An Exposition of Ezekiel 33:11
by Walter J. Chantry
“Say unto them. As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel”?
Humility of mind increasingly ought to characterize God’s people as they grow in grace. Our duty as Christians is to learn sound doctrine, but it is essential that our minds do not draw conclusions that are unwarranted by God’s Word. It is very easy to make that mistake. You may learn one doctrine and draw conclusions from it that are contrary to other parts of Holy Scripture.
In the study of the Bible, we should always remember Isaiah 55:9, ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ Before the mind of God, human reason can appear ludicrous. Logic often tries to capture God, but it is meant to be God’s captive. Now, reason is very important for knowing God. It is possible for man to really know God. And to really know God, your reason must function properly. But in functioning, reason must be the tool of the Holy Spirit and the servant of his revelation, the Bible. Logic cannot be the producer or the master of truth. Rather, logic (or reason) must be the instrument for receiving and applying truth that God has spoken. Only in this way can we know and understand the Author of all Truth.
Some Christians have begun to understand predestination. They see in the Bible that the Eternal God has fixed all events before the world began; that he causes everything to come to pass even events that are evil in our eyes; even the death of the Lord Jesus Christ was appointed by the Sovereign Lord. And the eternal destinies of all men were determined prior to the creation of the world. Seeing that salvation is all of grace, and that it is God who makes the difference between those who are finally saved and those who are forever lost, many Christians draw the conclusion that God does not desire all men to be saved. Such logic is contrary to the express statements of Scripture. This form of human reason makes sinners hesitate to receive the gospel invitations of Christ, and also causes some preachers to hesitate in urging all sinners to repent and believe.
I would like to disabuse your minds of such thoughts, and hope, by God’s grace, that Ezekiel 33:11 will do just that. Notice the verse. The prophet was commanded, Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?’ You will see in the text the following truths.
God desires the Salvation of All Sinful Men
All without exception. There is no other way to understand the text. We are here speaking of God’s will as his desire, not as his decree. God has not foreordained that all men will be saved. All men will not be saved. There is eternal punishment for those who despise God and continue in their rebellion against him, and the Lord himself has purposed and promised to carry out that punishment. But the Lord does not delight in this destruction of his creatures.
You will notice at the start of our text how forceful God is in making this statement. He swears by himself, for he can swear by none greater. ‘As I live, saith the Lord.’ I am swearing by myself that I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked. I am swearing by myself that I do have pleasure in the wicked turning from his ways to live. It can easily and confidently be drawn from this passage that God does not want you to die, you who are reading these words. God does not desire that you perish, but he desires that you repent and come to life. This universally applies to sinners.
The prophet often repeats this statement. If you turn to Ezekiel 18, you will find precisely the same assertions in verses 23 and 32. Verse 23 reads, ‘Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways and live?‘ If you could read the verse as a Jew would, you would note an emphatic negative, reading this way: ‘I do not by any means desire the death of a wicked person’. Our text in Ezekiel 33 is spoken to impertinent sinners who are refusing to turn to God, and who are about to taste his wrath. God is speaking to sinners who are going to die in their sins, but he still asserts that he has no pleasure in their deaths. I desire you to turn to me and live, God is saying.
Now God is not playing with words. He is not baiting hopelessly lost men with sarcastic appeals. When the Lord says that he wants sinners to turn and live, he is expressing a sincere and earnest love for all sinners. He really desires that all men be converted.
Jesus expressed this desire quite clearly in Matthew 23:34-38. ‘Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets and wise men and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city. That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zecharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold your house is left unto you desolate.’ Notice that Jesus is speaking to a people who are finally going to perish, and he knows it. That these people are about to be consumed by the wrath of God is the main intent of Christ’s statement. He is pronouncing a curse upon them. Yet, in the midst of sentencing them, Jesus expresses his love of them and a desire that they would repent and believe. He reminded these very people, who would soon perish, that they had been repeatedly invited to come to him. He assured them that even at that moment he desired them to freely partake of his saving mercy. In verse 37, our Lord said, ‘I would have gathered you, but you would not’. The Saviour sincerely desired their conversion. He wanted to gather Jerusalem into his saving and protecting grace, but they spurned his sincere invitation and refused to turn.
You remember Christ’s invitations to Jerusalem. Once he stood in the temple and cried,‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink’. Some people have said that the invitation is extended only to those who have a sense of being thirsty, but I feel this is reading into the text a meaning not at all intended. Christ is inviting all men within his hearing. He is expressing a desire that all sinners be thirsty and come to him and drink of the water of life.
So many universal pleas are made to sinners. Some cannot be understood in any but universal terms. ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else’ (Isa. 45:22). ‘God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). God clearly invites you to mercy and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. More than that, he commands you, ‘Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways‘. And he lovingly and condescendingly pleads, ‘Why will ye die?‘ In other words, it is only your own obstinate will that prevents your receiving of Christ. There is no outside force holding you in your sin. It is your obstinacy alone that is the cause of your unbelief.
There is no reason from the standpoint of the gospel that you cannot be saved. For in it God freely offers you eternal life in Jesus Christ. He lovingly desires your repentance. But it is also clear from the text that if you will not repent, then you must die. God does not desire that you be saved apart from the means that he has appointed. God invites you to turn from sin. He has sent messengers to tell you that he sincerely desires you to come to Christ. Your blood is upon your own head, and your damnation will be more severe if you will not believe and live. Will you abuse the compassionate appeals of the Father and the Son who sincerely desire your salvation? If you do, your house will be eternally desolate, and justly so!
Problems that arise
Be assured that problems arise. God is not uncomfortable with his words. He does not contradict himself. For instance, you may wonder ‘How can God be sincere in offering salvation to men whom he has appointed to wrath before they were born? What is the sense of an impassioned plea to men so enslaved to sin that they cannot respond, especially when he has not purposed to give them the grace to respond?’ Other questions could be asked. But we will find these difficult enough for now.
Again I would remind you that these are human problems. We ask in perplexity, ‘How can God desire that some men be saved when he has appointed those same men to final destruction?’ Jesus Christ feels at home with these two concepts side by side. Matthew 11:25 records our Saviour praying, ‘I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.’ He praised the Father for his sovereignty. He rejoiced that God finally determines who will be saved by hiding things necessary for salvation from some and revealing them to others; and all of this because it ‘seemed good’ to him. Yet immediately in verse 28 Jesus cries, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ In so saying, Christ expresses his sincere desire that his hearers acknowledge their burdens and come to him for rest. The invitation is given to all, even those whose eyes are blinded. And Christ is comfortable with these two things side by side.
As John Calvin has said, ‘Although God’s will is simple, yet there is great variety involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish.’ A contradiction? No. It is something that does not fit together in our minds, but the light of God’s wisdom can bring them into harmony. Here are some suggestions as to how the problems may be resolved in your minds:
There are Distinctions Within the Love of God
God loves saints in a way that he does not love sinners. He expresses a common love to all men in giving them all sunshine and rain (Matt. 5:43-48). No one can deny that this universal love of God is sincere. But the difference of God’s special love for holy men will be displayed when saints are ushered into heaven and sinners are cast into hell. Though God loves sinners for a time, his goodness will come to an end. But his love for saints is unbounded by time. ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love’ (Jer. 31:3).
Gospel invitations express a general love for all men. God freely invites all to repent and receive forgiveness of sins. ‘Turn ye!’ says our text. All men everywhere are included in the plea. But God’s distinguishing love for his elect begins to appear when he effectually calls men into union with Christ. A special and differentiating love is exhibited by renewing the wills of some so that they do respond to the gospel offer. The special love for his elect does not cancel his general love for reprobate and elect alike, any more than your special love for your son makes your general love for boys less sincere.
In Luke 14 there is a parable which clearly illustrates the point (beginning at vs. 16). ‘A certain man made a great supper and invited many: And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were invited, Come; for all things are now ready. And they all with one consent began to make excuse.’ Then the excuses are given. He continues, ‘So the servant came and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servants, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast said, and yet there is room. And the Lord said unto the servants, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”
Notice that Gospel invitations are given to men who will not accept them. But more important just now, notice the two groups of men. One group was sincerely invited, but refused to attend the gospel feast. The other group was compelled to come. Was the offer to the first group insincere because they were not compelled to come or because the second group was? No! It is perfectly sincere. But the marvel of God’s grace is that he will not take a ‘no’ for an answer from some men. If you had a banquet and invited fifteen people to come, but were insistent that five come, would it make your offer to the other ten insincere? Of course not. You really want them all to be there. But you must have the friends in attendance. Why should the lord compel the halt and blind to be there? Not because they were more dignified. Not because of anything in themselves. But that his house may be full. For the praise of the glory of his grace, God has compelled the worst sinners to repent and believe.
Another point that will help to reconcile these things in our minds may be drawn from the same parable. You say, ‘It appears that God’s love to reprobate sinners is frustrated. How could God be eternally frustrated?’ The lord’s love for the first group invited to the feast was not frustrated. It was expended. You have seen this in the lives of men. You have known men who sincerely love their wives. But after a time of repeated unfaithfulness from his spouse, a man will find his sincere love quenched. It is quenched not because it is insincere love, but because it is abused love. So God’s love for sinners is terminated when they persist in their wicked ways. The Bible nowhere suggests that God loves men in hell. He does not. Hell is a place where the last vestige of God’s favour is removed. God’s expression of love to his creatures need not be eternal to be sincere.
There is Complexity In the Character and Mind of God
There is simplicity. But especially to the ignorant human mind, there is complexity to God’s way. Hence Jesus may weep in love for Jerusalem even while he solemnly states his intention to destroy her. Some men would say, ‘Either Jesus was incapable of saving Jerusalem, or else he was insincere in saying that he wished to do so.’ But neither is true. Neither is the necessary conclusion of logic. It is perfectly possible for someone to have deep pity while sentencing in judgment.
I like the example that Robert Dabney gave on this subject in an essay. He tells of George Washington sentencing Major Andre to death. You will recall that Major Andre was the officer in the British army who had served as the British agent to receive traitorous information from Benedict Arnold. Major Andre was captured with information about American forts. George Washington had a genuine admiration, love and compassion for Andre and did not want to sign his death warrant. Yet he did sign it. Why? Because of the complexity of the general’s motives. Not because he lacked the power to excuse Andre. He had that authority. Not because he failed to love Andre. He did love him. But because the good of his country and the good to all men were involved, he made the decision that Andre must die.
Some no doubt said, ‘Washington is a hypocrite to say he loves Andre and then condemn him’. Others no doubt said, ‘His hands must have been tied. He really loved the man, so he must have lacked the authority to release him.’ Neither is true. Washington could have forgiven Andre and wished to do so. Yet he felt at ease in sending him to the gallows, because of higher considerations. That is just an earthly illustration to warn you away from oversimplified logic when you come to heavenly truths. Remember that God’s ways are higher than your ways and his thoughts than your thoughts. We can see reasons or avenues along which the mind of God might travel in loving and condemning at the same time, but unless the Word of God gives us the answers, we dare not make our mind the source of truth by coming to firm conclusions.
If you are insistent that God cannot lovingly invite sinners while he has justly assigned them to an eternity of suffering, then answer another question. How could God be really angry with his elect at the same time that he fully purposed to redeem them? Ephesians 2:3 says that Christians were in the past ‘children of wrath even as others’who finally perish.
How could God be angry against you just as he is angry against the reprobate when he loved you with an eternal, electing love? These are by no means simple questions. Do not try to reduce the mysteries of God’s mind to the simplicities of your mind. God is angry with the elect who have not yet believed on his name. And God still loves the reprobate who has not yet been cast into hell.
It is your Responsibility to take a Sincere Gospel Invitation to all sinner’s
Even if your mind is still confused as to how God’s desiring will, expressed in the Gospel, can be reconciled with God’s decreeing will, accomplished in history, it is still your responsibility to invite all. Our text in Ezekiel 33 commands the Lord’s servants to ‘Say unto them . . . Turn ye, turn ye’. You are commissioned to tell men of God’s displeasure at wicked men dying in their sins. You are to tell them that it would please him if sinners turn from sin and live. You are to beseech men, ‘Why will ye die’. You are to invite men to turn. You are to command all sinners to turn and live. You are to do so on God’s authority.
Though you may have talked in the presence of sinners about election, you must assure them that Gospel-invitations are to them. You are to reason from the sincere desire of God that they repent. You are to assure men that the universal offer of mercy to all who repent and believe gives them a right to go to Christ for mercy. You have the very Word of God to assure them that if they will believe and repent, as God desires them to do, God will certainly give them life. Implied in the words of our text is the assurance that if you will turn, you will live and not die.
Some poor sinners who have been made aware that they have criminally offended God hesitate to turn to Christ. They hesitate because they are not sure they are welcome. They have heard about election and feel that unless they can be sure that God has chosen them to life from eternity, that the offers of salvation do not apply to them. Before they may be sure the invitation is for them to attend the gospel feast, they feel they must know whether God has eternally intended to compel them to come. You are to assure poor sinners that God does not delight in the death of any and that he wishes the repentance of all sinners. And further, he commands all rebels to lay down their arms with a purpose to obey his law. It is not necessary to question whether you are an elect sinner. If you are a sinner, the invitation and the ultimatum are issued to you.
Other poor sinners have begun to feel the weight of their sins and have wanted to flee for their lives to Christ, but they have been held back by another error. They have heard that Jesus only invites hungry and thirsty sinners to Himself. They have been told that only awakened sinners are addressed in Gospel invitations. Then the sinner begins to say to himself, ‘I’m not really sure that I am convicted of my sins as I ought to be. I don’t know if the Spirit has done a deep enough work of bringing sorrow for sin. Maybe I don’t really thirst for Christ. Maybe I’m not truly hungry. I haven’t mourned as others have. I’ve read their testimonies. Maybe the offer of mercy isn’t for me.’
The Bible does teach that no man ever will respond to the gospel without a prior work of God upon his soul. ‘No man can come to me except the Father which has sent me draw him.’ God does awaken sinners to bring them to himself. However, Gospel invitations do not ask a man to discern this work of God in his heart before he may feel that the invitation is to himself. The invitation in our text does not ask about the sinner’s desire to turn from sin. Rather it expresses God’s desire that the sinner turn and live. In this text is sufficient warrant for any sinner to receive life in Jesus Christ.
Now a man who is altogether ignorant that he is a sinner, will not think that the passage refers to him. A proud man who refuses to admit that he has sinned will imagine that this verse has nothing to say to him. The language of invitations must be suited to the condition of sinners. But the invitations of the Bible never require a certain degree of feeling before you are welcome to go to Christ. They never suggest that a certain course of study on sin is needed before you will know enough to be welcome as a penitent. All sinners, simply as sinners, are invited to repent and believe. There is no extra step required. You need not be convinced that you are convicted that you are a sinner.
God wants you to acknowledge that you are a sinner. The best way to do that is to turn from your sin and live. You have a right to come to Jesus Christ today, because you are a sinner and sinners are ordered to believe and repent. It is your right, not because you deserve it in yourself, but because God’s Word grants you the right. Go to Christ for mercy. If any ask how you hope to receive pardon for sin, you a rebel and a scoundrel, answer, ‘I have no rights from my character or works, but I have here a passport to God’s throne of mercy. It contains an oath from himself that if I do go to Christ and turn from sin, he will give me life. I would not have dared to believe that it was possible, except that he has said so himself. He says right here in Ezekiel 33:11 that he does not want me to die. See, it has my name right here . . . “wicked”. He says he wants me to turn and live. He even begs me to turn. I can’t understand why, but God has said it.’
If any ask if you have been sufficiently awakened, tell him that you do not read that requirement here. He says ‘wicked’, not awakened wicked, or elect wicked. Don’t let anyone put an extra step in your way. God has made it clear that the wicked are welcome. That perfectly suits my case.
Sinner, do you see that Jesus holds out the water of life to you? If you do not drink of these living waters, the day will come that you will be terribly conscious of thirst. It will be a thirst that will never be quenched, like that of Dives who looked up from his torment, praying that only a finger be dipped in water and placed on his tongue. The request was refused for him and will be for you if you spurn sincere offers of mercy. Today Jesus says, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scriptures have said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of water.’ There is no reason for you to wait. He does not ask you to figure out election and reprobation before you come. He does not ask you to measure the extent to which the Spirit has been working in your soul. If you perish in your sins it is still true that God wishes you would turn. Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, for why will ye die?’ is a command and a question given to all outside Christ. Answer it now. Obey it now. Turn to the Lord of grace who entreats you in love and patience.
From Reformation Today, #41, January-February 1978.
This Exposition appeared first in the Sword and Trowel, U.S.A.