“But I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, in whose sight I brought them out.” — Ezekiel 20:14
Some years ago, I had a discussion with one of our children concerning the word “reputation.” The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines reputation as “the overall quality or character as seen or judged by people in general; recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability; a place in public esteem or regard.” Our child had behaved in a way that had hurt his good reputation, and was suffering the consequences in various ways. My reminder to him included a practical definition that I have used on occasion, “A reputation is simply a series of choices and consequences. If you want a different reputation, you must make different choices, and you must do so over a period of time long enough to change others’ perception of you.” Thankfully, our child saw the reasoning behind that statement and began to make different choices, including the all-important choice to repent and follow the Lord.
Today’s text brings out that when God could find no basis in the people of Israel for extending to them His mercy and grace, He did so for His reputation — for His own name’s sake. All of God’s dealings with Israel occurred before the eyes of the surrounding nations. Israel was to be the agent through whom all nations would come to know that He was the true God, but Israel had failed in this. Since God’s divine reputation depended on the fate and welfare of His people, He had continued to be merciful to Israel so that His great name would not be profaned.
This portion of chapter 20 offers insight into two contrasting reputations, which Ezekiel reviewed for the elders of Israel. The first was that of God the Creator, who had chosen Israel over the other nations, delivering them from Egyptian enslavement, giving them a pattern for righteous living, providing them with a flourishing new land, and offering them His rest. The second reputation was that of the people of Israel. Their choices incurred a far different reputation. They chose rebellion and rampant idolatry, refusing to follow God’s pattern for living and despising God’s justice, righteousness, and rest.
Still, God had remained faithful, choosing to work not because of Israel’s reputation but because of His own. Though He had sent judgment for disobedience, He also offered mercy for the repentant. His discipline in their wilderness experience had been a way of teaching Israel of His great holiness and love for them.
We also have reputations, and they will be based upon our choices and the consistency of those choices over time. As we read of Israel’s failure to honor God, and how they forfeited their blessings and opportunity to be a witness to surrounding nations, let us take care to follow God in obedience. We want our lives to be a credit to God’s name, so that those who are observing our choices and actions can see the reflection of God in us.
Chapters 20-23 are a message in which God rehearsed His past dealings with Israel to impress upon Ezekiel that His judgments regarding Israel were fair and righteous. Delivery of this message occurred seven years after the beginning of Ezekiel’s Babylonian exile, just over two years after he began prophesying.
In chapter 20, the elders of Israel came to Ezekiel to inquire of the Lord since they looked to Ezekiel as their intermediary. However, God refused to take any questions from them. In verse 4, God’s question to Ezekiel, “Wilt thou judge . . . ?” was asking, in effect, “Are you going to plead for them?” What the elders came to inquire about is not recorded, but clearly Ezekiel was not to plead their case when God had already judged the people for their apostasy.
In verses 5-9, at God’s direction, Ezekiel responded to the elders by recounting Israel’s sins of the past, pointing first to their rebellion in Egypt. The phrase “lifted up mine hand” appears three times in verses 5 and 6. It originated from the ancient custom of lifting the right hand in supplication and appeal. As a plea for God’s witness, it became a figure of speech meaning, “I swear.” In these verses, it refers to God’s sworn covenant with Israel to bring them into the “land flowing with milk and honey” — the promise originally given to Abraham and his covenant descendants. While enslaved in Egypt, Israel refused to forsake the idols of that heathen nation. Verse 9 indicates that God did not refrain from destroying the Children of Israel because of their merits but because doing so would have polluted His reputation in the eyes of the watching pagan nations.
According to verses 10-17, the generation delivered out of Egypt also was rebellious toward God. Though God had given them statutes to live by in order to separate Israel to Himself as a holy people, they continued to despise His commandments. The “sabbaths” mentioned in verses 12 and 16 were the set feast days God had established for the people, including observance of the seventh day as a sabbath day of rest. While the keeping of these observances would not have made the people holy, doing so would have caused the watching nations to understand that God had a consecrated people. When the Israelites broke their covenant and disobeyed God’s instructions, God determined to punish them. For the sake of His name (referenced in verses 9, 14, and 22) and His reputation to the Gentiles as a God of mercy, He refrained from destroying them. Instead, He determined that the disobedient generation would not enter the Promised Land.
The next generation received God’s instructions and entered into a covenant with Him in the wilderness, but according to verses 18-29, they too were rebellious. Again, God refrained from general punishment for the sake of His reputation, but restated His prior judgment — that He would disperse disobedient Israel among the Gentile nations (see Deuteronomy 28:64). The word gave in verse 25 means “permitted or allowed,” so verses 25-26 mean that God gave the people over to their delusions because they had rejected God’s goodness and indulged their baser instincts, including sacrificing their firstborn children in pagan rituals.
In spite of this history of terrible failure, the people who entered and were currently living in the Promised Land had continued to practice idolatry “unto this day” (verse 29). This was especially appalling because it occurred within the land God had given them.
II. The condemnation of Judah and Jerusalem
D. The revelation of God’s dealings with Israel
1. The review of God’s past dealings
a. The inquiry of the elders (20:1-4)
b. The rebellion in Egypt (20:5-9)
c. The rebellion in the wilderness (20:10-17)
d. The rebellion of the second generation (20:18-26)
e. The rebellion in Canaan (20:27-29)
God is honored when the choices we make and the reputation we earn reflect our commitment to Him.