The book of Ezekiel contains the various visions and prophecies of the prophet Ezekiel. They were written to the people of Judah, covering the period from the first wave of exiles being taken to Babylon (597 BC) until after the second wave of exiles had been taken away and the Temple destroyed (around 571 BC). The book contains a range of visions and prophecies, some very odd and hard to understand to our modern minds, while others are hard-hitting and moving. The message of Ezekiel is, ‘You think it's bad now? It's going to get worse before it gets better.’
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1.1)
26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36.26–27a)
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord. (Ezekiel 37.14)
Ezekiel’s visions often feel surreal and hard to get your head around. It can be helpful to remember that they are visions, so you should try to see them in your mind’s eye.
The book is ascribed to Ezekiel. Although he may not have written the visions and prophecies down in the form we now have them, it's very likely they can traced back to him.
Ezekiel is described as a priest and it is clear in this book that he also became a prophet due to the visions he had from God. In 1.1–2 he claims that the visions began 'in the 30th year'. Since that cannot refer to a king’s reign at this point it probably means that he was 30 when he began to be a prophet. The visions, he says, came to him on the banks of the river Chebar in Babylon. This means that he was in the first wave of exiles that were taken into captivity by the Babylonians in 597 BC, suggesting that he was someone of importance in the land as it was the most significant citizens who were taken into exile in this first wave.
The beginning of the exile, which occurred over a number of years from 597 to 587 BC, was a time of devastation and loss. It was the result of various rebellions against Babylonian rule. Judah had been in the Babylonian empire since 612 BC but at the start of the sixth century BC it attempted to rebel and withhold taxes. The response of the Babylonians was swift and harsh. It began with the first wave of exile, in which the people in the highest echelons of society (including the king) were taken from Judah to live in Babylon in captivity (597 BC). Ten years later, after another rebellion, more people were taken into exile and the temple was destroyed.
As far as we can tell from Ezekiel, the people in exile, though devastated by what had happened, recovered quite quickly, arguing that at least the worst had happened now. Ezekiel’s message was harsh and depressing – the worst is yet to come. Even though the exile had begun, the exiles had still not internalised the message of their need to return to God.
Jeremiah, Lamentations, Isaiah
Prophecy. Ezekiel contains a very particular kind of prophecy – visions as well as words. Many of the prophets do have visions in their writing (e.g. Isaiah and Jeremiah). However, what makes Ezekiel unusual is that his prophecies are mostly visions with a few prose sections, rather than the other way around.
1.1–3.27 Introduction and call of Ezekiel
4.1–24.27 The doom that is coming on Judah and Jerusalem
25.1–32.32 The doom that is coming on other nations too
33.1–39.29 A range of prophecies about the people in exile
40.1–48.35 Hope for the future
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, Babylon, Chebar, Chaldea, Aram, Assyria, Bashan, Damascus, Dan, En-gedi, Ephraim, Haran, Jerusalem, Judah, Lebanon, Moab, Mount Seir, Negeb, Persia, Samaria, Sheba, Sidon, Sodom, Tarshish, Teman, Tyre
Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Asher, Philistines, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Benjamin, Canaanites, Cherethites, Hittites, Israel, Issachar, Jehoiakin, Levi, Levites, Manasseh, Nebuchadrezzar, Philistines, Sidonians
Cherubim, exile, exilic period, Altar, atonement, burnt offering, censer, cubit, Day of Atonement, idols, Passover, Sheol, wadi
Ezekiel has many episodes of what are often called ‘one-man dramas’. Look out for these and see what you think about their effectiveness.
Look out for the visions of all kinds in the book. Notice that sometimes they involve Ezekiel seeing himself back in Judah and no longer in Babylon. There's a wide range of visions from the surreal to the mundane; look out for the different kinds.
Although the book is gloomy there are strands of hope. Look out for these as you read.
One of the oddest messages of hope in the book is connected to the vision of God’s chariot (in chapters 1, 10 and 11). The message in these chapters is that God has left the Temple (and hence his people). The message of hope this brought is that when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, God was not destroyed because he had already left. It is an odd message of hope but an important one: God has abandoned you, but he has not been destroyed and he will return.
Ezekiel’s peculiar brand of encouragement is to tell people not to shy away from how awful the situation really is. The implication is that people had moved to rapidly saying, ‘It’s not that bad.'
Reflect on whether there is anything for us to learn today about engaging in the world by being clear–sighted about how terrible a state we are in.