I have now read chapters 4-7 of the Book of Ezekiel. The prophetic words are horrifying. If Ezekiel had spoken them to me in 6th century BC, I would either have secreted myself in a cave or run the pretender out of town on a rail. How do we hear these judgments as God’s Word to us today? I do not know. How would I preach them if they were assigned to me as my text? I do not know. Yet God gave Ezekiel these words to declare to his people. They are words of doom, of merciless punishment and violent death. Because of Israel’s apostasy, the LORD will send the heathen to lay siege to Jerusalem; vanquish the Judahite army; raze the Temple; slay men, women, and children indiscriminately. There will be plague, pestilence, famine, cannabilism. The survivors will be either taken captive to Babylon or dispersed to the four winds. The active tense chills my soul: again and again the LORD declares that he is the doer of the coming devastation. One passage from many:
Behold, I, even I, am against you; and I will execute judgments in the midst of you in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in the midst of you, and sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. Wherefore, as I live, says the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will cut you down; my eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in the midst of you; a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.
Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury upon them. Moreover I will make you a desolation and an object of reproach among the nations round about you and in the sight of all that pass by. You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations round about you, when I execute judgments on you in anger and fury, and with furious chastisements—I, the Lord, have spoken—when I loose against you my deadly arrows of famine, arrows for destruction, which I will loose to destroy you, and when I bring more and more famine upon you, and break your staff of bread. I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will rob you of your children; pestilence and blood shall pass through you; and I will bring the sword upon you. I, the Lord, have spoken. (5:8-17)
Terrifying words of judgment are not unique to Ezekiel. We find similar pronouncements in Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Micah. How do we reconcile them with the revelation of God’s absolute love and mercy in Jesus Christ? Yet surely we must reconcile them. The God who spoke through Ezekiel is the same God whom Jesus worshipped and served. The alternative proposed by Marcion, dividing the jealous Demiurge of the Old Testament from the compassionate God of the New, is unavailable to us. As a last resort we might avail ourselves of an allegorical reading or the notion of progressive revelation; but we should not rush to either prematurely. The “Thus says the LORD”constrains us. Ezekiel was commanded to eat the scroll of God’s Word (2:8-10). So perhaps must we.
When we turn to Robert W. Jenson’s commentary, we do not find relief from our anxiety and fear. That God freely chose twelve Hebrew tribes and formed them into his Israel, binding them to him by statutes and ordinances, lies at the heart of the biblical story. The divine choosing inevitably entails the summons to conformity to the moral will of the LORD. We should not be surprised, observes Jenson:
One person’s choice of another—whether it be God choosing Jerusalem or lovers choosing each other—contains an intention for the other—if it does not, the choice is not personal but rather arbitrary or mechanistically determined. And the intention of one person for another intrinsically displays some construal of their mutual good, unless again the chooser is a demon or automaton. If God chose Israel in love, then this included his intention that they together live one kind of life and not another, and the difference is delineated in Torah. (Ezekiel, p. 62)
Punishment follows apostasy and sin. Even sophisticated theologians may affirm the maxim. Sin carries within itself its own punishment. Yet the prophetic Word bespeaks a more active divine role: the LORD takes the field against his people. He is the One who punishes. “Behold, I, even I, am against you; and I will execute judgments in the midst of you in the sight of the nations” (5:8), he declares. If God is God, then he must be the agent of punishment:
Jerusalem is punished by inevitable consequences of sin and is punished by God in person. These are compatible on one condition: if the statutes and ordinances that make the moral order do not obtain independently of God (as often in other religions) or do not function merely as a mediation of divine order from afar (as in yet other systems) but simply are the Lord’s own willing and acting among his creatures.
The supposition that God can be wrathful when rebelled against, and even jealous of his people’s love, further offends our prejudices. We may try to escape by the popular supposition that God in the Old Testament could be wrathful and that the New Testament changes all that. But this notion cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with the texts. Paul is not outdone by Ezekiel: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18), which he latter catalogues in truly wrathful detail. And for depictions of divinely ordained destruction of the wicked, the New Testament book of Revelation tops all competition.
Modernity expected God to be disinterested; and if a judge, then a disinterested judge, on the model of one behind the bench of a British or American courtroom. But the biblical God is precisely not disinterested; his boundless personal investment in his creatures is his most determining characteristic. His law is not something he devises and administers, it is his active personal will, which thus defines also who and what he himself is. And therefore when it is flouted he must be personally offended. He is a lover and therefore jealous, for there cannot be an actual lover who is not jealous—the great climax of the Song of Songs, “love is strong as death, jealousy fierce as the grave” [Song 8:6], strictly and knowingly parallels love and jealousy. Christian theology dare not retreat a step from these claims, for as the gospel construes our situation, our only hope is God’s personal stake in the good he wills for us. (pp. 62-63)
Where there is the fire of the divine Love, there is the wrath of God. Lord, have mercy.