The Book of Ezekiel was written from Babylon during the difficult days of Judah’s exile in Babylon. (605-538 B.C.) In 605 the Babylonians defeated the last resisting Assyrians at the decisive battle of Carchemish (605 B.C.) In the same year, the Babylonians raided Judah and took hostages from the upper classes back to Babylon, including Daniel. In 601 B.C. king Jehoiakim of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, and he died during the siege. (598 B.C.) His son, Jehoiachin, reigned only for a brief time before he surrendered and was taken to Babylon in 597 B.C. At that time the Babylonians also took the prophet Ezekiel and other prominent people into exile and plundered many treasures from the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel had his first visions in 593 B.C., when he was 30 years old.
In Ezekiel 1:3, he is named the author of this book. Ezekiel came from a priestly family. He was married and lived in his own house in Babylon. He was free to move about as he wished, his intellect was sharp, and his knowledge wide ranging. Many of his visions that we will read about can be dated with pinpoint accuracy, ranging from July 31,593 all the way to April 28,573 B.C. His visions spanned 25 years. Even though this book was written in Babylon during the exile, Ezekiel was somehow transported to Jerusalem in a vision…chapter 8. He was given the task of dashing the hopes of the early deportees that Jerusalem would be spared destruction and they could return home. Instead he had to tell them Jerusalem would be sacked and the temple burned to the ground. God had abandoned His temple and Jerusalem stood no chance at being unscathed. Ezekiel lived at a time of international upheaval. The once mighty Assyrian empire was beginning to crumble and Babylon was flexing their muscles in alarming ways.
God gave Ezekiel the task of graphically portraying the sinfulness of Jerusalem, as well as her conquest and certain judgement. However, as in places in the Book of Jeremiah, these tragic predictions are mitigated by hope. The book is highly structured and symmetrical. As you read, watch for contrasts such as the vision of the defiled temple, fit only for destruction versus that of the purified temple. Ezekiel writes with non-traditional prose, and several phrases of repetition, such as son of man and this is what the sovereign Lord says. There are four major visions: chapter 1-3, 8-11, 27:1-14 and 40-48. Ezekiel also records 12 symbolic acts and 5 parables. We also have three major themes to be on the lookout for. Judgement, God’s sovereignty, and future hope. Most of the prophetic books begin with the prophets call story. This served to show that the prophets words were legitimate and that they spoke as the Lord’s ambassador. The Book of Ezekiel is no different.
Ezekiel begins with the date and place of his ministry. Ezekiel was from a priestly family and young men became priests in their 30th year. That was the year Ezekiel was sent into exile in Babylon. Instead of becoming a priest, the Lord gave him a prophetic ministry. No time was wasted in sharing visions. Verses 4-28 are a vision of a theophany, a physical manifestation of God. As you read you will notice it was difficult for him to describe exactly what he saw, using phrases like “looked like”, “something like”, and “seemed”. The great storm was God appearing in judgement, coming from the north which was the direction Israel’s enemies traditionally came from. God was coming as a mighty warrior, not to rescue but to judge. At the center of the fiery cloud were four living beings, each having four faces and four wings. Four is a number of completeness. These four summed up the true created order. Each had the face of a lion, the greatest of the wild animals, the face of an ox, the greatest of domestic animals, the face of an eagle, the greatest of birds, and a human face, representing the pinnacle of creation. They had both wings and legs allowing them to move like lightening in any direction. These living creatures were not the only cause for fear. In their midst Ezekiel saw four wheels that were part of a divine war chariot. Chariots were among the most feared weapons in the ancient world. These chariot wheels had wheels within them allowing them to travel equally well in any direction. This symbolized God’s freedom of movement in judgement. The wheels were tall and frightening and they were covered with eyes which meant that God sees everything. You can run but you cannot hide. This chariot was infused with the spirit of the living beings and the whole assembly moved as a single entity. The surface of the sky glittered like crystal, separating the realm of God’s presence, heaven, from the realm of humanity, earth.
Ezekiel’s ability to describe what he saw was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the sight. This human form on the throne revealed the Lord’s overpowering radiant glory that had once filled the temple and tabernacle. God’s awesome presence in human form may bring comfort for believers but it will bring judgement on those who disobey Him. And the rainbow shining in the clouds combines the prospect of judgement with a glimmer of hope of mercy. Storm clouds would drop a full load of judgement on God’s sinful people. The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem would be catastrophic but there was hope for the remnant God would save. All of this overwhelmed Ezekiel and he fell face down on the ground.
The thing about being a prophet was this. It wasn’t a career choice. Little kids in school didn’t raise their hands and say they wanted to be prophets when they grew up. And it wasn’t a career that was passed down from father to son. God chose and called prophets. God addressed Ezekiel most often as son of man, which came also be translated as son of Adam. This was to remind Ezekiel that he was profoundly different than the Lord and the heavenly beings he encountered. Ezekiel was a child of the dust, a mere mortal. God was sending Ezekiel to his own people who were stubborn and hard hearted, and they would not heed his message. It would have been easier for him to go to people with strange and difficult speech. Ezekiel was responsible for delivering the messages God gave him, but he was not responsible for their response. However, if he did not deliver the message because it was hard, and the people were disobedient and they were killed, then their blood would be on Ezekiel. God gave Ezekiel a scroll to eat. It was covered on both sides with writing, a sign that there would be much judgement. It looked bitter but it was sweet as honey. God promised to make Ezekiel as persistent in presenting God’s message as the people were in rejecting it. This message was not negotiable and things would happen as He said they would. And then Ezekiel was brought back from his visionary experience to the world of exile.
Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was overwhelmed with the prospect of God’s fearsome judgement, and like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was called to be a watchman. He would be a look out for the community, providing advanced warning of approaching enemies. In this case, the enemy they had to fear was not a human invader…but God. Ezekiel was to speak his message to both the righteous and the wicked because all would be judged by their response to his words. Those who listened and heeded would receive life and the rest would receive death. Again the Lord took Ezekiel away in a vision, this time into the wilderness. It was the second time he had seen the glory of God and he was not used to this. Once again he fell prostrate on the ground. Now he was God’s prisoner, in his house tied with ropes. It is not entirely clear as to whether these were actual ropes or a vivid image of their opposition to him and his restricted mobility among them. Even Ezekiel’s speech was limited, this being a sign to the people. His tongue was bound to the roof of his mouth, loosened only when God gave him judgement to pronounce. This made Ezekiel’s role much more limited than other prophets. Ezekiel could not even intercede for his people, not until God was finished His judgement on the people.
In both words and actions the prophet Ezekiel declared the certainty of impending judgement on Jerusalem. God’s people had broken the terms of the Lord’s covenant from Mount Sinai and now they would face the consequences. The first of Ezekiel’s actions was to create a detailed scene of Jerusalem on a clay tablet…Jerusalem under siege. He was to set up an iron griddle between him and the city, showing that Jerusalem had cut herself off from God. But, Ezekiel was to turn his face towards the city showing that God had not forgotten the city but that He was determined to destroy it. Here he took on the role of God. Ezekiel’s second sign to the people was related to the first but now he would act out the roles of both God and victims of the siege. As a siege victim he was tried up with ropes and confined to a single position. As he represented Israel, he was to bear Israel’s sins symbolically by laying on one side, and then the other. In chapter 4 the use of Israel here does not refer to just the northern kingdom but the whole covenant community. The 390 days represents the time from early in Solomon’s reign until the destruction of Jerusalem. Judah was the community of those in exile, whose sojourn outside the land was represented by the symbolic 40 years. They were a lost generation, just like the generation that spent 40 years in the wilderness for their sins. And the 430 days of Ezekiel’s confinement parallels the 430 years Israel spent in Egypt. This pointed to a new exodus when the exile was over. Through all of this, Ezekiel continued to represent God. His diet was near starvation rations. Eight ounces of food and a jar of water for each day represent siege rations and reflect a desperate situation in which there was not enough of any one kind of grain to make a whole loaf of bread.
Cooking the bread over human dung would render the food unclean ceremonially, defiling Ezekiel when he ate it. God relented and allowed Ezekiel to use cow dung instead. But the Israelites had to eat defiled bread in exile. This meant they would be unclean and cut off from the presence of the Lord. Ezekiel was required to perform two other signs. The first was to shave off his hair and beard using a sharp sword as razor. This points to the destruction described in chapter 4. Shaving off hair implied great dishonor and the loss of manhood. Ezekiel was to weigh the hair into three equal parts to show God’s judgement would take three different forms. He was to burn a third, representing those who would die of starvation during the siege. He was to chop another third of the hair with a sword to represent those who would die a violent death. The final third was to be scattered to the wind, representing those who would be sent into exile. But, Ezekiel was also supposed to tie just a bit of the hair in the hem of his garment to show that there would be a remnant who would be safe. However, even some of them would die in the fire of exile. Few would survive. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel reminds the people that their sins and disobedience was the cause for their punishment. Things would be so horrible during the siege that parents would eat their children and children would eat their parents just to survive. As you read chapters one and five it seems a bit confusing. It is clear that Ezekiel is in exile in Babylon in chapter one but it sounds like he is in Jerusalem in chapter 5. Ezekiel was transported to Jerusalem in a vision in chapter 5. He did not leave Babylon.
There are two oracles of judgement in chapter 6, 2-10 and 11-14. Whatever the people chose, the Lord’s power would be manifest. Either the people would have a positive future because they would repent and return to the Lord, or, they would face a dark future of annihilation. God’s circle of judgement expanded out from Jerusalem to include the mountains of Israel, her heartland. It had belonged to God’s people since the days of Joshua but the people had defiled the hillsides. They were infected by idolatry. The corpses and bones of dead worshipers scattered around an altar would define it and render it unfit for use. Leaving bones exposed was a great disgrace and even greater insult. The remnant that was left would be scattered among the nations of the world to bear witness to God faithfulness to His covenant. They would recognize the reality of their own unfaithful hearts and hate themselves for all of their detestable sins. Ezekiel’s message here did not end on the encouraging thought of possible repentance. He returned to the theme of judgement with its three fold calamity of war, famine, and disease.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W