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God Must Judge Sin -- a warning from Ezekiel 20:1-14

Let's be grateful recipients of God's gift of grace.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ezekiel 20:1-14

God had given Abraham's descendants a promise: of being a people, of having a land, and having an identity as His children. When they chose to take the identity of the cultures around them instead, God took away their land. Even in exile, the Jewish people did not take Ezekiel's words seriously. Let's not make that mistake.

But they rebelled against me and were unwilling to listen to me. (20:8)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Christmas Gift "Wins" and "Fails"

Depending on how talkative your group is, you might need to make sure you don't go overboard. Christmas is this week [for future readers' info], so gift-giving is on the brain.

There are two different, but equally important, sides to this topic: the giver and the receiver. Let's approach it from both.

You, the Gift Giver

  • What are some gifts when you really got the gift right? What are your favorite gifts that you've given to someone else?

  • What are some gifts when you really blew it?

I Googled "Christmas gift fail" and saw some really funny stories. I also saw some really tasteless ones, even on safe sites, so I can't recommend ye ol' internet search.

The first is the well-intentioned homemade Christmas cookies that turned out frightening. The second (and there are lots of examples of this) is the gift shirt that the person is already wearing an identical one of. The third is the gift that immediately injured his sister. But this last one is my absolute favorite:

It might technically be the fault of the receiver, but still...

You, the Gift Receiver

  • What are some gifts that you did not appreciate so much so that you hurt the feelings of the person who gave it to you?

  • What are some gifts that were so perfect that they really made a difference in your whole Christmas experience?

I can combine those into one (for me) -- when we lived in Kansas City, my wife gave me a set of Peanuts figures for Christmas. I was underwhelmed, and apparently, I showed it. And that was foolish because those have turned into one of my very favorite gifts of all time. They've been in every office I've had since.

(They're mixed in with some other figurines now.)

Here's where I'm going with this. In this week's Ezekiel passage, God is going to confront the Jews with how they treated His gifts:

  • The gift of the Promised Land

  • The gift of Sabbaths

  • The gift of a divine law code

Like the Garden of Eden -- all Adam and Eve had to do was not eat from one tree, and they could have lived I-don't-know-how-long in literal paradise. An amazing gift from God. But they just couldn't do it. And neither could the Jews. And so God took away their land. He took away their law (we're going to see the awful thing it was replaced with). And He took away their Sabbaths.


This Week's Big Idea: The Importance of the Sabbath

God is going to make a really big deal out of the Sabbath in this week's passage:

I also gave them my Sabbaths to serve as a sign between me and them

The Sabbath itself was supposed to be one of the distinguishing marks of being the people of God. It seems that most Christian opinions about the Sabbath have to do with how the Pharisees manipulated it, and so we miss "what might have been". Let's take a look at what God intended the Sabbath to be and why it was so important to Him.

Creation Itself

We are first introduced to the concept of Sabbath (the Hebrew word for "sabbath" means "to cease") in the act of creation (Gen 1-2) -- in six days, God created everything, and on the seventh day, God rested. God obviously didn't need to rest, and so we learn that He intended that to be a pattern for us: six days to work, one day to rest.

This pattern was emphasized in the Exodus -- on the sixth day, the Hebrews were to gather twice the manna because none would be available on the seventh (see Ex 16). The way God worded the fourth commandment contains its real purpose:

12 Be careful to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 You are to labor six days and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or donkey, any of your livestock, or the resident alien who lives within your city gates, so that your male and female slaves may rest as you do. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15)

In other words, slaves are forced to work every day (like the Israelites were). That's not how God created life to be. If the Hebrews had slaves (and by this we are to think of debt-slaves/indentured servants, and prisoners of war), they were to treat those people with the dignity of rest. Goodness – even the domesticated work animals were to be given a day of rest out of seven!

There are three things we see here:

  • Practical: all life needs rest; God created life to need rest, and He wants all life to have access to that rest.

  • Distinctive: in other cultures, some life (particularly the working class and slaves) is seen as disposable – “work them to death” is commonplace. But that’s never acceptable for God’s people to have that attitude.

  • Religious: the Sabbath was also to be a day of worship. Let’s camp out there.

Weekly Worship

God connected the observance of the Sabbath with the people’s attitude toward Him:

  • Keep my Sabbaths and revere my sanctuary; I am the Lord. Lev 19:30, 26:2

  • These are my appointed times, the times of the Lord that you will proclaim as sacred assemblies. Work may be done for six days, but on the seventh day there is to be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; it is a Sabbath to the Lord wherever you live. Lev 23:2-3

They were to be thankful for a day of rest and rejuvenation, and that thanksgiving should turn their hearts toward God and all of the other blessings He has given them as His people (because He loves them).

As the people turned away from the Sabbath, they turned away from God. The Sabbath was a distinguishing mark of being God’s people in the very best way – God wants us to rest and regularly spend time with Him.

[There's one rabbit hole I fell down -- why did God pick "7" days? It's not germane, so I put this at the very bottom of the post!]

Whenever the topic of Sabbath comes up in your group study, make sure to include the necessary diagnostic: how important is the Sabbath to you? Could the outside world see your behavior on [Sunday] and know that you are a follower of Jesus Christ?

[Important aside: remember that Christians chose Sunday to be our day of rest and worship rather than Saturday because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. Thus, every Sunday is for us a mini-Easter.]


Where We Are in Ezekiel

This is our final lesson in the first major section of Ezekiel:

  1. You're Wrong about God: God *Will* Destroy Jerusalem (1-24)

  2. You're Wrong about God: God *Will* Destroy the Nations (25-32)

  3. You're Wrong about God: God Will Do Those Things *And* Still Restore His People (33-48)

Here’s how I broke down the first section:

1. God *Will* Destroy Jerusalem (1-24)

  • Ezekiel's call to be a prophet/watchman (1-3)

  • Signs of Jerusalem's destruction (4-7)

  • Proof of the temple's desecration (8-11)

  • Destroying the false hopes of the people (12-14)

  • Jerusalem's failures (15-19)

  • Jerusalem cannot be saved (20-24)

I’m disappointed to say that the Leader Guide outline is incorrect. It said that week three covered 24:1-14 (it’s actually 20:1-14). I was fascinated by that choice – 24:1-14 is a very powerful and hard-hitting passage in which God literally says, “I will not hold back.” Alas, that was not to be.

This is part of the larger section in which God makes it clear that the Jews have always been guilty of rejecting God and breaking His law, thereby bringing this judgment on themselves. Chapter 20 gives a crisp overview of the people’s failures:

  • They rebelled in Egypt (20:1-12)

  • They rebelled in the wilderness (20:13-26)

  • They rebelled in Canaan (20:27-32)

Each time, God graciously offered proof of His forgiveness which they flaunted and took for granted.

Here’s the setup: the leaders of the exiled community come to visit Ezekiel. This is now the third time they have come to Ezekiel (8:1, 14:1). Each time, God brings Ezekiel’s attention to the great and many sins of the people. The leaders were looking for a “good word”, but God would not gloss over their failure. Instead, God tells Ezekiel about a new generation who will have a new exodus to a new holy mountain (20:33-44). But as for the rest of the people, they will all die by the sword (20:45-21:32) – specifically the Babylonian army's.

Not to leave it there, God goes into greater detail about their guilt: bloodshed and idolatry among the people (22:1-22) all over the land (22:23-31). He closes this section with a powerful allegory of Israel as an adulterous wife (chapter 23), involving very sexually suggestive language clarifying just how offensive God has found the Jews’ behavior. And then chapter 24 is the climactic transition into the second part of the book – Jerusalem has been besieged and will fall. This includes the tragic death of Ezekiel’s wife (24:15-27) with God’s shocking command that Ezekiel cannot mourn her – a command through Ezekiel to the people that they cannot mourn the fall of Jerusalem.

Phew! On to this week's passage.


Part 1: Confronted (Ezekiel 20:1-4)

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. 2 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 3 “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.’ 4 “Will you pass judgment against them, will you pass judgment, son of man? Explain the detestable practices of their ancestors to them."

(It's not actually that important, but the exact converted date is usually given as August 14, 591 BC.)

It's been pretty obvious to everyone that Ezekiel is a prophet of the One True God. Consequently, the people would expect the religious leaders to have a connection with him. It's going to be hard for them (just as it would be hard for those in John the Baptist's day) -- Ezekiel has not given warm fuzzy messages. He has not spoken kindly of the religious leaders. In fact, he's pretty much gone after everybody -- as God told him to, just like John the Baptist would.

Each of the three times mentioned that the leaders came to him, God gave Ezekiel a message. The message this time is that God will not give them a message 🙂. Interestingly, God essentially swears on Himself -- "as the Lord lives" is an oath taken throughout the Bible (i.e. 2 Sam 12:5, 1 Ki 22:14). This seems strange. Why would God do that?

It’s extremely rare for God to “swear on Himself”. Here are the few examples I found:

  • 26 Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long must I endure this evil community that keeps complaining about me? I have heard the Israelites’ complaints that they make against me. 28 Tell them: As I live—this is the Lord’s declaration—I will do to you exactly as I heard you say. 29 Your corpses will fall in this wilderness—all of you who were registered in the census, the entire number of you twenty years old or more—because you have complained about me. 30 I swear that none of you will enter the land I promised to settle you in, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. (Num 14)

  • 14 Zion says, “The Lord has abandoned me; the Lord has forgotten me!” 15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you. 16 Look, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. 17 Your builders hurry; those who destroy and devastate you will leave you. 18 Look up, and look around. They all gather together; they come to you. As I live”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“you will wear all your children as jewelry, and put them on as a bride does. 19 For your waste and desolate places and your land marked by ruins will now be indeed too small for the inhabitants, and those who swallowed you up will be far away. (Isaiah 49)

  • 24 “As I live”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“though you, Coniah [Jehioachin] son of Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, were a signet ring on my right hand, I would tear you from it. 25 In fact, I will hand you over to those you dread, who intend to take your life, to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and the Chaldeans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who gave birth to you into another land, where neither of you were born, and there you will both die. (Jer 22)

The other examples happen in Ezekiel:

  • Chapter 5: God’s first message to Ezekiel about the destruction of Jerusalem.

  • Chapter 14: the second time the Jewish leaders come to Ezekiel for a word from God.

  • Chapters 16-18: more biting condemnations of the Jews.

  • Chapter 20 (our passage)

  • Chapters 33-34: God’s reminder of Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman for Israel.

(There are two other instances, both involving God’s great anger with Israel’s neighbors: Ezekiel 25 and Zephaniah 2.)

Long story short – God only “swears on Himself” when He’s talking about the destruction of -or- the salvation of His people. If there seems to be a lot of that in Ezekiel, that’s because Ezekiel takes place while Jerusalem is being destroyed! In other words, pay very close attention when God decides to “swear on Himself”.

[In the next section, God will call attention to promises He has made -- the language used is "I lifted My hand", which God clearly takes very seriously. God never breaks a promise! I put that in a different category from "swearing on Myself".]

In summary, the Jewish exiles have been willfully ignoring their people's sins, and God is tired of that. "Why don't you say something to them, Ezekiel? Why don't you explain to them all the ways they have rebelled against Me?"

It's just a rhetorical device -- God immediately goes into a description of what Ezekiel should say -- but I think it's pretty effective.

Have you ever hit a "I don't have anything else to say to you" moment? What's that like?

I remember one time with a group I was in in college called the Singing Cadets. That fall, I was responsible for the new guys -- making sure they were learning the music, they knew what their jobs were with setup/teardown for concerts, and so on. Well, our third concert ("open rehearsal" that early in the year), was a technical train wreck. It was nothing that anyone other than us would have noticed, but they were all daydreaming their way through the concert. I pulled them aside afterward and said, "You're clearly not listening to me, so I'm going to stop wasting everyone's time" and left them there. Well, it worked. They had a "team meeting" and were fantastic for the rest of their time in the group.

For plain humans like me, I think you can only use that tactic once. For God, speaking to every generation in history, you use it when necessary. This was clearly a big moment.


Part 2: Early Signs (Ezekiel 20:5-9)

5 Say to them, ‘This is what the Lord God says: On the day I chose Israel, I swore an oath to the descendants of Jacob’s house and made myself known to them in the land of Egypt. I swore to them, saying, “I am the Lord your God.” 6 On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands. 7 I also said to them, “Throw away, each of you, the abhorrent things that you prize, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
8 “‘But they rebelled against me and were unwilling to listen to me. None of them threw away the abhorrent things that they prized, and they did not abandon the idols of Egypt. So I considered pouring out my wrath on them, exhausting my anger against them within the land of Egypt. 9 But I acted for the sake of my name, so that it would not be profaned in the eyes of the nations they were living among, in whose sight I had made myself known to Israel by bringing them out of Egypt.

Now, God offers irrefutable proof of Israel’s sin (of which our focal passage covers a small part):

  • They rebelled in Egypt (20:1-12)

  • They rebelled in the wilderness (20:13-26)

  • They rebelled in Canaan (20:27-32)

This ties directly to the three-fold promise I mentioned last week that God repeatedly made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

  • The promise of children (an heir)

  • The promise of a land (an inheritance)

  • The promise of a blessing (a heritage)

(Again -- the promise doesn't make any sense unless you take all three parts together.) God’s lament in these verses ties directly to that promise:

  • “I multiplied Abraham’s descendants just as I promised.” Even the most hardened skeptic would read Ex 12:29-42 and acknowledge that Israel’s population had significantly increased while in slavery in Egypt.

  • “I brought Israel to a Promised Land – flowing with milk and honey – just as I promised.” And the people complained on the way. And they complained when they got there. And they complained while they were moving in.

  • “I gave them an identity that could have been a blessing to the world.” This is where I want to camp out for the rest of this section.

Here’s our big-picture question for the week. How did God intend Israel to be a blessing to the nations?

The Lord said to Abram: Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12)

Ultimately, we know that this was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the greatest blessing God could ever give to the world (and which we uniquely celebrate at Christmas!). But He still had an intention for the Jewish people long before Jesus was born.

We’ve talked about this in other lessons:

“Carefully follow them, for this will show your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples. When they hear about all these statutes, they will say, ‘This great nation is indeed a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god near to it as the Lord our God is to us whenever we call to him? And what great nation has righteous statutes and ordinances like this entire law I set before you today?” (Deut 4:6-8)

As we will see in the next section, the Sabbath was supposed to be a key element of that identity, but for now let’s talk about the rest of it.

When I bring up Old Testament law, Christians inevitably say something like “God had brutal penalties for so many crimes; I’m glad we don’t live under that law”. Unfortunately, that misses the point. The point was for people to observe the law so that no one ever had to be punished in the first place! The penalties were deterrents; God didn’t want anyone to have to experience them.

In other words, this is what should have happened in Israel: “Look at that society! People treat one another with dignity. They don’t steal from one another. They don’t lie to one another. Their court system isn’t corrupt. They respect their elders. They have a vibrant relationship with God. Their fields are full and well cared-for. I want to live among a people like that!”

That’s what’s supposed to have happened. That’s not what happened. They couldn’t even make it to the Promised Land without shattering every part of that idyllic society.

[Important aside: God knew that would be the case. Sinners gonna sin. But even that fit into God’s plan of demonstrating to the whole world our desperate need for a Savior. Hey – yet another Christmas tie-in!]

They couldn’t even get the most fundamental part of the law right, as vv 7-9 show. Quiz time! What are the first three commandments? [don’t peak ahead just yet]

Ex 20 Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.

  • 3 Do not have other gods besides me.

  • 4 Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. 5 Do not bow in worship to them, and do not serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, 6 but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commands.

  • 7 Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses his name.

Not looking too good for the Jews.

Again, note the reference to their slavery in Egypt. They had come out of Egypt – everything about who they were in Egypt should be left behind. They were now a new people.

Does that sound like anything we’ve studied in Paul?

Gal 4: 8 But in the past, since you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things that by nature are not gods. 9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?

There are three words in particular to note in our passage:

  • "abhorrent" -- detestable, usually referring to idols and idolatry

  • "defile" -- desecrate or spoil, often in context of ritual cleanness

  • "profane" -- take what is holy and make it common (like defile)

These are some strong words from God -- they are what drives a wedge between His people and Himself. God cannot be in the presence of unholiness and He gave His people safeguards to live near Him (remember when we studied Leviticus?). And all of these actions undo everything He tried to do for them. It grieves God to be separated from His people and bring punishment on them, but God will always punish sin.

So take a step back and think about "Christians in America". (Remember -- God does not have a special relationship with "America", He has a special relationship with Christians.) How are we doing right now? In what ways are we doing better than the rebellious Israelites? In what ways are we disappointingly similar?


Part 3: Repeated Rebellion (Ezekiel 20:10-14)

10 “‘So I brought them out of the land of Egypt and led them into the wilderness. 11 Then I gave them my statutes and explained my ordinances to them—the person who does them will live by them. 12 I also gave them my Sabbaths to serve as a sign between me and them, so that they would know that I am the Lord who consecrates them.
13 “‘But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not follow my statutes and they rejected my ordinances—the person who does them will live by them. They also completely profaned my Sabbaths. So I considered pouring out my wrath on them in the wilderness to put an end to them. 14 But I acted for the sake of my name, so that it would not be profaned in the eyes of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out.

The word "Repeated" in the title suggests that this is more of the same. And indeed it is. The Jews couldn't get out of their own way. And the fact that Jews are in exile in Babylon is proof that after two thousand years (Moses was 1500 BC), they hadn't learned a thing.

This would be where to have the primer on "Sabbath" if you haven't done so yet. The nit-and-gritty is that the Sabbath proves that God intended His law to be a blessing, not a burden.

The repeated "acted for the sake of My name" simply means that God's people are a reflection of God. God intended His people to be His representatives in this world. If God wiped out His people, it would imply that God had given up on them and could be interpreted as failure on Gd's part.

[Aside: what restraint God has! What patience God has! God knows that people throughout history have a negative opinion of Him (and more crushingly Jesus) because of the actions of Christians. If He decided to wipe us out, who could blame Him/ And yet God graciously allows us to disobey Him, misrepresent Him, and generally make a mess of things -- all because He loves us so much to allows us moral agency.]

The most incredible implication of these verses becomes clear later in this chapter:

"24 For they did not practice my ordinances but rejected my statutes and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols. 25 I also gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances they could not live by. 26 When they sacrificed every firstborn in the fire, I defiled them through their gifts in order to devastate them so they would know that I am the Lord."

That's such a hard word! But it is explained just after:

32 “‘When you say, “Let’s be like the nations, like the clans of other countries, serving wood and stone,” what you have in mind will never happen."

The is the strike through the final part of God's promise to Abraham. "You want to be like the other nations? Then I will make you live by the laws of other nations." And so God gave the people over to the lifestyles of their neighbors. What do their neighbors do? They sacrifice their children to false gods. They defile one another sexually. They have no respect for foreigners or slaves. And that's the kind of society the Jewish people said they wanted, so that's the kind of society God gave them. How stupid! And yet, doesn't it sound a lot like the society around us?

Here's the most important phrase in this passage, and it's repeated for the rest of the chapter:

the person who does them will live by them

In other words, anyone who calls himself a child of God must live like a child of God. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He said

“If you love me, you will keep my commands." (John 14:15)

It was not possible to be a lip-service Jew. It is not possible to be a lip-service Christian. Yes, "once saved always saved", but as we learned in Colossians and Philemon, becoming a Christian changes you. If you are no different than you were, or no different from the profane people around you, please ask yourself if you were ever truly saved in the first place.

I can call myself a Christian. I can also call myself a rocket scientist. It doesn't work like that. God has set the rules for how to be a Christian -- trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation and making Jesus your Lord as well as your Savior.

Have you done it?

I pray that everyone has a Merry Christmas. A lesson like this week's reminds us just how many countless blessings God has poured out on us.


Closing Thoughts: Why Seven?

If you do internet research on this, you’ll see quite a few sites that discredit the Jewish influence on the calendar. Here’s the most common version: Egypt had a 10-day week; Rome had an 8-day week; Babylon had a 7-day week. The Jews picked up the practice from Babylon, the Christians from the Jews, and later Rome from the Christians. (Remember, quite a few skeptics believe that most of the Old Testament was written after the Jews returned from exile.) (The Soviets tried both a 5-day and 6-day week because of course they did.)

In their perspective, seven ended up being the length of the week by chance.

But why did God pick “7”? 7 does not divide evenly into 365.25 (days in a year) or 29.5 (days in a lunar cycle), so our weeks and months and years do not combine into nice units (as every accountant can complain). Is 7 actually the best length of the week?

Let’s remember that the Babylonians came up with a 7-day week independently (although I would not be the least surprised to learn of Jewish influence that no one talks about). They did so based on the lunar cycle (4 7-day weeks is the closest repeatable approximation of a full lunar cycle), believing that the rhythm of the heavens informs the rhythm of the earth. (We know that God did put all of that together, but I think they meant more by that than we would be comfortable with.)

I don’t think we can create an effective “experiment” to determine if a 6-day week or an 8-day week is “better” because no one would agree on it or interpret the data the same way. I can only look at my own experience an imagine if the week were a day longer or shorter. In my heart, I believe that God picked 7 because that’s best for us. And the fact that it doesn’t mesh cleanly with our calendar month and calendar year tells me that the weeks and seasons are more important measures of time than the calendar month. And indeed, that’s how God set up the original Hebrew calendrical months:

They were to guide the people through the agricultural cycle, keep them in tune "with the land" so to speak. And throughout, God had His people keep the underlying cycle of 6+1 -- a seventh day to rest and worship. That how God created us, so that's how we ought to operate.


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