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When Actions Speak Louder than Words - Ezekiel 12

October 24, 2017

 The book of Ezekiel is one of the most interesting found in the Bible and the man Ezekiel perhaps one of the most strange characters in the Good Book. 

He performed a myriad of bizarre acts, such as eating food cooked over dung, not outwardly grieving the death of his wife, and staying mute for large portions of time.  Then there are the intense visions he recorded, describing strange creatures and his visionary journeys to far off places.  Some scholars read the book of Ezekiel and surmise that he must have been suffering from some kind of mental illness, possibly epilepsy or schizophrenia. [1] However, it is hard to judge the mental state of someone through literary text who is so far removed in history.  Those that approach the Bible and the book of Ezekiel as inspired by God can see that Ezekiel’s actions and visions make sense in the context of him being a prophet tasked with acting as the mouthpiece of God to the Jews living in exile during a socially and politically traumatic time.  Ezekiel was definitely the perfect prophet for the people during that time, as his actions revealed to the Jews their coming judgement and fate, along with a future hope for restoration. [2]


The Priestly Prophet


            Before Ezekiel was a prophet, he was trained as a priest.  His father Buzi was a priest, most likely from the honored Zadokite priesthood. [3]  This line was descended from Zadok, the priest from the time of Solomon.  Ezekiel’s training as a priest had a great impact on his role as a prophet.  Jewish scholar Shimon Bakon notes that: 

"…it was nothing less than providential that this young and eccentric priest, called to be a prophet, was among the exiles.  Precisely because he combined the functions of priest and prophet, he recognized the imperative needs of the moment: to instill and strengthen the religious consciousness of the deportees as the adhesive force to withstand turmoil and inner conflicts, thus saving the Jews … from oblivion." [4]

            On March 16, 597 B.C. King Jehoiachin opened Jerusalem’s gates allowing Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar entrance into the city.  King Jehoiachin and ten thousand of the Jewish people, including Ezekiel, were taken into exile in Babylon. [5]  Ezekiel was part of a community that lived in place called Tel Abib, which was next to a river/irrigation canal. [6]  For five years he remained silent, perhaps taking the time to pray and to try to comprehend the magnitude of what God was doing, exiling His people to this place.  After those five years, at the age of thirty, when he would have taken on the full responsibilities of a priest, Ezekiel was called by God to become a prophet.

            While Ezekiel obediently embraced his new role as prophet, he never abandoned his role as a priest.  One of the ways this can be seen is in the way he addresses God.  The word “God” appears in the book 434 times, which is more often than any other book in the Bible.  About half of the time, Ezekiel uses the name “Adonai Lord,” a name for God which appears only 66 times in biblical books outside of Ezekiel. [7]  This can also be seen in his encouragement to the Jews that God still remained with them, even in Babylon. [8]  Scholar Hayyim Angel notes that a prophet usually tells the people God’s messages and then acts as an intercessor on the people’s behalf to God.  As a priest too, Ezekiel does even more.  Angel wrote: “As a priest-prophet, Ezekiel teaches Israel that God’s presence, prophecy, and some reduced manifestation of priesthood can exist even in the exile.” [9] Unfortunately, God knows that the people will be stubborn, hard hearted, strong willed, and brazen in their sin. Because of the people’s foreseen rebelliousness, God warns Ezekiel of their coming reactions to his prophecies, and that he will need to be resolute, speaking and doing whatever God asks of him. God also assures Ezekiel that eventually the people will know that a prophet has been among them. [10] 


Action Prophecies


            Multiple times throughout the book of Ezekiel, he is called to perform a prophetic and symbolic action. There were two main purposes for this. First, the dramatic and bizarre nature of his actions drew the interest and rapt attention of the people. Second, the performance made the prophecy more real, shocking, and concrete. [11] Ezekiel introduced each of his symbolic actions with “The word of the LORD came to me.” This was to affirm that whatever bizarre action Ezekiel was about to perform came straight from God, not from his own imagination or the result of a mental disorder. [12] One scholar made the point that “…prophecy claims to be the direct word of God, and prophetic language and prophetic bodies reel in the attempt to create a sense of words that, by definition, are not our words, and of actions that, by definition, are not ‘our’ own.” [13] As strange and difficult to understand as some of his actions are, Ezekiel attributed them and their prophetic message to God.  

            There are ten prominent times in the book that Ezekiel dramatizes prophecy. The first time is in 3:22-27 when Ezekiel is silent, unable to speak to the people. Next, in 4:1-3, Ezekiel draws the city of Jerusalem on a brick and eventually lays siege to it. Then, in 4:4-8, Ezekiel lies on his left side 390 days and on his right side 40 days, representing how Israel and Judah strayed from God. In 4:9-17 Ezekiel heats his food over animal dung. In 5:1-12 Ezekiel shaves his head and disposes of his hair in different ways. Then in 12:1-12 Ezekiel packs for a trip and digs through a wall. The next time is in 21:18-23 where Ezekiel creates many different paths with crossroads for the Babylonian king. Then in 24:15-24 Ezekiel’s wife dies and he does not mourn her death. In 33:21-22 Ezekiel ends his silence. Last, in 37:15-28, Ezekiel joins two sticks together symbolizing unification of the nation. [14] As is seen in the book of Ezekiel, action prophecies can take a variety of forms. Sometimes it involves literally acting out a drama, such as when Ezekiel packed some things for a journey and then “tried” to escape by digging a hole in a wall. [15] Other times it involves modeling an event, like when Ezekiel wrote the name “Jerusalem” on a brick and then around it build miniature siege walls, ramps, military camps, and battering rams. Sometimes action prophecies involve using the prophet’s personal life experiences to demonstrate the feelings or actions of God, or the feelings or actions of the Jewish people. When Ezekiel’s wife died, he was supposed to not mourn her death and act like nothing had happened, demonstrating how the people would behave and react when Jerusalem fell. Then there is the act of silence as a mode of prophecy. There are a couple different theories as to the purpose of silence, especially in Ezekiel’s case. It could be to show separation between him and the people [16], or it could be to demonstrate to the people how rebellious they have become in God’s sight, [17] or the purpose could be to affirm that what Ezekiel speaks comes straight from God [18]. Whatever meaning scholars choose to derive from the silence, it is clear that God uses the muteness of His prophets to speak volumes [19]. 


Chapter 12 Prophecies


            Chapter 12 of Ezekiel is comprised of three parts. The first involves Ezekiel performing an action in which he packs a bag and digs his way through a wall. The second is a dramatization of the anxiety of the Jewish people during this time of judgement. The third is God’s warning that the prophecies would occur soon and were not for a future generation.

            First Part - Zedekiah: The first part of chapter 12, which are verses 1-16, concern the Jews that were not initially taken to Babylon and were still residing in Jerusalem. God instructed Ezekiel to pack his bags as if he was headed into exile. Then, during the night while everyone was watching, Ezekiel dug a hole in a wall and climbed through with his bags. The next day when the people asked what Ezekiel’s actions meant, he tells them that it was a prophecy regarding future judgement and deportation for those living in Jerusalem. God also had Ezekiel tell the people about the fate of the King of Judah, Zedekiah. Specifically, they are told that Zedekiah will be captured and brought to Babylon where he will die, though he will never actually see the land.

            Zedekiah was not a popular king in the Bible. 2 Chronicles 36 has no good things to say about this young man’s stint as ruler. The author writes that Zedekiah did evil in God’s eyes, refused to listen to God’s prophets, broke an oath of allegiance made under God’s name to King Nebuchadnezzar, and under his reign the people turned even further away from God, polluting the temple and adopting heathen practices.

            In Zedekiah’s ninth year as king, Jerusalem was under siege by King Nebuchadnezzar. The people managed to hold off the army for a little while, but eventually they ran out of provisions. In his eleventh year as king, the walls were finally overcome and the Babylonians burned the temple. 2 Kings 25 tells of how Zedekiah tried to flee through the walls of Jerusalem, but was caught by soldiers and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah’s sons were murdered right before him and then his eyes were gouged out. Then he was chained and brought to Babylon, where he took his last breath. This event is also recorded in Jeremiah 52:1-11. [20] Just like Ezekiel had prophesied, Zedekiah never saw Babylon, though he died there. 

            Second Part - A Time Of Anxiety: The second part of chapter 12, which are verses 17-20, Ezekiel is told by God to eat his meal of bread and water while acting out a state of shock and terror. He was to be trembling and nervous, like a hunted animal. There are two different ideas as to which group of Jewish people this section of text is prophesying about. The first is that it refers to the people that are still in Jerusalem and soon to be under siege by Babylon [21]. As they sit trapped inside the city, knowing the food and water will eventually run out and the walls will one day be breached, they consume their meals with much anxiety. The second view is that it refers not only to the Jews in Jerusalem, but also to the Jews in Babylon, shaking from the shock of realizing the temple has been destroyed and that Ezekiel and Jeremiah have been right all along – the exile will not be over any time soon [22]. 

            Third Part - Coming Soon: The third part of chapter 12, which are verses 21-28, begins with God telling Ezekiel to address two untrue sayings that were circulating among the people: “The days go by and every vision comes to nothing” and “The vision he sees is for many years from now, and he prophesies about the distant future.” The people were beginning to believe that the prophecies were either never going to happen, or were for another generation since time was continuing to elapse. In response to these two proverbs, Ezekiel was to tell the people that not only were they future events and God had been telling him about how they were going to happen, but the prophecies were going to be fulfilled soon.

            There are two different views about the meaning behind the second false saying “The vision he sees is for many years from now.” The first view is that the people believed the destruction and judgement prophesied by Ezekiel was for a future generation [23]. The second view is that the people were thinking of the restoration and that they would never see the end of the exile – that redemption would be for a future generation [24]. 


A Man of Action


       Scholar Daniel Tropper really captured the spirit and heart of the prophetic work of Ezekiel with this statement:

"The prophecy of Ezekiel defies comparison.  No other prophet endured the gripping experiential dimension of prophecy with quite the same regularity and intensity as Ezekiel.  It is the unusual media of drama, portrayals, and experiences, rather than the general prophetic media of prose and poetry, which transmit the essence of Ezekiel’s message.  No dramatic spectacle, no showmanship nor theatric is excluded by the prophet in communicating with Israel…Some prophets experienced prophecy.  Other participated in prophecy.  But none lived prophecy quite like Ezekiel." [25] 

            While God instructed Ezekiel in the dramatic actions He wanted Ezekiel to take, the prophet was amazingly obedient, completing the bizarre tasks asked of him. Even in the midst of exile, like a good priest he was faithful to share the ways of God with the people. While it is easy to become fascinated by the admittedly strange actions God required of him, it should not be forgotten that God for some reason chose to communicate with His people in this manner during this time. Ezekiel was the willing priestly prophet that embodied and gave the interpretations of the messages. And as can been seen by chapter 12’s prophecies, God is omniscient and true to His word. 

            For Christians living in the 21st century, it is wise to remember that God does still communicate in a variety of ways. Perhaps it is through a quiet time of reading Scripture, or a sermon; maybe it is through the perfectly timed words of a friend or possibly even a dream. Even silence speaks volumes. The book of Ezekiel not only demonstrates God’s willingness to pronounce judgement when it is needed, and also His amazing capacity for grace and restoration, but the book also reveals “…a striking and unprecedented display of God’s personality.”[26]

1. Brad E. Kelle. Ezekiel: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2013), 32-33                2. Klyne Snodgrass. “Prophets, Parables, and Theologians” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18, no. 1 (2008). 52-55                

3. Arno C. Gaebelein. The Prophet Ezekiel: An Exposition. (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1918), 5-6

4. Shimon Bakon. “Ezekiel the Sentinel” Jewish Bible Quarterly 32, no. 4 (2004).         

5. James E. Smith. Ezekiel: A Christian Interpretation. (Joplin: College Press, 1979), 14-16.     

6. Peter C. Craigie. Ezekiel. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983) 3.             

7. Moshe Reiss. “Jeremiah, the Suffering Prophet, and Ezekiel, the Visionary” Jewish Bible Quarterly 32, no. 4 (2004).       

8. Lena-Sofia Tiemeyer. “God’s Hidden Compassion” Tyndale Bulletin 57, no. 2 (2006). 

9. Hayyim Angel,. “Ezekiel: Priest – Prophet” Jewish Bible Quarterly 36, no. 2 (2011).

10. Rochester, Kathleen M. “Prophetic Ministry in Jeremiah and Ezekiel” PhD diss., (Durham University, 2009). Accessed November 12, 2015.

11. Smith, Ezekiel, 14-16

12. Silvio Sergio Scatolini Apostolo. “Imagining Ezekiel” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8, no.13 (2008).

13. Yvonne Sherwood, “Prophetic Performance Art” The Bible and Critical Theory 2, no. 1 (2006). 

14. Mark Rooker. Holman Old Testament Commentary: Ezekiel. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005) 4.

15. Ruby B. Neville, “Dramatic Elements in Hebrew Literature” Christian Education 4, no. 2 (November 1920). Accessed November 12, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41174306 

16. Leslie C. Allen. World Biblical Commentary: Ezekiel 1-19. (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 66.

17. Smith, Ezekiel, 77-78

18. Rooker, Ezekiel, 54-55

19. Andre D. Neher, “Speech and Silence in Prophecy” The World Jewish Society 6, no. 2 (1977). 

20. Shimon Bakon. “Zedekiah: Last King of Judah” Jewish Bible Quarterly 36, no. 2 (2008). 

21. Smith, Ezekiel, 158

22. Kelle, Ezekiel, 162-163

23. Smith, Ezekiel, 160 

24. Kelle, Ezekiel, 164-165

25. Daniel Tropper. “Ezekiel’s Divine Role: An Unconscious Dimension in Prophecy” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. Accessed November 12, 2015. http://traditionarchive.org/news/article.cfm?id=103889




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