Back to the Majors
Lamentations gave us a short break from the major (or longer) prophetic books. But that break is over now, and we now move back to the major prophetic books with Ezekiel.
In one sense, Ezekiel is similar to Isaiah and Jeremiah, the prophetic books which came before it. Ezekiel is a prophet, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. He receives and delivers messages from God, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. His ministry revolves around the Babylonian Exile, God’s allowing the Babylonian Empire to destroy Jerusalem and take the Israelite people out of Israel.
A New Situation
But Ezekiel is also going to be different from Isaiah and Jeremiah in other ways. Some of those differences are in the prophet’s situation. Ezekiel is prophesying from a much different situation than Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah prophesied from Israel centuries before the Babylonian Exile and Jeremiah prophesied from Jerusalem during the Babylonian Exile.
However, Ezekiel prophesies from Babylon itself, having been taken there during the second Babylonian attack in 598 BC. (The Babylonian invasion was not the result of just one attack but three; the first was in 605 BC, the second in 598, and the final one in which Jerusalem was destroyed was 586). In other words, he is on the other side of the Exile from Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Not a Poet
There are a couple other differences between these books as well. One is that Ezekiel does not use as much poetry as the other prophets. You can see this just by looking at the text itself. Whereas Isaiah’s text is almost all centered on the page to distinguish it as poetry, Ezekiel’s text is almost all justified left to show that it is prose.
Another is that Ezekiel tends to repeat himself and to give specific dates for the events he records. We don’t find either of these qualities in the pre-exile prophets, but we do find them in the post-exile prophets and history book (Ezra, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, and Zechariah). I do not know why the Hebrew authors who experienced the Exile started using prose and dating their writings and repeating themselves like this. I can only imagine it was a side-effect of mingling with the Babylonians.
Beyond those differences, though, there are differences in content. Isaiah was almost entirely the prophet’s sermons. Isaiah tells three stories about King Hezekiah in the middle of his book, but other than that, it is all sermon. Jeremiah was a mixture of sermons and stories. He had some sermons, but he also had stories of his interaction with kings and other people, the fall of Jerusalem (which he witnessed from the inside), and the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem (which is not recorded anywhere else in Scripture). But Ezekiel is much more a book visions and prophetic signs.
I can name three of these visions or prophetic signs off the top of my head. You may be able to name them yourself; at least a few of them are so well-known they have entered the popular culture.
The first of these is the vision of “the wheel”, a vision which opens the book in chapters 1-3 and then appears again in chapter 10. You have probably heard the old spiritual “Ezekiel Saw The Wheel” (I believe I learned this song in eighth grade choir long before I had ever read Ezekiel). You may also have heard some people saw that “U.F.O.s are in the Bible”. This is the source of both that song and that idea. This “wheel” is not a U.F.O. but God’s mobile throne, a throne which is able to easily and quickly travel any direction to reach any destination on earth.
The second vision is the vision of the “valley of dry bones”. This vision occurs in chapter 37. Like the vision of the wheel, this vision has its own old spiritual, a song we know as “Dem Bones”. It is a vision which demonstrates God’s unlimited ability to overcome death with life.
The third vision is the vision of the new temple and a new Israel. I don’t think this vision is as familiar as the previous two. If it has its own old spiritual, I don’t know it. But this is actually the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of this book. That is because it is so long. This vision starts in chapter 40 and runs to chapter 48, the final chapter of the book. That’s nine whole chapters, around a fifth of this book.
Other Visions and Signs
Beyond that, there are several other visions and prophetic signs in this book. Ezekiel sees God’s glory leave the Temple in Jerusalem. He reenacts the destruction of Israel and Judah. His wife is taken from him and he is not be allowed to grieve over her. God repeatedly calls him “son of man” (a phrase we know but which is used differently here than what we are used to) and sometimes picks him up by the hair and carry him away to distant locations.
There is also a section where he condemns the nations, just as there was in Isaiah and Jeremiah (some people even think he begins to talk about the history of Satan in this section). There are allegories to eagles, vines, and sisters. God tells us through him that He does not delight in the death of the wicked and that He is offering to give us all “a new spirit” and a “heart of flesh”.
And the one thing that unifies all these visions and signs is that they are difficult for us. They are intellectually difficult, as Ezekiel is writing from a time and place that is different from ours and thus speaks differently than we do. But they are also emotionally difficult. They were very emotionally difficult for me when I read them for the first time as a 19-year-old. They were absolutely scary, in fact. Ezekiel terrified me then. Some of it still terrifies me now.
Encouragement from God
But that’s not what it is meant to do. While I understand why Ezekiel may terrify us today, I also understand that it is meant to do the complete opposite. It is meant to encourage us.
The fact that God is willing to take drastic steps like the Exile to purify sin from His people is encouraging. The fact that God does not delight in the death of the wicked but wants them to repent in encouraging. The fact that God is taking out of us our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh is encouraging.
We know, in fact, that this book is meant to be an encouragement because it ends on an encouraging note. As Ezekiel concludes both the vision of the new temple and the book, he says, “The LORD Is There”. That is the final word. That is Ezekiel’s message. Despite all our sins, the Lord is there. Despite the sufferings we fall into, the Lord is there. Despite whatever is going to happen in the future, the Lord is there and will be there forever. And we will be with Him.
That is the encouraging message of Ezekiel. My prayer for us as we read through it these next few weeks is that we can see through the difficulties and be encouraged as both the prophet and God wanted us to be.