I have often wondered why the descendants of Jacob spent 400 years in Egypt prior to the Exodus. I’ve also wondered why they had it so rough there. Surely the famine didn’t last the whole time. When it was finally over, why didn’t they return home to the land God had given their forefathers?
Ezekiel 20 provides an answer to those questions.
Gathered before the prophet are some of the Elders of Israel who have come to “inquire of the Lord.” God, however, tells Ezekiel, in essence, you talk to them. I’m not going to. And then, God proceeds to tell Ezekiel why, with the expectation that he will pass along the message.
In the message, God reaches back to those days in Egypt and lets us know that His people became enamored with Egyptian gods, and forsook Him. The Lord told them that if they would give up their idols, He would lead them out of Egypt and bring them back to the good land, the land of their inheritance. But they persisted and God poured “out His wrath on them” and spent His anger on them while in Egypt (Ezekiel 20:8-10).
So there it is. The length of time in Egypt, and the oppression, was all Israel’s fault, blamable on her tendency to follow other Gods and adopt the ways of the nations around them (20:32).
The Elders doubtlessly want to know “why” they are in exile, and perhaps how long they are going to be there. God’s answer is simple. They are there for the same reason their forefathers were in Egypt, and they can expect to suffer as long as they continue in the same sins.
A new phrase occurs in this chapter, and only here in Ezekiel. God says: “the man who obeys my decrees will live by them.” You will find a similar phrase in Leviticus 18:5. You can’t just obey God’s law. It’s not a matter of checking off commands, but a way of life.