Lecture 12: Ezekiel
Course: Understanding the Old Testament
We now come to the book of Ezekiel. In the book of Joshua we studied God keeping his promises. In Judges we saw God judging his people for their ongoing sin. In 1 and 2 Samuel we had God giving a kingdom to his chosen servant, David. In 1 and 2 Kings we read about how God held his people accountable for covenant faithfulness and how he sent them out of the land that he had given them because of their sins.
Isaiah stresses God’s saving power, constantly moving from creation to new creation. Isaiah expresses how God delivers people from sin, sorrow, death into a new home with him forever. Jeremiah stresses God holding Israel accountable and emphasizes the sin and judgment that the people experience. Yet, Jeremiah also emphasizes the new covenant, that God will again work with his people, that eventually he will re-establish them and they will become a holy people, a kingdom of priests, taking his words to the nations.
Ezekiel is a prophet of restoration and hope. He balances the messages of Isaiah and Jeremiah. I will remind you again that Isaiah states the seriousness of Israel’s sins and notes that only the coming of the Messiah and the Day of Yahweh can change the people. Jeremiah discusses Israel’s continuing rebellion, then details the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath. Both books emphasize hope. Ezekiel comments on sin, as well. This prophet, though, encourages the people immediately before and after the nation’s defeat. He offers hope that God still loves the exiles and will make the future brighter than the past.
As mentioned before, Ezekiel was one of the persons sent into exile in 597 B.C. This was the second deportation of Israelites undertaken by Babylon. The first was in 605 B.C. and, of course, the greatest of these was in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians destroyed Judah and Jerusalem. So Ezekiel is taken to Babylon in 597 B.C. along with several other exiles. He doesn’t experience Jerusalem’s Fall himself, but he does mourn the event in his book. Like most of the exiles, Ezekiel seemed to have a fairly good life in Babylon. The book tells us that he is a priest, chapter 1, verse 3; that he has a wife that he loves, 24:16; and that he has respect in his community, 8:1.
Despite the reasonably good life in Babylon, the exiles wrestle with some fundamental theological issues. First, they could easily lose their national and spiritual distinctiveness. They could easily adopt Babylon’s lifestyle and religious beliefs. This is a problem. Second, the people may wonder if God cares for them now that they are out of the Promised Land. Perhaps their sins have cut them off from Yahweh. Do they have a future with him? Third, they may consider whether God is more powerful than Babylon’s many deities. After all, Yahweh did not keep the people out of exile. Is Yahweh all powerful then? Or should the Jews, the Israelites, seek another God to worship? Fourth, they may wonder why they are in exile at all. They tend to blame their elders’ sin and incompetence for their predicament.
So God calls Ezekiel to address these issues. Because the book dates its messages, it is possible to note that he ministers from 593 to 571 B.C. So his ministry overlaps with Jeremiah’s, though they serve at very different locations. Ezekiel corrects, comforts, and informs the Jews living in Babylon. Like the other prophets, he speaks of sin, punishment and restoration. He both preaches sermons and performs symbolic acts.
Unlike some of the other prophets, he has extremely unusual visions. He sees angelic beings in chapters 1 to 3. He sees a valley of dry bones in chapter 37 and he sees a new and beautiful and changed Jerusalem in chapters 40 to 48. In chapter 8 he sees events in Jerusalem, even though he no longer lives there. All these visions relate to Israel’s questions about God and the future. What he sees, coupled with what he says and does, makes him a creative and powerful prophet.
Sections of Ezekiel
The book unfolds in five major sections. The first section is chapters 1 through 3. These chapters describe the prophet’s call. He has a great inaugural vision of God on his throne and God being present everywhere in the world. In the second section, which spans chapters 4 to 24, Ezekiel stresses judgment on Jerusalem and Judah. Ezekiel speaks in very frank terms about how the people have committed spiritual adultery against God. He speaks regularly about how it is that the people have been like an estranged spouse. And he is very clear that God’s glory will leave such a people.
The third section is chapters 25 to 32. Here Ezekiel offers sermons against foreign nations. Already we have had prophets give similar messages. I would remind you of Isaiah 13 to 23 and Jeremiah 46 to 51. Now, Ezekiel 25 to 32 joins these earlier prophets in stressing that God is sovereign over all nations. He rules them. He reigns over them. They belong to him. Chapters 33 to 39 depict what happens after the fall of Jerusalem. These are some of the more hopeful passages in the book, for chapter 36 talks about God’s Spirit coming upon the people in future days and chapter 37 depicts the people as being raised from the dead by the God who loves them. Fifth, chapters 40 to 48 offer a vision of a restored and renewed Jerusalem, of a great temple and of a perfect city. These nine chapters really express what Isaiah says in chapter 65 and verse 17 of his book. That is, that God has a future for his people and a home for his people in Zion, in the absence of suffering, sin and death, forever.
I will not be able to go into a great amount of detail with Ezekiel. He is a very important and wonderful prophet, but I will try to highlight a few things.
The Prophet’s Call (1–3)
In section 1 in Ezekiel 1 to 3 the prophet’s call is more unusual than Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s. In 593 B.C., when he is 30 years old, according to the first two verses of the book, God shows Ezekiel a vision. While sitting by a river, Ezekiel observes a storm from the north; four creatures, each with four faces and two wings emerge from the storm according to 1:5-14. These angelic beings are followed by wheels moving in the directions of the four angel faces. Together the angels and wheels cover each of the four directions. Next, Ezekiel receives a vision of Yahweh. Yahweh sits on a throne, high above the angels in 1:25 and 26. His appearance is fire-like, brilliant, and colorful, according to 1:27 and 28. This vision causes the prophet to fall on his face, overwhelmed at God’s greatness. He hears a voice, which will presumably give him more instructions.
What do these visions mean? Primarily, they mean that God is present everywhere, no matter which direction the angelic faces look, no matter which direction the wheels may go, Yahweh is there. Yahweh’s presence is real for his people, whether they live in Israel, Babylon, Egypt, or the ends of the earth. God is present with the exiles and he is present with Ezekiel because God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet in chapter 2.
Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel will have a very difficult mission. His people will refuse to hear, according to 2:1-7. He will eat God’s words, eat God’s scroll, chapter 2, verse 8 to chapter 3. He will eat the scroll of God’s word. He will speak only that which God has given him. But again, chapter 3 emphasizes the people will reject the word. Nonetheless, according to chapter 3, verses 16 to 21, Ezekiel is a watchman for the house of Israel. As watchman, he must warn the wicked to change and challenge the righteous to remain faithful. God will hold Ezekiel responsible for his actions. According to 3:19, if he warns the people to change and they refuse, God will be pleased with his work. On the other hand, if he fails to warn the wicked, then God will hold him accountable for their rebellion. Clearly, he has an awesome and dangerous mission.
God sends Ezekiel out to preach to people who have already gone into exile for their sins. These people will not be anxious to hear the word of the Lord, but this does not matter. His calling is to do God’s will. His calling is to speak God’s word. So however difficult the task may be, God expects him to be faithful. It is important for us to remember in ministry that the results belong to God. The task that we do comes from his hand. It is not up to us to figure out the better method and the best way of doing things. It is up to us to share God’s word effectively and to put it before people. The results then will belong to God.
Sermons about Judah (4–24)
In chapters 4 to 24 the sermons about Judah get very specific and detailed. But before that happens, in chapters 4 and 5 Ezekiel has a vision of Jerusalem being invaded, the city being laid siege by other nations. According to chapter 6 and chapter 7, this is all because of the sins of the people and because of the wrath of God. Chapter 8 gives us detailed pictures of what that sin was like, and it is amazing to see that idols were erected in the temple, that all sorts of religious sins were committed, all sorts of idolatries were there. So according to chapter 10, the glory of God has left the temple, the Lord will no longer put his name there. The Lord will depart from them.
In chapter 16, chapter 20, and chapter 23, Ezekiel speaks of Israel in very stark and lurid terms. In very detailed language, in very specific words, Ezekiel compares Israel to a spouse who has gone away from her husband. In fact, he portrays Israel as a spouse who has sinned in particularly graphic and shameless ways. These passages are much like Jeremiah 2 to 6; and when you read Hosea 1 to 3, you will remember these passages from Ezekiel. So these aren’t minor sins that the people have committed. This is a very terrible and evident covenant breaking.
Doom for Israel’s Enemies (25–32)
In chapters 25 to 32 the prophet adds the nations to the list of people to be judged. It will not just be Judah and Israel. They will be joined in judgment by several nations, including all the mighty nations of the day. As we recall from the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis 8 and 9, God holds all nations accountable for how they treat one another and how they respond to God’s word. These nations live as if there is no God other than themselves. They worship idols, they oppress others, and they will pay the price for this sin in the end.
What Happens after the Fall of Jerusalem (33–39)
In chapters 33 to 39 the book returns to the idea of Ezekiel as Israel’s watchman. He watches over the people and preaches to them and asks them why they will die and why they choose to receive judgment rather than blessing. In chapter 34 the prophet begins talking about the future and how it can be brighter than the present. He agrees with Isaiah and Jeremiah in that he teaches the future will be brighter because of what God will do through the coming Savior and through the day of judgment.
In chapter 34 and verse 20 the text says, “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them, behold, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push the side and shoulder and thrust all the weak with your horns, so you scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock. They shall no longer be prey and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Now what these verses are saying is, the people have harmed one another, they have oppressed one another, they have cheated and lied and stolen from one another. Thus, because of this, God has sent them away from the land.
But as we have already studied from Deuteronomy 30 and the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, God will restore the people when they repent and turn to him. Ezekiel 34:22 says, “God will rescue his people.” What will he do next? According to verse 23, which says, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them and be their shepherd, and I the Lord will be their God and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord. I have spoken.” This passage refers us back to 2 Samuel 7 where God promised an eternal kingdom to David, thus starting the messianic promise, from that point on focused on David’s family.
And you will recall that the book of Isaiah says that this will be God with us, Emmanuel. He will be mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace, wonderful counselor. He will be anointed with God’s Spirit. He will bring the nations to the Lord. He will suffer for the sins of the people. He is the one that Jeremiah 23:1-8 calls the righteous branch. God will send his servant and this servant will lead God’s people.
What else will God do for the people? According to chapter 36 he will put his Spirit within the people, chapter 36, verse 22: “Therefore say to the house of Israel, thus says the Lord God, ‘It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came, and I will vindicate the holiness of my great name which has been profaned among the nations and which you have profaned among them, and the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey all my rules.’”
So what Ezekiel stresses here is that the people of Israel have not been a kingdom of priests, glorifying God in the nations. In fact, their ways have made God look very bad among the nations. But he says, I will take you from these nations, I will gather you, I will bring you to the land. I will cleanse you and I will put my Spirit in your heart, so that you might have the heart that Deuteronomy asks them to have, and that Jeremiah spoke of when he said they should have a circumcised heart. God will do this in the people.
And the people will be like Isaiah and Jeremiah. They will be like Abraham and the other spirit led people in the Old Testament. And God will begin again with these people. But it is important for us to see that God will change the heart, fill them with his Spirit, so that when we come to the New Testament and particularly books like Luke and Acts, we will see that God is keeping his promise, to fill his people with the Spirit of God, a spirit of holiness and that he is using them to be a people who glorify his name among the nations.
Chapter 37 emphasizes the fact that at this stage Israel is in no position to do anything great for God. In fact, they are like a bunch of scattered, dry bones in a valley. So God gives Ezekiel a vision of these bones and asks them if they can live. God told him to prophecy to the bones and they all came together and stood on their feet and were alive.
In chapter 37, verse 11, “Then God said to Ezekiel, son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. We are indeed cut off.’ Therefore, prophecy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, behold I will open your graves and raise you up from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you into the land of Israel. You shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my spirit within you and you shall live. And I will place you in your own land and you shall know that I am the Lord. I have spoken and I will do it, declares the Lord.’”
So here Ezekiel agrees with Isaiah 25 and 26, that a resurrection is coming. God will raise up the nation. He will raise up the servant, according to Isaiah 53. And whatever happens to God’s servant, his Messiah, will also happen to the people. He will resurrect the servant, the Messiah. He will resurrect the people with him. And there will be a great future coming.
Vision of Restored and Renewed Jerusalem (40–48)
Chapters 40 to 48 remind us of the importance of God’s temple, that it was to represent his presence in the middle of the people and to be the central portion of their life. So in chapters 40 to 48, as Ezekiel thinks of a great new home for the people, he envisions a new and wonderful temple; and at the end of the book he envisions new boundaries for the people as they live in the heavenly place.
So Ezekiel begins with visions of God in exile, but he ends with visions of God in glory in Zion. He preaches about the sins of the people of God, the people of Judah and of Israel, and he preaches about the sins of the nations, the people who want nothing to do with God.
But he says there is a future for both through God’s servant, through David’s descendant, the Messiah. God will reach out to the people, give them a leader. God will fill them with his Spirit. God will teach them his ways. And God will raise his people from the dead, that they might become kings and priests to all nations. As I have already said, we need to see the New Testament teachings on the Spirit of God, particularly in the books of Luke and Acts, in light of Ezekiel, the prophet who gave so much information and had so much interest in the Spirit of God.
So Ezekiel is a rather unusual prophet. He is a man of great and troubling visions. He is a person who sees Israel in a very negative visionary way and yet, in the future in a very positive way. He has extraordinary manifestations of God’s greatness; but he also lives in a very down-to-earth way among the exiles, ministering to them. He continues to emphasize the prophetic scenes of sin, judgment, and renewal; but he does them in a way that is very, very extraordinary and shows him to be a great prophet of the Spirit, even as Jeremiah is a great prophet of the word of God and Isaiah is a great prophet of the salvation of God.