As soon as the third verse, I’m having trouble with what I read, “I am against you. I will draw my sword from its scabbard and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked. Because I am going to cut off the righteous and the wicked, my sword will be unsheathed against everyone from south to north. Then all people will know that I the Lord have drawn my sword from its scabbard; it will not return again.” God’s telling Ezekiel to prophesy against Judah and Jerusalem because he’s against her, 21:1-5.
And then I read nine verses devoted to the sword God is bringing against Jerusalem, nine verses about its sharpening and polishing and flashing. God says it’s been appointed to be his instrument of judgment “in the hand of the slayer” to slaughter his people on every side. “So that hearts may melt and the fallen be many, I have stationed the sword for slaughter at all their gates,” 21:9-17.
I’m afraid to compare how much space these nine verses occupy in comparison to say, the Beatitudes, but I do. The Beatitudes–about blessedness and peacemaking from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount–get nine, too. Really God? Nine verses about the glory of your sword and the slaughter it will do, equal billing with the Beatitudes? And you’re talking about slaughtering both the wicked and the righteous?
Didn’t you just mark everyone in Ezekiel 9 so that the righteous would be spared from the sword? Don’t you save a remnant of these folks for a hike to Babylon? Slaughtering the righteous along with the wicked sounds wrong, and I thought you said you wouldn’t. Words like “it will not return again” to your scabbard in 21:5 are upsetting, too. It sounds like you’re saying you won’t relent at all from the coming full-scale slaughter, not for anyone.
What’s more, I’m afraid you’re egging your sword on, “Oh! It is made to flash like lightning, it is grasped for slaughter. O sword, slash to the right, then to the left, wherever your blade is turned,” 21:15-16. You talking to your sword feels creepy.
I’m not a numbers gal, but I’m noting numbers today. There are 18 verses of chapter 22 devoted to the sin of Judah and Jerusalem. I relax a little. After nine verses about the sword, eighteen more about the sin that’s bringing the sword gives them a context, and me a little perspective. Maybe if I understood the sin of the city better, the judgment wouldn’t flash-and-gong so loudly. I read that God changes the name of his holy city from the “City of David” to the “City of Bloodshed.” I’m all ears and eyes.
Here’s the list of her “detestable practices:”
Murders are done inside the city, not just out of town where no one sees. Idols are made in the city, too. City “princes” (leaders) use their power to have the innocent killed. They hold families in contempt and oppress foreigners, widows, and “fatherless” orphans, 22:6-7.
People despise “my holy things” (a reference to the temple), and they don’t keep the Sabbath. Slanderous men who kill others live there, as do those who worship at the mountain shrines and engage there in “lewd acts,” 22:8-9.
Other’s live in the city who have sex with parents, who rape women, who commit adultery with neighbors, and who sexually abuse their daughters-in-law and sisters. Hit men find homes there, those who “accept bribes” to shed blood. Others charge and collect excessive interest, impoverishing the poor and making themselves rich by extortion, 22:10-12.
A few verses later, more wickedness is uncovered: there’s a deliberate conspiracy among the “princes” to devour the people of Jerusalem, like a lion tearing its prey. They take the people’s “treasures and precious things” and turn wives into widows, stealing wealth along with the men who earned it, 22:25.
The priests violate God’s law and profane his holy things, teaching there’s no difference between what is sacred and what is common. They don’t reprimand the people for breaking the Sabbath, because God’s law isn’t taught or kept, least of all by them 22:26.
Governing officials are like “wolves tearing their prey.” They too “shed blood and kill people” for profit. The prophets cover for them, lying and “whitewashing” their wickedness with fake visions and words from God, 22:27-28.
Even average citizens are out for themselves, practicing extortion, stealing, oppressing the poor, abusing foreigners, “denying them justice,” 22:29.
And suddenly my concern for the righteous who will suffer the sword of God’s coming judgment right along with the wicked is supplanted by my grief for the righteous who have already suffered at the hands of these villains. They’re the weak who were preyed upon, the family members who were brutalized, the victims who suffered corruption of government and temple, the one’s too poor to buy justice, the untaught victims of priests and prophets–those yes-men who should be God’s men.
Social justice is a big deal to God. How a nation treats its weakest members is a marker for its compassion and is a gauge for God’s blessing. Jerusalem has become a den of thieves who kill anyone in their way, prey on the weak, and kick the poor outside. No wonder God is grieved. Their blood cries out in the streets.
God looks around for a savior, a man among them who would “build up the wall and stand before me in the gap,” who would be the hero that rallies them and brings them back to him. But he finds no one, 22:30. After all, Jerusalem’s king is a fool, his court is corrupt, civic leaders destroy their city for profit, God’s prophets and priests are bought, judges have hit lists, there are wolves at home as well as in the street, even the regular people steal and cheat.
God’s faithful prophet, Jeremiah, is in Jerusalem, but he’s been locked up tight. Speaking God’s words of warning, he’s so unpopular no one listens, not even his friends. He’s not the hero the city would rally behind. And there’s no one else to fill that gap. Though the Messiah would one day come, it’s not time for him yet. Jesus doesn’t arrive for 400 more years. But something must be done.
I’m wondering how God felt at this point? Maybe if I could connect with this story there, I’d have a different sense of his coming sword and it’s slaughter. It’s thought that how God’s prophets responded emotionally to events was an indication of God’s heart about them. Here that connection isn’t just inferred; God tells Ezekiel directly how to feel and says to show his emotion to the exiles, “Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief…Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel. They are thrown to the sword along with my people. Therefore beat your breast,” 21:6, 12.
God’s grief weeps and beats his breast? His heart breaks with bitter wails and tears? God feels. His people suffer, both the righteous and the wicked. And God’s not pleased–he’s devastated. This is not a God who delights in his sword. I breathe deep.
And I wonder…if God doesn’t enjoy judgment, if it breaks his heart like this, what’s its purpose, other than to get rid of the bad guys? Why does he bring it on everyone? I check back in chapter 22 for clues, where God speaks to Ezekiel about a metal furnace. He says his people have become dross, the metal that’s left behind in a furnace when silver is purified. Jerusalem is his metal furnace, and he brings all the people inside it to melt them. “As silver is melted in a furnace, so you will be melted inside her, and you will know that I the Lord have poured out my wrath upon you,'” 22:18-22.
My commentary says that this severe message of judgment-in-the-furnace has in it a bit of hope: a furnace doesn’t burn up the precious metals put inside it. It purifies them so that the waste, the dross, is removed and the pure metal remains. The reason for the judgment is so that God’s people will be purified through it. Many won’t make it, but those who do will be refined, which I take to mean, made better. And with this comes another hopeful thought: a metal refinery implies the existence of a refiner who supervises the process, who knows there is something that’s precious and worth drawing out (enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezekiel-22/).
I think back about my own fiery furnace and how it’s refined me, too. My heart settles.
And I begin to smell a rat.
Why does my heart feel better because I see that God has good reasons for what he’s doing, reasons I’m not necessarily privy to sitting here on my sofa in 2020? And then other questions come in, like, who am I to judge God’s judgment? Where do I get my idea of justice and mercy from in the first place? Where was I when he built his throne on the foundation of “righteousness and justice”? Ps 89:14. And do I believe that? Do I believe he’s who he says he is, just and righteous? Or is the jury out, and I’m on the throne making the call instead? Oops.
You nailed me, God. You’re right. I only know of justice and mercy because of you. If I’m judging your perfect judgment, who do I think I am? Higher than you? That’s a thought, straight from the pit. No! You are the Righteous Judge. You alone are holy and good. Whether or not I get it about what you do in the world, I can rest and trust that your goodness and mercy and holiness and justice and love all coexist in perfect harmony. What looks wrong and offensive might just be smoke from that pit that clouds my view. Please forgive!
Something snags, and I remember a little part of a verse at the end of Judah’s long list of sins. I left it off my list, because it sounded insignificant compared to all the others, like a non-issue, really. But here it is, “And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord,” 22:12. But now I see that forgetting God was the door through which all the other sins came into Jerusalem. They couldn’t have broken the Sabbath and neglected God’s words if they’d remembered God. They couldn’t have turned to idols and extortion and murder if they’d remembered God.
Forgetting God looks so little compared to oppressing the poor and rape and incest. But it’s exactly why God’s been hammering home who he is throughout the book of Ezekiel, “So they will know that I am the Lord.” This is the key thing–who God is. This is what keeps us grounded.
And it’s exactly what I forgot when I got hot and bothered at the beginning today, when I read about the righteous suffering along with the wicked. If it bothers me, surely it bothers God more. And since God is God, surely he’s got a resolution for it that I can trust. I can step down off his throne.
Forgive me my presumption and pride, Abba. Thank you for the sword of your word, the sharpened one that “flashes like lightning” and exposes me where I need your surgeon’s knife.
You are God.
Whew. That was tough. I’d love some good news. Believe it or not, what comes next is just what I need to hear. Here’s Hebrews (in my own words):
Back in the day, human priests stood up to perform their duties. Every single day they had to offer the same ole’-same ole’ goat and bull blood that never took anybody’s sins away.
But when Jesus offered his lifeblood once-for-all sins, he sat down. He and God hungout. Salvation was done. It was finished. Since then, he’s waiting for the end when his enemies will bow down. They’ll be in awe because Jesus did it all—sins paid for and done. By his one death, he made his people perfect in God’s eyes, those who are also becoming just like him.
And the Holy Spirit agreed. 2400 years ago, he said, “I’ll write my words in their hearts and minds. And I’ll forget their sins forever,” Heb 10:11-17.
Did you catch the good news?
Jesus sat down.
Regular priests in Old Testament days had to stand up because they had to keep slaughtering animals and pouring out blood. Because animal blood didn’t have power to take away sins, it had to be done constantly, Heb 10:3.
But Jesus’ work for me is one-and-done. Salvation is finished. There’s nothing more that needs doing. Jesus did it all, and there’s nothing I can add to it. No good deeds I have to check off. No sins I’ve got to get rid of before I can hang out with him and God, sitting down.
I get their fellowship just as I am right this minute, even though I got tangled up earlier in this post today and forgot a little about who he is.
But God doesn’t hold grudges. He doesn’t do paybacks. And he tells me the same about shame: he says to let that stuff go.
And it’s not just the Holy Spirit through the writer of Hebrews who says it.
He said it 2400 years ago. God planned way-back-when that one day, my sins would be soaked in blood and tossed, and that my relationship with God would be so close, his very words would be in my head and heart. Now, that’s tight.
As close as thought?
As passionate as heart?
That’s what I’m thinking.
Because God sees me as holy, I can let ragged edges fly.
And that’s such good news, I’m primed to read…
“My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, higher than the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens,
and let your glory be over all the earth,”
I like imaginin’ praise
comin’ outta my house,
loud enough to
wake up the sun
and bring it runnin’
up my mountain,
just to see
what all the shoutin’s about.