- Do you ever have moments when you doubt the character of God?
- Does God sometimes seem arbitrary and cruel, aloof and uncaring?
- When life delivers you a blow that leaves you broken and bleeding, do you sometimes wonder whether God loves you?
- During times like these, I run to the cross.
Please turn with me to Ezekiel chapter 24. The passage we are about to consider is stunning; it is shocking. Indeed I must confess that the first time that I read this passage and seriously considered it, my sentiments were, "How could God do this!" In the next few minutes I hope to address that very question and the broader issue of the compassion of God.
Here we find that the prophet Ezekiel is no stranger to bad news, for Ezekiel already knew what it was like to be conquered by a foreign power. Along with the people who were with him, he had lost everything material. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in three stages. The first wave came in 605 BC when he overcame Jehoiakim and carried off Daniel, and Daniel's friends. The second wave came in 597 BC. This is when Ezekiel was carried off, along with Jehoiachin and ten thousand hostages. However, Jerusalem would not be totally destroyed until 586 BC, nine years later.
So Ezekiel was a veteran of bad news. However, he was about to receive some news that would shake him at the very foundations of his faith. God would inform the prophet that he was about to kill his wife. God intended to take her life in order to use her as an object lesson for the Jews. From Ezekiel 24:15-18 we read,And the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Son of man, behold, I am about to take from you the desire of your eyes with a blow; but you shall not mourn and you shall not weep, and your tears shall not come. Groan silently; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban and put your shoes on your feet, and do not cover your mustache and do not eat the bread of men.'' (NASB)So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died. And in the morning I did as I was commanded. (NASB)
God had called the priest, Ezekiel, to be a prophet to the exiles in Babylon. From 592 until 586 BC, Ezekiel labored to convince the captive Jews that they had no hope of immediate deliverance. But they would not listen. Indeed, in spite of what God had said through His prophet, as long as Jerusalem stood, they retained their hope of deliverance, and that hope would not die until Jerusalem was finally destroyed. God used Ezekiel and the death of his beloved wife to describe the unprecedented grief that the Jewish people would experience. For Jerusalem and the temple were the delight of the Jewish people. Not only that but some of the exiles still had sons and daughters living in Jerusalem. Their response to this disaster and to the loss of their loved ones was predicted in the verses that followed.
This is how the people responded when Ezekiel did not follow the normal ritual of mourning after the death of his wife. From Ezekiel 24:19-24 we read,The people said to me, "Will you not tell us what these things that you are doing mean for us?"Then I said to them, "The word of the LORD came to me saying, 'Speak to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am about to profane My sanctuary, the pride of your power, the desire of your eyes and the delight of your soul; and your sons and your daughters whom you have left behind will fall by the sword.'""You will do as I have done; you will not cover your mustache and you will not eat the bread of men. Your turbans will be on your heads and your shoes on your feet. You will not mourn and you will not weep, but you will rot away in your iniquities and you will groan to one another.""'Thus Ezekiel will be a sign to you; according to all that he has done you will do; when it comes, then you will know that I am the Lord GOD.'" (NASB)
Certainly this would be a dark day for the Jewish exiles; their grief would be so severe that the people would not even follow the normal rituals of mourning.
In order to make His message more powerful and convincing, God took Ezekiel's wife and ordered Ezekiel to forego the normal rituals of mourning. This was one of many object lessons that God used to get this point across to the nation of Israel: I am the Lord God.
There is no record of Ezekiel struggling with God over the loss of his wife. But I can only imagine how one of us might have responded to God.
"God, are you serious? You are going to take my wife? Why? She's a good wife; she's a loving wife? Oh God, there must be another way. And you're going to what -- use her for an object lesson, a visual aide?"
"Lord, you are very creative. You created the whole world. Surely there is something out there that would make a better object lesson. The rainbow, now that was a great object lesson. Miraculous acts of healing, now those can be very convincing. And all the thunder and shaking at Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given, now that was a great object lesson."
"Oh Lord, please don't take my wife. She is all I have."
However, there is no record of Ezekiel doing this. He simply obeyed God and did his duty.
The other aggravating element of this situation is the way Ezekiel was denied the normal ritual of grieving. Rituals of grieving bring a sense of predictability and control at a time when the rest of life seems very much out of control.
Furthermore, one of the worst things that you can do during a period of intense grief is try to go on as if nothing had happened. As part of this Jewish ritual, several things were practiced:
- Any kind of ornamental head covering was removed.
- Shoes were removed; they went barefoot.
- They would cover their mouths with a veil.
- They were not supposed to eat their own food but food provided by others.
- People would bring bread, wine, and hardboiled eggs.
- They were brought a special dish made with beans and lentils.
But Ezekiel was commanded by God to forego all of this. I wonder, now, how Ezekiel might have been comforted at this time?
Sometimes we can derive comfort from consideration of the sovereignty of God. Even in the worst of circumstances, it helps us to know that we are not the pawns of fate. We are not the luckless victims of random events. God rules over all.
The sovereignty of God is clearly seen in this passage. Notice that God didn't say he was going to permit the prophet's wife to die. Nor did he say that his wife would be killed. No, God was very direct: God would take the life of Ezekiel's wife.
Notice, also, that God didn't say that he would permit the destruction of Jerusalem. Nor did he give credit for its destruction to others. No, again God was very direct: God would destroy the temple; God would destroy Jerusalem, even though the Babylonians would be used as the instrument of His destruction. Here we have an example of how God accomplishes his decrees. God is holy; he ordains all that comes to pass, including the existence of evil, yet he never sins. The Babylonians were merely a tool in the hand of God.
God didn't want the children of Israel to think that Jerusalem would fall because the Babylonian gods were bigger and stronger than Yahweh. No, he wanted them to realize that God was completely in control of what was happening.
However, thoughts of the sovereignty of God are not always comforting. In his book "A Grace Disguised," Gerald Sittser described how the sovereignty of god affected him after losing his daughter, his mother, and his grandmother in a car crash. Here is what he said:"I avoided even thinking about God's sovereignty after the accident. The very idea that the God whom I had tried for so many years to trust and follow would allow or even cause such a tragedy was unthinkable to me."
This was certainly a difficult time for Sittser. Although he eventually came to accept the sovereignty of God, this is how he struggled initially.
Further down in the book Sittser went on to say,"My loss made God seem terrifying and inscrutable. For a long time I saw his sovereignty as a towering cliff in winter--icy, cold, and windswept. I stood in my misery at the base of this cliff and looked up at its forbidding, unscalable wall. I felt overwhelmed, intimidated, and crushed by its hugeness. There was nothing inviting or comforting about it. It loomed over me, completely oblivious to my presence and pain. It defied climbing; it mocked my puniness. I yelled at God to acknowledge my suffering and to take responsibility for it, but all I heard was the lonely echo of my own voice." (pages 135-136)
I read this book shortly after my son, Stephen, died, and when I read this part I was reminded of something that happened to me when I was just a little boy. Close to the age of seven I got very sick, so miserable that I was constantly crying. But the most frightening part of all was that night when I knew I was crying, but I could not hear myself cry. That was scary, and that is what it feels like to be deprived of the sensible presence of God, the light of his countenance, the joy of his fellowship, during a season of intense grief, even if one believes in the sovereignty of God. Your very prayers seem to bounce off the wall.
David knew what it was like to be deprived of the sensible presence of God. Note the anguish of David's soul in Psalm 42:1-3,As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, "Where is your God?" (NASB)
Times like these are times of testing. And one of the tests is whether or not we will accuse God of being aloof and uncaring. Perhaps we don't go that far, but we might be tempted to say that God cares about people as groups, but He does not care about me as an individual; he is oblivious to the pain I am, personally, experiencing. Either of these sentiments leads to despair.
But David never gave up hope. He knew, even in the midst of his distress, that God would not be distant forever, that he would know the comfort of God again.
Indeed, David did something that we all should emulate; he talked to himself. Did you know that one of the healthiest things you can do is talk to yourself? That's right, not only do we need to talk to ourselves, we need to preach to ourselves. We need to preach to ourselves words of encouragement. We find examples of this in several places in the Psalms. Here are just a few:
- "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence." (Psalm 42:5, NASB)
- "The LORD will command His loving kindness in the daytime; and His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life." (Psalm 42:8, NASB)
- "Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the LORD." (Psalm 27:14, NASB)
David sought comfort in the Lord. Many seek comfort through trying to find reasons for difficulties experienced. Certainly we should look carefully to see whether we are experiencing the chastening, correcting hand of God. But often there is no obvious explanation.
Many people have written to try to explain this passage from Ezekiel, and I appreciate the work that they have done. Some have suggested that Ezekiel's personal experience of grief gave him the kind of pastor's heart he needed for ministering to the exiles in Babylon. Others have suggested that Ezekiel's trust and obedience in the midst of great sorrow glorified God and encouraged others.
All of this is probably true. However, let me tell you that when the hot iron of grief is fresh, when it mercilessly burns against our hearts, when the glowing metal sears our very souls, good, rational explanations like these burn away like dry leaves, and from the depths we cry, "Nothing, nothing explains this! Why did God let this happen?"
In times like these we have a city of refuge; we have a place to run. We must run to Calvary.
During times like these, the most graphic demonstration of the love of God stands in the midst of a sea of pain and misery. In the middle of this stormy sea stands the cross of Jesus Christ. At the cross, God satisfies my questions without answering them. There, at that cruel and bloody cross, He addresses my questions without having to say a word. One glimpse of the cross leaves me awed and speechless. Next to the cross of Jesus Christ, God removes my doubts and calms my fears. Beside that blessed cross, the love of God cries out without speaking, giving peace to my restless spirit.
Here is why.
- How can I complain of being unloved to the one who loved me before I was even born?
- How can I accuse God of being uncaring when his care for me required the life of his only begotten son?
- Dare I cry unfair while I remember the suffering Christ bearing the pain that I deserve?
- Would I complain to God about his justice while I recall the precious Son of God enduring divine justice on my behalf?
No, at the foot of the cross, any doubts I have about the love, goodness, and justice of God are washed away by that same crimson flood that cleansed my soul.
God is not rocked and tossed about by emotion the way we are. Our emotions chase us down and tackle us. Often they control us and make us act out of character. Not so with God. Rather, the love, mercy, and compassion of God are always expressed in ways that are consistent with the rest of His character, flowing out of His very nature, exercised according to the counsel of His will. Further, God is not aloof from suffering. By his own sovereign choice he enters into it. He willing enters into suffering, violating neither his unchanging decrees nor his unchanging character. This is the same God who cried out over Israel in Hosea 11:8."... My heart is turned over within Me, all my compassions are kindled." (NASB)
On that horrible Roman instrument of torture, Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of his people. Through him, mercy and justice became friends, and pain and love were united, procuring our atonement and reconciling us to God.
Because God never changes, His compassion never changes. To know Jesus as your Lord and Savior is to know, not only that God loves you now, but that God has always loved you. Before you were even born, God already rejoiced in the day when His eternal love for you would be revealed in time and sealed for all eternity at the cross of Jesus Christ.
There, at the foot of the cross, let me lay my questions down.Amen.