It has now been almost a year since Ezekiel was taken to Jerusalem in a vision to see the abominations the people were doing there, and the desctruction the Lord caused there. (ch. 8) The date given in chapter 20 means the tenth of Ab, which corresponds to August, 591 b.c. Interestingly, this is precisely five years before Ezekiel’s vision is fulfilled, and the Babylonians sack Jerusalem for real. I don’t think this is more significant than a coincidence, but it is nice to know that we can date things this accurately even so long ago.
On this date, the elders of Israel again come to Ezekiel to inquire something from the Lord. However, because of the sins Israel has committed, the Lord refuses to answer their question. Instead, He reviews Israel’s history of idolatry, which persisted throughout their entire time as a nation. While they lived in Egypt they worshipped the Egyptian idols, so the Lord told them to cast them away when He brought them out. He gave them His Law and statutes, representend in this text as the Sabbath, which should have brought them life, but they profaned and disobeyed them.
After an entire generation of Israelites died in the wilderness outside the Promised Land, the Lord charged their children not to walk in the ways of their fathers. But they failed and continued in the same sins. Every time the Lord describes the failure of the people, He threatens to wipe them out completely in judgement, but then He relents because His name would be profaned among the nations. Instead He judges them with exile and scattering them away from the land, as Moses predicted before they ever entered the Promised Land.
Israel had even gone so far as to pervert the statutes the Lord had given them. Back when He made the covenant with Israel, He told them to devote their firstborn children as holy to the Lord, but they should use an animal as a substitute sacrifice, because God has never actually wanted us to sacrifice our children to Him. Somehow Israel forgot that last part, and offered their children up as burnt offerings, possibly to Yahweh, but definitely to the Caananite god Molech.
The Lord lists all these things and presents His case against the elders of Israel. They, representing the whole nation, persist in idolatry still, so they have no grounds to inquire what the Lord wants them to do. They have already been told and don’t do it now, so why should they hear more?
How great is your patience and long-suffering, O God, to deal with sinners like us.