IDOLATROUS ABOMINATIONS POLLUTING THE TEMPLE AROUSE DIVINE JEALOUSY AND DISGUST
Chapters 8-11 form our next unit of revelation in the book of Ezekiel. A series of visions captures the depravity of the idolatrous abominations defiling worship in the temple in Jerusalem. The Lord’s jealousy is directed towards these unfaithful covenant breakers and His disgust is directed towards the detestable practices that He allows Ezekiel to witness. The end result will be the departure of the glory of God from the temple and the execution of promised judgments on Jerusalem.
Charles Dyer: The vision recorded in chapters 8-11 is a single unit. Yet four specific sections are within it. Ezekiel was first confronted with the wickedness of the people in the temple (chap. 8); then he was shown the slaughter of the people of Jerusalem (chap. 9). Jerusalem was so wicked that God’s glory departed from the temple (chap. 10), and as it left the city, judgment was pronounced on her rulers (chap. 11).
Peter Pett: In this chapter Ezekiel is transported in Spirit to Jerusalem and shown many of the abominations which would result in judgment. . . The abominations seen include an abominable image, probably Canaanite (Ezekiel 8:3-5), a secret chamber of idolatrous representations, possibly Egyptian (Ezekiel 8:6-12), weeping for Tammuz (previously Dumuzi, the Sumerian god of vegetation who was lord of the underworld – Ezekiel 8:13-15) and sun worship (Ezekiel 8:16-18).
Christopher Wright: Ezekiel is unsurpassed in the range of vocabulary and imagery he uses to portray the sheer repugnance of Israel’s active rejection of Yahweh and their wallowing in every kind of religious paganism and social corruption. After this vision he had, as it were, seen it with his own eyes, and from Yahweh’s point of view. Secondly, it accounts for the strong emphasis on ‘theodicy’ in the preaching of Ezekiel. Theodicy means ‘providing justification for the actions of God’. It seems that Ezekiel faced the constant challenge of fellow exiles that God was behaving unfairly, the punishment was too severe, they did not really deserve all this, and so on. Ezekiel knew differently. The judgment of God was both fully deserved and long overdue and he could now give the detailed reasons why.
Feinberg: The purpose of the visions of chapter 8 was twofold: to show the Jews in Babylon the righteous judgment of God upon His people for their sins and to forewarn that continuance in these outrages would result in a final and complete exile of Israel from the promised land. The present chapter amplifies the reason for the threatenings found in 7:20-22.
I. (:1-4) DIVINE JEALOUSY DIRECTED TOWARDS DISLOYAL PEOPLE – MAIN VISION OF THE GLOWING GLORY OF THE JEALOUS GOD OF ISRAEL
A. (:1) Divine Intervention
“And it came about in the sixth year, on the fifth day of the sixth month,
as I was sitting in my house with the elders of Judah sitting before me,
that the hand of the Lord God fell on me there.”
Douglas Stuart: Precisely fourteen months after the first vision (1:2), that is, 592 b.c., Ezekiel received a vision while at home in Tel-Abib, with leaders (“elders”) from the exiled community present (v. 1).
B. (:2) Divine Appearance
“Then I looked, and behold, a likeness as the appearance of a man;
from His loins and downward there was the appearance of fire,
and from His loins and upward the appearance of brightness,
like the appearance of glowing metal.”
C. (:3) Divine Transportation
“And He stretched out the form of a hand and caught me by a lock of my head; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the idol of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy, was located.”
Peter Pett: ‘The image of jealousy.’ This was some prominent religious artefact with idolatrous connections which stood outside the northern gate, which provoked Yahweh to ‘jealousy’, that is to a righteous concern in respect of His covenant relationship with Israel. It not only dishonoured Him but destroyed His relationship with His people, for its earthy worship was in direct contrast with the spiritual relationship He wanted with them. It may have been a wooden asherah-image representing the Canaanite goddess (see 2 Kings 21:7, compare 2 Kings 23:6, but it may have been subsequently replaced), or it may have been a figured slab engraved with mythological and cultic scenes, as witnessed at excavations at Gozan and Carchemish.
Charles Dyer: As Ezekiel was transported to Jerusalem (cf. 3:14; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) his physical body remained in Babylon. The elders seated before him did not see the theophany of God.
Douglas Stuart: There were three gates from the outer to the inner court of the Jerusalem temple. They faced north, east, and south. The northern gate was the one used by the king and was thus perhaps the most prominent. At that gate was some kind of idol, which Ezekiel here calls the “image of jealousy,” that is, a rival to Yahweh (v. 3). It may have been something like the image of the goddess Asherah that had stood in the temple during the days of Manasseh (2 Kin. 23:6) or perhaps a sculpture of an angel guarding the doorway. We do not know, but it is obvious that it had become during the first temple’s latter days an object of worship contrary to the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 20:4–5).
D. (:4) Divine Glory
“And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there,
like the appearance which I saw in the plain.”
Constable: Ezekiel had another vision of God. The description of God is the same as what the prophet wrote that he saw by the river Chebar (1:27). The description of God stresses His holiness.
John Taylor: It is remarkable that, despite all the corruptions that existed, Ezekiel should say that the glory of the God of Israel was there (4). It was as if he wanted to throw into sharp relief the difference between the God who belonged there and the deviations which were practised there, so making the crimes all the more heinous. Perhaps he was also trying to say that God would stay with his people until the very last moment of their rejection of him.
Peter Pett: This was in stark contrast to the image of jealousy outside the gate. The presence of the glory of God (revealed in fire – compare Ezekiel 8:2) vividly contrasted the abominable activities of Israel with the purity and holiness of their Creator-God. It also contrasted the living, moving God with the static lifeless image. God had not yet deserted His Temple. That was to come. But these events explain why He did so. We too must choose between the indwelling in power of the Holy Spirit, or looking off to lesser gods, to the idols of Mammon, Sex, and bawdy Entertainment.
Christopher Wright: This is now his third direct encounter with this spectacular phenomenon, so he has no difficulty recognizing it and naming it directly for what it is. Here in Jerusalem, of course, is where the glory of Yahweh ought to be—in Yahweh’s own temple and city and land. However, everything else that Ezekiel is about to see will contradict, challenge and repel the glory of Yahweh. So this opening welcome, as it were, by the divine host is a poignant prelude to his tragic exit. The whole account in chapters 8–11 is connected together by the theme of the slow departure of the glory of Yahweh, by several stages, from the temple and the city that bore his name (see 9:3; 10:4, 18; 11:23).
II. (:5-16) DIVINE DISGUST DIRECTED TOWARDS DETESTABLE PRACTICES — SERIES OF FOUR VISIONS OF DISTURBING ABOMINATIONS
A. (:5-6) Vision #1 – The Idol Provoking Jealousy –
Just Outside the Temple Gate
1. (:5) Desecration of the Temple by the Idol Provoking Jealousy
“Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, raise your eyes, now, toward the north.’ So I raised my eyes toward the north, and behold, to the north of the altar gate was this idol of jealousy at the entrance.”
Constable: At the Lord’s command, Ezekiel looked north from where he was in his vision and saw the idol that provoked the Lord to jealousy north of the north entrance into the inner court of the temple near the bronze altar of burnt offerings. Many expositors believe that this may have been an image of Asherah because King Manasseh had erected such an idol and then destroyed it (2 Kings 21:3, 7; 2 Chron. 33:15), and King Josiah had destroyed a later rebuilt version of it (2 Kings 23:6). The people could have raised it up again after Josiah’s death.
Christopher Wright: The sin of the world generates God’s grief and anger. It is the sin of God’s own people that produces God’s jealousy. When we profess loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ, to whose self-giving love we owe our salvation, but then live lives that are absorbed with the priorities and idolatries of the world around us, there is something detestable, ungrateful and treacherous about that. To go on doing so blatantly and without repentance is evidence of a state of heart and mind that incurs serious warnings as much in the New Testament as in the Old. Significantly Paul warns Christians against the temptations of sexual sin and debauchery with much the same abhorrence as Ezekiel had for the depraved cult of Asherah. He also uses temple imagery to sharpen his point. And he is not afraid to affirm the threat of God’s jealousy. We need to heed such sobering warnings, especially in the midst of current moral laxness in Christian culture.
Derek Thomas: God demands of Israel exclusive devotion, the jealous love for which marriage is a type and symbol. His people are to love him with all their heart, soul, strength and mind. Not to do so is spiritual adultery. It is a jealousy which seeks to protect a relationship and which expects loyalty in that relationship.
2. (:6) Divine Distancing as a Result of Abominations
“And He said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what they are doing,
the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, that I should be far from My sanctuary?
But yet you will see still greater abominations.’”
Ralph Alexander: This conclusion emphasizes the progressing severity of Judah’s idolatry (vv. 6, 13, 15).
Lamar Cooper: The things Ezekiel saw were “utterly detestable” to God (v. 6; cf. vv. 9–10, 13, 15, 17). The use of first person by the voice and the reference to “my sanctuary” suggest that the speaker was God. A more serious or devastating evaluation is unimaginable than to have one’s behavior judged “detestable” by the Lord of life. Yahweh was alienated from his house of worship by the inclusion of objects and elements of worship that strictly were forbidden. Such pagan practices in the temple complex were antithetical to the purity of worship God demanded. God is a jealous God who accepts no rival (Exod 20:5). To allow idolatry to continue in the temple area was a direct challenge to his authority and the veracity of his word.
B. (:7-13) Vision #2 – Animal Worship —
Secretive Cultic Worship of Animals by the Elders
1. (:7-10) Carved Images of Animals
a. (:7) Peephole
“Then He brought me to the entrance of the court,
and when I looked, behold, a hole in the wall.”
b. (:8) Entranceway
“And He said to me, ‘Son of man, now dig through the wall.’
So I dug through the wall, and behold, an entrance.”
c. (:9) Investigation
“And He said to me, ‘Go in and see the wicked abominations that they are committing here.’”
d. (:10) Images
“So I entered and looked, and behold, every form of creeping things and beasts and detestable things, with all the idols of the house of Israel, were carved on the wall all around.”
2. (:11-13) Censers with Cloud of Incense
a. (:11) Exposure of the Corrupt Leaders
“And standing in front of them were seventy elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them, each man with his censer in his hand, and the fragrance of the cloud of incense rising.”
Constable: Some commentators believed that the gods (“idols”) they were worshipping were Egyptian, in view of what these gods were, and since the men were worshipping in secret. Some of Judah’s leaders advocated reliance on Egypt. If they were Egyptian gods, it was ironic that 70 elders of Israel had earlier confirmed the Mosaic Covenant after God delivered them from bondage to the gods of Egypt (Exod. 24:1, 9). Now Israel’s leaders appear to have been appealing to those same gods for help against the Babylonians.
Ralph Alexander: The elders sitting before Ezekiel were the leaders of the Judean exiles in Babylonia who had already been deported from Judah in the captivities of Daniel (605 B.C.) and Jehoiachin (597 B.C.).
Lamar Cooper: In the midst of the group was Jaazaniah, the son of Shaphan (v. 11). Shaphan may have been the same person who was Josiah’s secretary of state (see 2 Kgs 22:8–14; 2 Chr 34:15–21; Jer 26:24; 29:3; 36:10; 40:5, 9, 11; 41:2; 43:6). If so, his brother Ahikam also defended Jeremiah (Jer 26:24). For such a one to be found leading this apostate group bears testimony to the rapid degeneration of worship in Israel after Josiah’s death.
With this kind of corrupt spiritual leadership one can imagine the severe decline of spiritual purity and faithfulness to Yahweh among the general populace. Everyone was participating in worship of these false gods (v. 11). Leaders who were supposed to guide the people faithfully to serve Yahweh led them instead into apostate idolatrous worship.
b. (:12) Exposure of Their Corrupt Theology
“Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images? For they say, The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land.’”
Ralph Alexander: These leaders rationalized their activities by declaring that God did not see them nor was he present anymore. He had forsaken the land as demonstrated by the deportations of 605 B.C. and 597 B.C. (v. 12). They denied the existence of God in direct opposition to his name: “the one who always is.” They negated his omnipresence and omniscience, choosing to exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like . . . birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom 1:23). In saying that God had forsaken the land, the elders repudiated his faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant, his love for his chosen people, and his immutability. With this kind of rationalization, they permitted themselves to do anything they desired. If God did not exist, then no one need care about him.
Daniel Block: The irony of the people’s rationalization of their actions is obvious. On the one hand, what the men in this dark room are saying about Yahweh is in fact false about him, but it is true of the images before which they stand. What distinguishes Yahweh from all other gods is his ability to see (Deut. 4:28; Ps. 115:4–8; 135:15–18; Isa. 44:12–20), and this vision affirms that his sight penetrates the innermost recesses of the temple and the darkest corners of human hearts. On the other hand, the statement that Yahweh has abandoned his land is in fact false, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has not yet abdicated his throne in Jerusalem, but the die has been cast. Before this vision is over, the prophet will have witnessed his departure. Consequently, with their rationalization, the paganized elders have justified their behavior and become spokesmen for the principal theme of the vision as a whole.
c. (:13) Escalation of Visions of Depravity
“And He said to me, ‘Yet you will see still greater abominations which they are committing.’”
C. (:14-15) Vision #3 – Nature Worship –
Women Weeping for Tammuz = Pagan Fertility Deity
1. (:14) Example of Pagan Nature Worship
“Then He brought me to the entrance of the gate of the LORD’s house which was toward the north; and behold, women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz.”
Constable: “Tammuz” was an ancient Sumerian, and then Akkadian fertility deity, the husband and brother of Ishtar. The Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations preceded the Babylonian civilization in Mesopotamia. Tammuz had ties to the Canaanite Baal and the Greek Adonis and Aphrodite gods.
Cooper: After the exile the Hebrew calendar included a month called Tammuz, the fourth month (June/July). This was the time for grapes to be harvested. The preservation of the name Tammuz in the calendar suggests the impact this form of pagan worship had on Jewish life and worship, both during and after the exile.
MacArthur: Yet a greater abomination than the secret cult was Israel’s engaging in the Babylonian worship of Tammuz or Dumuzi (Duzu), beloved of Ishtar, the god of spring vegetation. Vegetation burned in the summer, died in the winter, and came to life in the spring. The women mourned over the god’s demise in July and longed for his revival. The fourth month of the Hebrew calendar still bears the name Tammuz. With the worship of this idol were connected the basest immoralities.
Christopher Wright: What was so offensive about this particular form of idolatry was, first of all, that a cult of the dead was going on in the temple of the living God. In the place where the Lord and giver of life was to be celebrated, women were involved in a mourning ritual for a dead hero of pagan mythology. What made it more pointed still, secondly, was that it was a Babylonian hero at that! Ezekiel would soon have to report to Judean exiles amid the paganism of Babylon that a Babylonian cult figure was being pined for in the heart of Jerusalem—in the very temple itself. Thirdly, if the Tammuz cult did have connections with the fertility cults of dying and reviving vegetation, then Yahweh was being further robbed of his rightful place as the Lord of land, life, the seasons, and all fertility—human, animal and vegetable. Such cults were entirely contrary to the celebration and affirmation of Deuteronomy 26:1–15, which binds together the sovereignty of Yahweh in redemptive promise and historical fulfilment on the one hand with his control over all the processes and bounty of nature on the other. Instead, such a cult seeks to control nature through sympathetic magic and mourning rites, one of the marks of a paganized worldview which is still very much alive and well in the world today.
2. (:15) Escalation of Visions of Depravity
“And He said to me, ‘Do you see this, son of man? Yet you will see still greater abominations than these.’”
Feinberg: With the worship of this god in ancient times were connected the basest immoralities. With the greatest of abandon women gave themselves up to most shameful practices. Idolatry and immorality are inseparable twins throughout the history of the world. How much baser could the people of God become? But Ezekiel was immediately informed that he would witness yet greater abominations than these.
D. (:16) Vision #4 – Sun Worship in the Inner Court Showing Contempt for God
“Then He brought me into the inner court of the LORD’s house. And behold, at the entrance to the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs to the temple of the LORD and their faces toward the east; and they were prostrating themselves eastward toward the sun.”
Chisholm: Worship of the sun was widespread in the ancient Near East and was deeply rooted in Canaan. In Israelite thought the sun was a member of the ‘host of heaven,’ which was viewed as the Lord’s heavenly assembly (compare Deut. 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kings 23:5 with 1 Kings 22:19). This may explain why these men could worship the sun in the Lord’s temple.
John Day: The sun would thus have to be considered part of the host of heaven, subordinate to Yahweh. As such one might argue that the worship of the sun in Yahweh’s temple would have been seen by those who participated in it as, so to speak, all ‘part of the package’, just as Catholics would regard veneration (not worship) of Mary as not being incompatible with worship of Christ.
Peter Pett: ‘About five and twenty.’ This may be a hint that we are to see here representatives of the twenty four courses of priest plus the high priest. The inner court was mainly restricted to the priesthood. Furthermore five is the number of covenant. Thus five squared may depict them as representatives of the whole covenant community, which makes their crime even greater.
Lamar Cooper: First, if these men were not priests, they had violated a holy area restricted to the priesthood. If they were priests, then their sin was all the more reprehensible because they were responsible for guarding the temple against defilement. Second, they were practicing idolatrous sun worship in one of the holiest precincts of the temple complex. Their location between the porch and the altar would have placed them directly in front of the entrance of the temple sanctuary (v. 16). Worship of the sun was one of the evil practices introduced by Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:5).
III. (:17-18) CAUSE AND EFFECT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE HOUSE OF JUDAH AND THE UNRELENTING WRATH OF GOD
A. (:17) Cause = Abominations of the House of Judah
“And He said to me, ‘Do you see this, son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they have committed here, that they have filled the land with violence and provoked Me repeatedly? For behold, they are putting the twig to their nose.’”
Peter Pett: ‘And lo, they put the branch to their nose.’ Putting a slip or branch to the nose was possibly part of the ritual practice of sun worship. Pictorial designs on some Assyrian reliefs show people holding branches to their noses in reverence and worship. But the emphasis of its mention here suggests a little more than just an ordinary act of worship. It suggests something that could be seen as especially insulting to Yahweh. Possibly it suggested that the Sun god, and not Yahweh, was responsible for the benefits of creation and was the source of life. Compare how the ‘planting with pleasant plants and setting with strange slips’ is connected with the Asherim and sun-images in Isaiah 17:8; Isaiah 17:10-11.
MacArthur: The meaning is uncertain, but it seems to have been some act of contempt toward God.
Lamar Cooper: The phrase “putting the branch to their nose!” (v. 17) probably was a popular saying that meant their actions were an insult to God. While some have tried to interpret this phrase in light of some obscure cultic practice, it probably has more to do with a failure to follow God’s commands, the equivalent of thumbing their noses at God.
Christopher Wright: Ezekiel’s guide brings the tour to a close by pointing out that although what he has shown Ezekiel is primarily a sample of ritual offences in the temple itself, that is not the full catalogue of the sins of Jerusalem, by any means. Their sin is far from merely religious—even though we must avoid thinking of anything as ‘merely religious’ in the context of the ancient world. As pointed out above, these particular idolatrous forms of worship had strong links with other realities of life—sexual, political, agricultural, international. Their offensiveness lay in parcelling out such areas to other deities rather than recognizing the authority and claim of Yahweh over all of them. No, the sin of Israel moves beyond idolatry in the temple and encompasses the whole social realm.
B. (:18) Effect = Unrelenting Wrath of God
“Therefore, I indeed shall deal in wrath. My eye will have no pity nor shall I spare; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, yet I shall not listen to them.”