As a person who loves words, and how they can be strung together in fascinating and enchanting ways, I have always enjoyed a phrase in 2 Timothy chapter four. Paul says:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires…
– 2 Timothy 4:3 (NASB)
Isn’t the visual of tickling ears amusing? In my imagination I see someone gently swiping people’s ears with a soft ostrich feather. The King James Version describes it as “itching ears” – rather than tickled. This adds a dimension that the person really, really desires to be tickled or scratched. It’s a quaint phrase for a sad condition of human hearts. While Paul warns Christians of ear ticklers, I believe Ezekiel 13 carefully describes such teachers as they appeared in Old Testament times.
Before even indicting these people, however, we must understand that the reason both Paul and Ezekiel say false teachers have any power, is because they say things that people want to hear. Paul says listeners rally behind ear ticklers because their own desires are being fulfilled. Ezekiel says they lie to people who like to listen to lies – claiming peace when there is no peace. v.16,19 These false teachers would have no power if the people around them did not vest them with it. So both teacher and taught are guilty.
But the teachers are especially guilty. James tells us that teachers “incur a stricter judgment” – so they are under the spotlight of God’s special censure here in Ezekiel 13. (James 3:1) They are condemned for “prophesying from their own inspiration.” vv.2,17 That word “inspiration” means, quite simply “hearts”. So these are people carefully figuring out how to tell people what they want to hear – but claiming it is by the word of God Himself. They are described as “foolish” and “following their own spirit” but having “seen nothing.” v.3 The chapter goes into great poetic detail to describe both male and female false teachers. These are men and women who claimed God’s authority, but in reality were only following their own selfish ways – likely for their own power-hungry or financial profit. They preyed on people’s superstitious and ritualistic thinking. vv.9,18 Their behavior is so wicked that Ezekiel says they even “put to death some who should not die, and keep others alive who should not live.” v.19 This may be speaking on the spiritual plane, but we also know of plenty of literal faithful people who were persecuted and killed for disregarding the popular norms when it came to religious practice. (cp. Heb. 11)
A couple of other words in this chapter jump out as it is read. “Whitewash” is one of them. It appears four times in five verses. I imagine your mind leaps directly to Jesus’ condemnation of similar false religious leaders of his day.(Mt. 23:27) The Strong’s concordance describes this word as “a term applied to a hypocrite who conceals his malice under an outward assumption of piety.” Another word “divination” is always associated with idolatrous, ungodly practices. v.6 (cp. Deut. 18:10-13) The abomination of these teachers was emphasized even more when I discovered that the word for “fragments” in verse 19 only occurs three times in Scripture. It is actually “Pethor” which means “soothsayer” and was the town where the false prophet Balaam resided! (Num. 22:5) So apparently these teachers, like Balaam, were using subtle quasi-religious means to undermine the true worship of God. This is a much more damaging attack than outright opposition and, sadly enough it worked (among both Old and New testament believers) to draw people away. Revelation 2 describes a woman’s false teaching that mixed Christianity with immorality and idolatry as well. (Rev. 2:20-21) This is what God is exposing and threatening judgment upon. When that judgement comes, He declares, “And you will know that I am the Lord!” vv.13-14
What lessons can we take from these warnings? False teaching is a consistent source of potential trouble for believers throughout history. It comes in a great variety of forms – especially in our modern day. Be wary of anyone who claims to be inspired by God. The Bible is constantly warning us not to listen to messages that make us “feel good” but lead away from God. Rather we are to constantly seek the heart of God in His Word – both its goodness and its severity. We must know what it says in order to refute the philosophies that might creep into our thinking to make us doubt Him.
One way Ezekiel defines the exposing of these teachers is that they “dishearten the righteous” and “encourage the wicked not to turn from evil ways”. v.22 I imagine Ezekiel considered himself among those disheartened many times in his difficult life. So when we see teachers who encourage practices condemned by God in the Bible, or who cause grief to faithful worshippers – we have a clue that that teaching may be false. The Apostle John also tells us
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6)
We can also take heart that God promises the false prophets to “deliver My people out of your hand. Thus, you will know that I am the Lord” v.23 Even if it is only a future deliverance, like that sought by the persecuted faithful of Hebrews 11, we must remain true to truth. Like Ezekiel. Like the Lord Jesus.
May we be steadfast and wise in discerning the ear ticklers of our own day.