Israel’s Rebellion, 1-44
20:1 In the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth of the month, some of the elders of Israel came to seek the LORD, and they sat down in front of me. 20:2 The word of the LORD came to me: 20:3 “Son of man, speak to the elders of Israel, and tell them: ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Are you coming to seek me? As surely as I live, I will not allow you to seek me, declares the sovereign LORD.’ 20:4 “Are you willing to pronounce judgment? Are you willing to pronounce judgment, son of man? Then confront them with the abominable practices of their fathers, 20:5 and say to them:
Some of the elders of Israel came to seek the Lord – Their reasons for doing so are not specified. However, ‘the allusion at the end of the survey (v. 32) to what was in their minds—namely, emulation of forms of worship practiced by other nations—allows the…suggestion that the elders were proposing to set up their own center of worship in Babylon which would incorporate the cult of deities other than Yahweh, as the Jews of Elephantine in Upper Egypt were to do some years later. The suggestion finds some support in Ezekiel’s direct address to them toward the end (v. 39), where he tells them, in effect, to make up their minds whether to serve Yahweh alone or engage in idolatry.’
A history lesson. ‘Ezekiel delivered this message on August 14, 591 B.C., to some of the Jewish elders who came to his house to “inquire of the Lord.” But the prophet knew that their hearts were not right with God and that they had no right to ask the Lord for instruction (vv. 30–32; see 14:1–3; 33:30–33). A willingness to submit and obey is the mark of the person who can seek God’s guidance and expect to receive it. Ezekiel’s response to their request was to review the history of the nation of Israel and point out the repeated rebellion of the people and the gracious long-suffering of the Lord.’ (Wiersbe)
‘Ezekiel’s exodus is one of Israel’s unrelenting rebellion (cf. Ezek 2:5). It begins, uniquely, with Israel’s refusal to reject Egypt’s gods even while in bondage (Ezek 20:7–8a; 23:8, 19–20, 27; cf. Josh 24:14)—this might partially explain the extended diatribe against Egypt (Ezek 29–32)—countered by Yahweh’s commitment “for the sake of his name” to continue with their deliverance (Ezek 20:8b–10; cf. Ex 32:11–14). This initiates a threefold cycle, repeated throughout the wilderness journeying and into the land: (1) Yahweh’s gift of his life-giving statutes and Sabbath as a testimony to his holiness (Ezek 20:11–12, 18–20), (2) Israel’s refusal to obey, breach of Sabbath and persistent idolatry (Ezek 20:13a, 21a, 27–32), (3) Yahweh’s withholding of his wrath (Ezek 20:13b–14; 21b; cf. Ex 32:10–14; Num 14:11–20) while passing suspended sentence upon them (Ezek 20:15–16, 23–24; cf. Ex 32:34; Num 14:21–23), a sentence now meted out in the exile.’ (R.E. Watts, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, art. ‘Exodus Imagery’).
‘The great German scholar Gerhard von Rad found the heart of Old Testament theology in the remembrance and recitation of Heilsgeschichte: the sacred history of God’s saving acts on Israel’s behalf. It is not hard to find such recitations peppered throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Deut. 26:3–10; Ps. 105). In Ezekiel 20:1–44, however, we find a very different sort of recitation. Here, the story of Israel’s past is not a holy history of salvation but an unholy history of rebellion: in a word, Unheilsgeschichte. This is not the only such recitation in Scripture (compare, e.g., Pss. 78 and 106); however, no text outside of Ezekiel goes to such extravagant lengths to demonstrate the radical corruption of Israel, from its earliest days to its present moment (compare Ezek. 4:4–5; 16:1–6).’ (Tuell, UBCS)
“ ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: On the day I chose Israel I swore to the descendants of the house of Jacob and made myself known to them in the land of Egypt. I swore to them, “I am the LORD your God.” 20:6 On that day I swore to bring them out of the land of Egypt to a land which I had picked out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands. 20:7 I said to them, “Each of you must get rid of the detestable idols you keep before you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” 20:8 But they rebelled against me, and refused to listen to me; no one got rid of their detestable idols, nor did they abandon the idols of Egypt. Then I decided to pour out my rage on them and fully vent my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. 20:9 I acted for the sake of my reputation, so that I would not be profaned before the nations among whom they lived, before whom I revealed myself by bringing them out of the land of Egypt.
Scholars have noticed a recurring pattern. In the words of Blinkinsopp: ‘beneficent divine action, ungrateful human reaction, and judgment decreed but then postponed.’
vv5-8 – Israel in Egypt.
20:10 “ ‘So I brought them out of the land of Egypt and led them to the wilderness. 20:11 I gave them my statutes and revealed my regulations to them. The one who carries them out will live by them! 20:12 I also gave them my Sabbaths as a reminder of our relationship, so that they would know that I, the LORD, sanctify them. 20:13 But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness; they did not follow my statutes and they rejected my regulations (the one who obeys them will live by them), and they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths. So I decided to pour out my rage on them in the wilderness and destroy them. 20:14 I acted for the sake of my reputation, so that I would not be profaned before the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. 20:15 I also swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them to the land I had given them—a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands. 20:16 I did this because they rejected my regulations, did not follow my statutes, and desecrated my Sabbaths; for their hearts followed their idols. 20:17 Yet I had pity on them and did not destroy them, so I did not make an end of them in the wilderness.
v10 – Israel’s exodus from Egypt.
v11f – Israel at Sinai.
v11 ‘It is worth noting that, despite New Testament strictures on the spiritual value of the law as an instrument of salvation (e.g. John 1:17; Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:19ff.), it is quite clearly regarded as a gracious gift of God through Moses to his people and it was ordained so that by the observance of it man shall live, i.e. ‘prosper’, both materially and spiritually (cf. Deut. 4:40; Josh. 1:7f.).’ (Taylor)
vv13-26 – Israel in the wilderness.
20:18 “ ‘But I said to their children in the wilderness, “Do not follow the practices of your fathers; do not observe their regulations, nor defile yourselves with their idols. 20:19 I am the LORD your God; follow my statutes, observe my regulations, and carry them out. 20:20 Treat my Sabbaths as holy and they will be a reminder of our relationship, and then you will know that I am the LORD your God.” 20:21 “ ‘But the children rebelled against me, did not follow my statutes, did not observe my regulations by carrying them out (the one who obeys them will live by them), and desecrated my Sabbaths. I decided to pour out my rage on them and fully vent my anger against them in the wilderness. 20:22 But I refrained from doing so, and acted instead for the sake of my reputation, so that I would not be profaned before the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. 20:23 I also swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them throughout the lands. 20:24 I did this because they did not observe my regulations, they rejected my statutes, they desecrated my Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols. 20:25 I also gave them decrees which were not good and regulations by which they could not live. 20:26 I declared them to be defiled because of their sacrifices—they caused all their first born to pass through the fire—so that I would devastate them, so that they will know that I am the LORD.’
“I gave them decrees which were not good and regulations by which they could not live” – The thought here is similar to that of Rom 1:24, 28f, where Paul says that God ‘gave them over’, or ‘gave them up’ to ungodly practices.
Taylor (TOTC) regards v25f as presenting ‘an acute problem of interpretation’. He suggests that the form of child-sacrifice described here is ‘so strongly and frequently condemned in the Old Testament that it may well have happened far more than the occasional times it is mentioned (e.g. 2 Kgs 21:6; 2 Chr. 28:3; cf. 2 Kgs 17:17; 23:10, 13; Jer. 7:31; 32:35).’ Child-sacrifice would never be condoned by God. The ordinance that is being referred here (he suggests) might be ‘the offering of the first-born with its insistence that everything that opens the womb belongs to the Lord. This is modified by the law of redemption whereby a substitute or a ransom-price can be provided for first-born children (Exod. 22:29; Num. 18:15ff.).’ The continuation of child-sacrifice would then be due to a misinterpretation of this law.
‘Ezekiel does not mean that the content of the law is not good. His point is that the law was not good for Israel since Israel was unable to obey it and to gain life. If Israel had turned from wickedness and pursued goodness, she would find life, as Ezekiel 18 repeatedly emphasizes (Ezek. 18:9, 13, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 32). But Israel’s consistent unwillingness to do what the Lord commands reveals a problem with her heart that can be remedied only by the grace of God. Israel’s only hope is the promise of the indwelling Spirit, which will enable them to keep God’s commands (Ezek. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).’ (Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, p60)
Rom 7:10 – ‘The very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death!’
According to the CSB Study Bible, these decrees and ordinances were not his own, but those of the pagan nations: ‘One of the ways that God punishes sin is to abandon people to it so that they suffer its consequences. Thus the statutes and ordinances in this verse refer to the futile and blameworthy commandments of the pagan religions to which Israel had turned. These laws “required” the Israelites to sacrifice every firstborn (v. 26), a practice condemned by God (Lv 20:1–5).’
‘The reference in Ezekiel 20:25 to God giving “bad statutes” in the exodus remains enigmatic, but it may be an ironic polemic against the people’s perverse twisting of the law of the firstborn (see Ex 13:12–13) to justify their sacrificing children to Molech. If they insisted on this diametrically opposed reading, then Ezekiel would carry it through to its conclusion such that instead of intending life, Yahweh intended their devastation and death.’ (R.E. Watts, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, art. ‘Exodus Imagery’).
20:27 “Therefore, speak to the house of Israel, son of man, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: In this way too your fathers blasphemed me when they were unfaithful to me. 20:28 I brought them to the land which I swore to give them, but whenever they saw any high hill or leafy tree, they offered their sacrifices there and presented the offerings that provoke me to anger. They offered their soothing aroma there and poured out their drink offerings. 20:29 So I said to them, What is this high place you go to?’ ” (So it is called “High Place” to this day.)
vv27-29 – Israel in the Promised Land.
20:30 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Will you defile yourselves like your fathers and engage in prostitution with detestable idols? 20:31 When you present your sacrifices—when you make your sons pass through the fire—you defile yourselves with all your idols to this very day. Will I allow you to seek me, O house of Israel? As surely as I live, declares the sovereign LORD, I will not allow you to seek me!
v30f – Israel in exile.
20:32 “ ‘What you plan will never happen. You say, “We will be like the nations, like the clans of the lands, who serve gods of wood and stone.” 20:33 As surely as I live, declares the sovereign LORD, with a powerful hand and an outstretched arm, and with an outpouring of rage, I will be king over you. 20:34 I will bring you out from the nations, and will gather you from the lands where you are scattered, with a powerful hand and an outstretched arm and with an outpouring of rage! 20:35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. 20:36 Just as I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, declares the sovereign LORD. 20:37 I will make you pass under the shepherd’s staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. 20:38 I will eliminate from among you the rebels and those who revolt against me. I will bring them out from the land where they have been residing, but they will not come to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD.
vv33-44 – Israel’s future kingdom.