Seized by God
Scripture: Ezekiel 1:1–3
1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), 3 the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the LORD was upon him there.
Last week, I introduced a theme for the next year of our sermons and worship gatherings: the life-giving love of God. So what text should we turn to as we delve into this theme? Which book of the Bible should we study first?
I know that’s not the first book of the Bible that comes to mind. Of course, the love of God is such a pervasive biblical theme, we can find a way to preach it from any text. But as long as I serve as a minister here, I will insist that we return regularly to the Old Testament; for unless we can trace the story of God’s love for his people, and then see how we’ve come to be counted among those people, we will be short-sighted in our understanding of the life-giving love of God.
So, we come to Ezekiel. This morning I want to introduce us to this book of the Bible by reminding us of the historical setting in which it was written. The historical point of Ezekiel was an important one in redemptive history, one in which we can clearly see the providence of God. And the points in history that most clearly show the providence of God also suggest that he is in control in the more obscure ones as well.
The first three verses of Ezekiel call us to consider not only the historical setting of Ezekiel, but also the prophetic message of the books and the strange character whose name is this book’s title.
The Historical Setting
First, let’s get our minds around the historical setting in which the book of Ezekiel is based. Ezekiel is dealing with historical realities, with things that really happened. Ezekiel is rooted in a specific moment in history, as the very first verse reminds us: “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month.” Ezekiel begins with a note about the exact year, month, and day in which he was living. In fact, this is a dominant feature of Ezekiel. He was concerned with the time he was in; we should take note of it and the circumstances in which his prophecies took place. From the dating Ezekiel gives us, we are zooming in on the late 7th century and early 6th century BC.
A New World Superpower
What was happening in the world during that time? This was the time in which the Babylonian empire rose to power superseding the previous world domination of the Assyrians. These two superpowers were in constant conflict as we near the turn of the century. The Assyrians had made an alliance with the Egyptians, trying to stave off the rise of Babylon.
But they would not succeed. At the famous Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC, the Babylonians and their allies defeated the last remnants of the Assyrian empire. The defeat marked the annihilation of Assyria while Egypt was severely crippled. The Babylonians under their military leader, Nebuchadnezzar, became the new world superpower.
The Bible mentions this famous battle in Jeremiah 46, which is also mentioned in the Babylonian Chronicles housed in the British Museum. Again, it is good to remind ourselves that these are real historical events. The story of the Bible cannot be understood apart from the record of what has happened in world and human history.
History and Providence
But it’s not correct to say that the Bible is simply a book of history, merely telling us about things that have happened in time and space. The Bible tells us about these events theologically. It argues that these events all happen under the purview of God. It insists that the events of history are the outworking of providence—God’s “completely holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing every creature and every action.”
When we think of the providence of God, we ought to be thinking, not so much of divine power, but of divine purpose. What brings history and providence together is God’s aim in history. And to understand God’s aims we need to see how the events of history impacted and affected God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel. How did the decisive events of the late 7th century BC affect Israel?
At this point, we’re talking mainly about the southern kingdom of Israel known as Judah, the northern tribes having fallen to the Assyrians over a century earlier. We know that Babylon and Assyrian and Egypt were the competing powers of the day, but how did Judah fit into the equation? After all, the answer to that question is also the answer to what God’s plans were for these historical events.
The Final Kings of Judah
Ok, so let’s see if we can get our minds around the important points here. The time is recorded for us at the end of 2 Kings. In chapter 23, we read of the reforms of Josiah, the last of Judah’s good kings. Josiah was killed by the Egyptians in 609 BC (2 Kings 23:29). He was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz, but the Pharaoh of Egypt deposed him three months into his reign and set up his own puppet king, Jehoiakim, who was Jehoahaz’s brother (2 Kings 23:33-34). Jehoiakim reigned for 11 years.
At this point, remember, the Babylonians became the world’s superpower, and Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiakim his vassal while also deporting some of Judah’s elite, like Daniel and his friends, to Babylon. When Jehoiakim rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar conquered and apparently executed him. His son, Jehoiachin was named king, but he also would not submit to Nebuchadnezzar who had him deported to Babylon along with most of Judah’s wealth. It was at this point that Ezekiel, along with other captives, was taken to Babylon (2 Kings 24:14-16). Nebuchadnezzar named Zedekiah king of Judah, another one of Josiah’s sons. The year was 597 BC. This is an important date for Ezekiel since he dates his prophecies in relation to the exile of King Jehoiachin (Ezek 1:2).
But the big date in Israel’s history at this time came about 11 years later. In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar once more invaded Judah when Zedekiah rebelled against him. This time, Nebuchadnezzar held nothing back. He made Zedekiah watch as he slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons, then he gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes and hauled him off to exile in Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). He then torched Jerusalem, including Solomon’s temple, burning it all to the ground (2 Kings 25:9).
And with that came the end of the kings of Israel.
The Prophetic Message of Ezekiel
The destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of the Jews to Babylon, and the end of Israel’s monarchy—this is the historical setting in which Ezekiel was written. To put it mildly, this was a traumatic moment in Israel’s history. And it was in this traumatic moment, in this historical setting, that God spoke to Israel a prophetic message. Ezekiel says, in verse 1, “I saw visions of God.” Verse 3 says, “the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel.”
The Major Prophets of Israel
The book of Ezekiel is categorized in our English Bibles with the other major prophets of Israel: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel (Lamentations is included here as well since it was written by Jeremiah). The term “major prophet” simply designates the length of that prophet’s written text in comparison with those of the so-called “minor prophets.”
In the Hebrew Bible, there is a three-fold division of the sacred texts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Prophets includes the historical texts of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—called the Former Prophets—followed by the Latter Prophets: the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve “minor prophets.” So, whether you’re using the English order or the Hebrew order, Ezekiel is considered a prophetic book.
What does that mean? It means that when we read through the book of Ezekiel, we can expect to see some foretelling of events, what we might call “predictive prophecy.” But that’s not the primary feature of a text that categories it as prophetic. Considering again the fact that the historical books like Joshua and 1 and 2 Kings are categorized with the prophets, what we find that all the prophetic books have in common is not the prediction of history but rather its interpretation. The prophets tell the story of Israel and explain how Israel’s God is interacting with that story.
History and Theological Trauma
History is a strange thing. We know it’s the reality that our entire existence is built upon. But at the same time, it might be the most significant, personal reality that is easiest to ignore. I find it fascinating that the British monarchy’s family tree can be traced all the way back to the 9th century. Alfred the Great was the new King of England’s 33rd great-grandfather! I don’t know the name of my 2nd. We seem to lose our grip pretty quickly on our own history.
It’s hard enough to take in the realities of what is happening in real-time history in other parts of the world. What’s it like to be living right now in war-torn Ukraine or Syria? We have very little idea. So of course, it is a challenge for us to take in the realities of what people in the ancient world experienced. What was it like for the Jews in the early 6th century BC?
Since we here in Oklahoma have received over 1,000 Afghan refugees in the past year and a half, you and I can get to know some people who have been displaced by something similar to what the Jews experienced in the Babylonian captivity. Though pretty much all of us have not had that kind of experience, we have probably faced similar kinds of theological experiences. As one commentator says, Israel in captivity was experiencing “intense theological shock.” Some of you have experienced something similar. You have come to the point where your experiences or your observations of life simply do not line up with what your understanding of God and it leads to nothing short of a crisis of faith. This is what happened to Israel when they were taken into captivity in Babylon. What did they believe about God that made these historical events so theologically traumatic for them?
History and Theological Truth
God’s Commitment to His People
First, Israel believed that God was absolutely committed to them as his chosen people. They believed this because of God’s covenant that he established with them after he brought them out of Egypt. In the preamble to the Ten Commandments, God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2). Thus, with the psalmist, Israel could say, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psa 118:6). Except the answer to that question now was, “Well, they can uproot me from my home and carry me off to live in a different country with people who don’t even speak the same language.”
We know the Bible says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). But there are a lot of scary things stacked against us that many of God’s people, many of you, have faced. And in times when you don’t succeed, when you don’t prosper, when you suffer so much and for so long, you may be tempted to think that God has abandoned you after all.
Well, that’s what the people Ezekiel ministered to were tempted to think, so perhaps he has a word to help us who think the same way.
God’s Commitment to His King
Another core belief of Israel was God’s commitment to his king, to the descendants of David. The fall of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians, with the southern kingdom of Judah surviving Assyrian attack, was no doubt a strengthening of that assurance. The northern tribes had broken away from the Davidic line, so of course God had made no commitment to them.
But the kings of Judah preserved the Davidic line and to them God had made a promise. God promised to David:
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. (2 Sam 7:11-13)
The history of Judah’s kings tells the story of some bad kings along the way, and it would be no surprise that God would punish those bad kings. But for there to be no king? This seemed impossible, given the covenant. If, in fact, there was no king in Israel, no Davidic king, this would put into question not just God’s ability or willingness to keep his covenant, but, more importantly, the question of God’s ability to rule. It’s one thing for God to abandon his people. It’s another thing to begin to question whether this God is as all-powerful as we thought he was.
God’s Commitment to His Land
Third, God had made a commitment not just to his people, and not just to the Davidic monarchy, but also to the particular place in which the people were to live and where David was to rule. God claimed the land of Israel was his land. How could he let it be overrun by pagans?
This would just be too much. Even if God proved himself incapable of defeating foreign armies on their turf, how could he let his own land be invaded and run by idolaters?
Ezekiel’s prophecy comes with an answer. Since Judah was trying to secure its place in the shifting political climate, the nation got caught in an adulterous live triangle with Egypt and Babylon. God says to them, in Ezekiel 23:
Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring. . . . I will put an end to lewdness in the land (Ezek 23:35, 48).
Many American Christians like to use words like this to warn America about what God will do with them. But America is not the Promised Land. We should be much more concerned about what God will do with us, Christians, if we get caught up in adulterous love affairs with the political powers of men in order to secure our own place and privileges in the world.
God’s Commitment to His Temple
Finally, Israel was certain that, if all else failed, God would surely defend his own temple, the temple Solomon had built, the place where God himself dwelt among his people. The idea that the temple would fall was blasphemy. It was heresy. It was a denial of one of Israel’s core doctrines.
But it did fall, burned to the ground by the Babylonians. That’s a theological crisis for sure.
I’m not suggesting here that we should give up any of our core Christian doctrines. But we should keep in mind that Jesus got himself into the same kind of trouble when he predicted the destruction of the second temple in his own day. Christian doctrine is sure and steadfast, but sometimes our understanding of this doctrine is off. We need to let it be reformed by Jesus himself who, after all, quite controversially said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). It was blasphemy, one of the charges brought against him (Mk 14:58). But in the theological crisis of his death, God did something new, raising him from the dead, and completing the inauguration of the promised kingdom of God.
The Strange Character of Ezekiel
It’s my hope that, as we study the book of Ezekiel together, God will shape and form us and our doctrine, our beliefs about God and his purposes in the world, through the story of Israel at this moment in history. Our guide is this strange character named Ezekiel.
We don’t know a whole lot about him. He was the son of a man named Buzi. The name Ezekiel means “God strengthens.” May God strengthen our faith as we study Ezekiel.
But the name can also mean “God hardens.” His audience seemed to accept that God was speaking to them through Ezekiel. They would say to one another, “Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD” (Ezek 33:30). But then:
And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain (Ezek 33:31).
This is always the situation we are placed in when we read God’s word. As we study Ezekiel, our faith will be strengthened as we come to obey its instruction; but the opposite will happen if we don’t.
Ezekiel says of himself that he was, by profession, a priest (Ezek 1:3), even though we will know him more as a prophet. At the very time he would have completed his training as a priest and entered into service—age 30 according to Numbers 4:3—at that very time, God called him to a prophetic work instead. This is what “the thirtieth year” in verse 1 probably refers to.
The prophets of Israel often said strange things and sometimes they did strange things. On this point, Ezekiel is, as one commentator says, “in a class of his own.” Get ready. This guy does some really bizarre things. It will be tempting to dismiss him for this.
But, remember, Ezekiel lived and worked among a people who were in a “religious desert, far removed from their world of religious tradition,” and it seems that God’s intention was to turn him into a visible sign (Exod 24:24), “a living religious institution” that would be “an effective vehicle for the nurturing of faith and the communication of divine truth.” In the midst of a spiritual desert, God may seek to get our attention in the most unusual ways.
Ezekiel himself was surprised by all this. He found himself completely taken over by God’s Holy Spirit, a man who was “seized by God.” And his aim to was to transform Israel’s understanding of their identity and relationship with God.
Did he succeed in his aim? It appears that during his life he did not. Israel went in to exile with their faith in theological crisis and in full deconstruction. But later, apparently after Ezekiel’s death, the people in exile seemed to be coming back around to their faith in God, and many commentators suggest that it was Ezekiel’s prophecies that led them back. Seven hundred years later, in AD 70, when Israel’s Second Temple was destroyed, it would again be the book of Ezekiel that would preserve Jewish faith after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans.
And for us today, some 2700 years after Ezekiel lived, what importance does Ezekiel have for you and me? One way to answer that question is to consider the fact that the most bizarre book in the New Testament, the Revelation, frequently alludes to the book of Ezekiel. Could it be that we struggle to interpret Revelation because we haven’t first interpreted Ezekiel? John the Revelator seemed to understand it. And so should we.
But there’s also the very real possibility that when Saul of Tarsus was traveling to Damascus, he was meditating on Ezekiel’s opening vision, and when he opened his eyes, he saw a bright light and, seated high on a throne, one like a son of Man who said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” To his great surprise, Saul may have been led by Ezekiel to see Jesus as Israel’s true Messiah. And of course, every Christian today can trace their faith lineage back to the Saul of Tarsus who wrote over a quarter of the New Testament.
Yes, there could be no doubt for Saul that God was in control of history. Like Ezekiel, he became a man seized by God. May the same result happen to us as we study Ezekiel together.
 Crosstown Catechism, Question 12.