The idolatry God detests (Ezk 8:1-18)

Where do you seek security? Where is your ultimate hope in an uncertain world? When times are tough, do you turn to the Lord for strength and support – or look elsewhere? That’s the big question that confronts us as we continue our journey through Ezekiel this morning.

Today’s date is the 17th January 2021. But today’s Bible reading takes us back to the 17th of September 592 BC – the opening verse of our passage gives Bible scholars enough details to date it precisely!

On that day all those years ago, Ezekiel was given a remarkable vision by God. A vision that ‘transported’ him (as it were) from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. Ezekiel was given spiritual sight to see what was going on back at home – he was given a supernatural tour of the Temple – and he was shocked by what he saw!

You see, as Ezekiel is taken on his tour of the Jerusalem Temple he sees idolatry at every turn. He sees that the Jewish men and women that remained in Jerusalem had descended into idol worship. Confronted with Babylonian oppression and a failing economy, the Jewish people had not sought security in the glorious God of Israel, but chosen to worship the gods of other nations instead.

The glory of God…offended!

Let me quickly summarise was Ezekiel saw. Firstly, in verse 4 Ezekiel sees the glory of God at the Temple. The fiery throne chariot that he had first seen by the River Kebar, was now visible in the heart of Jerusalem. God was present with his people.

i) But sadly the attention of God’s people was directed elsewhere! Because in verse 5 Ezekiel sees an “image of jealousy” (an idol, in other words) set up in the northern entranceway of the Jerusalem Temple. It may well have been a statue of Asherah, the Canaanite fertility goddess.

ii) The next stop on Ezekiel’s tour is the northern gatehouse of the Temple. He looks through a hole in the wall and discovers a secret, darkened room. A room in which 70 elders of Israel are burning incense in front of images of animals on the wall. It seems that shrines to Egyptian gods had been built within the Temple walls, and were being worshipped by the leaders of Israel to try and secure Egyptian support against Babylonian aggression. If so, this idolatry was pure political expediency by the rulers of Israel. Prayers were being offered to Egyptian gods to change the regional balance of power in their favour.

iii) Thirdly, at the north gate of the Temple, Ezekiel is shown women weeping for Tammuz. Tammuz was a Mesopotamian fertility god. Mourning his death in the winter was believed to ensure his rebirth in the Spring, with a fruitful harvest to follow. To get food on the table, these women thought it was wise to worship a foreign god, rather than ask the Lord for their daily bread.

iv) Finally, in the inner court of the Temple, Ezekiel is shown 25 men (probably priests) with their backs to God’s altar, facing East, worshipping the sun instead. They were seeking light and life from the Sun rather than from the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Its easy to laugh at the idolatry Ezekiel saw in the Temple. How silly, how superstitious, how archaic! But the sobering truth is that we humans are all prone to idolatry of one kind or another. In our desire for safety, security, comfort and pleasure in this world we all too easily lapse into idolatry – rather than seeking these things from our Heavenly Father.

Today’s idols are not Tamuz, Asherhah or the Sun. Instead, they might be our bank balance, our career, or our popularity. There is nothing necessarily bad with any of them, but they become idols if we put the pursuit of them above the pursuit of God. We’ve got our priorities wrong if we seek ultimate satisfaction from things like holidays, hobbies and home-improvement instead of from God. Anything can become an idol if it occupies first place in our lives instead of trusting and serving the Lord.

John Calvin famously said that the human heart is an “idol factory”. If we are Christians we need to keep a constant eye on ourselves to ensure the Lord remains our first love. As I said last week, this season of lockdown provides us with a unique opportunity to repent of our idols, reset our lives and re-invest in our relationship with God. Take time to pray each day!

The glory of God…departed!

Returning to today’s passage, the final two verses of our reading reveal God’s reaction to his people’s idolatry – and its one of righteous anger. Anger that his people have committed a form of spiritual “adultery”. Like a loving husband or wife grieving over an unfaithful spouse, God grieved the fact that the people of Judah had (quite literally) turned their backs on him and fallen in love with lifeless idols instead.

If we had the time to read on into chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Ezekiel, we would see that God would unleash judgement on Jerusalem as punishment for their unfaithfulness. In due course he would allow the Babylonians to completely overrun the city, destroy the Temple – and slaughter or scatter its people. Their devotion to Asherah, Tammuz and the animal gods of Egypt would be shown to have been utterly worthless – providing only a false sense of security.

What’s more, God’s glory would also depart from the devastated city. In chapter ten Ezekiel sees God’s throne chariot rise up and move away from the Temple precinct. The people of Jerusalem had rejected the Lord, so now – for a time at least – he would reject them.

The glory of God…in Christ!

As I finish, we can be thankful that this is not how Ezekiel’s story ends. Even in chapter 11, God promises that soon his scattered people will return to their land – and his glorious presence will return to Jerusalem one day as well.

And true enough, a few decades after Ezekiel had his remarkable visions the Babylonian empire would collapse, and many Jews were able to return home. Men like Nehemiah oversaw the reconstruction of the city and the rebuilding of a Temple.

But it was not until a further 500 years later that God’s glory truly returned to his city. As the New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, has pointed out, it was Palm Sunday when God’s glory really returned to Zion, to Jerusalem. That was the day when God’s personal presence once again entered the city limits. Not on a fiery throne chariot this time, but on the back of a donkey. It was in the person of Jesus that God returned to his people.

As we know, of course, the leaders of the nation rejected the Lord once again, and chose to crucify him. But Christ rose again, didn’t he, and he invites us all to put our trust in him. To this day, 17th January 2021, he remains the living Lord not a lifeless idol. So in this lockdown season, let us all cling to Christ for forgiveness, life and hope. He remains the one in whom alone true security and comfort can be found.

Phil Weston