What Ezekiel 23:20 Really Means (there she lusted after her lovers)

There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. Ezekiel 23:20 

This is one of the most graphic uses of language in the Bible and many are shocked to find this verse in God’s word. While vulgar, the meaning of Ezekiel 23:20 still has some powerful truths for us today. 

This passage might make you a little uncomfortable. However, I think by diving into the context and the meaning you will see how this can apply to your life today. 

The Context Of Ezekiel 23:20

When we pull one verse out of a chapter it can be easy to draw the wrong conclusions from it because we don’t have the context. Context helps us understand what’s happening and how the verse applies to our lives. So before we can look at what Ezekiel 23:20 means we need to first look at the context. 

Ezekiel, the author, was a prophet who would communicate messages from God to the Israelites. He lived during a time called the Babylonian exile around the 6th Century BC. The nation of Israel was captive and Ezekiel’s messages from God were directed towards them. 

In Ezekiel 23 we see a parable called “The Two Adulterous Sisters.” This story of Oholah and Oholibah uses the metaphor of marriage to portray the relationship between God and his people. But Israel isn’t faithful; she is portrayed as a prostitute who does despicable acts. 

This distasteful theme and lewd language in this chapter is striking. Ezekiel is using this imagery to show the Israelites exactly how disputable their acts are to God. 

Israel is pursuing political adultery. They are breaking the marriage relationship with God. They going against God’s instructions and placing their trust in other nations through alliances. They care more about pursuing safety and national security than they do about honoring their covenant with God. 

Dr Tom Constable describes the chapter this way, “Despite the distasteful theme and the indelicate language, the reader of these verses must appreciate that this is the language of unspeakable disgust and must try to recognize Ezekiel’s passion for God’s honour and his fury at the adulterous conduct of His covenant people. The feeling of nausea which a chapter like this arouses must be blamed not on the writer of the chapter nor even on its contents, but on the conduct which had to be described in such revolting terms.”

What’s incredible about this is even though his people are unfaithful, God will remain faithful. He will restore Israel and honor his covenant. 

What Ezekiel 23:20 Means

Now that we know the context we can start looking at the Ezekiel 23:20 meaning. I’m going to break this verse into two sections to help us better see what it’s communicating for us today. 

There She Lusted After Her Lovers 

Remember the context, “she” refers to the nation of Israel. And Israel is breaking the marriage relationship with God by pursuing other nations. 

Her “lovers” here are primarily Egyptians, but also Babylon and Assyria. Israel was seeking help from the Egyptians rather than God. But this wasn’t simply seeking political alliances, Israel was also taking on their customs and worshiping their gods. This is an affair. 

The Lord had become disgusted with her behavior. Yet, she still persisted in her immoral ways. Israel didn’t care that she was in the wrong, she was singularly focused on her desires. 

Ezekiel describes these desires as lust. Both showing the strong pull and the wrong placement of these desires. God’s people are more interested in lovers than the one they entered covenant relationship with. 

Ezekiel then paints a very vivid and shocking picture. 

Whose Genitals Were Like Those Of Donkeys And Whose Emission Was Like That Of Horses

You don’t need to a lot of explanation here to see the disgust in this depiction. Israel’s actions with the Egyptians were detestable to God. 

Donkeys and horses were known for their strong sexual drive, and here Ezekiel is using these animals to show how Israel is drawn to her lovers.

Notice the emphasis and detail in this verse, “Whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.” That’s quite the picture! And the point here is on the eagerness of the people to pursue this idolatry. They are blinded by their lust and their desires. 

Israel cares nothing about the God who’s cared and provided for them. They don’t care about the commitment they’ve made; they only care about their desires in the moment. And God is like a jealous husband who is watching his wife lust after someone else. 

This verse is shocking and it’s supposed to elicit a strong reaction. Ezekiel 23:20 is showing us how detestable our sin can be to God. 

3 Lessons From Ezekiel 23:20

My guess is you’ve never tried to apply a verse like this to your life. After all, it’s a shocking verse that we don’t like to picture ourselves in. But there are plenty of lessons we can learn and apply to our everyday lives. 

I want to end by looking at three lessons from the meaning of Ezekiel 23:20. 

1. The Consequence Of Sin Is Serious 

We downplay the seriousness of sin. We think it’s just a little mistake, not a big deal. But it is. Our sin separates us from God; it keeps us from the life that he’s intended for us. Sin promises life, but it brings death. 

And we can see that, right? Just look around you. The consequences of sin are everywhere. Families are falling a part, wars are raging, people are hurting others, and there’s brokenness everywhere.

The reality is we’ve lusted after things God told us not to and that’s brought death and destruction. The Ezekiel 23:20 meaning shows us just how detestable our sin can be. 

For more about what sin is check out: What Is Sin? (why it’s more than just missing the mark)

2. Our Relationship With God Isn’t To Be Taken Lightly 

Throughout the New Testament we see the continuation of the metaphor of marriage to describe our relationship with God. Marriage is a commitment in which you promise to remain loyal to the other person. This shows the weight of our relationship with God. 

For followers of Jesus we should not take this relationship lightly. When we decide to follow Jesus we are making a commitment to him. 

When a spouse is unfaithful, that breaks the commitment made and causes pain and damage. So it is for Christians; our sin, our unfaithfulness, severs the relationship. 

But thankfully even when we can’t live up to our commitment God lives up to his. He makes a way for us to be restored and the relationship to be redeemed. 

3. God Is Good Even When We Are Not 

If you were to read the rest of Ezekiel you will see God forgive his people. Though they did some detestable things, God still honors his covenant, his commitment, to them. God is good even when we aren’t. 

And this isn’t a one-time thing. If you were to read through the Bible you would see time and time again God’s people walk away from God and each time he takes them back. 

This is seen fully in Jesus. He died for us while we were still sinners. He paid the price for our sins. He made a way for our relationship with him to be restored. Even though we deserved death he gave us life. 

God is good, even when we are not. 

Jeffery Curtis Poor
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