This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
Is the Old Testament Just Arcane Prophecy?
Recently my wife overheard one the older members of our church exclaim that before I arrived almost eight years ago, she’d never heard a single sermon on one of the Old Testament prophets. And she’d been a member of the church for over forty years! It didn’t surprise me. The prophets are not exactly feel-good books, nor do they seem to contain the kind of practical, “news-you-can-use” found in the epistles or wisdom literature. And if you’re just looking for a good story, they’re frankly confusing. Nowhere is that more true than in Ezekiel. So unless you’re one of those people that are into figuring out arcane prophecy, why study the book of Ezekiel? Here are three reasons.
Take a Look in the Mirror
The first reason to study Ezekiel is that it will help you see yourself, and especially your sin, more clearly. The prophet Ezekiel was commissioned to be a watchman sounding the warning for the early waves of exiles in Babylon (3:17). The problem was the people didn’t want to hear his warning (2:4–7) in large part because they did not have an accurate understanding of themselves and their relationship with God. Ezekiel repeatedly holds up a mirror to Israel, so that they can see their idolatry (e.g., chs. 8, 14, 16), their pride (e.g., ch. 19), their misplaced hopes (e.g., ch. 17), their self-righteousness (e.g., ch. 18), and their unfaithfulness (e.g., ch. 23). And he does not let them look away, or minimize their sins, or take refuge in flimsy excuses. In graphic and sometimes shocking language, he helps Israel see the painful truth of their condition before the Lord. And because they don’t want to listen, they don’t want to look into the mirror of God’s Word, God has him act out the message, in sometimes comical, but often painful “street theater.”
None of us like to look in the mirror and see that there’s something wrong. We’d rather study God’s Word for messages of how much he loves us, and what great plans he has for us (which is true). We’d rather mine God’s Word for practical wisdom and solid help for navigating the challenges of life (which it has). But if we don’t see what’s wrong, we won’t take action to address it. And that’s one of Ezekiel’s goals: to help us see the true nature of our problem so that we will repent and turn to God for the forgiveness and mercy we need (18:30–32).
Ezekiel lifts our eyes and refocuses our vision on the centrality and certainty of God’s gratuitous, saving work in the gospel.
Gain Perspective on God’s Plan
Second, Ezekiel wants us to understand what God is doing. He prophesied in the decades before and after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. That cataclysmic event marks the center of his prophecy and the turning point of the book. With the city overrun and the temple destroyed, God’s people wondered what God was doing, if the promises had failed, if their future was gone. So Ezekiel makes plain that God will judge the nations, just as he had judged Israel (chs. 25–32). The justice of God shows no partiality. But having judged his son, Israel, God would also display his faithfulness by bringing his son back to life. In an act of powerful re-creation, his Spirit would restore Israel (ch. 37). For the sake of his own glory, he would make a new covenant with his people that could not be broken, and he would put his own Spirit in them (ch. 36). They would live peacefully and safely under David their shepherd and God himself would be their shepherd (ch. 34). And this restoration would culminate in an ideal temple (chs 40-46) in the midst of a new creation promised land (chs. 47–48), from which God would never again depart (43:7).
For people like Israel and us, who are wondering if God has a plan, Ezekiel’s visions give both hope and certainty. Some of the visions are obscure in their details, but their point is clear. Christians sometimes disagree on the time and the place of their fulfillment, but not the certainty of that fulfillment. The lack of details at times is frustrating, but that same lack makes clear that God is not giving us a blueprint that we must accomplish. Rather, he’s assuring us that through the power of the Spirit and the establishment of the New Covenant, fulfilled in the finished work of Jesus Christ, God will certainly accomplish what we neither deserve nor can attain on our own.
It’s easy to lose perspective in the midst of life’s challenges and trials. It’s easy to become consumed, and distracted by disputes over the details and timing of the last days. Ezekiel lifts our eyes and refocuses our vision on the centrality and certainty of God’s gratuitous, saving work in the gospel. Despite what we see in the world around us, or in our own lives, God’s plan was accomplished at the cross of Jesus Christ, is displayed now in the life of the church, and will be consummated in a New Jerusalem, in which there will be no temple “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).
Find Hope in the Midst of Suffering
One of the burning questions of Ezekiel is “Where is God?” The book opens with God’s people in exile and God unexpectedly shows up (ch. 1). What is he doing in Babylon? Why isn’t he in the temple in Jerusalem? In dramatic and moving imagery, Ezekiel is shown that God has abandoned the temple in Jerusalem, driven away by the sins of Israel (chs. 8–10). The exile cannot be avoided; God’s judgment cannot be averted (ch. 12). The question haunts the first half of the book, and the answer seems self-evident: “The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see” (9:9).
But from almost the very beginning of the book, God makes clear that in the midst of suffering and judgment they have misunderstood God’s heart. God declares “though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone” (11:16). His arrival in Babylon not only marks his judgment on Jerusalem, but anticipates his triumphant judgment over Israel’s enemies (chs. 38-39). His purpose is to put his Spirit within his people (36:27) and to restore them under a king like David (37:24–28). And the book ends with a final glance at the restored city, which is never called Jerusalem, but rather, “The Lord is There” (48:35)
Ezekiel wants us to know that God is where he always is; he is with his people. He’s with them in the midst of their judgment, a truth that finds its fullest expression at the cross, when the Son bore the sins of the sons. He’s with them in the new life that he gives through the new covenant, because he puts his very Spirit within them. That promise was also fulfilled through Christ, who ascended to the Father so he could send us the Spirit (John 14:16, 26), and who even now makes us alive by the power of the Spirit (John 3:5–8). And he will be with them forever in the New Jerusalem which is the people of God, a city which will need no temple because God himself will dwell in their midst. (Rev. 21).
Where is God when your world falls apart, when God’s promises seem impossibly far off, when the enemy seems to have the upper hand, and it feels as if God does not see and does not care? Ezekiel knew from bitter experience the reality and pain of those questions. But we study him not because he could give voice to our questions. We study him because he gave voice to God’s answer. Hope is found not in our circumstances, our feelings, or our efforts, but in the confidence that God is with his people, for what Ezekiel prophesied, Jesus Christ fulfilled—“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
That’s why you should study Ezekiel.