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Introduction to the Book of Ezekiel

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Ezekiel the prophet

There is very little doubt about Ezekiel being the author of the book. It has many characteristic phrases, dated prophecies and is written in the first person (except for a single verse - 1:2). His name means "God strengthens".

Ezekiel was the son of Buzi, a Zadokite priest, so he had a priestly family background, and would have become a priest at the age of thirty had he remained in Jerusalem. A priest normally served from age thirty to fifty. He had a broad political and cultural knowledge, quoting popular proverbs. He had a heart for the people, being painfully aware of their situation. He had great love for the temple, and concern for purity of devotion and worship. He burned with zeal for God. He was a pastor, a priest and a prophet.

At the age of twenty-five, Ezekiel was taken into captivity in Babylon with the second group of exiles in 597 BC. King Jehoiachin was taken at this time along with 10,000 captives (2 Kg 24:14). This was eight years after Daniel was taken captive and eleven years before the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The prophecies are dated from 598 BC, the exile of Jehoiachin (1:2). This would indicate he was born around 623 BC, during the reforms of King Josiah. As he grew up, he would witness the decline and fall of Assyria, the growing power of Babylon, Egyptian control of Jerusalem (609 BC), the defeat of Egypt at Carchemish (605 BC), and the first deportation of able men from Judah, including Daniel, by Nebuchadnezzar (603 BC).

He spent five years in Babylon, while he was too young to become a priest. When he was thirty, although he could not become a priest because he was in Babylon, God called him to be a prophet and watchman to the exiles in Babylon. He was God’s spokesman announcing the end of the old temple, and the establishment of a new, more glorious temple, as a symbol of a transformed nation. Ezekiel stood as a bridge between the old age, and the new age at a critical point in Israel’s history.

Situation of the Jews in Exile

The Jews exiled to Babylon lived in relative freedom. They were allowed to have their own social organisation of elders in their community. Marriage, communication with Jerusalem (Jer 29), agriculture and worship were all allowed. They lived in their own houses made of mud bricks and had freedom to wander. Although they were poor, and short of food, it was not a situation of severe bondage. The Jewish community lived south of the city, in the country by the River Chebar in Tel Abib (1:1,3, 3:15). The River Chebar could be the name of an irrigation canal carrying water from the Euphrates in a loop from Babylon. Tel Abib was probably the name of a ruined site where the exiles were allowed to build their community.

Ezekiel’s contemporaries

Ezekiel was contemporary with Daniel and Jeremiah. As Daniel was part of the Babylonian government, he lived a privileged, sheltered, elite existence in the palace, so probably had no contact with Ezekiel. Daniel was probably quite well known, and Ezekiel clearly knew about him (14:14,20). Daniel and Ezekiel were almost exactly the same age. Daniel came to Babylon, in 605 BC, eight years before Ezekiel. Jeremiah was much older than Ezekiel, who had probably heard Jeremiah's messages in the temple, and even may have been taught by him. There are great similarities between the messages of the two prophets. For example, they both stated that God's remnant were the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah's good figs). Jeremiah had remained behind in Jerusalem when Ezekiel was taken and continued to prophesy to the Jews remaining there.

Conflict with false prophets

Ezekiel acquired quite a reputation among the elders in exile who came to his house to listen to him (8:1) and to watch his strange actions. These elders were not godly men, they had false hopes of a short exile and that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. They expressed the popular view that hoped that the restoration would soon occur. This false hope was aroused through the preaching of false prophets, who deceived the people with their positive message. Ezekiel spoke against them as follows: They misled my people, saying, “peace”, when there is no peace ... (13:10). These prophets had not been sent by the Lord (v6), but follow their own spirit (v3), so will come under judgement. (13:1-16). As a result of their preaching, the people distrusted Ezekiel’s message, becoming cynical, saying “The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing” (12:22).

Ezekiel brought a message of bad news of a long exile and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (similar to Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Jer 29). He spoke against sin and idolatry, brought in people's hearts to Babylon. The people listened to him for amusement and to satisfy their curiosity, being eager to hear him, but did not repent or do what he said (33:30).

Ezekiel the priest

As a future priest, from a priestly family, Ezekiel would have been trained in the laws of the temple and sacrifices. This background would explain his interest in the future of the temple, the symbol of the presence of God, and his rule, and the covenant with Israel. On the day he would have become a priest, he was called to be God’s prophet to the Jews in exile.

Ezekiel called to be prophet(ch 2)

Ezekiel, the priest, had a vision of God’s glory in exile. Israel was being cast away from the presence of God. Ezekiel was overcome with the glory of God (1:28b), fell down, but was raised up by the spirit (2:1). He was commissioned to speak to God’s people in exile (v3-4), a rebellious people, who will not listen, in the same way as those left in Judah. God promised to strengthen him and protect him (v6-7), and to harden him like flint against the people (3:6-7). His first symbolic action was to eat the scroll containing words of lamentation, mourning and woe (v10), showing that there was no hope. This was the message of doom he had to bring to the exiles.

Ezekiel as prophet-watchman(3:17-21)

Ezekiel was called to be God's watchman for Israel, being held accountable to the people to give them God's warnings. He had to warn them what God was about to do to Jerusalem, and call them to repent. In his oracles of judgement (ch 5-7), he declared that Judah’s suffering was because of long-standing apostasy. The people were not allowed to blame the sin of their fathers for their suffering, as each person is responsible for themselves (ch 14, 18, 33). Once he had warned them, they were held responsible. If he did not warn them, then he remained responsible before God.

Ezekiel suffering with his people

In a similar way to Jeremiah, Ezekiel was called to suffer on behalf of his people. Even though Ezekiel was already in exile, he had to undergo the siege, deportation and exile that Judah was about to experience. These dramatic actions would have a profound impact on the exiles witnessing them. No one could accuse him of rejoicing in the destruction of Jerusalem, because he identified so directly with the adversity of his people. Even if people refused to listen to his word, they must have wondered why he was willing to inflict himself with such suffering.

He made great use of dramatic symbolism. He had to lie on his side for 390 days, be bound with ropes, and eat food defiled (ch 4). He had to shave off his hair and divide it into three piles (ch 5), one third of the population of Jerusalem would burned, on third killed with the sword, and another third exiled.

He became dumb, except when he had a word to speak from the Lord, from the time of his call, until the city fell (from 3:26 until 24:27). He was not permitted to associate with his people in the normal way. Ezekiel was married, but on the day when Jerusalem came under siege, his wife died and he was told not to mourn her publicly (ch 24). He had to remain silent, groaning only within himself, until the exiles heard of the fall of Jerusalem, and mourn over the death of their fellow Jews. The prophet had to live out his message, however painful it was.

Even though Ezekiel used powerful forms of communication, his listeners dismissed them, saying, “Is he not a maker of allegories?” (20:49), “The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing.” (12:22), and, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it.” (33:22)

His last dated prophecy was in the twenty-seventh year (29:17), when he was fifty-two years old, so his ministry lasted at least twenty-two years. We know nothing of his life after this time or how or when he died.

Son of man

Ezekiel is called "son of man" ninety-three times. The Hebrew is “Ben Adam”, meaning son of Adam. This expression only occurs in Ezekiel and Daniel in O.T. Daniel is also once called “son of man” (Dan 8:17). It basically means “human being”, translated “Mortal” in NRSV It is used differently in Dan 7:13, to describe the Messianic figure who comes to the Ancient of Days in great glory, a phrase used by Jesus to describe himself during his ministry.

Literary Form

Ezekiel has a unique literary form, and is best appreciated by creative and artistic people. The book was designed to encourage people to visualise life in exile, God’s judgement on Jerusalem, and the promised restoration. Ezekiel paints pictures with words , so our interpretation will always seem less rich than the original words & descriptions.

The Book of Ezekiel has some noticeable use of symmetry: Chapters 1-11 are parallelled with chapters 40-48. Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory departing from the temple, showing that the former era is characterised by disgrace, defilement, and opposition to kingdom of God. This is contrasted with his vision of the return of God’s glory in a new temple, and the presence of God among his people. The new era will be characterised by glory, consecration, and close relationship between Yahweh and his people, between Yahweh and the prince-Messiah. On two occasions, Ezekiel is called to be God’s watchman (3:16-21, 33:1-20), once near the beginning of the book and once towards the end. The oracles and allegories predicting Jerusalem’s fall (ch 12-24), are balanced with Ezekiel’s vision of the restoration of the people to the land (ch 34-39). The centre is the section of oracles to nations. These make a separation between the oracles of judgement and oracles of salvation (ch 25-32).

Dates

Ezekiel has carefully dated many of his prophecies to the exact day and the month, all counted from the year of exile of King Jehoiachin in 597 BC. Apart from the oracles to the nations, all the dated prophecies are in chronological order, from 593 to 573 BC. The book was probably compiled soon after that.

Chapters 1-24: From Ezekiel’s call to the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem (593 - 588 BC) Prophecies against Judah and Jerusalem. Early messages in first six years (before Jerusalem fell) from fifth to eleventh year of captivity. Messages of doom, judgement and call to repentance, in contrast to false prophets. Messages also to people in Jerusalem from Babylon.

Chapters 25-32: Oracles to nations, but not in chronological sequence. Some dated from time of Jerusalem’s siege and destruction (24:1, 26:1, 29:1, 30:20, 31:1). Others shortly after fall of Judea (32:1,17, 33:21). One much later (571 BC) (29:17). These are prophecies against pagan nations, who gloat over Jerusalem. After Jerusalem fell, other nations were also judged by Nebuchadnezzar. Most nations already condemned by Isaiah or Jeremiah. Edom is addressed later in the book, in chapter 35.

Chapters 33-48: Oracles of salvation following Jerusalem’s fall.The exiles received news of Jerusalem’s fall - no hope of a speedy return (33:21). Then there is a transition from a message of judgement to proclamation of hope and glorious future for the remnant

Omitting the oracles to the nations, the rest of the book falls into six dated sections, which are in chronological order: It is likely that all material following each date was given on that date.

Ch 1-7 593 BC Vision of glory of God in exile
Ch 8-19 592 BC Vision of idolatry in the temple
Ch 20-23 591 BC The Lord’s sword against Jerusalem - a message to elders
Ch 24 588 BC Jerusalem besieged
Oracles to nations (586 - 571 BC)
33:21 - ch 39 585 BC News of Fall of Jerusalem
Ch 40-48 573 BC Vision of temple & glory returning

Four significant visions

Each one describes the hand of the Lord being on Ezekiel. The first is the appearance of likeness of glory of Lord appearing to Ezekiel in Babylon (ch 1). The second is when he is transported in the Spirit to Jerusalem and witnesses the glory departing from the temple (ch 8-11). Third is the valley of dry bones (ch 37), and finally the vision of the restored temple (ch 40-48).

Literary style

Much of the book of Ezekiel is in apocalyptic style, using visions, symbols and special numbers. This style is common during a time of oppression and persecution. Patterns of fours and sevens are found in the book. These include: four living creatures (cherubim) (1:5); a reproach, a taunt, a warning and a horror (5:15); four places of worship being destroyed: high places, altars, incense altars, and the slain before your idols (6:4); another four places of worship: every high hill, on all the mountain tops, under every green tree, and under every leafy oak (6:13); and four sore acts of judgement: sword, famine, evil beasts and pestilence (14:21). Seven nations are condemned (ch 25-32); there are seven oracles against Egypt (ch 29-32); and seven parts to the Gog and Magog section (ch 38-39).

Acted parables

Ezekiel is well known for his strange actions, making him one of most colourful of the prophets. He often acted out his message, using very memorable actions, which would have made a striking impression on the original viewers, probably far more than to us. For some of them, there is not enough detail for us to completely re-create what he did. Other prophets used this style, but Ezekiel far more than any others.

There are twelve acted parables in Ezekiel
1) Bound with ropes and struck dumb (3:25)
2) Laid siege works against brick (4:1-3)
3) Lying on brick for 390 days and 40 days (4:4-8)
4) Bread baked on dung (4:9-17)
5) Hair divided into three (5:1-12)
6) Stamping, clapping hands and crying out (6:11)
7) Exiles’ baggage and digging through wall (12:1-16)
8) Eating bread quaking (12:17-20)
9) Groaning in mourning (21:6)
10) Signpost for Nebuchadnezzar (21:20)
11) Death of his wife, and not mourning for her (24:15-27)
12) Two sticks: grace and union (37:15-28)

Spoken parables

These tend to be long winded and repetitive. There are six of them, in three categories:
1) Jerusalem is fit to be burned for its worthlessness and iniquities
    a) 15:1 Useless vine
    b) 24:1 Rusty cauldron
2) King's of Judah - going to captivity
    a) ch 17 Jehoiachin, Zedekiah and coming Messiah
    b) ch 19 Jehoahaz, Jehoiachin & Zedekiah
3) Harlotry of nation, idolatry = breaking marriage covenant
    a) ch 16 Rescued waif becomes unfaithful wife
    b) ch 23 Oholah (Samaria) & Oholibah (Jerusalem)

Influence from Jeremiah

These two prophets had very similar messages, although they make no mention of each other, and though Jeremiah was in Jerusalem and Ezekiel was in Babylon. For both, the future of Israel lay with exiles in Babylon, and both brought severe criticism of shepherds who failed to care for their flock. Both emphasised the need for individual repentance, personal responsibility for sin, a long period of exile followed by restoration & godly leaders. Both predicted the destruction of the city and temple, and promised the establishment of a new covenant which will be inward and personal. Both battled against false prophets, who were, “saying peace, peace when no peace”. Ezekiel often takes a small idea from Jeremiah and expands it: the cooking pot (Jer 1:13, Ezek 24:3-14), the two unfaithful sisters (Jer 3:6-11, Ezek 23) and the proverb of the fathers eating sour grapes setting the children’s teeth on edge (Jer 31:29-30, Ezek 18:2-31)

Main Themes of Ezekiel’s Message

The Glory of God (Kabod)

The book begins with a magnificent and awe-inspiring vision of the glory of God, described as, “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” (1:28). The significance of this first vision is that the glory of Yahweh appeared in exile in Babylon. This shows his sovereignty, and freedom to move. God cannot be restricted to one place, not even the temple. Many aspects of this vision emphasise the freedom of rapid movement. The second vision (ch 8-10) of the idolatry taking place in Jerusalem, and even in the temple, explains why the Lord will abandon his people and his temple, leaving them unprotected and facing immanent disaster & judgement (11:22-25). Ezekiel sees the glory of the Lord leaving the temple.

The mobility of God would show the exiles that he is not limited to Jerusalem, and is present with the exiles in Babylon. God is free to be anywhere, so his presence is available to anyone who calls on him, wherever they are. Therefore there is hope even in the midst of judgement. Yahweh himself is the hope of Israel. In the fourth vision of the temple, Ezekiel sees the glory of God return to the renewed temple (ch 43). The book ends with the name of the city “the Lord is there” (48:35)

“I Am the LORD" (Yahweh)

The hope for Israel lies in the name of God, “I am Yahweh”, “I am the LORD”. The statement, "They (or you) shall know that I am the Lord", occurs over seventy times. This demonstrates God’s covenant lordship, and is rooted in the Exodus and conquest of the land (emphasised in ch 20 - “I am the LORD your God”). God’s name guaranteed the fulfilment of the promises he made to Israel. He reminds them that, “I swore to them saying , I am the LORD your God” (20:5). On the basis of his name, he expected total loyalty (no idols) (20:7). His name was the basis of the called obedience, especially expressed in the keeping of the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant relationship (20:19). On the basis of his name he will purge those who revolt and rebel, and they will not enter the land. (20:38). Yahweh is faithful, and his name is his guarantee of hope to those who seek him, even in the midst of judgements, whether Judah (29 times in ch 1-24) or the nations (24 times in ch 25-32). God’s name is also the basis for covenant renewal (20:44), and for the restoration to the land (20:42).

Yahweh’s faithfulness to his own name is related to his glory and holiness as the King over the whole earth, not just Israel. He delivers his people, provides for them, and blesses them. The name of Yahweh is a testimony to the nations. The nations witness God’s faithfulness in judgment, as well as restoration. The restored Israel is a testimony to the nations that Yahweh is Lord, the One True God.

The sinfulness of Israel

Various theories were currently being circulated to explain what had happened. The punishment was over and all they had to do was wait to go back. They were being punished for what their forefathers had done. Yahweh couldn't do too much without losing face with the heathen. He had already lost face and was now powerless to help. Ezekiel tries to answer these & point them to true repentance. He tells the story of Israel's history of unfaithfulness (chapters 16, 20 & 23) deliberately trying to shock them into repentance. In chapter eight he focuses on idolatry, animal worship, nature worship & sun worship. Punishment like Passover plagues (9:5) or Sodom (10:2). For Ezekiel, profaning Yahweh's name was worse than anything else.

Individual Responsibility

The answer to Israel’s problems is personal commitment to Yahweh, from the heart. Ezekiel focuses on individual responsibility in the face of corporate judgment, wanting his people to turn to him and live, to receive a new heart and new spirit (18:1-29)

Promise of Restoration

Ezekiel’s ministry was not successful in changing the attitude and opinion of his contemporaries. They preferred the message from the false prophets (ch 13). Ezekiel describes them as worthless shepherds who are feeding themselves instead of the flock (34:2-3), and predicted God’s judgement on them (v4-10). He also announced a future time when God will be the faithful shepherd of the remnant (v11-22). He will gather the flock and care for them. God himself will set up one shepherd, my servant David (v23f).

The new age of hope comes through the acts of Yahweh, who will restore a new people to himself. His acts include: Renewal of the covenant relationship (37:26), Israel’s restoration to the land (ch 36), the spiritual transformation of the people: a new heart, and a new spirit within them (36:26-27), victory over their enemies (ch 38-39), restoration of the Davidic King, the Messiah, the shepherd (37:24-25), and his presence in the temple forever (37:26-27).

These new acts are in fulfilment of all the covenants, especially those made with Abraham, Moses and David. The transformation involves both the redeemed community and creation, enabling God’s people to enjoy his blessings.

In his final vision, Ezekiel saw God’s blessing on the restored land (ch 47-48), and the presence of God with his people (43:6-11), when the glory returns. Both heaven and earth are transformed by the presence of God. The New Jerusalem is the symbol of restoration, as the city was called, “The Lord is there” (48:35).

The Renewal of the Covenants

God promised to bring a faithful remnant of the nation to himself, and from them raise up a new people of God. Ezekiel proclaimed to the exiles that God will renew the people and restore them to be his people (37:12-13), so all nations will recognise his holy name (39:7). The new people of God are those who are purified by the Spirit, and who serve him as witnesses to the nations. The land will also be restored, as given to Abraham and his descendents.

The presence of the Spirit

The Spirit is the representative of the presence of God. The Spirit is God’s agent of transformation. He renews people, and internalises God’s law giving them new freedom (36:26). The Spirit within them will give them life, restoration to the land, and relationship with God (37:14).

Israel’s restoration is in relation to the nations

God’s judgement is pronounced on nations (ch 25-32) before the oracles of salvation begin, and oracles against nations continue in the middle of oracles of salvation (ch 35, ch 38-39). The oracle against Gog (ch 38-39) is set between oracles of salvation. It shows opposition to the work of restoration God is doing in establishing his kingdom. It show the tension between the new and the old that still continues in the era of restoration. “The nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them forevermore” (37:28). The response from the nations is opposition and attack, to protect their interests and fight against God’s coming kingdom on earth (ch 38). It then concludes with, “I will display my glory among the nations, and all the nations shall see my judgement that I have executed, and my hand that I have laid on them” (39:21)

Renewal of the Mosaic Covenant

The book finishes with a description of restored temple & return of God’s glory (ch 40-46). The glory which first came to destroy the city (ch 8), now returns (43:2-5). The presence of God returning shows the remnant that God will renew grace and forgiveness to his people. The old community contained a rebellious minority and a godly minority (remnant), but the new community has the Spirit of God, and is united, having been transformed by the Spirit. The renewing of Spirit - linked with restoration to land (37:14).

Renewal of Davidic Covenant

The restoration will also mean the renewal of the covenant with David, “I will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them” (34:23-24). The Messiah is the Royal Shepherd who will be in fellowship with God, and establish his kingdom in righteousness. “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd, and they shall follow my laws. my servant David shall be their price forever” (37:24-25). The Messiah is God’s servant who leads his people into righteousness. The prince will lead the people in worship of Yahweh in the temple (45:16-17,22, also ch 46).

God will make a covenant of peace (34:25). The land will be more fruitful (v25-31), all the blessings of Deuteronomy. There will be a more glorious and permanent covenant. All the tribes will share equally in the new covenant (ch 47-48), all are subjects of the shepherd king, and shepherd prince. Even Gentiles (aliens) have a place in Israel (47:22-23). The theocracy is more permanent because the people have been transformed.

All three members of the Trinity will work together: Yahweh, the Shepherd-King; Jesus, the Shepherd Prince, the Davidic descendant; and The Spirit. This will be a time of transformation of Israel, the nations and of creation. The river flowing from the presence of God (47:1-12) is a metaphor of transformation. It changes death to life, sickness to healing, adversity to prosperity. The river symbolises life, blessing and restoration of God’s people, but this transformation is for people who have experienced spiritual change. So the process of restoration has several stages: return from exile, renewal of covenant, restoration of kingdom, refreshing by the Spirit, the ministry of Messiah / Shepherd / Servant / Prince, and the presence of God.

The Davidic king is central to the relationship between Yahweh and his people, as the shepherd and the sheep. As the Davidic king submits to the great King, creation itself is renewed. The vision of the temple is the symbol of God’s presence. It describes a world in miniature which points to the real presence of God in heaven in the heavenly temple.


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