Standing in the Breach

Our text for today, from the eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel, is quite challenging, to say the least. It deals with very real, raw arguments any believer might speak toward God. Now, these are not the sorts of confessions most people like to dwell on. Usually, they are the ones we keep privately and do not allow to bubble-up into our public life, especially among the faithful. But perhaps we should. Perhaps we need to hear them out and listen to what our Lord has to say concerning them. Ezekiel begins with God bringing them to task about this little proverb He has been hearing around the camp of the Israelites. “What do you mean by repeating this proverb,” He says, “concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” The proverb speaks about fathers doing one thing, but the result of their action is hitting the children. The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge.

The accusation being thrown around by the people of Israel is God is punishing the wrong people. They are suggesting one is being punished because of the sins of another. But what does God say? He says, “Behold, all souls are mine. The soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine. The soul who sins shall die.” That is quite stark and absolute, not much gray area in this statement. Later, Saint Paul will make the same statement by saying, “The wages of sin is death.” All souls belong to God, those who fear Him and those who reject Him. Young, old, male, and female, they are all His. All the created order is His. And regarding all this, He has established His Law. To transgress the Law is to sin, and to sin is to die, period, end of story.

I was just at a pastor’s conference this past week and when you get a bunch of pastors together the conversation can often get a bit, well, strange. We talked about all sorts of things but one of the topics that came up was funerals. There was conducting funerals, preaching at funerals, doing a graveside committal, all the things. One thing you will always hear someone say is that when it comes to preaching, preaching at a funeral is the easiest. Not that it is not emotional, or grief is not real, rather what makes it easy is you do not have to say too much about the Law of God. You do not have to address the depravity of humanity and the reality of sin, since the reality of sin is staring everyone in the face. The fact that a brother or sister in Christ has died is proof that sin still clings to our mortal frames.

To get back to Ezekiel, this is the reality he lays out in great detail. The soul that sins shall die. The righteous person who turns from his righteousness to do injustice shall die, but the wicked person who turns from his wickedness shall save his life. The text is a call to the people of God to repent and turn to the Lord, and, as a result, save their life. It culminates with this powerful and heartfelt word where God calls out saying, “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so, turn and live.” In this text we are reminded of the reality of sin and its consequences on the one hand, and on the other we also know the desire of God is that no one will die. These two realities, the justice of God and His mercy, seem to be at odds with each other. Ezekiel seems to stand in the middle seeking to mediate a resolution. In fact, Scripture is ripe with images of one who will do just this, who will defend the justice of God’s wrath, while generously presenting His grace. If we skip forward a few chapters to Ezekiel 22, we are given a powerful image. There God says, “I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.”

A man standing in the breach. A man who would prevent the destruction of the land, who would stand without moving in the face of God’s wrath, who would usher in His mercy. Remember the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom. He does this. God is prepared to wipe out the city because of their great sin. Abraham says to God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” And then he begins to work on a deal. What if there are fifty righteous, will you still destroy it? What if there are forty-five? What about forty? He works his way all the way down to ten. He is the man in the breach, daring to speak to God to slow His just wrath over sin. If he can bring about repentance on the part of the inhabitants of Sodom, if they can turn from their wicked ways, perhaps God’s mercy can shine forth. Like a good mediator, Abraham is trying to work towards a common goal which benefits all parties.

In our text today, Ezekiel is doing the same thing, holding to the justice of God, to the demands of the Law, and God’s desire for mercy. He is a man standing in the breach, like Abaraham, trying to work toward a solution for all parties involved. And it comes out very much the same way. There must be repentance. There must be a turn from wickedness if there is to be mercy. But even if this one standing in the breach manages to work out a good deal, there always remains the problem of the spiritual debt that is owed. Abraham can only do so much. Ezekiel cannot wipe out the massive balance incurred by the unfaithful people of God. This is why God says, that when He looked for one to stand in the breach, He found none. Perhaps then, this text works to direct us to someone who is far greater than Abraham, far greater than the prophet Ezekiel. It may lead us to one who will not just delay the wrath of God or work for a better deal but will stand in the breach once-for-all to bring lasting justice and the full assurance of eternal mercy. Job probably best speaks to this desire when he is caught between justice and mercy and says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand on the earth.”

There is a redeemer. There is One who stands in the breach, who stands on the earth to be the perfect mediator. He not only calls for repentance from mankind and proclaims the mercy of God, but He will remove the debt that is owed. This, of course, is the work and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what He came to do. Jesus came to be the one standing in the breach before God for you, for your salvation. God sees you, sees your sins, and sees your failure, your anger, your endless murmuring against him and he sees that even your repentance falls short. Yet, Christ stands right there to take the righteous rage, to endure the just wrath so you might have hope, so you might live. To stand in the breach is to do what no one else could do. He gives you all that is rightly His. He gives you His righteousness, His perfect obedience, and His faithful sonship. All of it He makes yours. And He takes from you all that is yours, all your sin, all your rebellion, all your disobedience. He takes them and pays for them all. He stands in the breach to suffer and die for you.

The truly shocking thing about all this is that the One who stands in the breach, the One who mediates between our repentance and the mercy of God, the One who gives true hope and lasting assurance for each and every one of you is God. We cling to God, even as we tremble before God. God for you, God incarnate, God born of the virgin Mary, born under the Law to bear your sin, He is the source of your confidence. This then is why you can have hope even as you struggle to repent, even as you stumble and fall into those tired old paths of sin. For God Himself has taken up your sin. God Himself has become your brother. God Himself stands in the breach to bring mercy, life, and salvation. Christ places His body and blood in the way of God’s wrath and pointing to you says, “These ones here, they are loved, they are forgiven, and so they will live. Even if they die, I will raise them up. I am never letting them go.”