The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD. Ezekiel 22.29-31.
Viewed in isolation, these words of God leave it somewhat unclear as to what God expected of the man who, if he appeared, would enable God to withdraw from Israel the judgment they had brought upon themselves. He would “build up the wall” and “stand in the gap”. But what do those expressions mean?
The clue to the second expression is in Psalm 106. There, the psalmist refers back to something that happened at Taberah during the wilderness wandering of the people of Israel. The people had begun to complain about the Lord and, it says in the book of Numbers, “fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp” but “when the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD and the fire died down” (Numbers 11.1-2). The way the psalmist tells it is this: “So he [the Lord] said he would destroy them — had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106.23). To stand in the gap is, therefore, to intercede with God on behalf of others, as Moses did.
But perhaps it is even more. On an earlier occasion, after the children of Israel had made a golden calf and begun to worship it, Moses had again to “stand in the gap” for them. “The next day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.’ So Moses went back to the LORD and said, ‘Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written'” (Exodus 32.30-32). To stand in the gap is, it seems, not merely to intercede with God for others in some detached kind of way but rather to come to God in prayer, identifying yourself with those for whom you pray, standing before him in their place. It is substitutionary intercession.
As I write this, the picture of Nehemiah comes to mind. Though in exile, Nehemiah was in a comfortable and revered position; he was “cupbearer to the king” (Nehemiah 1.11). But when news came to him that Jerusalem lay in ruins, Nehemiah stood before God, identifying himself with those who had brought that judgment on Jerusalem, and interceded on their behalf. “I sat down and wept,” he says. “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: ‘O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you’ (Nehemiah 1.4-6).
But then Nehemiah does more. He leaves the comfort of the king’s palace and goes to the ruins of Jerusalem and he begins to rebuild the walls. He stands in the gap. And when the enemies of Jerusalem begin to mock and try to persuade him to leave the walls and abandon the project, Nehemiah replies: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down” (Nehemiah 6.3 KJV).
I think of another who left his palace to come to a place of ruin. Another who stood between God’s judgment and those who deserved it. Another who interceded with his very life and was prepared to be blotted out of God’s book on behalf of his people. Another who, by hanging on a cross, stood in the gap and rebuilt the walls. Another who was told to “Come down” (Mark 15.30) but who did not because he too was “doing a great work” — the greatest of all works — so that he could not come down.
When God looked for a man who would “build up the wall” and stand before him “in the gap” on behalf of the land in Ezekiel 22.30, God “found none”; so what did he do. Incredibly, he took on flesh and became such a man in Christ Jesus. God himself, become man, stood in the gap for me at Calvary and stands in the gap for me still, today and always. All glory be to him.