and God wants Ezekiel and his fellow exiles to take note of it. This is the day, we are told, that “the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.” It’s one of the most significant days in history, God claims.

Why? What is the meaning of the day? On the one hand, it is easy to understand the significance of this day for the Jews in exile. Jerusalem was their capital city, and an attack against it would be a national crisis. But why does this matter to us Christians? It matters because the nation of Israel is the chosen people of God in redemptive history. And we need to remember that the whole point of God choosing Israel was that through them he could save his world. What we learn in this moment of history, then, is that God is intent on killing every remnant of sinful disease in his people so that they might bring the flourishing of his kingdom into the world again. In order to see this, let’s consider the problem of contamination, the cause of contamination, and the solution to it.

The Problem of Contamination

First, we see the problem of contamination addressed here.

The Parable of the Pot

In verse 3, God tells Ezekiel to “utter a parable to the rebellious house,” the frequent designation of God for Israel throughout Ezekiel’s prophecies (see Ezek 2:3-7). The parable, in verses 3-5, goes like this:

      “Set on the pot, set it on;
      pour in water also;
      put in it the pieces of meat,
      all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder;

      fill it with choice bones.
      Take the choicest one of the flock;
      pile the logs under it;
      boil it well;
      seethe also its bones in it.

The image is of a cook preparing a meal by placing choice cuts of meat into a boiling pot of water. And it harkens back to Ezekiel 11, where the Jews who had not yet been sent into exile were claiming to be the meat in the cauldron of Jerusalem (Ezek 11:3). The image is one of privilege, of being God’s elect—the “choice meat” of God himself at a formal, stately dinner.[2]

God is affirming that image by having Ezekiel utter the poem. But in the context of the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem, the poem is somewhat perplexing. At the very moment that Jerusalem is being attacked, God brings up this image of a sacred meal in which he comes to commune with his people.[3] Is this day a day of good news or bad news?

Woe to the Bloody City

Well, there’s definitely bad news here. The beginning of the fall of Jerusalem cannot be sugar-coated, as the next verses show.

The popular poem celebrating Israel’s privileged position is subverted in verse 6. God declares, “Woe to the bloody city, to the pot whose corrosion is in it, and whose corrosion has not gone out of it!” At the end of the verse, God puts a halt to the preparations for the celebratory meal. He takes over as cook, demanding that “piece after piece” of the meat be taken out of the pot, “without making any choice.” Another pronouncement of woe follows in verse 9. And then, in verse 10, he makes the fire hotter and hotter until all the liquid is burned out of the pot and the meat along with its bone is burned up.

The problem as God sees it is not so much with the people, with the meat, but with the city, identified as the pot. That’s not to say that the people get off the hook; they are completely burned up. But the point is that the destruction of Jerusalem now under way is necessary in order for God to cleanse the pot. In verse 11, he instructs the pot to be placed back on the fire with nothing in it, so “that it may become hot, and its copper may burn, that its uncleanness may be melted in it, its corrosion consumed.”

This, according to God, is the meaning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC. In verse 12, he complains that the “abundant corrosion” of the city simply would not come out any other way. The disease was in way too deep.

God Will Not Relent

So, in verses 13-14, God explains why he is destroying the capital city of Israel with the swords of the Babylonian army. He had tried numerous times before to rid the pot of its impurities, but it has all been in vain. So he says, “you shall not be cleansed anymore till I have satisfied my fury upon you.” And then, in verse 14, he shows his determination with a striking stacotto. “I am the LORD. I have spoken; it shall come to pass; I will do it. I will not go back; I will not spare; I will not relent.”

Now what shall we make of all this? For some, it is easy enough to disassociate themselves from this gruesome image of God’s judgment in real historical events. It happened so long ago and, well, the people of Jerusalem had it coming. “They got what they deserved,” some might say. But others will surely have a hard time with this, no doubt in part because of the ill-advised assertions of numerous people that claim to draw a straight line from the tragic events of history to some obvious persons God wanted to judge. We ought to be wary of those who might find support for any form of antisemitism coming from a text like this.

The best approach here, I suggest, is to stay with the parable of the meal. God’s intention here is his covenant faithfulness to Israel for the sake of the world. The plan all throughout the Old Testament is that God is going to bring rescue and redemption and ultimate restoration to his broken world through his chosen people. We need to read these stories with the much bigger picture of God’s mission in the world in view, even as we will of course have to wrestle through the question of theodicy in the painful details.

The satisfaction of God’s fury here is nothing less than his total commitment to see to it that the great communal meal between God and his people is as perfect as it ought to be. No one is going to sick from it because, as Revelation 21:27 says, “nothing unclean will ever enter it.” God is not only a master chef, but he is also a professional deep cleaner. He is determined to put his world right. The destruction of Jerusalem was part of that process, as Ezekiel claims here. And that’s because, for God to put his world right again, he must cleanse his people completely. He must rid them of every last hint of contamination.

The Cause of Contamination

Easier said than done! It is already clear here in chapter 24 that God’s people are like a pot that just won’t come clean. Rather than bringing life to the world, they contaminate it further. Jerusalem is a “bloody city,” colluding with evil rather than pushing back against it. Why? What is wrong with the people of God? What is the cause of this contamination?

Back to Egypt

Much of what we’ve already seen in Ezekiel addresses this. It’s a repeated theme through the prophet’s ministry. But most recently, it shows up in the previous chapter. In Ezekiel 23, we find yet another re-telling of Israel’s history, and just like the one in chapter 16 and the one in chapter 20, it is a subversive re-telling of Israel’s history.

Here God names the divided kingdom of Israel, describing them as “two women, the daughters of one mother” (Ezek 23:2). The northern kingdom, represented by the capital city of Samaria, is named Oholah. The southern kingdom with its capital city, Jerusalem, is named Oholibah. We probably should not read too much into the names; the significance is in their similarity. The names sound similar because the nations are similar. They act like the sisters they are, showing they possess the same nature and character.[4]

In verses 5-10, God tells the story of the northern kingdom, describing the nation’s behavior as repeated acts of infidelity with the Assyrians. In verses 11-21, he then describes the southern kingdom of Judah not only going down the same path as her sister but being even more corrupt.

What really ties the two sisters together—and what is most subversive about the history God is telling—is the fact that the promiscuity of the nations goes all the way back to the time in which they lived in Egypt. Just read verse 3 and see it again in verses 19-20. It is explicit language, meant to communicate that the defilement of God’s people is generational, going all the way back to before the Egyptian exodus.

The problem with God’s people, then, is not simply the immoral behaviors of any number of them. It’s not simply the unfaithfulness of this or that generation of believers. No, the problem is way deeper than that; we might even say that those are relatively easy problems to address and clean up. Today’s Christians, who claim to be the people of God, have plenty of immoral behaviors that need to be addressed. We’re certainly not to believe we are squeaky-clean pots and pans. Of course, we ought to be clean; we ought to resist sin and seek to live lives of holiness. John wrote one of his letters to help the believers not sin, but “if anyone does sin,” he said, we have an advocate with the Father” (1 Jn 2:1) who “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” every single time we confess our sins (1 Jn 1:9).

The much more difficult issue to address is the one that goes all the way back to Israel’s adolescence, as it were. What was that problem?

Politics and Idols

There’s no mistaking the problem outlined here. Take a look at verses 29-30. Toward the end of verse 29, God says, “Your lewdness and your whoring have brought this upon you, because you played the whore with the nations and defiled yourself with their idols.” The metaphor of two adulterous wives stands for Israel’s alliances with foreign nations and the defilement of their idols.

The original target for Ezekiel 23 was the people of God in Ezekiel’s day who were trying to strike a deal with Egypt in hopes of successfully rebelling against Babylon. So, the sexual sin portrayed throughout is a metaphor for political sin.[5] Back in chapter 5, God spoke of Jerusalem as a city that he had set “in the center of the nations, with countries all around her” (Ezek 5:5). It was a truly theocratic nation, meant to be the world’s greatest nation, whose way in the world under God’s rule would bring benefit to everyone. Israel’s rebellion against God meant not trusting in him but forging alliances with other nations, recognizing their sovereignty, and thus giving legitimacy to their gods.

Married to the Lord

God calls this behavior adultery, and the worst kind imaginable. The explicit language of Ezekiel 23 is meant to get our attention. It is meant to have a much greater emotional impact on the reader than would have been possible if he had used more direct language.[6] When God’s people lose trust in God’s kingdom by making alliances with idolatrous kingdoms to get what God himself promised to give them, it is a sin that God cannot tolerate.

Surely this is one of the abiding truths from this part of Scripture for God’s people in every time and place. As Christians, we must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and be sure we bow the knee to no other. His kingdom is a real kingdom, and we must not be found guilty of finding our security in any manifestation of the kingdoms of men.

The Christian approach to political realities remains to this day a difficult and oftentimes controversial subject. But it is not one we can ignore, because God certainly did not ignore it. How could he? The kingdom of God is a claim on the world, not some dis-embodied promise of a different world altogether.

The Solution to Contamination

But getting this right is the great challenge before the people of God in every generation. What does it mean, for example, to “seek first the kingdom of God” when we live in a world with all sorts of would-be rival kingdoms? How can God and his kingdom be our single-minded delight so that we who trust in him bring the world closer into communion with him instead of polluting the celebratory feast? What is the solution to our contamination?

From Prostitution to Pillaging

One further point from Ezekiel 23. God’s judgment on his people, first on the northern kingdom, Samaria, then on the southern kingdom, Jerusalem, must be read as his covenant faithfulness to all his people. God will simply not let his people become like the other nations. So, in verse 9, God responds to Samaria’s harlotry with Assyria by delivering “her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, after whom she lusted.” Read on in verse 10 and you can see that though Samaria wanted the power of her Assyrian lovers, she ends up invaded, taken advantage of.[7] A similar thing happens to her sister, Jerusalem, in verses 22-35.

Again, this is explicit language, borrowed from the dangerous realities of prostitution and male sexual dominance. God’s point is made in verse 35. “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring." When God’s people turn away from him, stop trusting him, and seek instead the power that comes from political alliances, that power will come back to devour them. That’s why it bothers me greatly when I see Christians making leagues with political parties. I cannot tolerate the claim that any president of the United States “literally saved Christianity.”[8] Take heart, Christian. Christianity will never need to be saved because the Christ has overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

The Death of Delight

But what does need to be saved is Christian confidence in our Lord, a confidence that keeps us at peace when trouble is brewing all around us. Let’s be clear: criticizing one side of the political spectrum does not mean we can make peace with the other side. Let us learn the lesson of Ezekiel 23. In verse 25, God says to his people, “I will direct my jealousy against you.” Remember what we’ve learned about God’s jealousy in Ezekiel already? The meaning of this word is centered in the commitment of the marriage relationship.[9] It must be understood in that way. God is so faithful to his promise, to his people, that he will not tolerate any rival to his relationship with them.

But this intolerance does not mean he has a short fuse or that he pulls the plug on his commitment to his people, however justified he would be to do so. Instead, he strikes at the root of our disordered love in order to win our affection and create a new reality.

Jump over to Ezekiel 24, and let’s read verses 15-18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your lips, nor eat the bread of men.” So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded.

A strange and troubling passage, to be sure, and one which for which much ink has been spilled trying to explain the many questions it inevitably raises. It is clearly another sign-act; Ezekiel is commanded to act out the message God is giving to his people, though this time, God is the one who acts, taking away Ezekiel’s greatest treasure, his wife, “the delight of [his] eyes.” And although God permits Ezekiel to grieve his wife’s death inwardly, he forbids him from utilizing any of the outward, ceremonial expressions of grief.[10] The people understand that Ezekiel’s actions are a prophetic message for them, and so they ask, in verse 19, “Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting thus?”

Yes, Ezekiel does tell them. In verse 21, he reports God’s own interpretation. “Behold, I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and the yearning of your soul, and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword.” The event prophesied here is not only the ultimate fall of Jerusalem, but the desecration and destruction of God’s own house, the temple. It was for the people of Israel the symbol of God’s invincible presence with them. And God himself is grieved with them; this is his sanctuary.

But the fall of Jerusalem, complete with the utter destruction of the temple, would strike at the root of his people’s greatest delight. The effect would put his people in the balance. How would you respond if God took away the delight of your eyes? For many Christians, this would be the end of their faith. And, on the one hand, we would understand that. But, on the other hand, would this not show that it is not God himself we cherish more than anything else? Would it not show that we are idolaters—worshipers of other gods—after all?

Toward a New Identity

But there is another possibility. What if, like Job, we could utter in our grief, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15)? Then, there is another possibility.

It is the possibility that God promises will become a reality. Ezekiel dramatizes that on the day the temple falls, as verse 23 reads, “Your turbans shall be on your heads and your shoes on your feet.” Putting on a turban is a symbol for acquiring a new status, such as a king assuming royal power.[11] God’s promise is that at the very moment of greatest grief, a new, glorious transformation will have taken place.

For Ezekiel’s contemporaries, one could not imagine what that new status could possibly be, how there could be any positive reality that would trump the horrific grief.

But we should know. The advent of the Messiah reminds us. For when Jesus, the true temple of the Lord, the one who was himself “God with us,” was desecrated, destroyed by the cross of Calvary, no greater moment of sorrow has the world, or God himself, ever known. And yet, as the prophet Isaiah foretold of him,

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress (or, turban) instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified (Isa 61:1-3).

And so, to this day, “Thus shall Ezekiel be to you a sign; according to all that he has done you shall do. When this comes, then you will know that I am the Lord GOD” (Ezek 24:24).

Grieve no more, brothers and sisters. On this second Sunday of Advent remember: the Prince of Peace has come. He was taken away from us at a stroke. No greater sadness has the world ever known. But by his death, he has cleansed his people once for all, satisfying the fury of God, and launching his new creation. Grieve no more! In the blood of the Messiah, we have found our cleansing. And in his resurrected life, we have been crowned with the turban of his righteousness.

_____

[1] 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], 772-73) explains the identity of this date from Ezekiel’s divergence from his usual practice of dating in relation to the time of his exile.

[2] Ibid., 776.

[3] Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, ed. P. Keith Gammons and Samuel E. Balentine (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2005), 314.

[4] Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, The NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry C. Muck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 301.

[5] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20–48, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dalas: Word Books, 1990), 48.

[6] Duguid, Ezekiel, 301.

[7] Odell, Ezekiel, 301.

[8] Celine Castronuovo, “Eric Trump claims his father ‘literally saved Christianity’,” The Hill, October 7, 2020, available at www.thehill.com/homenews/administration/520090-eric-trump-claims-his-father-literally-saved-christianity.

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

[10] Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, 789.

[11] Odell, Ezekiel, 319.

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