APOCALYPSE OF EZEKIEL
The scope and style of Ezekiel’s prophecies carry him over a broader field than that of any other apocalyptist of the Old Testament, for his forty-eight chapters are made up of vision, allegory, parable, symbolico-typical action, and formal prophesying. The formal apocalyptical elements in Isaiah are comparatively incidental and exceptional; those of Ezekiel are remarkably conspicuous, and detailed with such peculiar individuality of conception as to suggest a contrast between him and Isaiah very much like that which Macaulay has drawn between Dante and Milton. The most striking illustration of this is seen in the introductory vision, which occupies the entire first chapter, and should be compared with Isaiah 6 and Rev. 4.
This opening vision, though described in extensive detail, is remarkable for its majesty and impressiveness. St. Jerome says that the ancient synagogue treated the chapter as a record of secret theology concerning God and angels, and that the Jews did not permit their children to, read it before the age of thirty, and even prohibited any attempt at a public exposition of it. But a careful study of its parts will show that its main purpose is essentially the same as that of Isaiah’s vision which sealed his divine call to the prophetic office. The vision of Jehovah, seated on his throne, and surrounded with holy seraphim, produced in Isaiah an immediate sense of his own sinfulness (Isaiah 6:5); this vision of “the glory of Jehovah” caused Ezekiel to fall upon his face (Ezek. 1:28; comp. 3:23; Dan. 8:17; Rev. 1:17).
The place where Ezekiel received this first vision was “in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar.” This stream should not be identified with the Habor, “the river of Gozan” (2nd Kings 17:6), which was in the land of the Medes, and two hundred or more miles from those rivers of Babylon by which the Jewish captives sat down and wept when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). It was more probably the great canal of Nebuchadnezzar, which, according to Abydenus, was called the royal river, and was dug so as to serve as a branch of the Euphrates. The date of the vision is definitely given as “the fifth year of King Jehoiaebin’s captivity.” This Jewish monarch had reigned only three months when he and his mother and all the princes and mighty men of his kingdom, and all the craftsmen and smiths, were carried into exile, and none were left behind except the very poorest classes of the people (2nd Kings 24:8-16). This was to the exiles a memorable woe, a national calamity never to be forgotten, and therefore might well form an epoch in the thought of this prophet of the captivity, as “the thirtieth year of his own life was also.
In the beginning of the prophet’s description of his vision we notice the fourfold statement, “The heavens were opened, I saw visions of God, the word of Jehovah came expressly (or forcibly), the hand of Jehovah was there upon him.” The first two suggest external presentations of the divine glory. The opening heavens indicate the source of all divine revelations, and visions are one method of communicating divine thoughts. The third statement conveys the idea of a moving revelation and message brought directly to the prophet’s mind, and commissioning him for his ministry, while the fourth indicates the bestowal of a supernatural divine energy, by means of which all things became intensely vivid to his soul. As Ezekiel, in his thirtieth year, by the river Chebar saw heaven opened, received the word, and felt the hand of Jehovah, so Jesus, at the age of thirty, received by the river Jordan the wondrous anointing from on high; but in his case the Spirit, instead of presenting symbols of power and judgment, took rather the semblance of a dove.
In the vision the prophet beheld a stormy whirlwind sweeping down from the north (verse 4), and in its distant movement it seemed to be a great cloud. The whirlwind is naturally suggestive of God’s desolating judgments (comp. Isaiah 29:6; Jer. 33:19; 25:32). The north is the natural region of clouds and storms. And so this stormy wind cloud forcibly symbolized a rapidly approaching calamity, a divine dispensation of judgment, from that quarter out of which all the bitter woes of Israel and Judah came (comp. Jer. 1:14; 4:6; 6:1)—that home of heathen gods upon whose mountains the ambitious monarch of Babylon would fain have set his throne (Isaiah 14:13). From this direction the Assyrian and Chaldean armies had rushed down upon the land of the Hebrews.
The prophet further beheld “a fire unfolding itself,” as if catching hold on itself, twisting in tongues of flame, and flashing continuously. We infer that this writhing fire appeared in the midst of the cloud. It was significant of God’s presence and power, as in the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), the pillar of fire (Exod. 13:21), and in the various representations of divine indignation against the wicked (comp. Deut. 32:22; Isaiah 66:15; Heb. 12:29). Round about the cloud was a circle of brightness, and in the midst of the fire something that resembled the glittering brilliancy of amber. This latter was adapted to intensify in the prophet a sense of the living energy of that divine Power that was here revealing itself, while the circle of brightness was an appropriate emblem of the grace of God which always encompasses the dispensations of judgment. For love itself will chasten to reform the erring, and even punish with death in order to secure the ultimate peace and glory of the universal kingdom.
The next objects seen in the vision were “four living creatures,” which seemed to come out of the midst of the fire (verse 5). In chap. 10 these living creatures are called the cherubim. Their general appearance bore preeminently “the likeness of a man;” that is, as appears from the context, the position of the head and the shape of the body of each resembled a man more than any other single creature. Each one of these living creatures had four faces and four wings (verse 6). The faces were those of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (comp. Rev. 4:7). The human and lion faces were on the right side, the face of the ox on the left side (verse 10), but the position of the eagle face is not told. We may infer, however, that the human faces were toward the prophet, and so the eagle faces, turned in the opposite direction, would naturally escape more particular designation. The wings were “divided above” (verse 11), so that, when the living creatures stood, the upper pair spread out horizontally, and the tips of the wings of one cherub joined the tips of the wings of another (verse 23), and the other pair were closed or let down so as to cover their bodies. When in motion the noise of the wings was awe-inspiring, like the sound of many waters, or the tumultuous tramping of a great host, or as the voice of the Almighty heard in the thunder’s roar (verse 24; comp. Rev. 14:2; 19:6). Under their wings these cherubs “had the hands of a man” (verse 8), which, according to chap. 10:7, each cherub could send forth at pleasure to perform the will of heaven. They also had “straight feet” (verse 7), that is, extending straight downward, and the sole or hoof was like that of a calf’s foot, and “sparkled like the color of burnished brass.” Thus extending straight downward, not turned horizontally as the human foot, they resembled those on the Babylonian monuments, which are round, and sometimes nearly square. Thus all was in keeping with the fourfold form of the creatures, and a peculiarity of their movements was that they could proceed in any direction without turning as they went.
Viewed altogether, the appearance of these wonderful cherubs was like burning coals of fire and the appearance of lamps or torches (verse 13). Their entire composite form seemed to radiate as with flashes of lightning. The picture is climacteric, coals, lamps, lightning. When the creatures ran upon their mission or returned their movement seemed to the prophet like “the appearance of a flash of lightning” (verse 14).
But as the prophet continued to gaze upon the living creatures he beheld also “a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures” so peculiarly formed as to present four faces or sides (verse 15). This was made to appear like one wheel in the middle of another, intersecting each other at right angles so as to run north or south, east or west, without needing to be turned about (verses 16, 17). These wheels were of the greenish color of the beryl stone, and of immense size. Their rings or rims were so high as to inspire the beholder with dread, and were “full of eyes round about” (verse 18). In the later vision of chap. 10:12, the wheels themselves, and also the backs, hands, and wings of the cherubim appeared full of eyes (comp. Rev. 4:6). In their movements the wheels followed closely by the living creatures, so that they must have appeared somewhat like flaming chariots drawn by cherubic coursers. Their four sides corresponded with the four faces of the cherubim, and so they always went in the direction of some one of the four faces, and could move without turning to any one of the four points of the compass.
The living creatures and the wheels were alike governed in all their motions by a living principle called emphatically the Spirit (verse 30). It caused the wheels always to move in closest companionship with the living creatures, “for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels” (verse 20). One supreme, indwelling, potent, guiding spirit controlled them all.
Over the head and outstretched wings of the cherubim the seer observed “the likeness of a firmament like the color of the terrible crystal” (verse 22). From this firmament there came a voice, at which the living creatures dropped their wings in awe (verse 25). Gazing upward the prophet saw above the firmament “the likeness of a throne,” refulgent “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” (verse 26). It seemed impossible for Ezekiel to sketch the glory of this awful Being, for his style at this point is involved and obscure by reason of his labored efforts at comparison. The appearance from the loins upward and downward resembled the glittering brilliancy of amber, or of fire, and this radiant form was encircled by the appearance of a rainbow. The unspeakable glory overwhelmed the seer, and he fell upon his face to the earth; but so far was he from identifying the things seen with God himself, as one that might be looked upon with direct and immediate view, that he says (verse 28) of all this manifestation of the supernatural, “It was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Jehovah.”
This vision of Ezekiel, as we have observed already, is for all essential purposes the same as Isaiah’s sublime picture of the throne of God. It is an apocalyptic portrayal of “the chariot of the cherubim” (1st Chron. 28:18), and has an obvious relation to the poetic concept expressed in Psalm 18:10:
He rode upon a cherub and did fly,
Yea, he sped swiftly on the wings of the wind.
Ezekiel was a priest (Ezek. 1:3), and accordingly familiar with the symbolism of the holy places in the temple and with the thought of Jehovah enthroned upon the cherubim (comp. Exod. 25:22; 1st Sam. 4:4; 2nd Sam. 6:2; Psalm 81:1; 91:1). His picture of the throne of God is elaborated according to the peculiarity of his own individual genius, and it differs from that of Isaiah much as Dante’s poetic concepts differ from those of Milton. Isaiah speaks of Jehovah as sitting on a lofty throne, clothed with a majestic trailing robe, and surrounded by the six-winged seraphim. But Ezekiel takes pains to tell us that what be saw was only “a likeness as the appearance of a man.” Both prophets, however, conceive Jehovah under the semblance of a man, remembering that man was created in the image and after the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26). His form, glowing with the brilliancy of amber and “the appearance of fire,” suggests the consuming power of his judgments and his holiness which the flaming seraphs adore, while the brightness round about him like the appearance of the rainbow is a symbol of covenanted grace. The throne is suggestive of judgment and government, and, according to a frequent scriptural image, Jehovah is thought of as occupying a throne, and judging righteously (Psalm 9:4). “Jehovah’s throne is in heaven; his eyes behold, his eyelids try the children of men” (Psalm 11:4). It was fitting that, at the beginning of his book, the prophet should set forth an impressive ideal of the most high God as the source of all divine revelation and the sovereign Ruler of the world.
Ezekiel’s picture of the cherubim is peculiar, and was probably influenced to some extent by the grotesque forms of creature life which he had seen portrayed upon the monuments of Babylon. Winged lions and winged bulls, and human forms with the head of an eagle, were familiar objects in the lands of the exile. On a nature so sensitive to the strange and indescribable as his the gigantic symbols of Babylonian art must have made a deep impression. But that which notably differentiates Ezekiel’s cherubim from those elsewhere described in the Scriptures is their position under the firmament which appeared to support the throne of God. This accords with the figure in Psalm 18:10, but differs from Isaiah’s picture, which places the seraphim above the throne. Ezekiel’s cherubim are further peculiar in having each four faces and four wings. The faces, representing beast, cattle, fowl, and man, comprehend all the higher forms of creature life on earth, and may appropriately symbolize the living presence and active agency of the Almighty in the entire domain of created life. But as man stands at the head of creation, and divine providence is most signally displayed in human life and history, so, altogether, the living creatures bore preeminently the likeness of a man. The wings are appropriate symbols of the rapidity with which the dispensations of God are often carried forth. Two wings of each cherub seem to have been continuously outspread (verse 11), as if scarce able to await the time when they were to speed away on some divine errand. The bands of a man under the wings show the alacrity with which, in particular events of providence, all divine commands are executed, and suggest that God makes use of human agency in the government of this world. In chap. 10:7, we observe the promptness with which a cherub’s hand furnished an angel with the fire that was to burn Jerusalem. The straight, unbending feet may indicate the straightforward movements and irrevocable nature of the judgments of the Almighty.
Altogether, therefore, Ezekiel’s cherubim are adapted to symbolize Jehovah in activity, not in repose. For this purpose also there is added the symbolism of the wheels. These wheels, with their four Sides, like the four horsemen, the four horns, the four smiths, and the four chariots in Zechariah (1:10, 19, 21; 6:5), and the four horses and their riders in Rev. 6:2-8, are symbols of the potent agencies of the divine government of the world. Whether they move against rebellious Israel or against heathen nations, they go at the command of the cherubim. So in Rev. 6 the symbols of conquest, bloodshed, famine, and aggravated mortality proceed on their solemn mission when one of the living creatures says, “Come.” And herein is a profound intimation that all things work together for good to them who love God, and who are, accordingly, predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-30), and to be sanctified in his glory (Exod. 29:43). And so every agency of providence and judgment in all the world moves with a foreseen vital relation to the ultimate glory of God’s elect (Rom. 8:29; comp. 1:1, 2). Ezekiel’s cherubim, therefore, like those at the gate of Eden, are indeed prophetic symbols of the gracious restoration of what was lost by sin, but they more particularly indicate the great truth that redeemed humanity has much to do in working out its own salvation (Phil. 2:12, 13).
It should be added that the wheels, which seemed to form a sort of chariot of God, were called “the whirlwind” in the hearing of Ezekiel. They may, therefore, be regarded as symbols of the forces of inanimate nature as distinguished from the animal creation. Winds and storms and pestilence and fire and hail obey the voice of Him who sits upon the circle of the heavens and fills all things by his Spirit (Psalm 148:8). And thus the revelation of God and nature here made known is inconsistent with any phase of materialistic pantheism. The innumerable eyes upon the wheels, symbols of infinite wisdom, admonish us that the laws and forces of nature are under the control of a personal Ruler, who, in the thought of prophet and psalmist, makes the clouds his chariot and walks upon the wings of the wind.
The symbolism of this vision was peculiarly appropriate both to the historical standpoint of Ezekiel and to the scope and contents of his prophecies. After Jehoiachin and the better part of the Jewish people had been carried into exile there was left at Jerusalem a remnant, which kept up the form of the kingdom of Judah, with Zedekiah at its head. But, after Nebuchadnezzar had withdrawn his armies from the land, this remnant continued their idolatrous abominations and mocked the messengers of God, and “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon” (2nd Kings 24:20; comp. Ezek. 17:15). All this resulted speedily in the utter overthrow of the kingdom of Judah, and the king of Babylon burned the temple and demolished the walls of Jerusalem. There was also among the exiles at Babylon a spirit of infatuation caused by lying prophets, who led the people to indulge in vain dreams of speedy deliverance from captivity (Jer. 29).
Against this “rebellious house” Ezekiel was called to utter oracles of judgment, and it was fitting that his own soul, as well as those to whom he prophesied, should be deeply impressed with the thought of Jehovah’s power to make all forms of creature life and all the elements of nature serve him. The Chaldean army was one mighty agent of God by which the penal woes of sword and fire were to lay waste the land of Israel and make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, and the threatening features of Ezekiel’s vision were terribly suggestive of the coming vengeance. The whirlwind coming out of the north, the compressed fire, the flashing lightnings, the sparkling feet, the noise of the wings, the rushing wheels so dreadful in their movements to and fro—all pointed significantly to the various aspects of that divine judgment which as a sore evil was about to break forth out of the north upon all the inhabitants of the land (Jer. 1:14-16). In accordance with this thought the first part of Ezekiel’s prophecies abounds in announcements of judgment upon rebellious Israel and other nations (chaps. 2-32). But the vision had also its background of hope and promise. The dark cloud from the north had a circle of brightness around it; the fiery human likeness of the glory of God was encompassed by the appearance of a rainbow; and, in harmony with these hopeful symbols, the concluding portion of Ezekiel’s prophecies (33-48) is full of encouragement and consolation for the house of Israel. The first part is not without some gracious words of promise (11:13-20; 17:22-24), and the second announces the final judgment upon the enemies of God (38, 39); but viewed as a whole, Ezekiel’s elaborate apocalypse magnifies the great doctrine that, while to the rebellious and perverse Jehovah is a consuming fire, to those who love him and keep his commandments his nature and his name are Love. So, in its deepest significance and suggestions, Ezekiel’s opening vision is but another exhibition of the flaming sword and cherubim at the gate of the garden of Eden.
This apocalyptic vision, like its parallels in Isaiah and John, gives grandeur and sublimity to the book, and assures the prophet and his readers that the revelations are directly from God, and that “the word of Jehovah,” so often mentioned herein, is truly a voice from the throne of Him who rules the heavens and the earth. It is immediately followed by an account of the prophet’s divine commission (chaps. 2:1-3:15).
Our purpose and limits require no elaborate exposition of this prophet of the exile. His book is so extensive, and contains so large an element of expostulation and rebuke, that we attempt only a clear analysis of its general plan and a brief exposition of the most remarkable apocalyptic portions.
In accord with most books of this class, the subject-matter falls in two principal divisions: the first (chaps. 1-32) announcing Jehovah’s judgments upon rebellious Israel and the idolatrous nations, the second (33-48) foretelling the restoration and final glorification of the people of God. We subdivide the first part into seven sections, and the second into three, as follows:
FIRST PART.—JUDGMENTS, 1-32.
1. Chapters 1:1-3:14. At the sight of Jehovah’s glory, as revealed in the opening vision, the prophet fell upon his face in holy awe. But he was lifted up by the voice of one who spoke, and by the power of the Spirit, and commissioned to go and prophesy to the “rebellious house” of Israel and the nations, “whether they will hear or whether they will forbear.” This divine commission was enhanced by a symbolical sign. He was told to open his mouth and eat what was given him, and, lo, a book-roll was spread out before him, “written within and without; and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning and woe.” He was commanded to eat the roll, and then go and speak to the house of Israel, and he tells us that “it was in his mouth as honey for sweetness,” for, as in the case of Jeremiah, such inner reception of Jehovah’s word is a cause of “joy and rejoicing of heart” (Jer. 15:16). But the contents of lamentation and woe could hardly fail to produce a sense of bitterness, and so, when the Spirit lifted him up and took him away on his mission, he went in bitterness and heat of soul (chap. 3:14). In all this there is close analogy between Ezekiel and John. Comp. Rev. 10:8-10.
2. Chapters 3:15-7:27. This section contains an account of the further commission of the prophet “at the end of seven days,” during which he had been sitting among the exiles by the Chebar like one dumb with astonishment. Here also we read his first series of symbolico-typical and oracular announcements of the approaching desolation of Jerusalem.
3. Chapters 8-11. These prophecies are dated “in the sixth year.” Ezekiel is carried “in the visions of God to Jerusalem,” and there beholds a fourfold picture of the abominations which constituted Judah’s guilt and shame: (1) “the image of jealousy,” (8:5, 6), (2) the seventy elders burning incense in the secret chambers of abominable imagery (verses 7-12), (3) “the women weeping for Tammuz” (13, 14), and (4) the worship of the sun “at the door of the temple of Jehovah, between the porch and the altar” (15-18). This vision is followed by that of the seven angels, six of whom were commanded to go through the city and smite all who had not the mark of God upon their foreheads (comp. Rev. 7:3; 9:4, and the seven trumpet angels of Rev. 8:2). Again the cherubim appear, and from between the wheels under them a man clothed in linen takes a double handful of coals of fire and scatters them over the doomed city (comp. Rev. 8:5). After a word of hope has been spoken to the prophet (chap. 11:16-20) the cherubim and the glory of Jehovah go up from the midst of the city, and stand upon the Mount of Olives on the east of the city (comp. Zech. 14:4), and the prophet is brought back again “in the vision by the Spirit of God into Chaldea, to them of the captivity.”
4. Chapters 12-19. This section belongs also to the cycle of prophecies of the sixth year (8:1), but the standpoint of the prophet is changed, and he appears among the captives in Chaldea, and there, by means of symbolico-typical action, allegory, parable, lamentation, warning, and expostulation, he exhibits the sins of Israel, and shows that rebellion against God is sure to bring misery and ruin upon the transgressors. Chap. 16 is specially noteworthy for its picture of Jerusalem under the figure of an abominable harlot.
5. Chapters 20-23. These chapters contain the prophecies of “the seventh year,” and repeat in other words and figures the catalogue of Israel’s sins. Like other apocalyptic repetitions it brings out the ideas of the preceding section with more intense distinctness, and the figure of the harlot in chap. 16 becomes the more detailed allegory of Oholah and Oholibah in chap. 23.
6. Chapter 24. The date of this “word of Jehovah” is “in the ninth year, in the tenth month, in the tenth of the month,” and is identical with the memorable day on which Nebuchadnezzar commenced the siege of Jerusalem (comp. 2nd Kings 25:1). Under the figure of a boiling caldron we have the vengeance destined to come upon “the bloody city” most fearfully portrayed. In the evening of that day the prophet’s wife, the desire of his eyes, was taken from him by death; but he was forbidden to mourn and weep that he , might be a sign to the people of Israel of a grief too deep for tears (comp. Jer. 16:4-6).
7. Chapters 25-32. After having thus announced the woes on Judah and Jerusalem, Ezekiel proclaims the word of Jehovah against seven heathen nations, namely, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. These prophecies are to be compared with similar ones against the nations found in Amos 1 and 2, Isa. 13-23, Zeph. 2, and Jer. 46-51 (comp. Jer. 25:15-32).
SECOND PART.—RESTORATION AND GLORIFICATION, 33-48.
The second part of Ezekiel’s prophecies is divisible into three sections, as follows:
1. Chapters 33-37. After the renewal of the prophet’s charge, which occurred on the day in which he heard of the fall of Jerusalem (33:21), the word of Jehovah announces through him the restoration of Israel in six different forms: (1) As an offset to the work of the unfaithful shepherds who had caused the flock to be scattered abroad, Jehovah, like a good shepherd, will seek his scattered sheep and lead them into rich pastures upon the mountains of Israel (chap. 34). (2) As an offset to the evils Israel suffered from the surrounding nations the doom of Edom is foretold as a specimen of the manner in which Jehovah will avenge his people on their heartless enemies (chap. 35). (3) As an offset to the prophecy against the mountains of Israel, in chap. 6:1-7, there now comes a promise to restore and beautify all that was laid waste (chap. 36:1-15). (4) Thereupon follows the pledge of multiplied blessings to be showered upon the restored house of Israel (36:16-38), and the section closes with the two symbolical signs of restoration, (5) the vision of the dry bones made to live again (37:1-14), and (6) the symbol of the two sticks of wood, representing Judah and Ephraim united into one (37:15-28).
2. Chapters 38 and 39. Here is a remarkable apocalyptic. picture of the final overthrow of the hostile nations in their conflict with Jehovah. The highly wrought description is presented as fourfold: (1) Prophetic declaration against the army of Gog and its march against Israel (38:1-13); (2) his fearful overthrow by the power of God (verses 14-23); (3) another prophetic declaration of the utter destruction of all the hostile multitude (39:1-10); (4) the seven months’ burial in Hamon-gog, and the great feast of sacrifice upon the mountains of Israel (verses 11-29). This entire picture is manifestly ideal, and demands our more particular examination.
That this description of a last great battle and total defeat of God’s enemies is an ideal apocalyptic picture, and not a literal account of some particular event yet to occur, appears from the following considerations:
(1) The proper names employed are taken for the most part from the table of nations in Gen. 10 (comp. Gen. 10:2, 3, 6, and 1st Chron. 1:5, 6, 8, 9), and are appropriated as most fitting symbolical designations of far-off and comparatively unknown peoples. They are conceived as immense hordes from “the uttermost parts of the north.” The names Gog and Magog are employed in the same symbolical manner in Rev. 22:8.
(2) As imaginary as these hordes is the feast of flesh and blood, “fatlings of Basban,” horses and chariots, and mighty men of war, for which an invitation is given “to the birds of every sort and to every beast of the field” (39:17-20). The picture is no more a literal description of some actual event than are the parallel passages in Isa. 34:6; Jer. 46:10, and Rev. 19:17, 18.
(3) The burial of the dead bodies of the multitude during the space of seven months (39:12), and the burning of their weapons of war for seven years (39:9), are in keeping with the embellishments of symbolism, but inconsistent with a narrative of facts. If, moreover, this vast multitude of Gog is to be thus buried, why should the birds and beasts be invited to eat their flesh and drink their blood? The statement of 39:15, is not consistent with the thought that the birds and beasts first devour the flesh, and the house of Israel subsequently spend seven months in burying the bones.
(4) The general style and range of thought accord with the highly wrought pictures of apocalyptic writing. The very extravagance of many of the statements is incompatible with actual reality. Witness the following passage:
And it shall come to pass in that day, when Gog shall come against the land of Israel, saith the Lord GOD, that my fury shall come up into my nostrils. For in my jealousy and in the fire of my wrath have I spoken, Surely in that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; so that the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the field, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth, shall shake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the steep places shall fall, and every wall shall fall to the ground. And I will call for a sword against him unto all my mountains, saith the Lord GOD: every man’s sword shall be against his brother. And I will plead against him with pestilence and with blood; and I will rain upon him, and upon his hordes, and upon the many peoples that are with him, an overflowing shower, and great hailstones, fire, and brimstone (38:18-22).
Since, then, a literal interpretation of these chapters is inadmissible, we inquire after the true meaning of the ideal picture: This may best be ascertained by observing its relation to the restoration of Israel as outlined in chap. 37, and by inquiry into the real significance of its several parts. Its relation to chaps. 40-48 is also to be studied.
(1) The relation of chaps. 38 and 39 to chap. 37 is sufficiently indicated in 38:8, where the coming of the hostile hordes and their penal visitation of judgment are spoken of as occurring “after many days,” and “in the end of the years” after Israel shall have been gathered out of the many peoples among whom they were dispersed, and are all of them dwelling securely upon the holy mountains. This naturally points to a period in Israel’s history subsequent to the restoration and blessedness described in the symbolical pictures of the resurrection of dry bones and the uniting of the two sticks of wood; as recorded in chap. 37.
(2) In that future period of Israel’s history a great leader, conceived as a prince of nations and called by the symbolical name Gog, will with his hordes come up like a vast storm-cloud “against the people that are gathered out of the nations.” Many peoples will accompany him, and they will plot evil devices and aim to spoil the house of Israel. We understand that this great war is Ezekiel’s prophetic outline of the final conflict between good and evil as represented respectively in the forces of God and Satan in this world. It is a struggle that follows the advent of God’s “servant David,” referred to in 37:24, and accordingly belongs to the period of the Messianic reign. The Messiah is to possess as his inheritance the uttermost parts of the earth (Psalm 2:8; 22:27; 72:8), and it is not supposable that the remote peoples will submit without a struggle. As his dominion extends more and more, and attracts attention among the most distant nations and tribes, there must needs come, some time, a decisive battle. It need not be supposed to be the struggle of a day or a year. It is rather a conflict of ages. The new David must rule, and his forces must struggle with the powers of evil until he shall have put all his enemies under his feet. This is essentially the doctrine of Psalm 110, and accords with the general Old Testament concept of the Messiah’s reign.
(3) This world conflict is no new or exceptional thought with Ezekiel (38:17), but only his peculiar manner of portraying the final battle against the kingdom of God. In Isaiah 29:8, we are told of the dreamlike folly and futility of hostile devices of “the multitude of all the nations that fight against Mount Zion.” The prophecy of Balaam had of old declared the ultimate failure of the enemies of Israel in their long conflict with the star and scepter out of Jacob (Num. 24:17-24). In Joel 4:2, 11-14; Zech. 12:2, 3, and 14:2, 3, and Zeph. 3:8, we find similar ideals, and Dan. 11:40-45, and Rev. 20:7-9, are other apocalyptic parallels. The conflict is a long one, but it must have its decisive day and hour (38:18; 39:8).
(4) The result of this last battle is the manifestation of God’s glory and judgment among all the nations, and a revealing of himself to the whole house of Israel (39:20-29). The utter over, throw of all the enemies of God and his people involves, of course, the universal triumph of the kingdom of the Messiah. The final glory of perfect restoration, with God dwelling among his people, is symbolized in the visions of chaps. 40-48, which appropriately follow this picture of triumph and conclude the prophecies of Ezekiel.
Before passing to this last section of Ezekiel let us observe, even though it involve some repetition of things already stated, several characteristics of this prophecy against Gog and his hordes, which show that it belongs to the idealism of apocalyptics rather than to the realism of literal description.
(1) The fourfold structure of the passage, as given above in the analysis of the two chapters, is a formal element peculiar to apocalyptic prophecies. The beginning of chap. 39 is in substance a repetition of the beginning of chap. 38, and the double picture of burial in Hamon-gog and feast of flesh upon the mountains of Israel (39:11-29) corresponds notably with the prophecy of judgment in 38:14-23. These artistic correspondencies in structure can scarcely be regarded as accidental or imaginary.
(2) The vagueness attaching to the names Gog, Magog, Rosh, Meshech, etc., makes them appropriate for symbolic usage. The place of Gog in “the uttermost parts of the north” suggests the mountain-throne of heathen gods (Isaiah 14:13). This mystic Gog and the many peoples which join him in his campaign against Israel admirably symbolize the numerous foes, who, inspired and led on by Satanic power, make desperate assaults upon the kingdom of God. The imagery and perhaps some of the names were suggested by the inroads of the Scythians, who, when Ezekiel was a youth, swept in from the north and spread desolation and terror through all western Asia.
(3) Some final and decisive conflict between God and his enemies, the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed (Gen. 3:15), Christ and Antichrist, is a familiar concept of divine revelation, and this passage in Ezekiel is especially to be compared with the fundamental idea of Dan. 11:40-45, and Rev. 20:7-9. See our notes on those passages.
(4) It is important to note that the great result of this world-conflict is to establish the true knowledge of God among men. Over and over again is this divine purpose declared in the space of these two chapters (38:16, 23; 39:6, 7, 22, 23, 28). That this is the one highest purpose of all divine revelation, and includes the doctrines of redemption and salvation, is a commonplace of Christian theology. Its position in Old Testament prophecy is sufficiently indicated by the declarations of Isaiah 11:9, and Hab. 2:14.
3. Chapters 40-48. This last section contains the description of an ideal land and temple of “Israel restored.” Ezekiel is carried away in the visions of God to a very high mountain in the land of Israel, whence he beholds a new temple, new ordinances of worship, a river of waters of life, a new land with new tribal divisions of territory, and a new city named Jehovah-shammah, The extent, and minuteness of detail in this description are characteristic of this prophet, and no one would so naturally have portrayed the Messianic kingdom under the imagery of a glorified Judaism as one who was himself a priest. From Ezekiel’s point of view, as an exile by the rivers of Babylon, smitten with grief as he remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1), no ideal restoration could have been more complete or glorious than that of an enlarged temple, a continual service, a holy priesthood in perfect harmony with a true Davidic king, a magnificent city, and a land fully occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel, and watered by a stream from the temple-mountain, deepening and widening as it spread so as to make all the waste places blossom as the rose, and even heal the waters of the Dead Sea (comp. Joel 3:18; Zech. 14:8).
An analysis of these nine chapters, sufficient for our purpose, comprehends the entire description under three heads, as follows:
1. The temple as seen with its manifold parts and measures. Chaps. 40-42.
2. The temple filled with the glory of God and provided with ordinances for perpetual worship. Chaps. 43-46.
3. The river of life and the borders and tribe divisions of the land. Chaps. 47, 48.
(1) That we may apprehend the true significance of this final vision we should first of all observe that it is no mere appendix to the prophecy to be treated as a section of no importance. Rather it is the consummation and climax of all that has gone before. We need not go to the extreme of declaring that these chapters of Ezekiel “are the most important in his book,” and “the key of the Old Testament;” but they are as significant and important at the close of the book of prophecy as is the elaborate symbolism of the cherubim at its beginning.
(2) The entire passage purports to be an apocalyptic vision, and its symbolical import is not dependent upon the question of its historical relation to the Levitical code as we now find it in the middle books of the Pentateuch. One thing is certain, that in numerous details Ezekiel’s temple differs from that of Solomon before the exile, and that of Zerubbabel after the restoration, but in its main features of court, holy place, and interior temple, or holy of holies, it follows the pattern of the tabernacle shown to Moses in the mount. We have already shown, in a previous chapter, the symbolical import of the Mosaic tabernacle, and here we need only observe that the Solomonic temple and the temple of Ezekiel’s vision exhibit essentially the same mystic symbolism.
(3) But the notion that these chapters contain an accurate record of the plan of the Solomonic temple as it existed before the exile, or of the later temple of Zerubbabel, is justly rejected by the best exegetes. Aside from the extravagance of the measures given, and their incompatibility with the localities involved, it is very obvious that the vision of waters in chap. 47, and the divisions of the land in chap. 48, cannot be accepted as literal statements of fact. But if the last two chapters are explained as ideal pictures so must the others be, for they are all parts of one great symbolic vision. Ezekiel’s temple is no more explicable as a model of real architecture than are his cherubim and wheels possible in mechanics.
(4) It is also to be noted that there is no description of the materials of this visional temple, nor any account of the process of its erection. It stands out simply as something seen “in the visions of God,” and accordingly as a completed perfect structure. It is a composite visional symbol.
(5) What, then, is the real import of these concluding chapters? Our answer is that, like the corresponding conclusion of John’s Apocalypse, this vision of restored and perfected temple, service, and land symbolizes the perfected kingdom of God and his Messiah. No time limit is set for the fulfillment of the vision, but it is naturally supposed to follow the battle of Gog, and be in fact the ultimate glorification of Jehovah and his people implied in chap. 39:25-29. As the warfare of Gog is conceived as occurring many days after the restoration of Israel to their fatherland (38:8), this perfection of Jehovah’s triumph could not be expected immediately after the return from Babylonian exile. But of the times and the seasons of the completion of this Messianic kingdom Ezekiel utters no definite word. Like the descent of the new Jerusalem in the visions of John (Rev. 21:2), which was seen after the overthrow of Gog and Magog and their innumerable host (Rev. 20:8, 9), this final glorification of Israel also follows the overthrow of the last enemies. This is the only natural, logical, and pictorial order consistent with the grand ideal of triumph.
(6) This interpretation of the symbolism necessarily excludes all Jewish-carnal theories of a literal restoration of Jerusalem and the Jewish state. The notion prevalent among some schools of Second Adventists that, at Christ’s second coming, Jerusalem and the temple will be rebuilt and become the throne-center of the kingdom of the Messiah, is inconsistent with a rational interpretation of the prophets and the spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ. In like manner we reject all fanciful allegorizing of the several parts of this composite symbol. Any attempt to find a separate and distinctive significance of each wall, chamber, post, window, pavement, and gate would be as absurd and futile as to find like meaning for the boards, curtains, loops, rods, and rings of the Mosaic tabernacle. These are to be regarded as mere incidentals, designed to enhance the general impressiveness and perfection of the entire structure. In the number and extent of such minute references in Ezekiel’s picture we simply recognize his personal and priestly peculiarities of thought and style.
(7) Several parts of this symbolic picture demand particular attention. We observe that the coming of “the glory of the God of Israel…into the house by the way of the gate whose prospect is toward the east” (43:2, 4) is a coming to FILL the house (verse 5), and to abide perpetually. As John “heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle is with men, and he shall dwell with them and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3), so Ezekiel heard a voice out of the temple, saying, “The place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the house of Israel forever” (Ezek. 43:7). Here is expressed the fundamental thought embodied in the symbolism of the temple: God dwelling with man and man with God. Its perfection will be that union with God in Christ spoken of in John 17:21-24, “That they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: . . . I in them, and thou in me, that they may be perfected into one.”
(8) Another conspicuous feature of the vision is the position and extent of land apportioned to the temple, the city, the Levites, the priests, and the king. A central section, with seven tribes on the north and five on the south, is thus reserved and designated “a holy oblation unto Jehovah.” It is twenty-five thousand reeds square, and the portions to be occupied by sanctuary, city, priests, Levites, and prince are carefully defined. The priests occupy the central portion, next to the sanctuary, and the prince has his possession on the east and west. This seems to make the prince somewhat subordinate to the priests who have the charge of the sanctuary, and raises the question whether we may suppose “the prince” of this vision to be the same as the Davidic king of chaps. 34:24, and 37:25. Some have thought the two ideals to be discrepant and incompatible. But when we remember that the prophetic ideal of Israel’s future was “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6), we may discern in this picture of Ezekiel a most natural and appropriate relationship between prince and priest, and one peculiarly suitable for a priest-prophet like Ezekiel to portray. Nothing in his description necessarily implies subordination or conflict between priest and prince, but rather the most perfect harmony and equality of the two. As the Davidic prince of chap. 34:24, is conceived as a shepherd of the flock of Israel who shall feed them as a servant of God (verse 23), so the prince of this restored Israel is to “execute judgment and justice” (45:9), see that “just balances” are in use (45:10-12), and that the tribal territories are given to the house of Israel (45:8). It is incumbent on the prince also “to give the burnt offerings and the meal offerings and the drink offerings in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the Sabbaths, in all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel: he shall prepare the sin offering and the meal offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings, to make atonement for the house of Israel” (45:17). This detailed statement shows the closest relationship between king and priest, and is Ezekiel’s way of setting forth the doctrine of Psalm 110:4, and Zech. 6:13. Royalty and priesthood are to be so closely united that “the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”
(9) But while this central section of the land is preeminently holy, and set apart for temple, city, priest, and king, the people of the whole land are to appear before Jehovah at the appointed feasts, and go in and out of the gates of the city (46:3, 9; comp. Zech. 14:16-21). The prince will no more appropriate any portion of the people’s inheritance for his own or his son’s private purpose (46:18), as the violent rulers of the former times had done or assumed the right to do (1st Sam. 8:14; 22:7; 1st Kings 21:6, 7), but the land is to be equally divided among the twelve tribes, seven on the north and five on the south of the great central oblation, which, as containing the sanctuary and the city, is the common inheritance of all. The twelve gates of the city bear accordingly the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (x48:31-34; comp. Rev. 21:12), as if each and all of the tribes were publicly honored with a monumental and memorial title to the freedom of the city. They would also have free and perpetual access to the living waters that issue from the sanctuary, and to the trees whose fruits serve for food and whose leaves are for healing (47:12). All this implies a redeemed and purified Israel, so that of these twelve tribes it might be said, as it is written in the New Testament Apocalypse (21:14): “Blessed are they that wash their robes that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city.”
(10) This central city, the delight of all the tribes, “the joy of the whole earth, the city of the great King” (Psalm 48:2), is appropriately named in conclusion JEHOVAH-SRAMMAH (Ezek. 48:35). In a like manner Isaiah says: “They shall call thee The City of Jehovah, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 60:14). This ideal holy city is no other than “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” the eternal possession of “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23).
The prophecies of Ezekiel are thus seen to belong largely to the sphere of Apocalyptics, and not a few of the visions and symbols are reproduced in the later scriptures which we have yet to examine.