The prophet Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. He lived during the time of the fall of Jerusalem and was among those who were exiled to Babylon. He was exiled in 597 BC, eleven years before Jerusalem fell, and his prophetic ministry took place in the context of the exile. Ezekiel was from a priestly line, and much of his ministry centered on issues concerning the temple. He spent much of his time telling the exiles that Jerusalem would indeed fall (as it did in 586 BC), and so they should not expect a quick return to their land. Instead, they should focus their energies on living in their new exilic context in obedience to God. In the end, however, in a memorable vision of dry bones coming to life, Ezekiel prophesied that temple would be restored and the people would return to the land.The book claims to be autobiographical, and most scholars take this claim at face value.
Many readers are familiar with the story of Ezekiel’s call (chapters 1-3), where he sees a storm coming from the north, which represents God’s appearing (theophany). It is worth noting that in other literature of that time period, the north represents the mythical home of the storm-god. Ezekiel also sees four living creatures with four wings and four faces each, later described as cherubim and guardians of God’s throne. The presence of wings, plus the intersecting wheels, suggests mobility, which figures into Ezekiel’s prophecies later—God does not stand still and is not tied to the temple. In Ezekiel’s call, he is referred to as “son of man,” which is a phrase used throughout the book. This simply means “human” and is meant to contrast Ezekiel to God. In the New Testament, it takes on a messianic tone under the influence of Daniel 7:13.
Unlike other prophetic books, Ezekiel unfolds in basic chronological order. For example, in chapters 4-24 Ezekiel delivers prophecies against Judah and then Jerusalem. In these chapters, Ezekiel appears to be one of the more colorful—some would say bizarre—characters in the Bible. For example, Ezekiel symbolically acts out God’s judgment on Israel in his own life: unable to talk, lying on his left side for 390 days and his right for another 40 days, shaving his head, packing a bag and pretending to go into exile, and not mourning for his dead wife. As odd as these actions seem to us, they were part of the socially understood abnormal behaviors that characterized prophetic activity in the ancient world as a whole.
Ezekiel 16 and 23 portray Jerusalem as God’s wife—once faithful but now going after other gods. Ezekiel describes how God found her as an abandoned infant, but raised her and then married her. She turned into a whore, however, and paid other lovers (gods of other nations) for sex. Her punishment was to be stripped naked in public, stoned with her lovers watching, cut with swords, her children killed, and her houses destroyed. This may be a troubling metaphor for modern readers, but it served its theological purpose in a patriarchal society.
Ezekiel 25-32 consists of prophecies against the other nations. The bulk of these oracles are centered on Tyre, the capital of Phoenicia, and Egypt. According to these chapters, Tyre is a jewel of a city, like the Garden of Eden, but in the end will get what it deserves for its leader’s arrogant pretension against God. Egypt as well faces the impending judgment of God. Historically, Egypt had imposed rule over Judah just before the fall of Jerusalem, and some of Judah’s kings had sought alliances with Egypt. According to Ezekiel’s oracle, this does not matter to God, for Egypt too will come to naught.
Ezekiel 33-48 speaks of future restoration for Israel and for the temple. God will be Israel’s shepherd, and God will usher in a future time of peace. In a dramatic scene, Israel’s restoration is described as human bones coming to life. The bones are scattered in a valley, but come together, become covered with skin and muscles, and then miraculously come to life. Readers should understand that this scene is a metaphor for Israel’s rebirth after the exile and is not a literal description of resurrection from the dead. These chapters also mention the infamous “Gog” and “Magog.” Gog likely represents the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and Magog is likely tied to Babylon. Over the centuries, some have tried to identity these names with contemporary places, people or events. Many American Christians will probably remember such comparisons in the 1980’s between Gog and Magog and the Soviet Union. But such comparisons are simply imaginative and fanciful thoughts imposed by modern readers. Gog and Magog are also mentioned in the Book of Revelation, where they come to symbolize any forces that oppose God.
Ezekiel ends with a detailed vision of the future, centering on the restored temple. The temple is rebuilt with the priests back at work, and the glory of God returns to the temple and to God’s people. The temple is described using ancient mythological language: the temple is the center (navel) of the earth and set on a high mountain with a river flowing from it. In the end, Jerusalem is also given a new name, “Yahweh is there,” which reflects the driving theme of the book: God’s restoration of God’s people and God’s city amid national tragedy. Through the course of all these events, Ezekiel continually points out that Israel’s God is in complete and sovereign control over God’s people’s destiny.
– Peter Enns