The last two of the four so-called major prophets are quite important books, and both deserve careful study. While Daniel may get a lot of attention, especially from prophecy buffs and eschatology fans, Ezekiel may not get as much attention as it deserves.
Ezekiel writes at the time of the exile. He was among the earliest waves of exiles deported to Babylon in 586/7 B. C. Some others still remained in the land for a bit longer, even with their own king – Zedekiah in Jerusalem. So Ezekiel ministered to both groups while he was in exile. 2 Kings 23-25 and 2 Chronicles 36 provide some of the historical background to this period.
1-7 the prophet and the coming fate of Jerusalem
8-11 a vision of Jerusalem’s sin
12-15 Ezekiel, elders, prophets
16-24 allegories and parables
25-32 oracles against nations
33-39 Jerusalem falls; oracles of salvation!
40-48 vision of a renewed city, temple, and land
Many features of the book could be mentioned here, but let me just focus on two of them. One is the way in which sin is so forcefully called out by the prophet. Perhaps no other book is so rich and varied in the ways evil is denounced and sin is rebuked. I like how Christopher Wright puts it:
The Old Testament has a rich vocabulary of sin. All the prophets found ways to characterize and expose its nature and effects. None of them, however, surpassed Ezekiel in the depth and the extent of his portrayal of sin in all its horror. . . .
Ezekiel spares no sensitivities in his use of metaphor and allegory. Sin is an abomination, it is detestable. Sin offends God, it stinks, it is grotesque, gruesome and disgusting. It perverts and pollutes. And in the end it provokes Yahweh, ‘the compassionate and gracious God,’ beyond all patience or pity.
Some of the most hardcore language and imagery is found in two shocking chapters: Ez. 16 and 23. The graphic pictures and imagery is among the strongest in the entire Old Testament. For example, ch. 16 is a very strong passage using very powerful wording to describe the wretched condition Israel had fallen to. Quite startling images of harlotry and unfaithfulness are used.
As Leslie Allen comments, the “language is deliberately repulsive and coarse”. Indeed, Douglas Stuart reminds us that its graphic and explicit descriptions, along with ch. 23, made Ezekiel among the last books studied by mature Jewish rabbinic students.
Daniel Block concurs, saying, “No one presses the margins of literary propriety as severely as Ezekiel”. He continues: “but the semipornographic style is a deliberate rhetorical device designed to produce a strong emotional response.” He even has a four-page excursus on this chapter entitled, “The Offense of Ezekiel’s Gospel”.
Chapter 23 is just as bad. As Wright reminds us:
Second only, perhaps, to the genealogies in 1 Chronicles, the lurid allegories of Ezekiel 16 and 23 must qualify as the chapters in the Bible least likely to be read aloud in church – and just as likely to be preached from. They are long, they are lewd, and their language in places is, frankly, pornographic. They evoke images of the most vulgar sexual depravity and the most horrendous graphic violence. They are, in short, shocking.
He goes on to note that most English translations “have to tone down the offensive coarseness of some of the original expressions”. However, all “this is not a matter of gratuitous bad taste, or evidence of some sick perversion … These are deliberate shock tactics on a scale probably unsurpassed in the whole arsenal of prophetic assault and battery weapons.”
As he rightly says, “Ezekiel’s capacity to shock knows no limits”. But it is all about speaking what God had told him to speak. It is about revealing the heart of God here: a heart sickened by the wretchedness of sin, immorality and idolatry of his own people. Would that we today had such a high view of God’s holiness and shared his utter hatred of all sin.
A related theme found in this book is the role of the watchman. In Ex. 3:16-21 and 33:1-9 we read about the heavy responsibilities of the watchman or sentinel. It tended to be a job no one wanted, and a ministry no one appreciated. Ezekiel is called to be a watchman and warn the people of their sins.
Ezekiel must discharge his duty to warn the people, otherwise he will have blood on his hands. He is under divine obligation to sound the alarm, warn God’s people of impending judgment, and plead with them to repent. Whatever way the people respond, once the prophet has fulfilled his divine calling his hands are clean.
Some might regard the two accounts as being quite similar, but there are some differences. As Iain Duguid comments, “In chapter 3, the image functioned as part of a private message to the prophet, pressing on him the importance of taking his task seriously. In chapter 33, it is part of a public proclamation (33:2, 7), pressing in on the people their own responsibility for their fate and the real possibility, even now, of repentance and return.”
And he reminds us of the present-day application:
The seriousness of the message must never be obscured by the desire to make the medium more attractive. The preacher’s task is not to entertain or inform but to plead passionately with men and women to flee the wrath that is to come on account of sin. The preacher is commissioned to call clearly for repentance and turning to Christ, to be a watchman rather than an entertainer. But preachers must not only preach the law to confront the hypocrite, they must also preach the gospel to woo the lost sheep.
I offer more on the need to be modern-day watchmen here: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/07/25/speak-even-no-one-wants-listen/
The book can be divided into two main sections: stories about Daniel and his companions (chs. 1-6) and visions and prophecies about the fate of the nations (chs 7-12). The genre of the first half of the book is mainly narrative, while the genre of the second half of the book is basically apocalyptic (more on this in a moment).
As with the book of Revelation, how one interprets Daniel, especially its second half, depends heavily on what eschatological system one adheres to. A premillennial interpretation will look at the book in rather different ways than from those of another slant.
That lengthy and complex discussion cannot here be entered into, but for more on various millennial options, see this two-part article:
Like Revelation and parts of Zechariah, and some of the other prophets, large sections of Daniel are known as apocalyptic literature. In his book on the prophets Gary Smith says this about Daniel:
In these apocalyptic scenes, heavenly messengers revealed hidden secrets about history, the final judgment, and God’s salvation of the righteous in strange and mysterious symbolic messages. The visions include dramatic presentations of great conflicts to come in the future, with vivid images of earthly events and hints of heavenly turmoil.
Despite all the difficulties and differences in interpreting the second half of the book, a dominant message can still be found in the book. As James Montgomery Boice puts it, “The great and most important theme of Daniel is that there is but one God, who is Jehovah, and that he is sovereign over the events of history.” Or as J. Daniel Hays writes,
The central message of Daniel is unmistakable: God is sovereign and rules over all people and kingdoms even though it does not always look that way. Although the Babylonians (and then the Persians) seem to control the world, Daniel proclaims that Yahweh is still very much in control and is moving to bring history itself to his divinely directed culmination. Thus there is much more to history than is often apparent on the surface. In the meantime, the true and faithful followers of God can expect to suffer, but they can endure the suffering in the knowledge that God will ultimately bring history to a climax centered on the establishment of his kingdom.
As we read in Dan. 6: 26-27, “His kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.” That is glorious good news, and it will sustain God’s people in the roughest of times.
For more on Daniel see my 2015 article: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/09/11/on-the-book-of-daniel/
These commentaries are more academic and scholarly in nature, and most of them represent a conservative and/or evangelical point of view.
Alexander, Ralph, Ezekiel (EBC, 1986)
Allen, Leslie, Ezekiel 1-19 (WBC, 1994)
Allen, Leslie, Ezekiel 20-48 (WBC, 1990)
Block, Daniel, The Book of Ezekiel 1-24 (NICOT, 1997)
Block, Daniel, The Book of Ezekiel 25-48 (NICOT, 1998)
Cooper, Lamar, Ezekiel (NAC, 1994)
Duguid, Iain, Ezekiel (NIVAC, 1999)
Jenson, Robert, Ezekiel (BTCB, 2009)
Stuart, Douglas, Ezekiel (MTOT, 1989)
Taylor, John, Ezekiel (TOTC, 1969)
Tuell, Steven, Ezekiel (NIBC, 2009)
Wright, Christopher, The Message of Ezekiel (BST, 2001)
Archer, Gleason, Daniel (EBC, 1985)
Baldwin, Joyce, Daniel (TOTC, 1978)
Davis, Dale Ralph, The Message of Daniel (BST, 2013)
Goldingay, John, Daniel (WBC, 1989)
Longman, Tremper, Daniel (NIVAC, 1999)
Lucas, Ernest, Daniel (AOTC, 2002)
Miller, Stephen, Daniel (NAC, 1994)
Wallace, R. S., The Message of Daniel (BST, 1979)
Walvoord, John, Daniel (1971)
Devotional and expository commentaries
Boice, James Montgomery, Daniel (Baker, 1989)
Duguid, Iain, Daniel (REC, 2008)
Ironside, H. A., Expository Notes on Ezekiel the Prophet (Loizeaux Brothers, 1949)
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Reverent (David C. Cook, 2000)
Enjoy your reading and studying.