by Doug Ward
In the days of the patriarch Abraham the town of Sodom, located on a plain near the Dead Sea, became notorious for its immorality. We first hear of Sodom in Gen 13:13, when the narrator observes, "Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord." More details are provided in Gen 19:1-5, where a violent mob threatened to brutally rape two angelic visitors to Sodom. So great were the sins of Sodom and neighboring towns Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim (Deut 29:23) that God completely destroyed them with fire and brimstone (Gen 19:24-25).
After the destruction of Sodom, the memory of the town's sins and punishment lived on. For the biblical prophets the fate of Sodom was a prototype for the judgment awaiting those who opposed God's purposes, including rebellious nations like Babylon (Isa 13:19-20; Jer 50:39-40), Edom (Jer 49:17-18), Ammon and Moab (Zep 2:9). The apostle Peter wrote that in general, the destruction of Sodom serves as "an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly" (2 Peter 2:6).
There also have been occasions when a prophet declared some group of people to be morally inferior to Sodom. Given Sodom's reputation, this would be an especially sobering type of rebuke to receive! In this article we will examine two examples of such prophetic rebukes. In doing so, we will discover that the words of the prophets still strike uncomfortably close to home for us today.
Sodom in Ezekiel 16
The first example comes from the prophet Ezekiel, a priest who was taken captive by the Babylonians in about 597 BC and settled with other Jewish exiles in a colony near the Chebar canal. In his longest prophecy (Eze 16), Ezekiel graphically described to his fellow captives the sins that had led to Judah's downfall. Like an unfaithful bride Judah had abandoned her marriage covenant with God and taken up with the gods of neighboring nations.
In Ezekiel's elaborate analogy, Judah had two "sisters." One was Samaria, representing the ten tribes of the House of Israel, which had earlier strayed from God and been conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 721 BC. The other was Sodom, representing the Canaanites, whose idolatrous ways had been emulated by both Israel and Judah. Ezekiel declared that Judah had surpassed both of these sisters in corruption (Eze 16:44-48).
We can imagine Ezekiel's fellow exiles asking him, "How could Judah be worse than Sodom? Were strangers attacked by violent mobs in the streets of Jerusalem?" Ezekiel elaborated, "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me" (vv 49-50).
Ezekiel asserts that Sodom's complacent pride and self-sufficiency, its belief that it needed nothing and was answerable to no one, was at the root of the town's abominable behavior. Such an attitude is evident in Gen 19:9, when the mob at Lot's door scoffs at Lot's objections, saying, "This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge!" Since Judah shared Sodom's pride and haughtiness, the prophet says, nothing was restraining it from deeds as wicked as Sodom's.
Ezekiel's words give us much to think about today. In a society of unmatched wealth, prosperity, and knowledge, it can be easy to fall into an attitude of pride, complacency, and self-sufficiency. This, Ezekiel says, is the spirit of Sodom.
Capernaum in Matthew 11
The second example comes from Jesus of Nazareth, who prophesied six centuries after Ezekiel. During his Galilean ministry, Jesus' base of operations was at the village of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matt 4:13; Mark 2:1). The Gospels record that Jesus performed many healings and other mighty works there (Matt 8:16-17), including the casting out of an unclean spirit at the local synagogue (Mark 1:21-28); healing a centurion's servant (Matt 8:5-13), an official's son (John 4:46-54), and a paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12); and healing Peter's mother-in-law of a fever (Matt 8:14-15).
Despite the mighty works Jesus performed there, Capernaum's response to the gospel was lukewarm at best. At one point Jesus declared, "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you" (Matt 11:23-24).
Jesus' rebuke of Capernaum brings out the principle that we are judged in accordance with the amount of revelation we have received. As he states elsewhere, "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48). Much more divine attention was devoted to first-century Capernaum than to ancient Sodom, and therefore Capernaum will be judged according to a higher standard than Sodom. God also had invested a great deal more in the kingdom of Judah than in Sodom, so this principle may lie behind Ezekiel's words as well.
The words of Ezekiel 16 and Matthew 11 caution us against any attitude of spiritual complacency or self-satisfaction. Today we have easier access to God's Word and a fuller revelation of the gospel than at any time in history. What will we do with these precious resources? Will our generation someday be rebuked by the men of Sodom? Let us heed the words of Ezekiel and Jesus.