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God’s Judgments Justified


Certain elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me. 2And the word of the L ord came to me: 3Mortal, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them; shall I let myself be consulted by them? 4Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord G od: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the L ord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.

6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord G od: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts and placing their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to a prophet to inquire of me by him, I the L ord will answer them myself. 8I will set my face against them; I will make them a sign and a byword and cut them off from the midst of my people; and you shall know that I am the L ord.

9 If a prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the L ord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel. 10And they shall bear their punishment—the punishment of the inquirer and the punishment of the prophet shall be the same— 11so that the house of Israel may no longer go astray from me, nor defile themselves any more with all their transgressions. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God, says the Lord G od.

12 The word of the L ord came to me: 13Mortal, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it, and break its staff of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it human beings and animals, 14even if Noah, Daniel, and Job, these three, were in it, they would save only their own lives by their righteousness, says the Lord G od. 15If I send wild animals through the land to ravage it, so that it is made desolate, and no one may pass through because of the animals; 16even if these three men were in it, as I live, says the Lord G od, they would save neither sons nor daughters; they alone would be saved, but the land would be desolate. 17Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, “Let a sword pass through the land,” and I cut off human beings and animals from it; 18though these three men were in it, as I live, says the Lord G od, they would save neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be saved. 19Or if I send a pestilence into that land, and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off humans and animals from it; 20even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, says the Lord G od, they would save neither son nor daughter; they would save only their own lives by their righteousness.

21 For thus says the Lord G od: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four deadly acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild animals, and pestilence, to cut off humans and animals from it! 22Yet, survivors shall be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; they will come out to you. When you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. 23They shall console you, when you see their ways and their deeds; and you shall know that it was not without cause that I did all that I have done in it, says the Lord G od.

Ezekiel again returns to threats, because exhortations was not sufficiently effectual with such hardened ones; for we have seen that they were obdurate in their vices and almost like untamed beasts. For unless God’s judgment had been often set before them, there had been but small fruit of teaching and exhortation. This then is the reason why God here sets before them his vengeance: a man, a man, says he, or a stranger who sojourns among Israel. When he adds strangers, he doubtless speaks of the circumcised who professed to be worshipers of the true God, and so submitted to the law as to refrain from all impieties. For there were two kinds of strangers, those who transacted business there, but were profane men, continuing uncircumcised. But there were others who were not sprung from the sacred race, and were not indigenous to the soil, but yet they had been circumcised, and as far as religion was concerned, had become members of the Church; and God wishes them to be esteemed in the same class and rank as the sons of Abraham. The law shall be the same for the stranger and the home-born, wherever the promise is concerned, (Numbers 15:15,16,) and the same sentiment is repeated in many places. Thus the word foreigners is now to be explained. But this circumstance exaggerates the crime of the chosen people. For if any one settled in the land of Canaan and embraced God’s law, this was an accidental event: but the Israelites were by nature heirs of eternal life, for the adoption was continued through successive ages. Since then they were born sons of God, it was the more disgraceful to depart from his worship. And so when Ezekiel here gravely rebukes the strangers, he shows how much more atrocious the crime was in the case of those who were bound by a more sacred bond to the worship of God. He says, and he was separated from after me. The Prophet yesterday said מעלי, megneli, from near or from towards me: here he more clearly expresses declension, when men reject the teaching of the law, and openly show that they pay no obedience to God. For he is said to follow God or to walk after him, who proposes to himself God as a guide, and is devoted to his precepts, and holds on in the way pointed out by him. Thus by the obedience of faith we follow God or walk after him: so we recede from him when we reject his law, and are openly unwilling to bear his yoke any longer. Hence he shows of what kind the separation of the people or of individuals from God is, namely, when they refuse to follow his law. The Israelites indeed wished God always to remain united to them, but they made the divorce, although they denied it: hence the Prophet cuts away from them beforehand this prop of backsliding, when he says that they separated from God by not following him.

At length he repeats what we saw yesterday, he who caused his idols to ascend unto his heart, he who placed the stumblingblock of his iniquity before his face, that is, was drowned in his own superstitions, so that his idols bore sway in his heart: lastly, he who is so forward in audacity that he did not conceal his wish to oppose the Almighty: if any one, says he, came to a prophet to inquire of him in me, or my name, I will answer him. He confirms what we saw yesterday, that he could no longer bear the hypocrites who deluded themselves so proudly. And certainly when they openly worshipped idols, and were fined with many superstitions, what audacity and pride it was to consult true prophets? It is much the same as if a person should want only insult and rail at a physician, and not only load him with reproaches, but even spit in his face: and should afterwards go and ask his advice, saying, “What do you advise me to do? How must I be cured of this disease?” Such pride could not be borne between man and man. How then will God permit such reproaches to go unpunished? For this reason he says that he would answer, but after his own manner, as if he had said — they seek flatteries, but I will answer in myself: that is, in my natural character. I will not change it according to their pleasure, for they change my character by their fictions, but they are deceived: they profit nothing when they expect me to answer according to their views: I will answer, says he, in myself; that is, they shall feel that the answer proceeds from me, and they shall have no reason for thinking that my servants will be submissive to them, as they are accustomed to abuse the false prophets whom they buy for reward, because they are venal. For when any one is venal he is compelled to flatter like a slave. For there is no freedom but in a good and upright conscience. Hence God here separates his servants from impostors who make a trade of their flatteries. Now it follows —

Here God adds, that the execution of his wrath would be ready when the prophet had denounced it. For profane men always fabricate for themselves empty treaties, and when God threatens they say that it is only thunder without lightning. Since the prophetic threats moved the reprobate either nothing or but little, so God now shows that he would not only answer what they did not wish to hear, but they should perceive by its effect how truly he had spoken. And this ought to be understood from the last sentence; for when God answers by himself, he neither is nor strikes the air with threatening words, but denounces what he determined to fulfill and accomplish in his own time. For God never answers in himself without joining the effect with the prophecy. But hypocrites are too stupid to acknowledge this, unless a clearer explanation was afforded. This then is the reason why the Prophet brings a message respecting the effect.

He says, I will put my face upon that man: when God speaks openly against us, this is sufficient for our destruction; but he wished to express more in this case, namely, that prophets were the heralds of his wrath, and that hypocrites should be admonished about the penalties which await them, and even now hang over them, since his hand is stretched out against them. He is said to place his face against another who rises against him, or descends to a contest and engages hand to hand. So also God pronounces that he would be an adversary to all the reprobate who thus endeavored to elude him. He says, I will place him for a sign and a proverb. He marks the heaviness of the punishment by these words: for God sometimes chastises the faults of men, but after a common and accustomed manner. But when punishment excites the wonder of all and is like a portent, then God puts forth the sign of his wrath in no common fashion, as they say. The Prophet then means this, and hence at the same time admonishes us how detestable a crime it is to decline from the pure worship of God. For God chastises thefts and lewdness, drunkenness, deceits, and rapines: but not always so rigorously that the punishment is remarkable, and turns the minds of all towards itself. Hence from the greatness of the punishment the atrocity of the crime is made known. He now adds, for proverbs. This phrase is taken from the law, as the prophets who are the interpreters of Moses make use of words from it. (Deuteronomy 28:37.) When any remarkable slaughter occurs it is said to be for a proverb, as all persons usually boast when speaking of any slaughter, that none is equal to it or more horrible. But, משל, meshel, is also used for a disgrace: as if he had said, it should not only be material for remark among the whole people, but their name should be subject to reproach and contempt. At length he adds, I will cut him off from my people. This is most severe of all, for even the hope of pity is taken away. A person may be a wonder for a time: then his calamity may be the subject of vulgar taunts and proverbs: and yet God is still exorable, and may not cut him off from his people. But when any one is cut off from God’s people, his safety is already beyond hope. It is not in vain that this sentence is so often repeated, you shall know that I am Jehovah, says he, since we even formerly saw hypocrites always put a veil before them, since they think they have only to do with the prophets, and thus they despise mortals with security. Hence God here inscribes his name on his word, that they may know that he has spoken, and may experience the effect of his words by his hand. It follows —

Here God meets that foolish thought in which many minds are rapt up. When they had their own impostors at hand, they thought that all God’s threats could be repelled as it were by a shield. Jeremiah and Ezekiel threaten us, say they, but we have others to cheer us with good hope: they promise that all things shall be joyful and prosperous to us: since, therefore, only two or three deprive us of the hope of safety, and others, and those, too, far more numerous, promise us security, we have no need to despair. Since they thus oppose their impostors to the true prophets, and imagine a kind of conflict, in which imposture prevails and God’s truth is vanquished, he says there is no reason why the flatteries of the false prophets should deceive you. For if you say that they bear also the prophetic name and office, I reply, that they err through your fault; for I deceive them because your impiety deserves it. This may as yet be obscure, but I will endeavor to explain it by a familiar example. At this time we see that many through sloth withdraw themselves from all fear, and promise themselves freedom from punishment, while they reject all care for God. O, say they, what have I to do with religion? for this only occasions me trouble; whoever wishes to give himself up seriously to God amidst, these dissension’s and divisions will enter a labyrinth. Since, therefore, many think themselves free from fault, even if they reject God, this doctrine may be turned against them. There are, indeed, at this day dissension’s in religion which disturb many; but do you think that this happens rashly: Oh! we know not which party to follow: inquire; for God has not so given the rein to Satan and his ministers, that the Church is disturbed, and men are mutually opposed by chance. But when this happens by the just judgment of God, it is certain that no one can be deceived unless of his own accord. For the Prophet takes that principle from Moses, whenever false prophets come forth, that this is a proof of faithfulness and of sincere piety. Thy God tries thee, says Moses, whether you love him. (Deuteronomy 8:3.) Since, therefore, no false prophet arises without the just judgment of God, and since God wishes to distinguish between sincere worshipers and hypocrites, it follows that no one can be excused on this pretext, of differing opinions which arise by wise ordination. For since God wishes to make an experiment, as I have said, concerning his servants and sons, and since false prophets so mingle all things, and involve the clear daylight in darkness, no one who truly and heartily seeks God shall be entangled among their snares.

But Ezekiel will proceed still further, as I have previously hinted, namely, that all impostures and errors do not spring up rashly, but proceed from the ingratitude of the people itself. For if they had not so willingly given themselves up to the false prophets, God would doubtless have spared them. But, since false prophets abounded on every side, and were so plentiful everywhere, hence it may be understood that, the people were worthy of such impostures. Now then we perceive the meaning of the Holy Spirit when God pronounces that he is the author of all the error which the false prophets were thus scattering abroad. For it is not sufficient to observe merely the sound of the words, and then to illicit the substance of the prophetic teaching; but we must attend to the Spirit’s purpose. I have already explained why the Prophet says this, namely, that the Israelites should cease to turn their backs according to their custom, saying, that if they remained in doubt amidst various opinions, this ought not to be imputed to them as a crime. For he answers, that the false prophets only took this license, because the people deserved to be blinded: and in fine, he says that Satan’s lies multiplied not at random or at the will of men, but because God repays a graceless and perfidious people with a just recompense. So Paul says that error has a divine efficacy, when men prefer embracing a lie to the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12), and do not submit themselves to God, but rather shake off his yoke. Now, therefore, whoever wishes to excuse himself under the pretext of simplicity for not acquiescing in God’s word, this answer is at hand — that all things are thus mingled by God’s just decree. Since, therefore, Satan eclipses the light whenever clouds are scattered to disturb the weak, we here find God to be the author of it, since man’s impiety deserves it. For the Prophet does not here discourse profanely about God’s absolute power, as they say; but when he brings forward God’s name, he takes it for granted that God is not delighted with such disturbance, when false prophets seize upon his name. It is certain, then, that God does not delight in such deception; but the cause must be thought, as we shall soon see: the cause is not always manifest; but without controversy this is fixed, that God punishes men justly, when true religion is so rent asunder by divisions, and truth is obscured by falsehood.

We must hold, then, that God does not rage like a tyrant, but exercises just judgment. Besides, this passage teaches us that neither impostures nor deceptions arise without God’s permission. This seems at first sight absurd, for God seems to contend with himself when he gives license to Satan to pervert sound doctrine: and if this happens by God’s authority, it seems perfectly contradictory to itself. But let us always remember this, that God’s judgments are not without reason called a profound abyss (Psalm 36:6), that when we see rebellious men acting as they do in these times, we should not wish to comprehend what far surpasses even the sense of angels. Soberly, therefore, and reverently must we judge of God’s works, and especially of his secret counsels. But with the aid of reverence and modesty, it will be easy to reconcile these two things — that God begets, and cherishes, and defends his Church, and confirms the teaching of his prophets, all the while that he permits it to be torn and distracted by intestine broils. Why so? He acts thus that he may punish the wickedness of men as often as he pleases when he sees them abuse his goodness and indulgence. When God lights up the flame of his doctrine, this is the sign of his inestimable pity; when he suffers the Church to be disturbed, and men to be in some degree dissipated, this is to be imputed to the wickedness of men. Whatever be the explanation, he pronounces that he deceived the false prophets, because Satan could not utter a single word unless he were permitted, and not only so, but even ordered; while God exercises his wrath against the wicked.

In another sense Jeremiah says that he was deceived (Jeremiah 20:7). I am deceived, but you Jehovah have deceived me: for there he speaks ironically. For when ungodly men boasted that so many of his prophecies were delusive, and derided him as a foolish and misguided man, he says, If I am deceived, you, O Lord, have deceived me. We see, then, that by false irony he reproves the petulance of those who despised his prophecies; and finally, he shows that God was the author of his teaching. But in this place God pronounces without a figure that he deceived the false prophets. If any one now objects, that nothing is more remote from God’s nature than to deceive, the answer is at hand. Although the metaphor is rather rough, yet we know that God transfers to himself by a figure of speech what properly does not belong to him. He is said to laugh at the impious; but we know that it is not agreeable to his nature to ridicule, to laugh, to see, and to sleep. (Psalm 2:4; Psalm 37:13.) And so in this place, I confess, there is an improper form of speaking; but the sense is not doubtful — that all impostures are scattered abroad by God — since Satan, as I have said, can never utter the slightest word unless commanded by God. But the kind of deceit which will solve this difficulty for us is described in the sacred history. For when Ahab had a great crowd of false prophets, Micah alone stood firm, and faithfully discharged his duty to God: when brought before king Ahab, he immediately blows away their boastings — Behold! all my prophets predict victory: he answers — I saw God sitting on his throne; and when all the armies of heaven were collected before him, God inquired, Who shall deceive Ahab? And a spirit offered himself, namely, a devil, and said, I will deceive him, because I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. God answers, Depart, and thus it shall be. (1 Kings 22; 2 Chronicles 18.) Afterwards it follows, Therefore the Lord put a lie in the mouth of all those prophets. Here he distinctly shows us the manner in which God maddens the false prophets, and deceives them, namely, since he sends forth Satan to fill them with his lies. Since, then, they are impelled by Satan, the father of lies, what can they do but lie and deceive? The whole of this, then, depends on the just judgments of God, as this place teaches. God, therefore, does not deceive, so to speak, without an agency, but uses Satan and impostors as organs of his vengeance. If any one flies to that subtle distinction between ordering and permitting, he is easily refuted by the context. For that cannot be called mere permission when God willingly seeks for some one to deceive Ahab, and then he himself orders Satan to go forth and do so. But the last clause which I have quoted takes away all doubt, since God put a lie in the mouth of the prophets, that is, suggested a lie to all the false prophets. If God suggests, we shall see that Satan flies forth not only by his permission to scatter his impostures; but since God wished to use his aid, so he afforded it on this condition and to this end. But we shall leave the rest for the next lecture.

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