God's Glorious Presence in Ezekiel
Danny E. Olinger
Martin Luther said, "[The prophets] have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at." For many people, the prophet Ezekiel matches Luther's description perfectly.
Ezekiel has his own way of doing things. He uses symbolic imagery. He does things unexpectedly—like cooking over dung or lying on his side for months. In reading him, you might be tempted just to throw up your hands, but do not give up on Ezekiel, for he will drive you to Christ.
Ezekiel will imprint upon your soul the horrible judgment due to sinners for transgressing the law of God. But, he doesn't leave things with judgment. He moves on to the good news of the hope of dwelling with God in a new temple brought about by the work of the Messiah.
The Opening of the Book
The book opens with Ezekiel writing in the first person. These autobiographical prophecies are not going to be easy. Ezekiel will need strength from God to endure, which is what his name means: "May God strengthen him."
The need for strength from God is seen immediately. The opening words of the book, "In the thirtieth year," are probably a reference to his birthday, his thirtieth birthday—when he became eligible to serve in the priesthood. (Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest.) But instead of celebrating his birthday and his commission as a priest in Jerusalem, he is a captive in a foreign land, where the people worship idols and mock Israel and her God. It is the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin, and Ezekiel is among the exiles by the Chebar canal in the land of the Chaldeans.
Even the mention of King Jehoiachin tells us that something is terribly wrong. After the fall of Jerusalem, in which Jehoiachin was captured, Nebuchadnezzar put Jehoiachin's uncle on the throne and renamed him Zedekiah. But Ezekiel never recognizes Zedekiah as the king in his prophecy. Ezekiel considers Jehoiachin to be the rightful king. But the king is a prisoner in exile. There is a sense in which the nation has come to an endpoint.
The Sin of the People
Israel's sin is very great, and the Lord uses Ezekiel to get Israel's attention, so that the people might see their situation in all its horror. The Lord makes Ezekiel a sentry who calls out warnings. However, Ezekiel is not commissioned as a watchman to warn the people about the coming of their enemies, but to warn them about the coming of Yahweh (Ezek. 3:17)—such was their sin in breaking the covenant. The Babylonians were only the rod of God's anger; it was the Lord himself who was coming in judgment.
Ezekiel is the Lord's servant in announcing the coming judgment. Ezekiel explains how the Lord has instructed him by taking him into his counsel: "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God" (1:1). He found himself standing before the Lord, and "the hand of the Lord was upon him there" (1:3). From this vantage point, Ezekiel also saw the glory-cloud of the Lord, which was so tied to Israel's history.
God's Presence with Israel
In the days of Moses, Israel had been redeemed, not only to serve the Lord, but also to have God's glory presence dwell in their midst. After Israel sinned by worshiping the golden calf, the Lord proposed to Moses that Israel would be in the land, but that God would not dwell in their midst, lest he destroy them for being a stiff-necked people. When Moses heard this, he cried out, "If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here" (Ex. 33:15 NASB95).
Canaan rightly had no appeal to Moses apart from God's presence, which was represented by the glory-cloud. It was the glory-cloud that descended on the tabernacle at its dedication. When Israel entered the land of promise, it was the glory-cloud that accompanied them. And when the temple was built, the glory-cloud descended upon it.
If this presence of the Lord in the land and the temple was ever threatened because of the people's sin, then corporate repentance was to take place (Lev. 26:40–42). The prophet Joel understood this when he summoned the priests to weep before the Lord in repentance at the inner court (Joel 2:17). But when the Lord shows Ezekiel the inner court of the house of the Lord, he sees about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east (Ezek. 8:16). It is a deliberate turning away from God, literally exposing their backsides to the Lord as they worship an idol directly in front of his presence.
The result of such sin is the departure of the glory-cloud. It leaves both the land and the temple, moving eastward (cf. Ezek. 8–10). The very thing that Moses knew that Israel could not do without is gone. What hope is there without the presence of the Lord? There is none.
The story of Ezekiel, however, does not end in judgment. It ends in blessing. It ends with the promise of God's return and the creation of a new temple in a new land. Israel is not worthy of God's blessing, but God is gracious. He has promised to redeem for himself a people with whom he would dwell, and he is true to his word.
Ezekiel's Good News
Listen to the good news of Ezekiel 43:1–5:
Then he led me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was just like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and just like the vision that I had seen by the Chebar canal. And I fell on my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
Ezekiel looks east, in the same direction in which the cloud has departed. He hears the same sound he heard before, caused by the wings of the cherubim. It is the same scene from Ezekiel 10, but it's not the same scene. There is a difference. God's glory returns, but this time there is no cloud. There is no hiding of God's glory. It is the reversal of the vision of judgment. Ezekiel is taken into the inner court of the temple, where the glory of the Lord fills it completely. Ezekiel falls on his face. It is a death to self in the presence of God, but he is lifted up by the Spirit, as if resurrected.
The prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled, not by the return of the glory cloud, but by the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus is Immanuel, "God with us" (Matt. 1:23). He is the only one who did not deserve judgment, because he was the only one who lived a sinless life. Yet he died on the cross for us, bearing the penalty that our sins deserve. But death did not hold him. He arose victoriously from the grave and ascended on high, where he prays for us and gives the Spirit, that we might be conformed to him and dwell with him forever.
This is what Jesus has done for us: he has taken the curse upon himself and has brought about the promises of the book of Ezekiel. And we who follow in his train and are joined to him in faith enjoy the greatest blessing of all: the presence of God. We don't have to wait until the consummation to enjoy God's glory presence. He is ours, and we are his—now.
How Will We Respond?
Israel was to live in the midst of God's presence; the people of Israel were to be like priests, standing in the presence of God in his temple. They were to reflect God's glory to the nations, to those living in darkness apart from God. But we find in Ezekiel that they had no interest in reflecting God's glory. Will we repeat the error of Israel and act as if God's presence among us isn't important? Or will we give ourselves to our God in faith and obedience, knowing that in Jesus Christ we have every good thing? Will we know that, as living stones, we are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:5)?
We enjoy union and communion with the risen Christ as we make our pilgrimage to heaven to be with him bodily forever. And it is ours because our God has loved us from all eternity. It is ours because Jesus Christ has died for our sins and has been raised for our justification. And because of that, on the last day we will be in the city that Ezekiel talks about in the closing verse of his prophecy—"And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The Lord is there" (Ezek. 48:35).
The book of Ezekiel begins with the glory-cloud departing because of Israel's sin. It ends with the promise of a new city, named "The Lord is there." That's our story because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education. He quotes the ESV unless otherwise indicated. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2008.