God spares those who suffer inner torment due to the rising societal evils around them. Why? What is so significant about sighing and crying over this world's abominable way of life?
Sigh, by way of definition, is Strong's #584, and it means "to groan," "to mourn," and "to moan." Its rather interesting first use is found in Exodus 2:23-25:
Now it happened in the process of time that the king of Egypt died. Then the children of Israel groaned because of their bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them. (Emphasis ours throughout.)
Note from the context that our God is a covenant-keeping God. He remembers His covenant and acknowledges those who hear Him and those who sigh among His people. In the Exodus story, He moved to redeem them from their bondage in Egypt, making a distinction between them and their oppressors (Exodus 8:22; 11:7).
Cry is Strong's #602 (a fairly rare word, used only four times in Scripture), and it also means "to groan," but it has another meaning as well: "to shriek." This word contains a great deal of emotional meaning. It involves a person's innermost feelings.
But, sighing and crying involves a lot more than emotion. For us to rightly understand what God requires of us, today, it is necessary to explain the thinking, the reason, that is behind "sighing and crying." Sound reason underlies the emotion expressed by sighing and crying, which needs elaboration before proceeding further.
Neuroscientists used to talk about compartments in the brain. Sometimes in the popular press there is an occasional assertion that one section of the brain is for sight, another one for hearing, another one for mathematical skills, and yet another for artistic skills. The faculty of reason is supposed to reside in the prefrontal cortex, and emotion comes from another area. This idea is called the "localization thesis." It is a simplistic view that has pretty much fallen by the wayside by neuroscientists who have come to know more about how our brains function. One critic of this thesis says:
. . . functions [of the brain], like properties, are distributed (they require a whole system or mechanism to be realized [or actuated]). . . . A danger inherent in the localization thesis may be illuminated by analogy to an internal combustion engine. In describing an engine, one might be tempted to say, "the opening of the intake valve is caused by the movement of the rocker arm." Except that the rocker is, in turn, set in motion by the camshaft, the camshaft by the crankshaft, the crank by a connecting rod, the rod by the piston. But of course, the piston won't move unless the intake valve opens to let the air-fuel mixture in. This logic is finally circular because, really, it is the entire mechanism that "causes" the opening of the intake valve; any less holistic view truncates the causal picture and issues in statements that are, at best, partially true. Given that the human brain is more complexly interconnected than a motor by untold orders of magnitude, it is a dubious undertaking to say that any localized organic structure [any section of the brain] is the sufficient cause and exclusive locus of something like "reason" or "emotion." . . .
[For instance] the amygdala is said to be the seat of emotion, the prefrontal cortex of reason. Yet when I get angry, for example, I generally do so for a reason; typically I judge myself or another wronged. To cleanly separate emotion from reason-giving makes a hash of human experience. . . . (Matthew B. Crawford, "The Limits of Neuro-Talk," The New Atlantis, Number 19, Winter 2008, pp. 65-78)
Emotion and reason are not separate entities. They do not occur in discrete areas of the brain, and it is far better to understand them to be two sides of the same coin. One needs both sides; one cannot have a coin with a single side. It is an impossibility.
Therefore, sighing and crying are not just emotions or feelings. They are not just matters of the heart but also matters of the head. These expressed feelings have reason—thought—firmly attached to them.
The Torment of the Godly (Part Two)
In order to sigh and cry successfully, we must believe God. This is vital! In this context, it means that we need to believe how He defines sin. For instance, we must never come to think that "weeping for Tammuz" (Ezekiel 8:13-14) is really not all that bad. God calls it an abomination! If He calls it that, that is exactly what it is, and we need to accept His definition.
To use a more contemporary example, many "good" folk in the world observe Christmas, sincerely believing that they are worshipping God. They will actually say, "This is how I worship God," but we understand that how they worship God does not amount to a hill of beans! Only God can define how we are to worship Him, and it is for us to follow Him and act accordingly. We need, then, not just to know the law, but also to believe that it defines sin for all time.
Some people can see sin right before their eyes, they can hear it around them, they can live amidst it, but they can never sigh and cry over it because they refuse to allow God's law to be the standard of their behavior. History is replete with examples of this, but we will look only at one. Who of the Jewish leadership—except for Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and perhaps a few others—sighed and cried over the perpetration of an illegal trial that resulted in Christ's death?
In John 16:20, where He is speaking to His disciples on the evening before His crucifixion, Jesus says, "Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice." The world, rejecting God's standards, rejoices at injustice and sin. Human nature can and does rationalize large-scale sin and social injustice, such as the Holocaust, sin that fills the land with vast violence. It can simply rationalize such atrocities on racial, economic, and religious grounds.
We in God's church must come to avoid partiality, mentioned in Leviticus 19:15, as we interpret the news and the social injustices that we see around us. After all, God did not ask Ezekiel to identify Israel's sins in his tour of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8. God identified the sin for him, even when it was committed in secret. God calls out the sins in His Word, defining the abominations in His law, and we need to know those laws and believe that they are indeed sin. And we need to cry and sigh.
The Torment of the Godly (Part Two)
Ezekiel's blood must have run cold when he heard God's judgment, which appears in the last verse of the previous chapter: "Therefore I also will act in fury. My eye will not spare nor will I have pity; and though they cry in My ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them."
Continuing the vision in Ezekiel 9, it relates a partial execution of that judgment. It is important to note here that the prophet witnesses God actually leaving His portable throne (described in detail in Ezekiel 1). At this point, "the glory of the God of Israel" actually demounts from it and removes, as verse 3 records, "to the threshold of the temple." So He has taken His place in the Temple, but not on the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. He is, in effect, in the gate, a place of judgment.
And this is a momentous judgment. In verses 5-6, God commands some of the angels, "Go . . . through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women." This is a summary judgment on the entire populace of Jerusalem!
When Ezekiel heard this command, how did he respond? Certainly not in a self-righteous, I-told-you-so manner. When he is alone with God, the angels having left on their mission, he falls on his face in apparent anguish, crying out: "Ah, Lord GOD! Will You destroy all the remnant of Israel in pouring out Your fury on Jerusalem?" (verse 8).
This is a vital question. Ezekiel is concerned about the people and about the scope of God's judgment. Like Lot, he lived in his own kind of Sodom, in his own type of Gomorrah, and he felt anguish over the sin that he saw and heard and over its consequences—as it were, tormented by what was happening around him. Ezekiel was emotionally and spiritually tormented or tortured, not by what the pagans were doing around him, but by what the leaders and the people of Israel were doing in his immediate environment—and even in the Temple! Their wickedness and what they were about to suffer for it are what tormented this righteous man. In vision, he must have witnessed a terrible slaughter, and the trauma and shock of that vision affected him most acutely. Indeed, a prophet of God has no pretty job.
The Torment of the Godly (Part One)
Obviously, to sigh and cry over the abominations of Israel, we have to know what sin is and what God considers abominable. The apostle John tells us that "sin is the transgression of the law" (I John 3:4). In Romans 3:20, Paul instructs us that "by the law is the knowledge of sin." In Romans 7:7, he reflects that he "would not have known sin except through the law." So we must know God's law in order to identify sin properly.
This is knowledge, pure and simple, not just emotion. Without this knowledge of the law, we would become subverted by the deceitful rudiments of this world, which are, in reality, demons. Paul writes of this in Colossians 2:8: about demonic philosophies that float around all over this world today, teaching, for instance, that abortion, bestiality, and gluttony are okay because they are simply personal expressions. Liberals here in the United States proclaim that they are acceptable choices! Nevertheless, by knowing God's law, we understand that they are not mere personal expressions and they are not acceptable—they are indeed sins and abominations.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 119:136, "Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do not keep your law." The psalmist weeps because he recognizes that people are not obeying God's law, and he can see where it leads: to ruin and death. It is not just emotion, but it is real feeling connected with an understanding of God's law.
The Torment of the Godly (Part Two)
To sigh and cry effectively over the sins of Israel, we must know what those sins are. In this particular context, this means that we need to be watching and listening attentively, just as Peter says that Lot was tormented by what he saw and heard going on around him (II Peter 2:6-8). Lot had to spend at least some of his time listening to SNN, the Sodom News Network!
We cannot sigh and cry if we are like ostriches and bury our heads in the sand. This is a type of denial. We need to be awake and aware, not slumbering and not sleeping (I Thessalonians 5:6). We need to ensure that we interpret the events that we see and hear in the news in terms of God's law, for that holy law is the standard, the benchmark, the touchstone, by which we must measure the deeds of our leadership, of our fellow citizens, and of ourselves.
Of course, awareness of sin does not imply participation in it. In one sense, we need to be like the man in the Bee Gees song, "I Started a Joke," which contains a line: "I started to cry which started the whole world laughing." The song is about an individual out of step with the world around him. He was alienated from it. We, too, are fish out of water—odd men out, as it were—and we cannot sigh and cry over the nation's sins if we are singing from the world's song sheet. To change the metaphor, we cannot march in step with this world and simultaneously sigh and cry at its sins. That simply will not work.
So, while we are in the world, we are not of it. We are spectators and not participants. Though we are watching from the sidelines, we dare not even for a moment cheer the ways of a world that is oblivious to God's law—a world that almost ubiquitously considers the law to be both odious and onerous. It is a world that is eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage (Matthew 24:38), laughing and living it up while we are crying all the time. We cannot successfully sigh and cry before God if we are of this world, part and parcel of its sins. We must remain outside.
Have we ever considered where our commitment to God's law puts us? Liberals in the world see God as having no influence at all on their actions. They think God has gone away—they even say He is dead—so they believe that obedience to God is not important. In Ezekiel 8, that is exactly what God says is wrong with the leadership of ancient Judah! They, too, thought that God had left the scene.
But what about the conservatives? These people give lip service to the Ten Commandments. They even become exercised when the liberals remove them from courthouses. Yet, consider that, for the most part, they refuse to keep those same commandments themselves! At best, their argument with liberals over this particular issue is logically inconsistent and morally hypocritical because they do not practice what they preach. Their refusal to keep the Sabbath is a prime example. Further, some of the business practices of professing conservatives are appalling, breaking God's injunctions against lying and stealing! Not recognizing the need to keep God's law, most conservatives attend churches that preach heavy doses of salvation by grace through faith alone, saying that is all we need.
This puts true Christians right in the middle—caught between "right" and "left" on every side—trapped in a world of lawlessness on every side. There is no light in this world whatsoever. Though Paul speaks in Romans 2:14 of people "who . . . by nature do the things in the law," he does not say that they obey the law but merely practice things contained in it. We, however, are the only people who, by covenant, have committed ourselves to obey God's law. We are indeed odd men out who sigh and cry while the world laughs. And all that time, God remembers His covenant and acknowledges His people.
The Torment of the Godly (Part Two)
One of the spirit beings who had "charge over the city" (verse 1) carried, not a battle-axe like his fellows, but a writer's inkhorn (verse 2), and he was also dressed differently, in linen. His is a different purpose. God charges him to go ahead of his fellows, saying in verse 4: "Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it."
The others follow him, obeying God's command to go through the city killing and not having pity (verse 5), but in verse 6, God warns, "Do not come near anyone on whom is the mark."
Those people who sighed and cried somehow found a place of safety from the conflagration and the terror. They had God's mark on them, protecting them from His judgment. Sighing and crying over the abominations and the sins of the larger society, then, must be enormously important to us, too, as we also stand on the brink of similar tribulation.
The Torment of the Godly (Part One)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Ezekiel 9:4: