Lessons from History

Ezekiel 20

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
December 2017

There are many great promises on prayer in the Bible.  Call on me in the day of trouble and I will answer you.  Ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.  In Ezekiel 20, we will see a group of people that call on God and do not get an answer.  They seek and they do not find.

Historical Background

We are studying the Book of Ezekiel.  It was written by a young Jewish man who was exiled to Babylon.  Ezekiel was deported to Babylon when he was twenty-five.  Ezekiel was in Babylon for five years and then out of nowhere, God suddenly shows up in a spectacular vision.  The heavens open.  Incredible angels appear in front of him and he sees a blue throne and a man sitting on it and he is full of fire from his waist down.

God appeared to him and called him to be a prophet. His main job was to predict the fall of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah did it in Israel.  Ezekiel did it in Babylon.  This chapter begins the final section of messages to Judah before Jerusalem falls.  They cover Ezekiel 20-24. By the time we get to Ezekiel 24, Jerusalem has fallen and Ezekiel’s wife dies. Ezekiel 20 takes place in the seventh year of his exile to Babylon. He has been ministering for two years.

This is a long chapter.  In the Hebrew Bible, the chapter ends at verse forty-four.  The forty-fifth verse begins the next chapter in Hebrew. All Christian bibles end the chapter at verse forty-nine (following the LXX).  Jewish bibles, such as Tanakh (JPS 1985), and The Holy Scriptures (JPS 1917), end the chapter at verse forty-four.

This chapter begins with a visit to Ezekiel by some of the elders. It is not the first time they have come to see him.  Notice the first verse.  “In the SEVENTH YEAR, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me.” (20:1 ESV)  A year earlier, he had similar company.

“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” (8:1-2 ESV).

The elders showed up at Ezekiel’s house and while they were there, he received a vision that last from Ezekiel 8-11.  It lasted four chapters long and he told them everything he saw.  A year later, some more elders show up at his house.  They came to see him before and each time they came, Ezekiel gave them bad news but now they come again.  God has an unusual response to their visit.  He is not pleased.

Request Denied

And the word of the Lord came to me: 3 “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Is it to inquire of me that you come? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you. 4 Will you judge them, son of man, will you judge them? Let them know the abominations of their fathers (20:2-4 ESV).

The elders came with a question for Ezekiel.  We are not told what that question was but they asked him a question.  Ezekiel was a prophet.  He waited to hear a word from the Lord.  God spoke to him and said something unusual.  He said, “I am not going to answer your question.  I’m not talking to you.”  Most think that God would be glad when people come to him with a question.  God says, “Don’t ask.  Don’t inquire.  You can pray but I am not listening.”

That is surprising.  Why would God give that kind of a response to people?  Doesn’t He want people to come to Him?  Doesn’t He want people to seek him? Yes. He wants people who are sincere to seek him.  Not every question that people ask is sincere. Some of the Pharisees just asked questions to test Jesus and they did it repeatedly (Matthew 16:1; 19:3; 22:33-46).

Politicians do this all of the time.  They ask questions of a candidate, not to get information but to get a certain type of response.  They often ask a leading question so they can get the answer they are looking for.  We do not know people’s motives but God knew the hearts of these elders.

There was nothing wrong with the question.  The problem was not that they asked a bad question.  The problem is that the people asking the question were bad people. These elders were idol worshippers.  They made their own sons up and burned them in the fire to a pagan god (20:31).  God said that they did this “to this day.”  Jeremiah 11:13 say, “For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.”

My wife has done women’s ministry for a long time.  She has counseled a lot of woman.  Some of those women never do what she says but, when the next problem comes, they go to her for more advice. After a while, she feels like it is a waste of time doing any more counseling or giving any more advice.  God is the same way.

Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded, 25 because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, 26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you, 27 when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, 30 would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof (Proverbs 1:24-30 ESV)

There comes a point when God stops listening.  He stopped listening to these elders in Babylon.  They had God’s Word.  They had the prophets but they rejected them.  They knew who the true God was but worshiped false gods but they still wanted a word from the Lord about their situation.

God was not interested in satisfying their curiosity but he did have a message for them. God will not answer their question but he does give these elders of Israel a sermon.  It is a strange sermon.  We do not hear too many sermons like this today.  We do not come to church to get a history lesson.  This sermon is a history lesson.  They had not learned the lessons of history.  Ezekiel is not giving it.  God is.

Ezekiel just delivers the message.  This long chapter gives us a history of Israel (20:5-38).  God reinterprets national history and gives the Jews a spiritual perspective on their own history. We have all been taught secular history in school. What would it look like if God did this to American history, instead of the history of the Jews?  That would be interesting to see.

This chapter deals with Jewish history.  You say, what does that have to do with us today?  We are going to look at three truths, which come right out of this passage.  These truths apply today, just as much as they did in Ezekiel’s day.

Lessons from Jewish History

1) People are innately rebellious.

The Bible says that rebellion is the like the sin of witchcraft (I Samuel 15:23).  It is one of the worst sins a person can commit.  The history of the Jews is a history of rebellion.  That is what is very clear from this chapter.  One of the biggest objections that Jews have to Jesus is that their leaders rejected him.  If he was really the Messiah, they would have accepted him.  This chapter gives the answer to that objection.

The history of Israel was a history of rebellion against God. God called them a “rebellious house” eleven times earlier in the book (2:5, 6, 7; 3:9, 26, 27; 12:2, 3, 9, 25; 17:12).  They were rebellious in EGYPT (20:5-9).  They were rebellious in THE WILDERNESS (20:10-26).  They were rebellious in THE PROMISED LAND (20:27-30).  The first generation was rebellious and so was the second generation.

The history of the Jews is a history of apostasy.  It is  a history of idolatry.  It is a history of disobedience. God sent them prophets and they rejected them and killed some of them.  It is no wonder that when the Messiah came that they would reject and kill him.

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. (II Chronicles 36:15-16 NIV)

Jesus told the story of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  God is pictured as a landowner.  He plants a vineyard, built a fence around it and allowed some people to rent his land.  He leased it to some farmers.  They got to use it but had to give the owner a portion of it, since they did not own it and then went into another country.

When it was the season for fruit, he sent his servants to get his fruit from the tenants.  The first servant was mistreated.  The second was beaten as well.  A third servant was sent and was killed

37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (Matthew 22:35-39 NIV)

Of course, we can’t criticize the Jews for their rebellion.  We are not any better.  The history of the human race is a history of rebellion.  We are a race of rebels, a race of sinners.  The first human ever born was a murderer.  Cain murdered Abel.  The Jews were the people of God in the OT and they were rebellious.  The church today has not done much better.  The NT says in the last days there will be an apostasy, a turning form the truth.

Ezekiel’s job in chapter twenty was to point out the sin of the nation.  God said to Ezekiel, “Let them know the ABOMINATIONS OF THEIR FATHERS” (20:4 ESV). The NLT says, “Son of man, bring charges against them and condemn them. Make them realize how detestable the sins of their ancestors really were.” 

We have to do the same thing today.  You can’t preach the gospel without talking about sin.  Some preachers NEVER talk much about sin.  Their sermons are all positive. That is the Joel Osteen philosophy.  He avoids preaching things that are hard to hear, like sin, judgment, and hell.

The truth is that, if people do not see their own sin, they will not see their need for a Savior.  They will not think that they have a problem.  Why did Ezekiel have to do this?  People around him did not think they had a problem.  They did not think they were sinners.  We have the same problem today.  People today have no concept of sin.

Ezekiel points out the sin of the nation in this chapter.  God made some promises to Abraham.  He promised to bring the Jews to the Promised Land, so He led them out of Egypt but even after they left Egypt and were removed from all of the idolatry of Egypt and were in the wilderness, they still rebelled.

God says, “And I said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt” (20:7-8 ESV).

Egypt was a land of idolatry and here we learn that many of the Jews worshipped some of these idols and took them with them during the Exodus.  That’s why they worshipped a golden calf.  That was the kind of thing that was worshipped in Egypt.

Therefore I led them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, by which the person who obeys them will live. Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy.”

Yet the people of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws—by which the person who obeys them will live—and they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths. (20:10-13 NIV)

God gave the nation the Ten Commandments and many other laws.  He gave these laws for their own good.  God says that if they would obey these laws, they would live and even gave them a Sabbath.  They had no day of rest when they were slaves in Egypt but they rejected these laws, like people do today.

God gave people a standard for marriage but modern man rejects that standard and rebels against it.  God gives us good laws but we choose bad laws instead.  That is what sinful people want. God led the Jews into the Promised Land and they rebelled again.

In this also your ancestors blasphemed me by being unfaithful to me:28 When I brought them into the land I had sworn to give them and they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices, made offerings that aroused my anger, presented their fragrant incense and poured out their drink offerings. 29 Then I said to them: What is this high place you go to?’” It is called Bamah to this day (20:27-29 NIV).

God led them into the Promised Land and they rebelled again and committed idolatry.  They offered sacrifices to pagan gods.  They did it on high places.  Bamah means “high places.”  It is not a reference to the former president. God says that these were the sins of their ancestors but it was also their sins.

When you offer your gifts—the sacrifice of your children in the fire—you continue to defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. Am I to let you inquire of me, you Israelites? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I will not let you inquire of me. “‘You say, “We want to be like the nations, like the peoples of the world, who serve wood and stone.”  (20:31-32 NIV)

2) There are painful consequences for sin

That was true in Ezekiel’s day and it is true today.  It was true for Israel and it is true for the church.  We think that we can sin and not face consequences.  Paul said, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:8 ESV).  When God’s people deliberately rebel against God, there are consequences.  What were some of the consequences of sin in Israel’s history?  Let’s think about four consequences.

First, the Jews spent forty years in the wilderness because of sin.  They ate the same thing every day.  They wore the same pair of shoes, which must have been hard on the ladies.  Deuteronomy 11:2 says that travel from Mount Horeb to the Promised Land was an eleven day journey. It took the Jews forty years to get there because of sin.  An eleven day trip took forty years.

Second, not only was there a delay in the Promised Land but many never entered it.  A whole generation of Jews died in the wilderness and never entered it (20:15).  They never obtained what God wanted them to have.  They never received the full blessings on earth because of their own sin.

Third, some made it into the Promised Land but were sent into captivity.  The ten northern tribes were taken into captivity.  The two southern tribes were taken into captivity.  They were kicked out of their own land because of sin.  They lost their own nation.  God said in Deuteronomy that this was a punishment for sin.

Finally, some who were kicked out were never allowed to come back to the land.  God says that he is going to purge out the rebels and certain people will NEVER enter the Promised Land.  That is strong language.

And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. 36 As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, declares the Lord God.

37 I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. 38 I will purge out the rebels from among you, and those who transgress against me. I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they shall NOT enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (20:35-38 ESV).

39 “As for you, O house of Israel, thus says the Lord God: Go serve every one of you his idols, now and hereafter, if you will not listen to me; but my holy name you shall no more profane with your gifts and your idols.

40 “For on my holy mountain, the mountain height of Israel, declares the Lord God, there ALL the house of Israel, ALL OF THEM, shall serve me in the land. There I will accept them, and there I will require your contributions and the choicest of your gifts, with all your sacred offerings.

Rebellion will eventually be punished.  This refers to a future judgment of the nation.  There will be a future test of the nation. Every member of the nation will go under the rod, like a shepherd would separate cattle.  It sounds like the sheep and goat judgment in Matthew 25. In the future, God will judge Israel.  Everyone has to go through a test. Those who pass the test will enter the Promised Land.  The rebels will not enter.  Only saved Jews will enter the Promised Land when Jesus returns.

3) God treats us far better than we deserve.

God is a God of grace.  He shows grace in spite of rebellion.  Grace runs all through this chapter.  We see it three ways.  God chose the Jews in grace.  He judged the Jews in grace.  He also will restore the Jews in grace in the future.  Let’s look at these three points.

First, He CHOSE Israel in grace (20:5).  He could have chosen any nation on the planet to be His people.  He chose the Jews, not because they were better than any other nation but because of His grace and His sovereign choice.

Second, He JUDGED them in grace.  When they sinned in Egypt, God could have destroyed them but he didn’t.  When they sinned in the wilderness, He could have destroyed them but He didn’t.  When they sinned in the Promise Land, committed idolatry and sacrificed their own kids in the fire to pagan gods, He could have destroyed them all.  Many in the nation were destroyed but the nation itself was not.  God did not completely destroy them.  He scattered them.  He treated them in grace.

So I said I would pour out my wrath on them and spend my anger against them in Egypt. 9 But for the sake of my name, I brought them out of Egypt. I did it to keep my name from being profaned in the eyes of the nations among whom they lived and in whose sight I had revealed myself to the Israelites. 10 Therefore I led them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness.” (20:8-10 ESV)

God does not treat people the way they deserve.  He did not treat the Jews the way they deserved and He does not treat us the way we deserve.  We see that in the last verse of the chapter. “You will know that I am the LORD, when I deal with you for my name’s sake and not according to your evil ways and your corrupt practices, you people of Israel, declares the Lord” (20:44 ESV).

Third, He will restore them in grace.  This chapter not only looks back, it looks forward.  In the future, God will re-gather Jews scattered throughout the world and bring them back to the Promise Land.  It will be another Exodus, not from Egypt but from the whole world.

41 I will accept you as fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will be proved holy through you in the sight of the nations. 42 Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the land I had sworn with uplifted hand to give to your ancestors. 43 There you will remember your conduct and all the actions by which you have defiled yourselves, and you will loathe yourselves for all the evil you have done. (20:41-43 ESV).

Did God Give the Jews Bad Laws?

Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, 26 and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord.

Ezekiel 20 contains one shocking statement.  God says in Ezekiel 20:25, “I gave them statutes that were not good” (ESV).  What does that mean?  Dos it mean that God gave the Jews bad laws?  How could God be good and give them bad laws?

This verse has to be interpreted in the light of its context.  in the context, we are specifically told that God gave the Jews good laws.  He said that people who kept His laws would live (20:11, 13, 21) but the Jews rejected His laws and made up their own laws.

The laws are bad but they are not the Laws of Moses.  They are not God’s laws but man’s laws.  God did not actually give them these laws.  In fact, he prohibited some of the things in these laws, like child sacrifice.  He allowed the Jews to follow these laws and then judged them for it.

God is not giving them bad laws.  He is giving them over to bad laws.  The NLT says “I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life.”  Psalm 81:12 says, “I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” (NIV).

That interpretation is clear from the context.  Immediately before Ezekiel 20:24, we are told that “their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols” (ESV).  The NIV reads “their eyes lusted after their parent’s idols.”

Ezekiel 20:26 tells us what some of these laws were that they were given, laws about child sacrifice.  God never told the Jews to do child sacrifice.  In fact, He prohibited child sacrifice in His law (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:9-12; cf. Jeremiah 19:4-5).


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