The third of the three major OT prophets. A younger contemporary of Jeremiah, and influenced by him, Ezekiel was a priest (Ezek. 1: 3) and a prophet (11: 4) of the Exile. According to 1: 1–3 Ezekiel was among the first group of Jews to be deported to Babylon, in 597 BCE; but there are reasons for supposing this to be an editorial note and that Ezekiel's message to Judah was delivered on the spot and not from distant Babylon. Ezekiel is remarkably well informed about conditions in Judah and his sermons are addressed to people living there. Some scholars have proposed that Ezekiel did go to Babylonia but returned to Jerusalem to preach doom on the city until its capture in 586 BCE, when, as is suggested, he was again taken captive and carried a second time to Babylon.
Alternatively, it is argued that Ezekiel remained in Jerusalem for the greater part of his prophetic career but perhaps went to Babylon in 586, or—a modification of this theory—that he remained throughout in Judah but sections which appear to derive from a Babylonian exile can be attributed to a later editor. Thus, while the structure of the book is complicated, the historical context of the prophet clearly covers the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE and the monarchy of Zedekiah, who planned a regional rebellion against Babylon in 594 BCE. For this he was summoned to Babylon and required to swear an oath of loyalty, which Ezekiel held to be binding. In spite of that, Zedekiah soon contemplated an alliance with Egypt; and the consequential arrival in the capital of Egyptian priests may well have constituted the ‘abominations’ (Ezek. 8: 16) in ‘my sanctuary’, which triggered the prophet's visions. However, in the event, the Egyptians withdrew and left Jerusalem wide open to the renewed Babylonian assault and deportation of 586 BCE.
Some of Ezekiel's prophetic acts were regarded as bizarre or at least strange by his contemporaries: he ate a scroll (3: 1–3); in front of a rough drawing of Jerusalem under siege, he lay for 390 days on his left side bearing the punishment of Israel and forty days on his right side for the punishment of Judah; he shaved his head and face and weighed the hair, which he then divided into three to symbolize how the population would suffer in three ways. He was afflicted with dumbness for much of the time before 586 BCE. When his wife died suddenly, he refused to mourn as custom dictated, in order to bring home his message of the even more tragic coming destruction of the Temple (Ezek. 24: 15–18). Some commentators detect evidence of mental illness; but his prophetic actions are in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha.
Ezekiel regarded the nation's history from the Exodus onwards as a story of disobedience (20: 1–18) but, when Jerusalem had been destroyed and his words vindicated, he could turn to hopes for the future. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants to restore to life even those in exile (33: 11–20). So he can predict the future restoration of his people in their own country. There would be peace and security, and the Lord would return to the sanctuary (43: 4–7) from which he had once departed (10: 18 and 11: 23). The God of Ezekiel is wholly transcendent, and acts as he thinks fit (Ezek. 36: 22) to produce a people transformed (36: 26). Nevertheless, they are required to respond to God's grace; individuals are responsible and free. Nobody in the OT more passionately asserts the reality of this responsibility (18: 20).