Corrupt as the text is in many places, we have in Ezekiel the rare satisfaction of studying a carefully elaborated prophecy whose authenticity is practically undisputed and indisputable. It is not impossible that there are, as Kraetzschmar maintains, occasional doublets, e.g. ii.3-7 and in.4-9; but these in any case are very few and hardly affect the question of authenticity. The order and precision of the priestly mind are reflected in the unusually systematic arrangement of the book. Its general theme might be broadly described as the destruction and the reconstitution of the state, the destruction occupying exactly the first half of the book (i.-xxiv.) and the reconstitution the second half (xxv.-xlviii.).
The following is a sketch of the book. After five years of residence in the land of exile, Ezekiel, through an ecstatic vision in which he beholds a mysterious chariot with God enthroned above it, receives his prophetic call to the "rebellious" exiles (i., ii.), and is equipped for his task with the divine inspiration; that task is partly to reprove, partly to warn (iii.). At once the prophet addresses himself thereto, announcing the siege of Jerusalem and the captivity of Judah -- Israel has already been languishing in exile for a century and a half (iv.). The threefold fate of the inhabitants is described (v.), and a stern and speedy fate is foretold for the mountain land of Israel (vi.) and for the people (vii.). How deserved that fate is becomes too pathetically plain in the descriptions of the idolatrous worship with which the temple is desecrated (viii.) and in chastisement for which the inhabitants are slain (ix.) and their city burned (x.). Jehovah solemnly departs from His desecrated temple (xi.).
This general theme of the sin and fate of the city is continued with variations throughout the rest of the first half of the book. The horrors of the siege and exile are symbolically indicated, xii.1-20, and the false prophets and prophetesses, xiii.17, are reproved and denounced for encouraging, by their shallow optimism, the unbelief of the people, xii.21-xiv.11. For the judgment will assuredly come and no intercession will avail, xiv.12-23. Israel, in her misery, is like the wood of the vine, unprofitable to begin with, and now, besides, scarred and burnt (xv.); her whole career has been one of consistent infidelity -- Israel and Judah alike (xvi.). And her kings are as perfidious as her people-witness Zedekiah's treachery to the king of Babylon (xvii.). But contrary to prevalent opinion, the present generation is not atoning for the sins of the past; every man is free and responsible and is dealt with precisely as he deserves -- the soul that sinneth, it shall die (xviii.). Then follows a beautiful elegy over the princes of Judah -- Jehoahaz taken captive to Egypt, and Jehoiachin to Babylon (xix.).
The third cycle (xx.-xxiv.) is, in the main, a repetition of the second. From the very day of her election, Israel has been unfaithful, giving herself over to idolatry, immorality, and the profanation of the Sabbath (xx.). But the devouring fire will consume, and the sharp sword of Nebuchadrezzar will be drawn, first against Jerusalem, and then against Ammon (xxi.). The corruption of Jerusalem is utter and absolute -- princes, priests, prophets, and people (xxii.); and this corruption has characterized her from the very beginning -- Samaria and Jerusalem, the northern and southern kingdoms alike (xxiii.). So the end has come: the filth and rust of the empty caldron -- symbolic of Jerusalem after the first deportation in 597 B.C. -- will be purged away by a yet fiercer fire. The besieged city is at length captured, and, like the prophet's wife, it perishes unmourned (xxiv.).
The ministry of judgment, so far as it concerns Jerusalem, is now over, and Ezekiel is free to turn to the more congenial task of consolation and promise. But a negative condition of the restoration of Israel is the removal of impediments to her welfare, and next to her own sins her enemies are the greatest obstacle to her restoration; it is with them, therefore, that the following prophecies are concerned.
The seven oracles in chs. xxv.-xxxii. (587-586 B.C., cf. xxvi.1, except xxix.17-21 in 570 B.C.) are directed against Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia (xxv.), Tyre, xxvi.1-xxviii.19, Sidon, xxviii.20-26, and Egypt (xxix.-xxxii.). Tyre and Egypt receive elaborate attention; the other peoples are dismissed with comparatively brief notice. The general reason assigned for the destruction of the smaller peoples in xxv. is their vengeful attitude to Israel. Ammon in particular is singled out for her malicious joy over the destruction of the temple and her mockery of the captive Jews. The destruction of these people is no doubt to be brought about indirectly, if not directly, as in the case of Tyre, xxvi.7, and Egypt, xxix.19, by Nebuchadrezzar. The oracle against Tyre is one of Ezekiel's most brilliant compositions. The glorious city is to be stormed and destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar (xxvi.), and her fall is celebrated in a splendid dirge, in which she is compared to a noble merchant ship wrecked by a furious storm upon the high seas (xxvii.); her proud prince will be humbled to the ground (xxviii.). Egypt is similarly threatened with a desolating invasion at the hands of Nebuchadrezzar; the conquest of that country is to be his recompense for his failure, contrary to Ezekiel's expectations, to capture Tyre (xxix.). The day of Jehovah draws nigh upon Egypt (xxx.); like a proud cedar she will be felled by the hand of Nebuchadrezzar (xxxi.), and her fall is celebrated in two dirges -- one in which Pharaoh is compared to a crocodile; the other, weird and striking, describes the arrival of the slain Egyptians in the world below (xxxii.).
With the disappearance of Israel's enemies, one of the great obstacles to her restoration has been removed; but the greatest obstacle is in Israel herself. She has been stiff-necked and rebellious: now that the prophet's words have proved true, each individual for himself must give heed to his warning voice, not merely consulting him, but obeying him (xxxiii.). Then Jehovah will manifest His grace in many ways. He will send them an ideal king, unlike the mercenary rulers of the past, who had plundered the flock (xxxiv.). He will destroy the unbrotherly Edomites (xxxv.) and bless His people Israel with the peaceful possession of a fruitful land, and with the better blessing of the new heart (xxxvi.). Finally, He will wake the people, who are now as good as dead, to a new life, and unite the long sundered Israel and Judah under one sceptre for ever (xxxvii.). In the final assault which will be made against His people by the mysterious hordes of Gog from the north, He will preserve them from danger, and multitudes of the assailants will fall and be buried in the land of Israel (xxxviii., xxxix.). [Footnote: In xxxiii.21 the twelfth year should be the eleventh (cf. xxvi.1). The news of the fall of Jerusalem would not take over a year to travel to Babylon.]
Probably the book originally ended here: but from Ezekiel's point of view, the remaining chapters (xl.-xlviii.) are thoroughly integral to it, if indeed they be not its climax. The people are now redeemed and restored to their own land: the problem is, how shall they maintain the proper relations between themselves and their God? The unorganized community must become a church, and an elaborate organization is provided for it. The temple, with its buildings, is therefore first minutely described, as that is to be the earthly residence of the people's God; then the rights and duties of the priests are strictly regulated: and lastly the holy land is so redistributed among the tribes that the temple is practically in the centre.
Chs. xl.-xliii. embrace the description and measurement of the temple, with its courts, gateways, chambers, decorations, priests' rooms and altar. When all is ready, Jehovah solemnly enters, xliii.1-12, by the gate from which Ezekiel had in vision seen Him leave almost nineteen years before, x.19. The sanctity of the temple where Jehovah is henceforth to dwell must be scrupulously maintained, and this is secured by the regulations in xliv.-xlvi. The menial services of the sanctuary, which were formerly performed by foreigners, are to be henceforth performed by Levites. Then follow regulations determining the duties and revenues of the priests, the territory to be occupied by them, also by the Levites, the city and the prince; the religious duties of the prince, and the rite of atonement for the temple. The whole description is a striking counterpart to the earlier vision of the desecration of the temple (viii.). The last section (xlvii., xlviii.) deals with the land which in these latter days is to share the redemption of the people. The barren ground near the Dead Sea is to be made fertile, and the waters of that sea sweet, by a stream issuing from underneath the temple. The land will be redistributed, seven tribes north and five south of the temple, and the city will bear the name "Jehovah is there" -- symbolic of the abiding presence of the people's God.
Whatever be the precise meaning of the much disputed "thirtieth year" in i.1, Ezekiel was born probably about or not long before the time Jeremiah began his ministry in 626 B.C. As a young man, he must have heard Jeremiah preach, and this, coupled with the fact that some of Jeremiah's prophecies were in circulation about eight years before Ezekiel went into exile (605-597) explains the profound influence which the older prophet plainly exercised upon the younger. With Jehoiachin and the aristocracy, Ezekiel was taken in 597 to Babylon, where he lived with his wife, xxiv.16, among the Jewish colony on the banks of the Chebar, one of the canals tributary to the Euphrates, i.3.
Never had a prophet been more necessary. The people left behind in the land were thoroughly depraved, xxxiii.25ff., the exiles were not much better, xiv.3ff. -- they are a rebellious house, ii.6; and even worse than they are the exiles who came with the second deportation in 586, xiv.22. Idolatry of many kinds had been practised (viii.); and now that the penalty was being paid in exile, the people were helpless, xxxvii.11. For six years and a half -- till the city fell -- Ezekiel's ministry was one of reproof; after that, of consolation. The prophet becomes a pastor. His ministry lasted at least twenty-two years, the last dated prophecy being in 570 (xxix.17); for thirteen years before the writing of chs. xl.-xlviii. in 572 B.C. there is no dated prophecy, xxxii.1, 17, so that this sketch of ecclesiastical organization, pathetic as embodying an old man's hope for the future, stands among his most mature and deliberate work. His absolute candour is strikingly shown by his refusal to cancel his original prophecy of the capture of Tyre by Nebuchadrezzar, xxvi.7, 8, which had not been fulfilled; he simply appends another oracle and allows the two to stand side by side, xxix.17-20.
It is obvious that in Ezekiel prophecy has travelled far from the methods, expressions and hopes that had characterized it in the days of Amos and Isaiah, or even of Ezekiel's immediate predecessor and contemporary, Jeremiah. In these books there are visions, such as those of Amos, vii.1, viii.1, ix.1, and symbolic acts like that of Isaiah, xx.2, walking barefoot; but there such things are only occasional, here they abound. Their interpretation, too, is beset by much uncertainty. Some maintain that the symbolic actions, unless when they are obviously impossible, were really performed; others regard them simply as part of the imaginative mechanism of the book. The dumbness, e.g., with which Ezekiel was afflicted for a period, iii.26, xxiv.27, xxxiii.22, and which has been interpreted as "a sense of restraint and defeat," may very well have been real, and connected, as has been recently supposed, with certain pathological conditions; but it is hardly to be believed that he lay on one side for 190 days (iv.5). Again, though the curious action representing the threefold fate of the inhabitants of the city in ch. v. is somewhat grotesque, it is not absolutely impossible; but it is difficult to see how the command to eat bread and drink water "with trembling" can be taken literally, xii.18. As the first symbolic action in the book -- the eating of the roll, iii.1-3 -- must be interpreted figuratively, it would seem not unfair to apply this principle to all such actions. It is even applied by Reuss to the very circumstantial story of the death of the prophet's wife, xxiv.15ff., which he characterizes as an "easily deciphered hieroglyph." [Footnote 1: So the Septuagint.]
Again, in spite of their highly elaborated detail, the visions appeal, and are intended to appeal, rather to the mind than to the eye. Such a vision as that of the divine chariot in ch. i. could not be transferred to canvas; and if it could, the effect would be anything but impressive. Regarded, however, as a creation of the intellectual imagination, suggesting as it does certain attributes of God, and clothing them with a mysterious and indefinable majesty, it is not without an impressiveness of its own.
A similar sense of unreality has been held to pervade the speeches. It has been asserted that they are simply artificial compositions, never addressed and not capable of being addressed to any audience of living men. Certainly one can hardly conceive of the last chapters, with their minute description of the temple buildings, officers and ceremonies, as forming part of a public address; and some even of the earlier chapters, e.g. xvi., xxiii., do not suggest that living contact with an audience which invests the earlier prophets with their perennial dramatic interest. At the same time, to regard him simply as an author and in no sense as a public man would undoubtedly be to do him less than justice, cf. xi.25. He was in any case a pastor -- a new office in Israel, to which he was led by his overwhelming sense of the indefeasible importance of the individual (iii.18ff., xviii., xxxiii.). But -- especially in his earlier ministry, till the fall of the city -- he was prophet as well as pastor, with a public message of condemnation very much like that of his predecessors. His reputation as a prophet naturally rose with the corroboration which his words had received from the fall of the city, xxxiii.30, but even before this it must have been high, as we find him frequently consulted, viii.1, xiv.1, xx.1; and though behind the real audience he addresses, we often cannot help feeling that his words have in view that larger Israel of which the exiles form a part (cf. vi.), the chapters, as they now stand, are no doubt in most cases expansions of actual addresses. This view is strengthened by the precision of the numerous chronological notices, cf. viii.1.
There is another important aspect in which the contrast between Ezekiel and the pre-exilic prophets is very great: viz. in his attitude to ritual. Every one of them had expressed in emphatic language the relative, if not the absolute, indifference of ritual to true religion (Amos v.25, Hos. vi.6, Isa. i.11ff., Mic. vi.6-8). No one had expressed himself in language more strong and unmistakable than Ezekiel's contemporary, Jeremiah. Yet Ezekiel himself devotes no less than nine chapters to a detailed programme for the ecclesiastical organization of the state after the return from exile (xl.-xlviii.). With some justice Lucien Gautier has called him the "clerical" prophet, and Duhm goes so far as to say that he annihilated spontaneous and ethical religion. This, as we shall see, is a grave exaggeration; but there can be no doubt that in Ezekiel the centre of gravity of prophecy has shifted. He threw ritual into a prominence which, in prophecy, it had never had before, and which, from his day on, it successfully maintained (cf. Hag., Zech., Mal.).
It is difficult to estimate justly the importance to Hebrew religion of the new turn given to it by Ezekiel: it seems to be, and in reality it is, a descent from the more purely spiritual and ethical conception of the earlier prophets. But two things have to be remembered (1) that, for the situation contemplated by Ezekiel, such a programme as that which he drew up was a practical religious necessity. The spiritual atmosphere in which Jeremiah drew his breath so freely was too rare for the average Israelite. Religious conceptions had to be expressed in material symbols. The land and the temple had been profaned by sin (viii.); after the return, their holiness must be secured and guaranteed, and Ezekiel's legislation makes the necessary provision by translating that idea into specific and concrete applications.
But (2) though ritual interests are very prominent towards the close of the book, they do not by any means exhaust the religious interests of Ezekiel. If not very frequently, at any rate very deliberately and emphatically, he asserts the ethical elements that are inseparable from true religion and the moral responsibility of the individual (iii., xviii., xxxiii.). Indeed, the background of xl.-xlviii. is a people redeemed from their sin. The worshippers are the redeemed; and even in this almost exclusively ritual section ethical interests are not forgotten, xlv.9ff. In interpreting the mind of the man who sketched this priestly legislation, it is surely unfair to ignore those profound and noble utterances touching the necessity of the new heart, xviii.31, xxxvi.26, and the new spirit, xi.19, utterances which have the ring of some of the greatest words of Jeremiah.
It must be admitted, however, that Ezekiel did not fully realize the implications of these profound words: he at once proceeds to apply them in a somewhat mechanical way, which suggests that his religion is a thing of "statutes and judgments," if it is also a thing of the spirit, xxxvi.27 (cf. xx.11, 13), and this tendency to a mechanical view of things is characteristic of the prophet. Even in the great chapter asserting the responsibility of the individual (xviii.) something of this tendency appears in the isolation of the various periods of the individual life from each other. It shows itself again in his description of the river that issues from under the threshold of the temple, xlvii.3-6. His imagination, which was considerably influenced by Babylonian art, is undisciplined. Images are worked out with a detail artistically unnecessary, and aesthetically sometimes offensive (xvi., xxiii.). On the other hand the book is not destitute of noble and chastened imaginations. The weird fate of Egypt in the underworld, xxxii.17-32, the glory of Tyre and the horror which her fate elicits (xxvii.) are described with great power. Nothing could be more impressive than the vision of the valley of dry bones -- the fearful solitude and the mysterious resurrection (xxxvii.). Ezekiel's imaginative power perhaps reaches its climax in his vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and her idolatrous people. On the judgment day we see the corpses of the sinners, slain by supernatural executioners, lying silently in the temple court, the prophet prostrate and sorrowful, and the angel departing with glowing coals to set fire to the guilty city, ix. i-x.7.
The two chief elements in later Judaism practically owe their origin to Ezekiel, viz. apocalypse and legalism. The former finds expression in chs. xxxviii, xxxix., where, preliminary to Israel's restoration, Gog of the land of Magog -- an ideal, rather than, like the Assyrians or Babylonians, an historical enemy of Israel -- is to be destroyed. We have already seen how prominent the legalistic interest is in xl.-xlviii., but it is also apparent elsewhere. Ezekiel, e.g., lays unusual stress upon the institution of the Sabbath, and counts its profanation one of the gravest of the national sins, xx.12, xxii.8, xxiii.38. The priestly interests of Ezekiel are easily explained by his early environment. He belonged by birth to the Jerusalem priesthood, i.3, xliv.15, and he received his early training under the prophetico-priestly impulse of the Deuteronomic reformation.
From the critical standpoint, the book of Ezekiel is of the highest importance. Chs. xl.-xlviii. fall midway between the simpler legislation of Deuteronomy, and the very elaborate legislation of the priestly parts of the Pentateuch. This is especially plain in the laws affecting the priests and the Levites.
In Deuteronomy no distinction is made between them; there the phrase is, "the priests the Levites" (Deut. xviii.1); in the priestly code (cf. Num. iii., iv., v.) they are very sharply distinguished, the Levites being reserved for the more menial work of the sanctuary. Now the origin of this distinction can be traced to Ezekiel, according to whom the Levites were the priests who had been degraded from their priestly office, because they had ministered in idolatrous worship at the high places, xliv.6ff., whereas the priests were the Zadokites who had ministered only at Jerusalem. The natural inference is that, at least in this respect, the priestly legislation of the Pentateuch is later than Ezekiel. A close study of chs. xl.-xlviii. enables us to extend this inference. Between Ezekiel and that legislation there are serious differences (cf. xlvi.13, Exod. xxix.38, Num. xxviii.4), which, as early as the beginning of the Christian era, gave much perplexity to Jewish scholars. "According to the traditional view," as Reuss has said, "Ezekiel would be reforming, not Israel, but Moses, the man of God, and the mouth of Jehovah Himself." We have no alternative, then, but to suppose that Ezekiel is earlier than the priestly legislation of the Pentateuch, and that this sketch in xl.-xlviii. prepared the way for it.
In Ezekiel the older prophetic conception of God has undergone a change. It has become more transcendental, with the result that the love of God is overshadowed by His holiness. It is of His grace, no doubt, that the people are ultimately saved; but, according to Ezekiel, He is prompted to His redemptive work not so much out of pity for the fallen people, xxxvi.22, but rather "for His name's sake," xx.44 -- that name which has been profaned by Israel in the sight of the heathen, xx.14. The goal of history is, in Ezekiel's ever-recurring phrase, that men may "know that I am Jehovah." Corresponding to this transcendental view of God is his view of man as frail and weak -- over and over again Ezekiel is addressed as "child of man" -- and history has only too faithfully exhibited that inherent and all but ineradicable weakness. While other prophets, like Hosea and Jeremiah, had seen in the earlier years of Israel's history, a dawn which bore the promise of a beautiful day, to Ezekiel that history has from the very beginning been one unbroken record of apostasy (xvi., xxiii.). On the other hand, Ezekiel laid a wholesome, if perhaps exaggerated, emphasis on the possibility of human freedom. A man's destiny, he maintained, was not irretrievably determined either by hereditary influences, xviii.2ff., or by his own past, xxxiii.10f. Further, Jeremiah had felt, if he had not said, that the individual, not the nation, is the real unit in religion: to Ezekiel belongs the merit of supplementing this conception by that other, that religion implies fellowship, and that individuals find their truest religious life only when united in the kingdom of God (xl.-xlviii.).