In the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation
nothing is more finally significant
than the church’s complete absence:
“And I saw no temple therein”.
— Karl Barth
Have you ever felt God telling you to do something that seemed completely bizarre? Have you heard something so unorthodox, it made you question where that notion actually came from? Have you ever acquiesced? What if God told you something that was so sickening, it would make you question whether or not he is the type of God worth serving? Now we’re in Ezekiel’s territory.
Let me rephrase the story in brief. God told Ezekiel that he was going to take away the desire of his heart, and that he was not allowed to show any signs of mourning. That night his wife died. Through that event, Ezekiel was able to address the exiles and tell them that just like his wife was taken away from him, God’s temple was being taken away from the people—and they were not allowed to mourn the loss.
. . .
This is a sickening story. I’ll be honest: it’s beyond my comprehension to think of a God who would kill his servant’s wife to make a point.
Think of some other similar Old Testament stories. God asked Abraham to slaughter his unique son Isaac—but provided a ram to take his place. The anguish leading up to the event would be horrid (not to mention the father-son dynamic after the event), but Abraham got to keep his son.
Hosea is another person who comes to mind. He was told to marry a prostitute. When she ran back to her trade, Hosea ran after her and purchased her again. It’s horrible, but at least she didn’t die! The point was made: no matter how far Israel runs from God after other lovers, he will redeem her.
The bottom line here is that God wanted Ezekiel to be a living example of a spiritual reality. The point is profound and painful: God’s temple is as precious to him and to the Israelites as Ezekiel’s wife was to Ezekiel. Still, God was willing to destroy his own temple to eventually redeem his people.
. . .
No one is sure why Ezekiel was not allowed to mourn the passing of his wife. Scripture is conspicuously silent on this point. There have been an number of suggestions offered, but ultimately we do not know.
Mourning was a big show in Ezekiel’s day. People would typically:
- Wear sackcloth
- Sprinkle ashes or dust on their heads
- Shave their beard or hair
- Lie on the ground
- Walk around barefoot
These actions would alert everyone that the mourner had lost someone important. Ezekiel was not allowed to indulge in any of this. He bottled up his grief.
. . .
I think the point of this story can be found in the four phrases Ezekiel used to describe God’s Temple:
- My sanctuary: God was not gleefully dancing while his people were being judged; the sanctuary was his idea, and its destruction was his pain.
- The pride of your people’s strength: When people of this era would go to war, they would typically set up a tent in the middle of the camp for their deity. Basically, whoever won the battle had the strongest God. Yahweh had a great history of defending his people in battle, and the collapse of his temple would completely demoralize the people. Their strength vanished as quickly as Samson’s hair.
- Delight of your eyes: The Israelites loved their temple. It was the centre of their very existence as a nation! Israel was not a nation because they lived in a certain place: they were a nation because God called them out from the nations and determined to live with them.
- The passion of your life: I hope the repeated emphasis has given you a sense of what the Temple meant both to God and to Israel. Now it was gone.
. . .
It’s important that we understand this passage from a post-cross perspective. In Ezekiel’s day, Israel was called to be a shining light for God in the midst of the nations. They were not called for privilege, but for purpose. The nations were expected to flock to the temple like moths to a flame. Unfortunately, Israel dampened the flame and was judged for her apostasy.
Today things are different. We are the temple of God. Instead of expecting nations to come to us, Jesus has sent us to the nations. Instead of being geographically centered on a specific location, God’s kingdom is wherever his subjects plant their feet.
. . .
Unsearchable God, remind us of just how much you love your new temples. Give us the courage to obey and follow you despite how enigmatic you appear. In Jesus’ name, Amen.