The Annihilation of Israel

Ezekiel 21

“The word of the Lord came to me,” declares the prophet Ezekiel:

“Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanc­tuaries; prophesy against the land of Israel and say to the land of Israel, Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you, and will draw forth my sword out of its sheath, and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked. Because I will cut off from you both righteous and wicked, therefore my sword shall go out of its sheath against all flesh from south to north; and all flesh shall know that I the Lord have drawn my sword out of its sheath; it shall not be sheathed again. Sigh therefore, son of man; sigh with breaking heart and bitter grief before their eyes. And when they say to you, ‘Why do you sigh?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the tidings. When it comes, every heart will melt and all hands will be feeble, every spirit will faint and all knees will be weak as water. Behold, it comes and it will be fulfilled,’” says the Lord God.

And the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy and say, Thus says the Lord, Say:

A sword, a sword is sharpened
and also polished,
sharpened for slaughter,
polished to flash like lightning!

Or do we make mirth? You have despised the rod, my son, with everything of wood. So the sword is given to be polished, that it may be handled; it is sharpened and polished to be given into the hand of the slayer. Cry and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel; they are delivered over to the sword with my people. Smite therefore upon your thigh. For it will not be a testing—what could it do if you despise the rod?” says the Lord God. (21:1-17)

We cannot imagine the horror that filled the souls of those who first heard these words. YHWH declares total war against his people. As he once stood against the armies of Amelek and Ammon, now he stands against Israel. He has drawn his sword and will not sheathe it until Israel and her king are destroyed. Repentance will no longer avail to avert his ven­geance. Neither the Temple of Solomon nor the Throne of David will protect them. His fiery wrath has been unleashed. It will consume all, righteous and unrighteous, men, women, and children (Ezek 20:47). Into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar God has placed his bloody sword of slaughter. A pagan king will be his avenging angel. Israel will be reduced to nothing. Only a holocaust will satisfy his judgment.

And to the last king of Judah, Zedekiah, the LORD speaks an equally devastating word:

And you, O unhallowed wicked one, prince of Israel, whose day has come, the time of your final punishment, thus says the Lord God: Remove the turban, and take off the crown; things shall not remain as they are; exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high. A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it; there shall not be even a trace of it until he comes whose right it is; and to him I will give it. (21:25-27; cf. 19:10-14)

“A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it”—not only of the Davidic monarchy but Israel herself. The desolation is total, the temple razed to the ground, the royal house annihilated, the survi­vors made nothings and no ones in an alien land. YHWH casts down the established order. His judgment is an eschatological unmaking. (Does anyone else hear echoes of the waters of chaos in Genesis 7?) We are left with the question the LORD will soon pose to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” (Ezek 37:3).

Robert W. Jenson comments:

That the Lord punishes Israel by bringing war against her is a staple of prophecy, which we often see in Ezekiel. In this case, however, two features stand out. The Lord, having once drawn his sword, will not sheath it: God’s war with Jerusalem will not allow for repentance—this despite the demand for repentance that pervades Ezekiel’s prophesying. And Jerusalem’s faithful and unfaithful will alike perish—this despite the separation of the righteous from the wicked formally proclaimed in Ezek. 18 and elsewhere. How are we to understand these contradictions? (Ezekiel, p. 165)

Jenson suggests that we probably should allow the contradictions to stand, without artificial resolution, and no doubt he is right. Christians read the Scriptures as a coherent drama. “In a drama,” he explains, “the author can very well at different times promote principles and decisions that are formal contraries, particularly an author who—as often in Ezekiel and in some high-modernist plays—appears in his own drama” (p. 166). Yet for the Christian, questions still rise regarding the character of God and his promises. We read the Scriptures not only as a coherent drama—a disorienting and confusing drama, for its eschatological conclusion is prior to its protological beginning and therefore cannot be read in linear dramatic progression—but as testimony to the incarnate Word, crucified and risen. Who is this God who destroys the very people bound to him by covenant and blood?

In my previous article I raised concerns regarding the portrayal of YHWH as One who does (apparent) evil in order to accomplish his providential ends. But I do not want to dogmati­cally insist on my views, as long as absolute love triumphs in the eschatological consumma­tion and all is made well, not just for some but for all. I take it as a given that our hermeneu­tical and theological commitments must not be allowed to evacuate the Old Testament of all significance. Jenson proposes the “realistic” counterposition, discussed in “Violent YHWH”:

Since Judaism and Christianity do not in either Greek or Indian fashion deny the drama of time, they must then face a hard fact: in what we know as time, there is no drama without violence. There is no plotted sequence of events that arrives at its end without conflict on the way. Nor can there be any penultimate sorting out of history that does not find some guilty of capital evil. If, therefore, God is to be active in the history of this age, he too must be “a man of war” (Exod. 15:3 KJV). Had the Lord not fought for—and against—his people of Israel, he could have had no people within actual history, and so no Christ of that people and so no church of that Christ. (p. 76; emphasis mine)

Perhaps the harsh realities of fallen history requires divine violence within history. It’s difficult to imagine how the Hebrews could have been brought together as a holy people united in Torah and faith in the one God apart from the violence of Moses against the idolaters at the foot of Mount Sinai or the violence of Joshua against the various armies of Canaan or the violence of Elijah against the prophets of Baal. And so perhaps the destruction of both the southern and northern kingdoms of Israel were also historically necessary, if Israel was to become the kind of nation that could give birth to the Messiah. Perhaps. Origen appears to have advanced a similar position in his homilies on Ezekiel:

But there might be someone who, taking offense at the very word “anger,” would complain of it in God. To such a one, I will answer that the anger of God is not so much anger as necessary providential direction. Hear what the action of God’s anger is: to rebuke, to correct, to improve. “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, and do not reprove me in your fury.” He who says this knows that the fury of God is not without use for health, but that it is applied for the purpose of curing those who are sick, for improving those who scorned to hear his words. And the Psalmist prays that he may not be “improved” by such remedies for this reason: that he may not receive back his former good health with the medicine of punish­ment. It is as if a slave who has already been put into position in the midst of the whips were to beseech his master, promising again that he will carry out [the master’s] orders, and were to say: “Master, do not rebuke me in your anger, and do not reprove me in your fury.” All things that are of God are good; and we deserve to be reproved. Listen to what he says: “I will rebuke them in the hearing of their distress.” We hear those things that have to do with tribula­tion for this reason: so that we may be improved. Also, in the curses of Leviticus, it is written: “If after this they do not obey, and do not return to me, I will apply seven afflictions to them for their sins. If, however, after this they do not return, I will improve them.” All the things of God which seem to be bitter contribute toward educa­tion and remedies. God is a doctor; God is a Father; he is a Master—and not a harsh one, but a gentle Master.

If you come to [i.e., if you want to think about] those who have been punished, according to the words of the Scriptures, then combine Scriptures with Scriptures, as the Apostle teaches, and you will see that where the most bitter things are thought to be, the sweetest things are there. It is written in the prophet, “He does not take vengeance in his judgment twice in the very same matter.” He took vengeance once in his judgment through the Flood; he took vengeance once in his judgment on Sodom and Gomor­rah; he took vengeance once in his judgment on Egypt, and on 600,000 Israelites. Do not think that this vengeance on the sinners was only punishment, as if after death and [earthly] punishments they are to be met again by punishment. They were punished in the present so that they might not be punished perpetually in the future. Look at the poor man in the Gospel: he is crushed by squalor and want, and afterwards he rests in the bosom of Abraham; he received his ills in his lifetime. How do you know whether those who were killed in the flood also received their ills in their lifetime? How do you know whether for Sodom and Gomorrah their ills were given to them as recompense in their lifetime? Listen to the witness of the Scriptures. Do you wish to learn the testimony of the Old Testament? Do you wish to be taught that of the New? “Sodom will be restored to its ancient state” [Ezek 16:53]. And do you still doubt whether the Lord is good as he punishes the inhabitants of Sodom? “It will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment,” says the Lord, pitying the inhabitants of Sodom. Therefore God is kind, God is merciful. Truly “he causes his sun to rise on the good and the evil” and truly “he sends rain on the just and the unjust”— not only this sun which we perceive with our eyes, but also that sun which is beheld with the eyes of the mind. I was wicked, and the Sun of righteousness rose for me. I was wicked, and the rain of righteousness came over me. The goodness of God is even in those things which are thought to be bitter. (Hom. 1.2)

We are confronted with difficult hermeneutical and theological questions, and underneath them lurks the even more difficult question of theodicy. But perhaps a bit of typological exegesis may yield further insight before we leave the prophecies of Ezekiel 21.

“Exalt that which is low, and abase that which is high”—this verse triggers our New Testament imaginations. Recall the Magnificat of the Theotokos:

He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree. (Luke 1:51-52)

Recall also Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, which concludes with the words “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16). And finally recall the rejected Jew himself, whose passion, sufferings, and death recapitulates the history of Israel. As the last king of Judah is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, so the divine King of Israel is destroyed by Pontius Pilate.

There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:18-22)

YHWH’s repudiation of Zedekiah reveals the true meaning of his covenant with David (2 Sam 7). He never intended a historical succession of kings in the line of David ad perpetuam. He always intended the Davidic covenant to point to its eschatological fulfillment in Israel’s true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, as hinted by Ezekiel 21:27: “until he comes whose right it is; and to him I will give it.” The LORD‘s promise to the anointed son of Jesse, remarks Jenson, can only be fulfilled in “another history than that of this age” (p. 152):

From its place after the fact, Christian theology can perceive that a king of Israel—whatever may be true of the rulers of other nations—would always find himself either defenseless against the world or fighting against the Lord. And Christian theology therefore supposes that in the last extremity no king of Israel could fulfill his role except by dying in the world, rising before God, and taking his people with him. It thus lay in the nature of Israel’s national existence that her hope finally devolved to hope not in the next anointed one, but in a last Anointed One. And that when he appeared he would be crucified and rise. (p. 193)

Only through death and resurrection can Israel realize her divinely ordained destiny.

The God of the Scriptures is a God of reversals. He casts down and raises up; he raises up and casts down. He slays and makes alive. He wounds that he might heal. He consigns all to disobedience that he might have mercy upon all. He justifies the ungodly. Such it must be under the conditions of our fallen world. Such is the inscrutable love and grace of the LORD.

“And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new'” (Rev 21:5).


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3 Responses to The Annihilation of Israel

  1. p myshkin says:

    I am especially edified in these contemplations by Fr. John Behr’s talks and writing wherein he highlights that it is only through death that we come to life as a human being. That through His passion Jesus, the crucified Christ, shows us what it means to be God, and, while I know this is not unique to him, that all of the Scripture must be read through the passion. And finally, his wonderful connection with the creation of man from the dust of the ground and the fact that we are only really dust at death and thus it is only then that the potter is able to truly form us into a human being.


    • biermonk says:

      Does everyone already know that Fr John Behr now has both a website and a YouTube channel?


  2. You know the many Scriptures in both Testaments that prove what St. James wrote in 2:13, that “God’s Mercy Triumps over His Judgments”(NOT VICE VERSA). So, even in post-mortem punishments and even in the Last Great Judgment, God will ultimately save, justify, reconcile, and subject All His enemies to the “Footstool of His Feet”! No infinite punishment for finite sins and evils!


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