“God's Will is Life”

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
(Ezekiel 18:23)

The above passage (cf. 33:11 along with the Lord’s self-designation in Exodus 34:6-7), is one of the most beautiful affirmations about God’s character in the entire Bible. The rhetorical questions asked by God to His suffering people expect a clear “No” and “Yes” answer respectively. Here is God’s emphatic declaration: “Just so we’re clear Israel, I want you to live and not die!”

Why does the Lord have to speak in such an emphatic way here? Shouldn’t God’s desire for life be obvious? Shouldn’t everyone know the One who spun this universe into existence and breathed life into it is a God who delights in His creation living and not dying? Shouldn’t Israel especially know that not only is God rooting for them but that He has a purpose for them that requires them to live?

Well, considering God’s stark denunciations of the wicked and the terrifying descriptions of His wrath found elsewhere in the prophets it’s at least understandable that one might be tempted to answer at least the first question (“have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”) with a “Yes.” The wicked are so repulsive to God, as outlined with such poetic and legal force by Ezekiel, that one might believe that God would love to wipe Israel from the earth as we might take pleasure in swatting an annoying gnat from the air.

This got me thinking. Many who superficially read the Old Testament find within its pages an angry, vengeful God who does nothing but punish sinners. Why isn’t He more loving like the God of the New Testament? This tragic misrepresentation of the God who changes not has led many to picture Him as an unjust monster. To be fair, the chances of opening your Old Testament and finding God angry with Israel or a surrounding nation, perhaps even threatening to punish them, is actually pretty good.

But is this who God is? Let me put it to you this way: If a neighbor was walking by your house with the windows open and heard your child screaming, “Stop hurting me daddy!” while you were trying to remove a splinter from his hand, would that scream be an accurate representation of your relationship with your child?

The answer is a resounding “No!” God must punish the wicked based on His just nature. His moral integrity simply will not allow unrepentant sin to continue unchecked or to get the last word. But the exercise of punitive justice gives Him no pleasure at all. What pleases Him is that moment when a sinner repents which liberates Him to exercise His unique divine ability to grant the gift of life (Lk. 15:7; Rom. 6:23). Giving life to His beloved creation is His favorite thing to do. It has been His greatest “pleasure” since Genesis 1.

Remember the very God who came as Israel’s enemy in the form of Babylon appointed a sentry to warn them He was coming! (Ezek. 3:16-21; 33:1-10) And what was the point of that warning if not to give Israel the chance to repent and save their lives? (Ezek. 18:32) In passages like Ezekiel 18:23, God is pleading with the wicked for them to see their desperate situation and to turn their lives around. In our wickedness, we face a God who warns us with no pleasure at all that the “soul who sins shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4) But if we turn to Him in repentance, we face a God who promises with pleasure that the soul who repents shall live! (Ezek. 33:11)