Sefer Yechezkel contains the prophecies Yechezkel received between the years 593-571 BCE. Since he provides exact dates for a number of his prophecies throughout the book, we can easily pinpoint the moment in history when they are delivered. His messages are intended mainly for the Jews already living in Babylonia, who were exiled from Yerushalayim in 597 BCE, and watch from afar as their Beit Hamikdash and homeland in Yehuda are destroyed. In addition to his prophecies of rebuke, one of Yechezkel’s central roles involves offering strength to these people who have been torn from the Holy Land. His name thus befits his role as prophet, since Yechezkel (יחזקאל) means ‘God strengthens’. Hashem chose Yechezkel to give strength to His people.
Yechezkel descends from a priestly family in Yerushalayim. After being exiled from Yerushalayim, he lives in Babylonia, in the city of Tel Abib. His messages of rebuke fall mostly on deaf ears, as the Jews in Babylonia refuse to believe that Hashem will destroy His holy city of Yerushalayim and His Temple. They also do not accept his words of reproach justifying the upcoming tragedy. After the traumatic destruction, however, the people have become ready to listen to Yechezkel, and the focus of his message changes. Instead of emphasizing the catastrophe and its causes, he begins to outline a plan for the Jewish people to survive the temporary loss of their land and to prevail in exile. His messages refer equally to the ritual and the ethical, and he delivers a message of hope that echoes to this day.
Sefer Yechezkel, which is organized chronologically, can be divided into three major sections, paralleling the historical events which unfold around the prophet. Chapters 1-24 speak of the judgment that will befall Yerushalayim and provide an explanation for why God has chosen to chastise His people so harshly: The punishments are meant to cleanse His people from their accumulated sins so they can return in purity to their land. In that vein, the actual destruction of Yerushalayim is compared to an offering on the altar.
The second section, chapters 25-32, outlines a series of judgments that will befall the nations of the world, either for actively helping Babylonia destroy Yerushalayim, or for reveling in the downfall of Israel. Included among these nations are Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt.
The third and final section, chapters 33-48, provides hope for restoration of the exiled remnant of Israel. Yechezkel promises that they can, and will, return as a sovereign nation to the Holy Land. This message of deliverance and restoration can be further subdivided into two parts: chapters 33-40 describe the return to the soil of the land, and the final eight chapters envision the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash in all its glory, and the Messianic Age. Yechezkel’s most famous revelation can be found in this section: The vision of the valley of the dry bones (chapter 37).
Sefer Yechezkel is full of unusual symbolic acts and allegories which are intended to help the prophet convey his messages. For example, Yechezkel is told to lie on his side for over a year, to shave his hair, and to refrain from mourning for his deceased wife. Yechezkel’s extravagant, other-worldly descriptions of the “heavenly chariot” and court became the focal point for study of many esoteric mystical traditions. These pursuits have been considered spiritually dangerous for untrained or unprepared students, and studying these chapters was traditionally discouraged, except under the guidance of a master. In fact, there were many who felt that it was not appropriate to include Sefer Yechezkel within the biblical canon. The rabbis, however, chose to include Sefer Yechezkel, as it was deemed an authentic prophetic work whose eternal messages are meaningful for all generations.