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How to Read Ezekiel Theologically

Reading the book of Ezekiel theologically is not merely one approach to reading among others. If you are going to read the book, it demands theological reflection. Ezekiel is profoundly about God. Commentator Paul Joyce accurately notes: “In the use of the range of formulae and motifs in Ezekiel we find evidence of a distinctive emphasis on the absolute centrality of YHWH and his self-manifestation, a radical theocentricity that is of an order difficult to parallel anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.”[1] From the prophet’s first frightening theophany in Babylon to the final vision of a restored temple, the presence and power of the Sovereign Lord reverberate throughout the book.

The Presence of God in Exile

As Ezekiel, the thirty-year-old Jewish priest, stood by the Chebar River in Babylon, a storm was brewing. But this storm was unlike any he had ever see before, or at least unlike any he had ever encountered in this cursed land. He had only been in Babylon five years, but these clouds—the flashes of light and swirling images—seemed unnatural. In an instant, Ezekiel was overwhelmed by a vision of a divine throne-chariot with angelic, gyroscopic wheels that moved with deafening loudness. Chapter 1 of Ezekiel records the prophet’s grasping at words as he tries to describe the “likeness” and the “appearance” of the visage. His description of the vision moves from the ground upward, culminating in a polychromatic scene of one in the “likeness of human appearance” on the throne (1:26). He then summarizes his vision as the “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28, ESV), and then properly falls on his face.

While the details of this vision may amaze us and send us grasping at artistic recreations, the theological implications are even more arresting. God is in exile! He is supposed to be in his temple in Jerusalem. That was the assumption of the ancient mind, at least. However, Israel’s God could not be trapped or relegated to a temple in Jerusalem. The Sovereign LORD reigns in Jerusalem, Babylon and everywhere else. In Ezekiel’s thirtieth year, the year when he would have begun his temple service as a priest in Jerusalem, the Lord appears to him in exile and calls him to be his prophet and his people’s watchman. If you are going to read the book, it demands theological reflection. Ezekiel is profoundly about God. Click To Tweet

As Ezekiel recounts the vision, he describes the glory of YHWH as one having the “appearance of a man [Heb. adam] ” (my translation). The garden story reminds us of the closeness of the image of man and the image of God, but it is only the New Testament that clarifies how the image of man and the divine find their true unity. The apostle John goes so far as to say, when speaking about Isaiah’s throne vision in chapter 6, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him [that is, Christ]” (John 12:41, ESV). What the revelation of the glory of the God in the New Testament reveals about these verses is that God would one day in fullness—not in appearance—take on human flesh and come to us into our own cursed exile.

The Power of God in Judgment

It is appropriate that the book opens with God arriving in a traveling theophany, because throughout Ezekiel he is active. God is even the active agent in empowering Ezekiel’s obedience: “And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet” (2:1-2, ESV). Dissimilar to his activity in Ezekiel’s life, God’s power is demonstrated in chapters 4-32 primarily through prophetic declarations of judgment on Judah (4-24) and the nations (25-32), which find a climax in the destruction of Jerusalem (ch. 33).

In chapters 4-7 the prophet is commanded to communicate through a series of prophetic sign acts and prophetic oracles of judgement that culminate in the chilling words: “Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the LORD, who strikes” (7:8-9, ESV). Chapters 8-11 go on to record the prophet’s vision of the glory of God departing from his temple in response to the wicked ways of his people.

What were the ways of Jerusalem and Judah? From chapters 12-24 we see justifiable cause for the judgment of God’s people, and in many places this is grounded in terminology from Leviticus and Deuteronomy (cf. Ezek 11: 11-12; 20:18-21). We are instructed about Israel’s false prophets, wicked and idolatrous leaders, and deep-seated sinfulness. Israel was God’s covenant people (16:8), but they went whoring after other gods. Ezekiel uses several metaphors to communicate his judgement: a useless vine (ch. 15, 19), a faithless bride (ch. 16, 23), eagles and trees (ch. 17), lions (ch. 19), and the sword of Yahweh (ch. 21). Each of these chapters provides further explanation as to why God’s people are being judged, how the judgment will take place, and the justice of the Lord in carrying out his judgment. The reoccurring tagline “and you [or they] shall know that I am the LORD” (used over 70 times in the book), sends us back through our canonical consciousness to a Pharaoh who did not know the Lord and the response of God: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them” (Ex 7:5). Tragically, Jerusalem—like Egypt—would come to know the God they rejected. The city is destroyed (33:21).

The Power of God in Salvation

While chapters 34-48 do not speak univocally about salvation and restoration, it is evident that the tone of these chapters changes considerably. The structure of the book of Ezekiel points toward restoration. Chapters 1-24 highlight the Lord’s justification for judging Jerusalem, and chapters 25-32 focus on his judgment of the foreign nations. However, despite the ominous tones of impending destruction, judgement is not the last word. Aside from a few passages (11:14-21; 16:59-63; 20:33-44), Ezekiel’s message of future restoration grows in clarity and size after the fall of Jerusalem recorded in chapter 33. And for Ezekiel, this restoration is a multi-faceted eschatological reality. Reading Ezekiel theologically is recognizing the presence and power of God to judge and save—that the nations may know he is the Lord. Click To Tweet

In his commentary, Daniel Block helpfully categorizes the various themes used in Ezekiel to describe the restoration of God’s people: New Exodus, returning home, spiritual revitalization, Davidic reign, blessing, and divine presence.[2] In chapter 34, the Good Shepherd declares that he will gather his scattered sheep, bringing them back to himself and their homeland. In a New Exodus, God himself will reverse the Deuteronomic “scattering” of judgement and establish his people in fields of justice (34:16). Later on in the chapter, the Lord states that he will establish one shepherd over them—David—and in this way, he will make a “covenant of peace” with his people (34:25). Chapters 36 and 37 describe how the Lord will transform his people spiritually by placing his Spirit within them and empowering them to live in obedience to his commands (36:27; 37:1-14). The overarching theological concern here, however, is that God is acting “for the sake of [his] holy name” (36:22). The idolatry of his people had defiled his name among the nations, and God’s chief concern is the consecration of his name and glory among the nations. And the New Testament demonstrates how the Spirit-indwelled people of God will indeed take up the God-initiated program of spreading his glory among the nations.

The Presence of God in His Temple

The final scene of Ezekiel contained in chapter 40-48 is one of a visionary temple. The prophet receives an angelic-guided tour of this visionary temple and is told to communicate everything he has seen to the people of Israel. While there is debate as to whether or not the temple described in these chapters reflects a literal millennial temple or symbolically points toward the realities of the New Heavens and Earth (cf. Ezek 471-12; Rev 22:1-5), one certainty remains: the presence of God in the temple.

Taking up the language and imagery of Ezekiel’s first (ch. 1) and second (chs. 8-11) theophanies, chapter 43 provides a resolution to the tension of God’s absence from the temple. Ezekiel states that the vision he sees in chapter 43 was just like the previous two encounters (43:3). This time, instead of encountering the Lord in exile or seeing him withdraw from the temple due to the people’s idolatry, Ezekiel is lifted up by the Spirit and witnesses the glory of the Lord once again filling his temple.

With remarkable profundity, the last five words (in Hebrew) of the book bring the entire 48 chapters into theological focus: “And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD Is There” (48:35, ESV). Ezekiel leaves us with a theological vision of a Spirit-indwelled people, transformed from idolaters to saints, resting in a covenant of peace, under a new Davidic reign, and dwelling in the presence of the Lord forever. Reading Ezekiel theologically is recognizing the presence and power of God to judge and save—that the nations may know he is the Lord.


[1] Paul Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 27.

[2] Daniel I. Block, Ezekiel 1-24, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 55-56.

William R. Osborne

William R. Osborne (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at College of the Ozarks. He is the author of Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God (Crossway), and is currently working on an expositional commentary on Ezekiel (Kregel).

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