June 4, 2022 - Latter-day Prophecy in Ezekiel

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Today we’re going to take a look at Latter-day Prophecy in Ezekiel. Ezekiel is an R-rated prophet. St. Jerome writes to Bishop Paulinus in Epistle 53:8 that Jews in 400 AD would not let men read parts of Ezekiel until they were 30 years old, particularly the opening vision of the chariots. The Mishnah (200 AD) states that Ezekiel 1 is restricted to be read privately, and can only be discussed one-on-one by experts (Hagigah 2:1). The Mishnah also states that both chapters 1 and 16 of Ezekiel must not be read out loud to an audience (Megillah 4:10).


Why the restrictions, you ask? The chapters about the chariot visions were kept quiet simply because they sounded bizarre even to ancient ears; to us, they sound like UFO’s. The vision of the new Temple (Ezekiel 40-48) contains details that were hard to reconcile with the Law of Moses. But the most obvious reason to restrict the reading of Ezekiel is the very “adult” sexual rhetoric he uses. Although I will try my best to handle the subject with care, ultimately the uncensored Ezekiel is not for the squeamish. As Professor Stuart told us at seminary, some of Ezekiel is not the kind of stuff you’d use in a children’s sermon.


Ezekiel's sexually explicit material is concentrated in chapters 16 and 23, where Judah is portrayed as a nymphomaniac who is insatiable in her desire for lovers outside of her commitment to the one true God. Ezekiel 16:26 uses the Hebrew expression “great of flesh” as a euphemism for a man’s “package” (to use an English language euphemism). Ezekiel 23:20 is about as R-rated a verse as you can get. To spare you the graphic details on the air, I refer you to my online post called “R-Rated Prophets.” By the way, here in 23:20 is the only place in the Hebrew Bible (or anywhere?) where the Hebrew word for “concubine” is used for males instead of women. Here the word appears to mean “paramours” or “boy toys.”


You might ask: Why does God speak with such strong language in Ezekiel? Doesn’t Paul write in Ephesians 5:12, “It is shameful even to speak of the things they do in secret”? Indeed he does. Paul’s audience needed no details on the depravity around them; they needed to flush it out of their lips, ears, and minds. By contrast, the audience of the Hebrew prophets could not see their own depravity, until it was portrayed for them in shockingly graphic form.


Ezekiel writes in Babylon, while both the Temple and Jerusalem are still standing. Ezekiel was taken away in the first wave of exiles in 598 BC, but he predicts that Jerusalem will be destroyed for their unrepentant idolatry and other sins. Before Ezekiel finishes his book, his prophecy comes true. But Ezekiel also gives us predictions of the distant future that we want to look at today, particularly about a nation from the far north that invades Israel in the latter days, triggering a global war where the players look too modern for our comfort.


Ezekiel 36 speaks of a great future restoration of Israel, one that appears to be a prerequisite for the final attack on Israel in the following chapters. Has this happened yet? For years, until the reestablishment of Israel in 1948, there was the open question as to whether any of the Bible’s end-times prophecies could begin to happen until Israel came into existence again as a nation. Now that Israel has been reborn, it becomes an arguable trigger that starts the countdown toward the end. Those who argue this way then put this together with what Jesus says: “This generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place.”


Which then raises the questions as to exactly what year begins the countdown, and how long is “this generation”, and what happens then? Hal Lindsey and many others seized upon 1948 as being the year that started the countdown clock, and they theorized 40 years as the length of “this generation.” It was then believed that in the last 7 years of this period, the Great Tribulation would kick in. The theory depends on how long a “generation” could be, and how long the Tribulation must be. Let’s keep in mind that in one book at Qumran, the “last generation” meant several lifetimes.


Chapters 38–39 are where we find what appears to be the final world war, led by a nation from the far north. Who is this nation from the “uttermost parts of the north” that Ezekiel speaks of in 38:6, 38:15, and 39:2? Is this an invasion led by Russia? Keep in mind that Ezekiel is prophesying around 570 BC, so the nations he speaks of must be compared to the map of the world in which he preaches, before we seek to pinpoint them on a modern map.


Who is Gog? Gog is the name of a powerful Lydian king 100 years before Ezekiel, but here Gog appears as the quintessential opponent of God, possibly the Antichrist. Please note, however, that Gog and Magog appear in Revelation at the end of the Millennium, which may put a totally different perspective on whether we may be living in the Millennium right now (unless we are to believe that Gog and Magog come twice, both before and after the Millennium).


The name Magog is only found in Genesis 10, 1 Chronicles 1, and Revelation 20. Some would argue that the country’s name is based on the person, but it is not uncommon for a person whom we’ve never heard of before to have been famous enough to give his name to his territory.  In 1400 BC, the Amarna Tablets mention a place called mat-Gagayya, which may be the same as the Magog of Genesis. Josephus says Magog is another name for the Scythians of ancient Russia. the 200’s AD, Ambrose identifies Gog and Magog as the Goths. All the evidence points to a land north of all the other lands we know north of Israel.


In addition, Ashkenaz almost certainly refers to the Scythians from the area we know today as Russia (the Assyrians called them Iškuza), although Judaism uses the term Ashkenazi to mean Jews from Germany and eastern Europe. This belief is first reported by Josephus, who says the sons of Ashkenaz occupied Europe from the Danube eastward. Ashkenaz would be a part of what Ezekiel refers to as “Gomer and all of his hordes,” who have been identified as the Cimmerians, another name for the Scythians (called Gimirayya by the Assyrians). Homer describes them as living near the entrance to Hades, “enshrouded in mist and darkness which the rays of the sun never pierce…but the poor wretches live in one long melancholy night”.  Sounds like the far north to me!


What about the name “Rosh”? In Ezekiel 38:2, should we read “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal,” or “prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal”? The classic technical piece arguing that “Rosh” is the name of a people and not the Hebrew word “head/chief” is the article by James Price, “Rosh: An Ancient Land Known to Ezekiel.” Price argues that an adjective (“head/chief”) cannot interrupt a possessive phrase (“prince of Meshech and Tubal”). Those who believe that Rosh is not a place name would argue that there is no “and” in front of Meshech. They say that if Rosh was a place name, then the Hebrew text should read “Rosh and Meshech and Tubal.” But Ezekiel ignores this Hebrew grammatical rule twice in this section, so there’s a good chance he’s ignoring that rule here also. If James Price is correct, that would strengthen the case that Rosh is the first of a list of 3 nations ruled by Gog. The Septuagint reads Rosh as the name of a country, Rōs, in the 3rd century BC.


Does “Rosh” mean the place we know as Russia? The most scholarly work in defense of this possibility is Jon Ruthven’s book on the subject called The Prophecy That Is Shaping History. While Yamauchi and many other scholars claim that the name Rus or Rhos first appears in writing in 839 AD and that the lands around Kiev are first called Rus in 852 AD, Ruthven finds evidence of rivers and lands with this name north of the Black Sea for several centuries before Russia is believed to have existed. It even seems that the place names may have eventually given their name to the nation we know as Russia.


How do we know that the northern land that Ezekiel is talking about is Russia and not Ukraine? We don’t, but Ezekiel is talking about a land to the north of the Black Sea, regardless of exactly which modern nation he’s talking about. We also can’t pinpoint the time. The Soviet Union looked like a very real possibility as an invade, but then the Soviet Union fell. Now, today’s Russia looks like an aggressive possibility, but all this could happen centuries from now, and who knows what the political map will look like by then?


Hal Lindsey has claimed that Meshech and Tubal can be identified as modern Moscow and Tobolsk. Not even Ruthven gives this proposal serious consideration. Meshech and Tubal appear on the theoretical Assyrian map of the Middle East as states in eastern Turkey. Indeed, Mushki is the kingdom ruled by the famous King Midas (Mita) in the 700’s BC during the reign of the Assyrian king Sargon II (we have actually found a text written by Mita). Muski first appears after the collapse of the Hittite Empire in the texts of Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1077 BC). (Were the Mushki native to eastern Turkey, or did they come from the north?) Meanwhile, Shalmaneser III and Tiglath-Pileser III both attack Tabal in the mid-700’s BC. What I get from this is that Ezekiel is predicting an invasion of Israel that hasn’t happened yet, an invasion that involves Turkey, using names from the 6th century BC to identify the future invaders.


What about Persia, Cush, Put, and Togarmah? Cush is in modern Sudan, Put is in modern Libya, and Togarmah is in Turkey. (Togarma was a name given by the Hittites to a place in eastern Turkey in the mid-2nd millennium.) Russia, Persia, Sudan, Libya, Turkey – is this a picture of a future World War III? In this scenario, Sheba and Dedan seem to represent Arabia, and Tarshish refers to one or more places in the western Mediterranean, including Spain and Tunisia. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, these parties appear to be opposed to the Gog coalition, but do not seem to take military action against it. In Ezekiel 39:6, God says, “I will send fire on Magog and on all who dwell securely in the coastlands (iyyim).” The coastlands appear to be a reference to the Greek islands, western Europe, and possibly even the Americas.


What happens to Gog? God says in Ezekiel 38:22, “With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him, and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur, upon him and his troops and the many nations that are with him.” Then God says that Israel will burn all of Gog’s weapons (it will take 7 years to burn them), and God will set aside a valley east of the Dead Sea to bury Gog’s army (it will take 7 months to bury them).


In chapters 40–48, what are we to make of Ezekiel’s vision of a new Temple that we find here? Ezekiel appears to be describing a heavenly Temple in the New Jerusalem, since no Temple has been built that fits this description. It appears that maybe this will be a 4th Temple, since a third Temple must still remain to be built on earth if it is to be defiled in the last days. Or perhaps this temple is only intended by God to be an instructive vision, and not an actual temple that God is promising or ordering to be built. Let’s take a closer look at what Ezekiel says in these chapters.


Ezekiel's guided Temple tour in his vision begins with massive outer gates into the Temple complex, the kind we would expect in a fortress. Nobody just wanders into this place! The Temple walls are more than 9 feet thick. The Temple itself is more than 50% larger than Solomon’s Temple, and is comparable in size to Herod’s Temple. There is no Ark of the Covenant, there is no bronze sea, there are no washstands, and there are no carved cherubim in the Most Holy Place (although there are pictures of cherubim and palm trees carved on the walls). But Ezekiel sees plenty of kitchens and butcher stations (they must have existed in Solomon’s Temple, but we never hear about them).


Ezekiel says the law of the Temple is: absolute holiness! Nobody gets in who is not holy, completely pure from evil, particularly not idol worshippers. And God commands Israel through Ezekiel: no more burying your kings next to the Temple with only a wall between them and the holy place! The whole point of God’s vision of this temple is for Ezekiel’s audience to see the holy place and be moved to “be ashamed of their iniquities.” When they hear the details about this heavenly temple, the people will be ashamed of how badly they’ve been playing the game of worship they’ve been playing, which is a major reason why they’re in exile.


Ezekiel mentions no kings in this vision of the future, only a Prince (the Lord alone is King – Israel’s kings flunked the faithfulness test). Some of the Mosaic laws are given here again where reminders are needed, including honest measures, instructions on who the priests can marry, along with sacrificial and holiday requirements. The Prince cannot do land grabs to benefit himself, and no longer will he need to tax the people or draft them for labor projects.


One interesting detail we find in chapter 44 is the outer gate of the sanctuary that faces east. The gate is shut. God says, “This gate shall remain shut. It shall not be opened, because the Lord, the God of Israel has entered by it.” We are told that only the Prince can sit in this gate and eat. Jesus enters Jerusalem through the east gate on Palm Sunday. For ages, pilgrims would enter Jerusalem here, until rulers who were opposed to Judaism and Christianity walled the gate up with brick to close it, and put a cemetery there to defile anyone who took this route. It was not a Temple gate, but yes, the Lord God in the flesh entered Jerusalem this way.


In his final chapter, Ezekiel completely reengineers the geography of the Holy Land. Every tribe gets an equal east-west strip of land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Ezekiel lists the tribes, tribe by tribe, from north to south, with a large section in the center for the Holy City. The map is definitely different from the map of tribal lands we find in Joshua.


In chapter 47, Ezekiel’s picture of the river of life flowing from the foundation of the Temple down to the Dead Sea and bringing the Dead Sea to life is a vision of God’s future Paradise. We see a similar picture in Revelation 22, where we find the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city’s main street, with the Tree of Life on both sides of the river, which bears fruit every month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. In Ezekiel, the water flows from under the temple foundation. At first, it’s just a trickle. After 1/3 of a mile, the water is only ankle deep. After another 1/3 of a mile, the water is knee deep. After another 1/3 of a mile, the water is waist deep. And after another 1/3 of a mile, the water was deep enough to swim, and too deep to cross. And again, the river has trees on both sides, whose leaves are for healing.


So when will all this happen? Or is it just a vision of heaven or Paradise?


Does Ezekiel see God’s future heavenly Temple? I would say no, because sacrifice still plays a major role in Ezekiel’s visionary temple. It appears to me that what Ezekiel sees is not a vision of the future, but a vision that is designed to instruct Israel on what it means to do Temple worship in a way that truly pleases God, a vision that corrects the abuses that led God to abandon the first Temple, a vision that also instructs them how to be a more righteous faith community.


God only has one Temple at a time. And today, now that Christ has offered his once for all sacrifice that takes away all of our sin, sacrifice and temples of any kind have become entirely unnecessary. What God wants is worship. And when we get to the Holy City seen by John in Revelation, John tells us that he saw no temple there. Whatever Temple John sees earlier in his vision, gets decommissioned when God creates a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation 21.


When we think of Ezekiel, we think of his vision of the valley of dry bones that come to life, a vision of comfort to the people of Judah who were exiled in Babylon. Ezekiel predicts that their nation will come to life again. But Ezekiel also gives us visions that are still in our future, visions which are yet to come true, but will some day: visions of a great latter-day invasion from the north, but also visions of a brand new world echoed in the book of Revelation.


On our next program, we’re going to take a look at the predictions of the prophet Daniel. Some of those predictions are aimed at the next 400 years of Jewish history leading up to and including the time of the Maccabees. But some of Daniel’s predictions point to the end of time, to the far future, possibly to our own day. Join us as we take a look at Latter-day Prophecy in the book of Daniel next time on Biblical Words and World!