A History of Rebellion, a Future of Redemption
Chapter 20 begins a new section of the book of Ezekiel. The starting date in verse 1 equates to August of 591 B.C. The section continues to the end of chapter 23, as 24:1 gives a new date, January of 588 B.C. This reading encompasses the first 44 verses of chapter 20. "The chapter division in the MT [Masoretic Text, the authoritative Hebrew version] is between v. 44 and v. 45 in the English text. This division best follows the argument of the book at this point" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 44). This fact becomes even clearer in our next reading.
Again "certain of the elders of Israel" among the Jewish exiles come to Ezekiel to seek information from God as they did in chapter 14. Yet it is clear that when God addresses them, He is speaking not only to them—as they were probably not passing children through the fire at this time—but to the "house of Israel," the nation they represented (verse 31). Moreover, since the latter part of the chapter concerns "all the house of Israel" (verse 40) being purged of sin and returning to the Promised Land from captivity in the future, it is likely that the message is intended not just for the Jews of Ezekiel's day but for all Israel in the last days.
As God answered before, He says He refuses to be questioned by these elders or the nation (verse 3, 31). Instead, He has Ezekiel proclaim to them the "the abominations of their fathers" (verse 4). Israel's history has been one long series of rebellions against God. The point is not that the Jews of Ezekiel's time or Israelites of the future are to be punished for the sins of their forefathers (as Ezekiel 18 made clear). Rather, God recognized in the Jews of that day, and all Israel today, the same rebellious spirit that had characterized the nation historically. Evil cultural traditions were passed on from one generation to another. It is likely that the Jews of Ezekiel's day were relying on their "noble heritage" to preserve them. God's retort: Let's take a hard look at that heritage—it's not so good; better think again! Indeed, the actions of the people had many times brought severe judgment from God. Yet included here was a message of hope. While God purged rebellion through punishment, He never completely wiped out the nation—and never would.
The accounts of rebellion begin with Israel's time in Egypt. In verses 7-8, "God spoke of something not explained in the Book of Exodus; that is, the Israelites had engaged in the idolatry of the Egyptians during their sojourn there. Thus, though not mentioned elsewhere, there was the threat of divine retribution against the people before the time of the Exodus (which is mentioned in [Ezekiel 20] v. 10)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 8).
In verses 9, 14 and 22, God explains that He acted "for My name's sake." God's name carries His reputation and signifies all He stands for. When the Israelites sinned, they, as His representatives, essentially profaned His name before other nations (see also Ezekiel 36:20). Their unfaithfulness is labeled as "blasphemy" (see Ezekiel 20:27). God consistently upholds the honor of His name, so that all will be sure to take Him seriously. This necessitated punishment for disobedience—but also the preservation of Israel as a nation to fulfill His promises.
Profaning or blaspheming God's name was a violation of the Third Commandment, against taking God's name in vain. Israel also broke the First Commandment, against worshiping other gods, the Second against using idols or images in worship and the Fourth, against breaking God's Sabbath. The first four of the Ten Commandments outline man's duty to God—and the fact that all were transgressed clearly illustrates Israel's rebellion against God. Indeed, the focus of Ezekiel 20 is Israel's idolatry and Sabbath breaking as the primary basis for past judgment—as it would be for coming judgment (see Ezekiel 22). This was according to the specific terms of God's covenant with the nation. In listing the blessings for national obedience and curses for disobedience, He began with a specific mention of idolatry and Sabbath breaking (see Leviticus 26:1-2).
The seventh-day Sabbath was to be a sign to show that Israel acknowledged Him as the one true Creator God and that they were His chosen people (Ezekiel 20:12, Ezekiel 20:20; Exodus 31:12-17). It continues, in fact, as the day God commands for rest and holiness—it is still a sign for distinguishing God's people (see Hebrews 4:9-10, which states that the Sabbath rest remains, and our free booklet, Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest). It is not the only identifying sign, of course, because many keep the Sabbath without really knowing why or obeying God in all other areas—but it is nonetheless an important one and certainly one of the most visible. Sadly, the modern nations of Israel—those of northwest European heritage, chief of which are the United States and Britain—stand guilty of idolatry and, especially, of Sabbath breaking, which they do not even recognize as sin. It is partly because they don't recognize and honor God's Sabbath that they cannot truly understand and know God (see again Ezekiel 20:12, 20).
In verses 11, 13 and 21, God quotes Leviticus 18:5, which explains that God gave the people statutes and judgments that would enable them to live, and states that the people had rejected these. This verse in Leviticus had introduced laws of sexual morality, forbidding adultery, incest, homosexuality, etc. The clear implication is that Israel had sunk into sexual depravity (compare Ezekiel 22:9-11).
So, God says, He "gave them up to statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they could not live" (Ezekiel 20:25). Some theologians gravely misinterpret this verse as meaning that, because of the Israelites' disobedience, God imposed on them "bad laws," such as sacrifices, tithing, the Holy Days, etc. Of course, God does not give "bad laws." This verse has nothing to do with any laws that He gave—whether ceremonial laws instituted for a time or permanent statutes such as tithing and the Holy Days. Rather, as Psalm 81:12 explains, God gave them over to their own stubborn hearts' desires and reasoning. In other words, He let Israel reap what it had sown. Romans 1:18-32 mentions how people who rejected God and His truth were given over to lewd and evil practices such as homosexuality—an exact parallel with Ezekiel 20. The Israelites descended so far as to burn their children in sacrifice (verse 26). In short, God allowed the Israelites to depart from His system of law and morality and embrace that of the world around them—to their great detriment, so they would ultimately learn a powerful lesson.
God decries Israel's participation in pagan worship beginning not long after the nation came into Canaan. In verse 29 God says: "Then I said to them, 'What is this high place to which you go?' So its name is called Bamah [high place] to this day." The Israelites had worshiped at pagan high places (hill shrines) so much that "high place" became a generic term for any place of worship, still in common usage in Ezekiel's time.
In verses 30-31, God warns the people of Israel—the Jews of Ezekiel's time and all Israel of the end time—that they are following the wicked example of their ancestors. The modern Israelite nations are, as mentioned, replete with idolatry and Sabbath breaking. Sexual immorality is commonplace and widely accepted among them. And, as mentioned in the Bible Reading Program commentary on Ezekiel 16, their people are guilty of child sacrifice—that is, through abortion or "offering" children over to society's ultimately lethal values.
God will not allow the nation to cross-examine Him (Ezekiel 20:31). Instead, its people will be punished. Still, "judgment isn't a sign God has abandoned. It is evidence that He keeps on being committed to us [compare Hebrews 12:5-11]. Israel wanted to desert God and serve pagan deities ([Ezekiel 20] v. 32). God says 'Never.' His love is greater than all our sin. We can stray, but God will bring us back to Him" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verses 32-38). Of course, whether an individual remains faithful to God is ultimately that person's choice. But, knowing the human heart, God is confident of saving the vast majority of His people.
God will ultimately deliver the Israelites with an outpouring of fury on the unrepentant among them and on their enemies (verses 33-34). Verse 34 shows that God planned to regather the Israelites even as He was determining to scatter them. As in the original Exodus, God will again lead the people through the wilderness in a journey of return to the Holy Land (verses 35-36). The passage here refers not to the Jewish return from Babylonian exile in ancient times but to a future return of all Israel.
But there is a warning here. God says, "I will make you pass under the rod" (verse 37). This terminology is used in Leviticus 27:32 in reference to a shepherd counting His sheep with respect to tithing, where one out of ten is devoted to God. This could mean an enumeration or the indication that many Israelites will die and that God will start over again with a "tithe" of those who go into captivity (compare Amos 5:3). This certainly fits the imagery of the purge God says He is conducting—to get rid of the rebels (not allowing them to return to the land of Israel) before bringing those who are left back to the Promised Land and into His covenant (Ezekiel 20:37-38).
Verse 39, in the New American Standard Bible, states, "Go ahead and worship your idols for now, you Israelites, because soon I will no longer let you dishonor me by offering gifts to them." God will put a stop to their idolatry—through bringing the people to repentance and removing those who refuse to repent. God's "holy mountain, on the mountain height of Israel" (verse 40) is here a reference to God's future Kingdom, in which Jesus Christ will reign over Israel and all nations from Jerusalem (see Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3). At last, the Israelites will understand the evil of their ways and come to hate them. They will finally come to know the true God and embrace His ways in genuine repentance.