“God's Will is Life”
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
The above passage (cf. 33:11 along with the Lord’s self-designation in Exodus 34:6-7), is one of the most beautiful affirmations about God’s character in all of Scripture. These rhetorical questions directed toward God's suffering people expect a clear “No” and “Yes” answer respectively. Here is God’s emphatic declaration: “Just so we’re clear Israel, I want you to live and not die!”
Why does the Lord have to speak so explicitly here? Shouldn’t his desire for life be obvious? Shouldn’t we know that the Creator delights in his creation living and not dying? Shouldn’t Israel especially know that not only is God rooting for them but that he has a purpose for them that requires them to live?
Well, considering God’s stark denunciations of the wicked and the terrifying descriptions of his wrath upon them found elsewhere in the prophets, it’s at least understandable that one might be tempted to answer the first question (“have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”) with a “Yes.” Wickedness is so repulsive to God, as outlined with such poetic and legal force by Ezekiel, that one may come away from a text believing that God would love to wipe Israel from the earth as we might take pleasure in swatting an annoying gnat from our face.
But, according to Ezekiel 18:23, this is far from the truth!
Many who superficially read the Old Testament find within its pages an angry, vengeful God who does nothing but punish sinners. “Why isn’t he more loving like the God of the New Testament?” This tragic misunderstanding has led many to picture God as an unjust monster who "takes pleasure" in dealing out retribution.
To be fair, the chances of opening your Old Testament and finding God angry with Israel or a some other nation, perhaps even threatening to punish them, is actually pretty good.
But is this a balanced view of God? Let me put it to you this way. If a neighbor was walking by your house with the windows open and heard your child screaming, “Stop hurting me daddy!” while you were trying to remove a splinter from his hand, would that scream be an accurate representation of your relationship with your child? Should those who heard such screams conclude that you enjoy punishing your children? Surely not!
God must remove the splinter of wickedness from his people precisely because he loves them. His moral integrity combined with his love simply will not allow unrepentant sin and the damage it leaves in its wake to continue unchecked. But make no mistake, the exercise of punitive justice gives him no pleasure at all.
In fact, what pleases God is that moment when a sinner repents which liberates him to exercise his unique and divine ability to grant the gift of life (Lk. 15:7; Rom. 6:23). Giving life to his creation is his favorite thing to do. It has been his greatest “pleasure” since Genesis 1.
Even when we, like Israel, make enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) he gives an advanced warning of danger (Lk. 13:3; Ezek. 3:16-21; 33:1-10). And what is the point of a warning if not to give those in danger the chance to escape? (Ezek. 18:32) In passages like Ezekiel 18:23, God is pleading for the wicked to see their desperate situation and to turn their lives around before it's too late.
In our wickedness, we face a God who warns us with no pleasure at all that the “soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). But if we turn to him in repentance, we face a God who promises with pleasure that the soul who repents shall live (Ezek. 33:11).