The Gospel According to Ezekiel

The Gospel According to Ezekiel

The Gospel According to Ezekiel.

While Isaiah is the prophet of God the Son, and Jeremiah is the prophet of God the Father, Ezekiel is known as the prophet of the Holy Spirit. He repeatedly reports that “the Spirit entered me,” or “the Spirit lifted me up,” or “the Spirit of the Lord fell on me.” Ezekiel makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit is the driving force throughout his book. The Spirit is in charge. The book of Ezekiel could just as easily be called “the gospel according to the Holy Spirit.”

CONTEXT. Ezekiel was called to be in exile with all the other Israelites in Babylon. They all felt abandoned, defeated, and hopeless. They were in enemy territory 600 miles from their homeland, and everything they once had was now gone…. the comforts of home, their close-knit families, their livelihoods, and most of all, the presence of God. The Israelites were cut off from their Temple, and they felt spiritually dead with no hope of recovery. They were beyond discouraged, for they had nothing  left that felt life-giving. They too were subdued with guilt, knowing that their Temple was desecrated by the Israelites before even the destruction of Jerusalem. God had abandoned their Temple even before they were exiled. As Ezekiel reported in chapters 10 and 11, the glory of the Lord left the Temple because of their desecration. Added to their sense of hopelessness and their shame, they had to endure for over 100 years the devastating fracture within  the house of Israel. There was the nation of  Israel in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south, a broken nation of God’s chosen people. And there was no hope of reunion any time soon.

2:1-8 – “Stand up, son of man,’ said the Voice, ‘I want to speak with you.’ The Spirit came into me as He spoke, and He set me on my feet. I listened carefully to His words. ‘Son of man,’ he said, ‘I am sending you to the nation of Israel, a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. They are stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, this is what the Sovereign Lord says! And whether they listen or refuse to listen – for remember, they are rebels – at least they will know they have had a prophet among them. Son of Man, do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briers and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels. You must give them my messages whether they listen or not. But they won’t listen, for they are completely rebellious! Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth, and eat what I give you.’ Then I looked and saw a hand reaching out to me. It held a scroll.”

Ezekiel’s calling was very similar to that of Isaiah and Jeremiah. God handpicked him to demonstrate His Word and preach His message. Ezekiel’s success was based on how faithful he was to God’s call, regardless of whether the people responded or not. These three major prophets did their work and found little openness in the hearts and minds of the people. There were times when the exiles were unkind to Ezekiel, bordering on abusive. But Ezekiel stayed true and faithful throughout his ministry. God told Ezekiel during His call to him to be unafraid, to be fearless when the people ridiculed or rejected him. God repeated that command three times…. don’t be afraid; do not fear. do not be dismayed. It appears that directive from God was received, because Ezekiel was indeed a fearless prophet unafraid to make a fool of himself, in the face of consistent opposition.

3:1-4 – “Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what you find: eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this scroll. And He said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your stomach, and fill your body with this scroll which I am giving you.’ Then I ate it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth. Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them.” In telling Ezekiel to eat the scroll, the Lord is saying that before Ezekiel can speak God’s word to the people, he must first take those words into himself. God’s word needs to be consumed before Ezekiel can become His mouthpiece. It’s the prophetic cycle… First, the message goes into his mouth, and only then the message goes out of his mouth. Full digestion is the goal in our spiritual diet. The Lord literally told Ezekiel to “fill your inner parts.” God’s word is chewed, swallowed, digested, and then assimilated into his mind, heart, spirit, his inner gut. God’s word is spiritual food, making the one who eats it grow and increase in strength and vitality. Without God’s word, the believer would not enjoy the abundance of spiritual nutrition it provides. And how does this word taste? It is sweet, just as Jeremiah experienced it (Jer. 15:16), and just as the psalmist observed: “How sweet are your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). And it seems the Word only gets sweeter as one continues to eat it.

If the biblical world was a classroom, God’s prophets were the visual aids. As God’s mouthpieces, they were often called upon to be symbols for His messages. Since they were instructed to be dramatic illustrations of the Word of the Lord, the people not only heard the Word, they literally saw the Word. So they were often asked to make spectacles of themselves. Every so often, they went from being God’s mouthpieces to God’s megaphones. They were thus often held up for ridicule, mockery and rejection. Because prophets were obedient to a fairly unpredictable God, they were often dismissed as eccentrics and not taken seriously. Prophets were often instructed to be living object lessons, so they had to learn how to swallow their pride and embrace public humiliation. Sometimes prophets did things that should be glossed over in Sunday School, if not totally ignored. At times we feel the need to wince when we read of a prophet’s antics, and we want to file it under “Do not try this at home.” We can often take a light-hearted approach to their street theater. In such cases we can take to heart G. K. Chesterton’s observation, “He who has the Faith has the fun.” But other times their performance art is not mere comic relief. It is difficult and serious, and definitely not fun. All this translates into God’s biblical prophets being spiritual live wires, engaging personalities, and real characters. The prophets may have struggled at times with God’s instructions. But in the end they settled into being fools for God.

God really put Ezekiel through the ringer. He was a Hebrew prophet, a priest and a street preacher in Babylon during the captivity of the Israelites. God appointed him at the tender age of 30 years old, and he continued in this role for 22 years. Time and again, God asked Ezekiel to demonstrate the Word of the Lord. God seemed to have a larger list of expectations for Ezekiel than most other prophets, and so Ezekiel had the widest spectrum of methods as he spoke and demonstrated what God had on His mind. You name a method and he did it: visual aid, demonstration, show and tell, poems, proverbs, parables, direct prophecies, and visions that were other-worldly and difficult to comprehend. Ezekiel tended to preach about Israel’s judgment as well as its salvation. He experienced many otherworldly visions, both apocalyptic and heavenly. He had a rich and lively imagination that was put to good use by the Lord. God showed a sense of humor when He told Ezekiel that He is going to make him just as stubborn as the Israelites in exile. “I have made you as obstinate as they are. I have made your forehead as hard as granite. So don’t be afraid of them.” (3:8). The Lord asked him to engage in street theater that was sometimes a bit comical… At times during his preaching the Lord would ask him to clap his hands, stamp his feet and cry ‘Alas!’ (6:11). Or the Lord would ask him to cry and wail and slap his thighs to get attention. (21:12).  Here are some of the other theatrics the Lord asked of Ezekiel.

  1. At the start of his ministry, God told Ezekiel to lock himself into his house and bind himself with ropes so he couldn’t move. Not only that, but God told Ezekiel that He will make him tongue-tied as well, and He would loosen his tongue only when He had a message to give to the people. Interestingly, this takes Ezekiel out of a public ministry while this was going on. According to Scripture, Ezekiel was out of circulation for about seven and a half years. So God chose him to be  public spokesman, then locks him in the house. The Lord works in mysterious ways. (chapter 3).
  2. This turns out to be a rather uncomfortable assignment from the Lord. God told Ezekiel to lie on his right side for 390 days. In this way, he was to illustrate the sins of Israel, one day for each year of Israel’s sinfulness. But he wasn’t done with this ministry of lying on his side. God then wanted him to lie on his left side for 40 days, representing Judah’s sinfulness, one day for each year. Ezekiel seemed to take this assignment in stride without an objection. (chapter 4).
  3. While lying on his side, Ezekiel was to bake a flat bread composed of God’s special recipe. He was to bake this bread over a fire fueled by human excrement. You heard me right, human waste. Ezekiel complained to the Lord that this would violate the priestly purity laws (that God made up in the first place), so God relented and said, okay, you can use cow dung for your fuel. That’s the Lord being flexible. (chapter 4).
  4. God then asked Ezekiel to take a sharpened sword and shave his head and his beard. Ezekiel wasn’t thrilled about this, because shaving in his culture represented grief and shame. It was humiliating for him to shave, but he did it anyway. I wonder if he had a tough time looking people in the eyes during this object lesson. (chapter 5).
  5. The Lord then asked Ezekiel to act out the movements of those going into exile. So Ezekiel had to pack up his bare necessities, whatever he could carry in a sack over his shoulder. He then was instructed to climb through a hole in a wall with his sack in the middle of the night, and walk away from home for parts unknown. All this was done in public so the people wouldn’t miss the point. (chapter 12).
  6. Later on Ezekiel was told to stand up in the middle of the street in a public setting and sing a long solo, a funeral song. The problem was that no one in particular had died. He might have looked a little foolish doing this. And then later, when he had a good reason to sing a funeral song, God told him not to mourn his wife’s death in public. She had just died, and he wanted to mourn properly, but he was told to refrain from all the funeral rituals, no grief, no tears. So when there was good reason to mourn with a funeral song, Ezekiel wasn’t allowed to do it. And when there was no reason whatsoever to sing a funeral song in public, there he was singing his solo on a street corner. All this is exactly the opposite of what the people were expecting, and they no doubt were all scratching their heads. (chapters 19 and 24).

Even with all these attention-grabbing theatrics, those Israelites in Babylon were stubborn and resistant to the Word of the Lord. For most of them, Ezekiel seemed to be no more than an interesting distraction. That’s highly unfortunate, because with every one of these prophetic visual aids, God was trying to make a serious point. Sometimes, that’s the problem with prophets and their demonstrations. One is tempted to see them as performers, not prophets of the Lord.

34:11-16 – “For thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day… I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,’ declares the Lord God. ‘I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick.” These words from the Lord declare the everlasting fact that only God can be a good shepherd for His people. The Lord’s message here anticipates Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10), and reveals the heart of the Lord in caring for His sheep.

34:23-25 – “Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; He will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them. I, the Lord have spoken. And I will make a covenant of peace with them.” This is clearly a messianic prophecy, promising one shepherd over Israel. This shepherd is a “son of David,” and can only refer to the Messiah sent by the Lord in the line of David, Jesus Christ.

37:1-14“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones.” (verse 1). God had another serious point to make, so He brought Ezekiel into a vision that proved to make a profound statement. This was not the first vision for Ezekiel. His visions were not literal experiences, but they were said to be dream-like, very realistic, and occurred in some unknown place… not heaven, not earth, but in some “third place”. This valley, which also could have been translated as “plain,” could have been in some extraterrestrial place during a prophetic ecstasy, or it could have been the same valley where he met the Lord in Ez. 3:22, “Then the Lord took hold of me and said, ‘Get up and go out into the valley and I will speak to you there.’ So I got up and went, and there I saw the glory of the Lord, just as I had seen in my first vision by the Kebar River. And I fell face down on the ground.”

HOPE. Just preceding Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, he spoke words of hope and consolation to the Israelites. He said that Israel would be restored as a nation one day, and the people would return  home (Ez. 36). The people probably found this hard to believe, since everything looked so hopeless. Ezekiel also spoke God’s promise to judge the nations who were used to punish Israel. But God didn’t stop with those hopeful words. Ezekiel went on to say that God would purify His people in a dramatically unique way. “And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my teachings and be careful to obey my commands.” (Ez. 36:26-27). God promised to transform, renew, and empower His people to do His will. This promise reflects the New Covenant with Jesus and the Holy Spirit given to us by God. But at this time in Israel’s history, Ezekiel’s prophecy begs a number of questions: What will this look like? How will God perform these spiritual miracles? When will this transformation take place?

RUAH. There is extended use in this vision of the Hebrew word ruah, which can be translated as wind, breath or spirit. All three are similar in that they are invisible movements of God that are life-giving. Notice the uses of breath, wind and spirit in this vision, and remember that God is always the Source of ruah.

THE VISION. As if to answer those questions inspired by the prophecy of a new heart and spirit, Ezekiel experiences a vision that is like no other, and continues to capture the imagination of all Bible readers (Please read Ezekiel 37:1-14). God explained the meaning of this vision very clearly in the last paragraph (verses 11-14). There is a lot to unpack in this relatively short vision.

Having this fantastic vision was nothing new to Ezekiel, so he seems to take this extraordinary experience in stride. He wasn’t shocked, he wasn’t dismayed, he didn’t faint. When the Lord asked him at the start if these bones could come back to life, Ezekiel didn’t laugh, and he didn’t hesitate in his answer: “Only you know the answer to that, Lord.” He didn’t answer “Of course!” just to placate the Lord, and he didn’t answer “No way!” as if to reveal a lack of faith in God’s supernatural power. He answered the way we would hope to answer, “God only knows if these bones can come back to life.” If God’s question didn’t seem strange enough, God then asked him to talk to those dead bones, as if they could hear him prophecy to them. Dead bones are inanimate, and they don’t have ears to hear anything. But Ezekiel was nonplussed. We don’t know if he felt foolish doing this, or if maybe he questioned in his own mind if God knew what He was doing. But Ezekiel took the Lord at His word and spoke to those dead bones as if they had ears to hear. Ezekiel just goes with the flow of God’s instructions, no matter how foolish they seem. After speaking to the bones, God asked Ezekiel to speak to the wind, another impossible task. Once again, he didn’t hesitate to do what God asked. One wonders if these amazing things in the vision would have happened if Ezekiel hadn’t cooperated. Did God depend on Elijah to make all this happen, or did God just enjoy having Ezekiel a part of this process? We don’t know, but Ezekiel surely had a major hand in all that transpired in the vision.  By the end of the vision, Ezekiel surely agreed with the Lord… Yes, these dead bones are definitely like the Israelites, no responses by them to all these theatrics I go through, no signs of vitality at all. These Israelites really do seem as good as dead!

PROCESS. It’s interesting that there were many stages in this miracle with the bones. First, there was the stirring of the bones, the noticeable rattling. Then the bones somehow assembled themselves together to make a skeleton. Then there is the addition of the sinews and fleshy organs to the bones. Then there is the skin covering all the flesh. Then the breath of God gives life to those assembled bodies. One wonders if that was the order of events in the original creation of man in Genesis 1 and 2. Certainly in both cases, the creation of man and recreation of the bones, the breath of God is what gave life to the flesh and bones. And that very same breath gives life to all of us and to all creatures everywhere.

RESURRECTION. If nothing else, this vision was all about resurrection. There are hints throughout the Hebrew Bible of the resurrection, and this is another one. God here is putting an idea out there for the Israelites to consider: the resurrection of the body. There are other Scriptures in the Hebrew Bible that foreshadow or hint at the resurrection of the body:

  1. He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8)
  2. “Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust.” (Isaiah 26:19).
  3. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2).
  4. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself.” (Job 19:25-26).
  5. “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction!”  (Hosea 13:14).

The early Church leaders and scholars saw in Ezekiel’s vision a glimpse of the general resurrection at the Last Day. The early Father St. Ambrose of Milan once said, “Great is the lovingkindness of the Lord, that the prophet is taken as a witness of the future resurrection, that we might see it with his eyes.” By the time of Jesus, the general resurrection was commonly accepted in Jewish circles, except for groups like the Sadducees. Any doubts on this would have been put to rest after Jesus the Messiah said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Those very words could have been spoken by Yahweh Himself at the valley of dry bones. This vision makes it easier for us to imagine the New Jerusalem, when God’s people will be resurrected one day at the Lord’s command.

PICTURES. Ezekiel wrote this extraordinary vision down and addressed it to the Jews in exile. They were the intended audience, and the vision was meant for them. This compelling story was not written to us, but very well was written for us. Paul tells us that various stories in the Hebrew Scriptures were written as examples, to “fit us for right action by good instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). Paul also told the Romans that “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by our steadfast and patient endurance and the encouragement drawn from Scriptures we might hold fast and cherish hope.” (Romans 15:4), Amplified bible). So what can we learn from Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones for our lives today? For one thing, we see a striking picture of how God is the source of life for us. We may have been dead in sin, but God is able to breathe into us through His Holy Spirit and restore us to life eternal. Our spiritual bones were bleached white with no sign of life, and God came to the rescue and breathed new life into us as individuals. We also see in this vision a startling picture of how God can revive a church body to new life. God can take a church that appears for all intents and purposes to be dead, and through His Spirit breathe new life into that church and faith community to bring a supernatural revival. God’s Spirit can make all things new and full of life, whether as individual believers or as a body of believers. Hear the Word of the Lord.

No matter how strongly Ezekiel preached about the holiness and moral perfection of Yahweh, the people wouldn’t respond. They were consistently stubborn, rebellious, and they simply wouldn’t admit their sinfulness, just as the Lord had warned at Ezekiel’s calling. Ezekiel closed his autobiographical book by preaching messianic prophesies about the new Kingdom of God and the new Temple. His somewhat discouraging book closed on a high note of hopefulness. The name Ezekiel means “God strengthens,” and his life is a powerful testimony to that fact.