by Rev. Julian Duckworth
Ezekiel is a strange visionary book in the Bible. It is also long. It begins with an amazing vision of wheels within wheels and it ends with a powerful vision of the Temple of God. In between are other visions, parables, judgments, predictions, and symbolic actions, all of which give the whole book an other-worldly eerie feel to it. Yet in all this strangeness there is a single straightforward message from Ezekiel for the people to return to the Lord and to be faithful to their God. There are seventy repeated phrases “Then you/they shall know that I am the Lord.”
The timing of Ezekiel is important. It is written in the period when the Jews were being taken into captivity in Babylon and the first half of the book (1-24) before Jerusalem itself was finally overrun and destroyed. Ezekiel himself is in Babylon, in captivity, writing about the imminence of this coming inevitable destruction. His fellow captives persisted in believing that Jerusalem would never be taken nor the temple destroyed. Ezekiel spelled out that these events would take place and tried to explain why. Later in the book (36-48), after Jerusalem has fallen, Ezekiel’s message dramatically changes and he reveals the future restoration of Israel and the coming glory of Jerusalem. The middle part of the book is a condemnation of the surrounding nations and the ways in which the Lord would eventually bring judgment on them.
It’s not easy to cover everything in Ezekiel, but it will help to highlight the main sections. The first chapter is astounding, being a vision of God but in symbolic pictures. Ezekiel keeps saying that what he sees and describes has a likeness to various images, almost as if he can’t put it into words. First he sees the likeness of a whirlwind engulfed in fire with brightness all round it, out of which come the likeness of four living creatures with four faces each, and four wings. Each living creature moves in a straight line, never turning. And each moves back and forth like a flash of lightning. And then he sees wheels with rims full of eyes, wheels within wheels, each beside one of the living creatures, and going with them wherever they go. And finally a likeness of a throne with a likeness of a man high above it. “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” (1.28)
This is a vision of the power, majesty, energy, all-seeing, all-present, all-knowing will of God. What quickly follows is a tirade against Israel’s rebellion and desecration of their holiness. Passages on punishment are broken up with passages on restoration. Jerusalem is described as a prostitute and an adulteress in no uncertain terms (it isn’t pleasant reading!) and yet the Lord describes His love for her. Ezekiel is commanded to perform several representations, like shaving his head (5) to show the terrible state of the people.
When the Lord speaks of his own undying love for Jerusalem it is like a tender voice, a parent speaking to a wilful child. Perhaps the most moving instance of this comes in chapter 34, where first, the Lord condemns the shepherds of Israel for their own indulgence and irresponsibility in leaving the people without a shepherd, and scattering them (1-10) followed by the Lord’s own yearning and desire to gather his people, bind their wounds and feed them with good pasture. The contrast is immense.
Another vision – well-known – comes in 37, where the dry bones reassemble and reform and then the breath of God enters them and they live, a great army. This is followed, from 40 to the end by the vision of the new temple, a vision of utmost beauty and perfection with exact dimensions and specifications – a picture of the mind and life of someone who is infilled with God’s presence. One lovely image is that he who enters through the north gate shall go out through the south gate and not return the way he came in, reminding us of the change the Lord brings us.
A further wonderful description is of the ever-deepening waters that flow from underneath the door of the temple: first deep to the ankles, then the knees, then the loins and finally too deep to walk through, now waters that must be swum. This is a tremendous description of the way we experience the Word from God.
The best way to meet Ezekiel is to meditate on its imagery and hear the tender appeal of a loving Lord.