"Abominations in the Temple"
(Delivered Sunday, August 20, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Over the past several weeks, I have been drawn repeatedly to a passage of Scripture from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.
I have grown to love the book of Ezekiel. I can appreciate that it's a difficult book at times; but I would insist that it is well worth the effort to study. There are few books in the Bible that give us as clear a picture of the deep love of God for His people — and of His deep sorrow over their sin — as does the book of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was a priest who, at the age of thirty, was called by God to be a prophet. And he was called to the prophetic ministry at a very difficult time in the history of his people. He—along with many of his fellow Jews—had been taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar into Babylon in the year 597 B.C. Before Ezekiel's ministry, God had given prophetic warnings through the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke to God's people in Jerusalem and warned them that the they were about to be taken captive by Babylon for their sins. After Ezekiel's ministry, God would continue to speak to His people through the prophet Daniel. Daniel spoke to God's people during the later time of their captivity in Babylon. So, Ezekiel ministered to the Jewish people during the very sad and difficult time between the larger portion of Jeremiah's ministry and the larger portion of Daniel's ministry; that is, during the time that God's people sat in Babylonian exile—far away from their homeland.
Whenever I read the book of Ezekiel, I marvel at the difficult things that God often called Ezekiel to do. It was Ezekiel's unenviable task to remind his people of their sins, and to show them why it was that God had sent them into exile in the first place. Not only was his message a difficult one; but there were many times that the method by which God called him to deliver that message was difficult as well.
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Chapter eight tells a story that took place in the sixth year of the captivity of the Jewish people—not too long after Ezekiel himself had been called into the prophetic ministry. He was at his dwelling place in the land of Babylon; and several of the elders of the people of Judah were sitting with him. They knew that Ezekiel had been called by God as a prophet; and perhaps they had gathered together to be with him in order to seek from him some reason for all the horrible things had befallen their people.
It was then—as he was sitting with the elders of his people—that God granted Ezekiel a vision. The description of this vision begins in chapter eight and continues all the way to the end of chapter 11. It was a vision in which God 'transported' Ezekiel—as it were—back to the temple in Jerusalem to show him what had been happening there. And when the vision was over, Ezekiel was “brought back” to the group of elders in his home in Babylon—where he then told them what it was that he had seen. I believe that they were all horrified at the the things that God revealed to them through Ezekiel.
Look at how this “vision” begins. In chapter eight, we read:
The vision of the Lord that Ezekiel was given was very similar to the vision of the Lord he saw at the very beginning of his ministry (Ezek. 1:27-28; see also 8:4). It is a very significant and meaningful vision. The Lord appeared in the form of a man (see 1:26); and this communicated that He was personal and was able to relate to His people. But from the waist down, the Lord appeared as a blazing fire; and from His waist up, He appeared in glorious brightness—“like the color of amber”; and this communicated that He was utterly holy and pure in His glory.
I believe that the image of “fire” served two purposes. First, it communicated that our God is, as it says in Hebrews 12:29, “a consuming fire”. Nothing of sin can abide in His holy presence. But second, it also communicates the idea of “light”. The closer we draw to Him, the more the truth about our sin is exposed. He shines the light of His glory upon sin, and reveals the truth. Again, Hebrews says that “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
Those two things are very important to remember as we read this vision of Ezekiel's: (1) that our God is most holy, and cannot tolerate sin in His midst; and (2) that He knows the truth about the sin that is in His people, and exposes it so that—perchance—they might repent of their sin and enter into holy fellowship with Him through grace.
When we read on, we will see that the people of Judah had forgotten these things about God. They had come, in fact, to believe that God was no longer among them; and that He no longer saw their sins, nor cared about the things they did. And so, with the elders of Judah sitting in the presence of His prophet, God reveals to Ezekiel this vision of Himself—“from the appearance of His waist and downward, fire; and from His waist and upward, like the appearance of brightness, like the color of amber”. God begins this vision by showing Ezekiel—and the elders of the people—what He is truly like.
Then, with this marvelous vision of the Lord before him, Ezekiel says,
God—who had just then revealed Himself again to Ezekiel as a God most holy and most glorious—now reaches out His hand, picks Ezekiel up by his hair, and transports him hundreds of miles away in an instant to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple. We might ask, “Why did God lift him up by the hair?” (We can be sure that it didn't hurt him because it was, after all, a vision.) Perhaps it was as if God wanted to hold Ezekiel up for a clear view and say, “Look, Ezekiel! Just look at what My people are doing in My temple!”
You see; the people of Judah had almost grown to treat the temple as if it were some kind of “good luck charm”—like some kind of spiritual “force field”. They came to believe that, so long as they had possession of the temple in the city, no harm could ever come to Jerusalem. They believed that they were “invincible” because of the temple of the Lord. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the people of Judah used to have an expression: “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these” (Jeremiah 7:4). It was a way of expressing their misplaced confidence in the temple. They thought that the temple made them “indestructible”; and yet, they dared to grieve God by bringing sin into the temple itself. They trusted in the temple, but they did not reverence or trust in the Lord of the temple!
And how many of us do the same sort of thing—thinking that nothing can harm us, no matter how we might live, simply because we call ourselves “Christians” and attend a church?
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So; God took Ezekiel to the temple—the very temple that the people had falsely placed their trust in—and revealed to Ezekiel the truth about what was going on in it. He showed Ezekiel four horribly shocking things that were happening in the temple; and it all revealed that God knew all along what was going on and cared very deeply about it. They had been saying, “The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land” (8:12); but God responded by asking, “Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it a trivial thing to the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they commit here?” (v. 17).
God shows that He hadn't left at all, and was still very much present. But He reveals why it was that He was about to take His glory from the temple and depart from it—that the sins that they were committing in His temple were not a “trivial thing” at all!
Look at the first thing God revealed to Ezekiel:
“The altar gate” was the gate through which one entered the inner court of the temple. It would be the place where people would bring their offerings to the Lord. But as they approached this gate and looked toward the north, they would see a horrible sight! There before them—in plain sight, right at the entrance of the gate—stood what God called “this image of jealousy”.
Bible scholars tell us that this was probably an “Asherah”—a sort of 'totem pole' that was used by the worshipers of the false god Baal. The paganistic worship of this horrible false god often included such things as sexual immorality and human sacrifice. Not too many years prior to the time that Ezekiel was given this vision, Manassah—a very ungodly and wicked king of Judah—dared to “set a carved image of Asherah that he had made, in the house of which the LORD had said to David and to Solomon his son, 'In this house and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put My name forever . . .'” (2 Kings 21:7). The sin of Manassah brought great trouble on Judah; and his godly son Josiah eventually cut down the Asherah poles and destroyed them (2 Kings 23:14). But it's as if God shows it to Ezekiel and says, “Look! That abominable 'Asherah' has been set up again by My people—in My very house!”
God Himself called it the image or idol of jealousy “which provokes to jealousy”. It was called an image of jealousy because of the effect it had on God. It made God righteously jealous because it was a symbol that His people had turned from Him and had given to a false god the worship that He alone deserved.
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What a horrible thing to display at the very temple of God—at the very entrance to His house! But it gets worse:
In the book of Leviticus, God spent an entire chapter—chapter 11—carefully outlining the animals that are clean and unclean to the people of Israel; warning them not to defile themselves with those things that God calls “abominable” or “detestable” (Leviticus 11:43); and telling them, “For I am the LORD who brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (v. 45). And yet, it may be that it was these very kinds of abominable things—along with sinful idols—that were depicted on the walls in the secret places deep inside the Lord's temple, and that were being worshiped in His very house! What an effrontery this was! What an act of rebellion and insult against the God who had redeemed them!
Notice a couple of things about this. First, notice that it was the leaders of the people who were engaged in this horrible practice. In fact, did you notice that this passage even named names? Ezekiel says that he saw, among the elders who were worshiping these abominations, “Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan”. Shaphan was a godly scribe. He was the man who was instrumental in the hand of God in bringing about a great revival under King Josiah (2 Kings 22). And yet, here was his son—a man respected in the community of Judah for having a godly heritage—engaging in the secret sin of idolatry in the dark! What a horrible and shocking revelation this must have been!
And second, notice why they thought they could do this: “For they say, 'The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land'”. What dreadful wickedness men will engage in when they have convinced themselves that God does not see or care—even in His own temple! They committed this sin “in the dark”—even daring to imagine that the walls of God's temple could obscure God's view! How many outwardly religious people harbor secret sin in their lives with the same justification: “God does not really see! God doesn't really know! God doesn't really care!”—not remembering what it says in Psalm 139:12; “Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You” (Psalm 139:12).
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And it wasn't over yet. As we read on, we find:
First, the people had set up an Asherah near the north entrance of the temple—embracing the idolatry of the people groups that God had driven out from Canaan. Then, the leaders worshiped the abominations that the Egyptians worshiped deep in the secret places of the temple. And now, it's seen that the women of Judah worship a god of the Babylonian peoples.
Historians tell us that Tammuz was an ancient Babylonian deity—later identified with the Greek god Adonis. He was believed to be the god of spring-time vegetation; and his death was morned by his consort Ishtar. Just as Ishtar was said to have mourned at the death of her lover; the women also mourned and wept for Tammuz—hoping thus to 'resurrect' Tammuz and bring about the advent of spring and inspire a bountiful harvest. The ceremony of weeping for Tammuz often involved shameful acts of immoratlity; because people tend to become like whatever it is that they worship.
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And just when you think that it couldn't have gotten worse, we read on . . .
No one but priests would have ordinarily been permitted to enter the inner court of the temple. So it may be that the “twenty-five men” that are described here were priests. At any rate, they stood in the place where only the priests where permitted to stand. And yet, look at what they were doing! Between the porch and the altar—the very altar upon which holy sacrifices were to be made to God—at this most holy spot in the temple of the Lord, they were bowing down with their backs to the temple and their faces toward the east . . . worshiping the sun!
God had warned His people against this. He had told them through Moses, “And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage” (Deuteronomy 4:19). And yet—just as the scripture warns elsewhere—they had “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Romans 1:25). And it was being done in the very place of the temple where atonement for sin was to be made!
The people of God—perhaps even the priests themselves—were behaving like the most base and godless of pagans! How could the people of God have sunken lower than this?
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What a horrible experience this all must have been for Ezekiel—to be shown these things! And yet, how much greater a grief it must have been to God! After these four dreadful acts of wickedness had been exposed—each one more of an abomination to God than the one before—we read:
To “put the branch to the nose” was a phrase that probably referred to a paganistic ritual that somehow displayed honor to a false god—similar to how 'kissing the hand' was a way that a sun-worshiper would pay homage to the sun (see Job 31:26-27). But you can really tell what it means by the way God Himself reacted to it. At heart, it was an expression of arrogance toward God. In fact, the Jewish scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek (that is, the Septuagint) chose to translate this phrase, “[B]ehold, these are as mockers”.
It was as if they were thumbing their noses at the God who had redeemed them for Himself! They were completely unrepentant, and utterly given over to false gods. Their hearts were hardened against the God who had redeemed them for Himself. No wonder God says that they provoked Him to anger! No wonder He says that His eye will not spare them, nor will He have pity on them! He warns that, though they cry to Him with a loud voice, He would not hear them. They themselves have doomed their precious city—the city of Jerusalem—to destruction by the Babylonians.
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So then; here, we read of secret “abominations” that the Jewish people of old had committed in the very temple of the living God. What a horrible thing it was that God had exposed and revealed to Ezekiel and the elders!
And this has great significance to you and me today, dear brother or sister. You see; you and I do not worship God in a physical temple, as those Jewish people did. Instead, God has—through the person of the Holy Spirit—condescended to dwell in us! We, as the church of Jesus Christ, are the temple of the living God! And you and I—as individual believers—constitute the dwelling-place of God Himself on earth! As Paul writes, “For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be My people'” (2 Corinthians 6:16). You and I are under obligation to honor God with our bodies and our lives; because we are His temple—the dwelling-place of the holy God of Israel.
So the question that this morning's passage forces us to ask is, “Am I harboring 'secret abominations' in the temple of God? Am I allowing those things into my life which are an offense to God? Am I holding on to practices, or attitudes, or ambitions, that are “abominations” in God's sight? Do I dare think I can hide these things from the sight of God while I myself am the very temple of God?” The apostle Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). He says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's” (2 Corinthians 6:19-20).
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There are certain things that are suggested to us from this morning's passage that we can be absolutely sure of. First, we can be sure that our God—who has called us His temple and has taken up residence in us—is a very holy God. He has not changed. He is the same God that Ezekiel saw—a God who is “from the appearance of His waist and downward, fire; and from His waist and upward, like the appearance of brightness, like the color of amber”. He is most holy; and walks in absolute holiness and purity.
Second, we can be sure that, as a Holy God, He cannot and will not tolerate sin in His temple. The apostle John tells us, “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5-6). God cannot—and will not—change for us. He is holy; and He tolerates no sin in the lives of those who seek to have fellowship with Him.
Third, sin cannot be hidden from Him. He sees all that goes on. The darkness does not hide things from Him. Walls to not obscure His view. Not even the walls of His temple cover sin from His sight! All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.
And fourth, it is plain from this passage that He will not allow sin to remain hidden in His temple, but will expose it and reveal it. He has a personal stake in the matter; because we bear His name upon us. As it says in Ezekiel 36:23-24, “'Thus says the Lord GOD: “I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name's sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,” says the Lord GOD, “when I am hallowed in you before their eyes”'” (Ezek. 36:22-23).
Those are stern realities that we learn from this vision of Ezekiel's. But let me suggest one more thing that the Bible teaches us about Him. It is that He is ready to forgive us when we confess the 'secret abominations' in our lives that we seek to hide from Him, and will cleanse us of our guilt. We have this promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
If there is secret sin in your life, dear brother or sister, don't think that God doesn't see it. And don't think that God looks upon it as 'a trivial thing' either. We read in the book of Joshua—in Joshua 7—that one secret sin in the life of a man named Achan resulted in the judgment of God being brought down upon the whole nation of Israel.
It's God's desire to bless and use a holy church. By God's grace, let's search ourselves and make sure that we harbor no “abominations” in God's temple!
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