Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
1. A Modern Perspective
In life, some things are good, and some things are bad. There are good (positive) things that happen—things that help and encourage and build up. And there are bad (negative) things that happen—things that discourage, disappoint and dismay. There are good people—people who look out for others, who go out of their way to help. And there are bad people—people whose only concern is what they can do for themselves, and are willing to take things no matter what cost to anyone else. There are good leaders—those who take their responsibilities seriously, and who constantly have the welfare of others in mind. And there are bad leaders—people who are only in it for the prestige and the power, and who will use others for their own personal gain.
Yes, there are good, and there are bad. And, of course, what we mean by good and bad will vary from one person to another. Despite that, most people will have an idea of what good and bad mean—and they will also recognise the many different shades of grey in between.
2. An Old Testament Perspective
What may surprise, and even shock some people, then, is to find that our definitions of what is good and what is bad—and the way we use those expressions—are not always the same as the way God uses them—either in the past, or is likely to use them in the future. Because God’s definitions of what is good and what is bad are often quite different to our own. And if we could accept that, then maybe the way we see good and bad would substantially be changed.
Let me explain.
3. A Biblical Definition
In the Old Testament, we can read a number of stories about God’s people, who time after time wandered from the path—by often following other gods. And this was often as a direct result of poor leadership. As a consequence, the whole community, time after time, got further and further away from God, until they got to a point where the only solution was for God to step in and do something.
God would then raise up a particular leader—a godly man or woman—to lead the people forward, so that the restoration of the people in their relationship to God could begin. And it’s a cycle that is repeated time after time after time.
Now each time that cycle happened, you could very easily say, ‘But, yes, there must have been some good people amongst the people. They can’t all have been rotten to the core.’ And probably in our definitions of what is good and bad, we would have to agree. For it’s very difficult to see that amongst several million people, that there wouldn’t be a least someone who cared for someone else.
The problem is, though, that who we might consider to be ‘good’ is not necessarily who God sees as ‘good’ at all. And the reason for that, is that there is a fundamental flaw in our definition of good.
Our definition of good could possibly include people who care for others; people who make great sacrifices, and even put their lives on the line for others; people who are trustworthy, honourable, reliable and . . . dozens of other positive adjectives that you could use. And all those things we often see as ‘good’. However, our definition usually misses out on something far more fundamental than all of that—and it is the primary thing that God looks for. And that is whether a person has a sound, and faithful relationship with him. Because in order to be good, in God’s eyes, one must have a solid, and faithful relationship with him.
As a consequence, God’s definition of good, only includes people who do good works, provided that they have first got a sound relationship with him. And if they haven’t, in God’s eyes those people are not good at all. Because no matter what good deeds people do, they always lead people astray because of their beliefs.
And on that basis, is it any wonder that in the Old Testament, God has to keep resolving the problem of his unfaithful people. He has to periodically give them a new leader to bring his sheep back to the fold. But a leader who at a very fundamental base has a strong and faithful relationship with God.
B. THE MESSAGE OF EZEKIEL
And as an illustration of that, we have this passage from Ezekiel. Because in Ezekiel’s day, apart from the prophet himself, no such person was around that God could call ‘good’. As a consequence, God abandoned any idea of promoting a new leader to lead his people. And unusually he took on the direct role of being a leader himself.
And as a consequence of that, in this one snapshot of history, we get a true picture of what it means to be ‘good’ from God’s perspective.
1. The Good Shepherd (11-16)
Because not only are we told that God took on the leadership himself. But it also spells out what being ‘good’ is all about. And from a background of ‘faith’ it means being actively involved in doing four things:
Firstly, being actively involved in finding the straying members of the flock—to help steer them back on the true path. Secondly, actively going out of the way to rescue those who are lost—who don’t know God at all. Thirdly, taking responsibility to feed and tend the whole flock—giving particular attention to any weak and ailing members. And, fourthly, doing all this knowing that there is a time constraint—because finding the straying and bringing the sheep back to the fold is a job that must be done in earnest, before judgement day comes. As a consequence, there is an urgency about the tasks that needs to be instilled.
If we want to know what being ‘good’ should really mean, then, we have it in a nutshell. And if we want to be considered ‘good’ by God, then we have a description of the kind of people we should be.
In contrast, however, if we want to know what is ‘bad’, God spells that out too. And God’s list isn’t a list of the usual suspects we might consider. But as far as God is concerned it includes anyone who is fat and strong, anyone who oppresses the weak, anyone who does not come to the aid of people’s physical needs, and, more importantly, anyone who blocks people’s paths from having a relationship with God.
Consequently, our definition of ‘bad’ should not just highlight murderers, cheats, terrorists, and people who are genuinely out for themselves. But it should include anyone who simply does not believe, anyone who would distract others from following the path of faith, and anyone who discourages people from practicing the faith, in any manner at all.
So, as you can see the general definitions of what is normally considered good and bad are very different to God’s definitions. And the fundamental reason for the difference is not whether people do good or bad things. Rather it’s whether a person has a personal relationship with God—and emphasises the loving care of God over all other things—or whether God has little or no place in a person’s life.
2. Judgement Among the Flock (20-22)
Of course, the difference in definitions between God’s definitions and the way we usually use the terms are chalk and cheese. But God isn’t just concerned about the meaning in theory, he is concerned with how they pan out in practice. Because he has always been concerned that people should be considered ‘good’ in his eyes.
As a consequence, he is concerned that people wander away; he is concerned that people do not know him. And that is why we see, in Ezekiel’s day, an example of God doing something about it. And what he did was that he decided he would remove all the obstacles that were getting in the people’s way. And the starting point was to deal with the leaders who had failed to do their duty; who had failed to pass on the good news of a relationship with God; and instead had tied people up in knots, by emphasising their own personal importance.
He removed the bad leaders: The snobs, the nobles, the merchant-classes, the powerful and the prosperous. All these people came in God’s sights. They’d been greedy wanting things for themselves—and often at the cost of others. And as a consequence of their actions, they had made the poor even poorer. But most importantly they had done things in God’s name (bringing him into disrepute). So he removed them all. That was a major step to purify the people—to help them become good. But after having done all that, he then went on to sort out the general population too.
Bad leadership, bad people, people without faith, just had to go. Because not only did such leaders or people condemn themselves by their lack of faith, but by their actions they condemned others by leading them astray. And, again, the criteria for sorting the good from the bad was simply based not on whether people had done good works or not, but on whether they had any faith at all.
3. The Messianic Shepherd (23-24)
And having sorted out the true good from the true bad (in Ezekiel’s day), God then stated his intention to install his own nominee in the role of leader. A Messianic figure, without the failings of a human king, and connected to the line of David. Someone who would oversee the consummation of the present age and the opening of a new age—and a time when judgement would be made based purely on God’s definition of good and bad.
The good, the faithful to be gathered in an act of deliverance—united and purified to enter into a supernatural golden age of peace and prosperity. And the bad to miss out—to be excluded. And to be excluded in the same way that they excluded God themselves.
So as a result of these very specific definitions of God—what he considers ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we need to be very careful about how we use those terms. Yes, we might like to include all sorts of people who do great things—as being ‘good’. And we might like to include a whole host of people who do some terrible things—as being ‘bad’. However it’s God’s definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with which we should be working with—not the common use to which those terms are used today.
‘Good’ can only start with a full relationship with God—and work from that base onwards. Because if we start with our definition, we really haven’t grasped God’s idea of good at all.
And the same is true of ‘bad’. Because if we begin with a list of things or people that we consider bad—and we don’t include in our definition people who exclude God from their lives, or who discourage people from having faith—then we haven’t got a true picture of what ‘bad’ really means either.
And having got our definitions straight, we can then go on to actually understand better what God is about, and try to be the ‘good’ people that God demands. People who not only have an active and living faith in the Lord Jesus for their salvation, but people who have a concern for those who are straying from the path, and are willing to do our bit to bring them back. People who have a heart for those who are lost, and are willing to go to any lengths in order to introduce them to God. People who know the importance of spiritual food, and are keen to do our bit in teaching and tending the people in their faith. People who are willing to point people to the Messiah, so that they can have an opportunity to be saved—and be considered ‘good’. And people who know that the task is urgent, and—whether the second coming comes first or people die first—that there is only a limited time in which to work.
Now I accept that some might take offence at all that I’ve just said. But then even Jesus said that nobody is ‘good’—only God—and that’s true. But it’s also true that the way salvation works, is that by us believing, God can consider us as though we are ‘good’. It’s what Jesus has done that makes us good, not the things we try to do ourselves. For it is by faith that we are saved. And as a consequence of that, all believers can be considered ‘good’ by God, simply because they believe—and because they can then carry out the responsibilities that go with that belief.
So the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are commonly used today in a variety of ways. They are commonly used to describe people who do good things—or bad things. What we discover in the bible, however, is that God’s description of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ contrasts considerably with the common use of those terms. Because the use of those terms should hinge on whether a person has faith or not.
If we are Christians, what should matter is not what the world considers ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but what God considers to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’. So we need to look at these terms from God’s perspective.
And when we do, only then will we see the world and faith from God’s radically different, point of view. And that’s very important indeed.
Posted: 6th September 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24