Ezekiel and his contemporaries confronted what for the Israelites was the most traumatic possible challenge to their faith: the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. It is difficult for the contemporary Protestant to grasp the significance of this theological catastrophe. Perhaps the best we can do is imagine the impact it would have on Muslims if Mecca were to disappear under the mushroom cloud of an atomic warhead, or conceive how at a loss Roman Catholics would feel if the ground opened and swallowed the Vatican. Israel suffered at least as much confusion when they saw the temple of Yahweh go up in flames.
Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, was probably born around 622 b.c. He was taken captive to Babylonia in 597 along with other prominent Jerusalemites. He settled near the "Kebar River" between Babylon and Nippur, and at age thirty was called to the prophetic office (so taking 1:1 ). From this vantage point, he watched the demise of Jerusalem around 586 b.c.
Israel, it seems, had come to feel that their status as the people of God and in particular that the presence of the house of God among them had made them invulnerable. Jeremiah 7:4 implies that the people trusted in the "temple of the Lord" for security. They could not imagine that God would allow his house to fall. Ezekiel's task was to demonstrate that this crutch was sure to fail even while he assured them that God himself had not failed.
Ezekiel 1 and Divine Transcendence. The Book of Ezekiel has a beginning few readers can forget. Standing by the Kebar River Ezekiel suddenly sees the vision of the chariot of Yahweh ( 1:2-28 ). The chariot comes in a storm, the sign of a theophany. In the chariot he sees the four creatures, each with four faces (of a human, an ox, an eagle, and a lion). He also views the strange "wheels within wheels" that were full of eyes. Above the creatures is a dome and above that, a throne. On the throne sits a fiery man-like figure. The chariot darts about without ever having to pivot.
While scholars have debated the details of the vision, it seems beyond question that it portrays God as the sovereign over the whole earth. The four faces of creatures represent four of the mightiest creatures (the ox, over domestic animals; the lion, over wild animals; the eagle, over birds; and the human, over all). The wheels within wheels represent the freedom to move in any of the four directions without having to pivot to the right or left, and thus symbolize God's omnipresence. The eyes imply sight in every direction, and thus indicate God's omniscience. The word "dome" is in Hebrew raqia [[yiq'r], the same word used for the vault of heaven in Genesis 1. It symbolizes the physical universe as metaphorically under heaven, the throneroom of God. The human-like figure seated on the throne above the dome implied that Yahweh is sovereign over heaven and earth.
For the reader, the surprise is that Ezekiel begins his message of judgment not with the sinfulness of Judah but with the sovereignty of God. People in the ancient world connected their gods with local areas and specific domains (see 1 Kings 20:23-28 ). A god was supposed to protect his domain, and if one city conquered another, that meant that the god of the victor was greater than the god of the vanquished. Many Jews also embraced this thinking, and it led to two dangerous conclusions. First, they thought that Yahweh was bound to protect Jerusalem. Second, if the city should fall, it meant that Yahweh was weak and small.
Ezekiel's vision showed them that it was not that Yahweh was too small, but that he was too great. As the God who transcended the earth, he had no need of any temple. As Solomon had recognized, even heaven cannot contain him" how much less this temple?" ( 1 Kings 8:27 ). Precisely because he was no local deity, he did not need to defend any earthly house. But as Lord over all, he was also judge of all, including Jerusalem. In short, the power and authority of God meant not that Jerusalem was impregnable, but that it was doomed.
The Radical Sin of Israel and the Radical Methods of Ezekiel. The opening vision is only the first of many strange messages in Ezekiel. While it may not quite be true to say that for Ezekiel the medium was the message, certainly the media he used carried within them a drama and force commensurate with the desperate nature of the situation.
More than any other prophet, Ezekiel acted out his message in parables. Among these actions was a pretend siege of Jerusalem, with a brick serving as the city (4:1-5:4). Like a child with toy soldiers, he built a siege ramp against his miniature Jerusalem and carried out the symbolic assault. But this was no game. Ezekiel was as much a prisoner as were the Jews trapped in Jerusalem. Day after day he lay on his side and was no more free to move about than they were free to escape the city. Like them, he ate food cooked over dung. At last, he cut off his hair and chopped, burned, and scattered it. Israel had been as near to God as Ezekiel's hair had been to the prophet, but they would be slaughtered and dispersed save for a small remnant.
He even had to subordinate the death of his wife to his message ( 24:16-27 ). When she passed away, God told him not to enter into the customary period of mourning. He implied that the Jews were soon to have more than enough of dead wives, husbands, children, and parents. Times of sorrow for which no mourning could be adequate were about to descend upon them.
Ezekiel's language is the boldest, most graphic in the Bible. Chapter 16 describes the nation's history in a parable. She began life as an abandoned baby lying naked in blood and still attached to the placenta. Yahweh pitied her and protected her, and she grew to sexual maturity. Wealthy and beautiful, she turned to promiscuity and prostitution. If Ezekiel's language lacks delicacy, it is because he is trying to warn the people of the horrors soon to overtake them.
Ezekiel's language is not all emotional imagery, however. In chapter 14, using language that reflects the thoroughness of a trained priest, he describes in detail God's principles of judgment. He demonstrates first that God is not moved by outward Acts of religion; even if people come to consult God, he will not receive them as long as they harbor apostasy (vv. 1-11). Second, he declares that no amount of pious intercession will save a people bent on rebellion (vv. 12-23).
The Duty of the Watchman. God routinely addresses Ezekiel as "son of man" (that is, "mortal"), and so reminds him that he and his people are small and fragile. Their only hope of survival is in God.
God commissions Ezekiel as the watchman over Jerusalem. If he carries out his responsibility and warns the people of the coming disaster, he will be innocent of their deaths when they refuse to listen. But if he shirks his duty, their blood will be on his head ( 3:16-21 ). God warned him that they would be both obstinate and vicious, and that he must not fear them ( 2:3-8 ).
More than that, Ezekiel in a vision ate a scroll that was the word of God (2:9-3:11). His only task was to receive and declare God's message. To emphasize this, Ezekiel fell dumb when not expressly preaching God's message ( 3:26-27 ; 24:27 ). In a time of crisis, no other words were worth speaking.
Individual and Corporate Responsibility. Many scholars assert, on the basis of chapter 18, that Ezekiel was a pioneer in developing the doctrine of individual responsibility. Following the lead of H. Wheeler Robinson, interpreters assert that earlier Israel was dominated by the idea of corporate responsibility and corporate guilt, whereby the guilt of the father could be transferred to the descendants. The classic example of this is said to be Joshua 7, where Achan's family shares in the guilt of his actions and are put to death.
In chapter 18 Ezekiel confronts the popular proverb of his time, "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" (v. 2). The self-evident meaning is that the children suffer inevitably and unfairly for their father's actions. The implication is that God is unjust.
Ezekiel, speaking in God's name, responds first that every individual belongs to God and is responsible to him directly and not through his or her parents (v. 4). He then vies a hypothetical case involving three generations. If a man in the first generation lives a life of faithfulness, generosity, and integrity, that man will stand justified before God and suffer no retribution (vv. 5-9). If his son, the second generation, does not follow that path but lives a life of greed, apostasy, and selfishness, then that son will not be justified through the righteousness of his father. He will bear the full weight of his sin (vv. 10-13). If then this man's son, the third generation, reacts against his father's immoral ways and lives instead like his grandfather, this man will not suffer for his father's sin but will stand justified (vv. 14-18).
To this, Ezekiel adds the principle that if a sinful person repents, God will no longer hold that person's former sins against him. On the other hand, if a righteous person falls away and behaves corruptly, the former Acts of righteousness will not protect that one from punishment (vv. 19-32). Ezekiel has laid out in clearest terms not only the idea of individual responsibility but also the possibility of repentance and the necessity of perseverance.
It is another question, however, whether Ezekiel's ideas represent a major break from previous Old Testament teachings. In the case of Achan's sin, it is not at all clear that the Israelites regarded either the entire nation or Achan's family as sharing in his guilt. While they knew that the whole people had suffered for what he had done ( Joshua 7:4-5 ), the mere fact that they sought out the guilty individual ( Joshua 7:13-19 ) indicates that they understood that the responsibility lay with one man. Also, the fact that they executed Achan's family along with him ( Joshua 7:24-26 ), however that may strike us, does not mean that they thought that his guilt was somehow passed on to them. Rather, the point of Achan's punishment was that he lost his place in the inheritance of the land of Israel. Had his family survived and taken a share in the land, then in their eyes he would have through his descendants evaded the real point of the punishment. The guilt was his and the punishment was directed toward him.
In short, Ezekiel enunciated more clearly than before certain principles of divine judgment and human responsibility, and he corrected the misunderstandings of his contemporaries. It would not be accurate, however, to suppose that he repudiated earlier tenets of Israel's faith. Rather, he made the point that the Jews who saw their temple go up in flames had no one to blame but themselves.
Apostasy. More than any other prophet, Ezekiel graphically portrays the perversity and effrontery of apostasy. Here, too, the fall of the temple is before him, since it is the gravity of Israel's sin that explains how God could have allowed the temple to fall.
In chapter 23 using the most graphic sexual imagery found anywhere in the Bible, Ezekiel set out the parable of the sisters Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah, he tells us, represents Samaria just as Oholibah represents Jerusalem. Oholah first turned away from Yahweh, her true husband, and "lusted after" Assyria and Egypt. In response to her adultery, Yahweh turned her over to the viciousness of the Assyrians ( 23:5-10 ); in other words, God allowed Assyria to destroy Samaria.
Oholibah learned nothing from her sister's experience but instead behaved even worse. She committed adultery with the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Babylonians out of a lust for their glory and strength. As a result, she too was doomed ( 23:11-49 ).
The almost pornographic character of this parable serves several purposes. First, it vividly displays apostasy as an act as disgraceful and brazen as adultery. Second, it brings out the character of Israel's apostasy. When the Jews allowed themselves to be awestruck by the power of the great nations and sought alliances with them, they were in effect turning their back on God in the way a wayward wife might abandon her husband for a rich and handsome paramour. In addition, alliances with these nations inevitably drew Israel into the worship of their gods ( 23:30 ). Third, the parable illustrates the folly of Jerusalem, in that its people did not learn the lessons vividly acted out before them in the destruction of Samaria. Guilty of such outrageous behavior, the people hardly had a right to be surprised when they saw judgment bearing down on their city and temple.
In chapter 8, Ezekiel describes the apostasy that was being committed in the temple itself. He tells us that in the sixth month of the sixth year (about five years before the destruction of Jerusalem), he was taken to the temple in a vision. There in the very house of God Ezekiel saw several examples of Jerusalem's apostasy.
First, he saw the "idol of jealousy" in the north gate (vv. 5-6). This may have been an image of Asherah (cf. 2 Kings 21:7 ). Its position in the north is significant since that is the direction from which Israel's enemies, as executioners of Yahweh's anger, generally came.
Next, he went into a secret room where the elders were worshiping images of animal gods (vv. 7-12). The zoomorphic nature of these gods would indicate that they were Egyptian; the secrecy of the cult reflected a desire to hide it not only from Yahweh but from the Babylonians, who would have regarded this as an act of rebellion against their empire. The Jews would soon learn that Egyptian help was empty.
Next, again at the north gate, he saw women "mourning for Tammuz" (v. 14). Tammuz was a dying and rising fertility god, and his adoration was meant to ensure success in agriculture. In this, the people had abandoned Yahweh as Lord of nature and turned to other gods for good crops and healthy cattle.
Finally, Ezekiel sees men on the east side of the temple bowing to the rising sun with their backs to the temple (vv. 16-17). The implication is that as they bow they turn their buttocks toward Yahweh. The phrase translated "putting a branch to their nose" should probably be translated, "they put a stench in my (God's) nose."
The outcome of apostasy is that God shows no pity (v. 18). For Ezekiel's readers, the reason for the destruction of the temple is obvious.
Oracles against the Nations. Like many other prophets, Ezekiel includes a series of oracles against the nations in his book (25:1-32:32). Here, however, these prophecies take on the added urgency of being set against the crisis of 586 b.c. Against Ammon, for example ( 25:1-7 ), Ezekiel makes the point that because they gloated over the fall of the Jerusalem sanctuary, God would hand them and all their possessions over to foreigners from the east.
Especially remarkable here are the lengthy laments over Tyre (26:1-28:19), a place of special significance because it was Tyre that built the Jerusalem temple ( 1 Kings 5:1-11 ). Using imagery that would have been meaningful for a priest, Ezekiel describes the king of Tyre as if he were a cherub statue standing in the holy of holies ( 28:13-14 ; cf. 2 Chron 3:10-13 ). God would expel them from their seaside paradise and put an end to their wealth and trade.
For Ezekiel, the oracles against the nations meant that the same God who had condemned Jerusalem also stood in judgment over the nations. If the people of God had not escaped, neither would they.
Redemption and Transformation. For Ezekiel, the sovereignty of God, whereby he was free to judge Jerusalem and destroy its temple, was also the basis for Jerusalem's hope. The destruction of the temple did not mean that God had failed or that the promises were finished.
In chapter 37, Ezekiel lays out three aspects of the hope of restoration. He begins with the famous vision of the valley of dry bones (vv. 1-14). Israel, the vision implies, is a dead nation. Like many peoples before them, they have been swept off the historical map, and from the human viewpoint there is no reason to expect them ever to be a nation again. God, however, is not bound by human limitations, and this dead nation will live again.
Second, in a text that parallel's the promise in Jeremiah 31:31-37 of a new covenant with Israel and Judah, Ezekiel promises that God will draw together his people and give to them an obedient heart that they might never again wander from him ( 37:15-23 ).
Third, Ezekiel promises that "David" will be their faithful ruler forever. The term "David" is symbolic and messianic; it looks for the day when a king will arise who will love God with all his heart and who will stand in stark contrast to the kings and leaders who led Jerusalem into its disastrous apostasy and warfare.
Gog and Magog. In a surprising turn, Ezekiel interrupts his prophecies of future redemption and glory with the prophecy of the great war against Gog and Magog (chaps. 38-39). This is not a prediction of some specific war, least of all of a war against a modern nation such as Russia. The terms "Magog, " "Meshech, " and so forth refer to tribes in the Black Sea area (such as the Scythians), but the specific identity is not nearly so important as the fact that they were pagan, warlike peoples in the north. Biblical eschatology regularly speaks of the "enemies to the north" as the source of conflict and judgment, and the reference here is typological rather than literal.
The main point was that although Israel had already endured much at the hands of its enemies, more sorrows were yet to come before they entered the kingdom. The events of 586 b.c. were terrible, but they were not the last or even the worst of such calamities. Still, God would triumph over his enemies, and final victory for the people of God remained sure.
The Restored Temple. We have seen that the entire prophecy of Ezekiel focuses on the theological crisis occasioned by the destruction of the temple. That being the case, it is not surprising that Ezekiel the priest should crown his promise of restoration with a vision of a new temple (chaps. 40-48). The question that remains for us is whether we should take this prophecy as a portrait of a literal, future temple, or read it as an idealized, symbolic vision.
Careful analysis reveals that this prophecy cannot be taken literally. Apart from the fact that, for a Christian, the notion of a future temple with a levitical priesthood and animal sacrifices bluntly contradicts the New Testament (e.g., Heb 8:1-10:17), the text of Ezekiel itself rules out such an interpretation.
Although the details of this chapter are perhaps exhausting to the modern reader, they are not really exhaustive. That is, they lack many specifications and dimensions, and omit such critical matters as the materials to be used (contrast Exod. 26 and 2 Chron. 3-4). Attempts to reconstruct a picture of this temple inevitably fail for lack of detail. Similarly, the portrayal of the division of the land among the twelve tribes (Ezek 47:13-48:35) is highly idealized and resists any attempt to set down literal borders for the tribes (although this does not keep some imaginative interpreters from trying).
Most significant here is the portrayal of the river of life in 47:1-12. Taken literally, the details are impossible. A trickle of water comes out of the north gate of the temple, but in the short space of a few thousand meters, it is a mighty river too great and apparently too swift for any man to swim across. Where the text itself signals us that the literal meaning implies absurdities, it is folly to force such a meaning on the passage.
The vision is a prophet-priest's portrayal of the glories of the kingdom of God. The calamity of the exile has been reversed. Worship is orderly and beautiful. Leadership is subservient to God. There is a place for every one of God's people, and there is neither want nor need. Most important of all, the Lord is there ( 48:35 ). For the Christian, all the promises of God are Yes in Christ, and not one of them has failed.
Duane A. Garrett
See also Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy
Bibliography. W. Eichrodt, Ezekiel; H. W. Robinson, Corporate Personality in Israel; J. B. Taylor, Ezekiel.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ezekiel, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".