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Daniel I. Block on God’s Grace in Ezekiel

Although Ezekiel’s strange visions and often shocking images perplex readers, Old Testament scholar Daniel I. Block explains why the book of Ezekiel is worth reading. The judgment, grace, and love God spoke through Ezekiel to Israel also apply to the church today.

Daniel I. Block is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor emeritus of Old Testament in the Wheaton College Graduate School, where he helped develop the Old Testament segment of the doctoral program. A frequent international lecturer and a prolific author, he is known for his commentaries on Ezekiel, Judges/Ruth, and Deuteronomy, and for his book on covenant theology. In this edited conversation, Block explains why Ezekiel is relevant for developing pastoral theologies of ministry and preaching today.

What does the average Christian know about Ezekiel?

The average Christian’s interpretations or memories of Ezekiel relate to the African American spirituals “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel” and “Dem Bones.” Some are familiar with Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (NIV).

But people tend to homogenize or reduce the Holy Spirit’s work in the First Testament. Some theologians split the testaments by saying that the Holy Spirit came upon people in the First Testament but came inside people in the New Testament. I’ve spent my lifetime trying to fill that ditch—to show the big picture of God's covenants with humanity as they play out in both the First and the New Testaments. Ezekiel offers a full-orbed picture of the Spirit of Yahweh at work in many different contexts. 

What piqued your interest in Ezekiel?

I grew up the ninth of fifteen children in a Mennonite Brethren community in Saskatchewan, Canada. Dispensationalism was strong in our congregations. This theology sees God’s revelation as divided into seven administrations or dispensations. We only heard about Ezekiel in prophecy conferences, where we interpreted Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38:1 as Russia—probably because our people fled from persecution in what’s now the Netherlands and Germany to Russia, and then had to flee again to Canada.

I’m deeply indebted to the dispensationalist commitment to study Scripture, though not to all of its hermeneutic. I am still impressed with how Ezekiel pictures a real Israel exiled in a real land, Babylon. Yet this prophet in exile can’t abandon the hope that Yahweh’s people will repent of pride and idolatry, submit to God’s reign, and—as he restores them spiritually and as a community—accept the privilege of being agents of his glory.

Why is the prophet Ezekiel so often misunderstood?

Ezekiel strikes people as strange. In the first chapter, he struggles to find vocabulary to describe God, and his emotions color the text. Readers can’t get into Ezekiel’s head here at the outset, so they quit reading. Yet this agent of divine righteousness and grace (yes!) knew his audience. Judeans in exile had become so paganized that the Spirit drove Ezekiel to make many daring rhetorical moves. In this chapter he used pagan motifs, icons, and images of from Babylonian religious art to get their attention. 

Ezekiel revealed his visions from God not only in prophetic words, but also in sign-actions. He embodied God’s word by doing such things as lying on his left side for 390 days and then on his right side for forty days to act out Israel’s and Judah’s years of iniquity. To symbolize the effects of the siege that would befall Jerusalem unless the people repented, he subsisted for a time on rationed water and bread baked over dung. To symbolize the fate of the Judean king, he dug a hole in his house wall and crawled through with a knapsack prepared for exile.

What was his main message? 

Ezekiel showed through his words, actions, and life that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is still on the throne, and he wins. Israel hung on to God’s promises, but their lives showed a disconnect with their claims because they failed to respond to God’s graciousness to them with joyful obedience to him. Just as Jeremiah was doing in Jerusalem, Ezekiel kept warning Israel of God’s coming judgment on them for failing to live as agents of God’s grace and love as the descendants of Abraham were to live—as the microcosm through whom the macrocosm, all nations, would be blessed.

On the surface, Israel was theologically orthodox, but Ezekiel dismantled the pillars on which their spiritual pride rested. He insisted that Nebuchadnezzar had carried them off into captivity not by the power of Marduk, but as an agent of God. Ezekiel preached to hard-hearted people who arrogantly believed that the Lord’s unique covenant with them guaranteed that they would always have the promised land of Canaan, that Jerusalem would remain the Lord’s chosen place of his name eternally, and that David and his sons would rule on the throne of David forever. 

Where is the hope and grace in Ezekiel?

For people to hear that divine judgment is about to strike is grace. For unregenerate people to hear that they “are dead in trespasses and sins” is grace. And for people—whether referring to national Israel or the human race as a whole—to hear that judgment is not God’s last word to his creation is also grace.

Eventually, after word reached Ezekiel that Jerusalem had been destroyed, the prophet reminded the people how much God treasured a relationship with Israel. God had repeatedly warned what would happen if they turned away from him. But God wasn’t finished with Israel. The latter part of Ezekiel explains that God is not in the temple; he’s above the temple. God promises that as his radiance spreads, he’ll invite people from everywhere to enter his temple. The unspeakable glory and might of the Lord will radiate throughout the land.

How is Ezekiel’s message relevant to the church today?

With his radically theocentric perspective of reality on the ground, Ezekiel represents a paradigm for ministry in a hostile and post-Christian world. We need to hear Ezekiel as written not only to Israel, but also to the church. When we, as the Western church, look in the mirror, it’s a sorry sight. Ezekiel’s in-your-face oracles against individual nations remind me of the total hubris we see in our political parties. The only solution is to recognize and submit to the mighty Holy Spirit blowing through the world.

What can preachers today learn from Ezekiel?

Sometimes we preachers think our congregations come to hear us, not the voice and word of God. True worship involves a corporate audience with God, which means that people need to come with ears open to hear God’s voice. But how can they hear God’s voice if we camouflage and muffle it with pathetic Scripture reading? The Scriptures were not written primarily to be preached, but to be heard. People need to hear God’s voice, not ours.

Ezekiel provides us with a model for embodying the message that God calls us to proclaim. A few years ago, I preached seventy-one sermons on Ezekiel for an evening series at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. These sermons are being edited for a forthcoming book to be published by Crossway. When I preached Ezekiel 23, a text that borders on the pornographic, I positioned myself behind a black curtain and read from there. I did not want people to see my face—they needed to hear the text and let the biblical images carry the message.

Some parts of Scripture do seem indecent. 

It’s true that the abhorrence with which Ezekiel viewed the syncretistic ways of his countryfolk is reflected in strong sexual and fecal language (e.g., chs. 6, 16, 23). Translators tend to soften biblical language to accommodate the sensitivities of modern hearers. In fact, no other prophet presses the margins of literary propriety as severely as Ezekiel. Like him, sometimes preachers need to arrest the congregation’s attention. I have been known to break into a song or to shock people by donning a Minnesota Twins baseball cap for a few moments when I preach, even in the Chicago area.

How might church leaders use Ezekiel in pastoral ways? 

For people who are living in sin but claiming eternal security, Ezekiel is scary. For people who are not believers but realize they are saddled with sin, Ezekiel says, “You can’t fix yourself, but in his mercy, God can.” We must preach hope for the world. That hope doesn’t come from worldly answers, because our political, educational, and social systems are bankrupt. Blow across this land, Lord, with your Holy Spirit. Bring the world, the church, and our own bodies to life. Help us let go and let God.

Ezekiel also offers many pastoral lessons to preachers. Here are two: God often calls into ministry people who are neither spiritually fit nor disposed to serving him on his terms. Ezekiel is an example of a priest who resisted the Lord’s call to be a prophet, but he submitted to God’s instruction and depended on the Holy Spirit. But perhaps the most important lesson is that the Lord does not call his agents to success, but to faithfulness to himself and to his commission for them. God told Ezekiel that he’d be preaching to hardened people with obstinate hearts. But God promised that he would protect Ezekiel and reminded him that Ezekiel’s authority came from preaching God’s word—not from measuring how many people came to be entertained by him yet resisted the message he proclaimed.


Study Daniel I. Block’s commentaries on Ezekiel, volumes 1 and 2. Enjoy an interview and podcast with Block about the gospel in Deuteronomy. Listen to his ten-minute video introduction to Ezekiel and his  seventy-one-sermon series on Ezekiel.