What’s the God-Mobile Doing in Babylon?!
Babylon was Israel’s enemy. It was a land of pagans, a land of uncleanness. It’s not where the divine presence dwells. Everyone knows that the temple is the permanent residence of God’s kavod, the place where heaven meets earth in the Holy of Holies. And that temple was in the heart of Jerusalem, not Babylon. But about fourteen months into Ezekiel’s grueling task as a prophet, he receives another vision that’s going to explain the whole God-mobile in Babylon thing.
In chapter 8, Ezekiel is “transported” to Jerusalem to get a virtual tour of the temple. It’s a visionary experience like no other. He sees the kinds of things happening in God’s dwelling place in his absence. In the outer courtyard, there is a large idol statue, and he sees the elders of Israel worshipping other gods both outside and inside the temple. He sees all sorts of idol images engraved on the walls and witnesses the women of Israel worshipping a Babylonian god named Tammuz. There were even men in the inner court with their backs to the temple and their faces toward the east worshiping the sun. Idolatry and prayers offered to animal deities, sun worship, and cultic practices were all happening in the temple! This is like a husband having sex with multiple people in the very bed that’s supposed to be reserved for the sacred intimacy between him and his wife. It’s disgusting.
Their lewd behavior and flagrant idolatry had so thoroughly corrupted Yahweh’s sacred space that he could no longer stay around to tolerate it. His own people were pushing him out. In Ezekiel 9:3 we see that “the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house.” God’s kavod is suspended in air towards the east as he executes judgment and prepares for his exit. Wright notes, “He was leaving, but not because he wanted to; rather, because his own covenant people were doing things that will drive [Yahweh] far from [his] sanctuary” (The Message of Ezekiel). In Ezekiel 11:22-25, the kavod of the Lord departs “And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.” The vision ends with an “empty” temple full of covenant-breakers.
But notice how the God-mobile heads east, towards Babylon! It’s here that we realize why the God-mobile appeared to Ezekiel in chapter 1. Israel’s idolatry and covenant violation had become so blatant and offensive that God left his temple. Yet, he didn’t abandon his people. Tucked within Ezekiel 11:16, is an explanation of his purposes: he sent his people into exile, but would go with them and be a sanctuary for a time. In other words, the divine presence is a portable temple that has gone into exile with his people. He has not and will not forget his promise to be their God. He will live among them in Babylon, preparing a remnant to be restored through a new covenant.
Ezekiel 11:17-20 anticipates the theme of restoration and renewal through the Spirit, which is the focus of the latter half of Ezekiel. It’s a beautiful passage worth meditating on because it will sustain you through a lot of judgment passages until the major shift in chapter 34.
Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. – Ezekiel 11:17-20
What hope for covenant-breakers like Israel… and like us. Come back to this text as many times as you need during your reading in the first half of Ezekiel. It’s such good news in the midst of a lot of bad news. Then next week we’ll explore the restoration imagery in Ezekiel to see how God’s people will be reunified under a new king (King Jesus!) and renewed under a new covenant by the transforming power of the Spirit. It’s definitely a high point in the Old Testament. Stay tuned!
Whitney Woollard is a writer, speaker, and Bible teacher in Portland, OR. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Bible with others. You can check out her work at her website, whitneywoollard.com