Sunrise Services at the Temple (Ezekiel 8) August 24-25
Ezekiel 8-11 records the details of another powerful vision the prophet received from God. The date is a year and two months after the first vision (compare 1:1-2; 3:15-16; 8:1). This would seem to place it within the 40-day period during which Ezekiel lay on his right side to represent the punishment for Judah's sins—following the 390 days on his left side for Israel (compare 4:4-8). (However, it should be noted that, as sometimes happens with the Hebrew calendar, it is possible that a 13th month had been added to the year, which would mean that the vision of chapters 8-11 occurred just after the 40-day period.)
As chapter 8 opens, we find Ezekiel sitting in his house with the "elders of Judah" (leaders among the Jewish exiles in Babylon) in audience to hear what he has to say. No doubt his lengthy mock siege had attracted a great deal of attention.
Once again, Ezekiel experiences "virtual reality" by seeing and experiencing in his mind what the others in the room do not. He sees the same glorious figure he beheld in the first vision—that of the Lord (verse 2; compare 1:26-28), the preincarnate Jesus Christ (compare Revelation 1:12-15). The Lord carries the prophet, who is also a priest, in vision to Jerusalem, to the northern gate of the temple. The north gate was also called the "altar gate," apparently because sacrifices were killed in its vicinity, on the north side of the altar (compare Leviticus 1:11; compare Ezekiel 40:35-43).
Ezekiel sees the glory of God (8:4)—the cascading illuminations surrounding God's presence—as he had witnessed in chapter 1. That glory was here at the temple, as were the four transporting cherubim, as we will see in the next few chapters. Yet, as we will also see, God's glory will soon depart from the sanctuary. Abominations committed here are causing Him to withdraw His presence.
Ezekiel is taken on a tour of the temple area to witness the terrible abominations. He first is told to look around where he has landed in this vision, in the vicinity of the north gate near the place of sacrifice—where a vile image is now located (perhaps implying that sacrifices are made to it).
The image is referred to as the "image of jealousy...which provokes to jealousy" (verse 3). This probably hearkens back to God's commands against idolatry: "You shall not make yourself a carved image...[to] bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God... You shall destroy their [the Canaanites'] altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God)" (Exodus 20:4-5; 34:13-14). Israel is God's wife by covenant, and He is rightly jealous over her loyalty and affections—demanding that she not enter into adulterous relations with other gods, adopting their worship customs. Of course, being provoked to jealousy essentially means being provoked to justified anger, which may be why the Jewish Tanakh translation renders verse 3 as saying, "that was the site of the infuriating image that provokes fury." The Revised English Bible has "where stands the idolatrous image which arouses God's indignation."
There are different ideas as to what this image was. Some propose an image of Tammuz, the counterfeit savior of the Chaldean religion, since his worship is specifically mentioned in the chapter as occurring in the same place (Ezekiel 8:14). Surprisingly, the image could have been that of a large cross. As Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words explains, the modern cross "had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the 'cross' of Christ" ("Cross, Crucify," New Testament Section, 1985).
Most scholars, however, feel the image was an asherah, the Hebrew term for a sacred wooden image or tree. The reason for this conclusion is because Manasseh "even set a carved image of Asherah that he had made" in the temple of God, and "he has acted more wickedly than all the Amorites who were before him, and has made Judah sin with his idols" (2 Kings 21:7, 11, NKJV). Even though Josiah purged Judah of idolatry during his reign, the hearts of the people reverted back to Manasseh's evil after Josiah's death—which means the priests may have been inclined to reproduce Manasseh's image. Either way, since the corrupted Jewish worship was often syncretistic—blending true and false worship—it could well be that the idolatrous object, whatever its form may have been, was being used to worship the true God, which He had strictly forbidden.
Next, "Ezekiel was brought into the north entry gate. There he saw a hole in the wall and was told to dig through the wall, enter, and observe what the elders of Israel were doing secretly in the inner court [or, perhaps more accurately, in chambers or a particular chamber adjacent to the north gate] (vv. 7-9). These seventy elders were not the Sanhedrin of N[ew] T[estament] times. That institution had not yet begun. They were most likely the leaders of the nation who based their traditional position on Moses' appointment of the seventy elders to assist him in governing God's people (Exod 24:1, 9; Num 11:16-25)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Ezekiel 8:7-9).
Note that these are referred to as the "elders of the house of Israel" (verse 12). The expression "house of Israel" sometimes includes Judah—especially as Judah was supposed to be the faithful remnant of Israel. That Judah of Ezekiel's day is intended is clear from the mention of Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan, as Shaphan had been Josiah's secretary of state and his other sons, such as Jeremiah's friend Ahikam, came to occupy important positions (see 2 Kings 22:8-14; 2 Chronicles 34:15-21; Jeremiah 26:24; 29:3; 36:10; 40:5, 9, 11; 41:2; 43:6). Moreover, the phrase "house of Judah" is explicitly used In Ezekiel 8:17. Yet it may be that in this vision the 70 elders are also meant to typify, in a broader spiritual sense, the religious leadership of all Israel in a future context (particularly as we will later see other indications that the vision of chapters 8-11 applies to both Israel and Judah in the end time—see 9:9; 11:15, 17-21).
In verses 10-11 of chapter 8, Ezekiel describes the portrayal of idolatrous images on the walls where he has entered, with the elders—shockingly—standing before them as priests with censers. In verse 12, it appears that the honoring of idols is even done privately in the elders' chambers—showing this to be their personal conviction. This seems fairly straightforward and yet the meaning may be broader. While pagan images may have literally been used to adorn the temple complex or its chambers in Ezekiel's time, as they certainly did at earlier times, it is possible that the vision should be understood, at least on some level, in a figurative sense. Perhaps the indication is that the nation's leaders, while practicing what appears to be a form of true worship, are really devoted to false gods and customs of false worship.
Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary states that the elders "are here the representatives of the people, rather than to be regarded literally. Mostly, the leaders of heathen superstitions laughed at them secretly, while publicly professing them in order to keep the people in subjection. Here what is meant is that the people generally addicted themselves to secret idolatry, led on by their elders; there is no doubt, also, allusion to the mysteries, as in the worship of Isis in Egypt, the Eleusinian [mysteries] in Greece, etc., to which the initiated were alone admitted" (note on verse 12).
Such a figurative meaning would apply in the nations of Israel and Judah even today—its leaders and people having rejected true worship for a false Christianity descended in many respects from the Babylonian mystery religion—called in Revelation 17 "Mystery, Babylon the Great." Indeed, as God's "temple" in New Testament times is His Church (see Ephesians 2:19-22; 2 Corinthians 6:16; compare Ezekiel 11:16)—the true "Israel" of God (Galatians 6:16)—Ezekiel's vision here may even picture, in type, the great apostasy from the truth foretold by the apostle Paul (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:3).
The elders are pictured as saying, "The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land" (Ezekiel 8:12). When Ezekiel received this vision, Judah had experienced drought and a series of invasions—King Jeconiah and many people having been dragged away to Babylon. So, the leaders reasoned, God had deserted the land and the people—what did they have to lose! In the next chapter, these words are attributed to both Israel and Judah (9:9), so the same false reasoning will be employed in the future as national calamities begin to worsen. How ironic that such reasoning itself eventually leads to even greater calamity (verse 10). Also ironic is that the name of Jaazaniah, the person singled out, means "The Eternal Hears" or "The Eternal Hearkens"—implying that God does indeed hear and see whatever is going on, and reacts.
Ezekiel is next directed to see the terrible abomination of women at the temple "weeping for Tammuz" (Ezekiel 8:14). The Encylopedia Mythica says Tammuz was "the Akkadian vegetation-god, counterpart of the Sumerian Dumuzi and the symbol of death and rebirth in nature. He is the...husband of Ishtar. Each year he dies in the hot summer (in the month Tammuz, June/July) and his soul is taken by the Gallu demons to the underworld. Woe and desolation fall upon the earth [in the form of withering vegetation in autumn and winter], and Ishtar leads the world in lamentation [i.e., the weeping for Tammuz]. She then descends to the nether world...and after many trials succeeds in bringing him back, as a result of which fertility and joy return to the earth [in the spring]. In Syria he was identified with Adonis" (http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/tammuz.html). As was explained in the Bible Reading Program comments on Isaiah 47, the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz may be traced back to the early Babylonian queen Semiramis, wife of Nimrod, the builder of Babel (see Genesis 10:8-10). After Nimrod's death, Semiramis (Ishtar) produced a child through fornication (Tammuz) yet claimed that he was the very incarnation and resurrection of her dead husband, now reborn to life.
Recalling that the symbol for Tammuz was the cross, the idea of the women of Ezekiel's vision weeping before his symbol (which may have been the image of jealousy mentioned earlier), mourning his death and awaiting his resurrection is disturbingly similar to some of what we see today that goes by the name of Christianity. Indeed, the ancient idea of a dying and resurrected saving god has led some to conclude that even the notions of Christ dying for our sins and being raised from the dead derived from paganism. Yet we should understand that though it was concocted by Semiramis, the worship of Tammuz—the fountainhead of the world's idolatry—sprang from Satan, who deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9). In his inimical deceit, Satan, through this ancient Babylonian religion, counterfeited certain aspects of the imagery of Christ's later execution to subvert and pervert Christianity for some and utterly discredit it for others. On the subversion and perversion side, he has succeeded in convincing most of the world that many of the concepts and practices of his counterfeit religion belong in true Christian worship (for more details, request or download our free booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Keep?).
It has been suggested by some scholars that the practice of "weeping for Tammuz" was the actual origin of Lent, the Roman Catholic 40-day period of abstinence prior to Easter (starting after Mardi Gras, "Fat Tuesday," on Ash Wednesday). Consider that the name Easter itself is derived from Ishtar, the ancient Babylonian fertility goddess and Tammuz's mother. Alexander Hislop, in his book The Two Babylons, explains that "the forty days abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess. Such a Lent of forty days, 'in the spring of the year,' is still observed by the Yezidis or Pagan Devil-worshippers of Koordistan, who have inherited it from their early masters, the Babylonians. Such a Lent of forty days was held in spring by the Pagan Mexicans... 'Three days after the vernal equinox...began a solemn fast of forty days in honour of the sun.' Such a Lent of forty days was observed in Egypt...Among the Pagans this Lent seems to have been an indispensible preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Tammuz, which was celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing, and which, in many countries, was considerably later than the Christian festival, being observed in Palestine and Assyria in June, therefore called the 'month of Tammuz'; in Egypt, about the middle of May, and in Britain, some time in April. To conciliate the Pagans to nominal Christianity, Rome, pursuing its usual policy, took measures to get the Christian and Pagan festivals amalgamated, and, by a complicated but skillful adjustment of the calendar, it was found no difficult matter, in general, to get Paganism and Christianity—now far sunk in idolatry—in this as in so many other things, to shake hands" (1959, pp. 104-105).
The month of Tammuz was the fourth month on the Hebrew calendar. Lent today overlaps the last month of the Hebrew year and ends in the first month. It is interesting to consider that the Celtic Britons, who centuries ago observed the mourning period more in line with the time Lent is observed today, were Israelites. Perhaps they had begun this practice while still in the Promised Land—as the apostate Jews may have also done. Either way, whether fourth month or first, we should notice that Ezekiel's vision takes place in the sixth month (Ezekiel 8:1). Though that might appear problematic, this may just signify the time Ezekiel received the vision, not the time the events depicted in it actually occurred. Indeed, Ezekiel's vision appears in many respects to be symbolic. Even if literal, we should not necessarily conclude that he was seeing things at the temple the very moment they were transpiring. His vision may have been more sweeping in scope, just as many other prophets had visions in a short time of events that would span days, months or even years in their actual fulfillment.
Ezekiel is then taken from the vicinity of the north gate to the court area outside of the Holy Place. He is here presented with another stunning sight—men with their backs to God's temple "worshiping the sun toward the east" (verse 16). "The location for the sun worship was in the inner court...between the porch and the altar. These 25 men must have been Levites if temple regulations were being followed; otherwise, the area was forbidden (see Num. 3:7, 8; 18:1-7; 2 Chr. 4:9; Joel 2:17)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Ezekiel 8:15-16).
Indeed, this group appears distinct from the 70 image-worshiping elders mentioned previously. "It would seem strange that only a portion of the seventy would have been engaged in the sun worship. The specific numbers of seventy (v. 11) and twenty-five (v. 16) were probably given to aid in distinguishing the two groups. Therefore it is more likely that these twenty-five men were priests though one cannot be dogmatic about it. If they were priests perhaps the number is twenty-five because there was a representative of each of the twenty-four courses of the priests plus the high priest (cf. 1 Chron 23)" (Expositor's, note on Ezekiel 8:16). Perhaps the symbolism is to demonstrate that both the civil and religious leadership were engaged in pagan practices—and maybe to show that the same would be true in the end time. (It should also be noted that chapter 11 mentions 25 "princes" giving wicked counsel, with another person named Jaazaniah among them—albeit a different Jaazaniah.)
In Ezekiel 8:16, since the sun was in the east, this logically denotes sunrise, a popular "in-between" moment for sun worship in the pagan world. Consider, as quoted above, "the solemn fast of forty days in honour of the sun." Tammuz was often equated with Baal, and Baal often with the sun. Coming right on the heels of the previous verses, it could well be that what Ezekiel was witnessing was the conclusion of the pagan Lenten season, when Ishtar (or Easter) was deemed to have brought Tammuz (here as the incarnate sun) back from the underworld in a resurrection in the spring, specifically on the feast of Ishtar, known today as Easter. This, then, would have essentially been Easter sunrise services—so extremely popular today in the world religion that masquerades as Christianity and yet an utterly vile abomination according to God. Indeed, the symbolism is profound. The worshipers, religious leaders even, turned their backs on God in order to participate—and yet they probably claimed to be honoring the true God (as they still do). What audacity!
Rejection of true worship has resulted in violence throughout the land (Ezekiel 8:17)—bloodshed, the next chapter explains (9:9). As for "putting the branch to their nose" (verse 17), the meaning is uncertain. Matthew Henry's Commentary states: "...a proverbial expression denoting perhaps their scoffing at God and having him in derision; they snuffed at his service, as men do when they put a branch to their nose. Or it was some custom used by idolaters in honour of the idols they served. We read of garlands used in their idolatrous worships (Acts 14:13), out of which every zealot took a branch which they smelled to as a nosegay. Dr. Lightfoot (Hor. Heb. in John 15.6) gives another sense of this place: They put the branch to their wrath, or to his wrath, as the Masorites read it; that is, they are still bringing more fuel (such as the withered branches of the vine) to the fire of divine wrath, which they have already kindled, as if that wrath did not burn hot enough already. Or putting the branch to the nose may signify the giving of a very great affront and provocation either to God or man; they are an abusive generation of men" (note on verses 13-18).
God states that in the time of punishment He will not spare these leaders, even though they cry aloud for help. We must all reject false worship. Yet that is not the only point here. The lesson of this chapter becomes clearer when we examine the next chapters in this section. They show the glory of God departing from the temple because of such abominable practices and attitudes. God's Spirit leaves when people turn away from Him. He remains only where He is welcome and is obeyed. This is true of nations, church organizations and individuals. And when He leaves, judgment follows.