God’s Mercy Toward the Wicked
“As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (v. 11).- Ezekiel 33:1–20
Ezekiel is known for his vivid descriptions of sin and the unthinkable idea among many ancient Jews that God would abandon the Promised Land and the temple (10; 16:1–58). It is incredible, then, that the prophet also clearly displays the Lord’s commitment never to abandon His people utterly (Gen. 15). The fact that God continued speaking to His people in Babylon through Ezekiel proves that He would not allow His chosen nation to pass away.
The prophet went into exile with the group of leading Judahites who were taken to Babylon with King Jehoiachin of Judah in 597/598 B.C.(2 Kings 24:1b–17). One might think that this exile, which confirmed the Lord’s promise to punish the impenitent nation, would have convinced the people who were exiled alongside Ezekiel to believe the prophet and repent. However, disbelief and a strange kind of fatalism persisted among the exiles.
In today’s passage, Ezekiel reiterates his calling as Israel’s watchman (see Ezek. 3:16– 27). Since a watchman sat at the city’s highest point and warned the people when he saw the enemy approaching, Ezekiel was to warn the people of the consequences of their sin. That way, the people could never claim ignorance of the Lord’s standards in order to excuse themselves. Those who did repent when warned would be forgiven and restored (33:1–9).
The people responded in disbelief. For some reason, the community thought that since the exile was God’s punishment, He did not desire their restoration (v. 10). Essentially, they viewed the Lord as taking sadistic pleasure in punishing people for sin, as if punishing people gave Him so much joy that He would not look on a penitent people with kindness. Ezekiel corrected this blasphemy, reminding the exiles that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He is no sadist who gets joy out of a sinner’s pain in itself. Our Father’s rod of discipline for His people is a means to greater ends—our good and His glory. Thus, He eagerly forgives people when they turn from their evil.
This announcement should have made the people rejoice. However, they questioned theLord’s justice when He pledged to show mercy to repentant sinners. So, did that mean that they wanted justice instead of mercy? No, they also objected when the Lord said that He would condemn all those who turned from serving Him to do evil in His sight (vv. 12–20). In their rebellion, the exiles showed that they would not be satisfied even if God were to give them exactly what they asked for.
Ezekiel could not win with his original audience. They started out as fatalists who believed that the exile meant God had no desire to forgive them. Then, when Ezekiel told them that they were wrong and that the Lord did indeed want to pardon them, the people said it would not be just for God to do so. Clearly, their hearts were hard. If we are not careful, our hearts can get hard as well. Let us remember that the Lord is eager to forgive the repentant and is just when He does so.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 1:8–9