We are never out of God's hands.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ezekiel 11
In this week's passage, Ezekiel explains that the Jews in Jerusalem have brought their destruction upon themselves through their detestable behavior. But God will turn the exiles into the remnant that He will use to rebuild His people and be the blessing to the world that He originally promised to Abraham.
I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh (11:19)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
When Your Plans All Fall Apart
This week was our church's Drive-Thru Nativity (which is why you're getting a first draft of this post -- I apologize for typos and errors in advance!). It's a full-time job all by itself, requiring lots of people doing lots of tasks in concert.
Everything went great this year -- couldn't be happier about how everybody worked together! That's why I'm comfortable with this topic.
Anyone who has worked on a large project knows that it doesn't always go great. I remember a few years ago when a nativity campfire burned some straw which melted an extension cord which blew the power to all the lights and the narration for the nativity. We managed to get everything up and running after about a 10-minute delay, but it was frantic. The weather also plays a huge role -- we all have stories of stuffing "Hot Hands" into our pockets and socks because our extremities were so cold. And of course rain has forced us to cancel entire evenings of the nativity in the past.
When things go not-to-plan, how do you tend to respond?
I've had this conversation with some of you. Some of you worry that God might be punishing you for something. Some of you worry that God doesn't love you as much as He loves someone else. Some of you think God is giving you a challenge He wants you to overcome.
The truth is that we don't always know why God does what He does, but we can know that -- like He says to the Jewish exiles in this week's passage -- He is always with us, always nudging us toward holiness and faith, and always promising that the future is in His hands.
This Week's Big Idea: Ancient Babylon
Let's start here: when talking about "Babylon", there are three different eras.
(1) Babel - the first great city of Mesopotamia, built by Nimrod, Noah's great-grandson. "Babel" (which is related to the Hebrew word for "to confuse") is the same word in Hebrew as for Babylon. Many Bible scholars believe that Babylon was built very near Babel. (But here's a map from a guy who believes Babel was built further south. I'm not saying he's right; just noting that people can dispute pretty much anything.)
(2) Early Babylon - the capital of an Amorite Dynasty most famously led by Hammurabi was conquered by Hittites and Kassites in 1595 BC. The city of Babylon remained the biggest city in Mesopotamia, but it stagnated and was subjected to consistent invasions and power struggles.
(3) Neo-Babylon - This is almost certainly the city we have in mind when talking about "Bible Babylon". When the Assyrian Empire rose to prominence, it got tired of the instability in Babylon and chose Babylon as its regional capital.
The Babylonians were never happy with the Assyrian occupation. The same military instability that caused Hezekiah to rebel against the Assyrians (701 BC, see
caused many others, including Babylon, to do the same. The Assyrian King Sennacherib (who was miraculously defeated outside Jerusalem) attacked and conquered Babylon. After a decade of revolts, Sennacherib finally grew tired of it all and destroyed Babylon. His sons assassinated him and rebuilt Babylon as it would be in our Bible reading.
In 627 BC, a Chaldean chief named Nabopolassar united the people and took control of Babylon. From there, he conquered the surrounding region -- including Nineveh in 612 BC -- forming what is technically known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Nabopolassar died while chasing the routed Egyptian army in 605 BC, and his son Nebuchadnezzar became king.
In addition to conquering much of the Near East, Nebuchadnezzar also rebuilt and expanded the city of Babylon. It covered 2,200 acres on both sides of the Euphrates River (about the size of Columbia SC). It had an 11-mile-long outer wall which surrounded the "suburbs", and a massive inner wall that was wide enough for two chariots to ride on it side-by-side. It had eight gates, the most famous of which is the Ishtar Gate. He built canals, bridges (including the largest in the ancient world), roads, and massive temples. The temples were "ziggurats", stepped platforms of three to seven levels (the largest one Nebuchadnezzar built, Etemenanki, might have been 300 feet tall).
Here's that short flyover video I shared last week.
And here are a few more illustrations that try to capture the grandeur of the city:
Babylon was the largest city in the world at the time of Ezekiel and was the first to hold 200,000 people (here's the Wikipedia chart I got that from:)
As I said last week, Jerusalem was a fraction of the size of Babylon, so the Jewish exiles would have likely been overwhelmed in many ways. Their delusions about God's "obligations" to protect the temple in Jerusalem was probably reinforced by the obvious mismatch between the power of Babylon and the power of Judah (i.e. God's direct intervention was the only hope they had -- and a major driving factor for Ezekiel is telling them that the Jews had forfeited God's protection by their sin).
Where We Are in Ezekiel
You might remember from last week that Ezekiel has three major sections correcting three major delusions the Jewish exiles held about God:
You're Wrong about God: God *Will* Destroy Jerusalem (1-24)
You're Wrong about God: God *Will* Destroy the Nations (25-32)
You're Wrong about God: God Will Do Those Things *And* Still Restore His People (33-48)
This week is from chapter 11 and next week is from chapter 24, so we have two lessons for the entire first part of the book. (We only have 6 weeks for the whole book.)
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)
Much of this first section is about correcting the falsehoods the Jewish exiles believed about Jerusalem. To make a long story short, they believed that God was obligated to protect Jerusalem because that's where He lived (seriously -- that's what they thought).
[Aside: this is why we have to be careful about how we describe the church building as "God's house" to children or new believers. I refer to our building as "the church" all the time, but I try to be aware of who is listening to me. The Jews believed that the temple was God's house to such an extreme that it may as well have been "God's prison". "The church" is not a building but the people of God. Further, God is not confined to any location. You know this. I know this. But let's make sure that everyone in our groups knows this.]
When you read Ezekiel 8, you'll probably be shocked at the things Jews in Jerusalem were doing. How could they expect to avoid God's punishment? You might say -- "Ezekiel, why are you warning the Jews in exile about this? Shouldn't you be saying it to the Jews in Jerusalem?" Yes, of course, but Ezekiel is in exile! Remember that God has Jeremiah in Jerusalem at this time, and Jeremiah is taking it to them hard:
6: 6 For this is what the Lord of Armies says: Cut down the trees; raise a siege ramp against Jerusalem. This city must be punished. There is nothing but oppression within her. 7 As a well gushes out its water, so she pours out her evil. Violence and destruction resound in her. Sickness and wounds keep coming to my attention.
6: 13 For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is making profit dishonestly. From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. 14 They have treated my people’s brokenness superficially, claiming, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. 15 Were they ashamed when they acted so detestably? They weren’t at all ashamed. They can no longer feel humiliation. Therefore, they will fall among the fallen. When I punish them, they will collapse, says the Lord.
7: 3 “‘This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: Correct your ways and your actions, and I will allow you to live in this place. 4 Do not trust deceitful words, chanting, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
7: 9 “‘Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? 10 Then do you come and stand before me in this house that bears my name and say, “We are rescued, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts”? 11 Has this house, which bears my name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.
My favorite line is 7:4, where it becomes clear that the Jews in Jerusalem had reduced the temple to some kind of mantra or protective ward. "Who cares if we worship Baal? God has to protect His temple."
In our passage in Ezekiel this week, we see how God addresses this subject with the Jews in exile.
The most important thing we "skipped" was in chapter 10, when Ezekiel saw the vision of God's glory leaving the temple. It's quite dramatic -- you should read it for yourself. It's the event that directly contradicts the people's wrong belief that God is bound to the temple.
Part 1: Called Out (Ezekiel 11:2-4)
2 The Lord said to me, “Son of man, these are the men who plot evil and give wicked advice in this city. 3 They are saying, ‘Isn’t the time near to build houses? The city is the pot, and we are the meat.’ 4 Therefore, prophesy against them. Prophesy, son of man!”
Why Lifeway didn't just start with verse 1 is beyond me. "These" refers to the 25 men mentioned in verse 1, including Jaazaniah son of Azzur, and Pelatiah son of Benaiah, leaders of the people. These leaders are absolutely despicable. Perhaps we might say that they invented the "this is fine" meme:
[When things are quite clearly falling apart but the person in the middle of it acts like everything's okay, they slap that person into this meme.]
Well, that's what the leaders in Jerusalem are saying to the people. "Everything's fine. Everything's so fine that you should be building houses! What's that army approaching from the north? What army? We don't see an army."
[Note: "Jaazaniah" was a common enough name about the ruling class that they had to be distinguished by parentage. Same thing with "Pelatiah". However, this seems to be the only chapter where these two particular men appear by name in the Bible.]
It's truly wicked advice. Variations of this theme include:
"Keep putting your retirement into our stock!" - Kenneth Lay (Enron)
"You should absolutely buy my miracle machine!" - Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos)
"Philippines is a great place to do business!" - Ferdinand Marcos
It shows utterly callous disregard for other's well-being. Do you have examples that come to mind of a leader behaving in this way -- ignoring the danger signs and pretending like everything's okay? What fall-out resulted?
The phrase they chose is interesting -- "The city is the pot, and we are the meat." What they're going after is the idea that Jerusalem is this safe "pot" where the people will live tasty lives. But, wow, that metaphor aged poorly (see below).
Anyway, God is quite upset with the black-hearted leaders of Jerusalem. The repeated command to Ezekiel indicates urgency.
The fact that God sends this prophecy suggests that it's not too late for Jerusalem. That seems to be supported by words given to Jeremiah in Jerusalem (these go along with the verses I quoted above):
7: 5 Instead, if you really correct your ways and your actions, if you act justly toward one another, 6 if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods, bringing harm on yourselves, 7 I will allow you to live in this place, the land I gave to your ancestors long ago and forever.
Sadly, that prophecy ends with this verse: "8 But look, you keep trusting in deceitful words that cannot help."
In other words, the people could turn from their wicked ways, but they would not.
Your leader guide offers a great discussion topic for this first part: why do some people insist on believing lies that are sending them to destruction? And then I would add this: why do some leaders insist on ignoring the problems around them, convincing people that everything is okay?
[Note: we skip verses 5-13, probably because they're so gruesome. Do you know what God says is the "meat" in the pot? The dead bodies of all of the people they have unjustly killed in the city!(!) Whoa! Yes, Jerusalem is a pot of meat, but not in any way anyone wants. And they won't even get to stay in the pot -- they will be driven from the city and killed by the sword as they run for their lives. And in verse 13, Ezekiel sees that one of the leaders mentioned in verse 1 died. Ezekiel is despondent, thinking that God might destroy everyone left in Judah. He won't -- see the next verses.]
Part 2: Gathered (Ezekiel 11:14-17)
14 The word of the Lord came to me again: 15 “Son of man, your own relatives, those who have the right to redeem your property, along with the entire house of Israel—all of them—are those to whom the residents of Jerusalem have said, ‘You are far from the Lord; this land has been given to us as a possession.’ 16 “Therefore say, ‘This is what the Lord God says: Though I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’ 17 “Therefore say, ‘This is what the Lord God says: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’
Okay -- this next line is really disturbing. Ezekiel was a priest, meaning he was of the priestly tribe of Levi. His relatives were priests. The people living in Jerusalem looked at the fact that a number of priests had been taken into exile, and how did they respond? "We may as well take possession of their land."
To be fair, they weren't just talking about the priests (the priests didn't actually own their own land) -- they were talking about all of the Jews who had been taken into exile.
"Bummer for them. We'll take everything they left behind."
Absurdly selfish and heartless.
Of course, they didn't think anybody in exile would ever know. Too bad they forgot God was always watching. [The lighthearted example of this is the younger sibling claiming the college student's room, not thinking they would ever move back home. And then they move back home. Have you been there? If that turns into a mess, how about what the Jews in Jerusalem were considering!]
God mentions the "kinsman-redeemer" (of Ruth and Boaz fame). If someone lost possession of their land, a kinsman-redeemer had the right to buy it back on their behalf to keep the land in the family (see Lev 25). In other words, the people in Jerusalem weren't just being selfish -- they were completely disregarding God's laws. Just further proof of how far they had strayed from God! In fact, they were so deluded as to think that because those Jews were taken into exile, it must be a sign that God wanted them to have the abandoned property! I find that extremely disturbing.
God uses this as a teaching moment for the Jews in exile: God will never abandon His people, no matter where they might be scattered. One day, He will gather them back together in the land of Israel. This is a really powerful image, and it points to the importance of the Promised Land.
So, let's unpack this for a moment.
Aside on The Promised Land
When Christians today think about "The Promised Land", we probably have in mind the words of a song like "I am bound for the promised land, oh who will come and go with me?" That's obviously a reference to heaven in our mind. In fact, we use the phrase "crossing the Jordan" as a euphemism for death.
But the idea of a Promised Land is a big deal in the Old Testament. The idea of "promise" dominates the book of Genesis. God repeatedly makes a three-fold promise 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)
The promise doesn't make any sense unless you take all three parts together.
In the New Testament, we are given a spin on that promise:
Jesus is the ultimate "promised child"
Our inheritance is the eternal riches of God
The gospel is the blessing to the world
In other words, we realize that the idea of a promised land foreshadows our eternal home and rest in the presence of God.
And yet, the Old Testament and the prophecies therein still place a lot of weight on the idea of a physical place where God's people can dwell. I think that the leader guide downplays this by spiritualizing God's promise of a land to a generic "future home in heaven". God's people were displaced; they needed to know that some day they would be physically gathered together -- if not for them, then for their children and grandchildren.
Here's a discussion idea: how do you balance these competing ideas:
This world is not my home
God wants me to fill the earth and subdue it
Have you ever thought about that? I do, particularly in regard to my kids. I want them to be safe and secure. I want them to have a safe place to call home. I know it would all work out if something happened to our home, but I want to provide a home for my family if at all possible.
For people in refugee camps, that desire for safety and security for children is a strong, driving factor in decision-making. The Jewish exiles would want the same thing for their families. God clearly understands the human desire for security -- for a home. After all, He put it into us. The physical reality of a promised land simply validates that.
Think about how having a physical home helps you cope with life. How much of your time and money goes into "nest building" (as they call it)?
Because now I want to get to the other side of that coin. What's more important -- having a safe and secure home or following Jesus Christ? Those two ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive! But sometimes they are. Remember this classic line from Matthew 8:
20 Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Sometimes, the world opposes us as followers of Jesus, and we have to put our allegiance to Him ahead of our desire for a physical "home". Missionaries do that. Those fleeing religious persecution do that. And they're in the good company of the martyrs of our history:
37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. 39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us. (Hebrews 11)
This passage beautifully contrasts the "promised land" of the Old Testament with the promise of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we don't receive certain promised blessings in this life; sometimes that blessing comes in the next. And that's okay! The point is that God's blessings will find us safe and secure for eternity with him, however we experienced this life.
But -- and here's a key transition -- the next verses show that God has something greater in mind than simply owning real estate. Living in the promised land is less about the land and more about the people of God. When God's people live together as God's people, God will make them the kind of people who can truly enjoy the blessings of the promised land.
Summary: don't downplay the importance of this promise to gather His people home again in Israel. But, realize that our blessing as a follower of Jesus Christ means that following Him is more important than having a comfortable home.
Part 3: Sanctified (Ezekiel 11:18-21)
18 “When they arrive there, they will remove all its abhorrent acts and detestable practices from it. 19 I will give them integrity of heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they will follow my statutes, keep my ordinances, and practice them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. 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.
Here, we realize that God is now focused on His "remnant" (which Ezekiel had wondered about in verse 13). "Remnant" is yet another key idea in the Old Testament. It goes all the way back to Noah -- just about every human was wicked and had turned from God, but Noah and his family were preserved, and they "re-started" the human race (and they weren't perfect!). We can think of them as the first remnant. Throughout Israel's history, when they were almost destroyed, some survived, and the perpetuated the identity of God's people.
In the previous generation, Isaiah had named one of his sons Shear-jashub ("a remnant shall return", 7:3) to show that some Jews would survive the invasion of the Assyrians. Ezekiel would then take up that cry for his exiles (we really focus on this at the end -- we can say that chapters 40-48 are about a new exodus to a new temple) to say that some Jews would survive the exile to Babylon and return to re-start the Jewish community.
Some people have suggested that we should think of "the remnant" as the "true believers" in God (i.e. the "spiritual children of Abraham" in the midst of the "physical children of Abraham"). That's way too simplistic. That reduces every attack on God's people to some kind of perfect culling in which every non-believer is killed and every believer is preserved. That's simply not true, and the Bible is clear about that.
However, it is appropriate to think of "the remnant" as God preserving His people so that they can continue His work on earth. Pre-Jesus, that means keeping the generations moving to the place where Jesus can be born. Post-Jesus, that means keeping the generations going so that we can continue to share the gospel with every generation.
So, if you really boil it down, we can read this description of the remnant returning to the promised land as becoming the true people of God. We can't call them "Christians" in a real sense because Jesus hasn't been born yet. But, they would become the Jews who would become the first followers of Jesus. Think about it -- some Jews had to be spiritually connected to God well enough to realize that Jesus was God's Son, over and against the false accusations of the Jewish leaders, and become the leaders of the first generation of the Christian church.
Here's your Christmas tie-in -- we can see Jesus' encounters with the hard-hearted Jews in the same light as Ezekiel's confrontations. But some Jews would believe -- they would be the remnant God promises here.
So -- back to the idea of "promise". I mentioned the three-fold promise above. But all of that is couched in a much deeper promise:
I will be your God
You will be My people
I will dwell in your midst
Here's a famous telling of that promise in Genesis 17 that brings all of these threads together:
4 “As for me, here is my covenant with you: You will become the father of many nations. 5 Your name will no longer be Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations. 6 I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you. 7 I will confirm my covenant that is between me and you and your future offspring throughout their generations. It is a permanent covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you. 8 And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as a permanent possession, and I will be their God.”
We will learn that even after the exiles returned to Jerusalem, they weren't "seeing the results" they were expecting, and so they doubted God's promise to Ezekiel. Zechariah gave yet another version of this promise that again ties everything together:
8: 2 The Lord of Armies says this: “I am extremely jealous for Zion; I am jealous for her with great wrath.” 3 The Lord says this: “I will return to Zion and live in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the Faithful City; the mountain of the Lord of Armies will be called the Holy Mountain.” 4 The Lord of Armies says this: “Old men and women will again sit along the streets of Jerusalem, each with a staff in hand because of advanced age. 5 The streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in them.” 6 The Lord of Armies says this: “Though it may seem impossible to the remnant of this people in those days, should it also seem impossible to me?”—this is the declaration of the Lord of Armies. 7 The Lord of Armies says this: “I will save my people from the land of the east and the land of the west. 8 I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem. They will be my people, and I will be their faithful and righteous God.”
In other words, God's promise was not fully fulfilled in the initial return -- it would continue to be fulfilled in every generation (and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus and the church).
Of course, part of that covenant that the people were to be faithful to is the people's responsibility to keep God's laws -- their repeated failure at which being the cause of their exile in the first place! Some of the Jews hearing Ezekiel might be thinking about the proverbial definition of insanity:
"doing the same thing over again and expecting different results" (wrongly attributed to Einstein, and I'm not sure it's actually correct)
But it wouldn't be the same thing this time. God Himself would help them by giving them a new heart -- a heart that is able to keep His laws. [Think a few weeks back to Paul's "circumcision of the heart" to see what God meant by this "new heart".
So, really what God is promising is so much more than the Jewish exiles could ever have imagined. Not just a new home, but a new relationship with God and a new way of living.
This, as gruesome as the passages and setting got, is actually a pretty uplifting lesson. In the midst of the worst of human behavior, God still promised that He would one day fix everything. We have a clearer understanding of that promise today -- one day, Jesus will return and destroy God's enemies, and we (those of us who have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior) will live forever in a world without sin or sorrow. Could the promise get any better than that?
Your leader guide rightly points out the opportunity to have group members talk about ways they have fallen short of follow God rightly. Today, our "laws" are easier to remember -- love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself -- but harder to do. What parts of our life do we need to get right?