The Background of Ezekiel
Author and Date
The first dated message in Ezekiel is from the summer of 593 BC, four years after Nebuchadnezzar deported the first group of exiles to Babylon. The latest dated oracle is 22 years later, in April 571 BC. If Ezekiel was 30 years old when his ministry began (Ezekiel 1:1), the final vision of the book came when he was about 50.
Theme and Purpose
Ezekiel spoke to a people forced from their home because they had broken faith with their God. As the spokesman for the Lord, Ezekiel spoke oracles that defended his reputation as a holy God (see especially Ezekiel 36:22–23). The primary purpose of Ezekiel’s message was to restore God’s glory before Israel, who had rejected him in front of the watching nations.
Ezekiel prophesied during a time of great confusion following Israel’s exile to Babylon in 597 BC. A former Judean king was among the exiles (the 18-year-old Jehoiachin), and the Babylonians had appointed a puppet king to the throne in Jerusalem (Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah).
In times of crisis, God sent prophets to bring his message to his people. Judah’s exile was therefore a period of intense prophetic activity. (Jeremiah also served during this time.)
Ezekiel’s fellow exiles were his main audience, but his oracles also communicated to people who remained in Judah.
1. As a priest, Ezekiel was deeply concerned with restoring God’s people to holiness. His understanding of the depth of Israel’s sin is clear in his version of Israel’s history (ch. 20). Even the oracles about a restored Israel (ch. 40–48) include a way to deal with the people’s sin so they can survive in the presence of a holy God. Ezekiel’s concern with sin also accounts for the many places where the book echoes the laws given in the Pentateuch, as well as the similarities between Ezekiel’s new temple (ch. 40–42) and the Exodus tabernacle.
2. Israel was subject to its national God. However, this God is no tribal deity. He is supreme over all nations. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar, king of mighty Babylon, was simply a tool in God’s hand to accomplish God’s purpose (e.g., Ezekiel 21:19–23; 30:25). God’s absolute supremacy is most clearly demonstrated in the battle against Gog, the final enemy (ch. 38–39), where God alone crushes Gog’s vast hostile forces.
3. Ezekiel declares judgment on those clinging to false hope, but offers true hope to those who accept God’s judgment (Ezekiel 37:11). He linked God’s judgment with the hope of a new heart and spirit (Ezekiel 36:22–32).
4. The condemnation of Israel’s “princes” (e.g., ch. 19) finds its hopeful counterpart in the promise of a future “prince” who would rule with justice (Ezekiel 34:23–24) and connect the people to God (Ezekiel 46:1–18).
I. Inaugural Vision (1:1–3:27)
II. Judgment on Jerusalem and Judah (4:1–24:27)
III. Oracles against Foreign Nations (25:1–32:32)
IV. After the Fall of Jerusalem (33:1–39:29)
V. Vision of Restoration (40:1–48:35)
The Near East at the Time of Ezekiel
The Global Message of Ezekiel
The book of Ezekiel is filled with global significance, both for the world of Ezekiel’s time and for our own world today.
Ezekiel lived and prophesied among the Jewish exiles in Babylon immediately after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. This was a tragic time in Israel’s history. God’s promises to Abraham, including the promise that his descendants would live and flourish in the Promised Land, seemed to have been long forgotten. Another cause for discouragement was the way Israel had failed in its calling to be a light to the nations. Instead, the nations had influenced Israel, introducing idolatry and other forms of faithlessness into the life of God’s covenant people.
A particular focus of Ezekiel is the way in which Israel’s failures reflect on God himself. In the eyes of the surrounding nations, God is spurned on account of Israel’s lack of loyalty to him. God is therefore going to take matters directly into his own hands: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name. . . . And the nations will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 36:22–23). Throughout Ezekiel, therefore, we hear God determining to act “for the sake of his name” (Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22, 44; 36:22) and “that they might know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 20:12, 26). God’s glory was at stake in Israel’s fidelity—or lack thereof.
At the same time, Israel’s own fate was bound up with the fate of God’s honor. God says to Israel, “through you I will vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you” (Ezekiel 36:23–25). God would not vindicate his own name and honor at Israel’s expense, but rather through mercifully restoring them to himself. Throughout the book of Ezekiel, then, the focus constantly swivels between God’s holiness and mercy, his glory and his grace, his righteous hostility toward his people’s sin and his covenantally bound love for them. Both his holiness and his covenant love are key characteristics of God. They are nonnegotiable, definitive divine attributes. Neither can be compromised.
Only in Christ is this tension resolved. For it is only in Christ that God’s holiness and justice, on the one hand, and his mercy and love, on the other, are reconciled without compromising either. For in Christ God’s righteous justice is satisfied, and yet God’s amazing grace is on full display as believers receive freely the benefits of Christ’s atoning work.
Another way we see Ezekiel’s prophecy anticipate Christ is through the whole-Bible theme of spiritual marriage and adultery. Ezekiel 16 and 23, for example, graphically portray Israel’s faithlessness in terms of whoredom: God is the divine husband, Israel is the faithless wife. This metaphor carries on into the New Testament, where Christ is the great Bridegroom who gives himself up for the sake of his bride (Ephesians 5:25–27, 32; compare Mark 2:19; John 3:29). Indeed, this is the note on which the New Testament ends, as the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven and Christ is depicted as a sacrificial “Lamb” who has given his life for the sake of “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:9).
Universal Themes in Ezekiel
The Witness of God’s People to the World
The catastrophe into which Ezekiel was born—exile to Babylon—was the polar opposite of what God had called Israel to do. Israel was to be a light to the nations (Genesis 12:1–3; Isaiah 49:6; 60:3). Instead, the nations had brought darkness to Israel (see Ezekiel 34:12–13). Ezekiel shows how this capitulation to the godless ways of the nations detracts from God’s own glory. It is the welfare of God’s name, not only the welfare of Israel, that is at stake in Israel’s corporate life. God’s people then and now are called to bring the mercy of God to all the nations of the world, so that God might be properly glorified, and the peoples of the earth might be restored to their Maker.
God is Lord of All the Nations
Regardless of whether God’s own people are faithful to their mission to be a light to the nations, Ezekiel teaches us that the God of Israel is no tribal deity but is Lord of all the nations of the world. Even the mighty king of Babylon, seemingly invincible, does only what the God of Israel decrees (Ezekiel 21:19–23; 30:25). In the climactic battle against Gog, too, we see God’s global supremacy as he crushes this rebellious foe (ch. 38–39).
The Global Message of Ezekiel for Today
The core message of Ezekiel for the worldwide church today is its radical God-centeredness. The God who is presented in Ezekiel is utterly transcendent, perfectly holy, and not to be relegated to the sidelines of the corporate life of his people. At the same time, the Lord is depicted in Ezekiel as great not only in holiness but in mercy. In spite of his people’s faithlessness, he is not abandoning them but will himself sprinkle them clean and give them new hearts (Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:25–26).
In our God-minimizing world today, the message of Ezekiel is much needed. Around the world, sin manifests itself not only in outright rebellion and transgression but also in a subtle sidelining of God, both individually and corporately. Trust in political power replaces trust in God’s rightful rule. The false security of money replaces the only solid refuge in God. The passing delights of sexual immorality replace the lasting delights of walking with God. Consumerism and a flood of advertising dull us into thinking that this world is our one shot at truly living. Greedy consumption of the earth’s resources by a powerful few replaces wise stewardship of what God has entrusted to the human race.
In an age of God-minimization, the global church has an urgent message: Our God reigns. He rules over all in power and might, and one day judgment will fall upon those who cling to the things of this world. Yet our message is two-pronged: not only does God reign in might and justice and judgment-to-come, he also invites into his goodness any who will bow their knee to him (Ezekiel 37:23). To those who do, their lifeless bones will be given life, the very breath of God (Ezekiel 37:1–14). They will be sprinkled clean (Ezekiel 36:25). One day Eden will be restored, and all those from around the world who entrust themselves to the Lord will be part of that great and final restoration (Ezekiel 36:33–36).
Want to learn more about the book of Ezekiel? Read our introduction to the book here.