Previous article in this series: June 2017, p. 395.
The previous article in “Upon This Rock” was the twenty-second in a kind of series-within-a series entitled “Robbing Christ of His Honor.” Those articles, as you might recall, were dealing with the fascinating subject of typology, inspired in large part by articles of Rev. George Ophoff reflecting on it long ago in the SB. Much to my regret, my writing on it was interrupted. Lord willing, I will be able to return later to that aborted mini-series, but, for now, the best I can do is (using material I have already written) pick up where I left off in my recounting briefly the last days of the nations of Israel and Judah. I was doing that from the perspective mainly of the prophets, and, even more specifically, with a view to the dawning of the ‘day’—for it is out of the scattering of the people of Israel and the ruins of the house of David that there comes the glorious kingdom of David’s greater Son.
I started the series with five articles on the end of the nation of Israel (the ten tribes). Think Jonah, Hosea, Amos, even Balaam. The Jews of the northern kingdom were ultimately scattered among the nations, never, as a people, to return. Then there were three articles concerning Israel’s “treacherous sister” (), Judah, mainly again from the perspective of the prophets. Remember the testimony of Jeremiah: “And the Lord said unto me, The backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah” ( ). That is, backsliding Israel was not so bad as, was more righteous than, her sister Judah. More righteous also, according to the prophet Ezekiel, was Sodom ( ). Hard to believe, but, of the three (Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem), Jerusalem was declared by God Himself to be the worst of the lot ( ). “Son of man,” said the Lord to Ezekiel, “cause Jerusalem to know her abominations” (v. 1). “As I live [an oath, for confirmation of a declaration so incredible], saith the Lord God, Sodom thy sister hath not done, she nor her daughters [the four smaller cities nearby that were, with her, destroyed by fire from heaven for their physical whoredoms], as thou hast done, thou and thy daughters [all the other, lesser cities of Judah]…. Neither hath Samaria [lately destroyed for her spiritual whoredoms] committed half of thy sins; but thou hast multiplied thine abominations more than they…. They are more righteous than thou.”
Sodom and Samaria more righteous than Judah!? Can that really be true? Had not Judah at this point in her history remained loyal to the house of David for more than 300 years? And had she not maintained during all those years the worship of God in the house that He had chosen to put His name there? Does all of that count for nothing? The vast majority of Jews would have simply dismissed the words of Ezekiel as the deluded rantings of a fanatic. As they did also the words of Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel. They chose, rather, to believe the lying words of false prophets, who declared: “The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these” ().
Such, we have seen, was the folly of apostate Jewry. “Behold,” God said through Jeremiah His prophet, “ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; and [then] come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?” (). That was indeed their thinking. Does Jeremiah threaten them with the judgment of God? Not to worry. They have nothing to fear. For they had dutifully offered their sacrifices. As if God were not a searcher of hearts. Jehovah, like the idols of their vain imagination, can be pacified, so they thought, by sacrifice and offerings.
“Therefore pray not thou for this people,” the Lord told Jeremiah, “neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee” ().
Hardly could more terrifying words have been uttered against the nation of Judah. For they can only mean that the Lord judged the people of Judah to be “past remedy” (Calvin).
“Seest thou not,” the Lord asks His prophet, “what commandthey do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour drink offerings to other gods” (). Idolatry. And not something practiced covertly, in secret, in an attempt to hide from the eyes of others what is an abomination in the eyes of God. No. It is right out in the open, in the streets of Jerusalem—in open defiance of God’s command that they not serve the idol gods of the heathen but Him alone.
And not only in the streets of Jerusalem but also in the very temple itself. We ought to take special note of that—because God did. “The children of Judah have done evil in my sight,” the Lord said to Jeremiah. And what is it that they have done? “They have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it” (). And again, in speaking to Jeremiah of the provocations of the kings, the princes, the priests, and the prophets, along with the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem ( ), the Lord drew special attention to this, that “they set their abominations in the house, which is called by my name, to defile it” ( ).
And as to the prophet Jeremiah, so also to Ezekiel. “Wherefore, as I live, saith the Lord God; Surely, because thou hast defiled my sanctuary with all thy detestable things, and with all thine abominations, therefore will I diminish thee; neither shall mine eye spare, neither will I have any pity” ().
The record of that defilement of the temple of God in Jerusalem can be found in the historical books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets, however, provide details that may sometimes be overlooked. A single chapter in Ezekiel, for example, can be an eye-opener with respect to the degree to which the pre-exilic Jews were addicted to idolatry. A look at chapter 8 might be worth our while in this study.
Ezekiel was already in Babylon. He was among those who had been carried away captive from Jerusalem with King Jehoichin (Jeconiah) some eleven years before the city was finally leveled by the powerful armies of Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel must have been grieved to learn that the Jews who still remained in the land of promise had profited so little from the punishments they had already endured because of their apostasy. Far from being humbled by the hand of God heavy on them, they were more and more hardened in their rebellion against God. Jeremiah saw it with his own eyes. And God, as it were, took pains to see to it that His prophet in Babylon did too.
Worthy of notice, surely, is what Ezekiel saw at the beginning of his vision: the “appearance of fire” in verse 2 and the “hand” of verse 3. Calvin says concerning this that what Ezekiel saw in vision was “a visible figure as a symbol of God’s presence.” It is “God’s majesty and incomparable glory [that] is signified.” But then also this, that God “so represented himself in the person of his only begotten Son” (emphases added). Poole properly connects the “appearance” here with that in chapter 1, verses 26 and 27, where he identifies the “appearance of a man” as the pre-incarnate Christ, “who appears as King and Judge to vindicate his own honor, to punish rebels, and to give warning by his prophet ere he execute his just and severe indignation.” That’s it. For the abominations that Ezekiel is about to see in the temple were exactly this: a robbing Christ of His honor.
“In the visions of God” (that is, in vision, not in body) Ezekiel was lifted up and brought to Jerusalem—and not just to the city, but specifically to the temple, in order that the prophet might himself see the pollutions by which the very temple of God was being profaned (). “And, behold,” the prophet says, “the glory of the God of Israel was there” (Ezekiel 8:4)—a visible representation thereof, in order, again, that what the prophet views immediately thereafter might be seen, by contrast, as a rejection of Jehovah God and of His covenant with Israel.
Evidently Ezekiel was, in vision, placed by the hand of God (of Christ) in the inner court of the temple, at the gate that led directly to the great altar of burnt offering. Looking, then, “toward the north” (), as instructed by the Lord, he saw at the gate an image. An idol. Greater sacrilege can scarcely be imagined. Yet, Zedekiah, currently king of Judah, was not the first to commit it. His great grandfather had done the same some 80 or 90 years earlier (cf. ). In neither case is the idol identified. Whether it was of Baal, or Ashtaroth, or whatever—that is not important. What is important, the Lord points out to Ezekiel, is that it was an “image of jealousy” ( ). An image, that is, that provoked the Lord to jealousy. One thinks immediately of the second of the Ten Commandments. “…for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God”—jealous, that is, of His own glory, which He will not give to, or share with, another. Therefore—no images! Nor idols. Indeed, the abomination that Ezekiel was made to see in vision was almost certainly a violation of the first commandment. No representation of Jehovah was this, but an image of a heathen idol god. And in the temple! Hard by the altar! Its very location, therefore, an aggravation of this scandalous violation of God’s holy law and profaning of His house. Writes Calvin:
…when they erected the idol before the altar they flew as it were in the very face of God. If an immodest woman runs after an adulterer, her husband is justly enraged; but if she brings him before her husband, and wantons with him before his eyes, and prostitutes herself to all crimes, then certainly such wanton lust cannot be endured.
And such was the sin, here, of Judah. In plain view of the altar, before the very face of God, they place the image of an idol to compete with Him for the adoration of the people in His house of worship.
“Son of man, seest thou what they do? Even the great abominations that the house of Israel committeth here, that I should go far off from my sanctuary?” (8:6). Ah, yes, that was the point. Let no one wonder that God abandons His house, when His people flaunt their spiritual adultery before His face.
And there was more. Bad as it was, the “image of jealousy” was hardly the extent of the profanation of worship in the temple. “Turn thee yet again,” the Lord said to Ezekiel, “and thou shalt see greater abominations” (8:6). What Ezekiel had seen thus far was one idol, in a prominent place, a place purposefully chosen in order that the idol that occupied it might be seen and adored by everyone who came into the temple. What the Lord now reveals to the prophet is idolatry that is practiced, not openly, but “in the dark” (8:12), that is, out of sight. In fact, Ezekiel could behold this abomination only after, in the vision, digging a hole in a wall, and then discovering and walking through a secret door (8:7-9). No doubt to his astonishment Ezekiel beheld in that room a gathering of “seventy men of the ancients [that is, the elders] of the house of Israel,” every one of them with “a censer in his hand,” to offer incense not to one but to a multitude of gods—“every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed [painted] upon the wall round about” (8:10-11).
Again, Ezekiel sees this “in vision.” It may be, therefore, that the scene that unfolded before his eyes was representative, not of what actually occurred in the temple, but, as Keil (and other commentators) believe, “of what the elders of the people were doing secretly throughout the whole land.” We are inclined, however, to agree with Calvin, that Ezekiel was being shown the corruption, the profaning, of worship in the very temple of God. His explanation is intriguing:
But he [God] says that they [the elders] did it in darkness, because they kept secret their sacred rites; as also there were mysteries among profane nations, which were not open to any but the initiated. Since therefore the multitude was not thought worthy of those mysteries, it is therefore probable that the place among the Jews of which the Prophet speaks was like a small chapel, which the elders, and those who had authority among the people, retained to themselves.
Not only, therefore, did the elders fail in their bounden duty to act as a deterrent to idolatry in Israel, they themselves took an active part in it. And not only did they participate in it, they raised it to a higher level.
And their rationale? They said, “The Lord seeth us not; the Lord hath forsaken the earth” (8:12)—or, as Calvin understands it, “hath deserted the land.” Two evils, perhaps, show themselves here. First, a practical denial of God’s omniscience. Hidden from the eyes of men, they imagined that God did not see them either. But underlying that evil was their carnal conception of Jehovah God. The God who had given them this land had apparently withdrawn His aid. How else, after all, can they explain His failure to protect them, already twice, from the dreadful armies of Nebuchadnezzar? Many of their brethren are already in far-off Babylon, along with the sacred vessels of the temple of God in Jerusalem. What can they do, now, but turn to another deity? Which one? Who can tell? Worship, therefore, a multitude of them. Portray them all on the walls of their ‘chapel.’ And then bring their censers. Honor them all.
Which they did. Every man of the seventy had his censer in his hand, filled evidently with a generous supply of incense. Which must have been costly, for the smoke of it was seen by Ezekiel to be like a “thick cloud” (8:11). The elders were in earnest. When it came to the worship of their idols, they spared no expense.
And there is yet more, and greater…next time.