Judgment Must Begin at the House of God
F. Cundick, Luton
In the first section of this book, chs. 1-24, the two main streams of thought are obvious. The first relates to the preparation of the servant; the second to the predictions of Jerusalem's downfall. The servant-prophet is prepared by the sight of the vision and the sound of the voice. The principles involved in these experiences are operative and applicable in every age. The predictions of the destruction of the city appertain to the approach of the judgment, chs. 4-7; its moral necessity, chs, 8-9; its certainty, chs. 12-19, and its righteousness. Here, we call attention to chapters 8-9.
The Cause of the Judgment. What are the reasons for the severe denunciations? By transportation in spirit the prophet is made to view four ugly scenes of abominations. He is taught that before there can be recovery and reconstruction for his people these abominations must be removed. The rubbish of fallen buildings must be cleared away before new foundations can be laid. The pernicious weeds of roughland must be uprooted and burnt, else no garden flowers will ever delight the eye.
1. The Image of Jealousy in the People's Court of the Temple.
The image that provoked to jealousy, 8. 3, is erected in close proximity to the altar of God, v. 5. It was set up in the outer or people's court over against the northern entrance to the priests' court. This is confirmed by the remark "He brought me to the door of the court", v. 7. We are not told the name of the idol. But it seems likely that the image of Asherah, the mother goddess of the Canaanites, is meant. It has been pointed out that the word for "image", semel, occurs in only two other passages. It is used of Asherah which was set up by king Manasseh in the temple, 2 Chron. 33. 7; 2 Kings 21. 7. This limited use of the word may be intended for the purpose of identification. It does not appear that there was a total renunciation of the true national religion. The unlawful intrusion of the false idol, conceived of as Jehovah's wife, brought in an admixture of ideas totally incompatible with the pure truths of divine revelation. H. L. Ellison has rightly said, "It bore the same relation to the revelation of Sinai as popular Roman Catholicism does to the religion of the New Testament".
2. The Secret Debasing Animal Worship in the Inner Chamber.
The entrance into the chamber by "one hole in the wall", v. 7 marg., means that the practice of this idolatry was in secret. The men who engaged in this abomination are the "seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel", Ezek. 8. 11 R.v., the very men who should have given spiritual guidance and counsel to the people! They spare no expense for their gods, for the "thick cloud" of incense ascends in the chamber. What is greatly disconcerting in the scene is the presence of "Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan". He was the son of the man who was scribe to the tender-hearted reformer, king Josiah. How different in spiritual outlook individuals in the same family can be! There is some uncertainty about the identification of this form of idolatry. Its all-embracive character, "all the idols of the house of Israel", v. 10, does favour support of the ancient superstitions to which Paul makes reference; see Rom. i. 23. The unfavourable turn in national events produces despondency in these elders, and they turn to false gods for help. This grievous reaction brings to light their former shallowness of spirituality, and lack of entire dependence on Jehovah.
3. The Women Bewailing Tammuz in the Outer Court of the
Temple. Ezekiel next sees the observance of the abominable fertility cult, Ezek. 8. 14. The annual mourning for "the Tammuz", to use the contemptuous expression of the prophet, had a twofold character. "First, that of mourning, in which the death of Adonis (identical with Tammuz) was bewailed with extravagant sorrow; then, after a few days, the mourning gave place to wild rejoicings for his restoration to life ... The excitement attendant upon these extravagances of alternate wailing and exultation were in complete accordance with nature worship, which for this reason was so popular in the east, especially with women, and led to unbridled licence and excess", G. Currey.
4. The Sun Worshippers in the Inner Court.
The heads of the twenty-four courses of the priests with the high priest presiding over them, v. 16, "the elders of the priests", are presented in this last scene of abomination; see Jer. 19. 1; Ezek. 9. 6. They "worshipped the sun toward the east", which means that they had turned their backs toward the house of the Lord. The enormity of the guilt of these men lies in then- worship of the Babylonian sun-god, Shamash, in the temple of Jehovah. Their contempt for Jehovah is expressed by the act of insulting behaviour which the prophet is beckoned to behold. "Look at them! They are thrusting the branch to their nose", see the end of 8. 17 R.v. Are they tauntingly offering the sun- god as the substitute for the promised Branch, the true Messiah? All esteem for the national hope of Israel is cast aside in utter disdain.
The Character of Sin. A review of these religious practices fixes attention on certain patent facts.
1. Sin's Intrusiveness. The scenes of idolatry begin at the north gate of the great courts and end in the inner court of the Lord's house. The advancement of evil is as leaven, working silently and surely. "Ezekiel seems to proceed from the most familiar and inexplicable to the more outlandish defections from the purity of the national faith", J. Skinner. The first steps in any movement are to be considered carefully. The beginnings may appeal and appear harmless, but the end determines their true character. These things are recorded for our learning. We do well to be on our guard against departure however small; a little leaven is all that is necessary to leaven the whole lump.
2. Sin's Degradation. The different classes of society mentioned, the people, elders, women, and priests, cannot fail to remind us of the degrading effects of departure from the Living God. One has written, "To what depth of fatuous iniquity had the nation sunk when once it forgot the second commandment". Were the priests taking their views from the practice of the people in general? Did they accommodate teaching to suit the popular feelings of the time? One thing is evident, the theology of man has fashions! The believer of the present day will see from the trend of the "religious" world that this is so. Where are the men of God to speak firmly and faithfully against the wicked practices of modern times? Spirituality is on the wane because of easy-going compromise.
3. Sin's Deceptiveness. It must be observed that idolatry is more than the practice of bowing down before idols. No one is foolish enough to admit that there is no more involved than prostrating oneself before a physical object. The fact is that idolatry is a matter not so much of the object as the spirit of worship. Do we grasp the meaning of the apostle Paul when he wrote, "covetousness, which is idolatry"?, Col. 3. 5. The
worshipper of the Self-revealed true God virtually says, "Make me as thou wouldest have me be". But the idolater who has devised gods after his own desires says, "Do what / would have thee do". In the heart of man there lie all forms of covetousness to drag down from the skies a religion which will conform to these cravings. Therefore any pursuit, whether material, scientific or philosophical, which governs the heart, is idolatry.
What then are the main principles of the forms that Ezekiel saw? The first is syncretism, the attempt to reconcile different systems of religious thought. This sin abounds today. How grave it is that the meaning and menace of Ecumenicalism has not been perceived by a great number of God's people. The unholy compromise holds a threat before the simple expression of God's truth which is so needful for the salvation of the soul and the strength of the saint. The second involved hypocrisy. The elders retained publicly a guise which privately was disowned. Instead of making an open confession of failure, they pursued a feigned course of conformity to the covenant that king Josiah made with Jehovah. "Beware ye", said the Lord to His disciples, "of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy", Luke 12. i. The third, emotionalism, is ever a snare to those who are spiritually barren. There are false emotions which appeal to decayed powers that are unproductive. Let the saints of God avoid sensual means in their ministries of truth. God alone is the Giver of eternal life, even if some men rely on stirring methods. Fourthly, fatalism is traceable in the attitude of the priests. They were guided by events and not by faith, by popular thought and not truth, by their wishes instead of the Word of the Eternal God.
The Agents of the Judgment. "Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? . . . Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity"., Ezek. 8. 17, 18. These words are uttered before the call of the six men with the slaughter weapons in their hands, and the seventh with the writer's inkhorn by his side, 9. 2. The seven are undoubtedly the angel executioners, a precursor surely, of future judgments by angels, see Rev. 8. 2; 15. 5-8. Here is a point in the book which expresses, as observed before, the supreme command of God over all affairs. Ezekiel learns to look beyond secondary causes, namely the Babylonian army, and to see Jehovah's angel servants carrying out the "strange work" of retribution. What strength and incentive lie in the knowledge of God's ways! We must learn to lift our eyes above the level of earthly events.
The Process of the Judgment. There is discrimination; "Begin at my sanctuary", Ezek. 9. 6. "The ancient men", namely those mentioned in 8. 16, the priests, are dealt with first. Those who have special privilege before the Lord have the deepest responsibility. God does not deal with all His people alike. Light and privilege are considered in His judgments; a principle that we must learn to appropriate and apply whenever required. Then there is exemption by the mark set upon the forehead of the faithful by the angel with the inkhorn. These few faithful are saved from the judgment. Righteousness is rewarded as it always will be by the Righteous Lord. Low though conditions were in general, they but served to make manifest these faithful men. Circumstances bring out what is in a man. Time is wasted dreaming in idleness of the ideal. Opportunity to witness for God lies at hand! Ezekiel's ardent intercession before the Lord, v. 8, reveals that he is no hard man. His grief is indicative of his fellowship with God, which is always an essential element in this ministry unseen by mortal eye, but recorded before the eternal throne.