Chapter 9. Applied Judgment: The Sixth Century

Song of the Vineyard
by B. Davie Napier

Chapter 9. Applied Judgment: The Sixth Century



I am with you to save you [but] I will chasten you in just measure.

Jer. 30:111

Jeremiah: Prophet and Covenant

Since the days of Tiglath-pileser and Isaiah, Southern Israel, the little kingdom of Judah, had lived with and under prophetic Yahwisrn’s persistent proclamation of death. Jerusalem surrendered to Babylon in 597, already a doomed state. In 587 the city was destroyed after a three-year siege by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonian king. In both debacles, and indeed again in 582, Babylon, following Assyrian practice, forcibly deported large numbers from the best elements of the surviving populations. A people whose faith attributed their very peoplehood to the gracious, purposive power of their God, Yahweh, now suffered, no doubt with bitter incredulity, the destruction of this wonderfully created people of Israel; and, according to the same Yahweh-faith, the end was effected as the beginning, by Yahweh and the power of his Word. Out of Egypt into this land: out of chaos into meaning — but now back to Egypt, as it were, consigned again to the chaotic and the meaningless.

Prophetism never deemed this to be the end. Judgment is bitter, but its function is the restitution of productive order, its aim always positive (see below, Chapter 10). We left Jeremiah in the preceding discussion breathing fire on the beaten survivors of 587. But we know the other side of this astonishing man’s prophetism. Exile would be long. It is twice stated in Jeremiah as seventy years (25:11 and 29:10). It was something less than this for the first returnees (c. 538), but approximately this length of time from 587 to the reconstruction of the Temple in the years c 520-515. Is “seventy” Jeremiah’s round number, the maximum allotment of time to any man, to encourage the exiles to unpack their bags and prepare to live and die in the “city where I have sent you into exile” (see again his letter to the exiles of 597, ch. 29)? Or is this number editorial, deeming “exile” to end with the reconstituted Temple? For Jeremiah, in any case, exile would be long; but it would also be terminal and all Israel would participate in the restoration (see especially now ch. 31). We have already marked Jeremiah’s concrete demonstration of the certainty of restoration: in the final year of the fatal siege,

I bought the field at Anathoth from Hanamel my cousin. . .and 1 gave the deed of purchase to Baruch. . . . in the presence of all the Jews who were sitting in the court of the guard. And I charged Baruch in their presence, saying. . .thus says Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel; Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land! (32:9-15)

As has been most aptly remarked, Jeremiah’s action here “smacks of the same paradox as if a contemporary should forecast nuclear warfare and then proceed to buy a choice piece of real estate on Manhattan”;2 yet even more — as if he did this with the sirens already warning of the fatal attack!

All of the major emphases of classical prophetism are present in Jeremiah. But, as with every great prophet, there is that which is distinctive and even unique. In Jeremiah the impact of the person of the prophet is quite without parallel. Nowhere else do we encounter the depth and intimacy and force of Jeremiah’s own self-disclosure; in no other Old Testament figure do we face so vividly, so realistically, this kind of personal anguish in unceasing tension with profoundly saintly faith. We are talking about hope in Jeremiah. One of the great paradoxes of the Judeo-Christian faith is for the first time made explicitly articulate in Jeremiah. It appears again in the Bible most notably in the New Testament in Jesus of Nazareth. In the “knowledge” of God’s effective, meaningful involvement in the very substance of human history, Jeremiah and Jesus regard as indivisible, as faces of the same coin, God’s love and wrath, God’s grace and judgment. And they understand that redemption, whether historical or suprahistorical, involves inseparably both peace and anguish. Jeremiah and Jesus affirm essentially the same paradox as regards prophet and people of the old covenant or the new: he that would save his life must lose it. The finding lies always beyond, and only beyond, the losing. Peace is always beyond, and only beyond, anguish.

One will not want to miss the old prophetic emphasis, here renewed, confirmed, strengthened — the power and entity of the Word for Jeremiah (1:3,9,10,12,18,19; cf. again Isa. 55:10 f.); the remarkably, forthright declaration on the subject of slaves and human liberty (34:12 ff.); or the typically Jeremianic analysis of the character of false prophetism (23:23-32; cf. Isa. 30:9-11); or this word on the nature of biblical faith:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this — that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practice kindness (hesed) justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (9:23 f.)

But it must be finally the new covenant which stands as the last word. Again in the Judeo-Christian faith, this is the first expression of the indomitable hope which, in any ultimate analysis, is the saving source of the strength both of Judaism and Christianity:

Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers. . . .which they broke. . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (see 31:31-24)

The Bitterness of Edom: Obadiah

Obad. Vv. 1-21

There is no bitterness like that between relatives. Patriarchal tradition preserves the fact of the close relationship between Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau): Jacob and Esau are twins (Gen. 25:24-26). But in the day of Israel’s final ignominy, in the collapse and destruction of Jerusalem in 587, Edom gave brotherly help — to the enemy! This littlest of prophetic “books” eloquently records the bitterness against Edom in surviving circles of prophetism.

For the violence done to your brother Jacob,

shame shall cover you,


on the day that strangers carried off his [Jacob/Israel’s]

wealth and the foreigners entered his gates

and cast lots for Jerusalem,

you were like one of them. (vv. 10-11)

The name Obadiah (“Servant-of-Yahweh”) may be a later attachment to the oracles in honor to the memory of Ahab’s major-domo back in the ninth century (I Kings 18:3 ff.); or it is possibly the real name of a sixth-century prophet on whose lips originated substantially what we have in verses 2-14. Verses 15-21 obviously reflect a different situation. Esau Edom still figures, but now the fate of all of Israel’s enemies is contrasted with the ultimate glory of Israel. It has been common to attribute the second section to another source; but it may be that it should be assigned only to another mood and time in the life of the same prophet.

In the final arrangement of the canon, Obadiah follows Amos perhaps for two reasons. In Amos 9:12 the day is envisaged when Edom will be possessed by Israel. More importantly, we suspect, Obadiah takes up again (as Zephaniah did earlier) Amos’ theme of the Day of Yahweh (v. 15).

It is interesting to note that one in the collection of oracles against the nations in Jeremiah is probably dependent upon Obadiah: there are a number of parallels between Jeremiah 49:7-22 and Obadiah verses 1-9. One often has reason to suspect that the remarkable emotional vitality and equilibrium of Israelite Yahwism and subsequent Judaism is in part due to the verbal discharge of all widely suffered frustrations, antagonisms, aggressions. Israel suffered intensely as a people, and, judged by any commonly employed criteria, she suffered her most exquisite abuse arbitrarily and unjustly. But she never suffered mutely! And she was able to produce as a part of her phenomenal literature the skillfully articulated expression of the nature and the subjects of her wrath and her ire, her suffering and her anguish. Both Obadiah and Lamentations (as well as numbers of Psalms) are in liturgical form. See, for example, the refrain running through Obadiah verses 12-14. With some persistent regularity this people was able thus to discharge the otherwise debilitating poison of profound feelings of injury and of impotence in the face of shameless abuse and aggression.

It would be wrong, we think, to dismiss Obadiah’s sentiment as unqualified human hatred. Even this little piece comes appropriately into the canon of the prophets since “it is not fanatic nationalistic hate but rather the notion of an appropriately compensating divine justice that shapes the proclamation of Obadiah.”3

Bitterness and Hope in Lamentations

Lam. 1-5

The study of meter in Hebrew poetry had its beginnings in these five poems. The first four are acrostic (like Nahum 1, Ps. 119, Prov. 31); that is, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are employed in succession, one at the beginning of each verse. The English versification in chapter 3 accords three verses to each letter. The fifth poem has twenty-two lines but does not follow the acrostic scheme.

The prevailing demands of this exacting form impose some restrictions on the free delivery of emotion. Nevertheless, taken together these dirges illuminate with brightness and a sense of reality the anguished reactions to 587 and its aftermath among Judah’s survivors. All five poems are to be dated in the sixth century. Some expert readers have claimed to find internal evidence that chapters 2 and 4 stand closest to 587 (on the strength, chiefly, of an “eyewitness” quality allegedly not present in the others); that chapters 1 and 5 are a little later; and that chapter 3 is the latest of the five. Other equally expert readers admit of some unevenness from poem to poem, but cite comparable inconsistencies within the individual laments and a certain possibly calculated coordination in the present arrangement of the five poems. These readers conclude that while the issue of unity may remain in doubt, there is insufficient evidence to justify the firm assertion of a plurality of sources. In any case, the five poems represent the same epoch, the same experience, the same point of view.

The book of Lamentations was written, not simply to memorialize the tragic destruction of Jerusalem, but to interpret the meaning of God’s rigorous treatment of his people, to the end that they would learn the lessons of the past and retain their faith in him in the face of overwhelming disaster. There is deep sorrow over the past and some complaint, but there is also radiant hope for the future, particularly in ch. 3.4

This is an important observation. The tone of the dirge is seldom relieved; but here and there explicitly, and much more pervasively implicitly, Lamentations affirms Yahweh’s continuing purpose in history and his reign over the world of nations. This is briefly illustrated in the fourth poem when Lamentations picks up the theme of Obadiah (the first line is surely ironic):

Rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom,


but to you also the cup shall pass;

you shall become drunk and strip yourself bare.

The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion,

is accomplished, he will keep you in exile no longer;

But your iniquity, O daughter of Edom, he will punish,

he will uncover your sins. (4:21-22)

There is no substance whatsoever to the tradition attributing Lamentations to Jeremiah; but in such lines as this we understand why the identification was made and we strongly suspect dependence, conscious or unconscious, on Jeremiah’s language:

My eyes are spent with weeping;

my soul is in tumult;

my heart is poured out in grief

because of the destruction of the daughter of my people. (2:11)5

And in the mood of Jeremiah’s confessions, but with the “I” changed to “we”:

Thou hast wrapped thyself with anger and pursued us,

slaying without pity;

thou hast wrapped thyself with a cloud

so that no prayer can pass through.

Thou hast made us offscouring and refuse

among the peoples.

All our enemies

rail against us;

panic and pitfalls have come upon us,

devastation and destruction; (3:43-47)6

To bring Jeremiah to mind is to bring hope to mind. In the passage — it stands solidly in the very center of Lamentations — where the note of hope is sounded most powerfully even Isaiah is recalled, if not to the author, then certainly to the reader:

“Yahweh is my portion,” says my soul,

“therefore I will hope in him.”

Yahweh is good to those who wait for him,

to the soul that seeks him.

It is good that one should wait quietly

for the salvation of Yahweh. (3:24—26)7

And at this climax, Lamentations embraces words that have continued to bring incalculable solace to persons in all branches of biblical faith in all time:

Yahweh will not

cast off for ever,

but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love (hesed);

for he does not willingly afflict

or grieve the sons of men. (3:31-33)

The mood of the dirge returns. This is a bitter existence and the lament proudly rejects any stance of unrealistic piety. The concluding lines constitute as vigorous a protest against Yahweh’s conduct of history as any in the Old Testament — but the power is the power of faith:

But thou, O Yahweh, dost reign for ever;

thy throne endures to all generations.

Why dost thou forget us for ever,

why dost thou so long forsake us?

Restore us to thyself, O Yahweh, that we may be restored!

Renew our days as of old!

Or hast thou utterly rejected us?

Art thou exceedingly angry with us? (5:19-22)

Lamentations — and the Old Testament people’s epoch of supreme despair — leave us here.



Son of man, stand upon your feet!

Ezek. 2:1

What Manner of Man?

Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel is of a priestly family; but more, is himself a priest (1:3), probably attached to the Jerusalem Temple staff before the city’s fall. He is among those deported in 597 (1:1; 33:21; 40:1), and he then lives at Tel-abib on the canal Chebar (3:15 and 1:1), which leaves the Euphrates north of Babylon and returns again near the mouth of the river. He occupies his own house (3:24; 8:1) with his wife who dies very suddenly in the course of his exile (24:15-18). Even apart from his prophetic role, he appears to have been a person of uncommon stature among the exiles (8:1; 14:1). “The thirtieth year” of 1:1 is a standing puzzle — the thirtieth year of what or whom? But the vision which inaugurated his career as a prophet is unambiguously dated in “the fifth year of exile of King Jehoiachin,” hence, in 593-592. Although he addresses himself repeatedly to Judah and Jerusalem,9 his actual residence is exclusively Babylon where he remains the active prophet-priest for at least twenty years. His latest dated oracle (“the twenty-seventh year,” in 29:17) is from the year 571 or 570.

Interpreters of Ezekiel have assessed him very differently. At least one book which purports to deal with the most significant aspects of the Old Testament omits altogether any discussion of Ezekiel except brief mention in a footnote or two.10 Two summary statements by knowledgeable commentators illustrate the two extremes in the evaluation of Ezekiel:

Ezekiel is the first fanatic in the Bible. He is completely dominated by an uncompromising zeal for Jehovah’s [Yahweh’s] cause and the vindication of his name. He is filled with holy fury against Jerusalem’s profanation of Jehovah’s earthly abode and for its other insults on the deity. Although he is not devoid of human feelings — twice he cries out in anguish at the thought of the coming destruction, interceding for his people (9:1; 11-13) — he never yielded to them: he was a stern zealot with a forehead hard as a diamond (3:9). . . . Like most fanatics, Ezekiel was dogmatic. Unflinching zeal and doctrinal assurance, often inseparable, tend to produce what Edmund Burke called “a black and savage atrocity of mind,” of which there are traces in our prophet, and utter intolerance, deaf to the voice of wisdom and common sense.”

It is hard to believe that the following paragraph addresses the same subject:

He is a man of rich and versatile mind, thoroughly alive to the problems and perplexities of the people he addresses, and well qualified, by discipline alike of head and heart, to bring to bear upon their situation words full of insight and consolation, of warning and of hope. . . . Further, he is sensitive to every current of life about him, he knows its every whisper. So far are his words from being abstract or theological discussions that they are frequently a direct reply to popular murmurs or challenges which he quotes. . . . No prophet ever took himself or his call more seriously. From the beginning to the end he devoted to his ministry all his powers of mind, heart and imagination.12

But it is significant that these same two commentators agree precisely in one particular. Writes the first: “Ezekiel wrote a book destined to exercise an incalculable influence on the history of his people and indirectly on Western nations.” The second: “No influence was more potent than his in the shaping of that Judaism which has lived on unshaken through the centuries.”13

The Book

We would not now say so confidently that Ezekiel wrote the book, although most of its content is probably authentic — the accurate representation of at least the prophet’s verbal record and report.

In gravest doubt are:

25-32 This is the block of oracles against foreign nations, the like of which we have already encountered in Isaiah (13-23) and Jeremiah (46-51). As also there, a few oracles originating with the prophet have provided the nucleus for the editorially expanded section.

40-48 The section deals in elaborate detail with all that has to do with Judah in the ideal age to come, the Messianic age; with its architecture, ritual, religious personnel, feasts and festivals, and finally even the physical features and properties of the land itself. There can be no doubt that this is, in its present form, the work of editors subsequent to the time of Ezekiel; but it is very possible that this is an editorial expansion and elaboration of an Ezekielian original, produced in the same priestly tradition responsible for the final form of the Tetrateuch.14

For the rest, we shall assume that we have to do with material substantially from the thoughts and visions and experiences of the prophet Ezekiel. This does not exclude the minor editorial work of later scribes. It is probable, for example, that the now enigmatic “Gog” of chapters 38-39 was originally Babylon, or some recognizable representation of that power, and that at a good many points the text of Ezekiel has suffered both accidental and well-intentioned alteration. Over-all, the Hebrew text comes down to us in as poor condition as Samuel and Psalms. We are nevertheless confident that it is by and large the prophet himself who is returned to us in these sections:

1-24 This deals with or is related to the imminent destruction of Jerusalem. It comes out of the years between Ezekiel’s call in 593 or 592, and the fateful year 587. The prophetic message, whether by word or vision or symbolic action, is of violence and destruction, doom, and Jerusalem’s sure end.

33-35 This is not properly a major division in and of itself; but we list it so because it marks rather clearly a historical transition, and bears affinity both with what precedes and what follows. In chapter 33, the prophet receives news of Jerusalem’s fall. But the tone of the chapter continues harsh. In chapter 34 the shepherds of Israel receive a brilliant and finally moving indictment. Chapter 35, which purposes to make the turn to gentleness and hope, is an extended oracle against Edom (so also, as we have seen, Obad. and Lam. 4:21-22).

36-39 In Chapter 36 hope is made articulate and restoration is assured:

But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they will soon come home. For behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply men upon you, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt. . . . then you will know that I am Yahweh (see 36:8-16).

Chapter 37 follows with the vision of the nation’s resurrection and the restoration of life and vitality to Israel’s vast valley of bones, long still and dry:

Yahweh said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the Word of Yahweh. . .Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am Yahweh!” (37:4-6)

And the prophet’s sure hope of Israel’s re-creation, of her restoration again to life and meaning, is climaxed in the stirring description of the overthrow of Gog — Babylon no doubt for Ezekiel, but certainly in subsequent centuries again and again the oppressor, the most conspicuous contemporary source of injustice and brutality and all human anguish, whose overthrow must precede the reign of God in history, the establishment of his just rule among men.

Ezekiel’s Prophetism

There exists obviously a vast disparity between our ways and those of the ancient East, our thoughts and their thoughts, our disposition and psyche and theirs. Standards of judgment and norms of behavior are conspicuously and often radically removed from one another. If any biblical character were placed unchanged in our culture, he would certainly appear to be an odd ball, a ready candidate for the psychiatrist’s couch, or perhaps, if the transported were a Hosea or a Jeremiah or an Ezekiel, the institutional strait-jacket. In an environment which, relatively speaking, rigorously inhibits virtually all the phenomena attendant upon the exercise of the prophetic role, not only an Ezekiel, but probably even an Amos or an Isaiah, would appear to be mad. Certainly by our psychological standards Ezekiel’s frequent symbolic actions, his strange visions, his trances, and his clairvoyance all consign him to one of our categories of emotional illness. Obviously, this is an illegitimate judgment. In an age which had its own madmen, the prophets were listened to if often detested, were respected if deplored, and were immortalized in subsequent generations. This judgment no doubt is also subjective, but it is on every count a more dependable judgment than that which exercises exclusively alien criteria.

The opening vision of Ezekiel, his call-vision, is a weird report (ch. I), if only superficially regarded. But one clue is the recognition that the prophet attempts to describe what he himself knows to be indescribable. In the constant reiteration of such phrases as “the likeness of,” “the appearance of,” “as it were,” and the variety of similes introduced by “like,” the prophet is insisting that he knows full well that this is a vision only, that this kind of ultimate reality cannot be apprehended in substance, but only — and only in part — in meaning. The vision of the creatures with their wheels (1: 15-21) verges on the grotesque. Yet what is conveyed to the prophet, and what he would in turn convey, is clear — the mobility and universality of the spirit of Yahweh. The four creatures move in every direction propelled by seeing wheels. This is, of course, not substance and concrete form: this is only how it seemed, this is what it was “like,” this was the “appearance” of the reality. And it is a reality about Yahweh of particular pertinence at that time: the Temple of Yahweh lies in ruins and we are removed, we exiles, from Yahweh’s land; but not from Yahweh!

Isaiah and Jeremiah, and now Ezekiel, all record their most revealing single “essays” in their call-accounts. Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh is the most sensitive and sophisticated of the three, and it is the more striking and moving for its humility. He does not claim to have laid eyes on Yahweh or even Yahweh’s throne. The description of the vision is repeatedly punctuated with qualifying clauses (vv. 26-28a) and is climaxed with the vision of deity that is nevertheless four times removed:

Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Yahweh.

He is overcome by what he sees. (It is utterly gratuitous to deduce from the words “I fell upon my face” and the prophet’s occasional trances that Ezekiel was a cataleptic.) The call moves now to the prophet’s charge, and the Word which first comes to him is emphatic and explicit — “Son of man, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you!” (2:1). And in what follows we hear in eloquent refrain the characteristic theme of classical prophetism: you shall speak to this people the Word of Yahweh “whether they hear or refuse to hear!” (see 2:5,7; 3:11,27).

We have seen the use of symbol in name and act in previous prophets; but more than any of these, Ezekiel is given to the dramatic portrayal of the Word’s message. Before the actual destruction of Jerusalem he shuts himself in to symbolize the siege (3:24-27) and plays in miniature scale the game of siege, as would a child (4:1-3,7), rationing out to himself publicly his own food and water supply (4:9-17).

Further graphic symbolisms are performed. Ezekiel cuts off his hair and divides it into equal thirds; one part he burns, another he assaults with a sword, and the third he scatters to the winds.

A third part of you [in Jerusalem] shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in the midst of you; a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds. (5:12)

Later (ch. 12) he carries his belongings out of his house through a hole in the wall; and in the same chapter, driving home the same point, he eats and drinks publicly, quaking all the while. Like the prophetic understanding of the Word, the symbolic act is also deemed to be efficacious, involving the instrument of the message (the prophet) as a participant in the execution of the dramatized event. Ezekiel’s seeming callousness is psychologically understandable. It is no less a reaction to anguish than Jeremiah’s tears and confessions — the anguish of participating in the “execution” of Israel-Judah (see further below, ch. 10).

Another quality of Ezekiel’s prophetism is illustrated in chapter 8. Here the prophet inveighs against pagan forms of worship practiced in Jerusalem — another characteristic expression of classical prophetism. But Ezekiel gives to his condemnation a new dimension of psychological depth which renders his prophecy at once more primitive and more modern than comparable words from his predecessors. To begin with, he sees the abominable forms of worship in a vision, 8: 3b; and in verse 7, still in vision, he is brought to the door of the Temple.

Ezekiel often speaks from a position midway between fact and allegory, between actual visual perception and vision-imagination. He is psychologically able to move back and forth between the two easily and sometimes without distinction. It is apparent that the prophet’s own mind makes a facile transition from sensory perception to psychic perception, that is, from what is seen and heard with eye and ear to what is, no less realistically for him, internally perceived and psychically apprehended. So, too, in his observation of others, he moves with equal facility from acute observation of the outward man to an even more acute and penetrating observation of the hidden realms of thought and imagination.

In verse 7a Ezekiel and Yahweh stand at the door of the outer court of the Temple. The door was always open, the outer court of the Temple always accessible to all. If Ezekiel goes through the open door into the court he will see what the patrons of the court expect him and all others to see — their pretensions, the facade of cleanness and decency, the guise of conformity and respectability. Ezekiel chooses another way, to enter not only the court of the Temple but its very occupants:

When I looked, behold, there was a hole in the wall. Then Yahweh said to me, “Son of man, dig in the wall;” and when I dug in the wall, lo, there was a door. And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abomination that they are committing here.” So I went in and saw; and there, portrayed upon the wall round about, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. (8:7-10)

And who are the occupants of the Temple court? None other than the seventy elders of Israel, in the outward act of utmost piety: “each had a censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up” (v. 11). The prophet, we repeat, moves easily back and forth between the two realms of perception. But Yahweh now asks,

“Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, every man in his chambers of imagery (RSV, room of pictures)? For [here] they say, ‘Yahweh does not see us; Yahweh has forsaken the land.’” (8:12)

This kind of sensitivity and insight is not matched anywhere else in prophetism.

The characteristic themes of classical prophetism are all here, but, as with every prophet in this succession, they are qualified by the particular strength and temper of the person of the prophet. Chapter 16 reminds us of Hosea, but the language is even stronger (probably offensive to the prudish) and the allegory has its own originality. Chapter 22 takes up the now familiar theological ethic. But this is the prophet Ezekiel who is more prophet-priest than Jeremiah. The old cultus of the Temple and the whole external institution of Yahwism which earlier prophets condemned for its enthusiastic but hollow support is now for the exiles beyond reach, and in Jerusalem itself about to be extinguished. In the full reconstitution of Yahwism, Ezekiel wants the formal ritual performance inseparably linked to the covenant-righteousness which appears with such signal force in earlier prophets (who, we think, would have concurred now, in Ezekiel’s time). See how Ezekiel brings ritual and righteousness together especially in 22:6-12.

Ezekiel’s Faith

All of this discussion is simply to cite some of the qualities of Ezekiel’s prophetism in the pre-587 epoch of his career. We have already noted that the prophet’s dominant note of doom changes dramatically to one of hope and resurrection with word of the disaster. However, the strongest and most persistent single criticism of Ezekiel from modern commentators is precisely here in the charge that the proclamation of redemption betrays no more of human compassion and gentleness than his treatment of the theme of destruction.

Thus says Yahweh God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act [in redemption], but for the sake of my holy name. . .I will vindicate the holiness of my great name. . . which you have profaned. . . . that the nations may know that I am Yahweh. (see 36:22 ff.)

Now certainly the quality of compassion does not dominate the personality of Ezekiel as it does Jeremiah. But it would be instructive to ask why Ezekiel (with the second Isaiah; cf. Isa. 48:1-11) stresses the point of Yahweh’s acting in his own behalf. He does so because he fears with good reason that with the promise of restoration, the narrow, short-sighted, vicious pride of covenant Israel will return in full measure. He does so because he knows all too well the popular tendency to make Yahweh the junior party to the covenant, dependent for his glory and perhaps even his very being upon Israel. Ezekiel knows that Israel was created for Yahweh’s purposes, and is now brought under sentence of death to make possible the reconstitution and re-creation of a new Israel made fit by the very judgment for Yahweh’s original purpose — to bless the families of the earth and that the nations may know Yahweh.

And the alleged hard-heartedness of the word even of resurrection is denied by what Ezekiel says:

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. . . I will put my spirit within you. . . . You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (see 36:25 ff.)

Although Ezekiel stresses Yahweh’s self-sufficiency, he is not a prototype of the extreme Barthian, the proponent of a theology in which man’s role in redemption is reduced to a cipher. Man has a position of critical significance in the fulfillment of Yahweh’s historical purpose. Nowhere is this brought out more emphatically than in the vision of the valley of dry bones (ch. 37). Yahweh’s purposes require a redeemed community which knows itself to be constituted by the resurrecting spirit of God. Here is Yahweh’s Word to an Israel dead and buried:

Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am Yahweh when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, Yahweh, have spoken, and I have done it! (37:11-14)

Judah and Israel, South and North, are reunited in this vision of resurrection (as also in Jer. 31):

My servant David shall be king over them;, and they shall have all one shepherd. . . . I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant. . . then the nations will know that I Yahweh sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore. (see 37:24 ff.)

We encounter in Ezekiel two very important items of prophetism already met in Jeremiah. The new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34), while not thus specifically indicated, is a repeated explicit and implicit theme in Ezekiel. It is envisaged in what we have just quoted from chapter 37; and, in terms especially reminiscent of Jeremiah, the substance of the new covenant is stated in 11:19-20. And we find in Ezekiel, as in Jeremiah, what has been called perhaps inadvisedly a “doctrine of individualism” The two prophets quote, in order to refute it, the same proverb: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2). In these critical years before Jerusalem’s final destruction, the proverb is much in vogue: we are not responsible for this debacle, people are saving, but the generations that preceded us. We are suffering for the sins and stupidities of those who went before us. And the inference in all of this, of course, is that we are innocent and God is unjust! Now it is important to insist that neither Jeremiah nor Ezekiel means in refuting the proverb to propound a “doctrine of individualism” which would deny communal responsibility and the inescapable corporateness of human existence. Nothing that either prophet says can be legitimately interpreted as advocating religious individualism. These two prophets are the most community-conscious, Israel-conscious, corporate-conscious of the prophets, and so it is impossible that either would deny the covenant solidarity of Israel. But they are faced with a rampant, diabolical conceit, a self-righteousness which absolutely blocks any reconciliation with Yahweh; and both prophets are sufficient realists to know that no generation may with impunity declare itself guiltless. The popular proverb — which is in certain lights profoundly true — is in this crisis and in its present interpretation refuted. “Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (Jer. 31:30). “Behold, all souls are mine [says Yahweh]; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine [soul here in the sense of entity or being — the total person]: the soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4).

There can be no mistake about the prophetic intent: the popular proverb is denied in its pointed use as a declaration of the innocence and the consequent unjust suffering of the prophets’ own generation (see also Ezek. 12:6 and 14: 12-23).

Finally, do not overlook in Ezekiel the superb description of the city of Tyre as a majestic ship (ch. 27, especially vv. 1-11,26-32); or what is surely one of the Old Testament’s most sensitive creations, the oracle against the shepherds in chapter 34; or in chapter 47, the moving description of the stream flowing from the Temple, increasing in breadth and volume and majesty as it flows, bringing life, healing, and fruitfulness all along its redemptive course.

And do observe in Ezekiel that (1) Yahweh’s ways, if sometimes unfathomable, are deemed to be just and right; (2) history, even in its anguish, is interpreted in terms of Yahweh’s concerned, purposeful impingement upon it; (3) Yahweh’s ultimate purpose is confidently assumed to be redemptive — to recreate by resurrection a people who will be his people and (certainly implicitly) will yet fulfill themselves as his people; and (4) the bold faith that despite any appearances to the contrary, the Word of Yahweh is accomplishing itself and cannot in any future be thwarted.



1. Cf. Pss. 89, 137.

2. N. H. Gottwald, A Light to the Nations, New York, 1959, p. 370.

3. A. Weiser, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 2nd ed., Gottingen, 1949, p. 186.

4. T. J. Meek, “Lamentations Introduction,” The Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville, 1956, vol. VI, pp. 5 f.

5. Cf. 3:48-49 and Jer. 8:18 ff.

6. Cf Jer. 20:7 ff.

7. Cf. Isa. 8:17; 30:15.

8. See especially Ezek. 1-4, 8-9, 16, 18, 22, 27, 33-39, 47.

9. A fact which has led a few interpreters of Ezekiel to conclude that the Babylonian setting is a later fiction, and that Ezekiel in fact fulfilled his career in Jerusalem.

10. See W. A. L. Elmsie, How Came Our Faith, New York, 1949, pp. 37, 191 n., and passing reference to Ezekiel on p. 99.

11. R. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, New York, 1958, p. 543.

12. J. E. McFayden, “Ezekiel,” Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, London 1937, pp. 501, 503.

13. Pfeiffer, op. cit., p. 565; McFayden, op. cit., p. 503. Perhaps the best study of Ezekiel is W. Zimmerli, Erkenntnis Gottes nach dem Buche Ezekiel, Zurich, 1954.

14. Cf., for example, Weiser, op. cit., p. 170.