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God instructs Ezekiel to respond to the people’s complaint, and the Lord’s response has two parts: first, God makes an oath-bound affirmation; second, he issues an impassioned entreaty. Let’s consider each of those in turn.
An Oath-bound Affirmation
Yahweh begins his response to the people’s complaint by swearing an oath. In the ancient Near East, people would sometimes swear by the life of their deity or by the life of the king to add solemnity to what they were about to say. They also did it to underscore the absolute truthfulness of their affirmation. It was roughly equivalent to the modern practice of placing one’s hand on the Bible and saying, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We would think it sufficient to say, “I will tell the truth.” How in the world is “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” more truthful than just the “truth”?! It’s like saying, “I promise to be completely honest” instead of saying, “I promise to be honest.”
Now if it seems superfluous and unnecessary for a human to swear to tell the truth, how much more God who is truth?! And yet, God doesn’t just place his “hand” on the Bible; he places his “hand” on his own life: “‘As I live,’ says the Lord.” God uses this particular oath-formula throughout the OT and especially in the book of Ezekiel: at least 16 times God accompanies an affirmation with the phrase “As I live.” And fortunately, we have a NT commentary on this kind of divine oath. Listen to the author of Hebrews …
For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you (6:13, ESV).5
The author of Hebrews then interprets the oath …
For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (6:16–18, ESV).
Bottom line: They can stake their very existence on his affirmation because God himself stakes his own existence on it.6
That brings us to God’s affirmation: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Consider this affirmation from three perspectives:
1. The Key Word
The key word in this affirmation is the verb translated “I have pleasure,” which is the Hebrew חפץ (ḥpṣ). When predicated of God in the OT, the verb usually refers to one of two ideas: (1) God’s act of planning or purposing something to take place. This is what theologians refer to as God’s secret or decretive will. (2) God’s act of desiring or commanding something to take place. This is what theologians call God’s revealed or preceptive will. Let’s look at some examples:
God’s will of decree
Speaking of God the Father’s predetermined plan to make the Servant-Son a sacrifice for sin, the prophet Isaiah declares, “Yet it was the will [חפץ] of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10a, ESV). The point of this verse is not to emphasize God’s delight in punishing the Messiah. The emphasis, rather, is on God’s purpose and design.
Two chapters later Yahweh once again emphasizes the certainty of his redemptive purpose:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose [חפץ], and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11, ESV).
Once again, the focus of this verse is upon God’s decree or effectual purpose. What God declares will come to pass will come to pass because God has purposed that it should come to pass.
Finally, one of the clearest and most striking examples of the Hebrew חפץ being used for God’s decree is found on the lips of the psalmist: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases [חפץ]” (Psalm 115:3, ESV). The point of the passage is to underscore God’s absolute sovereignty by affirming that whatever God determines to do, he does. Thus, his taking pleasure in this passage is clearly a reference to his decree.
God’s will of precept
In the prophecy of Jeremiah, Yahweh defines the kind of piety and practiced that conforms to his revealed will:
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight [חפץ], declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23–24, ESV).
Note that Yahweh is taking pleasure in certain virtues such as “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness,” which he approves and commands us to approve and to pursue. However, God does not always decree these virtues to come to pass in every person and in every situation in this sin-cursed world. Hence, he is not here delighting in them in the sense of decreeing them but in the sense of expressing his preceptive will or that to which he inclines.
Elsewhere, the prophet Hosea employs חפץ for the Lord’s revealed will: “For I desire [חפץ] steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, ESV). Once again, God is not referring to what he decrees in this text. Rather, the focus is on what God commands or that to which God’s heart inclines. It’s also interesting to note that the form of this passage is very much like our text in Ezekiel 33:11, except in the reverse. Here in Hosea 6:6, God says, “I desire this but not that.” In Ezekiel 33:11, God says, “I don’t take pleasure in this but in that.” Nevertheless, they share the same basic structure.
Now let’s try to draw a conclusion regarding the meaning of the word in Ezekiel 33:11. When God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live,” he cannot be referring to his decree or will of purpose. We know this for two obvious reasons: first, God in fact does decree the death of at least some wicked men. For example, God decreed the death of Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus calls “the son of perdition [ἀπώλεια]” (John 17:12). Second, God does not purpose to give every sinner the gift of repentance, but he chooses to pass over some and leave them in their rebellion, which is sometimes called “preterition” (Rom 9:13-18).
Hence, Ezekiel 33:11 cannot be referring to God’s decretive will. Instead, the text must be referring to God’s preceptive will. It refers not to God’s decree but to God’s desire.7
2. The Contrastive Form
The text is stated in both negative and positive form. First, God says, “I do not take pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Then, to reinforce the negative, God states the opposite: “I do take pleasure in the turning and life of the wicked.” God does not desire the impenitence and demise of the wicked. God does desire the penitence and salvation.
But this raises an important question: Is it really the case that God does not desire in any sense the death of the wicked? According to Scripture, God does take pleasure in executing judgment. In fact, the Law of Moses looks ahead to the future exile of the nation and explicitly declares that God will take delight in punishing the rebellious nation. Consider the following passage from Deuteronomy:
And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight [שׂושׂ] in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it (28:63, ESV).
That this text applies to Ezekiel’s contemporaries is confirmed in Ezekiel’s prophecy, where Yahweh, in 5:13, declares, “Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself [נחם]. And they shall know that I am the Lord—that I have spoken in my jealousy—when I spend my fury upon them” (ESV).
To these explicit references, we could add the general teaching of Scripture that God desires and takes pleasure in justice (Exod 34:7; Jer 9:24; Rom 2:4-16; 3:24-26; Rev 15:3; 16:7). Thus, God’s act of judging and punishing the proud evildoer who refuses to humble himself but remains defiantly impenitent is an act in which God takes some genuine delight.
But if God takes delight in punishing the evildoer, how can he make an oathbound affirmation in Ezekiel 33:11 to the effect that he does not take delight in punishing the evildoer? Would that not entail a contradiction? I think it would. For that reason, we must not interpret the contrast in Ezekiel 33:11 absolutely. Instead, we should interpret it relatively or comparatively.
3. The Comparative Meaning
When God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live,” he is really saying something like this: “I have less pleasure in the death of the wicked than I have in the wicked turning from his way and living.” This kind of contrastive form with a comparative meaning is found in a number of other important passages.
For example, consider a text that we looked at a few moments ago: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, ESV). God is not saying he never desired sacrifices and burnt offerings absolutely. We know this because God actually commanded sacrifices and burnt offerings (Gen Lev 1 – 7). Moreover, we told that such offerings were pleasing to him (Gen 8:21; Exod 29:18; Lev 1:9). But the point of the passage is to underscore what’s most important to God. God is more concerned that people know God and show loyalty than simply engaging in religious ritual.
Consider David’s confession in Psalm 51. After confessing his sin in verse 3, he identifies the Person against whom he’s sinned in verse 4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4, ESV). Is David denying that he sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah, and the nation? I don’t think so. David’s point is simply this: his sin of adultery, murder, and lying were ultimately and most importantly sins against God.
We see the same idea at the end of this Psalm, where David declares, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16–17, ESV). Again, we shouldn’t interpret David’s words absolutely, as if David is saying God takes no delight whatsoever in those animal sacrifices commanded in the law. Rather, David is simply saying that a broken spirit and contrast heart are more important to God. God prefers inward piety over outward ritual.
Thus, Ezekiel 33:11 does not deny God takes delight in executing justice on impenitent sinners. Rather, we should interpret the passage as highlighting God’s strong preference. Imagine that we set two options side-by-side:
- Option #1: The wicked remain impenitent and the Lord punishes them.
- Option #2: The wicked repent of their sin and the Lord forgives them.
Then we ask God, “Lord God Almighty, which of these two do you prefer?” Ezekiel 33:11 provides us the answer: God prefers showing mercy to sinners over judging sinners. That is God’s oath-bound affirmation!
Let me borrow from Martin Luther who borrowed from the prophet Isaiah: God’s wrath and judgment are his “strange” or “alien” work; God’s love and salvation are his “proper” or “more natural” work. Thus, I would argue, God’s decree to save (election) and God’s decree to judge (reprobation) are not strictly symmetrical. They are, rather, asymmetrical. God prefers showing mercy to sinners over judging sinners. This reading of the text is supported by the second half of God’s response to the people’s complaint.
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.
5 The author of Hebrews is citing Genesis 22:15, which is prefaced with the words, “I swear by myself.” That’s a different form than we have in Ezekiel 33:11, but the meaning is the same.
6 As William Greenhill aptly remarks, “It is a great thing for God to speak, but more for him to swear:… And here appears the great goodness of God, that for the good of man will please to take an oath. O happy we, for whose sake God swears! O most unhappy we, if we believe not God swearing!” Exposition of Ezekiel (1667; Banner of Truth, 1994), 669.
7 “Hence,” says Calvin in his comments on the text, “let us leave to God his own secrets, and exercise ourselves as far as we can in the law, in which God’s will is made plain to us and to our children.” Commentary on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Logos Software, 2010), 2:267.
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.