Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin;
he is bound to destroy sin.
— George MacDonald (Unspoken Sermons)
At last, a glimmer of hope! I hope you have not been depressed by the repeated messages of judgment. More importantly, I hope you have not been desensitized by the repeated warnings of wrath. Only against that ugly black canvas can the white hot grace of God be truly envisaged. Sure, there are more messages of judgment to come, but this flash of mercy gives us a preview of what we will read in the latter half of Ezekiel.
This love is tough, to be sure: “With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you” (v. 33 also 34, NRSV). The exiles may even have been momentarily comforted. They had heard “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” before. Until now, those anthropomorphisms acted in Israel’s favor. Here they were paired with wrath.
It’s tragic that God’s love had to be stated in these terms. Yahweh as King formed the basis of Israel’s identity. Now, instead of having lived under Yahweh’s rule, they are cowering before him. God is saying: “You will not be like the other nations—I will be your King. And I will do whatever it takes to achieve that purpose.”
. . .
After the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt, they met with God at Mount Sinai. A few years later, they traveled to the promised land, and heard reports of the people who inhabited it. Instead of believing God, ten of the twelve spies were afraid. Here’s what God said:
None of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors” (Numbers 14:22-23, NRSV)
Here in Ezekiel’s time, God evoked that same event. Once again, because Israel tested God, she will be led out into the wilderness. Once again, God will judge her.
This may seem like a stretch, but I wonder what lengths God goes to in order to draw us back to him when we rebel? How many stories have you heard of people who once followed Jesus, but have turned from him and found their lives ruined? God will do whatever it takes to keep us in our relationship with him.
Even judgment here is redemptive. If Israel will not walk closely with God in covenant faithfulness, God will meet her face to face in judgment. His purposes will not be thwarted.
. . .
There are very seditious phrases lurking just under the surface of this passage. In contrast to Western individualistic views of salvation, Israel saw her nation as God’s choice. Sure, individuals can turn from God, but their salvation (which was more than some existential ethereal existence) was given to the people at large.
That is a wonderful way to look at things. How much better would we be today if we understood that God cares for his church—worldwide—not just the wants and desires of my selfish heart? Yet that understanding is open for serious abuse. If you are saved as a nation, and you belong politically to that nation, what’s to stop you from apostasy? Why not just live your life for yourself, and rely on your membership in the community to pull you through?
Here, Ezekiel is subverting that understanding. Notice these two verses:
I will purge out the rebels among you, and those who transgress against me; I will bring them out of the land where they reside as aliens, but they shall not enter the land of Israel (v. 38, NRSV)
God is implying here that cultural affinity to Israel is not a guarantee of salvation. Rebel-Israel will be purged from true-Israel as the exiles return.
. . .
In our cultural affiliation to the church, are we being unfaithful to God’s covenant? Are we content to go to church and identify with the faithful—yet live like the rebels? Does God not care about faithfulness as much today as he did in Ezekiel’s time?
. . .
Faithful God, forgive me for my unfaithfulness. Never let a veneer of Church-ianity mask a twisted heart. In Jesus’ name, Amen.