“This is a hard teaching, who can bear it?”, was the question rumbling around Jesus’ hearers when they listened to His uncompromising ministry (John 6.60). Maybe we have the same heart-reaction as we make our way through Ezekiel’s ministry, with its judgement and bleak pictures of the future? Do we long for a short, comforting Psalm or an encouraging passage from the History Books, instead of chapters like these? Ezekiel must have longed for the same, too. But this was the Word given to him, as he was called to minister at a critical, and terrible, time in Israel’s spiritual history. Things, though, will get worse before they get better, and this will call for perseverance from the Prophet as well as from us, his hearers.
Two sermons, one very short, one longer, spell out the predicament of God’s covenant people. In ch.15 Ezekiel likens them to a vine, the valuable tree but now made as worthless as any other in the forest, and fit for burning with the rest of them. That is how cheapened they have become, in God’s eyes. And if this image will have shocked and enraged the people, then far worse is to come.
Slowly, and image by image, Ezekiel creates a picture of an abandoned child being found and cared for. Unwanted babies would have been numerous in Ezekiel’s world, with parents too poor or too busy to care for some newborns, leaving their children in the fields, maybe hoping someone would be able to take them in. Disturbing, yes, but a fact of life. Except this child, a baby girl, is Israel (16.3). Left in a hurry at birth, with still her umbilical cord uncut, she was not only abandoned, but despised (vv.4-5).
As Ezekiel develops the story in front of his shocked listeners, he likens God to the rescuer. God’s tender care is detailed. The years quickly pass by, God providing lavishly for this now beautiful adolescent. This is not now the care of an adoptive parent, but the attentions of a would-be husband of a young bride-to-be (vv.6-14). The fame of her beauty spreads. But with fame comes shame. The girl takes every one of God’s gifts, and turns them to prostitution (vv.15-19).
There are some things you have to say in the pulpit where it’s hard to keep eye-contact. You can feel the atmosphere change, and sense the hostility to what you’re saying. Try to imagine here the rising shock, fury and hostility, as Ezekiel presses on with his message. How dare he speak like this! How dare he liken God’s people to a prostitute! But he’s not backing down. Israel has had nothing but costly love from her Master; but she has abused it, and become a prostitute, then a murderer, and then a shine prostitute, publicly selling her favours in the city (vv.20-25).
Her disgrace is as great as her coming downfall. As God’s people get more devoted to shunning God and giving themselves to foreign help and religion to get themselves out of the mess of their situation, so they will be more and more given over to their shame and dishonour (vv.26-42). She will be stripped naked, stoned and degraded by even her former lovers. At this point the woman is expressly compared to Jerusalem and God’s point is all too clear, now: Jerusalem will fall, and God will be satisfied with nothing less than judgment (vv.41-42).
If the charges against the people escalate in the remainder of ch.16, then there are also extraordinary glimpses of favour after judgment, too. God’s people are likened to Sodom and Samaria. Sodom was, and is, proverbial for its sexual sin; Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, judged already by God through the hand of the Assyrians. And yet, as God says, “Samaria did not commit half the sins you did” (v.51). So how can there be any hope for this nation?
Her hope must be in the Lord. God has hinted that one day He would “be calm and no longer angry” (v.42). Now He says “I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you” (v.60). How, and why? Why should God deal mercifully with people who have forsaken his love for wealth, murder, sex and false religion, and how can He do that?
Come to a man who forsook the privilege of sexual intimacy in a married life. Come to a man who lived without any personal wealth, who never swore by an idol, who never even used his words for murderous purposes. See a man who always treasured every gift of God, and who delighted in his Father’s love. And then see that man mocked and degraded in the city of Jerusalem, being thrown out like so much rubbish by those who once loved his words. And then see in Jesus’ death the opening up of this everlasting covenant. Look at your sins, your ruthless godlessness, sexual compromise, greed and selfishness. Then know, really know, that there may you, though vile as she, wash all your sins away. This is grace.