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When the Bible is Rated R

Then you engaged in prostitution with the Assyrian men because you were not satisfied. Even though you did this with them, you were still not satisfied. (Ezekiel 16:28)

Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave gifts to all your lovers. You bribed them to come to you from all around for your sexual favors. (Ezekiel 16:33)

This text is challenging because it’s so graphic. It’s shocking! I’m not going to quote the whole text. Read it for yourself. It should be rated R! But it’s in the Bible, so we can assume it is profitable for study. So, why is it in here, and what does it mean?

The Parable

This word of the Lord through the prophet Ezekiel is a parable about God and Jerusalem. Here’s the gist of the parable:

God finds a newborn girl abandoned. He rescues the baby and takes good care of her. After some time, he finds that the girl has grown into a woman, so he marries her and becomes a perfect husband—he provides beautiful clothing and jewelry for her. However, she spurns her perfect husband and takes the regalia he gave her and uses it to attract other lovers. She becomes extremely promiscuous. She goes so far as to take her husband’s gifts and use them to pay her sexual partners. God condemns her actions in no uncertain terms. Yet, at the end of the parable, he expresses his intention to do whatever it takes to bring her back into a relationship with him.

The Meaning

When you study this passage (as well as Ezekiel 23), it becomes apparent why it’s in the Bible: We can learn a lot from this parable. It tells of people who inexplicably abandon the good relationship they have with a benevolent God in favor of a rough life. That astonishing notion is expressed more succinctly in Jeremiah 2:13:

For my people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves—cracked cisterns that cannot hold water.

The woman in the parable in Ezekiel 16 is called “Jerusalem.” This represents God’s people, the nation of Israel—or more specifically in Ezekiel’s day, Judah. The idea that she was a newborn that needed to be rescued speaks of the inauspicious and perilous beginnings of the nation of Israel and of Jerusalem, the capital city. The marriage between God and Jerusalem represents the covenant relationship God initiated with the nation of Israel. The clothes and jewelry are the material blessings that God bestowed on the nation—he gave them success in their conquests, provided them a fruitful land of milk and honey, and blessed their trade with other nations. The woman’s infidelity to the marriage mirrors Israel’s breach of their covenant relationship with God and their pursuit of other nations and other gods. And, most amazingly, God’s determination to do whatever is necessary to win her back reflects his unfailing, merciful, gracious love for his people Israel.

I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish a permanent covenant with you. . . . I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord, so that when I make atonement for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed. (16:60,62-63)

The Application

We Christians do not have the same covenant relationship with God that Israel had, so the application is not direct. Still, this parable tells us a lot about the nature of God. He was patient and loving back then, and God does not change (1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6). He still abhors infidelity, and he still loves his people. He remembers his promises, and he makes atonement for sin.

Certainly, the language of this parable is shocking. But our response to God’s love is also often shocking. We act like the prostitute in this parable! We spend God’s gifts to pursue his rivals—the idols and worldly enticements of our day. If God gives me intelligence, I could use it to work my way up the corporate ladder, and worship success. If God gives me good looks, I could use this blessing to pursue illicit sexual relationships. If God gives me a wonderful spouse, I could worship the spouse instead of God who gave the spouse to me, or I could find fault with the spouse God provided and move on to another. If God blesses me with wealth, I could use it to acquire possessions, and then, again, I worship the possessions and forget all about God who gave them to me.

Here is something really shocking

Here is something that is really shocking: God still loves me, and he wants to bring me into a relationship with him! If I was previously close to him, he wants to bring me back. If I have never experienced his love, he invites me to do so.

True to his unchanging nature, with boundless patience, breathtaking love, and overwhelming grace, he pursues me to win me to him and to make atonement for my sin. God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son.

Dave Stabnow is a Bible and reference book editor at Lifeway. He has a PhD in Old Testament Hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Bonnie, live in Nashville.