Lesson 5 of 6
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Theological Themes in Ezekiel

God’s Centrality in the Book

When reading the Book of Ezekiel, one gets the sense of God’s overriding presence and command. The book prioritizes God’s voice over the prophetic voice. God typically commands the prophet to say an oracle or do a sign-act. But the book does not usually depict Ezekiel as accomplishing these acts. God’s command is enough. Ezekiel also uses the formula “They/you will know that I am the LORD” at least 70 times to express the priority of knowledge about God.  

An example of this theme occurs in the prophet’s call story in Ezekiel 2-3. The prophet is commanded to stand, but he needs the spirit to set him on his feet. We get the sense that this call story is less about the prophet’s desires and more about God’s. Further, the spirit animates the prophet who is not able to respond as he is commanded. The missing element in this call story is the prophet’s objection. Ezekiel does not object. In fact, the chapter does not record any response from the prophet. The emphasis is on the divine call and the rebellious people, not on Ezekiel. His digestion of the scroll also points to his lack of objection to this call. This nonresponse stands in contrast to Isaiah’s “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips” and Jeremiah’s “I do now know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The lack of a response by Ezekiel also highlights another feature of this book – Ezekiel’s seeming lack of free will. He is unable to stand at the beginning of this chapter without the spirit’s assistance. He carries out most of his prophetic tasks only under divine control.

Glory of the Lord

The vision of the glory of the Lord represents a view of God as transcendent Lord of all creation and serves as a symbol of the spiritual presence of God among the people. The visions occur at several points in the book, where God’ s glory is leaving the old Temple, coming to the Jews in exile, and dwelling within the future, restored Temple.

The Priestly tradition in the Bible includes this emphasis on glory from the time of the wilderness (Exodus 16:7) to the tabernacle, then the ark, and eventually the Temple. A vision of this glory from exile confirms God’s ability to be revealed to the people outside of the Temple. 

Holy Character of God

The holiness of the Lord is a constant theme of this book, a background belief manifested in many ways. God’s holiness appears in visual form in the awesome throne vision (1:4-28). Divine holiness demands that evildoers and idolaters be punished-a central theme in Ezekiel’s prophecies against Judah, Israel, and the nations. Despite the covenant God made with God’s people, they were disobedient and rebellious: “You are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you…” (5:7). Because of divine holiness and righteousness, the Lord punishes the people; yet, in defense of the holy name, God does not utterly destroy (20:9, 14, 22). God will gather, heal, and sanctify the people in future restoration. The structure and character of the restored Temple embody the holiness of the Lord (chapters 40-43).

Hope of Restoration

Despite the sinfulness of Israel and the righteous wrath of God, Ezekiel does contain messages of healing, hope, and consolation. The long vision of the restoration of the land and Temple is one significant locus for this theme (chapters 40-48), but it occurs in many places (6:8-10; 11:16-20; 16:60-63; 20:33-38). Ezekiel’s theology focuses on Israel, and in a future new exodus God will gather the people back to the Promised Land. God’s words of consolation are about concrete blessings from God, such as food, peace, land, and a restored covenant and Temple.

Responsibility: Individual and Corporate

Like much of the Old Testament, Ezekiel has a firm notion of the corporate responsibility of a tribe, nation, or people before the Lord. His judgments against the nations are evidence of this. Yet we find a new theme alongside it: the responsibility of the individual sinner to repent, and the justice of the Lord in punishing individuals only for their own sins (chapter 18).

Rethinking Salvation History

Israel in exile is faced with unbelief: Is their god real, or just a local deity of little importance? Is their religion of any enduring value? Ezekiel’s resounding “Yes” to continued faith in the Lord occurs along with a willingness to rethink key issues in the relationship between God and Israel, including their covenant history (chapters 16 and 20). This suggests the flexibility of God in relationship to God’s people in history.

Sinfulness of God’s People

As was common among the prophets, Ezekiel’s prophetic vocation includes a powerful word of the Lord to the people of Israel regarding their sins. The sinfulness of the people is not recent; Ezekiel retells the early history of Israel to emphasize their constant rebellion and sinfulness (chapter 20). These sins include rebellion, turning their backs on the Lord (that is, abandoning their faith in God), idolatry, defiling the Temple, willfully breaking the commandments, including blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. For these grave sins, God punished Judah and Jerusalem with destruction and exile.

Sinfulness of the Nations

As the holy Creator and Lord, God acts as judge of the nations and their rulers (chapters 25-32). The Lord does not expect them to follow the laws of Israel (like the Sabbath), but condemns them for general wrong-doing, such as oppression, corruption, greed, and lust for violence. Especially important for the prophet was the cruel way Israel’s neighbors treated Judah/Jerusalem during its fall; their greed and gloating is condemned by God. Another theme is the prophet’s words against any false trust that some were putting in other nations (chiefly Egypt) rather than in the Lord.

Temple: God’s Dwelling Place

The Temple is a key theme in Ezekiel. The Temple is a physical manifestation of the presence, glory, and blessing of God in Israel. A key sin of Israel is the defilement of the Temple (5:11; 8:5-18), and this is in turn a key reason for its destruction, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the exile. In one of his visions of the “glory of the LORD” as an awesome throne-chariot, Ezekiel sees the glory departing from the Temple (10:18-19). In the large vision that ends the book (chapters 40-48), the prophet-priest describes the future restoration of the Temple and its rituals as God’s promise of blessing, restoration, and divine presence for the future.

True and False Religion

As prophet and priest, Ezekiel is zealous for the Lord, consistently condemning idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, and disobedience to the law. This applies to Israel past, present, and future as well as to the surrounding nations (on grounds of general human justice rather than Israel’s unique laws). The Lord is revealed throughout the book as Lord of all nations and all creation.

Wrath of God

The wrath of God against Judah, Israel, the Jews in exile, and the nations and their rulers is a common theme in Ezekiel. The wrath of God is not arbitrary or vicious, but God’s steady resolve to destroy evil and wickedness. God’s wrath is provoked by the sinfulness of the people of Israel, sins which include idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, defiling the Temple, and placing their faith in other nations rather than in the Lord. God’s wrath also rests upon sinful nations and rulers surrounding Judah/Israel.