The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
He cried also in mine ears with a loud voice, saying, Cause them that have charge over the city to draw near, even every man with his destroying weapon in his hand.Chambers of Imagery
Ezekiel 8, Ezekiel 9
With the eighth chapter we begin a new series of prophecies occupying eleven or twelve chapters. Before the prophet commences what may be termed his moral ministry he always passes through an experience of ecstasy or rapture, in which he sees manifold and most perplexing visions. We can only guard ourselves from what would amount to a profanation of these visions by reminding ourselves constantly that we really have no power of literally interpreting them. We have to do with the application and not with the mystery. This is the course which the prophet himself took; hence the folly of any subsequent reader attempting to find meanings where Ezekiel himself was bewildered. Visions are useless unless they lead to some moral point We cannot understand the vision, therefore we must go to the moral! application of it in order to see its utility. Why not adopt this principle of interpretation in all cases? Why should we be so fascinated with the mystery as to let the moral purpose wholly escape us? Yet this is what men do in the matter of all the higher doctrines of the Christian faith. They trouble themselves about predestination, election, foreknowledge, divine decrees, instead of attending to the plain and simple duty which lies immediately to hand. In all interpretation we must begin where we can. Happily, we can all begin at the point of duty and sacrifice, at the point of patience and unselfishness, at the point of prayer and hope. Ezekiel is transported in vision to Jerusalem, and to the temple itself, where he sees the infamous idolatries invented and practised by degenerate Israel. Afterwards he sees the judgment whereby all who have not received the mark of God upon their foreheads are to be destroyed. A wonderful procession of events passes before his vision: the city itself is given over to fire. The glory of the Lord lifts itself from the temple, and flies away like a wounded and dishonoured angel Eventually the glory of the Lord leaves not only the temple but abandons the city, so that Jerusalem, once the thing of beauty, and the very delight of Heaven, becomes deserted and desolate, black because of the visitations of divine judgment.
What is thus seen in symbol is seen every day in reality. Men who have been unfaithful to their trust have been similarly abandoned by God, so that the divine name might be no longer compromised by their worldliness and depravity. The spirit of the Lord lifts itself up, so to say, outstretches its mighty wings, and flies away to heaven, leaving the man who has grieved and insulted it to feel how dark is the universe when God has withdrawn his glory from it. Terrible was the state of Israel at the time of this vision. Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet, held in high esteem by his fellow-captives. From the first verse it would appear that Ezekiel was a private householder. By "Judah" we are not to understand a term used in contradistinction to Israel; the captives were mainly of the tribe of Judah, so their elders were known by the name of the tribe. The vision which appears in the second verse is not a revival of any former vision. Though we are not told that this was a human vision, or in any sense what we understand as an incarnation, yet there are terms in the description of it which might lead to that conclusion. Always it is made evident that a struggle is proceeding in Biblical history towards the miracle of incarnation. The angel would be as a man; cherubim and seraphim come before us in human outlines; yea, God himself is not afraid to reveal his glory to us under human forms and symbols. In all this there must be a meaning, to be interpreted by subsequent history. What is the signification of this perpetual attempt to show us something we have not yet seen? What is the meaning of those presences and ministries that come before the imagination as if they would come farther if they could, or as if they were only waiting for the fulfilment of a definite period of time? Nothing of mere fancy is found in the interpretation that all these initial intimations, struggles, visions, point to One whose name was to be Emmanuel—God with us. In the fulness of time God sent forth his Son. In Christ Jesus we see the meaning of all these premonitions, hints, dim yet exciting suggestions.
When Ezekiel is taken, in the third verse, by a lock of his hah and lifted up between the earth and the heaven, we are of course to understand that this was done, not literally, but in vision. The prophet did not actually leave Chaldaea at all. Here is what we have often seen as the power of being absent, yet present; in an immediate locality, yet far away beyond the horizon; in Jerusalem, and yet at the ends of the earth; in the midst of the sea, and yet beyond the stars. Here is a counterpart of the action which has just been described. Whilst spirits are continually struggling to assume human shape, men are continually aspiring towards some new condition of being and service. There is a continual process of descent and ascent in the whole economy of God. Angels would come down and tabernacle with men, yea, would be as men in the mystery of their humanity; men on their part aspire to be as angels, to read the deeper mysteries, to see the upper light, and to roam with infinitely enlarged liberty through all the spaces that are on high. Such double action is full of moral suggestion, and should certainly ennoble us with a feeling that as yet we know little or nothing of the possibilities of our own nature, but that a great revelation of God's purpose in our existence is yet to be made.
In the same verse there is a singular expression—"where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy." The best commentators do not consider "jealousy" as a proper name—that is, the name of any particular heathen divinity; they accept it rather as a descriptive name, referring to an image which arouses the divine indignation. It has even been taken as generic in its signification, representing the whole spirit and genius of the idolatry into which Israel had fallen. It has been supposed that at this time heathen idols had actually found a place in the holy temple, and this is supposed to present the most vivid and appalling proof of the corruption into which the priests and the people had fallen. Since the time of Solomon idolatry had been extending itself with awful aggressiveness. It seemed, indeed, as if nothing would be kept holy or preserved from the ravages of this new spirit. Ahaz had placed an idolatrous altar in the temple itself, and had even made room for its reception by removing the brazen altar. In after years Manasseh repeated this inconceivably grievous offence. In long succession wicked men ascended the throne of Judah; with the one exception of Josiah, it would seem as if the throne of Judah had been occupied for a long succession of years by men whose delight it was to rebel against the God of heaven. Is the meaning of the fourth verse that for the last time there was an evident struggle as between the image of jealousy and the glory of the God of Israel? It has been suggested that we are not to understand by this "glory" the glory of the Lord which once filled the temple, but the particular glory which was seen in the vision shown to Ezekiel in the plain, a vision within a vision, a dim light in a far-off horizon, not the old glory which burned with infinite brightness, but another glory as of one preparing to vanish in judgment from the temple and the city. Notice the expression, "The God of Israel," for it is emphatic, and points to the God who had loved and elected Israel, enriching that people with innumerable signs and tokens of special regard; the God whom Israel should have served with daily constancy; a God set in contrast to the miserable and worthless idol which had been placed in his own temple.
It is interesting to notice that we have in all these descriptions, not the view which Ezekiel took of the condition of Israel,—we have the condition of Israel as it revealed itself to the divine eyes. Had Ezekiel been the reporter as well as the prophet,—in other words, had we been dependent upon Ezekiel for an estimate of the moral condition of Israel,—we might have supposed that his estimate was affected by prejudice, or temper, or personal resentment on account of neglect and slight; but we have the Divine Being himself revealing to Ezekiel a moral condition for which even the prophetic imagination was not prepared. It is essential to all true and lasting ministry that it should proceed upon God's own estimate of human nature. We are not left to form our own fancies regarding human origin, or human apostasy, or human capability: in this as in all other things we have to trust to a revelation which has been made to us, a revelation which would be the less valuable if it were not confirmed at every point by our own painful experience. Ezekiel is plainly told that he is sent to a rebellious people, and the word rebellious is not chosen by himself, but chosen by the Lord whose prophet he is. We should not forget the sacred and gracious fact that, notwithstanding the rebelliousness of the house of Israel, one of their own number was sent to pronounce divine judgment and to reveal divine purpose. In what contrast did Ezekiel stand to his own countrymen! How was it possible that the many could have sunk into so desperate an apostasy, and the one should have preserved, as it were, his garments unspotted from the world? Here is a mystery in human development; here: indeed is a mystery which would excite our incredulity but that it coincides so entirely with our experience. God has never left himself without an Elijah, or an Ezekiel, or some other prophet, or suppliant, that has proved the continuity of divine providence: and the continuity of divine grace.
Ezekiel was to be astounded by revelations which he never could have discovered by himself. The mighty Being under whose conduct he was placed brought him to the door of the court, and when he looked he beheld a hole in the wall. This hole or window was too small for entrance, hence Ezekiel was directed to enlarge it so that he might enter in—"Son of man, dig now in the wall: and when I had digged in the wall, behold a door." All this is indicative of extreme secrecy, as if the men would have hidden themselves from the very God of heaven, as if they would have had a hole all their own, unpenetrated by divine inspection. We are to remember still that all this was seen in vision, yet the vision itself was true to the fact, giving but ideality to the most shocking and revolting actuality. What did the prophet see when he went into the hidden place? The answer is explicit: "I went in and saw; and behold every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, pourtrayed upon the wall round about." This shows how deep was the Egyptian taint in the moral nature of Israel. Creature-worship was not indeed confined to Egypt, yet the whole tableau is so completely Egyptian that the greatest scholars have had no difficulty in considering that the origin of these portraitures is settled, During this period old Jeremiah was contending strenuously against the desire of many to enter into an alliance with Egypt against Chaldaea. Those Jews who were most anxious about an Egyptian alliance were most widely known as rebelling against the divine commandments. A very singular image is represented by the eleventh verse: "And there stood before them seventy men of the ancients of the house of Israel, and in the midst of them stood Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan, with every man his censer in his hand; and a thick cloud of incense went up." The seventy elders were not the Sanhedrim, for, as has been pointed out, that body was not constituted until after the return of the captives from Babylon: it is supposed, therefore, that the number has reference to the seventy referred to in Exodus 24:9-10, and the other seventy referred to in Numbers 11:16. These two seventies were selected for the purpose of enjoying special nearness to God, but the seventy referred to in the text seem to have been princes of iniquity, thoroughly skilled and trained in the use of all the abominations which were most abhorrent to the God of Israel. Ezekiel saw that every man had his censer in his hand, and a thick cloud of incense went up. We have seen (Numbers 16 and 2Chronicles 26:16-18) that the burning of the incense was the exclusive function of the priesthood. By offering incense to their idols the seventy elders claimed to be the priests of those idols. How men can delude themselves! how the most gifted teachers can yield their minds to the most obvious infatuations! It was worth while putting on record all these deviations from the right road simply to trace the whole history of human nature in its unity. From the beginning human nature has been given to apostasy, to self-worship, and to all manner of disobedience. Wickedness is no modern invention. Iniquity has not come upon us as the result of our civilisation. From the beginning every feature was lurid in its vividness, was appalling in the striking resemblance which it bore to the discoveries of our own consciousness. All that was done by rebellious Israel was done "in the dark." By the "dark" we are to understand that the idolatry was performed in secret. There was an open and public idolatry in Jerusalem at this very time, but such is the downward tendency of all evil that it was not sufficient to have a public and an almost established idolatry, but something further should be done in darkness and concealment. Stolen waters are sweet. Man cannot have enough of evil. He always invents another sweetness, another luxury, another delight in the service of his evil master. When wickedness can be enjoyed in public it ceases to be an enjoyment. It would appear as if the darkness were necessary to bring out the full savour of a bad man's delight.
By "chambers of imagery" understand chambers painted throughout with images such as Ezekiel saw. We are not to understand that this was a solitary instance, we are to accept it rather as indicative of the general condition and worship of the idolatrous people. What was done in this one particular chamber was done in every other chamber, and had become indeed the new method in which Israel served the devil. Conscience had been driven away from the rule of human life. The people who were once the very elect of God said in their wickedness, "The Lord seeth us not": we have found a refuge from his eye, and here we may do what we please in the gratification of our worst desires. Is this merely a historical instance? Is there no desire now to plunge into an impenetrable concealment? Is it not true now that in many enjoyments the whole delight is to be found in the secrecy of their participation? A man can hide himself from his fellow-man in this matter, and can in the very act of prayer place himself within chambers of imagery, and delight himself with visions which no eye but his own can see. What is meant by "There sat women weeping for Tammuz" we cannot now certainly say. Tammuz is nowhere else mentioned in Scripture, but learned men have discovered that in ancient tradition it is a term identified with the Greek Adonis, the beloved of Venus. "The annual feast of Adonis consisted of a mourning by the women over his death, followed by a rejoicing over his return to life, and was accompanied by great abominations and licentiousness." From 2Kings 23:7 we infer that women were engaged in the service of idolatry near the temple itself. The painful part of all this revelation consists in the fact that the idolatry was perpetrated within the sacred enclosure of the temple. This was not something done at a distance, in some faraway grove, in some spot which but few had ever penetrated; it was actually done in the temple, in the sacred building, on the consecrated floor, and the altar itself was dragged into the unholy and disastrous service. How are the high places made low! How are the mighty fallen! A decay of veneration is a decay of the whole character. Once let us feel that all places are equally common, and the level of our whole life will go down with that conclusion. For this reason it has pleased God to set up for himself a token in the succession of the days, so that we say of one particular day, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it": it has pleased God to claim a certain part of the produce of the earth; it has pleased God to ask for a certain portion of the wealth which we have earned: so long as we maintain the reality of these claims, and respond to them with the willingness of love, we save our life from its worst degradation; once let us give up our idea of sacred time, or any divine claim upon the produce of the earth or the earnings of industry, and we not only surrender these particular instances, but we surrender all the tract and area of life and time to which they belong. Superstition is better than atheism. The worship of the sun is better than the utter denial of God.
In the seventeenth verse there is another peculiar expression which cannot be explained—"And, lo, they put the branch to their nose." Learning and ingenuity have failed to discover the precise meaning of these words. It is allowed that it must be an allusion to some custom familiar to the people, but now utterly lost. The Pharisees had a habit of holding twigs of the tamarisk, palm, and the pomegranate before their mouths. These habits and customs really have but little interest for us, seeing that there remains the fact, of ever-enduring interest and signification, that men may turn from the living God to dead idols. Now the Lord stands up in the terribleness of his wrath; out of his nostrils there proceed, as it were, fire and brimstone and a great anger. He says he will delight in fury, his eye shall not spare, and he will have no pity, and though the people cry in his ears with a loud voice, yet he will not hear them. How unfamiliar are these exclamations to us! How little of accord is there between them and the quiet tenor of divine providence as seen in daily life. The words are such as could hardly have been invented by the human imagination. Who would ascribe fury to the Lord, and an unsparing eye to him who made all tender and beautiful things? Who would venture to suppose that pity would be a stranger to him whose mercy is over all his works? How incredible the miracle that it should ever come to pass that the God and Father of men should be deaf to prayer and regardless of human entreaty! Yet here is the statement in plainest terms. Nor is it a statement: in a book only; it is the saddest fact in human consciousness. Every bad man knows what is meant by a withdrawal from the: universe of all holy ministries, all tender pities, all yearning; solicitudes, so that there is nothing left but an infinite void, a great resounding emptiness within which we cry without an answer, and supplicate without any recognition from on high. Attribute as much of this as we may to Hebrew poetry, and to the redundance of the Hebrew language, man has only to go within his own consciousness to know that there is a fact higher than the poetry, a bitter experience untouched by the sublimest rhetoric, by the noblest and most copious eloquence.
In the ninth chapter there is a vivid and instructive figure—"Cause them that have charge over the city" (Ezekiel 9:1). By these: we should naturally understand the magistrates, the judges, or the: constabulary. Yet no such reference is intended by the command, There is no allusion to earthly officers. Those who had charge: over the cities were spirits, angels, chosen ones of God. No doubt the same word is used of human officers, but such officers are utterly excluded by all that gives speciality to the vision of Ezekiel. We might suppose from the words "every man" that human officers were intended, but we have had experience to the contrary. The representation here, therefore, is evidently that angelic executioners were awaiting the order to carry out the wrath of God. Are they not all ministering spirits? Are we not in charge of guardian angels? A noble yet most solemn thought is it that every city has its band of watchers, and that every man has near him the angel of the Lord, bringing blessing or inflicting judgment, or training the life in all the: mystery of progress. We cannot understand these things, but we should be infinitely poorer if we excluded them from our thought and confidence and imagination. How little we see! We know not that the whole air is full of spirits, and that every breath we draw is a special gift of God, watched over as if we were the solitary trustees of Heaven's richest benefactions. Anything that impoverishes our lives, that takes out of them such solemnising and uplifting thoughts as these, is verily a foe to our best education. At the same time we must watch against the superstitious degradation of these thoughts, lest we fall into the patronage of wizardry and enchantment, witchcraft and incantation: we have nothing to do with any attempt to incarnate these spiritual watchers, we must accept their ministry as an assured fact, and, asking no questions, must believe that if we are pure, docile, and obedient, God will not withhold the communication of his secret from us.
What was meant by the six men coming from the way of the higher gate, what was meant by the one man clothed with linen carrying a writer's inkhorn by his side, we need not inquire: it is enough for us to know that God has agents other than ourselves, scribes that do not write with our ink, registrars that are following the course of human life, and are writing in the books that are on high. An awful passage is this:—
"And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof. And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women" (Ezekiel 9:4-6).
This is not the God with whose lovingkindness we have been familiar! So should we say in our ignorance, and yet we owe the very lovingkindness of God to the fact that such anger is possible: apart from the exercise of such indignation the lovingkindness would be simply sentiment; but seeing that the wrath of God can be so terrible, we find in his lovingkindness a counterpart of that dire extremity. A singular suggestion is that that the eye of the executioner might spare where God's own eye had failed to shed a tear: it would seem as if the executioners would be more pitiful than their Lord: were this so it could only be because they could descry only a partial aspect of the awful case. He who could see all had no hesitation in giving the commandment for an utter extermination of the rebels. Ezekiel himself broke down when the fearful vision passed before him. Whilst the slaughter was proceeding, he fell upon his "face, and cried, and said, Ah Lord God! wilt thou destroy all the residue of Israel in thy pouring out of thy fury upon Jerusalem?" This was very human, but this was profoundly sentimental. Ezekiel saw little more than the merely physical suffering of the people; he could not grasp the full majesty of eternal law. The Lord gave the reason in words which cover the whole of the sad occasion:—
"The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceeding great, and the land is full of blood, and the city full of perverseness: for they say, The Lord hath forsaken the earth, and the Lord seeth not. And as for me also, mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity, but I will recompense their way upon their head" (Ezekiel 9:9-10).
Observe, it was their way. Notice in particular that this is not an arbitrary act on the part of God. This is a Lord of measurement, of proportion, who adapts means to ends, who does not act indiscriminately and ruthlessly; a God who holds in his hands the balances of righteousness and judgment, and who gives to every man according to his deeds. The Lord himself is always careful to maintain this fact. Whatever we have seen of the terribleness of divine judgment has been matched by the terribleness of human sin. We may not see it; we may look upon the divine judgment as an exaggeration; but surely those who have studied the divine way are prepared to believe that God does nothing in excess, that in reality, if we could see things as he sees them, it would be almost impossible for judgment to be coordinate with sin. So terrible a thing is iniquity I so fearful a reality is a stain upon the robe of ineffable holiness! We cannot tell how awful a thing this is. We must take it on the authority of revelation that sin is the abominable thing which God hates, that it is an insult, a wound, a shame, a degradation which can never be explained in words. Hell itself can hardly enlarge its borders so as to take in all the tremendous issues of sin.
Almighty God, help us to keep our foot when we enter into the house. Say unto us, The place whereon thou standest is holy ground. Yet hast thou made room at the altar for penitence and broken-heartedness. They have nothing to fear from the judgment of God; thou dost welcome such, and offer pardon upon pardon in wavelike abundance. We are sinners before God; we therefore pray thee have mercy upon us; drive us not away because of our unholiness. We have done the things we ought not to have done, we have left undone the things that we ought to have done: God be merciful unto us sinners! Is there not mercy in the Cross? Are there not pardons upon Calvary? Doth not the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God cleanse from all sin? Did he not die the just for the unjust? We come in the name of Christ, we stand in the sanctuary of the love of Christ; we are sure that, being in Christ, we shall not be turned empty or unforgiven away. Thou knowest our life, a dawning cloud; thou knowest our experience, a daily need and a daily pain; thou knowest our best desires, they are thine own creation, therefore wilt thou answer our petitions. Come and save us, come and help us, come and abide with us, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Our days are few; may we spend them all for Christ. We know not when our life may end—may we be ready for its close by being ready for its duties. Give us masculine strength, efficient power, great energy, and dominance of will in things that are heavenly and in things that are beneficent: thus may our life go from us day by day, and the last shall be as a gate folding back upon immortality. Pity us when we are very weak; sanctify our strength lest it become riotousness; chasten us, that all our energies may be acceptable sacrifices. Bless the old man with such hopefulness that he shall forget his days in his dawning youthhood coming to him from the heavenly heights. Bless the busy man lest he should prove to be a fool at last, saving up that which must be burned, and leaving that which may be ill-spent. Bless the little child—may angels rock its cradle, may Christ be its earliest friend. Be with the sick and the weary and the sore of heart; send such help from the sanctuary, and strength out of Zion. Give us alway to feel how great the earth is, because it is part of the great universe. Amen.