Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? said the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
One of the masters of Old Testament theology, a student of singular nobility of mind and penetration of judgment, Dr. A.B. Davidson, has said of this and of the kindred 33rd chapter: "Perhaps there are hardly any more important passages in the Old Testament than those two chapters of Ezekiel." And why? Because, as he says, "there we may say that we see the birth of the individual mind taking place before our eyes." It was the first, or one of the first, assertions of the truth that man is more than the circumstances of which he is a part; that in God's sight he stands single and free. We can best understand the force of this particular chapter if we remember the historical circumstances out of which it came. Nebuchadnezzar, the ruthless conqueror, had laid waste Jerusalem. "He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, and all the craftsmen, and none remained save the poorest of the people of the land." That band of exiles, among whom was the young Ezekiel, was carried to Babylon, and there the best of them lay astonished at the crushing blow which God had dealt to them. Jerusalem, the inviolable hill of Jehovah, spoiled and degraded, within eleven years laid waste and desolate, abandoned of God. It seemed to them that they were involved in the punishment of the sins of their fathers. There could be no escape, no penitence in the land of their exile could disentangle their souls from the ruin in which the sins of their forefathers had engulfed them. It was natural that their thoughts should run in such a channel. Hebrew religion tended to merge, the individual in the state or family. The covenant of God was made not with the individual so much as with the State. The dealings and punishments of God with His people embraced not only the person, but his whole family, to the third and fourth generation; and so it seemed to them that they could not, for all their anguish, escape the consequences of their fathers' sins. It was the object of Ezekiel to lift the burden of despair from his fellow exiles. He discerned in the very breaking up of the national life a call to the individual to become deeper and more personal in his obedience and faith. He sought to disentangle the person from the nation and the family, to make him realise his own freedom and separate responsibility in the sight of God. God is sovereign over the dispensations of His own laws. He treats every man, at every moment, precisely as that man is by virtue of his own separate and solitary responsibility. Man is free morally, whatever the chain that may bind him to his ancestors. God is free morally, and judges every man by virtue of that freedom. But the prophet carried the truth a stage further. Among these exiles there were doubtless individual men and women who felt that the chain that bound them, bound them to an irreversible destiny, was not the chain of their fathers' sins, but of the sins they themselves had committed. They remembered the law of Jehovah which they had despised, the worship of their fathers in the temple, which they had ignored or polluted by their idolatry. It seemed to them that their cup was full; they could not escape the punishment of the sins of the past. They were shut up to the impotence of unavailing remorse. To them the prophet's message was like that which he gave to his community. He reminded each of them that still, in spite of their sins and shortcomings, there was within a separate life, a freedom which could arise from the past impenitence and return, and that matching that freedom there was also the sovereign grace of Almighty God. That was the prophet's message to his own day. I wonder if any of you have discerned with what singular force it applies to our own? The place which was taken when Ezekiel wrote, by the customary habits and traditions and principles of Hebrew religion, is taken today by the characteristic teaching of modern science. The old words of the covenant of God's punishment of men to the third and fourth generation have given place to the new words of "heredity" and "environment." But the principle is the same. Science has been teaching us wonderfully, beautifully, terribly, with what a subtlety and closeness of tie we are bound through our brains and bodies to the ancestors from whom we sprang, the circumstances under which we live, the progeny which we leave behind us; we know that our character is the product of a thousand influences of climate, of scenery, of sights and sounds, of food, of tendencies in the blood, of faculties and perversions of the brain, and we accept the truth. It gives a very wonderful and real, as well as a very solemn, aspect to this universe of which we are part. We build upon it. It is the truth that is the main-spring of all our zeal for education, of all our efforts for social reform; to that truth we turn when we wish to measure the fulness of our social responsibility. But is it the last and only word? Is man nothing but the product of these circumstances, the creature of invisible laws? If it be so, then before long we may come to that feeling of despair which lay upon the breast of these exiles of Jerusalem. We must balance that truth with the other which Ezekiel recovered for his contemporaries — the truth that man's nature, though it is inwoven by the influences of blood and surroundings, yet has within it a personal life higher than, and apart from, that nature. It is free — it is capable, when aroused, of moulding that nature to its own will. God Himself is something more than an union of irreversible and irresistible laws. He is, He remains, a sovereign moral Personality, caring as a Father for the children that He has made, knowing them as individuals, dealing with them man by man in the separateness of their own single freedom and responsibility. I ask you to consider the basis which Ezekiel is teaching us in its reference to our lives as members of a community and as personal beings.
1. First of all, there is a message to us as members of a community. Sometimes the Hebrew took joy from the thought that he was bound with his fathers and children in the bonds of the covenant of the will of God. And sometimes we take joy in the thought that we are bound together by those subtle and intricate ties to the nature which surrounds us, and to our fellow beings in long distances of the past and future. But when the Hebrew realised God's punishment in the waste of Jerusalem, he was filled with the chill of despair. No doubt, for a time, the thought that man is the product of his circumstances fills us with the energy of reform. It makes us, perhaps, with even greater zest, turn to every effort to improve the condition of the environment of the people. But when we try, how long the task seems, how thick and obstinate the difficulties, how impossible it seems to compass it within the short generation in which the necessities of life permit us to labour. And meanwhile, what have we to say to the individual men, women, and children who are living under these conditions? Think for a moment of those atoms of social waste whom we call the unemployable. You see them as they pass before your eyes, the product, indeed, of circumstances — the sins of their fathers written in the marks of disease, the sins of their own youth written in the furtive glance of the eyes and the shambling gait, the sins, it may be, of the community which has failed to find a place for them, in the hopelessness and futility of every effect that they may make. And yet, what are we to say to them? Are we to say to them with the mere teaching of determinist science: "Your transgressions and your sins are upon you, and you pine away in them, why should you live?" Yet apart from some vast, at present as it seems, inconceivable change of our industrial conditions, are they not hopeless? If science says the last word, surely they are. Yet when you find yourself placed face to face with an individual man of these multitudes, can you use that language? Can you turn to them and say: "You are the doomed product of a bad environment; there is no hope for you. You must stay as you are"? Nay! rather you make it your one object to disentangle the man from the mesh in which he is placed. You seek to find out somewhere the springs of the real man within him. You desire to create some emotion, some motive, some interest, by which that self of his, that manhood of his, may be aroused, re-created, and go forth and be strong. And you can venture upon that effort because you believe, with an instinct that is stronger than a one-sided theory, that somewhere or other in that poor, broken life there remains dormant and hidden the germ of a freedom of his own that he can arouse and use, if only there is sufficient strength and motive power given to him. You try to reach and touch and find the man within him; and that instinct of yours restores the balance of the truth. Science is true. There is this product of the environment. We must work and labour with unremitting toil to change and improve it. But the one inevitable, indispensable factor of social reform is the individual freedom and responsibility of the man. Even when you change his circumstances, this alone will be powerless unless you have changed the whole man's will so that he cooperates with the change in his circumstances; and therefore every scheme of charity which neglects this truth, which belittles this factor of the man's own individual freedom and power and responsibility, is a real danger.
2. Secondly, the prophet's message is to the personal life. There were men to whom Ezekiel spoke who felt the burthen upon them, not of the load of their fathers' sins, but of their own. It may be that among the men to whom I speak there are some who are conscious of the same impotence of remorse. The sins of your body have immeshed your body and mind in the bondage of evil habit. You can think of some mistake that you made, irreversible now, which has spoilt your life. You are tied up in the doom of your destiny. Or, perhaps, there are others, who have not gone so far, but when there comes to them the prompting of some better impulse they meet it with such replies, expressed or unexpressed, as this: "It is no good, it is too late; my nature is made, I cannot change. These heights are for others, I cannot attain unto them. Like Sir Lancelot, the quest is not for me. I am what my life has made me, and it is too late to change." And so when these better impulses come they are avoided, they are refused. Possibly they gradually die out, and the prison gates begin to close. Now, in this there is a truth which cannot be gainsaid. We cannot escape, not even God Himself can enable us to escape, from the actual consequences of our sins. That is true; we cannot quarrel with the teaching both of science and conscience. But it is not the whole truth. There remains that hidden self, that inner man, and it is free. It has always the power of rising from its past and going forth to a new future. You say it is impossible. With man perhaps it is impossible. But with God all things are possible. For that freedom of mine, however feeble and broken, is not alone; there is another free and sovereign power waiting for it, acknowledging it as His own image, welcoming it, coming down upon it, with His own strength and power. When I use my freedom I meet and touch the freedom of the sovereign grace of God Himself. If only we act upon that impulse which is the sign of the persistence of our better self, we find somehow that that strength comes down upon us. It may be a miracle. Our Lord asks the unanswerable question whether it is easier to say to the sick of the palsy, "Arise and walk," or to say, "Thy sins be forgiven thee." I know not what mystery may be behind that truth, but truth it is if only we will act upon it; if only that will, broken and feeble as it may be, will emerge from the ruins of its past, and act for itself in the spirit of return. Then it will find that the freedom of God's grace is at its hand, and will come to it and strengthen it. We must, it is true, continue to bear our sins, but there is all the difference in the world between that and being borne by them. When we bear them, our recovered spirit is master of them. Even remorse can be a continual reminder of the long-suffering of God. The weakness, baffling and humiliating to the end, can be the occasion for the triumph of the strength of God. You have seen sometimes the coast when the tide is far out. It looks a mere barren tract of sand and stone, but somewhere far out in the deep a movement takes place. The tide turns, and soon the water covers the waste land. So my life, when I look back upon it, may be the barren tract of sand, the grave of lost opportunities, strewn with stones of stumbling and rocks of offence. But if only in the great deep, where the Spirit of God touches the spirit of man, my free self can go out to Him, then there is the turning of the tide, and sooner or later that full tide of God's refreshing and restoring grace will cover the waste places. I am — in my own personal self; God is — in His own sovereign Personality; and on these two truths we can all base the perpetual hope of a new beginning.
Parallel VersesKJV: Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?