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The Slaughter of the Idolaters


Then he cried in my hearing with a loud voice, saying, “Draw near, you executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand.” 2And six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his weapon for slaughter in his hand; among them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side. They went in and stood beside the bronze altar.

3 Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. The Lord called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side; 4and said to him, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” 5To the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. 6Cut down old men, young men and young women, little children and women, but touch no one who has the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were in front of the house. 7Then he said to them, “Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain. Go!” So they went out and killed in the city. 8While they were killing, and I was left alone, I fell prostrate on my face and cried out, “Ah Lord God! will you destroy all who remain of Israel as you pour out your wrath upon Jerusalem?” 9He said to me, “The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city full of perversity; for they say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see.’ 10As for me, my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity, but I will bring down their deeds upon their heads.”

11 Then the man clothed in linen, with the writing case at his side, brought back word, saying, “I have done as you commanded me.”

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Now the manner of that vengeance which was lately mentioned is expressed. Hence the Prophet says, God exclaimed, so that his command reached to the Chaldeans, who were to be executors of his vengeance, and therefore the imperative mood pleases me better, approach ye therefore. Those who consider the tense past say “visitations,” nor can they do otherwise, because no sense can be elicited from the words — to have approached the prefecture of the city. But if we read the imperative mood, the sense agrees very well, approach ye the prefecture: the thing is put for the persons, or the name of the men may be understood, and thus פקדות, phekdoth, may be taken in the genitive case. As to the general meaning, God commands his servants who held authority over the devoted city, to approach, or apply themselves, or be ready to fulfill his work, and let each, says he, have his instrument of destruction: here destruction is taken actively. For God does not mean that the Chaldeans were armed for their own destruction, but for that of the Jews, and the ruin of the city. It follows —

Ezekiel 9:2

2. And, behold, six men came from the way of the higher gate, which lieth toward the north, and every man a slaughter-weapon in his band; and one man among them was clothed with linen, with a writer’s inkhorn by his side: and they went in, and stood beside the brasen altar.

2. Et ecce sex viri venientes e via portae superioris 195195     Or, “lofty.” — Calvin quae est e regione aquilonis: et cuique 196196     Verbally,” every man.” — Calvin instrumentum mallei sui 197197     Or, “of his breaking in pieces.” — Calvin. in manu sua: et vir unus in medio ipsorum vestitus lineis, 198198     “In a linen garment.” — Calvin et atramentarium scribae in lumbis ejus: et venerunt, et steterunt e regione altaris aenei.


Now the Prophet writes that God’s command was not vain or empty, because the effect appears directly by vision. Therefore six men offered themselves. Why again he names six, rather than more or fewer, I have not found out. For some cite the thirty-ninth chapter of Jeremiah, where eight leaders are referred to who were in Nebuchadnezzar’s army, and had the chief authority; but first they vary in number, then they twist themselves in many ways. But I am not so anxiously curious, nor does it seem to me of any consequence, unless perhaps God wished to show his servant that a little band was sufficient, and that there was no need of a large army: or by six men he confusedly designated the whole army. It is certain indeed that Nebuchadnezzar came surrounded with a large force to destroy the city; but in the meantime God wished to destroy that pride and contumacy of the people, since he only shows to his servant six men who could destroy the whole city. He says therefore, that he came by the gate, or by way of a lofty gate, or higher one, which was towards the north, because Babylon lay towards that region with respect to Jerusalem. It appears therefore that the Chaldeans were here pointed out, to whom the way was direct through that gate, since it ascended from the north over against Jerusalem. He says, each man had an instrument of destruction, or of pounding. This word is derived from נפף, nephetz, which is to destroy and rub to pieces: therefore it can be taken as well for the mallet as for the act itself. There is no doubt that the Prophet meant that God’s command should not be without immediate effect: because as soon as he cried out, six men were directly at hand for obeying him, which he afterwards expresses more clearly when he says that they stood near the altar For it was a sign of their readiness to obey God’s commands when they placed themselves before the altar. But this passage is worthy of notice, because it shows us how anxiously we ought to give heed to God’s threats, which are for the most part directed against us. In order that we may learn to rouse ourselves from our torpor, here as in a glass the conjunction of God’s vengeance with his threats is proposed to us. For as soon as he had spoken, we see that there were six men armed and drawn up for destroying the city. But God wished to show his Prophet this vision, because his business was with a hard and stupid people, as we have already seen. God’s voice was as it were their final doom: just as if a trumpet resounded, and announced that there was no hope of pardon unless the enemy gave himself up directly. So therefore God exclaimed with a loud voice, but this was no empty cause of fright, because he directly joined the execution of it, when six men appeared before the altar. But he calls the altar which Solomon had built of square stones brazen: even the brazen altar was not sufficient, but it looks to its first origin.

Now he says that there was among them, one man clothed with a linen garment (1 Kings 8:64.) He is not placed among the multitude, as one among the others, but he is separated, because his signification is distinct. This man then doubtless sustained the character of an angel, and it is sufficiently customary in Scripture that angels, when they take a visible form, should be called men: not because they are really men, but because God endues them with such forms as he sees fit. Some, whose opinion I do not altogether reject, restrict this to Christ. But because the Prophet adds no remarkable traits, I had rather receive it generally of any angel. He says therefore, that there was among the Chaldeans, who were prepared to execute God’s vengeance, one man clad in a linen garment A distinct mark is sometimes given to angels which separates them from men. The linen garment was then a remarkable ornament. And the sacrificing Papists, as if they were apes, have imitated that custom in their garments called surplices. But since priests were accustomed to be clad in linen robes, here the angel was represented to the Prophet in this garb. Now let us go on, because in the next verse it will be evident why mention was made of that angel.

Now the Prophet shows why the angel was added to the Chaldeans, namely, to put a bridle on them, lest they should rage promiscuously and without selection against the elect and the reprobate. This is a remarkable passage, because from it we learn, first, that God effectually threatens the impious, so that he may have attendants always at hand to obey him; then, that even unbelievers make war under the direction of God, and are governed by his rod, and do nothing except at his will. Nor are the Chaldeans said to have come to the temple in vain, and to have placed themselves before the altar of God. This is not related to their praise, as if they obeyed God spontaneously, or as if they had purposed to themselves to carry out his commands, but the secret providence of God is here treated. Although, therefore, the Chaldeans gave the rein to their self-will, and did not think themselves divinely governed; yet God here pronounces that they were under his hand just as if God had them as hired soldiers: as Satan is said to have joined himself to the sons of God: this was not a voluntary obedience, but because his machinations could not attack the holy Job, unless by God’s command. (Job 1:6.) God’s sons appear in a very different way, since they offer a free obedience, and desire him only to reign. But how great soever is the difference between the sons of God and Satan, and all the reprobate, yet it is equally true that Satan and the wicked obey God. This, therefore, we must learn in the second place. But, thirdly, we are taught that God never rashly executes his vengeance without sparing his elect. For this reason in the slaughter of Jerusalem he has an angel, who opposes a shield, as it were, to the Chaldeans, lest their cruelty should injure them beyond God’s pleasure, as we shall by and bye see. Therefore I said that the place was remarkable, because when God puts forth the signs of his wrath, the sky is, as it were, overclouded, and the faithful no less than the unbelieving are frightened, nay terrified with fear. For as to outward condition, there was no difference between them. Because therefore the sons of God are subject to that terror which obscures all sense of God’s favor in adversity, so this doctrine must be held diligently, namely, when God gives the rein to furious men, so that they dissipate, overthrow, and destroy all things, then the angels are always united, who restrain their intemperance with a hidden bridle, since otherwise they would never be moderate.

He says, therefore, that the glory of the God of Israel ascended from the cherub to the threshold He takes the glory of God for God himself, as we may readily collect from the next verse; for he says that Jehovah had spoken. But this speech agrees very well, because God cannot be comprehended by us, unless as far as he accommodates himself to our standard. Because therefore God is incomprehensible in himself, nor did he appear to his Prophet as he really is, (since not angels even bear the immense magnitude of his glory, much less a mortal man,) but he knew how far it was expedient to discover himself, therefore the Prophet here takes his glory for himself; that is, the vision, which was a sign or symbol of the presence of God. But he says that it ascended from the cherub Here also is a change of number, because God is said everywhere to sit between the cherubim. (2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16.) But here only one cherub is put, but this figure of speech is well understood, as it is so common, for God resided between the cherubim: it is said that he went thence to the threshold of the temple This was a prelude to departure, as we shall afterwards see. And this testimony was needful to the Jews, because they thought that God was bounded by the visible temple. Hence the Prophet shows that God was not fixed to a place, so as to be compelled to remain there. This is the reason why it is said that he came from his seat to the threshold of the temple Now, he adds, that he cried out to the man clad in the linen garment, and whose inkhorn was by his side, though others translate it writing-tablets: but as he afterwards says, write on their foreheads, it is very probable that the ink was in his girdle, that he might mark the elect of God, that the Chaldeans should not touch them. Again he calls the angel a man, but on account of the form which he put on, as I said before. I cannot proceed further.

Now the Prophet adds, that the Chaldeans were sent to destroy the city and its inhabitants, but the order must be observed, because they are ordered to go behind the angel. The grace of God therefore precedes to the safety of all the pious: then he opened the gate, and made a way open for his wrath, long and wide, after he had removed the faithful from all danger: for this reason it is said, that he went through the city yet after him. And Patti also signifies this, when he says, after that your obedience has been fulfilled, then wrath is at hand against all rebels and proud ones. (2 Corinthians 10:6.) God therefore first cares for his own; but after he has received them into his keeping, and hid them as it were under his wings, then he permits the flame of his wrath to burn against all the wicked. In fine, we see that as often as God revenges man’s wickedness, he regards his Church, and treats all as worthy of peculiar care who are endued with true and serious piety.

Then he orders them to strike, so that their eye should not spare; what God had taken to himself he transfers to the Chaldees, because there ought to be an agreement between God and all his servants, even those who are not voluntary agents, but whom he bends every way by his secret instinct. Then he expresses more clearly, that they should not spare either old men or young men or boys or girls; as if he said, that he must rage against all promiscuously, without any choice of age or sex. He here opposes women to men, because that sex bends even the most cruel to pity, and we know that when men are slain, women are preserved. Now girls seem to hold a better position and boys also: and decrepit old men, because nothing is to be feared from them, are preserved safe. But God wishes the Chaldeans so to attack the whole city, that they respect neither age nor sex. Meanwhile he excepts the faithful of whom he had spoken, upon whomsoever the mark shall be, do not approach him. Here it is asked, were all the good preserved free from slaughter? for we know that Jeremiah was drawn into Egypt, to whom Chaldaea would have been a preferable place of banishment. Already Daniel and his companions had been snatched away before him, many were faithful in that multitude. On the other hand, we see many despisers of God either escaped or left in the land, as Nebuchadnezzar wished the dregs of the people to remain there. But we saw of what sort they were in Jeremiah. It follows therefore that God neither spared all the elect, nor made a difference in consequence of the mark, because the wicked obtained safety as well as the faithful. (Jeremiah 39:10; Jeremiah 43:2, 3, 4; Jeremiah 44:15, 16.) But we must observe, although God apparently afflicts his people with the ungodly, yet they are so separated, that nothing happens which does not tend to the safety of the righteous. When therefore God forbids the Chaldeans to approach them, he does not mean them to be free from all injury or disadvantage, but he promises that they should be so separated from the ungodly, that they should acknowledge by sure experience that God was never forgetful of his faith and promise. Now therefore we see how that difficulty must be solved, since God does not so spare his own as not to exercise their faith and patience, but he does spare them so that no destruction happens to them, while he is always their protector. But when he seems to give license to the impious, he grants this to their destruction, because they are rendered more and more inexcusable. And this daily experience teaches us. For we see that the very best are so afflicted, that God’s judgment begins with them. We see meanwhile that many reprobate exult with joy, even when they wantonly rage against God. But God has the care of his own as if they had been sealed, and separates them from the ungodly; but their own destruction remains for the ungodly, and they are already held within its folds, although it is not yet perceptible by the eye.

It follows, begin at my sanctuary. By the word “sanctuary” the priests and Levites are doubtless intended, and their fault was clearly greater. There was indeed a small number who worshipped God purely, and stood firm in their duty, but the greater part had revolted from the worship of God. Hence this passage ought to be understood of those impious priests who had despised God and his servants. Nor is it surprising that God’s wrath should begin with them. For they sin doubly; because if any private man fall away, his example is not so injurious as that of the eminent, who thus draw all men into the same ruin. For we know that the eyes of the multitude are turned towards their superiors. Since therefore the priests sinned more severely than all the rest, it is not surprising if God should punish them in the first place. Those who interpret this sentence generally, as if God ordered the Chaldeans to begin from his Church, extenuate the sense of the Prophet too much. For this is not a comparison between the Church of God and profane nations, but God rather compares the ministers of his temple with the people in general, and a clearer explanation follows directly after, that the Chaldeans began from the men, the elders who were before the house; that is, who were set over the temple Now it follows —

Here God. repeats what he had formerly touched upon shortly and obscurely, namely, that the Jews trusted in vain in the visible temple, because already he had ceased to dwell there, as we shall afterwards see that he had departed. He had promised that his perpetual dwelling should be there, (Psalm 132:14,) but that promise is not opposed by the casual desertion of that dwelling-place. Now therefore he adds this sentence, when he orders the Chaldeans to pollute the temple itself But it was already polluted, some one will say: I confess it: but it regards the Common perception of the people; for although the Jews had infected the sanctuary of God with their wickedness, yet they boasted that his worship still remained there and his sacred name. Now therefore he speaks of another kind of pollution, namely, that the Chaldeans should fill all the area with the slain If a human corpse or even a dog was seen in the sanctuary, this was an intolerable pollution; all would cry out that it was portentous. But as often as they entered the temple, although they dragged their crimes into God’s presence, (for they went there polluted with blood, rapine, fraud, perjuries, and a whole heap of guilt,) yet they reckoned all these pollutions as nothing. God therefore here obliquely derides their sloth, when he says that they boasted of the sanctity of the temple in vain, because they should see it at length filled with corpses, and then should really acknowledge that the temple was no longer sacred. Now therefore we understand the intention of the Holy Spirit. He adds, that they had gone forth, and occasioned a slaughter in the city Here again the Prophet shows that the Chaldeans would be at hand to smite the Jews with terror, as soon as God commanded them to destroy the city and cut off the inhabitants. Perhaps the city had not yet been besieged, and that is probable, for the Jews thought Ezekiel’s threatenings fabulous. For this reason he says that the Chaldeans appeared to him, that they might hear or receive the commandment of God: then that they had returned from the slaughter, to prove their obedience to God. In fine, he shows that God’s threatenings should not be in vain, because as soon as the right time should arrive, the army of the Chaldeans would be prepared for obedience. It follows —

The Prophet does not so carefully preserve the historical order in the context of the words. For he says, the Chaldeans had returned He afterwards adds, while they were striking the city that he fell upon his face. But we know this to be sufficiently common among the Hebrews, to relate first what is done afterwards. Although the Prophet seems to have fallen upon his face a little after their return, i.e., as soon as he perceived the city to have been nearly destroyed; yet he says, while they were smiting, he himself was left. They think the word compounded of the past and future tense, because there can be no grammatical reason that the word should be one and single. Indeed the word seems compounded of the first and third persons, as if he would say that he was left alone when all the rest were perishing. Yet there is no ambiguity in the sense; for it signifies that the Chaldeans had so attacked them everywhere, that they left none remaining. Since, therefore, they raged so savagely against the whole multitude, the Prophet seemed to himself to remain alone, as if God had snatched him from the horrible burning, by which he wished the whole people to be consumed and perish. Now if any one should object, that they were not all slain, the answer is, that a slaughter took place which almost destroyed the name of the people; then the survivors were like the dead, because exile was worse to them than death itself. Lastly, we must remark that the prophecy was extended to the last penalty, which at length awaits the ungodly, although God connives at them for a time, or merely chastises them moderately.

In fine, the slaughter of the city was shown to the Prophet as if all the citizens had utterly perished. And so God wished to show how terrible a destruction pressed upon the people, and yet no one feared it. Now as the Prophet fell upon his face, it was a testimony of the human affection, by which he instructed the people although unworthy. Hence he fell upon his face as a mediator, for we know that when the faithful ask pardon of God, they fall upon their face. They are said also to pour forth their prayers for the sake of humility, because they are unworthy to direct their prayers and words upwards. (Psalm 102:1.) Therefore Ezekiel shows that he interceded for the safety of the people. And truly God was unwilling that his servants, under pretense of zeal, should cast off all sense of humanity, so that the slaughter of the people should be their play and joke. We have seen how anxiously Jeremiah prayed for the people, so that he was at length entirely overwhelmed with grief; for he wished, as we see in the ninth chapter, that his eyes flowed down as fountains. (Jeremiah 9:1.) Hence the Prophets, although they were God’s heralds to promulgate his wrath, yet had not altogether put off all care and anxiety; for when they seemed to be hostile to the people they pitied them. And to this end Ezekiel fell on his face before God And truly that was a grievous trial, which he did not disguise; for he complains that a populous city was destroyed, and women and boys slain promiscuously with men. But he lays before God his own covenant, as if he said, even if the whole world should perish, yet it was impossible for God to lose his own Church, because he had promised, that as long as the sun and moon shone in heaven, there should be a seed of the pious in the world. “They shall be my faithful witnesses in heaven,” said he. (Psalm 89:37, 38.) The sun and moon are remaining in their place: therefore God seemed to have broken his covenant when he destroyed the whole people. This is the reason why the Prophet lies on his face, as if astonished, and exclaims with vehemence, Alas! O Lord God, wilt thou destroy the remnant of Israel by pouring forth thine anger? that is, whilst thou so purest forth thine anger against Jerusalem — for that city remained as a testimony of God’s covenant; for as yet some safety could be hoped for; but although after it was cut off, the faithful wrestled with that temptation, yet the contest was hard and fatiguing; for no one thought that any memorial of God’s covenant could flourish when that city was extinct. For he had there chosen his seat and dwelling, and wished to be worshipped in that one place. Since, therefore, the Prophet saw that city destroyed, he broke forth into a cry, what then will become of it! For when thou hast poured forth thine anger against Jerusalem, nothing will remain left in the city. Hence also it will readily be understood, that God’s covenant was almost obliterated, and had lost all its effect. Now it follows —

Here God so answers his Prophet, that he restrains too much fervor, and at the same time asserts his own justice — for the Prophet might be impelled this way and that — he might even doubt whether God would be true to his word. God might also shake his confidence in another manner, as by raging too much against the innocent; since therefore he might be agitated amidst those waves of trial, what God now does ought to set him at rest. Therefore, as I have already said, he mitigates the feelings of his Prophet, and at the same time asserts the equity of his judgment against all false opinions which are apt to creep over us when God’s judgments do not answer to our will. Meanwhile it must be remarked, how the Prophet complains suppliantly of the slaughter of the city, and although he seemed to expostulate with God, yet he submitted all his senses to his command, and on that account an answer is given which can calm him. Whenever, therefore, God does not seem to work as our carnal reason dictates to us, we may learn, by the Prophet’s example, how to restrain ourselves, and to subject our reason to God’s will, so that it may suffice us that he wills a thing so, because his will is the most perfect rule of all justice. We see that Prophets sometimes complain, and seem also to permit themselves too much liberty when they expostulate with God, as we saw a memorable example in Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 12 and Jeremiah 20.) Then we read also a similar one in Habakkuk. (Habakkuk 1:2.) How so? Do the Prophets contend with God himself? yea, they directly return to themselves, and collect into order all those wandering opinions by which they perceive that they were greatly disturbed. So also our Prophet, on the one hand, wonders at the slaughter of the city, and exclaims vehemently; at the same time he falls upon his face, and in this way testifies that he would be obedient, as soon as God answered him. This is the reason, then, why God also desires to appease his servant; nor is it doubtful that we shall experience the same thing, if we modestly and soberly learn to enquire when God’s judgments do not answer our opinions. If, therefore, we approach God in this way, he will doubtless show us that what he does is right, and thus supply us with material for rest. Hence, also, God’s inestimable indulgence toward his people is collected, because he so deigns to render a reason, as if he wished to satisfy them. It is certain that men are carried forward into too much rashness, as often as they ask questions of God; for who will dare to oppose himself to his judgments? and who will reply to him? so Paul says. (Romans 9:20.) But God in his amazing goodness, descends even thus far, so as to render a reason of his deeds to his servants, to settle their minds, as I have said.

Now God pronounces the Jews to be so obstinate in their malice as to have cut off from themselves all hope of pardon. For when he now says, that he would be hostile to them without pity, he shows the necessity of taking vengeance, because their impiety had penetrated even heaven, so that he could not spare them without denying himself. And abrupt speech increases vehemence, as if God pronounced that he had changed his plans. Now then we understand the meaning of this answer, that the Jews were bound by so many and such impious crimes, that they had closed the door of God’s pity: nay, they had compelled him to the utmost pitch of vengeance, because they continued to provoke him more and more. Let us learn then from this passage not to weigh God’s judgments in our scale, because we are too much accustomed to extenuate our sins, and to treat our serious iniquities as but slight errors, because we do not attribute just honor to God as the only judge. Now when God commands his Prophet to rest and be silent, without doubt he at the same time restrains that rashness of ours by which we burst forth in disobedience when he seems to us to be too rigid. But, as I have said, we do not consider the greatness of our sins. Therefore it is God’s province alone to pronounce concerning sins, that no mortal should estimate the quality of actions, for then we trench on God’s peculiar office. It follows —

This sentence confirms what I said yesterday about God’s paternal anxiety towards the faithful. For the Prophet taught, before God would permit the Chaldeans to destroy the city, that an angel was sent before to succor the elect, and thus to oppose himself to the violence of the enemies: where we have said that it is shown to us as in a glass that God holds this order in his judgments, that his fatherly love towards the faithful always precedes them, so that he does not permit anything to happen to them but what tends to their safety. For this reason the angel now says, that he had done as he was commanded. Doubtless the obedience of the angel is reported to us, because it answers to the will of God. Hence, therefore, we gather that the safety of the faithful is always precious to God, and therefore they will always be safe and secure when we think heaven and earth mingled together. This then is the explanation. Now follows —