ISRAEL MUST RESPOND IN REPENTANCE TO EZEKIEL’S WARNINGS AS A FAITHFUL WATCHMAN APPOINTED BY GOD
In this transitional chapter moving from God’s judgments against the nations to His plan of restoration and hope for His covenant people, we find a final plea for repentance. The nation of Israel needs to hear the prophetic words of warning from faithful Ezekiel, their divinely appointed watchman, and respond. They should not complain against God’s justice, because their present conduct merits condemnation. Nor should they give in to despair as if their past apostasy has locked them in to some type of fatalistic demise. They can still choose to repent and renew their loyalty and obedience to the God of the covenant. God’s preference and disposition is to act towards them in grace and mercy; but His holiness and righteousness also demand that He enforce justice.
Lamar Cooper: Chapters 33-39 comprise words of restoration and hope, and chaps. 40-48 present details of the restored community.
Thomas Constable: Alexander considered the message in 33:1-20 as the conclusion to the section of oracles against the nations (chs. 25-32). Most commentators viewed this message as an introduction to the messages promising future blessings for Israel (chs. 33-48). Obviously it serves a transitional (janus) function in the book and looks both ways, backward and forward.
Iain Duguid: Ezekiel 33 is a carefully constructed whole, with a chiastic movement that hinges around the confirmation of the fall of Jerusalem (33:21–22). Verses 1–11 find a counterpart in verses 30–33, with their emphasis on hearing or not hearing the prophetic word, while verses 12–20 share similar emphases on moral behavior with verses 23–29. The whole chapter should thus be seen as a response to the news of that central event of Jerusalem’s fall.
Leslie Allen: The use of the prophetic address in vv 2, 7, 10 and 12 reveals four sections, vv 2–6, 7–9, 10–11 and 12–20.
Daniel Block: one hears the prophet delivering a final appeal for his fellow exiles to respond to his message. In so doing he vindicates both his own prophetic status (hence the importance of their paying heed to his warning, vv. 1–9) and the justice of Yahweh in his judgment. But he leaves the door open for a positive response, and invites his people to find life in the grace of God.
(:1) PRELUDE – AUTHORITATIVE WORD OF GOD
“And the word of the LORD came to me saying,”
I. (:2-6) EXPLANATION OF THE WATCHMAN FUNCTION REGARDING CULPABILITY
“Son of man, speak to the sons of your people, and say to them,’”
A. (:2b) Function of a Watchman – General Principle
1. Approaching Danger Creates a Need for a Watchman
“If I bring a sword upon a land,”
2. Appointment of a Watchman
“and the people of the land take one man from among them
and make him their watchman;”
Constable: Watchmen stood on the towers of walls in ancient cities and scanned the horizon for approaching enemies. If they saw one coming, they would blow their trumpet, usually a shophar (ram’s horn), to warn the people who were farming the lands to take refuge in the city. The figure of blood being on one’s head comes from sacrificial practice. The offerer placed his hands on the head of the victim symbolizing the transfer of guilt from the offerer to his substitute.
B. (:3-5) Scenario of a Faithful Watchman
1. (:3-4a) Conduct: Warns the People
“and he sees the sword coming upon the land,
and he blows on the trumpet and warns the people,
4 then he who hears the sound of the trumpet and does not take warning, and a sword comes and takes him away,”
2. (:4b-5) Culpability: Blood is on the People
“his blood will be on his own head. 5 He heard the sound of the trumpet, but did not take warning; his blood will be on himself. But had he taken warning, he would have delivered his life.”
C. (:6) Scenario of an Unfaithful Watchman
1. Conduct: Fails to Warn the People
“But if the watchman sees the sword coming
and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned,
and a sword comes and takes a person from them,”
2. Culpability: Blood is on the Watchman
“he is taken away in his iniquity;
but his blood I will require from the watchman’s hand.”
II. (:7-9) APPLICATION OF THE WATCHMAN FUNCTION TO EZEKIEL’S CURRENT SITUATION
“Now as for you, son of man,”
A. (:7b) Ezekiel Appointed Watchman and Charged with Faithfulness
1. Appointed Watchman for Israel by the Lord
“I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel;”
2. Charged with Faithful Performance of His Duties = Hear and Warn
“so you will hear a message from My mouth,
and give them warning from Me.”
David Guzik: The watchman did not gain his knowledge by studying the armies of the Babylonian empire, or by looking at the false prophets among God’s people at that time. Ezekiel heard from God that judgment was coming soon, and had to announce it.
Galen Doughty: God restates the moral principle that God’s messengers are accountable to speak God’s message. They are not accountable for how people respond to that message. They are to be faithful to their task. What people do with God’s message is their responsibility.
B. (:8) Scenario of an Unfaithful Watchman
1. Conduct: Fails to Warn the People
“When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way,”
2. Culpability: Blood is on the Watchman
“that wicked man shall die in his iniquity,
but his blood I will require from your hand.”
C. (:9) Scenario of a Faithful Watchman
1. Conduct: Warns the People
“But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way,
and he does not turn from his way,”
2. Culpability: No Blood on the Watchman
“he will die in his iniquity;
but you have delivered your life.”
Iain Duguid: The proclamation starts from the general statement of a commonly accepted fact, that when the Lord sent a judgment against a land, the watchman was responsible for the consequences only if he did not warn the people (33:2–6). From this general principle, Ezekiel moves to the specific case facing the people in verses 7–9: Clearly the Lord has sent judgment against his people, and Ezekiel was appointed as his watchman (33:7). No one who has read chapters 4–32 can doubt the prophet’s faithfulness to proclaiming the judgment to come; he is free from any culpability in the death of the wicked.
III. (:10-11) DISPOSITION OF THE LORD FAVORS GRACE AND MERCY OVER JUDGMENT
“Now as for you, son of man, say to the house of Israel,”
Leslie Allen: Vv 10–11 are a disputation, consisting of three basic elements, thesis, dispute and counterthesis. . . The first element is also a lament, while the second and third elements (v 11) comprise a summons to repentance, with motivation mingled with appeal, in an overall combination of standard elements: the messenger formula, divine promise or assurance, accusation, admonition, threat and a vocative (cf. Raitt, ZAW 83  35). An inclusion is formed by the phrase בית ישראל“house of Israel.”
A. (:10b) Complaint of Hopelessness and Despair
“Thus you have spoken, saying, ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we are rotting away in them; how then can we survive?’”
Peter Pett: God puts a question in the mouths of Israel, a question which suggests a certain level of conviction of sin. It suggests that they have recognised that they deserve to be declared guilty, and that that causes them great grief. For they have recognised that it means that they do not deserve to live. Rather they deserve to die. Their thought is of a cessation of life because of their sins, a loss of all that is good. Their cry has in it a sense of hopelessness. They see no way of escape.
‘How then should we live?’ Their conviction of sin is such that they recognise that they do not deserve to live. They do not see how a righteous God can forgive them, especially as they now have no sacrificial system to turn to. The loss of their sacrificial system was probably no small one to many of them. It raised the question as to whether they could be properly forgiven without it. God will assure them that they can.
God’s reply [vs. 11] reveals that the sacrificial system was not seen by Him as a final necessity. They were not in a position to offer sacrifices, but forgiveness was available. What was required was a heart that turned to Him in repentance. For He looked ahead to the one great sacrifice for sin that would replace all others, the sacrifice of Himself for man’s sin. It was that that enabled ‘the passing over of sin done aforetime’ (Romans 3:25).
David Thompson: There are three different words God uses for sin in this context:
1) Iniquity – evil, perverted things
2) Transgressions – rebellious acts of stepping off the right path
3) Sins – missing the mark of God’s standard of righteousness
These words clearly reveal that the judgment of God against His own people is completely justified. But this verse also presents the possibility of survival, in spite of the fact that there has been evil sin.
Ian Duguid: But does this mean that there is now no hope for God’s rebellious people? Having failed to heed the prophetic word of warning, does that mean that since judgment has come, they are as good as dead? This seems to have been the thought among at least some of the exiles. They are saying to one another: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” (33:10). Now that Jerusalem is on the brink of destruction and they are finally taking the possibility of judgment seriously, despair is a real danger.
B. (:11) Challenge to Choose Righteousness and Live
“Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’”
Leslie Allen: In a vehement protest Yahweh objects to being cast solely in the role of punitive destroyer. It does not express his ultimate will, which is to bestow life on those who turn from the bad lifestyle that occasioned the punishment. The judgment was a means to this very end. The divine principle here enunciated gathers up the message of the prophetic canon, that judgment was the precursor of salvation: Yahweh plucks up with a view to planting again (Jer 1:10). Also, life’s present death is regarded as an omen of real, future death. The deuteronomistic alternatives of life or death on the basis of a radical choice are offered anew (Deut 30:15–20; cf. Jer 21:8). For Ezekiel there was an eschatological connotation, which his later chapters expand, the opportunity of a new life associated with return from exile (cf. 36:24–32; 37:11–14). Yahweh would honor a change of lifestyle, the fruit of repentance, and to this end the people are summoned (cf. 14:6, in an earlier message to the exiles). The divine question is a hope-laden challenge to the despairing question of the people. Such was Yahweh’s gracious offer, to which the prophetic warning was the necessary precursor in order to expose the danger that loomed over the impenitent (cf. 2 Chron 24:19; 36:15–16). Does the offer of life link theologically with the divine life of the oath formula? If so, Ps 102:12–13, 24–25 (11–12, 23–24) and John 14:19b provide significant parallels.
Iain Duguid: God’s judgment is not a fixed, deterministic fate that operates regardless of human action, but rather is a response to actual human behavior. Even now, it is not too late to turn and be saved. The fundamental covenant choice of life or death is still open to the people (33:11).
Daniel Block: Ezekiel’s divinely dictated answer consists of two parts. First, he disputes their logic. Appropriately Yahweh strengthens the force of the response to the question of life with an oath that affirms his own: As I live. The oath is followed up with an unequivocal affirmation that he is not a sadistic ogre, who finds pleasure (ḥāpēṣ) in watching the wicked die. Yahweh’s pleasure is found in life even for the wicked. His impassioned twofold appeal emphasizes that all they need to do is turn or repent (šûb) from their evil course of life. He ends the dispute with a question of his own. Since a way of survival has been announced, why then should the people die? Quoting 18:31 verbatim, he highlights how needless their death is. Yahweh’s plea for repentance is a call to life! Death is not inevitable. . .
Finally, this oracle presents an important dimension of the divine character. God does not desire death, not even for the wicked. He appeals for all to repent and find life in his grace. For this reason he had sent the watchman, and for this reason the prophet had appealed for repentance, even at this late date. This message offers hope to the modern reader as well. 2 Pet. 3:9 will express this truth in another way: The Lord is patient, not desiring that any should perish, but that all should repent and find life in his grace.
IV. (:12-20) VINDICATION OF THE JUSTICE OF GOD
“And you, son of man, say to your fellow citizens,”
A. (:12b-16) Past Conduct Does Not Lock in Your Future Destiny
1. (:12b) Foundational Principles Regarding the Connection between
the Past and the Future
a. Don’t Look to Past Righteousness for Future Security
“The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him
in the day of his transgression,”
b. Don’t Give Up on the Future Because of Past Sins
“and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness;”
c. Past Righteousness Can’t Cancel Out Future Sins
“whereas a righteous man will not be able to live by his righteousness on the day when he commits sin.”
2. (:13-16) The Present is More Determinative than the Past
a. (:13) Present Life of Sin Negates Trusting in Past Righteousness
“When I say to the righteous he will surely live, and he so trusts in his righteousness that he commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered; but in that same iniquity of his which he has committed he will die.”
Peter Pett: The warning here is against one who has lived rightly and therefore is confident that he deserves the goodwill of God. So he feels that God now owes him something and that he can turn to sin without losing God’s goodwill. That is the belief that a man’s destiny depends on the quantity of his good works. But that is denied here. It is here clearly stated that God’s judgment on a man is not determined by the quantity of his righteousness but by his revealed attitude of heart.
b. (:14-16) Present Transformed Lifestyle Assures One of Life
“But when I say to the wicked, ‘You will surely die,’ and he turns from his sin and practices justice and righteousness, 15 if a wicked man restores a pledge, pays back what he has taken by robbery, walks by the statutes which ensure life without committing iniquity, he will surely live; he shall not die. 16 None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered against him. He has practiced justice and righteousness; he will surely live.”
Wiersbe: We must correctly distinguish regret, remorse, and true repentance. Regret is an activity of the mind; whenever we remember what we’ve done, we ask ourselves, ‘Why did I do that?’ Remorse includes both the heart and the mind, and we feel disgust and pain, but we don’t change our ways. But true repentance includes the mind, the heart, and the will. We change our mind about our sins and agree with what God says about them; we abhor ourselves because of what we have done; and we deliberately turn from our sin and turn to the Lord for His mercy.
When Peter remembered his sin of denying Christ, he repented and sought pardon; when Judas remembered his sin of betraying Christ, he experienced only remorse, and he went out and hanged himself.
David Guzik: Again, the point is clear. God does not want us to regard human destiny as fatalistically determined by a person’s past, either for good or evil.
Derek Thomas: Grace is not contradicted by the need for repentance to be evident. A man who gives genuine evidence of his repentance—fulfils his vows, repays his debts, and offers restitution for that which he has stolen—is not in some way earning his way into God’s favour. For, as Scripture makes clear elsewhere, the repentance is the evidence of faith—a faith that is given by God (Eph. 2:8).
Wisely did Martin Luther nail to the Wittenburg church door as his first of Ninety-Five Theses: ‘Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “Repent ye” etc., intended that the whole of the life of believers should be repentance.’ This is the emphasis of Ezekiel in this chapter. As chapter 18 made abundantly clear, the salvation that God offers is a salvation evidenced by repentance. And how were folk to prove the genuineness of their repentance? By their rejection of ungodliness and return to the ways of the covenant (33:12, 14, 19; cf. 18:21, 23, 27).
When we tolerate a bare outward routine and external performance as the evidence of our faith, we are in a state of decline.
B. (:17-20) Present Conduct Will Be the Basis for God’s Righteous Justice
1. (:17) Misunderstanding of Justice
a. Wrong Criticism of God’s Justice
“Yet your fellow citizens say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right,’”
b. Wrong Evaluation of Their Own Conduct
“when it is their own way that is not right.”
Peter Pett: This sums up man’s attitude. They cannot bear that a sinner can suddenly become acceptable to God. They cannot bear that one who has struggled to be righteous, building up merit, can ‘lose’ the benefit of it. They think that it is not fair. For they believe that God should give a man what he deserves. And they are confident that somehow they can earn merit with God to put in the scales to balance out any wrong they do. Thus to suggest that a sinful man can suddenly be put on a par with ‘the righteous’ is something that they cannot stomach.
Iain Duguid: The problem that the people face is not that of God’s justice, of which they complain in 33:17. His ways are indeed just, even more than just, since the path to life is continuously held open to rebels. The problem is with the people’s lack of righteousness; they have followed an unjust way (33:17). They have consistently chosen the path to death over the path to life. That is what makes it bad news that God will judge each according to his own way (33:20)! Nonetheless, the point of the case studies is that there is a remedy for the bad news. The possibility of repentance is Ezekiel’s answer to despair, though the need for perseverance is also there to counteract any tendency toward presumption.
John Taylor: As with the similar words in 18:25–30, the complaint of the people that the way of the Lord is not equal (av, rv) or just (rsv) uses an unusual metaphor taken from weighing in scales. The verb means literally ‘is not adjusted to the right standard’, which is the action of a dishonest salesman.
2. (:18-19) Two Examples of God’s Righteous Judgment
a. (:18) Apostasy Merits Death
“When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it.”
b. (:19) Repentance and a Transformed Life Merits Life
“But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and practices justice and righteousness, he will live by them.”
3. (:20) Misunderstanding of Justice
a. Wrong Criticism of God’s Justice
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’”
b. Future Accountability before the Throne of God’s Righteous Judgment
“O house of Israel, I will judge each of you
according to his ways.”
Constable: The people persisted in claiming that the Lord’s ways of dealing with them were not just. Yet Yahweh assured them that He would deal with each of them fairly, according to their own individual behavior. God does not blame one person for another person’s sins.
Peter Pett: God points out that it is their way that is not just, not His. He treats all the same. If their heart are responsive towards Him and they seek His mercy, He gives them life. If their hearts are turned away from Him and they do not seek His mercy, He gives them death. And if they turn again He again gives life. He is the same towards all. All will be judged according to their present ways and not according to some supposed merit which does not exist. They want to insist that there are some who deserve more than others, and therefore deserve different treatment on those grounds. But God treats all men equally.