Examination of the Book of Ezekiel: Apocalyptic or Not?


Many readers of Ezekiel feel compelled to categorize the book as part of Apocalyptic Old Testament. There is no doubt that the visions and prophecies of Ezekiel were powerful and mystical, but do these elements classify the book of Ezekiel as apocalyptic? Through the use of mysterious visions, extravagant language, bold allegories, symbolic acts, and apocalyptic-like images, Ezekiel is able to pass his message of individual responsibility onto his people, future Biblical authors, and the everyday reader. To understand the book of Ezekiel, its message, influence, and the possibility of being categorized as apocalyptic literature, one must start with an examination the prophet’s life.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family and called to be a prophet while living among his fellow exiles, the Israelites, in Babylon at Tel-Abib. If he was thirty at the time of his call (1:1) , he would have been born about the time of King Josiah’s religious reform. He lived in his own house (8:1) near the Chebar River where he held a leading and priestly position among the exiles. While he was down by this river, he had his inaugural vision of the Chariot of Yahweh (1:3). Ezekiel was married (24:15-18), but his wife died the year prior to the siege of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.. Additionally, there is no mention of children between the couple in the book. Like Jeremiah and Daniel, Ezekiel’s ministry lasted more than twenty years. The details of his life after the prophecy of the gates of Jerusalem (48:30) and of his death are absent from the writings. Of all the prophets, Ezekiel is unsurpassed in regards to chronicling the dates of his writings. The book’s events are recorded in reference to year and month, giving the reader a better understanding of the order of events. For example, Ezekiel writes:

In the sixth year, on the fifth day of the sixth month,
I was sitting at home and the elders of Judah were
sitting with me, when suddenly the hand of the Lord
Yahweh fell on me there. (8:1)

The detailed account of his prophecies and visions appear logical and seem relevant to historical events. Because there are a few passages which appear to be out of sequence or repeated, additional authorship needs to be considered. While outside authors may have contributed to parts of the text such as the passages within the building of the Temple, Ezekiel appears to be the author of his prophecies.

Ezekiel experiences mystical and trance-like visions. Can these visions be categorized as ‘apocalyptic?’ As the book begins, Ezekiel has the vision of the chariot, with its gleaming wheels and magnificent beasts (1:4-28). He gives precise detail of the clouds opening up with brilliant light and fire, the four living creatures including their physical appearance, the wheeled chariot which brought them down out of the whirlwind, and the celestial human-like apparition which seemed to be seated on a throne. George Berry suggests that this heavenly and divine vision should be classed as apocalyptic due to the extravagant and unreal representation of Yahweh. Berry also considers the visions of winged angel-like men that are clothed in linen (10:1-17) to be another example. In the next chapter, Ezekiel speaks of his vision of the scroll (2). Even later there is the “form or appearance of a hand” (8:3) which takes the prophet by a lock of hair and puts him between earth and heaven. Other visions such as the resurrection of the dry bones (37) are just as supernatural and vivid; but it is the passage of the defeat of Gog of Magog (38-9) that is considered most eschatological. Stephen Cook agrees that the Gog passages illustrate radical eschatology by emphasizing the total sovereignty of Yahweh in war and because it is God who defeats Gog through superhuman means (38:19-23). Albert Cook points out that these descriptive elements of vision and of drastic symbolic actions appear most strongly in Ezekiel than in the other great writing prophets. The visions are prophetic, thus combing their message and foretelling of Yahweh’s plan for the prophet’s people and the nations surrounding them.

The prophecies of Ezekiel can be divided into four sections. The first includes the disclosure of the sins of the elected people which will lead to unavoidable punishment by Yahweh and will arrive at its peak in the fall of Jerusalem (1-24). The second considers the declaration of the ruin of the idolatrous people (25-32). Next, there is the offer hope to the survivors of the Babylon invasion of 587 and 586 by the prophet’s mission of calling the Jewish people to conversion from their sins (33-39). Lastly, there is an astonishing vision of an ideal Temple, protected from impurity by massive fortifications and of a miraculous river which rises from under the threshold and brings new life and health to the Promised Land (40-8). This new life is the future of the people with the revelation of a new Jerusalem, a new covenant, and of a new land under the leadership of a new shepherd, David. The themes of punishment, ruin, and proclamation of a new king are apocalyptic-like in premise but still miss the overall qualifications to categorize Ezekiel as a true apocalyptic book. To confront this discussion, attention must be turned to defining the term ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘apocalypticism.’

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines apocalypticism as:
The eschatological (end-time) views and movements that
focus on cryptic revelations about a sudden, dramatic,
and catastrophic intervention of God in history; the
judgment of all men; the salvation of the faithful elect;
and the eventual rule of the elect with God in a renewed
Heaven and Earth.

This definition implies the destruction and judgment of the unfaithful by God and the reconstruction of a new people, which could formulate the hypothesis that Ezekiel’s book contains apocalyptic qualities. Ezekiel describes how the people of Jerusalem had fallen once again and punishment would be justified by salvation: “Repent, turn back from your evil ways. Why die, House of Israel?” (33:11) and “I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you” (36:26). As Yahweh has warned in other Old Testament texts, He will bring obliteration to one’s nation if the people as a whole do not amend to the ways of Him and only Him. In the Exodus, Egypt was selected and punished with plagues while the elected were protected; however, one would not normally classify Moses and his story as being apocalyptic. So what is the difference? Scholars have named additional elements in apocalyptic literature that may help bring clarity to the term.

George Berry reiterates that the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament was designed for the encouragement of the Jews in the midst of their difficult conditions, so that they might not lose heart, but might continue to believe in the bright destiny of their nation which they had been accustomed to expect. As noted earlier, the three divisions of Ezekiel’s prophecies include this encouragement and promise of salvation. Biblical texts that were written later refer to Ezekiel’s numerous passages concerning his messages of sin, punishment, conversion, and rebirth; thus, proving him as not only prophetic but as one who is warning of the eschatological future to come. In many cases, Ezekiel’s choice of language to proclaim this future of hope and reprimand were astonishing. Berry confirms this point by stating that the use of extravagant language, in terms of predicting a glorious future for the nation, proves another element of defining the term ‘apocalyptic.’ To validate his reasoning, Berry lists the following elements needed to classify an apocalyptic message: (1) the prediction of the destruction of individual nations or groups of nations hostile to Israel (25-30; 38-39) ; (2) the nations were to be destroyed by the direct power of God; (3) after the enemies were overthrown, the Jews would rule from Jerusalem and over all nations; (4) the scattered Jewish Exiles were to return to Jerusalem. Although not all of these apocalyptic ideas are expressed in one entire passage, they all have some sort of marked degree of characteristics that could be surely considered as apocalyptic.
The reader can continue to experience the extravagant and in many cases bizarre language from Ezekiel during other instances throughout the book. The way Ezekiel chooses to express his messages from Yahweh set him aside from other prophetic authors. Sometimes Ezekiel’s choice of words are shocking and could be taken as offensive and other times his words are quite bazaar. For example, instead of Ezekiel plainly stating that he received his prophetic commission from Yahweh, he gives the reader a peculiar illustration of the event:
‘…Open your mouth and eat what I am to give you…’
He then said to me, ‘Son of man, eat what you see; eat
this scroll, then go and speak to the House of Israel.’ I
opened my mouth; he gave me the scroll to eat an then
said, ‘Son of man, feed on this scroll which I am giving
you and eat your fill.’ So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet
as honey. (2:10-3:3)

The reader is left somewhat puzzled and must dissect the eccentric imagery of the words; however, the choice of language allows the reader to use the senses of sight and taste in his or her imagination to visualize such a strange act. The reader understands that this is some type of symbolic act (symbolic acts will be discussed later), but how is one to decipher the odd description a scroll tasting “as sweet as honey?” The reader must then recount older texts to get the hidden meaning in Ezekiel’s choice of words. Possibly the most scandalous language in the book comes in reference to the allegorical history of Jerusalem and Samaria in comparison to the sisters Oholibah and Oholah (23). The language is downright unpleasant but catches one’s attention to focus on the passage. Again, Berry reiterates that using such language to describe such unusual or appalling messages classify the work as ‘apocalyptic.’ Not only is the sister passage graphic and shocking in language, but it serves as a model for other bold allegories to which Ezekiel chooses to use.

Allegories within literature are generally used to give a literal or dramatic picture to an event or symbolize something that is parallel to the idea of what is to be interpreted. In addition to the symbolic history of Jerusalem and Samaria mentioned above, Ezekiel has abundant allegories throughout the text. There is passage of the prophet as a watchman (3:17-21), meaning that he acts as a keeper for his people. As Cook points out, another story has the prophet responding to the allegorical veiled message of God (17), “Son of man, put forth a riddle, and speak a parable unto the house of Israel” (v. 2). This parable of the two eagles and the “vine” from the top of the cedar stands for a series of political actions: Nebuchadnezzar, the “great eagle” is tricked by the Israelite Zedekiah into intrigues with the second great eagle, the reigning Pharaoh; and the “vine” (cedar shoot) of Israel is transplanted, first destructively, and then fruitfully, while Nebuchadnezzar conquers Pharaoh. The allegorical meaning is as follows: the eagles stand for majesty and power while the vine symbolizes the fruitfulness of a healthy and prosperous national succession. Additionally, other allegorical passages consist of the shipwreck of Tyre (27) and the announcement of the siege of Jerusalem (16) which uses the disturbing metaphor of Jerusalem as a baby, left bloodied and uncared-for in the street. One cannot ignore the importance of the parable of the corroded copper caldron which parallels the worthless copper caldron as the city of Jerusalem, its population as the stew cooking within, the corrosion as disease, and the fire as the Babylonian siege (24). Finally, Yahweh’s divine power is seen in the allegorical vision of the valley of the dry bones (37), the punishment of Pharaoh, the ‘great crocodile wallowing in the Nile’ (29), and the ‘Decent into the Underworld’ (32). Some of the parables seem to contain apocalyptic-like elements; however, one would have to again question the degree of the message and if there are true eschatological components within each story. Nevertheless, one can be confident that dramatic and sometimes graphic allegories not only give a meaningful message, but a memorable one at that.

Symbolic acts seem to parallel many of the allegorical visions in Ezekiel. One scholar notes Ezekiel has more symbolic acts than any other prophet. Yahweh commands the prophet to perform these acts and in many instances the acts and gestures include punishment and suffering in which Ezekiel must endure for his people. Such endurances seem to hint apocalyptic-like meanings; on the other hand, the acts fail to do so. Chapter four lists several of these suffering symbolic acts occurring one after another. There are three sign acts that revolve around the fall of Jerusalem: (1) Ezekiel takes a brick (an allegory for the besieged) and mimics the forthcoming siege on Jerusalem (vv. 1-3); (2) he must lie on his left side for the same number of years as Israel’s guilt (390 years) then lie on his right for the years of Judah’s guilt (40 years) (vv. 4-8); and (3) he is ordered to ration food and drink symbolizing the hunger of the besieged city (vv. 9-11). The scroll passage needs to be addressed again because this may be the most important of all the symbolic acts. As strange as it may have seemed to have Ezekiel eat the scroll, Margaret Odell points out the significance of this act shows the prophet has accepted the responsibility of judgment of his people. She also notes that Ezekiel’s performance of all of the symbolic acts in the book demonstrate that he fully accepts the concept of his call, acknowledges he has become one of his people, and will be the first to suffer for what is in store for the rest of them. The acts by themselves lack the qualities of apocalyptic literature; though, they seem to influence other Biblical writes. One needs to look only as far as the end of the Bible to find the dramatic act of eating the scroll appearing once again in the apocalyptic book, Revelation (10:8-11).

The last area to focus on is the use of apocalyptic-like images within the book of Ezekiel. Once again there are images of angel-like men, carrying weapons and ordered to place a mark among the innocent to differentiate who will be spared when the massacre arrives (9). These images appear almost identically to those found in Revelation (7). These angelic-like winged creatures reappear throughout Ezekiel along with a reoccurrence of the cherubim and its mystical features (1:4-28; 10:1-17). These images seem to have dazzled the author of Revelation once again because they used repeatedly throughout the book. Additionally, there are many more images that pop up in both books. There are illustrations of the four plagues (Ezk 5; Rv 6:1-8), the cup of wrath (Ezk 23:32-34; Rv 14:10), and most recognizably fire and brimstone (Ezk 33:22; Rv 14:10). By apocalyptic definition, these images seem to fit the characteristics as being visionary, incredible, divine, extravagant, and unreal. But before a conclusion can be made about the entire book of Ezekiel, the opposing argument must be briefly observed.

While Berry stands by his definition, Robert Webb disagrees because of the misuse of the word ‘apocalyptic’ by many authors. For example, an author might use ‘apocalyptic’ to refer to a particular literary work, a literary genre, a single idea, a set of motifs, and ideology, or a sociological phenomenon. This type of definition leaves the reader confused concerning the subject matter, especially if the author is varying the term’s significance between different semantic possibilities. Webb suggests to clarify the term by breaking it down into distinct subcategories such as apocalyptic eschatology and prophetic eschatology. Apocalyptic eschatology would then refer to the religious perspective in which God’s eschatological plans are conceived as “deliverance out of the present order into a new transformed order” which stands in contrast to prophetic eschatology as interpreted in the prophetic texts such as Ezekiel.
He stresses that the term ‘apocalyptic’ must be limited to adjectival use and its use as a noun abandoned. While there are some individuals who would categorize Ezekiel as apocalyptic literature and argue that Ezekiel exemplified radical eschatology in select passages, most scholars today tend to disagree and lean toward Webb’s opinion about the term ‘apocalyptic.’

As for Ezekiel, is it or is it not an Apocalyptic Old Testament book? There is no cut and dry answer; however, most would pronounce that it is not. It is easy to see how Ezekiel became a source for later apocalyptic prophetic writers, such as the author of Revelation. Despite the sometimes repulsive imagery of punishment, the telling of the good news is the main point of Ezekiel’s work as a whole. His words included prophecies of doom and success for nations other than his own people of Israel, and he envisaged the eventual restoration of the exiles to their homeland. The message of individual responsibility came through by his successful use of powerful and mystical visions and prophecies. He proves himself as a master of mysterious visions, extravagant language, bold allegories, symbolic acts, and apocalyptic-like images. One can take away this lesson: the book of Ezekiel may not be considered apocalyptic in nature, but it stands as influential and inspiring for other Biblical prophets, authors, and books.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Apocalypticism.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed 14 November 2007.
Berry, George. “The Apocalyptic Literature of the Old Testament.” Journal of Biblical Literature 62 (1943) 9-16.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Ezekiel: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1990.
Carley, Keith. The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.
Cook, Albert. The Burden of Prophecy: Poetic Utterance in the Prophets of the Old Testament. Carbondale: South Illinois University, 1996.
Cook, Stephen. Prophecy & Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
Kelso, J. “Ezekiel’s Parable of the Corroded Copper Cauldron.” Journal of Biblical Literature 64 (1945) 391-393.
Mays, James Luther. Ezekiel, Second Isaiah. Proclamation Commentaries; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.
New Jerusalem Bible. Henry Wansbrough; standard ed. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
Odell, Margaret. “You Are What You Eat: Ezekiel and the Scroll.” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998) 229-248.
Sawyer, John. Prophecy and the Prophets of the Old Testament. Walton Street, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Webb, Robert. “’Apocalyptic’: Observations on a Slippery Term.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 49:2 Qumran and Apocalyptic: The “End of Days” in Ancient Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls (1990) 115-126.
Zimmerli, W. “The Special Form- and Traditio-Historical Character of Ezekiel Prophecy.” Vetus Testmentum 15 (1965) 515-527.

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