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Introduction to the Book of Ezekiel

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General Info

The book of Ezekiel is named for its author and main character, the priest who ministered in Judah and Babylon during the early sixth century BC.  His name means “God strengthens”.  The book’s oracles are arranged in both logical and chronological order.  Over a dozen oracles are also “dated” with respect to other events, more than any other book.  Ezekiel called out the Israelites for their disobedience, then later offered messages of hope and restoration during the exile.  He also offered prophecies of judgment against other nations.

In the Protestant Canon, Ezekiel is placed in the “Major Prophets” section of the Old Testament along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Daniel.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, Ezekiel, along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and the twelve minor prophets, are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

The first twenty four chapters describe the visions and events leading up to the siege of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem.  The book begins with details of Ezekiel’s call to ministry, in which his role as a prophet is compared to the work of a “watchman” who would stand on the city wall and warn the people of an approaching enemy army (ch 1-3).  His first actions are to act out four “signs” to illustrate the coming siege against Jerusalem (ch 4-5) and to deliver oral predictions of the same (ch 6-7).  In the pivotal chapters 8-11, we then see the glory of God departing from the Temple due to the people’s idolatrous worship.  With His divine protection  thus removed from the city, the following chapters (12-24) contain various visions, oracles, parables, and symbolic acts of judgment.  Most of these illustrations are given in allegorical language, portraying Israel as a fruitless vine, an adulterous wife, adulterous sisters, a charred vine, among other descriptions.

In chapters 25-32, Ezekiel delivers a series of oracles of judgment and lament over several foreign nations such as Moab, Edom, Tyre, and Egypt.  This is common among the major prophets (see Isaiah 13-23 and Jeremiah 46-51).  These oracles served as a warning to Israel to rely on God rather than foreign alliances since He was sovereign over all nations, not just Israel.

In the final section of the book (ch 33-48), Ezekiel’s delivers prophecies of hope for Israel’s future revival, restoration and blessings.  After revisiting the theme of Ezekiel as Israel’s watchman, and contrasting the false shepherds of men with God as the true Shepherd (ch 33-34), we come to the two key chapters (36-37) on the nation’s restoration.  Here, we find the blessings for Israel and the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones as an illustration of Israel’s resurrection.  Chapters 38-39 then records the vision of the end times invasion of Gog and Magog after Israel is back in their homeland.  In this battle, God himself will destroy the invaders.

It is widely believed that the visions recorded in chapters 40-48 refer to conditions and events that will take place during the millennium reign of Christ.  We find descriptions of the future temple along with the restored priesthood and worship (ch 40-46), before the book ends with visions of the river of living water flowing from the temple and new boundaries of the land (ch 47-48).  The most important aspect of this “millennial” vision is the promise that the glory of the Lord will return to His temple to re-establish His throne among His people who will be cleansed of their sins (43:1-12), and the name of the city (Jerusalem) from that day forward will be “the Lord is there” (48:35).

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Key Verses

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. (1:1)

He [God] said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day.  The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.  Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says’.  And whether they listen or fail to listen--for they are a rebellious house--they will know that a prophet has been among them”. (2:3-5)

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.  Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, ’Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion.  Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark.  Begin at my sanctuary.”  So they began with the elders who were in front of the temple. (9:3-6)

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: 'The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’?  As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel.  For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son--both alike belong to me.  The soul who sins is the one who will die.” (18:1-4)

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.  You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl.  Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared.  You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you.  You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones.  You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.  Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned.  So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones.  Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.  So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings.  By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries.  So I made a fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching.  All the nations who knew you are appalled at you; you have come to a horrible end and will be no more.'” (28:11-19)

Say to them, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (33:11)

"Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.  I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them.  Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes...  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (36:22-23,26-28)

Key Chapter: 36 & 37 - A new heart and new Spirit for the Israeli people;  The vision of a Valley of Dry Bones coming to life, and the re-unification of Israel.

“Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name.  They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward me when they lived in safety in their land with no one to make them afraid.  When I have brought them back from the nations and have gathered them from the countries of their enemies, I will show myself holy through them in the sight of many nations.  Then they will know that I am the LORD their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind.  I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign LORD.” (39:25-29)

Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east.  His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory.  The vision I saw was like the vision I had seen when he came to destroy the city and like the visions I had seen by the Kebar River, and I fell facedown.  The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east.  Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. (43:1-5)

The man brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east).  The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar.  He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was flowing from the south side. As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep.  He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep.  He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist.  He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in--a river that no one could cross.  He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”  Then he led me back to the bank of the river.  When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river.  He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea.  When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh.  Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows.  There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.” (47:1-9)

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Author and Date

The book offers much internal evidence that the author is Ezekiel, a priest from the line of Zadok.  Much of the book is written in first person, and the structural and literary unity affirms that it was written by a single author; although like his contemporary Jeremiah, Ezekiel may have used a scribe for some portions.  Because of the precise dating and description of the events, Ezekiel probably recorded each vision and prophecy as it occurred (~573-571 BC), or shortly thereafter.  Therefore, the book was likely completed about 570 BC.

Ezekiel’s initial audience was the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  By the time of Ezekiel’s first vision, approximately twelve years had elapsed from the time of the first wave of exiles, and five years had elapsed since the second wave that included Ezekiel.  Thus, the people had likely begun to establish themselves in the foreign land.  A third wave and final wave of exiles would arrive about seven years later, so these Israelites would hear Ezekiel’s proclamation of judgments on foreign nations, and his prophecies of hope for the Jewish people’s future return to their homeland.

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Historical Background and Timeline

The nation of Israel split into two nations, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah), following King Solomon’s death in 931 BC.  The Northern Kingdom persisted in continual apostasy throughout its history until being conquered and the people taken captive into Assyria in 722 BC.  The Assyrians invaded Judah about 20 years later, destroying dozens of towns and villages, but God decimated their armies when they threatened Jerusalem.  In 612 BC, the Babylonians captured the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and established themselves as the dominate power in the area.

In 605 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon defeated the last of the defiant Assyrians at Carchemish, then turned his attention to Judah, deporting much of the upper classes, including Daniel and his three friends (Dan 1:1-7) to Babylon.  In Nebuchadnezzar’s second invasion of Judah (597 BC), he exiled ten thousand people, including Ezekiel (2Kg 24:8-17).  In 593 BC, Ezekiel began ministering to his fellow Jewish exiles in Babylon.  A few years later (586 BC), the Babylonians ransacked Jerusalem, destroyed and burned the city and temple, and deported all of the remaining residents except for some of the poor who were left to work the fields.

The prophet’s prophecies recorded in the Book of Ezekiel occur just prior to, and during the first part of the Jew’s exile in Babylon (593 - 571 BC).

See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.

612 BC The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
605 BC Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles many of the Jews
~605-535 BC Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah
597 BC Second Invasion by the Babylonians - Ezekiel Exiled
~593-570 BC Ezekiel Prophet to Exiled Judah
593 BC Ezekiel's First Recorded Prophecy
586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Population, Judean King Jehoiachin Imprisoned
571 BC Ezekiel's Last Recorded Prophecy
561 BC Judean King Jehoiachin Released from Babylonian Prison
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
538 BC Cyrus Issues Decree allowing Exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Primary themes in Ezekiel are the holiness, sovereignty, and grace of God.  Related themes are God’s covenant with His chosen nation of Israel, and the resultant personal accountability of the people.  God had called and set apart His people to be a special witness to all the other nations.  The Mosaic Covenant was meant to serve as a guide for righteous living that would be result in both physical and spiritual blessings.  Unfortunately, the people chose to chase after the false gods and adopt many of the pagan lifestyles of the surrounding nations, so God commissioned Ezekiel (and many other prophets over the years) to call the people back to the  covenant relationship.

Ezekiel’s proclamations to the Jews of God’s judgment for their failure to obey the covenant is the primary historical purpose of the book.  These messages were given both to those who had already been exiled to Babylon and those who still remained in Jerusalem. However, most of those who remained refused to believe that their city would be conquered, and those already exiled expected to return shortly even though they had already begun adopting many of the pagan practices of Babylon.  Since the people failed to repent, God’s righteous judgment was to turn them away from these pagan customs and to compel them back to their true Lord so that He could restore them individually and nationally.

We see clearly in the books of the prophets that God clearly did not intend for judgment to be the final destiny for Israel, and Ezekiel is no exception (see chapters 36 and 37 in particular).  In spite of the “replacement theorists”, God promised that Israel and her people would be restored in the future, and all the nations would worship the Lord from Jerusalem (Is 66:19-24; Zech 14).  Thus, we see that the ultimate purpose and of the judgments was the restoration of God’s people so that they would be a witness to all nations of the one and only true and living God.

Theologically, Ezekiel has much to say about the nature and attributes of God, particularly those related to the warnings and promises of the covenant.  God is holy and expects the same from His people.  The Lord is a loving God, but He is also righteous and just, so he must punish disobedience and rebellion.  Yet, despite Israel’s faithlessness, God remained faithful and would later restore the people to their homeland, and eventually bestow on them the messianic blessings not only of the Abrahamic and the Davidic covenants, but the new covenant promised by Ezekiel's contemporary, the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34) as well.   Just as Ezekiel balanced the Lord’s dealings with Israel as a nation with the individual responsibility of the people, we can see parallels between God’s covenant dealings with Israel and the historic message of the Gospel

Ezekiel also has much to say about Eschatology, the discipline of theology that deals with the study of the end times or last days.  Chapters 40-48 contains the most exhaustive and detailed description of the worship system during the Millennium that can be found in the Bible.  There is disagreement among scholars as to whether these prophecies are to be interpreted literally, spiritually, or a mixture of both (more on this below).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The book of Ezekiel should be interpreted in the context of all the books of the writing prophets.  See Interpretation Hints and Challenges for the Major and Minor Prophets for additional info including links to supplementary articles on the prophets, the various literary genres utilized, and applications for new covenant Christians.

The book of Ezekiel contains highly emotive, and sometimes even wild and bizarre language.  The prophet compares Jerusalem and Samaria to adulterous sisters, and records several strange visions.  In addition, Ezekiel often illustrates his message by such symbolic acts as eating a scroll, lying on his side for months, and burning his hair in a fire after cutting it.  As a result of Ezekiel's actions and  communication style, some throughout history have questioned the mental state of the author.  In response, we first note that the author was inspired by the Holy Spirit (2Tim 3:16) so he recorded precisely the message that God wanted preserved.  We should also take the historical reality into consideration.  The last remaining city in Ezekiel's homeland was being destroyed while the apathetic people were blind to the source and causes of their situation.  Thus, the extraordinary language and action was likely an attempt by the prophet to awaken the people and to alert them to the seriousness of their condition and the severity of the coming judgment. 

Another interpretive difficulty is found in Ezekiel 28, where we find an oracle condemning the prince of Tyre and the city of Tyre by extension.  Positions differ among various scholars regarding the  identity of this prince of Tyre.  In particular, is the author speaking solely of a human ruler, or is he a symbol or personification of the city itself.  Some believe the oracle, particularly verses 11-19, refer to Satan himself (similarly to the oracle against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14).  Certainly the statements about being “in Eden”, being “the anointed cherub”, and “being perfect in your ways from the day you were created” would appear to point to Satan.  Yet, the author may have simply used this highly figurative language as a mockery of the prince for his claims of divinity, or to portray him as an agent of Satan.  In any case, he issues a clear warning that anyone who arrogantly exalts themselves against God will be ultimately destroyed. 

Finally, we come to the last nine chapters (40-48) of the book.  These final revisions are thought by many to be one of the most challenging sections in the OT, particularly the vision of the rebuilt temple.  There are two basic interpretations of this passage of Scripture, with several variations and corollaries associated with each.  Some interpret it literally while others hold to a spiritual meaning.  Within the literal camp, some find a historical implementation, but most see an eschatological (future) fulfillment, in particular, during Christ's millennial reign on earth (Rev 20). 

Of those contending for a spiritual meaning, some believe the vision is fulfilled by the NT church, while others contend it to be fulfilled by Christ, or by the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21.  In addition, some scholars hold to a hybrid view, that some parts of the vision are to be interpreted literally while taking other parts as spiritual.

Obviously, this issue is too complex to give it the level of detail it deserves here.  Therefore, we are currently working on a separate article and will post the link here when it is uploaded.

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Outline

The book of Ezekiel can be divided into two sections.  The first 32 chapters contain visions and oracles of judgment.  This first section can be further divided into God's judgment on the Jews (chapters 1-24) and God’s prophecies of judgment against the Gentile nations (chapters 25-32).  The remaining chapters (33-48) contain visions and prophecies of Israel’s restoration.

1:1 – 1:28 Vision of God’s Glory
2:1 - 3:27 Ezekiel's Call and Mission
4:1 - 5:17 Signs of Coming Judgment on Israel
6:1 - 7:27 Two Sermons of Coming Judgment on Israel
8:1 - 11:25 Visions of Judgment in the Temple; God’s Glory Departs from the Temple
12:1 - 12:28 Israel's Exile Symbolized
13:1 - 13:23 False Prophets Condemned
14:1 - 14:23 Idolaters Condemned
15:1 - 15:8 Jerusalem Portrayed as a Useless Vine
16:1 - 16:63 Jerusalem Portrayed as an Adulterous Bride
17:1 - 17:24 Parable of the Eagles and the Vine
18:1 - 18:32 Personal Responsibility for One’s own Sin
19:1 - 19:14 Lament for Israel's Princes
20:1 - 20:49 Lessons for Israel from History
21:1 - 21:32 Babylon as God's Instrument of Judgment against Israel
22:1 - 22:31 Messages of Judgment against Jerusalem
23:1 - 23:49 Parable of the Adulterous Sisters
24:1 - 24:14 Parable of the Boiling Pot
24:15 - 24:27 Death of Ezekiel’s Wife
25:1 - 25:17 Judgment against Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philista
26:1 - 28:19 Four Oracles against Tyre
28:20 - 28:26 Prophecy of Judgment against Sidon
29:1 - 32:32 Prophecies of Judgment against Egypt; Lament for Pharaoh
33:1 - 33:33 Ezekiel Appointed Watchman over Israel
34:1 - 34:31 True (God) and False Shepherds of Israel
35:1 - 35:15 Prophecy of Destruction against Edom
36:1 - 36:38 Prophecy of Blessing for Israel
37:1 - 37:28 Resurrection and Re-unification of Israel Symbolized by Dry Bones and Re-Joined Sticks
38:1 - 39:29 Prophecy of God Protecting Israel during Invasion by Gog
40:1 - 42:20 Visions of God’s New Temple
43:1 - 46:24 Visions of True Worship; God's Glory Returns to the Temple
47:1 - 47:12 Living Water Flows from the Temple
47:13 - 48:35 Visions of Israel’s New Boundaries and Gates of the City (the New Jerusalem)

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