After showing his prophet the abominations being committed in Jerusalem and temple, the LORD pronounces his apocalyptic judgment. With a loud voice he summons his angelic executioners. Six are armed for slaughter; the seventh clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side. The LORD commands the seventh angel to go through the city and to mark those who have remained faithful to the Mosaic covenant with a tau , the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. “It is impossible not to notice,” remarks Robert Jenson: “the angel is told to perform the very gesture of baptismal chrism and of Ash Wednesday’s marking with ashes” (Ezekiel, p. 84). The righteous are saved through the atoning death of Christ. The six are then ordered to slay everyone who has not received the mark of God’s favor, without exception: “slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women” (9:6). The divine retribution is implacable, pitiless, and collective in scope. As Walther Eichrodt comments: “The merciless law of the holy war in its most extreme form (cf. Josh. 6.17ff.; Judg. 20.48; I Sam. 15.3; Deut. 13.15ff.; 20.16ff.) is here enforced at the expense of Yahweh’s own people” (Ezekiel, p. 131).
The destroyers are instructed to first kill the worshippers of the sun (8:16) and then proceed throughout Jerusalem: “Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain” (9:7). In his wrath the LORD commands the pollution of his temple so as to render it an abomination, a place unfit for the divine presence. The LORD is life and the giver of life, and death is the enemy. Death was not created by God. It does not belong in his good creation. It cannot be affirmed; it cannot be naturalized or sacralized: its touch only befouls. Here is the key difference between Israel and the nations of many gods: the religion of YHWH does not incorporate death into divinity. Life brooks no compromise with anti-life. Such is the underlying rationale for the purity laws of Torah: tumah (טומאה) separates from the sacred rituals that communicate life, thus necessitating ritual cleansing. “In Israel,” as Jenson explains,
all dealings with human death had therefore to be purged before approaching God, or approaching ther people in their cultic reality as God’s people. The miasma extended far: all that emerges from the human body and represents expended life … pollutes. As far as an actual corpse, even necessary and indeed divinely commanded contact with one requires ritual cleansing. (p. 61)
By commanding the shedding of blood within the temple, the LORD makes it a place of death and therefore a place where his Shekinah can no longer dwell:
The temple itself is to be polluted and rendered unfit for worship, for the destroyers are to begin with the unfaithful priests there in the court and to leave their bodies where they fall. It will therefore no longer be possible for the Lord to dwell in this temple, and the end of the drama will be his departure. If there is again to be worship of the Lord on Zion, it will be either in the open or in a new temple—and in the concluding vision of the book (Ezek. 40–48), the plan and location of that temple are detailed. (p. 84)
Ezekiel is horrified by the slaughter and cries out:
Ah Lord God! wilt thou destroy all that remains of Israel in the outpouring of thy wrath upon Jerusalem? (9:8)
The intensity of God’s righteous anger evokes from the prophet prophetic intercession. As Moses interceded on behalf of Israel and pleaded for mercy (Num 14:13-19), so now does Ezekiel. Yet the LORD remains unyielding in his condemnation. The sins of Israel are too great:
The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of blood, and the city full of injustice; for they say, “The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see.” As for me, my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity, but I will requite their deeds upon their heads. (9:9-10)
Note that God indicts both Israel and Judah, even though the northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians a century earlier. He treats the twelve tribes as one people and condemns them of capital crimes—“the land is full of blood.” But their greatest offence is one of distrust: they believe that the LORD has abandoned them and is therefore indifferent to their idolatry and injustices. Jenson elaborates:
Indeed, the final gravamen is neither religious perversity nor crime for themselves, but their reason. Israel has fallen into particular transgressions because she has come to think two things: “The Lord has forsaken the land”; and, “The Lord does not see.” In the end, as we are told throughout scripture, “The righteous shall live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4); Israel, on the contrary, has lost trust in the Lord’s promises and fear of his judgments. In such comprehensive absence of faith, a human community must sooner or later fall into idolatry and mutual injustice, which is to be expected among the Gentiles but is terrible apostasy in Israel’s case. (p. 85)
That Israel no longer trusts in the LORD‘s covenant promises illuminates for us the apocalyptic severity of the divine judgment. It is no longer a matter of individual offenses that might be forgiven through repentance or ritual sacrifice. Radical distrust negates mercy, for it rejects its very possibility. Surely this is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of which Christ Jesus spoke (Mark 3:28-30). Radical distrust is death, and death cannot be forgiven; it can only be destroyed.
“Life is the only reality,” declares George MacDonald; “what men call death is but a shadow—a word for that which cannot be—a negation, owing the very idea of itself to that which it would deny.”
Only life and more life is the answer to nihilistic disbelief and the abomination of death. The old temple must be razed to the ground. We await the coming of the new.