We’re in Ezekiel chapter 20 this week, and I thought our lesson needed a theme song.
Being Ezekiel, famous for his vision of a wheel in the sky, I considered of course “Wheel in the sky” by Journey.
Here are some of the lyrics –
“Wheel In The Sky”
Winter is here again oh Lord
Haven’t been home in a year or more
I hope she holds on a little longer
Ooh, the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’
I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow
Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’
I’ve been trying to make it home
Got to make it before too long
Ooh, I can’t take this very much longer, no
I don’t know for sure what the original song is about. Many songs in the 60’s and 70’s seem to be full of incomprehensible words like “put the lime in the coconut” and “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.” For me, though, “Wheel in the Sky” is forever going to be the theme song for Ezekiel, especially with the words “Haven’t been home in a year or more” and “I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”
In the book of Ezekiel, around 600 BC, Nebuchadnezzar has captured tens of thousands of Israelites and hauled them off to Babylon. Some few, mostly lame or elderly or poor, were left behind, exiled, including Ezekiel. Those hauled away to Babylon? They haven’t been home in a year or more, and I don’t know where they’ll be tomorrow.
To me, it’s odd, this exile. Daniel is in Babylon, serving the king. They can still own land and have freedom to travel back and forth. Some of the Israelites become so comfortable in Babylon that, given the choice to return later, many chose to stay. A rather comfortable slavery, it appears.
Jewish elders in exile have been praying to God and not getting a response, so they traveled to what is now Tel Aviv to talk to Ezekiel for a word from God. They pray to God for deliverance and guidance, but they hear nothing from God. The elders make 3 trips to see Ezekiel, and each trip, Ezekiel shares his visions, his prophecies, and God’s word.
The first visit is in Ezekiel 8. Ezekiel tells the elders that the Jews in Jerusalem have been worshiping idols. Because of this idolatry, God has left the building. God has removed His presence from Jerusalem and warns the people that God’s judgment is coming. God tells the elders to stop focusing on the people of Jerusalem and focus on God instead. And it occurs to me while I’m studying this the applicability to us today. While we pray for our country, our focus and dedication should be to the Lord first. Our devotion to our country cannot come before our devotion to the Lord. The Lord and His Word always come first.
The elders visit again in Ezekiel 14, and this time Ezekiel accuses the elders themselves of idolatry. These idols were in the hearts of the elders who preferred the new luxurious life of slavery in Babylon. The idolatry is not just statues and temples in Jerusalem, but a matter of their hearts. Ezekiel tells them to guard their hearts. While they are in exile, stay close to the Lord.
In Ezekiel 20, the elders visit the prophet for the third and final time. This time, Ezekiel’s word from God to the elders is alarming. The elders has not listened or obeyed previous warnings, and now God’s judgement was coming. God says that His rebellious people have been asking for a one-sided relationship where the people ask God to fulfil promises while the people themselves break their own promises. God is not mocked.
- Access Denied
So let’s start with today’s scripture in Ezekiel 20 verses 1-3 –
In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, some of Israel’s elders came to inquire of the Lord, and they sat down in front of me. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, speak with the elders of Israel and tell them, ‘This is what the Lord God says: Are you coming to inquire of me? As I live, I will not let you inquire of me. This is the declaration of the Lord God.
The greatest privilege we have as a Christian is being able to boldly approach the throne of God. As sinners, our sin keeps of from His Holy place, but covered by the blood of Jesus, we can talk to God directly.
The best access to God we as humans have ever had is in the Garden of Eden. I didn’t find an example of Adam and Eve calling on God; God was just there. By the time we get to Genesis 4 and the grandchildren of Adam and Eve, Seth’s son Enosh, the bible says it was at that time the people began to call upon the name of the Lord.
And then in a sort of recap of God’s history with His people, Noah walked with God in Genesis 6:9 before the flood. Abraham and his family experienced many amazing encounters with God. In Genesis 12. God gave the land of Canaan to Abraham. In Genesis 25, Isaac and Rebekah asked God for a child, and He blessed them with twins. In Genesis 28, Jacob had a vision of God with a ladder with angels going up and down. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God.
In Exodus 33, Moses meets with God in a tabernacle repeatedly, God promises to dwell with His people Israel. God rescuse Israel from slavery and gave them laws and sacrifices so that they could be made holy and enjoy access to His presence in the book of Leviticus. He gave Israel kings to protect their access to Him, priests to guide them in accessing Him, prophets to warn them against losing access to Him.
Over and over, God’s covenant with Israel gave Israel access to Him. Were the Israelites faithful in return? No, no, and over and over, no. The Israelites failed to keep God’s covenant. They ignored God, they idolized and experimented with other religions, they did detestable things.
God warned them. God said be faithful. God said be obedient. God said if you do not maintain your covenant with me, He would “scatter” them from the land of Canaan
And now, in Ezekiel’s day, they are indeed scattered, but they have hope. In Deuteronomy 4:27-31, God made this promise –
The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord drives you. There you will serve gods, the work of human hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear, nor eat nor smell anything. But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things happen to you, in the latter days you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not abandon you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.
God’s people could still reach God, even in exile, far away from the tabernacle of Moses and the temple and the land of Canaan. They just needed to seek Him with all their heart and soul.
So the elders travel to Tel Aviv to claim this promise. They just needed to ask, and God would answer. Why not? It had already happened twice before in Ezekiel 8 and Ezekiel 14.
Instead, they get an out-of-office message from God in Ezekiel 20:3b –
“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “I certainly will not be inquired of by you.”
The elders wanted to hear from God. They went to the prophet’s house. They inquired, and God said, “Nobody home. Leave a message at the beep.”
Can you imagine? The God of the Universe turning His back to you. Silence. In darkness without hope. Like opening a Christmas present, and the box is empty. Like opening your bible, and the pages are blank.
I can’t imagine a scenario more scary that God turning His back to me. Remember from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:21-23,
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; leave Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
Passages like these warn us that many who claim to seek God are not truly seeking God. In Romans 3, Paul quotes from Psalm 14 that says in verses 1-3 –
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they have committed detestable acts;
There is no one who does good.
The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of mankind
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek God.
They have all turned aside, together they are corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.
This response from Ezekiel reminds us that our natural fallen state is not to seek God. Our natural fallen state seeks self-pleasure and self-idolizing. We want to be our own God, define our own reality and define our own good and evil, but God is not mocked. God creates, and our hearts crave detestable things.
- Rejecting God
So how did we get to a point in history where God tells us just to leave a message at the beep? Let’s go to the next verse, Ezekiel 20:4,
“Will you pass judgment against them, will you pass judgment, son of man? Explain the detestable practices of their fathers to them.”
God’s silence toward the elders of Israel means that whatever comes next, Israel isn’t going to get any advance warning this time. They’re in the dark. God isn’t speaking. When God says to Ezekiel, “will you pass judgment, son of man?” What God is saying is that the elders don’t need God to answer this question. Israel’s rejection of God is so egregious that anybody can tell them what the upcoming judgement will be.
It’s like you’re driving a car on the wrong side of the freeway at 100 mph with a blindfold on. Do you really need somebody to tell you what comes next? Nothing good, that’s for sure. Ezekiel, tell these idiots what comes next.
The next 27 verses of Ezekiel cover roughly 700 years of history, reminding Israel that God has been continually faithful to His covenent, even when Israel continually rejects Him. Here’s the outline of history –
- In Egypt, God delivered them from Egypt and showed them no other gods were necessary. Israel continued to worship the gods of Egypt, but Ezekiel 20:5 says God showed mercy for the sake of His name, so that other nations watching Israel would know God’s mercy.
- Then they wandered around in the desert. God gave them laws to live by and a day of rest from work so they could see God’s mercy and grace work among them. But Israel ignored those laws and broke the Sabbath. Again, God showed mercy for the sake of His name, that other nations would know God’s mercy.
- Now did the Israelites listen? Still in the wilderness, God gave the Israelites blessings but also warnings not to be like their stiff-necked parents. Israel rebelled again, and I feel like I’m starting to sound repetitive. Again, God showed mercy for the sake of His name, that other nations would know God’s mercy.
- Now the Israelites have arrived in the land of milk and honey, the Promised Land, and God gave the land to Israel as an inheritance, just as He had promised. And Israel… let me check my notes… dang it, they rebelled again. The Israelites offered sacrifices to false gods, but again, God showed mercy.
- And now, the Israelites are in exile. And instead of learning, the Israelites continue to sin and worship idols. Reminds me of that Geico commercial, where the teenagers hide from the murderer behind the chainsaws. https://youtu.be/fs5FWIUqu20and God is just shaking His head at the Israelites. And He’s done answering their inquiries.
Israel rejects God. Repeatedly. Over and over. Their hearts are hard. God says in Ezekiel 20:16b
their heart continually followed their idols.
The entire book of Ezekiel reveals that rebellion against God is a symptom of their defective hearts:
- Ezekiel 11:21 “But as for those whose hearts pursue their desire for abhorrent acts and detestable practices, I will bring their conduct down on their own heads.” This is the declaration of the Lord God.
- Ezekiel 16:30 “How sick is your heart, declares the Lord GOD, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute…”
- Ezekiel 18:31 “Throw off all the transgressions you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel?”
But as you surely know, you and I are not immune from the hard heart disease. The story of Israel’s rebellion is the story of every person’s rebellion who has ever lived. Nothing we say or do can change us from looking to ourselves for solutions. The solution to our empty rebellious heart is not in this world, and it is not in ourselves.
Deliverance from our troubles will not make us seek God. Laws and rules will not make us seek God. Warnings not to make our parent’s mistakes will not make us seek God. Inheritance and milk and honey will not make us seek God. Not even laying our most horrible sins bare for the world to see will not make us seek God.
Only one thing can fix this. Ezekiel 36:26,
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
A new heart. One that seeks God first before anything else can cure the cycle of sin and rebellion.
So far we have seen God’s patience and mercy with His people despite the repeated rejection. But why? Why is God so patient with us and with Israel? God’s answer – repeated three times in Ezekiel 20 – is because of His name. Despite Israel’s many sins God says He spared them “for the sake of My name.” This is not about “saving face” or keeping up a good reputation. God’s “name” is part of His unchanging character. When God declares a promise, people can trust Him to fulfill that promise. So, from the moment He chose Israel, His promise never wavered. He would never un-choose Israel. And from the moment He chose you and me, He will never unchoose us. 2 Timothy 2:13,
If we are faithless, He remains faithful.
- God’s Rejection
This is a comforting scripture. Being perfect is hard. I know I fail, I fail often, I fail hard. And we’ve learned today that God may choose to exclude sinful people from His throne.
This is terrifying. I’m a sinner.
But God’s mercy is bigger than my sin. His patience is bigger than my sin. God fulfils His promises, not because of anything I’ve done, but for His name’s sake. He’s made me a promise.
How do I know I have access to God’s throne? How do I know I’ve escaped wrath? How do I know I’m saved?
God promised. For His name’s sake, God will fulfil His promise. John 3:16-18,
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him. The one who believes in Him is not judged; the one who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The true beauty of Christmas is not tinsel and lights on the tree, the giving of presents, or gingerbread cookies. The true beauty is that God knows our stubborn hard-heartedness and give us a gift of salvation. The final act of God’s redemptive plan is here, and Jesus alone saves us from the judgement that it to come.
For a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us;
And the government will [h]rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
Thank you, Lord for your gift, of saving me from my own heard hearted ways. Thank you for doing for me what I cannot do for myself, and not because of who I am, but because of who you are. You fulfil your promise for your name’s sake, and all glory and honor are yours through Jesus Christ alone. Amen.