Read the series.
An Impassioned Entreaty
Having provided an oath-bound affirmation of his preference for mercy over judgment, God now turns to the wicked and entreats them: “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11b, ESV).
1. We should view this entire response as an entreaty.
Some commentators and preachers divided the second half of Ezekiel 33:11 into two parts: an entreaty and a question. Syntactically, that’s correct. First, God gives a double imperative: “turn back, turn back from your evil ways.” Then, God asks a question, “For why will you die, O house of Israel?”
However, the question in this case is rhetorical. When God says, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” he is using a question to tell them quite emphatically, “I do not want you to die!”
This kind of rhetorical question is found elsewhere in Scripture. In Numbers 32 Moses urges the Reubenites and the Gadites to help their brothers take the land west of the Jordan. He uses two rhetorical questions:
But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?” (Numbers 32:6–7, ESV)
The question “Why will you discourage the heart of the people” is equivalent to “Don’t do that! Don’t discourage their hearts!”
Perhaps even more relevant for our text are the words Naomi to her two Moabite daughters-in-law in Ruth, chapter 1: “But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” (Ruth 1:11, ESV)
Can you see the similarity with Ezekiel 33:11? First, there’s an imperative: “Turn back, my daughters.” Then two rhetorical questions: “Why will you go with me?” meaning, “Don’t go with me.” And “Do I yet have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” meaning, “I’m too old to bear additional sons to be your husbands.” The question complements the entreaty. This is what we precisely find in Ezekiel 33:11. God’s question, “For why will you die, O Israel?” is intended to complement his entreaty: “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways.” Thus, the entire unit is one big entreaty.
2. We should view this entreaty as “impassioned.”
In referring to God’s entreaty as “impassioned,” I’m not denying the doctrine of impassibility. I would affirm that doctrine. But I think it is possible to affirm God as “without passions” and yet simultaneously describe him as “passionate” or “impassioned” for his own glory and for man’s good. Paul Helm, an ardent defender of divine impassibility agrees. He writes,
A person may be so passionate about truth telling that he takes extreme care to speak the truth himself. A detective may be so passionate about solving a crime that he is utterly careful and scrupulous about assembling and weighing the evidence. If God in himself is said to be passionate, then this is how it must be with him. We must think of him as essentially impassioned, full of feeling, utterly engaged in the most clear-eyed way possible.8
In other words, when we read the words, “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” we should not think of God as apathetic. Instead, God portrays himself as full of empathy and compassion.
But there are good reasons to see divine emotion or affection in this text. First, God employs the imperative of entreaty twice. Not once, but twice God says, “Turn back! Turn back!” In many languages, including Hebrew, the doubling of a noun or verb is for emphasis. Thus, God is not mildly urging the Israelites to take action. He’s emphatically urging them. As William Greenhill observes, “The doubling of the word notes the earnest and real intention of God in it.”9 God badly wants them to turn.
Second, God’s rhetorical question suggests an emotive entreaty. When God asks, “Why will you die?” he’s not looking for information. “Hey, I’m curious. Why do you people want to perish?” Nor is he simply making a casual suggestion or offering half-hearted advice, “Hey there, you guys might want to reconsider.” No! The question itself highlights the urgency. God is passionately urging the Israelites to turn from their sin that they might live.
Third, God uses the vocative to rouse Israel to action. When he says, “O house of Israel,” he is not simple specifying whom he’s addressing. He’s not saying, “Turn, turn! Oh, and in case the reader forgot whom I’m entreating, it’s Israel.” No, the vocative in this case is used to show or convey emotion and intensity.10 Consider, for example, David’s response to the news of the death of his son Absalom in 2 Samuel 18:33 …
And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, ESV)
Or consider the words of Psalm 22:1, which ultimately become the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1a, ESV). Actually, this text has all three elements we find in the Ezekiel text:
- The vocative: “My God”
- Repetition: “My God, my God”
- Rhetorical question: “Why have you forsaken me?”
God is not yawning in his easy chair and mumbling in a monotone voice, “Turn, turn, why will you die, O house of Israel?” This is absolutely not a case of “sinners in the hands of an apathetic God”! Rather, it is passages like these that prompted Reformed and Puritan writers to depict the free offer of the gospel in terms of God begging and pleading with sinners to be saved!
Summing It Up
Let’s summarize the findings from our text and apply them to our thesis. First, the Israelites whom God addresses in this text had experienced God’s judgment and were about to experience more of God’s judgment. They acknowledged their sin, but they were despairing of God’s mercy. Thus, they were complaining that their condition was hopeless.
Second, God responds to their complaint with an oath-bound affirmation and an impassioned entreaty. He swears to them that he does not take pleasure in their demise but prefers their repentance and salvation. What’s more, God urgently and passionately entreats them to turn from their sin and look to him as their only hope of salvation.
My contention is that Ezekiel 33:11 clearly supports the thesis that God freely offers the gospel to wicked men—even to some he knows will not embrace it in the end! Therefore, we should view God’s offer as well-meant and well-intended. The Lord Yahweh sincerely desires that the wicked take him up on his gracious offer!
(Next: Objections answered.)
8 Emphasis added. “B. B. Warfield on Divine Passion,” Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007): 102.
9 Exposition of Ezekiel, 668.
10 See Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 68-69. What Wallace says about the vocative in Greek also applies to Hebrew and other languages.
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.