I’ve been doing my Old Testament daily Bible readings in a new translation this year and one of the things that took me off guard was the appearance of “Lord of armies” as a name for God. It first appears in 1 Samuel 1:3. The NIV renders it “Lord Almighty.” The ESV translates it “Lord of hosts” – and I was used to those, but not “Lord of armies.” Notice that it is not “Lord of the Army,” as in Israel’s army, but Lord of “Armies.” God is the Lord of all armies. The title has special relevance in the prophets because Israel was looking to the army to rescue her; if not her own army, then the army of Egypt, or Syria.
Interestingly, the title, while ubiquitous in Isaiah and Jeremiah (half of all its uses are in those two books), does not occur at all in Ezekiel or Daniel. And why? Because in captivity, Israel had ceased to be a sovereign nation. She had no army, and lacked the political muscle to call on another nation to help her. The term was irrelevant for God.
Ezekiel however chronicles a vastly different situation for Israel. Some of them are living yet in Canaan, believing their brethren in captivity have gotten what they deserve. Those in captivity are hoping their brethren in Canaan will mount a force and come rescue them. The world of both groups has collapsed. Their times are unprecedented. Neither group is looking to God who is called in Ezekiel the “Sovereign Lord” (NIV) or “Lord God” (KJV, ESV). Ezekiel uses that name some 210 times for God out of 293 in the whole Old Testament.
By using that particular name for God, Ezekiel’s message to a bedraggled Israel was the same as it is for us. Whatever is going on, for whatever reason, God is in control. He rules. Only he rules. Put your hope in him because as sovereign, He is the only hope there is.
Chapters 29 – 32 focus on Egypt and contain seven specific oracles against her. All but the one opening chapter 30 are dated.
Why spend so much time on Egypt? It’s not as if these oracles were heard by the Egyptians. In fact, the Egyptians didn’t even notice them. But the words are not addressed to the Egyptians. They are addressed to the Jewish captives in Babylon about Egypt.
Egypt, the Jews thought, was their last hope. That hope should have been in the Lord, but Israel seldom depended on Him. They put their trust in Gods they could see, but who could not see them. They put their confidence in allies they could see, but who were not strong enough to deliver.
Of course, Israel thought Egypt could deliver. And why not? For 2,500 years, Egypt had comprised the greatest civilization the world had ever known. When you put together the traits of strength, achievement, and longevity, no civilization before or since can match it. But by the 6th century B.C., the judgment of God decreed it to be over.
And it was, never to rise to former heights again.
It may sound strange, but “lower Egypt” is in the north (near the Mediterranean) and “upper” Egypt is in the south. Most of the cities mentioned are in the north, but Zoan takes us over four hundred miles south. Egypt was a huge nation and it all was about to fall.
Do you think the Egyptians came to understand that the God of Israel was “the Lord?”
No, I don’t think so either. And that accounts for her failure to ever rise to her former glory. It also accounts for Israel’s failure too.
The dark message of chapter twenty is ill received by the people of God. They cannot believe God is going to be so cruel in His punishment of His own people. Deaf and blind to truth, for whatever reason, they dismiss Ezekiel as a teacher of parables. You can almost hear them: “Yeah, sure Ezekiel, yada yada yada whatever.”
How do you teach people like this?
You don’t really, but God isn’t stopping.
In chapter twenty one the Lord repeatedly underscores the punishments coming.
“I will draw my sword.” “I am going to cut off the righteous and the wicked.”
“It is coming. It will surely take place.” “Testing will surely come.” I have stationed the sword for slaughter at all their gates.” “A ruin, a ruin, I will make it [Jerusalem] a ruin.” Using a word three times is “the strongest superlative the Hebrew language can give.”52 God’s people may not be listening, they may have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear, the that will not delay the inevitable.
There are, of course, those people who, in Ezekiel’s day, could not be happier at the prospect of this turn of events. They delight in the misery of God’s people. These who rejoice in the misfortune of others (no matter how much the “others” deserve it), the Ammonites, are destined for the same end of all who disrespect the people of God. As one writer puts it, “Their ultimate fate will be worse than Israel’s and worse even than Egypt’s, for they will be no more remembered. To the Semitic mind nothing could be more terrible: no prospect of restoration, no continuance in succeeding generations, no memorial, not even a memory. Oblivion.”53
No matter how much the Jews may have done to offend God, they were still His people.
Christian folks ought to keep this in mind. The world may laugh at our faith and deride us for our hypocrisy. But make no mistake, warts and all, we are the Lord’s. They, are not. It’s no reason to be hypocritical but every reason to be repentant.
Beginning with chapter two, God uses a phrase to refer to His prophet that he uses only one other time, referring to Daniel (Daniel 8:17). He uses it to refer to Ezekiel however 93 times.
A “son of man” is, basically, just another way of saying “man,” for that is what a “son of a man” is. Why does God do this?
It is a reminder to the prophet and to the readers of the prophet that he, and they, are just that: mortal. Their only real hope in life is in the company of He who is decidedly not mortal: God. Unfortunately, what is going to happen in Ezekiel is that God is going to move His presence away from His people, and the result will be only lament, warning, and woe.
The phrase “son of man” takes on a new meaning in the New Testament.
Ezekiel, though he is but a man, is a man filled with the Spirit of God. He is special to God, and though it looks like God is just calling him “man,” the fact that God keeps on doing it, and virtually doesn’t do it to anyone else, gives Ezekiel a certain status no one else has. It makes him unique. When this phrase is used in the New Testament to refer to Jesus, it likewise conveys to him a unique status, one filled with the Spirit, chosen, and directed by God. He is a man, but much much more than that.
There is a good bit of symbolism to chapter 48.
The chapter has to do with the re-establishment of God’s people, but one should be careful with this. It is not literal. God’s people would be re-established. There would be a wholeness to them (as opposed to their fragmented state in their previous history). All of God’s people would be a part of this new kingdom, and it would include the gentiles who would also have an inheritance among God’s people (cf. 47:23). This is really, the point of the chapter.
The tribes of God’s people would be arranged according to favoritism. They would be stacked one on the top of each other, above and below the sacred territory belonging to the coming prince of God’s people. Those furthest away in the north were to be the tribes of Dan, and Naphtali, (children of Rachel’s servant girl Bilhah) and Asher (son of Leah’s servant girl Zilpah). Those furthest away in the south were Gad (child of Leah’s servant girl Zilpah). Note that the children of the handmaids were furthest away. Those closest to the holy center are Judah (north) and Benjamin (south). Favoritism pervades this arrangement by the positioning of the tribes. The lesson, however, is the favored status of the people of God. If you are going to be near where the Lord is, you’ll have to be one of His people. There is no closeness to God without it.
We ought just here to stop and notice the flow of Ezekiel’s book. Written for Jewish captives living in Babylon, the first twenty-four chapters contain God’s promise of judgment and total destruction against Jerusalem. Chapters 25-32 expand the destruction to the nations that surround Israel. Chapters 33-37 detail the restoration and blessing of God’s people who return to the land and, according to chapters 38-39, live there in peace and prosperity.
But chapters 38-39, while mentioning Israel’s restored blessing, are mainly about a huge military force that comes against the people of God. The force is made up of seven nations: three (Meshech-Tubal, Gomer, and Beth-Togarmah) come from the north. Put and Cush come from the southwest. Persia comes from the east. Effectively, these are the nations surrounding Israel. Their army is imposing and fearsome. Their leader, Gog, is an ancient “Terminator.”
What is Israel to do?
The answer is: “Nothing.” In their restored state, God is their protector. They must simply life in a way to show that their Lord is Holy. Before they can strike a blow against the Lord’s people, He disposes of the foreign army. All Israel is called to do is buyr the dead, thus cleansing their land.
If you follow the flow of thought in the book, God’s point is not that this is a real event, but it is simply a dramatic assurance of the loving protection of God. Other interpretations are legion, but all who look for a precise event in history are doomed to failure. No matter what the enemy, God’s people have nothing to fear.
With the news of her homeland ruined, her beloved temple burned, the captives conceived of themselves as little more than the skeletal remains of their former selves. In their own minds, the notion that they would ever be a people, a nation, again, was beyond comprehension.
But in chapters 36-37, God assures them they will. He will, in a move more akin to the miraculous, make the impossible, possible.
With this promise comes another: God will give His people His Spirit. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God indwelt specific leaders of God’s people and made them successful in their calling. The Spirit was also a sign of God’s favor. But the Spirit was not present within the lives of all of Israel. That, the Lord says, will change. The day is coming when God will give His Spirit to all His people, and that Spirit will empower them to faithfulness.
The promise was renewed by Jesus and came true on the Pentecost after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 2).
Israel however misunderstood these promises. They looked for a day of glory that would never come because they kept on living unfaithfully. If we imagine that we can keep living as we always have, and then suddenly God will usher in a magical age where all are faithful, we will be equally disappointed. The glory age is assured by God, but dependent upon our own behavior. As long as God’s people relegate God to any position but premier, the promises will always be disappointing.
The section of Ezekiel 29 – 32 is all about Egypt. The exiles for whom Ezekiel is writing had trusted that their kinsmen left in Judah would mount a force to deliver them. Ezekiel assures them in this book that will not be the case. The remnant people of God left in Judah hoped that Egypt would help them. In fact, Egypt had always been a source of strength for Judah – at least, Judah thought they were a source of strength. In point of fact, they never were all that helpful.
Trust in Egypt went back to Abraham who went to Egypt to escape a famine – not unlike Jacob in later years. God wanted Israel to trust Him, not Egypt.
The date of Ezekiel 32 is 586/585 B.C., a short time after Jerusalem’s final fall to the Babylonians. Once again, the ally Egypt had been unequal to the task – a broken reed of a staff for God’s people. Here, God tells the exiles of Egypt’s doom. She will go the way of all the other great nations – nations who thought they were lions but who really just muddied the water as to where real deliverance lay. She will sleep the sleep of all those who are not God’s people – the un-circumcised, for that is the decreed fate of all who do not belong to God’s family.
As the prophecies against the nations comes to a close, the Lord focuses on Egypt.
Egypt had long been a perceived haven for God’s people. Abraham had gone there during a famine and had nearly lost Sarah in the process. Jacob and his family had gone there as well and had become slaves for four hundred years until the Exodus. Though God forbade Israel to ever return to Egypt after the Exodus, Israel persistently regarded her neighbor to the south as an ally and turned to Egypt often for political help rather than seek the help of the Lord.
What follows in chapters 29-32 are seven oracles against Egypt. All but one are dated.
29:1-16 – Winter of 588-587 BC, a few months before Jerusalem is besieged by the Babylonians.
29:17-21 – Spring of 571 BC, after Nebuchadnezzar’s ill-fated siege of Tyre.
30:1-19 – undated
30:20-26 – Spring of 587 BC
31:1-18 – Summer of 587 BC.
32:1-16 – Spring of 585 BC – After the fall of Jerusalem.
32:17-32 – Sometime in 586-585 BC.
Egypt’s enemies lay to her north. In fact, all the armies that would threaten Egypt would come from the north through Israel. That’s why Israel was so important to Egypt: she acted as a buffer state to Egypt’s enemies.
Egypt is condemned in chapter 29 for two reasons: First, she was arrogant. Refusing to acknowledge the God of heaven, she considered herself to be the master of her own fate. In deed, in a way, she was: refusing to recognize the sovereignty of the God of heaven, her fate of destruction was assured.
Second, Egypt was a false friend. Her friendliness was present only when, and to the degree, that it served her own interests.
Whether on an individual or a national level, when this valueless system is present, God’s judgment will be close behind.
Not all sins are as obvious as murder, oppression, and adultery. Some sneak up on us.
As the Lord’s judgment turns to the nations surrounding Jerusalem, He brings up one we might not have considered: rejoicing in the misfortune of others. More particularly, rejoicing in the misfortune of God’s people. When Jerusalem fell, the Ammonites rejoiced. The Moabites considered it a confirmation that Judah was not the special people of God. The Edomites exacted revenge when Judah was weak and Philistia sought to destroy whatever of Israel the Babylonians left behind.
For all this, God promised to destroy each of these nations, and ultimately, to bring His own people back to prominence. “Then,” God says, “you will know I am the Lord.”
The world does not consider God’s people much. We are ridiculed and harassed by unbelievers. They would do us in if they could, but God won’t allow it. His promise to His people here is an eternal promise, that he loves them above all others in the world, and one day, they will be vindicated.