A sermon on Ezekiel 8 to 11 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 14 August 2022
I’d like to begin today by posing two related questions. Firstly, how did Israel’s faith survive the catastrophes of 586 BC? In that year Babylon’s armies invaded their country, surrounded the city of Jerusalem, weakened the city’s defenders with a long siege, captured the city, destroyed its walls, its palace and its temple, and took away the leading citizens and their families as prisoners. How did Israel’s faith survive?
I mean, the gods of other conquered people have long been forgotten. Their temples were destroyed. Their priests murdered. Their rituals stopped. Who here remembers the names of the gods of Moab or Ammon or the Philistines? No one. Where in all the world are the gods of small ancient nations like these worshipped and honoured? Nowhere. Even the gods of the conquerors, the gods of Babylon, have long been forgotten. Why is the God of Israel worshipped in most of the cities, town and villages of the globe? How did Israel’s faith survive an event that should have wiped it out of existence?
Secondly, why are we still reading Ezekiel two and half thousand years later? Why do we care what he said, when the works of other great thinkers have been lost for centuries.
Diogenes, for example, lived in Greece from 412 to 323 BC. He is famous for living in a jar, disputing with Plato, and founding a whole school of philosophy. Reportedly, Alexander the Great once met him and thrilled to meet the great philosopher asked him if there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes said, “Yes, get out of my sunlight.”
Alexander laughed and said, “If I weren’t Alexander, I’d like to be Diogenes.”
To which Diogenes replied, “If I weren’t Diogenes, I’d still like to be Diogenes.”
He authored 10 works during his life. None of them survive. All of them have been lost. All we know of him is what others said about him. And yet, here we are reading the book of Ezekiel and talking about it like it was still relevant today.
The two questions are related. We are still reading Ezekiel today because his work helped Israel’s faith survive the catastrophes of 586 BC. What Ezekiel did, and other prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, what they did was to explain the catastrophes of 586 BC in a way that was not only consistent with their faith in God, but also in a way that reinvigorated their faith. Jerusalem was destroyed, the palace was destroyed, the monarchy was destroyed, their independence was destroyed, and the temple was destroyed, but not their faith, because all those things happened as a judgement from their holy God and as part of his plan to renew them and their faith. Those disasters didn’t destroy their faith. If anything, they made it stronger.
All this is made clear in Ezekiel chapters 8 to 11. Now it’s hard to preach on four chapters. It’s hard to do justice to such a large passage in a 15 or 20 minute talk. It’s hard for regular folk to process all those details. But two things make it easier.
Firstly, Ezekiel chapters 8 to 11 is one single narrative unit. It’s a self-contained story with a beginning, a middle, and an end that describes a vision that Ezekiel had about Jerusalem and its temple.
Secondly, at the heart of these chapters is Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God, God’s amazing portable throne that we talked about two weeks ago. The four creatures and the four wheels that carry a part of the sky that holds up God’s heavenly throne. It represents the presence of God’s blessing.
In Ezekiel chapters 8 to 11, we see God’s glory leave the temple, park temporarily in the temple courtyard before leaving the city and resting on a hill to the east. This departure from the temple and the city of Jerusalem and then this resting on a hill to the east means three things. And those three things form the three main points in the sermon outline.
Firstly, it means God’s judgment. He removed the presence of his blessing from Jerusalem and from the temple. It doesn’t mean that God wasn’t in the city. God is everywhere. God can’t be in one place and not in another. Like I said, God is everywhere. Created things only continue to exist because their creator sustains them by his powerful word.
But to remove the presence of his blessing from Jerusalem means that the city came under his judgment. They were not under his blessing but under the curse of his holy anger. Because its citizens had forsaken him. They had turned from the living God who chose them and saved them and blessed them and established them so that they may live for him and give witness to his glory to the rest of the world. They had turned away from him to worship the images of gods who couldn’t think or see or hear, because they were not real. They were not true. They were not alive. They did not exist except in the imagination of the gullible. So that trusting them would be like jumping off a roof, believing that your invisible wings will save you.
Believing in the Lord on the other hand is like believing in gravity. It even works when you don’t believe in it. And if you don’t respect it, it will hurt you. Believing in idols is like believing you’ve bought the winning ticket. That false hope will only keep you going until it is dashed by reality.
Even in the Lord’s temple the people of Jerusalem had set up idols to provoke his jealousy. Some of them they had the decency to be ashamed of. Worshiping them behind closed doors, thinking that the Lord couldn’t see. But some of them were put on public display. Some worshiped these things because they wanted a bet each way, thinking, “Let us trust in the Lord and in these other gods as well. One of them will save us.” Like putting some of your money in the bank and some of it under your bed. Some worshiped the idols because they thought that the Lord had already given up on them and that he couldn’t be trusted.
They had forsaken the Lord and so his glory departed the temple as he removed the presence of his blessing from the presence of these idols. It is a solemn reminder of the danger of false worship. When we are quick to ask God for what we want, but slow to thank him when we receive it. When we take him for granted in the good times, and resent him for the bad times. When our walk with Christ is distracted and half-hearted and our longing for fellowship with God is easily satisfied by a quick Bible reading and almost non existent prayer time. When our worship becomes routine and we serve others with a grudging heart. When we say we love the Lord, but our heart belongs to other things. When we say we believe in the Lord, but we only use that faith to support other causes. When we call ourselves Christian but there is practically no evidence that would convict us in a court of law. When we feel far away from God and forget who has moved.
Our God is always with us. In him we live and move and have our being. His Son Jesus is our brother in all our distress and his Spirit is our constant companion and guide along all the pathways of life. But the withdrawal of the presence of his blessing is his judgment on our divided loyalties. The Lord will not tolerate any rivals for our affection and nor should he. So that when we give our hearts to other things for a time he leaves us to those other things. And we experience the absence of his blessing. Illustrating one of my favourite sayings. Be careful for what you wish for, because you might get it.
The departure of the Lord’s glory from the temple and from Jerusalem and its resting upon a hill to the east means secondly that everything happens for a reason. God is the creator of all things. He is not an idle watchmaker who builds things and winds them up and leaves them to wind down. He is active in his world. He guides human history according to his own purpose and plan. So that everything happens for a reason. Even the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 586 BC. The Babylonians did not win because the Lord was weak. They did not win because the Lord didn’t care. They won because at that precise time they were the instruments of the Lord’s judgment upon his people. Idolatry had weakened the people of Israel, their faith, their obedience and their witness like termites eating through the walls of a house to the point that he decided to demolish them in order to start again. Like a farmer will plough a field in order to sow a new crop. Like an artist will paint over a canvas in order to start again.
The events of 586 BC were a terrible tragedy. A catastrophe marking one of Israel’s greatest failures. But Ezekiel helped the survivors understand them in line with the Lord’s consistent character. He had cleared the land of what was broken and useless in order to build again.
Everything happens for a reason. Our God is not a careless creator. But one who thinks and plans and builds and rebuilds according to his purpose to renew all things in Christ. And there may be things in our lives that displease him. That rob him of his glory and distract us from our purpose. Our Lord will not rest until all that is within us conforms to his will made clear in the gospel. That at the end of all things we may stand before him unashamed and inherit his kingdom of justice and peace. Like a gardener he will prune us, cutting away what is dead and unfruitful in order to promote our growth and holiness. As the apostle Paul said,
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
For neither days of plenty nor seasons of plague can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not even the absence of his blessing can truly separate us from him. Instead, it can be the first step in the renewal of our faith and love.
We come now to our last point. The departure of the Lord’s glory from the temple and from Jerusalem and its resting upon a hill to the east means thirdly that it was waiting there for the exiles to come home. It is no coincidence that in Ezekiel’s vision the glory of the Lord went east. It didn’t go west towards the sea. It didn’t go south towards Egypt. It went east towards Babylon where the exiles like Ezekiel were living. They were prisoners. Hostages. Taken from their homeland. The people of Jerusalem said,
They are far away from the Lord. This land was given to us as our possession.
They, meaning, the exiles in Babylon are far away from the Lord. While to us, meaning, us in Jerusalem, this land was given. They thought that the exiles in Babylon were being punished by being far away from the Lord. While they in Jerusalem would be rewarded by possessing the land of Israel. God’s message to the exiles through Ezekiel was that they had it all the wrong way round. The presence of his blessing would leave Jerusalem because their hearts had moved far from him. But it would wait to the east for the exiles to come home.
This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again. They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
What a wonderful promise. To bring them back and to give them their land again. And it would not just be a physical return, but a spiritual renewal as well. A kind of heart transplant. Taking from them their heart of stone, their willful disobedient spirit, and giving them a heart of flesh, a right attitude full of gratitude and love and obedience. Then they will keep his laws not because they have to, not in the hope of the reward of his blessing, but because they want to with all their heart. And he will fulfil his greatest promise to be their God and they will be his people.
This wonderful promise is fulfilled in the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. When we repent of our sins and turn to Christ in faith, we are not only forgiven but we receive the Spirit of God. Who begins a lifelong transformation within us. Turning our resentment into gratitude. Turning our fears into faith. Extinguishing the flames of unworthy loves and fanning into life true love for God and for others in his name. For God may accept us as we are when we come to him, but his purpose is not that we stay as we are. But that we be changed into the likeness of Jesus.
Israel’s faith was not destroyed when Jerusalem and the temple was. Instead, God’s message to the exiles through Ezekiel strengthened and reinvigorated their faith. And it can strengthen and reinvigorate ours. And the feeling that we are far from God is often the first step towards renewal. We realise that it is we who moved. That we must return to the Lord. That he will cut out all that is evil and unjust within us. That we may love and serve him with an undivided heart.