How to read Ezekiel


  • Content: a series of prophecies announcing the fall of Jerusalem, including the departure of Yahweh{s followed by Israel's eventual restoration with the return of Yahweh.

  • Prophet: Ezekiel, an Israelite priest and prophet who was taken to Babylon among the first wave of captives from Judah in 598 B.C., and a younger contemporary of Jeremiah.

  • Date of prophetic activity: from 593 (Ezek 1:2) until 571 B.C. (29:17)

  • Emphases: the inevitability of the fall of Jerusalem because of her sins, especially idolatry; the transcendent sovereignty of God as Lord of all the nations and all history; the loss and restoration of the land and of Yahweh's presence among the people of God; the promise of the life-giving Spirit as the key to covenant faithfulness.


The book of Ezekiel contains a variety of prophetic visions and oracles, which Ezekiel presented to the exiles in Babylon over a twenty-two- year period (593-571 B.C.), the most turbulent years in the history of Jerusalem. Except for the oracle and lament over Egypt (29:17 -

30:26), the oracles appear in chronological order.

The book is in three clear parts. chapters 1-24 contain oracles from the five-year period preceding the siege of Jerusalem (588). These are primarily announcements to overconfident Judeans of God's certain judgment against the city and her temple. Next is a series of oracles

against surrounding nations (chs. 25-32)- Babylon itself being notably excepted. The final oracles (chs. 33-48), which cover a sixteen-year period after the fall of Jerusalem, focus on hope for the future.

The structure of the book reflects Ezekiel's wrath theology: Yahweh,s holy against his people's idolatries would cause Jerusalem to be destroyed' including her temple (the place of his presence)-despite disbelief and protest to the contrary (chs. 1-24). Yahweh is also the sovereign God over all the nations, so they, too, will experience judgment because of their idolatries and sins (chs. 25--32). But Yahweh is a God of great mercy and compassion, who intends to restore his people and be present with them once more (chs. 33-48).


In order to read Ezekiel well, you need a measure of appreciation for the history of his times, some of which can be found in 2 Kings 22-25. Ezekiel was born into a priestly family in Jerusalem just before the reforms of Josiah (622 B.C.) and was presumably preparing for priestly duties to begin at age thirty (593). But in 598, disaster struck in the form of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Over the span of Ezekiel's life, Judah's kings had made some bad political choices in the struggle between Egypt and Babylon over supremacy in the area. So Nebuchadnezzar eventually laid siege to Jerusalem; King Jehoiachin surrendered, and he and most of Jerusalem's prominent people, including Ezekiel's family, were taken into exile (see Jer 29:2)-and placed in a refugee settlement south of Babylon near the Kebar River. Apparently many believed this exile was only a temporary blip on the screen of their glorious history as God's people (see Jer 28). But Jeremiah had already informed the exiles in writing (Jer 29:1-23) that they were going to be there for the long haul. Five years later Yahweh called Ezekiel to be a prophet who would announce God's judgment against Jerusalem, addressing his words to "the house of Israel"-primarily to the exiles in Babylon (Ezek 3:7,11).

Lying at the heart of things was a theology to which both Ezekiel and the people were committed, although they had radically different views as to what it meant-the people of Israel as Yahweh's people, created and redeemed by him and ultimately defined by their place (the land, and especially Jerusalem) and by Yahweh's presence (symbolized by the temple in Jerusalem). Most people understood this theology to mean that Jerusalem was inviolable, view reinforced by the miraculous salvation of Jerusalem after the fall of Samaria some 12 years earlier (see 2 Kgs 17 -19). This theology had been continually fed to the people by the false court prophets (e.g., Hananiah, Jer 28), although opposed by Zephaniah and Jeremiah.

Ezekiel also understood that Israel was defined by place and presence (he was, after all, to become a priest in Jerusalem). But he also recognized that Judah had failed to keep covenant with Yahweh (see the arresting imagery of chs. 16; 23), thus they would forfeit the land and God's presence. Through a variety of visions, prophetic actions, and oracles, he announced over and over again that Jerusalem would soon be destroyed and that Yahweh would depart from his temple (ch. 10). This was both as unbelievable to the exiles in Babylon as it was excruciating

for Ezekiel. But he also saw clearly that all of the best of the past was to be renewed in the future: king, land people, covenant, and presence - which was eventually realized in Christ and his new-covenant people.

About the oracles themselves. You will observe that, in contrast to the prophets who preceded him, Ezekiel spoke his oracles primarily in prose rather than poetry. Indeed, reading Ezekiel is like entering into a verbal picture book, as one prophetic word after another comes either in

the form of a symbolic action on his part or as a vision or allegorical picture, some of which are also interpreted. These latter cover a broad range, from the apocalyptic imagery in chapters 1 (cf. 10:1-22) and 37, to the interpreted symbolic visions of chapters 15 and 17 , to the parable

of chapter 16, which is so straightforward that it needs no separate interpretation.

You will want to be looking for other features that are also unique to Ezekiel, including his interest in the temple and things priestly. For example, watch for the frequency with which oracles are introduced by Yahweh's asking questions, and how often they conclude with the words

"so you/they will know that I am the Lord [Yahweh]" (58x) or with "I the Lord [Yahweh] have spoken" (18x). His tendency to be repetitive may at times be burdensome to the modern reader, but for Ezekiel it was a way of reinforcing what he saw and reported. The repeated address to

him as "son of mar" is a Hebraism emphasizing his humanity in the presence of the eternal God.

Finally, you will meet many of Ezekiel's words and ideas when you come to the New Testament, especially in Paul's letters and John's Revelation. Many of John's own images are retakes of Ezekiel's as he joins them to some from Daniel and Isaiah to form a whole new set of images intended to express anew the unspeakable greatness of God and his ways.


Oracles of Judgment against Israel (chs. 1-24)


Ezekiel's Call and Commissioning

Verses 1-2 place Ezekiel among the exiles and date the time of his call to his thirtieth year and to the fifth year of the exile (July 593 B.C.). His call begins with high drama (ch. 1), as Yahweh appears to him seated on a magnificent chariot throne borne by four cherubim (see 10:20), to which Ezekiel responds appropriately by falling facedown (cf. Dan 10:9; Rev 1:17). He is then commissioned and equipped (by the Spirit) for his

exceedingly difficult assignment (Ezek 2:1-3:27). Note especially that his commission as a "watchman" (3: 16-21) also stands at the beginning of the final series of visions/oracles (33:1-20).


The Coming Siege and Doom of Jerusalem

As you read this section, note that it is still part of the same sequence dated in 1:2. Thus, five years in advance, Ezekiel is to engage in three symbolic actions (4: 1-3 , 4-17 ; 5:1-4) by which Yahweh announces the coming siege and destruction of Jerusalem (5:5-17). These are followed by two straightforward oracles announcing the devastation of Jerusalem and the countryside alike (chs . 6-7); note that the first is addressed to "the mountains of Israel," a designation for the land (cf. 36:1-15), and that both conclude with "Then they will know that I am the Lord [Yahweh]." The singular reason for this devastation is idolatry, so the Israelites' dead bodies will be sacrifices to their idols (6:5)


Israel's Idolatry and Yahweh's Departure from Jerusalem

Over a year later (September 592), Ezekiel is taken by the Spirit to "see" Jerusalem's idolatry in the temple itself (ch. 8). This is one of the most poignant moments in the Bible. Can you feel Yahweh's utter dismay as the women weep over the god Tammuz and the men-with their backs toward Yahweh!-worship the sun in the place of the eternal God's very presence? Thus the people are symbolically marked for destruction (ch. 9) as Jerusalem is assigned to burning (10:2-8) and the glory of Yahweh leaves the temple (10:9-22) and eventually the city (1 1 :23). The judgment is especially against the present leaders in Jerusalem for their bad politics (11 :1- 15). But in anticipation of chapters 33-4g, hope lies in the future (11:16-25) in keeping with Ezekiel's plea for a remnant to be spared (11:13).The final event prophesied in this sequence is the second deportation of exiles, announced by another symbolic action (121 -20).


False Prophets and Misguided Elders

Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel is plagued by.false prophets, who in this case say that either Ezekiel's prophecies will not come to pass (12:21-25) or they will be long delayed (vv. 26-28); so Ezekiel is told by Yahweh to prophesy against those who cover flimsy walls with whitewash and those who make and use charms for divination in Yahweh's name (ch. 13). When the elders come to see him, their idolatrous hearts and their false prophets are exposed ( 4:1-11); Ezekiel concludes with a true prophecy - the inevitability

of the coming disaster in Jerusalem (vv. 12-23). Despite her "prophets," Zion is simply not inviolable.


The Doom of Jerusalem and Her Kings

These loosely related oracles-four allegories and a response to a proverb-variously reflect the situations of both the exiles in Babylon and current affairs in Jerusalem. The first two (chs 15 -16) focus again on Jerusalem's coming destruction, the first echoing Isaiah's song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1-7); note that it is the first of several oracles in the book that begin with Yahweh's asking questions' Ezekiel 16 graphically portrays the history of Israel's unfaithfulness to Yahweh (a prostitute who pays men to have her!)- by both her political intrigues and an insatiable appetite for idolatry. The allegories of

eagles (ch. r17) and lions (ch. 19), the latter ironically taking the form of a lament , are directed especially at Zedekiah, present king in Jerusalem (17:15-21; 19:5-9; see 2 Kgs 25:6-7). These allegories enclose a complaint against God's injustice (the children pay for their parent's sins) brought to Ezekiel by the exiles (Ezek 18). Their proverb is rejected altogether and replaced with an offer to forgive if they repent. Note especially that their sins are expanded considerably beyond idolatry (c.f. ch. 22).


Countdown to Catastrophe

This series, which begins August 591 (20: 1), concludes (24: 1) with the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem (January 588). The first oracle (20:l-44), picking up from chapter 16, puts Israel's history of unfaithfulness in plain terms, but concludes on a note of hope (anticipating chs. 36-37). In the brief oracle that follows (w. 45-49), note that "south" is the direction to Judah from Babylon. God's "sword" for executing his judgment will be Babylon (ch. 21), again because of Judah's sins that demand judgment (ch.22). The allegory of two sisters (ch. 23), also picking up from chapter 16, now sets Jerusalem's sins in light of fallen Samaria's, while the beginning of the siege is pictured in two ways as a cooking pot (24:3-8,9-14). The siege coincides with the sudden death of Ezekiel's wife (24:15-27), and he is struck dumb by the enormity of his grief-a symbol for how the exiles will respond to the fall of Jerusalem.

Oracles of Judgment against the Nations (chs. 25-32)

Before the actual fall, at which point Ezekiel turns toward Yahweh's future for his people, he receives a series of oracles against the nations who were Judah's political allies, indicating that the same fate awaits them.


Against Surrounding Nations

This first set of oracles are against Judah's historic enemies, who became political allies only by the pressure of events, but who turned against her at the time of the siege.


Against Tyre and Sidon

Although not a political enemy, Tyre represents the economically exploitative powers; she lives in arrogance because of her position in the world's economic systems. The first oracle (ch. 26) is against the city herself, while the second (ch. 27) mockingly laments her coming demise. Here especially you get insight into the Phoenicians' role as merchants to the world a passage from which John borrows heavily in his woe against Babylon (Rome) in Revelation 18. The third oracle (Ezek 28) focuses on the sheer arrogance of her king. But Yahweh alone is King of the nations, so Tyre must also fall.


Against Egypt

Here you find Ezekiel finally turning to the primary cause of so much of Judah,s grief, namely, Egypt, from whom Judah's kings constantly sought help against Babylon. As with Tyre, there is an oracle of judgment (ch. 29) followed by a lament (ch. 30) and by an oracle against her king (ch. 31), but in this case concluding with a lament for this king as well (ch. 32).

Oracles of Hope and Consolation (chs. 33-48)

Watch for the clear sense of development you find in this final series of oracles. After positioning Ezekiel in the role of a watchman, Yahweh promises to restore, in turn, the Davidic kingship, the land, Yahweh's honor (by way of the new covenant), his people, his sovereignty over the nations, and finally his presence among the people in the land.


Ezekiel's Role

The word of hope begins by Ezekiel's returning to his role as watchman (33 :1-20; cf. 3:16--21 to catch the new emphasis here) The news of Jerusalem's fall causes Ezekiel's mouth to open (33:22; cf. 24:25-27), and the first word is in keeping with Jeremiah's-that the land will be desolate for a long time (33:23-33).


Restoring Yahweh's Role as Shepherd of Israel

Note how the first word of hope focuses on kingship, since that has now failed in Israel. Using the imagery of shepherd (echoing David's kingship), Yahweh announces the failure of her past shepherds (vv. 1-10) and then his gathering of the scattered sheep whom "David" will once more shepherd in a future messianic age (w. 11-31 ; cf. 11 :16-17). Note especially the role of this passage in John 10, where Jesus announces himself as the fulfillment of this prophecy.


Restoring Yahweh's Land

You should not be surprised that the next focus for the future is on the

land.This section begins with an oracle against Edom (ch. 35), who seized Judean lands after Jerusalem fell (cf. Obad 11-13). This is followed by an oracle to "the mountains of Israel" (Ezek 36:1-15; cf. 6:1-14)-that they shall produce abundantly in God's future for his people.


Restoring Yahweh's Honor in Israel

The next focus is on Yahweh's honor. Israel's past dishonor of his name will be reversed as the people are cleanse{ and they will be given a new covenant and Yahweh's Spirit so that they can live by it (now written on their hearts; cf. Jer 31:31-33). Watch for Paul's development of this theme in 2 Corinthians 3:1-6. Finally, evidence of Yahweh's honor will be the productivity of the formerly desolate land to which he will bring them.


Restoring Yahweh's People and His Covenant

In order for all of this to happen, there must be a "resurrection" of the people, brought to life by Yahweh's word and Spirit (w. 1-14), so that Israel again is one nation in the land, under their Davidic hing and in the renewal of Yahweh's own presence among them (w. 15-28).


Restoring Yahweh's Supremacy

Israel's restoration will be complete when Yahweh exercises his sovereignty over all her enemies, here symbolically represented by his defeat of Gog of Magog, from a distant land in the north (38:15). The point is that Yahweh will secure Israel's future restoration against all future enemies. Note how this section ends with Yahweh's victory banquet (39:17-20) and two summarizing promises of restoration (vv. 21-29) that prepare the way for the finale in chapters 40-48.


Restoring Yahweh's Presence among His People and in the Land

In April 573, fourteen years after the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel is given his final set of visions, which focus first on the restored temple and priesthood. What he sees is so grand that he includes its extraordinary measurements, thus symbolizing its grandeur and glory. All of the detail is a way of emphasizing the importance of the worship of Yahweh by the restored community of the future. And even if you do not share Ezekiel's own vested interest in the details, do not lose the central point, which Ezekiel himself makes by giving it center place in the vision-the return of Yahweh's presence among his people (43: 1-9)! Also important for this great future for God's people is the redistribution of the transformed land (45: 1- l2), which is what

the final two chapters (47-48) are all about. Note especially that the life-giving river is seen as flowing from the temple (47:1- l2), the place of God's presence and of the people's worship, imagery that John picks up in his vision of the final city of God in Revelation 22:1-5. So the book ends with a new name for the city: "THE LORD IS THERE" (Ezek 48:35)!

The book of Ezekiel is a significant part of God's story as it tells of

the final failure of the people of God as constituted by the first

covenants, but looks forward to their being reconstituted by a new

covenant that includes the true Shepherd and the gift of the Holy spirit.