I’ve always said to people who said that they hear the Bible mostly at Mass in church (or these days, by watching Mass on TV or via the internet) that the books take on a different character when they are read on their own, and cover-to-cover. The liturgy of the Church is necessarily selective and uses a tiny portion of the immensity of Holy Scripture in Mass texts. That is not sufficient for an understanding of the Bible. And, as I now realise, the Mass has hardly any Ezechiel in it – except for a few lines that refer to the Messiah who was to come. But Ezechiel has much more about the Messiah than that, so somebody listening only to Mass readings is missing out very much.
Now, I cannot quote very much from this thick book, so I shall mention general themes and some outstanding parts. Keep in mind that long after the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyrians in 721 BC, the kingdom of Juda persisted until it was weakened by the Egyptians in about 610 BC, and King Joachaz of Juda was carried away to Egypt. A few years later, in about 598 BC, the Chaldeans descended upon Jerusalem with force and carried away several of the Judaite people to exile in Babylon, including King Joachin of Juda. Let’s call that the first exiling of Juda, for the Chaldeans left a puppet king in Juda – King Sedecias son of Josias, uncle of the exiled King Joachin. Finally, in 587 BC, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed and a second and more complete exiling of the people was carried out, with King Sedecias himself being led off to exile in Babylon. Ezechiel was a priest of the Temple, and he was exiled with King Joachin in the first removal, and so we may understand his prophecies against a Jerusalem that was still standing and was soon to be destroyed.
Ezechiel has the same basic themes as every other prophets, namely (i) the sins of the people (principally idolatry, as demonstrated in chapter eight) had exceeded the limits of God’s anger and punishment was now inevitable (chapter nine, chapter twenty-one); (ii) the punishment would be temporary, for the people would return and the nation would be restored in a small remnant of the people; (iii) the great guilt of the kings and the nobles of the people, in leading the people astray; (iv) the guilt of the priests and the false prophets, who had misled the kings, the nobles and the people by saying that all was well, so that they continued in grave sin (chapter thirteen); and finally, even there in the midst of the first group of exiles (v) the exiled people kept asking Ezechiel for a message from God, but did not profit from it (chapter fourteen, and again chapter twenty, and the end of chapter thirty-three). This last point was the experience of Jeremias as well, as he was dragged against his will into exile in Egypt, and found that the people continued to be idolaters there also. Ezechiel is wonderfully different from Isaias and Jeremias in his mystical experiences – he is quite used to seeing a very particular vision of the Godhead seated upon a throne and assisted by spiritual beings (see also chapter ten for a similar vision):
“Over the living figures a vault seemed to rise, like a sheet of dazzling crystal resting on their heads; under this vault each held two wings erect to meet his neighbour’s. Each had two turned upwards to overshadow him, and two turned downwards to veil his body. When they moved, the sound of their wings reached me, loud as waters in flood or thunders from on high, incessant as the hum of a great throng or an armed camp; only when they came to rest did they lower their wings. A voice would come from the firmament over their heads; then they would halt, then they would lower their wings. Above this vault that rested on them, sapphire blue towered up into the form of a throne, nor did that throne seem to be empty; a Shape was there above it, as of One enthroned, and all about Him it was filled with amber-coloured flame. Upwards from His loins, downwards from His loins, an arch of light seemed to shine, like rainbow among the clouds on a day of storm; there was brightness all about Him.“Ezechiel, 1: 22-28
Ezechiel is straightaway sent upon a mission to condemn a folk still hard-hearted and obstinate in their sins, principally idolatry, in the midst of their exile in Babylon. They seem to think that God is still on their side and that their exile is therefore only temporary, and all will be well again. It is Ezechiel’s sad duty to continue to warn them that this first exiling of the people is only the beginning. As in the picture above, he is mystically given a scroll of the prophecy he is to consume (chapter three), and so be filled with the message that he has to give them. His duty of warning sinners about their sin should sound familiar to Christians reading the Gospels, who still think that we cannot judge others:
“When I threaten I the sinner with doom of death, it is for thee to give him word, and warn him, as he loves his life, to have done with sinning. If not, he shall die as he deserves, but for his undoing thyself shalt be called to account. If thou warn him, and leave his rebellious sinning he will not, die he shall as he deserves, and thou go free. Or if the upright man leaves his innocence, and I take him unawares in his wrong-doing, dies he for want of warning? Die he shall, his good deeds all forgotten, but thou for his undoing shalt be called to account. Thine to warn the upright man against the marring of his innocence; and he, sin avoiding, shall owe his life to thy remonstrance; thy duty is done.“Ezechiel, 3: 18-21
That does take some courage, but if you are baptised to be priest, prophet and king (as we Christians are), you cannot back away from correcting sinners – it’s a spiritual work of mercy. But back to Ezechiel… part of the job of the Hebrew prophet is a sort of play-acting, or show-and-tell, by which the prophet makes graphic description of what fate he is heralding for certain people and nations. So, there is the drawing of the siege of Jerusalem on a tile to demonstrate her fate (chapter four), the parting of the strands of hair of the prophet to demonstrate the fate of the people (chapter five), the prophet carrying a travelling pack on his back to demonstrate the continued exile of the people, not likely to end at any time soon (chapter twelve), the prophet cooking with a ruined pot to demonstrate the siege of Jerusalem (chapter twenty-four) etc. The saddest thing of all is that the nation would not return to its previous state; it would be mostly destroyed and disturbed, leaving only a small remnant to rebuild later on, a small remnant of the faithful who would be purified through long suffering:
“Far away I have banished them, says He, widely scattered them; yet, go they where they will, a sanctuary in little they shall find in my companionship. Tell them this, from the Lord God, Lost among the peoples, I will gather you, scattered over the world, I will muster you, and give you the land of Israel for your home. To it they shall find their way, and rid it of all that is foul, all that is abominable there; one mind they shall have, and a new spirit shall fill their inmost being; gone the heart of stone, and a human heart theirs in place of it. My paths they shall tread, my will jealously obey, they my people, and I their God.“Ezechiel, 11: 16-20
In the prophecies, as in later Christian works, God’s relationship with the people is portrayed as a marriage, which the people have betrayed with idolatry, giving the nation the guise of a harlot. This is the subject of the rather stinging chapter sixteen, where God describes how he had blessed his wife and decorated her before the foreign nations, to whom she proceeded to prostitute herself (see also chapter twenty-three for a further description of harlotry):
“‘Swift as the wild blossoms I bade thee grow; grow thou didst and thrive, and camest to woman’s estate, the breasts formed, new hair shewing; and still thou wast all naked, and blushing for thy nakedness. Who but I came upon thee, as I passed on My way? And already thou wert ripe for love; cloak of Mine should be thrown about thee, to hide thy shame; My troth I plighted to thee, the Lord God says, and thou wert Mine. Water to wash thee, all thy stains gone, oil I brought to anoint thee; clad thee with embroidery, shod thy feet with leather; of fine linen thy tiring should be, of silk thy wear. How I decked thee with ornaments! Bracelets for those arms, a collar for that neck; a frontlet on thy brow, rings in thy ears, on thy head a crown magnifical. Of gold and silver thy adorning, of fine linen and silk and embroidery thy apparel, of wheat and honey and oil thy nourishment; matchless beauty, too, was thine, such beauty as brought thee to a throne. All the world heard the fame of thy loveliness; I had made thee so fair, says the Lord God, utterly fair! Fatal beauty, fatal renown, which emboldened thee to play the harlot, lavish thy favours on every passer-by, and be his! That thou shouldst use those garments of thine to make curtains for thy hill-shrines, what age can match the villainy of it?‘”Ezechiel, 16: 7-16
The chapter proceeds to say that the successive acts of idolatry had condemned the southern kingdom of Juda further even than the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – worse even than the idolatries of the northern kingdom – a terrible statement, for Juda had had the blessing of the Jerusalem Temple and numerous prophets of the almighty God. Chapter eighteen is interesting, for it corrects or replaces an old supposition that may be found in the ten commandments themselves (Exodus, chapter twenty): ‘I, thy God, the Lord Almighty, am jealous in my love; be my enemy, and thy children, to the third and fourth generation, for thy guilt shall make amends…’ To Ezechiel is now given this message: a person is punished for his or her own personal sin.
“Word came to me from the Lord: ‘Strange, that a proverb should be current in Israel, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are being set on edge! As I am a living God, the Lord says, this proverb shall be current in Israel no more. What, is not every soul at my disposal, father and son alike? It is the guilty soul that must die… Is a man loyal to me, does he live innocently and uprightly…? Here is a loyal servant of mine; life for him, he shall live on, says the Lord God. But now, what if son he begets that is a man of violence, a murderer; lends himself to any of those practices which his father ever shunned? Shall he live on? Nay, no life for him; he must die the death his foul crimes have earned him. Son of his, in turn, warned by such a father’s doom, forswears that ill example… Doer of my will, keeper of my law, he shall not die for his father’s sins; he shall live on. His father, a man of wrong and violence, that deserved ill of his countrymen, has paid for his guilt by death; would you have the son, too, make amends for it? Nay, but here is a man upright and honest, that holds fast by decrees of mine and obeys them; he must live on.'”Ezechiel, 18: 1-5, 9-10, 13-14, 17-19
Chapter twenty-five begins a series of condemnations against surrounding nations who thought to profit from the neutralisation and then the destruction of the power of the kings of Juda, first the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites (also called Seir in chapter thirty-five) and the Philistines (chapter twenty-five); and then the Phoenicians of Tyre (chapters twenty-six to twenty-eight); and then to the Egyptians (chapters twenty-nine to thirty-two), who would also be subdued by the Chaldeans in time; and finally a condemnation of a certain and unspecified Magog, ruler of Gog (chapter thirty-eight). Chapter thirty-four is an excellent read for Christians, for it describes the Good Shepherd, which is a vital part of the Gospel message. This is what was in the mind of Jewish hearers of Christ as He declared Himself the Good Shepherd, and Ezechiel goes all Messianic in this chapter, calling this Good Shepherd God’s good servant David:
“‘So my sheep fell a-wandering, that shepherd had none; every wild beast fell a-preying on them, and they scattered far and wide. All over the mountains they strayed, all over the high hills were scattered, this flock of Mine, and no search was made for them, no search at all. This doom, then, the Lord pronounces on yonder shepherds: As I am a living God, I will have a reckoning for sheep of Mine carried off, sheep of Mine the wild beasts have preyed on, while they went all untended, with shepherds that would not go in search of them, shepherds that no flock would feed, but themselves only. A word, shepherds, for your hearing, a message from the Lord God: Out upon yonder shepherds! I will hold them answerable for the flock entrusted to them, and they shall have charge of it no more, feed themselves out of its revenues no more. From their greedy power I will rescue it; no longer shall it be their prey. This is what the Lord God says: I mean to go looking for this flock of Mine, search it out for Myself. As a shepherd, when he finds his flock scattered all about him, goes looking for his sheep, so will I go looking for these sheep of Mine, rescue them from all the nooks into which they have strayed when the dark mist fell upon them.“Ezechiel, 34: 5-12
“They shall have a single shepherd to tend all of them now; who should tend them but my servant David? He shall be their shepherd, and I, the Lord, will be their God, now that he rules them on earth; such is My divine promise to them. Such a covenant I will make as shall grant them security; beasts of prey there shall be none, safe resting, now, in the desert, safe sleeping in the woods; on My hill-sides they shall dwell, a blessed people in a blessed home, rain in its season fall on them, and blessings all the while.”Ezechiel, 34: 23-26
Remember when Christ was sorry for the Jews of His time, because they were like sheep without a shepherd? The Jewish authorities in the first century had become just as hopeless as shepherds as the rulers of old Israel had been centuries before. And, yes, God certainly would come looking for His sheep in person. God’s anger now exhausted and He being jealous for the honour of His Name, the rest of the book deals with the restoration of the people in the small remnant that will remain after the destruction of the old kingdoms. This is quite a good chapter, and the second quote below is often used at baptism services, for obvious reasons.
“‘But you, mountains of Israel, must burgeon anew, and grow fruit for My own people to enjoy; their home-coming is not far off now. Watch for Me, I am coming back to you; soil of you shall be ploughed and sown anew; and men, too, shall thrive on it, Israel’s full muster-roll, peopling the cities, restoring the ruins. Full tale you shall have of men and beasts that thrive and multiply; I will make you populous as of old, more than of old My blessings lavish, and you shall not doubt My power. Masters you shall have, and those masters My people of Israel, your rightful lords; never shall they want lands or you lords again. Till now, the Lord God says, men have called thee a land that starves folk and empties cradle; henceforth, His will is that thou shouldst starve thy folk, bereave thy folk, no longer; scoff and taunt of heathen neighbours thou wilt have none to bear, He says, nor lack men to till thee henceforward.'”Ezechiel, 36: 8-15
“‘Give Israel, then, this message from the Lord God: It is not for your own sakes, men of Israel, that I come forward as your Champion; it is for the sake of My holy Name, brought into disrepute among the Gentiles who have crossed your path. That great renown of Mine I mean to vindicate, that is now dragged in the dust among the Gentiles, dragged in the dust because of you. The very Gentiles will recognize My power, the Lord God says, when I proclaim My majesty in their sight by delivering you. I mean to set you free from the power of the Gentiles, bring you home again from every part of the earth. And then I will pour cleansing streams over you, to purge you from every stain you bear, purge you from the taint of your idolatry. I will give you a new heart, and breathe a new spirit into you; I will take away from your breasts those hearts that are hard as stone, and give you human hearts instead. I will make My spirit penetrate you, so that you will follow in the path of My law, remember and carry out My decrees. So shall you make your home in the land I promised to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.“Ezechiel, 36: 22-28
This tale of the restoration of the people ends with the famous vision Ezechiel received of the field of corpses of dead soldiers, who are returned to life by the power of God (chapter thirty-seven), and represent the restoration of a single united kingdom of Israel, purified of sin, as in the time of David and Solomon, and indeed captained by David himself – very Messianic!
“And there, in the hill-country of Israel, I will make one nation of them, with one king over them all; no longer shall they be two nations under two crowns. No more shall they be contaminated with idol-worship, and foul rites, and forbidden things a many; I will deliver them from the lands that were once the haunts of their sinning, and make them clean again; they shall be My people, and I will be their God. They shall have one king over them, a Shepherd to tend them all, my servant David; My will they shall follow, My commands remember and obey. And their home shall be the home of your fathers, the land I gave to My servant Jacob; they and their children shall enjoy it, and their children’s children, in perpetuity, and ever My servant David shall be their prince.“Ezechiel, 37: 22-25
The book ends with Ezechiel being again mystically carried from Babylon to an unspecified location where he enters a new City and a new Temple, for which he is given detailed descriptions. These few chapters, from chapter forty to chapter forty-seven, have the same effect as Moses’ forty-day stay on Mount Horeb (Exodus, chapter twenty-five and onwards), when he received a detailed description of the tabernacle that would afterwards be built. It’s a minor reformation of the cult of the Jerusalem temple, accompanied with a reordering of the Holy Land among the twelve tribes (chapters forty-seven and forty-eight). I would assume that this plan was followed by the exiles returning to the Holy Land under Ezra and Nehemiah; or perhaps they would have wanted to, given the resources. I should end appropriately with the description of the Holy City, which is very, very similar to the final description of the heavenly Jerusalem (that is, the Church) at the end of the book of Apocalypse (aka. Revelation), even with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel marking the gates, while the names of the Apostles mark the foundations. And Catholics would recognise the name of the City as being the name of every one of our churches, because of the Blessed Sacrament.
“And these are the city’s limits; on the north side, measure four thousand five hundred cubits; and here (for all must be named after Israel’s tribes) are three gates named after Ruben, Juda and Levi. As many on the east, and here are gates named after Joseph, Benjamin, and Dan. As many on the south, and here are gates named after Simeon, Issachar and Zabulon. As many on the west, and here are gates named after Gad, Aser and Nephthali. The whole circumference is one of eighteen thousand cubits. THE LORD IS THERE; such is the name by which the city will be known ever after.” – Ezechiel, 48: 30-35