Ezekiel is one of those books of the Bible that you think you’d like to read until you actually get into it. You’re initially attracted to its vivid imagery, symbolism, parables, allegories, and apocalyptic visions; but once you realize you have no idea what any of it means, you start pining for the Gospels.
Ezekiel is a hard book to understand. Always has been. So why preach from it? Admittedly, such an obscure text does provide a preacher with a little cover in the likely (or even weekly) event of an incomprehensible sermon. Nevertheless, for a preacher committed to the full council of God, Old Testament and New, you ought to include even those books which haven’t enjoyed the same frequency of page marking and highlighting as others.
This large prophetic book is a collection of visions that Ezekiel received from God over the course of one of the darkest periods in ancient Israel’s history. Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed, the Temple of God burned, the monarchy stretching back to Saul and David sacked and God’s own chosen people exiled to the adverse and perverse nation of Babylon. News reports would have attributed this disastrous descent to political instability in the Middle East—some things never change. However, Ezekiel peels back the obvious surface causes and becomes privy to deeper, more sinister roots.
Ezekiel was a priest by vocation, married, and among those exiled. God called him to be a prophet to his fellow exiles and to pronounce judgment upon these sinister causes, namely their own sin and rebellion. Unfortunately, as was the case with most prophets, Ezekiel’s sermons were rarely heeded. Nevertheless, God called and sent Ezekiel anyway and in dramatic fashion.
Ezekiel and Daniel were contemporaries, both prophesied from Israel’s exile in Babylon, the predicament that prods the Christmas carol: “O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Scholars deduce Ezekiel to have been born around 622 BC, about the time of Josiah's reforms, and shortly after the call of Jeremiah to a prophetic ministry around 626 BC. People may be familiar with the vision of the valley of dry bones (chapter 37), a rare Old Testament foretaste of resurrection, but otherwise, chances are good congregations have heard little from its many pages.
Ezekiel belongs to the genre Jewish apocalypse , and much of its content reappears in Revelation, most poignantly, the river of life in Revelation 22. Building off Ezekiel, Revelation portrays heaven as a new kind of Eden. The tree of new life spans the river with abundant fruit year-round that now everybody can eat. The new Eden is the New Jerusalem, the garden city of God where people no longer hide their faces in shame or seek refuge in the shadows. The old Genesis curse reversed, people freely and gladly step into the light to look at the Lord. The Old Testament had warned that nobody could see the face of God and live, a danger that required the high priest to identify himself with God’s name on his forehead whenever he stepped into the Temple’s dark inner sanctum to offer sacrifices. However, in the New Jerusalem there is no more temple, no more sacrifices, no more shame, and no more fear. Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God, has taken away the sins of the world to that now everybody gladly wears God’s name on their foreheads.
Ezekiel foresaw a new Temple which never gets built out of stone because the Temple turns out to be Jesus from whom the fount of every blessing flows. The water and light of life feeds the tree of life and heals every nation, all of whom then join the chorus of praise and share the crown of dominion instead of domination. New creation means a new chance to rule rightly with the power of love. God’s light entangles people into his own existence, his will and ways become our own as the Lord’s prayer is finally answered and heaven and earth are one. There’s no more death or mourning or crying or pain, no more terminal illnesses, no more incurable diseases, no more fatal accidents or funeral services. There’s no more problem of evil because there is no more evil. God allows no more suffering because there is no more suffering to allow. There’s no more struggle between faith and science and reason because we “see face to face.” There’s no more doubt because “the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”
I’ve preached Ezekiel twice, once on its own since few congregations ever work through the whole book, and a second time in concert with Revelation since Ezekiel serves as a chief source for Revelation. Both series were preached to congregations accustomed to a lot of Bible, one in a university community and the second an older suburban congregation. Both expectedly tired of the series, apocalypse being a very weird genre to handle in extended doses. Nevertheless, Ezekiel—along with Daniel and the second part of Isaiah—provide indelible hope for Israel in their Babylonian exile and later Roman occupation, and thus picked up and fulfilled by Jesus in anticipation of new creation.
As for the Big Idea for the series, I see Ezekiel as a sort of Old Testament Revelation for the Israelites, opening the eyes to God’s work amid exile and preparing them for the coming of Jesus, the onset of the kingdom, and the eventual making of all things new in Christ.
Text: Ezekiel 3:1-15
Exegetical Idea: Why does God send Ezekiel when he could have delivered the doom himself? The only thing that ever seems to have a chance of changing people is another person; and usually then only one you know and who knows you. One who loves you enough to get in your face, who refuses to coddle you but smacks you upside your hard head when you need it.
Big Idea: Incarnational ministry includes empathy, solidarity, integrity, and disruption.
Text: Ezekiel 5:1-9
Title: Razor Sharp
Exegetical Idea: Throughout the Old Testament the sword is a metonymy for war, the cutting of hair a sign of divine judgment. Ezekiel’s hair represented the wayward people. Notice though how Ezekiel is both the shaver and the shaved. By cutting his own hair with a sword he signifies both the punisher and the punished. The judge and the judged. The destroyer and the destroyed. Throughout the Old Testament, whenever a prophet showed up, a preview of Jesus did too.
Big Idea: Chronic guilt, as exhausting as that is, is still the price we’re willing to pay in order to avoid change.
Text: Ezekiel 10
Title: Glory Gone
Exegetical Idea: Ezekiel describes God’s movement from Jerusalem and back in terms of his glory. Glory denotes honor, majesty, and import. Yet there are negative aspects too: danger, punishment, judgment. God’s presence is called the “radiance of the glory of the Lord.” This is how we typically think of glory: Bright light. Brilliance and shining splendor. Halos encircling the holy as depicted in movies and religious art. The radiance of the glory of the Lord made the invisible visible. Ezekiel sees the radiance of God’s glory, but the term glory itself derives from the Hebrew word for heaviness or weight. As such it follows that glory may not be something seen as much as it is felt. Ezekiel saw it, but the Israelites felt it and suffered.
God’s glory returned to a new Temple, but eventually it would leave again. Due to the determined insolence on the part of his people, and the anticipated insolence on the part of his people to come, God—constrained by his holy nature—sent forth destruction from the Temple again. Yet because he had sworn to Ezekiel in chapter 5 that he would never again crush his people for their sin, he aimed his anger at Calvary’s cross. He sent his Son Jesus to take their place—and your place too. On that darkest day of human history, the glory of God in all of its judicious and horrific wrath, blasted forth from the Temple, ripping the curtain in two, and landed square on the shoulders of Christ, crushing him and with him human sin—theirs, yours, and mine—for all time.
Big Idea: The felt presence of God, a slice of his glory, is ours through the Holy Spirit which the Lord transplants within us by way of a heart of flesh to replace our hearts of stone.
Text: Ezekiel 16:1-15
Title: The Perils of Love
Exegetical Idea: Ezekiel 16 is the longest allegory in the entire Bible and alludes to Israel’s persistent and willful unfaithfulness in both political and religious arenas. Yet at times, the allusions step aside as the stark and repulsive realities of Jerusalem’s twisted behavior ooze to the foreground. The vulgar descriptions in this chapter border on the pornographic; so much so that most Bible translations have long dispensed with attempting to render them literally.
If you have ever loved, you know how wonderful it can be. And if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. Therefore, you can identify with the Lord GOD—who both as cuckolded lover and sovereign judge—passes sentence on Jerusalem with the jealous fury of a husband scorned.
God forgives and forgets, but he doesn’t want you to forget. He wants you to remember. He wants you to remember your sin, so you’ll remember where you were when he saved you. And where you were when he saved you again. And again.
Big Idea: To be “in Christ” is to be “in love.” It’s when we love that we most resemble our Maker. But Ezekiel knows the human heart. He knows your heart, his heart, and mine. Ezekiel isn’t interested in having you identify with God. No, Ezekiel wants you to see yourself as Jerusalem. Not as the lover wronged, but as the one who has done the wrong.
Text: Ezekiel 18:1-17
Title: Not Your Parents’ Fault
Exegetical Idea: The fabric that is our identity—our values, hopes, dreams, compulsions, quirks, and qualms—all weave from the threads of this most primal bond. The effect is not merely psychological. We also come genetically wired with both father and motherboards, virtually assuring our perpetuation as amalgamated clones of our parents. Nevertheless, the Bible has always depicted sin as a matter of personal choice. Don’t blame mom and dad. No pointing fingers at the genealogical rotten roots or genetic predispositions. A righteous person will be rewarded for her own goodness, a wicked person for his own wickedness.
Big Idea: In Ezekiel, divine judgment is portrayed more as the removal of a protective cover. God gets out of the way and turns you loose to suffer the consequences of your own bad choices. If you insist on eating prohibited apples, you’re going to have to deal with the fallout.
Text: Ezekiel 24:15-17
Exegetical Idea: Ezekiel’s loss is an “enactment prophecy.” There is a one-to-one correspondence here between personal and national experience. Ezekiel loses his wife, the delight of his eyes; Israel loses her Temple, the delight of her eyes. Moreover, Israel is forbidden to show any sorrow or shed any tears, as was Ezekiel forbidden. Yet despite this correspondence, Israel flagrantly cheated on God and on each other along with a whole host of other abominations—all under the guise of divine favor. The Israelites had their judgment coming, but what did Ezekiel do to deserve his? And why was he denied his expression of heartache and grief? Wouldn’t it have made the loss feel more horrific? Was this what the Israelites felt when God refused them their grief? When the Temple doors they always counted on being open were suddenly slammed shut? When they finally realized to their horror that all of it really had been their own fault?
“When this happens, you will know that I am the Sovereign LORD.”
Catastrophic loss rips you open and hurts—but in so doing it also opens you up to God.
Big Idea: God’s absence doesn’t trouble me nearly as much as his presence sometimes does.
Text: Ezekiel 33:1-20
Title: Save the Planet
Exegetical Idea: The exiled Israelite nation risks eternal exile if they don’t heed Ezekiel’s call to repentance. He must warn them. God’s severity arises only as a response to Israel’s continued spurning of his loving advances. God initially chose Israel as his own, entered into a marriage covenant with her, and lavished her with goodness and grace. Yet they took that grace for granted and lustily pursued after other lovers, flouting the Lord’s lavish dreams for their future together. Though they were set for life, Israel blew it. And then when God forgave them they just blew it again. Yet even after God finally left town, allowed his Temple to be sacked, and his enemies to chase his chosen people out of their Promised Land, the Israelites still wouldn’t get it. Thus, Almighty God, the jealous husband scorned, warns Ezekiel to warn Israel that they are doomed for good if they don’t turn it around.
Big Idea: God’s fierceness is always a step toward your salvation. The Lord kills your sin that he might save your soul. He violates your self-sufficiency and illusions of control, he exposes your so-called successes for what they really are: big empty barns due to be torn down overnight. “As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord in verse 11, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but only in their conversion. Therefore repent, turn back from your evil ways. Why would you want to die in your sin?”
Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24
Title: Get Lost
Exegetical Idea: Verse 11: “The Sovereign LORD speaks: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.” In a sudden and unexpected head-spinning swivel, God’s punishment gives way to protection, condemnation gives way to compassion, and judgment gives way to mercy. The bad news that God would take care of his people becomes the good news that God would take care of his people. Even though they are sinners, God’s going to come back and save them anyway.
The shepherd motif reverberates throughout the whole Bible. “I myself will tend my sheep,” says the Lord in Ezekiel, “I will search for the lost and bring back the scattered.” “I am the good shepherd,” the Lord Jesus said, “I have come to seek and save the lost.”
Still there are those who once they’re found, (or maybe I should say consider themselves found), lose that clarifying sense of reliant desperation they had when they were lost. What you received as a gift gets treated as if it were birthright. Grace mutates into a spiritual cockiness that blurs the distinction between being saved and being the savior. You grow complacent, critical, and self-absorbed. Satisfied you’re doing the best that you can, you need no repentance. You need no shepherd. Ezekiel (and Jesus) have words for such sheep. He singles them out for slaughter (v. 17; Matt 25:31-46).
Big Idea: Like manna in the morning, grace doesn’t let up until you reach the Promised Land. Sheep need their shepherd every day.
Text: Ezekiel 36:22-32
Title: Promises Kept
Exegetical Idea: From the earliest days of human faith, we’ve worked to discern the difference between God’s will and our own; worked even harder to submit to God’s will as our own. It’s always easier to project our own desires and agendas onto God and presume to know the mind of the Lord, take God’s grace as permission to do as we please and prefer. In Ezekiel such presumptuousness pours out on God’s people the just desserts of divine justice. “I poured out my wrath because they polluted the land and murdered and worshiped worthless idols,” we read only a few verses prior. “I judged them according to the evil they committed.” Such language is another reason to steer clear of Ezekiel.
And yet God takes Israel’s just desserts and makes it just dessert—undeserved and delicious. His petulant people were brought back to their land and lavished with grace, their fruit trees and crops flourished, their towns resettled and their ruins rebuilt with jobs and security, their population increased, their worship welcomed, their community restored, and their gates opened wide for others to join the party. Like the father who embraced his no-account prodigal son on account of nothing he did right and despite all he had done wrong, God redeems his people on account of his name: merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Big Idea: In Ezekiel, the outsiders look in and marvel that Israel’s God-forsaken wasteland is transformed into a glorious garden of Eden. They marvel even more that the garden gates open wide and beckon them inside. Upon entering they discover the One responsible for all this bounty and the beauty they never imagined. And they praise his holy name.
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Title: Skin and Bones
Exegetical Idea: The pile of bones is evidence of major catastrophe. That these corpses were denied proper burial was reminiscent of many Ancient Near Eastern battle-scenes where the victors humiliated the conquered even after they were killed.
Here God commands Ezekiel to preach to dry bones. It was every preacher’s nightmare. Bad enough that Ezekiel had preached to an unresponsive and pokerfaced congregation for 36 chapters prior. At least they’d been alive. Why bother now that God’s people were dead? Laid waste by Babylon and left as dung in the dirt, the Lord had let Israel have it. Their holy city was decimated, their Holy Temple reduced to a smoking pile of rubble. They had repudiated the prophets, defied God’s law, abused justice, and ignored the needy. Israel lamented the bad fruit their tree had borne: “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely”—we are as good as dead.
Big Idea: Dead is good, as far as God is concerned. That’s when the Lord does his best work. It’s when revival is most likely to happen. It’s to the dry, dead bones whom God promises: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
Text: Ezekiel 39:21-29
Title: Welcome Back
Exegetical Idea: Hiding is a reflexive response to shame. Exposure of your failures and shortcomings produces visceral outcomes: you sweat, get nauseous, nervous, and your heart races. You want to race too and get the heck out of there to avoid the uncompromising glare of reality. Nevertheless, though disparaged by some as a Victorian self-constricting pathology and by others as a culturally disproportionate idiosyncrasy, shame is not completely without warrant. Though painful, it can be an important first step toward self-awareness. Shame can open the door for modesty and humility, both virtuous counterbalances to the sinister enticements of pride and conceit.
While human face-hiding aims inward, denoting shame of one’s self, God’s face-hiding aims outward. It’s the removal of favor, the force of rejection. God hides his face from us—but then, in the move of grace, he hides his face from our sin and our shame for love’s sake (39:25 ff.).
Big Idea: The wonder of God’s grace has always been that it comes to us in our disgrace.
Text: Ezekiel 40:1-4
Title: A Temple Not Built
Exegetical Idea: Ezekiel chapter 40 begins the closing vision of this prophet’s mystical encounter with God. Ezekiel’s blueprints were Israel’s hope—the context in which they would live out their tragedies and troubles.
Surprisingly, however, Ezekiel’s Temple was never actually built, at least not on earth. A replacement Temple was constructed once the exiles returned, but it differed drastically from Ezekiel’s design. Why?
Perhaps it was because this design wasn’t ever supposed to have an earthly realization. In Mark 13, Jesus and his disciples are leaving this second Temple when one of them stopped to gawk. “Look, Rabbi!” he said, “What a magnificent building!” But Jesus did not share their awe. Instead, he sternly replied, “Do you see this great building? It will be completely demolished.” And it was.
Big Idea: The Jerusalem of Ezekiel’s vision, like John’s in Revelation, is an ideal location, a tangible projection of a sure future which exists even now as Biblical hope. Extending from this certain future back into our present, our troubled and tragic lives are grounded in the God who promises that he will make all things new.
Text: Ezekiel 43:1-12
Title: Glory Returns
Exegetical Idea: Here in Ezekiel’s fourth and final vision, God comes back to disobedient Israel. This final vision provides extensive and somewhat tediously detailed blueprints for a new Jerusalem Temple. This Temple was to replace the one flattened by the Babylonian army after God furiously left town. Eventually moving back into the neighborhood on the heels of Jerusalem’s chastisement, the Lord promised to live among his people forever. He comes back and he promises to live with them forever. And he promises that they will be holy as he is holy.
God makes holiness possible by removing our sin and nailing it to Jesus. Filling you with his Holy Spirit, God makes you holy. Your holiness doesn’t always show itself fully in your lives, but it will. Ezekiel’s better Temple is under construction and as St. Peter said, you’re the stonework: “living stones being built up as a spiritual house.” A holy house is being built by God, with you. And it will be better than the first house ever was. And because of Christ, God will live there with you.
Big Idea: God chose the wrong people to have a relationship with. And he keeps choosing the wrong people. He opts for the sinful, the needy, the fearful, and the doubtful. He picks those whose faith can’t measure up to a mustard seed. And God chooses the wrong people not once, not twice, but over and over again. Even after they fail the faith test.
Text: Ezekiel 47:1-12
Title: Riverfront Property
Exegetical Idea: The metaphor of choice for the life source is water, a prevalent image throughout Scripture. However, water doesn’t always signify life: Noah’s flood, the Red Sea drowning of Pharaoh’s army, the ocean into which Jonah was flung on account of his disobedience; in these and more water is the mark of judgment. We pick up on this negative imagery in the sacrament of baptism where were it not for the ark, Moses, and a whale of God’s grace fulfilled in Christ Jesus, we too would have been drowned in the waters of wrath.
In Ezekiel’s vision however, the perils of water give way to images of its profits. Springs, streams, and rivers of living water emitting God’s mercy find mention in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Joel too, as well as by Jesus in his famous interaction with that woman at the well.
The essence of Ezekiel’s vision is God living among his people and spewing life into their deadness—into their souls and into their land. For a people ravaged by war and exile brought on by their own shameful mutiny; for a people severed from God with no hope of reunion or redemption; such an unexpected and underserved paradise ushered forth hymns of joy, sung with tears of relief. And for a waterless land laid waste and desolate, paradise is God’s emphatic YES to creation’s own groaning for redemption.
Big Idea: Ezekiel’s vision celebrates the mind-blowing transformation of both uninhabitable desert and languid sea into a lush garden of Eden. God raises even the land from the dead.
Application and Theological Themes
Ezekiel is in the genre of Jewish apocalyptic, something akin to the science fiction or fantasy fiction of our day (think The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars). It’s a genre shared by Daniel and Isaiah and gets picked up in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and most vividly (and even verbatim) in Revelation. More literary than literal, its intent is to communicate truth through a series of dreams and visions rather than prose speech.
Preaching apocalypse entails a suspension of expectation. Unlike other genres of Scripture, apocalypse is intentionally open-ended, weaving a visually imaginative future while refusing to lock down on prophetic conclusions. As you prepare your sermons, stick to the larger themes of faith amid hardship, the threat of disobedience, judgment and consequences, repentance, hope, fulfillment, and assurance.
Your congregation will tire of this book as its imagery and language prove unfamiliar. Your opportunity is to bring it to life by tying it to the ways vivid imagery works in our own time. Consider using analogies from the movies mentioned above, or other dystopian, apocalyptic works of literature or art. You’ll need to help people listen differently than they would to sermons from familiar books.
Imagery is abundant, and thus opportunity for object lessons or connections. You have a razor (5); mountains and cities (6-9); luggage and food (12); vines, trees, swords, and fire (13-23); cooking pot (24); and monsters and beasts (33-48). Show images and link photos and stories for effect.
Ezekiel recounts Israel’s story, which is humanity’s own. Despite blessing his chosen people with prosperity, security, and a certain future—all guaranteed by God’s tangible presence among them—the Israelites snubbed the living God and pledged allegiance instead to idols of sticks and stone. They thumbed their noses at the Torah, desecrated God’s Temple, browbeat the poor, and engaged in lascivious acts of sexual pleasure in the name of worship. They murdered innocent people and offered their children as sacrifices—all while presuming Yahweh’s continued blessing. So vile was their misbehavior that even the surrounding pagan nations were appalled.
Consequently, God revoked the blessings of his presence, packed his bags and declared lights out for the Temple, Jerusalem, and the people (Ezekiel 10). Just as his presence had been a sign of his favor, so now his departure was a sign of his judgment. God left in a glory-filled fury, leaving for dead in its dark wake all who refused to repent. “The sin of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great;” the voice of the Lord boomed, “Therefore I will not look on them with pity or spare them, but I will bring down on their own heads what they have done” (9:9-10). God’s exit cleared the way for Israel’s annihilation by the armies of Babylon in 586 BC. Israel’s story is our story too.
In Scripture, an intrinsic connection exists between the chosen people and their Promised Land. It’s a connection that stretches all the way back to its roots in that original paradise. Humankind, though unique in that we are made in the image of God, nevertheless is embedded in the created world—as its stewards, not its masters. The cars we drive (or don’t drive), the trash we recycle, the restraints which we impose upon ourselves regarding consumption and waste—these behaviors should exhibit this intrinsic connection between us and the world which God made and God so loves.
Ezekiel paints the healing of creatures and creation with colorful images of abundance: A limitless, gushing river across parched and weary land (47). A boundless cornucopia of fruit. Medicine for health. Fish and animal life to enjoy. It’s like a heavenly travel brochure. But I wonder: Does it have the power to stir us as it must have stirred our exiled Israelite forebears? Abundance is status quo in our country. Why yearn for Ezekiel’s paradise when you can get fresh fruit even in the winter, medicines at the pharmacy, beautiful scenery on an afternoon White Mountain hike (or drive), and wildlife at the zoo? Water is no further than a twist of the spigot.
Of course, such abundance is not the globalstatus quo. In fact, many political scientists assert that the coming global wars won’t be fought over who controls the oil, but over who controls the water. While in Benin, West Africa, some years ago, the youth group I took from this church (who are now among the adult leaders in this congregation—man I’m old) worked to build a pastor’s house just south of the ever-encroaching Sahara Desert. Water was a precious commodity there. Ours came from a Peace Corps well located a good truck’s ride away from our village. Once we pumped it and drove it back, it still required 24 hours of filtering before it was drinkable. One day, due to construction-induced dehydration amidst sub-Saharan temperatures as well as plain bad planning, we ran out of water a day before the truck was due to arrive and transport us to get more. Thirsty and fearful, prayer took on a new urgency. Nothing jacks up your spiritual life like crisis. As God would have it, the truck unexpectedly arrived that afternoon. I’ll admit I wish prayer worked that way all the time.
The subsequent enormity of our gratitude reflected our prior desperation. Yet our desperation had been but a day’s worth. Such desperation was everyday life for the Africans who populated this desiccated countryside—just as is for those who live in the squalor of Katmandu’s slums, or in the ghettos of Manila, or on the streets of La Paz. You’d think that getting back to the States would make you grateful for the ample provisions we so enjoy here—provisions you’d dream about each night overseas as you endured the deprivations of pizza and Big Macs. But instead, I’d feel guilt and disgust once I returned. And I’d always feel it most fiercely at the supermarket. Many upon returning stateside after stints in Third World countries often break down crying when confronted by the endless aisles of groceries. I think what’s so bothersome is not the availability of food, but rather the blatant injustice of it all being here.
A Filipino man once asked what it was about America that brought it such prosperity. Was it our long relationship with God stretching back to our founding fathers that had earned us such favor? The ancient Israelites enjoyed enviable prosperity. Was it their long relationship with God stretching back to their founding fathers that earned them such favor? Sure. And what was about that relationship that warranted God’s approval? Was it their continuous recalcitrant disobedience? Their idol worship? Their evil leaders? Their corrupt priests? Their exploitation of the poor? Their murder of innocents and maltreatment of children? Their sin and promiscuity? Was this what earned them Ezekiel’s promise of paradise? Talk about injustice.
Talk about grace. Really, is there anything more patently unjust as the grace of God? No one deserves it. Not the Israelites. Not you. Not me. But God pours it out just the same because he so loves the world. And as grateful as we should be for it and whatever else we have in all the shapes it takes.
Ezekiel doesn’t have the last word in the Bible, though he does contribute to it. In the Book of Revelation, another heavenly tour guide, akin to the bronze man, offers a vision to Ezekiel’s counterpart, John of Patmos. The vision displayed in Revelation 22 has a familiar ring: “a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stands the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.” The words are almost verbatim from Ezekiel 47. But whereas Ezekiel envisions trees whose “fruit that will be for food, and leaves for healing” period, John sees “leaves for the healing of the nations.” The boundaries of the chosenness extend beyond the genes of Abraham to encompass the whole world God made and the whole world God loves.
My Encounter with Ezekiel
Ezekiel challenged me as a preacher, both in terms of content and structure. Accustomed to the ease of the Gospels or Epistles, apocalypse challenges both in terms of exegesis and application. I found myself having to read, compare versions, and then take long walks to let the imagery play around in my mind. Remembering that these visions were visions, and would have been communicated aurally, I would listen to Ezekiel as much as read it (often in the NLT or The Message) in order to let the sound of the imagery paint pictures I could see and then use in my sermons. It helped the book come to life.
Still, the detail and obscurity could be exhausting to hear. One sermon on Ezekiel’s blueprints for the new Temple which was never built (40), sparked me to think about houses and blueprints and how exciting it is when we build homes or remodel. Transferring this excitement to the text helped people emotionally connect with what it would have felt like to imagine a new house for God and the Lord returning to the people. I told the story of good friends remodeling after a flood and how they rolled out their blueprints for me. Such connections were essential for bringing Ezekiel to life.
When I reread Revelation and saw so much Ezekiel in it, I realized how important the prophet is to the New Testament. The strange language of apocalypse shows up throughout the Gospels and Epistles, proving it was a source of ironic comfort for God’s people. For me, allowing the images free rein in my soul nourished me more than I thought they would. We say “pictures are worth a thousand words,” how much more so pictures that come from the word of the Lord.
Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel: Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017).
Daniel Block, Book of Ezekiel: New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
Doug Stuart, The Preacher’s Commentary: Ezekiel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002).