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Previous article in this series: April 15, 2018, p. 320.

The prostitution to idolatry that Ezekiel had already seen, by vision, in the temple of God in Jerusalem must have seemed incredible to the prophet. But then, astoundingly, the Lord says, “Turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations that they do” (8:13).

This time, the Lord brought Ezekiel to “the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north.” And there he saw women sitting, “weeping for Tammuz” (8:14). Nothing more is said here or elsewhere in Scripture about Tammuz. A reputable, recently published Bible dictionary identifies Tammuz as the Samaritan deity of spring vegetation. The cult of Adonis in Syria and Osiris in Egypt had rites similar to those connected with Tammuz, and some commentators even identify the latter with one or the other of those deities. The rites had their origins in ancient heathen mythology, according to which, in this case, Tammuz was a handsome youth who died, spent some time in the underworld, and then came back to earth—his death and resurrection being associated, respectively, with the long dry season, followed by the reviving of nature with the spring rains. Annual rites (in the then-fourth month of the year) involved the weeping mentioned in 8:14 (mourning the death of Tammuz), followed by a time of rejoicing (at his resurrection).

Even if that were the whole of it, such idolatrous worship, in the very temple of Jehovah God, should already have been considered repulsive. But very likely it involved more. This cult, as practiced in the nations around Judah, involved also licentious rites. That is, not only spiritual, but also corporeal whoredom. Calvin, among other commentators, almost takes for granted that the weeping for Tammuz at the gate of the temple included the latter. Women “offering themselves,” he writes, “to debauchery…. Who would think this could occur, that women should be reduced to such a pitch of defilement, when they had been taught in the doctrine of the law from their early childhood.”

“Hast thou seen this, O son of man?” the Lord asks Ezekiel. But “turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations than these” (8:15).

Ezekiel is then brought in vision “into the inner court of the Lord’s house” (8:16). The prophet takes pains at this point to reveal not only what he saw there, but also exactly where. Not just in “the inner court,” the domain of the priests, but “at the door of the temple of the Lord,” that is, the door of the temple proper, the very sanctuary itself. And then also this: “between the porch and the altar.” Ezekiel knew this place well. He himself was a priest (cf. 1:3). He could not help but view the altar of burnt offering as, second only to the sanctuary itself, the most sacred spot in the whole of the inner court. And, with all of the godly priests of the Lord in his day, he understood that the placement of the altar before the porch, the door, of the entrance to the house was hardly an arbitrary matter.

More can undoubtedly be said about how much the Jews of Ezekiel’s day understood of the typical significance of the temple and the altar and the burnt offerings. Suffice it to say, for now, that they well understood that this house was God’s. They knew their history. They knew that at the dedication of this building “the glory of the Lord filled the house” (II Chron. 7:2), and that when their fathers “saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshiped” (7:3). They understood that Jehovah God was pleased to dwell with His people, in this house, in the Holy of Holies, behind the veil.

And they understood why access to this place was so restricted—only the priests in the inner court; only priests by appointment in the Holy Place; and only the high priest, once a year, with the blood of atonement, in the Most Holy Place. It was because their God, the only God, was holy. And they were not. The altar of burnt offering, and its location, spoke to them of that. No access of sinners to God, but by way of the altar, the sacrifice, the blood, the blood of atonement. And the people of Israel were not left simply to surmise that that was the case. In Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers there is repeated reference to the need for and the way of atonement for sin. Leviticus 17:11, for example: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”

Now, what does Ezekiel see transpiring in the inner court of the house of Israel’s God? He sees twenty-five men, likely representatives of the twenty-four courses of priests (cf. I Chron. 24:1-19), with the high priest at their head. The twenty-five men stand between the altar and the door of the temple. They have their “backs toward the temple of the Lord.” They have “their faces toward the east.” And they “worshipped the sun!” (Ezek. 8:16).

Ezekiel did well, at that moment, to take note of their very position. Backs—to the temple. Faces—to the sun. That spoke volumes about what they were doing. “For,” as Calvin writes in his commentary on this passage in Ezekiel,

When they turned their back upon the sanctuary, they made a laughing-stock of God. It hence appears, that they were of so daring a front, that they openly boasted in their superstitions, and purposely polluted God’s temple…when they turn their back, this is not only a foul denial, but a contempt of God, as if they had said, that he was unworthy of their respect…. Now we know this to be a sign of lawful adoration, when the faithful turned their eyes to the sanctuary and the ark of the covenant, but when they turned their backs upon it, there is no doubt that they professedly wished to boast in a contempt of God and the law.

But, we might ask, did they, those priests, really do that? Had they ‘given up’ on Jehovah, abandoned His worship, and turned instead to idols? When they turned their backs to the temple, were they really “resolvedly forgetting it and designedly slighting it and putting contempt upon it”? (Matthew Henry).

Truth is, if the twenty-five priests had been able to read John Calvin’s and Matthew Henry’s characterizations of their worship, they would have vigorously denied both of them. “What do you mean,” they would have asked, incredulously, “that we have contempt for the temple, and for God, and for God’s law? Do you not know how we burn incense to the God of heaven in the temple’s Holy Place? Do you not know that we offer all of the required sacrifices at the altar of burnt offering in the temple’s inner court? And all of it exactly how, and where, God’s law requires! Far from holding them in contempt, we honor God, and His law, and His house!”

Ezekiel would not have doubted that for a minute. He had been captive in Babylon for six years already, but he must have remembered Jerusalem and its temple worship well. He did not have to be told that these priests could make room for an “image of jealousy” at the gate of the altar, allow women to weep for Tammuz at the door of the outer court, themselves worship the sun as they stand between the altar and the entrance to the sanctuary—all the while being scrupulous in their careful adherence to every letter of the laws relating to the rituals of the Jewish religion—willfully oblivious to the incompatibility of the latter with the former. Far better, it would have been, had they left the worship of God out of the mix.

One cannot help but wonder how the worship of Jehovah God could ever have come to this. Especially so, perhaps, when we consider the clarity with which God had made known His will with respect to that worship. We think, for example, of Deuteronomy 17, which is but one example of many:

If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the Lord thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the Lord thy God, in transgressing his covenant, and hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; and it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and inquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such an abomination is wrought in Israel: then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die (17:2-5).

What, we would ask, could possibly be more clear? Worship of the sun was, specifically, declared by God to be an abomination—an abomination that, when it is practiced secretly by a common Israelite, must be searched out, investigated, and punished by death. And what does Ezekiel see now? Not just common people but the priests; not only right out in the open but in the inner court of the house of God; and not in some obscure corner of the inner court but between the porch of the sanctuary and the great altar of burnt offering, with their backs to the temple…worshiping the sun! How, we ask, could it ever have come to this in…Judah? How can we account for a blindness that surpasses stupidity?

The answer, we think, can be found in a prophecy of Isaiah. A familiar prophecy it is, made so, perhaps, because of its application by Jesus to the Jews of His day. “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” the scribes and Pharisees asked, “for they wash not their hands when they eat bread” (Matt. 15:2). Talk about scrupulosity! The leaders of the Jews at the dawn of the new dispensation were strict in their adherence not only to the ceremonial laws laid down by Moses but to a host of traditions of men besides. But that adherence defined their holiness. They thought to honor God… by an outward show. “Naked,” “frigid” ceremonies, Calvin calls it in another place. Their profession was outward. Their service was of the lips. Their godliness was feigned. Holiness, to them, was not integrity of heart, but the practice of external ceremonies. One thinks immediately of the second commandment. “The sum therefore,” writes Calvin in his comments on Matthew 15:7-8, “is that the worship of God is spiritual, and only that is pleasing to Him when there is inward sincerity of heart, so that they are hypocrites who set holiness in external display.”

Hence, Jesus’ application to the scribes and Pharisees of the words of Isaiah: “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:7-8).

A ‘prophecy’ it was, in the sense that the condemnation applied with equal force to succeeding generations of Jews; but Isaiah was targeting, first of all, the Jews of his own day. And the words are telling. They are found in Isaiah 29:13-14: “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: therefore [and notice, now, especially this], behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.”

“I will do a marvelous work among this people.” “The wisdom of their wise shall perish!”

What is it, then, that accounts for the folly in Israel—the folly, that is, that could be seen in the day of Isaiah, and of Jeremiah, and of Christ? And that can be seen in our own day?

Ezekiel must have been appalled by what he saw, in vision, in the temple of God. Who would ever have thought it possible that there would ever be, in the temple of God in Jerusalem, women prostituting themselves for Tammuz, elders burning incense to every god under the heavens printed on every square foot of the walls of a secret chapel, priests doing homage to a heavenly luminary? Well, Isaiah provides the answer. God did it.

“This stupidity,” writes Calvin, “is a just punishment which the Lord inflicts on them on account of their unbelief.”

“They are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of a deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered” (Is. 29:9, 10).

Not, says Isaiah, just the common people, those who, it might be thought, would be more likely to be persuaded of such folly, but the prophets and the rulers, “whose duty it was to enlighten others, will be altogether senseless so as not to know the road, and, being covered with the darkness of ignorance, will shamefully go astray, and will be so far from directing others that they will not even be able to guide themselves” (Calvin).

Next time: My people love to have it so.