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"Behold, The Day!"
(Delivered Sunday, June 30, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Occasionally, in my daily reading of the Scriptures, God leads me to a passage that hits me like a ton of bricks and utterly takes me by surprise. The passage I'd like to read from this morning had just such an impact on me recently. It's the seventh chapter of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.
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Ezekiel was a priest of Israel; but at the age of 30, he was called by God to be a prophet. His prophetic preaching ministry began at a dreadful time in Israel's history - that is, during its time of exile under the kingdom of Babylon. In fact, Ezekiel's ministry began at a particularly crucial point, because it occurred between a first and partial deportation of the Jews to Babylon in 597 B.C. and a final deportation of the Jews and complete defeat of the nation by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. In other words, Ezekiel's ministry began just after an initial act of severe judgment from God on Israel, and just before a complete act of decisive judgment.
That first act of judgment came as something of a warning to the Jewish people that the second was well on its way; and it was between the two that God called Ezekiel into the prophetic ministry. His ministry was to the Jewish people with whom he had been deported to Babylon; and his task was to remind them of the sins that were bringing God's judgment upon them, but also of the promise of God's future blessing upon them.
God had warned His people long beforehand that the judgment they were suffering would happen (Deut. 29). In the years just prior, God raised up the prophet Jeremiah to repeatedly warn the people of God's impending judgment. Yet in spite of all this, the people still clung to their sins and would not turn away from them. Finally, the Babylonians came and took many away in captivity. God then called Ezekiel into His service and told him, "Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. For they are impudent and stubborn children" (Ezek. 2:3-4).
God revealed to Ezekiel that he takes no pleasure in administering such judgment. He lets us know through Ezekiel that he was broken-hearted over it all. He says that, though He brings terrible judgment upon the children of Israel, "Yet I will leave a remnant, so that you may have some who escape the sword among the nations, when you are scattered through the countries. Then those of you who escape will remember Me among the nations where they are carried captive, because I was crushed by their adulterous heart which has departed from My, and by their eyes which play the harlot after their idols ..." (6:8-9). Because God is good, He takes no pleasure in the punishment of His people. But because God is also holy, He must punish His people when they will not repent. And when He does, it breaks His heart. He Himself was "crushed" by their unfaithfulness to Him.
This brings us to this morning's passage. Chapter seven is the closing passage in a section that begins at chapter four. In this section, God gives Ezekiel one symbolic vision after another - each designed to convey to the deported Jewish people how God felt about the sins from which they refused to repent. Personally, my heart always goes out to Ezekiel when I read this portion of the book; because it's sometimes hard to imagine the terrible things God calls this poor prophet to do to communicate to the people he seriousness of their guilt. Nevertheless, in spite of it all, they still wouldn't listen.
God's patience over His people's unrepentence from sin was finally spent; and so, at last, we come to this shocking passage ...
Take particular note of that last sentence. I believe that, in it, God summarizes His whole dreadful message concerning Israel in this chapter: "I do to them according to their way, and according to what they deserve I will judge them; then they shall know that I am the LORD!" (v. 27). He uses repeated phrases to convey a message of terrible finality to the people: "An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end has come upon you" (vv. 2-3); "My eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity" (vv. 4, 9); "Behold, it has come!" (vv. 5, 10); "The time has come" (vv. 7, 12); "The day draws near" (v. 12); "Behold, the day!" (v. 10).
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We live at a time in which this message of Ezekiel is scoffed at. It was scoffed at in his own time as well, but for a different reason. Just prior to the outpouring of God's judgment in Ezekiel's time, the people certainly believed that God was a God who administered judgment on sinners; but they scoffed at Ezekiel because they were confident that they were innocent before God with respect to the day of His judgment. In our time however, people scoff at such a message because they're confident that there is no such thing as a day of judgment. The apostle Peter speaks of the attitude that prevails in our time when he writes, "... that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation?'" (2 Peter 3:3-4). Peter tells us, however, "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (v. 9). He then warns, "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night ..." It eventually came upon the people of Israel in that time; and it will eventually and suddenly come upon the whole world some time in the future.
And how would God want you and me to react to Ezekiel's message in this passage? I believe it stands as a warning to us of the certainty of God's judgment for unrepented sin. God is a God of great grace; but this passage reminds us that the day of His grace is limited and that judgment upon unrepented sins eventually comes. It reminds us that no one who refuses to turn from sin is exempt from this principle - not even His own chosen people. And through it, God urges us to turn from our sins; to flee, while we can, to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness and complete pardon; and to live lives of faithful obedience to His word now, in this - the day of His grace.
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Let's look through this passage again and examine the details. Notice, first ...
1. IN WHAT WAYS GOD'S JUDGMENT WOULD COME.
First, we see that judgment comes abruptly. God says, "Now the end has come upon you ..." There's an ominous sound to that word "now"; as if the judgment wasn't simply something yet to be expected in the future, but was suddenly, unexpectedly here. God seems to repeatedly express the suddenness of its arrival: "An end has come, the end has come; it has dawned for you; behold, it has come! Doom has come to you who dwell in the land; the time has come, and a day of trouble is near ..." (vv. 6-7). "Behold the day!", He announces; "Behold, it has come! Doom has gone out ..." (v. 10). "The time has come," He declares; "the day draws near" (v. 12).
Many people today who live in unrepentant sin believe that they have all the time in the world to repent of it, if they want to. But this morning's passage suggests that such people really have less time than they believe. The Bible reminds us that, when the day of God's judgment comes, it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Paul tells us that the day of the Lord will come and catch the ungodly unprepared - as suddenly as a thief in the night"; "For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon an pregnant woman. And they shall not escape" (1 Thess 5:3-4).
Second, we see that judgment comes unsparingly. "My eye will not spare you," God says, "nor will I have pity" (v. 4). In fact, to remove any doubt about the matter, God says this very same thing twice: "My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity ..." (v. 9). God lets us know elsewhere in the Scripture that He truly is a God who is "merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, and forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Ex. 34:6-7a); but He also reminds us that He is also a God who is "by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation" (v. 7b). God shows mercy to those who turn from their sins. He shows great mercy to the repentant sinner today. But there is a time when the day of His mercy comes to an end. And then, when judgment finally comes on those who show no repentance, He will show no mercy.
Third, we see that judgment comes disastrously. "Thus says, the Lord GOD: 'A disaster, a singular disaster; behold, it has come!" (v. 5). "Doom has come to you, who dwell in the land" He declares; "The time has come, a day of trouble is near, and not of rejoicing in the mountains" (v. 7). His day of judgment will be no picnic! "Now upon you I will soon pour out my fury, and spend My anger upon you" (v. 8a). The Bible tells us that "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). God's judgment is a disaster to the unrepentant.
Fourth, we see that judgment comes thoroughly. "An end!" He says, "The end has come upon the four corners of the land" (v. 2); and this is a way of saying that no part of the land would be spared from His judgment. "None of them shall remain, none of their multitude, none of them; nor shall there be wailing for them" (v. 11). No one will mourn for those God judges, because none of them will be left after He is through with them. God's judgment isn't a work half done. When His judgment comes, it is a thorough work of judgment!
The thoroughness of God's judgment is expressed in a couple of striking ways in this passage. In the economy of Israel, an arrangement was commanded by God in which everyone who had to sell their property because of dire financial need would have their property restored to them every fifty years in the year of Jubilee - or restored to their family if they themselves were no longer alive (Lev. 25:8-17). Until that year of Jubilee, those who had to sell were sorrowful; and those who bought would rejoice. But here, God says, "Let not the buyer rejoice, nor the seller mourn, for wrath is on their whole multitude. For the seller shall not return to what has been sold, though he may still be alive; for the vision concerns the whole multitude ..." (vv. 12-13). In other words, literally everyone will be in dire need; and there will not be a Jubilee year for anyone.
Another way the thoroughness of God's judgment is expressed is in verses 15-16. There, we read, "They have blown the trumpet and made everyone ready, but no one goes to battle; for My wrath is on all their multitude. The sword is outside, and the pestilence and famine within. Whoever is in the field will die by the sword; and whoever is in the city, famine and pestilence will devour him." They may blow the trumpet for battle; but no one comes to fight, because no one is left. The dreadful thoroughness of God's judgment is shown in that they will either have died in the city by famine and disease, or they will have died outside the city by the sword.
Finally, we see that judgment comes justly. God states the matter with a monotonous repetition that, no doubt, reflects His own sense of the monotony their repented sins: "I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abomination" (v. 3). "... I will repay your ways, and your abomination will be in your midst ..." (v. 4b). "... I will judge you according to your ways, and I will repay you for all your abomination" (v. 8). "... I will repay you according to your ways, and your abomination will be in your midst" (v. 9) I will do to them according to their way, and according to what they deserve I will judge them ..." (v. 27). No one will be able to accuse God of being unjust in His actions toward those He judges.
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God's actions in judgment will be abrupt, unsparing, disastrous, thorough, and - above all - completely just because of their sins. But what is it that finally brings this terrible judgment upon them? This leads us next to consider ...
2. WHAT SINS CAUSED GOD'S JUDGMENT TO COME.
First, we see that they were guilty of the sin of pride. "The rod has blossomed," God says - and here, I believe He is speaking of His own use of the nation of Babylon as a rod of punishment upon His people. And why has the rod blossomed? It's because "pride has budded". The unrepentant pride of the people of Israel had so flowered that punishment from God must also come to fruition. "Therefore", God promises, "I will bring the worst of the Gentiles [that is, the Babylonians], and they will possess their houses; I will cause the pomp of the strong to cease, and their holy places shall be defiled" (v. 24). Imagine: the homes of the proud ones possessed by the worst of the Gentiles! What a slap in the face this is to the proud ones!
Second, we see that they were guilty of violence. "Violence has risen up into a rod of wickedness" (v. 11). The nation of Israel - the nation that was supposed to be the blessing to the world (Gen. 12:3), and from whom would come the Prince of Peace - had become characterized by violence.
Third, we see that they were guilty of materialism. In the time of judgment, we're told "They will throw their silver into the streets, and their gold will be like refuse; their silver and their gold will not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the LORD ..." (v. 19). Their riches and their wealth may have given one person cause to elevate himself over another; but when God's day of judgment finally comes, riches and wealth elevates no one. One's portfolio becomes irrelevant in the day of judgment.
Fourth, we see also that they were guilty of allowing themselves to be driven by their fleshly passions. "They will not satisfy their souls," God promises; "nor fill their stomachs, because it became their stumbling block of iniquity" (v. 19). They made the gratification of their hedonistic pleasures and sensual pursuits the great aim in life; and this pursuit became the cause of their downfall.
Fifth, they were guilty of idolatry. God had given them great riches for the adornment of His temple. "As for the beauty of his ornaments, He set it in majesty ..." (v. 20). But the people did something terrible with what God provided for them to use for His glory. "But they made from it the images of their abomination - their detestable things; therefore I have made it like refuse to them." They took the wealth God gave them to adorn His house, and used it to make idols that were detestable to Him. And so, God allowed the temple to become something detestable to them.
Finally, we see that they were guilty of bloodshed. "Make a chain", God says very simply. A chain was a symbol of bondage; and they were going into bondage to Babylon. "For the land is filled with crimes of blood, and the city is full of violence" (v. 23).
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God's justice in His promised day of judgment is clearly seen in the sins that characterized His people. And this leads us to see
3. WHAT IMPACT GOD'S JUDGMENT WOULD HAVE.
God promises them mourning. "Those who survive will escape and be on the mountains like doves of the valleys, all of them mourning, each for his iniquity" (v. 16). Here, he gives us the picture of the people cooing and sighing like doves because of the agony of all that will befall them. Earlier He speaks of "rejoicing in the mountains" (v. 7); but here, we see that there's mourning on the mountains.
Then, God promises weakness. "Every hand will be feeble, and every knee will be as weak as water" (v. 17). Earlier, He warned that "No one will strengthen himself who lives in iniquity" (v. 13). Here, we see that no one is strong at all. Hands quiver and knees buckle at the terror that befalls them because of God's judgment.
Then, God promises shame. "They will also be girded with sackcloth; horror will cover them; shame will be on every face, baldness on all their heads" (v. 18). They had been guilty of pride (v. 10) and rejoiced in their pomp (v. 24). But now, they will be decorated with the signs of captivity and humiliation - sackcloth, horror, shame and heads plucked of hair.
God promises them abandonment. "I will give it [that is, the temple] as plunder into the hands of strangers, and to the wicked of the earth as spoil; and they shall defile it. I will turn My face from them, and they [that is, the Babylonians] will defile My secret place; for robbers shall enter it and defile it" (vv. 20-21). The temple - the symbol of the unique relationship to God that they had trusted in - will be abandoned by the God that they themselves had abandoned. He will turn His back to them and not rescue them from those who would rob them. God, as it were, pulls His protective hand away from them and allows them to be victims of those who would spoil them. They no longer want Him; and so He gives them over to what they want.
God also promises them defilement. He says that He will bring the Babylonians upon them; "and their holy places will be defiled" (v. 24). The temple would be raided and violated; and the articles of the temple would be carried off to be abused; and the sacred places would be filthied by the feet of crass Gentiles.
God also promises them destruction. "Destruction comes; they will seek peace, but there will be none" (v. 25). The word here translated "destruction" literally means "shuddering". The NIV translates it this way: "When terror comes ..." The terror is a figure of speech for the destruction that inspires it. When they see that calamity that is about to fall on them, they will seek terms of peace; but it will be too late. "Disaster will come upon disaster, and rumor will be upon rumor" (v. 26). It will be as if everything in the universe had conspired together to fight against them.
God promises them helplessness. "Then," God says, "they will seek a vision from a prophet; but the law will perish from the priest, and counsel from the elders. The King will mourn, the prince will be clothed with desolation, and the hands of the common people will tremble" (vv. 26-27). None of the human avenues of help that they had traditionally relied upon will do them any good. Spiritual leaders and counselors will be silent; political leaders and rulers will be immobilized; and the populace will be gripped with fear.
And finally, God promises that when it's all over, they'll understand that it was all the Lord's doing. "Then you shall know," God says, "that I am the LORD" (v. 4). "Then you shall know that I am the LORD who strikes" (v. 9). "Then they shall know that I am the LORD!" (v. 27).
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This is a dreadful picture of a dreadful time in Israel's history. But we need to understand that God has not changed one little bit in His attitude toward sin. God is saying something to you and me in what He says to Israel of old. This leads us to ...
4. THE PRINCIPLES WE LEARN FROM THIS PASSAGE.
First, we learn from this passage that the day of God's grace is limited. God's salvation is eternal; but the day of His grace in which we may be saved is not. Israel received warning after warning; and still it would not repent. God's hand of grace was extended; but still Israel would not take God's hand and turn from sin. Finally, God's day of grace ran out, and it was too late.
Many people today hear the gentile voice of the Holy Spirit calling them to turn from sin. The Spirit speaks to them through the preaching of the word, or through concerned friends, or through the urges of the conscience. But they keep putting God off. This passage reminds us that there will come a day when God stops calling us from our sins, and finally abandons us to sin's unwanted consequences. Paul reminds us that God says, "'In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.' Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2).
Second, we learn that judgment of unrepented sin is certain. Over and over in this passage, God makes it clear that judgment was definitely coming. And historically, it definitely came - in all its horrible fury. God permitted the Babylonians to mercilessly slaughter many of the Jews, and carry many of the survivors away from their homeland; and there they stayed for 70 years in mournful exile.
In Ezekiel's day, just before the day of judgment finally came, the people were saying, "The days are prolonged, and every vision fails" (12:22). Likewise, many people today believe that God's promise of judgment is simply a myth from another era. But God told them then, "The days are at hand, and the fulfillment of every vision" (v. 23). And today, He tells us, "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life" (Gal. 6:7-8).
Third, we learn that no one who remains unrepentant is exempt from judgment. If anyone could have been exempt, it would surely have been the nation of Israel. They were God's chosen people - a people with whom He had entered into a covenant relationship. And yet, even they - when they would no longer repent - were given over to judgment.
Similarly, many people today count on external things to make them exempt from judgment. They believe they'd be exempt because they once "prayed the sinner's prayer"; or because they've been members of a church for many years; or because they've done good deeds. But the Bible makes it clear that no one is exempt from the principle - not even the members of God's own professing household. "For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God," Peter writes; "and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now 'If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?'" (1 Peter 4:17-18).
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We've studied this horrible passage; and we've considered the implications that can be drawn from it. Perhaps you've come to the realization this morning that you have heard the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit calling you to turn from sin; and perhaps it has been revealed to you that you are flirting this morning with God's dreadful judgment. This leads us, finally, to ...
5. THE THINGS WE SHOULD DO IN RESPONSE.
First, I suggest that we should respond to God's promise to punish unrepentant sin by making absolutely sure that our trust is in Jesus Christ as our Savior. In the days after Jesus had been crucified, the Jews heard Peter's Spirit-empowered message of the Gospel. It convicted their hearts, and they responded by asking, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Then Peter told them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [that is, forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38). We are, ultimately, safe from the judgment of God ONLY so long as we are in Christ.
Second, we should respond by making a decisive break from sin. Paul wrote, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts" (Rom. 13:12-14).
Finally, we who have turned from sins and trusted in Jesus should respond to God's promise of judgment upon this world by devoting ourselves to faithful service in Christ. Paul wrote,
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