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by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Ezekiel
We know scarcely anything of Ezekiel except what we learn from the book that bears his name. Of the date and authorship of this book there has scarcely been any serious question. The Book of Ezekiel has always formed part of the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament. Ezekiel is found in the most ancient versions.
Ezekiel , “God strengtheneth” or “hardeneth,” was the son of Buzi, a priest probably of the family of Zadok. He was one of those who went into exile with Jehoiachin 2 Kings 24:14, and would seem to have belonged to the higher class, a supposition agreeing with the consideration accorded to him by his fellow exiles (Ezekiel 8:1, etc.). The chief scene of his ministry was Tel-Abib in northern Mesopotamia, on the river Chebar, along the banks of which were the settlements of the exiles. He was probably born in or near Jerusalem, where he must certainly have lived many years before he was carried into exile. The date of his entering upon the prophetic office is given in Ezekiel 1:1; and if, as is not unlikely, he entered upon this office at the legal age of 30, he must have been about 14 years of age when Josiah died. In this case, he could not have exercised the priestly functions at Jerusalem. However, since his father was a priest Ezekiel 1:3, no doubt he was brought up in the courts of the temple, and so became familiar with its services and arrangements.
Ezekiel lived in a house of his own, was married, and lost his wife in the ninth year of his exile. Of the rest of his life we know nothing.
The period during which Ezekiel prophesied in Chaldea was signalized by the miserable reign of Zedekiah, ending in his imprisonment and death - by the destruction of the temple, the sack of Jerusalem, and the final deportation of its inhabitants - by Gedaliah’s short regency over the poor remnant left behind in the country, his treacherous murder, and the flight of the conspirators, conveying Jeremiah with them into Egypt - and by Nebuchadnezzars conquests in the neighboring countries, and especially his prolonged siege of Tyre.
The year in which Ezekiel delivered his prophecies against Egypt corresponds with the first year of the reign of Pharaoh-Hophra, the Apries of Herodotus. The accession (589 b.c.) of this king to the Egyptian throne affected very materially the future of the kingdom of Judah. Since the first capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews had found the service of the Chaldaeans a hard one, and were ready at any moment to rise and shake off the yoke. Egypt was the only power from which they could hope for effectual support; and Egypt had long been inactive. The power of Necho was broken at Carchemish (605 b.c., Jeremiah 46:2; 2 Kings 24:7). Apries, during his reign of 19 years, was determined to recover the ground which his grandfather and father had lost in Palestine and in Syria. No doubt rumors of these designs had reached the Jews, both in Jerusalem and in captivity, and they were watching their opportunity to break with Babylon and ally themselves with Egypt. Against such an alliance Ezekiel came forward to protest. He told his countrymen that their hopes of safety did not lay in shaking off a yoke, which they could not do without the grossest perjury, but in repenting of their sins and turning to the God of their fathers.
The fallacy of the hopes entertained by the Jews of deliverance through Egypt was soon made manifest. In the course of the final siege of Jerusalem, Hophra attempted a diversion which proved unsuccessful. Nebuchadnezzar left the siege of Jerusalem to attack the Egyptians, who - forced to retreat over the borders - offered no further resistance to the captor of Jerusalem Jeremiah 37:5-8. It was at this time that Ezekiel commenced the series of prophecies against Egypt Ezek. 29–32, which were continued until the blow fell upon that country and ended in the ruin and deposition of Pharaoh-Hophra.
This book throws much light upon the condition and the feelings of the Jews both in the holy land and in exile, and upon the relation of the two parties to each other.
Idolatry remained in Jerusalem, even among the priests and in the temple Ezekiel 8:5., and clung to the exiles Ezekiel 14:3., though probably in a less decided degree. Mixed up with this unfaithfulness to the true God there was prevalent a superstitious confidence in His disposition to protect the city and people, once His own. Utterly disregarding the conditional character of His promises, and the more spiritual nature of His blessings, people satisfied themselves that the once glorious Jerusalem never would and never could be overthrown Ezekiel 13:2. Hence, arose the foolish rebellions of Zedekiah, commencing in reckless perjury, and terminating in calamity and disgrace. Connected with this feeling was a strange reversal of the relative positions of the exiles and of the Jews at home. The latter, though only the most ordinary of the people 2 Kings 24:14, afflicted to despise their exiled countrymen Ezekiel 11:14.; and Ezekiel had to assure his fellow-exiles that to them and not to the Jews in Palestine belonged the enduring title of God’s people Ezekiel 11:16-17, Ezekiel 11:20.
But though the voice of the prophet may have sounded back to the country which he had left, yet Ezekiel’s special mission was to those among whom he dwelt.
(a) He had to convince them of God’s utter abhorrence of idolatry, and of the sure and irrevocable doom of those who practiced it;
(b) He had to show that the Chaldaeans were the instruments of God, and that therefore resistance to them was both hopeless and unlawful;
(c) He had to destroy their presumptuous confidence in external privileges, to open their eyes to a truer sense of the nature of the divine promises; and, lastly,
(d) He had to raise their drooping hearts by unfolding to them the true character of the divine government, and the end for which it was administered.
The Book of Ezekiel may be said in this respect to be the moral of the captivity. The captivity was not simply a divine judgment, but a preparation for a better state, an awakening of higher hopes. It was Ezekiel’s part to direct and satisfy these hopes. He was to set before his countrymen the prospect of a restoration, reaching far beyond a return to their native soil; he was to point to an inauguration of divine worship far more solemn than what was to be secured by the reconstruction of the city or temple on its original site in its original form. Their very condition was intended, and was calculated, to stir their hearts to their inmost depths, and awaken thoughts which must find their answer in the messages characteristic of Gospel truth. In the Law there had been intimations of restoration upon repentance Deuteronomy 30:1-10 : but this is expanded by Ezekiel Ezekiel 18:0, and the operations of the Holy Spirit are brought prominently forward Ezekiel 37:9-10.
The mission of Ezekiel should be compared with that of his countryman, Jeremiah, who began his prophetic office earlier, but continued it through the best part of the time during which Ezekiel himself labored. Both had to deliver much the same messages, and there is a marked similarity in their utterances. But Jeremiah’s mission was incomparably the more mournful one. Ezekiel’s task was, indeed, a bitter one; but personally he soon acquired respect and attention, and if at first opposed, was at last listened to if not obeyed. He may have been instrumental, together with Daniel, in working that reformation in the Jewish people, which certainly was, to some extent, effected during the captivity.
One of the immediate effects of the captivity was the reunion of the severed tribes of Israel. The political reasons which had severed them were at an end; a common lot begat sympathy in the sufferers; and those of the ten tribes who even in their separation had been conscious of a natural unity, and could not but recognize in the representative of David the true center of union, would be naturally inclined to seek this rarity in amalgamation with the exiles of Judah. In the course of the years which had elapsed since their exile, the numbers of the ten tribes may well have wasted away, partly through absorption among the pagan who surrounded them; and thus the exiles from Judah may have far exceeded in number and importance those who yet remained of the exiles of Israel. Accordingly, we find in Ezekiel the terms which Judah and Israel applied indiscriminatey to those among whom the prophet dwelt (see Ezekiel 14:1); and the sins of Israel, no less than those of Judah, are summed up in the reproof of his countrymen.
All descendants of Abraham were again being drawn together as one people, and this was to be effected by the separated members gathering again around the legitimate center of government and of worship, under the supremacy of Judah. The amalgamation of the exiles of Israel and of Judah is in fact distinctly predicted by Jeremiah Jeremiah 3:18; a prediction which had its accomplishment in the restoration of the people to their native land by the decree of Cyrus (compare also Ezekiel 37:16.). Attempts have been made from time to time to discover the LOST ten tribes, by persons expecting to find, or thinking that they have found, them existing still as a separate community. According to the foregoing view, the time of captivity was the time of reunion. Ezekiel’s mission was “to the house of Israel,” not only to those who came out with him from Jerusalem or Judah, but to those also of the stock whom he found residing in a foreign land, where they had been settled for more than 100 years Ezekiel 37:16; Ezekiel 48:1.
The order and the character of the prophecies which this book contains are in strict accordance with the prophet’s mission. His first utterances are those of bitter denunciation of judgment upon a rebellious people, and these threatenings are continued until the storm breaks in full fury upon the deserted city. Then the note is changed. There are yet indeed threatenings, but they are for unfaithful shepherds, and for the enemies of God’s people. The remainder of the book is full of reassurances, of hopes and promises of renovation and blessing, in which the spiritual predominates over the temporal, and the kingdom of Christ takes the place of the kingdom upon Mount Zion.
The prophecies are therefore in general arranged in chronological order. So far as the people of God were concerned, there are two chief groups:
(1) those delivered before the destruction of the city Ezek. 1–24,
(2) those delivered after the destruction of the city Ezek. 33–48.
There was an interval during which the prophet’s mouth was closed so far as regarded the children of his people, from the ninth to the twelfth year of the captivity. During this interval, he was guided to utter words of threatening to the pagan nations, and these utterances find their place Ezek. 25–32. They form a suitable transition from the declaration of God’s wrath to that of His mercy toward His people, because the punishment of their enemies is in itself a part of the deliverance of His people. But the arrangement of these prophecies against the pagan is rather local than chronological, so that, as in the case of Egypt, several prophecies delivered at various times on the same subject are brought together.
The leading characteristics of Ezekiel’s prophecies are, first, his use of visions; secondly, his constant reference to the earlier writings of the Old Testament. The second of these characteristics is especially seen by his application of the Pentateuch. It is not merely the voice of a priest, imbued with the Law which it was his profession to study. It is the voice of the Holy Spirit Himself, teaching us that the Law, which came from God, is always just, wise, and holy, and preparing the way for the enlarged interpretation of the ancient testimonies, which our blessed Lord Himself promulgated afterward.
In regard to visions, the most striking is that in which is revealed the majesty of God to him (See the Ezekiel 1:0 notes). Besides these are visions of ideal scenes (e. g. Ezekiel 8:0) and of symbolic actions (e. g. Ezekiel 4:0.).
The temple and its services furnish much of the imagery and figurative language of the book. These ordinances were but the shell containing within the kernels of eternal truth; these were the shadows, not the substance; and when the Spirit of God would reveal by the mouth of Ezekiel spiritual realities, He permitted the prophet to clothe them in those symbols with which he and his country were familiar. Some have insisted that the language of the prophet takes its color from the scenes which surround him, that “the living creatures” Ezekiel 1:0, for instance, were suggested by the strange forms of Assyrian sculpture familiar to us through recent explorations. But these living creatures (like the Seraphim of Isaiah, Isaiah 6:2) have much more in common with the cherubim of the Jewish temple than with the winged figures of Assyria. And though, here and there, we find traces of the place of his sojourn (as in Ezekiel 4:1), it is but seldom. By the waters of Babylon the prophet remembered Zion, and his language, like his subject, was, for the most part, not of Chaldaea but of Jerusalem.
The various systems of interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecies have been summed up under the heads of:
To many the prophecy is still in the course of fulfillment. The temple in its completeness is for the time when the kingdom of Christ shall be fully established, and He shall have put down all rule and all principalities and power, to deliver up the kingdom unto the Father, that God may be all in all (see the Ezekiel 37:0 notes).
The relation of the visions of Ezekiel to those of the Book of Revelation is very marked. So much is common to the two books that it is impossible to doubt that there is in the Revelation of John a designed reference to the older seer. It is not merely that the same images are employed, which might be supposed naturally to belong to a common apocalyptic language, but in some of the visions there is a resemblance which can only be accounted for by an identity of subject; and as the subject is by John often more precisely defined, the later vision throws great light upon the former. For example, the opening visions of Ezekiel and of John can scarcely be otherwise than substantially identical. Since there can be no doubt as to who is designated by John, we are led by an irresistible conclusion to recognize in the vision of Ezekiel the manifestation of the glory of God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who was made man, “in whom dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” But while the central object is the same there are marked differences in the two visions.
In Ezekiel, the various particulars are parts of one whole, which represents the manifestations of the glory of God upon “earth,” and in all the creatures of the “earth:” in John the scene is “heaven.” Again, a characteristic feature of Ezekiel’s prophecy is the declaration of God’s judgments, first against the rebellious city, and then against the enemies of the chosen people. In the Book of Revelation the same figures, both to denote wickedness and its punishment, which are by Ezekiel applied to idolatrous Judah, are by John turned upon idolatrous Babylon. The image of Babylon as “the great whore” finds its parallel in the whoredoms of Aholah and Aholibah Ezekiel 23:0, and the judgment is pronounced upon the former in the very terms which in Ezekiel are employed against the latter (compare Revelation 17:16 and Ezekiel 23:36, etc.). The repetition of such descriptions by the Christian seer must be owing to something more than the mere employment of figurative language already in use; in fact, just as our Lord’s predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem are so mixed up with those of the end of the world, that we learn to regard the destruction of the city as the type and anticipation of the final judgment, so in the adoption of Ezekiel’s language and figures by John, we see a proof of the extended meaning of the older prophecies. It is one conflict, waged from the first, and waging still; the conflict of evil with good, of the world with God, to be accomplished only in the final consummation, to which the Book of Revelation manifestly conducts us.
There is one feature in the writings of Ezekiel, which deserves particular notice. This is (to use a modern term) their eschatological character, i. e. their reference not merely to “an” end, but to “the” very end of all (see, e. g. Ezekiel 7:0; Ezekiel 36:0). There are many parts which have special reference to the circumstances of the prophet and his countrymen. The local and the temporary seem to predominate; but looking closely, more than this is to be found. The reiteration of the threats of the Law by Ezekiel proves that the events which he predicts form part of that plan which was set forth at the commencement of the national life of the children of Israel. And, since this fundamental plan of government reached beyond the time of any one particular visitation, so Ezekiel’s predictions of siege, of slaughter, of dispersion, did not have their final accomplishment in the consequences of the Chaldaean conquest.
This is borne out by the history of the Jewish nation. There is no city of which such dreadful sieges are recorded as the city of Jerusalem. The horrors predicted by Moses and by Ezekiel have had their literal fulfillment on more than one occasion; yet the discourses of our Lord Matthew 24:0; Luke 21:0 repeat the same predictions, and manifestly look forward to the end of time, to the final judgment of the world. Since, therefore, each temporal judgment foreshadows the final retribution, so one prophecy may be directly addressed to many periods of time, in all of which the immutable law illustrates itself in the history of nations and individuals. This gives the principle upon which we are to interpret even those passages in Ezekiel which seem most particularly to refer to Israel and to Jerusalem. John the Baptist, Paul, and our Lord Himself, teach us to regard believers in Christ as the true Israel, the real children of Abraham; and this because connected with the truth, that the institution of the Church of Christ is only a continuance of the plan according to which God called Abraham out of the world, and separated his descendants to be a special people to Himself. Israel represents the visible church, brought into special relation with God Himself. The prophetic warnings have therefore their applications to the Christian church when neglectful of the obligations which such relation imposes.
Many of the calamities of Christendom have been the direct consequence of departure from the principles of the law of Christ (compare James 4:1). These predictions of Ezekiel are therefore not to be interpreted simply as illustrative of, but as directly predictive of, the future of the church, Jewish and Christian, until the end of time. This view is confirmed by the introduction of passages setting forth in the strongest terms individual responsibility (see especially Ezekiel 18:0). Their unique appropriateness to such a book as that of Ezekiel is best seen when we perceive that he is addressing, not simply the historical Israel of his own day, but the whole body who have been, like Israel of old, called forth to be God’s people, and who will be called to strict account for the neglect of their consequent privileges (see Ezekiel 11:19.).
The parts of the book were probably arranged by the prophet himself, who, at the same time, prefixed the dates to the several prophecies. The precision of these dates affords a clear proof that the prophecies were in the first instance orally delivered, written down at the time of their delivery, and afterward, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, put together into one volume, to form a part of those Scriptures which God has bequeathed as a perpetual inheritance to His church.
Some have thought that the frequent insertion of passages from older writers is characteristic rather of an author than of a prophet; but even if Ezekiel, the priest, imbued not only with the spirit, but also with the letter, of the Law engrafted it upon his predictions, this can in no degree lessen the authority of his commission as a prophet. The greater part of this book is written in prose, although the images employed are highly poetical. Some portions, however, may be regarded as poetry; as, for instance, the dirge of the kings Ezekiel 19:1-14, the lay of the sword Ezekiel 21:8, the dirges of Tyre Ezekiel 27:0; Ezekiel 28:0 and of Egypt Ezek. 31–32. The language bears marks of the later style, which was introduced at the time of the Babylonian captivity.
Points of contact in the writings of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John, are numerous, and the principal will be found noted in the marginal references.
the Fifth Week after Epiphany