The book of Ezekiel contains powerful prophecies and visions that the prophet Ezekiel received from God during the Babylonian exile. Chapter 20 focuses on God’s dealings with rebellious Israel and His call for them to walk in His ways. This commentary will provide an in-depth look at this significant chapter.
Ezekiel 20 begins with a confrontation between God and the elders of Israel who came to “inquire of the Lord” (Ezekiel 20:1). God refuses to be consulted by these rebellious leaders and instead tells Ezekiel to “cause them to know the abominations of their fathers” (Ezekiel 20:4).
What follows is a recounting of Israel’s long history of rebellion against God, starting with the Exodus from Egypt. Despite God’s miraculous deliverance, the people still rejected Him. This cycle repeated itself for generations, as “they did not walk in My statutes, they despised My judgements” (Ezekiel 20:21). Even after entering the Promised Land, the people continued in idolatry and profaned the Sabbath. God’s anger “was kindled against them” yet He withheld complete destruction for the sake of His name (Ezekiel 20:21-22).
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The chapter ends with a powerful call – God tells the people that what He requires is that “they walk in My statutes and keep My judgements and do them” (Ezekiel 20:19). If they will turn from their idols and rebellion and embrace His ways, He promises to gather them from exile and restore relationship. As we study this chapter, may our hearts be moved to wholeheartedly follow God’s ways.
- God desires relationship with His people but hates sin, rebellion and idolatry
- Israel repeatedly rejected God throughout their history despite His miraculous works
- God withholds full judgment because of His patience and commitment to His promises
- What God requires is that His people turn from idols and walk fully in His ways
- If Israel repents, God promises future restoration from exile and spiritual renewal
Confrontation with the Rebellious Elders (Ezekiel 20:1-4)
The opening verses describe a confrontation between God and the elders of Israel who came seeking a word from the Lord. Ezekiel notes it was “in the seventh year, in the fifth month, on the tenth day” (Ezekiel 20:1). This is around 591 BC, about 6 years after Ezekiel’s initial vision and calling as a prophet (Ezekiel 1:2).
These elders “sat before me” (Ezekiel 20:1), meaning they were presenting themselves to Ezekiel as prophets and representatives of God. But God refuses to be consulted by these wicked leaders, saying “shall I be inquired of at all by them?” (Ezekiel 20:3).
God tells Ezekiel to confront their hypocrisy directly: “Cause them to know the abominations of their fathers” (Ezekiel 20:4). The word “abomination” in Hebrew refers to disgusting immorality and idolatry, serious sins that God detests.
This opening sets the stage for God’s indictment against the ongoing rebellion and idolatry of Israel’s leaders. Outwardly they pretend to seek God’s counsel, but their hearts remain unchanged.
Recounting Israel’s History of Rebellion (Ezekiel 20:5-26)
The Exodus from Egypt (Ezekiel 20:5-9)
God begins recounting Israel’s long pattern of rebellion starting with the Exodus: “On the day when I chose Israel and raised My hand in an oath to the descendants of the house of Jacob, and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt” (Ezekiel 20:5). This refers back to Exodus 6:2-8 when God established His covenant with Israel and promised to deliver them from Egypt.
Yet despite the miracles, “they rebelled against Me and would not obey Me” (Ezekiel 20:8). The people still worshipped idols and refused to reject “the abominations of their eyes” (Ezekiel 20:7). But God did not destroy them, for the sake of His own reputation among the nations who witnessed the Exodus firsthand (Ezekiel 20:9).
The Wilderness Wandering (Ezekiel 20:10-17)
God next recalls the Israelites’ repeated rebellion during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after being saved from Egypt.
Though He gave them “good statutes and judgements” (Ezekiel 20:11), they continued to defile the Sabbath and follow idols. Again God did not make a full end of them, but refrained “for My name’s sake, that it should not be profaned before the Gentiles” (Ezekiel 20:14).
But in anger, God did solemnly swear that this generation would never enter the Promised Land but perish in the wilderness (Ezekiel 20:15-17). Even in judgment, God preserved a remnant.
The Next Generation’s Rebellion (Ezekiel 20:18-26)
God then calls out the subsequent generation of Israelites who entered Canaan yet also rebelled: “In the wilderness they did not walk in My statutes” (Ezekiel 20:18).
Though He had promised them “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ezekiel 20:6), when they entered it “they despised My judgments and walked not in My statutes” (Ezekiel 20:21). Instead they again profaned the Sabbath and followed idols.
So again, God “lifted My hand in an oath to scatter them among the Gentiles and disperse them throughout the countries” (Ezekiel 20:23). Yet even here, God withholds complete exile “because they had not executed My judgments” (Ezekiel 20:24). Once more God refrains from total destruction for the sake of His reputation.
A Call to Turn and Walk in God’s Ways (Ezekiel 20:27-44)
After recounting this long, tragic history of rebellion, God makes a passionate call for Israel to turn from idols and walk in His ways.
Rebellion in the Land (Ezekiel 20:27-29)
God indicts Israel’s continued idolatry even after entering the Promised Land: “Yet the house of Israel rebelled against Me in the wilderness; they did not walk in My statutes” (Ezekiel 20:13).
The people “committed abomination” and “provoked Me to anger” (Ezekiel 20:28). God declares “I will not listen” to their hypocritical inquiries (Ezekiel 20:31). They may claim to seek God, but they cling to their idols.
God’s Future Restoration (Ezekiel 20:33-44)
But God promises a future day when He will bring Israel back from exile and purge their rebellion: “As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand […] I will reign over you” (Ezekiel 20:33).
God will gather them from the nations and return them to the wilderness, and there He will judge the rebels (Ezekiel 20:35-38). But for those who turn from idols, He promises “there you shall remember your ways and all your doings with which you were defiled; and you shall loathe yourselves” (Ezekiel 20:43). God will give them a heart to obey His laws and walk in His ways.
What a gracious picture! God will restore those who repent and give them a new spirit to follow Him. And He will purge the land of all its rebellion, fulfilling His purpose to make Israel a holy nation that obeys His voice.
Ezekiel 20 paints a sobering picture of Israel’s repeated rebellion against God’s good laws, and His patient endurance of them. What a gracious and forgiving God, who withholds full judgment for the sake of His name and promise!
May this remind us of God’s hatred of sin and idolatry, and move us to wholehearted obedience. As God said, “walk in My statutes and keep My judgements and do them” (Ezekiel 20:19). When we stumble and fall into sin, let us repent and return to the Lord, confident of His grace.
For believers in Jesus, we have the indwelling Spirit to enable us to follow God from the heart. May Ezekiel 20 increase our desire to live holy lives that bring glory to God, by the power of Christ in us. Let us heed God’s plea to Israel, and walk fully in His ways.