HIDDEN IDOLATRY PROVES TO BE A STUMBLING BLOCK FOR SIN AND A RED FLAG IN TERMS OF DIVINE CONFRONTATION AND CONDEMNATION
Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. These respected Jewish elders living in exile with Ezekiel in Babylon appear to approach the prophet with a sincere interest in obtaining counsel from the Lord. How shocked they must have been to see the Lord’s confrontational response. These idolatrous leaders were just as whitewashed as the defective walls of chapter 13. The authoritative word from the Lord exposes their hypocrisy and threatens them with judgment if they refuse to repent.
Ralph Alexander: These leaders of the people outwardly sought God’s will by coming to Ezekiel, a true spokesman for the Lord, to inquire about his messages. At the same time, however, they inwardly were exalting idols on the throne of their hearts as the real gods of their lives (vv. 3-4, 7). Theirs was a fickle, twofold allegiance. Their lust for idols led to the elders’ stumbling into sin. Their outward rebellion against God, their practice of pagan rituals, and their refusal to keep the Mosaic covenant showed their inward worship of these false gods.
Charles Dyer: The idolatry in Jerusalem was openly displayed (chap. 8), but the idolatry in Babylon was more subtle – it was internal rather than external. Like stumbling blocks, this idolatry would cause the people to fall.
I. (:1-5) EXPOSING IDOLATRY IN THE HEART AS THE SOURCE OF EXTERNAL SIN
A. (:1-3) Outwardly Sincere Seekers Can Have Inwardly Idolatrous Hearts
1. (:1-2) Apparent Interest in the Word of the Lord
a. (:1) Jewish Leaders in Babylon Seek the Word of the Lord from Ezekiel
“Then some elders of Israel came to me
and sat down before me.”
Daniel Block: some crisis appears to have driven them to seek another word from God through him.
b. (:2) Word of the Lord Revealed to Ezekiel
“And the word of the LORD came to me saying,
Feinberg: Their thoughts were occupied with idol worship; they were enamored of idolatry, and their affections were centered on worthless vanities. Since they were so hypocritical, God asked whether He should allow Himself to be inquired of them at all.
2. (:3) Hypocritical Paradox of Idolaters Seeking Counsel from the Lord
a. Characterization as Inward Idolaters and Outward Sinners
“Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity.”
Leslie Allen: These individuals had forfeited any claim they had to a favorable response from Yahweh. They are judged to be halfhearted in their loyalty to him. God could read minds (Ps 7:10; Jer 11:20), and he found inconsistency between their outward recourse to a Yahwistic prophet and their inner disposition.
Daniel Block: What kinds of idolatrous commitments Yahweh has in mind is not clear. Perhaps the exiles had become enamored with the Babylonian practices all around them. More likely, they were inwardly longing for the idolatrous observances (such as had been portrayed in ch. 8) they had left behind in Judah. Though separated physically from their homeland, they had not yet been weaned of the syncretistic ways that had precipitated their present lot. These pagan commitments remain the most serious obstacle to divine favor.
John Taylor: Note the contemptible these men. The charge against them is that they have been infected by their Babylonian environment and the attractions of its idolatrous religion. Nothing had changed outwardly in their allegiance to the Lord, but they had taken idols into their hearts and in so doing they had put in front of their own faces the stumbling-block which would cause them to fall into iniquity. The phrase, the stumbling block of their iniquity, is peculiar to Ezekiel (7:19; 14:3, 4, 7; 18:30; 44:12) and usually refers to idols which the prophet recognized as being supremely ‘the occasion of sin’ for his people. The Lord demands an exclusive allegiance, inwardly as well as outwardly, from his people, and those who consult him or pray to him when they cherish other gods in their hearts will not be heard (cf. Ps. 66:18).
b. Counsel from the Lord Probably Not Appropriate
“Should I be consulted by them at all?”
MacArthur: Thee leaders came insincerely seeking God’s counsel (v. 3; cf Ps 66:18), as God reveals to the prophet, who thus saw through their façade and indicted them for determining to pursue their evil way and defy God’s will. False prophets of chap. 13 were thriving, as the civil leaders and populace whom they represented set a welcoming climate and inclination for the delusions.
Daniel Block: Accordingly, the elders had come to Ezekiel as a fortune-teller; he would inform them of Yahweh’s perspective on their present exilic situation and the fate of their nation back home. Perhaps he could even force Yahweh’s hand to act quickly on their behalf. The delegates appear to have been serious, considering themselves still to be the people of Yahweh. In spite of their syncretistic and overtly idolatrous disposition, however, they were oblivious to the fundamental incongruity of their presence before a prophet of Yahweh. They seemed unaware that Yahweh tolerated no rivals, and that he was under no obligation to respond to any who are determined to keep one foot planted in each of the two worlds—Yahwism and paganism.
Poole: Can these men seriously consult me? Is it fit I should give counsel to obstinate, resolved sinners, who come to inquire, but will not hearken? Should I help them in their distress, who depend on idols which I hate?”
B. (:4-5) The Stumbling Block of Idolatry Must be Denounced by the Authoritative Word of the Lord
“Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’”
1. (:4a) Idolatry in the Heart Leads to Outward Iniquity
“Any man of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart,
puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity,”
2. (:4b) Inquiring of the Lord Demands the Denouncing of Idolatry
“and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols,”
Daniel Block: The covenant Lord has been affronted first by their apostasy, and now by their insincerity. All he can see is the multitudes of idols on their minds; Yahweh’s response bypasses their concerns altogether.
3. (:5) Indictment Intended to Recapture Hearts and Restore the Relationship
“in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel
who are estranged from Me through all their idols.”
Lamar Cooper: A group of elders or leaders of Israel came to Ezekiel for instruction (v. 1). These leaders already had demonstrated a halfhearted piety. They prayed for deliverance from Babylon but were not ready to give God his rightful place in their hearts. They had adopted Babylonian values, goals, and standards but still considered themselves worshipers of Yahweh. So God asked, “Should I let them inquire of me at all?” (v. 3).
These leaders served the worst idols, the idols of their minds (v. 4). Their thoughts were under pagan control, so they were open to all forms of apostate practices. The same word used here for idols (gillûlîm) is also in 6:4–6, 9, 13, where they are characterized as “dung pellets.” Such sin was grounds for excluding a person from the community of worship because it was a spiritual “stumbling block” (v. 4).
Daniel Block: For Israel idolatry signified defection from the covenant God. Yahweh finds the exiles’ internalized idolatry as alienating as the overt pagan practices being conducted back home in the temple by the Jerusalemites (cf. 8:6).
II. (:6-11) URGING REPENTANCE TO ESCAPE JUDGMENT
A. (:6) Call for Drastic Repentance
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn your faces away from all your abominations.’”
B. (:7-8) Condemnation of the Inquiring Idolaters
1. (:7) Divine Confrontation
“For anyone of the house of Israel or of the immigrants who stay in Israel who separates himself from Me, sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet to inquire of Me for himself, I the LORD will be brought to answer him in My own person.”
Leslie Allen: The appeal of v 6 is grounded in the reason of vv 7–8. The specific announcement of punishment elaborated in these verses was meant to serve as a deterrent upon the people at large and to make them think twice about their leaning toward pagan religion.
Charles Dyer: Verse 7 is identical to verse 4b except that in verse 7 the warning applied also to any alien living in Israel.
Anton Pearson: Note Ezekiel’s care for the resident aliens (22:7, 29; 47:22, 23). The proselyte enjoyed equal rights under the law and faced equal penalty (Lev 17:8, 10, 13; 20:2).
2. (:8a) Divine Opposition and Judgment
“And I shall set My face against that man
and make him a sign and a proverb,
and I shall cut him off from among My people.”
Daniel Block: Yahweh will make Israel an example of the fate of idolaters who fall into the hands of God. Ezekiel expresses this notion with two words: I will make him a sign and a proverb. The first, ʾôt, “sign,” denotes an event or object intended to communicate a message or to motivate behavior. It is usually associated with attesting signs, designed to legitimize a person or to promote faith in God. But when used negatively, an ʾôt serves as a warning to onlookers (e.g., Num. 17:10 [Eng. 17:10]). In this instance Israel’s fate will provide evidence of God’s disposition toward idolaters, and motivate observers to recognize his presence and activity. . .
He would make Israel a “proverb” (māšāl) and a byword (šĕnînâ) among all peoples by cutting the nation off from the land and casting his temple out of his sight. The response of passersby will be astonishment (šāmēm), hissing (šāraq), and puzzlement over Yahweh’s treatment of his own covenant people.
3. (:8b) Recognition Refrain
“So you will know that I am the LORD.”
Daniel Block: The prospects for the people who have approached Ezekiel for a word from God are frightening. Not only has the bond between them and the land been severed; now they are threatened with an ultimate and final break with their God. Ironically, then they will finally acknowledge the person and presence of Yahweh. Still, the previous call for repentance has left the door open to a better fate. The doom of those who remain in Jerusalem is sealed, but if the exiles turn their faces toward Yahweh alone, and abandon their own forms of idolatry, they may escape his fury. They still have the choice—they may acknowledge Yahweh on his terms voluntarily now, or be forced to do so involuntarily on that great and terrible day.
C. (:9) Culpability of the False Prophets
“But if the prophet is prevailed upon to speak a word, it is I, the LORD, who have prevailed upon that prophet, and I will stretch out My hand against him and destroy him from among My people Israel.”
MacArthur: God will deceive (entice) a false prophet only in a qualified sense. When one willfully rejects His Word, He places a resulting cloud of darkness, or permits it to continue, hiding the truth so that the person is deceived by his own obstinate self-will. This fits with the same principle as when God give up Israel to evil statutes (20:25, 26), counsel that they insist on as they spurn His Word (20:24, 26). When people refuse the truth, He lets them seek after their own inclinations and gives them over to falsehood (20:39). This is the wrath of abandonment noted in Ro 1:18-32 (cf. 1Ki 22:20-23; 2Th 2:11).
Leslie Allen: A related case needed to be included in the ruling. What if a prophet gave a favorable response to such an offender? Human nature being what it is, a prophet might be misled into so doing, as one who “lets himself be induced by the wish to please, or by a calculated compromise … treating his client’s deadly crime as if it were a venial weakness” (Eichrodt 183).
Charles Dyer: The best illustration of Ezekiel’s meaning is the story of God’s letting false prophets deceive Ahab, to bring him to his death (1 Kings 22:19-23).
John Taylor: On the face of it, the lying prophets were producing words that they knew would please: they were prophesying ‘out of their own minds’. But in the deepest sense, it was the Lord who was responsible for the chain reaction which showed itself in such behaviour. They had succumbed to spiritual blindness and so the lies they uttered were all part of God’s judgment upon them.
Feinberg: Just as God is impartial in His offers of grace, mercy and love, so is He no respecter of persons in judgment. Inquirer and false prophet would suffer the same punishment, for they were alike guilty. The responsibility was mutual. They would bear the punishment of their iniquity, that is, the Lord would allow them to be duped by the prophets from whom they sought smooth messages.
Anton Pearson: In ancient thought, secondary causes were often overlooked, and events attributed directly to the work of the Lord. See Amos 3:6; Isa 45:7.
G. R. Beasley-Murray: Some interpret the “deception” of a prophet by Yahweh as an instance of the OT overlooking of secondary causes: i.e. the deceived state of the prophet is due to his own perversion of conscience, but since the consequences of sin, equally with the moral law, are of God’s ordering, one may say that the deception is brought about by God. Cf. Ezk. 3:20; 1 Ki 22:21f.
D. (:10-11) Considerations of Divine Judgment
1. (:10) Same Judgment for the Idolater and the False Prophet
“And they will bear the punishment of their iniquity;
as the iniquity of the inquirer is, so the iniquity of the prophet will be,”
2. (:11a) Solidarity and Sanctification are the Behavior-Oriented Goals
“in order that the house of Israel may no longer stray from Me
and no longer defile themselves with all their transgressions.”
3. (:11b) Securing the Covenant Bond is the Ultimate Relationship Goal
“’Thus they will be My people,
and I shall be their God,’ declares the Lord God.”
Peter Pett: God’s purpose behind all this, both in what He allowed, and in the judgment He brought on those who continued in sin and idolatry, was in the end for the sake of His true people. He was wooing them and teaching them lessons by His judgments so that they would learn their lesson and once and for all turn their back on idolatry and look to Him. Then He would be their God, and they would truly be His people. This in the end lay behind all the judgments pronounced by Ezekiel. In the end their aim was mercy on those who would respond.
Daniel Block: This verse serves not only to declare Yahweh’s purpose in his judgment, but also to offer a splendid ray of hope for the future. Although Yahweh must deal harshly with his people, his objectives are redemptive. The point is made with two negative statements and one positive declaration. First, Yahweh’s desire is for a people who will never stray from him again. The word tāʿâ derives from the realm of animal husbandry but is also applied to persons who are lost. Ethically it means to abandon the prescribed covenantal path. Second, he desires a nation that is cleansed from all of its rebellious acts (pĕšaʿîm). These include the idolatry and the bloodshed that pollute them, as well as the general disregard for the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Third, Yahweh will renew the covenant bond. The covenant formula with which this oracle concludes offers the brightest ray of hope. The rupture between deity and nation caused by Israel’s sin and completed by its judgment will be reversed. The nation in exile will become the people of God once again. With the closing signatory formula, Yahweh places his imprimatur on the entire oracle as delivered by Ezekiel. The disaster is imminent and will not be revoked; but the future restoration of the nation is equally secure.