"That you may know that I am the LORD" is a phrase that occurs sixty-six times in the book of Ezekiel. It captures the essence of the visions, parables and allegories that comprise this remarkable Old Testament book. It also locates our deepest need: to become increasingly aware of the glory of God as the ultimate reality.
Like Ezekiel, who wrote and ministered in exile in faraway Babylon after 597 B.C., we live an exilic existence in this world longing for our ultimate homeland—heaven. Ezekiel and his compatriots were surrounded by the seductions of a sophisticated but pagan foreign culture. What they needed was not mere words about God but an empowering vision that would fortify their imagination and evoke their faith. This book is a revelation of God through images, signs and metaphors of God's glory, appealing to faith through the imagination. Ezekiel is hard for us to understand precisely because we are so alienated from a full biblical spirituality that includes a redeemed imagination.
But Ezekiel has another important reason for framing his message in allegories, metaphors and parables. His message is one of judgment and hope for Jerusalem—the church of his day. He prophesied not to Jerusalem but of Jerusalem to his fellow exiles who still lived for Jerusalem and home. News of Jerusalem was the supreme factor in the life of the exiles. Indeed, the book easily is divided between prophecies given before the final collapse of Jerusalem (chapters 1—24) and those given after (25—48).
But Ezekiel's message about Jerusalem would be hard to speak and harder still to hear. The people who remained in Jerusalem after the first deportation that took Ezekiel and his wife to Babylon in 597 B.C., were given to idolatrous and perverted imaginations. The people were like an unfaithful spouse. The leaders no longer led. The nation was like a valley of dry bones. To communicate the tragedy, as well as the hope of God's covenanted people, Ezekiel needed art to catch the people's attention and draw them into a divine perspective on the matter.
At times Ezekiel becomes an incarnated audio-visual aid when he lies on his side outside his house for part of each day for a year, makes models of Jerusalem with siege works and even forgoes mourning the death of his wife. In these things, too, Ezekiel's passion was that the people should "know that I am the LORD." For even in judging the church of that day, God will reveal himself as a faithful covenant partner. He will lead his own people when the leaders fail to shepherd the sheep. He will resurrect the dead bones of his own house. He will empower his people in exile to live godly lives by showing them the glory of his heavenly temple and his determination to renew the land and bring his whole creation to a worthy end.
Ezekiel is full of apocalyptic end-times visions and prophecies and therefore offers us an important perspective: a short-range pessimism and a long-range optimism. It is not surprising therefore that Ezekiel is a major source of images and metaphors for the "revelation of Jesus Christ" in the last book of the Bible (Rev 1:1). Besides this Ezekiel contains themes that are crucial to our ministry in the modern world: the desperate need for purification in both the outward ethical life and the inner imagination, the recovery of covenantal relationship with God, the restoration of pastoral leadership, the fundamental role of hope in the spiritual life, the wonderful destiny of the created order, and the primacy of the glory of God as the central motive for mission.
It is this passion for the glory of God and this appeal to our redeemed imagination that gives this book its universal and timeless quality. Like Ezekiel we are away from home, longing for our true homeland, distressed that the community that bears God's glory on earth does so in such a tawdry way, and wondering what will come of it all. The word we need, as it turns out, is not so much a word as a vision of the magnificence of God who is absolutely determined to glorify himself and to be known. So these visions, allegories and parables are, as Calvin Seerveld once said, like the sign given to Noah long before: rainbows for the fallen world.