The history of the struggle between the sins of Israel, by which they endeavoured to ruin themselves, and the mercies of God, by which he endeavoured to save them and make them happy, is here continued: and the instances of that struggle in these verses have reference to what passed between God and them in the wilderness, in which God honoured himself and they shamed themselves. The story of Israel in the wilderness is referred to in the New Testament (1 Cor. 10:1-33; Heb. 3:1-19), as well as often in the Old, for warning to us Christians; and therefore we are particularly concerned in these verses. Observe,
I. The great things God did for them, which he puts them in mind of, not as grudging them his favours, but to show how ungrateful they had been. And we say, If you call a man ungrateful, you can call him no worse. It was a great favour, 1. That God brought them forth out of Egypt (Ezek. 20:10), though, as it follows, he brought them into the wilderness and not into Canaan immediately. It is better to be at liberty in a wilderness than bond-slaves in a land of plenty, to enjoy God and ourselves in solitude than to lose both in a crowd; yet there were many of them who had such base servile spirits as not to understand this, but, when they met with the difficulties of a desert, wished themselves in Egypt again. 2. That he gave them the law upon Mount Sinai (Ezek. 20:11), not only instructed them concerning good and evil, but by his authority bound them from the evil and to the good. He gave them his statutes, and a valuable gift it was. Moses commanded them a law that was the inheritance of the congregation of Israel, Deut. 33:4. God made them to know his judgments, not only enacted laws for them, but showed them the reasonableness and equity of those laws, with what judgment they were formed. The laws he gave them they were encouraged to observe and obey; for, if a man do them, he shall even live in them; in keeping God’s commandments there is abundance of comfort and a great reward. Christ says, If thou wilt into enter life, and enjoy it, keep the commandments. Though those who are the most strict in their obedience are thus far unprofitable servants that they do no more than is their duty to do, yet it is thus richly recompensed: This do, and thou shalt live. The Chaldee says, He shall live an eternal life in them. St. Paul quotes this (Gal. 3:12) to show that the law is not of faith, but proposes life upon condition of perfect obedience, which we are not capable of rendering, and therefore must have recourse to the grace of the gospel, without which we are all undone. 3. That he revived the ancient institution of the sabbath day, which was lost and forgotten while they were bond-slaves in Egypt; for their task-masters there would by no means allow them to rest one day in seven. In the wilderness indeed every day was a day of rest; for what need had those to labour who lived upon manna, and whose raiment waxed not old? But one day in seven must be a holy rest (Ezek. 20:12): I gave them my sabbaths to be a sign between me and them (the institution of the sabbath was a sign of God’s good-will to them, and their observance of it a sign of their regard to him), that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them. By this God made it to appear that he had distinguished them from the rest of the world, and designed to model them for a peculiar people to himself; and by their attendance on God in solemn assemblies on sabbath days they were made to increase in the knowledge of God, in an experimental knowledge of the powers and pleasures of his sanctifying grace. Note, (1.) Sabbaths are privileges, and are so to be accounted; the church acknowledges as a great favour, in that chapter which is parallel to this and seems to have a reference to this (Neh. 9:14), Thou madest known unto them thy holy sabbaths. (2.) Sabbaths are signs; it is a sign that men have a sense of religion, and that there is some good correspondence between them and God, when they make conscience of keeping holy and sabbath day. (3.) Sabbaths, if duly sanctified, are the means of our sanctification; if we do the duty of the day, we shall find, to our comfort, it is the Lord that sanctifies us, makes us holy (that is, truly happy) here, and prepares us to be happy (that is, perfectly holy) hereafter.
II. Their disobedient undutiful conduct towards God, for which he might justly have thrown them out of covenant as soon as he had taken them into covenant (Ezek. 20:13): They rebelled in the wilderness. There where they received so much mercy from God, and had such a dependence upon him, and were in their way to Canaan, yet there they broke out in many open rebellions against the God that led them and fed them. They did not only not walk in God’s statutes, but they despised his judgments as not worth observing; instead of sanctifying the sabbaths, they polluted them, greatly polluted them; one gathered sticks, many went out to gather manna on this day. Hereupon God was ready sometimes to cut them off; he said, more than once, that he would consume them in the wilderness. But Moses interceded, so did God’s own mercy more powerfully, and most of all a concern for his own glory, that his name might not be polluted and profaned among the heathen (Ezek. 20:14), that the Egyptians might not say that for mischief he brought them thus far, or that he was not able to bring them any further, or that he had no such good land as was talked of to bring them to, Exod. 32:12; Num. 14:13 Note, God’s strongest reasons for his sparing mercy are those which are fetched from his own glory.
III. God’s determination to cut off that generation of them in the wilderness. He who lifted up his hand for them (Ezek. 20:6) now lifted up his hand against them; he who by an oath confirmed his promise to bring them out of Egypt now by an oath confirmed his threatenings that he would not bring them into Canaan (Ezek. 20:15, 16): I lifted up my hand unto them, saying, As truly as I live, these men who have tempted me these ten times shall never see the land which I swore unto their fathers, Num. 14:22, 23; Ps. 95:11. By their contempt of God’s laws, and particularly of his sabbaths, they put a bar in their own door; and that which was at the bottom of their disobedience to God, and their neglect of his institutions, was a secret affection to the gods of Egypt: Their heart went after their idols. Note, The bias of the mind towards the world and the flesh, the money and the belly (those two great objects of spiritual idolatry), is the root of bitterness from which springs all disobedience to the divine law. The heart that goes after those idols despises God’s judgments.
IV. The reservation of a seed that should be admitted upon a new trial, and the instructions given to that seed, Ezek. 20:17. Though they thus deserved ruin, and were doomed to it, yet my eye spared them. When he looked upon them he had compassion on them, and did not make an end of them, but reprieved them till a new generation was reared. Note, It is owing purely to the mercy of God that he has not long ago made an end of us. This new generation is well educated. Moses in Deuteronomy reported and enforce the laws which had been given to those that came out of Egypt, that their children might have them as it were sounding in their ears afresh when they entered Canaan (Ezek. 20:18): “I said unto their children in the wilderness, in the plains of Moab, Walk in the statutes of your God and walk not in the statutes of your fathers; do not imitate their superstitious usages nor retain their foolish wicked customs; away with their vain conversation, which has nothing else to say for itself but that it was received by the tradition of your fathers, 1 Pet. 1:18. Defile not yourselves with their idols, for you see how odious they rendered themselves to God by them. But keep my judgments and hallow my sabbaths,” Ezek. 20:19, 20. Note, If parents be careless, and do not give their children good instructions as they ought, the children ought to make up the want by studying the word of God so much the more carefully and diligently themselves when they grow up; and the bad examples of parents must be made use of by their children for admonition, and not for imitation.
V. The revolt of the next generation from God, by which they also made themselves obnoxious to the wrath of God (Ezek. 20:21): The children rebelled against me too. And the same that was said of the fathers’ rebellion is here said of the children’s, for they were a seed of evil-doers. Moses told them that he knew their rebellion and their stiff neck, Deut. 31:27. And Deut. 9:24; You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you. They walked not in my statutes (Ezek. 20:21); nay, they despised my statutes, Ezek. 20:24. Those who disobey God’s statutes despise them, they show that they have a mean opinion of them and of him whose statutes they are. They polluted God’s sabbaths, as their fathers. Note, The profanation of the sabbath day is an inlet to all impiety; those who pollute holy time will keep nothing pure. It was said of the fathers (Ezek. 20:16) that their heart went after their idols; they worshipped idols because they had an affection for them. It is said of the children (Ezek. 20:24) that their eyes went after their fathers’ idols; they had grown atheistical, and had no affection for any gods at all, but they worshipped their fathers’ idols because they were their fathers’ and they had them before their eyes. They were used to them; and, if they must have gods, they would have such as they could see, such as they could manage. And that which aggravated their disobedience to God’s statutes was that, if they had done them, they might have lived in them (Ezek. 20:21), might have been a happy thriving people. Note, Those that go contrary to their duty go contrary to their interest; they will not obey, will not come to Christ, that they may have life, John 5:40. And it is therefore just that those who will not live and flourish as they might in their obedience should die and perish in their disobedience. Now the great instance of that generation’s rebellion and inclination to idolatry was the iniquity of Peor, as that of their fathers was the golden calf. Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, Num. 25:3. Then there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord, which, if it had not been seasonably stayed by Phinehas’s zeal, had cut them all off; and yet they owned, in Joshua’s time, We ware not cleansed from that iniquity unto this day, Josh. 22:17; Ps. 106:29. Then it was that God said he would pour out his fury upon them (Ezek. 20:21), that he lifted up his hand unto them in the wilderness, when they were a second time just ready to enter Canaan, that he would scatter them among the heathen. This very thing he said to them by Moses in his parting song, Deut. 32:20. Because they provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, he said, I will hide my face form them; and (Ezek. 20:26, 27) he said, I would scatter them into corners, were it not that I feared the wrath of the enemy, which explains this (Ezek. 20:21, 22), I said I would pour out my fury upon them, but I withdrew my hand for my name’s sake. Note, When the corruptions of the visible church are such, and so provoking, that we have reason to fear its total extirpation, yet then we may be confident of this, to our comfort, that God will secure his own honour, by making good his purpose, that while the world stands he will have a church in it.
VI. The judgments of God upon them for their rebellion. They would not regard the statutes and judgments by which God prescribed them their duty, but despised them, and therefore God gave them statutes and judgments which were not good, and by which they should not live, Ezek. 20:25. By this we may understand the several ways by which God punished them while they were in the wilderness—the plague that broke in upon them, the fiery serpent, and the like—which, in allusion to the law they had broken, are called judgments, because inflicted by the justice of God, and statutes, because he gave orders concerning them and commanded desolations as sometimes he had commanded deliverances, and appointed Israel’s plagues as he had done the plagues of Egypt. When God said, I will consume them in a moment (Num. 16:21), when he said, Take the heads of the people and hang them up (Num. 25:4), when he threatened them with the curse and obliged them to say Amen to every curse (Deut. 27:15), then he gave them judgments by which they should not live. More is implied than is expressed; they are judgments by which they should die. Those that will not be bound by the precepts of the law shall be bound by the sentence of it; for one way or other the word of God will take hold of men, Zech. 1:6. Spiritual judgments are the most dreadful; and these God punished them with. The statutes and judgments which the heathen observed in the worship of their idols were not good, and in practising them they could not live; and God gave them up to those. He made their sin to be their punishment, gave them up to a reprobate mind, as he did the Gentile idolaters (Rom. 1:24, 26), gave them up to their own heart’s lusts (Ps. 81:12), punished them for those superstitious customs which were against the written law by giving them up to those which were against the very light and law of nature; he left them to themselves to be guilty of the most impure idolatries, as in the worship of Baal-peor (he polluted them, that is, her permitted them to pollute themselves, in their own gifts, Ezek. 20:26), and of the most barbarous idolatries, as in the worship of Moloch, when they caused their children, especially their first-born, which God challenged a particular property in (the first-born of thy sons shalt thou give unto me), to pass through the fire, to be sacrificed to their idols; that thus he might make them desolate, not only that he might justly do it, but that he might do it by their own hands; for this must needs be a great weakening to their families and a diminution of the honour and strength of their country. Note, God sometimes makes sin to be its own punishment, and yet is not the author of sin; and there needs no more to make men miserable than to give them up to their own vile appetites and passions. Let them be put into the hand of their own counsels, and they will ruin themselves and make themselves desolate. And thus God makes them know that he is the Lord, and that he is a righteous God, which they themselves will be compelled to own when they see how much their wilful transgressions contribute to their own desolations. Note, Those who will not acknowledge God as the Lord their ruler shall be made to acknowledge him as the Lord their judge when it is too late.