Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GOD TELLS THE EXILES THAT THEY’RE UNDERSTANDING OF WHO GOD IS DETERMINES HOW THEY SERVE HIM."
II Corinthians 6:11-7:1
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Fourteen months after Ezekiel saw that majestic vision of God as described in chap 1, the Lord showed the prophet another vision. This second vision spans chapters 8-11.
Ezekiel was sitting in his house in Babylon with a number of fellow exiles - "the elders of Judah"- sitting before him. Suddenly Ezekiel was taken "in visions of God" away from his house and the elders sitting before him, was transported 700 kms to the west and deposited in the temple compound in Jerusalem. Important is not how Ezekiel got to Jerusalem; important is what Ezekiel saw in the temple compound and what God said to him there. In fact, at the end of this vision –11:25- Ezekiel relates that he reported all he’d seen to his fellow exiles.
That last point, brothers and sisters, is critically important if we are to understand the message of Ezekiel 8. You see, though the Lord takes Ezekiel to Jerusalem, the prophet does not have to speak a single word to the people of Jerusalem. Instead, the admonitions and instruction of our chapter is all directed to the exiles in Babylon; God showed to Ezekiel the specific exhibits described in this chapter with a view to addressing the exiles. As we read chap 8, then, we have to keep one eye on the exhibits Ezekiel sees and the other eye on the exiles. As to why God wants the exiles to know what’s going on in Jerusalem, that’s because –we’ve heard it in previous weeks- it’s through the exiles that the Lord intends to continue His progress to the coming of Jesus Christ, and so it’s through the exiles that God would make Israel a blessing for the nations, for you and me. So these exiles must come to know who their God is, and so how not to –and how to!- serve the Lord God. And what they should learn about God we need to learn also – if we are to be a blessing to the nations of today.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
GOD TELLS THE EXILES THAT THEY’RE UNDERSTANDING OF WHO GOD IS DETERMINES HOW THEY SERVE HIM.
1. The need for this instruction.
The date given at the beginning of chap 8 tells us that the exiles had been in Babylon now some six and a half years. Those in our midst who migrated from Europe to Australia will appreciate that in 6½ years you don’t forget your heritage; much of what you do is still determined by the habits you learned back home. The same is true of the exiles. The way they served God in Babylon was determined by way they’d served Him in Jerusalem. No, I’m not thinking now of all the rituals that belonged to the outward service of God (things like how to make sacrifices and how to be clean before God); I’m thinking now of things like whether there is room for a second god in the life of one who serves the Lord. In other words: how big do you think God is? Well, these exiles took a certain baggage along from Jerusalem, took with them into exile what they had learned in their youth about Who God was.
In exile the people felt that God had forgotten them; they were, after all, far removed from God’s temple where the priests proclaimed the gospel of redemption in Jesus’ blood. But the Lord God had come to these exiles with His majestic vision of Ezekiel 1, God had come carried by His heavenly servants replete with wings and wheels and eyes all around, equipped to obey their Master’s every instruction. The greatness of this God was pointed up more by His glorious seat high above the firmament over the angels; this was the God of glory. With this awesome vision the Lord gave a clear message to the exiles: the God who came to the exiles in Babylon was a God of awesome majesty!
Yet that did not mean that the exiles served Him as they should. In fact, this awesome God told Ezekiel in chap 2 that the exiles were "a rebellious house" (vs 5), were "impudent and stubborn children" (vs 4). In Jerusalem they’d learned a very warped concept of God, and that warped understanding of who God was produced a very warped service of God – which the fact of their exile did not change. So they needed instruction about this God – including instruction that His greatness and holiness were such that He could live only with a people who were themselves also holy. The vision of chap 8 is part of that instruction. Through Ezekiel the God of glory takes His people-in-exile back to Jerusalem to show them that His glorious identity makes certain conduct impossible. If, however, His people persist in treating Him as a small God, they may cry to Him for all they want, but He will not hear them – if they do not treat God with the respect and the awe He deserves.
That brings us to our second point:
2. The content of this instruction.
God instructed the exiles about Himself by taking Ezekiel from Babylon to the temple compound of Jerusalem. That temple had been completed years ago in the days of Solomon, but several of the kings since did maintenance and expansion work on the temple and yard around it. The expansion work included the construction of two walls around the temple. The temple itself (with its Holy Place and the Holy of Holies) had its entrance facing east. Around the temple one of the kings had built a wall enclosing an inner court (with the temple proper in the middle of this inner court). This wall had a couple of gates; the one mentioned in our chapter is called "the North Gate". Further out a second wall was built enclosing an outer court, with also a gate in the north wall.
The Holy Spirit placed Ezekiel –says vs 3- in the inner court, just inside the North Gate. So: Ezekiel is not in the temple proper, in the Holy Place or the Holy of Holies, but in the courtyard just outside the temple proper, inside the inner wall, just north of the altar of burnt offering. His spot near the North Gate in the inner wall was next to the place where "the seat of the image of jealousy was," an image the exiles in Babylon could remember from their time in Jerusalem 6½ years ago.
As Ezekiel stood on that spot, "behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the plain" – says the prophet in vs 4. That’s to say: Ezekiel saw in the temple compound the same glorious vision he’d seen 14 months ago in Babylon. And yes, congregation, this made perfect sense. For the temple was the place where the Lord God had been pleased to make His home among His covenant people – on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. Recall that when Solomon opened the temple years ago the "glory of the Lord" had been displayed to the people (cf I Kings 8:10f; II Chron 7:1ff); God Himself had made His home in the temple. So majestic was that glory, says I Kings 8, that the priests could not continue their sacrifices "for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord." Then it’s true that in the days and years that passed the glory of the Lord was not evident for the eye to see anymore, but that did not change the fact that the Lord of glory dwelt in the temple. Well now, Ezekiel may see in the temple this same "glory of the Lord," – with all the majesty of chap 1, God Almighty carried by glorious living creatures themselves full of eyes and wings and wheels – awesome!
While Ezekiel beholds "the glory of the God of Israel", his divine Tour Guide –vs 5- instructed Ezekiel to take careful note of the "image of jealousy in the entrance." The word Ezekiel uses here for ‘image’ makes clear that this statue was an Asherah, image of the Canaanite goddess of fertility. To Canaanite thinking you could get a fruitful year only if you acknowledged Asherah, ie, gave yourself through sexual ritual to this goddess; only then would she give rain and made the crops grow. Notice: this statue had received a fixed place in the temple compound. Anyone who wished to make a sacrifice to God on the altar of the temple had to pass through the gates of the outer and inner wall, had to pass by this statue to get to the Lord’s altar. We realize: that this Asherah received a place at the gate leading to the temple speaks volumes about Israel’s trust in God as the Giver of daily bread! Then certainly, a good Israelite would make his sacrifices to God, of course. But you trusted Asherah to fill your stomach, and so you acknowledged her before you presented your sacrifice at the altar of the temple. No wonder that God describes this statue as "the image of jealousy which provokes to jealousy." Here’s a warped theology, the thought that Israel’s God was not big enough to supply the rain and make the crops grow. To survive in the rough and tumble of real life you needed a second god beside Him – Asherah. That’s a theology the exiles had learned in their youth and taken with them to Babylon.
But look: over there is the glory of the God of Israel, the vision of chap 1: fire and brightness, and in the fiery brightness four living creatures sparkling like the color of burnished bronze, with wings that touch each other and faces of a man and a lion and an ox and an eagle, and they’re dashing back and forth like a flash of lightning, and they have wheels under them which are full of eyes, so high they are awesome, and they’re carrying a firmament like the color of an awesome crystal, and above the firmament a throne in appearance like a sapphire stone, and high above the throne "a likeness with the appearance of a man" looking like fire in brightness all around…. Shall this glorious God consort with a wimp of a god as this Asherah-made-of-stone?! How ridiculous the thought! Vs 6: if the people shall insist that a second god –of wood or stone!- receive a place in God’s temple, He shall leave, shall move far away from His sanctuary. Then His people may cry to Him, but He will not hear….
Why, congregation, must the exiles in Babylon have this exhibit described to them? The reason is this: the God of glory was interested in those exiles, for through them God would bless the world, from them the Christ had to come. But the warped theology that allows a second god in the presence of Israel’s God had traveled to Babylon with the exiles (it was how they’d been brought up), and this warped theology compels God to leave the exiles. If the exiles are to enjoy the presence of the God of glory –their God by covenant- they are to have such big thoughts of God that they have no room for a second god in their lives. This is God’s point: the exiles are to engage in self-examination to make sure that they have very big thoughts of God, are to examine also whether they in practice give any room to a second god in their lives. Do they trust Asherah to give good crops? Do they trust the doctors to give human fertility, children to the barren? Do they trust the nation’s treasurer to give a growing economy? "Idolatry is having or inventing something in which to put our trust instead of, or in addition to, the only true God" (Lord’s Day 34.95). Israelites in exile: do you put your trust, for any matter of life or death, in any place other than God, and God alone? That is: do you understand how great God is? Are you so taken by the majesty of the God of Ezekiel 1 that you put your total trust in Him alone – for every aspect of your life, including the bedroom and the boardroom, the kitchen and the classroom?
After this first exhibit the Lord takes Ezekiel to "the door of the court," where he finds a hole in the wall (vss 7-13). After some digging in the hole Ezekiel finds a secret door, and on the other side of the door a secret room full of "every sort of creeping thing, abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed all around on the walls" – all things God had banned as evil or symbols of evil. As I read of these images on the wall I’m reminded of the pictures Pym Fortuyne is reported to have had on the walls of his study; "various small black and white photographs of naked men in various degrees of embrace," I read in the paper. I mention Pym Fortuyne here because the photos in his study were obviously an extension of the man, portrayed values important to the man. Here now, on the walls of a room in the temple compound, were also portrayed values someone considered important. Who? Vs 11: "there stood before them seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel." That is: these pictures were important to the leaders of the people, were extensions of the leaders’ thinking, showed what was in their heart. And no, these leaders do not place their abominations miles away from where God dwells; rather, they placed pictures of their abominations in the temple of the living God!
Of course, if you have small thoughts of God, and you conceive of God as a Deity who condones your evil tastes, OK, you can justify putting such images in God’s temple. But outside the room, by the north gate of the inner court was the glory of the God of Israel – awesome in majesty!
Do you see, beloved, how revolting, how upsetting to holy God such apostasy is in His presence? It’s as if the respected men of this church would paste onto the wall of the storage room beside the kitchen pictures of snakes and witches and yes, pornography also (and do it all in secret as the elders of Exhibit Two were doing), and all the while knowing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed here in the auditorium. This is blasphemy!
But the worst of it, beloved, was not that these leaders had portrayed their abominable images somewhere in the temple compound. God tells Ezekiel to observe what these leaders are doing. Vs 11: "Each man had a censer in his hand, and a thick cloud of incense went up." Censers, incense: that’s symbolic in Old Testament Israel for prayer (cf Ps 141:2). That is, then: these elders are praying in front of their images, praying to these images! And that right there in the temple of God! Why? How do they dare? Vs 12: "they say, ‘The Lord does not see us.’" You see, such is their thoughts of God; they think that God can’t see them in their secret little room…. So they can keep some closet religion, do their vile deeds in secret, and then join the people in offering a sacrifice to God on the altar….
Again we understand: how small, how warped their thoughts of God! These are the people who taught also the exiles before their exile about God; it can’t be surprising, then, that the exiles have small and warped thoughts of God also. But in the courtyard of the temple stands the glory of the God of Israel, as described in chap 1, and the presence of this Glory makes preposterous the notion that God can’t see what goes on in the closets of Israel’s leaders. He knows, and will not tolerate their abominations; such behavior compels God to move away, compels God to close His ears to their cries. This is the lesson that the exiles in Babylon need to learn. God has come to them –Ezekiel 1- because God would bless the world through them. But if He is to stay in their midst they must have big thoughts of God, serve Him in holiness, tolerate no closet behavior in their places of worship or in their private lives. The glorious God of Ezek 1 does see His people’s secret sins, and He will expose them to all the world – to the shame of those who think so small of God….
How great the challenge for us, beloved! The newspapers give us an endless list of secret sins committed by leaders of the Christian world, including sins of child abuse and homosexual encounters and financial scandal (though the last two are not seen to be so sinful anymore…). Let it be impressed on the leaders of the church and the leaders of the schools and the leaders in the families: even leaders shall not get away with their secret behavior. God’s identity as the God of glory –that vision of Ezekiel 1- precludes that possibility; this majestic God will rip open the hidden doors of secret closets of our lives! He is God, and all who know Him must worship Him in sincerity and in truth – with no room for secretly putting their hand in any cookie jar.
The Lord now took Ezekiel to "the door of the north gate of the Lord’s house," says vs 14. In all likelihood, this is a reference to the main entrance from the street through the outer wall into the outer courtyard of the temple compound. Ezekiel’s tour guide shows him "women … sitting there weeping for Tammuz." Bible dictionaries tell us that Tammuz was a Babylonian god who died every year when the paddocks turned brown, and arose every year when the paddocks turned green again. To be precise, the paddocks turned green because Tammuz arose from the dead, and so this god’s resurrection was essential for the world’s survival. So you get the question: how do you ensure this god’s resurrection? Part of the answer lay in a wailing ritual when the god died. Well, that’s what the women of Israel were busy doing at the entrance to the temple compound. 6½ years earlier Babylon had defeated Jerusalem, and so Babylon’s gods were obviously strong gods; how fitting, then, to take on board bits and pieces from Babylonian worship in their attempt to get a fruitful year next year…. Asherah at the gate of the inner court, the Tammuz wail at the gate of the outer court….
Are we to think that these women had no regard for the Lord God, had really become heathens? No, not likely. Instead, they borrow elements from other religions for the service of their God. Therein they display their conviction that the Lord God of Israel is not infinitely different from other gods; they instead adopt the multiculturalism of their day and give respect to all gods. But in so doing they forget that in the temple dwells the God of glory; even now the glory of the God of Israel, as Ezekiel had seen Him in chap 1, was there in the inner court of the temple compound! An awareness of Who Israel’s God-by-covenant was would make such syncretism impossible; you cannot acknowledge the Lord as God and at the same time give acknowledgment in some way to other gods. For the Lord is all or He is not.
How powerful the message for the exiles of Babylon! It was so tempting for them to merge themselves into the religions of their new land, act as if the Lord God was not the almighty; then they wouldn’t have to be different either. That is: it was so tempting to develop small thoughts of God, have a theology of God that has room for other gods. But the greatness of God as revealed in chap 1 excludes that possibility; His uniqueness means His people need to be different – lest God leave the exiles and forfeit their place as a blessing to the world.
Again, we know ourselves addressed too. Accept today’s theology that Allah is God also? No, beloved, no! Your God is too great to have a second god even stand in His shadow; beside His greatness Allah, Buddha, Mammon, Eros are nothing. That means too that you cannot borrow any aspect from another religion in order to serve the Lord. Where one would try that you will lose God, simply because God is too great to be in the company of another god; God will leave you. In simple terms there you have the reason why the style of music that is used for the service of heathen gods can simply have no place in the service of the Lord. Woe to the church who would give contemporary music a place in her liturgy; that church simply chases God away so that God will not hear when they cry to Him. And the same is true for the home.
The last exhibit is located inside the inner court, at the entrance to the temple itself, between the porch (that’s around the front door of the temple) and the altar for burnt offerings which stood just outside the front door of the temple and south of the North Gate. Here were about 25 men, probably priests (since they were so close to the door of the temple, near the main altar). What they were doing? The sun was coming up in the east, and so they all turned their backs to the Lord God in the Holy of Holies, and turned their faces to the sun in the east, and they did obeisance to the sun, worshiped the sun…. Think that through, beloved. If, as seems likely, these men were priests, it would be their God-given task to do the temple work, including the sacrifices on the altar – and that’s the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ!! But before they begin their work in the temple, before they preach the gospel and lead in public prayers and teach the people the true religion and do whatever else was required of the priests and Levites, they first worship the sun. What a way for a servant of the only true God to begin his day! Here is hypocrisy a mile thick! God’s identity doesn’t allow for this kind of thing. The exiles have to know it; we have to know it. You would spend your day in the service of the Lord God? Then you cannot begin your day with yoga or with a sacrifice to your witch; God is too great, too awesome to tolerate that. You would try it nevertheless? Then God simply moves out of your life. And when you call upon God in the day of trouble, He will not hear….
Those, beloved, are the four exhibits Ezekiel’s heavenly Tour Guide shows the prophet in the temple. We need still to tie all this material together, and that’s our last point:
3. The lesson of this instruction.
The four exhibits together, congregation, pointed up how warped Israel’s theology of God had become. But the Lord does not leave His message to the exiles at that. For in vs 17 the Lord draws out for Ezekiel in very brief terms the practical consequences of the people’s warped thinking about God. The consequence, says God, is this: "they have filled the land with violence." The Lord describes this violence with more detail in chap 9:9: "the land is full of bloodshed, and the city full of perversity." This violence in the land, bloodshed, murder, rape, etc, is –says God- the inevitable result of having small thoughts of God. To have small thoughts of God, to think that God doesn’t see evil, to think that God tolerates a place amongst other gods in your life, leads invariably to committing violence, bloodshed, rape. That’s so obvious. There is no deterrent to sin more effective than a strong awareness of Who God is! Ezek 1: the prophet sees the glory of the God of Israel and falls flat on his face. Are His thoughts at that moment then with violence – be it murder or rape or embezzlement or what have you? Of course not; he’s so taken by the greatness of this God that his mind is full of God, he wants to live for this God.
So it is for the exiles. If they shall have small thoughts of God, if they shall maintain the theology of God with which they grew up in Jerusalem, then they in exile shall simply carry on with the sins of their past. And the God who came to them in glory –Ezek 1- shall depart from them again, shall not hear when they cry. But if they have thoughts of God that do justice to His self-revelation in chap 1, they shall live as holy people in Babylon, and so they shall be a people prepared for the coming of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, and so be a blessing for the world as a whole.
As the years and the centuries passed, it became evident that Yes, the exiles had taken to heart something of the greatness of God, and it affected the way they lived. But they had no more than such a tiny beginning of the obedience God’s identity required….
How wonderful God’s grace, then, that in the fullness of time He revealed His glory in Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14). And see: Jesus was fully taken by God’s greatness, stood in such awe of God that His every wish was to do His Father’s will. And He did – even to the death of the cross on behalf of sinners! So the God-of-glory took Jesus Christ into glory – ascension.
Yet this Christ is not absent from us; the God of glory, in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, has made His home in our hearts – says Paul to the Corinthians. "You," he says, "are the temple of the living God" (II Cor 6:16) – and yes, the living God is the God of Ezekiel 1!. So the lesson the exiles had to learn is more urgent for us than it was for the exiles; if you and I are today individually a temple of the Holy Spirit, if in His Spirit the awesome God of Ezek 1 lives in each of us, how imperative it is that we be duly impressed with His holiness! Room for an Asherah, a sex symbol, in our lives? Room for closet practices –be it in the bedroom or on the internet or behind the shed or in the car- on the assumption that God won’t see what we’re really doing – and then return to our families and club meetings and worship services as if we’re honest and devout Christians? Room for open devotion to a second god, so that we combine the service of the Lord with the service of Money, the service of the Lord with the service of Fitness, the service of the Lord with the service of Comfort? Room in our service of God for patterns of service borrowed from heathens – be it in church, in school or in the home? Make no mistake, beloved of the Lord, the greatness and majesty of the God who sent His Son into this world to pay for sin, the greatness and majesty of the God who adopted you to be His child-by-covenant allows for no two-timing! "What communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?" (II Cor 6:14ff). Given the material of Ezekiel 8, the command of Paul to the Corinthians remains so powerful for us: "let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor 7:1). Only when the church altogether and the individual members separately get their eyes off anything and everything of this creation, and focus their hope on God almighty and see Him alone in His greatness and splendor, can the church and the Christian be a blessing in the community. For straight ethics comes from straight theology.
Why would the awesome God of heaven and earth set before us modern people the material of Ezek 8? Simply, beloved, because He wants us to be completely taken by His greatness. He means it when He says that He will not hear when persons with a warped theology cry to Him. And He does not want that to happen to us!
What love that is! Amen.