By Barnard C. Taylor
Parallel reading: The same passages as in Jeremiah.
1. Date and Occasion
Ezekiel was taken into captivity 597 B„ C., when the king Jehoiachin was taken and many of the leading Jews with him. The prophet began his work in the fifth year of his exile, 592-3. His whole career as prophet was spent in Babylonia. He continued to prophesy until 570 at least, perhaps longer.
Jeremiah had been prophesying for thirty years before Ezekiel was carried away, and without doubt the latter had often listened to his words of condemnation and threat. The messages of the two had much in common, and we may suppose that Ezekiel was in part influenced by Jeremiah. He probably heard all the prophecies against Jehoiakim; he may have seen something of the reforms attempted by Josiah. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was in the midst of the ruin of Judah, but part of it he passed through with the captives in exile.
There are good reasons for believing that the words of the former prophets besides those of Jeremiah had been collected into a body of writings that were regarded as having divine authority, as being inspired Scriptures. The messages of the prophets when delivered by them were accepted as coming from God, as the prophets claimed, and it is evident that these words had been preserved in written form. We may well suppose that Ezekiel had access to these, or at least was acquainted with their contents.
Ezekiel was a priest, and as such he must have been informed about the earlier history of the Israelites: God’s purpose in choosing them; their constant tendency to depart from Jehovah; the many instances of punishment that had already come upon them; the threat long before made^that their sins would result in exile, as well as the bright promises held out by the former prophets of a future of restoration and glory.
This knowledge that Ezekiel had was not the source of the messages he had to deliver, nor did it altogether determine their character, yet his prophecies were in view of these facts of which he had knowledge. What we have in the book of Ezekiel could have been produced at no other time, nor occasioned by other conditions.
Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah belong to the period when it may be truly said Prophecy had reached its climax; not had reached its fulfilment, except in one prominent, but incidental feature, the extreme of Israel’s punishment. The stream of Prophecy had been flowing for centuries, and had been gradually augmented in its course, till now it reached its full strength. All the essential truths of Prophecy had been taught when Ezekiel finished his teaching. So far as the chief purpose of Prophecy was concerned, it ended with the work of Ezekiel. He stood on the border-line that divided Israel’s past of sin and punishment from Israel’s future of favor and blessing. Some centuries would yet pass before that future should reach its culmination, but the time of comfort had arrived. The prophets of the post-exilic period added no truth of an import different from what had been given by the time of Ezekiel.
2. Chief Work of Ezekiel
In part the work of Ezekiel was like that of Jeremiah: he had to interpret the calamities that were falling upon Judah as judgments long before predicted because of sin. Both these prophets were near enough to that “future,” that “end of the days,” of which the earlier prophets had spoken, to get full views of it. Jeremiah saw a “new covenant,” practically a new people, not merely Israel reformed. Ezekiel got a fuller view of what this new people of God would be.
He gives more definitely the goal and purpose of all the dealings of Jehovah with his people in the past. He stood nearer the dawn of the greatest day in the world’s history. That goal and purpose was the making known of Jehovah to all the nations of the earth. Thus we find in Ezekiel the frequent refrain, “and they shall know that I am Jehovah.”
The restoration of Israel which should reveal the glory of Jehovah was to take place in order that Jehovah might be known to the nations. The people thus restored were to bear witness to Jehovah as the true and only God. But this restoration and this witnessing were necessarily conditioned upon the righteousness of the individual Israelite. Not the might of Jehovah but his moral excellence was to be manifested to the nations as proof that he was God and as the important truth about him as God. What he was should be shown by the people among whom he would dwell, not shown by the nation as a whole, but by the individual.
3. The Chief Teaching of Ezekiel
Ezekiel puts emphasis upon the individual. It is not, however, true that hitherto the individual had been lost in the mass. While many of the laws were national in form, most of them involved individual obligation, and most of the laws were meant for the individual. The sacrifices were nearly all individualistic. The offerer confessed his own sin, and was himself forgiven. Yet it can be said that most of the recorded dealings of God with his people were of a national character. They were treated as a unit, as a solidarity. When the king sinned the nation was punished, as in the case of David’s numbering the people. In Ezekiel there is emphasis put upon the fact that each individual has personal relations to Jehovah.
But the individual was not the end in view. He was the means to an end, and that was the manifestation of the holy God. The holiness of God is the underlying thought of the prophecies of Ezekiel, and thus the main thought that he emphasizes is the need of holiness on the part of the individual people of God. The doctrine of the holiness of God is given in Isaiah in the repeated title “Holy One of Israel.” In the book of Ezekiel it is given rather in the sublime the- ophanies that he describes, especially at the beginning of his ministry. This doctrine had also been taught by the laws enjoining holiness upon the people because the holy God was dwelling among them. The key-word of Leviticus is “holiness.”
The elaborate and wonderful ritual that Ezekiel describes for the restored people of God, with the temple in which they would worship, makes prominent this great truth of the holiness of Jehovah and of the people- of Jehovah because they were his and he was dwelling among them. In his early work the prophet had to portray the awful wickedness of the people, and then in contrast he gives a vivid picture of the time when the people would be holy, and the holy God would dwell among them, manifest to all the nations of the earth. This is Ezekiel’s chief contribution to the Bible’s great truths.
4. The Style of Ezekiel and Form of His Prophecies
The chief distinguishing feature of the contents of this book is the vision. Ezekiel saw a vision at the beginning of his ministry, a theophany that gave him an impression that remained with him in all his work. There came to him a revelation of God. It was not so much a conviction of some attribute of God; not the solitary truth of his holiness, of his might, or his omniscience, but the great, overwhelming, sublime thought, “God.” The parts of the vision that Ezekiel attempts to describe are not distinct, but the impression made by the whole is vivid. From its effect the prophet fell prostrate.
He gave messages in the form of visions, and the last great truth of his book, the chief thought of all that he gives, is the vision of the holy people in the holy land worshiping God in the holy temple. There are several instances of what may be called prophetic actions, either really performed, or else described as if performed, meant to convey important truths to the people. The personality of the prophet is prominent in some places, not so fully as in the case of Jeremiah, but more so than either of the other prophets, except Jonah, whose work was one of action rather than of words.
Aside from the visions the prophecies of Ezekiel are not difficult to interpret. Some of the figures that he uses are given with much detail, and have been characterized as crude compared with our Western manner of speech. There seldom appears the abruptness of speech, indicating agitation of spirit, that is seen in Isaiah and in some of the Minor Prophets. Some of his prophecies were delivered to the captive Jews as they gathered to the prophet to learn what word had come from Jehovah. And while he delivers messages to these captives, his words are usually meant to apply to those in the homeland, and to the whole people in all their history. Ezekiel is a captive, but in his exile he sees as if before him the sacred Jerusalem falling to ruin.
5. The Divisions of the Book
Both the general divisions and the subdivisions of this book are clearly marked off from each other.
There are two principal divisions: one half of the book, chs. i to 24, having to do with the punishment of Jerusalem for sin; the other half, chs. 25 to 48, having to do with the destruction of enemies and the restoration of the people. All the first part belongs to the time before the city fell; the second part after the fall, except some of the prophecies against the heathen. The special purpose of each of these divisions is distinct.
In the first part, there is condemnation for sins that the nation has committed, and sins that are still persisted in, and there are repeated assurances that Jerusalem cannot escape the destruction that threatens her. Ezekiel is at one with Jeremiah in this prediction.
In the second part, after the punishment has fallen upon the city, there is nothing but comfort for God’s people:in the threats against their enemies, and in the description of their glorious restoration.
In the first part are the following divisions:
In the second part are the following divisions:
6. The Chief Thought in Each Group
In chs. i to 3 is given the call of Ezekiel to his work. In a theophany he gets the idea of God, awful, sublime, and is prostrated. He is told to preach to a rebellious people. The heathen would be more likely to heed his words than his own people who talk his language. He is to be a watchman. For a time his messages will not be received, so it is said he will be dumb. His Speaking will be as though he had not spoken. Later they will hear, his mouth will be open.
Chs. 4 to y. The destruction of Jerusalem is portrayed very vividly by what the prophet is told to do. It is improbable that Ezekiel actually went through what is here described, though it is given as though he did. The end has come, escape will be impossible.
In chs. 8 to ii the prophet is represented as being in Jerusalem, observing the abominations that defile the holy city, and declaring that the people are not safe, as they think, but will be destroyed.
In the next division, chs. 12 to 19, there are different prophecies all having the same import:the sin of the people in departing from Jehovah who had so pitied and loved Israel, and the sure punishment that was coming. The prediction that Zedekiah should go to Babylon, but not see it, ch. 12, was literally fulfilled. His eyes were put out. The lying prophets are like men who build a wall with poor mortar, it will not stand. Even intercession by Noah, Job, and Daniel could not avert the calamity. The figure of the cast-out child taken up by Jehovah, loved and cared for, ch. 16, is most full of meaning. The wrong policy of the king in looking to Egypt for help against Babylon it is declared will only lead to captivity, ch. 17. The great principle of God’s justice, and his readiness to forgive is given in ch. 18. The lamentation over the destruction of the princes of Judah, ch. 19, under the figure of a vine, is pathetic.
In the next division, chs. 20 to 23, prominence is given to the causes that have brought about Judah’s fall. The nation has sinned from the first. The king of Babylon is at Libnah, deciding by divination whether he shall go against Jerusalem or Ammon. Both are to perish, ch. 21, the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, under the figure of adulteresses, ch. 23, are to be destroyed by the very powers with which they seek an alliance: as Israel was by Assyria, so Judah shall be by Babylon.
It is to be noted that the prophecy of ch. 24 was delivered the very day the siege of Jerusalem began. The city is likened to a pot in which there is meat, the meat is to be burnt, and the pot purified by the fire. It is not certain whether the statement about the death of the wife of Ezekiel is to be taken literally or not. Such a calamity, greater than any signs of grief could show, was to illustrate the calamity coming upon Judah.
The first division of the second part of the book contains a collection of prophecies against the outside nations, chs. 25 to 32, very similar to those in Isaiah and Jeremiah. They are condemned, not for idolatry, but for hostility against God’s people. This teaching by the prophets is an important one, and still has force. The three chapters of prophecies about Tyre are of special interest. Tyre stood for the rich world power. The effect of her fall would be wide-reaching. The destruction of Egypt is described in terms suggested by that land. It will be like a fish thrown out on the dry ground. The dates given in the case of some of these prophecies are significant. In all these heathen prophecies it is to be remembered that they were not expected to be heard by these peoples. They were meant for the ears of God’s people, to give them encouragement from the fact that their enemies were to be destroyed. They were also to teach that sin against God would be punished.
In the first chapter of the next division, ch. 33, it is shown that the evil that came upon Judah was wholly due to their refusal to live righteously, according to the injunction of the prophet. The mercy of God is shown in ch. 34 by his promise to send a faithful Shepherd, “David,” who will gather and care for the scattered sheep. Ch. 36 gives promise of restoration; a new heart of flesh will be given to the people, and because of this all peoples shall come to know Jehovah. This prediction occurs like a refrain many times in the book of Ezekiel. The restoration of the people is further predicted in the vision of the dry bones. This probably is meant only in a national sense, not a teaching of the resurrection of the individual after death. The restored, united people, with “David” a shepherd and Prince, had a spiritual significance far beyond the literal Israelites.
In a graphic picture the destruction of the enemies of God’s people is described in chs. 38 and 39. All this is in order that Jehovah may be known.
In the last group, chs. 40 to 48, the description of the temple, the temple service, and the land occupied by the tribes of Israel, should not be taken literally. The idea of the whole is that of “holiness.” It is to teach, not only that Mt. Zion would be a holy place, but that wherever God’s people were, in all of a far- extended region holiness would prevail. It is put in exact contrast with the former wickedness of the people by which the land had been defiled. In that future there would be nothing to defile. All the place and all the people would be holy, because the holy God would be dwelling there among men.