Dates of Ezekiel’s prophecy
As you read Ezekiel, note how he dates his prophecies to King Jehoiachin’s captivity, which began in 597 BC when Nebuchadnezzar carried Jehoiachin and other Judeans captive to Babylon. There are four of these date formulas in Ezekiel 1-24 (1:2; 8:1; 20:1; 24:1).
One of those captives was Ezekiel, who was evidently about 25 years of age at the time. As a younger contemporary of Jeremiah, Ezekiel is for the exiles in Babylon what Jeremiah was for those still in Judah. Both, in their respective places, foresaw and announced the fall of Jerusalem.
Sign acts picturing coming judgment
Ezekiel is also famous for his attention-grabbing sign acts by which he pictures coming judgment. All seven are found in Ezekiel 1-24 (4:1-3, 4-8, 9-17; 5:1-17; 12:1-16; 12:17-20; 21:18-23). His actions when his wife died also became a sign of judgment to Israel (24:15-27). In addition, Ezekiel was mute for much of the first seven years of his ministry and only able to speak when he had a direct word from the Lord to deliver (3:26). Once news reached him that Jerusalem had been destroyed, he was able to speak again (24:25-27; 33:21-23).
Key refrain in Ezekiel
The most frequent refrain in Ezekiel, recurring at least 77 times, is then they [or you] shall know that I am Yahweh. This formula cuts to the heart of God’s purposes in His judging and restoring. God is working in all life’s circumstances to bring people to see, confess, and appreciate who He is! This objective intersects with Ezekiel as the prophet of Yahweh’s glory. God does what He does for the glory of His name. There are things He does not do purely because of how it reflects on His great name (20:9, 14, 22, 44). One of the worst tragedies of sin is the way God’s name is profaned and His glory sullied. Judah’s desecration of God’s holiness has driven Him away from His sanctuary (8:6). Jerusalem’s destruction is imminent.
Ezekiel’s refrain then they shall know that I am Yahweh also reflects God’s heart for a relationship with His people. God is punishing His people not to destroy them but to bring them to the point where they will confess themselves His people and they will allow Him to be their God (11:20; 14:11), a covenant ideal as old as Abraham (Gen. 17:7). God’s desire for a relationship with His people is why idolatry provokes His jealousy so much. Idols capture the hearts of those who pursue them. God wants to take hold of Israel—and you and me--by our hearts (Ezek. 14:5).
God’s answer to Israel’s idolatry
God employs frank and rather graphic portrayals of Judah’s idolatry in an effort to shock them into the awareness of what they have done (see especially chapters 16 and 23). Jerusalem, in fact, has sinned worse than both Sodom and Samaria (16:48-52). One theme that Ezekiel reiterates is how Judah has used God’s good gifts to fund their idolatries (16:17-18; 23:41). How often we too use God’s blessings to pursue our idols!
God’s jealousy is such that He will not let His people continue in their idolatrous ways. Their unfaithfulness crushes God’s heart (6:9) but rather than walk away from them God will work on them until they acknowledge Him in all His glory. Let Judah be like all the nations and worship gods of wood and stone? Impossible! God will so work in them that the entire house of Israel—all of it—will serve Him in their land (20:40). His work of judgment will at first be painful. The sword will devour the nation. Their king will step down and rule no more. But that does not mean God’s covenant promises with David have ceased. In the midst of the ruins, the scepter is held in reserve until He comes to whom it belongs (an allusion to Genesis 49:10).
A watchman for the sake of God’s glory
But before this Messianic ruler comes, God's fury must fall (24:13). Ezekiel 18:4 states God's guiding principle clearly: the person who sins is the person who dies. Each will be judged according to his works and ways (18:30; 24:14). God, however, does not desire the death of anyone (18:32) and accepts the repentance of those who turn away from their sins.
Yet the Lord knows that Israel is hardheaded and hardhearted and that they will not listen (3:7). As for Ezekiel, his job remains the same whether Israel listens or not. He is a watchman for Israel. If he sounds the alarm he has done his duty, and their blood will fall on their own heads (3:16-21). We too are watchmen, in a way, sounding the alarm of coming judgment to those who have abandoned the God of glory in pursuit of their own idols. "Little children, guard yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).