Among the people of Judah taken captive to Babylon in 597 BC was the young priest Ezekiel. (For an outline history of the era see JUDAH, TRIBE AND KINGDOM.)
He was only twenty-five years of age at the time and, being a priest, no doubt hoped that soon he would return to Jerusalem and begin his priestly duties in the temple. After he had been in Babylon five years, God made it plain to him that he would not return to Jerusalem. He would become a prophet, or messenger of God, to the Jews in Babylon (Ezek 1:1- 3; 2:3,5,7; 3:4). His prophetic preaching lasted at least twenty-two years (Ezek 29:17), and much of it is recorded in the biblical book that he wrote.
At the time Ezekiel began preaching in Babylon, Jerusalem had not been destroyed. He denounced the sins of its citizens, both those who had been taken to Babylon and those who were still in Jerusalem. He warned that when Babylon finally lost patience, it would destroy city and temple alike (Ezek 4:1-2; 5:12; 6:1-7; 7:5-9). The exiles responded to Ezekiel’s preaching by refusing to believe his prophecies of judgment, but when Jerusalem finally fell they accepted that he was a true prophet. People came to listen to him, but though they regarded him as an unusual and interesting person, they still took little notice of what he said (Ezek 33:21,30-33). Certainly Ezekiel was unusual. He acted some of his messages with very unorthodox behaviour (Ezek 4:1-17; 5:1-17; 12:1-16), gave the most striking and colourful illustrations (Ezek 16:1-63; 17:1-21; 23:1- 49), and recounted the strangest visions (Ezek 1:4-28; 8:1-11:25; 37:1-28). Ezekiel was not just a preacher of doom. He was concerned also with preparing God’s people for the new age they could expect after their restoration to Palestine. In dramatic symbolic pictures he spoke of the ultimate destruction of evil and the triumph of God’s people (Ezek 38:1-39:29). His picture of the golden age was one of an ideal national life, where God dwelt in the midst of his people and they worshipped him in a religious order that was perfect in every detail (Ezek 40:1-48:35).
Contents of the book of Ezekiel
After seeing a vision of the glorious chariot-throne of God (1:1-28), Ezekiel was called by God to take his message to a people who, God warned, would be very stubborn (2:1-3:27). Ezekiel then announced God’s judgment on Jerusalem. Through a number of acted messages, he demonstrated the horrors of siege, slaughter and exile (4:1-5:17). The reason for the nation’s judgment was its idolatry (6:1- 14). Its judgment was certain, and all attempts to withstand Babylon’s attacks were useless (7:1-27). In a fresh series of visions Ezekiel was taken, as it were, to Jerusalem, where he saw people engaging in idolatry in the temple (8:1-18). As God sent his executioners through Jerusalem (9:1-11), his glorious chariot-throne began its sad departure from the city (10:1-22). The city’s leaders were the chief cause of its downfall (11:1-13), though God would preserve the faithful minority (11:14-25). By further acting and preaching, Ezekiel stressed the certainty of the coming siege and exile (12:1-28), and condemned the false prophets who were building up false hopes of security among the doomed people (13:1-23). Idolatry would now get its just punishment (14:1-15:8). The nation as a whole had been unfaithful to God who had so lovingly cared for it (16:1-63), and Zedekiah the king had been treacherous in his political dealings (17:1-24). The people had no one but themselves to blame for the coming judgment (18:1-32), and no king would be able to save them (19:1- 14).
Exile in Babylon was certain (20:1-26), though after cleansing from the filth of idolatry there would be restoration (20:27-44). By further acted messages, Ezekiel indicated the ferocity of the Babylonians’ attack on Jerusalem (20:45-21:32). The nation was corrupt beyond reform (22:1-23:49), and only by destruction could its filth be removed (24:1-27). After recording a number of judgments against foreign nations – Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia (25:1-17), Tyre (26:1-28:19), Sidon (28:20-26), Egypt (29:1-32:32) – Ezekiel spoke of a new phase in his work, namely, the building up of the people in preparation for the return from exile (33:1-20). Jerusalem had now fallen (33:21-33) and Israel could look forward to better government in the future than there had been in the past (34:1-31). Enemies in the land would be removed (35:1-15); restoration was assured (36:1-38). The ‘dead’ nation would come to life again (37:1-28) and God’s people could look forward to the day when all enemies would be destroyed (38:1-39:29). Being a priest, Ezekiel pictured life in the new age as centring on an ideal temple, where God would dwell with his people and they would worship and serve him in true holiness. He described the temple (40:1-42:20), God’s coming to dwell in it (43:1-12), and the service to be carried out there (43:13-44:31). In Ezekiel’s perfectly reconstructed national life, land for priests, Levites and king was justly allocated, and full provision was made for all the national religious festivals (45:1-46:24). Life was one of unending satisfaction, for it came from God himself (47:1-12). The tribes of Israel were given equal portions for their respective tribal territories (47:13-48:29), but the chief blessing was that God now dwelt in the midst of his people for ever (48:30-35).