Rejection and Restoration

The Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah Speak Out

In this installment on the Prophets, we look at the lives of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and at their respective messages to the nation of Judah.

As far as we know, the priest-prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel never met, yet their lives and messages intersected as the people of Judah fell further into idolatry and eventual captivity under the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. Jeremiah was already prophesying by 627, the 13th year of the reformer king Josiah (though according to another view he was born that year, about five years before Ezekiel). What Jeremiah had to tell his people was an extension of the earlier prophet Isaiah’s warning to Judah of impending attack and the fall of Jerusalem.

In Jeremiah’s youth, God told him that He had chosen him as a prophet (Jeremiah 1:4–7). He was descended from Eli, high priest in the days of Samuel when the tabernacle was at Shiloh, north of Jerusalem. This priestly line was replaced by Solomon, who chose David’s Zadokite priests and sent the Elide priests away from Jerusalem (see 1 Kings 1–2).

After initially resisting his calling, Jeremiah would minister for about 40 years to Judah and the surrounding nations. Like Ezekiel, whose work covered many of the same peoples and territories and spanned more than 20 years, he was to be implacable in the face of his hearers, speaking though the audience would not listen (compare Jeremiah 1:7, 17–19; Ezekiel 2:7–8 and 3:7–10).

The prophet is . . . a witness to the divine pathos, one who bears testimony to God’s concern for human beings.”

Susannah Heschel, Introduction to The Prophets by Abraham J. Heschel

Signs and Symbols

By performing symbolic scenes, each man delivered oracles, showing what would happen and why.

For example, under God’s instruction, Jeremiah bought a linen cloth and wore it next to him, signaling God’s closeness to His people. He then took it to the River Euphrates, hid it in the rocks and later recovered it, ruined and useless, signifying the Babylonian spoiling of good-for-nothing Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 13:1–11).

In another example, to help Judah understand God’s role as Israel’s creator, Jeremiah was required to visit a potter’s shop to see the craftsman at work (chapter 18); later he was to smash a clay pot, signifying that God, as their Creator, would break His people and the city of Jerusalem (chapter 19). When the prophet wore a yoke (chapters 27–28), it was to prefigure the coming domination of Nebuchadnezzar over the entire region and the need for all people to willingly submit. Commanded to buy a field during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and to keep the deeds, the prophet was to show that God would eventually allow His people to have their lands restored to them (chapter 32).

Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry likewise included many performances where he acted out what was to come. For example, he was instructed to make a model of the city of Jerusalem under siege and famine, and to lie on his side for many days to symbolize the punishment of Israel, Judah and the city for their years of sinful behavior (Ezekiel 4). Then he was to shave his head and beard and distribute the hair three ways to depict the city suffering epidemics and famine, its people under attack, and their scattering (chapter 5).

Comparing the Books

Though other books have more chapters, Jeremiah is the Bible’s lengthiest in word count—a collection of many messages compiled in part by his scribe Baruch (see Jeremiah 36:1–4, 32; 45:1).

His intersection with Ezekiel can be seen not only in the general content of their books, outlining both judgment and restoration, but also in more detailed aspects. These include the image of a boiling cauldron coming from the north representing the invading Babylonians, which Ezekiel expands to Jerusalem itself becoming a cauldron of punishment under their attack (Jeremiah 1:13–15; Ezekiel 11:1–12; 24:3–13). Similarly, the image of two sinning sisters symbolizing the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (Jeremiah 3:6–11) is extended in Ezekiel 23. Third, Jeremiah corrects a popular analogy about sour grapes to show that individuals will bear responsibility for their own sin, not another’s. This clarification is further developed by Ezekiel (Jeremiah 31:29–30; Ezekiel 18).

Not surprisingly, Ezekiel and Jeremiah share a view of false prophets who speak from their own minds, not from God’s inspiration. Reminiscent of God’s words through Jeremiah—“They speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord”—Ezekiel delivers this warning from God: “Woe to the foolish prophets, who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!” (Jeremiah 23:16; Ezekiel 13:3).

When it comes to the positive restorative aspects of his message, Jeremiah records God’s promise to His people: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39). In Ezekiel we read, “I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).

Jeremiah is known, too, for the promise of a new covenant. In chapter 31 he speaks of the return of the houses of Israel and Judah to their land and the giving of God’s Spirit to the rescued people under a new arrangement: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Ezekiel references the same event: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God” (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:27–28).

An event at the far end of the prophetic sequence of restoration concerns the peoples known in Ezekiel as “Gog, of the land of Magog” (chapters 38–39). Ezekiel appears to build on Jeremiah’s reference to God’s dealing with all nations in a final confrontation: “‘I will call for a sword on all the inhabitants of the earth,’ says the Lord of hosts. . . . ‘A noise will come to the ends of the earth—for the Lord has a controversy with the nations; He will plead His case with all flesh. He will give those who are wicked to the sword,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 25:29, 31). Ezekiel mentions that Gog leads a collection of people God has spoken of before through His prophets, perhaps indicating Jeremiah’s content above: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Are you he of whom I have spoken in former days by My servants the prophets of Israel, who prophesied for years in those days that I would bring you against them?’” (Ezekiel 38:17).

[Jeremiah] adhered to earlier traditions, especially Deuteronomy, which reflects a similar viewpoint concerning the necessity of observing torah and the consequences for failing to do so.”

Marvin A. Sweeney, “Jeremiah: Introduction,” The Jewish Study Bible

It’s sometimes noted that the downfall of ancient Israel has its prophetic origins in Leviticus 26, where specific blessings are promised for obedience and curses for disobedience. The chapter’s content is repeated in general in Deuteronomy 28, just before the children of Israel entered the Promised Land. The Leviticus passage outlines five levels of increasing punishment if disobedience continues. The final level is exile and captivity. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel make reference to these curses for disobedience as they describe what is to come in the wake of Babylonian attack.

The two prophets lived through events leading to the fall of Jerusalem as well as its aftermath, but in different locations and from different vantage points. Jeremiah’s work was principally in and around Jerusalem (and later Egypt) and was directed to kings, leaders and the people of Judah, whereas Ezekiel worked in Babylonia among fellow exiles from Judah.

Lead-up to the Downfall

Judah’s last righteous king, Josiah, instituted religious reforms following the discovery of the book of the law in the temple—perhaps the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 23). His life and reforms were cut short in 609 when he challenged Egyptian forces on their way to assist the Assyrians against the Babylonians at the Euphrates. Wounded in battle, he soon died in Jerusalem.

In Jeremiah 7 the prophet gives his first datable sermon in the temple. It was delivered in 609 at the beginning of Josiah’s son Jehoiakim’s reign (26:1) and detailed the nation’s sins and coming punishment. If they would not amend their ways, the temple would be destroyed and they would go the way of the northern kingdom of Israel. That territory had contained ancient Israel’s religious center, Shiloh, which had been demolished before the northern tribes went into captivity: “I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren—the whole posterity of Ephraim” (Jeremiah 7:14–15).

One of Judah’s sins singled out here was child sacrifice, for which God has no tolerance: “They have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart” (verse 31).

This sermon roused the listeners—“the priests and the prophets and all the people”—to such anger that they told Jeremiah he would die. But state officials heard of the uproar and came from the king’s house to investigate the matter. Recognizing that he was speaking God’s words, they defended Jeremiah (26:8, 10–11, 16, 24).

In 605 the Babylonians, under their crown prince Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish in northern Syria and a remnant of their army later that year in central Syria. This was the year that Jeremiah was inspired to give a specific message from God relating to the length of his ministry thus far and to the stubborn refusal of the people of Judah to change their ways. It was also the year that Nebuchadnezzar became king of Babylon. Now God declared a 70-year captivity for the unrepentant people and the destruction of their land: “This whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11).

That same year, Jeremiah delivered a prophecy against Egypt (46:2) and instructed his scribe, Baruch, to prepare a scroll of all of the prophecies to date (36:1–4; 45:1). As the Babylonians marched on, invading the Philistine plain and coming ever closer to Jerusalem, Jehoiakim shifted his allegiance from Egypt to Babylon (2 Kings 24:1a). Jeremiah had been barred from speaking in the temple area, so Baruch was sent to read the scroll’s contents the following year (Jeremiah 36:5–10). After a couple of readings the king himself heard about the contents, was angered, and cut and burned the scroll, ordering but failing to achieve the capture of Baruch and Jeremiah, who had already gone into hiding. At God’s command, Jeremiah and Baruch rewrote the scroll with additions (verses 20–32). But for the next several years, and again for a few years preceding the final siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is out of the picture.

Meanwhile, the Babylonians continued their incursion and came against Jerusalem for the first time in 605. They took Jewish exiles to Babylon, among them Daniel and others of royal descent and nobility (see Daniel 1:1–7). Jehoiakim remained on Judah’s throne as a vassal ruler until he rebelled in 598, causing the Babylonians to set out again for Jerusalem. Jehoiakim died before they arrived, leaving his son Jehoiachin to suffer the attack. But in 597 his unstable three-month rule also ended. He was replaced by his 21-year-old uncle, whose throne name was Zedekiah. Jehoiachin was taken to Babylon along with his family, more of the Judean nobility, warriors, craftsmen, and members of priestly families, including Ezekiel (see Jeremiah 13:15–27; 2 Kings 24:8–18).

Jeremiah now reappeared in Jerusalem to prophesy further. In a vision about baskets of good and bad figs, the prophet was given a message at the beginning of Zedekiah’s rule (Jeremiah 24:1–2). The good fruit represented the Jewish exiles in Babylonia, and the bad fruit were those who remained in the land of Israel and Jerusalem (including the king and his household) and Egypt (where some had fled for safety). The Babylonian exiles would eventually return to the land and to God, whereas the others would be rejected: “I will deliver them to trouble into all the kingdoms of the earth, for their harm, to be a reproach and a byword, a taunt and a curse, in all places where I shall drive them. And I will send the sword, the famine, and the pestilence among them, till they are consumed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers” (verses 9–10).

God specified that Jeremiah’s prophetic work would be about destruction and restoration: “See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). Similar terminology appears throughout Jeremiah’s writings and in several other places in the Old Testament, including the book of Ezekiel: “Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the Lord, have spoken it, and I will do it” (Ezekiel 36:36).

But some in Babylon promoted the notion that the exile would be short-lived. Accordingly, Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles by the hand of Zedekiah’s messenger: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you, nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed. . . . For thus says the Lord: after seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place” (Jeremiah 29:8, 10).

One prophet among the captivity, named Shemaiah, heard the letter and wrote back to Zephaniah the priest and other leaders in Jerusalem, insisting that Jeremiah was the false prophet and asking why Zephaniah hadn’t rebuked him. God had the final word, however, promising through Jeremiah that Shemaiah would be punished “because he has taught rebellion against the Lord” (verses 24–32). 

Gustave Doré engraving: "Ezekiel Prophesying"

Ezekiel Prophesying by Gustave Doré, engraving (ca. 1866)

Ezekiel’s Prophetic Ministry

When Jeremiah’s letter was read in Babylon, Ezekiel was among the exiles some miles away by a branch of the Euphrates. It’s possible that Daniel, at work in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, was instrumental in arranging for the new wave of captives’ resettlement there. We read the circumstances of Ezekiel’s calling as follows: “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, . . . the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). He was told that his work as a prophet would be to explain to his own exiled, rebellious people what would yet happen to Jerusalem and his native land in the near future.

This “30th year” is the subject of quite some scholarly discussion. Some believe it to be Ezekiel’s age, others that it is somehow related to the years of exile or to Josiah’s period of reform. What seems clear is that the 30th year and the date of Ezekiel’s first vision are one and the same.

Of the larger prophetic books, only Ezekiel is ordered chronologically.”

Marvin A. Sweeney, “Jeremiah: Introduction,” The Jewish Study Bible

The introduction continues: “On the fifth day of the month, which was in the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity, the word of the Lord came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was upon him there” (Ezekiel 1:2–3). Ezekiel is referred to as a priest in the fifth year of Jehoiachin’s captivity. That means he was at least 30 years old, the age of induction into the priesthood (see Numbers 4:3; 1 Chronicles 23:3). He would have grown up in a priestly home during Josiah’s reform period and likely lived in Jerusalem. The prophet’s first vision came in the fifth year of his captivity, 593.

The years of Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry can be understood in two parts: prior to and following Jerusalem’s fall (593–586 and 586–571). What the prophet said in these two periods differs in tone. Prior to 586, the messages centered on what was soon going to happen to Jerusalem. This included God’s departure from the temple and Jerusalem, and the destruction of both; the immediate end of the nation; and the exile of most of the remaining people. This part of the story is told in chapters 1–24, which are mostly about judgment. An interlude of prophecies about the surrounding nations follows (chapters 25–32). Once the city had fallen, Ezekiel’s messages were about ultimate hope and the restoration of the nation, the city and the temple (chapters 33–48).

In the first 24 chapters, then, Ezekiel receives visions and prophesies for a seven-year period through to the fall of Jerusalem: “And it came to pass in the sixth year [of his captivity, 592], in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house with the elders of Judah sitting before me, that the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there. . . . The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the north gate of the inner court” (Ezekiel 8:1, 3). What he then saw was a vision of what was happening at the temple in Jerusalem. There was idolatry of the worst kind.

What Ezekiel saw in vision forms part of the message that he went on to deliver to the elders sitting before him at the River Chebar near Babylon. He showed them what would happen to Jerusalem, and why: “Then the Spirit took me up and brought me in a vision by the Spirit of God into Chaldea, to those in captivity. And the vision that I had seen went up from me. So I spoke to those in captivity of all the things the Lord had shown me” (Ezekiel 11:24–25).

In Jerusalem, Jeremiah experienced much opposition and even imprisonment as he continued to declare that the city would fall to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 37–38). He advised cooperation with them, despite the king’s desire to seek help from Egypt and its allies (Jeremiah 27:4–11). Zedekiah could not contain his headstrong advisors and decided to renege on his agreement with Nebuchadnezzar, bringing on the Babylonians’ third attack in 588 (see 2 Kings 24:18–20). Jeremiah records: “In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army came against Jerusalem, and besieged it. In the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, on the ninth day of the month, the city was penetrated” (Jeremiah 39:1–2).

The eleven years (597–587 B.C.E.) of Zedekiah’s reign were notable for a steady decline in Judah’s power and for the desperate efforts of Jeremiah to avert the coming disaster.”

Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets

Zedekiah fled but was captured and brought before Nebuchadnezzar, who killed his sons before his eyes and all of the Jewish nobility with him, before blinding Zedekiah and taking him in chains to Babylon. The city and temple were destroyed by fire, the walls broken down, and most of the surviving people taken captive. Some few poor were left to work the fields and vineyards (verses 4–10).

We read of Ezekiel’s knowledge of these developments in two separate passages: “Again, in the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, write down the name of the day, this very day—the king of Babylon started his siege against Jerusalem this very day’” (Ezekiel 24:1–2). “And it came to pass in the twelfth year of our captivity, in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, that one who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has been captured!’” (Ezekiel 33:21).

The Major Prophets: Epilogue

Jeremiah would survive, held as he was in a guard’s prison, then freed by order of Nebuchadnezzar and allowed to decide whether to stay in the land or go to Babylon (Jeremiah 39:11; 40:1–5). For the time being, Jeremiah opted to stay in the land, now under the governorship of the Babylonian king’s Jewish appointee, Gedaliah (40:5–6). When the governor was murdered and the people wanted to escape to Egypt for fear of the Babylonian response, Jeremiah tried to dissuade them, prophesying their destruction if they persisted (chapters 41–42). Their insistence meant that Jeremiah, too, was taken to Egypt, where he continued to prophesy against their decision, saying that Nebuchadnezzar would come against the ruler of Egypt and against those of Judah who had fled there (43:10–11; chapter 44).

Nothing more is said of Jeremiah’s location after this point. His book concludes with a collection of oracles against the nations that surrounded Israel and with a prophecy about the downfall of Babylon itself (chapters 46–51). This is similar to the prophecies given by Ezekiel about many of the same nations (Ezekiel 25–32).

A postscript added to Jeremiah’s writings in about 560 recaps the fall of Jerusalem and explains Jehoiachin’s release from imprisonment in Babylon at Nebuchadnezzar’s death (chapter 52). As for Ezekiel, we know that he prophesied much about the coming restoration of both houses of Israel in the second half of his book and delivered a final prophecy about Egypt (Ezekiel 29:17–21) before the Babylonians invaded that nation.

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel played major roles in expressing God’s will for the kingdom of Judah in fulfillment of the prophecies of captivity set down long before in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They also foretold the restoration of both houses of Israel, north and south. To what degree that occurred at the return of their remnants after 70 years we’ll take up in a future installment in this series. Next time, we’ll complete our study of the second major division of the Hebrew Scriptures with a look at the Minor Prophets.