Some argue that Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11 disproves Calvinism because it teaches that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather wants the wicked to turn and live. If this is true, then the argument is that God would not predestine some to salvation and others to hell.
Here are the relevant verses:
18:23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
18:32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
32:11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Below is theologian John Murray's (1898–1975) exegesis of these verses.
Source: John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1976), 4:12.
It does not appear to us in the least justifiable to limit the reference of these passages to any one class of wicked persons. Suffice it now to mention one or two considerations in support of this conclusion. In Ezekiel 33:4-9 the wicked who actually die in their iniquity are contemplated. It is without warrant to exclude such wicked persons from the scope of the wicked spoken of in verse 11. While it is true that a new paragraph may be regarded as introduced at verse 10, yet the new thought of verse 10 is simply the despairing argument or objection on the part of the house of Israel and does not have the effect of qualifying the denotation or connotation of the wicked mentioned in verse 11, a denotation and a connotation determined by the preceding verses. Again, the emphatic negative of the first part of verse 11—”I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked”—admits of no limitation or qualification; it applies to the wicked who actually die in their iniquity. Why then should there be the least disposition to limit those spoken of in the text to any class of wicked persons?
In Ezekiel 18:23 the construction is not without significance. This verse is introduced by the interrogative and then we have the emphatic construction of duplication well known in Hebrew. It might be rendered, “Taking pleasure in, do I take pleasure in?” The question implies, of course, an emphatic negative. It should also be noted that the verb in this case takes a direct object, namely, “the death of the wicked” (moth rasha without any article). In this case we do not have the preposition be as in Ezekiel 33:11. It should be noted that the verb chaphez with such a construction can very properly be rendered by our English word, “desire,” as frequently elsewhere in the Old Testament. Consequently this verse may well be rendered, “Do I at all desire the death of the wicked?” The force of this is obviously the emphatic negative, “I do not by any means desire the death of the wicked,” or to be very literal, “I do not by any means desire the death of a wicked person.”
The interrogative construction is continued in the latter part of the verse. Here, however, it is negative in form, implying an affirmative answer to the question just as in the former part the affirmative form implied a negative answer. It reads, “Is it not rather in his turning from his way (the Massoretes read “his ways”) and live?” The clear import is an emphatic asseveration to the effect that the Lord Jehovah delights rather in the turning of the wicked from his evil way that he may live. The adversative form of the sentence may well be rendered thus: “Do I at all desire the death of the wicked, saith the Lord Jehovah, and not rather that he turn from his way and live?”
The sum of the matter may be stated in the following propositions. It is absolutely and universally true that God does not delight in or desire the death of a wicked person. It is likewise absolutely and universally true that he delights in the repentance and life of that wicked person. It would surely be quite unwarranted to apply the latter proposition less universally or more restrictively than the former. The adversative construction and the emphatic form by which the protestation is introduced are surely not compatible with any other conclusion. And if we carry over the perfectly proper rendering of the first clause, the thought can be expressed thus, “God does not desire the death of the wicked but rather their repentance and life.”
In Ezekiel 33:11 the construction is somewhat different. The statement is introduced by the oath, “As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah.” Then we have the construction with the Hebrew im, which has the force of an emphatic negative and must be rendered, “I have no delight (or pleasure) … in the death of the wicked” (bemoth harasha; in this case the article is used). It should be noted that the preposition be is used in this case, as also in the second part of 18:23 as observed above. This is a very frequent construction in Hebrew with reference to delight in persons or things. Interesting examples are II Sam. 24:3; Esther 6:6, 7, 9, 11; Ps. 147:10; Prov. 18:2, Isa. 65:12; Mal 2:17. On certain occasions the Hebrew word could well be translated “desire” in English and the word that follows the preposition taken as the direct object (e.g. II Sam. 24:3).
It has been argued that the preposition be in Ezekiel 33:11b has the force of “when” so that the verse would run, “As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but when the wicked turns from his way and lives.” And so it has been claimed that all that is said in this verse is that God is pleased when the wicked turns and cannot be made to support the proposition that God is pleased that the wicked should repent whether they repent or not. On this view it would be maintained that this verse says nothing more than that God is pleased when a wicked man repents but says nothing respecting the pleasure of God in reference to the repentance of those who do not actually repent.
In dealing with this question a few things need be said.
- A study of the instances where this construction of the verb chaphez with the preposition be occurs would not suggest this interpretation of the force of the preposition be. The usage rather indicates that the preposition points to that upon which pleasure is placed, that to which desire gravitates, that in which delight is taken. That object of pleasure, desire, delight may he conceived of as existing, or as something not actually existent, or as something desirable, that is to say, desired to be. When the object is contemplated as desirable but not actually realized, the thought of chaphez does not at all appear to be simply that delight or pleasure will be derived from the object when it is realized or possessed. That thought is, of course, implied. But there is much more. There is the delight or pleasure or desire that it should come to be, even if the actual occurrence should never take place. Consequently it appears that the notion that Ezekiel 33:11b simply says that God is pleased when a wicked man repents robs the concept expressed by chaphez be of some of its most characteristic and necessary meaning. It is not in any way denied that this kind of delight is embraced in the expression. But to limit the concept to this notion is without warrant and is not borne out by the usage.
- The adversative construction of the verse would not by any means suggest the interpretation that verse 11b says simply that God is pleased when a man repents. In the same clause it is denied that God has pleasure in the death of the wicked. In accordance with 18:23 this means that it is true absolutely and universally that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This does not mean simply that God does not delight in the death of the wicked when he dies. The denial is much more embracive. In like manner, it would be unnatural for us to suppose that the affirmation of that in which God does take delight is simply the turning of the wicked from his way when it occurs. This is just saying that it is natural to give to the preposition be in the second clause the same force as it has in the first. Rendered literally then the two clauses would read, “I do not have pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather in his turning from his way and that he live.” Paraphrased the thought would be, “It is not pleasing to me that the wicked die but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” And the same kind of absoluteness and universality denied in the one case must be regarded as affirmed in the other.
- Confirmation of this interpretation may be derived from the concluding clauses of verse 11, “turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, and why will ye die, O house of Israel.” The thought of the last clause is that there is no reason why they should die. There is no reason because of the grace so emphatically declared in the earlier part of the verse and, by implication, so fully and freely proffered. There will not be any dispute regarding the universality of the exhortation and command in the clause, “turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways.” This is a command that applies to all men without any discrimination or exception. It expresses therefore the will of God to repentance. He wills that all should repent. Nothing less than that is expressed in the universal command. To state the matter more fully, he wills that all should repent and live or be saved. When this is related to the last clause, “why will ye die?” it means that the reason why no one need die, why there is no reason why any should die, is, that God does not will that any should die. He wills rather that they repent and live. This declaration of the will of God to the repentance and life of all, so clearly implied in the two concluding clauses, rests, however, upon the declarations of the two preceding clauses, the clauses with which we are now more particularly concerned. We should conclude, therefore, that the will to universal repentance and life, so unmistakably expressed in the concluding clauses, is also declared or, at least, implied in the words, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” This is just saying that the import of the hortatory and interrogative clauses at the end require or presuppose a will of God to repentance and life, a will to which the bare notion that God is pleased when men repent is not by any means equal. The only adequate way of expressing the will implied in the exhortation is the will that all should repent and it is surely that truth that is declared in the oath supported statement, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”
It is not to be forgotten that when it is said that God absolutely and universally takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, we are not here speaking of God’s decretive will. In terms of his decretive will it must be said that God absolutely decrees the eternal death of some wicked and, in that sense, is absolutely pleased so to decree. But in the text it is the will of God’s benevolence (voluntas euarestias) that is stated, not the will of God’s decree (voluntas eudokias). It is, in our judgment, quite unjustifiable to think that in this passage there is any reflection upon the decretive will of God in the word chaphez. And neither is there evidence to show that in the word chaphez there is here any comparative notion to the effect that God takes greater pleasure in saving men than he does in damning them.
It is indeed true that in a few passages in the Old Testament the word chaphez is used with reference to the decretive will of God (cf. Ps. 115:3, 135:6, the substantive chephez, also, in Isa. 44:28; 46:10; 48:14). But in this passage everything points to the conclusion that the good pleasure or delight of God spoken of is viewed entirely from the aspect of benevolent lovingkindness. And it is in terms of that aspect of the divine will that the words “absolutely” and “universally” have been used above.