12 February, 2017

Matthew Winzer on Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezek. 18:23)

For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye (Ezek. 18:32).

Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezek. 33:11)


[Source: “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review,” in The Blue Banner newsletter, vol. 9, issue 10–12, (October/December 2000), pp. 16-18.]

Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11

Ezekiel 18:23, 32 and 33:11, with particular regard to the words, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” are the passages next seized upon by the report. The covenantal context of these passages is clear from such addresses as “Hear now, O house of Israel” (18:25), and “Why will ye die, O house of Israel” (33:11). Thus, the dependence of the report upon these passages might be summarily dismissed by referring the reader to the previous comments regarding God’s word not being made ineffectual because it has reference to Israel as elect. Yet, this can be demonstrated to be true with regard to the teaching of the Ezekiel passages themselves, and so it might serve as a more thorough rebuttal to the report if these were investigated in their own right.

The report’s exegesis of these passages bore the burden of showing that it is not in the least justifiable “to limit the reference of these passages to any one class of wicked persons,”43 that is, to the elect who do not die in their sins. The first consideration in support of this conclusion was the assertion that in Ezekiel 33:4-9, “the wicked who actually die in their iniquity are contemplated.”44 This is not correct. The wording is conditional: “When ... if ... then ...” The Lord is showing wherein blame will lie in certain hypothetical situations. a) If Ezekiel fails to warn the wicked of their danger, and if the wicked die in their iniquity, their blood shall be required at the prophet’s hand. Or, b) if Ezekiel does warn the wicked of their danger, his soul shall be delivered whether the wicked dies in their iniquity or not. Thus, what is being contemplated is entirely hypothetical and solely for the benefit of the prophet, that he might not shun to declare the whole counsel of God in his ministry. The house of Israel is not contemplated until verse 10 when the Lord entrusts His oracle to the prophet that he might warn the covenant people of their danger. Thus, the report’s first consideration fails to support its conclusion.

The second consideration is that the phrase, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” according to the report, “admits of no limitation or qualification; it applies to the wicked who actually die in their iniquity.”45 The difficulty of answering the report’s defence of this statement is the fact that it has pounced upon the general wording of the text, separated it from its context, and proceeded to feed upon it to its own delight. Such a method ignores a fundamental hermeneutical principle. “That indefinite and general expressions are to be interpreted in answerable proportion to the things whereof they are affirmed.”46 By noting the words in their context it may readily be seen that the words are not a general assertion at all, because the word wicked is a certain class of wicked person who is being referred to in the surrounding verses.
In the first passage, the prophet is speaking against those who claimed that their punishment was because of their fathers’ iniquities. This idea is renounced with the assertion that the wicked dies for his own wickedness, and concrete cases of that generation’s wickedness are subsequently provided (verses 1-18). Then, in verses 19-22, the prophet states that if the wicked will turn from all his sins, his transgressions shall not be mentioned unto him, but he shall live in his righteousness. The hypothetical nature of the case and the conditional nature of the conclusion are noteworthy.

The significant words are subsequently spoken in the context of this hypothetical situation: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? (verse 23). The reference is to the wicked if he will turn from his wickedness. God is saying, hypothetically, if the wicked will turn from his wickedness, I will have no pleasure in his perishing on account of either his father’s or his own former sins. And this is borne out by the second half of the verse: “and not that he should return from his ways, and live.” That is, God shall be pleased, if the wicked meets the condition and turns from his sins, to grant life to him on account of his righteousness, rather than to leave him to perish on account of his own and his father’s sins.

Verse 24 obversely presses this same point. The prophet asks that if the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, should he be permitted to live? We should note the interrogative corresponding to the question of verse 23. It has the effect of asking, Does God have any pleasure at all that the righteous should live? That is, given the condition that the righteous one has turned to committing iniquity, he ought not to think that the Lord will reward him on account of either his father’s or his own former righteousness.

Verses 25-30 press this point home in answer to the accusation that God was not acting equally towards them. The prophet concludes, in verse 30, that the Lord will judge every one according to his ways. Consequently, the house of Israel are exhorted to make for themselves a new heart and a new spirit (such as God promises to give them at the restoration, ch. 36), and not to perish on account of a foolish notion that God has acted inequitably towards them and shall make them perish for their fathers’ sins. For God has “no pleasure in the death of him that dieth.” As with the word wicked in verse 23, the word him is qualified by the context. It is he that makes for himself a new heart and a new spirit; God will not inflict punishment upon him on account of past sins. Rather, if he turns, it will be a repentance unto life, for God shall reward him according to his righteous standing before Him.

The second passage in Ezek. 33 is to much the same effect, but the question of the fathers’ sins appears to be left out of view. That might be because this prophecy is spoken in anticipation of the announcement that Jerusalem has been destroyed in verses 21ff. In this context, the “death” referred to in the intervening verses of 10-20 is best understood as a departure of this life before the blessed restoration, while “life” is with reference to seeing and enjoying the blessings of a reconstituted kingdom, such as is presented in chaps. 40ff. Hence, Ezekiel’s ministry is to take on a whole new orientation and he receives a new commission in verses 1-9 to that end. His calls of repentance are necessary if Israel is not going to “pine away” under the punishment of their transgressions (verse 10), but become a partaker again in the promised land.

In this context the words of verse 11 need to be understood: “Say unto them, As I live saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” That is, it does not please the Lord to continue punishing the wicked for past sins if he will turn from his wicked ways. Rather, He is pleased to grant life to the turning sinner. Verses 12-13 then reproduce the same reasoning of chapter 18 with regard to the hypothetical case of the righteous turning to wickedness and dying on account of that wickedness. Similarly, verses 14-16 repeat the hypothetical case of the wicked turning to righteousness and living. The importance of this section is the way in which it restates the case of verse 11 with regard to God having no pleasure in the death of the wicked. “When I say to the wicked that he shall surely die, if he turn from his sin ... he shall surely live.” The if is conditional, and the case is hypothetical. As God lives, He has no pleasure in the death of that wicked person whom He has condemned to death if that wicked person will turn from his wickedness. The conclusion is only realised when the condition is met. The reformer, John Knox, in his treatise On Predestination, has related this sense of the passage well:

The minde of the Prophete was to stirre such as had declined from God, to returne unto him by true repentance. And because their iniquities were so many, and offenses so great, that justly they might have despaired of remission, mercie, and grace, therefore doth the Prophet, for the better assurance of those that should repent, affirme, ‘That God deliteth not, neither willeth the death of the wicked.’ But of which wicked? Of him, no doubte, that truely should repent, in his death did not, nor never shall God delyte. But he deliteth to be knowen a God that sheweth mercye, grace, and favour to such as unfeinedly call for the same, how grevous so ever their former offenses have been.47

In this light, the report’s disjointed exegesis of the Ezekiel passages misses the mark. The statement, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, does admit of a qualification. It is the qualification imposed by the context that the wicked are being hypothetically considered as turning from their wicked ways. It does not apply “to the wicked who actually die in their iniquity.” It applies, hypothetically, to any within the house of Israel who would be of a mind to turn from wickedness and cease from charging God with injustice because of His judgements. Hence, the report’s second consideration also fails to support its conclusion. It is justifiable, then, to limit the reference of these passages to one class of wicked persons.


43. Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), p. 121.

44. Ibid., p. 122.

45. Ibid.

46. John Owen, Works, Volume 10, p. 348.

47. John Knox, Works, Volume 5, p. 410.

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