The era through which Ezekiel lived was one of great change in the Palestine region. It was an era that saw Babylon’s rise to power, the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of God’s people in a foreign land. All these events had an effect on Ezekiel’s personal life and on the work God called him to do. Readers should therefore be familiar with the history of the period in order to understand the man Ezekiel and the message he has preserved in his book.
Judah conquered by Babylon
More than a century before the time of Ezekiel, Assyria had destroyed the northern kingdom Israel and scattered the people in foreign lands. The days of Ezekiel’s childhood coincided with the last days of Assyria’s power. In 612 BC Assyria was conquered by Babylon, who went on to defeat Egypt at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC. With this victory, Babylon became the master of all the nations in the region, including Judah (2 Kings 24:1a,7; Jer 46:2). (For a map showing the locations of these nations, see introductory notes to Jeremiah. For an explanation of the names used of various nations see introductory notes to Isaiah.)
The Babylonian conquerors allowed the Judean king Jehoiakim to continue reigning in Jerusalem, but they placed a heavy tax on Judah. They also took captive to Babylon a small number of intelligent young men whom they chose from the leading families of Jerusalem. One of these was Daniel (Dan 1:1-6).
After submitting to Babylon for several years, Judah rebelled (2 Kings 24:1b). Babylon refrained from taking direct action against Judah till the time was suitable. Then, in 597 BC, its armies returned and attacked Jerusalem. At the time of this attack Judah’s worthless king Jehoiakim died and the eighteen year old Jehoiachin came to the throne. When, after reigning only three months, he saw that Jerusalem could not withstand the Babylonians indefinitely, he surrendered. All the nation’s best people were carried off to Babylon, among them the young man Ezekiel. Only those whom Babylon did not want were left in Jerusalem, and over these the Babylonians appointed Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, as king (2 Kings 24:8- 17).
With all Judah’s most capable administrators now captive in Babylon, Zedekiah was left with an inexperienced government. Few of his advisers were politically or spiritually mature, and they persuaded the weak king to seek Egypt’s help in rebelling against Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah opposed this policy untiringly, for he saw that it would lead only to the horrors of siege and destruction. He advised Judah to accept its fate as God’s will and submit to Babylon (2 Kings 24:18-20; Jer 21:1-10; 27:12-22; 37:6-10).
Ignoring Jeremiah’s advice, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar’s armies returned, and through a cruel siege that lasted a year and six months they crushed the rebellious city. This was the end of Jerusalem (587 BC). The city and its temple were destroyed and many of the people taken captive.
Only the poorest of the people were left in the land, along with scattered villagers in country areas (2 Kings 25:1-12).
Ezekiel in Babylon
Many of the people taken captive to Babylon in 597 BC expected that soon they would return to Jerusalem. Ezekiel, who was one of these captives, no doubt shared their hopes. He was a young priest (Ezek 1:3) and he was probably looking forward to the day when he would serve in the temple in Jerusalem. Any such hopes were destroyed when he heard from Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles that they would spend the rest of their lives in Babylon (Jer 29:1-10). God told Ezekiel that his work was to be as a prophet in Babylon, not as a priest in Jerusalem. Ezekiel began his prophetic work five years after arriving in Babylon and it lasted at least twenty-two years (Ezek 1:2; 29:17).
In the early days of his preaching, Ezekiel denounced the sins of Jerusalem and announced the city’s coming destruction. He made it clear that the people’s present suffering, whether in Jerusalem or in Babylon, was a fitting judgment from God. He warned that for those left in Jerusalem worse was to come, for the city would be destroyed and the temple burnt down when the Babylonians invaded the city for the third and final time (Ezek 4:1-2; 5:12; 6:1-7; 7:5-9).
Ezekiel’s hearers at first rejected his message, claiming that his announcements of the destruction of Jerusalem applied to a future generation, not to them (Ezek 12:27-28). A few years later, when news reached the exiles that Jerusalem had fallen as Ezekiel had prophesied, the people were forced to acknowledge that Ezekiel was a true prophet who knew God’s mind. They started to listen to his teaching, though few genuinely changed their ways (Ezek 33:21,30-33).
Nevertheless, Ezekiel was encouraged to move ahead to his main task, which was the spiritual preparation of God’s people for the new age God had promised them. He looked forward to the day when God’s people, cleansed inwardly from their sin, would worship him truly from the heart and serve him in loving obedience.
Life of the exiles
When taken captive to Babylon, the Jews were not locked up as if in prison. They were placed in various settlements around the country and put to work as unpaid labourers for the Babylonian government (Ezek 3:15). Though they were often treated harshly by their Babylonian overseers (Ps 137:1-6), they were allowed a measure of freedom to live their family and communal lives in these settlements as they pleased (Jer 29:4-7).
Characteristics of Ezekiel’s prophecies
Although he lived in a foreign country and had no chance of serving in God’s temple, Ezekiel retained his interest in the proper functioning of Israel’s religious system. He had been trained for the priesthood, and his book shows the priest’s concern for detail in matters relating to the temple and its services. The exactitude of the priest is further seen in Ezekiel’s practice of carefully dating his messages. He usually dated these according to the year of the exile of King Jehoiachin, which was also the year of his own exile.
Probably the best known characteristic of the book of Ezekiel is its symbolism, something that was naturally of interest to a priest. The interpretation of this symbolism is complicated by the fact that Ezekiel was such an unusual person. He seems to have possessed abnormal mental powers and was able to have unnatural visions. He had a vivid imagination and was emotionally sensitive. He often acted in the strangest manner. All this makes it difficult to understand his book, and encourages caution in interpreting his visions and actions.