Ezekiel 20:25 in the ESV reads, “Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life.” Why would God give the Israelites “statutes that were not good”? Is God saying that some of the commands, laws, statutes, and regulations He gave the Israelites in the Old Testament Law were not good?
As with any passage, it is exceedingly important to study the context of Ezekiel 20:25. In Ezekiel 20, these statements are repeated: “I swore to them” (verses 5, 6, 15, 23), “made known to them” (verses 5, 9), “I am the Lord your God” (verses 5, 7, 12, 19), and “but they rebelled” (verses 8, 13, 16, 21). God makes clear that He is God and that He has made Himself known to the Israelites. He did so by bringing them out of the land of Egypt and into a good and fruitful land He had prepared for them, sparing them the wrath they deserved and giving them laws and statutes. It is notable that God accentuates His faithfulness, His goodness (bringing forth life), and His ability to be found and understood. It is also notable that God emphasizes their rebellion and the abominations of their fathers.
God commanded the Israelites to cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on and to not defile themselves with the idols of Egypt (Ezekiel 20:7). He gave them rules that bring life to the obedient (verse 11). God gave them the Sabbath as a sign to know that God sanctifies them (verse 12). He commanded them not to walk in the statutes of their fathers or keep their rules. He also commanded them not to defile themselves with idols (verse 18) and to keep the Sabbath holy (verse 20).
Israel violated all of God’s commands. They committed abominations (Ezekiel 20:4). They rebelled against God and were unwilling to listen. They did not cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake their idols (verse 8). They did not walk in His statues but rejected His rules and profaned the Sabbath (verses 13, 16, 24). Their hearts went after the idols of other nations (verses 16, 24). They rebelled and did not live by the rules that bring life (verses 21, 24). Their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols (verse 24).
Ezekiel 20:25 appears to be the direct opposite of what is said in previous verses. God repeats over and over again that His rules bring life and that the Israelites did not live by those rules. So, what is He talking about when He says He gave them rules that were “not good” and by which they “could not have life”?
A few other translations render Ezekiel 20:25 differently:
“So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live” (NIV).
“I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life” (NLT).
“Therefore I also gave them up to statutes that were not good, and judgments by which they could not live” (NKJV).
The verse is saying that, since the Israelites violated God’s laws and committed abominations, such as sacrificing their sons (Ezekiel 20:26), God essentially said, “I’ll let you experience the full misery of what it is like to live under the laws of pagan gods.”
This “giving over” of the Israelites to worthless decrees would be similar to what we see in Romans 1:24, 26, and 28: “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts. . . . God gave them over to degrading passions. . . . God gave them over to a depraved mind” (NASB).
When we continue to stubbornly rebel against God, violating His commands, committing idolatry, etc., He sometimes allows us to experience the consequences of our sin. He allows us to see how sin destroys our lives. He allows us to become like the idols we are worshipping.
In summary, when God says, “I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life,” He is declaring that, because the Israelites perverted God’s statutes (the giving of the firstfruits, for example), even to the point of offering their firstborn children, God gave them over to the rules and statutes of their ancestors and the surrounding idolatrous nations. Those rules, which led to death, were the opposite of God’s life-giving rules and were a judgment in themselves.
Why did God do this? “So that they would know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:26) and so that “afterward you will surely listen to me and no longer profane my holy name with your gifts and idols” (verse 39). God wants our hearts, one hundred percent. He wants us to know that He is the one to be worshipped, for He alone is God and He alone can give us life.