“For when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, even unto this day: and shall I be enquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord God, I will not be enquired of by you.” — Ezekiel 20:31
Our eight-year-old granddaughter comes to our home every weekday morning for homeschooling, and recently she has developed quite a fascination with figurative language. Together, we’ve come up with mental pictures of metaphors and similes, identified examples of personification, and laughed over clever puns and silly idioms. Recently, we took our first look at examples of rhetorical questions.
A rhetorical question is asked in order to make a point rather than obtain an answer. For example, if an exasperated person asks, “How many times do I have to tell you not to eat my dessert?” the questioner does not really want to know the number of times the directive must be repeated. Rather, the goal is to express frustration with the dessert thief’s behavior — and ideally, change it!
In today’s text, the elders in Babylon came to seek a word from God through Ezekiel. The prophet responded with the rhetorical question recorded in our focus verse, and then immediately answered the question himself. Through Ezekiel’s words, God made it clear that He owed no special revelation to such a disobedient people. If the people of Israel wanted to hear God’s voice and receive His guidance, they needed to obey what He had already revealed. Ezekiel’s words seem to express surprise that those who had followed the rebellion of their ancestors and continued in sin would still expect to receive fresh revelations from God.
Ezekiel’s blunt question helps us frame a Biblical perspective regarding how God will eventually judge evildoers in today’s world. Would the God who refused the hypocritical worship of the people of Ezekiel’s day overlook hypocrisy in contemporary society? Would a just God punish idolatry back then, but ignore it in those today who put their idols of money, power, and pleasure ahead of Him?
The answer to those two rhetorical questions is simple: of course not! God’s nature and His requirements for a pure, holy people are eternal. They have not changed, nor will they ever change. If we want answers from God and His guidance in our lives, we must follow the instructions He has given us in His Word and walk in the path already revealed.
Today’s text continues God’s message to Ezekiel, in which He rehearsed His past dealings with Israel to impress upon Ezekiel that His judgments regarding Israel were fair and righteous. This message came seven years after the beginning of Ezekiel’s exile in Babylon, and just over two years after Ezekiel began prophesying. In this portion of chapter 20, Ezekiel linked their forefathers’ rebellion to that of the current generation (verses 30-32) and relayed a prophetic snapshot of Israel’s end (verses 33-44).
The rhetorical questions in verses 30 and 31 challenged the elders visiting Ezekiel to acknowledge the historical and ongoing evidence of Israel’s idolatry. The current generation was emulating the disobedience of their forefathers and perverting their worship, so when they sought answers from God, they were denied.
In verses 33-36, Ezekiel foretold God’s plan for Israel’s final purification. The descriptive phrases “mighty hand” and “stretched out arm” in verse 33 are frequently used in reference to God’s mighty, liberating works for the Children of Israel. However, here they speak of the force with which God will again move to bring Israel to Himself. The plurality of “people” and “countries” in verse 34 indicates that the promised gathering and restoration was not a reference to deliverance from the Babylonian captivity, but a future gathering. Mirroring their former journey from Egypt to Canaan, this final gathering-in will occur through a wilderness experience. At that time, God will prove to Israel His love and faithfulness, and will “plead” His case (or settle His controversy) with Israel.
In verses 37-44, God promised a future restoration of the repentant. A shepherd had his sheep “pass under the rod” (verse 37) as they entered the sheepfold so he could inspect their condition and count them. A transition from one state to another is implied — in Israel’s case, from a state of rebellion into the “bond” (or discipline) of the covenant. Through repentance, Israel would be purified, and those still rebellious would be destroyed, being taken out of the land of their shelter but not brought into Israel. Verse 39 imparts a powerful call to repentance, allowing the defiant to choose what they wished, but with clear delineations of what God would not accept.
The “holy mountain” referred to in verse 40 is Mount Moriah, which is also referred to in Scripture as Mount Zion, and today, as the Temple Mount. Some Bible scholars suggest the phrase “all the house of Israel” in verse 40 refers to a united Israel and Judah. However, God typically does not differentiate between the two nations but sees only one Israel. Based on verse 41, that phrase more likely refers to the repentant who will be allowed to enter the land. These repentant ones become a “sweet savour” — an acceptable, sweet smelling sacrifice to God.
God’s holiness will be confirmed before the nations of the world when all see how He brings Israel to repentance. Upon Israel’s renewed obedience to their original covenant, God will fulfill His promise to them and they will fully possess the Promised Land. “There” in verse 43 refers to a place of spiritual restoration as well as occupancy of the Land.
In the phrase “there shall ye remember your ways” (verse 43), the word translated remember is the Hebrew word zakar. The meaning goes beyond simply recalling; it means “to acknowledge, take account of, or accept responsibility for.” The “ways” that Israel will remember and loathe will not only be the sins of the current generation, but those that occurred throughout Israel’s rebellious history, including their rejection of Christ as their Messiah.
God’s great mercy is revealed by the fact that He had not entirely cut off Israel at any point, although their works deserved such judgment. Rather, He worked with them to bring them into full obedience — for His glory and the testimony of His works.
II. The condemnation of Judah and Jerusalem
D. The revelation of God’s dealings with Israel
1. The review of God’s past dealings
f. The rebellion in Ezekiel’s day (20:30-32)
2. The preview of God’s future dealings (20:33-44)
a. The regathering and purging (20:33-39)
b. The restoration and repentance (20:40-44)
If we desire God’s help and guidance, we must be careful to obey the instructions He has given us.