« Prev Chapter I. Decline and Fall of the Jewish State. Next »

Chapter I. Decline And Fall Of The Jewish State.

Ezekiel is a prophet of the Exile. He was one of the priests who went into captivity with King Jehoiachin in the year 597, and the whole of his prophetic career falls after that event. Of his previous life and circumstances we have no direct information, beyond the facts that he was a priest and that his father's name was Buzi. One or two inferences, however, may be regarded as reasonably certain. We know that that first deportation of Judæans to Babylon was confined to the nobility, the men of war, and the craftsmen (2 Kings xxiv. 14-16); and since Ezekiel was neither a soldier nor an artisan, his place in the train of captives must have been due to his social position. He must have belonged to the upper ranks of the priesthood, who formed part of the aristocracy of Jerusalem. He was thus a member of the house of Zadok; and his familiarity with the details of the Temple ritual makes it probable that he had actually officiated as a priest in the national sanctuary. Moreover, a careful study of the book gives the impression that he was no longer a young man at the time when he received his call to the prophetic office. He appears as one whose views of life are already matured, who has outlived the buoyancy and enthusiasm of youth, and learned to estimate the moral possibilities of life with the sobriety that comes through experience. This impression is confirmed by the fact that he was married and had a 004 house of his own from the commencement of his work, and probably at the time of his captivity. But the most important fact of all is that Ezekiel had lived through a period of unprecedented public calamity, and one fraught with the most momentous consequences for the future of religion. Moving in the highest circles of society, in the centre of the national life, he must have been fully cognisant of the grave events in which no thoughtful observer could fail to recognise the tokens of the approaching dissolution of the Hebrew state. Amongst the influences that prepared him for his prophetic mission, a leading place must therefore be assigned to the teaching of history; and we cannot commence our study of his prophecies better than by a brief survey of the course of events that led up to the turning-point of his own career, and at the same time helped to form his conception of God's providential dealings with His people Israel.

At the time of the prophet's birth the kingdom of Judah was still a nominal dependency of the great Assyrian empire. From about the middle of the seventh century, however, the power of Nineveh had been on the wane. Her energies had been exhausted in the suppression of a determined revolt in Babylonia. Media and Egypt had recovered their independence, and there were many signs that a new crisis in the affairs of nations was at hand.

The first historic event which has left discernible traces in the writings of Ezekiel is an irruption of Scythian barbarians, which took place in the reign of Josiah (c. 626). Strangely enough, the historical books of the Old Testament contain no record of this remarkable invasion, although its effects on the political situation of Judah were important and far-reaching. According to Herodotus, Assyria was already hard pressed by the Medes, when suddenly the Scythians burst through the passes of the 005 Caucasus, defeated the Medes, and committed extensive ravages throughout Western Asia for a period of twenty-eight years. They are said to have contemplated the invasion of Egypt, and to have actually reached the Philistine territory, when by some means they were induced to withdraw.11   Herodotus, i. 103-106. Judah therefore was in imminent danger, and the terror inspired by these destructive hordes is reflected in the prophecies of Zephaniah and Jeremiah, who saw in the northern invaders the heralds of the great day of Jehovah. The force of the storm, however, was probably spent before it reached Palestine, and it seems to have swept past along the coast, leaving the mountain land of Israel untouched. Although Ezekiel was not old enough to have remembered the panic caused by these movements, the report of them would be one of the earliest memories of his childhood, and it made a lasting impression on his mind. One of his later prophecies, that against Gog, is coloured by such reminiscences, the last judgment on the heathen being represented under forms suggested by a Scythian invasion (chs. xxxviii., xxxix.). We may note also that in ch. xxxii. the names of Meshech and Tubal occur in the list of conquering nations who have already gone down to the under-world. These northern peoples formed the kernel of the army of Gog, and the only occasion on which they can be supposed to have played the part of great conquerors in the past is in connection with the Scythian devastations, in which they probably had a share.

The withdrawal of the Scythians from the neighbourhood of Palestine was followed by the great reformation which made the eighteenth year of Josiah an epoch in the history of Israel. The conscience of the nation had been quickened by its escape from so great a peril, and the time was favourable 006 for carrying out the changes which were necessary in order to bring the religious practice of the country into conformity with the requirements of the Law. The outstanding feature of the movement was the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in the Temple, and the ratification of a solemn league and covenant, by which the king, princes, and people pledged themselves to carry out its demands. This took place in the year 621, somewhere near the time of Ezekiel's birth.22   If the “thirtieth year” of ch. i. 1 could refer to the prophet's age at the time of his call, his birth would fall in the very year in which the Law Book was found. Although that interpretation is extremely improbable, he can hardly have been much more, or less, than thirty years old at the time. The prophet's youth was therefore spent in the wake of the reformation; and although the first hopes cherished by its promoters may have died away before he was able to appreciate its tendencies, we may be sure that he received from it impulses which continued with him to the end of his life. We may perhaps allow ourselves to conjecture that his father belonged to that section of the priesthood which, under Hilkiah its head, co-operated with the king in the task of reform, and desired to see a pure worship established in the Temple. If so, we can readily understand how the reforming spirit passed into the very fibre of Ezekiel's mind. To how great an extent his thinking was influenced by the ideas of Deuteronomy appears from almost every page of his prophecies.

There was yet another way in which the Scythian invasion influenced the prospects of the Hebrew kingdom. Although the Scythians appear to have rendered an immediate service to Assyria by saving Nineveh from the first attack of the Medes, there is little doubt that their ravages throughout the northern and western parts of the empire prepared the way for its ultimate collapse, and weakened its hold on the outlying provinces. Accordingly we find 007 that Josiah, in pursuance of his scheme of reformation, exercised a freedom of action beyond the boundaries of his own land which would not have been tolerated if Assyria had retained her old vigour. Patriotic visions of an independent Hebrew monarchy seem to have combined with new-born zeal for a pure national religion to make the latter part of Josiah's reign the short “Indian summer” of Israel's national existence.

The period of partial independence was brought to an end about 607 by the fall of Nineveh before the united forces of the Medes and the Babylonians. In itself this event was of less consequence to the history of Judah than might be supposed. The Assyrian empire vanished from the earth with a completeness which is one of the surprises of history; but its place was taken by the new Babylonian empire, which inherited its policy, its administration, and the best part of its provinces. The seat of empire was transferred from Nineveh to Babylon; but any other change which was felt at Jerusalem was due solely to the exceptional vigour and ability of its first monarch, Nebuchadnezzar.

The real turning-point in the destinies of Israel came a year or two earlier with the defeat and death of Josiah at Megiddo. About the year 608, while the fate of Nineveh still hung in the balance, Pharaoh Necho prepared an expedition to the Euphrates, with the object of securing himself in the possession of Syria. It was assuredly no feeling of loyalty to his Assyrian suzerain which prompted Josiah to throw himself across Necho's path. He acted as an independent monarch, and his motives were no doubt the loftiest that ever urged a king to a dangerous, not to say foolhardy, enterprise. The zeal with which the crusade against idolatry and false worship had been prosecuted seems to have begotten a confidence on the part of the king's advisers that the hand of Jehovah was 008 with them, and that His help might be reckoned on in any undertaking entered upon in His name. One would like to know what the prophet Jeremiah said about the venture; but probably the defence of Jehovah's land seemed so obvious a duty of the Davidic king that he was not even consulted. It was the determination to maintain the inviolability of the land which was Jehovah's sanctuary that encouraged Josiah in defiance of every prudential consideration to endeavour by force to intercept the passage of the Egyptian army. The disaster that followed gave the death-blow to this illusion and the shallow optimism which sprang from it. There was an end of idealism in politics; and the ruling class in Jerusalem fell back on the old policy of vacillation between Egypt and her eastern rival which had always been the snare of Jewish statesmanship. And with Josiah's political ideal the faith on which it was based also gave way. It seemed that the experiment of exclusive reliance on Jehovah as the guardian of the nation's interests had been tried and had failed, and so the death of the last good king of Judah was a signal for a great outburst of idolatry, in which every divine power was invoked and every form of worship sedulously practised in order to sustain the courage of men who were resolved to fight to the death for their national existence.

By the time of Josiah's death Ezekiel was able to take an intelligent interest in public affairs. He lived through the troubled period that ensued in the full consciousness of its disastrous import for the fortunes of his people, and occasional references to it are to be found in his writings. He remembers and commiserates the sad fate of Jehoahaz, the king of the people's choice, who was dethroned and imprisoned by Pharaoh Necho during the short interval of Egyptian supremacy. The next king, Jehoiakim, received the throne as a vassal of Egypt, on the condition of paying 009 a heavy annual tribute. After the battle of Carchemish, in which Necho was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and driven out of Syria, Jehoiakim transferred his allegiance to the Babylonian monarch; but after three years' service he revolted, encouraged no doubt by the usual promises of support from Egypt. The incursions of marauding bands of Chaldæans, Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites, instigated doubtless from Babylon, kept him in play until Nebuchadnezzar was free to devote his attention to the western part of his empire. Before that time arrived, however, Jehoiakim had died, and was followed by his son Jehoiachin. This prince was hardly seated on the throne, when a Babylonian army, with Nebuchadnezzar at its head, appeared before the gates of Jerusalem. The siege ended in a capitulation, and the king, the queen-mother, the army and nobility, a section of the priests and the prophets, and all the skilled artisans were transported to Babylonia (597).

With this event the history of Ezekiel may be said to begin. But in order to understand the conditions under which his ministry was exercised, we must try to realise the situation created by this first removal of Judæan captives. From this time to the final capture of Jerusalem, a period of eleven years, the national life was broken into two streams, which ran in parallel channels, one in Judah and the other in Babylon. The object of the captivity was of course to deprive the nation of its natural leaders, its head and its hands, and leave it incapable of organised resistance to the Chaldæans. In this respect Nebuchadnezzar simply adopted the traditional policy of the later Assyrian kings, only he applied it with much less rigour than they were accustomed to display. Instead of making nearly a clean sweep of the conquered population, and filling the gap by colonists from a distant part of his empire, as had been done in the case of Samaria, he 010 contented himself with removing the more dangerous elements of the state, and making a native prince responsible for the government of the country. The result showed how greatly he had underrated the fierce and fanatical determination which was already a part of the Jewish character. Nothing in the whole story is more wonderful than the rapidity with which the enfeebled remnant in Jerusalem recovered their military efficiency, and prepared a more resolute defence than the unbroken nation had been able to offer.

The exiles, on the other hand, succeeded in preserving most of their national peculiarities under the very eyes of their conquerors. Of their temporal condition very little is known beyond the fact that they found themselves in tolerably easy circumstances, with the opportunity to acquire property and amass wealth. The advice which Jeremiah sent them from Jerusalem, that they should identify themselves with the interests of Babylon, and live settled and orderly lives in peaceful industry and domestic happiness (Jer. xxix. 5-7), shows that they were not treated as prisoners or as slaves. They appear to have been distributed in villages in the fertile territory of Babylon, and to have formed themselves into separate communities under the elders, who were the natural authorities in a simple Semitic society. The colony in which Ezekiel lived was located in Tel Abib, near the Nahr (river or canal) Kebar, but neither the river nor the settlement can now be identified. The Kebar, if not the name of an arm of the Euphrates itself, was probably one of the numerous irrigating canals which intersected in all parts the great alluvial plain of the Euphrates and Tigris.33   The opinion, once prevalent, that it was the Chaboras in Northern Mesopotamia, where colonies of Northern Israelites had been settled a century and a half before, has nothing to justify it, and is now universally abandoned. 011 In this settlement the prophet had his own house, where the people were free to visit him, and social life in all probability differed little from that in a small provincial town in Palestine. That, to be sure, was a great change for the quondam aristocrats of Jerusalem, but it was not a change to which they could not readily adapt themselves.

Of much greater importance, however, is the state of mind which prevailed amongst these exiles. And here again the remarkable thing is their intense preoccupation with matters national and Israelitic. A lively intercourse with the mother country was kept up, and the exiles were perfectly informed of all that was going on in Jerusalem. There were, no doubt, personal and selfish reasons for their keen interest in the doings of their countrymen at home. The antipathy which existed between the two branches of the Jewish people was extreme. The exiles had left their children behind them (Ezek. xxiv. 21, 25) to suffer under the reproach of their fathers' misfortunes. They appear also to have been compelled to sell their estates hurriedly on the eve of their departure, and such transactions, necessarily turning to the advantage of the purchasers, left a deep grudge in the breasts of the sellers. Those who remained in the land exulted in the calamity which had brought so much profit to themselves, and thought themselves perfectly secure in so doing because they regarded their brethren as men driven out for their sins from Jehovah's heritage. The exiles on their part affected the utmost contempt for the pretensions of the upstart plebeians who were carrying things with a high hand in Jerusalem. Like the French Émigrés in the time of the Revolution, they no doubt felt that their country was being ruined for want of proper guidance and experienced statesmanship. Nor was it altogether patrician prejudice that gave them this feeling of their own superiority. 012 Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel regard the exiles as the better part of the nation, and the nucleus of the Messianic community of the future. For the present, indeed, there does not seem to have been much to choose, in point of religious belief and practice, between the two sections of the people. In both places the majority were steeped in idolatrous and superstitious notions; some appear even to have entertained the purpose of assimilating themselves to the heathen around, and only a small minority were steadfast in their allegiance to the national religion. Yet the exiles could not, any more than the remnant in Judah, abandon the hope that Jehovah would save His sanctuary from desecration. The Temple was “the excellency of their strength, the desire of their eyes, and that which their soul pitied” (Ezek. xxiv. 21). False prophets appeared in Babylon to prophesy smooth things, and assure the exiles of a speedy restoration to their place in the people of God. It was not till Jerusalem was laid in ruins, and the Jewish state had disappeared from the earth, that the Israelites were in a mood to understand the meaning of God's judgment, or to learn the lessons which the prophecy of nearly two centuries had vainly striven to inculcate.

We have now reached the point at which the Book of Ezekiel opens, and what remains to be told of the history of the time will be given in connection with the prophecies on which it is fitted to throw light. But before proceeding to consider his entrance on the prophetic office, it will be useful to dwell for a little on what was probably the most fruitful influence of Ezekiel's youth, the personal influence of his contemporary and predecessor Jeremiah. This will form the subject of the next chapter.


« Prev Chapter I. Decline and Fall of the Jewish State. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection