Ezekiel leaves us with a theological vision of a Spirit-indwelled people, transformed from idolaters to saints, resting in a covenant of peace, under a new Davidic reign, and dwelling in the presence of the Lord forever. Reading Ezekiel theologically is recognizing the presence and power of God to judge and save—that the nations may know he is the Lord.
Reading the book of Ezekiel theologically is not merely one approach to reading among others. If you are going to read the book, it demands theological reflection. Ezekiel is profoundly about God. Commentator Paul Joyce accurately notes: “In the use of the range of formulae and motifs in Ezekiel we find evidence of a distinctive emphasis on the absolute centrality of YHWH and his self-manifestation, a radical theocentricity that is of an order difficult to parallel anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.” From the prophet’s first frightening theophany in Babylon to the final vision of a restored temple, the presence and power of the Sovereign Lord reverberate throughout the book.
The Presence of God in Exile
As Ezekiel, the thirty-year-old Jewish priest, stood by the Chebar River in Babylon, a storm was brewing. But this storm was unlike any he had ever see before, or at least unlike any he had ever encountered in this cursed land. He had only been in Babylon five years, but these clouds—the flashes of light and swirling images—seemed unnatural. In an instant, Ezekiel was overwhelmed by a vision of a divine throne-chariot with angelic, gyroscopic wheels that moved with deafening loudness. Chapter 1 of Ezekiel records the prophet’s grasping at words as he tries to describe the “likeness” and the “appearance” of the visage. His description of the vision moves from the ground upward, culminating in a polychromatic scene of one in the “likeness of human appearance” on the throne (1:26). He then summarizes his vision as the “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28, ESV), and then properly falls on his face.
While the details of this vision may amaze us and send us grasping at artistic recreations, the theological implications are even more arresting. God is in exile! He is supposed to be in his temple in Jerusalem. That was the assumption of the ancient mind, at least. However, Israel’s God could not be trapped or relegated to a temple in Jerusalem. The Sovereign LORD reigns in Jerusalem, Babylon and everywhere else. In Ezekiel’s thirtieth year, the year when he would have begun his temple service as a priest in Jerusalem, the Lord appears to him in exile and calls him to be his prophet and his people’s watchman.
As Ezekiel recounts the vision, he describes the glory of YHWH as one having the “appearance of a man [Heb. adam] ” (my translation). The garden story reminds us of the closeness of the image of man and the image of God, but it is only the New Testament that clarifies how the image of man and the divine find their true unity. The apostle John goes so far as to say, when speaking about Isaiah’s throne vision in chapter 6, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him [that is, Christ]” (John 12:41, ESV). What the revelation of the glory of the God in the New Testament reveals about these verses is that God would one day in fullness—not in appearance—take on human flesh and come to us into our own cursed exile.
The Power of God in Judgment
It is appropriate that the book opens with God arriving in a traveling theophany, because throughout Ezekiel he is active. God is even the active agent in empowering Ezekiel’s obedience: “And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet” (2:1-2, ESV). Dissimilar to his activity in Ezekiel’s life, God’s power is demonstrated in chapters 4-32 primarily through prophetic declarations of judgment on Judah (4-24) and the nations (25-32), which find a climax in the destruction of Jerusalem (ch. 33).