The Word for today:
Ezekiel 31, 32
A glimpse of the afterlife is seen in our reading today. As we read along, we can be puzzled by some of the biblical terminology concerning the conditions of eternity. Let's look at Ezekiel 32:21 in three prominent Bible versions:
NIV: From within the grave the mighty leaders will say...
KJV: The strong among the mighty shall speak out of the midst of hell...
ESV: The mighty chiefs shall speak of out of the midst of Sheol...
Grave, hell, Sheol. It gets confusing. So let's forget about what we don't know and zero in on what we do know. What we learn from the Old Testament is that our bodies are dust, but our spirits are eternal:
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Psalm 103:14 speaks of our finite bodies when it says:
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
Three verses later, Psalm 103:17 speaks of our infinite spirits:
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, to such as keep his covenant.
Terminology aside, the Old Testament presents these truths:
1. Our bodies are finite--dust to dust.
2. Our spirits are infinite--everlasting to everlasting.
3. Some receive the everlasting mercy of the LORD--as seen in Psalm 103:17 (above).
4. Others will everlastingly bear their shame, as seen in our passage today:
There is Elam and all her multitude,
All around her grave,
All of them slain, fallen by the sword,
Who have gone down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth,
Who caused their terror in the land of the living;
Now they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit.
(Ezekiel 32:24; see also Ezekiel 32:25, 30; 36:7; 44:13)
***Why is the Old Testament so murky about the conditions of the afterlife? Because the real biblical question has never been about where bodies go, or where spirits go. The real question has always been, Where do the consequences of my sin go?
Where do the consequences--the real effects--of pride go?
What about the consequences--the ugly consequences--of hate?
And what about the consequences--the heart-breaking results--of self-centeredness?
Where do the consequences--the family-splitting consequences--of unforgiveness go?
The Old Testament foresees the day when the effects of our sin will be removed from amongst us. This is pictured by a goat over whose head the High Priest confessed all the sins of the children of Israel on the Day of Atonement. This scapegoat, symbolically bearing their sins, was then sent into the wilderness (see Leviticus 16:7-22).
While we've heard about the scapegoat, what we forget is that there were two goats on the Day of Atonement. Scripture teaches that sin is a real entity, a force which will not dissipate until its consequences are paid. Sin has never just gone away, vanished into thin air. In order for sin to go away, the other goat had to die.
As the Old Testament proceeded, we learn that the sacrificial goat or lamb was just a picture--a picture of a person who would pay what the Bible calls the wages of sin (1):
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:3-6)
The New Testament opens when the Lamb--the one who could pay the price--walks onto the pages of scripture:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
The real question has never been about our bodies or spirits in the by and by. Even if you live to be one hundred, it won't be long before you'll have those questions answered. The real question has always been about our sins in the now.
The real answer is that sins go away, if another pays a price that I can't pay.
But you can't have one goat without the other.
(1) Romans 6:23