Hold on to your hats folks – this is where prophecy gets seriously weird. Although Isaiah of Jerusalem wins the prize for the Bible’s first streaker (a prize later taken from him by St Mark) Ezekiel wins every award for strange behaviour. A rough contemporary of Jeremiah, his ministry also spanned the time running up to the exile and continued with the displaced Israelites. His writings look as though they might come from a priest, with a great concentration on God’s holiness and an emphasis on the Temple and its worship, particularly in his final four chapters which set out a vision for the renewed temple. The first 33 chapters warn the people that exile and punishment are inevitable, but then as Ezekiel joins the exiles in slave labour his message becomes one of comfort, hope, and a new vision for the future.
But while Deutero-Isaiah presents his prophecies in beautiful language, Ezekiel is more often to be found acting them out, using symbolic behaviour to communicate with the Israelites. Even his original call is strange: the vision of what has been described as a flying saucer is one of the most famous, and most weird, sections of the book. He is straight into his symbolic ministry: he has to eat the scroll which he sees in a vision, with words of mourning and lament on it, and then he has to enact the siege of Jerusalem using a lump of clay, and iron pan, and a stove fuelled by human poo, whilst lying still for 430 days. Following that he has to give himself a haircut, weigh out his hair into three parts, and do various things with it all round the city. I’m guessing that his public image might have left a little to be desired.
Yet his message, whether or not anyone got it, is the same as that of his contemporaries: by their behaviour the people have offended against the holiness of God, and so are due for the most severe of punishments. God has turned against his own people, and his glory, the symbol of his presence among them, is seen departing from the temple. There is a change of gear as chapter 34 begins, in another purple passage in which God decries the false leaders of the nation and promises instead that he himself will be their shepherd. The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is yet another promise of restoration, and the book closes as God’s glory returns in chapter 43, the Temple and its altar are restored, the priesthood rededicated, and the Temple symbolically becomes a place of healing and refreshment for all. The city itself will be renewed, and the new name of it, with which the book ends, is THE LORD IS THERE.
Like much prophecy there is a sort of telescope effect which means that it is difficult to see when the fulfilment came or will come, but clearly, as we discovered from Trito-Isaiah, the restored Jerusalem was not quite the place of perfection predicted. This inevitably leads us to look further into the distance, and to see in Ezekiel’s words something of the time when God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth will have been fulfilled. A weird book indeed, but one of great encouragement and hope.