Some argue that Calvinism and Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 are contradictory because the passages teach that God has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” They argue that this contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. However, there is a very reasonable interpretation for these verses that does not contradict the doctrines of Calvinism.
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?Ezekiel 18:23
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?Ezekiel 33:11
To understand what the author of Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 is saying, we must examine the context. Earlier in Ezekiel 18, we learn that the Israelites are accusing God of being unjust—they are saying that no matter what they do, God will punish them simply because of the sins of their fathers.
2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge“?
19 Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?“
25 Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is not just.“Ezekiel 18:2, 19, 25
In Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11, God is responding to this accusation. When God says that he does not have “pleasure in the death of the wicked,” he is saying that he is not punishing the Israelites maliciously because of the sins of their fathers simply because he has pleasure in punishing them. They are saying that no matter what they do, God is set on punishing them.
Rather, in Ezekiel 18:4, God states that his punishment of the Israelites is just because of the sins they have personally committed themselves.
Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.Ezekiel 18:4
When God says, “but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11), he is elaborating upon his statement that he is not maliciously punishing the Israelites simply because he has pleasure in punishing them—God is saying that he is ready to forgive anyone who turns away from their sin towards obedience to him. In other words, he is not punishing the Israelites because of sins they have no control over, namely, their fathers’ sins, but rather, he is punishing them because of their own sins. Therefore, if they turn from their own sins, God stands ready to forgive them.
 “Since, therefore, repentance is a kind of second creation, it follows that it is not in man’s power; and if it is equally in God’s power to convert men as well as to create them, it follows that the reprobate are not converted, because God does not wish their conversion; for if he wished it he could do it: and hence it appears that he does not wish it. But again they argue foolishly, since God does not wish all to be converted, he is himself deceptive, and nothing can be certainly stated concerning his paternal benevolence. But this knot is easily untied; for he does not leave us in suspense when he says, that he wishes all to be saved. Why so? for if no one repents without finding God propitious, then this sentence is filled up. But we must remark that God puts on a twofold character: for he here wishes to be taken at his word. As I have already said, the Prophet does not here dispute with subtlety about his incomprehensible plans, but wishes to keep our attention close to God’s word. Now, what are the contents of this word? The law, the prophets, and the gospel. Now all are called to repentance, and the hope of salvation is promised them when they repent. this is true, since God rejects no returning sinner: he pardons all without exception: meanwhile, this will of God which he sets forth in his word does not prevent him from decreeing before the world was created what he would do with every individual: and as I have now said, the Prophet only shows here, that when we have been converted we need not doubt that God immediately meets us and shows himself propitious” (Comm. on Eze. 18:23).
 “A passage of Ezekiel’s is brought forward, that ‘God does not will the death of the wicked but wills that the wicked turn back and live’ [Ezek. 33:11 p.]. If it pleases God to extend this to the whole human race, why does he not encourage to repentance the very many whose minds are more amenable to obedience than the minds of those who grow harder and harder at his daily invitations? Among the people of Nineveh [cf. Matt. 12:41] and of Sodom, as Christ testifies, the preaching of the gospel and miracles would have accomplished more than in Judea [Matt. 11:23]. If God wills that all be saved, how does it come to pass that he does not open the door of repentance to the miserable men who would be better prepared to receive grace? Hence we may see that this passage is violently twisted if the will of God, mentioned by the prophet, is opposed to his eternal plan, by which he has distinguished the elect from the reprobate. Now if we are seeking the prophet’s true meaning, it is that he would bring the hope of pardon to the penitent only. The gist of it is that God is without doubt ready to forgive, as soon as the sinner is converted … Let us therefore regard the prophet’s instruction that the death of the sinner is not pleasing to God as designed to assure believers that God is ready to pardon them as soon as they are touched by repentance but to make the wicked feel that their transgression is doubled because they do not respond to God’s great kindness and goodness. God’s mercy will always, accordingly, go to meet repentance, but all the prophets and all the apostles, as well as Ezekiel himself, clearly teach to whom repentance is given”1
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.
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.2
Therefore, by this will, which we call the signified will, he does not will the sinner’s death. Rather he provokes them to repentance [Eze. 33:11]. As to the other will, which they call the will of his good pleasure (beneplacitus), if by it he wills that no one perish, then surely no one would perish. As Augustine says, there is no will so perverse that if he wishes to, God cannot make it good. According to this will he has done all things he wished. This is a simple and plain interpretation. If our adversaries will not accept it, but insist on contending that the prophet’s words are to be understood of the absolute will of God, and the will of his good pleasure, then we answer that the statement does not relate to all sinners universally, only to those who repent. They are the elect and predestined, to whom God, according to his purpose, gives faith and calling, and repentance.3
But here you say, that God will the death of no creature [Eze. 33:11], but that he will all men to be saved [I Tim. 2:4]; which last words being understand as you do urge them, must destroy the former nature of God, and take away his justice. For if he absolutely will the death of no creature, then will he no punishment to follow sin. And if he will no punishment, then willeth he his justice to cease, and so, consequently, must one of the properties of his godly nature cease. Study for an answer, to make your former words and latter words better agree, or else you will be compelled to confess, that God, for some respect, willeth both death and damnation to come upon some creatures … Now it resteth to declare how violently you wrest the words of the Prophet and of the Apostle. The Prophet, speaking in the person of God, saith, ‘I will not the death of a sinner, but rather that he convert, and live.’ And the Apostle affirmeth, that God will all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Hereupon you conclude, God will the death of no creature: this is your first violence which you do to the text. For the Prophet saith not, ‘I will the death of no creature,’ but saith, ‘I will not the death of a sinner.’ You are not ignorant, I suppose, what difference there is betwixt a universal negative and an indefinite, or particular. Where you say, God willeth the death of no creature, you speak generally and universally, excepting none. But so doth not the Prophet, for he saith not, ‘I will the death of no creature,’ neither yet ‘I will the death of no sinner,’ but simply saith, ‘I will not the death of a sinner.’ I wonder that you consider not that as there is difference betwixt creatures and creature, so that also there is difference betwixt sinners and sinner. Some creatures are appointed to death, for the use and sustentation of man. And dare you say, that this is done against God’s will! We be taught the contrary by his own mouth. If you correcting your generality, shall say, that you mean only that God will the death of no man. And I fear not yet to join with you, and against you to affirm, that God hath willed, doth will, and shall will the death of some men. The Holy Ghost, speaking of the sons of Eli the high priest saith, ‘But they did not hear the voice of their father, because the Lord would kill them’ [I Sam. 2:25]. And Moses saith, ‘Sihon king of Heshbon would not suffer us to pass through his country for the Lord thy God did harden his mind, and strengthen his heart, that he should give him into thy hands’ [Deut. 2:30]. How often doth Moses and Joshua declare unto the people, that God would kill, root out, and destroy, those wicked nations from before the face of his people! And were all those kings, whom Joshua did kill, killed against God’s will! The Holy Ghost affirmeth the contrary. For it is written, ‘the Lord did trouble them before Israel, and he did strike them with a great slaughter. And while that they did flee before the Israelites, and were in the descent of Beth-horon, the Lord cast down upon them from heaven great stones; and many more perished by the hail stones that were slain with the sword of the children of Israel’ [Josh. 10:10-11]. If the destruction, slaughter, and death, of these wicked men, and of the great host of Sennacherib, was not the will of God, I can not tell how man shall be assured of his will. For the plain word did before promise, that the Lord should destroy them; and the fact doth witness the constancy and performance of his will. And the same thing doth God this day, and shall do to the end of the world, when he shall adjudge the reprobate (as before is said) to the death perpetual; and that not against his will, but willingly, for the manifestation of his just judgments, and declaration of his own glory [Rom. 9:22-23]. And therefore, I say, that your proposition, saying, ‘God willeth the death of no creature,’ is manifestly false, as it that repugneth to God’s justice and to his evident Scriptures. The minds of the Prophets was to stir such as had declined from God, to return unto him by true repentance. And because their iniquities were so many, and offences so great, that justly they might have despaired of remission, mercy, and grace, therefore doth the Prophet, for the better assurance of those that should repent, affirm. ‘That God delighteth not, neither willeth the death of the wicked,’ but of which wicked? Of him, no doubt, that truly should repent, in his death did not, nor never shall God delight. But he delighteth to be known a God that sheweth mercy, grace, and favour to such as unfeignedly call for the same, how grievous soever their former offences have been. But such as continue obstinate in their impiety, have no portion of these promises. For them will God kill, them will he destroy, and them will he thrust, by the power of his Word, into the fire which never shall be quenched4
When God testifies that ‘he has no pleasure at all in the death of the sinner, but that he should return from his ways, and live’ (Eze.18:23), this does not favour the inefficacious will or the feeble velleity of God because the [Hebrew] word chpts (which occurs there) does not denote desire so much as delight and complacency. Thus God may be said not to delight in the punishment of the wicked inasmuch as it is the destruction of the creature, although he wills it as an exercise of his justice. So he is said to will the repentance of sinners approvingly and preceptively as a thing most pleasing to himself and expressed in his commands, although with respect to all of them he nills it decretively and effectively … Although God protests that ‘he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but in his conversion and life’ (Eze. 33:11), it does not follow that from eternity he willed and intended under any condition the conversion and life of each and every man. For besides the fact that conversion cannot be intended under any condition (because it is itself a condition), it is certain that here is treated the will of euarestias and of complacency, not the will of good pleasure (eudokias) (which the verb chpts proves, meaning everywhere to be pleased and to hold as grateful, to imply that God is pleased with the conversion and life of the sinner as a thing grateful to him and agreeing with his perfectly merciful nature, rather than with his destruction, and therefore exacts it from man as a bounden duty to be converted if he desires to live). But although he wills not (i.e., is not pleased with the death of the sinner, as it denotes the destruction of a creature), yet he does not cease to will and intend it as an exercise of his justice and as the occasion of manifesting his glory (Prov. 1:26; 1 Sam. 2:34). Take, for example, a pious magistrate who is not pleased with the death of the guilty, yet does not cease justly to decree their punishment in accordance with the laws. Nor is it the case that if God does not properly intend their repentance and salvation, does he to no purpose say to the reprobate who are invited to repentance, ‘Why will ye die?’ For he rightly shows them by these words what they must do to avoid death and that by their voluntary impenitence, they alone are the cause of their own destruction, not God. For although by the decree of reprobation, he had passed them by and determined not to give them faith, yet no less voluntarily do they sin and so obstinately bring down their own destruction upon themselves5
 “When God is said to desire something which does not occur, such as when He states, ‘O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear Me … that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!’ (Deu. 5:29), or, ‘O that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments! then had thy peace been as a river’ (Isa. 48:18), He is speaking in the manner of men. Strictly speaking, such can never be said concerning the omniscient, omnipotent, immovable, and most perfect God. Rather, it indicates God’s displeasure against sin and how He delights in holiness. It indicates that sin is the reason why those blessings are withheld from them—blessings which they, according to His promise, would have received as a reward upon godliness. The promises are made upon condition of obedience which is granted to the elect according to God’s immutable purpose. When God says, ‘Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’ (Ezek. 18:23), this does not suggest that God’s will is impotent. Rather, it indicates that God has no pleasure in the destruction of men, inasmuch as they are His creatures. He has pleasure in the exercise of righteousness and godliness, and in blessing the godly” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, vol. 1 [Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992], p. 117).
 “To propose that there is a universal will to save all men implies that God wills contrary to His will. He who truly, sincerely, and fervently wishes to accomplish a task, will execute it if at all possible. God is able to actually save all men, but it is not according to His will. This is confirmed by the outcome of events. If, however, it is God’s desire to save all men, then He necessarily has willed to do so, which is also true for the reverse argument … Then God would fervently and earnestly desire something which He simultaneously knows with certainty will never come to pass. If God were to universally will the salvation of all men, He would fail in His purpose and would be deprived from accomplishing His will, since He wills something which does not occur. He wills the salvation of all men; and nevertheless, they are not all saved. It is quite different, however, when God commands something and declares that obedience to it would be pleasing to Him … Objection #1: ‘As I live, saith the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live’ (Ezek. 33:11). Answer: The decree of God, which most certainly will be executed and whereby God always accomplishes His purpose, is not discussed in this text. It speaks rather of God’s delight in the conversion of man whereby man is again restored in the image and likeness of God; also that God, by virtue of the fact that man is His creature, is displeased with both man’s failure to repent as well as His damnation”6