Ezekiel is the third of the major prophets. His name, which in Hebrew is Yehezq’el (= God strengthens) was very much in keeping with the mission God planned for him. A member of a priestly family, he was taken to Babylon in the first deportation (597 B.C.), along with his wife, King Jehoiachin, and all his court (2 Kings 24:16). Like most of these deportees, Ezekiel settled near the Great Canal between Babylon and Nippur, in southern Babylonia. There the exiles established the farming community of Tel-Abib, but later on many of them were employed in the grandiose building schemes then underway in the country.
Five years after his arrival (592), when he was around thirty years of age, Ezekiel received his great vision, a theophany or vision of God (1:1ff) and was called by God himself to be a prophet to his people (2:1ff). So generous was his response that from that point onward, for about twenty-two years, Ezekiel was the spiritual guide of his fellow exiles.
His life was full of suffering and misunderstanding, even though he was a man of peace and sought only his people’s welfare, but he remained ever optimistic and full of hope in the power of Yahweh. His wife had died shortly after their arrival in Babylon, and he himself died in exile, probably at the hands of one of the Jewish leaders whom he criticized for idolatry—that at least is the opinion of St. Athanasius and St. Epiphanus.
Ezekiel’s prophetic and spiritual mission all turns on one central event—the destruction of Jerusalem (587). Prior to that date the prophecies all have to do with warning the people and exhorting them to repent and to trust in God rather than in pacts with Egypt or any other neighbor. Ezekiel keeps insisting on a point which may seem rather unusual, namely, that, by a special disposition of providence, Babylon is to be the instrument God will use to punish Judah; there is no escape from this punishment, but its purpose is medicinal, because it will purify people’s souls and set them again on the road of faithfulness to Yahweh.
Are they sure to turn in that direction? The will of God, when it is absolute, is always fulfilled; however, when people are warned of it, as in this case, God conditions his will when instructing man’s will to do something, leaving man free to do it or not. Judah will indeed be purified, but only part of it—the “remnant” who will experience the suffering of separation from Yahweh and from his Temple during the long years of exile.
The first part of the book, up to chapter 32 inclusive, announces God’s judgments against both the people of Israel and the idolatrous nations. After a short prologue in which Ezekiel describes how God called him, he uses a series of symbols to predict the now inevitable destruction of Jerusalem and identify its causes.
In the second part, with those prophecies already come true, he puts on the mantle of a prophet of hope. He consoles and encourages the exiles and tells them of God’s determination to set them free and bring them home. These prophecies, full of majestic symbols, look forward to the era when the New Covenant will be made, in the kingdom of the Messiah to come.
The book is written almost entirely in prose, with a didactic and descriptive purpose, using symbolism to catch the attention of his listeners. He is obviously addressing a people strongly inclined to be sceptical. His language is extremely rich, colorful, and descriptive, sometimes rising to poetic heights.
Although the Hebrew text which the Vulgate follows is defective in some parts, it is superior to that of the Greek translation of the Septuagint and to the Masoretic text, though both the latter do help to clarify obscure passages.
Ezekiel is the prophet of the exiles. He shared the hardest years the Jews spent in Babylon. All his energies were directed toward keeping the exiles’ hopes alive, just at the point at which, on hearing the news of the fall of Jerusalem, they were liable to feel that God had abandoned them forever.
The first point the prophet emphasizes is that Yahweh is not confined to Jerusalem or even Palestine. His power extends as far as Babylon and to the ends of the earth. His majesty is infinite, his presence universal. Thanks to his omnipotence and infinite love, he will once more show mercy to his people and by a totally gratuitous act he will work their conversion. What seems so difficult will soon become a reality, as shown in the symbolic vision of the bare bones which are clothed again with flesh and changed back into men. Nothing is impossible to God.
Ezekiel then goes on to preach about personal responsibility and everything it implies in the case of the exiles. What he teaches marks an advance on the revelation contained in previous books. People took it as normal for a city or a whole nation to be punished collectively—just men as well as sinners—and for the sins of parents to be visited also on their children. Ezekiel speaks of individual responsibility: A man’s salvation or condemnation depends on him alone, on his personal attitude to God, that is, his response to the grace he has been given, as it was in the beginning.
Ezekiel therefore explains the meaning and purpose of divine punishment and teaches that it is possible for each individual to be reconciled with God, going on to explain further about individual retribution. Since man is responsible for his actions, he must suffer the consequences of his unfaithfulness, although—even in exile—he can recover lost grace by being converted, which is the true purpose of any punishment God metes out:
“But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps and my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezek. 18:21-23).
Ezekiel’s work did much to regroup the exiles around the priests and the Law; it revived their religion, making it more interior and personal; it gave new hope to those who stayed faithful to Yahweh; it gave them a vision of their future and, in particular, it showed them a new spiritual horizon, a type of renewal deeper than anything they had so far experienced.
In this future which Ezekiel predicts, it will be God himself who purifies and renews their hearts:
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Ezekiel concludes his prophecies, as we have seen, by announcing that there will be a New Covenant:
“I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them and set my sanctuary in the midst of them for ever more” (Ezek. 37:26).
The book closes with a description of the future city:
“The circumference of the city shall be eighteen thousand cubits, and the name of the city henceforth shall be, ‘Yahweh is there'” (48:35). This prophecy looks to the reconstruction of Israel as symbol of the messianic kingdom, the Church.