Of all the prophets who had tough ministries to Israel, no one had a tougher ministry than Ezekiel. His name means “God strengthens,” and he is definitely made of gristle, given the breath-taking nature of what God called him to do, both overall and in detail. Unlike Jeremiah though, he offers up no laments about how difficult it is. Tough stuff!
We do not know much of his backstory, though there are hints to it. He was a Levitical priest of the family of Buzi (1:3), who had been taken to Babylon with the second group of exiles during the reign of Jehoiachin (597 BC). Ezekiel 1:1-3 dates his first prophetic message in "the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin," thus 593 BC. This tells us that the timing of things is important to Ezekiel’s message, but perhaps for reasons that are not readily apparent.
Some struggle with whether the punishments God inflicted on the nation fit their crimes. The prophets struggled with this too (like Habakkuk), and so God does a unique thing with Ezekiel by taking him on a “spiritual field trip” of Jerusalem (Ezek. 8). He inducts Ezekiel into his own pain and disgust, showing the prophet all the disgusting idolatries of the leaders and priests of the people, how they were breaking/had broken the covenant. After each, God says to him: “Do you see this, son of man? Yet you will see still greater abominations than these.” The tour culminates with a lengthy description of the Shekinah glory of God’s presence leaving the Temple and the city and heading east (Ezek. 10-11:13, esp. 11:22-25), a true example of Ichabod (1 Sam. 4:21).
One of the more heart-breaking but informative episodes of the kind of man Ezekiel was, is the death of Ezekiel’s wife (24:15ff), occurring at the same time as the destruction of Jerusalem (24:2). God tells him she is about to die, but he will not be permitted to weep or mourn publicly for her. She indeed dies and he obeys, an event so extraordinary and touching among the exiles that they come to him and ask: “Will you not tell us what these things that you are doing mean for us?” (24:19). It strikes me that this illustration only works if the Jewish exilic community all knew how much Ezekiel loved his wife!
The middle chapters of the book (25-39) are divided into two sections. The first section (25-32) contains prophecies and laments against the nations surrounding Israel (Ammon, Tyre, Edom, and especially Egypt and its Pharaoh). The prophecy against Tyre (Ch. 26) has remarkably specific (and bizarre) prophetic fulfillments that can be Googled.
The second section (33-39) is focused on leadership with several metaphors which govern God’s perspective on what defines success or failure in leadership, first that of a “Watchman” (33) then “Shepherd” (34), what brings judgment upon Mount Seir (the Edomites) (35), and how God will ultimately bless the “mountains of Israel” (36), mountains being a common metaphor for governments, leaders, and leadership. This culminates with the famous vision of the “valley of dry bones,” where God dramatically demonstrates how he is the One, Who will ultimately restore the nation and the Davidic kingdom (37), and will protect it from the invasion of the most formidable enemy Israel has ever faced (which is saying something!): Gog of Magog (38-39).
The final section (Ezek. 40-48) is unique in its detailed plans for the future Temple. Though it is tempting to allegorize this material, it is better to see God rewarding the faithful prophet with a gift that must have thrilled his heart. He had rightly grieved over the Shekinah leaving the Temple of Solomon. Now he sees what God will magnificently restore, something not yet fulfilled because the “River of Life” has not yet appeared flowing from God’s throne (47:1-12).
Rare is the preaching context where one could preach the whole Book of Ezekiel. There is just too much varied material to put it under one subject or theme. His tough ministry to a hard-hearted, idolatrous, exilic community, makes parallel contexts a challenge to discern. No one should attempt to preach any part of this great prophet without working to grasp the unique nature of his time, calling, and culture. Otherwise the temptation to inappropriately allegorize will be great.
If one were doing a series or teaching on “Prodigals,” Ezekiel contains principles that lend themselves well. Prodigals, when they turn away from God, do not stay nearby him; they instead head off into “far countries.” That is why “exile” is an apt analogy. But that is the significance of God revealing himself to Ezekiel by the river Chebar (Ch. 1). They may have gone far from him, but he has not left them! The Good Shepherd still seeks every lamb that has wandered away. And just as God does with exiled Judah, he uses painful experiences in these far countries to “bring prodigals to their senses” and cause their dry bones to live again. Ezekiel conveys enormous hope against the bleakest of backdrops. It is certainly part of the power of the prophecy, this juxtaposition of darkness of judgment and the bright light of hope.
Overview of the Sections
Text: Ezekiel 1-24 (597-586 BC)
Summary: Before and up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Ezekiel is the equivalent of CNN to the exiles, giving the Divine perspective on what is about to happen to the city and why.
Key Passages: God appears in Babylon (1) but departs from the Temple (10). He will not answer to those who have “set up idols in their hearts” (14).
Text: Ezekiel 25-32 (586-585 BC)
Summary: With Judah/Jerusalem destroyed, God speaks to the gloating nations surrounding Judah about their own destruction. The detail and accuracy of the prophecies is startling.
Key Passages: The prophecy against Tyre (26) is so accurate and detailed, commentators who reject the supernatural have to date Ezekiel to the 200s BC.
Text: Ezekiel 33-39 (585-571 BC)
Summary: As a new, sad group of refugees arrives from the national destruction, God gives messages of hope and restoration, both for the near and distant future.
Key Passages: The vision of the valley of dry bones (37) cannot be topped.
Text: Ezekiel 40-48 (585-571 BC)
Summary: With breath-taking detail, Ezekiel gets a full blueprint for the Kingdom Temple and Temple Mount buildings. There is no better culminating verse than 48:35.
Key Passages: God moves back into the Temple (43). The restorative impact of the “River of Life” from the Throne of God (47).
Dated Messages in Ezekiel In Sync with Historical Events
597 BC King Jehoiachin (and Ezekiel, et al.) Taken into Exile
Passage: Ezekiel 1:1-2
Ministry Focus: God’s appearing and Ezekiel’s commission.
Passage: Ezekiel 8:1
Ministry Focus: God takes Ezekiel on a Temple idolatry tour.
Passage: Ezekiel 20:1
Ministry Focus: God rehearses Israel’s sinful history and promises restoration.
Passage: Ezekiel 24:1
Ministry Focus: The final siege of Jerusalem starts, Ezekiel’s wife dies.
587-571 BC The Judgments on the Gloating Nations
Passage: Ezekiel 26:1
Ministry Focus: Detailed judgment on Tyre.
Passage: Ezekiel 29:1
Ministry Focus: Judgment on Egypt.
Passage: Ezekiel 29:17
Ministry Focus: Only prophecy out of chronological order. Lament over Pharaoh and Egypt.
Passage: Ezekiel 30:20
Ministry Focus: Babylon crushes Egypt.
Passage: Ezekiel 31:1
Ministry Focus: Egyptian Empire ends up like Assyrian Empire.
Passage: Ezekiel 32:1
Ministry Focus: Another lament over Pharaoh and Egypt.
Passage: Ezekiel 32:17
Ministry Focus: A stronger lament over the population of Egypt.
585-571 BC The National Disaster, Disasters to Come, and Promises/Visions of Restoration
Passage: Ezekiel 33:21
Ministry Focus: Jerusalem is destroyed; the people view Ezekiel’s messages as a “sensual song”: they hear but do not practice.
Passage: Ezekiel 40:1
Ministry Focus: The restoration of the nation and the Temple.
One could also do a series on “Hard Truths” or “When a Culture Leaves God Behind/Out” about the effects of a nation or culture heading helter-skelter away from God. You could orient these around Ezekiel’s symbolic imagery, but sensitivity to your audience is required because the graphic nature of many of God’s messages have a PG-13 or R rating (cf. Ezek. 16, 23). Because of the graphic similarity of some of the imagery, a preacher could pick and choose which to preach.
When a Culture Leaves God Behind
Text: Ezekiel 15:1-8
Image: The wood of the vine
Title: Be Material God can Shape and Use
Big Idea: An unfaithful people are spiritually uselessness.
Text: Ezekiel 16:1-59
Image: The grossly unfaithful wife
Title: It’s Not how You Start …
Big Idea: God’s grieves, watching his beautiful “wife” grow “in-your-face” corrupt.
Text: Ezekiel 17:1-10
Image: The two eagles and the vine
Title: Keep Your Eyes on the One true King, not Lesser Kings
Big Idea: Unfruitfulness results from trusting in the promises of political leaders and not God.
Text: Ezekiel 22:17-22
Image: The furnace
Title: Wise Believers Know Where Things Are Headed
Big Idea: The sin of the land ultimately results in a blast furnace of judgment to remove its impurities.
Text: Ezekiel 23:1-49
Image: The two obnoxious, profligate sisters
Title: Learn the Lessons of the History of Faith Before Us
Big Idea: Once you start down the path of unfaithfulness, there is always wreckage at the end.
Text: Ezekiel 24:1-14
Image: The rusty cooking pot
Title: Recognize God’s Purpose for Natural Disasters
Big Idea: God turns up the heat of national judgment to remove its impurities, but unfortunately its population gets cooked.
Text: Ezekiel 27:1-36
Image: The lovely ship and its shipwreck
Title: There Is More than One Kind of Poverty
Big Idea: Trust in material prosperity leaves a population with the deepest of poverties.
Text: Ezekiel 34:1-10
Image: The fat shepherds
Title: Good Leaders Know to Put Others First
Big Idea: God will deal harshly with spiritual leaders who look out for themselves and not his flock.
Ending with Images of Resounding Hope
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-23
Image: The valley of dry bones
Big Idea: God’s grace and power can heal and restore any set of losses.
Text: Ezekiel 47:1-12
Image: The ever-increasing flow of the river of living water* (could be literal)
Big Idea: Mirrors the promise of Jesus in John 7:38, God’s Presence makes the most barren life whole and fruitful.
Ezekiel teaches a modern spiritual leader how to be a “watchman” for their people in a corrosive culture. Ezekiel is sent to hard-hearted people in the darkest time of Israel’s history. He is God’s “blunt instrument” against the flint of their foreheads. They are stuck in a hostile foreign land and had to eke out a living. Yet they were proud, their hearts like the Sodomites (16:49).
His prophecies of Israel’s idolatrous unfaithfulness are graphic in their moral ugliness (Ezek. 16, 23) but they get balanced with majestic descriptions of God’s restorative grace (37). Ezekiel lived by a strong moral compass: in strict purity (4:13-15) and with deep love for his wife (24:15-27). As God often does with his “friends” though, he inducts the prophet into a “fellowship of his suffering”—God’s own pain and grief over what his people are doing (Chs. 8-10).
Ezekiel became the equivalent of a prophetic CNN, not dissimilar to the role of a pastor interpreting world/national events for their congregation. In the early chapters he depicts the coming siege of Jerusalem in diorama form. God instructs him to lay on his left side, held in place by ropes, in the middle of the village square, and prophesy to a brick (with “Jerusalem” printed on it). He is to do this every day, for 390 days “corresponding to the years of their (national) iniquity” as a nation (4:4). He gets then to lay on his right side for another forty days, corresponding to the years of Judah’s iniquity (4:6) He eats the first, rough “Ezekiel bread” (4:9) to mirror the starvation which will take place inside the city. He reenacts the remaining Judeans going into exile by digging through a wall in the middle of the night with baggage on his shoulder (Ch. 12). Such experiences lend Ezekiel to a preaching series such as “So You Think Things Are Tough Now?”
There may be seasons when a pastor feels they must be more of a “watchman” (Ezek. 18), more “prophetic” about the direction of the culture and the consequences which are sure to follow. Billy Graham once said that “If God doesn’t soon judge America, he will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Our moral climate has not improved since that statement was made. But if the prophets are any indicators, don’t expect applause or popularity to result.
But also, don’t forget how Ezekiel’s messages of grace and restoration always followed the thunder of judgment. This is true of all prophets. God’s mercy is never closer than when people experience his judgment, and it is part of his purpose for such judgments. Hard hearts must be broken, usually by painful life circumstances, to become receptive to God’s message of grace, forgiveness, and restoration. Most of us have stories of how God did this in our own lives. In Ezekiel, this is the “Big Story,” moving from the dark judgments and moral morass of the early chapters to the beauty and wonder of the kingdom Temple with Yahweh Shammah, “The Lord Who is There” in their midst once gain in the final chapters.
In the light of that fundamental theological truth, here are some specific theological themes of Ezekiel:
The Doctrine of God
The sovereign, and especially the just nature of God, come through powerfully. Ezekiel is about the highest expressions of God’s justice and wrath (24:14) but balanced with expressions of unspeakable levels of mercy and grace. The theme of Ezekiel focuses on the movement of the manifest Presence of God and making himself known. “And they will know that I am Yahweh” is the most often repeated phrase. Ezekiel sees God’s Shekinah glory, his Divine “Presence,” present in Babylon astride his angelic chariot at the beginning of the book (1-2); he sees his glory departing from Solomon’s Temple because of the sin of the nation (10), but finally sees God returning to indwell the future Temple (43), culminating with the new name of the Jerusalem: Yahweh Shammah = “The Lord is there” (48:35).
The interesting connection with Jesus is the title with which God addresses Ezekiel: “Son of man.” It is a title of humility. Given the nature of Ezekiel’s ministry, there are connections to what Simeon told Mary about Jesus, that he was appointed “for the rise and the fall of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). Certainly, Ezekiel exposed the unfaithful hearts of those in leadership of the nation, as did Jesus, and bore enormous burdens, given the “flint-like foreheads” of those to whom he spoke.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the One Who gives life to dry bones (Ch. 37:7-10), causing the rebirth of a faithful nation out of a group of God-resisting, heart-hardened exiles. God has Ezekiel “call” on the Spirit to come breathe life into the corpses on their feet. Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry is empowered by the Spirit, and sometimes he is lifted “in/by the Spirit” and taken to locations to see things from God’s perspective (8:3).
This depends a great deal on your doctrinal framework, whether Amillennial or Premillennial. Premillennial books like Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, or LaHaye’s and Jenkin’s Left Behind series draw heavily and literally on Ezekiel 37-39 to describe the course of the Tribulation period, the rebirth of Israel as a nation which embraces Jesus as its Messiah, the movement of “Gog and Magog” and Antichrist’s armies and their ultimate defeat. The reconstruction of the Temple in 40-48 is considered a millennial project. Amillennial interpreters allegorize the whole of this material, seeing it as defining the struggle but ultimate victory of the covenant people of God against the forces of evil in the world.
Sin, particularly the sin of unfaithfulness, does not get much darker than in the Book of Ezekiel, and God executes justice on that sin. “Watchmen” (Ezek. 3:17; Ch. 33) are responsible for warning their generation of the dangers of sin and judgment coming, which inspired many evangelistic movements. The Valley of Dry Bones (Ch. 37) has been a location many an evangelistic preacher has used to illustrate being “born again.”
My Encounter with Ezekiel
I always thought, if I were ever to study Ezekiel, it would be a tough slog. He did not seem nearly as accessible as Isaiah or as story driven as Daniel. I likened it to Zechariah because many of its images and visions just seemed weird to me (Stuart Briscoe named his book of messages on Ezekiel, All Things Weird and Wonderful [Victor Books, 1977]). But the powerful impact of studying Zechariah inspired me to take on the muscular challenge of Ezekiel.
It took four and a half years of daily work, and I do not regret a single day. Ezekiel’s world, with the rebellious Jewish exiles in Babylon, is flat-out fascinating as a preaching context. The preacher must immerse themselves in that world to hear the prophet’s messages correctly, to feel the heat of Divine anger and the pressures of that community hostile to the belief that they were somehow responsible for the disasters to come on Judah and Jerusalem. They stiffened their necks, hardened their hearts, and made their foreheads like flint to that message. It is a good thing we have evolved past such attitudes!
Men like Francis Schaeffer and Charles Colson in the previous generation and Oz Guinness more recently have defined the course of a nation/culture heading away from God at breakneck speed. Its end is not pretty. As hearts grow harder, our ministry becomes tougher, and a ministry like Ezekiel’s instructs us in the kind of courage required to take our orders from God alone.
Ralph Alexander, Ezekiel, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Avademic, 2017).
Daniel Bock, Ezekiel, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
Charles Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel: The Glory of the Lord (N.L.: Wipf and Stock, 2003).
Kenneth Quick is Professor Emeritus of Practical Theology at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Greenbelt, Maryland. Previously, Ken was a Senior Pastor for 23 years. He now serves as Director of Consulting for Blessing Point Ministries.