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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Ezekiel

by Charles John Ellicott




Professor of Divinity, Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.A.


THIS book is placed in the Authorised Version, as well as in the order of the Hebrew canon, third among the writings of the four greater prophets. This is certainly its true chronological place; for although Jeremiah and Daniel were both contemporary with. Ezekiel, yet the former began his prophecies long before, and the latter continued his visions long afterwards. Of its authenticity and canonicity there is no question.

I. The personal history of Ezekiel.—Nothing is known of this beyond what may be gathered from the book itself, and from the circumstances of the times in which the author lived. He is never mentioned in any other book of the Old Testament, and his writings are never directly quoted in the New, although some of the imagery in the Apocalypse is undoubtedly founded upon the visions of Ezekiel. Fortunately, however, everything which it is important to know may be learned from the sources mentioned.

His name, God will strengthen, like the names of so many others of the saints of old, was singularly appropriate to his life and work. In the opening of his book (Ezekiel 1:3) he speaks of himself as a “priest, the son of Buzi.” Of Buzi nothing whatever is known; but the fact that Ezekiel himself was of the Aaronic family is a most important one in the interpretation of his writings; for he was evidently “every inch a churchman,” and his strong ecclesiastical character pervades and gives tone to his prophecies. Whether he actually entered upon the exercise of priestly functions at Jerusalem cannot be known without a previous determination of the uncertain question of the age at which he was carried into captivity; but he was certainly well instructed in what seemed likely to be his future duties. These facts, taken in connection with the disordered condition of the country and the tendency to concentrate the priests in and around the holy city, make it probable that he lived in Jerusalem or its immediate vicinity.

The prophet was carried captive to Babylon with the king Jehoiachin (Ezekiel 1:2; comp. with Ezekiel 33:21) in the eighth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (B.C. 596), ten thousand of the more important part of the people being transplanted to Babylonia at the same time (2 Kings 24:14), eleven years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. According to Josephus (Antt. x. 6, 3), he was then a young man. This statement has been called in question, but seems likely to be true, from the fact that one of his prophecies is dated twenty-seven years later (Ezekiel 29:17), and that he apparently exercised his office for some time longer. However this may be, it is certain that he entered on his prophetic activity “by the river Chebar” (Ezekiel 1:3), where the mass of the captives had been planted. This river was formerly supposed to be the Chaboras. or Khabour, a stream emptying itself into the Euphrates about two hundred miles above Babylon; but this cannot be the river intended, since it is said to be “in the land of the Chaldæans,” and the name of Chaldæa was never extended so far north. Recent authorities generally identify it with the Nahr Malcha, or royal canal of Nebuchadnezzar, on the excavation of which it is supposed that the Jewish captives were employed for a time. These were doubtless “the rivers of Babylonby whose side the Jewish exiles wept when they “remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1). Here Ezekiel lived in his own house (Ezekiel 8:1), to which the elders of Judah resorted to receive his counsels. He was married, and when his wife died suddenly he was forbidden to mourn for her (Ezekiel 24:16-17). This occurred near the close of the ninth year of his captivity (Ezekiel 24:1), and left the exiled prophet to bear in solitude the great trials of his prophetic life.

There is no record of the time of the close of his prophetic activity or of his life, and the few traditions that remain about him are of little value. Of great interest, however, are—

II. His relations with contemporary prophets.—The great prophet of Judæa during Ezekiel’s youth, and for a long time after he was carried into captivity, was Jeremiah. Jeremiah was himself a priest who occupied a large share of public attention, and exercised a powerful influence upon the destinies of the nation during the most susceptible years of Ezekiel’s life. Neither of them ever mentions the other’s name, yet it is scarcely possible that the young priest Ezekiel should not have personally known the older priest and great prophet at Jerusalem. After he had gone into captivity, and in the year before he was called to the prophetic office, Jeremiah sent a prophecy to Babylon, predicting its overthrow (Jeremiah 51:59); and on another occasion, whether earlier or later is unknown, he sent by another messenger to rebuke the false prophets who had risen up among the captives (Jeremiah 29:21-28). These false prophets had undertaken to thwart Jeremiah and to put a stop to his prophesying, and his denunciation of them must have removed a great obstacle from the way of Ezekiel; while, on the other hand, Ezekiel’s own prophecies among the captives must have helped to sustain Jeremiah’s authority among the remnant at Jerusalem.

Meantime, while these relations appear to have existed between the prophet of Judæa and the captive by the river Chebar, the “royal prophet” Daniel had also begun his series of wonderful revelations at the court of Babylon. He makes no mention of Ezekiel, as indeed he scarcely speaks of anything outside the immediate scope of his own prophecies; but Ezekiel speaks of him by name three times: twice for his eminent holiness (Ezekiel 14:14; Ezekiel 14:20), and once for his great wisdom (Ezekiel 28:3); but as Daniel was early raised to high office in the internal administration of the kingdom, and must have been intimately acquainted with the affairs of his own captive people, it is hardly possible that he should not have known personally one so eminent among them as Ezekiel. Daniel was of noble, if not of royal, birth (Daniel 1:3), and hence could not have failed to know Jeremiah before he was himself carried from Jerusalem. Thus there seems to have been a very interesting personal connection between these three great prophets, all engaged in their Divine mission at the same time, but under strikingly different circumstances, and each with his own strongly-marked individuality. God was thus pleased to vouchsafe to His Church in the time of its utmost distress and need a fulness of prophetic counsel such as marked no other period of the old dispensation. The only time at all comparable to it was that other critical period, more than a century before, when the northern kingdom had been carried into captivity—a period which was distinguished by the prophecies of Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah.

The prophecies of Daniel are of so peculiar a character, and, for the most part, embrace such a far reaching sweep of time, that they throw comparatively little light upon those of Ezekiel. Jeremiah, on the other hand, prophesying at the same time and about the same events, is constantly parallel to Ezekiel, and both his prophecies and his interwoven historical narrative should be read in connection with Ezekiel. The two will be found of great value in mutually illustrating each other.

III. The character of the captivity.—Judæa had been made tributary to Babylon some years before Nebuchadnezzar’s accession to the throne, and while he was still acting as the general of his aged father. Jehoi-akim, in the third year of his reign (2 Kings 24:1), had rebelled against him, and had been conquered and carried captive to Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:6) eight years before the captivity of Ezekiel. It is not known how many other captives were taken at the same time, the only mention of them being in Daniel 1:3, when certain “of the king’s seed and of the princes” (among whom were Daniel and his three companions) were selected from the general company of “the children of Israel” to be trained in the learning and tongue of the Chaldæans. It is generally supposed that but few of them were kept in the city of Babylon itself, and that the others were placed in the same region with the subsequent captives “by the river Chebar.” They would thus have had time to make homes for themselves, to become familiar with the language and the country, and hence to be of no small service to their brethren when the 10,000 fresh captives arrived. Especially must the learning, the wisdom, the high station of Daniel, together with his familiarity with affairs, have been of great importance to them.’ It was still eleven years later than this great captivity of Nebuchadnezzar’s eighth year (which was also the captivity of Ezekiel) that Zedekiah’s rebellion forced Nebuchadnezzar to a fresh capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (2 Kings 25:1-12). The “rest of the people of the city, and the fugitives,” and “the multitude” were carried off at this time, which was “in the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar” (2 Kings 25:8). By observing that the first year of Nebuchadnezzar was the fourth of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 25:1), this and the following dates may be synchronised with those of the Jewish history. Meantime, several minor deportations, amounting in all to 4,600 people, are mentioned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 52:28-30) as occurring in the seventh and the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar, and a subsequent one in the twenty-third year. These later captives lived in and around Jerusalem under wicked and idolatrous kings, going down from one wickedness to another, while the captives of Ezekiel’s time had been for years under the elevating influences of affliction and of the prophet’s counsels. There was, therefore, a marked difference in the character of the people whom he addressed before and after the destruction of Jerusalem. The following table of the several recorded deportations may be useful :—


Daniel 1:1.

Jehoiakim III[6].

[6] The Roman numerals refer to the years of the reign. Nebuchadnezzar is here spoken of as “king” before the formal beginning of his reign, which occurred in the following year. The third year afterwards is called in Daniel 2:1 the second year of Nebuchadnezzar. (Comp. also Jeremiah 25:1).

Jehoiakim, Daniel, and others.


Jeremiah 52:28.

Nebuchadnezzar VII.



2 Kings 24:14

Nebuchadnezzar VIII.

10,000, with Jehoiachin and Ezekiel.


Jeremiah 52:29.

Nebuchadnezzar XVIII.



2 Kings 25:11.

Nebuchadnezzar XIX.

“Rest of the city”, and “remnant of the multitude.”


Jeremiah 52:30.

Nebuchadnezzar XXIII.


It thus appears that the progress of the captivity, from first to last, covered twenty-four years, from B.C. 605 to 581, or from thirteen years before to eleven years after the beginning of Ezekiel’s prophecies. It is probable that the comparatively small deportations of the seventh and eighteenth years of Nebuchadnezzar took place in the early part of the same campaigns which terminated with the great deportations of the eighth and nineteenth. The numbers mentioned amount in all to 14,600, but in two instances the number is not given, and the latter of these probably included many more captives than all the others together. There were still left behind “of the poor of the land to be vine-dressers and husbandmen” (2 Kings 25:12), which implies a certain degree of sifting of the people, the captives being those in better social position, and hence, on the whole, likely to be more intelligent, and more easily brought under the prophet’s influence in their affliction.

In regard to the condition of the people in their captivity, it is not improbable that they may at first have been treated with some rigour. Nebuchadnezzar was evidently annoyed and irritated by their repeated rebellions, and showed himself capable of no little harshness towards them. (See Jeremiah 52:24-27; 2 Kings 25:7.) He was also engaged in the construction of magnificent public works, and on the accession of so large a body of captives, would naturally have employed them for this purpose, and especially for making his royal canal. At the same time, he was a man of too much breadth of view to indulge in national animosity, and from the first he placed Daniel and his Jewish companions in offices of high honour and trust, while the condition of the captives generally appears to have rapidly ameliorated. It has already appeared that in the sixth year of his captivity Ezekiel was living in his own house (Ezekiel 8:1). It was but little more than thirty years from the last date of his prophecy to the decree of Cyrus for their return. At that time only a portion of the exiles cared to exchange the comforts of the land of their exile for the difficulties of removal to the home of their fathers, and they who remained behind were able to help those who went “with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things(Ezra 1:6); and at a little later period the Book of Esther represents them as numerous, with powerful friends at the court, and of sufficient wealth to tempt the cupidity of their enemies. The impression obtained, on the whole, is that they speedily rose, and were encouraged to rise, from a servile condition to one of comfort, and in many cases of opulence.

IV. The date of Ezekiel’s prophecies.—A large part of the prophecies are carefully and minutely dated, the era being always that of the captivity of Jehoiachin, which was also that of Ezekiel himself. One other era is mentioned in the first verse: “it came to pass in the thirtieth year,” and has been the subject of much discussion. The only thing certain about it is that it coincided (Lamentations 5:3) with the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity. Some writers have supposed it to refer to the thirtieth year from the last jubilee, but this is never elsewhere used for the purpose of date, probably because it began at a special and inconvenient time, on the tenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 25:9), and it would have been particularly unlikely to be used under the existing circumstances. Others consider that it dates from the era of the accession of Nebuchadnezzar’s father and the commencement of the Chaldean dynasty (Michaelis, Rosenmüller, Ewald, and others); but there is no evidence that this era had then come into use, and the most recent investigations tend to show a discrepancy between this and the date here given. A very common ancient view—(Chaldee, Jerome, Theodoret) also adopted by some moderns (Hävernick and others)—is that the era was that of the finding of the Book of the Law and of the beginning of a great reformation in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign. This would certainly exactly accord with the time indicated; but if this had been meant we should expect that it would have been indicated. The most probable supposition is that of Origen, that it refers to Ezekiel’s own age, particularly impressive to him, because it was the age at which the Levites by the law (Numbers 4:23; Numbers 4:30; Numbers 4:39; Numbers 4:43) entered upon their duties.

Although, as already said, a large part of Ezekiel’s prophecies are carefully dated, many also are without date. Are these to be considered as belonging to the time between the preceding and the succeeding dates? If the dates given were all arranged in chronological order this would be the natural and highly probable supposition; and as a matter of fact, they are thus arranged, with the exception of a few prophecies, where the change of order admits of easy explanation. These prophecies are the two parts of Ezekiel 29:0, the first part of which is dated nearly three months before the prophecy in Ezekiel 26:0, and the last part is sixteen years later than the prophecy following it; the remaining instances are the two parts of Ezekiel 32:0, dated nearly two months after the prophecy of Ezekiel 33:21. The reason of these anomalies is that Ezekiel 25-32 form a special section of the book, relating to various heathen nations, and including nearly all the prophecies of this character. The general arrangement in this section also is chronological, but gives way to the extent of placing together all prophecies against the same nation whenever uttered. There being thus an obvious reason for the arrangement of this special section, and the dates of the rest of the book being strictly consecutive, the whole may be considered, with a high degree of probability, as arranged in chronological order, the internal character of the undated prophecies for the most part assimilating them closely to those just before them. This probability is increased by the fact that there remain two other undated prophecies against the heathen (Ezekiel 35, 38, 39), which are so much of the nature of promises to Israel through the destruction of their enemies that they are allowed to stand in connection with those promises, and doubtless in their proper chronological position.

V. The reception of the prophecies by the captives.—During the period of the captivity the Jews were greatly changed. Notwithstanding various sins which lingered among them, they learned generally to repudiate the idolatry which had been hitherto their characteristic sin, and they showed also a disposition to observe the law of Moses more closely than they had ever done before, and with so much zeal that this remained ever after their distinguishing national characteristic. The chief human instrument of this change was the teaching of the prophet Ezekiel. He was, indeed, often called upon to rebuke them (Ezekiel 14:1; Ezekiel 14:3; Ezekiel 14:18, &c.), and was made to understand that while they seemed to listen, they still refused to take his words to heart (Ezekiel 33:30-33); yet they regarded him as a true prophet, and resorted to him for counsel, and to ask through him the mind of God (Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 14:1, &c.). Doubtless, as time went on, the people became more and more purified. Jeremiah 24:0 shows distinctly the great moral difference at that time between the people who had gone into captivity and those who still remained behind. Various allusions in the book (see Ezekiel 3:9, &c.) show that Ezekiel’s life, especially in the earlier part of his work, was one of much trial, and that he had to contend against great difficulties in the midst of abounding evil. He himself passed away, as is usually the lot of man, before he was able to see the full result of his labours. Hengstenberg, in his Christology, describes him as “a spiritual Samson, who, with a strong arm, seized the pillars of the temple of the idols, and dashed it to the ground: an energetic, gigantic nature, who was thereby suited effectually to counteract the Babylonish spirit of the times, which loved to manifest itself in violent, gigantic, grotesque forms: one who stood alone, but was yet equal to a hundred scholars of the prophets.”[7]

[7] Christology of the Old Testament. By E. W. Hengsten berg. Translated by R. Keith. “Ezek. Introd.,” Vol. III., p. 460.


The divisions of the book may be given differently, according to the point of view from which it is regarded. It is quite common to make an arithmetically equal division into two parts, of twenty-four chapters each; and this plan is to a certain extent just, as there occurs a manifest change of subject at the close of Ezekiel 24:0. But it is far better to divide the book in connection with the great historic event of the overthrow of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the tidings of which reached Ezekiel in the twelfth year of his captivity, at Ezekiel 33:21. At this point the general tone of the prophecies changes. Up to this time they have been chiefly occupied with sin and consequent judgment; from this time onward, as the great manifestation of the Divine wrath had taken place, they are mainly concerned with promises and consolations. Each great division has an introductory portion: Ezekiel 1-3 containing the call of the prophet, with the instructions to him and his installation in his office, and Ezekiel 33:0, more briefly, as was fitting, a renewal of the charge to him in relation to that office. Each division closes, too, with a special section: the first with a series of prophecies against heathen nations, the enemies of Israel (Ezekiel 25-32), and the second with the future glory of the Temple and the Holy Land and city (Ezekiel 40-48. Minor sub-divisions will be treated as they occur.

VII. The style of Ezekiel is more varied than that of any other prophet. All forms of prophetic writing are laid under contribution to further the great work he was set to accomplish. Hence different writers, looking at his book from different points of view, have formed very different, and often exaggerated, estimates, on one side or the other, of its literary merits. Ewald justly says of him (Propheten. p. 212) :—“Considered simply as a writer, this prophet exhibits great excellences, especially as living in so dismal a period. His mode of representation, indeed, like that of most of the later writers, has a tendency to length and expansion, with sentences often very much involved, and rhetorical breadth and copiousness. . . . His language has scattered through it several Aramaic and foreign expressions, in which one may perceive the influence of his exiled condition; though for the most part it is formed after the older and better models.” Lowth (Lect. on Sacred Poetry, 21, p. 294) says :—His diction is sufficiently perspicuous; all his obscurity consists in the nature of the subject.” In regard to this matter of obscurity, which has been so much objected to, Fairbairn[8] well says, “that the darkness inseparably connected with our prophet’s delight in the use of parable and symbol was, when rightly contemplated, by no means at variance with his great design as a prophet. His primary object was impression—to rouse and stimulate, to awaken spiritual thoughts and feelings in the depths of the soul, and bring it back to a living confidence and faith in God. And for this, while great plainness and force of speech were necessary, mysterious symbols and striking parabolical delineations were also fitted to be of service.

[8] Fairbairn: On Ezekiel 2nd Ed., Introd., p. 12.

Accordingly, while Ezekiel often addresses the people in the simplest language of admonition or of promise, he also abounds in the most elaborate visions (as Ezekiel 1:8-10, 37, 40-48.) and symbolical actions (Ezekiel 4:5, Ezekiel 4:12); and has also similitudes (Ezekiel 15, 33, 35) and parables (Ezekiel 17:0) and prolonged allegories (Ezekiel 23:0); while in his denunciations, as of Egypt (Ezekiel 29-32), he sometimes rises to the height of most bold and effective poetry. “He has remarkable power in grouping a mass of somewhat minute details in a way to heighten the effect exceedingly. Witness his portrayal of the horrible impurities of idolatry in Jerusalem and Samaria (Ezekiel 23:0), or his description of the commerce, the splendour, and the fall of ancient Tyre (Ezekiel 27:28).”[9] In such varied ways did inspiration manifest itself in this remarkable prophet that he might accomplish his work under the extraordinary circumstances in which he was placed.

[9] Ezekiel. By Rev. H. Cowles, D.D. Introd. p. 11.

Underlying all this varied form, the personal characteristics of the prophet are always to be kept in mind that we may understand his writings. He was eminently realistic, always striving after a concrete representation of abstract thoughts; and moreover, intensely energetic, always having before his mind the accomplishment of a definite practical result. With all this, he had a rich fancy, and was possessed of deep emotions; he was an earnest priest, and deeply imbued with the symbolism and imagery of the Jewish temple and worship, and was also a captive in Babylonia, where the symbolism of the great Chaldæan works of art had produced a strong impression on his mind. It is sometimes difficult, therefore, to distinguish in his utterances between the form in which he so vividly sets forth the truth and the truth itself which he wishes to convey to the mind. But in this great help may be derived from observing the progressive character of his prophecies, and making ourselves thoroughly familiar with the earlier before we attempt to grapple with the difficulties. of the later. In no other prophet is it of so great importance to study his writings in the order in which he was inspired to deliver them, and also the personal characteristics of the writer. The main clue to guide us through the difficulties of the interpretation of his book is the appreciation of his tendency to express every thought and every Divine communication in concrete form. This tendency is so intense in Ezekiel, and is so carried into detail, that there has always been a disposition to mistake his ideal descriptions of the future for prophecies of coming realities. It will be seen on examining them that they contain particulars which, if literally interpreted, would be self-contradictory, and that they cannot therefore have been intended to be so understood. Nevertheless, the descriptions are so vivid, and the idea to be conveyed is so concretely expressed, that it is only by following his prophecies in their order, and coming gradually to enter into his spirit,. that we can appreciate their truly ideal character.

It is quite in accordance with these general characteristics of Ezekiel’s writings that much of them should be on the border-land between poetry and prose. Parts, indeed, are plainly in simple prose, and in other parts the complete poetic form corresponds to the thought; but there are many passages thoroughly poetic in their matter which yet defy the attempt to reduce them to the parallelism which characterises Hebrew poetry, and much that, while it must on the whole be classed as poetry, is yet very irregular in form. The earnestness and impetuosity of the thought continually overrides artificial rules of diction.

VIII. Literature.—The principal commentators upon this book are:—Among the ancients, Origen, Jerome, and Theodoret; among the Jews, the Rabbis D. Kimchi and Abarbanel; of the period of the Reformation, (Ecolampadius and Calvin, whose work was terminated by his illness and death at Ezekiel 21:0; and of the Romanists, Pradus and Villalpandus, a huge work in three volumes, fol. 1596-1604; more modern commentaries are those of Starck, 1731; Venema, 1790 (this does not include the last nine chapters); Newcome, 1788; W. Greenhill (London, 1645-62, five volumes, 4to reprinted), 1829; Rosenmüller, Scholia, second edition, 1826; Ewald, 1841; Umbreit, 1843; Hävernick, 1843; Hitzig, 1847; Henderson, 1855; Fairbairn, third edition, Edinburgh, 1863, a work of exceptional value,. from which considerable extracts are made in the translation of Ezekiel in Lange’s Bïbelwerk; Cowles, New York, 1867; G. R. Noyes, New Trans, of the Heb. Prophets, with notes, third edition, Boston, 1866, Vol. II; Hengstenberg, 1867-68, subsequently translated into English; Kleifoth, 1864-65; Dr. G. Currey, in the collection known as The Speaker’s Commentary, 1876; and the Commentary of Keil, translated and published in Clark’s Foreign Theolog. Library, 1876.

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