The book of Ezekiel relates to one of the most critical periods in the history of Israel. The oracles in the book span a period of twenty-two years from 593 to 571 bc (see chart ‘The prophets’ in The Song of Songs). During this time the city of Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed. The temple was burnt and the monarchy brought to an end. The population of Judah suffered the deprivations of war. Many would go into exile.
From a human standpoint much of the strife of the period stemmed from the general political instability of the Middle East at that time. Palestine was a small region which was constantly affected by the changes in the balance of power in the whole region. Egypt was an ageing superpower. Assyria had begun to crumble, but Babylon was growing ever stronger. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 722/721 bc. The kingdom of Judah’s allegiances had swung between Egypt and Babylon. When king Jehoiakim attempted to rebel against Babylon, around 601–600 bc, Nebuchadnezzar responded by laying siege to Jerusalem and subduing it in 597 bc. About 10,000 of its inhabitants (2 Ki. 24:14) were carried off to exile. One of those exiles was a priest by the name of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel the prophet
All that we know about Ezekiel comes from his book of prophecies. Even there the information is scant. Ezekiel was a priest (1:3) as well as a prophet. His priestly background shows itself in his concern for ceremonial cleanness (4:14) and the emphasis on the temple (40–48). He was married but his wife died during the course of his ministry (24:15–18). Unlike his contemporary Jeremiah, Ezekiel spent his prophetic career in Babylon. Many of his earlier oracles deal with events in Jerusalem and Judah. This fact, and the details of the oracles themselves, have led some commentators to suggest that Ezekiel spent at least part of his prophetic career in Palestine. However, there is no direct statement in the book to support this view. As an exile, who prophesied to other exiles, Ezekiel undoubtedly would have been concerned about the catastrophies awaiting his homeland. His audience too would have been anxious to hear of the fate of their country. We must at least expect that events in Israel/Judah would occupy a substantial part of his prophetic work. To be able to perceive what was happening in lands distant from where he dwelt was a necessary ability for a prophet exiled in Babylon.
As a prophet Ezekiel was required to relate his insights to the people. Ezekiel sometimes used more than mere words. In several cases he acted out part of the prophecy. Visual aids are nothing new. These enacted prophecies included lying bound in ropes (4:1–8), shaving his head and striking some of the hair with a sword (5:1–2), covering his face and digging through a wall (12:3–7), trembling (12:18) and avoiding the full mourning rituals for his dead wife (24:16–24). It is no wonder that his sanity has been questioned. Yet the very strangeness of his actions, and sometimes his oracles too, served to draw attention to his message. It seems that he also suffered from a partial loss of speech for part of his prophetic career. His power of full speech returned when Jerusalem fell (33:21–22).
Despite his unusual actions Ezekiel was highly regarded as a prophet. Within eighteen months of his inaugural vision the elders of his people had begun to visit him for consultations (8:1; also 14:1; 20:1; 33:30–31). However, it seems that, while appreciated, he was not always heeded (33:30–33). It is easy to admire a moral or spiritual leader but not always so easy to put into practice the demands made. The supreme example is that of Jesus Christ (see Mt. 7:24–29).
Ezekiel was no slave to social conventions. He did not live a comfortable life in a comfortable society. He belonged to a minority group, forcibly resettled as a result of war in their home country. His religion was very much a minority one, struggling to survive in a pluralist, multi-cultural society. The powerful country where he was exiled had many gods and he had only one. Yet he firmly proclaimed the message that there was one God, who would ultimately save his people, regardless of what other nations might do.
The book of Ezekiel
Despite a reputation for obscurity and for textual difficulties, the book of Ezekiel has a very clearly defined structure. It is a collection of 52 oracles, divinely given messages or visions, described by the prophet Ezekiel. There is only the barest minimum of narrative supplied to give a context to each of the oracles. However, the beginning of each oracle is clearly indicated by one of two phrases—‘the word of the Lord came to me’ or ‘the hand of the Lord was upon me’.
These two expressions are not interchangeable. They give an indication of the type of prophecy that is to follow. The first expression is by far the most frequent. It indicates the onset of a verbal message from God which usually is to be relayed to the people of Israel. The second expression is used to indicate a more intense experience, where the prophet is affected physically. It is used in all the great visual oracles, where Ezekiel feels himself transported inside the vision itself.
The oracles are grouped according to subject-matter and are not always in strict chronological order. Each oracle is independent of its neighbours. Sometimes neighbouring oracles are separated from each other by a period of years. In general the construction of the book bears the mark of a clearly organized mind. This impression is reinforced by the repeated use of set phrases and the almost rhythmic nature of many parts of the text.
The nature of the subject-matter means that the first thirty-two chapters consist of warnings of disaster, and the last sixteen consist of promises of hope. The turning point in the book is the fall of Jerusalem, as given in 33:21–22. It laid the foundation for what has come to be called ‘Apocalyptic’ literature. Indeed its strongest influence is to be seen in the book of Revelation, where much of the symbolism is similar to that in Ezekiel (see article: Apocrypha and Apocalyptic).
The message of the book
As a whole the book of Ezekiel consists of initial warnings of calamity followed by promises of restoration. Just as the calamities that were forecast came to pass, so would the promises of restoration be fulfilled. The people of God, having endured so much in the past, would ultimately be saved from their misery. Israel would return to their God and to their promised land. They would be his people and he would be their God.
Several other themes appear throughout the oracles. The issue of human responsibility occurs in several forms. The destruction that would befall Israel came as a result of her own waywardness. It was because of her idolatry that she was punished. However, it was not the case that guilt was purely a communal issue. Individuals were not punished simply because of the sins of their ancestors (ch. 18). They were held guilty because of what each of them as an individual had done, but this issue is refined still further. Being accounted righteous was not a matter of storing up plus points to offset the minus ones (a view commonly held even today). There had to be a fundamental, enduring change of heart in the individual (18:30–32).
Another important theme is the relationship of God to his people. One phrase which occurs very frequently throughout the book is that the events forecast would occur ‘so that they would know’ that he was their Lord. The calamities were not merely punishment. They were also a means of bringing people to a knowledge of their God. This special relationship is emphasized throughout the book. He would gather and protect them just a shepherd cares for his sheep. A Shepherd would come to tend them and to rule over them (34:1–31; 36:24–28).
Yet the close relationship between the Lord and the people of Israel did not mean that other nations and lands were outside the sphere of this authority and control. Ezekiel’s oracles to the foreign nations make it clear that God was not simply a parochial deity governing Jerusalem and its surrounding hills. In some ways a heathen nation could be God’s instrument, even to the point of punishing Israel.
The images in the book of Ezekiel can be disturbing. Ezekiel’s oracles relate to one of the darkest periods in Israel’s history. During his prophetic career his people would be dispersed and the city of Jerusalem and the temple destroyed. Yet the book ends in messages of hope. In the end-time the Shepherd would come to gather his sheep.
Ezekiel for today
The book of Ezekiel does have passages that are difficult to interpret and even more difficult to apply. It may be of comfort for the modern reader to know that even the ancient rabbis had to ponder long and hard over the book’s contents. There is also an unfortunate tendency to be attracted to the more obscure passages at the expense of the more straightforward ones. However, several points are of use when approaching the book. First, it is important to remember that the book is a collection of independent oracles. These are always identified by the expressions ‘the word of the Lord came to me’ or ‘the hand of the Lord was upon me [Ezekiel]’. The oracles are grouped thematically although not always in strict chronological order and may range in size from a few verses to several chapters. We know from those which are dated that sometimes a gap of several years can separate them, so it is best to select a single oracle, read it right through, and consider it on its own.
Secondly, Ezekiel tends to be written to a formula, almost poetic prose. There are themes and expressions which recur throughout the book. A phrase which can seem mysterious in one section may be clearer in another. It is helpful, therefore, to start with some of the less ‘exciting’ passages in order to get a sense of the language and thought of the book. For this reason it is better not to begin with the initial chapters. The larger oracles of 1:1–3:15; 8:1–11:25; 38:1–39:29 and 40:1–48:35 should be tackled last. A possible entry point might be the start of ch. 12.
Thirdly, it is also helpful to bear in mind the general themes linking the oracles. Chs. 4–24 contain warnings about the impending destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Chs. 25–32 contain warnings to Israel’s neighbours about their attitude to Israel in her time of need, and chs. 33–48 contain messages of hope for the people of Israel after the fall of Jerusalem.
The political situation of the people of Israel at that time was obviously quite different from that of today. Yet behind the political specifics we see a complicated society burdened with familiar, messy issues: uncertainty about the future; international upheavals; religious pluralism; institutional corruption; faith in turmoil. Modern society has its own idols, false prophets, corrupted sanctuaries, decadent institutions and national bigotries. They have different names, but the words of Ezekiel can still apply to them.
There is a danger in applying to today too precisely what happened two and a half millennia ago, especially when similar place names occur (particularly Israel). Nevertheless the general outline of society’s problems is so similar today that the principles can be easily applied. Society and God do not change.
H. L. Ellison, Ezekiel: the Man and His Message (Paternoster, 1956).
J. B. Taylor, Ezekiel, TOTC (IVP, 1969).
A. B. Davidson, The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, CBSC (Cambridge, 1906).
J. W. Wevers, Ezekiel, NCB (Eerdmans, 1969).
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Ez 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.