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The setting of Ezekiel’s prophecy in general and of our text in particular is the exile. The first phase of the exile took place around 605 B.C. The second phase of the exile took place about 7 or 8 years later, around 597 B.C. And the final stage of the exile took place in 586 B.C. This is when the Babylonians destroyed the walls and temple of Jerusalem.
Ezekiel was part of the group of people who were deported in the second phase of the exile, and God called him to the prophetic ministry in the fifth year of that second phase, which puts the beginning of his ministry at somewhere around 593 B.C. The specific prophecy that we’re going to examine was given sometime during the siege of Jerusalem, which began in 588 B.C. (see 24:1-2), and just prior to the third and final deportation in 586 B.C. (see 26:1; 33:21-22). So the nation of Israel has already experienced God’s judgment, and they are about to experience another phase of God’s judgment.
Into that context, God calls Ezekiel to serve as a “watchman” (33:1-9).
In the ancient Near East, watchmen were sentinels who were positioned in high places in the city: either in a high tower (2 Kings 9:17) or on the wall over the city gate (2 Sam 18:24). Their task was to watch for impending danger and to sound an alarm to warn the people (see Isa 21:6-9; Jer 6:1, 17; Hos 8:1; Amos 3:6; Hab 2:1). If the watchman warned the people but they failed to respond, the watchman would not be responsible for their death. However, if the watchman saw the danger coming but failed to warn the people, he could be held responsible.
This is Ezekiel’s task, and God tells Ezekiel to explain this to the people (33:1ff). Thus, the purpose of the “Watchman Oracle” is not simply to give Ezekiel is marching orders (33:7-8) but, more importantly, to remove from the people any excuse for failing to respond to the warning (33:9).
That brings us to our text:
And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:10–11, ESV)
The Passage Expounded
In these verses God exposes a common complaint being voiced by many Israelites (33:10), and he provides his response to their complaint (33:11).
The People’s Complaint
In verse 10, God directs the prophet to recite a saying that apparently was circulating among the exiles: “Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’” The people were aware that God was judging them for their sin. But they entertained no hope in God’s mercy. Their outlook is marked by profound pessimism and despair. This becomes clearer if we think a little more about their historical context and the language they use to describe their situation.
Ezekiel’s primary audience are the people of Jerusalem who are under siege for the third time. And as the city stands on the brink of disaster, the prospects are not pretty! If you’re a Jew in Jerusalem, you’ll either be killed in battle or become a prisoner of war. You and I need to remember that becoming a POW under an ancient Near Eastern ruler was not a happy prospect. Dying in battle was usually the more merciful way to go.
Historical records reveal that the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers often took pleasure in imposing severe and cruel forms of punishment on their conquered enemies. These cruel kings would cut off parts of the body or flay the flesh and leave the victim to die a slow and painful death.1 These were the days before modern medicine, sterilization, and antiseptics. You didn’t have to die in battle. If you were simply wounded or mutilated, you stood a 50/50 chance of dying from infection and gangrene. The flesh around the wound would become foul and putrid, and death was only a matter of time. In such a condition, the victim had little if any hope for recovery!
This is the condition in which Ezekiel’s contemporaries saw themselves. And it is likely that they imposed their view of ancient Near Eastern rulers upon Yahweh. After all, God was ultimately behind the siege and the exile. And the exile would be little more than a slow and painful death. And so, they describe the effects of God’s judgment on them in terms of “rotting away”2 in their sin, which suggests the picture of a festering wound that is putrefying with gangue green. Thus, they view God with a jaundiced eye that sees God only as a cruel, merciless tyrant who takes delight in afflicting pain and punishment.
Haven’t we come across sinners in this state of mind? Not only have they lost any hope of recovery at a temporal level, but they’ve also lost any hope in a spiritual recovery. The gospel is just too good to be true because they cannot conceive of a God who would be genuinely concerned about them, who would actually be willing to forgive them of their sin. As a result, they’re gripped by despair, and, in some cases, resentment.3
Sinners in such a condition are not able to repent. Why? Because, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains, the tree of repentance springs from two roots: “a true sense of his sin,” AND “an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.”4 The people’s complaint suggests that they may be experiencing the first to some degree. But completely absent is the second element. They could not grasp the mercy of God.
Now there’s a sense in which their despair is understandable. But it is not excusable! Especially in light of God’s revealed will in the Book of Moses. Even before Israel possessed the land of Canaan, God had predicted that they would break his covenant, and he would send them into exile. Indeed, God employed the same language Ezekiel’s contemporaries used to describe their condition:
And those of you who are left [in the land] shall rot away in your enemies’ lands because of their iniquity, and also because of the iniquities of their fathers they shall rot away like them (Leviticus 26:39, ESV).
Amazing! What is happening in Ezekiel 33 was predicted hundreds of years earlier! But that’s not all God said. Judgment was not God’s “last word.” He immediately follows his threat of judgment with a promise of mercy:
But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land (Leviticus 26:40–42, ESV).
Apparently, the Israelites in Jerusalem had forgotten that part of the prophecy. They remembered God’s threats. But they had lost sight of God’s promises. And as a result, they had plunged into a state of hopelessness and despair. This is the attitude. But now God responds in the next verse.
The Lord’s Response
God instructs Ezekiel to respond to the people’s complaint as follows:
Say to them, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11, ESV)
I think we can divide the Lord’s response into two parts: first, God makes an oath-bound affirmation; second, he issues an impassioned entreaty. Let’s consider each of those in turn.
1 See Stephanie Dalley, “Ancient Mesopotamian Military Organization,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson (Hendrickson, 1995), 1:419-20.
2 The word מקק is used elsewhere for a festering wound. Thus, the psalmist describes his physical state: “My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness” (Psalm 38:5, ESV). The word also features in Zechariah’s striking prophecy of apocalyptic judgment: “And this shall be the plague with which the Lord will strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths” (Zechariah 14:12, ESV).
3 Pessimism and despair can lead to resentment. And such resentment can, if left unchecked, morph into a kind of fatalism which the sinner employs to excuse himself from repentance.
4 Q&A 87.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.