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 Ezekiel 36:20And when they entered to the heathen, where they went, they profaned my holy name, when they said to them, These are the people of the LORD, and are gone forth out of his land.
American King James Version×). Their unfaithfulness is labeled as "blasphemy" (see Ezekiel 20:27 Ezekiel 20:27Therefore, son of man, speak to the house of Israel, and say to them, Thus said the Lord GOD; Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed me, in that they have committed a trespass against me.
American King James Version×). 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 Leviticus 26:1-2  You shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither raise you up a standing image, neither shall you set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down to it: for I am the LORD your God.
 You shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×).
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 20:12Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them.
American King James Version×, Ezekiel 20:20 Ezekiel 20:20And hallow my sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God.
American King James Version×; Exodus 31:12-17 Exodus 31:12-17  And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  Speak you also to the children of Israel, saying, Truly my sabbaths you shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that you may know that I am the LORD that does sanctify you.  You shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy to you: every one that defiles it shall surely be put to death: for whoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.  Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whoever does any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.  Why the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
American King James Version×). 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 Hebrews 4:9-10  There remains therefore a rest to the people of God.  For he that is entered into his rest, he also has ceased from his own works, as God did from his.
American King James Version×, 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 Ezekiel 20:12Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them.
American King James Version×, 20).
In verses 11, 13 and 21, God quotes Leviticus 18:5 Leviticus 18:5You shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.
American King James Version×, 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 Ezekiel 22:9-11  In you are men that carry tales to shed blood: and in you they eat on the mountains: in the middle of you they commit lewdness.  In you have they discovered their fathers' nakedness: in you have they humbled her that was set apart for pollution.  And one has committed abomination with his neighbor's wife; and another has lewdly defiled his daughter in law; and another in you has humbled his sister, his father's daughter.
American King James Version×).
So, God says, He "gave them up to statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they could not live" (Ezekiel 20:25 Ezekiel 20:25Why I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live;
American King James Version×). 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 Psalms 81:12 Psalms 81:12So I gave them up to their own hearts' lust: and they walked in their own counsels.
American King James Version×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 Romans 1:18-32  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;  Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has showed it to them.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:  Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,  And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things.  Why God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves:  Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.  For this cause God gave them up to vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:  And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.  And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;  Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,  Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,  Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:  Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
American King James Version×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 Ezekiel 20:31For when you offer your gifts, when you make your sons to pass through the fire, you pollute yourselves with all your idols, even to this day: and shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, said the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you.
American King James Version×). 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 Hebrews 12:5-11  And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to children, My son, despise not you the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked of him:  For whom the Lord loves he chastens, and whips every son whom he receives.  If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chastens not?  But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons.  Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live?  For they truly for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.  Now no chastening for the present seems to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them which are exercised thereby.
American King James Version×]. 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 Leviticus 27:32And concerning the tithe of the herd, or of the flock, even of whatever passes under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to the LORD.
American King James Version×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 Amos 5:3For thus said the Lord GOD; The city that went out by a thousand shall leave an hundred, and that which went forth by an hundred shall leave ten, to the house of Israel.
American King James Version×). 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 Ezekiel 20:37-38  And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant:  And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel: and you shall know that I am the LORD.
American King James Version×).
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 Isaiah 2:2-4  And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.
 And many people shall go and say, Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
 And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
American King James Version×; Micah 4:1-3 Micah 4:1-3  But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it.  And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
American King James Version×). 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.