A couple of weeks ago, I was reading through some of Ezekiel, and I came across a section I’d never given much attention before. Chapter 14 begins:
Then some elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me. And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Any man of the house of Israel who sets up idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols, in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel who are estranged from Me through all their idols.”‘”
Of course, it’s no surprise that Israel’s God is no fan of idols. He kind of mentions that in the first two commandments. There is something more going on here, though. Notice God’s description of the elders: they have set up idols “in their hearts”. They “put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity.” In fact, God is so upset about this that He said these people have no right to consult Him at all.
Since when does God not want people asking Him for advice? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? It seems we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.
A God who hurts
You see, the prophet Ezekiel lived with his people in Babylon. God allowed Israel’s defeat and exile because they refused to leave other gods behind. Despite this punishment, the leaders and the people were unwilling to make the changes that would provide reconciliation. Back in chapter 6, God details the consequences of idol worship:
In all your dwellings, cities will become waste and the high places will be desolate, that your altars may become waste and desolate, your idols may be broken and brought to an end, your incense altars may be cut down, and your works may be blotted out. The slain will fall among you, and you will know that I am the LORD. However, I will leave a remnant, for you will have those who escaped the sword among the nations when you are scattered among the countries. Then those of you who escape will remember Me among the nations to which they will be carried captive, how I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after their idols; and they will loathe themselves in their own sight for the evils which they have committed, for all their abominations.
So there we have it. Amid God’s righteous anger, there is something else stirring. God is hurt. It seems impossible that supreme deity could be wounded, but the message to Ezekiel is undeniable: God is hurt.
Anyone who has been rejected remembers the sting. No one knows it like God, though. Just as God’s love is infinitely deeper than our own, the pain He feels at our rejection is infinitely sharper than any we could feel.
In chapter 8, God shares the source of His pain. He provides a spiritual vision in which Ezekiel is shown the inside of the temple area. God wants him to see what Israel’s spiritual leaders are doing:
And He said to me, “Go in and see the wicked abominations that they are committing here.” So I entered and looked, and behold, every form of creeping things and beasts and detestable things, with all the idols of the house of Israel, were carved on the wall all around. Standing in front of them were seventy elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them, each man with his censer in his hand and the fragrance of the cloud of incense rising. Then He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what the elders of the house of Israel are committing in the dark, each man in the room of his carved images? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land.'”
A love destroyed
I have never been married, but I can imagine the pain of betrayal would be severe. The only thing I can envision that would make it worse is deception. It is a grave matter to openly reject someone and break a commitment. It is something much worse to do it in secret, to hide it, and to act as though vows have not been broken, and as though sin has not occurred. Those who do such things are scorned by society for their lack of compassion. Our God knows about that kind of pain.
Sometimes, when we make poor choices, it seems easiest to continue on that path. When vows have been broken, and so much has been lost, restoration seems like a foolish dream. We might choose to drown ourselves in the pleasures of sin, and extinguish any hope for a new beginning. Looking at chapter 11, it would seem Israel did just that. They were not interested in coming back to God. They believed He had abandoned them and left them for dead. Even Ezekiel wondered whether God would completely destroy what remained of his people. Fortunately, that was not the plan:
Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries among which you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. When they come there, they will remove all its detestable things and all its abominations from it, and I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them and I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God.
God never wanted to rid Himself of Israel. He always wanted them to come back. He only disciplined them so that their idols could be broken and brought to an end. By the time we arrive back at chapter 14, Israel has yet to repent, and God has yet to give up.
God knew that the problem was not the wood, or the clay, or the stone from which Israel’s idols were built. The problem was that the idols had been set up directly in their hearts. Israel’s idols were without spirit, without love, and without life. Now that those idols lived in human hearts, the hearts became just like what lived inside. They became stone.
A hope restored
All humans feel temptation. Sometimes we wonder why God even lets it exist. It might help to know that temptation has another name, though: free will. One cannot exist without the other. Free will is the thing that makes our good choices so beautiful, and our bad ones so terrible. Neither our good nor our evil is forced.
God knows we are tempted, and He knows we have a choice. What He wants is for us to choose Him first. He wants us to love Him, and trust that His way is best. It’s what He wanted from Abraham when He told him to move to a new place. It’s what He wanted from David when He promised the kingdom of Israel. It’s what He wanted from Jesus when He came to save the world, and it’s what He wants from us now.
Even with all the love and mercy God provides, He knows we will never choose Him first if we keep our idols hanging around. As long as we keep our stumbling blocks right before our faces, it is pointless to ask for His guidance.
If I were married, but decided to leave my wife and be unfaithful, it would be so hurtful to her. How much more of a slap in the face would it be if I called her up for directions to a hotel where I planned to take my mistress? That is what I do to God every time I choose to keep my idols right in front of my face. I call myself His child and His beloved, but will I choose Him first? Even as I began writing these thoughts, I was tempted to linger too long on one of those paid programming advertisements that are prominent just before dawn. What will I choose? How will I let God know that He comes first?
Let us make no mistake; God will not give up on us. However, if we want to seek His presence and simultaneously live in sin, He will let us know just how bad things are without Him. I the LORD will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols, in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel who are estranged from Me through all their idols. Even in His discipline, God is seeking out our hearts and moving us to choose Him first.
No matter what you have done, or how far you have run from God, He is seeking you out. Israel broke their vows with God so many times, and yet through Hosea He says:
I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ “You are my people”; and they will say, “You are my God.”
You may be like me. You may be covered by the blood of Jesus of Nazareth, and still tempted to sin. Let’s encourage one another to remember that we are not who we once were:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
I want God’s presence and guidance in my life. I want to love Him and make Him proud. I want to claim Him as Father and ask Him for good gifts. I am weak, though. Let’s encourage one another to smash down the idols in our lives, and never set them up in our hearts.