We look at Ezekiel 20 and evaluate the natural consequences of the choices of Israel. God will discipline the nation but he will never abandon his chosen people. As a loving Father, his correction is not about coercion or strictly a punishment. It is a guide, a tool to teach us how to learn, improve, and repair the consequences of our poor decisions. Through Ezekiel, we see a recount of Israel’s history and all the times they rebelled against God, as well as his relentless faithfulness to beckon them toward home.
Let’s look at Ezekiel 20. In this chapter, I think we’re going to see the natural consequences, the outgrowth of choices, the national responsibility of Israel; and in it we’re going to have an application that I think addresses Matt’s question.
It came to pass in the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month, that certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the Lord, and sat before me.
Look at Ezekiel 20:5. “Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “On the day when I chose Israel and raised My hand in an oath to the descendants of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known to them—
Now do you think God’s going to keep his oath? You think after that first chapter that God’s going to keep his oath?
Let’s just flip back real quick and look at chapter 16, just before we started chapter 17. Look at 16:60. “Nevertheless I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.
God is doing all this fatherly and husbandly discipline. He’s not going to forget his oath. He’s not going to substitute somebody in for the Jews. He’s not going to change his mind about the Jews. He made a covenant with Abraham. He’s going to keep his covenant.
Ezekiel 20:16. I made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I raised My hand in an oath to them, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God.’
On that day I raised My hand in an oath to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, ‘flowing with milk and honey,’—So I promised it; I’m going to do it. —the glory of all lands.
Then I said to them, ‘Each of you, throw away the abominations which are before his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
But they rebelled against Me and would not listen, would not obey Me. They did not all cast away the abominations which were before their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said, ‘I will pour out My fury on them and fulfill My anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt.’
But I acted for My name’s sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles among whom they were, in whose sight I had made Myself known to them, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
You remember this interaction between Moses and God? And God said, “I think I’ll just nuke all of them and make a new nation out of you.” That still would have fulfilled the promise to Abraham.
And Moses says, “But, God, everybody will see that and assume you were too weak to bring them out by your mighty hand.”
God says, “You’re right. I’m not going to do it that way. I’m just going to let them die in the wilderness. We’ll start with another generation.”
This is God recounting history from his standpoint.
Verse 10. “Therefore I made them go out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness.
And I gave them My statutes and showed them My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them.’
Now look at verse 11. —which, if a man does, he shall live by them.’
Look at verse 13. Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes— which, if a man does, he shall live by them.’
Look at verse 21. “Notwithstanding, the children rebelled against Me; they did not walk in My statutes, and were not careful to observe My judgments, ‘which, if a man does, he shall live by them’—
And God goes on in this chapter to recount the history of Israel and their rebellion and the resulting consequences. Those who died in the wilderness did not, what? Inherit the land. They didn’t get the reward of their inheritance. The next generation got the reward of the inheritance. And it was because of their disobedience.
Did God cast them away as his possession? No. I mean their shoes didn’t wear out. Their clothes didn’t wear out. He provided miraculous food for them. Because they’re his children. But they didn’t get the reward of the inheritance because they chose death, because choices have consequences.
But this phrase “if a man does, he shall live by them,” is the key phrase, and it’s in Leviticus. It comes from the Leviticus. Let’s just look at it. Leviticus 18:5.
Because he said in there, “I gave you my law.” Where did he do that? Where did he give them the law? Stone tablets. Mount Sinai. After they came out of Egypt.
Leviticus 18. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God.
According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do—
Do not do what you saw in Egypt. Don’t repeat that.
— and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances.
You’re going to see a lot of the same things in Canaan. Don’t do that.
Now he’s going to go on in this chapter—if you want to read it you can—and he’s going to say here’s what you’ve seen, and don’t do these things. Don’t have sex with your mother. Don’t have sex with your father’s wife. He closed the loophole there, see? Because she could be a stepmother, and you could say, well, that’s my stepmother. Don’t have sex with your sister. Don’t have sex with your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter. See it’s closing the loopholes? Whether born in a foreign land or born in your own house.
And why do we need to close the loopholes? Yeah. Because our desires didn’t change any, right? The law didn’t change our desires.
Verse 4. You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God.
You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them—
How do we know if you’re following the law? If you’re doing it, right? That’s how you know. How do you know if you’re walking in the flesh? If you see those like fits of rage and stuff, right? How do you know if you’re walking in the Spirit? If you see the fruits of it. That’s how you know.
Now I’m going to answer your question the way I think.
Let’s look at Romans 10. This is the pinnacle of Paul’s argument in the book of Romans in chapter 10. What he’s done in Romans is he’s defended the gospel of grace, that belief is something that comes apart from the law, and sanctification is something that comes apart from the law. Both of them are rooted in faith. And he contrasts this in chapter 10.
And look what he says in Romans 10:5. For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law—which he’s already set up in chapter 9 as something that, does or does not work? The righteousness of the law? Does not work, right?
Is it the law’s fault? No, it’s not the law’s fault; the law is good. It’s our hearts’ fault.
For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, which is this. Look at this phrase: “The man who does those things shall live by them.”
He’s bringing in Leviticus 18. He’s bringing in Ezekiel 20. And it doesn’t work; and here’s why: It’s got to start in the heart.
So I think, Matt, this is a condemnation of behavior, and behavior has consequences irrespective of why it’s embraced.
You might know some friends that don’t believe God one whit. But if they keep their word, for whatever reason, and they interact with other people constructively, for whatever reason, they’ll reap the consequences of life. That’s the way God set things up.
But the answer is the righteousness of faith speaks in this way. And then he does this thing that’s incomprehensible:
“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down from above)
or, “ ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”
Here’s what he’s talking about there. Look at Deuteronomy 30. He is quoting Deuteronomy 30, and I think this will make sense.
Deuteronomy 30:11. The second giving of the law. In the second giving of the law—in the first giving, you know, he gave it on the mountain and it didn’t work because they died in the wilderness, right? He re-gives it again, and this time he does a little different.
Now, this is going to culminate in verse 19. I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life—
That’s what the purpose of this is.
And he starts in verse 11, and he says, “For this commandment which I command you today is not that hard. It’s not that mysterious. This isn’t that hard. It’s not rocket science. This is not physics. It’s not that hard, guys. —nor is it far off.
It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’
So you don’t have to have an angel come down and explain this. It’s not that hard.
Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’
We don’t have to send somebody to a faraway land to get the secret and then bring it back. We don’t have to do that. Why? It’s not that hard. This is just not that hard.
But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.
You know what’s right. You know what’s right. It’s in your heart. So we would say, think it. You know, think those thoughts, and then do it. He says speak it, do it. Hebrews are more tangible than Greeks.
So this is how we choose life. Think it, do it.
Well, what thoughts do you have? What’s influencing your thoughts? Is it the truth of God’s word? Is it the legacy that was given to you by your parents, whether good or bad? Is it the people around you, the culture that is around you? What is causing your decisions?
Well, we all know what’s right. We have the Spirit in us. Which are we going to listen to? Which are we going to follow?
So I think this is talking about sanctification. Just as the law was given not to as a way of salvation, justification, because God just chose the people. He said you’re stiff-necked and nasty, but I chose you anyway.
And he gave them their laws as a way to have fellowship with himself and one another. And when they didn’t, it was disastrous.
The last point I want to make is in Ezekiel 20:23. We’re making some ground today, aren’t we? Also I raised My hand in an oath to those in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the Gentiles and disperse them throughout the countries, because they had not executed My judgments, but had despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths—
I just want to make a real brief comment about the Sabbath. You know Sabbath is not repeated as a command in the New Testament, but it’s interesting how many times in this exile and return literature he mentions the Sabbath. And, as a matter of fact, he says I’m taking my seventy years—the reason I made the Exile 70 years is because you didn’t give the land a rest every seventh year like you’re supposed to, and you did that 70 times, so I’m taking them all. I’m giving the land its rest.
And this Sabbath thing is something that I think we’ve gotten away from; and maybe some of that’s good, I think, because when I was growing up, the Sabbath thing was kind of legalistic. And the law doesn’t change the heart.
But this principle of Sabbath is a big principle in the scripture. And I think the principle is one of taking time out of your daily routine and removing yourself for physical rest and for spiritual restoration and focus, to get our eyes on—now what is it really I’m living for? It seems to be part of the root of the ability to choose life on a consistent basis.
Practical applications of the Sabbath principle
Now, again, this could turn into legalism; and, you know, you have to get up at 5:00 in the morning and spend at least 45 minutes—44 is not good enough. That sort of thing. And I’m totally against that.
But let me just share with you some things that I try to do to keep this Sabbath principle. And to me this is all big stuff. And I think every person has their own personal make up, their own circumstances. It’s just a principle. I’m not trying to advocate any specific outgrowth of the principle. But I think it’s turf that we’ve given up as a church, and we need to recapture it; and it’s a part of this sustaining.
For me, church is a big deal. Now coming to church is something that’s not always convenient. But, for me, when I come to church and I gather with people like you—and sometimes, sometimes—I’ll just be honest—it’s not that enjoyable of an experience. I just really don’t particularly like it. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It still helps me focus. And I walk out with a refocused orientation because, for a time, I remove myself and I’m just focusing on God and with other people.
Study. I do not get up at 5:00 in the morning and study for 45 minutes. I had somebody ask me, how do you do these Sunday School lessons? And I said, well, sometimes Saturday night I just pop something together. Sometimes I think about it for weeks. Sometimes I’ll study for hours for a week. It just kind of depends. I know a lot, so sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes I’m studying something I don’t know anything about, and it takes me a lot of time and effort. Sometimes I have to punt because I hadn’t figured out how to get something there and so I just do something different.
I’m a pretty random person. If you go in my office, I’ve got piles of stuff everywhere, and ten things up on my taskbar. That’s kind of how I operate.
Some of you would fry if you tried to operate like that. Mark is Mr. Sequential. That probably sounds hideous to you, right? We’re different people.
But what I do notice is if I have a time period where I haven’t immersed in the Word, I start to get kind of funk; and usually it takes me a while to get focused back in because it’s just not something I want to do. And I just have to gut it up and do it.
I try to talk to God all day long and I have various things that I do that remind me to talk to God. Walking down a stairwell, going to the bathroom, getting in my car. They are just little keys that trigger me that say, “Hey, God, what do you want me to do today? What are some things that I need to be focusing on today? What do you think?”
And I’ve focused on asking God questions instead of telling him what I think. I think God already knows what I think, and my advice to him is probably not all that useful. So why don’t I flip that around, you know, and say, “What do you think I ought to do?” And I expect God to talk back.
I like fasting. I think fasting is a great principle. And fasting food just doesn’t appeal to me very much. I hate doing it for one thing, and it’s just not been that helpful to me. Maybe because I hadn’t grown into it yet.
But fasting material things is something that I find to be very helpful.
Fasting television. I’m a television addict. If somebody turns a TV on, I just go [zooming noise], and I’m locked in. I say, “Can you please turn this off so I can participate in the conversation that’s going on in the house?” Because I can’t help myself. So, that’s an important thing for me.
Fasting entertainment. If I go to an entertainment thing, I’m totally locked in.
And, for me, exercise. I hate exercise. I hate physical activity. And it’s vital to me. That’s part of choosing life in a physical sense. That’s something that’s kind of a Sabbath principle to me.
That’s me. And I’m doing these things deliberately to say I’m setting aside some of the things I do unto God. And this is one of the things that God said is this is part of choosing life.
So today, what we’re talking about is choosing life and not death. And we’re talking about not just physical death. You know, Adam, lived for hundreds of years after he ate the forbidden fruit, but his death started immediately because he was exiled. His death started immediately because his relationship with Eve was immediately splintered. “This woman you gave me.” His relationship with God was immediately splintered. ”This woman you gave me.” Whose fault was it that he ate the fruit? It was Eve’s and God’s, right? He was deflecting the blame immediately. That’s death. That’s not bringing harmony. It’s not true.
All these other deaths entered in immediately, but it wasn’t the physical death. And the question is, what kind of fruit, what kind of experience do we want to have in our life? And it depends on the choices we make.
And here’s the cool thing: If we choose life, it permeates the sphere all around us, and we’re bringing life to the world through our own actions. Even when someone else is violent to us and we turn the other cheek, we’re bringing harmony. When someone else lies and we say the truth, we’re bringing harmony. And as we do so, we’re showing God because it’s only the power of God abiding in the vine through which we’re able to do this.
So exile, return. Choose life. God as a father, husband, boss has all this amazing wisdom for us if we’ll take advantage of it.