Immediately after my high school graduation, I read John MacArthur’s The Vanishing Conscience. I always found his prose engaging, so I gave the book a shot. In that book, MacArthur argues against pop psychology’s emphasis on self-esteem. To support his position, he cites Ezekiel 20:43: “There you shall remember your ways and all the deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils that you have committed.” MacArthur states, “In other words, when we truly see what sin is, far from achieving self-esteem, we will despise ourselves” (p. 108).
I’m not going to discuss self-esteem in this post. I will say, however, that MacArthur probably doesn’t want people to be down on themselves for the rest of their lives. He has affirmed that human beings are valuable to God and that Christians can find a sense of worth in Christ’s love. He’s just saying that repentance is necessary for salvation. For him, the modern emphasis on self-esteem runs counter to the doctrine that all have sinned, which is the first principle of the Gospel.
I want to relate Ezekiel 20:43 to my recent discussion on Ezekiel and monergism. This has been a series that has included my last three posts. I am wrestling with such issues as free will and regeneration in the Book of Ezekiel. My conclusion so far is that an unregenerate person can repent and recognize his need for God, but only in a short term sense. After the exile, the Israelites who acknowledge their sinfulness and cry out to God will receive a new heart and enter the holy land. The new heart will permanently incline them to God’s commandments so that they can stay in the land forever. By contrast, those who stubbornly continue their rebellion against God will not enter the Promised Land, for God will destroy them. This is my interpretation of Ezekiel 20:33-38.
God’s judgment on the rebels seems fair. I mean, what kind of people in their right mind would continue to defy God after experiencing what they had? Let’s look at what God has already done when the Israelites are in the wilderness, about to enter the Promised Land (after the exile). God has confirmed the words of his prophets. He has demonstrated that he is God and that the other deities are not. He has shown his power to redeem Israel. He has manifested his continued commitment to his people. The logical reaction to all this is for the Israelites to bang themselves on the head and exclaim, “I’ve been so stupid! Look where my actions have led me.” I think that is partly what Ezekiel means when he says that many Israelites will loathe themselves.
He also means that they will hate their sinful deeds. Some analogies come to mind. There is a scene in the Every Man’s Battle where one of the authors talks about a fight he had with his wife. His wife was making beans, and he deliberately knocked over the pot. After his wife left the room and he came to his senses, he resolved to treat his wife with love and respect from that point on. I think about an alcoholic who gets behind the wheel of a car and kills someone. He was content with his selfishness and alcoholism, until it led to a horrible outcome. After the exile, many Israelites get a good look in the mirror. They recognize what the prophets told them all along: that they have betrayed the God who loves them and have hurt defenseless human beings. They see themselves as the whores and monsters that they are. They loathe themselves. That is the prerequisite for a new beginning.
But not all of the Israelites take this route. And what can God do? Will he let them back into the land so they can make it a moral cesspool once more? If they haven’t responded to him up to that point, is there much hope that they will ever respond to him? As his last resort, God judges them.