Last August, we were, together with Jim and Paige Price, in St. Andrews, Scotland with our daughter and son-in-law, Joshua and Bryonie Moon. We were there for a Lord’s Day and worshipped with the Moons at their Free Church mission church in the town and afterward the pastor, Alasdair MacLeod and his wife, came to dinner. In speaking to Alasdair about Scottish pastors whom I had met during the three years Florence and I had lived in Scotland in the middle 1970s I discovered that we had acquaintances and friends in common. Apropos something I now can’t remember, we fell to talking about Tom Swanston, who died a few years ago. Tom was a Church of Scotland minister (that is, a Presbyterian of the National Church) and the long-serving pastor of a parish in Inverness, one of the old churches right on the river Ness as it runs through the center of the town. I had filled his pulpit on several occasions – even sat in the pulpit chair that Dwight Moody had sat on when he preached in that same church on one of his visits to Scotland in the 19th century. Florence and I still remember staying in the enormous manse that Pastor Swanston occupied by himself, bachelor that he was: bedrooms as big as our living and dining room put together. Anyway, Tom Swanston’s ordinary method as a preacher, following his mentor, William Still – our pastor in Aberdeen – was to preach through books of the Bible. He was an expository preacher in the truest sense of the word. Well Alasdair MacLeod told me that he had once asked Tom whether, during his long ministry, he had preached through every book of the Bible. His reply was that he had indeed preached through every book of the Bible “except, to my shame, I only mined the nuggets of Ezekiel.” Here is a preacher, thoroughly conversant with the Bible, who found Ezekiel perhaps a greater challenge than any other book of Holy Scripture: harder to understand, harder to preach.
There is nothing new in that. The Jewish rabbis often spoke of the difficulty of the book and, according to the church father Jerome, in his time Jews under 30 years of age were forbidden to read the beginning and the end of the book. [Block, i, 44]
John Calvin, perhaps the greatest of all expositors of the Bible failed to provide a commentary for Revelation and it has been suggested that he did so because he found the book too difficult to understand. That reason is only a guess and it is more probable that he didn’t expound Revelation because he didn’t get around to it. Calvin has a large commentary on Ezekiel proving, at least, that he wasn’t daunted by the kind of difficulties that books like Ezekiel and Revelation pose to preachers and expositors. But I have no doubt that if somehow we could survey American preaching, even evangelical preaching, even Presbyterian Church in America preaching, we would find that very few sermons indeed are preached in our denomination in any given year on the book of Ezekiel and most of those would be on chapter 37 and the prophet’s vision of the dry bones coming back to life. For dispensationalist Christians, Ezekiel 38 and 39 are fodder for their speculations about the end times, but otherwise, Ezekiel is as little explored as any part of the Bible. The prophet’s relentless denunciations are not a popular theme in our day and his unconventional antics seem much stranger to us than they would have to Ezekiel’s original audience. And so it remains true that for most Christians Ezekiel is largely a closed book. I have no doubt that there are longstanding PCA church members that have never heard a sermon from the book of Ezekiel.
Most of us, however uncomfortable the fact makes us feel, don’t find it terribly difficult to understand. We ourselves find Ezekiel a difficult book of the Bible to comprehend and, if the truth be told, we don’t turn to Ezekiel to find help for our faith and life. The book opens with a vision described in great detail and yet, try as we might, we find that vision almost impossible to visualize. The book concludes with long chapters of a vision of a rebuilt temple and renewed Levitical temple worship that seem interminable in the reading and far removed from anything likely to be of any real interest or practical help to us today. Ezekiel seems as far removed from us as anything in the Bible. I would be interested to know how many of you have heard preaching from Ezekiel in your lifetime and, especially, how many of you have heard substantial portions of the book preached.
Preachers themselves are all too well aware of the challenges: first really to understand Ezekiel themselves and then to make the preaching of the book relevant and helpful to a congregation. The book’s daunting size is a further impediment to even making the effort. It is a long book. Chapter 16, with 830 words, is itself longer than six of the twelve Minor Prophets! It is one thing to dip into one of the few more familiar parts of the book, but to begin at the beginning of 48 chapters requires eventually taking up those very passages that baffle us, bore us, weary us, or leave us cold when, from time to time, we read through the book. I admit to you that one of the reasons I have chosen to take up the challenge of preaching through Ezekiel is that I feel it is high time for me to understand the book better myself. There is no better way to grow familiar with a book of the Bible and to gain an appreciation of it than to preach it. To preach the book to others requires understanding it yourself and, as well, understanding well enough that you can convey to others an appreciation of its relevance and importance.
I have no doubt that we will find that Ezekiel is easier to understand than we have thought and has more of great value for our lives today that we might have expected. It is so with every one of the biblical prophets. We have discovered through the years, indeed, that the prophets, being anthologies of sermons preached to people like you and me concerning the very sort of issues that face us today – once the difficulties of understanding the language, the literary genre, and the figures of speech have been overcome – are immediately and obviously relevant and wonderfully helpful, addressing as all good preaching does, the timeless issues of daily human existence. We have found it true of Hosea and Amos, Micah, Malachi, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Delbert Hillers, until recently professor of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a scholar of the OT prophets, said that the prophetic literature was the most difficult he had encountered in all his reading. There is a sense in which you and I have no difficulty understanding that. Martin Luther, no less, once described the OT prophets this way:
“They have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at.” [Werke (Weimer ed.), xix, 350; cited in Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, ii, 33]
True enough, or at least so it can seem. A few nights ago Florence and I watched the recent movie remake of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. You have to strain to understand what is being said because it is all in Shakespearean prose, a kind of poetic prose. People didn’t talk that way, even in Shakespeare’s time. The dialogue reads as it does for effect. But the modern reader, especially the reader unacquainted with Shakespeare, is likely to think: why don’t the characters just talk normally so I can understand what they mean? Well, readers of the biblical prophets can think the same thing.
But, on the other hand, when asked by a baffled reader whether the people of their own time could understand the biblical prophets, Bruce Waltke replied, “Well enough to kill them!” There are difficulties reading the prophets and Ezekiel in particular from this great distance to be sure and we will have to overcome them, but when reduced to their plain sense, Ezekiel’s sermons, like Isaiah’s or Jeremiah’s, Amos’ or Malachi’s, are straight talk to God’s people about what it means to live by faith in a world of sin and death. They are as straightforward in their teaching as Jesus in the Gospels or Paul in his letters. And their particular literary form – what makes reading Ezekiel more difficult for us – lends these texts a special power and makes them memorable. It was, after all, the Spirit of God who ultimately decided that a book like Ezekiel should be in Holy Scripture. It therefore becomes our happy task to discover why! He would not have given us Ezekiel if he didn’t have wonderful things for us in this book.
And we don’t need to take that on faith. The New Testament bears its own witness to the importance of Ezekiel. In the standard edition of the Greek New Testament there is an index of OT texts that are either quoted in the New Testament or alluded to. Texts from Ezekiel appear in that index 205 times. Interestingly, 98 of those quotations or allusions are found in the Book of Revelation.
Ezekiel’s was a turbulent world. That is one thing that makes his message so relevant for today. He lived in a world like ours. International tensions were overshadowing the circumstances of many smaller states and turning the lives of countless individuals and families upside down. The church herself was on the defensive. It had suffered and would continue to suffer a series of 9/11 type events as it was first caught in the maw of conflict between world powers Babylon and Egypt and then as its political and social life became hostage to the whim of Babylon. By the time Ezekiel began his prophetic work Babylon was victorious over Egypt and holding sway over the entire ancient Near East. Israel’s situation was further complicated, bedeviled really, by the ineptitude of a series of Judean kings who reigned after the untimely death of Josiah in 609 B.C. They had a wise advisor in the person of the prophet Jeremiah but consistently failed to take his advice.
Ezekiel himself had been caught up in the turmoil of that time and his life had taken a catastrophic turn in the year 597 B.C. He was among those carried off to Babylon in the second of the three deportations of Jews from Judea to Babylon. Remember, the first was in 605 when Babylon first asserted itself in Judea and, in order to assure Judean loyalty, deported to Babylon some of the most gifted of Judea’s population, including Daniel. Jehoiakim, Judah’s king, had submitted himself at first to Babylon, a year after Babylon’s devastation of the Egyptians and what was left of the Assyrians at Carchemish on the Euphrates River in 605 B.C. But, with the encouragement of the Egyptians and against the counsel of Jeremiah he foolishly rebelled against Babylon. In 597 B.C. Babylon, then ruled by the extraordinarily able Nebuchadnezzar (whose name scholarship now pronounces as Nebuchadrezzar), who would reign in Babylon for another thirty five years, swatted Jehoiakim like a bug and dragged the pathetic Judean king back to Babylon bound in shackles and then, apparently, executed him. Jehoiachin, his 18 year old son, succeeded him as the Babylonian appointee. Either unable or unwilling to execute Babylon’s orders, he too was summoned to Babylon a few months later. This second deportation included others beside the royal family, some 10 thousand in fact, as we read in 2 Kings 24:14. Ezekiel and his wife were part of this group of exiles, perhaps their children as well, though, as with Amos or Hosea, for example, no mention is made of any children anywhere in the book. Many of these folk and Ezekiel and his wife among them, were settled in a Jewish community established near Nippur on the Chebar canal. You remember how Psalm 137 begins: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept…” Once Jehoiachin was in Babylon, however, he was treated quite well, for what purpose no one is quite sure. This is indicated in the Bible but, interestingly, Babylonian records have been unearthed that refer to Jehoiachin as “the king of the land of Judah” and indicate that he and his sons were supplied with food from the royal storehouses.
Unfortunately, as we shall see, with some wonderful exceptions, the Jews brought to Babylon all of the spiritual baggage from the years of idolatry and apostasy that had brought her to ruin. It is clear in Jeremiah that, even as the armies of the Babylonian empire closed in, Israel rested her confidence in her ultimate security on Yahweh’s irrevocable covenant with Israel, on his eternal covenant with David, his ownership of the land of Canaan, and his residence in Jerusalem, the place he had chosen for his name to dwell. Thinking like pagans, they assumed that, at the last, the Babylonians must fail for these reasons. They did not reckon with the fact that they had betrayed the covenant and rendered its promises null and void and brought its curses down upon their heads.
“But Jerusalem fell, the Davidic house was cut off, the temple was razed, and the nation was exiled from the land. The spiritual fallout was more difficult to deal with than the physical. Nebuchadrezzar’s victory left the Judeans emotionally devastated, raising many questions about Yahweh – questions of divine impotence, betrayal, abandonment. Based on appearances, Marduk, the god of Babylon, had prevailed. Ezekiel faced an audience that was disillusioned, cynical, bitter, and angry.” [Block, NICOT, i, 8]
There are many Christians who find themselves tempted to similar discouragement and disillusionment for similar reasons. It seems to them that God has betrayed them or failed them in some way. Ezekiel will place the circumstances of the Jews in the true light and explain what happened and why. The fact that the hearts of his hearers were so hard – he is warned by the Lord at the outset that he will be dealing with a spiritually resistant audience, just as Jeremiah was – may account for the methods Ezekiel employs to get his message across, methods that can seem quite bizarre to us today.
The fact that Ezekiel was carried off in this second deportation suggests that he was already leading citizen in the Jewish community. His wife was to die suddenly in Babylon ten years later, at the very time, following another foolhardy rebellion against Babylonian rule, Jerusalem was besieged and finally destroyed. Ezekiel was told beforehand by the Lord that this would happen but it was confirmed five months later when the news reached him from Jerusalem. His wife had died the same day the temple was burned, August 14, 586 B.C (Ezek. 24:18, 27).
So far as we know, Ezekiel would eventually die in Babylon as well, never to return home or see the Holy Land again. The last date mentioned in the book, in 29:17, is April 26, 571 B.C. It seems likely that Ezekiel died before Nebuchadrezzar, who died in 562. It is interesting, by the way, that Ezekiel’s language betrays the fact that he lived and wrote for so long in Babylon. Languages change from extensive interaction with foreigners and the Hebrew of the period was no exception. His writing betrays new linguistic features that would become standard in post-biblical Hebrew, influenced as it was by the way the Jews returning from Babylon were speaking and writing after decades in exile far from home.
Of Ezekiel we know only what the man himself tells us. But that is interesting enough. We learn in 1:3 that he was a priest. So in Ezekiel, as in Jeremiah and Zechariah, we have combined the offices of priest and prophet. That he was a priest certainly accounts for the fact that in his prophecies he betrays a priestly orientation. He depicts the consummation of the kingdom of God in terms of a new temple and revitalized worship, more so than any other prophet. That is important for us for many reasons but it is enough for us to note at this point that in the Book of Revelation we see a similar thing, the future described in terms of an ideal worship being given to God in heaven. It is interesting that in revivals the most obvious difference is the numbers who come to worship God and the enthusiasm, love and joy with which they do so. Worship in the Bible is an index of life and right worship brings life in its fulfillment. Life is as worship, in other words, a principle that has a mighty bearing on the importance and role of worship in our lives today. I think there are few American believers who understand how important the church’s worship on the Lord’s Day is for every aspect of their lives. If they did they would be more concerned about how that worship is offered to God; as concerned as they are, for example, about successful strategies for money management, or a happy marriage or family. Worship has more to do with all of those things than they know. Ezekiel will remind us of that fact.
Ezekiel tells us that his prophetic call came to him in his 30th year. At least that seems to be the best way to take “thirtieth year” in the first verse of the book. Ezekiel was 30 years of age when this happened. That means he would have been born just a year or so before the law book was discovered in the temple during Josiah’s reforms. As the son of a priest, he would have been an eyewitness of those reforms and of King Josiah’s piety and his support for the renewal of Israel’s faith and worship. When he was barely a teenager Josiah was killed in battle and the reforming movement was abandoned. As he grew up and prepared through his 20s for his calling as a priest, he was probably one of very few who took that calling seriously.
The fact that he was 30 when God called him would have had for him a melancholy significance, easily recognized by any Jewish reader, because it was at 30 years of age that a priest would undertake his formal duties (Num. 4:3). It was then that Ezekiel, as his father before him, would have entered into his service at the temple – service for which he had been preparing himself since the time he was a young man – but, of course, he wasn’t any longer in Jerusalem and could not and would never serve as a priest there. All the preparations of his life would have seemed for naught, until suddenly the Lord revealed different plans for this man.
The fact that he was called in the 5th year of the exile of King Jehoiachin, as we read in v. 3 of chapter 1, means that, beginning his prophetic ministry July 31, 593 [Dillard and Longman, ITOT, 315; IVP Atlas of Bible History, 104; Block, NICOT, etc. vs. Bullock, Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, 237] he would prophesy for some years before the final destruction of Jerusalem in 586 and then for some years after.
This is important because actually the structure of the book of Ezekiel is quite easy to analyze and remember. It has three principle sections. The first 24 chapters contain oracles and prophecies, whether spoken or enacted, predicting Israel’s judgment and Jerusalem’s devastation. These are delivered in the first period of Ezekiel’s ministry, between the time he was called and the time Jerusalem was destroyed, a period of some seven years. In chapters 25-32 the prophet lifts his vision from Jerusalem to the nations of the world of his day and prophesies judgment for them as well. Then in the final section of the book, chapters 33-48, we have prophecies of the restoration of God’s people and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In Jeremiah, the prophet’s vision of better things in the future is compressed in what is called his “Book of Hope,” chapters 30-33, four chapters out of 52. In Ezekiel, the prospect of a wonderful future for the people of God, recovered from oblivion and the oppression of their enemies by God’s grace and faithfulness and power gets much more attention, almost a third of the book.
As you know from your reading of the other prophets of the Old Testament, this three-fold pattern of preaching and prediction is very typical. First, Israel and Judah are to suffer God’s wrath for their infidelity to him and to his covenant. Second, the nations of the world – some of whom God has used as his instruments to punish his people Israel – will likewise be judged. The fact that Israel is guilty of falsehood toward God and rebellion against him, the fact that God’s own people counted his love and covenant small things and rejected him for the world around them, did not mean that the nations were, for that reason innocent. Yahweh was never the God of Israel alone. It is everywhere the assumption, if it is not in any place the direct teaching, of the books of the Old Testament that Yahweh is the creator of heaven and earth, the ruler of all that is, and the only living and true God. He is as much, therefore, the God of the Babylonians as he is of the Israelites and the preference in Israel for gods of her own making is a sin only more egregious by degrees than the idolatry of the nations. No OT prophet imagines that Yahweh is not as much in control of what is happening among the nations of the world as he is of what is happening to Israel and no prophet imagines that his moral judgment will not be applied to the nations as it has been and will be to Israel. Third, and finally, the struggle of faith in this world is worth all the effort it requires precisely because there is a gloriously happy ending to the story of biblical faith in this world. God will vindicate his faithful people and in due time, when history is brought to a close, the church will come once and for all and forever into its full rights as the people of God and will see what glorious things God has in store for those who love him. This is, of course, the entire Bible’s three-fold message: the absolute necessity of faith in Christ and a life of fidelity to him in the church; the summons to all nations to enter the church by living faith in Christ, and the promise of eternal reward for those who do.
This was Jeremiah’s message. Ezekiel was a younger contemporary of Jeremiah and very likely would have met the great prophet before Ezekiel was exiled to Babylon and may also have known of the ministries of Habakkuk and Zephaniah who were also probably somewhat older contemporaries. Interestingly, he mentions none of the other prophets in his writing nor do they mention him. That in itself is not unusual. Isaiah doesn’t mention Micah, his contemporary, Amos and Hosea don’t mention each other, nor do Haggai and Zechariah. In Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s case this is even more understandable because Jeremiah spent his life – or almost all of it – in Jerusalem, while Ezekiel conducted his prophetic ministry in Babylon. It is interesting, however, that Ezekiel’s ministry was – at least so far as the book of Ezekiel indicates – in large part focused on those remaining in Judea. Many of his oracles – that is, his deliverances of messages given to him by the Lord – are explicitly addressed to the Jews still living in Jerusalem. But, however so, he was also obviously a man of substance in the Jewish community in Babylon. The elders of the Jewish community in exile are several times found coming to consult him in the book; but he was a known figure in Jerusalem as well. When news of Jerusalem’s fall was brought to Babylon, it was brought by a messenger directly to Ezekiel (33:21).
No doubt, even the prophecies addressed to the Jews in Jerusalem were meant to be heard by the Jews in exile in Babylon. Their message was for all the people of God, just as were the oracles in the middle of the book addressed to the other nations of the ancient Near East. It is a question whether anyone in Tyre or Egypt or Ammon or Moab ever heard Ezekiel’s prophecies of impending judgment against them, but it was important for the Jews to hear them and to know that God’s judgment would be visited upon their enemies as it had been visited upon them for their faithlessness to God and to his covenant. But Ezekiel’s prophecies concerning Jerusalem were certainly taken to Judea and heard there and people in the capital knew very well who he was and what he was preaching even if his messages took several months to reach them.
There was, in other words, the recognition abroad in the church of that day that Ezekiel was a prophet of God. He was not simply a priest or a preacher, not even an unusually gifted preacher. He was being given revelation from God directly for proclamation to the people of God. It is a large question, and not one to be taken up tonight, but in some way the true prophets of God were recognized to be so, despite the existence of false prophets, despite the royal displeasure with many of God’s prophets and persecution and even execution of some of them, and despite the fact that, at least in many cases, during their own lives their preaching was widely reviled and rejected by the people. “A prophet is without honor in his own country,” Jesus said, and that had often been the case throughout the history of prophecy in the ancient epoch. Ezekiel had to compete with false prophets, yet somehow his office and his authority were vindicated and recognized. The true Word of God wins out! Of course, as with the predictions of the prophets before him, his predictions came true and the church in general came to recognize his authority: true believers at the time and the entire church in due time. For example, it was the conviction of all of Judaism at the time of the birth of John the Baptist not only that the biblical prophets were the true prophets of God but that there had been no prophet and no prophecy in Israel since Malachi. [W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judentums…, 394 (with citations); G.F. Moore, Judaism, i, 240]
That leads us finally to this. The spiritual condition of the exiles when they were first deported to Babylon was miserable. We know that from the biblical histories and from Jeremiah as well as from Ezekiel. Through at least the early period of his ministry their hearts continued to remain hard to the Word of God. But decades later, when the opportunity arose to return to the Promised Land, more than 40,000 Jews did so – leaving behind in Babylon a significant measure of prosperity and comfort for the uncertainty and difficulty of the long journey westward and the task of rebuilding ruined Jerusalem (Ezra 2:1-70). What is clear in Ezra is that these returning exiles had a spiritual mind and a commitment to serve the Lord. What accounts for the remarkable turnaround? Is there a more likely explanation than the ministry of this one man, Ezekiel, whose ministry turned the spiritual tide among the exiles and prepared the way for the reconstruction of the people of God after the exile? [Block, i, 43]
If the ministry of Ezekiel could have such a dramatic and wonderful effect, turning round a moribund and lifeless church and injecting it with new faith and zeal, then let us pray that it may have a similar effect upon us as we study it together in the weeks and months to come.