{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Ezekiel and the Exiles

The great prophetic figure in Babylon during the Exile was Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, a priest who had been deported at the time of Jehoiachin's captivity, eleven years before the destruction of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:12-15). Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon during the years when Jeremiah was uttering God's message to Judah in Jerusalem. The two prophets declared essentially the same truths, but their backgrounds as well as their environment give each a peculiar cast.

As a young man, Ezekiel may have actually ministered in the Jerusalem Temple. He certainly mastered both the ritual and moral law of Israel, and was thouroughly familiar with all of the priestly duties of his office. As a student of the Torah, the "Law" or "instruction" in the widest sense, Ezekiel also came to know the history of his people. He studied about the call of the patriarchs, the deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Law through Moses and the establishment of Israel in Canaan as evidence of the mighty power of God on behalf of His people. Ezekiel was certainly conscious of the many apostasies of Israel, and of the great prophets - men such as Elijah - raised up of God to call His people back from their evil ways. Ezekiel probably had a first-hand knowledge of the teaching of Jeremiah, his older contemporary. He was sympathetic with the great revival under King Josiah, with its implications for his priestly ministry. Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, mourned because of the idolatry of Israel as it was ripe for exile.

Ezekiel's training and priestly service came to an end in 597 B.C. when he was taken to Babylon along with many other talented youths from Judah. Scripture gives us no hint of his age at the time of the exile, Josephus1 says that he was a boy, but this is probably a guess. He may have been thirty years of age at the time, or even older. Neither the record in 2 Kings 24:10-16 nor the Book of Ezekiel mentions priests among those deported with Jehoiachin. Ezekiel was probably taken because of his high reputation among the priests. He must have impressed his contemporaries as a man of uncommon ability, and it was that type of individual that Nebuchadnezzar took into exile.

In Babylon, Ezekiel settled with his fellow countrymen in a community named Tel-abib along the River Chebar, a short distance southeast of Babylon. From an incidental allusion (Ezekiel 8:1) we learn that he was married and had a house of his own. His wife was suddenly taken from him (Ezekiel 24:18). Since she is termed the delight of his eyes (Ezekiel 24:16) we may assume that his marriage was a happy one and that the death of his wife brought genuine grief to the prophet. He used the occasion to warn his countrymen that God was about to bring judgement upon their Temple and their loved ones.

Five years after his deportation, Ezekiel saw a remarkable vision of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1), after which he received a commission to bring God's word to the rebellious house of Israel (Ezekiel 2). He ate the scroll which was offered to him, and found it sweet (Ezekiel 3:1-3). Led by the Spirit, he went to Tel-abib where he remained in silence for seven days (Ezekiel 3:12-15). Reminded that he was responsible to God as a watchman of His people (Ezekiel 3:16-21), he there began his active ministry.

Ezekiel was directed to draw the city plan of Jerusalem on a brick2 and make an iron plate to serve as its wall. This mock city was to be besieged in a realistic way. Ezekiel was told to build a tower, throw up a mound, establish camps, and set battering rams around it (Ezekiel 4:1-3). Then the prophet was instructed to lie on his left side for three hundred and ninety days to symbolically bear the punishment of the house of Israel, and forty days to bear Judah's punishment (Ezekiel 4:4-8). Each day was to represent a year of punishment for Israel and Judah because of their sin. Food and water were to be measured as a reminder that siege conditions would prevail in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:9-17).

The prophet was next instructed to shave his head and beard and wiegh the hair in a balance. A third he burned in the city; a third he struck with the sword outside the city walls; and a third he scattered to the winds. A remnant he bound in his garment, only to throw part into the fire. This symbolic act portrayed the future of Jerusalem: "A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in the midst of you; a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them" (Ezekiel 5:12).

The following year Ezekiel was taken in spirit to Jerusalem where, at the north gate of the inner Temple court, he was shown the "image of jealousy" which provoked the wrath of God (Ezekiel 8:1-6). It derived its name from the fact that it served as a challenge to the rights of the Lord over his people. In the Law, Israel's God declared Himself to be "a jealous God" (Exodus 20:5), and insisted that no image of any kind should receive worship. God said to Ezekiel, "'Son of man, lift up your eyes now in the direction of the north.' So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of this altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. And he said to me, 'Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here to drive me far from my sanctuary?'" (Ezekiel 8:5-6). God did not wish to leave His people. He was being driven away!

Ezekiel was next taken to the Temple wall and ordered to dig. He found a hidden door which opened into a secret room, the walls of which were decorated with serpents and wild beasts (Ezekiel 8:7-10). The description is reminiscent of the walls along the famed Procession Way in the city of Babylon, adorned with lions, bulls, and dragons.3 Seventy elders were inside the room burning incense in an idolatrous ritual (Ezekiel 8:11-13).

At the north gate of the Temple, Ezekiel saw more evidence of idolatry. The women were weeping for Tammuz,4 the Babylonian vegetation deity whose death was mourned each year by his worshippers (Ezekiel 8:14-15). The worst scandal of all was at the Temple entrance. There Ezekiel saw about twenty-five Jerusalemites with their backs to the Temple, facing eastward as they adored the sun god5 (Ezekiel 8:16).

In Ezekiel's vision he saw swift judgement fall on the idolatrous city. God said, "...I will deal in wrath; my eye will not spare nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them" (Ezekiel 8:18). Six executioners were dispatched into the city. Those who shared Ezekiel's sorrow over the abominations of Jerusalem were given a special mark (Ezekiel 9:4). All the others were slain (Ezekiel 9:5-6). Finally, burning coals were scattered over the doomed city (Ezekiel 10:1-2).

Prophets and psalmists had long encouraged Israel to trust in the God who is an ever present help. Ezekiel dared to say that God would forsake Zion. In graphic language he told how God would leave the Holy City. He described the departure of the Shekinah glory cloud from the Holy of Holies in the Temple: "And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherubim to the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord" (Ezekiel 10:4). God seemed to be reluctant to leave. He tarried over the threshold as if to give the people an opportunity to turn from their idols and live. Yet they did nothing to keep the "glory" with them. From the threshold, cherubim lifted the glory cloud to "the door of the east gate of the house of the Lord" (Ezekiel 10:18-19). Finally, "the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city" (Ezekiel 11:23). The glory had left the Holy City! It was hovering over the Mount of Olives as though still reluctant to depart.

The departure of the divine glory symbolized the departure of God. The false prophets were right in insisting that the heathen could never take Jerusalem because God dwelt in the Temple there. They were wrong in assuming that God would continue to make His abode in the midst of a rebellious and idolatrous people. When, six centuries later, another generation was to reject the glory of God in the Person of Jesus Christ, He uttered the fateful words, "Your house is left unto you, desolate" (Matthew 23:38). The Temple, without its God, is simply a house, and God was in no way constrained to preserve its barren walls from the enemy's ax.

By another symbol, Ezekiel translated the message of the departing glory to his people. The prophet dug through the mud brick wall of his house and brought out his personal property, covering his head as he went so he could not see the ground. So, Ezekiel intimated, the king of Judah would come as a captive to Babylon, but he would not be able to see the land (Ezekiel 12:1-13).

Such predictions would hardly make Ezekiel a popular man. Although not subjected to the persecution which Jeremiah endured, Ezekiel, like his counterpart in Jerusalem, found his message opposed by the leaders of the community. Some may have admired Ezekiel's oratory, but few paid serious attention to his utterances. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was frequently opposed by false prophets who made optimistic predictions of a quick return from exile and the re-establishment of the Davidic throne in the person of Jehoiachin (Ezekiel 13:1-10). From time to time the "elders of Judah" consulted Ezekiel, and his selfless indentification with the people must have won him the respect of the spiritually discerning members of the community.

Following the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) we note a marked difference in Ezekiel's ministry. Before Jerusalem fell he could be characterized as the prophet of doom, categorically stating that the Holy City would be forsaken by God and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Afterward, however, he emphasized the hope of a restored Jerusalem, with a restored Temple in which sacrifices would again be offered. It is in the closing chapters of his book that we note Ezekiel's priestly interest in the minutia of Temple worship.

During the latter period of his ministry, Ezekiel was probably given a more sympathetic hearing. His dire predictions had proved correct, and those who had entertained false hopes were now humbled. The fresh influx of exiles brought to Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem probably included some who had been sympathetic with Jeremiah. They would be expected to rally around Ezekiel as a prophet in the same tradition as their former leader.

Ezekiel has been termed the architect of the restoration. The last eight chapters of his book describe the New Jerusalem of the restoration, the city which shall bear the name "The Lord is There" (Ezekiel 48:35). From below the threshold of the Temple, Ezekiel sees waters gushing forth to bring refreshment to the entire land (Ezekiel 47:1). Along the banks of the rivers he sees trees bearing fruit for food and leaves for healing (Ezekiel 47:12).

The Book of Ezekiel is difficult to fathom because of its rich imagery, some of which escapes us because of our removal in time and space from the world in which Ezekiel lived. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel saw Babylon as the rod in God's hand to chasten rebellious Israel. He used all that he observed in drawing lessons for his people. The winged creatures of Babylonian art (Ezekiel 1:8) formed the basis of his vision of the great chariot. Perhaps his knowledge of Babylonian temples as well as his recollection of the Jerusalem Sanctuary and the Scriptures which describe it formed the basis for his description of the Temple in the restored Jerusalem. His long and accurate list of the natural resources and industrial products of different countries (Ezekiel 27) shows him to have been a man of broad experience.

Although interested in the restoration of national Israel, Ezekiel stresses the importance of the individual. He insisted that "the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son" (Ezekiel 18:20; 33:12). He predicted judgement on sinful Israel, but also held forth the possibility of a heart of flesh which might replace the heart of stone. He envisioned a new relationship for those who would be indeed the people of God (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

Daniel of Babylon < | Ezekiel and the Exiles | > Return From Exile

{Old Testament History}

1Josephus, Antiquities, X, vii, 3.

2This would be a clay tablet such as was used for writing. A map of the world as known to the ancient Babylonians appears on such a tablet.

3See Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon.

4See Babylonian Religion.

5See Babylonian Religion.

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