12.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)
Ezekiel provides precise information regarding the dates of his prophetic call and work. According to Ezekiel 33:21, he was deported to Babylon during the second exile in 597 B.C., since the twelfth year before Jerusalem was destroyed (586 B.C.) was the date of the second exile. Second Kings 24:11-16 indicates that King Jehoiachin was also taken into captivity in 597. Ezekiel records the year of his prophetic call in 1:2 as the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity (593). The last recorded date in the book (29:17) is the twenty-seventh year of captivity (571), which would mark the length of Ezekiel’s ministry at least 22 years. In other words, the prophet ministered from 593 to at least 571 B.C. To be even more specific regarding the dating question, Dillard and Longman write,
Our chronology for the latter half of the first millennium B.C. is quite firm due to chronological records both from the Bible and from extrabiblical documents in a variety of languages from the ancient Near East. Astronomical observations recorded by ancient scribes enable us to correlate the ancient and modern calendars with a high degree of confidence.
Thus when Ezekiel records the date of his calling in the superscription, we may calculate the Julian calendar date as July 31, 593 B.C. Similarly, the last date mentioned in the book (29:17) may be converted to April 26, 571 B.C. Finally, note that Ezekiel records eleven more dates in his book, nine of which can be calculated to the day.
12.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)
Until he was twenty-five years old when he was exiled to Babylon, Ezekiel lived in Judah. His formative years were shaped by the tumultuous period leading up to his nation’s destruction and tri-exilic experience. Dillard and Longman list the events that probably influenced his early life.
Ezekiel was born just a year or so before the law book was discovered in the temple as part of Josiah’s reforms (621 B.C. – II Kings 22-23), and as the son of a priest he no doubt witnessed the consequences of Josiah’s piety in the royal support of the temple and the worship of Yahweh in Judah. The prophet would have been a boy through the period when Assyria’s power continued to decline. He no doubt hoped as a young man that the failing fortunes of Assyria might mean freedom from foreign domination for Judah. He would have known about the ominous recrudescence of Babylon and Egypt as they too escaped the yoke of Assyria. When he [was] barely a teenager, he would have heard the news of Josiah’s death at Megiddo while seeking to block the advance of Pharaoh Neco (609 B.C. – II Kings 23:29; II Chr. 35:20-25). Ezekiel had probably heard the preaching of Jeremiah and may have known the ministries of Habakkuk and Zephaniah. He witnessed the period of political instability and vacillation following Josiah’s death when Judah’s fortunes shifted with her allegiance to Egypt and then to Babylon in turn.
12.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)
During his exilic years in Babylon (593-571 B.C.), Ezekiel lived with his wife and prophesied in Tel Abib, located on the canal of the Kebar River. There he countered a host of false prophets who soothed the people’s ears with promises of a speedy return to the land. His preaching served as a warning to the exilic community not to listen to the “foxes in the desert” (13:4), and instead to prepare for certain judgment to come on Judah in the form of complete destruction of the city and temple, and finally complete exile for those still in the land. It was not until God’s judgment finally fell on Judah in 586 B.C. that Ezekiel’s message changed from that of judgment to the glorious future restoration of God’s once-loved but now rejected people.
Van Gemeren describes Ezekiel as a Priest-Prophet-Watchman. He was the son of Buzi the priest and would have begun his priestly function at age thirty – the same year he was divinely called to ministry. In his role as a priest, Ezekiel was responsible for “teaching and applying the message of guilt and condemnation through word and symbolic acts.” As a prophet, Ezekiel was the Lord’s mouthpiece during the exilic period to deliver oracles of lamentation, mourning, and woe (2:8-10). Ezekiel also served as a watchman over Israel (3:17-21). As a watchman, the Lord held him personally responsible to forewarn the people of was God would soon do to the holy city Jerusalem, explain their responsibility in light of the ensuing covenant curses, and call them to repentance. In summary, “Ezekiel was responsible to the people as God’s priest-prophet-watchman. But once he had forewarned them, they became individually responsible for their actions.”
The prophet is also depicted as the Suffering Servant of God through the employment of dramatic symbolism. These divinely mandated symbolic actions were intended to merge the message and life experiences of the prophet to vivify the effect on his audience and communicate a vicarious aspect of his suffering with his countrymen remaining in Judah. For example, Ezekiel portrayed the Siege of Jerusalem by lying on his side in his house for 390 days while being rope-bound and fed ceremonially unclean food (Ezek. 4). Other symbolic actions are recorded in 5:1-4 (a word against Jerusalem), 3:26 and 24:27 (act mute except for declaring prophecy), and 24:15-18 (no public mourning of his wife’s death). These symbolic actions must have given Ezekiel an existential empathy for his people’s suffering, and also probably deeply affected his fellow exiles.
Even if they refused to listen to his words, they could not but wonder why Ezekiel was willing to suffer personally for the word of God…No one could accuse Ezekiel of rejoicing in the fate of Judah and Jerusalem, because the prophet identified with the adversity of his people. He, too, experienced God’s abandonment of Judah and Jerusalem (5:8).
12.4 The Book (abbreviated outline and brief summary)
I. Judgment on Judah and Jerusalem (1:1-24:27)
A. Ezekiel’s First Set of Visions, Commission, Symbolic Acts and Related Speeches (1:1-7:27)
1. Vision and Commission (1:1-3:27)
2. Symbolic Acts (4:1-5:4)
3. Related Speeches (5:5-7:27)
B. Ezekiel’s Second Set of Visions, Commission, Symbolic Acts and Related Speeches (8:1-24:27)
1. Visions and Commission (8:1-11:25)
2. Symbolic Acts (12:1-20)
3. Related Speeches (12:21-24:27)
II. Oracles Against the Nations (25:1-32:32)
A. Ammon (25:1-7)
B. Moab (25:8-11)
C. Edom (25:12-14)
D. Philistia (25:15-17)
E. Phoenicia (26:1-28:26)
F. Egypt (29:1-32:32)
III. Future Blessings for Judah and Jerusalem (33:1-48:35)
A. Judah’s Fall and Restoration (33:1-39:29)
1. Ezekiel Recommissioned as a Watchman (33:1-20)
2. Judah’s Fall and Two Groups of Israelites (33:21-33)
3. Shepherds of the Past and Future (34:1-31)
4. Edom’s Condemnation (35:1-15)
5. A Prophecy to the Mountains of Israel (36:1-38)
6. The Resurrection of Dry Bones (37:1-14)
7. Joining of Two Sticks (37:15-28)
8. Victory in the Future Battle (38:1-39:29)
B. A Vision of Restored Jerusalem (40:1-48:35)
1. Visionary Transport to Jerusalem (40:1-4)
2. The Temple Structures (40:5-42:20)
3. Return of God’s Glory (43:1-27)
4. The Sacred Personnel (44:1-46:24)
5. The River, the Land and the City (47:1-48:35)
Like Isaiah and Jeremiah before him, Ezekiel received a commissioning vision that provides the key to interpreting his book’s thematic elements. Ezekiel’s message to the people was two-fold – foretelling the great and final exile to come upon those left in Judah, and the glorious restoration of God’s people that would follow their punishment. This message of exile and restoration is graphically communicated with an image of the theophanic Glory-Spirit abandoning and eventually returning to the Lord’s house. Robertson explains this withdraw of God’s Spirit as it appears in Ezekiel’s commissioning vision.
Distinctive above all other elements in this vision is the presence of the wheels. In the original imagery of the throne of God in the sanctuary of Israel, the cherubim were present (Exod. 25:17-22). But unique to this vision is the prominence given to the wheels, wheels within wheels (Ezek. 1:15-21). Wheels covered with eyes, wheels whirling, wheels in which abide the spirit of the living creatures, wheels moving like lightning in any direction, but always in perfect harmony with the living creatures…The wheels represent a God who cannot be contained conveniently in a single place. This mobile sanctuary, this divine chariot-throne cannot be restrained so that it remains forever in Jerusalem. God’s sovereignty can touch down on earth just as easily in Babylon as it can at Jerusalem. If the vision of God’s glory as revealed to Ezekiel teaches anything, it communicates the truth that the presumption that God’s presence can be restricted to one place must be forever abandoned.
Just as dramatically as the Lord’s glory-cloud presence indwelt the Solomonic temple at its dedication (I Kgs. 8:1-13), the Spirit of God would soon depart. This single divine act would consummate the prophetic message that Israel was no longer Yahweh’s protected, favored people. Ezekiel records the fulfillment of this vision of departure in the protracted narrative of chapters 9-11.
But God showed mercy. He remembered his covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Just as the Lord promised Abraham that his “shield and exceedingly great reward” would be God himself (Gen 15:1), this same God provided the exiles a glimmer of hope with reassurance that despite the destruction and abandonment of the earthly sanctuary in Jerusalem, the Lord would be the people’s sanctuary wherever they were (Ezek. 11:16). Moreover, immediately preceding the finalization of the Spirit’s temple-departure process, the promise comes that God will someday restore Israel to the land and once-and-for-all solve the problem of man’s sinful, rebellious heart. “…I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. And they will go there, and they will take away all its detestable things and all its abominations from there. Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statues and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God” (Ezek. 11:17-20).
Ezekiel continued to preach judgment to his audience of Babylonian captives until Jerusalem finally fell (Ezek. 33). From this point forward Ezekiel concentrated on the future blessings coming to Judah and Jerusalem.
Several themes dominate this final section of the book of Ezekiel. Most prominent are the following: the imagery of the divine Shepherd and the restored kingship of David; the revival of the dry bones; the reunification of the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel; the consummation of the divine covenants; the final victory over all opposing powers; and the plan for the final temple of God. The unifying factor of all these themes is the expectation of restoration that now must follow the experience of exile.
139. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 315.
140. Ibid. See Table 15, Chronological Notes in Ezekiel.
141. Ibid., pp. 314-15.
142. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, p. 323.
143. Ibid., p. 324.
145. Ibid., p. 325.
146. See “Ezekiel,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, pp. 1306-07 for a more in-depth outline.
147. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, pp. 294-95.
148. Ibid., p. 300.