Idolatry Leads to Uselessness


Idolatry Leads to Uselessness

Ezekiel 14:1–15:8

Main Idea: Our sin can never be concealed from God, and it costs us more than it’s worth, but it can be covered by Christ.

I. Our Idolatry Cannot Be Concealed (14:1-11).

II. Our Idolatry Always Costs Us (15:1-8).

III. Our Idolatry Must Be Covered by Another (14:12-23).

Have you ever done something wrong but felt like you could keep it concealed? When I was young, I learned, “Our sins will find us out.” When I was around four, I went with my mother to visit one of her friends. While there I asked for a glass of water. I then put the water in my mouth, ran to the next room, and released it from my mouth into a vase on a coffee table. Perhaps “around” the vase would be a more accurate description. Needless to say, I made a mess. I chose not to tell Mom what I did. By the time we got home, however, our phone was ringing off the hook. My mother’s friend wanted to be sure Mom knew what I had done with the water she gave me. Mom hung up the phone and called me by my full name. I prayed, “Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly far, far away!” I was busted in more ways than one that day.

Spitting water into a vase is indeed child’s play compared to some of the sins you and I try to conceal. For whatever reason we think God will ignore our rebellion and go on with business as usual. God never ignores our sin. Rooting out sin in our lives is business as usual for God. If He does not do this, then we will not be useful for His kingdom. In Ezekiel 14–15 God is going to expose the idolatry of the exilic elders. Because of their sin Israel has become like a worthless vine. In the end no one will be righteous enough to stop God’s judgment on His people.

Our Idolatry Cannot Be Concealed

Ezekiel 14:1-11

As bad as Jerusalem’s leadership was (8:1-18; 11:1-13), God’s people in Babylon were not exactly blessed with godly leaders themselves. Apparently Babylon’s taking of Israel’s best leaders was not equivalent with taking her holiest ones. In Ezekiel 8 we may have been shocked to see all the idolatry committed by the leaders of God’s people who were still living in Jerusalem. As you may recall, some of the exilic leaders were sitting with Ezekiel when he received the vision that comprises chapters 8–11. What we learn in Ezekiel 14, though, is that the elders in Babylon were not any godlier than those in Jerusalem, and some may have even been worse. The elders in Jerusalem brought idols into the temple, but those in Babylon had set up idols in their hearts and put sinful stumbling blocks before their faces (14:3).

I can imagine the exilic elders shaking their heads when they heard the news of their counterparts’ leadership in Jerusalem. They might have even asked, “Can you believe those guys?” But to scoff at those who brought idols into the Lord’s temple is foolish when those who’ve brought idols into their hearts are doing the scoffing.

We may camouflage our hypocrisy with external religious orthodoxy, but nothing can conceal the pagan secrets of our heart from God. How much time and energy do we spend worrying about what others will think about us rather than what God thinks? What does it matter if our peers think we have it all together, when God knows we do not? The beauty of the cross is that Christ has already covered any idolatry we confess. As leaders in our home, let us not conceal sin in our hearts and lead our families away from God, but let us confess sin and lead our families to the only One who can do anything about it.

These elders were not political leaders but were heads of households. They were fathers and grandfathers. They were the shepherds of their homes, and their leadership would not be without effect. Sadly, what was true of them was also true of the entire house of Israel who had taken idols into their hearts and become estranged from the Lord (14:5). If the fathers and grandfathers were active in idolatry, it should not be completely surprising the practice spread to everyone else.

In bringing the idols into their hearts, the elders brought rivals to where love for God alone was to reside (Deut 6:5). The elders were supposed to teach their offspring what exclusive devotion to Yahweh looked like; instead their affections were divided among many gods. God, however, would once again take hold of Israel by their hearts (14:5).

We can learn much about God and the elders through their interaction in Ezekiel 14. First, God will be sought on His terms and not ours (vv. 2-3). The elders of Israel have done the right thing by coming to God, but they apparently had not done so with the right hearts. Block notes,

Even if the Lord invites all to come to Him and knock, seek, and ask, He is under no obligation to respond to everyone who approaches Him, especially not those who demonstrate no covenant faithfulness in their daily lives. To receive a favorable answer from the divine king one must come with sincerity and on his terms, among which is included his exclusive right to one’s devotion. God tolerates no rivals. Nor does He permit Himself to be reduced to a sorcerer’s agent, disclosing future events and solving the problems of all who appeal for His aid. (Block, Ezekiel 1–24, 437)

We are foolish when we think our pursuit of sin will not impact our relationship with God. Setting up idols in our heart always separates us from God (v. 7). We cannot walk toward God and toward sin simultaneously. I’m honestly not sure if the elders in Ezekiel 14 thought they could hide their sin from God or if they just did not think He would care. They were wrong, and God refused to be inquired of by those whose heart did not belong fully to Him. It would have been humorous if God told the elders to consult their idols. How long do you think they would have had to wait for an answer? We are so foolish to turn from the living God and serve nonexistent ones.

Second, God remains gracious and merciful to all who repent of their sin (v. 6). Just as inquiring of the Lord is a privilege so is repentance. God is not obligated to plead with us to abandon our adulterous relationships with idols. He can extend judgment and be just as holy as He has always been. God, however, takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Though the house of Israel had gone away from Him (v. 5), God lovingly called them to abandon the path of death and to live. How do we treat those who wound us?

Third, all of God’s discipline has the dual goal of His glory and our good as He conforms us to Christ and pries the idols from our hearts (vv. 5,11). Yahweh wanted to take hold of Israel by their hearts (v. 5). Block notes,

The Lord is never capricious in his judgment. His responses to human sin are consistent with his immutable character and have as their goal the transformation of sinful human beings into a covenant people, pure and exclusive in their devotion to him. (Ibid.)

God disciplined His people in order that the house of Israel may no longer stray from following Him (v. 11). In saving us from our sins, God is saving us from ourselves. He graciously steps in and does what we in our fallen state are too weak to do on our own. He helps us release the lifeless idols we are clutching with our hands and storing in our hearts, so that we do not lay our lives down beside them. To die for the living God is one thing, but to die for gods we’ve created is a tragedy. Our prayer should always be, God help me love You with all my heart and root out any other competitor that I foolishly invite in.

Fourth, God will give ungodly leaders exactly what they deserve (vv. 8,23). Those who continue to reject Yahweh will find themselves rejected. If they refused to repent, “God himself would answer their empty inquiry with action, not words” (Alexander, Ezekiel, 805). God never judges without cause (v. 23). The nonrepentant elders would set an example for God’s people, just not in the way they might have thought. When God enacts the covenant curses on them, they will become a sign and a proverb (v. 8) to the rest of the people. Idolatry is foolish, but failing to repent of idolatry is even worse. Thinking on your leadership for a moment, is God teaching others more through your obedience or disobedience? Do those you disciple see you repent of sin quickly or struggle to release it?

Fifth, if we seek something other than God and His truth, we should not be surprised when we end up deceived (v. 9). If the elders refused to be honest with God and deal with their idolatry, then God would withhold right counsel from them. God would not put lies in the minds of the false prophets; He would merely let them share the lies they already possessed. The result would be that both the false prophet and those who refused to forsake their idolatry would be destroyed.

Our Idolatry Always Costs Us

Ezekiel 15:1-8

Nothing will keep the gospel from advancing in us and through us more than our pursuit of sin. Are you ready for an agricultural pop quiz? What is an apple tree supposed to produce? Apples. What is an orange tree supposed to produce? Oranges. What is a pear tree supposed to produce? Pears. I’m sure you get it by now, but let me ask you, What if each of these three trees does not produce their intended fruit? What else are they good for? Perhaps shade or firewood, but neither of these benefits is the primary purpose for which these trees were created.

In Ezekiel 15 we are informed the grapevine exists for one purpose. It is not useful for making furniture (vv. 2-3). It is not useful as a wall peg (v. 3). If the grapevine is not producing fruit, then its only use is for the fire (v. 4). Once burned, the vine is even less useful (v. 5). Like the vine in the illustration, Jerusalem and God’s people had become fruitless and worthless.

What led to Israel’s uselessness? They acted unfaithfully toward God (v. 8). They cheated on God with gods that did not exist and with idols they brought into their hearts. They engaged in disobedience and disbelief. Peter did not want those he loved becoming unfruitful, so he told them how to avoid it:

Make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 1:5-8)

Even in exile God did not want His people to be useless or unfruitful. Through the pen of Jeremiah, God sent a letter to the exiles. He told them to “seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper” (Jer 29:7). For seeking the welfare of their city to even be a possibility “suggests that many Jews managed fairly well in captivity” (Smith, Prophets, 253). God always has a purpose for when He places us somewhere. Even exile is a stewardship for God’s people.

The exiles are not to be passive, but they are intentionally to seek the good of the Babylonians. Paul told the Galatians, “As we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). We cannot simultaneously seek the good of our cities and join them in sin. Even if the Israelites considered the Babylonians to be their enemies, they were still to intercede for them. This admonition is the same one we have received from Jesus (Matt 5:44).

The greatest good God’s people can do for the cities in which they live is to proclaim the gospel. Of course, the gospel will not advance through us if it is not advancing in us. Furthermore, we cannot seek the good of the city if we continually seek ways out of the city. Likewise, we cannot seek the good of the city if we make the walls of the faith community a fortress we stay behind. Uselessness was never a path God chose for His people but one they chose for themselves every time they pursued sin.

How about your faith family? Is your congregation seeking the good of its city, or is it seeking sin just like everyone else? In what ways is your city a better place to live because your church exists? How often does your faith family pray for the good of your city?

I am not sure how much time I have spent pursuing sin in my life, but I do know two things about it. First, I’ve spent a lot of time in rebellious pursuits. Second, all of that time has been wasted. Sin never provides a single benefit. Instead of seeking sin and becoming useless like those in Jerusalem, let us seek the good of our cities and pray for them. Our exile will one day come to an end as well. Let us always be mindful of Peter’s exhortation:

Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and temporary residents to abstain from fleshly desires that war against you. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that in a case where they speak against you as those who do what is evil, they will, by observing your good works, glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Pet 2:11-12)

Our Idolatry Must Be Covered by Another

Ezekiel 14:12-23

Paul once said,

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience is testifying to me with the Holy Spirit—that I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites. (Rom 9:1-4)

Could you imagine trading your eternity for the benefit of others? Paul said he almost desired to perish and be forsaken if it meant his people, the Israelites, would not be. I find it most interesting these were the people who tended to bring Paul the most harm, but he was resilient in his love for them and concern for their souls.

Paul’s “almost-wish,” however, is not a possibility. He is not able to save others because he is not able to save himself. All of Paul’s righteousness has been given to him rather than earned by him, and it does not transfer to another designee of his choosing.

As Ezekiel 14 draws to a close, God tells Jerusalem He is going to send sword, famine, dangerous animals, and plague in order to wipe out both man and animal from it (v. 21). What’s more, no one can stop it. When you think of righteous men mentioned in the Bible, who in particular comes to your mind besides Christ? If you are struggling to generate a roster, the Lord has three suggestions for you. His list includes Noah, Daniel, and Job (v. 14). God includes this trio merely to point out that even if they were in Jerusalem they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness (v. 14), but they could do nothing to save the city from God’s judgment. In fact, they are powerless even to deliver their sons and daughters (v. 16). God’s people have chosen idolatry, their idolatry has made them useless, and now God is going to wipe them out for their pursuit of sin and lack of repentance.

In light of the conclusion of Ezekiel 14, we are reminded there is only one whose righteousness can save Jerusalem and every other city. Christ’s righteousness alone can be imputed to others. Unlike Noah, Daniel, and Job, Christ can save us from the wrath that is coming because He took it upon Himself (1 Thess 1:10). Since we cannot transfer any personal righteousness to others, the greatest thing we can do is to share the gospel with them and beg them to flee to Christ. If God did not withhold His judgment from His holy city or from His Son when our sin was laid on Him, then He will not withhold His judgment from anyone else.


Secret sin is only a secret to other people. It’s no secret to us or to God. As much as we want God to turn a blind eye to our rebellion, He refuses. We were created for His glory (Isa 43:7) and not for our cravings. If God leaves us to ourselves, we will become worthless and will eventually be destroyed. Christ, however, can deliver us from these bodies of death and provide the only means of escaping God’s coming judgment (Rom 7:24-25). On our best day our blood could never do the work Christ’s has done. We should depend on Christ alone, and we should seek the good of our cities by calling them to turn from their sin and live.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. Why do we seem to care more about what others think of our sin than what God thinks?
  2. Have you ever concealed sin? How did that turn out for you and others around you?
  3. How does sin affect our relationship with God?
  4. How can we minimize bringing idols into our heart?
  5. How can we maximize loving God with all of our heart?
  6. What is our purpose in life, and how does sin work against this?
  7. Who would you like to see respond to the gospel more than anyone else? In what ways is God using you in their life?
  8. How is your faith family intentionally working for the good of your city?
  9. How often do you pray for your city? What do you pray for your city?
  10. When you see how powerful the blood of Christ is in atoning for our sin, what words would you use to express your gratitude to Him?