Notes on Ezekiel

Ezekiel is a younger contemporary, if that’s not an oxymoron, of Jeremiah; Ezekiel was preaching to Babylonian Jews while Jeremiah was preaching to Jerusalem Jews (prior to its fall).   Presumably some parts of the book were written — or at least delivered orally — before, and some after, the fall of Jerusalem:  That is, it would make no sense to prophesy Jerusalem’s fall afterwards, nor to write too definitely about what comes next — that is, after the fall — beforehand.

Ezekiel was the son of a Zadokite priest.  What’s that, you ask?  Well, according to my NIV study Bible (44:15 note), “Zadok supported God’s choice of Solomon to succeed David, and therefore was appointed high priest during his reign …. Zadok’s descendants were considered the true priestly line throughout the time between the Old and New Testaments.” 

The book is a mixture of prose and verse.  My NIV study Bible divides the book into three parts:  (1) “Messages of Doom” (chapters 1-24); (2) “Messages against Foreign Nations” (chapters 25-32); and “Messages of Hope” (chapters 33-48), and this division seems to be used by other commentators.  It seems fair, so I’ll divide my notes up that way, too.

Two other introductory notes:  First, my NIV study Bible also says (at 6:14) that the phrase “then they will know that I am the Lord” (or a variation of it) occurs 65 times in Ezekiel.  Second, Ezekiel is referred to throughout the book as “son of man.”  What do we make of the fact that this is also Jesus’ favorite self-description — that he saw Himself as a prophet (which would not exclude Him seeing Himself as Son of God, too), or just an affirmation of His humanity, using an already extant Scriptural term in doing so?

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(1) “Messages of Doom” (chapters 1-24):

3:16-21 suggests that we have a God-ordered obligation to try to save sinners.

Much prophecy is about nations, but 11:1 and 11:13 contains visions about specific individuals.

Ezekiel condemns “violence” (12:19; see also 24:6-7).  This seems surprising, but I suppose it shouldn’t be:  For all the violence in the Old Testament, it is at best a necessary evil and often just plain evil.  

There are lists of specific sins:  Chapter 16 is anti-adultery; other sins are listed in 16:49-50.  Sins are also listed in 18:5-17, and 20:13 affirms that the Sabbath must be kept.  And chapter 22 has lot on the sins being punished, with verse 29 there including the mistreatment of the poor and alien (re the latter, see also 47:22-23).

Chapter 23 is definitely R-rated, especially verse 20.

It’s eyebrow-raising to forbid mourning a spouse (24:15-27).

By the way, God must love us to send prophets and warnings:  What other reason is there for His doing so?  Cf. Psalm 19’s exultation at God’s statutes:  He must love us to tell us how to behave.

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(2) “Messages against Foreign Nations” (chapters 25-32):

The basic lesson here is that bad things happen to Gentile nations, too.

My NIV study Bible warns that sometimes it can be tricky to tell when Ezekiel is talking about an evil king and when he’s talking about Satan himself (28:12-19 note).  It has interesting speculation on why Ezekiel takes it rather easy on Babylon (32:32 note), saying perhaps “(1) God wanted to foster a spirit of cooperation between the exiles and Babylon in order to preserve his people; (2) God was still using Babylon to refine his own people; (3) God wanted to use Daniel, a powerful official in Babylon, to draw the Babylonians to him.”

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“Messages of Hope” (chapters 33-48):

We learn in 33:12-16 that it is never too late to gain, or lose, God’s favor.  My NIV study Bible likewise calls 33:10-12 “an important turning point in this book,” with God now reassuring the Jews that he will forgive them if they repent.

What, in chapter 34, prompts God to shift gears, and say He’ll be good to His sheep, and judge them individually?  (Likewise, He shifts then to punishing the bad nations to whom He had delivered the Jews.)  My NIV study Bible, by the way, sees (18:1 ff note) in the book a lesson about individual, versus collective or ancestral, responsibility.  But this doesn’t mean that sometimes the righteous and the wicked won’t be cut down together (21:3-4).

The description of the “skeleton army” at 37:1-10 is vivid.

Verses 39:18-19 has an interesting twist, describing a feast of men for animals.

A precise date is given in 40:1.

Chapters 40-42 describe a new temple, chapters 43-44 the rules for the new temple and its priests, and chapters 45-46 the instructions for allocation of land and sacrifices, with chapters 47-48 concluding the division of land in, I must say, a rather undramatic finish.  Of course, the lack of drama attests to the text being written as something other than literature — say, God’s word?

Thus, Chapters 40-48 “tell how the temple is the focal point of everything, showing that the ideal relationship with God is when all of life centers on him” (NIV study Bible, 40:1 ff note #2); see also note at 45:1-7, “The land allowed to the temple was in the center of the nation.  God is central to life.  He must be our first priority.”  Ands so (concluding note, at 48:35):

The Book of Ezekiel begins by describing the holiness of God that Israel had despised and ignored. As a result, God’s presence departed from the temple, the city, and the people. The book ends with a detailed vision of the new temple, the new city, and the new people — all demonstrating God’s holiness. The pressures of everyday life may persuade us to focus on the here and now and thus forget God. That is why worship is so important; it takes our eyes off our current worries, gives us a glimpse of God’s holiness, and allows us to look toward His future Kingdom. God’s presence makes everything glorious, and worship brings us into His presence.

My NIV study Bible has this helpful note at the beginning of chapter 40:

The building of the temple envisioned a time of complete restoration to the exiles, a time when God would return to his people.  The temple was built in 520-515 B.C. (see Ezra 5-6), but fell short of Ezekiel’s plan (Haggai 2:3; Zechariah 4:10). This vision of the temple has been interpreted in four main ways: (1) It is the temple that Zerubbabel should have built in 520-515 B.C. and is the actual blueprint Ezekiel intended.  But due to disobedience (43:2-10), it was never followed. (2) This is a literal temple to be rebuilt during the millennial reign of Christ. (3) This temple is symbolic of the true worship of God by the Christian church right now. (4) This temple is symbolic of the future and eternal reign of God when his presence and blessing fill the earth.

Whether the temple is literal or symbolic, it seems clear that this is a vision of God’s final perfect kingdom. This gave hope to the people of Ezekiel’s time who had just seen their nation and its temple destroyed with no hope of rebuilding it in the near future. The details given in this vision gave the people even more hope than what Ezekiel saw had come from God and would surely happen in the future.

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I will not get into the nitty-gritty of interpreting Ezekiel’s visions, but I liked this in my NIV study Bible (1:5 note):

Each of the four living creatures had four faces, symbolizing God’s perfect nature. Some believe that the lion represented strength; the ox, diligent service; the man,intelligence; and the eagle, divinity. Others see these as the most majestic of God’screatures and say that they therefore represented God’s whole creation. The early churchfathers saw a connection between these beings and the four Gospels: the lion with Matthew, presenting Christ as the Lion of Judah; the ox with Mark, portraying Christ as the Servant; the man with Luke, portraying Christ as the perfect human; the eagle with John, portrayingChrist as the Son of God, exalted and divine. The vision of John in Revelation 4 parallels Ezekiel’s vision.

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The eventual dissolution of the Jew-Gentile boundary in the New Testament is foretold by the Old Testament’s accounts of God’s repeated willingness to punish Jews (who have turned from Him) by delivering victory over them to Gentiles (at least temporarily).  And, in Jonah, He’s explicitly willing to spare Gentiles who turn to Him.  Ultimately, it’s about faithfulness to God, not being chosen by Him.

Why are God’s messages so often presented as allegories, even if they are obvious or immediately explained?   Sometimes, as when a Jew explains a Gentile’s dream (Joseph and Daniel), the point is to show that those with faith in God are given things that others aren’t.  In all events, poetry loves metaphors, which are intrinsically appealing (Walker Percy writes of the human mind’s pleasure in “casting about” for a given metaphor’s meaning).  And perhaps what we have to expend some effort figuring out is more likely to be remembered and appreciated.

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I have to admit that there is much in Ezekiel that is less rewarding to me to read than other Scripture.  After all, the basic idea is that God warns the Jews not to do what He has already explained to them they should not do, the warning fails, bad things happen, but the Jews are left with the hope that they will be given another opportunity.  I don’t think we learn much about what God wants that we didn’t already know; and as for being told that bad things happen, or can happen, to the disobedient — well, we already knew that, too, at least since Genesis (Cain’s fate, the Flood, the tower of Babel, etc.).  As for the hope that we will be given another opportunity, perhaps indeed that was a new and welcome message to the Jews in exile; it’s not news to Christians in 2018, though.

It seems to me that the use of a particular book or verse in Scripture might change over time.  When Ezekiel issued his warnings to the Jews, it had a value to them then that is different than what it is to us now, namely averting a future disaster.  The importance of Ezekiel’s message to the Jews then was not diminished by the fact that it was not telling the Jews anything new about how they ought to behave; as Dr. Johnson said, people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.  Conversely, the value to us now of seeing a prophecy come true (see next paragraph) would necessarily not have been available to the Jews at the time the prophecy was delivered.

The most important things we might learn from reading about fulfilled prophecy/predictions are that, as I wrote in my Notes on Daniel:   “First, if the future can be accurately foretold, it shows that someone — namely God — is in control and must have a lot of power and intelligence, to understate grossly.  Second, the presence in the Bible of accurate prophecy is a powerful apologetic tool, as Blaise Pascal emphasized in his Pensees.”

One last thing:  Is it inappropriate to say you have less favorite books in the Bible?  It’s all God’s word, after all, and who are we to rank those words?  Well, certainly we should not disparage any book, and we should respect every book.  But if we say we have favorite verses and favorite books, as we commonly do, then it follows that there will be less favorite verses and books, too.