A People in Transition
A Sermon Based on Ezekiel 8:1-6
“In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in may house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. I looked, and there was a figure that looked like a human being; below what appeared to be its loins it was fire, and above the loins it was like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming amber. It stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by a lock of my head; and the spirit lifted me up between heaven and earth, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, to the seat of the image of jealousy. And the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I had seen in the valley. Then God said to me, ‘O mortal, lift up your eyes now in the direction of the north.’ So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and there, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was the image of jealousy. He said to me, ‘Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? Yet you will see still greater abominations.'” (Ezekiel 8:1-6)
This year has been a difficult year for me and my family. It has been a year of loss and transition. Almost a year ago we lost my grandfather. He was the patriarch of the family. He was the one who held everyone together. He was the life of the family, always smiling, always wanting to know how we were doing. You couldn’t enter a room where my grandfather was and not have a conversation with him. He would get you to talk one way or another. This year has been hard for us. We have gathered for holidays and other events, but it hasn’t been the same. We have lost the heart and soul of our family. How does a family continue on when they have lost something so important and dear to them? We will make it, and we will keep going, because this is what my grandfather would have wanted, but it will be a slow and painful process. We are filled with longing and pain as we transition from life with my grandfather to life without him.
When we encounter Israel, in Ezekiel, they are also in the middle of a transition, one that involves loss. Some of them have been taken from their homeland and made to settle in Babylon. Others will be taken later, and others will never make it to that foreign land. This is the beginning of the exile. Later, even greater and more terrible things will take place, things Ezekiel prophesies about. Eventually, Jerusalem will be overtaken, and the temple of God will be destroyed. This in itself could have marked the end of Israel and the Jewish religion, but it did not. Although God’s prophecy in Ezekiel consists mainly of judgment, he is not willing to let Judaism die. He still remembers the promises he made to Abraham. Ezekiel delivers the tragic news about Jerusalem and the temple, but he also explains how all this is possible with God still reigning on his throne.
We are far removed from the days of Ezekiel. It’s hard for us to understand what life in the presence of the temple was like. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around temple theology, and what the temple meant to the Jewish people. It was everything to them. It was the center of their worship and their life. The temple was where they offered sacrifice and received forgiveness, but more than that, it was where God dwelled. The presence of God was there in the temple. To lose the temple would be to lose everything. One scholar compares losing the temple to the loss of a loved one (Middlemass). Just like the loss of a loved one, the people of Israel would have experienced deep grief, but the loss of the temple was even more devastating than the loss of a family member or friend. For many, it would have been the equivalent of the death of God (Clements). To lose the temple was not just to lose someone close to you, it was to lose God himself and any hope for the future. In Psalm 137, the people of Israel lament, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres.” They hung up their musical instruments because there was nothing to sing about. There was no hope or joy. The only thing they had to look forward to was that someone might take vengeance upon the people who did this awful thing (Psalm 137:8-9).
The loss of the temple was devastating, and it may have even been the end of Judaism, if it were not for the prophet Ezekiel and a vision he receives in chapters 8-11. If the destruction of the temple was the equivalent of the death of God, then it would have been nearly impossible for Judaism to have continued, but the prophet Ezekiel receives a vision that explains in detail what is going on behind the scenes. In Ezekiel’s vision, he sees the glory of the Lord slowly departing the temple, and eventually leaving Jerusalem all together. God is not dead! He is very much alive, but why would he leave his dwelling place? Why would he leave his holy temple? Ezekiel explains this also. The first thing Ezekiel sees in the temple vision is the “image of jealousy.” Israel had brought idol worship into the temple. This was strictly forbidden and provokes God to jealousy. God demands our sole devotion, and will not share it with any other god. As Ezekiel reveals more of his vision in chapter 8, we discover that this was not a lone incident. The people of Israel were blatantly practicing several forms of pagan worship within the temple complex. They were outright disobeying the commands of God. Most people know when they are breaking a law and they try to hide it. A child will wait until they are out of their parent’s eyesight before they do what they know they shouldn’t. To openly and blatantly break the law as Israel was doing was a slap in the face to God. They were worshiping idols in the very place where God dwelled.
In verse 6, God says to Ezekiel, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary?” Here we see how God can allow the temple to be destroyed, while remaining on his throne. The temple being destroyed did not mean God was dead. It did not mean that God was lacking in power. God did not want to leave the temple, but he was driven out by the sins of the people. Their pagan worship and idolatry resulted in God being forced out of the place where he dwelled. The people had no one to blame but themselves.
Although what Israel experienced was extreme, it brought about repentance. Most of the Jewish literature during the exile showed an “increased concern to eradicate religious practice for any deity other than Yahweh” (Middlemass). The people realized the error of their way. They began to get rid of the pagan idols and turn back to God. Notice the words of lament and repentance found in Psalm 79:1-9.
“O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have give the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealousy burn like fire?
Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call upon your name!
For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.
Do not remember against us our former iniquities;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and atone for our sins,
for your names sake!“
The destruction of the temple could have caused Israel to have gone in two very different directions. If they never received the prophecy of Ezekiel, then it’s possible they could have abandoned the faith, but instead, Ezekiel meticulously describes his vision from God. He speaks of the temple, as if he were there, and not in Babylonian exile. He describes pagan practices that are ongoing, scenes his listeners may have known all too well. Because of these things, Israel acknowledges their sinfulness and turns to God.
This does not mean they no longer experience grief or sorrow over the destruction of the temple. On the contrary, their grief and sorrow is now made that much worse. Before they mourned over the destruction of their place of worship, but now they must face the terrible reality that they are responsible for that very destruction. They are still in a state of limbo as they figure out how to move on without the temple. They lament and mourn, and God hears their prayers. In Ezekiel 11:16, God speaks about the judgment of Israel and how he scattered them among the nations, but then he says, “I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.” The glory of the Lord departed the temple and left Jerusalem, but it went to be with the exiles in the foreign countries they were now living in. God goes on to say that he will bring the exiles back from the countries where they have been scattered, and he will give them the land of Israel. God is faithful. He remembers his promises, and even when we are not what we should be, God remains true.
As we go through life, we will probably never experience a moment quite like Israel did in the times of Ezekiel, when the temple was destroyed, but we must remember that God is still a just and holy God that can be driven from us by blatant and perpetual sins. God does not leave easily, just as he was reluctant to leave the temple before it was destroyed, but he will leave. The good news is that he never stops loving us, and he will return once we recognize our failures. The story of the vision in Ezekiel 8-11 is a sad one. It is the story of a people who drive God away. It is the story of a jealous God who is angered by the idolatry of his people. It is the story of the destruction of something that was central to that community. It is the story of a sinful people and a holy and just God, but it is also a story of hope. The vision ultimately looks forward to a day when the people of God will be given a “new spirit” and a “heart of flesh” (Ezek. 11:19). The story in Ezekiel is a tragic one, but God is able to take this tragedy and create something new. May the God who takes old things and makes them new bless you and watch over you.
Ronald E. Clements, Ezekiel (WBC). (Louisville, KY: WJK, 1996)
Jill Middlemass, The Templeless Age. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2007)