For many Israelites exile began not in 586 BCE but in 597 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar exiled King Jehoiachin, much of the nobility and craftsmen, and some of the priests to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-16). Many exiles maintained hope of returning to Judah in victory in the near future. While the priest Jeremiah prophesied condemnation for Jerusalem and Judah in Jerusalem, YHWH called the exiled priest Ezekiel to pronounce the same warnings to those already in exile.
Ezekiel is the twenty-sixth book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, it is part of the Nevi’im, the “Prophets,” and considered the third and final of the “major prophets.” The book of Ezekiel is the compilation of both the signs and the word of YHWH to the Judahite exiles through Ezekiel between 593 and 571 BCE, both before, during, and after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Through word and sign Ezekiel declares the condemnation of Jerusalem and Judah to the already exiled Israelites until all has come to pass; he then has messages of comfort and hope for restoration for Israel.
The book of Ezekiel begins with a vision of God and Ezekiel’s calling (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27). Ezekiel sees the cherubim, the four living creatures, along with the chariot and throne of YHWH, and hears the voice of God calling him to declare His word to Israel even though they will not hear (Ezekiel 1:1-2:7). Ezekiel is to eat a scroll, indicating how he is to go and speak God’s Word to Israel; God appoints Ezekiel as a watchman for Israel, responsible for declaring God’s judgment upon them (Ezekiel 2:8-3:27).
Ezekiel 4:1-24:27 features the signs and word of YHWH through Ezekiel regarding the impending destruction of Jerusalem. YHWH commands Ezekiel to perform a series of signs to represent the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment of its inhabitants for their sins: a model of city and siege, lying down to represent the time of siege, cutting off hair, prophesying against the mounts of Israel, and clapping hands and stomping feet regarding the abominations of Israel (Ezekiel 4:1-6:14). Ezekiel then pronounces doom and the end on Jerusalem (Ezekiel 7:1-27). Ezekiel is then transported in visions to Jerusalem to be shown the city’s condition: pagan celebrations in the Temple, divine judgment on idolaters, the departure of the glory of YHWH from the Temple, judgment on the princes, yet also the hope of restoration and a new heart and spirit for Israel (Ezekiel 8:1-11:25). Further signs to Israel are commanded: going in and out with an exile’s baggage, eating food with fear, all because of what YHWH will do against Judah (Ezekiel 12:1-28). Ezekiel then is given specific messages of condemnation against false prophets and idolatrous elders (Ezekiel 13:1-14:11). Ezekiel then speaks again of Jerusalem and by extension its people, warning that even some righteous can no longer save the city, speaking of Jerusalem as a useless vine, and then speaks of Jerusalem in terms of an abandoned child turned bride who committed adultery and whoredom; thus judgment will come but a day of covenant renewal will take place afterward (Ezekiel 14:12-16:63). Through riddles Ezekiel makes clear that Judah has no ground for hope in rebelling against Babylon (Ezekiel 17:1-24). Ezekiel also makes clear that the soul that sins will die; parents and children are not responsible for each other’s sins (Ezekiel 18:1-32). God tells Ezekiel to lament over the fate of the princes of Israel (Ezekiel 19:1-14). Ezekiel speaks of the idolatrous history of Israel, justifying the impending doom of Judah, yet extends hope for future restoration for the sake of YHWH’s name (Ezekiel 20:1-48). YHWH has drawn His sword; Ezekiel must groan and clap his hands, marking the way of Babylon with the sword; Ammon will be judged (Ezekiel 21:1-32). Ezekiel pronounces YHWH’s judgment on Israel for her bloodshed and extortion; the story of Israel and Judah are told in terms of sisters Oholah and Oholibah, their adultery, and its consequences (Ezekiel 22:1-23:49). In Ezekiel 24:1-14 the siege of Jerusalem has begun; Ezekiel’s wife dies but he is not to mourn for her as a sign for the terrors to come (Ezekiel 24:15-26).
Between the time of the siege and the declaration of the final destruction of Jerusalem the book of Ezekiel proclaims YHWH’s judgment upon the nations: Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philistia (Ezekiel 25:1-17), Tyre and its princes with lament (Ezekiel 26:1-28:23), hope for ingathering of Israel (Ezekiel 28:24-26), and Egypt and Pharaoh with lament (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32).
The rest of the book of Ezekiel provides YHWH’s messages through Ezekiel in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 33:1-48:35). News comes that Jerusalem has been destroyed; Ezekiel can again speak; the shepherds of Israel are condemned (Ezekiel 33:1-34:24). YHWH then begins to extend hope for Israel: a covenant of peace; condemnation of Edom; future restoration of the exiles to the mountains of Israel; YHWH is concerned for His name, its holiness, refused to have it profaned any longer, but will restore Israel again (Ezekiel 34:25-36:38). The restoration of Israel is promised in the vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-28). Ezekiel then prophesies against Gog and Magog, northern invaders who cannot stand against God’s people (Ezekiel 38:1-39:29). The book of Ezekiel ends with a view of the restoration of God’s people in idealized terms: an ideal Temple filled with the glory of YHWH, an ideal Davidic prince, ideal sacrifices and feasts, and idealized land divisions (Ezekiel 40:1-48:35).
Ezekiel tells the story well. Israel profaned the name of God through idolatry, violence, and oppression; God brought His judgment against them because of it. Yet God loves His people and will act to restore them and to establish an ideal Kingdom for His holy name. Let us praise God for such a Kingdom as provided through His Son Jesus, and strive to reflect His holiness!
Ethan R. Longhenry