“And the word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD.
“If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate.
“Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered.
“Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.
“For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.””
(Ezekiel 14:12–23 ESV)
These verses might strike us strangely because the bible overwhelming communicates that no one is righteous before a perfectly holy God. We were dead, enemies, objects of wrath, rebellious and wicked (Ephesians 2:1-3). So when we come across verses like these, it may seem like the bible is contradicting itself. The bible always interprets the bible so there must be something else going on here. The context of this passage in Ezekiel is regarding the severity of judgement that is to come. Noah saved 7 additional people because of his “righteousness” and Job interceded for his moron (my interpretation) friends and God “heard his prayer” (Job 42:8–9 ESV). But despite their previous ability to intercede on behalf of their friends & family, their righteous lives would not be enough to save anyone in light of how egregious the people’s current sinfulness was.
Neither Ezekiel (nor God) are trying to communicate that these men were perfectly pure or holy; the intent is to communicate that these men were morally upright & did what was right in the eyes of God and others. They are like what we would describe as a “good guy” today. We know what we mean when we say that someone is a good guy – faithful to their wife, honest, a hard worker, etc…Morally upright. That is what the bible is communicating regarding these men. Indeed, Noah blows it big time after the flood when he gets drunk and passes out in his tent “like a redneck on vacation” (Mark Driscoll’s commentary from Genesis 9:21 from On the Old Testament). Job also had an overwhelming sense that he could successfully argue his case before God and win – does that sound familiar? We know how that worked out for him!
Ezekiel is communicating that even though these guys were morally upright and that they saved others from judgement, the current sin was too great for them to save anyone but themselves. When we see judgement in the Old Testament it is ultimately pointing to the destruction of the wicked at the end of the world. This is most poignantly seen in the destruction of men, women & children when the Israelites take the promised land (that is a whole other discussion!). How do we avoid this judgement & destruction? By being perfectly righteous. There are only 2 ways to be righteous – live a perfect life and obey all of the commandments all of the time or trust in Someone who would do that for you.
The most beautiful thing about this passage and ultimately about “righteous” Noah & Job is that God would accept the righteousness of another on our behalf. It was Noah’s righteousness that saved his family. Jesus is the true and better Noah. It is by Jesus’ righteousness that we are saved. So do we strive to rest on our own righteousness or are we grateful and rest upon the righteousness of Another. This is seeing Jesus in the story of Noah. The story of Noah points outside of the judgement & destruction brought by the Flood to the True Noah that would deliver many more than seven from the ultimate flood of God’s wrath & ultimate destruction. Job interceded on behalf of his friends (Job 42:8-9) at the command of God. Did God hear his prayer because he was righteous? Yes. The text points outside of itself to One who is truly righteous and intercedes on behalf of far more than just three friends. Jesus is the true and better Job that sits at the right hand of God and intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34).
It is not through our moral striving and obedience that we are righteous and accepted before God. Though we may be good compared to others, we are far from righteous! It is by faith, belief that we are made righteous. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6 which is quoted 4 times in the NT: Romans 4:3, 22; Galatians 3:6 & James 2:23). It is beautiful to see that Noah’s righteousness was imputed to his family and Job’s intercession on behalf of his friends was heard by God. We have a much better Noah & Job. Rest on Him and not on your own righteousness.