One of the biblical passages I often review and discuss with people when I counsel them is Ezekiel 14:1-11. There is a richness here that applies as much to modern believers as it did to those in Babylon at the time of the exile. But I think we should look at some of the background first to get a clear understanding of what is being said.
In 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar besieged and conquered Jerusalem for the first time (2 Kings 24:10-17). As was their custom, the Babylonians deported the upper classes and leaders of the lands they conquered. They took the government officials, the fighting men, priests, craftsmen—10,000 individuals in all. Ezekiel, from a priestly family, was one of the deported exiles.
Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah, the uncle of the deposed king Jehoiachin, king of Judah in his place. But Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchanezzar, leading to a second siege that ended in January of 588 BC with the sacking of the capital city. Zedekiah had been influenced by a fanatical faction who believed (wrongly) that the Lord would protect Jerusalem and the temple within it, just as He had when the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:32-37). As a punishment for his rebellion, Zedekiah was made to witness the killing of his sons as the last thing he saw before he was blinded and then taken in chains to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-25:7).
In chapter 13, Ezekiel had just thoroughly condemned false prophets who claimed to be speaking for the Lord, but had instead seen false visions and spoke lies. They gave false assurances to those who inquired of them, prophesying out of their own hearts. They misled the people, saying there would be peace, when there was no peace to be had. So you have this one group of prophets assuring the exiles and the elders there will be peace; and you have Ezekiel condemning them as false prophets. How are you to decide what the truth is? The exiled elders decided to come to Ezekiel and hear what he said the Lord wanted them to know.
But when the elders came to inquire of the Lord through Ezekiel, the Lord said to Ezekiel in 14:3 that they “have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces.” Will the Lord let them be consulted by them? “Of course not!” is the implied answer. So Ezekiel is to say to these elders that whenever one of God’s people takes up an idol into his heart and trips over the stumbling block that sin places in his life, the Lord’s response will be to address their idolatries. This is so that the Lord may lay hold of the hearts of his people, who are estranged from Him because of their idols.
The word translated as “idol” in Ezekiel 14:3 (gillûl) is one of the ten words that are translated as “idol” in the OT. It literally means log, block, shapeless thing; and can even be a reference to dung droppings. So when an idol is referred to as gillûl, it isn’t complimentary or neutral. Ezekiel was particularly fond of calling idols gillûlîm, and used it thirty-eight of the forty-seven times the word is found in the OT.
As Paul Tripp said in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.” Tripp went on to add: “whatever rules our hearts will exercise inescapable influence over our lives and behavior.” We too have “heart idols.” Those shapeless, sinful blocks of dung are within our hearts as well as the hearts of the elders. John Calvin commented that the human heart was a “perpetual forge of idols.” So the message the Lord has for these elders (and us) is “Repent! Turn from your detestable heart idols!” (14:6) His purpose is for His people to return to Him: “that they may be my people and I may be their God” (14:11).
The Hebrew word for “stumbling block” means something that trips you up; a hindrance. In Jeremiah 6:21, the Lord said He would put stumbling blocks before the people, causing them to stumble, because they refused to listen to Him. In Ezekiel 7, He said the land of Israel would be punished for all its abominations. Those who have silver and gold would not be able to deliver themselves in that day of wrath, because their wealth was “the stumbling block of their iniquity.” The stumbling block is then associated with the idol; it trips you up or hinders you in some way. You could say it is the “fruit” to the “root” of the heart idol.
Iain Duguid, in his commentary Ezekiel: The NIV Application Commentary, said we don’t want to give up our cherished sins. “Ezekiel tells us that such an approach to God is not an option.” We cannot serve the true God and at the same time “keep one foot in the camp of idolatry at the same time.”
Outwardly, our appearance may “fit”: We go to church regularly and appear to be decent, religious people. Yet when it comes to the tough decisions in life, there are other standards operating than God’s Word, which demonstrates the existence in our hearts of other gods than the true God. We have deep-seated idolatries in our hearts that drive our various behavior patterns.
There is one final thing to note in Ezekiel 14:3. The stumbling block is before their faces—it is right in front of them. But it isn’t recognized as a hindrance. So there is also a blinding, distorting aspect to the stumbling block. In Ezekiel 7, the stumbling block of wealth was actually thought to be a way to deliver them from the day of wrath—and not a manifestation of the root idol. Paul Tripp had a great illustration of this:
Imagine that someone places his hand up to his face so that he is looking through his fingers. What will happen to his vision? It will be seriously obstructed, and the only way to clear it is to remove his hand. In a similar way, an idol in the heart creates a stumbling block before the face. Until the idol is removed, it will distort and obscure everything in the person’s life.
And we could add, a stumbling block distorts any word that the elders (or anyone else) would seek to hear from God. So the first thing God needs to do when we come to inquire of Him is to confront the heart idols we have and remove their stumbling blocks from before our faces. What appears at first to be God’s judgment is actually His preparing us to clearly hear what He has to say. The stumbling blocks of our idols distort God’s word. They will trip us up even as we try to sincerely listen to and follow the Lord.
The solution to this problem is a spiritual heart transplant—the promise of a new heart. First the Lord God will cleanse us from our idols (gillûlîm). Then He will give us a new heart and a new spirit, removing the heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:25-26). Jeremiah, a contemporary of Ezekiel, said the Lord would accomplish this by putting His law within us: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).