Ezekiel tells the rest of his third vision, begun in chapter 8 yesterday. While Jeremiah and Lamentations gave us peeks into what the judgment of Jerusalem would be like from the people’s perspective, here we get a behind-the-scenes look at what will happen from God’s perspective.
God’s just shown Ezekiel four places of idolatry in his own temple, where the people are deliberately engaged in worship of other gods. Summed up, there’s been the worship of people, of self, of the flesh, and of the creation, and it happens in a place dedicated solely to the worship of the Lord God Almighty. The idolatry is so vile and the people are so hardened in it, that he’s said he will remove himself from their presence. God’s got boundaries, (for yesterday’s story, see the “Ezekiel” section of https://iwantmore.blog/2020/11/03/november-3/).
And now Ezekiel continues to tell what he sees: God calls out in a loud voice for the six guards of the city, each with a deadly weapon in his hand, who come in from the north gate and stand beside the bronze altar in front of the temple. They’re accompanied by a man with a writing tablet, clothed in linen. Who are these six guards? And who’s the writer? Commentators say they’re angelic beings with different jobs, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezekiel-9/).
Though Ezekiel calls them “men,” the six guards are evidently supernatural beings with responsibility for the city. God calls them “guards” and gives them a task to do: to destroy everyone in the city of Jerusalem who isn’t marked. The writer with the tablet is believed to be an angel because he’s dressed in linen, the fabric worn by angels, and because he’s given a task, (See Rev 15:6).
At this point, God’s glory moves up from the cherubim in the Holy of Holies, his sacred place in the inner most part of the temple, and moves to the front door that faces east, as if to greet these angels. He tells the writer-in-linen to go throughout Jerusalem and put a mark on the forehead of “those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done to it,” 9:4.
He tells the six others to follow the angel in linen and to kill everyone without the mark, “without showing pity or compassion,” including the elderly and children, and to start with the folks in front of the temple. Judgment begins with the leaders, who have lied to God’s people and led them astray. God says to defile his temple and fill it with dead bodies. It’s a gruesome account and hard to read, Ez 9:1-11.
Ezekiel falls on his face and cries out to God, asking if he’s going to destroy every single person, even the remnant he’s promised to spare. God says their land is full of bloodshed, the city is full of injustice, and they pretend to think God’s already gone–or blind. Their judgment is deserved, and he won’t pity them. He doesn’t answer Ezekiel’s question, and just then, the angel-writer comes back and says he’s done what God’s asked—everyone is marked, 9:6.
Ezekiel’s been the prophet to God’s people in exile, telling them the bad news about the coming judgment from God they don’t want to hear. His compassion is moving. He’s distraught, not glad. For all their failure to listen, he hasn’t lost his love for them.
Here’s something I love. Remember when the angel of death passed over the homes in Egypt in the days of Moses, how those with blood smears on their door posts were saved? The smears were located on the sides of the door posts and at the top and bottom, forming a kind of cross. The lamb’s blood on the cross saved them, a faith look-ahead to the blood of the Jesus-Lamb, who would one day come and do the very same thing, (John 1:29).
The Hebrew word for “mark” is spelled with the letter T, called “Tau.” It’s believed by some to be a prophetic symbol, because when it was handwritten, it looks like a cross, “+”. One commentator thinks that the mark of the angel writer would have been a cross, another saving look-ahead, like the doorpost blood, to the one who would come and save them for good, (Wright, http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezekiel-9/). Even in the most brutal of narratives, God never leaves out love.
In the very next verse, 10:1, God’s described more gloriously than just about anywhere else I’ve read in Scripture besides Revelation. I don’t think it’s by accident that after the angel-writer says, “I’m done,” Ezekiel sees God with fresh eyes and writes of God’s magnificence with more detail than before, Ez 10.
Ezekiel has just asked God to remember mercy in judgment at the very same time his angel-writer is doing mercy and marking, while the angel-guards are bringing justice and killing, and it’s right here that Ezekiel writes about God’s glory in a spectacular description of stunning beauty alongside horrifying judgment.
What does he write? He sees God’s sapphire throne above the expanse over the cherubim, a space that’s said elsewhere to look like a sky of ice crystals. God tells the angel-writer to go in among the wheels of the cherubim and get burning coals to scatter over the city (the cherubim are angels of fire with wheels at their feet). With his hands beneath his wings, one of the cherubim reaches into the fire “that was among them” and hands it to the angel-writer who takes it and leaves, Ez 10:1-8.
In the meantime, the cherubim-with-wheels who’ve been on the left side of the temple rise and come to the threshold of its main entrance. God’s moved with them, of course, since they carry his sapphire throne above them, “…the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold.” The cloud of his presence fills the temple court, and the sound of rushing water, like the sound of God’s voice, is the sound of the cherubim wings heard all the way to the outer court, 10:3-5.
Ezekiel is meticulous about these details, as if where God is at each moment of this vision is of special importance. And it is. God said in Ezekiel 8 that he was going to have to leave his temple because of the four kinds of idolatry there.
So this is God’s final scene. Ezekiel is writing his swan song, where he leaves the temple and the lives of the people he adores. God brings Ezekiel along in this vision to document his exit so that his people not only know that he’s gone, they know exactly why and how he went.
They may think he’s already left them–that’s been the story they tell themselves–but God gives them the audio-visual scene through Ezekiel’s pen. God’s been there all along, seen it all, heard it all, and he’s heartbroken. And here’s how he’s going-and-gone.
Ezekiel describes the strange, high-tech wheels of the cherubim that only go forward and never roll or turn, 10:9. He writes that the bodies of the cherubim–including their wings, backs, and hands–are “completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels,” 10:12. He reminds us of their having four faces each of man, lion, eagle, and ox. If these magnificent creatures are “mere” throne carriers, what must God himself be like?
Ezekiel writes, “Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped over the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance to the east gate…and the glory of the Lord was with them,” 10:18-19.
God is stalling. Have you noticed? First he leaves the Holy of Holies (his inner sanctum). Then he leaves the holy place (where the priests did their duties). Then he’s in the inner court outside the building (where animal sacrifices were made). Then he’s at the threshold of the front doors (those steps where the priests bless the people). Now he’s at the east gate in front of those doors. What’s taking him so long? Why does he linger?
Now the Spirit lifts Ezekiel up and brings him to the same gate where God is. And there are 25 men–maybe the same 25 who were worshipping the sun on the steps yesterday. God tells Ezekiel to tell them he knows what they’re saying and how they’re advising the city, that their “best days are ahead,” days when they’ll be “building houses” and prospering. They’ve been saying that those who are left in Jerusalem are the cream of the crop, the choicest cuts of meat, and now that the riff-raff are gone–those in exile–the ones left will enjoy the good life again, 11:1-4.
But God says no. They’re responsible for the dead who’ll lie in the streets. Cuts of meat? Yes, but they’ll be devoured by the sword, not saved from what’s ahead, “for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you,” 11:5-12.
As Ezekiel prophesies God’s words to the 25 (it’s a strange interplay of vision and reality, one I’m not sure I’m following), one of the men drops dead on the spot. That’s when Ezekiel falls on his face again. He cries out in a loud voice, “God Almighty! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?” It’s the same question he asked earlier that God didn’t answer. But clearly it’s still on Ezekiel’s mind, 11:13.
God answers this time. He says that though he’s sent the exiles, far away, he’s “been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they’ve gone.” And he’ll bring them back and give them the land of Israel again. They’ll return and get rid of their idols, 11:16-18. And while that’s such great news, I don’t think coming home and getting the land back is the only good news here. It’s also good news that he’s their sanctuary while they’re gone.
Though they’re far away from his temple, he’s giving them a sense of his presence wherever they are. This would have been an unheard of mercy at this time, since it was believed that the only place to enjoy God was at his temple. Evidently God’s giving them a little sanctuary-to-go box for their exile, and is available to them ancient iPhone-style.
And the news gets better: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord,” 11:16-21.
God’s promise package includes bringing back the remnant, restoring them to their land, giving them new hearts to obey and worship him, plus giving them his presence in the meantime—and this offer extends to those who’ve been marked. For the captives, the remnant in Babylon, it wasn’t just good news. It’s glorious.
The cherubim lift off at this point, with God’s glory on board, and it leaves the city and pauses on a nearby mountain. “Then the cherubim with the wheels beside them, spread their wings and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it.”
It’s here that the Spirit lifts Ezekiel up and takes him back to the exiles in Babylon, where he tells them everything God’s shown him, 11:22-25.
It’s an ending worthy of Victor Fleming—as dramatic as when Rhett Butler says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and turns to leave in the fog. Only it’s better. God says, “Frankly my dear, I do give a damn. You’ll be back because I’ll make you better. I’ll give you the hearts you need to love and obey me. And I’ll be back, too. This time, forever.”
And here’s a last love note, maybe an unexpected scene after the credits if this were a motion picture: he pauses on the mountain outside the city, the Mount of Olives, for one last look.
What’s significant about him stopping here?
I check “Mount of Olives” in my Holy Bible App. This is where Jesus will one day teach the beatitudes. This is where he’ll camp out with the guys, where he’ll cry over Jerusalem for their hardheartedness. This is where Gethsemane will be, the garden where Jesus prays and weeps bloody tears, where he’ll be arrested the night before he dies. This is where he’ll go with his disciples after he comes back to life and leaves them to return to his Father. And it’s here where he’ll return.
This is a hallowed place. It’s where God’s heart will break with joy and with love and with sorrow over and over in time to come. It’s where his heart breaks now as he pauses on his way out of town. I think he looks back when he stops.
Why does he linger? Because even now, he longs to return. True, he can’t live with rampant, unrepentant idolatry. His people have pushed him passed his patience. His holiness requires purity. His people are so out of touch, they think he’s already gone. Wherever he is, if he exists at all, is irrelevant, “Purity and holiness? How archaic! How quaint!”
But God still wants them back.
He still wants them back?
My heart melts. Oh, God. Such a heart of love inside your holiness. How do you live with both of these things true of you without ripping wide open and bleeding out?
I guess that’s what you’ll do on this mount. It’s what you did when Jesus died. It’s what you did as you died. It’s what you enable us to do when, like you, we love enemies and overlook offenses and feed the poor, when we break open and bleed out. We are your eyes and ears of love, looking out for one another and looking to you for the love we need.
Thank you for your love that sticks, that suffers and never quits. You are the God who patiently waits for those you love, who delays his leaving, who gives hope before a holocaust, who promises good news all our days. Oh, God.
Who is like you?
I can count on your love to hold. “I the Lord do not change,” Mal 3:6.
You are very great.
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace,” 6:4-6.
Paul goes on to say that land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless, after all. The implication is that a person who produces sin-upon-sin doesn’t belong to God. Elsewhere, Jesus said, “you’ll know them by their fruit,” Mt 7:15-29.
While these words may sound like a person can sin so much they can’t be forgiven, this isn’t a discouragement from repenting and turning back to God after sin, as if “Well, too late for me. I’ve gone too far.”
I wonder if Paul’s words here are an encouragement that falling into grievous sin is a sign a person hasn’t believed, but it’s time to come now, for the first time. Could it be that “falling away” shows a person where they really are? And who they need to turn to?
So the question then becomes, now what? Now that I know I haven’t believed, what will I do about it?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…’Lord, didn’t we do all these things for you and in your name drive out demons?’ And he will say, “I never knew you.”
And what is God’s will? “To believe in the one he has sent,” Jo 6:29. Good deeds are signs of faith, but they aren’t what I need to get in the door at God’s party. I’ve gotta have Jesus. I’ve got to believe that his goodness is the only thing that gets me in.
These verses remember the history of God’s love for the Israelites from Joseph to Moses. What jumps out is how God’s word “proved…true,” even when it came out of the mouth of a braggy adolescent, who was sold as a slave and thrown into prison. Joseph was an unlikely pointer to the Savior who would come, but God “chooses who he uses” and gets the glory when it works out, just as he said. 19.
God used bloody doorways to point to Jesus, too. That story is referred to here as well, “Then he struck down all the firstborn in their land, the first fruits of all their manhood,” 36.
From cocky teenagers to wooden door posts to cross + marks, God keeps telling us the same story over and over of Jesus, with different words by different writers in different ways.
It’s a story so unbelievably good, it’s hard to believe, which is why it has to be true. It’s a “tale that is too good not to be true,” Fredrick Buechner has said (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale).
My take away to today is…
wild like wind and fire, warm as muck and mire,
in the dirt.