Ezekiel, Syncretism and the Cry for Relevance

Quote of the year:
“The essence of idolatry is not so much the denial of the reality of God, as it is the denial of the relevance of God.”- Iain Duguid, from the NIV Application Commentary on Ezekiel

I had a friend at work once that, knowing me to be in training for the ministry, asked me some religious questions. I don’t remember how it happened, but we ended up discussing ancient Israel. I explained to him the idea of syncretism as the mixing and matching of religious principles. Someone who, for example, looked to God for moral principles but looked to science for the truth of the natural world is a syncretist, I said.

“Ah, yes, that’s what I am,” my friend said. “A syncretist.”

We have been working through the book of Ezekiel in our Bible study here in Limon. I have been amazed at just how relevant it is. God’s chief complaint against the Jews in Judah is not that they have abandoned His worship, but that they have mixed His worship with the worship of other gods. Archaeological evidence has revealed in many of the places of worship in ancient Israel that priests of Jehovah and priests of other gods would work side by side in the high places and sacred groves in Judah, and Ezekiel claims that they engaged in this practice even in Solomon’s temple (see chapter 8).

The combination of the worship of God with other religions is referred to as syncretism. The Jews thought Jehovah was a great war God, and would call on Him in times of battle (see king Ahab in 1 Kings 22) but Baal and Astaroth had their uses too, if you wanted the crops to grow or if you wanted your wife to give you a son. Why should Jehovah get all the glory?

Of course eventually, if there is a disconnect between what people do on Sunday (or Saturday) and the rest of the week, that disconnect will agitate for a resolution. People are a lot more consistent than they’re often given credit for. And so, eventually, they will begin to complain that Jehovah isn’t “relevant”. Why should they worship the God of Israel one day a week when it’s clear that these other gods are doing so much for them the rest of the time? And so, when the Jews say in chapter 8 that Jehovah does not see and has forsaken the land, they are not saying that they think they can get away with worshiping these other gods (what I used to think they were saying). No, they’re saying Jehovah isn’t relevant. And so the process that begins in the countryside ends in the temple. The idols that began as subordinate gods, gods only for specific uses and purposes, end up being brought into the temple itself, and completely usurping Jehovah’s place.

This is of course the breaking point. Now their iniquity is complete, and God declares that He is ready to demonstrate exactly how relevant He is. Seven times in Ezekiel chapters 5 and 6, God uses the phrase “they will know that I am God”. This is His chief concern- He will not be ignored. He will not be put on the back burner. He will not share His glory with another, any more than a husband would share his wife’s love with another man. And so, in chapter 9, the six men with their pounding weapons are ordered to go through the city, beginning at the temple, and kill everyone who does not bear the mark of covenant faithfulness. Everyone. They are not to pity, their eye is not to spare. Men, women, children, old, young, everyone. And they do.

Often I have looked at this country of ours and thought to myself that with all of our faults and failures there are still a lot of people in this country who name the name of Christ, who go to church and who worship God in at least some sense. But this is really no different than what Judah was doing in the days of Ezekiel. They may have worshiped Jehovah on the Sabbath and during the yearly feasts, but they looked other places for their prosperity and security (the idol of jealousy guarding the north gate in ch. 8). They attributed the natural forces to their gods and not to Jehovah (see the cult of Tammuz referenced in chapter 8) and they even worshiped the sun (ch. 8), a cult which was always associated with the origin of life.

How many Christians in this country do the exact same thing? Maybe they don’t have the idols or use the names. But how many go to church on Sunday but devote the rest of their lives to the service of their idols? How many Christians believe that our military will keep them safe, instead of God? How many Christians believe that our capitalist system will provide prosperity instead of God? And how many look to science and technology to explain and control the natural universe, instead of God? How many Christians believe that God has no place in politics? And not just his name in a pledge or some Scripture on a plaque, but that our functioning in the political world should be ruled at every point by Biblical principles? In practice, most people today making an argument for separation of church and state are making an argument for syncretism.

The name for all such practice of Christianity mixed with the idols of this world is syncretism. It is the essence of idolatry.

And the process for us has been the same as the process for ancient Israel. First the idols intrude into the “secular” world, alongside Jehovah. But then the drug of autonomy is too addicting, and Jehovah is removed from the public sphere, from the secular world, and relegated in people’s minds to Sunday only (and maybe Wednesday nights). And I’m not talking about laws or regulations. I’m talking about what happens in people’s minds. Finally, since God is gone from most of life, His worship on Sunday comes to seem irrelevant. And in the name of “relevance”, the idols are brought into the temple. The idols of money, of power, of self-help, of politics, of pleasure, leisure and fame, all of them are brought into the worship of God.

But that isn’t the final step of the process. The people who do this do it because they believe that Jehovah has abandoned the earth, that He does not see. But they are wrong. He does see. And He is a jealous God, who will not share His glory with another. And so when His great patience is at an end; when He is ready, He will remind the people exactly how relevant He is.

America is not the covenant people of God. And so the lessons of Ezekiel do not directly apply to America as a nation. It is the church which is the covenant people of God, and praise God, the church as a whole has not apostasized, and by the promises of the New Covenant, it never will.

But God is still God, and He never changes. We learn who He is in the book of Ezekiel. We learn about His jealousy for His holy name. And though there is not a direct parallel between the judgment that came on Judah in 587-586 BC and any possible judgment for any particular body today, God is still the judge, and judgment certainly comes on individuals constantly, and may come on all unbelievers and hypocrites at any time. So let us resolve to decide today that the knowledge and worship of the one true God is the most relevant thing we could possibly know.

3 thoughts on “Ezekiel, Syncretism and the Cry for Relevance

  1. Matt,

    That was so well written – great job. By correctly interpreting the Scriptures and shining the light of them on to this culture, you surfaced the subtle idolatry going on in the church in America today.

    I would only add this: I do believe that there ARE a few parallels with Israel and America today. No, America is not God’s covenant people, but we, the people of America, ARE the government (of, by and for the people). And, if it’s true that we Christians are the majority in this country (as silent as we may be), then, how can God not bring judgment on a government (who is ruled by the people – the majority being Christians) that permits the legal sacrifice of unborn children?

    God disciplines individuals, and He also disciplines / judges those in authority who are either abusive or neglectful. In our passivity we have neglected to protect the unborn. We’ve allowed for this atrocity of legal murder of God’s image bearers – who no less bear His image than the born image bearers.

    Gen 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

    The idols of prosperity and power – trusting in materialism and our military instead of God – has blinded us to our high calling to be the salt and light to our culture. And since God has entrusted us with the government – has given it to us to be stewards – we will account to Him on how we have governed this country.

    Thanks again for your well written article.

    – Michael

  2. I think you wore an excellent article on syncretism, Ezekiel, and God.

    But I wanted to comment on some of your later remarks.

    I believe in the strength of our military. But I pray for those men and women every day because I know that God is far stronger than they are.

    I believe that a capitalist economy is the best one for any country. But I recognize my opportunity to live in one is clearly a blessing from God.

    I doubt that anyone who is living a Christian life wants God out of politics. Social Christianity is not syncretistic. It’s just a cloak to hide an identity that isn’t anything like the reality of Christianity.

    I am not sure we are any longer a Christian nation. We have the form, but not the reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *