As we approach the book which Jerome described as “an ocean and labyrinth of the mysteries of God”, we must seek those factors which assist toward an understanding of the man and his message. We must first attempt to enter into the exact conditions of the times in which the writer and his first readers lived. We therefore fix our eyes on a captive in a large convoy winding its laborious way through Syria to the plains of the great river Euphrates. Ezekiel was such a captive being deported to Babylon, and scattered here and there in his book are some almost incidental remarks that enable us to recapture certain facts about him.
“The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest”, 1. 3. In all probability he was of the Zadokite family of the priests; later he mentions this family (see 40. 46; 43. 19; 44. 15) which could be out of regard for his own relationship thereto. There are further implications. As a priest he belonged to the influential Jerusalem aristocracy. This is the reason for his being taken in Jehoiachin’s captivity, 1. 2, since the aristocracy was influential having monarchial and conservative sympathies. If “the thirtieth year”, 1. 1, refers to his age, in Jewish reckoning the age of full maturity, then Ezekiel had not entered upon his priestly duties prior to his captivity. Nevertheless he had served a long period of thorough preparation, learning the traditional ritual. What a stunning blow for him to be removed to the Jewish colony in Chebar! It seemed that all the elaborate training for the functions of a priest was in vain. Two observations arise:
First, God makes use of the natural gifts and training of His servants. The strong sense of ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness, of temple imagery, of feasts and sacrifices, so natural to the priests, is found throughout the book. Thankful acknowledgement there must be that “the hand of the Lord came upon him”, yet his priestly training does in a great degree shape the communications that he makes. There is a form of mental laxity abroad that takes a distorted view of the Lord’s words in Matthew 11. 25, and ignores the training of life., but sanctified ability is a blessing.
Secondly, the rich value of teaching by symbolism is endorsed. The book’s visions, similitudes, parables, proverbs, allegories and open prophecies are characterized by symbolism with which Ezekiel’s early training had made him familiar. This method of communication is necessary and profitable in spiritual instruction. Spiritual truth – so deep and rich – is never completely expressed in words. Symbolism commands respect inasmuch as it yields its significance when words have ceased to be uttered.
Whilst the spirit of the exiles in general was broken, this young man remained firm and resolute. The enormous calamity that befell the people of Israel, statesmen and priests, did not overwhelm the morale of Ezekiel. Another has said, “A brave man is not driven out of his country; he takes it with him”. What were the influences which fortified this solitary and commanding character?
1. The Priest-Order. The priests were important and impressive men. What they did or avoided was of immense consequence to everyone else. To this group the prophet was attached, disciplining his life by the stringent rules and special laws of the order. It is obvious that lax living would be abhorrent to him. In the ardour of his youth, deep and sincere feelings for the preservation of the divine commandments mastered his being, and these remained with him throughout his ministry.
2. Experience of Foreign Travel. This experience may be perceived in chapters 25-32, a section that gives a record of predictions during the seige of Jerusalem. Of the greater part of this section one has rightly said, “It is impossible to read Ezekiel 26-30 without detecting the reminiscences of personal observation”. Ezekiel is acquainted with the learning, ideas, habits and practices of the world generally. He knows the positions and relations of nations, their culture and technical development. The visits to Egypt and the great commercial and shipping centre of the ancient world by no means enamoured Ezekiel. The visits rather served to deepen his feelings that life could only be worthwhile when engaged in the service of the true God in Jerusalem. What are the achievements of these estranged nations compared with fellowship with Jehovah?
3. Contact with the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a fellow-priest, but a “dissenting one”, since he was a defender of the ideals, simpler life and morality of the past. He strongly resented elaborate ritual in the temple without true heart-fellowship with Jehovah. Constantly he clashed with the ritualists who were guilty of deplorable profanities. Openly he criticized the policy of the state, and bade the rulers to change their lives. He was courageous at a time when national independence was girding itself for the last struggle with the military and political ambitions of Babylon. This Jeremiah was the man whom Ezekiel heard before he was taken into captivity. In his youth, he may have listened with fastidious disapproval to Jeremiah’s energetic ministry, making an ineffaceable impression on him and eventually mastering him, since he was unable to counteract Jehovah’s righteous challenge. “The prolongation of the voice of Jeremiah” did its good work, and Ezekiel worked out the principles of the weeping prophet’s ministry for himself, and became ready to go not only as far as Jeremiah but even further. It is not to be thought that the consequences of such views had not been considered. In his purity of motive and purpose he was prepared for isolation from, and the scorn of his contemporaries in his stand for truth. Thanks should be given to God for such men who are prepared to review honestly popular beliefs, and turn away from the declension, insincerity and insubordination to God’s word that may be involved in them.
Although this priest was heard by the people in the country he had left, his special mission was to those among whom he dwelt in Chebar. He was raised up by God to convince them of four things.
1. God’s Utter Abhorrence of Idolatry. The northern kingdom of Israel had ceased to exist for more than a hundred years. This judgment together with the vigorous reformation of king Josiah did not arrest the idol-mad and vice-intoxicated course of the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. Not only did they defile the temple with their detestable abominations, 5. 11, but “upon every high hill, in all the tops of the mountains, and under every green tree, and under every thick oak” altars and images were conspicuous, 6.13. Satan’s work to counteract the truth of the divine revelation was evident everywhere. The one inevitable issue of this idolatry was the righteous judgment of God.
2. The Chaldeans were the Instruments of Jehovah to Chastise Israel In declaring this fact, Ezekiel was one with Jeremiah (see Jer. 21. 7; 24. 8-10; 32. 3-5; 34. 2, 3). False prophets had instilled the people’s minds with the false hope that Jerusalem was impregnable, and that they had seen the last of Nebuchadnezzar’s army. The captives with Ezekiel in Chebar had been deceived by the same reasoning. It was the heavy task of the prophet to explain the underlying meaning of the Chaldean invasion. Although they were a non-covenant, foreign people, they were the instrument in the hand of God in His governmental dealings with Israel.
3. To Destroy Israels Presumptuous Confidence in External Religious Privileges. The captives had a conviction that Jehovah would never forsake the temple in Jerusalem. They had not learned that religious privilege does not exempt one from moral responsibility. To expect favours from Jehovah because of the ceremonies and ordinances that He had given whilst themselves persisting in a course of rebellion, was the essence of impudence. Ezekiel dissipated this baseless hallucination.
4. To Inspire Hope by Teaching the True Purpose of Divine Government. Later, the change of mind in the people caused them to contemplate restoration. Their awakening came when the city had fallen, and this fulfilment of prophecy had disillusioned them. The ministry of the prophet continued to prepare a new generation for the return to the land. Consider the return of the remnant according to the book of Ezra, and note the earnest adherence to the law, the deep hatred of idolatry, the suffering inspired by hope, and it will be joyfully recognised that Ezekiel’s labours were not in vain. His ministry with its two great features of faithfulness and patience bore good fruit. Men who pass through similar conditions in ministry will be heartened to see that “to be right, is to be safe”.
The three main movements of the book are easily traceable:
The ministry served the general welfare of the nation. Historically, however, the record throws its special light on the conditions of a people away from their own land. Spiritually, the great lesson it bears is the glorious sovereignty of God. Throughout, the great fact is stressed, “They shall know that I am Jehovah”. These words occur no less than seventy times; showing that “God is the Ruler of history, and history is the vindication of His character”. The true and Blessed God has absolute power and right over His creatures. Prophetically, the future of Israel is the burden. The interpretation that offers predictions of “Christian” blessings is misleading and delusive. The literal fulfilment of the prophecies will come. Devotionally, the book serves to counteract gloom in the soul. After all the darkness and storms, the sun will rise – the glory will return.