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The Historical, Literary Analysis and Message of Ezekiel

Outline :


I. Historical setting

II. Literary Analysis of the book of Ezekiel

III. Message of the book of Ezekiel







The article will first survey the historical setting to gain light on the issue of the society and the influences upon which Ezekiel experienced from the environment and other prophets. Then we will strive

I. Historical setting

A. The Political background

Since the 8th century, Israel and Judah had lived under the influence of the super power of this time, Assyria. The northern kingdom had been treated as a vassal state by the Assyrian since 9th century, but was changed to a full Assyrian province in 722 B.C.E. because of its rebellion. The king of Judah, Hezekiah tried to rebel in 705-701 but failed. His son Manasseh kept his loyalty to the Assyrian king during his lifetime (2 King 18-21). Josiah the successor to him started a political and religious reform after 628 B.C.E. He tried to retake the northern territories (2 Chron. 34) at the expense of the weakening of the Assyria after the death of its strong king, Assurbanipal. However, all the efforts came to an end when he was killed in a battle trying to stop Egypt from helping the Assyrians (in 609). The Babylonians defeated the Egyptians in 605 and controlled Judah. Jehoiakim kept his loyalty to Babylon for a while and started the rebel which ended in the fall of Jerusalem in 598. He died during the siege, and the Babylonians took his son Jehoiachin and most of the educated and gifted citizens into exile (2 Kgs 24:1-7). The Babylonians placed Jehoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah on the throne ruling as a regent. Zedekiah rebelled and Jerusalem was leveled in 586.


B. The Prophet's background

Jeremiah opposed Johoiakim's political opportunism, but he failed to succeed. His prophecy of the doom became reality in 598. He survived, but was taken to Egypt by force in 583. He seemed to have a great influence on Ezekiel. Ezekiel was highly probably among the 8000 exiles taken to Babylon in 598 (2 Kgs 24:16). He might be 30 years old if the date in 1:1 indicated his age. But this interpretation had some difficulties. The inaugural vision is dated 30th yr. 4 month 5 day (i.e. July 31, 593 B.C.) and the vision of the future is dated 25th yr. 1 month 10 day (i.e. April 28, 573).

Ezekiel may be just a peripheral prophet in the exilic community (contra his Zadokite background), because the book has a lot of Deuteronomic characteristics, like the phrase "the word of Lord came to me" occurs 45 times. In this book, the call of the prophets is emphasized (Ezek 1:1-3:15). The divine urge to preach the message is stressed, even though it may not be listened by the people (Ezek 3:16-21). His message encounters many opposition (Ezek 2:3-8; 3:7-11). His impact on his community is little and he is forced to rely on his writing to spread the message.

Ezekiel is apparently influenced greatly by Jeremiah. As Saggs suggested, Jeremiah is the first prophet proclaim explicitly Yahweh is the cosmic creator who rule all the kingdom on the earth. Ezekiel is in the time when Israelite monotheism emerges. When compared with polytheistic worship in the temple of the Jewish colony at Elephantine, the restored temple of Jerusalem, consecrated in 515 B.C., which worship Yahweh alone is a strange phenomena. Hermann Vorlander suggests that it reflects the influence of the Persian god, Ahura Mazda, who seems to be accepted by Darius I (522-468 B.C.) as the only god and creator. Yahweh-alone movement has preserved the Jewish ethnic and national uniqueness, despite of the massive integration of the exilic Jewish people into the Persian economical and social life. This is the result of the works of various prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so-called Deutero-Isaiah (Isa. 40-55; Ezek 44-6). They have promoted the celebration of traditional customs like sabbath observance and circumcision.

II. Literary Analysis of the book of Ezekiel

A. General Outline

The message of the book can be classified as follows:

I. Oracles of Judgment 1:1 - 24:27 (Before Jerusalem's fall )

II. Oracles against Foreign Nations 25:1 - 32:22 (Waiting for Jerusalem's fall )

III. Oracles of Restoration 33:1 - 48:35 (After Jerusalem's fall )

A. New land 33:1 - 39:29

B. New Temple and New Cult 40:1 - 48:35

B. Arguments supporting the proposed tentative outline

The relationship between the three parts are not very clearly from the above outline. Though the detailed analysis varies from commentator to commentator, I will suggest my own base on the following arguments:

1) The dumbness refers to "dumbness to give message about Jerusalem awaiting for the fulfillment of the doom prophecy". Ezekiel delivers some woe messages against the nations after this dumbness occurs. In Exek. 33:22, his mouth is opened by God before the man came to him in the morning; then he is no longer silent. His dumbness is related to the prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, and it disappears when it is fulfilled. This dumbness must be understood in relationship to the whole book. The goal of prophecy before the fall and after it is different. Before it, Ezekiel tries to open the ears of the people and prevent the disaster to happen. When his dumbness occurs, the destiny of Jerusalem is sealed. Only after its fall, the gracious hand of God returns. The departure of God's glory is a preparation of this judgment theme.

2) The relationship of Ch.3 and 33: The repetition of the commissing scene of the prophet in both Chaps. 3 and 33 is a key to the structure. Both of them show the theme of the prophet's dumbness. In Ch.3 the role of the prophet is more or less a warning prophet, while in Ch.33 he plays a comforting role. Isa. 21:6 shows that the watchman will look for future salvation too. Thus, to assume the inappropriateness of the Ch. 33 which so both the watchman and comforter roles is unnecessary.

3) The fall of the Jerusalem nullify the hope of return and the faith on Yahweh (his own place is demolished!) Ezekiel reacts to the crisis by "prophesying the fall as Yahweh's judgment, rather than failure."

4) The presence of the Lord starts in the vision of Yahweh's royal throne in Ch.1. Further in chaps.8-11, the glory of Yahweh gradually retreats from the temple, becasue of the abominations. By the grace of Yahweh, His glory returns to the newly restored temple in chap. 43. The glory of Yahweh which represents His majesty. sovereignty and power runs throughout the whole book. It is not used in the prophecies against the nations, because they are not the residence of God. However, sovereignty of Yahweh is revealed in His control on the fate of the nations: all the kingdom of men are under His hand, not king's hands. The phrase "Sovereign LORD" (NIV; adonai YHWH) occurs frequently in Ezekiel. This may be a way to stress the sovereignty. The frequent use of "son of man" to call Ezekiel has reminded the mortal statue of him. Therefore the supremacy and immortal statue of God is revealed through contrast.


C. Proposed tentative outline


Theme: "The Sovereignty of Yahweh over the world: Judgment and Hope are from Him Only."

Therefore, the fall of Jerusalem is His judgment, not His failure. Yahweh is only true God in the world, other gods are false and no salvation is given by them to men.

1. Ignorance of His sovereignty ---- Judgment ( Chs. 1- 24)

a. Preparation of the messenger: 1 - 3

b. Proclamation of the Message: 4 - 11

i. Judgment will come (symbolic acts) 4 - 7

ii.Judgment "have come" (in visions) 8 - 11

a. Reasons for Judgment 12- 24

i. Wrong reliance - prosperity, false prophets 12 - 14

ii. No submission - rebellion in history 15 - 18

iii. Don't keep the covenant - forgiving God 19 - 23

iv. Conclusion 24

2. Manifestation of His sovereignty ---- Warning ( Chs. 25 - 32)

a. Judgment on 4 nations 25 --- Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia

b. Judgment on Tyre and Sidon 26 - 28

c. Judgment on Egypt 29 - 32

3. Future Manifestation of His sovereignty ----Restoration of Israel (Chs. 33 - 48)

a. Preparation for Restoration 33 - 39

i. Revival of leaders 33 - 34

ii. Revival of people (including Edom) 35 - 37

iii. Annihilation of the enemies 38 - 39

b. The "Scene" of Restoration 40 - 48

i. Re-establishment of the Temple 40 - 43

ii Re-establishment of the Cults 44 - 46

iii.Re-division of the Holy Land 47 - 48


III. Message of the book of Ezekiel

The central issue of Ezekiel is 'how does the nation survive?' In the exilic times, two questions are extremely important for the exiles. (1) What is the relationship between Yahweh and other gods? (2) How to understand the old traditions which are closely connected to the kingship, nation and land which are lost now? These two questions are extremely important for the self-understanding of Israel and its survival under great Persian influence.

Ezekiel takes the exile experience as the direct judgment of Yahweh to His rebellious people.

The message of the book can be classified into 3 periods:

A. Before Jerusalem's fall: Oracles of Judgment 1:1 - 24:27

B. Waiting for the fall: Oracles against Foreign Nations 25:1 - 32:22

C. After Jerusalem's fall : Oracles of Restoration 33:1 - 48:35

A. Before Jerusalem's fall: Oracles of Judgment 1:1 - 24:27

He felt the frustration of separating from their own land, with the deep-seated sense of hopelessness. New understanding on the nature of Yahweh was needed. Was Yahweh defeated by Marduk? If not, why they were here in Babylon?

The vision in ch.1 confirmed the presence of Yahweh in the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians (1:3). Yahweh appeared with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light (1:4). "The glory of the LORD" shone on the face of Ezekiel (1:28b). Clearly it echoed earlier prophetic tradition and influenced P tradition too. The exile was explained as judgment on the people, rather than the defeat of Yahweh by Marduk.

Then, what were their sins? According to Ezekiel, the Israelites had not kept the just ordinances (mispatim) " which Yahweh had once established or wanted to call into being through the edicts of his word." In addition to this, Israelites had not walked in His statutes (huqqot) (Ezek. 5,7-10). These traditional rules revealed whether the Israelites are living as saddiq or not. It was the "acting in faithfulness to the community and being potentially destined for salvation (18.9; 17.21f)." Huqqot was related to the human duty of 'walking in them' (hlk), while mispatim were the actual deeds done by the Israelites. To be more precise, there were social sins as condemned by Amos and Isaiah (Ezek. 34) and religious offenses like idolatry and apostasy (Ezek. 8). Ezekiel made no difference between them. For example, the lists of sins in chs. 18 and 22 mixed them up randomly.

Therefore, the history of the Israelites would be redrawn by Ezekiel as a history of rebellion. In Ezekiel 20, he described the rebellious Israelites in the desert. They attached to Egyptian idols (20.6-8), refused to obey the laws, esp. Sabbath law (20.10-13), continually disobeyed the Lord (second generation 20.18-21), and turned to Baal worship (20.18-21). Therefore, the history of the Israelites would be redrawn by Ezekiel as a history of rebellion. In Ezekiel 20, he described the rebellious Israelites in the desert. They attached to Egyptian idols (20.6-8), refused to obey the laws, esp. Sabbath law (20.10-13), continually disobeyed the Lord (second generation 20.18-21), and turned to Baal worship (20.18-21). This negative view of Israelite's history faced immediate objection from the exilic people. If it was true, then it would be their fathers' sins that brought them to exile, not theirs. Ezekiel dealt with this in ch. 18. As Paul Joyce rightly pointed out that individual responsibility was not the issue, but moral responsibility of each generation for its own sins lay on the heart of the debate in ch. 18. Though the people were held responsible for their own sins, repentance was possible and atoned for their sins. God would show His mercy if they repented (Ezek. 18:23).

B. Waiting for the fall: Oracles against Foreign Nations 25:1 - 32:22

Besides, judgment would fall on Jerusalem. The false hope of return to it was discouraged by Ezekiel. Relics of Zion theology and the existence of Jerusalem have fostered rejection to this oracle. However, the doom of Jerusalem was foretold, and it was finally sealed in ch. 24. The death of Ezekiel's wife and his dumbness were the signs (24,15-27). After that, Ezekiel prophesied against other nations only. Because continuing rebellion and hardened hearts of the Israelites, the fall of Jerusalem was irrevocable.

C. After Jerusalem's fall : Oracles of Restoration 33:1 - 48:35

Jerusalem was leveled down to the ground and the hope of return was crushed. In ch. 33,21-22, after the fall, Ezekiel's mouth was opened and prophesied on the reason of the fall. A new hope was given to the people, promising a remnant would be available and returned to the land. It was simply due to the grace of Yahweh. Beside this kind of remnant, an unrighteous remnant would be here to testify the Israelite sins (Ezek. 14,21-23).

Certainly the promise of the restoration of the whole land, temple, and people comforted the exiles' frustrated hearts. It also reflected ritual expiation of sin was taken seriously by Ezekiel. The vision in chs.40-48 was a portrayal of society announced in the prophecies of restoration in chs. 33-37. According to Levenson's suggestion, two mythic traditions, Zion-tradition and Eden-tradition lay behind the scene. The people were tempted to achieve this by divine-human synergetic actions. But this attempt was proved to be failure. Since it dealt with time after Ezekiel, it would be out of the scope of this article.



Eichrodt, Walther. Ezekiel: A Commentary. of The OT Library. trans. Cosslett Quin. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975.

Boadt, Lawrence. "Ezekeil, Book of," ABD. Vol. 2 pp.711-722. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1992.

Brownlee, William H. Ezekiel 1-19. Vol. 28.of Word Biblical Commentary. Wace: Word Books, 1986.

Davis, Ellen f. Swallowing the Scroll: Textuality and the Dynamics of Discourse in Ezekiel's Prophecy. Decatur: Almond, 1989.

Eichrodt, Walther. Ezekiel: A Commentary. of The OT Library. trans. Cosslett Quin. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975.

Fishbane, Michael "Sin and Judgment in the Prophecies of Ezekiel," Interpreting the Prophets. J.L. Mays and P.J. Achtemeier ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987. pp.170-187.

Hayes, J.H. & Israelite and Judean History. of The OT Library.

Miller J.M. ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977.

Joyce, Paul. Divine Initiative and Human Response in Ezekiel. of JSOT Supplement Series 51. Sheffield: JSOT, 1989.

Koch, Klaus. The Prophet. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Lang, Bernard. Monotheism and the prophetic minority. Vol. 1, of The Social World of Biblical Antiquity Series. Sheffield: Almond, 1983.

Lemke, Werner E. "Life in the Present and Hope for the Future," Interpreting the Prophets. J.L. Mays and P.J. Achtemeier ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987. pp.200-214.

Levensen, Jon D. Theology of the Program of Restoration of Ezekiel 40-48. Montana: Scholars Press, 1976.

McKeating, Henry. Ezekiel. of Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: JSOT, 1993.

Newsome, J.D. Jr. The Hebrew Prophets. Atlanta: John Knox, 1984.

Swanepoel, M.G. "Ezekiel 16: Abandoned Child, Bride Adorned or Unfaithful Wife?," Among the Prophets of JSOT Supplement Series 144 Philip R. Davies and David J.A. Clines ed. Sheffield: JSOT, 1993. pp.84-104.

Tang, Samuel Y. A Commentary on Ezekiel (I). of Bible Commentaries Series. Chinese ed. Hong Kong: Tien Dao, 1990.

Tang, Samuel Y. A Commentary on Ezekiel (II). of Bible Commentaries Series. Chinese ed. Hong Kong: Tien Dao, 1990.

Wever, J. W. ed. Ezekiel. of The Century Bible. New Series. Greenwood: Attic, 1969.

Wilson, R.E. Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 1. trans. R.E. Clements. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.


  1. see Boadt p.714 and Newsome p.124.
  2. The addition of month and day after his age is quite aweful, which is not consistent with the remaining record of time. Also, if he is of the thirties, he would be a "young" priest; how can he have so great an influence? Besides, Newsome (p.124) has remained us that if he is 30 years old, he would be born in 622 that the book of the law was found. I suggest that Ezekiel is actually counting from this date, not referring to his own age. This have been thirty years after the discovery of this book, which causes the Israelite to embrace Yahweh-alone movement. But...now everything is gone.
  3. The modern date is suggested by The NIV Study Bible p.1227.
  4. Since the Ephraimite tradition is an integral part of the book in all redactional levels, Ezekiel may have been influenced by Deuteronomic thought, rather than showing these features because of Deuteronomic redactions (Wilson p.284).
  5. Wilson p.283.
  6. Wilson p.285.
  7. It is so strong that Smend has sugguested 62 passages as borrowings from Jeremiah. The influence is easy to be shown. For example, the Jeremianic call-narrative in ch.2-3 do reflect some influence (Zimmerli p.44). They both condemns the lying spirit of propehcy (Jer 14,14; eZEK 12,24; 13-17) (Boadt AB, p.719) and used similiar preaching features: sumission to the Babylonians, anti-Egyptian attitude (Zimmerli p.45).
  8. Lang p.49.
  9. Lang pp.46-47.
  10. Since Ezekiel stresses the need to worship in the Jerusalem temple (20,27-31; 6,1-7), he is a Deuteronomic reformer. (Brownlee p.xxxiv).
  11. Mayes p.484.
  12. see AB p.712.
  13. Davis p.56. A detailed analysis of dumbness motif is found in pp. 48-58.
  14. see Boadt, AB , pp.712-713.
  15. see Boadt, AB , p.713.
  16. Mark Hillmer in NIV Study Bible p.1228.
  17. According to NASB exhaustive concordance of the Bible, it occurs only 15 times in Jeremiah, but 216 times throughout Ezekiel. Robert L. Alden pointed out in Theological Wordbook of OT pp.12-13 that the form adonai appears in more than three hundred times, mostly in Psalms, Lamentations, and the later prophets.
  18. Though it may not be decisive, but the theocentricity of Ezekiel is clearly shown (Joyce p.89f).
  19. see Boadt AB, p.718 and Tang pp.47-48.
  20. suggested by Mayes p.484.
  21. eg. Jer. 1:16; 2.13; 8.19; Ezek. 20.32; Isa. 44; 46.
  22. The oracles progressed from samll states around Israel to Egypt (Wever p.5. Contra to Amos' method).
  23. Sidon oracle may have been a separate collection attached later (Wever p.5)
  24. McKeating (p.11) has suggested 'Can the nation survive?' This suggestion has lessened the urge to survive, and the inconsistency between the Zion theology and the exile. They are forced to re-think whether Yahweh is a a less powerful god than gods accepted by other nations (see Lang p.48). Are the older traditions still meaningful to the people in exile? How does Yahweh related to them in a foreign land away from His controlled land: Jerusalem and Judah? Therefore I deliberately coin the wording to "how does the nation survive?"
  25. Lang p.48.
  26. Eichrodt emphasizes this influence in p.27 of his book.
  27. Zimmerli pp.53-54 and detailed comparison in pp.97-100.
  28. This quoted description of the term is given by Koch in p.95.
  29. quoted in Koch p.96.
  30. related to expression like ' have to be heeded and given expression to' (smr and 'asa). refers to Koch p.97.
  31. McKeating pp.85-86.
  32. McKeating pp.78-81. The relationship between the people and Yahweh is depicted lively in ch.16 too. Detailed study on this chapter is provided by Swanepoel pp.84-104.
  33. Ezekiel has used the exodus tradition in ch.20 and added new exodus tradition in the later part of the chapter (Tang p.38). This reworking of the tradition is part of the reinterpretation done by Ezekiel to explain the reason of the exile.
  34. McKeating pp.78-81.
  35. Paul Joyce argued strongly against the misrepresentation of evoluation of individual responsibility in pp.79-87. He is right that the so-called individual responsibility is not innovation, but "tuypical of the diversity which marked language relating to responsibility in all periods" (quoted in p.86).
  36. McKeating p.84.
  37. Eichrodt p.27.
  38. Ezekiel described the rebellion of Israel in 33.25f. They have transgressed the laws by lust for power and wealth (Eichrodt p.28).
  39. It was emphasized by McKeating in pp.88-89.
  40. Haggai and Zechariah may have been discouraged by the failure of the rebuilding temple and the establishment of this promised kingdom (Hg. 1,10). see Levenson p.162.
  41. Wilson (p.286) suggests that the apocalyptic material in Ezekiel 38-39 may be added after Ezekiel's time.
  42. The Historical, Literary Analysis and Message of Ezekiel is of other prophets to analyze the whole book to find a tentative outline. Though we will not discuss the possible redaction layers in each portion in order to simplify our analysis, the complexity of the texts should be borne in mind. A theme will be selected to analyze the whole book. We will then move to probe his messages corresponding to tgetic actions. But this attempt was proved to be failure. Three different times, namely before Jerusalem's fall, waiting for it, and after it.



In the pre-exilic time, there were drastic changes in the political and religious aspects of Judah. After the unexpected death of king Josiah, Judah suffered the loss of a great leader and independance. Soon it was under the Babylonian control. The opportunism of the kings after Josiah, pulled the nation into disaster. Finally, Jerusalem was leveled in 586. Other prophets, eg. Jeremiah, had struggled to prevent the calamity, but was in vain. However, they did influence Ezekiel a lot; which could be seen in his preaching styles, content, and the use of previous traditions in ch.40-48.

Responsing to the needs of the exile, the sovereignty of God is emphasized in this book. It is one of the dominant themes. The dumbness of the prophets, commissing scene, and the glory of Yahweh are some hints on this theme. Especially, the fall of Jerusalem is explained as the judgment of Yahweh, rahter than His failure to protect His own place.

The issue at stake is " how does the nation survive?" At first, Ezekiel attempts to convince the people to take the exilic experience as the judgment of Yahweh. He redraws the Israelite history as a rebellious history against Yahweh, but hints that they may have hope if they repent (Ezek. 18,23) However, the continual rebellion has forced to destine the leveling of Jerusalem. During this waiting time, Ezekiel has proclaimed the judgments on other nations revealing the sovereignty of Yahweh over all nations. Furthermore the fall of the holy city frustrates the exilic people and Ezekiel announces the glorious future of Israel predestined by the grace of God to comfort them. Attempts to achieve this by divine-human cooperation have found to be failure. This may open the door for the apocalyptic explanations of these prophecy.