God’s surprising history lesson – Ezekiel 20, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Thanks to guest blogger David Hundert for continuing the Ezekiel series this week.

I want to talk with you about “teachable moments.”

What are teachable moments? Teachable moments are an event or experience which gives a good opportunity to learn something about life.

Now, at the this time, because Joel isn’t blogging, I’m going to commit the unpardonable sin, and talk about politics…

You see, there were two mothers in a grocery store, one was a Democrat and the other a Republican. The Democrat had her 6 year old daughter with her and the two women were catching up with each other as they hadn’t seen each other in quite a while. The Republican was commenting that the last time they spoke, the little girl was just a baby. Speaking to the little girl, the Republican asked the little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. The little girl mentioned that she wanted to be President of the United States one day! Her mom couldn’t be more proud. The woman asked the little girl, “If you were President, what’s the first thing that she would do when she was in office?” The little girl replied, “I’d give food and homes to all of the homeless people.” The woman replied, “Wow! What a worthy goal! She said, “you don’t have to wait until you’re President to do that. You can come over to my house and mow my lawn, pull my weeds, and sweep my sidewalks and driveway. For that I’ll pay you $50. Then I’ll take you over to the grocery store where the homeless guy hangs out and you can give him the $50 to use toward food or housing.” The little girl, again, 6 years old thought about it for a minute, looked the woman in the eye and asked, “Why doesn’t the homeless guy come over and do the work, and then you can just pay him the $50?” The woman replied, “Welcome to the Republican Party sweetheart…”

You see, there can be teachable moments everywhere…

This morning, we are going to take a look at Ezekiel chapter 20, where the Lord uses Ezekiel speaking to the elders of Israel as a teachable moment for the leaders of his people.

The elders of the people of Israel living in Babylon come back at Ezekiel’s house. In our study of Ezekiel, this is the third time that the elders have approached Ezekiel for some sort of message from the Lord. In chapter 8, verse 1, we read: “In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there.”

Moving on to chapter 14, verse 1, we read, “Some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down in front of me.”

Now in chapter 20, verse 1, we read again, “In the seventh year, in the fifth month on the tenth day, some of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and they sat down in front of me.”

Did they expect a different message? It didn’t work out to well for them the first two times that they approached Ezekiel for a message from God. In chapter 8, the Lord confronts Israel for its idolatry. In chapter 14, guess what they were confronted for? Yup! Their idolatry. Any guesses as to what they are going to be confronted about again? How far have they fallen? At this point in Ezekiel, you would think that the elders would have learned, right?

Turn to Numbers 11:24-25, where we read,

“So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.”

The very ones who once led the people in receiving a foretaste of the pouring out of the Spirit, now lead the people in their spiritual adultery. Normally, seeking the Lord would be a good thing, right? After all, Amos 5:4 states, “This is what the Lord says to Israel: ‘Seek me and live.’”

The problem is, they are involved in the idolatrous practices of their fathers. So turn back to Ezekiel 20, and we can see how the Lord responds to their efforts. Read verses 1-4.

It’s an interesting point that Ezekiel never records what it was that they were there to inquire about. They were rejected out of hand. Did they even have the opportunity to mention why they were there? It wasn’t what they were there for that was the cause of their rejection, it was who they are. They were the lay leaders of an adulterous generation. Yet surprisingly, it doesn’t stop there! Even though the Lord isn’t going to address their issue, the Lord has a message for them addressed directly at their sin. Ezekiel is to present to them a history of Israel from God’s perspective. That is, it is a history that focuses not on Israel’s history of cultural and political achievements but rather on their history of idolatry.

In the next post, we’ll learn why! It is a teachable moment.

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When God laments, it can change everything – Ezekiel 19, Part 5

In Ezekiel 19 (starting here) we have seen God lamenting, expressing his pain, in the form of an allegorical funeral dirge, that simply says, “My children whom I love, you have betrayed me and become something totally different and oppressive, something I didn’t want for you. I have tried hard to express my love for you, so that you would be different.”  God is sitting there, staying there, right in the middle of his pain.  God is weeping.

Those funeral dirges in the ancient world were awful.  Mourners would wail and weep loudly.  Can you imagine God expressing that emotion?  We need to.  We can have a view of God as if he is totally unaffected, that he is so perfect, so omni-everything, that he doesn’t have emotion.  Philosophers describe God like that, but the Bible does not.  I am glad Ezekiel 19 is in the Bible because it is one of the many passages where we see God’s heart, his emotion, his brokenness and frustration.

God is showing us how to lament. 

And God wants his people to get the message that he is lamenting about them.  How would you feel if God revealed to you that he was lamenting over you?  What if you found out that God was looking at his relationship with you saying, “My child, why do I hardly hear from you?”  What would it feel like if God said to you, “I love you dear one, how can you avoid me so much?  How can you treat me like this?”  I could go on and on.  It gets heavy quick, doesn’t it?  We don’t want to imagine God expressing emotion over us, unless it is only positive emotion.  I absolutely believe that God is looking at each of us saying, “You are my beloved.”  He absolutely loves us.  He absolutely loves Israel.  But just like Israel betrayed God, God is fully aware that you and I can betray him, take him for granted, get ashamed of him, or ignore him.  God is fully aware that we can get really hyped up over sports, and yet we have a hard time getting excited about him.  When someone loves deeply, they can hurt deeply too.  We all know that God loves deeply!

I wonder if God laments over us. 

We don’t have to wonder.  We know it.  God laments over us too. 

But remember that lament is a reaching out.  When we lament to God, we are reaching out in faith.  It an act of faith.  When God laments to us, he is reaching out in love.  When he laments over you, it is because he so deeply wants to be in a closer relationship with you! 

Let us be a people who embrace lament, like our God is a God who laments.  May lament be a regular practice in our lives, turning us to the God who loves us.  I encourage you add lament in your life.  But also add confession and repentance for those choices in your life that might cause God to lament over you.  We heard that last week in Ezekiel 18.  Scan back at the very last verse of chapter 18, verse 32.  God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone.  He doesn’t want to be singing a funeral song.  So he calls for his people to repent, to return to him. 

Add confession and repentance to your practice of prayer. Restore your relationship with him, even every day if you need.

That’s the beautiful hope we have.  That our God is a God who makes dead things come back to life.  When we confess and repent, it can turn his funeral song into a song of celebration. 

Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash

Why and how we need to sit in our pain? – Ezekiel 19, Part 4

This week we’re studying Ezekiel 19 and its two allegorical parables of lament. The first was a lament about lions. The second parable of lament is similar.  Read about it in verses 10-14. 

Very similar to the lions, isn’t it?  A vine grows fruitful and abundant and strong.  But it gets uprooted, withered by an east wind, set on fire, and it dies.  This is another funeral lament.  It’s a different parable about the same story of the same death.  God is saying, “Israel, I am singing a funeral dirge about you! I am lamenting about you!  Because you are dead.” 

This is way worse than the psalms of lament I mentioned earlier this week.  Like I said before, it can feel extreme to get angry and complain to God.  It feels especially wrong to tell God to wake up.  But in God’s lament about Israel here in Ezekiel 19, he says, “You are dead.  Like caged lions, like a dried-up vine, you are dead.”  Can you hear the sadness in God’s voice? 

This is a lament like Psalm 88, with no hope at the end.  We come to Ezekiel 19, verse 14, and it is over. No hope. No joy.  God simply repeats to Ezekiel that this is a funeral song, and it is to be used as a funeral song.  You can imagine Ezekiel there in Babylon holding a funeral for the nation of Israel, as his neighbors looked on.  Ezekiel says to them, “People, hear the funeral song that God is singing at your funeral.” Think about how well that went over.

But the message is true. God’s people have so often repeatedly chosen to run so far from God that it is as if they have died.  

We’ve heard so many times in the prophecies of Ezekiel that there is hope.  Chapter 17 had hope, chapter 18 had hope.  Why is chapter 19 different?  Why doesn’t God include any hope in his lament? 

Because, as we saw in Psalm 88, lament is sometimes like that.  Sometimes you are just so frustrated, so angry, so hurt, that you need to sit with the pain a while longer.  You might not be ready for hope. There was a Saturday of darkness after Jesus’ death on the cross.  It wasn’t right away that hope was realized. 

Frankly, we can sometimes move past our pain far too quickly.  Or we can avoid the pain and be addicted to the hope.  It’s like when you break up with someone and your friend’s response is simply “Don’t worry, there are other fish in the sea.”  That might be true, but that’s not always what you need to hear in that moment.  You need your friend to acknowledge the hurt and the pain and the grief. 

We can want to be done with the pain immediately because who likes pain?  I hate it.  I want all difficult situations to be done immediately, and I don’t want any new difficult situations to ever occur.  I always want enough money, I don’t ever want to get sick, and I want all my relationships to be awesome.  Well…that’s not realistic, is it? 

What can often happen, therefore, in our craving for ease and comfort, in our desire to be done with pain and hardship, is that we fixate on the resolution, on the end of the pain.  When we focus only on the resolution of the pain, we can miss out on what we can learn in the middle of the pain.  Lament helps us to think about that pain, to learn what God wants us to learn in the pain.  But that often means we need to sit in the pain.  Remember to sit in the pain with God!  That’s the key to lament. 

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A lament about lions? – Ezekiel 19, Part 3

Now that we have taken time to understand lament here and here, we return to Ezekiel chapter 19, verse 1, where we learn that God is asking Ezekiel to deliver a lament.  Notice that this lament is the opposite of the psalms of lament.  In the psalms of the lament, David and the other psalmist are expressing their holy complaint to God.  In Ezekiel 19, God is the one doing the lamenting! 

Uh-oh…It’s one thing when humans lament to God.  He can take it.  But what is going to happen when God complains about us?  We’re about to find out.

The specific word for lament used in Ezekiel 19 gives us a clue.  This word for lament refers to a funeral song, a dirge.  That’s a pretty specific context.  God’s lament about Israel is a funeral song.  God is singing a song of mourning.  Who died?   Again, we’re about to find out.

One other feature of this lament, this funeral song, is that it is in the form of allegorical parable.  Just like the Eagles and the Vine from chapter 17.  Now God asks Ezekiel to speak a lament that is a story about Lions.  Read that story in verses 2-9.

Unlike chapter 17 where God took time to explain the parable of the Eagles and the Vine, here in chapter 19, God doesn’t explain the parable of the Lions.  He gives us a couple hints, though, to help us figure it out.  The parable starts out describing a mother lion with lion cubs.  The mother helps one cub become strong, but the nations trap the lion in a pit, and that lion is led with hooks to Egypt.  In response, the mama lion raises up another cub, but the same thing happens.  The nations trap that lion in a pit, and again they use hooks, cage the lion, and this time they imprisoned him in Babylon. 

What is the allegory about?  It is about Israel’s defeat by foreign nations.  The lion cubs likely refer to the recent kings of Jerusalem who were defeated by foreign powers.  In Ezekiel 19, verse 1, God even said the lament was about the princes of Israel.  In fact, that topic has been the repeated theme of Ezekiel’s prophecies since the beginning of the book.  Because of the wickedness of its kings, Jerusalem has already been defeated once, and will be defeated and destroyed again.

Consider how the story in Ezekiel 19 depicts the repeated prophecy in the behavior of the two lion cubs.  In verse 3, the first lion cub tears prey and devours men.  In verse 6, the second lion does the same thing, but then gets even more vicious than the first lion.  These are not friendly lions.  They are oppressive and destructive, and the nations step in to stop the lions.   

In the first part of the lament, then, God describes his people Israel like out of control, blood-thirsty lions who are so terrible that it takes the nations to come against them, chain them, and imprison them. Imagine the father and mother heart of God saying that about his children Israel.  We sometimes say that our kids are like wild animals, but usually we do so with some affection and a smile on our face. We might be slightly frustrated about their messy room with toys all over the place, but kids are kids, right?  It is a totally different story when our kids are straight up destructive.  God is not saying, “Oh look at you bunch of wild animals, you’re so cute.”  No, no, no.  He is lamenting here.  This is a funeral song.  The lions are so far gone in their oppressiveness, they are now trapped, and they will die.  This is a funeral. 

Check back to the next post, as we’ll look at the second part of the allegorical parable funeral lament in Ezekiel 19.

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When you cry out to God, and he doesn’t seem to answer – Ezekiel 19, Part 2

Jesus lamented. He was hurting deeply, and he expressed that hurt to God. We don’t normally think about Jesus like that, complaining to God. Yet arguably the most famous example of spoken lament comes from Psalm 22, where the psalmist, David, writes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  It’s famous because Jesus quoted it when he was hanging on the cross, about to die.  In that psalm, David says, “God, I cry out to you day and night, I am not silent, but you do not answer.”  The psalms often include deep expressions of pain that we call lament. What do we do when we lament, and God doesn’t answer?

Consider Psalm 44, verses 23-24, when the psalmist says, “Wake up, God, why are you sleeping?  Wake up!  Do not reject us forever.  Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?”  

Wow!  Isn’t it shocking to read in the Bible that people are so upset, they blame God for sleeping on the job?  They knew full well that God is not a human who needs to sleep.  They know he is everywhere all the time, and he is fully aware of what is going on.  Yet, that is precisely what is so painful about their situation. God absolutely has not only the awareness of their situation, but also the power to do something about it, and they do not see God intervening, and worse, they can’t see him doing anything about it.  Maybe you know the feeling. When the psalmist cries out, “Wake up, God!” his words are loaded with longing and anger and pain and hurt and desperation, as well as confusion and desperation.  From their viewpoint, God isn’t waking up.  What do you do when you are desperate, crying out to God, and there is nothing but silence in response?

These are hard passages to read.  But we need to read them. This week we’re studying Ezekiel 19, and in the previous post we learned that God asks Ezekiel to lament. In this post we’re trying to understand what lament is and why it is important, especially during those time when we lament and it doesn’t seem like God responds. What we see in lament is that it is the cry of a hurting, desperate heart. It is raw. It is difficult. But I’m glad lament is in the Bible.  Why?

Lament teaches us that it is okay to express our deepest emotions to God.  He can take it.  In fact, he welcomes it!  If you are going through a difficult time, lament reminds us that God doesn’t need us to put on nice clothes, make-up, get haircuts, write out a script, memorize, and be all dignified and proper and eloquent when we meet with him.   God just wants you to come to him as you are and express yourself.  Why? Because even though it might not be pretty, even though it might include tears, sobbing, make-up running down your face, anger and accusation and cursing, you are reaching out to God.  Lament, therefore, is an act of faith in God.  That’s why we call it holy complaint. 

No matter how bad life gets, no matter how messy, lament reminds us that God is the one in whom we can place our faith.  Often, what we find in the psalms of lament is that, not only is the crying out to God an expression of the pain and hurt, but the psalmist also often meanders around till he finds praise and trust and joy and hope in God. Lament has a way of helping us redirect ourselves on what is true.  Both Psalm 13 and 22 are examples of this.  If you keep reading them, David eventually gets to the good parts. 

But not always.  Some psalms of lament just let out the complaint and stop.  Take, for example, Psalm 88.  What do you read there?  18 verses of nothing but painful, emotional complaining to God.  It’s a hard read.  We are people who want some hope, some good news, even just a reminder that, in the middle of our pain, God is good.  That can really help, right?  You probably know what I mean.  When you’re going through a difficult time, you know God is good, but the emotion and the pain is overwhelming.  When, in the middle of the pain, you hear a Bible verse, a worship song or a prayer, you’re reminded that God is good, and it helps.  A couple years ago, I was going through a tough time with anxiety, and the song “No Longer Slaves” helped me so much.  I would listen to it over and over again, as it redirected me to think about God’s love for me.  The pain is still there, but the reminder of who God is helps you get through the difficult time.

But Psalm 88?  There’s no reminder.  In Psalm 88 there is nothing but lament.  Long, long ago when someone was picking out which psalms should be in the book of Psalms, they almost certainly had more than 150 to choose from.  Still, they purposefully chose Psalm 88.  That’s a bold choice, because there is no happy ending. 

I thought of a recent funeral I officiated, and frankly just about all the funerals I’ve officiated or attended over the years.  In our American evangelical culture, the trend for funerals is to make them celebrations.  On funeral bulletins, we titled them, “A Celebration of Life.”  The songs and the stories in a funeral are almost all joyful and happy.  I’m not saying that is wrong.  I’m just pointing out that we Americans aren’t too fond of pain and sadness and death.  Into that contemporary cultural reality consider the ancient cultural reality that Psalm 88 was picked out to go in the Bible.  Someone chose to include Psalm 88 on purpose.  In fact, the psalms are basically the hymnal of the people of Israel, and some Christian churches sing the psalms that way each week in worship.  Imagine singing Psalm 88 on a Sunday!  It’s nothing but gloom and doom.  We would much rather have our joyful songs, right?

Lament reminds us that life is not always joyful.  You might think, “I get that life is not always happy…it’s an obvious fact of our existence that life sucks sometimes. What I want is some hope and joy!”  Where most lament admits that life is rough sometimes, and then moves toward joy in the Lord, Psalm 88 is one of those darker laments that only focuses on the darkness.  There are moments, and maybe you are going through one, where life seems to be giving you one bad rap after another.  Pain, pain and more pain.  No end in sight.  Man, is that hard.  I was texting with someone about her friend who recently committed suicide.  Then this past week, her coworker died. That is straight up difficult. 

Or what about 19 straight months of Covid, messed up politics, racial injustice, and natural disasters.  Stress, anxiety, depression, on a roll.  I don’t think 2021 is as bad as 2020, but it’s not much different.  So many people have reason to lament to God.  That’s exactly why I started included a psalm of lament in each of my church’s Wednesday prayer guides.  We need talk about that emotion, that pain, and we need to let it out to God.  It is important to express our emotion.  I’m a big believer that emotion doesn’t always tell us the truth.  We need to learn to evaluate and reign in our emotions, as Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds.” In other words, “use your mind to control your emotions.” But there is also a truth that emotions are a helpful part of our humanity.  Lament is a wonderful reminder that we can and should express our emotions to God. 

Maybe you are reading this, and you want to lament right now.  Just let it out.  Are you feeling pain?  Express it to God.  Feel free to use this guided lament.  Pray it out to God.  Journal it.

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Crying as a spiritual practice – Ezekiel 19, Part 1

I recently attended the baptism of my niece.  It was wonderful to hear her share the story of her faith in Christ, her commitment to him, and why she wanted to be baptized.  There was so much joy as my brother-in-law baptized her.  That moment when she rose up out of the water, as it is for all Christians, was visually, theologically and emotionally.  It brought tears to my eyes. 

Then my younger two kids got up out of their seats and went over to my neice, their cousin, who had just been baptized, to hug her.  That brought even more tears to my eyes! 

I don’t know if you get like this, but for me, when my emotions get started, it can be really easy to keep them going.  As more people got baptized, it brought more tears flowing down my cheeks.  I don’t think it would surprise you to learn that those were happy tears.  Our son Connor and his fiancé Katie get married next weekend, and there will many more happy tears. 

We humans love happy tears. 

In this five-part series on Ezekiel 19, though, we need to talk about the other kind of tears.  The sad tears, the angry tears, the bitter tears.  These are the kinds of tears we don’t like.  The kind we don’t want to experience.  But they are a part of life too.

Turn to Ezekiel 19, and we are going to find a surprising source of bitter tears.

Look at verse 1 and that very first phrase: “Take up a lament.”  Before we go any further, I have to ask, what is lament?

In our study through Ezekiel, we have heard that word “lament” before.  Do you remember when?  If you don’t remember, that’s okay.  It was over three months ago!

Ezekiel chapters 2 and 3 record the story of God commissioning Ezekiel to be a prophet. In Ezekiel 2, verse 10, we read that God asks Ezekiel to eat a scroll.  Weird, right?  But in our study through the book of Ezekiel, there’s been a lot of weirdness, and eating a scroll is not even close to the weirdest.  I doubt that God literally gave Ezekiel a scroll to eat.  Why?  Do you know what material was used to make ancient scrolls?  It wasn’t a cannoli or an egg roll.  Ancient scrolls were made of leather. Have you ever tried to eat leather? 

Instead of a discussion about ancient culinary delights, this was a symbolic vision in which God was saying, “Ezekiel, I am going to put my words in your mouth, and I want you to speak only my words.”  That’s what a prophet does.  A prophet speaks the word of God, as they are in tune with his heart and share it with the goal of hope and restoration.  There in chapter 2 verse 10, what words does God say he is going to give Ezekiel?  Words of “lament and mourning and woe.”  When we hear those three words, my guess is that most of us consider them to be very negative, depressing words.  In fact, those words pretty much sum up what we have heard from Ezekiel ever since.  Ezekiel 2 teaches us, then, that lament is an expression of negative feelings, but what is lament specifically?

Turn back to Ezekiel 19 verse 1, where God says to Ezekiel, “take up a lament.”  At least a year and a half has gone by since God first told Ezekiel that he would give Ezekiel words of lament. Now God has a lament that he wants Ezekiel to declare. 

But again I ask, what is lament? If you have been a reader of this blog for at least four years, you might remember that our 2017 Advent series was called Community Lament. (That series started with this post.) Lament is holy complaint.  It is the idea of a crying out.  There is a book of the Bible called Lamentations, which is one big, long lament.  Further, some scholars identify nearly half of the psalms as being, or including, lament.  In fact, that Advent sermon series in 2017 studied four such psalms of lament (80, 85, 89 and 126). 

Perhaps the quintessential lament in the book of Psalms is Psalm 13. Join me in taking a brief glance at what makes this poem a lament. Open a Bible to Psalm 13, and do you notice a repeated phrase?  That repeated phrase is, “How long, O Lord?”  The psalm writer, David, is crying out his complaint to God.  David is really emotional. He is in great pain, and he blames God for not doing anything to assuage his pain.

I read this and think, “Wow, I can’t imagine talking to God like that.”  Yet there are times, if we admit it, when we are angry with God, or at least we feel slightly upset with him.  We might not write a poem or song to express our emotions to God, like David did, but we can admit that we’re feeling angry toward God, we’re thinking about our pain, maybe even cursing in our heads, and sometimes we even speak our frustration or complaint to God.  As we’ll see in this week’s series of posts, we need to lament.

Here is a guided lament you can use right now.

Fight or Flight: How do you handle pain? – Ezekiel 19, Preview

What do you do when you are upset?  It is fascinating to me how differently we humans handle our pain.  Have you ever heard of “fight or flight”?  While there are other ways to handle pain, fight or flight are two common ones.  The fighters among us tend to get aggressive and confront the pain or the source of pain.  “Like a bull in a China shop,” we say.  I have great admiration for the fighters among us, because I am much more a flier.  It is super difficult for me to confront a situation.  I can barely admit to myself when I get hurt or angry, because if I don’t admit I’m hurt, then I don’t have to do anything about it.  We fliers run away from pain, escaping toward wherever peace can be found.

What about you?  Are you more fight or flight?  When Paul talks about “speaking the truth in love,” in Ephesians 4:15, the fighters among us tend to emphasize the truth side, and the fliers tend to emphasize the love side.

Maybe you are neither of those.  Some people a passive-aggressive, which is a unique mixture of both fight and flight.  Years ago we were at a local professional baseball game with my extended family. The ballpark is very family friendly, including a playground for kids. Toward the end of the game, my brother told one of my nephews, who was about 3 or 4 years old, that it was time to be done on the playground, and my nephew was not happy about it.  So you know what he did?  He clammed up, and sat on the ground like a rock.  That’s passive aggressive.  My nephew didn’t fight it, and he didn’t run away.  He just plopped down, unresponsive, forcing my brother to go over and pick him up.  We adults can be passive-aggressive, too, can’t we?  The comments under our breath.  The rolling of our eyes.  The gossipy emails.  Unwilling to confront a situation face-to-face, but not avoiding it either.

Which of these do you think God is like?  Look at Jesus. What do you notice?  Fight?  Flight?  Passive-aggressive?  None of them?  This week as we study Ezekiel chapter 19, we’re going to see how God handles his pain.  Because it is Ezekiel, you know it is going to be unique!  Read it ahead of time, and then I look forward to discussing it further with you next week.  This chapter of Ezekiel has loads of practical application for us.

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Why we need a new heart and a new spirit, and how to get them – Ezekiel 18, Part 5

Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!

In God’s words to the Jews in Ezekiel 18 (which we started studying here), God does not want to see us suffer the consequences of our sin. Instead, he wants to see us repent and live. Unlike the exiles living in Babylon, we know how this story ends. We know that it is impossible for us to live a perfectly righteous life. The apostle Paul tells us this in Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one,” and in verse 23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  

We can’t live a perfect life. We can’t always make the righteous decision. We are going to screw up. We are going to make mistakes. God in his infinite wisdom understood this, so he did the only thing that he could do to make things right between us and him. He sent his son Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice for us so that we wouldn’t have to bear the penalty for our unrighteousness. He sent Jesus to fulfill the requirements of the old covenant that he made with his chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, and to establish a new covenant with everyone who declares Jesus Lord of their lives.  Jesus himself tells us this himself in the Sermon on the Mount: “I have not come to abolish [the law] but to fulfill it.”

Jeremiah predicted this new covenant 600 years before Jesus was born. He describes this new covenant right after he just finished saying “whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.” Jeremiah continues in verse 31:  

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

Because we live under this new covenant, we do not need to make excuses for our sins. We simply need to follow the words of the apostle John in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  When we take this step, when we stop justifying our sinful behaviors with any number of excuses, but instead take responsibility and admit our weakness. When we humbly admit that we can’t do this on our own, then the grace and mercy of Jesus creates in us a new heart and a new spirit, writing his laws on our hearts of flesh not on tablets of stone. Then by the power of nothing other than the Holy Spirit at work in our lives we become more like our perfect, righteous savior, Jesus. We become new creations. This is exactly what Paul is referring to in Ephesians 4:22-24: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” And again in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.”

Who doesn’t want that in their life?

God is pleading with the exiles in Babylon to turn away from their sin, to repent, and to live. He doesn’t want sin to be their downfall. He desires nothing more than to see his people return to Him.

He desires the same thing for you and me today. No matter where you are at in your journey with Jesus, God wants to refine you to be more like him. So I ask you again, what excuses are you making? What’s holding you back from living the full, abundant life that God desires for you?

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

How God can be both loving and just at the same time – Ezekiel 18, Part 4

Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!

How can God be both loving and just at the same time? Doesn’t it seem that his love will cancel out his justice, or that his justice will cancel out his love?

As we continue studying Ezekiel 18, we see not only God’s heart for the oppressed, but also God’s heart for redemption. Are they balanced? Read verses 21-32.

In these verses, we see God’s perfect justice balanced with his perfect love. Ezekiel makes it clear that redemption is possible for anyone. Even someone who has turned away from God and is living a “wicked” life, can make the decision to turn from his sins and start following God. Verse 22 tells us that none of the sins of his past will be remembered. Instead, because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Ezekiel also makes it clear that God desires this kind of life transformation.

Two rhetorical questions in verse 23 make this point clear. God asks, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” The obvious answer to this question is, “no, of course not”. Again, God rhetorically asks, “Am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live? The obvious answer to this question is, “Yes, of course I’m pleased when people turn from evil ways and pursue the abundant life!” Make no mistake about it, our God is not some kind of sadistic God who takes pleasure in seeing wicked people suffer for their actions. He is not sitting around hoping he can show off his righteous judgment for those who do evil.  On the contrary, he deeply longs for everyone to turn from the evil things in their life, to stop making excuses, and to follow him. This is precisely what he wanted from the exiles living in Babylon. And it is precisely what he longs for each one of us. In this passionate longing for redemption for everyone, God displays his perfect love.

At the same time, God’s perfect love does not negate his perfect justice. Even a righteous person who commits sins and is unfaithful to God will surely experience the consequences of his sin. He doesn’t get a “Get out of jail, free” card because he did righteous things in his past. No, God says that none of the righteous things he has done will be remembered because of his unfaithfulness. As much as God longs for everyone to seek him and his righteousness, he is not willing to take a blind eye toward the sin in our lives. So while God’s perfect love longs for redemption, God’s perfect justice demands a penalty.

The people of Judah must be having trouble understanding exactly how God could so perfectly love his people at the same time that he so perfectly demands justice for their sin because in verse 25 and again in verse 29 they say, “The way of the Lord is not just.” They seem to be complaining that God is not being fair, almost like a toddler who is throwing a temper tantrum when he is being punished. Both times, God throws it back at them saying, “Is it not your ways that are unjust?” The reality is, God is fair! We just don’t always like it when we must experience the consequences of our sin.

As we have seen time and time again throughout Ezekiel and throughout the history of Israel, Ezekiel concludes his message from God with a hopeful message of redemption. Look again at verse 30: “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Because God’s justice is perfect, God tells the people of Judah that they will be judged according to their actions. They cannot escape God’s judgment. We cannot escape God’s judgment. Although that doesn’t sound too hopeful, the good news is that because of God’s perfect love, he longs for us to repent and live. You can feel God pleading with the people of Judah to stop making excuses, to accept personal responsibility, to rid themselves of their offenses, to get a new heart and a new spirit so that they can truly live!

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What actions are considered righteous? – Ezekiel 18, Part 3

Editor’s Note: I’m thankful to guest blogger Brandon Hershey for this week’s study of Ezekiel 18!

How do you answer the question posed by the title of this post? One person’s view of righteousness might differ significantly from that of another. In America, righteousness is often viewed through whichever political lens a person holds. Republican righteousness is quite different from Democrat righteousness. Around the globe and throughout history, humanity has defined righteousness in still more varied ways. The photo above depicts a typical answer to “What actions are considered righteous?” A man with one hand over his heart, and the other hand reaching up toward the heavens, while his eyes are closed. He looks so righteous as he seems to be praying, meditating or worshiping. But is that truly righteous? Perhaps the better question is, “How does God define righteous action?” The prophecy of Ezekiel 18 raises this question. Keep reading for the answer.

As we’ve seen already in the first two posts on Ezekiel 18 (here and here), God does not want the people of Judah to be quoting the proverb about sour grapes, whether they are living in Judah or in exile in Babylon. God does not want them to be blaming their ancestors and shirking their own responsibility. The main point that Ezekiel seems to be driving home here is everyone will be responsible to God for his own conduct. In God’s eyes, people are individuals and he treats them as such, as he says in verse 4, “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son – both alike belong to me.” He is very clear that the soul who sins is the one who will die. To illustrate the point that we do not inherit the sins of our fathers/mothers, but instead that we are responsible for our own behavior, Ezekiel tells the story of three generations – a righteous grandfather, his violent son, and his righteous grandson. Open your Bible and read that story in Ezekiel 18, verses 5-20.

We see from this story of three generations that the actions of one generation did not determine the outcome of the next.  Even though the grandfather was righteous and followed God’s heart and set a good example for his son, the son still became violent and turned from God, resulting in his death. The violent son did not inherit any special privilege from his righteous father. Similarly, even though the grandson saw all the sins of his father, he still was able to follow God’s heart, keep His laws, and ultimately live. The grandson did not inherit suffering and death for his father’s sins.

Despite this illustration, the people of Judah continue to ask in verse 19: “Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?” The exiles still think that the son should share in the guilt of the father. They seem to be missing the point that each person is responsible for their own sins. If they share in their ancestors’ guilt, if they consider themselves guilty because their ancestors were guilty, then there is no reason for them to try to change. This thinking lets them off the hook. Yet, God is clear in his response in verse 20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” Clearly, each person is responsible for their own actions: “The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”

This verse begs the question, “What actions are considered righteous?” The actions of each generation that Ezekiel describes give us a pretty clear picture of God’s heart for the oppressed. So much of what makes the grandfather and the grandson righteous and consequently what makes the violent son unrighteous concern matters of care for the oppressed. A righteous person seeks to provide clothing and food for those who don’t have it. They do not take advantage of those who have less by charging them excessive interest. Instead, they are generous to those who have less and give them the benefit of the doubt.

As we evaluate our own lives, we must ask ourselves if the behaviors that qualified the grandfather and the grandson as righteous are the behaviors that define our lives. Does our heart beat for the things that God’s heart beats for? How are we using the resources that God has entrusted to us to care for those who have less? What excuses do we make when we don’t?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash