Expository Notes on Ezekiel
For many years it has been on my heart to try to produce a running commentary on the book of Ezekiel, but until the present, circumstances have not permitted this. During the last few months it has brought great blessing to my own soul as I have given many hours daily to meditation upon and study of this remarkable book, of which the present work is the result.
No one can be more conscious than I of its many imperfections, and yet it is my hope that there may be enough in it of a truly spiritual character that it will prove a means of blessing and edification to those who take the time to read it thoughtfully and prayerfully.
- A. Ironside
Of all the prophetic books Ezekiel is the one that has been neglected most. Many persons are repelled by the marvelous vision of the opening chapter and, finding it too difficult to understand, proceed no further; and so they lose the blessing they would gain otherwise by a careful study of this entire book in dependence upon the Holy Spirit as teacher, who inspired the prophet to write it (2 Peter 1:21). Yet to the reverent student the book presents no real difficulties that may not be overcome by a careful comparison of scripture with scripture. Thus one may be preserved from a private interpretation which would not harmonize with the rest of God’s revealed Word.
Dr. Andrew Bonar, one of Scotland’s illustrious Bible teachers in days gone by, in order to stir his hearers up to a careful study of every book of the Scriptures, would suggest the possibility of meeting a glorious being in the golden city who would be recognized as the prophet Ezekiel. Dr. Bonar imagined he heard the newcomer to paradise exclaim, “Ezekiel, how glad I am to meet you! This is a wonderful privilege!” To this he made the prophet reply, “I am pleased indeed to see you. I see you know my name. How did you like the book I wrote?” Then, because of never having given that portion of Holy Scripture serious consideration, the confusion of the newcomer would be dwelt upon in such a way as to create in the minds and hearts of his hearers the desire to become thoroughly acquainted with the great work in question.
Ezekiel is primarily the exponent of the divine government. Throughout his book he dwells upon the fact that God is over all, working out His plans and carrying out His own decisions, in spite of Satanic efforts to thwart His purpose. The devil may be, and is, the god and prince of this present world system, but over and above all is the throne of the Eternal Majesty, whose ways are past finding out, but who controls the destinies of Israel and the nations, “working all things according to the counsel of His own will.”
The book divides naturally into four parts. Division 1 includes chapters 1 to 24: prophecies relating to Israel, calling to repentance in view of threatened judgment, all of which were uttered before the fall of Jerusalem; division 2, chapters 25 to 32: prophecies relating to seven nations with whom Israel had close relationship or providential dealings; division 3, chapters 33 to 39: the moral condition of Israel exposed, and the promise of a future restoration to God and to their land; division 4, chapters 40 to 48: a grand apocalyptic picture of the coming glory, when once more it shall be said of Jerusalem, “The Lord is there.”
Ezekiel was of priestly ancestry, but was probably carried into captivity (in the reign of Jehoiachin) before he began to enter on his duties as priest. He was contemporary with Daniel who was carried into captivity earlier, in the reign of Jehoiakim. His ministry covers a period of some twenty-one years, from B.C. 595 to 574. We know nothing whatever as to his early life, and only such incidents of his life as a captive as are given us in his book. The account of the death of his wife is most affecting. His whole demeanor bespeaks a man subject to the will of God, and yet of resolute spirit, so that he was able to stand firmly for the truth and to witness against the iniquities of his people without flinching, no matter how great the opposition became.
There is a very definite and intimate connection between this book and that of The Revelation. The living creatures of Ezekiel’s visions and those of the Apocalypse are clearly one and the same; and the closing vision of the restored earthly city and temple corresponds to that of John’s concerning the heavenly city, in which no temple is seen, because the whole is one vast sanctuary where the redeemed will dwell in unclouded light in the presence of God and the Lamb. Many other similarities and contrasts will be observed by the careful student who reads with reverence and dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
The subject of the divine government is often lost sight of by those who fail to realize that grace does not annul or set aside government. God has not vacated His throne as the supreme Ruler over the nations, and it still remains as true of nations as of individuals that whatsoever is sown must be reaped. This is the background for a true philosophy of history, and explains much that is going on among the nations in our own times. To all this Ezekiel gives us the key.
The Bible text in this publication is from the American Standard Version of the Revised Bible, copyrighted 1929 by the International Council of Religious Education, and used by permission.
“Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, the word of Jehovah came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of Jehovah was there upon him”—vers. 1-3.
The book opens very abruptly by the declaration that in the thirtieth year the prophet saw visions of God. Scholars are not united as to what thirtieth year is referred to. Some consider it the thirtieth year of the dynasty of Nabopolassar, the father of Nebuchadnezzar, who founded the Babylonian empire. Others take it as the thirtieth year of Ezekiel’s life, the year when, had things been in order and he in the land of Israel, he would have entered upon his responsibilities as priest. In either case, the fact of his call to the prophetic office is not invalidated. He was divinely appointed to be a witness to Israel and Judah after the first victories of Nebuchadnezzar and the second deportation of captives to Chaldea. He dwelt among these by the River Chebar. To him the heavens were opened and visions of God were vouchsafed. While there is a very close link between the prophecy of Daniel, who wrote of the times of the Gentiles, and Ezekiel who dwelt on the government of God among or over the nations, it was to him, particularly, that the heavens were opened. He was enabled to look into the throne room, as it were, of the Almighty and to understand how the affairs of men and of nations were overruled by Him who sat upon that throne in awful and sublime majesty.
It was five years after the carrying away of the ungodly king Jehoiachin, and in the fifth month of that year, that Ezekiel was called to his high office as a prophet of the Lord to the people of the captivity. He was the son of Buzi, a priest, but of which course we are not told. His ordination is expressed in the words, “The hand of the Lord was upon me.” How blessed when His hands are laid on any man, and thus one is divinely called to represent God in a world that has turned away from Him. Happy is he who today can say in truth,
“Christ, the Son of God, hath sent me
Through the midnight lands;
Mine the mighty ordination
Of the pierced hands.”
Whether or not one is officially commended of his brethren or of some authoritative body in the professing church, the great thing is to be ordained of God to minister in holy things.
“And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire infolding itself, and a brightness round about it, and out of the midst thereof as it were glowing metal, out of the midst of the fire. And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: They had the likeness of a man; and every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and they four had the face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four had also the face of an eagle. And their faces and their wings were separate above; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; they turned not when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches: the fire went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning”—vers. 4-14.
Artists have attempted to picture this majestic vision of the Eternal One riding through the universe on His chariot of glory, but no human mind can visualize the description in its intricate details. As we read the words of the prophet we are reminded anew that as the heavens are high above the earth, so are God’s thoughts beyond our thoughts and His ways above our ways. But even though the vision may be, as a whole, beyond our comprehension, there is much in it that becomes clear as we study it attentively.
As Ezekiel looked heavenward he beheld a stormy wind, evidently a whirlwind, coming from the north, which to an Israelite was the place of mystery, of darkness and of distress. The biting north wind brought with it blight and desolation. Babylon’s legions entered the land from the north, spreading desolation wherever they went. Though false prophets cried, “Peace, peace,” endeavoring to quiet the fears of the people, there would be no peace but rather destruction, because of the waywardness and disobedience of the leaders and people alike. A storm was coming. It was God Himself who had decreed it in His righteous government.
As the prophet gazed upon the enfolding cloud, he discerned the form of a great chariot with wheels of enormous height, the attendants of the divine majesty surrounding it, and one in the form of a man riding in triumph through the heavens.
The living creatures are identical with those of The Revelation, and yet the description is somewhat different. There each individual cherub has but one face, though there are four, as here; and they bear respectively the faces of a man, signifying intelligence; a lion, speaking of majesty and power; an ox, telling of patient service; and an eagle, the symbol of swiftness in execution of judgment and acute discernment from afar. Here each cherub has the four faces. These are the heads of the four orders of creation, the human, the wild beasts, the cattle of the farm, and the bird kingdom. There were two cherubim over the ark, attached to the mercy-seat, speaking of judgment (discernment), and justice (righteousness), the habitation of God’s throne. The four here in Ezekiel and in The Revelation tell of these powers in connection with the government of the world. Four is the number of the world powers, as in Daniel 2 and 7 and elsewhere.
The cherubim here are seen in connection with divine activity in the affairs of the nations. They are the expression of the divine attributes. Whether they are actually created beings, like or akin to angels, or whether they are symbolic representations of these attributes, is a moot question. At any rate, we see in them the manifestation of the divine nature acting in righteous government over the nations. From the days of the Early Church fathers these cherubim have been linked with the manner in which Christ is presented in the four Gospels, and sometimes very fancifully, and apparently with no real grasp of their significance. For instance, “the lion of St. Mark” is well known and implies that Mark presents Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. But this is surely incorrect. It was Matthew to whom it was given so to portray Him; whereas Mark’s record is symbolized better by the patient ox, the servant of God and man. Luke gives us pre-eminently the face of a Man—the Humanity of our Lord in all its perfection. John completes the story by setting Him forth as the heavenly One—the Eternal Son become flesh, aptly pictured by the eagle. In Christ all fulness dwells. He is the complete manifestation of all the divine attributes.
There are details that one who is more spiritually-minded might understand better, but which forbid more careful attempt at exposition as far as the present writer is concerned. The wings connect the cherubim with the heavens, and by these they are covered in the presence of the Throne Occupant. Under their wings are hands as of a man—hands ready to succor and help when needed, or to strike in judgment, if necessary. Nothing here is arbitrary; all is under the control of Him whose heart is concerned about all His creatures.
“They went every one straight forward.” Nothing can turn aside the undeviating principles of the divine government. No schemes of men, no flaunting of God’s Word, no studied attempts to thwart His righteous rule, can avail. Steadily the chariot of the Lord rolls on, accomplishing the ends He has in view.
Every one of the cherubs had the face of a man. This seems to be the predominant face. The others, archetypal heads of creation, occupy a secondary place. The face of a man tells us that heaven truly understands and enters into our problems. The Lord is mindful of His own, and His heart goes out to every creature He has made. These cherubim are the executors of His judgments as the seraphim are the agents of His grace (Isa. 6). But judgment is His strange work and is executed only when grace has been ignored or rejected.
The wings of the living creatures are used for worship and for service. Like the seraphim, with twain they cover their faces as they bow in adoration before the Majesty of the heavens. The other two are used to speed them on His errands. We may learn a lesson from this for ourselves: worship comes first, then service.
“They went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went.” There is no vain repetition in God’s Word. The fact that this statement is repeated only helps to impress upon us the immutability of God’s counsels. No power, either human or diabolic, can turn them aside. All are directed by the Spirit who is the expression of the divine activity and is ever working throughout the universe.
The appearance of the living creatures was ethereal, like flaming torches, even as we read, He “maketh His angels spirits; His ministers a flaming fire” (Ps. 104:4; Heb. 1:7). The angels are the ministers of God’s providence through whom He rules the present creation. “But unto the angels hath He not put into subjection the age to come” (Heb. 2:5). That age will be ruled through His redeemed ones, associated with Christ on His throne, according as it is written, “The time came that the saints possessed the kingdom” (Dan. 7:22). The fire that went up and down among the living creatures is the Shekinah glory, the manifest presence of the God of Israel, the uncreated light that once abode over the mercy-seat and between the cherubim, in the Holiest of all, of the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple built by Solomon. This glory Ezekiel saw leaving the temple and returning to heaven. Some day it will come back to earth again and hover above the holy city, and the glory shall be a defence over all (Isa. 4:5). During all the long period of the times of the nations, while the Jews are scattered and the temple-site is occupied by a mosque of the false prophet of Islam, the glory is departed from the earth. “Ichabod” is written over all this scene. So one has to look up to see it by faith in that place where Christ sits exalted at God’s right hand.
The living creatures come and go—swift messengers bent on the King’s business—as the appearance of lightning. Limitations of time are not theirs. Instantly they dart from one end of the universe to another as they carry out the bidding of their Imperial Lord. Even so shall His coming be when He returns to earth the second time, for “as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of Man be in His day” (Luke 17:24).
We turn to consider next the wheels with their terrible rotations as the chariot of the Almighty moves on in majesty.
“Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold, one wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, for each of the four faces thereof. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto a beryl: and they four had one likeness; and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in their four directions: they turned not when they went. As for their rims, they were high and dreadful; and they four had their rims full of eyes round about. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went; thither was the spirit to go: and the wheels were lifted up beside them; for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up beside them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels”—vers. 15-21.
These wheels connect the chariot with the earth. There are wings above and wheels below, and both are in perfect harmony, for the Lord hath His way in the sanctuary and in the sea (Ps. 77:13, 19). He is both the God of heaven and the Lord of the whole earth. All things serve His might. There is no one who can say unto Him, “What doest Thou?” or hope to resist His power. He makes the very wrath of man to praise Him, and that which would not contribute to His glory He restrains (Ps. 76:10).
Wheels, with their ever-recurring revolutions as they move on through the ages, suggest the great changes to which men and nations are subject. Nothing is at a standstill; everything is in constant motion. This is as true in nature, the material universe, as in the moral and spiritual realms. Solomon marvelled as he watched the great wheel of the world go round. He exclaimed, “One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he ariseth. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again” (Eccl. 1:4-7). We say that history repeats itself. This is but another way of saying that the wheels are continually revolving.
And there are wheels within wheels, so arranged that we cannot follow their intricacies. But we see them everywhere, different principles working at one and the same time, in the world, in politics, in the church, in all phases of human society. So true is this that the mind becomes bewildered trying to keep all the different movements in mind, until we are tempted to think that all is utter confusion, and there is neither order nor sanity in the universe. But the spirit of the living creature is in the wheels and all are controlled by a higher power than the merely human, or blind chance, or what men call fate. Moreover, there are eyes in the wheels, and these speak of intelligence and careful discernment and discrimination. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3) ; and, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him” (2 Chron. 16:9). Those eyes are ever over the righteous, and His ear is open to their cry (Ps. 34:15). And so as the wheels move on, though so high that we are unable to comprehend fully what God is doing, we may rest in this precious truth, that nothing moves but at His command or by His permission. In the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God’s long toleration of evils—His apparent indifference to the cruelties practised against His people and the wicked behavior of those who seemed to triumph for a time while the righteous suffered in silence— frill all be made clear, and we shall see that though the wheels were high and the mysteries of the divine government beyond our present ability to comprehend, yet all were under His control who was working according to plan in a way that puny man little realized. The wheels have never been separated from the living creatures. Nothing is left to chance. All movements among men are under divine control, and even Satan can act only as God gives permission, as we see in the account of His dealings with the patriarch Job.
“And over the head of the living creature there was the likeness of a firmament, like the terrible crystal to look upon, stretched forth over their heads above. And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two which covered on this side, and every one had two which covered on that side, their bodies. And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings like the noise of great waters, like the voice of the Almighty, a noise of tumult like the noise of a host: when they stood, they let down their wings. And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads: when they stood, they let down their wings. And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man upon it above. And I saw as it were glowing metal, as the appearance of fire within it round about, from the appearance of his loins and upward; and from the appearance of his loins and downward I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake”—vers. 22-28.
The firmament, the heavenly dome, is over the living creatures, for it is under the heavens that the divine government is exercised. Nor is there ever any conflict between the various divine agencies or the divine counsels. What seems to man’s finite mind to be intricate and confused is clear to the spiritual one, who sees God behind all His works and ways. So the cherubim act in perfect harmony and are thus joined to one another. All act in obedience to the voice above their heads, the voice of Him who sits unmoved upon His throne, undisturbed by all the storms of earth that rage below.
As Ezekiel looked up he saw the likeness of a Man upon that throne. This is a clear intimation that the Man of God’s counsels, the Lord Jesus Christ, is ever to occupy that place of power and majesty. It was the preincarnate Christ that the prophet beheld, “the likeness of a Man.” Now, since redemption is accomplished, the Man Christ Jesus sits in His glorified human body on that throne of the Eternal. Consider the description of the Son of Man walking amid the lampstands in The Revelation, and note how intimately that links with this.
The rainbow about the throne, also seen again in the Apocalypse, speaks of the unchanging covenant God made with Noah, and gives assurance that no matter what catastrophes prevail for the moment, God’s watchful eye is ever upon this earth, and while it remains, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest shall not cease. The storm may rage and the very sun may seem to be blotted out of the heavens, but the Word of our God shall stand forever. His covenant He will not break, nor alter the thing that has gone out of His lips. Faith can rest on this and so be quiet and peaceful in the day of trouble.