The book of the prophet Ezekiel stands out in the Old Testament for many of its dire proclamations of destruction and devastation. He foretells the coming of the Lord's chastisement, both for the Hebrews and the surrounding nations. Although his prophesies are sobering and even terrifying, Ezekiel's ultimate message is one of hope.
The historic context for Ezekiel's writing is similar to the prophet Jeremiah, his contemporary. Ezekiel begins writing in Babylon in 593 BC, about six years before the total destruction of Jerusalem. He foretells the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel does not live to see the restoration; his prophesy ends in the early years of the exile. Despite the dismal setting for his ministry, Ezekiel speaks to his people about the new hope which will be fulfilled after his time.
In the early passages of his prophecy, Ezekiel focuses on signs which warn of and explicate the coming trials. At different times, the prophet is compelled to act in symbolic gestures which illustrate the Lord's message to His people. For instance, he must bake bread using cow dung. The Lord explains, “Thus the Israelites shall eat their food, unclean, among the nations where I drive them” (Ezek 4:13). This action demonstrates how the people in exile will be forced to break their religious culinary customs in order to survive. Later, he must act the part of an exile as a prophetic sign. He is instructed to pack his bags and dig through the wall in order to leave the city (Ezek 12:1-7). This is all done while the people watch on, in order that it might be a sign for them. Other such gestures also serve as outward signs to communicate the harsh warning of dark times to come.
The greatest warning is for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Although he is a priest, Ezekiel does not live in Jerusalem during the time he acts as prophet. Yet, the Lord gives him a vision to show the extent of corruption within the holy city and in the Temple itself. Ezekiel sees that the holiest place has become a stronghold for sin, a complete inversion to its true purpose. He witnesses various kinds of idolatry, as representatives of the people venerate images and false pagan gods (Ezek 8:7-18). This abominable activity demands retribution. God instructs His angels to carry out justice against the evil doers, while providing a mark for protection for those who show remorse for the sins of their leaders (Ezek 9:4). Though this action is harsh, it only signifies the true justice which is to come at the hands of the Babylonians.
However, God does not leave Ezekiel with only a harsh message. Even the with destruction being imminent, the prophet is given a message of hope. God promises a renewal of His covenant. In perhaps one of the most beautiful lines in prophetic literature, God vows that He “will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek 11:19). Thus, He does not promise to spare the people from the destruction wrought by their sins, but He faithfully promises to restore the faithful remnant of Israel in due time.
This prophetic promise of restoration is expounded upon further in the days following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. He prophesies against the enemy nations, promising justice against the unjust. In this way, God does not let evil reign over good, but demonstrates that He has sovereign control over all. Following this, He makes a promise to the very land that it will be regenerated and made new. He speaks, “Mountains of Israel, you will sprout branches and bear fruit for my people Israel, for they are coming soon” (Ezek 36:8). In these and similar words, Ezekiel describes how God will prepare the way for the coming restoration of the people.
To the people themselves, God addresses how He will both restore and renew them. After admonishing them for their sins, the Lord states clearly, “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt” (Ezek 36:33). Restoration, then, must follow a period of cleansing. Through exilic separation from the Temple, the people are deprived of their home; but more importantly, they are removed from their pagan idolatry. Through this time of suffering, they must rely on the Lord again and thus be made ready to reenter into the covenant.
Ezekiel uses images to demonstrate this great mystery of restoration. Perhaps most prominently, he uses the image of the dry bones. In a vision, Ezekiel is instructed by the Lord to speak to dry bones from a field littered with the dead (Ezek 37:4). At his words, God acts by breathing upon them and sending His spirit upon them. Ezekiel witnesses as the bones receive new life, growing sinews, flesh, and skin. Finally, at God's prompting, he commands the very four winds to grant life to these bodies (Ezek 37:9). The actions within this vision represent the restoration of the house of Israel. Though it was dead and impossible for human restoration, by the power of God, it can be made new and even stronger than before.
Finally, the most spectacular section of the book of Ezekiel is his long description of a restored Temple. Over the course of nine chapters (40-48), the prophet relays in excruciating detail the design of a new Temple in the restored land. Ezekiel describes the layout for the inner Temple, the outer courtyards, the walls, dining halls, and guard houses. Though he offers many details for this Temple, it is noted that he is not truly giving “blueprints” for construction. Rather, he is envisioning a society which has been rightly ordered to the true worship of God. While it may be a way of comforting the homesick people to imagine the details of a new Temple, the ultimate message is trust in God, not only buildings. By that faith and trust in Him, the Hebrews can have hope in their restoration.
In conclusion, Ezekiel truly is a prophet of hope. His actions can be shocking and jarring as he shows the people signs of God's justice. Yet, his true goal as a prophet is to comfort the afflicted, even while admonishing the wicked. With this complementarity, even readers of the scriptures today can recognize that God's justice is united with His mercy. Furthermore, that His promise for restoration and the renewal of the covenant is extended now to the Church. These messages are truly hopeful and cause for both repentance and joy.