In Ezekiel chapter 8, we find a very strange account of the prophet being caught up in the Spirit and seeing a vision. The first thing I notice about this chapter is where it starts. In verse 1 it says, “I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me.” This is important because chapters 8-11 are about the elders of Judah.
And he brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, there was a hole in the wall. Then he said to me, “Son of man, dig in the wall.” So I dug in the wall, and behold, there was an entrance. And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” Ezekiel 8:7-12
The first thing we notice is that Ezekiel digs into a wall and finds an entrance, and this is in the temple in the vision. While God asking Ezekiel to dig into a wall seems strange, it highlights the point. Ezekiel was looking into a secret place. The abominations being committed by the elders were done in secret. They were in the temple, but in a secret place where no one would see them. And what does Ezekiel see in this secret place? Does he find a couple of guys engaging in a secret sin? No, not at all! He finds 70 elders of Israel. That’s right 70. These would be the people of influence, the leaders. And not only does Ezekiel see the images that have been engraved on the wall, but he finds the 70 elders each with a censor worshiping the idols. In Merrill Unger’s commentary of the Old Testament he says this pertaining to the vision:
But the most incredible part of the scene was the seventy . . . ancients (elders) of Israel, certainly meant to represent the most important and influential men of the nation, who were judicially bound to suppress idolatry, acting as ringleaders in one of its most sordid and disgusting cults.
The national sin was so awful that the seventy, who were once admitted to the Lord’s secret councils (Psalm 25:14), were now practicing the grossest and most degrading idolatry.
We see this as a national tragedy – the leaders of the land were acting with such contempt for God and doing it in such a horrible way. And yet, there is another caveat. Did you notice that the elders (not priests) were burning incense (smoke went up). Isn’t that out of place? Yes it is! Only the priests were allowed to offer incense. Listen to what Unger says:
A thick cloud of incense went up, betokening their addiction to their bizarre deities, in whose worship they spared no expense. Moreover, the offering of incense belonged not to the elders, but strictly to the priests, a wicked usurpation adding to their guilt.
This wicked, sickening practice was not only about idol worship, but also about power. The elders were taking the place of the priests, which was strictly forbidden, as the spiritual leaders. Even with the power and influence the elders possessed, it was not enough. But this slide of Israel’s leaders into the abyss of sin did not go unnoticed like they assumed. At the end of this part of the vision, God’s says two amazing things to Ezekiel. First, he asks him if he sees what the elders are doing in the dark. Again this refers to the secrecy of the acts being committed. But he also uses a unique phrase, “each in his room of pictures”. This fits the vision, but it is striking. If you think about it, it reveals corporate and individual sin. The elders are seen as a group, but also by these words, we see them as individuals, each in their own room of pictures. While I am not sure I totally understand the meaning behind this, I do think it paints the picture of each individual participating privately in these acts of idolatry. While the elders acting as a group is terrible, God makes the point of saying how each person is going to his room of pictures – it deepens the understanding of how far and wide the idolatry was. No one is just caught up in an “accidental” group transgression; they are all individually sinning in a violent way against God.
The very last statement God makes to Ezekiel drives home the underlying problem. Verse 12 says, “For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land.’” The Lord does not see us. That is a profound statement. It is totally erroneous, but it is profound. They are worshiping idols in the dark in God’s holy temple and think he does not know? The elders need to be reminded that God does know and see – everything!
Let’ summarize and apply:
What group is being targeted – the elders of Israel. For us, this would be senators, governors, city, state and national leaders. The seventy elders are committing gross idolatry in secrecy. This leads me to directly ask, what are our leaders doing in the dark? What secret idols are they bowing down to? What are our leaders doing, what is hidden from us, but not from God? Political kings, take notice. What you do in secret is known, and we can see in Ezekiel 9 how God deals with such leadership. These leaders were usurping power. Instead of protecting the nation from idol worship, they participated in it and secretly stole power that in no way could ever be theirs. In the depth of their sin, they proclaim, “God does not see”. News flash! God does see you in your disgusting secret acts. Your nauseating vileness has reached its limit!