The Pews in Ezekiel’s Time

A most fascinating situation unfolds in Ezekiel 33, one that allows us to gaze deeper into the twisted minds of the Israelites. Ezekiel has been a sign to the captives of Israel for many years in Babylon concerning God’s destruction of Jerusalem and the land of Judah. Now, a messenger comes and reports the desolation of the land of Judah, thus confirming the message of Ezekiel. The scoffers have long rejected Ezekiel, but all must now confess that he is indeed a true prophet. Ezekiel, once unpopular due to the unpleasantness of his message and his call for the people to repent, is now a celebrity among the people. The people now flock to him to hear his sermons. This sounds great! Ezekiel’s life is turning around! Well, no. God warns Ezekiel concerning the hearts of the people:

As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses; and they speak to one another, everyone saying to his brother, ‘Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.’ So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain.” (Ezekiel 33:30-31).

While everyone is excited to hear Ezekiel speak the words of God, even inviting their families and their neighbors to come, the pews were filled with people who hear the words, “but they do not do them”. There’s a lesson here: a big, excited crowd that fills the church building doesn’t mean a thing, but we humans put a lot of stock in the appearance of things while God observes the heart. God describes the people as showing much love with their mouths, but their hearts pursue selfish desires. This can still be found in the pews of churches today, as it was in Ezekiel’s day, and just as it was in Jesus’ day: “THESE PEOPLE DRAW NEAR TO ME WITH THEIR MOUTH, AND HONOR ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR FROM ME.” (Matthew 15:8). This is an ongoing plague within the church. It can be very deceiving; for what we think is a solid, spiritually healthy congregation may largely be a group giving lip service. They have not given their hearts to God, but to this world.

“Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them.” (Ezekiel 33:32).

God continues with a simple illustration. Ezekiel is like a “very lovely song” (NKJV) to these Israelite captives. The ESV renders this “like one who sings lustful songs”, but this is not the original sense of the word; neither does the KJV/NKJV carry the most accurate idea here. The Hebrew word agab is the word for sensuous love. The picture is nothing nasty like the ESV renders it to be, but it is much more than the NKJV gives it. The illustration is that of a love song performed for one’s lover by a musician who can sing and play beautifully. This is what the people are getting from Ezekiel’s preaching. It’s not Ezekiel’s fault. There’s no mistaking Ezekiel’s message that demands repentance from the people. And yet, the people somehow mistake it. While Ezekiel preaches judgment and specifically brings to light the wicked deeds of the people, the excited crowd walk away with warm feelings as if they had been given a love note from their valentine. How twisted! It is astounding what a darkened heart is capable of. Many in the world and in religion are able to thrive in their fantasies while God’s word speaks of their condemnation.

God told Ezekiel that “They hear your words, but they do not do them.” The word of God has no effect on their hearts, while their ears love to hear the true words of the prophet. James warned the church concerning this very problem:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:22-25).

James distinguished the doer of God’s word from the “hearer only” with the illustration of a mirror. Looking at our faces in a mirror only affords a glance of our outward appearance, it is by no means a complete picture of our total bodily appearance; further, it gives no reflection of the appearance of the heart, whether it is spiritually healthy or darkened by sin. This is how many hypocrites were able to hear the words of Ezekiel, Jesus, and preachers today, only to walk away with a good feeling. Today, hypocrites glance at their outward appearance and the impression they get from their attendance in the assembly. They need to discard the outward reflection and look deeper to see what the heart reflects.

The pews in Ezekiel’s day were filled with a very pleasant appearance, but what mattered concerning hearing the word of God was missing from their assembly. Today, it may be that the pews are still filled with the same kind of hearts, which is a sad and concerning thought. May our mourning bring about closer self-examination, and if need be, may we shed the pursuit of selfish desire, and honor God not only with our lips but now forevermore with our hearts.

Article by Tanner Campbell.