So much for the love of pants. This may be the raunchiest chapter in the whole Bible for its graphic description of idolatry as an insatiable lust for power and sex and how it enslaves and eventually destroys us. In chapter 23, Ezekiel tells the stories of Oholah and Oholibah, sisters who are unfaithful in marriage and become promiscuous with pretty much anything wearing pants.
Judah’s prostitution with other nations began with what they saw: the well dressed soldiers of those nations who wore (their equivalent of) pants. It’s ironic that their panting-for-pants took them into all sorts of defilements until eventually, these “pants” turn around and return to wipe them out.
The capital cities of Israel and Judah, which were Samaria and Jerusalem, are guilty of gross idolatry against God. In the two-sisters-story, Oholah is Samaria and Oholibah is Jerusalem. They both look to the well established, well heeled nations around them and invite them as friends-with-benefits. They hope to make alliances with gifts in exchange for protection, attracting them like prostitutes who offer sexual favors. Adopting their cultures and worshipping their idols is part of their illogical strategy for gaining what they perceive to be the deeper sources of their power.
Samaria “…lusted after her lovers, the Assyrian–warriors in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, and mounted horsemen,” 23:5-6. As for Judah, they first longed for Assyria’s protection, too, but then became fixated on Babylon, who conquered Assyria. The Babylonians were first seen by Judah in a wall mural where they were “…portrayed in red, with belts around their waists and flowing turbans on their heads; all of them looked like Babylonian chariot officers, natives of Chaldea. As soon as she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea,” 23:14-16.
Israel and Judah were two parts of the nation known collectively as “Israel” and was established much later than the other nations around them. I’m guessing they must have felt embarrassed by their naive and unsophisticated worship of only one God, with the attending animal sacrifices at the temple, compared with the sexual immorality and child sacrifice practiced by stronger, sexier nations.
Along with having what they maybe saw as an antiquated religious system, they had little recognizable sources of military power. Their population was small by comparison with other nations; they hadn’t the ability to supply a numerous army. By the specific mention of the chariot officers and mounted horsemen of other nations in chapter 23, I assume that chariots and calvary were longed for but not possessed. God says they lusted for these things like a prostitute lusts for lovers, 23:5, 12.
The primary symbol of power for a nation at that time was its military strength. Samaria wanted Assyria’s power and protection and tried to form a political alliance to ensure it. Judah followed suit and first courted Assyria and then Babylon, all the while maintaining a connection with Egypt. God describes this desire for power as a sexual lust that consumed them and drove them to defile not only themselves but also his temple. On the same day they burned their babies in idol worship, they’d show up for worship at God’s temple, Ez 23:38-39.
God’s people might have thought they were naive in worship compared to other nations, but they certainly weren’t naive about sin. They’d participated in idol worship as far back as their slavery days in Egypt, when their nation first began a thousand years before. God said to leave those idols behind, but they packed them up with their flatbread and brought ’em along instead, Ez 20:7-8.
The golden calf at Mt. Sinai that mysteriously came out of the fire wasn’t an image they invented on the spot, Ex 32:22-24. It was a well known, well worshipped image from Egypt (bible-history.com/biblestudy/bullworship.html). Joshua tells them when he takes over after Moses to “throw away the gods your ancestors worship” and to worship God alone, Josh 24:14. It was a problem well before Egypt, too; Jacob told his family on a road trip to “put away their foreign gods,” Gen 35:2. And it’s persisted clear up to the days of Ezekiel, “She did not give up the prostitutions she began in Egypt…,” Ez 23:8.
A fascination with the trends of the day isn’t a new phenomenon. And it’s understandable that as a weaker nation, Israel and Judah felt vulnerable before their powerful neighbors. But God had made it clear in the desert that they were to look to him alone for protection. His display of power over the Egyptians at the Red Sea should have settled any questions of whose God was most powerful, but being forgetful and hardhearted, they just didn’t get it. Though God had come to their rescue over and over ever since, their God memories had a short shelf life. And years upon years later, those stories had ducked out of history and into irrelevant myth, as had any meaning in their worship. Why are we doing this again? Even the priests had forgotten.
God brought judgment first on Samaria as the elder sister in the story for forsaking him and his protection. She should have been a sobering example to Jerusalem for what not to do, but Jerusalem paid no attention, and the lesson God intended was lost on them. Their kings continued to do the very same thing as Samaria’s had, trying to make those alliances.
While the Judeans felt superior to Israel, God said they’re worse. They had the example of Samaria to learn from, and they had the temple of God among them. Samaria had long ago set up its own worship of a golden calf, but Jerusalem had the center for true-God-worship in her midst. While it had been corrupted through generations, it was still open and available.
Jerusalem was also worse than Samaria because she revived the worship of Egypt’s gods, becoming nostalgic of the idolatry of her past and falling into more of it for ol’ times sake. The most graphic sexual language of this chapter is here and describes their idolatry with Egyptian gods. It’s believed that God spoke this way, intending to shock his listeners from their complacency, and it’s here that God says he “turned away from her in disgust,” 23:17, (Guzik, enduringword.com/bible-commentary/ezekiel-23/)
Interestingly, as sophisticated as Jerusalem thought it was to engage in every sort of idolatry under the sun, she wasn’t in tune enough with the traditional worship of her One True God in her midst, not even for ol’ times sake, the one who’d founded them and fought for them and was still with them. This God, her true husband, she ignored and abandoned altogether.
So what does God do? He says he will “stir up her lovers against [her],” the Babylonians and Assyrians and others on “every side,” and they will prevail. God knows what’s up and he mentions the chariot officers and the mounted horsemen, those very symbols of power she most wanted for herself. These are those God brings against her to undo her, 23:22-23.
And what will they do? They’ll come against Judah with weapons and wagons, a throng of people with shields, helmets, and swords. God will turn his people over to them, and they’ll punish them “according to their standards,” meaning they’ll cut off their noses and ears, capture their sons and daughters, strip them of their wealth, and consume those left alive with fire, 23:22-26. “They will deal with you in hatred and take away everything you have worked for, and the shame of your prostitution will be exposed,” 23:29.
At this point in the chapter, the sisters are broken down whores, old and unwanted with eye paint peeling. God stops using them as a metaphor and turns to his people and the bottom line: “this will happen because you’ve forgotten me,” he says in effect. “And I want you back but without the idolatry you cling to. So I’m letting you taste the last bitter drops of it. Do you know where idolatry always leads? Right where you’ve landed, in slavery and death. Let it go and live!” 23:30-35, 49; Ez 18:32.
When I think about what idolatry looks like today, I see the same end. Our idols aren’t jewelry laden pieces of painted wood, but they can be the designer-clad children at our tables, the homes we deck with the latest trends, the jobs we’ve climbed, the bottles in the fridge. Idolatry begins with the good things we have that we turn into gotta-haves, sources of life we squeeze for what they’re unable to give.
But children grow up and leave; trends change; retirement comes; alcohol enslaves. Idolatry ironically leads us right straight into the thing it promises to relieve.
The history of Judah is so dusty, it takes a while to dig in, let alone understand what it means. But in one way or another, the story of this group of people and its rebellion and idolatry is front and center in every book of the Bible that I’ve read. Why has God saved this story to tell of all of the stories of all the people on this planet?
I guess he thinks it’s worth telling.
The folks Ezekiel talks and writes for are God’s people. It’s not only unbelieving pagans who struggle with idolatries. It’s believers, too. It’s everyone. It’s our common human experience with hearts that long for more than what we are and have.
In other chapters of Ezekiel, he’s said he’s got what we’re looking for, “Repent and live!” He’s said he still wants us back, “Return to me!” He’s pleaded every way he can for us to hear him and to act, to remember him and to fall in love all over again. Ez 18:30-32.
And while God offers the upside of life with him, here at the end of chapter 23 he includes a downside to life without him–suffering. “You will suffer the penalty for your lewdness and bear the consequences of your sins of idolatry. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord,” 23:49.
I’ve experienced suffering because of idolatry. I’m not a fan. But it sure was an effective tool for getting my attention. It seems to have worked for Judah, too. After the harsh judgment that finally comes, some return to God with their whole hearts, and God restores them to their homes and to himself. It takes a long time and it’s an arduous process, whatever your century.
I find a lot of encouragement on the way in the story of the prodigal, whose father began running to meet him–long before he arrived–because he’d been watching for him and had seen him “a long way off.” God’s the father in the story, who ran to greet his son, walked him back, and threw a party to celebrate, Luke 15. (You can read a retelling of this story here http://onetruelove.blog/2020/09/24/the-comeback/).
God tells us we can pay him now or we can pay him later. We can repent and turn and experience life with him. Or we can wait til we’re broken by our idols and on our last leg without him. Or we can wait til we’re on our knees on that last day as his enemy. But eventually, everyone will come to the same conclusion: “you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord,” Ez 23:49.
If God wanted to give his people the heave-ho, he’d have never sent Ezekiel with this sordid story of the sisters and himself as the husband they cheated on. It’s because he’s their faithful husband, and ours, that he stands and waits, hoping and longing for our return, holding out the “life that is truly life” and helping us along the way.
This ancient story still pulses and throbs because its writer still lives and offers himself.
There’s a joyous description here of drawing near to God because Jesus tore the curtain between us and invites us into God’s presence, “…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water,” 10:19-22.
He goes on to say we should “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” and encourage one another in love and good deeds, regularly meeting together, 10:23-25.
But…there’s also a sober warning of what refusing God means.
Once we’ve had our sins forgiven, if we deliberately keep on sinning afterwards, there’s no sacrifice for sins left. We’ve used it up. What’s left is “only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God,” 10:18, 26-27.
The writer reasons that if folks died in Moses’ day because of a rejection of God’s word with only a testimony of two or three witnesses, “how much more severely do you think a person deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” He reminds us that God’s the one who avenges–God repays–and that he will one day judge his people, 10:28-30.
The writer ends with the cryptic, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” 10:31.
This a hard message to hear. It’s a hard one to retell. But it’s right here.
If you’re like me, you’d rather hear all the news upfront–the good and the bad–rather than to find out too late that the life raft you’re counting on–ain’t.
I love God for all sorts of reasons, and I serve him because I love him. But reading Hebrews today is sobering. It reminds me that I don’t want to stand before God on anything but his love for me—on Jesus’ record and covered in his blood.
“‘He who is coming will come and not delay.
But my righteous one will live by faith.
And if he shrinks back,
I will not be pleased with him.’
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed,
but of those who believe and are saved.” Heb 10:37-39.
I’m really glad that saved is the last word here.
The psalmist experiences severe abuse from his enemies. They slander him and lie and surround him with hateful words. They attack him for no reason and return his friendship with accusations and more hate. They return evil for his good to them. They’re never kind; they hound others, even “the poor, the needy, and the brokenhearted.” They wear cursing like a garment, 109:1-5, 16-18.
The writer asks God to avenge him and gives him lots of ideas about how he might do it, including letting his children be fatherless and his wife a widow, but he refuses to do the avenging himself, 109:8-15. I’m guessing it’s a pretty intense contempt he endures with the kind of paybacks he suggests.
How does one get through such a situation without retaliating or losing heart?
He tells us, “…but I am a man of prayer,” 109:4.
It’s only by constant communion with the mighty warrior who promises to handle our enemies that we can make it through an abusive situation without being crushed by it or becoming a bully ourselves. There’s always the temptation to one side or the other.
But the writer does neither.
He tells God how he feels, “For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.” And he asks God for help, “Help me, O Lord my God…save me in accordance with your love.”
And he praises God for his rescue,
“With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord;
in the great throng I will praise him.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy one,
to save his life from those who condemn him.” 109:30-31.
As people of prayer, we can count on God to defend us, to confound our enemies, and to rescue us. It’s only a matter of time, but it’s never a question of if, because “…the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior.” Jer 20:11
“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion which cannot be shaken but endures forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people–both now and forevermore,” Ps 125:1-2.
My take away today is to seek after the God who sought me first and bought me with his blood, who invites me to draw near him everyday, and who hears my prayer and delivers me because he loves me. While suffering and enemies and fire might wound and chasten me, nothing can separate me from his love.
I’m a big fan of God’s love.