The story of Ezekiel’s call as a prophet spans the first three chapters of the book of Ezekiel. Our text is the first half of the second chapter.
The first chapter is fascinating. Read it for pleasure and for edification. Ezekiel is trying to describe the indescribable—his vision of the glory of the Lord. He describes four living creatures, each with four faces and four wings. In the middle of these creatures, there was fire and lightning. Each of the four creatures had a wheel—a wheel within a wheel. When the creatures moved, the wheels moved with them. The sound of the creatures’ wings was like thunder—like the sound of a mighty army.
Above the creatures was a dome, shining like crystal. Above the dome, there was a sapphire-like throne. The Lord was there. Ezekiel doesn’t say that he saw the Lord, but that he saw the glory of the Lord (1:28). It is no wonder that Ezekiel was reduced to using such odd images to describe his vision. How can you describe something when the person for whom you are describing them has no frame of reference for understanding your description? For instance, how would you describe the color blue to a blind person who had never seen colors? That’s the problem that Ezekiel is facing when he tries to describe the glory of God. He uses images of things that we have seen—living creatures, faces, loins, legs, wings, wheels, fire, lightning—but I don’t think that is what he saw. He was just trying to describe something indescribable—the glory of God.
Ezekiel tells us that this vision took place in the “fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity” (1:2), who was taken into exile in 597 B.C. This, then, would be 593 or 592 B.C., and the place would be Babylonia.
A bit of background would be useful. After King Solomon died, Israel split into two kingdoms, the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). More than a century prior to Ezekiel’s time, Assyria defeated the Northern Kingdom and took its people into exile in Assyria, bringing an end to the Northern Kingdom. Later, Babylonia surpassed Assyria to become the dominant power, and King Nebuchadnezzar ruled supreme.
Jehoiachin’s father, King Jehoiakim, vacillated in his allegiance between Babylon and Egypt. In December 598 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched on Jerusalem in response to Jehoiakim’s flirtation with Egypt. Jehoiakim died, possibly by assassination, and young Jehoiachin assumed the throne. Jehoiachin reigned for only three months before King Nebuchadnezzar took him into exile in Babylonia and installed Zedekiah on the throne of Judah as a puppet king (someone who was expected to do Nebuchadnezzar’s will). Nebuchadnezzar forced Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and “carried out there all the treasures of the house of Yahweh” (2 Kings 24:13).
Zedekiah ruled Judah (under Nebuchadnezzar’s thumb) for 11 years. However, he refused to heed the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah, and “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh his God; he didn’t humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet speaking from the mouth of Yahweh. He also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God: but he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart against turning to Yahweh, the God of Israel” (2 Chronicles 36:12-13).
In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to Zedekiah’s rebellion by again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26 Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. The prophets made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for her sins.
Ezekiel 1-3 tells the story of Yahweh’s call to Ezekiel to take the word of the Lord to the Judean exiles—the Jewish people living in Babylonia. The book of Ezekiel refers to these Judeans as the people of Israel.
In the last verse of chapter 1, Ezekiel acknowledges that he has seen the glory of the Lord. He says, “When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of one that spoke” (1:28).
EZEKIEL 2:1-2. THE SPIRIT ENTERED INTO ME
1He said to me, Son of man, (Hebrew: ben adam—Son of man) stand on your feet, and I will speak with you. 2The Spirit (Hebrew: ruah) entered into me when he spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard him who spoke to me.
“He said to me, Son of man” (ben adam—Son of man) (v. 1a). The NRSV translates ben adam as “O mortal” in this verse—an unfortunate translation that stems from the inclusive language agenda of the NRSV translators.
Throughout the book of Ezekiel, Yahweh always refers to Ezekiel as ben adam rather than calling him by name. This stands in contrast to the call of other prophets, such as Moses (Exodus 3:4), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4), Elijah (1 Kings 19:9), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:11), and Amos (Amos 7:8)—each of whom Yahweh addressed by name when calling them to be prophets.
In the New Testament, Jesus frequently referred to himself as the Son of Man (Matthew 8:20, 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32, 40; etc.), but never explained what he meant by that term. In the early church, Christians sometimes used the phrase “Son of Man” to designate Jesus’ humanity—alongside “Son of God” to designate his deity.
In Ezekiel, this phrase, ben adam, is Yahweh’s way of calling attention to the prophet’s humanity and mortality, which this book portrays in dramatic contrast to Yahweh’s glory.
“stand on your feet, and I will speak with you” (v. 1b). As noted above, Ezekiel’s initial response to his vision was to fall on his face—prostrate in the presence of God. God now calls him to stand on his feet to receive his marching orders.
“The Spirit (ruah) entered into me when he spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard him who spoke to me” (v. 2). The word ruah can mean spirit, wind, or breath. While this verse doesn’t specify which meaning is intended here, this is God’s spirit—the Holy Spirit—given to Ezekiel to enable him to do God’s work. That is in keeping with God’s earlier dealings with those commissioned to do his work. When God’s spirit rested on the seventy elders, they prophesied (Numbers 11:25). When Samuel anointed Saul, he said, “The Spirit of Yahweh will come mightily on you, and you shall prophesy with them, and shall be turned into another man” (1 Samuel 10:6). The spirit of the Lord came even on a foreign prophet, Balaam, to enable Balaam to utter the oracle that the Lord gave him (Numbers 24:2).
This spirit set Ezekiel on his feet so that he might receive his commission.
EZEKIEL 2:3-5. I SEND YOU TO THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL
3 He said to me, Son of man, I send you to the children of Israel, to a nation (Hebrew: goyim) of rebels who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me even to this very day. 4 The children (Hebrew: banim) are impudent and stiff-hearted: I am sending you to them; and you shall tell them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh. 5 They, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house), yet shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
“He said to me, Son of man, I send you to the children of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me“ (v. 3a). The people of Israel began their rebellion against Yahweh almost immediately after being freed from Egyptian slavery:
• At the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, the Israelites said, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you treated us this way, to bring us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11).
• Later they complained, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24) and “We wish that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). Their complaints were ostensibly about Moses’ leadership, but they were really complaining “against Yahweh” (Exodus 16:7).
• When Moses took longer than expected on Mount Sinai, they made a golden calf and worshiped it (Exodus 32).
In this verse, the word goyim is plural, meaning nations. In the Old Testament goyim is usually used for nations other than Israel. When it is used of Israel, it tends to carry a negative connotation, as it does in this verse.
“They and their fathers have transgressed against me even to this very day“ (v. 3b). The people to whom Yahweh is sending Ezekiel are the descendants of the people who complained against Yahweh and worshiped the golden calf—descendants not only physically, but spiritually. Yahweh would not be calling Ezekiel to take his word to these people if they were not in revolt against him. The issue is not only the sins of their ancestors, but the sins that they are sinning “to this very day.”
“The children (banim from ben—sons or children) are impudent and stiff-hearted” (v. 4a). Yahweh uses this word banim to emphasize that the current generation is at issue here. They are the spiritual descendants of their rebellious ancestors, but it is their own impudence and stubbornness that is Yahweh’s concern. They stubbornly resist following Yahweh and insist on doing it their own way—following their own star. It is that stubborn willfulness that has resulted in their exile.
“I am sending you to them; and you shall tell them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh“ (v. 4b). But Yahweh has not given up on these impudent and stubborn people. He could have abandoned them when they complained on the shore of the Red Sea, but instead he made a pathway through the sea to make it possible for them to be saved. He could have abandoned them when they complained about food and water in the wilderness, but instead he gave them provisions. He could have abandoned them when they worshiped the golden calf, but instead he punished them and then continued to lead them. He could abandon them now, but instead he is sending a prophet (Ezekiel) to give them Yahweh’s word—a word that will save them if they heed it.
“They, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house)“ (v. 5a). Yahweh is sending Ezekiel to these rebellious people hoping that they will listen but knowing that they might not. With these words, he is preparing Ezekiel for possible failure—not because Ezekiel is inadequate but because these people are rebellious. They might refuse to listen to the word that Yahweh gives them through the prophet, but that will not be the prophet’s fault. Yahweh will hold the prophet accountable only for obeying Yahweh and delivering Yahweh’s word faithfully to the Israelites. He will not hold the prophet accountable for the people’s failure to listen (3:18-19).
“yet (they) shall know that there has been a prophet among them” (v. 5b). Regardless of their response, these people will know that there has been a prophet in their midst. That will accomplish three things. First, it will tell them that Yahweh loved them enough to try to lead them back from the brink of disaster. Second, it will serve as a warning that they are on the wrong path. Third, it will make them accountable for their decision—to listen or not to listen, that is the question.
Yahweh tells Ezekiel to open his mouth and to swallow the scroll that Yahweh gives him. Ezekiel does so, and finds the taste in his mouth “as sweet as honey” (2:8 -3:3). What a lovely image! How appropriate for preachers of God’s word today. The first step in preparation for proclamation is swallowing God’s word—tasting its sweetness and letting its substance nourish every cell in our bodies.
In recent years, I have been privileged to have time and resources to study the Bible in considerable depth, and I have found its taste as sweet as honey in my mouth. Rather than looking forward to the day when I can lay down my burden of Bible study, I find myself looking for ways to extend the scope of my work so that I can continue it.
When I was younger, I didn’t think I had time to do serious exegetical work. Now I realize that I compromised my ministry and deprived myself of a great deal of joy by failing to make exegetical work a priority. Without taking the time to allow the Word of God to saturate our hearts, minds, and souls, we have little to offer people other than a bit of kindness and human wisdom. Those are good gifts, but far short of the gift of Godly love, Godly power, and Godly wisdom that God has called us to give.
Yahweh warns Ezekiel that the people of Israel are stubborn and might not listen (3:7). They have hard foreheads and stubborn hearts, but Yahweh promises to make Ezekiel’s “face hard against their faces, and (his) forehead hard against their foreheads. As an adamant harder than flint have I made your forehead: don’t be afraid of them, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house” (3:8-9). Once again, this is a model for clergy today. We need to pray that God will give us hard heads so that we can bang heads with the worst of the worst. We need to pray that God will help us not to fear when we come face to face with evil. Let us fear only that we will not be faithful.
Then, as noted above, Yahweh assures Ezekiel that he will hold Ezekiel accountable only for obeying Yahweh and delivering Yahweh’s word to Israel. Yahweh will not hold the prophet accountable for the people’s failure to listen (3:18-19). This is another important word for clergy today. God will hold us accountable for being faithful—not for being successful (as the world measures success). God calls one to plant and another to water, but it is God who will give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Let us be faithful—and let us not allow ourselves to get discouraged. Let us pray that God will give us the strength and vision to know his will and to do it.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Taylor, John B., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel, Vol. 20 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969)
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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan