Ezekiel: By the Rivers of Babylon
Key Texts: Chapter 18:4 & 18:20
“Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
“The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”
I have often felt the words of Psalm 137 relate strongly to Ezekiel’s position and the days in which he lived. There the captives describe themselves as sitting by the rivers of Babylon weeping, hanging their harps upon the willows because they could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. In Ezekiel 1 we find this man among the captives, by the River Chebar, when God came with stupendous visions. The name Ezekiel means “God strengthens” which is most apt. The times in which he lived were most difficult but God strengthened him with a prophetic ministry to a captive nation.
Ezekiel testifies that he received his first prophecy in the thirtieth year. This date is somewhat obscure, with the scholars being unable to conclusively agree as to what it means. To some it is thirty years after the law was discovered in the days of Josiah, to others Ezekiel was thirty at this time whereas some believe it has some reference to Babylonian chronology. What is clear, however, is that this thirtieth year was also the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity. Therefore five years previously King Jehoiakim was taken by Babylon with Jerusalem being captured. Many captives were forcibly taken to Babylon at this time. Within three months his son Jehoiachin rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, necessitating yet another Babylonian siege and conquest. As Ezekiel makes mention of this Jewish King’s captivity it is very likely that he came to Babylon at this time also. Therefore Ezekiel was a captive in Babylon at the same time as Daniel. It is certain that he knew Daniel or at least was aware of his influence (14:14, 20, 28:3). Where Daniel held high office in the Babylonian Kingdom using his godly influence to great effect Ezekiel, on the other hand, was called to minister to the ordinary Jewish people who suffered the ravages of displacement. As for Ezekiel, it appears that he was blessed with a comfortable life in Babylon enjoying his own home and being blessed with marriage (24:18), although this passage relates the painful episode of her death. He was called to be a prophet in the fourth month of the fifth year of captivity. The latest date given in the book is the twenty-seventh year, meaning that his ministry lasted for twenty-two years and possibly longer.
The Purpose of His Ministry
Ezekiel’s purpose was to show Israel that this calamity had come to pass because of their sin, as the key text illustrates. Personal responsibility, is therefore a key element of the message. At the same time, hope is offered as he calls on the wayward children to repent,
“Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die” (33:11).
He also prophecies of better days when the people will return to their land and enjoy one shepherd (34:23). As EJ Young wrote
“Thus, the book reveals the faithfulness of God to His eternal purposes. The sinful nation must be destroyed, but yet God will not forsake His own.”
The Peculiarities of Ezekiel’s Ministry
Ezekiel is characterised by unique and awe inspiring visions. From his vision of God’s glory in ch1, to the Valley of Dry Bones in ch37 and the amazing temple where God is always present (40-48) he appears as a mystic. In this he bears certain similarity to John who also saw mystical visions, which parallel Ezekiel’s, as he too was a captive, on Patmos. Patrick Fairbairn comments that Ezekiel’s ministry was definitely what was required by Israel at this terrible time in history:
“It was, in truth, precisely such a mind that was needed in the crisis, at which the affairs of the covenant-people had then arrived, when, the external framework of the divine kingdom having fallen to pieces, the interest of God seemed ready to perish, and the very foundations of the faith were tottering at their base. No ordinary man, at such a time, was fitted anew to raise the standard of God’s truth, and rally the prostrate forces of the kingdom. One was needed, who should be capable of living alike in the past and the future, and who could see, as with open eye, and grasp, as with giant’s hand, the hidden realities of faith”
Ezekiel presented the glory of God to a backslidden people, he explained the reason for their present calamity, he foretold the total collapse of the state of Judah while at the same time he offered hope that a brighter and a better day was coming.
Chapters 3:17 & 33:1-20; Ezekiel was the watchman of Israel charged with warning his people of the follies of their sin. As such he represents preachers of all ages as to the solemn obligations of their office.
The Departing Glory of God
From chapter 9:3 to 11:23; Ezekiel relates the story of the departure of God’s presence from Jerusalem. The glory of Jehovah departed slowly and progressively in response to the terrible sin of the nation. This progressive departure warned the people to repent of their sin and be restored to the God of their fathers. Spiritually ignorant people, however, are unable to read the signs of the times, and so Jerusalem collapsed. The Church needs to learn these lessons for the age in which we live, Where souls are not being saved, where the prayer meeting is neglected, where a church haemorrhages her youth and becomes aged – are these not signs that the presence of God is no longer with us as once it was? We must be spiritually sensitive to the times in which we live looking for the tokens of God’s blessing, yes, but being equally moved by the tokens of divine displeasure.
Pictures of Revival
Chapters 11:19 & 36:26 The Heart of Flesh
The stony heart is unresponsive to the will of God but when the Spirit of God moves there is a softening and sensitivity to the Word of God.
Chapter 34 The Recovery of the Neglected Flock
The people of God have suffered because they have been spiritually neglected by Shepherds who were self serving and men pleasers. The flock is recovered, however, by Christ, represented as David (v24). He gathers His people and causes their land to be fruitful once again as He rains down “showers of blessing” (v26).
Chapter 37:1-14 The Valley of Dry Bones
A Church which suffers the deadness of formalism and where all spiritual vibrancy is extinguished. How we need the wind of God to make these bones live?
Understanding the Temple
Chapters 40-48; This is the most mysterious and debated over aspect of Ezekiel’s ministry. Where he had previously foretold of the glory departing he now described a new temple to which the glory would return. To some this was a temple which the Jewish people never enjoyed because of their sin while to others it is a literal temple erected in Israel for the Millennial Reign of Christ. The problem with the first theory is that God does not make promises that He does not intend to fulfil. My difficulty with the second theory is that there are sacrifices in this temple, whereas the New Testament teaches that all sacrifices are rendered obsolete by Christ. I am constrained by the opinion that this temple, and the city in which it is situated, represents the New Kingdom, the New Testament Church. Therefore the strong Jewish imagery is utilised as a spiritual picture of the New Testament age when the God would forever dwell with his people (48:35). This picture will only be fully realised in glory when the ransomed of all ages will join together in the New Jerusalem. The parallels, therefore, between Ezekiel’s temple and John’s vision at the close of Revelation are exceptional.
Chapters 1-7; The First Vision and the Call of the Prophet
Chapters 8-24; The Sins of Israel bringing the Judgement of God
Chapters 25-32; Judgement Upon the Gentile Nations
Chapters 33-397; Revival Among God’s People
Chapters 40-48; The New Kingdom