In just a couple of days we wi finish reading the Book of Ezekiel. Of all the prophetic books, Ezekiel is usually called the most challenging to decipher. As I usually do on free days here are some random thoughts about the Book of Ezekiel and the prophet who wrote it. Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest and he was born sometime around 623 B.C. He was raised in Jerusalem which made his call to prophesy there even more challenging. He was prophesying gloom, doom, and destruction upon people he knew, including family. Ezekiel was married and both he and his wife went into exile in Babylon. He was called to be a prophet on July 31, 593 B.C. Everything we know of Ezekiel comes from the book named after him. As we have seen, Ezekiel often reinforced his prophetic words with strange actions. There was the laying motionless for 430 days, one day for each year of Israel’s and Judah’s sins. He cooked his food over dung. When his wife died he was not allowed to mourn. Ezekiel’s strange actions were designed to grab people’s attention. In the beginning his messages were ignored and rejected but his prophecies were later vindicated as they began to come true and the nation was purged of idolatry. His teaching emphasized holiness, purity, resurrection, and ritual law. And, his message of hope encouraged and sustained the exiles as they sought to remain faithful during the dark days of their captivity. Once they returned to Jerusalem and Judah his words kept the people looking forward towards a greater fulfillment. We do not know the circumstances of his death and he is mentioned nowhere else in the Old Testament. However, the New Testament has over 60 references to Ezekiel’s prophecies, mostly in the Book of Revelation. Ezekiel’s prophetic vision extended beyond his immediate future to the final judgement and the great hope of heaven.
One of the things Ezekiel had to deal with was false prophets. Throughout scripture we read of false prophets, Old and New Testaments. These are people who set themselves up as prophets in their own authority. They have no true calling from God but claim to speak for Him anyway. And it was hard for people to tell the difference sometimes, particularly because the false prophets told people what they wanted to hear. Because of this difficultly and the fact that God was merciful in delaying bringing judgement on His rebellious people, many doubted that God’s Word through His true prophets would ever be fulfilled. Others denied anything could ever happen in their lifetimes. Ezekiel prophesied that in the coming judgement upon Jerusalem, false prophets would be cut off so that people would no longer be confused about who the true prophets were. Once that occurred, there would be no delay in God bringing judgement upon His people. Then all would see which words God had really spoken, and which words the false prophets had uttered out of their own imaginations.
Perhaps as you have read, and you came across the messages to the nations, chapters 25-32, you wondered why. Why would a prophet from tiny Judah address this many nations and address them so harshly. It is most likely Ezekiel had never visited any of these nations and in all likelihood the people of these nations would never hear what Ezekiel prophesied. Why would Ezekiel be concerned about what these people thought and did? But the thing about these messages to the nations is that the real audience for these prophecies was the people of Judah and Jerusalem. These messages reminded God’s people that He does not operate on a double standard. God doesn’t judge the sins of His own people while the people they live around act as they wish. Yes, judgement does begin with God’s people, but it does not end there. God will judge all, inside and outside of Israel and Judah who rebel against Him and His reign. Everyone must eventually come to acknowledge that the Lord is the one true living God. God’s people had been inclined to trust some of these other nations, like Egypt, to rescue them from God’s judgement. Time and again the prophets reminded the people that no nation on earth can be trusted in place of the Lord. In the end all nations will bow down before Him. The messages against the foreign nations also reminded the covenant community that in spite of God’s judgement on them because of their sin, they were still God’s precious people. These foreign nations Ezekiel prophesied against were not accused of sin in general or crimes against humanity in general. All of them had persecuted or insulted God’s people, meaning they had done the same thing to Him. God would curse those who had cursed His people. That was a promise God made to Abraham. (Genesis 12:3). Ezekiel was also reminding the people that God’s purpose in history is to bring glory to Himself. By exiling His sinful people and judging their arrogant oppressors, God displayed His power and holiness. He was still acting in accord with His consistent purpose during the exile. Not only was God fulfilling the curse side of the promise He made with Abraham, but the Lord was disciplining His people so they could carry out the positive side of that covenant that said all the families of the earth would be blessed through them. God’s purposes were not exhausted. He would ultimately bring glory to himself by bringing them back from the distant lands to which they had been scattered.
One of the nations that took a particularly hard hit in these messages was the city of Tyre. It was a Phoenician city, located in modern day Lebanon. Tyre was a very important commercial city located on the Mediterranean coast. The city consisted of both a mainland city and an island that sat a half mile offshore. Both were well fortified. Tyre was a highly prosperous city and she sent her ships all over the world during the first millennium. Tyre was instrumental in founding the city of Carthage in Northern Africa in the 9th century B.C. Hiram, the king of Tyre was instrumental in providing both workmen and cedar trees for the construction of both king David’s and king Solomon’s palaces as well as cedar for the temple Solomon built. Ahab who was a king of the northern kingdom from 874-853 B.C. Married a princess from Tyre. You may have heard of her. Her name was Jezebel. Her father ruled in Tyre for 32 years and before that he was a priest of the pagan god Astarte. It seems that Jezebel brought her taste for worshiping idols with her when she married Ahab. Ezekiel prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar would March against the city and he did after Judah had been defeated. For 13 years Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city and he managed to capture the mainland part of the city but not the fortified island. Nebuchadnezzar had no navy and no ships to get to the island. Both Nebuchadnezzar and Tyre were exhausted by the long siege and when the Persian empire rose to power, Tyre came under their control. Tyre served as a navy base for the Persian fleet but in 332 B.C. Alexander the Great attacked Tyre. Alexander did not want a years long campaign like Nebuchadnezzar had so he constructed a causeway from the mainland to the island fortress. Ezekiel had prophesied that God would scrape away Tyre’s rubble and make her a bare rock and throw her stones, timber, and rubble into the sea. With Alexander, Tyre was literally scraped bare like a rock. He pulled down the buildings on the mainland and repurposed the stones, timber and debris to build the causeway. When Alexander died Tyre fell under the influence of first the Ptolemies of Egypt and then the Seleucids of Syria. Once again Tyre became an important trading city and she exerted considerable influence over the Jewish state. By the time the Romans came into power Tyre was a major city in the the region and a transportation center. Later the region of Tyre and Sidon served as something of a retreat center for Jesus and His disciples, and people flocked from Tyre to hear His message.
And one last thought. Perhaps this will seem a bit strange but trees played a big part in the ancient Near East. There are many species of trees in ancient Israel including many species of native oak, pine, olive, and terebinth. There were also imported cedars from Lebanon. These trees were highly prized for their value in construction and manufacturing, environmental protection such as erosion prevention, and the production of oils, perfumes, rope and other by products. Some were prized for their symbolic significance, partly because of their size and strength and the sense of permanence they evoked. Some of the olive trees on the Mount of Olives today are thought to have been there when Jesus went there to pray. Some oak trees in the region reach heights of over 80 feet tall and live as long as 300 years. The majestic cedar grows upwards of 120 feet and may live 500 years. So it is no wonder that the oak and the terebinth were often associated with the divine presence and marked important sites of worship, especially for the patriarchs. See Genesis 13:18 and 18:1. Sometimes the trees were considered sacred objects of worship, being planted beside altars in Canaanite temple courtyards. They were often also associated with baal’s partner Asherah. The powerful cedar was frequently planted in palace gardens, symbolizing both king and deity in its grandeur and life giving benefit to the land. As a result trees became the ideal symbol for great rulers and their empire. Even today we speak of the mighty oak trees, the fast growing but messy and not so strong eucalyptus trees, and beautiful blue spruce and towering redwoods. If we really want to use the trees to point to someone significant, we need to point to the Lord who created them in the first place.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W