Ezekiel - The Prophet of Vision
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
Ezekiel was the first of the prophets of the exile. He was carried away from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, in the first deportation of the nation, about eleven years before the final destruction of the great city, Jerusalem. With Jeremiah he had witnessed the moral and spiritual decline of the nation. He could well have listened to Jeremiah's ministry and shared with him his burden. Ezekiel was among the highest and most talented of Israel that were first carried away to Babylon. Jeremiah was left to share in the last sad years of the nation which ended in such tragic disaster. According to Ezekiel 1. 2, it was five years after his arrival in Babylon that Ezekiel had his first vision of the Lord's glory, and was called to his ministry.
Historical Background. The prophecy of Ezekiel is historically important essentially because of where it originated. In the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was deeply involved with the sad conditions of God's people there. Yet, at the same time, Ezekiel was in Babylon the pagan city, and he was personally involved in all the circumstances of the captivity. He could look from a distance at the conditions of his nation, and perhaps assess the nature of its sin in cool detachment. He carefully marks the dates on which his various utterances were given, e.g. 8. 1 ; 20. 1. So it was that Ezekiel the priest took his place among the captives by the river Chebar, and there he became the mouthpiece of God to His people. Here it was that the hand of the Lord was laid on him and he saw visions of God. Here, too, there eventually came to him the news of the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, 33. 21. It is evident that the conditions under which the first captives of Israel lived in Babylon were not arduous. It is obvious that Ezekiel had his own house and lived a normal married life. When the elders needed counsel from the prophet it was in his house that they met together.
The ministry of Ezekiel covered about 22 years. His prophecies began in the fifth year of Jehoiachin's captivity. The latest date of a prophecy recorded for us is the twenty-seventh year of the captivity, 29. 17. His was to be no easy task. He is told right at the outset of his mission that the spirit of the people would be hostile, for they were a rebellious house. Yet his part in God's work was clear—fearlessly he must present Jehovah's claims to His sinful people. The cause of their dire straits was clear. 2 Chronicles 36. 11 -21 gives vividly the final events in Jerusalem and it is clear that the rebellious spirit of the nation was displayed in spite of divine intervention. Many messengers had been sent, showing a history of God's compassion and love for His people and His dwelling place among them. Those who were sent were mocked, despised and misused. What more could be done for such stubborn people? One answer is possible, "the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy", 2 Chron. 36.16. This gives clearly history's reason for the exile. Seventy years would pass before the nation would emerge again from their sad dispersion, v. 21.
The Prophet's Mission. Ezekiel's call to the prophetic mission was distinctive in character. Of him alone out of all the prophets could it be said that the heavens were open and he saw visions of God, Ezek. 1.1. The sight of open heavens could only signify one thing for the nation ; the time had come for the intervention of God in judgment, Yet in a pagan land, where no doubt he would feel the tragic loss of those godly influences that surrounded his life as a priest of the Lord, he was enabled to see the wonder of the majesty and glory of God. There is a grandeur about the vision that is unparalleled in the Old Testament Scriptures. He was to prophesy to a people who had forfeited the right to live in their own land. Perhaps Ezekiel was among those who are described in Psalm 137. 1-2, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps".
The appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord, with which Ezekiel's mission began, brought him down on his face before God. He was introduced to the movements of divine government. As the Spirit enters into him and he stands upon his feet, the voice outlines to him the nature of his commission. He is to be sent to a rebellious house. Notice how clearly the position is stated. "I do send thee to them: and thou shall say unto them, Thus saith the Lord", Ezek. 2. 4. The roll of the book is given him to eat, and as it enters into him he tastes of its sweetness, 3. 3. Then he goes to deliver its truth to others. Note the terms of his charge, "Son of man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thine heart, and hear with thine ears. And go ... speak unto them", 3. 10-11. It is important to note here that only those who enjoy the word can rightly pass it on to others.
It is interesting to notice that Ezekiel is addressed about 90 times throughout the book as the "son of man". Only Daniel beside him is so addressed in the Old Testament. Ezekiel was a man amongst men, humble in his bearing, yet a vital representative of Jehovah amongst his people in an alien land. He was God's man for the work in circumstances of judgment when the people of God were under the heel of a Gentile oppressor. It is good to notice that the Lord Jesus took the title "Son of man" in connection with His earthly associations as Messiah. It is in this connection that He will wind up the affairs of earth and of man in judgment.
Ezekiel was appointed a watchman among the people of God. As the prophet sat with the captives by the river Chebar he was appalled at what he saw, 3. 15. It was at the end of seven days with them that the commission to watch over the people was given. Here was a tremendous responsibility for the prophet to bear. While the responsibility for wickedness was the portion of each individual in the sight of God, to warn of its consequences was the burden of the watchman. To fail meant nothing less than blood-guiltiness, their blood would be upon his hands, 3. 20. God had no pleasure in the death of the wicked; He desired that they should turn to Him and live. How necessary, then, that Ezekiel as a watchman should rightly warn the people. The role of the watchman is twice repeated in the prophecy, so vital it was, 3. 16-21 ; 33. 1 -9. We can link these thoughts with the address of Paul to the Ephesian elders. He could say, "Wherefore I testify unto you this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men", Acts 20. 26. Today there is a great need for such faithful watchmen and sound spiritual leaders in the church of God.
The prophecies of Ezekiel are illustrated throughout the book with many symbols and also by symbolic actions. This figurative language gives colour to the messages, and often makes the words of the prophet more telling in their impact. Yet most of the book is built around the visions of Ezekiel as he was allowed to see the glory of God. He sees the glory appearing in chapter 1. Then he sees the glory departing from the sinful people in chapter 11. Then in the glorious vision of restoration he sees the same glory returning to the sanctuary in chapter 43. Let us close this study by some thoughts from these visions.
1. In his visions, Ezekiel was allowed to see behind the scenes. What was apparent in the life of the exiled nation was evidence of the ways of God in government. What a striking vision chapter 1 presents to us. The atmosphere is that of constant movement and irresistible energy. In the living creatures, he sees the manifestation of life and energy. In the wings and the wheels he is made conscious of the directions of the ways of God as He moves in government. Irresistible power is evident as the wheels move according to the spirit within them. And over and above all is the sovereignty of the throne. The appearance of the man was above it. Very beautifully, there is the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain. Such a vision would give to the prophet among the captives the assurance of the kind of forces operating behind the scenes. Things were not out of hand. Wise counsels were in operation and God was still in control. Often God moves behind the scenes, standing as it were in the shadows, yet keeping watch upon His own. We can take encouragement from this thought.
2. Again in vision, Ezekiel was made to look beneath the surface. In chapter 8 the prophet is taken in spirit to the beloved city. There in successive stages he sees the causes of Israel's fall and rejection. There is the same atmosphere about the scenes as at first. As he is again in the land he be holds the image of jealousy in the gate. Moving inwards to the heart of the temple, there is every evidence of idolatry, profanity and corruption. It is a sad picture, and the prophet would feel its shame. As a priest of the Lord, with a care for holy things, he would realize how deep was the dishonour done to the holy name of the Lord. Such dark deeds of evil could have only one end—the glory of God would leave the sanctuary. There was no room for the presence of a hoi/ God.
3. Finally Ezekiel is able to see beyond the present, chs. 40-48. There is no prophet that expresses the future hopes of Israel more clearly than Ezekiel. He saw Israel united together as one, regathered out of all the nations and restored to the land, their own land, 11. 16-17; 37. 18-22. He had witnessed something of the profanity and degradation of the sanctuary even before the exile. A temple without God at the centre of the nation's worship ! It is quite beautiful in 11. 16 how he expresses the promise of the Lord to be a sanctuary for His people for a little while in the countries of their dispersion. Better God without a sanctuary, says someone, than the sanctuary without God. For Ezekiel, it must have been heart-warming to see the possibility of the rebuilt sanctuary with the temple sacrifices and service restored. And even more to catch the thrill of the returning glory, the house filled again with the glory of the Lord, 43. 1-5. As a nation, he was allowed to see Israel no better than a valley of dry bones, ch. 37. Yet the word of God would be spoken, and the mighty breath of God would blow upon the slain of the people. In the power of the Spirit the nation would arise again, with the power of a great army. In the day that was to come they would be great for their God. Thus he sees a people who are to settle again in their own land with the presence of their God among them. How triumphant is the note with which the prophecy ends. Tidings had come to the prophet in exile that the city of God had been destroyed. But it would rise again out of the dust, and its name would be Jehovah Shammah, "The Lord is there", 48. 35.
There is much enjoyment for us in the message of Ezekiel the prophet of vision. Today we are seeing in the people of Israel the beginnings of the regathering of the nation to their land. In unbelief they return, often with experiences of tragedy and sorrow behind them. Yet they go back with the certainty in their minds that Palestine belongs to the Jew. We can be sure that Ezekiel's prophecies will be fulfilled. Such fulfilment does not rest on the whims of human expediency but upon divine purposes and promises. Similarly it is good for us, in our day and generation, to have eyes to see those glorious spiritual realities which God also has for us.