"It's not easy being God's chosen people." Jews sometimes say this with a twinkle in the eye, at other times a deep sigh. The hard reality of being chosen flickered briefly before the eyes of the world when Pope John Paul II visited Yad V'shem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem (in March 2000). It was a somber meeting. There in the bare, bleak Hall of Remembrance many wept as they remembered the Nazis and the horrible atrocities committed against the Jews. Six million were killed, many in the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps. Others survived with a prisoner number tattooed on their arms.
This happened in supposedly Christian Europe, where many of those involved in the killing, including Hitler himself, were members in good standing of the Catholic church. Most of the others were Protestant. How could this happen? How could one group of God's chosen people so brutally reject and kill another group of God's chosen people? It's the story of Cain and Abel taken to nightmarish proportions. Fortunately, there were a few who gave testimony to the true nature of Christ's love by saving Jews from destruction. But many, called to be witnesses of God's love, became instead ministers of death. How could such darkness have penetrated into the hearts of the Christian people?
Unfortunately, the corruption and compromise of God's people is a story that has played itself out over and over again through history. Ezekiel was forced to confront it when God snatched him up in a vision by the hand of a radiant, fiery man and brought him to Jerusalem (Eze. 8:1-3).* Here he saw spiritual darkness of a kind unparalleled in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).
* This man of fire (Eze. 8:2) is the same radiant man Ezekiel saw in the chariot of God (see the article "The Chariot").
First, in one of the gates--the massive stone doorways--leading to the inner court of the Temple , he saw the "idol of jealousy." This was not just a visionary symbol. The book of Kings details the extremes of idolatry practiced in the Temple in this generation.* The placement of pagan idols in the gates of Israelite cities is well known from archaeology.** The choice of a northern gate may indicate that this was an idol of Baal, whose holy mountain was thought to lie north of Israel.
* 2 Kings 23 lists the idolatrous practices stopped by King Josiah, several of which were in the Temple. These evils, the "sins of Manasseh," were resumed by Josiah's successors (2 Kings 24:3,19; 2 Chron. 36:14) in the time of Ezekiel.
** As in the gate of Dan and recently at First Temple period Bethsaida-Julias (et-Tell).
As shocking as this idol was, it was only the start. Ezekiel went through a hole in a wall to an inner chamber (Eze. 8:7-9), probably one of the rooms built along the wall surrounding the inner court. Here, in secret, was not just one false god, but dozens of them: insects and all kinds of creatures and abominations carved into the stone walls, as in the temples of Egypt (vss. 10,11). And worshipping these detestable gods were 70 elders of Israel (vs. 12), probably the leaders of the nation, successors to the 70 elders appointed by Moses in the desert and foreshadowing the 70 members of the Sanhedrin Council in the time of Jesus. Though their worship was in the right place--the Temple of God--they were no longer worshipping the right god. Their hearts had turned to idols and false religion.
God never asked for these idols and images to be in his house. He forbid it! But they, in the rebellion of their hearts, unashamedly brought these things right into the presence of God! Why? They had given up on God ("For they say, `The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land'"; vs. 12). They still looked religious, going up to the Temple to pray. But in fact they had abandoned the God of the Bible in favor of false religion.
Then Ezekiel was taken to a gate where women were weeping for Tammuz (vss. 13,14). Tammuz was a Babylonian god of fertility. Every year when the rain stopped (in early summer) and the land became dry, the worshippers of Tammuz wept for their god, whom they believed died until the rains returned (in late fall). Did it bother these women that they were worshipping a false god in the House of the Living God? It doesn't seem so. They had become so accustomed to mixing false religion with true that they didn't even notice it anymore.
Finally Ezekiel is taken into the inner court of the Temple (vss. 15,16). There, in front of the door of the Sanctuary, a group of men were prostrate in worship to the sun, their backs to the house of God.* This defiant act is called "putting the twig to their nose" (vs. 17), like our expression "thumbing the nose."** How much of this would God endure? (vs. 18).
* The Sanctuary, which Ezekiel calls the "house" of God, was the central building of the Temple housing the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. In other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, the "house" of God can also refer to the entire Temple compound.
** This supreme insult was remembered in Jesus' day in a special ceremony at the Feast of Tabernacles. After a night of rejoicing, and at the blowing of trumpets by two priests, they faced the Sanctuary and said, "Our fathers, when they were in this place, turned 'with their backs toward the Sanctuary of the Lord and their faces toward the east...'; but as for us, our eyes are towards the Lord." (Mishnah, Sukkah 5:4)
In the years before Hitler, many of the churches in Germany (as in many other parts of Europe and in America) became so liberal they rejected the truth of the Bible. People continued to go to church, pastors continued to preach. But many were worshipping, some secretly, others openly, the false gods of evolution and higher criticism. By their words, they insulted God to his face in his own house.
Today, perversion and immorality are joining these false philosophies in many churches--a reminder of the male cult prostitutes expelled by Josiah from the Temple (2 Kings 23:7). What could be more disobedient and more rebellious in the eyes of God? Yet in some places these things are accepted as a matter of course, or even as a sign of true religion. No one seems to notice the mixture with false religion, or to remember the saying of Jesus, "If you love me, you will obey my commands" (John 14:15). Without obedience, there is none of what God calls love, only a fleshly, perverse imitation. How much more of this will God endure?
After Ezekiel had seen these things, the radiant, fiery man cried out. At the sound of his voice, six armed and dangerous men came into the inner court of the Temple, together with a man with an inkwell tied at his waist (9:1,2).* They stood beside the bronze altar, the altar of sacrifice, in front of the Sanctuary of the Temple. Why here? The altar of sacrifice is a reminder of the penalty God requires for sin: death (Rom. 6:23). The radiant, fiery man instructs the man with the inkwell to go through the city and mark those sighing and groaning over the abominations taking place in Jerusalem (Eze. 9:3,4). Only they will be saved. The destroyers are to follow him, destroying all who do not have the mark (9:5).
* This group of seven is most likely the basis for the early Jewish Christian understanding of the traditional seven messengers (angels) of Jewish apocalyptic as Jesus (the ultimate "messenger" of God, who is God) and six angels (The Shepherd of Hermas 9.12.7; Jean Danielou, Theologie du Judeo-Christianisme, Desclee & Co., Paris, 1958, pp. 172,173).
The "mark" he puts on their foreheads translates the Hebrew word tav. In addition to meaning a "mark," this is the name of the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, still occasionally written in Jesus' day, as it had been in the time of Ezekiel, as an equal-armed cross (as in the upper right corner of the diagram). In other words, the man with the inkwell is to mark people with a sign in the shape of a cross in order for them to be saved.* What an incredible foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus! He, too, came to "mark" those who sigh and groan over the abominations of our world, this time with an inner cross, which also serves as a memory of the bloody tree on which he gave his life. This is the message of Passover, brought home in a new, more personal way: No longer the door of our homes, but the door of our hearts and minds must be marked to escape the destroyer.
* The "mark" mentioned in Ezekiel was understood to have Messianic significance in Jesus' day. The Dead Sea community marked Messianic prophecies in their Biblical scrolls with an equal-arm cross or "x" shape (see the upper left corner of the diagram). They may also have had a ritual in which this marking was actually performed, with oil on the forehead, as a symbol of deliverance from the judgment to come.
This marking on the forehead is the ministry of the messenger in Revelation 7 who marks the 144,000, the remnant of Israel, with the seal of the living God (Rev. 7:2). As Isaiah proclaimed: "A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob to the mighty God" (Isa. 10:21). But God is also looking for a remnant of the Gentiles who are willing to follow him and obey his will--no matter what the rest of the world is doing. Are we sighing and groaning over the wickedness in the church and the world today? Or are we running after these deceptions like all the rest?
The work of the destroyers started from the Sanctuary (Eze. 9:6). As Peter put it: "It is time for judgment to begin with the house of God: but if first with us, what will be the end of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God?" (1 Pet. 4:17). The prophecy of Ezekiel, and the actual destruction that soon followed, began with God's own people and his own holy city of Jerusalem.* If he did this to his chosen people Israel because of their sins, do you think he will do any less to the Church when it compromises and corrupts the gospel?**
* Three years after Ezekiel's vision, Jerusalem was besieged by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-2). After a 19 month siege that resulted in horrible famine in the city, Jerusalem was taken and destroyed (2 Kings 25:3-12).
** The churches of Germany, and the German nation as a whole, suffered horrible destruction in the aerial bombardments of the Allies and other fighting of World War II. But this is only a foreshadowing of the eternal judgment to come for those who rebel against God and reject his Word.
It's hard to be the chosen people of God, because when God judges the guilty, the innocent also suffer. But those who are marked with the blood of the lamb will be spared the final and most horrible judgment. What about you? Do you see the world with the eyes of God? Do you weep over what he weeps about? Do you groan over what he groans about? Do you see the sin in your own life and weep about it before the Lord? It's much harder to fight against the stream of the world than to flow with it. But God has given us a higher calling: to be different than the world, to be a holy people, set apart from the rest, whatever the personal cost. It will be well worth it in the end.
Read this Question and Answer about this article:
When Did the "Tav" Mark Start to Look like a Cross?