Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Idolatry of Israel in Ezekiel 8

When you go sightseeing, you normally have a general idea of what you want to see. Japanese tourists coming to Australia like to see the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and koalas! If a Japanese tourist came to Australia, and didn’t see the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, or a koala, I reckon they’d go back home very disappointed.

Well what about a sightseeing tour of Jerusalem? I reckon you can’t go to Jerusalem without seeing the Temple Mount, the place where the temple of God used to be. I had the opportunity to do that back in 2004, and going up to the Temple Mount was definitely the highlight of my trip, even more so because back then, due to the sensitive political situation, the Temple Mount had been closed to visitors. One day I was visiting the Wailing Wall with my sister and brother-in-law when all of a sudden we saw the Israeli police open up the gates of the ramp way leading up to the Temple Mount. We decided to go for it, and in the space of a few seconds not knowing where I was heading, all of a sudden I found myself virtually alone standing on top of the Temple Mount in brilliant sunshine. It was definitely the highlight on my trip, not only because the Temple Mount is the most famous place in Jerusalem, but because actually getting there was so unexpected.

In the year 592 B.C., Ezekiel was in Babylon, some 1,000 km away from Jerusalem. He had been taken there by the Babylonian army, and had been away from Israel for six years, when all of a sudden God gave him the opportunity in a vision to go back to Jerusalem, and visit the temple. What an opportunity! The chance to go back home, and visit the holiest place on Planet Earth.

Well, after being transported to Jerusalem by “Holy Spirit Airways” (according to Ezek 8:3), Ezekiel finds himself back where he wished he could have been all along … in the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel was of priestly descent, so the temple was the place for him to be. If he hadn’t been taken off into exile, he would have been working there. So you’d think that this opportunity to go back to the temple should’ve been a wonderful journey for him. You could imagine how happy he would have been at the prospect of going back.

He turns up in Jerusalem, and rocks up to the northern gate to the inner court of the temple. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there (Ezek 8:4)! The same vision of the glory of God that Ezekiel had witnessed in ch. 1 was the vision of God that was facing him in temple. How wonderful! Perhaps Ezekiel was feeling a bit like the psalmist who wrote in Ps 63: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”

How wonderful to see God’s glory again! But wait a minute. Behind Ezekiel was something that shouldn’t be there in the temple. In fact it was God who pointed it out to Ezekiel. There, north of the altar gate, was something grotesque: the image of jealousy. It was called the image of jealousy because it made God jealous. It was probably a statue of Asherah, a Canaanite fertility goddess; but whatever it was, it shouldn’t have been there, and it made God jealous.

English speakers generally grow up with the idea that jealousy is bad, so this idea of God being jealous sometimes sounds a little strange. Was God right to be jealous of this image? Well, the short answer is yes! God was right to be jealous. Here we need to remember what God had done for Israel previously and the nature of their relationship. We need to remember that when God saved Israel out of Egypt, Israel entered into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai, and God appeared to them on the mountain, and said to them: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). And then he gave them the Ten Commandments, with numbers one and two as follows:

(1) “you shall not have any other gods before me” (Exod 20:3): in other words, God alone was to be Israel’s God; this was an exclusive relationship with no space possible for any other gods.

And (2) “you shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod 20:4–6): in other words, no worship of idols was permitted in Israel. No image or any other object was to be worshipped as a god. Israel was to worship the one true God, Yahweh, and him alone.

But here was Israel sticking up a statue of a Canaanite fertility goddess in the temple, the place that was meant to be the exclusive domain of the worship of God. No wonder God was jealous! He had every right to be! Doing what Israel did in the temple is akin to a married person brazenly committing adultery at home in the marriage bed.

But that wasn’t all. In Ezek 8:7–12 we see that at the entrance to the court, after Ezekiel dug through a wall, seventy of the elders of Israel were worshipping idols made in the image of various creepy-crawlies and other kinds of disgusting beasts that had been engraved on the wall. The leaders of Israel were in the dark secretly worshipping animal idols. And they were doing this because they thought that God hadn’t seen their difficulties but had abandoned Israel in the face of the Babylonian armies (Ezek 8:12).

But that wasn’t all! At the entrance of the north gate, Ezekiel saw women were “weeping for Tammuz” (Ezek 8:14). They were weeping as part of the worship of this goddess, their tears representing the rain that they hoped Tammuz, a Babylonian fertility god, would send.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Ezek 8:16–17 goes even further. In the inner court, 25 men had their backs turned to the Lord’s temple. They were facing east, worshipping the sun! They had turned their backs and their backsides on God, literally as well as figuratively!

Israel had become idolatrous, unfaithful, and had filled the land with violence; and because of this God had been provoked to anger (Ezek 8:17). Israel had provoked God’s jealousy and anger so much so that God said to Ezekiel: “I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. Even if they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them” (Ezek 8:18).

With idolatry rampant in the temple, Ezekiel’s sightseeing tour must have been a terrible disappointment. But what is the significance of all of this?

The message of Ezek 8 is clear. God can get angry with his people if they turn their backs on him and engage in rampant idolatry. Chapter 8 is significant in the flow of the book of Ezekiel because it precedes the vision of the glory of God leaving the temple, which is recorded in ch. 10. In other words, we find here in ch. 8 the key reason why God allowed the Babylonian army to capture and destroy Jerusalem. It was because of their idolatry. It was idolatry that led to God’s presence withdrawing from his people. It was because the people of Judah followed the practices of the peoples around them, and worshipped what everyone else worshipped, different gods, each under the form of a particular image, that led God to give effect to the sanctions of the Mosaic covenant. Just as had been agreed upon at the foot of Mount Sinai, if Israel did not want God, then God would leave Israel, leaving her to her own devices. Israel would be easy prey for the next strong army that came along, and this is exactly what happened. In the year 586 B.C., the Babylonian army came and captured Jerusalem; and the temple, the symbol of God’s presence among his people, was destroyed.

The awful picture of a city destroyed speaks powerfully of the consequences of idolatry for God’s people. Idolatry is like a deadly infectious virus against which we must strive to protect ourselves. The sin of idolatry is deadly serious. All sins are bad, but the most serious sin of all is actually the sin of idolatry. The first two commandments of the Ten Commandments come first because they are the most fundamental in terms of our relationship with God. Idolatry is like unfaithfulness in a marriage. There is no faster way than unfaithfulness to destroy a marriage, because the act of unfaithfulness itself is a repudiation of the relationship, which is by definition an exclusive relationship. In a similar way, idolatry strikes at the heart of our relationship with God. If left unchecked and unrepented of, it has the potential to lead to apostasy.

And idolatry was not just a problem for the Old Testament people of God. It is also something that affects Christians today. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 10:1–21: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12); “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor 10:6); “therefore … flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14). “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor 10:21–22).

Like the Thessalonian Christians, being saved means that Christians have turned away from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9). The problem is, however, that idol worship is all around us, and it can easily creep up on us. John Calvin, the famous Reformer, once said: “Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” What idols have we been tempted to craft for ourselves lately?

Westerners have traditionally not been tempted to worship physical idols of gods on a large scale. But if we look around at Western society today, there are many idols being worshipped. We may not see many temples with images of Buddha, Shiva, or other gods very often in the West; but they do exist. Around Cabramatta in Sydney where I normally go to church, and where there are many people of Chinese and Vietnamese background, there are lots of Buddhist temples, for example. But just because most Westerners don't see statues doesn’t mean that our society doesn’t have idols. The well-known American evangelist D. L. Moody has said in an American context: "You don’t have to go to heathen lands today to find false gods. America is full of them. Whatever you love more than God is your idol.”

These words apply just as equally to any Western country, not just America. The famous Reformer, Martin Luther, said: “whatever man loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart; he goes about with it night and day; he sleeps and wakes with it, be it what it may: wealth or self, pleasure or renown.” As was his want, there’s a bit of overstatement in the teaching of Luther just quoted, but what he is saying is that whatever one loves more than God, that is one’s god.

Is there anything or anyone you love more than God? Luther mentioned wealth. In Col 3:5, Paul describes greed or covetousness as being idolatry. If you find yourself thinking all day about money, chances are you’ve got a problem with the idol that many Westerners worship today: the idol of wealth. Or perhaps your idol is your self? Or perhaps pleasure? Or renown (otherwise known as fame)? Perhaps even your wife or husband? Or your children’s scholastic achievements? Maybe it’s real estate.

If there’s anything that we love more than God, it’s actually an idol! But the message of Ezek 8 is warning us not to turn our backs on God. It is warning us not to engage in idolatry. Idolatry has the potential to destroy our relationship with God, so we need to be extremely careful here. Whatever idol we are tempted to worship, we need to turn our back on it, and make sure that we stay true to the one true and living God, the God who has revealed himself to humanity in Jesus.

Whatever we are tempted to worship, even if it’s a good thing in itself, God calls upon each one of us today to get rid of it! If the idol is something bad, then we’re to get rid of it from our lives. But if the idol is something good, then what we need to do is to put it back in the place it belongs, somewhere below God on a scale of priority.

Idolatry is deadly serious. In Gal 5, Paul lists as one of the works of the flesh, idolatry. He then warns his Christian audience: “I warn you, as I warned you before … those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21). A similar message emerges in 1 Cor 10. We need to be careful that our lifestyle or what we do is not provoking the Lord to jealousy.

Christians have been saved to worship the Lord! Christians have been saved to have God as our number one! But idolatry has the potential to destroy this relationship. We need to make sure, therefore, that we do not endanger our heavenly inheritance, but to repent of any idolatry that has been in our life recently.

Paul said: “you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (1 Cor 10:21). A person cannot worship God and follow demons. May God give each of us the strength and wisdom to ruthlessly root out idolatry from our lives, and to be committed to the pure worship of God instead. We don’t want to provoke the Lord to jealousy, do we?


Jeff said...

Great post. Thanks for drawing us into Ezekiel's world and encouraging us to make a meaningful connection to our own.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Jeff.

Ezekiel is a very interesting character. I’m hoping to do one or two further posts on Ezekiel in the near future.

God bless!

David Ong said...

Hi Mr. Berith Road:
I used some of your insights on this Ezek 8 to help me facilitate Paul David Tripp's book titled Instruments in the Redeemer's hands, chpt 4 on "heart of the matter"

thank you for helping me.
David Ong