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Ezekiel 1-4

Lawrence Boadt provides this introduction to the book of Ezekiel in his book, Reading the Old Testament….

The most remarkable individual during Israel’s period of exile was the prophet Ezekiel. The opening lines of his book tell us that he was called in the fifth year of the exile, i.e., 593 B. C., at a Jewish settlement on the Chebar (Kebar) River, one of the great canals that brought water from the Euphrates to irrigate the lands around Babylon. He was, like Jeremiah, both a priest and a prophet, although he shows distinct differences from Jeremiah by making more use of his priestly training in his message. On the other hand, many of his oracles are clearly influenced by, and drawn from the work of, his older contemporary Jeremiah. He spoke with a great deal of freedom and seemed to have been very well informed about what was going on back in Jerusalem, sometimes describing scenes in the temple and city that are just like eyewitness accounts. We know that Jeremiah wrote letters to the exiles, and Ezekiel himself mentions messengers who traveled back and forth (Ez 33), so it is most likely that he received word through travelers and used this plus a first-hand knowledge of the temple from the days before he was exiled. But some scholars are so impressed at how vivid his knowledge of Jerusalem is (in chapter 8, for example) that they doubt he could have been anywhere else than in Jerusalem during the last days of Judah.

One reason that they believe this stems from the personality of the prophet as it is described for us in his book. Ezekiel shows strong tendencies toward psychic powers and an older style of prophetic behavior which includes dreams, trances, ecstasy and fantastic visions. He speaks of the hand of the Lord lifting him up and transporting him places, or of the spirit of the Lord moving him. He does symbolic actions which seem impossible for an ordinary person, such as lying on his side for three hundred and ninety days (chapter 4) or not speaking for long periods (chapter 24). Because of these kinds of behavior, many commentators have called Ezekiel a psychotic person, or at least highly neurotic. But they miss an important factor by doing popular psychoanalysis on the prophet. All of his actions and visions draw on very old traditional language used by prophets in earlier centuries. Elijah and Elisha stories often refer to the work of the spirit of God or of the hand of the Lord. Visions and ecstasy are recorded for prophets in the days of both Samuel and Elijah. Many of his own words of warning and judgment are borrowed from the old curses attached to treaties, or from covenant ceremonies of one type or another.

In short, Ezekiel was not crazy, he was very skillfully trying to recreate a sense of trust that God still worked as he always had, and that he still spoke with as much authority and power as he always had. This was no easy task for Ezekiel. The people had seen—and were suffering themselves because of it—how empty and false were most of the comforting words of hope that prophets had spoken to them. It was true that Jeremiah had given warning, but what about the others? Hananiah of Jeremiah 28 and countless more spoke only of the coming victory of God—and never of defeat. Ezekiel sought to restore to prophecy some trust and some leadership for the exiles.

Ezekiel was the first prophet to preach to the people without either the temple or the promised land to show God’s presence. For this reason, the story of his call to be a prophet has an even more important place to play in his book than does that of Jeremiah. In one of the greatest scenes in the Old Testament, Ezekiel describes the appearance of God in majesty upon a chariot throne. The vision of God’s holiness and terrible power overwhelms the prophet, and his description is full of color and shape and motion as he tries to capture the experience. The whole vision takes three chapters to complete, and Jewish tradition has considered it so full of mystical meaning that a person is not allowed to study it until he or she is a mature thirty years old. It shares many qualities with the call of Isaiah in Isaiah 6. God is the Holy One, not like us, but Lord of the world before whom we bow down in humble acceptance of his will. As did Isaiah, Ezekiel eagerly accepts what God sends him, and like Isaiah it turns out to be a message written on a scroll that reads “Lamentation and wailing and woe” (Ez 2:10). God sends him to “a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me to this very day” (Ez 2:3). “Hard of face and stubborn of heart are they to whom I send you” (Ez 2:4). Just as God made Jeremiah a wall of iron and brass against the whole land (Jer 1:18), so God makes Ezekiel’s “face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads; like stone harder than flint I have made your forehead” (Ez 3:8-9).

It was not a commission designed to make Ezekiel any more popular than Jeremiah had been. As the vision ended he went away in “bitterness of spirit, for the hand of the Lord was heavy upon him” (Ez 3:14). Finally, after seven days of shocked meditation, God spoke to him a second time and told him that his role was to be the watchman over Israel. Just as Jeremiah was to have been a “watching tree” (the almond vision of Jeremiah 1:11-12), and Habakkuk had stood in his watchtower (Hb 2:1), so Ezekiel had to sound a warning when he saw what God was about to do. This concept of the prophet’s task stands at the heart of Ezekiel’s thought. He repeats it, not only in chapter 3 when he warns of danger and disaster ahead, but again in chapter 33 when he offers words of hope and future restoration. But he must speak whether anyone listens or not. He has his duty and the people have theirs. If the people fail to hear, that will be their problem, but if he fails to preach, the responsibility will be his.

Boadt also provides this outline of the book….

Chapters 1-24: Oracles against Judah and Jerusalem before 586 B. C.

Chapters 25-32: Oracles against foreign nations

Chapters 33-48: Oracles of hope and restoration for Judah


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