Ezekiel and his prophesy
As we reflected when we considered Jeremiah, the exile to Babylon took place in three stages. The first was in 605BC when Daniel was taken; the second was in 597BC when Ezekiel was taken away to Babylon, aged 25, along with king Jehoiachin and the third that gathered most of who were still left who were of any societal stature, in 586 BC, when Jerusalem fell. Ezekiel began his ministry aged 30, the time he would have begun as a priest if there were a temple. We don’t know much about his life. We know he was married and that he lived in relative peace, in a place called Tel Aviv. He was a knowledgeable man and was respected by his community, who seemed to regularly consulted him.
He was meticulous in his writings, and like another priest turned prophet after him (Zechariah) dated his work. There was a symmetry when describing such things as the glory leaving the Temple and coming back at some future date, and when describing events round the Temple in Jerusalem in chapters 8 to 11, and the new temple in chapters 40 to 48. He would precisely date significant events and while the prophecies concerning the nations were undated, unlike other prophets such as Jeremiah, these were laid out in date order.
It was from a vision of the glory of God, Ezekiel received his call to prophesy to his people and be a watchman, warning the people of coming judgment. That vision and the sense of God’s holiness and of the glory of God were to be hall marks of his ministry as were his continuous repetition that the people, and later the nations, would know who the Lord truly is. Ezekiel was often referred to a “son of man” (a term later applied to Jesus). A lot of his prophesying was done through bizarre acting: building a model depicting the siege of and eventual fall of Jerusalem, cutting his hair with a sword and making three piles to depict aspects of God’s judgement, laying on one side 390 days and on the other 40 days, semi naked, eating starvation rations cooked over a fire fuelled by cow (changed from human) dung to illustrate yet further divine truth. Another piece of acting was digging under a wall during night, which like his other acting would be seen as bizarre except that is what king Zedekiah would do (Jeremiah 39) in order to escape the city of Jerusalem when overrun by the Babylonians.
The saddest acting was when he was told his wife was going to die and he wasn’t to mourn, since Ezekiel’s wife’s death prefigures the destruction of the temple, “the delight of your eyes“. It should be noted Ezekiel often told stories (parables) to make important points and there were times when he was (literally) tongue tied, such that he was unable to prophesy in words. His prophesying was over 22 years, in three periods (soon after he received his call, around the time Jerusalem fell, and some time after that). From what we can work out, he died a natural death; his tomb is a place of pilgrimage to this day.
Ezekiel’s commission was clear, and as with Isaiah and Jeremiah, it was not going to be an easy one and there would be opposition and resistance to his message (although not physically as with Jeremiah): “And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiffhearted. I do send thee unto them; and thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God. And they, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house,) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them. And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house. And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious” Ezekiel 2:3-8.
These points are further amplified but with it the assurance he would be God’s spokesman and would be toughened up for the task, and withstand opposition: “For thou art not sent to a people of a strange speech and of an hard language, but to the house of Israel; Not to many people of a strange speech and of an hard language, whose words thou canst not understand. Surely, had I sent thee to them, they would have hearkened unto thee. But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted. Behold, I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads. As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house” Ezekiel 3:5-9.
An important aspect of Ezekiel’s ministry was that of a watchman, whose job was to warn and thereby discharge his duties: “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul” Ezekiel 3:17-19. This call to watch and warn would be further made in Chapter 33 and it was going to be a solemn duty and he would be accountable to God. It was then up to those who heard his message to respond as God requires or face the consequences of disobedience regardless of what others did or whether or not they had lived as God required prior to that.
Background and context
The political, historical and geographical context for the Book of Ezekiel was the same as that for Jeremiah, although Jeremiah by the time Ezekiel came on the scene was now middle aged. While reading Jeremiah and other prophets, we might conclude the Babylonians were cruel oppressors, it seemed just like Daniel, Ezekiel and the other captives were not treated too badly by their captors. While Jeremiah prophesied from where the important events were taking place (up to its destruction) i.e. Jerusalem, Ezekiel prophesied 700 miles away, in Babylon, but often about the same events noting similar complaints.
Strangely, the two did not acknowledge each other, in spite of their messages being complementary, although Ezekiel did recognise Daniel (three times) who along with Noah and Job were in his view the three most righteous men who had lived, and even they could not change God’s mind when it came to judging Israel. It was interesting Israel was mentioned rather than Judah, when the ten northern tribes had been judged over 100 years earlier and were not on the scene. As Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel was much aware of the nations around Judah, and how these impacted on God’s chosen people. Like other prophets, he prophesied accurately and complementary them on what would happen.
While Judah was all that was left of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, after Israel’s Assyrian captivity, and Ezekiel would use “Israel” rather than “Judah” when referring to the people of God, and could see a day when the restored kingdom would include both. “Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand” Ezekiel 37:19. A lot of Ezekiel, unlike Jeremiah for example, was written in prose rather than poetry, although there was no doubt he felt God’s pain. Like Jeremiah, he might be seen as a “doom and gloom” prophet, although like Jeremiah, even when things were at its direst, his message recognised an actively benevolent God. When he received news of the fall of Jerusalem in Chapter 33, his main message turned from judgement to come, because that is what had happened, to future hope.
While Isaiah and Jeremiah contained many memorable verses, it may be argued the same cannot be said concerning Ezekiel, although this is a debatable point as the author would testify when harking back to his youth: “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none” Ezekiel 22:30. The same might be said of what might be seen as text worthy of any gospel presentation: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” Ezekiel 18:23. Then when looking far into the future of the New Jerusalem: “the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there” Ezekiel 48:35.
Yet, when it comes to content, much of Ezekiel is a closed book for many. While there are certain passages e.g. concerning the dry bones, the good and bad shepherds, and the amazing vision which kicked things off, people may be aware off, much of its content they are not. That is a shame as Ezekiel provides an important message that merits being reflected on today and important prophecies that relate to end time events. For example, messages that they (be it Israel or the nations) would know that He, YHWH, is indeed the Lord and that of individual responsibility and the consequences for one’s own actions. While not too many quotable passages, the four visions of Ezekiel were phenomenal.
A Vision of The Glory of the Lord – and Ezekiel’s Call (chapters 1 – 3)
Words can barely encapsulate the vision Ezekiel saw. The central image comprised wheels within wheels, four creatures with four faces, lots of eyes, flames of fire, a crystalline canopy upon which was a throne. On it was seated a glorious being and all were moving in unison in one or other direction.
A Vision of Idolatry in the Temple –the Lord’s Departure (chapters 8 – 11)
Central to why God was judging Israel, was went 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.
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,
A Vision of a New Temple, a New Land, and a New City (chapters 40 – 48)
This follows the great battle involving Gog and Magog, where Israel comes out on top. This final vision concerns a Temple to be built. While the focus was on the Temple, described here in great 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 11 returns in chapter 43.
A synopsis of Ezekiel
Unlike with the other major prophets, we will tackle this section on the basis that Ezekiel had four ‘Visions’, thirteen ‘Pictures’ and eight ‘Words’:
- A Vision of the Glory of the Lord – and Ezekiel’s Call (Chs. 1.1 – 3.15)
- A Word about the People (Ch. 3:16-27)
- An acted parable of Siege (Chs. 4 – 5)
- A Word about idolatry (Chs. 6 – 7)
- A Vision of idolatry in the Temple – and God’s departure Chs. 8 – 11)
- An Acted parable of Exile (Ch. 12)
- A Word to the ‘Prophets’ (Chs. 13 – 14)
- The Illustration of the useless vine (Ch. 15)
- The Allegory of the adulterous wife (Ch. 16)
- The Parable of the Eagles and the Vine (Ch. 17)
- A Word to the people (Ch. 18)
- A Lament for the lion cubs and the Vine (Ch. 19)
- A Word to the Nation (Chs. 20 – 22)
- The Allegory of the two sisters (Ch. 23)
- The Parable of the cooking pot (Ch. 24:1-14)
- The Allegory of Ezekiel and his wife (Ch. 24:15-27)
- Words and laments for the nations (Ch. 25 – 32)
- The Allegory of Ezekiel the Watchman (Ch. 33)
- A Word to the ‘Shepherds’ (Ch. 34:1-10)
- The Allegory of God the Good Shepherd (Ch. 34.11-31)
- The Allegory of the Land (Ch. 35 – 36)
- A Vision of a Valley of Bones – and Resurrection (Ch. 37.1-14)
- The Acted Parable of the Sticks (Ch. 37:15-27)
- Seven Words against Gog (Chs. 38 – 39)
- A Vision of a new Temple, Land, City (Chs. 40 – 48)
The message of Ezekiel
The essence of Ezekiel’s message of warning in chapters 1-11 was around the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and it would be every bit as bad as described in the book of Lamentations. The twin complaint of idol worship and social injustice was similar to that given by Jeremiah. A lot of what he sought to convey was through acting and what he could see through his vision of the Jerusalem temple and the idol worship that took place, and where much of his message would be rejected by the people, as we have discussed earlier. Yet God does not abandon his people and it is, as it were, He goes into exile with them.
At the end of his vision of idolatry in the Temple (Chapters 8-11) and just prior to seeing the significant departure of the glory from the Temple, Ezekiel can look in the future and see how Israel is scattered, yet one day will be restored and be following God with a new heart, looking forward to the New Covenant: “Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord God; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come. Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord God; I will even gather you from the people, and assemble you out of the countries where ye have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. And they shall come thither, and they shall take away all the detestable things thereof and all the abominations thereof from thence. And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God” Ezekiel 11:17-20.
Before we come to the change is message, triggered by the Fall of Jerusalem, announced in Chapter 33, there is the message of judgement, firstly against Israel in Chapters 12-24 and then several of the surrounding nations in Chapters 25-32. In pronouncing judgement against Israel, Ezekiel often resorted to allegory: a burnt useless stick (Chapter 15), a rebellious wife (Chapter 16), a dangerous lion that gets captured (Chapter 19) and two promiscuous sisters (Chapter 23), all representing Israel’s foolish rebellion resulting in its justified punishment. They had reached the point of no return and not even Daniel, Noah or Job could intercede on their behalf to prevent their exile from happening.
In Chapters 25-32, Ezekiel turns his attention to some of the nations surrounding Israel: Ammon, Moab, Edom and Philistia. They rejoiced in Israel’s downfall and showed contempt and took advantage of Israel’s plight. Aside from its own internal wickedness their attitude toward Israel made them ripe for judgement, all of which would take place as prophesied. He also covers the two bigger powers in the region, Tyre and Egypt, both of which Judah had allied itself with. One of the notable features of these was their pride, viewing themselves as God, which God would bring down using the Babylonians.
Much contained in the later chapters (34 onwards) refers to a coming Messiah that is to reign over his people, specifically Israel and relate to themes picked up by other prophets e.g. Zechariah, and in Revelation. 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 someone coming twice (once to die 2000 years ago and once when he comes to Earth to establish his kingdom); neither did he foresee the Church. Ezekiel, like other prophets, used language and images the people he was primarily addressing (in this case those exiled, only a remnant of which would return) could understand, anticipating while not fully understanding the final outcome, to be bound up with the messianic kingdom.
Chapter 34 is about shepherds. Firstly, the bad shepherds that do not feed the flock and then the good shepherd – led by the Lord Himself, and His servant David (the Messiah), who will look after the flock. Chapter 35 is about Edom and God’s judgment on that nation that had so rejoiced in Israel’s demise.
Chapter 36 depicts Israel restored to the land and living safely in it: “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them” (36:24-27).
Chapter 37 is Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones: “Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord” (37:4-6). The prophesy comes to pass and great hope: “Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwelling places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And the heathen shall know that I the Lord do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore” (37:23-28).
As we turn to the final chapters, that look into the far distant future we note, firstly, Ezekiel’s Gog and Magog account (Ezekiel 38,39). This is written in apocalyptic style, and is reminiscent of a similar narrative in Revelation 20:8,9, although whether it is the same battle is for further study (see Chapter 15). Ezekiel 38,39 describe a final battle in which military forces from the far north make an all-out assault on the land of Israel. The names of these forces, Gog, Magog, Mechech and Tubal, along with many other nations (38:1-3) are obscure and undefined but they represent evil. God defeats them completely even before they engage in battle. Israel is resettled and the people are living peacefully and unprotected. The section ends with great hope: “When I have brought them again from the people, and gathered them out of their enemies’ lands, and am sanctified in them in the sight of many nations; Then shall they know that I am the Lord their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen: but I have gathered them unto their own land, and have left none of them any more there. Neither will I hide my face any more from them: for I have poured out my spirit upon the house of Israel, saith the Lord God” Ezekiel 38:27-29 as does the final, in the far distant, prophecy (Ezekiel 40-48).
This section, which we might call “A Vision of a New Temple, a New Land, and a New City”, appropriately rounds of Ezekiel’s prophecy with a full-blown vision of what God’s ultimate purposes might look like, with what amounts to a detailed picture of what that vision encompasses. We learn (40:1) he has been twenty-five years in Exile when he wrote this and it has been thirteen years since the Fall of Jerusalem, begging the question perhaps what he was doing in the time since he last prophesied. The 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 Prince. 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. Fittingly and hopefully, “Yahweh Shammah”, a Christian transliteration of the Hebrew “Yahweh is there”, is the name at the end given to the City (48:35).