The work, now presented to the reader, cannot be said to be uncalled for; as the Book of Ezekiel is one of those least entered into and expounded as a whole in the Bible. There is little to reward the student in the Greek comments of Origen, Ephraem Syr., Greg. Naz., or Theodoret, less, if possible, in the Latin of Jerome or Gregory the Great. One need not speak of Mediaevals or Reformers, of Jesuits or Puritans, of modern Germans or their English admirers. All lacked the key. Which of them saw the heavenly glory of Christ and the church, as a distinct thing from the kingdom? Which of them did not deny the hopes of Israel? Hence, save pious moral reflections, there is nothing to speak of in these writings, some of them voluminous, like the architectural work of H. Pradus and J. B. Villalpandus, in three enormous folio volumes without a ray of heavenly light.
I am far from pretending, in this brief exposition, to do more than help the Christian to a general but true notion of the contents, aim, and character of the prophecy, as far as I at present understand it, though sensible of the defects of my little book more than most are likely to be.
BLACKHEATH, LONDON, January, 1876.
Of the prophet on whose book we enter we know few circumstances, none save the scanty personal particulars which he gives in the course of his prophecies, bound up with them and expressive of their character. We are told that he was a priest, son of Buzi; also of his wife and her sudden death, a sign to Israel; and of his residence at Tel-abib by the Chebar in the land of the Chaldeans. He speaks of Daniel his contemporary, in his own day famous for righteousness even as Noah and Job.*
*The traditions of the Jews that Ezekiel was servant of Jeremiah, or his son (identifying Buzi with J.) seem unworthy of credit. Even Josephus makes him too young when a captive, for in the fifth year he begins to prophesy.
But there are no writings in the Bible more characteristic, and none more used in furnishing imagery for the last book of the New Testament, the widest and deepest of all prophecies. Ezekiel and Jeremiah with Daniel are the prophets of the time of the captivity, not certainly without points of contact and the surest elements of sympathy, but as diverse in their tone and style and objects as they were in outward lot, and in the circumstances which God employed to give form to their predictions. It was the place of Jeremiah to be left with the poor in the land, and afterwards to be taken away with those who faithlessly fled to Egypt for a security they might have enjoyed in submission to their Babylonish master where they were; and so he wept and groaned with the beloved but unworthy remnant to the last. It was for Daniel to be carried captive in the third year of Jehoiakim when Nebuchadnezzar verified the solemn warning to Hezekiah; though in Babylon God did not leave Himself without witness, and showed where wisdom and His secret alone lay, even when He had raised up the Gentile empires and made His people Lo-ammi. Ezekiel was one of those carried into captivity in the subsequent reign* of Jehoiakin, son of Jehoiakim, when the king of Babylon swept away all the better sort from the land, and our prophet among the rest. There remained but one step lower, the calamitous reign of Zedekiah, that the anger of Jehovah might, cast them all out from His presence, because of manifold provocation and incurable rebellion. In view of this time, though also leaping over the times of the Gentiles of which Daniel treats, and dwelling richly on Israel's restoration at last, Ezekiel prophesied among the captives in Chaldea.
* "The thirtieth year" (Eze_1:1) has greatly perplexed the learned. But it seems plain that the starting-point is the era of Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar, who became king of Babylon, B.C. 625, about the date when Hilkiah found the book of the law in the temple so pregnant with blessing to Josiah and the righteous in Judah. This last is referred to in the Chaldee paraphrase of Jonathan ben Uzziel.
The holy energy, indignant zeal for God, and the moral authority of the prophet in reproving Israel, are strikingly apparent. Borne along, as in the majestic chariot of Jehovah's glory, which he describes with the resistless might of its wheels below and wings above, as the Spirit led, he nowhere flatters the people, but even in the captivity administers the sternest rebuke of the sins, not yet repented of, which had brought Israel so low. The roll spread before him and eaten by him was written within and without, lamentations and mourning and woe; and the prophet was to tell the rebellious people all Jehovah's words with his forehead made as an adamant, harder than flint. He, and he only save Daniel, it will be observed, has the title "Son of man," excepting, of course, the Master, but lowliest of servants, whose it was to appropriate every title of shame, suffering, and rejection, till the day come when they too shall be manifested with Him in glory.
Those who occupy themselves with the outer framework of the truth have not failed to notice the strong sense of clean and unclean, of Levitical sanctity, of temple imagery, of feasts and priests and sacrifices, so natural to one of the sacerdotal family. Of course these features are obvious and indisputable; but far from a rigid imitation of the Pentateuch we shall find that God asserts His title to modify, omit, or add in that day, when his fellow-prophet Jeremiah explicitly declares (Jer_31:31-34) that Jehovah will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, "not according to the covenant I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah! But this shall be the covenant that I make with the house of Israel: After those days, saith Jehovah, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts: and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sins no more." No doubt this is true of the Christian meanwhile, for the blood of the new covenant is already shed and ours by faith; but it will be applied to Israel and Judah as such, through divine mercy, in that day, as the verses of Jeremiah which follow (35-40) most clearly show.
In vain, then, do Rabbins reason on the unchangeableness of the law given by Moses: their own prophets refute them. And so the famous D. Kimchi owns in his comment on our prophet, as Albo and Nachmanides acknowledge also against the absolute claim of immutability. Indeed Albo expressly refutes the use Maimonides makes of Deu_12:22 to the contrary, showing that the real bearing of Moses' warning is to restrain the Israelites from arbitrarily or in self-will presuming to add to or take from the law. In no way did Moses mean to deny the authority of a prophet to do so, especially in view of the vast change to be introduced by the presence of a reigning Messiah and the new covenant. Ezekiel predicts some strikingly characteristic changes when Israel are restored and the theocracy is once more in force, the details of which will appear as we pass through the book.
* See especially Sepher Ikkarim, p. iii. c. 16.
Some have complained of our prophet's obscurity. But there is really no just ground, though the complaint be as old at least as Jerome, who designates the book "a labyrinth of the mysteries of God." The supposed darkness is owing to two things in particular. First, how could such a subject as depicting the divine government be simple? This, if done at all, must embrace immense height, depth, and breadth; and if symbol be used, it must require a compass entirely unexampled for the ordinary demands of the creature. Secondly, the mass of men in Christendom since Origen have adopted the vicious system of "spiritual alchemy," as Hooker terms it, which seeks to change the Jewish hopes into the predictions of proper Christian blessings. No wonder such men find a cloudy mistiness overhanging his pictures. Apply his visions aright, and they will in general be found remarkably explicit and full of force. It is absurd to suppose that details so minute and so circumstantial are mere literary drapery.
The structure of the book is evident. The first half consists of prophecies in strict chronological order before the final destruction of Jerusalem, when Zedekiah brought on himself the just punishment of his rebellion and perjury. (Ezek. 1-34) Ezekiel shows, under magnificent symbols, followed up by the plainest charges of sin, the hopelessness of every effort to shake off the Babylonish yoke, which Zedekiah was essaying through Egypt. But no; it was Jehovah who was judging Jerusalem, He who dwelt between the cherubim, though He might employ Nebuchadnezzar. Morally it could not be otherwise. The doom of the city, temple, king, and people are all shown in this first half. The second opens with a kind of parenthetic transition, in which he denounces seven objects of judgments among the nations surrounding or near the land, neglecting the time when these burdens were delivered, and grouping them in moral unity (Ezek. 25-32); after which the prophet recurs distinctly to Israel, opens the individual ground on which God henceforth would deal with them (Ezek. 32), denounces first the guilty shepherds or princes (Ezek. 34), and then the hatred of Mount Seir (Ezek. 35), next pledges first the moral (Ezek. 36) and then the corporate (Ezek. 37) restoration of all Israel, the overthrow of Gog and all his hosts (Ezek. 38, 39), and finally the return of the glory of God, with the re-established sanctuary, ritual, and priesthood in the land, now indeed holy, as well as the re-arrangement of the twelve-tribed nationality under the prince; for the name of the city from that day shall be Jehovah-shammah. (Ezek. 40-48) Whether in judgment or in peaceful blessing, it is the day of Jehovah for the earth, not at all the foreshown blessedness of Christianity, as the allegorists teach. Such doctrine, whether patristic or puritan, is misleading and a delusion. These extremes meet in the common error which robs Christ and the church of that answer to His heavenly glory which it is the Holy Spirit's function now to make good here below, and which shall be enjoyed yet more, yea, perfectly, when the Lord shall have come, changing our bodies into His likeness, and causing us to appear with Him in the heavenly glory of that day.
It is mere ignorance and malicious unbelief to call this Judaising. For it is no question of the sort when we speak of the future prospects of Israel according to the prophets. Judaising really means the mingling of Jewish elements with the gospel, and imposing them on Christians now. But the very point of the truth insisted on is, that Christians, caught up and glorified with Christ, will then have disappeared from the earth. Consequently it is the age to come, and another calling, when Israel shall be grafted into their own olive-tree. Hence, to look for the literal accomplishment of their visions is simply faith in the prophets, not Judaising, but rather a main safeguard against it; for we are thus kept the more from mingling their hopes with ours because we expect them to be fulfilled to Israel. The return from Babylon in no way met the closing prophecies; but this proves not the imperfection of Ezekiel's foreshadowing, but that his glorious anticipations are still to be fulfilled. The "all Israel" yet remains to be fulfilled when the Redeemer comes to Zion. Eze_20:33 is perfectly consistent with this; for Jeremiah and all the prophets teach the cutting off of apostates and rebels. Henderson therefore was not justified in saying that the discrepancies between the ancient temple and that described by Ezekiel are non-essential. They prove on the contrary that we must either give up the inspiration of the prophet, or maintain that he predicts a return yet future with a new temple, and modified ritual, a fresh distribution of the land among the twelve tribes restored and blessed after their last enemies have been destroyed by divine judgments. No one supposes that he ceased to be a man when he became a prophet; but we are bound to believe that he was inspired so that his writings should give us God's word, and therefore no mixture of error.