Do you care about the things that God cares about?
I am not asking a rhetorical question here, but a very real one. Do you care? Of course how you reply depends on what you care about. Many folks care about how their fav football team will do this weekend. Many people care that they are not as wealthy as the Jones are, and cannot afford that third plasma TV or the next European river cruise.
Many people care about their image, and what other people think about them. Many folks care deeply about being powerful or successful or well-known. I am not speaking of such things. I am speaking especially to those who call themselves Christians. And I am specifically referring to this: Do you care about the things that God cares about?
Do you care that the world is in a mess, that multitudes are heading to a lost eternity, and that God is being rejected and hated on every single day? Does that bother you? Does that mean anything to you? Do you care? Do you spend sleepless hours on your bed at night thinking about these things and grieving over these things?
Do you cry out to God in prayer, broken-hearted over these things? Do you feel deeply grieved that God’s name and values are being spat on every day and people are destroying all of the good gifts that he has given to us, such as marriage and family, and life itself? Does that mean anything to you?
I write this in part because of two things that happened yesterday. One, I had a strong, courageous and well-known culture warrior call me yesterday wanting to talk about these very things. He was almost in tears concerning the state of the nation in general, and the NSW abortion law debate in particular.
Two, just hours before that call in my daily devotionals I had read some important words in Ezekiel 9 that had a direct bearing on his concerns. So I shared them with my friend and said that he was in good company, and that God cared greatly that he cared. I assured him that he was on the right page, and that he and Ezekiel would make a good pair.
So let me speak more to this passage. The surrounding context of Ezekiel 9 is God’s judgment on idolatrous Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Chapter 8 speaks about abominations in the temple in Jerusalem, while chapter 10 speaks about the glory of the Lord departing from the temple.
The first five verses of chapter 9 say this (in the ESV):
Then He called out in my hearing with a loud voice, saying, “Let those who have charge over the city draw near, each with a deadly weapon in his hand.” And suddenly six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his battle-ax in his hand. One man among them was clothed with linen and had a writer’s inkhorn at his side. They went in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub, where it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed with linen, who had the writer’s inkhorn at his side; and the Lord said to him, “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.” To the others He said in my hearing, “Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity.”
A few other versions of verse four are worth offering here:
“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” NIV
“Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.” KJV
Notice the words used to characterise those that Yahweh will spare: they are the ones who sigh and cry and grieve and lament over all the horrible things taking place. They care, in other words, and they care deeply. It bothers them that these things are happening.
Unlike all the others who just do not give a rip, and who are thus subject to the just judgment of God, these people are full of grief and turmoil over what they see happening all around them. These are the people that God loves, and he spares them when judgment comes, by having a mark put on their foreheads. And the mark is the cross-shaped last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tau.
We are reminded of similar things in the Old Testament of course. God had placed a mark of protection on Cain (Genesis 4:15). And when God judged Egypt while the Israelites were in bondage, he had a mark made in blood (also in the shape of the cross) put on the door frames of those who were truly his. The angel of death passed over these places when divine judgment was meted out.
And today, those who have availed themselves of the shed blood of Jesus on the cross at Calvary are also spared the judgment of God which will still come on those who refuse to bow to the one true King. So we see a clear pattern throughout the biblical storyline of how God deals with those who truly know him and those who reject him.
Some other observations are worth making concerning details of this passage. First, this is a vision that Ezekiel had. Things did not actually happen quite this way. In terms of judgment, it was the Babylonians who actually destroyed Jerusalem, not six angelic executioners.
But Ezekiel’s vision shows us that it is really God who is behind all this. He can even use pagan nations as instruments of his dealings with his people. As Christopher Wright notes, “Ezekiel’s vision interprets that historical event in advance by using the symbolic language of God’s own judgment being executed. At one level of reality, the swords would be in the hands of Babylonian enemies; at another level of reality, they would collectively constitute the sword of divine justice.”
Also, it is apparent that only a minority in the city were spared. Only one angel marked the faithful few, while the other six angels carried out the divine judgment. And even though there was a faithful remnant, that did not mean they were immune from the judgment on Jerusalem that God unleashed.
Steven Tuell offers us some contemporary application of this principle: “Faith is not a shield against suffering, as the examples of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus show all too well. The difference faith makes is not in the circumstances of life, but rather in the way the faithful perceive and endure those circumstances. We are to worship and adore God – not because that adoration conveys special privileges or benefits in this life, but because God is God, and worthy of praise!”
Another important lesson is found in verse six which informs us that the destroyers were to “begin at My sanctuary”. God’s people in general, and their leadership in particular, are the first to receive judgment. We find the same principle in the New Testament of course, with 1 Peter 4:17 saying that “judgment must begin at the house of God”.
Also worth noting: some contemporary Christian readers may be rather squeamish about this comprehensive and fierce divine judgment. But can I suggest that this is likely because they lack a sense of both God’s holiness and the seriousness of sin. Things were in a real bad way back then. As we read in verses 9-10:
Then He said to me, “The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great, and the land is full of bloodshed, and the city full of perversity; for they say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see!’ And as for Me also, My eye will neither spare, nor will I have pity, but I will recompense their deeds on their own head.”
Thus major judgment was required. And this complete destruction is what is known as the tradition of holy war in the Old Testament. It involved the total destruction of God’s enemies, but sadly, it could also apply to Israel when it was awash in sin and evil. As Iain Duguid comments:
Holy war stands as the clearest possible declaration of God’s commitment to the purity and holiness of his people, totally separate from possibly defiling influences. God’s holiness remains implacably opposed to sin. In the present, we are therefore enrolled as his people in a no-holds-barred contest with the forces of the evil one (Eph. 6:10-18), while in the future there will yet come a day when God’s wrath will be poured out comprehensively on the wicked (Rom. 2:5).
Or as Douglas Stuart puts it, “Total elimination of the population is associated with Old Testament holy war (Deuteronomy 20), which is a divine war of extermination of a wicked society in which the human soldiers are merely agents of God’s wrath. Thus the implication for Ezekiel and his eventual audience was clear: The coming destruction represented God’s condemnation, not just a political-military success for the Babylonians in Palestine.”
Let me return to the words used of those who receive the protective mark. As Wright says, these terms refer to “those who are genuinely and deeply repentant and distressed by the kinds of wickedness described in the preceding five scenes. Grieve and lament are strong, rhyming words [in Hebrew] which portray a very real, physical grief being expressed loudly and emotionally.”
Or as Daniel Block comments, the seventh angel is to scour the city looking for signs of repentance. The terms ‘moan and groan’ “will resurface in 21:11-12, where the moaning will be a symptom of a broken heart and intense grief over impending doom. In 24:17 [groan] describes the grief that Ezekiel expresses over the death of his wife.”
I return to the phone call from my friend. He was in grief and turmoil, almost as if he had just lost his own wife. As I told him, this passage deals with similar sorts of grief, and it deals with similar sorts of people whom God loves dearly. Like my good friend, these few ancient Israelites grieved and mourned and wept over the state of play of the nation, and of the sad condition of God’s own people.
I wish I had more friends like this. They will not contact me deeply grieving because their favourite sporting team just lost, or because they missed out on a chance to make a kazillion bucks, or because they did not make it into the top ten in a popularity contest.
They will call me because their hearts are broken. And their hearts are broken over what breaks the heart of God. That is the sort of person that God can use. That is the sort of person that is highly favoured by God. Bless you my friend. I know all about your sadness and sorrow over what is taking place in the world and in the church.
But better yet, God knows all about your broken and bleeding heart as well. And as paradoxical as it may sound, I urge you to keep standing strong as you remain on your knees. And to the rest of my readers I again ask: Do you care?