Below are some orienting and introductory thoughts about the strange book of Ezekiel. Then we will actually dive right in, looking at chapters 1-3 and their structure (be sure not to miss the pdfs I have written and linked to this post). Most people may be scared away by chapter 1 before they even begin, but it is my hope that once you spend some time reflecting on these things below and the pdf of its structure that you will be able to catch a glimpse of the vision.
Ezekiel was the son of a priest. Priestly concerns are evident throughout the book of Ezekiel. But Ezekiel was not able to do the ceremonial parts of such a calling to be a priest because he was living in exile. He was one of those taken into exile with King Jehoiachin. The introduction is traditionally understood as saying that the year he would have started serving as a priest (30 years old), he became a prophet. Because of the events described we do know the date. He was called as a prophet on 31 July 593 B.C. He was a contemporary of Jeremiah the prophet, but you will see that this is a very different book.
The focus on priestly issues ties Ezekiel with the Book of the Twelve. The Twelve also climax with the last three parts focusing on priestly issues. Thus the Twelve is a microcosm of this pattern in the prophets as a whole (in other words, from Joshua to Ezekiel follows the same pattern as the Twelve itself).
Yet the greatest connection is between Ezekiel and Hosea. This is probably for apologetic reasons. That is, many might be tempted to say that Ezekiel is not worthy of inclusion among the prophets because of its ‘pornographic’ chapters (ch. 16 & 23). But we can see that Ezekiel is simply building on the earlier prophet.
And he does so by focusing on the priestly concerns of the Temple and uncleanness.
One way to view the structure is simply to note the order like that found in Isaiah, Zephaniah and the Septuagint of Jeremiah. First judgment prophecies (even oracles) related to the present context (your own nation/people). Second, oracles against foreign nations. Third, prophecies of blessing that will come after the curse.
But the structure may also be a chiasm:
The A is further described as: “He comes to the defiled Temple for investigative judgment then departs.” And the A’ as: “He comes to the restored Temple on the Day of Atonement and does not depart.” This chiasm is proposed by Richard M. Davidson in an article available here. I am quoting Davidson above. We will do our own independent testing to verify that this chiasm fits the text well in upcoming posts. It certainly does correctly highlight the connections between the opening and closing sections of the book.
After the introduction, Ezekiel opens with a vision. The genre of the book was mentioned in the intro: “I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). This particular vision is strange to us and quite spectacular and probably scares most of us today away from reading the book. It is a vision that inspired other Biblical books like the Revelation written by the apostle John. This vision was an experience for Ezekiel like that of Isaiah 6 was for the prophet Isaiah.
It appears very important that we read this vision in the context of the introduction because each time that this vision is referenced throughout the book it refers to the vision he had “by the Chebar canal” (Ezekiel 1:1, 3; 3:15, 23; 10:15, 20, 22; 43:3). The theme is that the river (canal) is life, as I remember learning at WTS. (Read those passages in context to see this).
The major theme of the book is that the exile was not so much the people of Israel leaving the Promised Land as it was God in a special sense coming to judge the Temple and then leaving it. Thus as the book unfolds we will see that the vision Ezekiel has is of God judging and leaving the Temple and later he sees God’s return to the Temple and staying. Thus the real return from exile will be not so much when the people go back home as it will be when God takes up residence in the Temple again and stays.
As to the vision: There are four things like living creatures, a human likeness, each with four faces, each with four wings. The four faces – a human, a lion, an ox, an eagle. Two of the wings were for covering themselves and two for flying. Over their heads was the likeness of the firmament – pictured as a hard surface that is star-studded. And above the firmament was something like a throne with someone seated above the ‘throne’ with the likeness of a human appearance. Ezekiel has a hard time describing this sight with the words available to him. But the summary says, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of YHWH. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (Ezekiel 1:28b).
The primary contribution that I have to make with regard to the structure of Ezekiel 1 can be seen on this pdf. There is an alternating structure at the center of a chiasm. This is quite complex but the more you examine it with the text in hand the more you should see. Of course, I would love suggestions for improvement.
What we see then in chapter one, as seeing the structure has helped me to see, is the Spirit-Glory-Storm-Cloud “a stormy wind (same Hebrew word as “spirit/Spirit”) came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it.” This is the visible presence of God coming for judgment. The focus of the structure is on the mobility (wings and wheels) of the four living creatures. Yes God’s presence was already in the Temple, but now God is coming in judgment. Thus the metaphors at the center are the four are like burning coals, etc. and sound like the tumult of an army. This is Judgment Day. It is the day of YHWH. And so God is going to be present at the Temple in a different way than He had been – He is coming to judge the Temple and the people.
Now to some initial observations on chapters 2-3:
And he said to me, “Son of man (Adam), stand on your feet, and I will speak with you” (Ezekiel 2:1). First it is worth noting that the meaning of “son of man” here is different than the same phrase in Daniel. “Son of man” here is another way of saying – ‘mortal, human being.’
The text continues, “And as He spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard Him speaking to me” (Ezekiel 2:2). And Ezekiel gets a pretty standard prophetic charge: “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord YHWH.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, be not afraid of them…” (Ezek 2:3ff).
And Ezekiel is warned not to be like his people: “‘But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.’ And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezek 2:8-10). He is told, “Eat this scroll.” This is what we too are to do with Ezekiel.
And then in chapter 3 YHWH tells Ezekiel, “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears. And go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord YHWH,’ whether they hear or refuse to hear” (Ezek 3:10-11). This after it describes how God has hardened their hearts. We are to do what God tells Ezekiel to do as we read this passage.
And the second half of the chapter describes an important theme to me. YHWH says, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness…he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul” (Ezek 3:17ff).
Note that throughout this vision there has been specific mention of the Spirit of God much in the same way that John does in Revelation. The Spirit carried him in a vision to see what is happening at the Temple in Jerusalem while he was physically present in exile by the Chebar canal.
The structure of chapters 2-3 is much less complicated than chapter 1. It is a simple chiasm. Take a look at this pdf, as it is my contribution to our understanding the structure of chapters 2-3. As with the earlier pdf, suggestions for improvement are welcome. Perhaps what I should add is that chapter 1 and chapters 2-3 are tied together with this theme of the coming of YHWH to judge the Temple. Thus the sound/voice of YHWH is included in the climax of both chapter 1 and chapters 2-3.
Examining the structure of chapter 1 and chapters 2-3 as well as taking a look at the chiasm proposed by Davidson for the whole of Ezekiel should help you to see things you otherwise might miss and to help you to interpret the text correctly since it is structured differently than we would do in English writing today.