Determinism in the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel

As should be expected, the prophet Ezekiel promotes the same theoretical unCalvinistic and libertarian worldview as do both prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. This is not surprising, given the notion of Scripture as being wholly agreeable, and that, theologically, its authors will not espouse contrary views regarding the character and nature of God. In other words, if one prophet propounds a libertarian worldview, then all prophets do so as well. We find agreement among the various authors, so much so that one will not find an author vying for Calvinistic, exhaustive determinism and, at the same time, another for libertarian free will. Where we discover one overarching worldview we find the same among all other authors.

Israel as a nation has always experienced hardship from neighboring peoples.1 But that was mostly due to their own failure to be faithful to their God. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were called of God to confront the people of Israel -- His own cherished people with whom He made an everlasting covenant -- for their sins (cf. Isa. 1:2; 30:1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13; Jer. 2:5-9; Ezek. 2:3-5; 16:59). Calvinists demand we believe that God has decreed all events that occur in the earth, including sin, evil and rebellion.2 The prophets, however, paint a different portrait of God, thus displaying the beauty and consistent faithfulness of Arminian theology, and the implicit rejection of even a semblance of meticulous, Calvinistic, exhaustive determinism.

Following a stunning, majestic vision of the sovereign God of the universe (Ezek. 1:1-28), Ezekiel is called by God to be His mouthpiece to the Israelites: "Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day." (Ezek. 2:3 ESV) God notes again and again the "impudent and stubborn" nature of His people (Ezek. 2:4, 5, 7; 3:7, 26, 27; 5:5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11). He attributes their stubbornness and rebellion to their own wayward and sinful state -- a state for which they are solely responsible -- a state which was not foreordained for them by an alleged eternal decree of God.

God tells His prophet to speak to this rebellious people whether they are willing to listen or not, for they are a rebellious house, "they shall know that there has been a prophet among them." (Ezek. 2:5) But He also calls his prophet Ezekiel to listen to His words and "not be rebellious like that rebellious house" (Ezek. 2:8). How shall we perceive this warning? Shall we take such prima facie, at face value, thus taking the words of God very seriously? In other words, could Ezekiel have chosen to not listen to the message of YHWH?

As earnestly as Ezekiel himself (and a few others in Israel) heeded God's words, and threatenings, so must we be as sincere when reading God's warnings. God Himself knew that if He had sent Ezekiel to some other nations, they would have listened to him. (Ezek. 3:6) But not Israel -- Israel "will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart." (Ezek. 3:7 NRSV, emphases added) By "all" does God here refer to every single individual? Or were some of His people willing to listen? Yes, some were willing to heed God's warnings and rebukes (cf. Ezek. 3:27). The rest were not willing but remained stubborn.

To what shall we refer as being the cause, whether primary or secondary cause, of some being willing and others not being willing to heed God's words? Shall we lay the cause in a secret eternal decree, as do Calvinists,3 or in the libertarian freedom of the people? God Himself answers, affirming the latter in lieu of the former position:
If I say to the wicked, "You shall surely die," and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. (Ezek. 3:18, emphases added)
If Calvinism were in any sense true, then God could not use the language of Ezekiel refusing to give the wicked His message, not unless God is a double-minded Person. Instead, YHWH refers to the willing or unwilling nature of Ezekiel in proclaiming His words, in warning the wicked to turn from their wickedness. Moreover, God's intent in using Ezekiel to warn the wicked is for their repentance, which He is graciously granting them, yet not irresistibly so, since the potential remains that some will not repent. (Ezek. 3:19) Furthermore, God explicitly admits that righteous persons can willingly turn from their righteous state, a concept completely undermined and contradicted by Calvinistic philosophy:
Again, if the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before them, they shall die; because you have not warned them, they shall die for their sin, and their righteous deeds that they have done shall not be remembered; but their blood I will require at your hand. (Ezek. 3:20, emphases added)
The God of Israel concludes: "If, however, you warn the righteous not to sin, and they do not sin, they shall surely live, because they took warning; and you will have saved your life." (Ezek. 4:21) The conclusion of this matter should be obvious: God has not predetermined by decree who is and who is not -- who will be and who will not be -- righteous; but He actually governs His world, including the people whom He created in His own image, in such a way as to honor the choices of those people, without decreeing those choices, as Calvinists erroneously insist, or be threatened by those choices. YHWH states: "let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse; for they are a rebellious house." (Ezek. 3:27)

As with Isaiah, and Jeremiah, the prophet Ezekiel in no way conceivable imagines that God has decreed the wickedness, idolatry, and rebellion of His people Israel. By God's own command, the prophet proclaims, "But she has rebelled against my ordinances and my statutes, becoming more wicked than the nations and the countries all around her, rejecting my ordinances and not following my statutes." (Ezek. 5:6) This, indeed, was scandalous. God's people became, in time, more wicked than the wicked pagans around them. Now, because of this rebellion, God emphatically responds:
Because you are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you, and have not followed my statutes or kept my ordinances, but have acted according to the ordinances of the nations that are all around you; therefore thus says the Lord GOD: I, I myself, am coming against you; I will execute judgments among you in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations, I will do to you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. (Ezek. 5:7-9)
YHWH justly and righteously places the blame for Israel's sin, idolatry, wickedness and rebellion to their own stubborn and sinful willingness. He in no sense whatsoever decreed for them to be rebellious and then punished them for being rebellious. This, in essence, is what Calvinism teaches and what the Bible explicitly contradicts as being unworthy of a God who is perfect in holiness, justice, and righteousness.

He even confesses: "Those of you who will escape [the coming judgment] shall remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I was crushed by their wanton heart that turned away from me, and their wanton eyes that turned after their idols." (Ezek. 6:9, emphasis added) What more explicit evidence can we grant from the words of God Himself that He would never -- could never -- decree sin, evil, and idolatry, since He so very much despises the same, and grieves inexplicably when His people turn away from Him?

More clearly and emphatically: we are not suggesting that Calvinists misinterpret Scripture merely because they oppose our hermeneutic. We are insisting that Calvinists misinterpret Scripture regarding the sovereignty of God because of explicit statements made by God and His prophets.



For example, in His righteousness, God informs His sinful people: "I will judge you according to your ways. (Ezek. 7:3, 4, 8, 9, 27) While Calvinists most heinously insist that our holy and righteous God "influences the desires and decisions of people,"4 Scripture, quite contradictorily, insists: "According to their way I will deal with them; according to their own judgments I will judge them." (Ezek. 7:27) Because of the willing rebellion of the Israelites, God stated that the people were driving Him far from His own sanctuary (Ezek. 8:6). Their idolatry provoked Him to anger (Ezek. 8:17). When Ezekiel was horrified by God's judgment, fearing that the whole nation would be wiped out, God responded to his cry:
The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of perversity; for they say, "The LORD has forsaken the land, and the LORD does not see [our idolatry]." As for me, my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity, but I will bring down their deeds upon their heads. (Ezek. 9:9-10, emphasis added)
Nowhere, and not once, are we granted permission to view Israel's rebellion as being decreed by God. Calvinism is driven by this philosophical presupposition that God has final control over the will of humanity, and that is not from the Bible, it is read into the Bible -- it is eisegesis proper. We must make such a conclusion when we read passages such as this: "Say, Thus says the LORD: This is what you think, O house of Israel; I know the things that come into your mind." (Ezek. 11:5, emphasis added)

Rather than appeal to God's exhaustive knowledge, Calvinists assume that God knows what comes into the mind of people because He influences the desires and decisions of people. Calvinists reject any concept of God foreknowing future events and, hence, God has decreed all future events. Therefore, how God knows their thoughts is by His meticulous and exhaustive decree of those thoughts. Yet, this is an entirely inappropriate method of interpreting Scripture: it is presumptuous rather than exegetical. The Hebrew text merely states: "I know your thoughts." No mention is stated anywhere about God having decreed those thoughts.

As a matter of fact, the prophet informs us of God's relationship to the thoughts of people: "Mortal, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination; 'Hear the word of the LORD!' Thus says the Lord GOD, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!" (Ezek. 13:2-3, emphases added; cf. Ezek. 13:8, 9, 10, 17; 20:32) If one insists that God influences the desires and decisions of all people, then we must conclude here that God influenced the false prophets to prophesy "out of their own imagination" those thoughts He Himself put into their minds. But what kind of morbid, corrupt God would influence wickedness and sin, and then point the finger when a person sins? That would be tantamount to blaming a compass for pointing north! But our righteous God places the blame where it belongs:
You have discouraged the righteous with your lies, but I didn't want them to be sad. And you have encouraged the wicked by promising them life, even though they continue in their sins. Because of all this, you will no longer talk of seeing visions that you never saw, nor will you make predictions. For I will rescue my people from your grasp. Then you will know that I am the LORD. (Ezek. 13:22-23 NLT, emphasis added)
I find the notion odd that God's wishes and wants and desires do not come to fruition regarding the nation Israel. Yet Calvinists insist that God always gets what He wants. Or, rather, He has decreed to occur all that He wills to occur in history. Still, if He has decreed all that occurs, and events occur for which He complains, and even punishes people for enacting the very events which He decreed, then what kind of God are we promoting?

In short, the Calvinistic God is either wrestling with a bi-polar condition or is schizophrenic. The truth of the matter regarding the sovereignty of God can be summed up in a simple statement: "When you meet them and see their behavior, you will understand that these things are not being done to Israel without cause. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken!" (Ezek. 14:23)

YHWH can justly and righteously place the blame for sin and rebellion where it properly belongs because He has not decreed for anyone to be sinful and rebellious. (cf. Ezek. 16:23-29) "How sick is your heart, says the Lord GOD, that you did all things, the deeds of a brazen whore" (Ezek. 16:30 NRSV; cf. Ezek. 16:31-52). "You must bear the penalty of your lewdness and your abominations, says the LORD." (Ezek. 16:58; cf. Ezek. 23:1-49)

God informs the people of Israel that each person must be held accountable for his or her own sins (Ezek. 18:1-22). Since God requires that each person be responsible for his or her actions, then we can be certain, due to the just nature of God Himself, that He has not decreed the influencing of our desires and decisions. The end of the matter is this: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?" (Ezek. 18:23, emphasis added)

He adds: "Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live." (Ezek. 18:31-32, emphasis added; cf. Ezek. 33:10-16) Note carefully here the heart of God, as Creator, for the creatures created in His image. Witness His words of pleading with people to be rescued from the results of their sin. He does not leave them to their own spiritual inability to be rescued, either, but graciously enables all to repent (cf. Rom. 2:4). He will give a new heart when someone, by grace, wants a new heart.

Should anyone imagine that God is in any sense disingenuous here, and does not truly want all to be saved, then that person is not only misinterpreting Scripture, but is guilty of morphing the character of God Himself into an image distorted from reality. The God of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel is a just and glorious God who is mighty and eager to save from sin all who will, by grace, trust in His arm to save. He has neither decreed our thoughts, words, or actions, nor has He decreed unconditionally only to save some. These are entirely distorted notions eisegeted from an inappropriate hermeneutic.

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1 Daniel I. Bock, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament) (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 1-2.

2 Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143; and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 1.18.1.

3 Westminster Confession of Faith, 3. I, II.

4 Grudem, Bible Doctrine, 143.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.