Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE REASONS FOR REPROACH EXISTING IN THE MORAL CONDITION OF THE INHABITANTS OF JERUSALEM. The catalogue of the people's sins is both a long and an awful one. It suffices to mention these as boldly charged upon them by the faithful prophet of the Lord.
2. Violence and murder.
3. Disregard of parents.
4. Oppression of strangers, of the widows and fatherless.
5. Profanation of the sabbath.
6. Lewdness and vile indulgence of lust.
Was ever such an indictment brought against a community? The marvel is, not that the threatened judgment came, but that it was so long delayed.
II. THE REPROACH AS BROUGHT BY MEN AGAINST THE INHABITANTS OF JERUSALEM. It certainly seems strange, all but incredible, that the highly favored Jerusalem should be famed among the very heathen for degradation in iniquity and moral debasement. But the language of Ezekiel is explicit; and he would be more likely to soften than to exaggerate the charge. Jerusalem a reproach, a mocking, infamous, defiled, full of tumult! How are the mighty fallen! The city of the great King, the seat of the temple of Jehovah, the home of the consecrated priesthood, - infamous among the surrounding idolaters for flagitious violation of those very moral laws which the city was consecrated to conserve!
III. THE REPROACH BROUGHT BY GOD AGAINST THE INHABITANTS OF JERUSALEM. The simple dignity of the Divine reproach is beyond all rhetoric, all denunciation. "Thou hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God." Here, indeed, was the real secret of the defection and rebellion, of the vices and crimes of the sons of Israel Had they kept Jehovah in memory, they would have kept themselves free from the errors and. the follies into which they fell. After all that the Lord had done for them, after all his forbearance and long-suffering, they nevertheless forgot him! There was but one hope for Jerusalem, but one way of recovery and restoration - that they should bring again to memory him whom they had not only forsaken, but forgotten. - T.
I. THE INDICTMENT. It is a long indictment, and embraces all classes of people.
1. Gross abuse of power. The princes - i.e. heads of tribes - used their power for the destruction of life, not to preserve it. The scepter was turned into a dagger. Even neglect to protect innocent life becomes murder.
2. Idolatry. "The city maketh idols against herself." In Israel idolatry was treason. It was the rejection and humbling of their proper King.
3. Murder. "The city sheddeth blood." He who begins to despise God soon learns to under-value human life. Their children were made to pass through the fire. Violence against property and life abounded.
4. Filial disobedience. "In thee have they set light by father and mother." The slaughter of innocent children soon produced its natural fruit. Children grew up without natural affection. If the central sun be destroyed, the planets will soon rush headlong to mutual destruction.
5. Tyranny. "They have dealt by oppression with the stranger: they have vexed the fatherless and the widow." All regard for humane virtues, for common morality, had vanished. It is the custom throughout the East to show hospitality to strangers. This is considered a virtue of the first order; yet even this ordinary virtue was trampled underfoot.
6. Profanity. "Thou hast despised mine holy things, and hast profaned my sabbaths." In Israel this was a most flagrant sin. God had given them tokens of his presence and favor which he had not given unto others; therefore to profane these sacred tokens was to disgrace God in the eyes of the surrounding heathen. It was as if a soldier on the battle-field trailed his country's flag in the mire. It was as if a married woman should fling her wedding ring into the fire.
7. Murderous intrigues. "Men carry tales to shed blood." Untruthfulness is a common sin among the Orientals. Lying intrigues, to encompass a rival's death, are plentiful as laws. This sin the Hebrews had copied from their neighbors.
8. Unchastity and adultery. "They commit lewdness." The sanctity of the marriage-tie disappeared. Virtuous affection was strangled by animal lust. Incest and other abominations followed. The people gradually sank to the level of the beasts. All the special dignity and nobleness of manhood died out. Degradation of humanity spread.
9. Judicial bribery. "They have taken gifts to shed blood." Not an upright judge remained. Wickedness, like an epidemic, spread and infected every office and every rank. The fountain of justice became a fountain of corruption and death.
10. Avarice. There were gains that were dishonest. Extortion was on every side. Avarice, like a cancer, had eaten out all the healthy flesh of honor and sincerity. Gold became to them a god.
11. Forgetfulness of God. This was the root and the crown of their sins. The very memory which God created refused to entertain him; as if a house which a man himself had built should shut its doors against him. When God is driven out, all his retinue - purity, strength, unity, peace, honor - go with him. This is a long and dismal catalogue of crimes.
II. THE ASSIZE-DAY. "Thou hast caused thy days to draw near."
1. This assize is certain. "I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it." As surely as night succeeds to day, the reckoning-day of God's justice comes. It has never yet failed. Neither the man nor the nation that has defied God has on any occasion escaped.
2. The proceeding will be strictly equitable. The people had made alliance with the gods of the heathen, therefore among the heathen shall they dwell.
3. The irresistibleness of God's judicial act. "Can thine hands be strong in the day that I shall deal with thee?" From his bar there is no appeal. Against his power it is vain to strive.
III. THE VERDICT. "Thou shall show her all her abominations." Here is threatened:
1. Self-discovery. All sin has a subtle potency to blind the judgment. Men are prone to measure themselves only by others, or to look at their conduct only in the mirror of their neighbors' conduct. But when the clear light of eternal truth flashes upon the soul, past sins start into gigantic magnitude; they are like mountains for their size.
2. Public shame. "Therefore I have made thee a reproach unto the heathen." This is a stinging verdict. Even the heathen, so much more barbarous and degraded than were the Hebrews aforetime, shall now reproach them for their flagitious deeds. The fall is all the greater if we have first climbed to some stupendous height.
3. Overwhelming affliction. "Can thine heart endure in the days that I shall deal with thee?" When Cain felt the full stress of his sentence, he cried out," My punishment is greater than I can bear!" The just wrath of the Creator: how can frail man endure it?
4. Banishment. "I will disperse thee... in the countries." In the same measure in which the Hebrews had been confident and boastful in their own land, was the gravamen of the sentence that scattered them among many nations. To be shut out from one's own land and home is a heavy stroke.
5. Abandonment. "Thou shall take thine inheritance in thyself." In other words, thou shalt shift for thyself: thou shall find no good beyond thyself. When men persist in saying to God, "Depart from me!" God will say to them, "Depart from me!" To be left to ourselves is heaviest doom.
IV. THE ULTIMATE DESIGN. "I will consume thy filthiness out of thee."
1. Purification. This abandonment is only for a time. When penalty and suffering have accomplished their end, God promised to return to them in mercy. Meanwhile, alas! many would be cut off by death. Only a remnant would partake of the distant grace. So it came to pass. The seventy years' banishment purged out effectually the spirit of idolatry. It was a severe, yet a successful, remedy!
2. Surrender. "Thou shall know that I am the Lord." This knowledge would be not only intellectual, but practical. It was a knowledge of God as Supreme King and Judge. It was a knowledge that produced fruits of obedience. "A burnt child dreads the fire:" so the painful experiences through which that generation passed left wholesome effects upon their children, Full surrender is the only safety. - D.
Ezekiel 20.; and so the chapter begins much in the same way - with a call upon the prophet to judge the people, and set before them their iniquities. There, however, the charge took the form of an historical review for the purpose of connecting the present state of wickedness with the past, and showing how continuously the stream of corruption had flowed through all periods of their national existence. Here, on the other hand, the prophet looks exclusively to the present, and brings out in fearful array the many heinous and rampant sins which were crying in Heaven's ear for vengeance." We have in the text -
I. AN APPALLING CATALOGUE OF THE PEOPLE'S SINS.
1. The nature of these sins.
(1) Forgetfulness of God. "Thou hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God." We mention this first, because it was the root-sin out of which all the others sprang. Men forget God's holy authority, his constant and universal presence, and his great goodness, and thus the principal restraints from sin are removed. "Forgetfulness of God opens the window to every wicked action."
(2) Blood-guiltiness. This charge is repeatedly and variously stated. "The bloody city A city that sheddeth blood in the midst of her Thou art become guilty in thy blood that thou hast shed." This may refer, as Schroder suggests, to murderous deeds generally; specially to judicial murders, consequently to the shedding of the innocent blood of righteous, God-tearing men, prophets, etc. (cf. Matthew 23:37). The city which had its name from 'peace' has become a city of death to those who require true peace." Even the princes were guilty of violence and bloodshed. "Behold, the princes of Israel, every one according to his power, have been in thee to shed blood" (Ver. 6). They did not recognize the sacred duties or the solemn accountabilities of their exalted station. They ruled not in accordance with right, but according to their might; and that might they exercised barbarously and bloodily. And there were these who were guilty of bloodshedding by reason of their false witness. "Slanderous men have been in thee shed blood." They were malignant slanderers of the innocent, who because of their slanders were adjudged to death. Moreover, mercenary and unjust judges condemned men to death for bribes. "In thee have they taken bribes to shed blood" (Ver. 12). And it is probable that Schroder is correct in his opinion that both the false witnesses and the unrighteous judges were thus wickedly employed by the violent and murderous princes. Thus in Jerusalem, "the holy city," human life was no longer regarded as a sacred thing. It was ruthlessly slaughtered in defiance of law, in defiance of the feelings of our common humanity, and in defiance of the Creator and Father of men.
(3) Idolatry. "A city... that maketh idols against herself to defile her. Thou art defiled in thine idols which thou hast made.... And in thee they have eaten upon the mountains." (On the extent of their idolatry and the pollutions thereof, see Ezekiel 8:5410, and our notes thereon.) The eating upon the mountains, the seats of idol-worship, refers to the eating of things sacrificed unto idols (cf. Ezekiel 18:6, 11).
(4) Disregard of the tenderest and most sacred obligations towards their fellow-men. "In thee have they set light by father and mother: in the midst of thee have they dealt by oppression with the stranger: in thee have they wronged the fatherless and the widow." Loving respect to parents is commanded and encouraged in the Law of the Lord (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3; Deuteronomy 5:16). The New Testament enforces the same obligation (Matthew 15:4; Matthew 19:19; Ephesians 6:1-3); and the best feelings of the human heart plead for its observance. But in Jerusalem there were those who set at naught this obligation. God had made the cause of' the stranger, the widow, and the fatherless in a special manner his own, and repeatedly enjoined righteousness and kindness in the treatment of them (Exodus 22:21-24; Deuteronomy 10:18, 19; Deuteronomy 27:19; Psalm 10:14, 18; Psalm 68:5; Psalm 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6; Zechariah 7:9, 10). Yet there were these in Jerusalem who opposed and wronged them.
(5) Profanation of Divine institutions. "Thou hast despised mine holy things, and hast profaned my sabbaths." The holy things comprise "all that the Holy One has instituted, consecrated, and commanded" the priests, the temple, the sacred vessels, the sacrifices and sacraments, and all other religions ordinances of his appointment. These they had despised. And the sabbath they had profaned (cf. Ezekiel 20:12, 24). "He profanes the sabbath who does not celebrate it, who celebrates it ill, or who consecrates it to the service of sin" (Schroder).
(6) Unchastity in its most revolting forms (Vers. 10, 11). On the first clause of Ver. 10, cf. Leviticus 18:8; Leviticus 20:11; 1 Corinthians 5:1; on the second, cf. Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 20:18; on the first clause of Ver. 11, cf. Leviticus 18:20; Leviticus 20:10; on the second, cf. Leviticus 18:15; Leviticus 20:12; and on the third, cf. Leviticus 18:9; Leviticus 20:17.
(7) Covetousness in its worst manifestations. "In thee have they taken bribes to shed blood; thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbors by oppression" (Ver. 12). Covetousness in their judges was so extreme that they accepted bribes to condemn the innocent to death. "Usury is the profit exacted for the loan of money, increase that which is taken for goods; both are alike forbidden (Leviticus 25:36; Deuteronomy 23:19)." Yet in Jerusalem they bad taken both. And taking advantage of their neighbors' distress and need, they had oppressed them by exacting exorbitant interest on any loan granted for their help. Such were the sins charged against the people of Judah at this time.
2. The scene of these sins. Jerusalem. In this paragraph we have the words, "in thee," or "in the midst of thee," not less than twelve times. This was a grievous aggravation of their sins that they were committed in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was spoken of as "the holy city;" it was the seat of the worship of the true and holy God; it was celebrated in sacred song as the dwelling-place of the Most High (Psalm 76:2); and it was favored religiously above any other city in the world. But now it had become "the bloody city," the "defiled" city, the home of the foulest crimes, "A Jerusalem may become a Sodom, a holy city a den of murderers." And if it do so, its former privileges aggravate its guilt and augment its doom (cf. Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 12:47, 48).
3. The maturity of these sins. "Thou hast caused thy days to draw near, and art come even unto thy years" (Ver. 4; cf. Ezekiel 21:25, 29). By reason of its sins Jerusalem had grown ripe for the sickle of the Divine judgment. By the extent and enormity of its transgressions it had hastened the time of its doom. In the history of persistent wickedness there comes a crisis when the evil-doers are ripe for judgment; and then the Divine executioners go forth against them.
II. THE DIVINE VISITATION ON ACCOUNT OF THE PEOPLE'S SINS.
1. They become a reproach among the nations. "Therefore have I made thee a reproach unto the nations, and a mocking to all the countries. Those that be near, and those that be far from thee, shall mock thee, thou infamous one and full of tumult." We noticed (on Ezekiel 21:28) how the Ammonites reproached the people of Judah, and were to be punished for so doing. Yet although the people of Ammon had no right to reproach their suffering neighbors, the Jews deserved reproach. Jerusalem had made itself infamous by its wickedness before it became a reproach and a mocking unto the nations. "Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people."
2. They shall be dispersed among the nations. "And I will scatter thee among the nations, and disperse thee through the countries." We have noticed this point in Ezekiel 5:12; Ezekiel 12:1-16; Ezekiel 20:23 (cf. Deuteronomy 4:27; Deuteronomy 28:25, 64).
3. They shall be dishonored in the sight of the nations. "And thou shalt be profaned in thyself, in the sight of the nations," etc. (Ver. 16). "Thou shalt by thine own fault forfeit the privileges of a holy nation." Mark the retributiveness of this. "Jerusalem has desecrated the holy things of the Lord (Ver. 8); therefore shall it also be desecrated for a requital (Ver. 16). It has wickedly insulted the dignity of God; for this it must suffer the loss of its own dignity" (Hengstenberg).
4. They would be unable to withstand this visitation of judgment. "Can thine heart endure, or can thine hands be strong, in the days that I shall deal with thee?" (Ver. 14). Says Greenhill, "O Jerusalem! be thine heart never so stout or strong, my judgments will be too heavy for thee to bear them; when they come, thine heart will fail thee, fail thee of counsel, that thou shalt not know what to do, and fail thee of strength, that thou shalt not be able to do what thou knowest." When God in judgment visits any one, "heart and hand, courage and power, fail" (cf. Job 40:9; Psalm 76:7; Nahum 1:6).
CONCLUSION. Many are the lessons deducible from our subject. We mention three.
1. The fearful growth of sin. Forgetfulness of God may develop into idolatry, adultery, murder.
2. The essential ruinousness of sin. It is of its very nature to blight and destroy everything that is true and beautiful, wise and good, right and strong, both in individuals and communities. "Sin, when it is full-grown, bringeth forth death."
3. The righteous judgment of God against sin. (Romans 2:2-11.) - W.J.
I. THE VALUE WHICH THE LORD ASSIGNS TO JUDAH. This is very qualified. There is, indeed, metal, whether more precious as silver or less so as iron. Yet there is much that is worthless; so that the Lord says, "Ye are all become dross." The inference is that, however there may be latent some possibility of good, this can only become actual after the subjection of it to much discipline.
II. THE TREATMENT TO WHICH THE LORD SUBJECTS JUDAH. The ore is gathered, cast into the furnace, left there, to be blown upon by the blast of indignation, and subjected to the heat of the fire, until it be melted in the midst thereof. Through such a process must Judah pass before God could take pleasure therein. Siege, suffering, privation, pestilence, famine, decimation, captivity, reproach, mockery, - such were the sufferings appointed for the people of Jerusalem. And, as a matter of fact and history, God did not spare Jerusalem - favored though the city had been. He poured out his fury upon it, and for a time and for a purpose withheld from it his clemency and compassion.
III. THE UTTER INCAPACITY AND HELPLESSNESS OF JUDAH TO RESIST OR TO ENDURE WHAT THE LORD APPOINTS. This is expressed very powerfully in Ver. 14, "Can thine heart endure, or can thine hands be strong, in the days that I shall deal with thee?" We are reminded of the inquiry, "Who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire." The discipline of God's justice is enough to overcome and break down the hard and obdurate hearts of men. They cannot accept it with equanimity. They must profit by it or be consumed by it.
IV. THE PURPOSE OF THE LORD'S SEVERE TREATMENT OF JUDAH. Ammon was cast into the fire, to be consumed into smoke and to vanish away; Judah, in order to refinement and purification. The intention of Eternal Wisdom and Goodness was and ever is that the dross may be consumed in the furnace of affliction and trial, and thus that the pure metal may be brought forth fit for the use and for the pleasure of the Most High. - T.
I. ADULTERATED METAL. The seed of Israel had sadly degenerated. They had been, compared with other people, as silver and gold. Now they were, in God's esteem, only as dross, and "his judgment is according to truth." What virgin gold is in a human kingdom, true righteousness is in the kingdom of God. Loyalty and love are the coins current in God's empire. A good man is worth more than argosies of gold and rubies. Wisdom, righteousness, and love, - these are the only durable riches. They exalt and enrich men for time and for eternity. Selfishness, disobedience, and rebellion are the dross and rust which eat out the very life of the soul. Real riches become part and parcel of the man.
II. THE FURNACE-FIRE. What the material flame of the furnace is to metals, God's anger is to human character. It tests the qualities of mind and heart. As metals have no power to resist being cast into the furnace, neither has any man power to exempt himself from Divine chastisement. It comes upon all in some form or other. In some, humility, submission, resignation, appear. These are precious metals - the gold and silver of moral excellence. In others, fretfulness, remorse, defiance, are the effect. These are base dross, destitute of any worth. A myriad of men know nothing about their characters until trial, in some sort, comes upon them. If milder forms of chastisement will not melt the hardened metal, the anger of Jehovah will wax hot. There shall be, sooner or later, self-revelation - the sooner the better.
III. SEPARATION. The furnace is not merely a test of metal and alloy; it further separates the one from the other. Among men this separation, resulting from God's visitations, is twofold.
1. This separation is seen as one between man and man. The precious and the vile become more distinguishable one from the other.
2. The separation is internal. In those who turn the affliction to good account there follows self-inspection, self-denial, pruning. The idol is dethroned. The vice is abandoned. The evil is withstood and fought. Refinement goes on within. The darkness and the light separate. The man comes out of the process as gold that is purified.
IV. DESTRUCTION. The residuum of alloy is cast out as base and worthless. God will not tolerate falsehood, hypocrisy, or any iniquity in his kingdom. "Every liar shall have his portion in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone." The liar is not only the man who speaks with intention to deceive; he is the man who has preferred to deceive himself rather than face the truth. Unquestionably, separation, accomplished in the furnace, is with a view to refinement, but also with a view of destruction to the worthless dross. Every man has his face either toward purity or toward perdition. The processes of God's furnace are going on among us every day. Are we getting better or worse? - D.
I. THE DEPLORABLE DETERIORATION OF THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL.
1. Here are several varieties of sinful character. We will notice them as they are here adduced.
(1) Dross. "The house of Israel is to me become dross;... they are the dross of silver." This does not mean ore, which contains silver, but dross which has been separated from the silver - the refuse of dirt and rubbish which is removed from the precious metal in the cleansing, melting, and refining of it. The people of Judah and Jerusalem had become "the ignoble dross of noble silver." "The metaphor denotes the corruption of the people, who had become like base metal."
(2) "Brass" probably indicates the hardihood of the people in sin; that they had become impudent in wickedness (cf. Isaiah 48:4).
(3) "Tin" is suggestive of hypocrisy, being brilliant in appearance, but inferior in substance and value. So there were those in Jerusalem who made great profession of true religion, but whose moral character and conduct were base.
(5) "Lead," pliable, yet not precious as compared with silver and gold, indicates the moral dullness and stupidity of the house of Israel. They were pliable to evil, yet not available for any high or holy uses (cf. Jeremiah 4:22). Thus in Jerusalem there were various types of evil character; and these types are reproduced in our own age and country.
2. Here is one characteristic which marks each of these varieties of sinful character. They were each and all marked by degeneracy. In every one of these classes of evil character there had been a lamentable deterioration. "Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water." "How is the gold become dim! How is the most pure gold changed!" Thus the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah lamented this deterioration.
(1) There was degeneracy of moral character. Their affections were corrupted; their principles were degraded; their conscience, having been often set at naught, was debased. So in the sight of him to whom all hearts are open they had become as dross. "The house of Israel is become dross unto me." Beware of the beginnings of sin, the initial stages of this degeneration of moral character.
(2) Degeneracy of religious services. This deterioration is forcibly set forth and sternly rebuked in Isaiah 1:11-17. Moreover, they had become idolaters: how, then, could their worship of the true God be genuine and acceptable? When personal character degenerates, the quality of the religious service rendered must decline.
(3) Degeneracy of national position and power. The might and majesty of their kingdom were almost entirely departed. Their national independence was quite gone. When moral deterioration once powerfully sets in amongst any people, deterioration in all other forms quickly follows. Says Robertson, "The destiny of a nation is decided by its morals."
II. THE DETERMINED DESTRUCTION OF THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL.
1. The gathering of the doomed people for destruction. "Thus saith the Lord God; because ye are all become dross, behold, therefore I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem," etc. (Vers. 19, 20). When pressed by their Chaldean enemies the people from far and wide took refuge in Jerusalem, trusting to its forces and fortifications for safety. So that city became as it were the furnace in which they were consumed by the triple fire of famine, pestilence, and sword. Mark, how naturally and easily God effects his purposes. He has not to build the furnace for their destruction: it is already built. He has not to force them into that furnace by supernatural means: in their approaching troubles they will hasten into it of their own accord. He controls all things for the execution of his deep and righteous designs.
2. The infliction of destruction upon the doomed people.
(1) It was by the hand of God. "Thus saith the Lord God... I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem," etc. The Chaldeans were the instruments by which he effected his purpose; but God himself was the great Agent in the work.
(2) It was an expression of the anger of God. "So will I gather you in mine anger and in my fury," etc. (Vers. 20, 21). The wrath of God burns with awful intensity against sin. "Our God is a consuming fire."
(3) It leads to the recognition of the hand of God.
4. Ye shall know that I the Lord have poured out my fury upon you." These words do not point to their reformation or purification As Hengstenberg observes "In the whole section the judgment is regarded, not in the light of purification, but in that of destruction; as Ezekiel usually considers the population of Jerusalem as an ungodly multitude doomed to be extirpated." Moreover, dross cannot be benefited by fire. It cannot be purified. After all burnings it remains dross - refuse. The fire was not to purify, but to punish them; not to cleanse, but to consume them. And in its fierce heat they would recognize the dread power of the God whom they had forsaken for idols, and whose word they had set at naught.
CONCLUSION. Guard against the beginnings of the deterioration of character. Seek the growth and progress of character in the true and good. - W.J.
I. THE PROPHETS, WHO SHOULD SPEAK GOD'S TRUTH, DECEIVE AND LIE, AND THUS MISLEAD THE PEOPLE. In what sense these worthless deceivers could have been called prophets, it is not easy to determine. Probably they were persons who pretended to this office, and who were deemed by their neighbors entitled to the appellation. But a prophet is one who speaks for God as his representative; and of all men deception on his part is reprehensible. Prophets are nothing if not true. Yet in how many cases have the multitude been misled by crafty, designing pretenders to Divine illumination! And not the multitude only, but even kings and commanders have too often given themselves over to the virtual dictation of men no better than soothsayers and diviners.
II. THE PRIESTS, WHO SHOULD KEEP AND REVERENCE THE DIVINE LAW, VIOLATE AND PROFANE IT. The priesthood must be regarded as part of a system, the object of which was to maintain right relations between the Almighty Ruler and his chosen people. Themselves divinely instituted, they were peculiarly bound to observe every ordinance and regulation of Heaven. Yet these are the men whom the inspired prophet of the Lord denounces as doing violence to God's Law, profaning holy things, as breaking down the distinction between clean and unclean - a distinction which it was especially their office to maintain. How should they be clean who bear the vessels of the Lord! "Like priest, like people." The moral degradation of the priesthood promoted the degeneration of the nation.
III. THE PRINCES, WHO SHOULD PROTECT THEIR SUBJECTS AND PROMOTE THEIR WELFARE, RAVIN, SPOIL, AND DESTROY. Judah had been afflicted with a succession of monarchs who did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord. The deeper the nation sank in poverty, humiliation, and despondency, the greater the opportunity for those in authority, by self-denial and sympathy, to improve the state of the nation. But the wretched rulers who found themselves in place and power appeared indifferent to everything except their own selfish interests, and did their worst to hasten and to complete the ruin which was manifestly so near.
IV. THE PEOPLE, WHO SHOULD LIVE IN THE EXERCISE OF JUSTICE, SYMPATHY, AND CONCORD, OPPRESS AND ROB THEIR NEIGHBORS. National life may be, and is in many cases, an opportunity for the display of civic and social virtues. But the abuse of the best of institutions may make them evil. It is the spirit in which the life of the nation is lived which determines the condition of the people. Differences in power, intelligence, and wealth always have existed, and always will exist, in every community. But superiority ought to be regarded as a trust to be employed for the public good. Where it is used for purposes of oppression, especially for the oppression of the poor and the stranger, such a state of things is a sure presage of national downfall. "When all men live like brothers," a nation may defy a public enemy, a foreign foe. But suspicion and discord lay the axe at the root of the tree. Such being the state of Jerusalem and Judah, all classes striving together as it were for the nation's ruin, no wonder that to the prophet the outlook appeared gloomy, and the day of retribution near at hand. "I sought," says Jehovah, "for a man among them, that should make up the fence, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none." - T.
I. OFFICIAL RANK HAS DEFINITE RESPONSIBILITIES. We cannot hold any office nor possess any wealth without incurring corresponding obligation. There is force in the French proverb, "Noblesse oblige!" Although the sovereign may be above written law, it is only for expediency's sake, and certainly he is under law, equally binding, though not expressed in words. Every person holding office of whatever sort or kind has undertaken a definite responsibility to protect or promote certain interests of the people. He may be responsible for social order, or for immunity against invaders, or for advancement of learning, or for development of wealth, or for the maintenance of religion. But some responsibility springs out of his office.
II. HIGH RANK DOES NOT SECURE HIGH CHARACTER. Character may and does qualify for office; but official position does not generate moral character. High rank has special temptations and special perils. Rank is only a change of situation; office is simply a change of occupation. They involve changes only outside the man; they do not touch or purify his real self. A man may be an apostle, and yet be harboring a demon in his heart. A man may be a prophet, yet need himself to be taught.
III. RANK HAS A CROWD OF IMITATORS AMONG INFERIOR ORDERS. Because the princes, priests, and prophets acted basely in Israel, therefore the "people of the land used oppression and exercised robbery" (Ver. 29). Vice is more contagious than fever. Rank gives artificial importance to its possessor, and exerts extensive influence either for evil or for good. As a monument attracts the notice of human eyes in proportion to the elevation on which it is raised, so according to the station in society a man occupies he will have more or fewer imitators. Wide influence is a perilous possession.
IV. THE HIGHEST RANK IS NOT DESIRED AMONG MEN, "I sought for a man who should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none." Real and thorough reform is always unpopular. Men are often eager to reform their institutions or their laws, but always backward to reform themselves. A faithful prophet, who shall recall the people back to God, has always been a scarce man. Nor is this the only time in which God expressed his surprise that no intercessor for men could be found. Yet this is the noblest office any man can occupy. Its aim is the very loftiest. It brings man into companionship with God. Its fruits are permanent, yea, eternal. Alongside this order of service every other rank pales into insignificance. A mediator is a peerless man!
V. THE INFLUENCE OF ONE MAN MAY BE ENORMOUS, Had one real man been found to reprove the people, restore religious worship, and plead with God, Israel might have been spared its overthrow. One man may save a nation or plunge it into perdition. Paul, on board ship, obtained the lives of all the crew. The intercession of Moses brought a deed of pardon for the Hebrew host. For David's sake God conferred large favors on the nation. Luther's firm faith brought deliverance both spiritual and temporal to all Europe. What one man can do no language can portray, imagination can scarce conceive. A man of wisdom, piety, and faith may quietly revolutionize the world. - D.
I. THE UNIVERSAL PREVALENCE OF WICKEDNESS. This is exhibited by Ezekiel:
1. In the absence of any effective correction thereof. "Thou art the land that is not cleansed." This refers to the moral condition of the people. The figure is viewed by some as a land that is not freed from noxious weeds, by others as not cleansed as metals are by the refiner's fire. With either view the spiritual signification is the same. "Judaea had been oft cleansing," says Greenhill, "but was never thoroughly cleansed. Hezekiah and Josiah made the greatest cleansings, but all the sin was not purged out in their days; they took away the objects and mediums of sin, viz. the idols, images, groves, and high places, but the people continued wicked; they did not cleanse their hands nor hearts and turn to the Lord, but returned to their former and worse abominations, when those good kings were gone. The Lord had sent them many prophets, who dealt with them several ways to draw them to repentance... Besides these things, God oft sent sweeping and fierce judgments amongst them, famine, sword, pestilence; and notwithstanding all these, they returned not to the Lord, but the land, that is, the people of it, did remain uncleansed, they were like a land wherein was nothing but weeds, nettles, briars, and thorns."
2. In its pernicious activity amongst all classes.
(1) The prophets. These should have been zealous by word and example in cleansing the land of its sins; but they were prominent in evil-doing. Several forms of this are mentioned by Ezekiel.
(a) Their guilty subservience to wicked rulers. "Her prophets have daubed for them [i.e. the princes] with untempered mortar," etc. (Ver. 28). The clauses of this verse have come under our notice already (Ezekiel 13:10, 16:7; 21:29). The princes were insatiably covetous, grossly dishonest, and ruthlessly cruel; and these false prophets who should have rebuked their wicked ness, countenanced their procedure, encouraged their practices, and assured them that their ways were approved by God.
(b) Their scandalous cupidity. "They take treasure and precious things" (Ver. 25). They extorted from the people their valued possessions as the price of their prophesying. They did not forcibly despoil them of their treasures, but they obtained them by arts and devices which disgraced the sacred office whose functions they bad assumed. "The dogs are greedy, they can never have enough;... they have all turned to their own way, each one to his gain, from every quarter" (Isaiah 56:11).
(c) Their grievous cruelty. "Like a roaring lion ravening the prey: they have devoured souls;... they have made her widows many in the midst thereof" (per. 25). "The false prophets," says Hengstenberg, "rob the goods and devour the souls, in so far as they stand by to help forward the robbing and murdering acts of the great (Ver. 27), and sharpen not, but rather soothe their con science by saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace. Thus they are accomplices in the robbing and murdering course of the great, who have them in their ray. They deport themselves as smooth and peaceful men, and present themselves as men of tenderness, in contrast with the rough preachers of repentance, the true prophets; but when examined in the light they are thieves and murderers."
(d) Their shameful combination. "There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof." They were solemnly banded together for the accomplishment of their atrocious designs. They had entered into a compact to prophesy the same things, and "were careful not to contradict each other's lies."
(2) The priests. Two principal charges are brought against them.
(a) Misinterpretation of God's Law. "Her priests have done violence to my Law." "To violate the Law is to break it - to offer violence to the Law is to misinterpret it." The latter is the charge which is here preferred against the priests. They perverted the holy Law to make it harmonize with the inclinations of a sinful people, and with their own wicked practices.
(b) Profanation of God's institutions. "And have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and the common," etc. (Ver. 26). We have noticed God's holy things in dealing with Ver. 8. "It was the special office of the priests to keep up the distinction between holy and unholy, clean and unclean," consecrated and common things (cf. Leviticus 10:10; Leviticus 22:1-13). They "should have instructed the people what meats were lawful for them, what not; what sacrifices were fit to be brought to the Lord, and what not; who were worthy, and who not, to eat of the holy things and to approach unto the holy God" (Greenhill). But this they had not done. "The law of the sabbath," as Hengstenberg remarks, "is given as an example. This they rob of its deep spiritual import, and limit it to the external rest, as if it were given for animals, and not for men who are to serve God in spirit" (cf. Ver. 8). By these doings they profaned God himself. "And I am profaned among them." The priests had degraded his infinitely holy and exalted character in the estimation of the people (cf. Malachi 1:6, 7).
(3) The princes are charged with:
(a) Cupidity. They sought "to get dishonest gain." They had their own resources and revenues; but not content with these, they coveted other and larger resources, and resorted to oppression to obtain them, imposing burdensome taxes upon the people.
(b) Cruelty. "Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey; to shed blood," etc. (Ver. 27; and cf. Vers. 6, 7; Zephaniah 3:3). The covetousness of King Ahab led to the murder of Naboth the Jezreelite.
(4) The people. "The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery," etc. (Ver. 29). The prophet charges them with oppression by force and fraud. They deceived and cheated and robbed those whom they dared so to treat. And they thus injured those whom they should have protected, viz. "the poor and needy and the stronger." Frequently these were specially commended to the care of the Israelites; and God had taken them under his own special guardianship (cf. Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 10:18, 19; Deuteronomy 27:19; Psalm 10:14; Psalm 41:1; Psalm 140:12; Psalm 146:9; Proverbs 14:21; Zechariah 7:9, 10). Moreover, it is inexpressibly mean to wrong those who are unable to defend themselves and their rights. Yet it is not to be wondered at that these things were done by the common people; for in so doing they trod in the footsteps of their guides and rulers. Thus amongst all classes wickedness in some of its worst forms was terribly prevalent.
3. In the fact that no one was found to keep back the destruction which it was bringing upon the land. "And I sought for a man among them that should make up the fence," etc. (Ver. 30; of. Isaiah 59:4; Jeremiah 5:1; and see our homily on Ezekiel 13:5). The Lord represents himself as looking solicitously and diligently for such a man, but finding none. "Jeremiah," says Hengstenberg, "by his powerful preaching of repentance, presented himself as such a public deliverer; but they despised him, and he could gain no position. The man alone is nothing. The position must be added, and the people must gather around him. One 'against whom every man contends' cannot avert the judgment of God; he can only accelerate it."
II. THE CONSEQUENT CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT. When wickedness has become so flagrant and universally prevalent, and there is no one to stand between the guilty people and the approaching judgment, the execution of judgment is inevitable. Notice:
1. The dread severity of this judgment. "Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath" (Ver. 31). Words similar to these we have already noticed (Ver. 22; Ezekiel 21:31). The judgment is so certain that it is spoken of as already accomplished. And as to its severity, what a day is "the day of the indignation" of God! Who can even conceive the terrors of his indignation? or the dread intensity of his wrath?
2. The total absence of alleviations of this judgment. "Thou art a land that is not rained upon in the day of indignation" (Ver. 24); that "is a land that in the outburst of the Divine judgment finds no grace; and simply, as the connection shows, because its impurity is not removed. The rain in the day of indignation would be a benefit. It would quench the flame of the Divine indignation (Hengstenberg). But such rain it will not have. The clause we are dealing with amounts to a declaration like this: "Thou shalt have no mercy when the fire of my wrath is kindled."
3. The retributiveness of this judgment. "Their own way have I brought upon their heads, saith the Lord God." This aspect of the Divine judgment has already engaged our attention more than once (on Ezekiel 7:3, 4; Ezekiel 9:10; Ezekiel 16:43).