It has been nearly two months since I introduced my subject (see here and especially the slides it contains), but since then I have led five Bible studies on Ezekiel to folk at my church, the first being to provide a context and introduction (visions, pictures, words) to Ezekiel and his life and ministry, including his prophecies.
Ezekiel contextContext is all important when studying the Bible and this is particularly relevant when studying Ezekiel. There are parts, especially toward the end that are about not fulfilled or some will see as end times prophecy that eventual will be literally fulfilled and not merely figuratively. Much however is straightforward and while it may be simplistic to say so, the first 33 chapters is mainly about judgement, culminating in the long-predicted destruction of Jerusalem (and can be heavy going) whereas the remaining chapters (34 – 48) are more to do with hope and future restoration.
Introducing the empires
I include these two charts because in a short period including that which was covered by Ezekiel, there was a significant a change in the international power structure. Assyria and Egypt stopped being the dominant powers, and were overtaken by Babylon, including in notable battles. Later, Babylon was conquered by the Medo-Persia empire and following that it was Greece and Rome.Introducing the neighbours
I include this chart to highlight who Israel’s neighbours were at the time Judah was taken into exile (the 10 northern tribes it was 130 years earlier), all of who get mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecies in a negative way. Not only did they act wickedly and were ripe for judgment but they exploited Israel’s predicament who was God prime target for judgement and often mocking the Almighty.
Kings of Israel and Judah
I include this chart because it ties in with other books of the Bible, notably the books of Kings and Chronicles and Jeremiah, a contemporary of good king Josiah who was killed fighting a needless battle with the Egyptians in 608 BC. Jeremiah who lived in Jerusalem for most of his life, including through the reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, all bad kings, who were under the power of Egypt and then Babylon. It was during the reign of Jehoiakim we see power being transferred from Egypt to Babylon, who instigated the first exile to Babylon, including Daniel the prophet in 605 BC. Following the short-lived reign of Jehoiachin the second exile took place in 597 BC and this included Ezekiel. He was deported to Babylon and died there. His tomb remains. The final exile concided with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
All this brings me to the book of Ezekiel itself. Here I refer to Ezekiel’s prophecies, which came as visions, pictures and words from the Lord. I am grateful to Stuart Kimber for sharing this earlier chart highlingting the relevant texts, and it seemed to me that a good way to approach the next four weeks of Bible studies is to base them on each of these visions. Besides Stuart, I am also grateful for the thoughts of my theological mentor, Stephen Dray, and as a way of clarifying my thoughts besides reading through the Book of Ezekiel along with audios, the three videos by David Pawson on Ezekiel in his unlocking the Bible series (available on YouTube). For a more in-depth scholarly analysis I found the IVF commentary by John Taylor helpful, and some sermons by another Taylor (William), vicar of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate. None of these were too committal (maybe wisely so) in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy.
A Vision of The Glory of the Lord – and Ezekiel’s Call (chapters 1 – 3)
Words can barely encapsulate the vision Ezekiel saw. Images included wheels within wheels, four creatures with four faces, lots of eyes, fames of fire, a crystalline canopy upon which was a throne and on it was seated a glorious being and all were moving in unison in one direction or another. Arising out of this Ezekiel, aged 30, when he would have taken up his office as priest (if there had been a temple), received his call to prophesy to his people, warning them of coming judgment. Much was done through bizarre acting: building a model depicting the siege of Jerusalem, cutting his hair with a sword and making three piles to depict aspects of God’s judgement, laying on one side and then another, eating starvation rations cooked on a fire fueled by human (later changed to cow’s) dung.
A Vision of Idolatry in the Temple – and the Lord’s Departure (chapters 8 – 11)
Central to why God was judging Israel, was what was going on in the Temple back in Jerusalem by the leading figures at the time, specifically to do with idolatry. Ezekiel could see it all, including named persons dropping dead. During the vision he saw the glory of the Lord, long associated with the Temple, departing. While coming judgement was to be the result of this wicked behavior this was also the theme of the early Ezekiel chapters (4 – 33), which not only spoke about Israel’s fate, culminating in a siege and the Temple and City being ransacked, but judgment on the surrounding nations, for their wicked acts, proudly claiming honour that was YHWH’s alone, and rejoicing in and capitalizing on Israel’s demise.
A Vision of a Valley of Bones – and Resurrection (chapter 37)Ezekiel’s message changed, once Jerusalem fell, into one of hope, around returning back to its land where Israel lives in peace and prosperity. The vision of dry bones is about bones coming together into human form with life breathed into them. What is shown is far more than anything we have seen up to now as it looks to the bringing together of Israel and Judah under one good shepherd, David (as opposed to the false shepherds preceding), where the people are fully devoted to their God. The new spirit reminds us of the New Covenant. Included in these “hope” chapters (34 – 39) is the final battle; Israel is attacked by God and Magog in that last great battle (38, 39) but with God’s intervention Israel is victorious.
A Vision of a New Temple, a New Land, and a New City (chapters 40 – 48)
This later prophecy concerns a Temple yet to be built (and still has not been built – the Temple built on Israel’s return from exile was not it and neither was that build by Herod and destroyed in AD 70). While the focus was on the Temple, described here in meticulous detail, description was also given of the City where it was and the restored kingdom of Israel, under the rule of the Messiah. The glory that departed in chapter 10 returns in chapter 43. One of the more remarkable descriptions was of a river of life flowing from the Temple to the Dead Sea, in chapter 47, giving life to the land.
Interpreting future prophecy
During the studies, I deliberately chose not to speculate or be controversial, but I would be remiss if I were to give the impression all of Ezekiel’s prophecies have been fulfilled or that the more tricky sections where there has not been literal fulfillment are not to be taken literally. I also reject the majority view historically in Christendom that the Church has replaced Israel. Much contained in the later chapters (34 onwards) refers to a coming Messiah that is to reign over his people, specifically Israel. Ezekiel was typical of most prophets that saw glimpses of the last days, in that while he looked forward to a Messiah who reigns, he did not see one coming twice (once to die 2000 years ago and once when he returns to Earth in glory) and neither did he foresee the Church. Some of these chapters find parallels on the book of Revelation and are referred to for further study, with a warning Christians do see things differently. It should be bourne in mind though that Ezekiel like other prophets used language and images the people he was primarily addressing (in this case the exiled Judaens, only a remnant of which returned) could understand, anticipating while not fully understanding the final outcome, to be bound up with the messianic kingdom.
The role of a watchman and other lessonsThere are many lessons we can draw from the book of Ezekiel, just like any other book of the Bible. We learn, for example, more about the character of God, e.g. he is holy and judges sin but also he is merciful and keeps his covenants. I am particularly touched by the repeated use of phrases to the effect that they will know I (God) am God, along with the notion that all what is prophesised is for God’s glory. I am touched too concerning the conduct of Ezekiel, whose life was not an easy one, but it was one of obedience, such that he did not mourn when he learned of his wife’s death. He was appointed to be a watchman (chapters 3 and 33) whose solemn duty was to warn of danger and pass on God’s message to those who needed it even when they rejected it, which he discharged faithfully. There is of course much else to glean, which is why I suggest you read the book. Perhaps the very last verse of Ezekiel (48:35) conveys what it is that matters most, God dwelling with his people: “And the name of the city from that time on will be: the Lord is there” and also this one: