The Book of Ezekiel, in Hebrew, Yechezkel, contains the words Ezekiel prophesied between the years 593-571 BCE. Since he provides exact dates for a number of his prophecies throughout the book, we can easily pinpoint when in history they are delivered. Ezekiel’s messages are intended mainly for the Jews already living in Babylon, who were exiled from Jerusalem in 597 BCE, and watch from afar as their Temple and homeland in Judah are destroyed. In addition to his prophecies of rebuke, one of Ezekiel’s central roles involves offering strength to the people torn from the Holy Land. His name thus befits his role as prophet, since Ezekiel in Hebrew means “God strengthens.” The Lord chose Ezekiel to give strength to His people.
Ezekiel descends from a priestly family in Jerusalem. After being exiled from Jerusalem, he lives in Babylon in the city of Tel Abib. His messages of rebuke fall mostly on deaf ears, as the Jews who live in Babylon refuse to believe that God will destroy His holy city of Jerusalem and His Temple. As well, they do not accept his words of reproach that justify the upcoming tragedy. After the destruction, however, the people are ready to listen to Ezekiel and his message changes. Instead of focusing on the catastrophe and its causes, Ezekiel begins to outline how the Jewish people can survive the temporary loss of their land and prevail in exile. His messages speak equally of both the ritual and the ethical, and he delivers a message of hope that echoes to this day.
The book of Ezekiel 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 Jerusalem 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 Jerusalem 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 for either actively helping Babylon destroy Jerusalem, or for reveling in ‘Jacob’s trouble.’ 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. Ezekiel promises that they can, and will, return as a sovereign nation to the Holy Land of Israel. This message of deliverance and restoration can be further divided into two parts: chapters 33-40 describe the return to the soil of the land, and the final eight chapters envision the rebuilt Temple in its glory and the Messianic Age. Ezekiel’s most famous revelation can be found in this section: the vision of the valley of the dry bones (chapter 37).
The Book of Ezekiel is full of unusual symbolic acts and allegories which are intended to help the prophet convey his messages. For example, Ezekiel is told to lie on his side for over a year, shave his hair, and not mourn for his deceased wife. Ezekiel’s extravagant, other-worldly descriptions of the Heavenly Chariot and Court (in Hebrew called ma’aseh merkavah – “the arrangement of the chariot”) became the focal point of study of many esoteric mystical traditions. These studies have been considered spiritually dangerous for untrained or unprepared students, and studying these chapters was traditionally forbidden except under the guidance of a master. In fact, there were many who felt that it was not appropriate to include the book of Ezekiel within the Biblical canon. The rabbis, however, chose to include the book of Ezekiel as it was deemed an authentic prophetic work whose messages are meaningful for all generations.