Idols in the Heart; Judgment on Persistent Unfaithfulness (Ezekiel 14-15) September 7-8
As chapter 14 opens, "some of the elders of Israel"—leaders among the Jewish exile—come to see Ezekiel. The Interpreter's Bible gives this description: "We may begin by imagining the scene. The prophet is sitting in his house when the leading men of the community enter... Quietly and reverently the visitors take their seats on the ground before him at his request. Their whole attitude is one of deference to the man of God. Then their spokesman steps forward and reveals the errand on which they have come. There is some event—we are not told what it is—on which they would have the prophet throw light, some difficulty in which they need his advice. So they wait for an oracle... When it comes the insincerity of the men before him is mercilessly exposed. It pierces through their deferential exterior to what is in their hearts... These men profess one allegiance with their lips while their hearts cling tenaciously to quite another. They have not the slightest intention of accepting an oracle from Ezekiel unless it chimes in with what they have already made up their minds to do" (note on chapter 14). Thus, they were hypocrites.
God reveals to Ezekiel what these men are really about, explaining that they have "set up idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity" (verse 3). This does not mean they were literally worshiping idols. Rather, they set up idols in their hearts. This could certainly include devotion to pagan gods. But, as the New Testament explains, mere "covetousness...is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5; compare Ephesians 5:5). Essentially, anything that people set up in their affections and devotions as taking priority above the true God is an idol in the heart—be it a pagan deity, false ideology, money, personal prestige, selfish pursuits, allegiance to other people or some cause, an addiction, etc. Indeed, these leaders, who are shown to represent all Israel, each had a "multitude of...idols" that "estranged" them from God (Ezekiel 14:4-5).
"Should I be inquired of at all by them?" the Lord asks (verse 3). He tells Ezekiel to state that those who have idols in their heart will receive an answer according to their idols (verse 4)—that is, appropriate to their idolatrous spiritual condition. As Psalm 66:18 says, "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (NIV). James adds in the same vein, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:3). God isn't about to give counsel to people regarding every this or that they might seek Him about if their whole life is oriented against Him and His way. His response to any such inquirer is going to be the same: Repent!—and then we can talk (compare Ezekiel 14:6). This sharp response is intended to "seize" people "by their heart"—a wayward heart in need of dire warning (verse 5).
The same applies to "anyone of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell in Israel" (verse 7). Note here that while Ezekiel was proclaiming this warning to Jewish leaders in Babylonia, the wording of verse 7 speaks not of the exiles, but of strangers dwelling with Israel in Israel's land. It should be clear, then, that this prophecy was meant to apply to more than Ezekiel's immediate audience. "House of Israel" in this passage can easily refer to all 12 tribes of Israel in our own day. Indeed, the principles of the prophecy are universal.
Those guilty of idolatrous rebellion in the heart who seek God's counsel for the wrong reasons—demanding a certain answer, refusing to repent—will receive His answer in the form of severe judgment to serve as a wakeup call to them and others (verses 7-8). A wise father does not respond to a child's brusque demand for some benefit—even if the father would dearly like to him to have it. Likewise, God knows that showering benefits on those in a surly and ungrateful frame of mind will only hurt them. And it would certainly set a terrible example for everyone else.
Verse 9 states, "And if the prophet is induced to speak anything, I the LORD have induced that prophet, and I will...destroy him." In place of "induced," other translations have "deceived," "seduced," "enticed" or "persuaded." What this verse seems to be saying is that if one of the above-mentioned people with idolatrous hearts manages to entice or persuade a religious teacher representing God to give a false message—to tell the inquirer what he wants to hear—that circumstance is ultimately from God, as He allows it as a test for that teacher and as a means to give the people over to false teachers as they desire. Furthermore, it also provides an opportunity for God to bring judgment on both prophet and inquirer as a lesson to everyone—the goal of which is actually to lead the people to repentance and deliverance (verses 10-11).
Starting in verse 12, Ezekiel receives another message from God. It is unclear if it was given in the same context as the early part of the chapter or at a later time. The subject is a land that sins against God by "persistent unfaithfulness" (verse 13). His judgment will bring it to ruin. The end of the chapter makes it clear that this message concerns the ancient fall of Jerusalem and that it was intended for the Jews already in captivity. Yet it likely has a broader, dual application, as so many of Ezekiel's prophecies do—applying also to all Israel in the last days.
In this section God separately lists four punishments: famine (verse 13); wild beasts (verse 15); the sword of warfare (verse 17); and pestilence (verse 19). In each case, He states that even if three men, "Noah, Daniel, and Job," were in the land, "they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness" (verse 14). "The allusion is to Abraham's intercession for Sodom (Gen. 18). God promised to spare the wicked cities of the plain if only 10 righteous men could be found within them (v. 32). The story generated the belief that God would not judge if a few righteous men could be found to pray for the rest. But the presence of three of history's most righteous men could not save Judah" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Ezekiel 14:12-20).
The righteousness of Noah delivered him and seven of his family, but could not preserve the rest of humanity from the Flood (Genesis 6:9). Job was spared from death, but was unable to save the lives of his children even though he was a man of outstanding integrity. Daniel was spared when he refused to defile himself with Nebuchadnezzar's food, and he rose to prominence and saw to the promotion of his friends after he interpreted the king's dream—but though by this time he had become a high official in Babylonia, he was unable to end the Jewish exile or to prevent more Jews from joining it. "Though his prophecies mostly were later than those of Ezekiel, his fame for piety and wisdom was already established, and the events recorded in Daniel 1 [and] 2 had transpired. The Jews would naturally, in their fallen condition, pride themselves on one who reflected such glory on his nation at the heathen capital, and would build vain hopes (here set aside) on his influence in averting ruin from them" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on Ezekiel 14:14).
Note that "Daniel was already a legend in his own time...! This supports the traditional view that the Book of Daniel was written in the time of the Exile, not the second century B.C. as critics claim" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verses 12-20). It should be pointed out that some commentators think the name in this chapter should be rendered not Daniel but Dan-El, referring supposedly to a now-unknown person. But that conclusion, The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains, is not justified (see footnote on verse 14).
God then makes a cumulative argument in verse 21. "If Noah, Daniel, Job, could not deliver the land, when deserving only one judgment [of four], 'how much more' when all four judgments combined are justly to visit the land for sin, shall these three righteous men not deliver it" (JFB Commentary, note on verses 15-21).
"But to vindicate his justice before the exiles, the Lord would spare a small remnant of unrepentant Hebrews and send them into exile in Babylonia (v. 22). Some commentators view this remnant as a righteous remnant, but the context and the consistent use of the term 'actions' (alilah) in an evil sense throughout the O[ld] T[estament] when referring to mankind argues for an unrighteous remnant. This was strictly a manifestation of God's grace. When these unrighteous people would go into exile in Babylonia, the exiles already in Babylonia would observe their deeds and see how wicked the Judeans had become. Through this the exiles would be consoled that God was perfectly just in his judgment on Jerusalem (vv. 22-23). As the exiles saw that the Judge of all the earth did right (Gen 18:25), they would be comforted in their sorrow over what had happened to Jerusalem" (Expositor's, note on Ezekiel 14:21-23).
And again, Jerusalem here is probably also typical of the nations of modern Israel, which has likewise proved persistently unfaithful.
The Wood of the Vine (Ezekiel 14-15)
On the night before His death, at His final Passover with His disciples, Jesus told this gathered group that would form the core of His Church, spiritual Israel: "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that bears fruit He prunes that it may bear more fruit... Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire" (John 15:1-6).
When Jesus said these words He may very well have been thinking of the 15th chapter of Ezekiel. Many times in the Prophets and Writings sections of the Bible, God had referred to Israel as His vine or vineyard. The "Song of the Vineyard" in Isaiah 5:1-7 describes how God cultivated Israel in order to produce fruit. Jesus used the same imagery in the parable of Mark 12:1-12. An examination of these and other references shows that Israel was a cultivated vine, not a wild one. God had lavished His care on it. He had planted, fertilized, watered and protected it. But it failed to respond and produce fruit. Instead, God's message through Ezekiel is that Israel went back to being a wild vine "among the trees of the forest"—that is, figuratively, the nations. So Israel was not content to be close to God. They wanted to fit in with all the other nations around them. That's why they adopted the religions and customs of other nations.
God states that apart from her spiritual mission, Israel has no significance and no hope for survival. Without God, as Jesus told the disciples, no person or nation can produce fruit that is pleasing to Him.
The Jews had evidently come to think that because Israel was God's chosen people, Jerusalem would not be allowed to fall into gentile hands. After all, God had compared Israel to the choicest vine (Isaiah 5:2; Jeremiah 2:21). However, as this parable goes on to show, the only value of a vine is in bearing fruit. The vine now referred to is, again, the kind that grows wild in the forest—the fruit of which is typically small, bitter and useless. Israel had become such a vine. Its fruitless condition actually made it less valuable than other nations.
So what purpose could it serve? The wood of a grapevine is worthless. It is too thin and flexible for making any useful items—it can neither support weight nor supply strength. Old vines were dried and burned as fuel. John the Baptist carried this message as a foundational part of his call to repentance: "And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:9).
Since Israel was not producing fruit, it could no longer be viewed as a choice vine. Both ends of the vine that made up the 12 tribes of Israel had already been consumed in the destruction of the northern kingdom, the Assyrian ravaging of Judah soon afterward, and the recent deportations of Jews to Babylon in 605 and 597 B.C. All that remained at the time of this message was Jerusalem and the rest of the kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem and the remainder of the Jews were now surrounded by gentile nations, since the other tribes were all gone.
God says that they are now sentenced to be burned. Jerusalem had escaped twice from the fire of Nebuchadnezzar, but it wouldn't survive the third time. They had "persisted in unfaithfulness," a phrase tying this prophecy to the previous one (see 14:13). Their lack of repentance was the reason God would not spare the city.
The lesson for all of us today is sobering. We must stay close to God the Father and Jesus Christ so that we can produce fruit. The modern nations of Israel should certainly take warning—but all Christians should also consider the lesson and take heed. The Church of God today, as stated earlier, is spiritual Israel. Galatians 6:16 refers to it as "the Israel of God." In Romans 2:29 the apostle Paul tells us that "he is a Jew who is one inwardly." Those of spiritual Israel are now being judged as to how much fruit God is able to produce through us. Judgment is now upon the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). We are to spiritually come out of the world (the wild) and not return to it—being instead a people cultivated by God to produce much good fruit, setting the example of persistent faithfulness.