This post is part of a series of resources for the Via Emmaus Bible Reading Plan. This month I am focusing on Ezekiel.
24 “And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God. 25 “Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. 26 And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt.Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.”
Galatians 3:8 says that God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham. As he promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations, God revealed his gospel purposes for the world. This truth has many implications, but one of them is that the gospel is something that goes back to the beginning—even to the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 3:15). Accordingly, whenever we read the Old Testament we should expect to find gospel promises of salvation and hope. Even in books that focus on the righteous judgments of God, there will be promises of grace and forgiveness.
This is the gospel message—that God will make a way of salvation for those who deserve eternal condemnation.
God gave this promise to Israel first (Rom. 1:16–17), but he always intended for his salvation to go from Israel to all the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; cf. Rom. 9:25–29; 10:18ff.). In the New Testament, we learn how this works. But we also find how this works by reading the Old Testament in light of the New. In the Prophets especially, we find new covenant promises that are given to Israel and the nations.
Over the last two months, I have focused on Isaiah and Jeremiah and the gospel hope found in each. This month, I turn to Ezekiel. And again the pattern of salvation and judgment remains. The message of the gospel is found scattered throughout Ezekiel, but it is also seen in the book as a whole.
In this blogpost, I want to offer some help on how to read Ezekiel, so that you can see the gospel in Ezekiel. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel is challenging because it is so large. But it is also challenging because of how Ezekiel speaks and acts. Therefore, to get a better grasp on the book, I am turning to one of my seminary professors and his book on Ezekiel.
Daniel Block taught Old Testament when I went to Southern Seminary, and his collection of essays on Ezekiel (By the River Chebar: Historical, Literary, and Theological Studies in the Book of Ezekiel, 2013) nicely complements his massive, two-volume commentary on Ezekiel. In class, I remember him saying that his kids grew up with Ezekiel in the house, as he spent fourteen years (!!) working on his two commentaries. To such labor, we are indebted. And to those who read his work on Ezekiel, they will find excellent scholarship and great help for reading this prophet.
In what follows, I am summarizing Block’s introductory notes to Ezekiel.
How the Church Has Read and Preached Ezekiel
Block begins his introductory chapter with a brief survey of Ezekiel’s life in the history of the church. Here’s what he says, put in bullet points,
- Origen (CE 185-254) composed at least fourteen homilies on Ezekiel, which were translated into Latin by Jerome.
- Gregory the Great (CE 540-604) preached twenty-two homilies on Ezekiel 1-3 and 40 between 595 and 594, expressing delight in clarifying obscure texts. By his time the interpretation of the four living creatures in the opening vision as the four evangelists was well established, but he proposed that the four creatures represent all preachers of the word.
- From the medieval period, Andrew of St. Victor’s overriding concern in reading Ezekiel’s vision was not only to recapture the picture so he could draw it like he drew the temple, but also to know what it meant for the people for whom Ezekiel recorded it.
- Of the Reformers, Calvin’s expositions of Ezekiel are significant because they represent his last written work. Racked by pain, his emaciated body gave out at the end of chapter 20. Nevertheless, his commentary reflects the vigor of his mind and his high view of all Scripture.
- [After Calvin, William Greenhill published five volumes of sermons on Ezekiel. As Banner of Truth describes the context, “Delivered to crowded congregations in the city of London, the content is popular and in the best seventeenth century tradition of experimental preaching which spoke to heart and conscience as well as the mind.”]
- Modern American evangelical interest in the book tends to revolve around Ezekiel’s eschatological vision, particularly the participation of Gog and Magog in the final battles, and the role of the temple and its cult in the millennium. In my native dispensationalist world, Ezekiel was mentioned exclusively in the contexts of prophecy (“end time”) conferences, which now seem to have been quite oblivious to the exilic prophet’s lofty theology or the practical nature of his message. (Block, By the River Chebar, 1–2; format mine)
Clearly, we come to Ezekiel at a time when most preachers have used the book of Ezekiel in ways foreign to its original meaning. This means, we need to work hard to let Ezekiel, and not Hal Lindsay, speak. To that end, Block’s six preaching strategies are helpful.
Six Propositions on [Reading] Ezekiel
After introducing the way Christians have preached Ezekiel, Block moves to six propositions for preaching Ezekiel today. While aimed at the preacher, these propositions serve well to help us read the book. He states that “In order to preach from Ezekiel with authority and clarity, . . .
- We need to understand the prophet—his character (ethos), passion (pathos), and argumentation (logos). (2)
- We need to understand his audience. (4)
- We need to understand the nature and structure of the book. (5)
- We need to understand the message that Ezekiel proclaims. (10)
- We need to understand Ezekiel’s rhetorical and homiletical [preaching] strategy. (15)
- We need to plan carefully. (17)
Taking these propositions in reverse order, we gain a helpful approach to this book.
First, we need to have a plan for [reading] Ezekiel.
For the preacher, Block encourages preaching familiar passages (chs. 1–3, 18, 34, 36:22–32, 37:1–14) and others from all parts of the book. In this proposition, he suggests that preaching series do not need to cover every part of the book, but enough to give the full sense of Ezekiel. I have mixed feelings about this counsel and will have to consider it more fully when (Lord willing) I preach Ezekiel. For now, I would simply reiterate the need to have a plan for reading all of Ezekiel.
Here’s a simple approach that permits you to read the book in two weeks time.
- Ezekiel 1–3
- Ezekiel 4–7
- Ezekiel 8–11
- Ezekiel 12–15
- Ezekiel 16–17
- Ezekiel 18–21
- Ezekiel 22–24
- Ezekiel 25–28
- Ezekiel 29–32
- Ezekiel 33–36
- Ezekiel 37–39
- Ezekiel 40–43
- Ezekiel 44–47
- Ezekiel 48
The literary structure that stands behind this breakdown will become more evident below.
Second, we need to recognize that Ezekiel is the most vivid—and shocking—prophet.
To understand Ezekiel’s way of speaking, Block offers five keys. We should consider how Ezekiel (1) develops earlier passages in the Old Testament, (2) arranges his message, (3) communicates with “shocking imagery” and other literary idiosyncrasies, (4) employs the number seven to frame his oracles, and (5) delivers his prophecies with speech and action. While these keys do not immediately produce understanding, they do acknowledge the challenge we face when we read the book.
Third, we need to understand the theological message of Ezekiel.
Block has two chapters dedicated to this point, but for starters he identifies Israel’s ‘house of pride’ as the centerpiece of the book. In other words, supported by four pillars—(1) land, (2) covenant, (3) Zion, and (4) David—Israel took pride in their elect position. Ironically, this pride in God’s blessings lead them to invite his curses. And in his forty-eight chapters, twenty-four (chs. 1–24) are dedicated to tearing this house of pride down and the other twenty-four (chs. 25–48) are dedicated to seeing a new house built up. Such is the message of judgment and salvation in the book, which not surprisingly is supported by its literary arrangement.
Fourth, we need to see the literary structure of Ezekiel.
Readers of this blog know how much I stress the literary structure of Scripture, and that is why I turned to Block’s book. He spends considerable time in his introductory chapter supplying an outline of the book. And I adapt his outline in the charts below. Here’s how he begins,
First, if we can get past the first chapter [and its whirling wheels], we discover that this book to be the most intentionally structured of prophetic books. It consists of forty-eight chapters, divided evenly into two major sections, oracles of woe for Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 1–24) and oracles of weal for Judah and Jerusalem (chs. 25–48). (5)
|Messages of Judgment
|Messages of Hope
|Signs & Visions
|Oracles against the Nations
Describing the outline of the book, Block details the following,
Within these sections there is further evidence of deliberate planning. The form and structure of the collection of oracles against foreign nations are obviously governed by the number seven. Seven nations/states are addressed: Ammon (25:1-7), Moab (25:8-11), Edom (25:12-14), Philistia (25:15-17), Tyre (26:1-28:19), Sidon (28:20-23), and Egypt (29:1 -32:32). Seven mini-oracles are incorporated into the first half, and seven oracles against Egypt are preserved in 29:1-32:32, signaled by the sevenfold occurrence of the word event formula (29:1, 17; 30:1, 20; 31:1; 32:1, 17). And seven date notices break up the oracles (26:1; 29:1, 17; 30:20; 31:1; 32:1, 17). But there is more. On the basis of the Hebrew verse division, these indirect oracles of hope divide into two virtually equal parts: oracles of judgment against the six (25:1; 28:23) and oracles of judgment against Egypt (29:1–32:32), both made up of ninety-seven verses. But the significance of these oracles against the nations is highlighted by 28:24-26, placed at the precise mid-point and functioning as a fulcrum on which the surrounding oracles balance. (6)
Putting this description into visible outline, we can organize the data like this.
|7 Mini Oracles
|7 Oracles Against Egypt
|· Ammon A (25:1–2)||· 29:1–16|
|· Ammon B (25:6–7)||· 29:17–21|
|· Moab (25:8–11)||· 30:1–19|
|· Edom (25:12–14)||· 30:20–26|
|· Philistia (25:15–17)||· 31:1–18|
|· Tyre (26:1–28:19)||· 32:1–16|
|· Sidon (28:20–23)||· 32:17–32|
Hope in the Midst of Judgment
From this reflection on Ezekiel as a whole and Ezekiel in chapters 25–32, we can see the detail with which Ezekiel is organized. This teaches us to keep our eyes out for intentional structuring, and especially for the many places where God’s word comes to Ezekiel and the refrain “they will know that I am the Lord.”
Additionally, as I will show in a future blogpost, Ezekiel 33–48 serves as a gospel proclamation unto itself. It begins with the promise of a new shepherd (chs. 33–34); it proceeds to describe the coming of a new covenant (chs. 35–37), complete with resurrection and restoration of Israel (chs. 37). Then, with this resurrected people, Ezekiel describes a spiritual battle that ensues (chs. 38–39) and that results in the purification and reconstruction of the temple (chs. 40–47). This is the gospel in type and shadow—a gospel that has come in Christ and is now spreading through the world.
Again, if we listen to Ezekiel with the rest of the Bible as our guide, instead of importing Dispensational fancies into the text, we will begin to see how this book has been fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection of Christ. Indeed, John’s Gospel depends so much on Ezekiel 33–48, because he sees those chapters as finding their telos in Christ. Similarly, Ezekiel 33–48 is best interpreted through the lens of John’s Gospel.
More on that to come. For now, let me finish with Block’s two final propositions.
Fifth, we need to understand Ezekiel’s audience.
The book of Ezekiel makes it clear that he is writing to a “rebellious house” (2:5–8; 3:9, 26–27; 12:2–4, 9, 25; 24:3) whose faces, hearts, and minds are hardened towards God (p. 5). Because the people have the land, the covenant, the temple, and the throne, they arrogantly assume they own their position. Sadly, they have no abiding righteousness. And hence, God must tear down their house (chs. 1–24), in order to rebuild his house and his people (chs. 25–48).
Knowing the condition of the audience helps explain why Ezekiel must be so shocking. The people won’t get it, unless he comes with shocking imagery. And even then, they won’t get it.
The condition of the people also explains why Ezekiel is so Israel-centric. Yet, it should be remembered that God’s plan for blessing always included the nations. And hence, all the priest-temple-covenant themes in Ezekiel do not exclude the Gentiles. As we read, we discover how the new covenant blessings for resurreted Israel will overflow to the entire world (see Ezekiel 47).
Sixth and last, we need to understand the prophet Ezekiel.
This is where Block begins his chapter, and rightfully so. Ezekiel is an ‘eccentric’ prophet whose words and actions have often been subject to scrutiny. Yet, his ‘lived experience,’ is deeply connected to the conditions of Israel. Therefore, to understand what God is doing to his people requires understanding what is happening to Ezekiel. The proliferation of dates in Ezekiel’s prophecy reinforce this connection to Israel.
By comparison, Ezekiel is more autobiographical than any other prophet, with the exception of Hosea. Without fixating on himself, Ezekiel is embodying the word. Indeed, from his first prophecy which includes lying on his side for more than a year (ch. 4) to the death of his wife (ch. 24), Ezekiel is doing more than speaking God’s Word. He is incarnating it! Accordingly, to understand Ezekiel the book, we must understand Ezekiel the man. And more, with this incarnation of the Word in Ezekiel, we find one of many ways this book prepares the way for Christ.
Take Up and Read Ezekiel
There is certainly more that needs to be said in an introduction to Ezekiel, but with these six propositions in place, you are on solid ground for reading the book. Even more, seeing the book as a whole—moving from judgment to salvation—helps us see the gospel in Ezekiel.
In the weeks ahead I hope to return to the outline of Ezekiel 33–48, and if you know of any other helpful resources on Ezekiel, please share in the comments.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 You can find his charts on pp. 6-7.