Ezekiel lived during a time of international upheaval. The Assyrian empire that had once conquered the Syro-Palestinian area and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to the Assyrians in 722–721 b.c.) began to crumble under the blows of a resurgent Babylon. In 612 the great Assyrian city of Nineveh fell to a combined force of Babylonians and Medes. Three years later, Pharaoh Neco II of Egypt marched north to assist the Assyrians and to try to reassert Egypt’s age-old influence over Canaan and Aram (Syria). At Megiddo, King Josiah of Judah, who may have been an ally of Babylon as King Hezekiah had been, attempted to intercept the Egyptian forces but was crushed, losing his life in the battle (see 2Ki 23:29–30; 2Ch 35:20–24).
Jehoahaz, a son of Josiah, ruled Judah for only three months, after which Neco installed Jehoiakim, another son of Josiah, as his royal vassal in Jerusalem (609 b.c.). In 605 the Babylonians overwhelmed the Egyptian army at Carchemish (see Jer 46:2), then pressed south as far as the Philistine plain. In the same year, Nebuchadnezzar was elevated to the Babylonian throne and Jehoiakim shifted allegiance to him. When a few years later the Egyptian and Babylonian forces met in a standoff battle, Jehoiakim rebelled against his new overlord.
Nebuchadnezzar soon responded by sending a force against Jerusalem, subduing it in 597 b.c. Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin and about 10,000 Jews (see 2Ki 24:14), including Ezekiel, were exiled to Babylon, where they joined those who had been exiled in Jehoiakim’s “third year” (see Da 1:1 and note). Nebuchadnezzar placed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, on the throne in Jerusalem, but within five or six years he too rebelled. The Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem in 588, and in July, 586, the walls were breached and the city plundered. On Aug. 14, 586, the city and temple were burned.
Under Nebuchadnezzar and his successors, Babylon dominated the international scene until it was crushed by Cyrus the Persian in 539 b.c. The reign of the house of David came to an end; the kingdom of Judah ceased to be an independent nation; Jerusalem and the Lord’s temple lay in ruins.
What is known of Ezekiel is derived solely from the book that bears his name. He was among the Jews exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 b.c., and there among the exiles he received his call to become a prophet (see 1:1–3). He was married (see 24:15–18), lived in a house of his own (see 3:24; 8:1) and along with his fellow exiles, though confined to Babylonia, had a relatively free existence there.
He was of a priestly family (see NIV text note on 1:3) and therefore was eligible to serve as a priest. As a priest-prophet called to minister to the exiles (separated from the temple of the Lord with its symbolism, sacrifices, priestly ministrations and worship rituals), his message had much to do with the temple (see especially chs. 8–11; 40–48) and its ceremonies.
Ezekiel was obviously a man of broad knowledge, not only of his own national traditions but also of international affairs and history. His acquaintance with general matters of culture, from shipbuilding to literature, is equally amazing. He was gifted with a powerful intellect and was capable of grasping large issues and of dealing with them in grand and compelling images. His style is often detached, but in places it is passionate and earthy (see chs. 16; 23).
More than any other prophet (more even than Hosea and Jeremiah) he was directed to involve himself personally in the divine word by acting it out in prophetic symbolism.
Occasion, Purpose and Summary of Contents
Though Ezekiel lived with his fellow exiles in Babylon, his divine call forced him to suppress any natural expectations he may have had of an early return to an undamaged Jerusalem. For the first seven years of his ministry (593–586 b.c.) he faithfully relayed to his fellow Jews the stern, heart-rending, hope-crushing word of divine judgment: Because of all her sins, Jerusalem would fall (see chs. 1–24). The fact that Israel was God’s covenant people and that Jerusalem was the city of his temple would not bring their early release from exile or prevent Jerusalem from being destroyed (see Jer 29–30). The only hope the prophet was authorized to extend to his hearers was that of living at peace with themselves and with God during their exile.
After being informed by the Lord that Jerusalem was under siege and would surely fall (24:1–14), Ezekiel was told that his beloved wife would soon die. The delight of his eyes would be taken from him just as the temple, the delight of Israel’s eyes, would be taken from her. He was not to mourn openly for his wife, as a sign to his people not to mourn openly for Jerusalem (24:15–27). He was then directed to pronounce a series of judgments on the seven nations of Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon and Egypt (chs. 25–32). The day of God’s wrath was soon to come, but not on Israel alone.
Once news was received that Jerusalem had fallen, Ezekiel’s message turned to the Lord’s consoling word of hope for his people—they would experience revival, restoration and a glorious future as the redeemed and perfected kingdom of God in the world (chs. 33–48).
Since the book of Ezekiel contains more dates (see chart, p. 1661) than any other OT prophetic book, its prophecies can be dated with considerable precision. In addition, modern scholarship, using archaeology (Babylonian annals on cuneiform tablets) and astronomy (accurate dating of eclipses referred to in ancient archives), provides precise modern calendar equivalents.
Twelve of the 13 dates specify times when Ezekiel received a divine message. The other is the date of the arrival of the messenger who reported the fall of Jerusalem (33:21).
Having received his call in July, 593 b.c., Ezekiel was active for 22 years, his last dated oracle being received in April, 571 (see 29:17). If the “thirtieth year” of 1:1 refers to Ezekiel’s age at the time of his call, his prophetic career exceeded a normal priestly term of service by two years (see Nu 4:3). His period of activity coincides with Jerusalem’s darkest hour, preceding the 586 destruction by 7 years and following it by 15.
The OT in general and the prophets in particular presuppose and teach God’s sovereignty over all creation, over people and nations and the course of history. And nowhere in the Bible are God’s initiative and control expressed more clearly and pervasively than in the book of Ezekiel. From the first chapter, which graphically describes the overwhelming invasion of the divine presence into Ezekiel’s world, to the last phrase of Ezekiel’s vision (“the Lord is there”) the book sounds and echoes God’s sovereignty.
This sovereign God resolved that he would be known and acknowledged. Approximately 65 occurrences of the clause (or variations) “Then they will know that I am the Lord” testify to that divine desire and intention (see note on 6:7). Overall, chs. 1–24 teach that God will be revealed in the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple; chs. 25–32 teach that the nations likewise will know God through his judgments; and chs. 33–48 promise that God will be known through the restoration and spiritual renewal of Israel.
God’s total sovereignty is also evident in his mobility. He is not limited to the temple in Jerusalem. He can respond to his people’s sin by leaving his sanctuary in Israel, and he can graciously condescend to visit his exiled children in Babylon.
God is free to judge, and he is equally free to be gracious. His stern judgments on Israel ultimately reflect his grace. He allows the total dismemberment of Israel’s political and religious life so that her renewed life and his presence with her will be clearly seen as a gift from the Lord of the universe.
Furthermore, as God’s spokesman, Ezekiel’s “son of man” status (see note on 2:1) testifies to the sovereign God he was commissioned to serve.
The three major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and Zephaniah all have the same basic sequence of messages: (1) oracles against Israel, (2) oracles against the nations, (3) consolation for Israel. In no other book is this pattern clearer than in Ezekiel (see Outline).
Besides clarity of structure, the book of Ezekiel reveals symmetry. The vision of the desecrated temple fit for destruction (chs. 8–11) is balanced by the vision of the restored and purified temple (chs. 40–48). The God presented in agitated wrath (ch. 1) is also shown to be a God of comfort (“the Lord is there,” 48:35). Ezekiel’s call to be a watchman announcing divine judgment (ch. 3) is balanced by his call to be a watchman announcing the new age to follow (ch. 33). In one place (ch. 6) the mountains of Israel receive a prophetic rebuke, but in another (ch. 36) they are consoled.
Prophetic books are usually largely poetic, the prophets apparently having spoken in imaginative and rhythmic styles. Most of Ezekiel, however, is prose, perhaps due to his priestly background. His repetitions have an unforgettable hammering effect, and his priestly orientation is also reflected in a case-law type of sentence (compare 3:19, “If you do warn the wicked . . .,” with Ex 21:2, “If you buy a Hebrew servant . . .”).
The book contains four major visions (chs. 1–3; 8–11; 37:1–14; 40–48) and 12 symbolic acts (3:22–26; 4:1–3; 4:4–8; 4:9–11; 4:12–14; 5:1–3; 12:1–16; 12:17–20; 21:6–7; 21:18–24; 24:15–24; 37:15–28). Five messages are in the form of parables (chs. 15–17; 19; 23).
Other prophets deal largely with Israel’s idolatry, with her moral corruption in public and private affairs, and with her international intrigues and alliances on which she relied instead of the Lord. They announce God’s impending judgment on his rebellious nation but speak also of a future redemption: a new exodus, a new covenant, a restored Jerusalem, a revived Davidic dynasty, a worldwide recognition of the Lord and his Messiah and a paradise-like peace.
The contours and sweep of Ezekiel’s message are similar, but he focuses uniquely on Israel as the holy people of the holy temple, the holy city and the holy land. By defiling her worship, Israel had rendered herself unclean and had defiled temple, city and land. From such defilement God could only withdraw and judge his people with national destruction.
But God’s faithfulness to his covenant and his desire to save were so great that he would revive his people once more, shepherd them with compassion, cleanse them of all their defilement, reconstitute them as a perfect expression of his kingdom under the hand of “David” (34:23–24), overwhelm all the forces and powers arrayed against them, display his glory among the nations and restore the glory of his presence to the holy city.
Ezekiel powerfully depicts the grandeur and glory of God’s sovereign rule (see Themes) and his holiness, which he jealously safeguards. The book’s theological center is the unfolding of God’s saving purposes in the history of the world—from the time in which he must withdraw from the defilement of his covenant people to the culmination of his grand design of redemption. The message of Ezekiel, which is ultimately eschatological, anticipates—even demands—God’s future works in history proclaimed by the NT.
- Oracles of Judgment against Israel (chs. 1–24)
- Ezekiel’s Inaugural Vision (chs. 1–3)
- Overwhelming display of the glory of the Lord (ch. 1)
- Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet (2:1—3:15)
- Ezekiel’s task as watchman (3:16–21)
- Restraints on Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry (3:22–27)
- Symbolic Acts Portraying the Siege of Jerusalem (chs. 4–5)
- Ezekiel’s symbolic siege of Jerusalem (ch. 4)
- God’s razor of judgment at work (ch. 5)
- Oracles of Divine Judgment (chs. 6–7)
- Doom for the mountains of Israel (ch. 6)
- The end has come on the land (ch. 7)
- Corruption of the Temple and Its Consequences (chs. 8–11)
- Idolatry in the temple (ch. 8)
- Judgment on the idolaters (ch. 9)
- God’s glory departs from the temple (ch. 10)
- God’s sure judgment on Jerusalem (11:1–14)
- Those in exile to be restored (11:15–21)
- Conclusion of the vision (11:22–25)
- Ezekiel Symbolizes the Exile of Jerusalem (ch. 12)
- An exile’s baggage (12:1–16)
- Anxious eating (12:17–20)
- The nearness of judgment (12:21–28)
- Oracles concerning God’s Judgment on Judah (13:1—24:14)
- Condemnation of the false prophets (ch. 13)
- Condemnation of the idolaters (14:1–11)
- No mediators can turn back God’s judgment (14:12–23)
- Jerusalem likened to a piece of burnt vine (ch. 15)
- Jerusalem allegorized as an adulterous wife (ch. 16)
- Allegory of two eagles and a vine (ch. 17)
- The soul who sins will die (ch. 18)
- A lament over the fall of Jerusalem’s kings (ch. 19)
- Apostate Israel purged and renewed through judgment (20:1–44)
- Babylon, God’s sword of judgment (20:45—21:32)
- The sins for which Jerusalem is judged (ch. 22)
- Jerusalem and Samaria allegorized as adulterous sisters (ch. 23)
- Jerusalem cooked over the fire (24:1–14)
- The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife Symbolizes Jerusalem’s Fall (24:15–27)
- Ezekiel’s Inaugural Vision (chs. 1–3)
- Oracles of Judgment against the Nations (chs. 25–32)
- A Prophecy against Ammon (25:1–7)
- A Prophecy against Moab (25:8–11)
- A Prophecy against Edom (25:12–14)
- A Prophecy against Philistia (25:15–17)
- A Prophecy against Tyre (26:1—28:19)
- Tyre’s destruction announced (ch. 26)
- A lament over Tyre (ch. 27)
- A prophecy against the king of Tyre (28:1–19)
- A Prophecy against Sidon (28:20–24)
(For Israel, a restoration, 28:25–26)
- A Prophecy against Egypt (chs. 29–32)
- Egypt a doomed monster (29:1–16)
- Egypt a payment to Nebuchadnezzar (29:17–21)
- Laments over Egypt (30:1–19)
- The pharaoh’s arms are broken (30:20–26)
- The pharaoh a felled Lebanon cedar (ch. 31)
- Lament over the pharaoh (32:1–16)
- The pharaoh consigned to the realm of the dead (32:17–32)
- Oracles of Consolation for Israel (chs. 33–48)
- Renewal of Ezekiel’s Call as Watchman (33:1–20)
- Jerusalem’s Fall Reported and Its Remnant Condemned (33:21–33)
- The Lord to Be Israel’s Shepherd (ch. 34)
- A Prophecy against Edom (ch. 35)
- Israel’s Complete Restoration Announced (ch. 36)
- Israel’s Dry Bones Revived and Unity Restored (ch. 37)
- Israel’s dry bones restored to life (37:1–14)
- Again one nation under one King (37:15–28)
- The Great Battle of the Ages (chs. 38–39)
- The New Order for Purified Israel (chs. 40–48)
- The temple area restored (40:1–47)
- The new temple (40:48—42:20)
- God’s glory returns to the temple (43:1–12)
- Restoration of the great altar (43:13–27)
- Restoration of the priesthood (ch. 44)
- Restoration of the theocratic order (chs. 45–46)
- The river of life from the temple (47:1–12)
- The boundaries of the land (47:13–23)
- The distribution of the land (48:1–29)
- The twelve gates of the new city (48:30–35)
© Zondervan. From the Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Used with Permission.
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