I truly believe that the sweetest part of Bible study is when you discover something about God that truly surprises you. It is when you are reading a text and are just sure that the end of the story has no place to go but tragedy. It is like so many movies in which you are told ahead of time that the end is gong to shock you, but not in a good way. I have never been in a mood to see that kind of movie. I don’t mind the surprise ending, but I want it to be in a good way.
Ezekiel 20 is just such a story. Buried deep within Ezekiel’s narrative to the exiles of Babylonian captivity, the Lord tells a moving story to the rebellious elders who have come before Ezekiel to inquire of the Lord. The Lord’s reply is that he will not be inquired by them. The rest of the story is God’s reason for rejecting them and his future plans.
Israel in Egypt (5-9)
God begins his story with how he “made himself known to them in the land of Egypt” and swore to them that he “bring them out of Egypt to a most glorious land,” a land he had “searched out for them, flowing with milk and honey.” The Lord then revealed a part of history that Exodus does not tell us. While still in Egypt, God had commanded them to put away the Egyptian idols that “their eyes feasted upon.” Israel was not worshiping Yahweh in Egypt, they were worshiping the gods of the land. But when God made himself known to them and promised that he would bring them out of slavery, did they give up their idols? No! God said, “They rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted upon.” What would God do with their rebellion? Here is God’s response:
“Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the midst of the land of Egypt.”
“But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations.”
How many of us knew from our Exodus studies that God considered destroying the nation while still in Egypt? The only reason he didn’t was to protect the holiness of his name.
Israel in the Wilderness (10-17)
God’s grace multiplied even more with the first wilderness generation. He gave them his statutes, his rules, and his Sabbaths, “by which if a person does them, he shall live.” But, as when they were in Egypt, they “rejected God’s rules and profaned his Sabbaths.” Just as in Egypt, God responded by determining to “pour out his wrath in the wilderness, to make a full end of them.” But again, God “acted for the sake of his name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations.”
The Second Wilderness Generation (18-26)
After the first generation died, God commanded the second generation to be “careful to obey his rules and keep his Sabbaths.” However, God again revealed something we did not know in Exodus: “But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes and were not careful to obey my rules; they profaned my Sabbaths.” For a third time God determined to pour out his wrath but then, “withheld his hand and acted for the sake of his name.”
The People in Canaan (27-31)
Did the people in the Promised Land appreciate the grace God had given them? No. When God brought them into the land, “Wherever they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices.” Nothing changed from the time they were in Egypt. For 800 years, they continued to be enamored with their idols and rejected God who saved them from bondage.
God’s Rebuke and Promise to the Exiles (32-39)
God’s first promise takes us by surprise. He said,
“What is in your mind shall never happen – the thought, ‘Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries, and worship wood and stone.’”
Instead of the nation continuing to serve their idols, God said he would act “with a mighty hand and with wrath poured out he would be king over them.” God would enter into judgment with them and cause them “to pass under the rod and bring them into the bond of the covenant” and “purge out the rebels from among them.” Here was God’s promise; there was no way he was going to let them continue to worship wood and stone.
God’s Promise to the People of the Messiah (40-44)
Now that the nation had experienced God’s wrath and utter destruction, they would also experience grace beyond what they could have ever imagined. God again would bring them out of the bondage of the nations and bring them back to his “holy mountain.” On this mountain, they would serve the Lord and God would accept them. They would give him their “contributions and the choicest of their gifts.” Through them God would “manifest his holiness in the sight of the nations.” The heart of these people would also be changed when they saw God’s new salvation. God said,
“There you shall remember your ways and all your deeds with which you have defiled yourselves, and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.”
These people, the people of the Messiah, would truly understand God’s grace and would respond by giving him their choicest gifts. His grace would cause them to loathe themselves for the sins they had committed.
God’s final promise is what shows us that he is a God far beyond what we could ever imagine:
“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for my name’s sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds.”
Every time I read those words, I simply cannot hardly believe it. He is not talking about that physical nation any more; he is talking about you and me. We also profaned his name. We also went after our idols. But God would not allow it. He would not leave us to pursue our own way and continue to defile ourselves. Instead, he changed us so that we would give him our best and God’s holiness would be known among the nations.
But what really melts our hearts and brings us to tears is when God says that he would not deal with us according to our sins, but instead he would deal with us “for his name’s sake.” I do not deserve that. You do not deserve that. I love what God says will happen when he has done this for us: “You shall know that I am the Lord.” Indeed, we know he is the Lord. What an amazing God!