Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). The opening verse of the book exhibits characteristic priestly concern to document details; in this case, a very precise date is recorded: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month”. The year correlates with what we know as 593 BCE. No other prophet gives the precise day of his seeing “visions of God”!
Six years earlier, Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.
A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision—the scene is reported in scrupulous detail, with many references to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19) and the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6).
Then, “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). The creatures with wings that touch perhaps evoke the golden cherubim overlooking the mercy seat in the Tabernacle (1 Ki 6:23–28), while the wheeled chariot may have been inspired by the chariot that carried the ark of the covenant in procession (2 Sam 6:3).
However, the four creatures, each with four faces and four legs, sparkling “like burnished bronze” (1:6–7), with the appearance of a human being, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (1:10) are unusual. Their presence has invited much speculation about their significance. In the early centuries of the Christian church, these four figures were interpreted as symbols for the four Gospels included in the New Testament. They are found also in the first vision of the seer John, in exile on Patmos, many centuries later (Rev 4:1–8).
Similarly, the description of the crystal dome over the heads of the creatures (1:22) and the sapphire throne with a human form seated on it (1:26) signal to us that this prophet has a vivid imagination, and that there will be much symbolism in the oracles that lie ahead! The remainder of the book continues relentlessly in this style; exotic scenes, vividly imagined, described in detail, conveying a consistent theological perspective.
The point of this dramatic opening comes immediately, when Ezekiel reports a further vision, of a scroll (2:1–10) which he is immediately commanded to eat (2:8, 3:1–3). This second vision is at the heart of the call that Ezekiel receives, to “speak my very words to them [the people]” (2:7; 3:4). Ezekiel the priest has become Ezekiel the prophet.
These words “of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10) nevertheless taste “as sweet as honey” to Ezekiel (3:3). However, he knows from the start that the task he has been given will be difficult, for “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (3:8). They will not listen to him. The scene is set for the difficult career of this prophet-in-exile.
A key issue for Ezekiel relates to whether God continues to be the God of the people of Judah who are in exile in Babylon. Ezekiel offers a development in understanding that God continues to care for the people even when they have no land and no temple, when they can no longer “go up to the house of the Lord” and offer sacrifices.
Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).
This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10). The scene is a dramatic reworking of the creation scene in Genesis, when God creates humanity out of the dust, breathing “the breath of life” into human beings (Gen 2:7).
The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; for Ezekiel, however, it is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling).
Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).
That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).
The Lord God addresses the prophet Ezekiel in a distinctive way; 94 times, he begins his words to the prophet with the Hebrew phrase ben adam—traditionally translated as “son of man” (meaning a human being), in the NRSV rendered as “o mortal”. We could simply say, Ezekiel, o human one. My NIV has the footnote, “the phrase son of man is retained as a form of address here and throughout Ezekiel because of its possible association with “Son of Man” in the New Testament”. Certainly, this distinctive address in Ezekiel resonates with the use of this distinctive phrase in the Gospels (although another scriptural usage, in Dan 7:14, offers a different take on this phrase.)